Category Archives: Fiction

Pickup

Pickup

Hannah Ford

He’s been driving trail shuttle for nine years, ever since his wife took her kitchen appliances and smoking habit and left. Their dog had howled after her for a week or so, then he’d forgotten about her, curling up on her rocking chair like it’d always been vacant.

His sons check in once in a while, but it’s mostly just him and the dog now. It’s not a bad life, maintaining the trail during the day, picking up hikers when need be, getting home in time to watch the sun set over Lake Jocassee.

The couple called three days ago, having found his number on the Trail Angels website. The boy asked about getting picked up at the end of the hike. I mapped it out, the boy said, and we should get to the end seven days after starting. But Trip has been around the Foothills for a while and so he says no to that plan, because nobody finishes when they think they will, and many don’t even finish.

He picks the couple up at the trail’s end, where they’re standing next to their car and holding paper coffee cups, the girl leaning her head against the boy’s arm. The boy is skinny with a wide frame that he’ll eventually grow into. The girl is small, barely to his shoulder, her hair brushed neatly into a ponytail and her hiking boots stiff and new. She’s wearing makeup. Just looking at her, Trip knows she won’t make it.

“I’m Trip,” he introduces himself.

“Squint,” the boy offers. “Forgot my glasses on a hike a few years ago.”

The girl shrugs. “I don’t have a trail name yet,” she says.

“We’ll get you one,” says the boy.

Trip drives them to the trailhead, winding along the edge of ridges and stopping occasionally at lookouts. He tells stories of mid-hike pickups, like he usually does, because he figures it’ll make people more willing to call him if they need help. This couple, he tells them about the group of women he had to get last month because of blisters. “Blisters are about the most painful things,” he says, “and once they split, there’s no healing them unless you stop walking.” He glances in the rearview mirror at the girl in the backseat, but she’s looking out the window.

The boy, in the passenger seat beside him, nods. “I had some blisters at the beginning of the PCT,” he says, then proceeds to highlight his PCT hike. The girl is quiet, still watching the trees.

When they get to the trailhead, Trip pulls off in front of an outhouse. “Last bathroom for seven days,” he says, like it’s a punch line. The girl goes to use it while Trip and the boy unload the packs from the truck bed. Once she’s gone the boy turns to Trip.

“Wanna know a secret?” he asks. He digs into the brain of his pack and pulls a gold ring from a small cardboard box. “Had to use cardboard because of the weight,” he says. “I’m proposing at the end. We’ve been dating four years, since high school.”

“It’s a pretty thing.” Trip closes the box. “But she might not make it. I’ve seen more experienced hikers than her not make it.”

“She will.” The boy stuffs the box back into his pack. “She’ll be fine. It’ll be a great moment, ending the hike and getting engaged. She’ll love it.”

Trip starts to shake his head again, but the girl is walking back toward them. Trip reminds himself it’s not his business. The boy wraps the girl in a hug, his arms reaching around her body and her pack, and she smiles into his chest.

The girl turns to look up at Trip. “Thank for all the advice,” she says. “And for waking up early to get us.”

He goes through his usual routine: weighing the packs (the girl’s pack is ten pounds lighter than the boy’s, but she sinks under its weight), pointing out road crossings on the map, making sure they have his phone number and telling them where cell service is best. “The last road crossing is on the third day,” he says. “After that, you’re on your own. Trails go too far for roads to reach you.” Trip has never had a hiker who didn’t return, at least not that he knows of, but it keeps him up at night sometimes—imagining someone getting injured two days, both ways, from help.

The boy starts the trail enthusiastically, his pack bouncing as he makes long strides. The girl turns around once and waves to Trip. She smiles quickly, then turns to follow the boy.

 

The next afternoon, Trip has just dropped a group of middle-aged men off at the trail head when he notices a tube of lip balm in the backseat of his truck. He thinks immediately of the girl, because it’s scented lip balm and none of the men would have had it with them. Maybe the girl is out there getting chapped lips, but at least she’s not carrying around something scented during bear season.

The sunset that night is muted and grey, the air cold.
The following morning is cloudy. He tries working on the picket fence he’s been building, but he’s distracted and soon rain drops start to splat against his skin. He gets in the truck and drives to the road crossing, the last one the boy and girl will pass through before heading away from the road for the next four days.

He parks on the side of the road and watches the rain pelt sideways. Drops hit the pavement and splash high into the air.

Trip unbuckles his seatbelt and rolls his neck to the left, then the right. He scans the floor of his truck. There’s a stove he made out of the bottom of a beer can, holes poked in the sides to let the gas siphon out properly. There are leaves and dirt from his early-spring hikes in Maine, discarded Band-aids from hikers he’s picked up, and a granola bar wrapper. Trip wonders if the boy and girl passed through ahead of schedule, but that’d be nearly impossible with the pace she’d be able to keep. He’s never done this before, waiting around for someone who hasn’t decided yet that they need him, but he’s uneasy about the boy and girl. It’s not a good combination when only one out of two wants to stick it out.

He waits until three o’clock, then four, then five. He waits until he can barely see the trail for the lack of light.

 

photo by Rebecca Rajchgot, 2017

The Whirlpool

The Whirlpool

Kate Henderson

Dickie’s teeth click when he eats. I have known for years they are false, but I can remember when I was a little girl and thought they’d come loose with age. Only his chewing interrupts the questions. What are you going to do now? Why don’t you finish university? His eyes are earnest. They bulge from his head, his head bobs up and down. It is hard to pay attention to the words, so I shrug at what I think are appropriate intervals.

“I guess you just have itchy feet.” He sighs, shakes his head, scoops up another spoonful of ice cream.

The conversation takes on a more general tone. The kids he teaches at school. Other grandchildren. Unemployment is terrible. Why don’t the kids take trades? I listen, but not closely. I let my eyes wander to familiar objects in the room I know so well. I remember Christmas dinners, when the Virgin Mary smiling down from above the cutlery box seemed less peculiar, when the table, filled with family, seemed less long. My eyes come back to Dickie; he is still talking. He is greyer now, his hearing even worse than I recall. He is retired, and teaches a class in Introductory Engineering at the community college. He is concerned for his students who are reluctant to settle down and work for a union. Instead they collect unemployment. He calls it “the dole.”

GrandEm fidgets at the other end of the table. We call her GrandEm because her name is Emma, and she says she was too young for Grandma when we were born. Her breathing is audible.

“You were far too young, Anne,” she interrupts suddenly.

I turn to her, add lightly, “Nobody could have told me then.”

“Well, I tried.” She says it too quickly. I can sense Dickie slump in closer to his ice cream.

“You remember. When you were here before the wedding. You just weren’t ready for such a serious commitment. I don’t think David was either.”

“Joseph,” I correct.

“Whatever his name was…”

“Still is,” I slip in, glancing down the long dining room table, hoping to have appealed to my grandfather’s sense of humour. Too late. He has turned down his hearing aid and is now carefully stirring his tea. GrandEm is still watching me. Even her silence is critical. I do remember the advice she gave me before the wedding. You have to stand behind a man, she said. Put all your energy into his success. And, oh yes, sex is not important. I’d made a joke about that too, but she hadn’t laughed then either.

She does have a sense of humour. She brings it out like the old, tarnished jewelry she keeps deep in her dresser. On summer visits when we were kids, my sister Laurie and I would watch as she’d carefully choose the right brooch to clasp at her neck, or maybe a string of pearls to accent a round neckline. “Isn’t this a scream,” she would exclaim, “an old lady like me getting all gussied up?” Then, with a flourish, she would produce something for us to add to our outfits. Often, the piece of jewelry was so old-fashioned that we would never wear it again. Once, though, I wore a sapphire that glistened from a delicate silver chain for months.

Back then, Laurie and I faced her together from the moment we stepped off the train. When her good mood faded we’d disappear to our room in the basement, the only place she did not invade because her wheelchair could not come down the stairs. We’d giggle into the night, hearing sometimes a faint sound, the smooth rubber of her wheels as they rolled along the linoleum at the top of the stairs. Secrecy was our only privacy. In the morning she would insist we have a bowel movement before breakfast. We were not to flush until she had inspected.

I try to remember when I first began to flush before she got there. I can’t. Did I flush today? A smile comes to my mouth.

“Well, I don’t think this is very funny,” she snaps. “Young people just don’t take marriage as seriously as they should.”

Before the wedding, I’d argued, I’d said there was a place for a wife’s ambition, for sex. She hadn’t listened to me then, and I decide she’s probably not going to hear me now, so I nod as she speaks. No, I don’t take things seriously.

It is summer. Back in January, I broke my leg. I thought of her a lot during the spring, as I learned to walk again, when I couldn’t stand long enough to cook a meal, when energy leaked away at the sight of every staircase. She has been in a wheelchair as long as I can remember, but I’ve seen photos of her with the canes, then crutches, as she refused to believe she could not walk. She’d been a Phys Ed teacher, and before that a dancer. When I was little, my father used to describe how tall and straight she’d been before the arthritis. Paintings line the walls of her bedroom. Ballerinas bent to tie the ribbons of their toe shoes, their tall, slender bodies graceful and poised.

“Are you sure you want seconds?” she frowns. I gained weight while the cast was on.

 

Three years go by, and I finally do finish school. I haven’t seen GrandEm and Dickie since I started taking classes, so I drive to town to visit with them. I can only stay three days so I call as soon as I arrive.

“We were very surprised to hear that after so long away you didn’t plan for more visiting time,” she says when she sees me.

“I don’t have much money,” I say. I bend down to kiss her cheek.

“You don’t need money with family around. Did you get the application form I sent?”

I nod.

“Did you send it in? They need teachers right here.”

I hug Dickie. I want to whisper a joke to him, but he is beyond hearing whispers. She always hears them anyways.

“It was for the Catholic School Board,” I say flatly.

“The children are the same,” she says, her lips forming a pursed, thin line.

I groan. “It’s the teachers they want to be Catholic!”

Dickie laughs. He winks. He beams with the knowledge I am a teacher, a “something.” He does not seem to mind that I do not have a job.

Instead of in the dining room, lunch will be served in the living room, tiny sandwiches on cut glass plates. GrandEm goes to supervise the housekeeper, who is new. Most help doesn’t stay long.

“Mary’s been with us for awhile,” says Dickie. “She was awfully good to have around while I was in hospital.”

“How are you?”

“I’m okay now.” He smiles. “They gave me a clean bill of health. No more cancer.”

“How do you feel?” I insist, holding his hand.

“Much better.” He smiles broadly and his teeth click. He appears to have less trouble hearing me than usual. Instead of the puzzled look he used to wear, his faded blue eyes appear calm and it changes his expression.

He wants to know what I think of today’s students.

“Do they seem lost to you?”

“When it comes to looking for jobs, maybe. But that’s because they don’t want to work just to work.”

He nods. “I guess you’re right. Jobs were so important to us in the Depression. We didn’t think about other things.”
GrandEm sits quietly on the other side of the room. She has dropped the subject of my teaching at the local high school. I almost want her to say something so we can include her in the conversation. The afternoon has passed quickly though, and it is time for me to go.

“I’ll drive you to your next stop,” Dickie says, rising. By this time, GrandEm is visibly sulking.

In the car, Dickie tells me his knee is reacting badly to the radiation that conquered the cancer. He is having trouble with GrandEm’s wheelchair.

“I guess I’m just plain getting old,” he laughs. His car has been stopped for some time outside the house I will be visiting. A friend waits for me inside.

“Go on now,” he says, “have fun!”

“I love you,” I tell him before kissing his cheek and getting out of the car.

 

The next night we all go to a restaurant to celebrate the ritual family gathering that takes place whenever one of the flock flies in from out of town. Aunts and uncles and cousins sit at a line of tiny pub tables pushed together tightly. Chair arms touching each other form a bond. When GrandEm arrives, someone removes a chair from the chain so she can position her wheelchair strategically beside mine.

“Hello, dear.” Ice hangs from her words. “I was wondering this morning how you got home from that boy’s house so late last night.”

I think of saying I took a taxi, but it’s a small town, maybe taxis stop running at night. I think also of making grand gestures about how I stayed on his couch. Instead, I say, “I didn’t.”

The reply surprises her and she doesn’t pursue what was going to be a lecture about reputation. My name, my father’s name, her husband’s name – never people, only names.

We sit in silence at our end of the table. I look down the row of faces. Dickie winks at me. He is across from us. His hearing aid has trouble with all of the voices. He points to everybody’s drinks and shrugs his shoulders, as if to ask why. I lean closer to him.

“Why does everyone have two drinks?” he asks. “Are they afraid there won’t be any left by the time they’re finished the first?”

I laugh. It does look strange.

“Maybe your uncle offered to buy the first round,” he suggests with a chuckle.

“No, it’s Happy Hour – two for one!” We are both shouting over the noise.

“Oh,” he nods, smiles understanding. GrandEm frowns.

After we’ve eaten and the table breaks into small groups, Dickie slides into an empty chair beside me. I watch everyone, catch bits of news, marvel inside how much everyone has changed and stayed the same. Dickie takes my hand and watches with me. His big grin takes on a pride I’ve never noticed before. He looks pleased with what he sees. I remain silent, not wanting him to have to concentrate to hear. I squeeze his hand the way he taught me when I was a child. Four squeezes – do you love me? He squeezes back, yes. Two squeezes, how much? He holds my hand firmly and leans towards my ear.

“I don’t want to hurt your hand.”

We both notice GrandEm at the same time. She’s been wheeled to the other end of the table and is looking around at the teenagers who have had too much to drink. She licks her lips precisely, indicating in a single motion her displeasure. She catches my eye for a moment and quickly looks away. Dickie feels me stiffen.

“You know, Annie,” he says in a voice that is barely audible, “pain is a funny thing.” He pauses, looks down the table at her, as if he’s forgotten I am beside him.

“For a long time, I just didn’t understand what she was going through. Now I think I finally know, but I can’t even begin to make it up to her. It makes me shudder when I think of how close I came to never realizing. Waking up in the hospital with all that machinery attached to me and doctors and nurses everywhere – it really opened my eyes.” He hesitates, and looks back at me eagerly. “This spring, I’m going to rip down the back bathroom and make a whirlpool. Make it all accessible to the chair so she can get in and out on her own.”

The words tumble out. His eyes sparkle as he describes the new bathroom. He’s planned it down to the hand railings above and below the surface of the water. It is the first time I’ve heard him talk about something so excitedly.

“She’s always liked water,” he told me, “because it lets her move the way she used to.”

“I’m sure she knows how much you care,” I offer, stroking the back of his hand.

“No,” he sighs, “I don’t think she does.”

 

It is late December when I am called to come to the funeral. On the train I tell myself he lived a good life, accomplished a lot. When I get into town though, and I don’t see his big grin, I know it doesn’t matter how long he lived. At the church, GrandEm has them play his favourite hymn, Onward Christian Soldiers. She holds my father’s and my aunt’s hands, and tilts her head to look proudly towards the altar. What makes me cry is feeling Dickie’s smile on us. Maybe now he understands what is going on in all our heads. I look beside me at Laurie, wonder if she is remembering him from the old days when he would turn down his hearing aid and disappear into his den for hours.

It is Christmas, but there will be no big dinner back at the house. Instead, GrandEm holds a small gathering using the same cut glass plates we ate sandwiches from such a short time before. Everyone admires her strength from a distance. Wonders how she’ll get by.

“I don’t know what to say,” I tell her as we’re saying goodbye.

“I’ll write you a letter.”

She looks up wryly, as if to say I could’ve thought of something better. I bend to hug her. She kisses the air beside my cheek.

 

Back home, I try for weeks to write that letter. I want to tell her about Dickie’s plans to build a whirlpool, but on paper the words seem like another blueprint lost in the many he worked on. How can I describe for her his eagerness when he said he was going to build it deep enough so that her whole body could be underwater, how the hot water might help her not hurt so much.

My attempts never get mailed.

One day I receive a package of Dickie’s shirts. He took them all to the cleaners before he died, GrandEm explains in her letter, so she sent each of the grandchildren three. “I found the shirts in neat piles in his closet.” She goes on to say that the shirts are old, she is not sure I’ll find a use for them. I skim the familiar handwriting quickly. My eyes stop when the smooth flow of the fountain pen breaks.

“They say with time I’ll feel much better,” she finishes. “Please write soon.”

 

photo by Harry Rajchgot, 2010

 

Trans-Canadian Train

Trans-Canadian Train

William Cass

I met a young woman many years ago during an August evening of soft light and liquid shadows. It was during a short stopover heading west on the Trans-Canadian train that ran across the country’s southern portion. I’d boarded in Montreal following a visit with my grandmother in Vermont after a summer travelling the hostel circuit through Europe. I was on my way back for a second year of teaching in a bush village in the upper corner of the southeastern Alaska panhandle. I was twenty-four years old.

Passengers were permitted to disembark for a few minutes while the train was changing tracks in that town above the Boundary Waters separating Ontario from Minnesota. I was stretching on the platform while new and current passengers waited for the train to be ready to board again. The young woman was among those new passengers and stood reading a large book with a satchel at her feet. I guessed I was a little older than her. She held the book with both hands just below her chest that rose and fell slowly with her even breathing. She wore a mauve blouse under a light cardigan sweater, jeans, and sandals. Her auburn hair fell to her shoulders in a mass of curls, and when she looked up to regard the track-changing progress, I could see that her eyes were pale blue. Against that hair and those eyes, her skin reminded me of bleached driftwood. In the muffled light, she was so lovely that I found myself holding my breath.

She went back to her reading while I stood a few feet away stealing glances. A small clattering arose with the track-changing, and she shifted to look up towards it. As she did, her ticket fell out of her book and landed on the platform. I stepped forward and retrieved it for her. When I handed it to her, our eyes met and she gave a small smile. I did my best to return it.

“Thank you,” she said. Her voice was soft.

“Sure,” I heard myself say. “So, you’re getting on here.”

“Yes.”

“Going where?”

“To visit my sister and her baby, my new nephew.” She smiled again. “It will be my first time meeting him.”

I nodded while we looked at each other. A whistle blew, then the doors to the train slid open and people began boarding.

“Well, then,” she said.

“Safe travels,” I told her.

I watched her pick up her satchel, set the book on top, and carry it with her ticket to the train’s door closest to us. When she stepped up into the opening, she turned, gave me the same small smile, and disappeared inside.

I waited until the conductor’s last call while my heart gradually slowed to re-board myself. I’d chosen an aisle seat in a set of four facing one another in a middle car and had had them all to myself since changing trains that morning in Toronto. But when I returned there, an old man and woman I assumed was his wife occupied the two seats against the window. They were holding hands across their knees and staring outside. As I settled into my own seat next to the old man, they both regarded me with quiet, kind eyes. I nodded to them, and they did the same. The doors slid shut, the train lurched once, and we were on our way again.

We left the outskirts of the town shortly and were soon passing through stretches of pine trees, low bogs, calico meadows, and still, black ponds. It was all as beautiful as I’d heard that Boundary Waters region described. I watched the landscape pass in the stillness of the slowly unfolding northern evening and thought about the young woman. I’d looked for her when I returned to my seat, but hadn’t seen her. I wished I had.

After a while, the old man took a folded newspaper and pencil stub out of his jacket pocket and began to work on a partially completed crossword puzzle. His wife removed a cross stitch frame from her purse and busied herself with that. I watched the telephone wires dip regularly in the distance outside, and my thoughts moved back and forth between the young woman and my days ahead. The route we were on would begin heading northwest in Winnipeg, and I’d change trains again two days later in Jasper for the final leg to Prince Rupert and the ferry to Juneau. A friend from the village would meet me there with his float plane for the short flight back to Yakutat. Then it was another long school year looming before me of beauty, isolation, pristine natural wonder, cold, rain, and snow.

About eight o’clock, the train slowed through a hamlet with a little boarded-up station. At its outskirts, it passed a red clay road perpendicular to it that led like a knife slice for as far as I could see through a dense stand of perfectly straight pine trees. A small boy on a tricycle rode in circles in the road near where it met the tracks. He stopped peddling and watched us pass, squinting with his hand held to his forehead against the last of the sun’s dusty rays. A woman came out on the front porch of a house nearby and watched, too, as she dried a plate with a dish towel. I supposed it was something they did each evening when the train passed. Much the same as I did watching from my cabin window as my neighbor motored his Boston Whaler slowly back into the harbor after checking his crab and shrimp traps late each afternoon.

The train resumed speed. The light continued to fall, and the sky to the west became the color of a bruise. Every so often, the old woman stopped her handiwork to look out at it and sigh. On occasion, the old man would lick the tip of his pencil stub. Except for the regular hum of the train on the tracks, it was quiet.

The evening’s gloaming was all but complete when I straightened suddenly as I saw the young woman approaching up the aisle. She was carrying her satchel and looked directly at me. I felt a flush spread up through my chest. At our seats, she stopped. The hands of the old man and his wife paused, and they glanced up at her.

“The person next to me snored,” the young woman told us.

“So, I’m looking for a new seat. I’m wondering if this one is available.”

The old couple nodded, and she looked at me with her small smile. I gestured to the open seat with my hand.

“Thanks,” she said.

I watched her take her book out of her satchel before storing it on the rack above us, settle in across from my seat, and smile at me again. I was aware of the old couple looking back and forth between us. The young woman flipped the light on over her head, opened the book on her lap, and began reading. A handful of seconds passed before the old couple resumed their work. I sat back as naturally as possible, tried to return my attention outside, and folded my hands together between my legs.

The old man put the newspaper and pencil back in his jacket pocket a few minutes later and took out a tiny deck of cards. He unfolded the narrow table from the arm of his seat so it crossed his lap and dealt himself some sort of game. As he played, he sometimes licked his finger as he had with the pencil before dealing a card.

I asked, “What sort of game is that?”

He looked at me with his gentle eyes and said, “It’s called ‘Go’.”

“How do you play? Is it like solitaire?”

He smiled and said, “Watch.”

He continued licking his finger and dealing cards with a pleased expression. From the corner of my eye, I saw the young woman close her book and watch him play herself. After a moment, the old man looked across at her and said, “So, you want to learn how, too?”

She seemed to blush, glanced at me, then smiled and said, “I guess I do, yes.”

His wife had set down her cross stitch. “He plays all the time at the farm,” she said. “After dinner almost every night. After the evening chores are done.”

I asked, “What sort of farm do you have?”

“Wheat,” she replied. “Near Regina.”

The old man kept playing, but said, “A hundred acres of wheat and some dairy cows.”

His wife seemed to study me before saying, “Are you American?”

“Yes.”

“But you’re travelling here in Canada.”

“That’s right. I’m heading back to Alaska. I teach elementary school there in a little Native fishing village.”

“My,” she said. Then she looked at her husband and said,

“What do you think about that?”

He stopped and said, “I think it’s all right.”

“Don’t you get lonesome there?” his wife asked.

I shrugged, but felt color rise up my neck. “Sometimes,” I said. I didn’t intend for it to come out so quietly.

The young woman said, “I’ve always wanted to go to Alaska.”

We looked at each other until I replied, “You should. I mean, I hope you do.”

“What’s it like there?” the wife asked. “And what do you do when you’re not teaching?”

“Well, it’s pretty spectacular when the weather is nice. I like the outdoors, so I fish, hike, kayak, cross-country ski…things like that.”

“I’ll bet you’ve seen lots of wildlife,” the old man said. “Bears, eagles, and such.”

I nodded.

“What’s the most memorable thing you’ve seen?” his wife asked.

“Let me see.” I paused, considering, then said, “I think it’s a mated pair of black swans that wintered last year on a lake out by the ocean. That’s very rare as far north as we are. Unheard of, in fact, according to the locals. I drove out to see them every weekend and often after school if there was enough light left. I’m pretty sure they built a nest back in some reeds. I’m anxious to see if they’ve had any offspring when I get back.”

“I hope they have,” the young woman said softly. When I looked at her, she added, “I really do.”

“That’s a big book,” the old man told her. “What’s it about?”

“Math.” She glanced my way, then said, “Actually, a mathematician, an artist, and a composer.”

“Are you one of those?” his wife asked.

“Not yet, but I study math in college. I graduate in a few months.”

“What will you do then?” his wife asked.

“I don’t know. I’m not sure.”

The old man chuckled and pointed to me. “Why don’t you head up to Alaska and help his students with their multiplication tables?”

We all smiled. “I’d like that,” the young woman said, looking at me. “That sounds pretty great.”

She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. I found myself blinking and turned towards the window again. The old man resumed his card game, and his wife did the same with her cross stitch. Then the young woman slowly opened her book and went back to her reading. It had grown dark outside, so there were no telephone wires or trees or bogs or meadows to see, just blackness and our reflections in the glass as the train rumbled quietly along.

Another half-hour or so passed before the man put his cards away and folded up his table. He turned off his overhead light, reclined his seat, and closed his eyes. A few minutes later, his wife did the same. In the window’s reflection, I watched the young woman tuck the book at her side, take another glance my way, then switch off her own light, recline her seat, and close her eyes. I waited until all of their breathing had slowed into sleep before I went through the same motions. When I reclined my seat, my knees almost touched the young woman’s. I extended them as far as was reasonable, but they wouldn’t quite reach.

 

During the night, I woke up often to reposition myself and watched the young woman in slumber until I fell back asleep. Twice, when I awoke, I found her staring at me, and I closed my eyes again quickly against my racing heart.

I awoke fully the next morning before the old couple and the young woman and got up to use the restroom as the pink-white light of dawn crawled through the train’s windows. On my way back down the aisle, the train slowed suddenly, and its loudspeaker announced the approaching station stop. Wide prairie stretched outside on both sides of the train. When I returned to my seat, the old couple and the young woman were looking out the window as the outskirts of a town began to emerge. We passed a warehouse, a neighborhood of old houses, then slowed more as we entered as cluster of brick business buildings. The train shivered to a stop in front of a platform with no stationhouse behind it, just a cinder parking lot with a few cars and trucks, and beyond that a traffic light dangling from a wire. Only one person stood on the platform looking at the train: a woman several years older than me holding a baby against one of her hips. We stopped so that she stood just to the side of our window. The train doors slid open.

The young woman stood and took her satchel down from above our seats. She put her book on top of it, looped the strap over her shoulder, looked from the old couple to me, and said, “Well, good bye. It’s been nice travelling with you.”
I felt myself frown and leaned forward. Then she was past me and moving up the aisle to the nearest open door. I shook my head. The old couple and I watched her disembark, hurry the few steps to her waiting sister, and the two of them embrace. They rocked a little together with closed eyes.

The old man turned to me and said, “Listen, that girl was sweet on you, and I think you felt the same.”

His wife nodded. “I saw it, too. It was plain to see.”

I gave a short nod myself. A whistle blew.

“Well, then,” he said. “What are you going to do about it? You’re not going to just sit there and let her get away.”

His eyebrows raised and his lips pursed into a thin, tight line. I looked past him out the window. The young woman had turned her head and was looking through the window at me; what I saw in her eyes was akin to yearning. I stood and clambered up the aisle towards the open door. As I did, it slid shut, the train lurched, then moved off up the tracks. I pounded on the door, but it stayed closed, the train gathering speed. When I craned my neck to see out the door’s windows, the young woman quickly disappeared, then the platform, then another neighborhood of old homes, and then there was nothing but prairie again, amber-colored and waving in the breeze.

 

Forty years have now passed since that encounter. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think often of her afterwards. I did. And even after my marriage, which was a good and satisfying and long lasting one, I’d think of her sometimes, and always with regret. Now that my wife has passed away and I’ve retired from teaching, I admit those memories and emotions have become more frequent. My wife and I didn’t have children, so I have no family and few hobbies or responsibilities to occupy my time. So, it’s true that I find myself these days thinking of the young woman more often, wondering what happened to her, what might have been. The sense of irretrievability seems somehow to have become stronger with age, more gripping, deepening in my bones.

Those black swans did have offspring when I returned to the village: three small cygnets swimming in the reedy shallows with their parents. Sitting here now tonight, looking out my window at a halo circling a full moon, I realize how wonderful and rare that was. Almost as wonderful and rare as an auburn-haired young woman with blue eyes above the Boundary Waters on a late summer evening of liquid shadows.

 

photo by Barry Lewis, 1979- “Across the River” – found on Wikimedia Commons

James

James

Robert Boucheron

 

James Pettigrew was the bell ringer of St. Giles Episcopal Church for as long as anyone could remember. Longer, in fact. The oldest members of the congregation remembered him from early childhood.

Clinging to their parents’ hands, they had trooped through the narthex on Sunday morning, glanced to the side, and there he was in the shadows. He stood there silent, straight as a stick, hard to make out in his black suit and dark brown skin. They were afraid of him and curious. Was a bell ringer like anyone, or was he a special kind of person?

James rang the church bell in an alcove off the vestibule. A short, slight man, he pulled down the rope with all his might. Then he flew directly up, hoisted five feet in the air on the bell’s return swing.

“He looks like a monkey,” people said, though they never saw a monkey do any such thing. James’s antique manners and grave demeanor stifled ridicule. Nevertheless, the title of “sexton” seemed overly dignified for a black man.

The children grew up, married, and had children of their own. James stayed the same. On weekdays, dressed in work clothes, he tended the churchyard. He cut the grass, pulled weeds, raked leaves, gathered twigs brought down by a storm, and trimmed the privet hedge. As people passed, he touched his hat, a decayed fedora, and greeted them in a guttural voice. He never forgot a name, and he needed to be told only once the name of a new arrival. He also swept the church, cleaned and polished, and made minor repairs.

“That bell ringer is worth his weight in gold,” people said.

James was punctual and reliable. He missed a Sunday only once in his career, and then by no fault of his own. In the course of repairing the bell tower, workmen inserted wood blocks to immobilize the bell. Then they forgot to remove them. Alternately, the workmen were Baptists who wanted to play a prank, on account of their long-running feud with the Episcopalians, and they left the blocks on purpose. This incident happened, if it happened at all, before anyone in the congregation was born.

James never went on strike or took a vacation. The bell of St. Giles was part of daily life, ingrained in the town’s consciousness. It was hard to imagine how a day could start without it, like eggs without bacon or coffee without sugar. Yet for all its regularity, there was no doubt the bell was rung by hand.

“There’s something about the way he does it,” people said.

“You can tell from the sound whether it’s for a wedding, a funeral, a plain church service, or a day of public mourning.”

In her pamphlet titled “St. Giles Church: An Historical Account,” available in the narthex amid postcards, offering envelopes, prayer lists, and devotional literature, Ella Eulalia Finch mentions James Pettigrew, as she could hardly avoid. Exhaustive research led her to write this:

What with fires, floods, rodents, birds, and a skirmish with Union forces toward the end of the Civil War, an event commemorated as the Hapsburg Engagement, many valuable records were destroyed. A vestry report from 1876 mentions a “bell boy” named James. A list of church members arranged by family includes a “James” under Pettigrew, a white planter who did not have a son by that name. He may well have had a former slave in his household, however. James was probably born before 1863, the year Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

If Miss Finch is correct, at the time she wrote James was over a hundred years old and still performing his duties. Arithmetic suggests he was close to his sesquicentennial.
James himself was reluctant to talk. He said did not know how old he was. He pointed to the spot where the shack in which he was born had stood. He could recite the names of parents, grandparents, and ancestors more remote. But he did not know the years of their birth or death, and dates in general were outside his ken. His wife and one daughter had died long before. He was vague about descendants.

After the pamphlet appeared in print, James’s eyesight began to fail. The churchyard was no longer as tidy as it had been. Repairs and maintenance fell into arrears. One morning at eight o’clock, the bell tolled three strokes and stopped. At breakfast in the rectory, musing over the newspaper, Father Percy raised his head. What could have happened? He hurried to the narthex and discovered James on the floor of the alcove, collapsed in a heap, clutching the frayed and broken bell rope.

The rector took James in his arms. Shocked at how light the burden was, he carried him into the church office. No blood was shed, and nothing looked broken, yet James moaned piteously. Tears gleamed on his ebony cheeks. He apologized for what he felt was a gross misdeed that would get him fired. Percy tried to hush him. He deposited James in a leather armchair which swallowed up the wispy figure. Percy picked up the telephone. He called for an ambulance to take James to the hospital.

This word roused James to a paroxysm. Going to the hospital meant only one thing. They would put him out of his misery like a foundered mule.

Percy had long practice in interpreting James’s statements, terse as an oracle. James predated the rector, of course, and quite a few others. Their portraits hung in a corridor, and James could identify each by name. He had known these worthies in their black gowns and billowing white sleeves. He had the advantage of Percy there.

Knowing that words would not calm the old man, Percy patted James on the shoulder and watched through a leaded casement, with its diamond panes of rose-tinted glass.

The ambulance crew wore white uniforms. They were efficient, antiseptic, and young, all of which fed James’s anxiety. Percy held his hand while they examined him. They strapped him on a stretcher and carried him down the church steps, as the rector walked beside. They were about to insert him into the back of the vehicle, when James tightened his grip on the rector’s hand. Percy pried loose the gnarled black fingers, then nodded to the ambulance crew. He breathed a short prayer as they drove away, top light flashing, no siren.

James caused a sensation at the hospital. His injuries amounted to little more than bruising. Nothing internal showed on an X-ray. But the patient’s age made his case unique. Nurses, resident physicians, and department heads came to his room, glanced at his chart, and gazed in wonder. Propped in the immaculate bed, James spoke to no one. A handful of more or less distant relatives whispered among themselves.

Hoping to interview a gunshot victim, a reporter for the newspaper hung around the hospital. He got wind of James and pestered the relatives. As though carved from diorite, James refused to acknowledge the reporter at the foot of his bed. On a pastoral visit, Percy contributed what he knew. Ella Eulalia Finch’s historical leap of faith was duly repeated and gained credibility. The reporter wrote a squib, and the Vindicator ran it on page four under the headline: “Bell Ringer Reaches the End of His Rope.”

On Percy’s recommendation, the vestry of St. Giles appointed Fred Huckle as “interim sexton.” The senior warden, John Shakewell proposed that they substitute an electronic recording of a bell for the real thing. No one took up his motion one way or the other. He volunteered to study the possibility and won tacit assent. They agreed that James Pettigrew’s retirement was both well-earned and long overdue, and they voted a small pension.

“What is his address?” asked Mrs. Sadie Thompson, the church secretary.

No one knew where the bell ringer lived. On a hunch, Percy led a search through the building. In the basement, behind the furnace, they found a room with a window, a wall-hung sink, a cot, and a side chair. It was warm and cozy, the vestry agreed, and neat as a pin. Traces of occupation included a black suit for a man or a boy, an antique radio, and a box of cornflakes. A farm supply calendar was pinned to the wall. The year on the calendar was 1934.

During two days of observation, James hardly stirred, as though he feared attracting more attention. The hospital released him to the care of a great-granddaughter, or so she believed herself to be. Leah Henderson installed him in the bedroom of one of her grown children. She had little to do with James before his fall. Now she was proud to fulfill a sacred obligation.

Soon after he arrived, James startled Mrs. Henderson by speaking.

“Go fetch Mr. Lionel Small.”

“Who?”

“Mr. Lionel Small. He owns the café on Main Street. A black man, short like me.”

Mrs. Henderson did his bidding. Later that day, Lionel Small entered the room. James asked him to sit by the bed, and he did.

“Why did you send for me?”

“No time for chit chat, young man. I’m almost dead, just catching my breath. I saw you in the church with a pretty young lady at the Christmas concert, and I learned your name. All my life I kept quiet. Now I want to talk, and I pick you. You’re not from around here, are you?”

“No, sir. From up north.”

“Good. That’s what I want to hear. You have a daddy?”

“He left when I was young, so no, I guess I don’t.”

“Right answer again. Now look here, Mr. Lionel Small, you and I are lightweights. We’re feisty and quick. We get in where a big man can’t, land a punch, and get out. I never had a son that lived past the first year, just one daughter. You be that son.”

“If you say so, sir.”

“I do say so. You going to marry that lady? What’s her name?”

“Daphne.”

“I had a wife. Cleo was a fine woman. She died too young. Never find another like my Cleo. Never even tried. You go ahead and marry that Daphne. She’ll do for a while, maybe a lifetime, and then what? You’re like me, Mr. Lionel Small, going to outlive them all. I get old, I shrivel up, and I act like nothing touches me, but all the time I remember.”

“What do you remember?”

“How it really was, how we survived. When we starved, and when we had food. The hate all around us, and the love between us. White folks know nothing. They live in their white world, all fancy ideas and good intentions. When they’re not out to get us.”

“What about Percy? Hasn’t he been good to you?”

“Like a man to his hunting dog. Percy’s better than most. But if you count on Percy as a friend, Mr. Lionel Small, watch your step. With his head in the clouds, he won’t see you here on earth.”

“How much can you see?”

“With my eyes, not much. I know plenty.”

“Is that story true that you were born a slave?”

“That’s my business. I was no kin to Pettigrew. They stuck that on me, and I couldn’t shake it. I tried to change my name to Freeman. The clerk at the courthouse refused. I said it was the truth. He said the truth was what was written.”

A week after his fall, James took a turn for the worse. He announced that he was going to die for sure this time. Mrs. Henderson sent for Father Percy.

As Percy walked into the bedroom, he cleared his throat by way of a signal. James sat bolt upright in bed. His eyes were open, but he seemed not to see the rector or anything else. He opened his mouth, but all that emerged was a hoarse gurgle. Percy sat on the bed and took James’s hand, which fastened on his with fierce determination. The rector talked at random—of the weather, incidents at St. Giles over the years, James’s notoriety, the honeysuckle that threatened to engulf the churchyard fence. He offered encouragement, words of comfort, the same he used at any deathbed.

James underwent an internal struggle. He sat up like a board and stared straight ahead. He trembled, gasped, and emitted strange sounds.

“Try to relax,” Percy said. “You don’t have to talk. When I ask a question, nod yes or no.”

“Should I call the doctor?” Mrs. Henderson asked.

Percy shook his head.

After half an hour, the crisis approached. Percy gestured for Mrs. Henderson to come closer. James was wracked by a final spasm, then all was still.

The rector quashed any hint of opposition to a funeral.

“The congregation of St. Giles may lack minority representation, but it was unquestionably the spiritual home of James Pettigrew. Indeed, his actual home.”

Fred Huckle rang the bell, now equipped with a nylon rope, for his late predecessor. The turnout in the pews, though sparse, was racially mixed and musically strong. Lionel Small attended with his fiancée, a young black woman, the model and actress Daphne Montage. Father Percy conducted the service according to the Book of Common Prayer, and he gave a eulogy.

“James was a constant presence in our lives,” he said. “We took him for granted.”

Burial followed immediately, in the churchyard which James had tended for more years than anyone could count.

Weeks later, a stone was erected at the grave. Lionel Small paid for it. The stone bore the name James Pettigrew, his date of death, and a bell carved in relief. Under the bell was carved the phrase: “Let Freedom Ring.” According to Mrs. Henderson, this was James’s choice.

 

Photo by David Hawgood, Sydenham, Oxfordshire, 2005, from Wikimedia Commons

Traveler #17

Traveler #17

Jim Cole

By the time he was 46 years old, he had orbited eight planets, and then, finally, they selected him to go live on one for a time.

The blue surface felt like moss. Even through zinc boots and socks insulated with an aluminum alloy that left a rash on the soles of his feet, the planet felt luscious. Stepping onto the surface was exhilarating, as if he were the first to ever touch another planet. And yet, the weight of 300 pounds of gear – those zinc boots, four oxygen tanks, a big helmet they called the pumpkin, a tent made of carbon fiber, a stove, a camera and tripod, a solar battery pack, a weapon slung over his shoulder that frankly he had not learned how to discharge – left no trace. After three steps, he stopped to turn around – a maneuver more cumbersome than his instructors on Earth had warned. He stumbled, started to tip over like a dead oak tree, caught his balance, took a deep breath, smiled at his good luck, and pulled the camera from the pouch on his chest. He was giddy about snapping a photograph to beam back to his home planet, but looking through the lens all he saw were the faintest z-shaped tread marks in the powder blue surface. Before he could turn on the flash and focus again, any hint of his presence was gone.

“It is as if I were no more than a twilight breeze across a frog pond, or a galactic mist wafting by, with no interest at all in this beautiful planet,” he wrote in his journal later. The possibility of not leaving even the slightest mark on a planet had never occurred to him.

And it was beautiful, this planet, by any measure. Turquoise in all directions; gentle rolling hills that he thought at first were sand dunes. The atmosphere, what little there was of it, created an illusion that the horizon curved up. As if he were in a robin’s egg and he would never want to escape. The second day, he stepped onto the surface determined to leave no mark. If that were how this planet behaved, he would accept it. The physical laws vary from one planet to another, and this was his first lesson – to embrace those laws. He was sure he would go to other planets where his breath alone would unleash hurricanes, the camera’s click might topple sandstone cliffs. Anything was possible, and there were more planets than any human could ever know.

He decided to not wear the socks the second day. His feet were on fire, the skin peeling. As he spooned his oatmeal, they soaked in a bath of water and ammonia with a drop of rocket fuel. In the noisy cafeteria back home they had all talked about illnesses and injuries that could strike when traveling alone. Namski, the blond nuclear engineer, told him to ignore the official manual when it came to taking care of himself.

“That thing was written by engineers, not doctors. Rocket juice is what you need. You look like you don’t believe me,” she said, challenging him with her blue eyes. Early in training he had wanted to invite Namski on a date, but when she stared at him like that it reminded him what a mistake it would have been to even ask. There was a long silence around the table as he fidgeted in his chair and tried to show his I-believe-you-and-more face. The others nodded in agreement, then went back to their Fiesta Friday plates and margaritas. Nitrogen was the secret, and Namski had shared it with him. Nobody could explain it, but those who returned swore that a drop or two cured anything in outer space.

As he studied his feet, he still wasn’t sure if they had been teasing him or not. But if those who wrote The Space Traveller’s Official Guide to Health & Hygienics also designed the aluminum socks, then he was better off trying the nitrogen.

His bare feet felt infinitely better. The burning was gone, and now he swore he could feel the surface of the planet.
“My skin – perhaps due to its raw sensitivity – can now feel the skin (i.e. surface) of this place,” he would write for his second journal entry as he lay snug in his bed. “It is as though I am walking on the plush living room carpet of my childhood. And I found myself fighting an urge today to lie down on the surface. (I feel eleven years old, again. If only I had brought a comic book! Haha.)”

His second-day task was to inspect the space ship’s landing gear. As he trundled down the ladder, he looked briefly at the craft’s three legs, which were shaped like upside down mushrooms. He clipped the monitoring equipment to the bottom rung, and on a whim took off to explore. Just a little. The planet’s atmosphere made the sun look like a purple mole just above the horizon. He called that direction Marilyn Monroe, and headed that way. He could stare right at it and never go blind. He hiked for what felt like an hour – but, of course, a space traveler’s sense of time is warped by every planet, especially in the first days of an encounter. When he returned and established contact with Mission Control, it was Namski. She was furious.

“You cannot just vanish, I don’t care what the reason,” she shouted on the screen as if they were not 700 million miles apart. During his flight she had been promoted and was now his superior. Her hair had turned gray.

He had walked over one low hill after another without tiring, without wanting to stop. The surface cushioned his steps without being springy. There was nothing to compare this to. He could not stop. The thought of turning around, or even just pausing, had never entered his mind. It was infinitely pleasant. He couldn’t recall how he ended up back at his space ship. All he knew was that he had been immersed in a soft blue haze for a time, during which his heart rate and respiration had come to a comfortable near stop, and then he heard the click of a carabiner and he had one boot on the ladder. He was staring at a screen of data on the condition of the landing gear.

Of course, he could not tell any of this to Namski. Mission Control would activate the ship’s auto pilot and whisk him back to Earth.

“What have you been doing,” she said. She took off her thick black-rimmed glasses and glared. “Where were you? I mean, come on, three fucking days!”

“Time is different here,” he said. He could not explain. He assured her it would never happen again, though secretly he hoped it would. In return for this promise, Namski logged the incident as a communications breakdown. Traveler #17 was, after all, almost a billion miles from where he began.
A few days afterwards, it happened — the accident. Years later, they would still debate that designation. Though no one went so far as to call it “intentional”, the official record left room for conversation – Category 6 Accident, Humanly Avoidable.

Like all days with mishaps, this one began like any other – he sat up in bed and looked out the porthole, found the purple sun and then stayed still to admire the turquoise hew of the surface and the atmosphere. The scene made him shutter with excitement.

He noted this, once again, in his journal: “I feel young, like a child. I would hike into the landscape for three days, again, if I could. Maybe I will. Maybe I’ll run!! Or lay down and take in all of this luscious planet. I might stay here forever. I cannot explain the source of my glee. But, I will continue to analyze it here for the record.”

This was the final entry in the official journal of Traveler #17.
He scrubbed the rubber smell of the bedding off his body until he had scraped his skin raw – upset by his outpouring of candor in the official journal. He lectured himself as he stood in the craft’s sanitizing mister, which in a moment of embarrassing loneliness he had nicknamed Misty. Then he sprinkled talcum powder on his skin – on his chest, under his arms, between his legs, on his feet. Flight regulations allowed four personal effects, and this powder was his fifth item. He had smuggled the canister off his home planet just to see if he could. What difference could it make? That, and a sixth item – a lucky silver dollar. And now here he was. No harm done. Each morning he was glad to apply the refreshing fragrance before encasing himself in the hermetically sealed space suit and helmet. So much gear. It must have been designed just to prevent him from truly knowing this planet.

He hiked singing a song:

“Blue-blue, blue-blue,
Blue-blue, blue-blue;
Robin blue,
loving you;
There is no noise,
We are turquoise.
Blue-blue, blue-blue….”

He was five kilometers from his ship, maybe more, when he stopped to make sure there were still no footprints in his wake. He had turned around many times by then and had the hang of it, but this time he felt his body tilt, begin to tip too far, falling unstoppable, and he relaxed his toes to surrender. All he could do in that clumsy suit was spread out his arms and let the laws of physics and carelessness have their way with him.

When he finally rolled onto his back, it took a long time to make sense of what he had done. Floating overhead was a small white curl. It appeared far off, the first imperfection in this perfect sky. But it was not a cirrus cloud. It was something else above his mask, just beyond his reach.

As it swirled slowly, he heard a noise – a faint buzz an octave higher than the usual ringing in his ears.

His eyes recalibrated and focused on a white line that ran diagonally across his mask. A crack. The space suit was decompressing. The talcum powder was being sucked out through the fissure. He felt his heart accelerate. He felt his throat constrict. He clinched his fingers and toes; they felt cold and tingly. He laid motionless imagining he could hide from the panic that was beginning to careen through his body. He closed his eyes and pretended he wasn’t there.
In his head, he ran through the stand-up procedure, the Nautilus Maneuver: Raise arms, raise legs, curl into the nautilus position, kick legs straight up, relax, swing boots back over head, tumble backward, come to a standing position. He had practiced hundreds of times in the pool back on Earth. But the pool bottom was hard concrete not soft carpet, and in training he had been relaxed with time and oxygen. Now both were running out.

For just an instant, he let his mind drift, wondered how the mask cracked on the soft surface. Then he kicked, rolled, and was standing. He spread out his arms, a pose that was not an official part of the maneuver.

“Ta-da!” He whispered.

He had strained to get upright and yet now his pulse was slowing down. With his oven-mitt hands he waved away the talcum cloud. He took a deep breath. He could not remember which direction he had come from. Hoping to find some smallish hint in the planet’s blue skin, he looked down and turned slowly. There was nothing to reveal the way back. He looked at the horizon and turned until he found the mole that was the sun. Still, he could not recall if he had been walking toward it or away from it or at some precise angle.

His oxygen could last six days in Earth time. Here he had no idea how long he had been walking. And with a cracked pumpkin, who knew how long a man could survive? Reluctantly, he looked at the gauge on his sleeve. Zero.

The pumpkin’s safety feature made it impossible to remove with the oven mitts on his hands. Every ceremony back on Earth was attended by at least one space traveler with fingers burned to the bone or fused together or blackened by absolute zero — victims seduced by beautiful landscapes or indescribable urges or overwhelmed by panic. In order to unclamp the helmet, Traveler #17 knew he had to first expose his fingers and hands to the atmosphere. But he felt at peace, as though no harm could come to him on this planet. Where he had been did not matter. The way back did not matter — he would be all right. Everything they had told him on Earth made no sense. Earthlings! How could they know what he would experience? He was welcome here. He wiggled his toes and felt the velvety surface. If he could touch the soft blue atmosphere, and if the blue molecules could float in his veins, he would be absolutely whole. He told himself he would write about this complete experience in his journal. Because he had vowed to not scar this planet, it would not injure him. They would leave no outward marks on one another.

He twisted the helmet and raised it over his head. He felt a tingling sensation on his cheeks and neck, like a fine rain. His third winter in college he had stood with a girl from his thermodynamics class on the Cliffs of Moher where the gusts off the Atlantic slung sea spray against their skin. This is what he felt, an evanescent sting that reminded him what it meant to live. The atmosphere was not freezing as the engineers had warned him to expect. It was cool, comfortable. He closed his eyes for what might have been a minute or a year, and when he could not hold his breath another second, he exhaled. All that he had read and been taught warned him that this planet’s irradiated atmosphere would turn his lungs and then his blood, veins, muscles and flesh to brittle autumn leaves, and so his human body would dissolve in this instant of his most luscious happiness.

He took an enormous gulp. The atmosphere had a slight metallic fragrance. It smelled like his sweaty hands after a workout on the chin-up bar, he thought. He took another breath, and then another, and, no, he did not vanish.

No, Traveler #17 did not vanish. Instead, Traveler #17 lived happily on that planet for many many years. His craft was summoned and returned on auto-pilot. Namski had grown very old and died and so wasn’t there when they opened the capsule and found it empty. The records showed no known relatives for Traveler #17, and so his four official personal effects — including a half-empty can of talcum powder — were listed in the manifest, then tossed in the incinerator. By this time, he was an old man in Earth years, and had grown so comfortable with the planet that he forgot sometimes what the atmosphere smelled like. Those evenings, he would rummage around the camera pouch until he found that lucky silver dollar, worn down by then to a perfectly smooth metal slug, and he would rub the coin in his palms until it was warm. And he cupped his hands over his face and breathed as deep as his old lungs allowed so he could remember that time when, whether they knew it or not on Earth, he became the first man to know a planet.

 

photo courtesy NASA

Jalopy

Jalopy

Mitchell Grabois

1.
My father ran aground amidst a naked, barbaric race. The women’s cologne must be distilled from excrement, he and his mates thought. They held their breath. The men’s penises dragged on the glacial ice. My father wondered why he had ever set sail.

2.
With global warming, the glaciers recede like a pack of erections that have simultaneously changed their mind. The Mendenhall Glacier wonders: Viagra or Cialis? I need to assert myself. I need to get back to fucking the world with my cold rod. The world is too hot. Women are supposed to be hot, but not planets. I remember when I was young and stretched out beyond what I could see or be aware of. I did not know myself. All the worse for me.

Now I know myself better, but what I know, I don’t like. I’m retreating from the battle. I’m becoming more frayed and mud-spattered every year. President Obama visited me, and he had tears in his eyes. Then, to take his mind off my fate, he went and watched Eskimo children dance in colorful costumes, big smiles on their faces. They laughed with joy when he got up and joined them in their dance.

3.
I once had a friend who was a microwave oven. She heated up quickly, but had a cold heart. I went to high school with her. We kept in touch over the years.

She married a man because she believed that as he aged, he would grow more and more to resemble his father, whom she greatly admired. But as he aged, he became the antithesis of his father. It made her bitter. Her glass door became greasy. You could no longer see what was inside her.

I talked to her on the phone. I was thinking about all the appliances that I’ve owned that have broken down and I’ve discarded.

My friend was a microwave oven. As she aged, the hinges on her door weakened and she began to release dangerous radiation. At night I would imagine myself spinning on her carousel and would get excited and couldn’t sleep.

I had a friend who was a vacuum cleaner. I had a friend who was a dishwasher. I had a friend who was a ceiling fan. My wife told me that all my friends are marginal, which was the way she reminded me of how marginal I am.

I would have been even more marginal if I didn’t live with her. I would have been a jumble of broken parts that don’t add up to make any one machine.

4.
I am the spiritual leader of the Cult of the Sacred Armadillo, but I’m thinking of branching out and also claiming leadership of the Cult of the Tasmanian Devil. I think that will bring more balance to my life.

I need balance. I get out of bed in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom and fall over and lay on my back like a turtle.

My wife says What are you doing down there?

Nothing, I say, I’m thinking.

Are you thinking of starting a new cult? How many cults do you need to lead? How many cults will, in the end, satisfy you? I’m tired of being the bride of a cult leader. I feel guilty at having killed off all the other brides and buried them in the backyard of our old house. Our lives are as dull and predictable as episodes of Criminal Minds, which just goes on and on, year after year. It’s incredible, our tolerance for violence and perversity. We find it entertaining. We find school shootings entertaining. What are you doing down there on the floor? Have you lost your balance again? You ought to take yoga classes. Yoga is good for balance.

5.
I put on the uniform and pledged to obey all orders. When I returned I attempted to commit suicide. I was, obviously, unsuccessful. There’s more stigma to a failed attempt than to a successful one. We worship success.

I’m a narcoleptic child trying to concentrate on the catechism. Sleep is sweeter and sweeter.

The priest puts his hand down my pants. I fall asleep again. When I awaken, I know it has been a dream.

I put on another uniform and pledged to obey orders. I cheated on my wife because those were the only vows I felt free to break. She was breaking her vows too. We were both caught in the same trap. That was partly why we loved each other.

6.
The Pope visited America and, as he boarded the plane to leave, I breathed a sigh of relief that he had not been assassinated in our barbaric, over-weaponized country. Francis brought God back into organized religion, mercy and love for our fellow man, especially for the downtrodden, the least among us, and that is good. He reawakened—in some of us—a conscience.

But it’s also bad because it helps to perpetuate the power of ancient mythologies, and the human race will not progress, will not evolve, until we have left all the ancient mythologies behind.

7.
The whale caller sat in a cell in the maximum security prison in Canon City, Colorado, the same cell that had been occupied by Antonio Guerrero, the Cuban spy, one of the Miami Five, before he was released in a historic deal between the U.S. and Cuba, and returned to his homeland a hero.

While in prison, he tutored other prisoners. He wrote poems and painted pictures and sent his girlfriend long, passionate letters, which the prison censors greatly enjoyed reading.

But the whale caller was nearly illiterate. He had no ideals. He didn’t want to know any of the other prisoners, let alone help them. He only wanted to call whales, but all the whales were so far away, the ocean so far away. He could not even catch the faintest whiff of salt. He smelled dust. He smelled grass and cattle. He heard the roar of off-road vehicles. He could not hear the whales’ sweet songs. He could not even hear them in his imagination.

8.
I had a friend who was a chunk of granite from the Granite State. She was grey and speckled and very heavy. I loaded her into my trunk with some of her brothers and sisters and cousins. I was going to plant them in my garden. I lived far from the Granite State and didn’t know if I would ever get back there, so I filled my trunk.

As I was leaving the quarry, my rear axle broke. I was wondering if something like that might happen. I’d put my trust in God, but God was not worthy of my trust.

It was an old car. It was an old God. This God had a lot of staying power. He was the foundation stone for a world of stupidity. Obviously, my car didn’t have staying power. It was what used to be called a “jalopy.” The Kelly Blue Book said it was worth 99 cents, the same value as the autobiography I’d placed on Amazon.com.

I abandoned my car. Luckily I hadn’t filled the tank for my return trip. It maybe had 99 cents worth of gas in it. I abandoned my life at the quarry too. Altogether I was out about three bucks, not enough to worry about. I took a torn sweater out of the back seat and headed down the dirt road which led away from the quarry.

9.
I built my farmhouse over an underground stream. I didn’t know it was there. As the years passed the stream came closer to the surface, as if it were attracted to my new family’s warm life, until it finally broke through the ground and widened and created a small beach inside the south wall of the house’s foundation.

I didn’t worry about whether the stream would undermine my house. I didn’t worry about it swelling to a size of a river and flooding the first floor. I declared that the stream was a gift from God and got out my fishing pole. I went down the old wooden stairs. The fish I caught were bigger than the ones I used to get at the lake.

No one ever saw me in daylight again, except when I came out to dig fat earthworms behind the barn.

 

painted by Joseph Wolf Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London, 1865 

Tug Hill

Tug Hill

R. Edward Hengsterman

There’s a boy. He does not speak. Dirty blonde and barefoot, he sits cross-legged in space. His arrival is unusual, but I have no fear. So in silence, I wait, until the moment comes when I can’t wait any longer. Then I scream, dance, cry, and laugh – outlandish pantomimes to break his silence, but still he never speaks. This ritual goes on throughout the night.

Then I wake.

Three days ago a boyhood friend died. The news of his death, though not a complete surprise, disrupted my sleep. To be honest, I’m ill-equipped to handle any emotional problems beyond my own. So I keep to myself.

Eric hadn’t crossed my mind in years. In fact, I didn’t realize I’d had any lingering feelings other than a few withered childhood memories until a one-sided conversation with my mother reminded me of the true depths of my baggage.

“Eric’s dead,” she said, “Died at home. Guess I’ll see you at the funeral.” Click.

My mother became a skilled emotional assassin after dealing with thirty years of my bullshit. The post call silence lingered for a good minute before I could commit any grief to the news of his death.

After the call, I sifted through the local news until I found his obituary. I knew enough to know when it says “died at home,” and the deceased individual had been dealing with the issues, only two options existed. Eric overdosed or committed suicide. I made a few calls, old friends, awkward conversations. The talks were brief and unwelcome. After a dozen calls, I learned Eric had hung himself with the electrical cord on his vacuum.

“He had issues,” an old classmate said.

On a side note, for years I’d counted on my obituary reading, “John Doe died at home, alone.” Up to this point, I’ve avoided this prophetic, morbid conclusion, though I’ve tried my damnedest.

The hour drive from the airport unravelled a mass of childhood memories. Overhead the air threatened snow. The winters in the Northeast always threatened. If you wanted to kill yourself, winter was the perfect time of year, bleak and dirty.

When you haven’t been home for a decade or more, there’s a reason lurking somewhere. And my mine lies hidden under a pile of excuses called failed adulthood. The closer I got, the more uncomfortable I became in my skin; annoyed with the seat belt touching my neck. Frustrated with the rolled collar of my shirt and baffled by the fluctuating temperature.

It was another thirty minutes and a wrong turn before I came upon the intersection where Eric and I caught the bus as children. I knew it was time to park the car and walk.

Tug Hill is a stretch of road from the bus stop to my old house. I assume it’s still called Tug Hill today. The single lane gravel road connected the memories of Eric and my consciousness. From sixth grade on we walked home together, and I hung on his every word. There were none of the usual conversations. With Eric, his words, hushed and intense, harbored a secret. Something he explained one day in a voiced filled with confidence.

“I’m a superhero,” he said, “With an underground hideout.”

He sketched an imaginary map in the air with his fingers as he spoke.

“It’s between two telephone poles. Numbers five and six, there’s a trap door.”

There was no hesitation in his voice. And his facial expression remained faithful.

“I save people,” he said, “From danger.”

Eric lived in two worlds, one where he was a human punching bag for an alcoholic father and another where he was a savior. He spoke of his lair with incredible detail – from the color of the buttons on his costume to the number of rungs on the ladder leading to his underground hideout. And I believed every word because I wanted it to be true for Eric. If his home life wasn’t tragic enough, school life was troublesome. I saw this first hand, the ridicule over his odd, reclusive behavior. I never heard him speak to anyone beyond a simple yes or no, or raise his voice to his tormentors. When I was eleven, I thought we’d be friends forever, and one day he’d show me his secret hideout. I’d thought of us as partners, a Batman and Robin relationship.

There were five of us who caught the bus at the bottom of Tug Hill. There was DJ, who once told me he’d seen a doctor because his dick was so large he couldn’t get hard. After our conversation, I’d spend the following week peering into my underwear. Maybe it was contagious. It was not.

There was Jeff, who I pretend to drink Vodka with one day on the way to school – taking swigs but not swallowing and then developing what I deemed a proper stagger for a drunk. Back then I hated the taste of alcohol. And there was Ronald – the newcomer. He left scars. On the days he bothered to attend school, Ronald made my life hell. A full on chase ensued the moment I stepped off the bus, and it didn’t stop until I reached my front door. Ronald was a large boy with a body resembling a fleshy Ape. Rumor around the school was that he had failed a grade or two, which explained his impressive physical attributes for a sixth grader. The remaining two were Eric and me.

It was only twenty yards from where I parked the car, and a chill descended across my skeleton that I couldn’t shake. I lit a fresh cigarette and pulled the inhale until I became lightheaded. There’s something surreal, being in a place that holds your childhood memories hostage. As if time preserved them until you return one day and claim ownership. The further I walk the gravel road the more I let go.

I now realize Eric had no value at home or school, so he developed an alternate identity. I counted the telephones poles as they approached. Houses constructed between one and two changed the landscape. I tugged hard on the cigarette, filling my lungs with frigid air and nicotine. Somewhere after my fifteenth birthday, Eric had become irrelevant. The other Tug Hill kids gave me flack. It was no longer cool to be his friend.

The closer I got to pole number three the higher my heart rate skyrocketed. Eric opened his soul, and I abandoned him, just as I had everyone else in my life. I didn’t have the strength to fight for Eric.

I chip away at the frozen gravel with the point of my shoe. Poles four and five were in view.

I pause and imagine the likeness of a young boy. It’s Eric, and he’s alone. He is ten yards ahead and waiting for me to join him. After a few minutes, he turns with a sheepish look, dragging the eyes of everyone at the Tug Hill bus stop in my direction. The pressure to expel him erupts and cackles from the peanut gallery break loose.

“Let him go. He’s a loser,” DJ says.

“Freak” Jeff yells.

At fifteen I succumb to the peer pressure. “Go on,” I shout. “Leave me alone.” Eric continues his walk alone and I never speak to him again.

I’ve reached pole five and find myself in a full blown panic attack. My breathing is fast and undisciplined. My hands are blotchy and tremulous. Hot ash from the Marlboro Red breaks off and sears into the fresh snow. Numbness covers the entirety of my body, my chest spasms with pain, and the world around me spirals out of control until I fall into a dreamy darkness between telephone poles five and six. Face first in the snow.

Where I lay, I see a boy, and he does not speak. Dirty blonde and barefoot, he glides across space and takes my hand. Fifteen years later it’s settled, and I am nothing.

 

photo by Rick Harris, 2007, from Wikimedia Commons

Neighbors

Neighbors

Eric Smith

My family had been in the neighborhood five years when Robert Aronson started the Belly Button Country Club. Robert, the only adult in the neighborhood whom every kid called by his first name, lived next door to us with his wife, Nan, and their two kids, Charlie and Elly. Like streets in every suburb that bloomed after the war, ours was a bare vine at first, houses growing up and down its length like fast appearing fruit. The Davies house went up on other side of the Aronson’s, the Roses’ on the other side of them, the Haskin’s house sprung up across the street. All modest homes compared to those in an older part of town, a section between us and the bay, where stately structures stood veiled behind dense shrubs and spreading oaks. We, too, planted trees and shrubs and built fences along property lines on our block but our fences were always partial, with openings left between us and our neighbors. A dirt path went around our chain-link fence to the Aronson’s where Robert laid down planking to keep us out of the mud. The redwood fence between the Davies’ and the Aronson’s had a gate that was always open, shut only by the wind. Moving freely between home and the homes of friends, we all eventually ended up at Robert’s.

Like our fathers, Robert worked hard during the week seizing the opportunities of a post war boom, securing his share of treasure loosely buried in the Golden State. But unlike our fathers, he didn’t play golf on weekends or watch sports or take long naps, he had a different notion of leisure. Not surprisingly, kids in the neighborhood gravitated to the Aronson’s on weekends to see what Robert was doing. Dressed in a tee shirt, jeans, and moccasin-loafers, Robert was often found playing in his workshop or assembling something in the yard, and always with plans, never disclosed, for fun later. Sometimes he’d pile us into the bed of his VW truck to drive to an embryonic housing development where we skate-boarded down a virgin street with the perfect slope. Once, after buying one of the first “slip-n-slides” ever sold in the country, he took us into the gated estate of a family he knew so we could slip-n-slide on their terraced lawn. Since the building of every new house in the neighborhood interested him, he often put a half dozen of us in his car, and several more in the trunk, and drove to the latest home-site after workers had gone for the day. We’d thread the skeletal frames, collect lead “coins” cut from electrical boxes, and scavenge discarded wood and nails for our own construction projects, mostly toy boats. Robert made sure we didn’t break anything, step on nails, or climb an unfinished stairway. And one Saturday, every month, he loaded the back of his truck for a dump run. Robert would lay a tarp on top for us to sit, older kids holding onto younger kids as we rode down Atherton Ave over the freeway to the bay-shore dump to watch hundreds of sea gulls wheel in the sky and bulldozers push stinking garbage around.

Of course, he built the first pool in the neighborhood. Standard length but charcoal colored, made of concrete mixed with crushed lava. A bunch of us were there when the chugging caterpillar dug the hole, the deep end, first. We saw the bottom framed with rebar then the dark gunnite sprayed on and the upper tiles laid and the deck cement poured. Two garden hoses ultimately filled the pool, taking a couple of days. When it was done, Robert did an inaugural cannon-ball off the diving board after which we all jumped in. And never got out. Not that summer or the next, as long as someone’s mother was there to watch. A trampoline soon went in, set at ground level over a pit, an idea Robert got after taking us to a fun center in town. We’d swim, bounce, and swim all day then come back after dinner to bounce some more, even into darkness. The trampoline and the pool brought kids from new houses farther up the street, not only in summer but year-round.

I was eight years old when we became members of the Highgate Country Club. Rising affluence in the neighborhood induced several families, including the Roses, Davies, and Haskins, to join local clubs. Our lives changed instantly. Now, we were on swim teams, working out three days a week. Though we continued to wander over to the Aronson house on days we didn’t practice, we all saw less of each other, and less of Robert. In July, we came together for a trip to Lake Tahoe, a half a dozen families in a big house Robert rented on the lake. Robert sat for hours behind the wheel of his new ski boat towing each of us to our heart’s content. From the shore, a parent joked how no one had ever seen Robert sit in one place so long, far surpassing Christmas Day when he made his yearly rounds in the neighborhood, sitting in a chair in our kitchen or living room for maybe twenty minutes before he was up and off to wish the next neighbor “Happy Holiday.”

I don’t remember first going to the Highgate. Though I was old enough to fix enduring memories, the thrill of swimming in an Olympic size pool, practice as a new member of the team, even my first grilled tuna sandwich out of Isabel’s minuscule kitchen, are all lost to me. But the Belly Button Country Club, I remember clearly. I was ten years old the day Robert gathered us around his pool to announce the club’s founding. There were about twelve of us, all laughing at Robert’s latest playful idea. It was just like him, we thought, a case of Robert being Robert. When Scotty Davies began pulling at something in Robert’s hands, Robert lined us up to make sure we met the club’s one and only entry requirement.

“Show me,” he said to Scotty who lifted his shirt high. “Yep, you’re in.”

I showed mine.

“Funny lookin’,” he said, “but yeah.”

My sisters giggled. He waved them over.

“Girls, place a finger where your belly button is. OK. OK…. right. OK.”

After verifying the existence of a dozen navels, he handed out patches for our bathing suits: a depiction of a belly button set inside a circle with the initials B.B.C.C.

“Congratulations,” he said, pushing his glasses back on his nose and ticking his eyebrows, “you are now members of the Belly Button Country Club.”

He led us to the Aronson house then hurried inside while we waited on the lawn. The soundtrack from “My Fair Lady” was playing– “Wouldn’t It Be Lover-ly.” Coming out of the house, Robert had a square of folded cloth across his arms which he opened and held up: a flag with the same logo as our patches. Leading us to a flag pole just off the lawn, he lowered the Stars and Stripes, hooked the new flag below it then raised both flags high.

“When you see this flag, the pool is open. Members and guests. And today,” he said, pushing on his glasses and working his brow, “the Belly Button Country Club is officially open.”

For a few weeks, we eagerly watched for the flag. Swimming at the Aronson’s was simply for fun, not competition. But the novelty didn’t last long. And most of us didn’t know what to do with the new patch, we couldn’t put them on our speedos along with our swim team insignias. Some kids had their moms buy them a second suit for the B.B.C.C. but most patches, like mine, wound up in dresser drawers. In the end, the attraction of the Highgate and other clubs was too strong, especially for our mothers, who dropped us off in the morning and picked us up at five. For them, it was the easiest thing to do. For us, it was an adventure. Walking up the garden path to Highgate pool was like going to summer camp every day. A special domain where kids created their own activities –ping-pong baseball, sharks and minnows, bellyflop contests–while adult supervision stayed limited to a cool lifeguard who stepped in mainly to prevent injury or keep water balloons from accidentally hitting the stray mother, or worse, a grandmother. At Highgate, my sisters and I formed a new circle of friends, seasonal peer groups not unlike the friendships we had at school, enduring year to year and growing stronger while our neighborhood friendships, like the seasons, altered and faded. Highgate was also a place where I renewed crushes every year, or felt new ones, the opportunities to flirt being endless. Plus, l could eat whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, provided Isabel had it in her kitchen– I only had to sign my name.

In the end, the whimsy of the B.B.C.C. could not compete.

The flag continued to fly for a few years. Robert kept the pool heated fall and winter when pools at the Highgate and other clubs were closed. Not many kids showed up. Halloween still brought us over, a tradition of meeting at the Aronson’s after we’d scoured our street. Robert would load us in the back of the truck to drive to mansions of people he knew in the older part of town, down dark driveways no trick-or-treaters ever went, and where Robert knew they would have to give us money. There was also a fantastic neighborhood ski trip he organized. Seven families willingly dragged themselves, along with ski equipment and luggage, to the Aronson’s house at five in the morning to board a bus, a coach complete with a professional driver who took us to the Olympic Village at Squaw Valley where, amazingly, we slept in the same dorms used by athletes a year earlier. None of us kids had ever ridden such a fancy bus. I remember being impressed by Robert’s son, Charlie, who must’ve been only nine at the time, sitting on a folding chair, clip board in hand, checking our names as we boarded the bus in the dark. Later, while Scotty Davies and I settled into our cushy recliner seats, Charlie went down the aisle making the final count. But this was not unusual. While the rest of us played in their yard or swam in their pool, Charlie and his sister Elly were often finishing up their chores, carrying out responsibilities inconceivable to most of us.

I went on my last dump run when I was thirteen, about to enter High School. The back of the truck was full of kids so I sat up front with Robert. I remember thinking how his nose hairs had grown over the years and how his habit of twitching his eyebrows seemed less a tick than an exercise in keeping his eyes wide. I rode up front both ways, down to the dump and back. On the way back, I said something about how, whenever I get my first car, I want a stick shift.

“Like the truck,” I said.

“Come see me in a couple years,” Robert replied, “I’ll teach you.”

When we drove by a street in the older part of town, I remarked how Willie Mays wanted to buy a house here but couldn’t. Robert said he’d heard that, too.

“Why?” I asked “why can’t Willie live here? Why can’t the greatest baseball player in the world live in our town?”

“Neighbors,” was all he said.

As I grew, I wandered farther from home, slipping the confines of the neighborhood, an outward movement that lasted years. First, on a bike. Then in a car. By the time I got to college, my town had become my hometown and the people I knew my childhood friends. My parents, the Roses, the Davies, and the Haskins became longtime neighbors waving remotely to each other in cars or meeting, by chance, in a grocery store. I continued to visit Robert on breaks from school, he loved watching all of us become adults. Later, I’d see him every few years, mostly when I was in town for Christmas at what I now called my parent’s house. He’d show up, without fail, on Christmas day to catch up, always remembering the last time he saw me, and what I was doing. And, every time, amazed to hear that I still wasn’t married.

I continued to move outward, by planes, now, across an expanding universe to other continents and cities faraway. Five years had passed when I saw Robert for the last time. My wife Carolyn and I were in town to visit my mother. I took Carolyn next door to meet our neighbor who, it turned out, had received a diagnosis of cancer that very morning. Sitting on his patio near the flag pole, the Stars-and-Stripes waving occasionally in an unsteady breeze, Robert talked briefly, very matter-of-factly, about the treatment his doctors were devising. Then, pushing his glasses back and twitching his brow, he turned to me to inquire about the career change I was contemplating the last time I saw him. He also asked Carolyn a few questions, and was delighted to learn I’d married a woman with a dozen grandkids. He and Nan, he said, were going to have Elly’s kids for a few days at Tahoe where he was going to show them how to sail. Robert sat with us a whole hour.

His memorial was a year later, with several hundred people in attendance. Carolyn and I went with my mother and two of my sisters. Lots of old neighborhood kids showed up: Scotty and his sisters, as well as a few Roses, Haskins, and others, all of us gathered at a community center to hear family and friends speak from a stage. In our hearts, joy wrestled with sadness, Robert had been a giant in our childhoods. As we listened, we learned things we never knew about him. Like his part in the landing at Anzio that pushed fascists out of Italy, something we couldn’t have known because Robert, like all our fathers, never talked about the war. And since I didn’t think of the Aronson’s as particularly religious, I was surprised to learn of his work with Jewish charities, and how that involvement grew over the years. I don’t recall the Aronson’s going to temple, or Charlie being bar-mitzvah’d, or Robert ever wearing a yarmulke, only a vague recollection of a menorah in their hallway at Christmastime.

As Charlie, now in his late fifties, spoke of his dad, I pictured Robert’s son at eight years old doing weekly pool maintenance: skimming leaves, emptying the filter basket, getting out a test kit to check the ph before adding chlorine. I thought how my parents were pleased if, at that age, I didn’t lose my new football after a week. Concluding his tribute, Charlie took from his pocket a handful of B.B.C.C. patches which he waved and offered to anyone interested. Afterwards, I went looking for Charlie in the sizable crowd. I wanted a patch. I also wanted to tell him how much I appreciated his father for always remembering the last thing I was doing, even if I hadn’t seen him in years.

We got to talking about the B.B.C.C.

“I guess the country club scene really wasn’t for him,” I said, “since he didn’t play golf or tennis, and I can’t imagine him sitting around playing dominoes, drinking beer and bourbon.”

“Oh, no,” Charlie corrected me, “he wanted to join. He applied at the Highgate and others, but didn’t get anywhere.”

Charlie paused. “We’re Jewish.”

“I had no idea,” I fumbled.

“Yeah, my dad tried to find a sponsor but I guess they all knew it was futile. So they didn’t try.”

“They? You mean his neighbors?”

“Yes.”

Charlie asked me about my life, I asked about his. We exchanged broad outlines. I couldn’t shake what he’d just told me, and was still thinking about it when I rejoined Carolyn and my mother. My sisters soon appeared. They, too, had found Charlie and got patches.

As we got in the car, I laid my patch on the console between my mother and me, understanding, for the first time, the truth about belly buttons.

“Because everyone’s got one,” I said out loud.

“What?” my mother asked.

I pointed to the patch, wondering what more I might say.

“Everyone’s got one,” I said again.

My sisters laughed. Lee said she was happy to get one. Mary said she couldn’t believe there were any patches still in existence. As I drove, they talked about the ceremony and poor Nan Aronson and the size of the crowd and how good Scotty Davies looked. We rode in sunshine down the beautiful avenue through the gorgeous neighborhood to my mother’s house. The place I grew up. My childhood home. Native ground.

PASS/FAIL


img_4323

 

PASS/FAIL

Janice E. Rodríguez

When you’re a child, you’ll believe anything—that Santa Claus has a giant warehouse of wrapping paper so his gifts match the ones at your house, that parents are infallible, and even that school is a haven for clever students.

The mile between Rhonda’s home and school had grown longer as autumn progressed. The maples that stood like sentries along the grounds of the state hospital were bare now, and a fragrant detour into the crunchy windrows of leaves added five minutes to the daily journey. The less pleasant reason for dawdling appeared beyond the last maple—the swarming migration of students into squat, red-brick Lafayette Junior High.

Rhonda waited at the crosswalk, wishing the light would never change, knowing it would. She eyed the sign plastered to the lamppost, “Nixon, Now More than Ever,” and smoothed down a curled edge. The first bell rang; the light changed.

Time to run the gauntlet.

A purposeful jog was best even on those days she arrived with time to spare. It took her past the students who smoked behind the batting cages and the couples who lingered behind the plane tree. She spied Jake in his usual post next to the dumpster, stubby finger extending toward her, one side of his mouth hitched in a smirk. They both knew he could outrun her; he had been able to since elementary school. And he did again today, his hand on her back, searching, clawing.

“Holy nothingness, Batman!” he crowed, dashing past her and up the steps. “No strap, no snap.”

Patrice and Teresa lounged at the base of the steps.

“If you get a bra, he’ll leave you alone,” Teresa said. She drew a lock of hair between her fingertips, examining it for split ends. “Or a boyfriend. Do you have a boyfriend?”

“They don’t make bras for … that,” Patrice said, drawing a sideways figure eight in the air. “Or boyfriends, either.”

They rose, preened, tugged their bra straps into place, and sauntered into school.

Rhonda hoisted her book bag and silently disagreed; wearing a bra would, in fact, encourage Jake to greater displays of public humiliation. Second bell rang, and she ran up limestone steps whose sharp edges had been worn down by generations of students.

She was late to homeroom.

Again.

By world history class, she had caught her breath. Mr. Brant’s room was stifling, as it had been every day since the start of school. The windows were closed. The vent of the heating unit fluttered with torn strips of toilet paper.

“Take your seats, ladies and gentlemen,” Mr. Brant said. “Yes, it is hot in here. I have supplied you with a useful diversion.”
He pointed to the heater. Rhonda slid behind her desk and calculated how many square inches of toilet paper he had used. Then she estimated how long it would have taken him to affix the dozens of torn pieces to the vent.

“You cannot see air move, but you can see its effect. Behold its effect!” he said, brushing his fingers atop the waving field of white. “If you know that the air is moving, you will feel cooler.”

She was about to raise her hand to ask if the subconscious mind would be fooled if the conscious mind was aware of the gimmick when he unclipped the modish floral tie from his shirt, lifted it to his face, and blotted perspiration away with it. “My wife and daughters bought me this. But a necktie this wide is, in fact, simply a handkerchief. If anyone here knows who constitutes the committee of my surprise retirement party, please share that information with them.”

Patrice and Teresa entered the room and took their assigned seats on either side of Rhonda.

“Misses Schwartz and Pierotti, you are late,” he said. “Take out a sheet of paper and number it one to ten,” he said.

“Today’s quiz will be multiple choice.”

“I don’t have any paper.”

“How predictable, Mr. Barone,” Mr. Brant said. “Miss Brown, would you be so kind?”

Rhonda took a second sheet of paper from her notebook and passed it to the student in front of her, who whispered, “For every question he reads, give me the answer. One kick is A, two kicks is B, three kicks is C …”

“No,” Rhonda said.

“You have to.”

“No, I don’t.”

Mr. Brant cleared his throat. “Number one: The Fertile Crescent of ancient Mesopotamia lies between which rivers? A. The Schuylkill and the Delaware. B. The Mississippi and the Missouri. C. The Tigris and the Euphrates. D. The Simon and the Garfunkel.”

Rhonda watched the boy in front of her write an answer, erase it, and write again. She rolled her eyes. He was still changing answers when it was time to pass their papers forward.

After the quiz, Mr. Brant sent a half-dozen students to write homework on the board. Teresa made a hissing sound. She had a small, tightly folded triangle of paper.

“Pass it,” she said, indicating Patrice with her chin.

Heart racing, throat dry, Rhonda checked to be sure that Mr. Brant was engrossed in correcting one of the students at the board. She snatched the paper and furtively placed it on Patrice’s desk. Her cheeks burned, and she hoped Mr. Brant would call on Patrice before she could compose a response and ask Rhonda to pass it back. This was the détente the three of them had reached: Patrice and Teresa would limit their note-passing to times when Mr. Brant’s back was turned; Rhonda would pass the notes; and there would be no repeats of the day when Patrice and Teresa had tossed the paper triangles over Rhonda’s head.

When first period was over, Teresa asked, “So do you have a boyfriend or not?”

Patrice raised her eyebrows, waiting.

“Yes, I do,” Rhonda said.

“Who?”

“Glenn Rogers. Two n’s; no d. You don’t know him,” Rhonda said. “He goes to DeKalb.”

“Okay. That’s cool,” Teresa said.

Rhonda crossed her fingers behind her back and asked a silent pardon of her favorite cousin for deploying him as her makeshift admirer.

“Hick school,” Patrice said.

Protected by the lie, Rhonda relaxed. The rest of the morning would be easy; Patrice and Teresa didn’t take the same science class as she did, and they usually ditched chorus.
In the bustle of lunch, she and her friends had achieved happy anonymity. She sat with Holly, the gangly redhead with glasses and orthopedic oxfords, Deb, the heaviest girl in the seventh grade, and Sherry, who came from the poorest part of town. Rhonda and Holly chose cheese dreams. Deb had a chef’s salad. Sherry brought lunch from home. For dessert, Rhonda and Deb shared an ice cream bar—Rhonda slid crunchy chocolate shards from the outside and ate them, and Deb had the rest.

Rhonda always wondered why swimming class was scheduled right after lunch. So far, no one had succumbed to a postprandial cramp and drowned, but some of the parents must have believed in old wives’ tales, and it seemed wise for the school board to mollify their fears. Swimming was her only sport; school had made her loathe it. She entered the locker room as the bell sounded, chlorine and mildew tickling her nose. Sherry had beaten everyone there, arriving in time to choose one of blue bathing suits provided by the school. Everyone avoided the red ones at all cost; they were rendered see-through by contact with water. Deb wasn’t there. She had a permanent excuse from her doctor.

Holly and Rhonda took to a corner, shucking their clothes surreptitiously. Rhonda had not worn anything under the top her grandmother had sewn for her, had no need to. Her nipples had barely begun to stir and swell, and the breasts beneath them still slumbered.

She was ecstatic on her birthday when her mother handed her a box that, unwrapped, revealed a three-pack of garments labeled as training bras. Rhonda had rushed to her bedroom and torn back the plastic with trembling fingers. Her traitorous eyes fell on the reversed letters under the label—camisole. She tried one of them on, appraised herself in the mirror, and saw nothing more than a child in a cut-off undershirt. For her mother’s sake, she wore one on weekends, but she wouldn’t expose herself to the peril of wearing it to school.

Patrice, Teresa, and the other girls who were bounding through puberty always stripped in the center of the locker room, striking poses that displayed their blossoming breasts and interesting tufts of hair, lounging like odalisques before wriggling into their bathing suits.

Seated on a bench next to Sherry and Rhonda, Holly had tucked her right foot under to hide her most damning feature—her eleventh toe. She had let the other members of the lunch quartet see it, a small, bony protrusion next to the pinky toe of her right foot. But it would have been a delightful sweetmeat for the odalisques to feast on, so Rhonda, Deb, and Holly had sworn on their future grandchildren’s heads to go to their graves with her secret.
Teresa caught sight of the threesome on the bench.

“Yo, Rhonda,” she said, striding towards them. She stood there with one fist planted on her hip and cocked her head. Patrice followed.

“I talked to Lisa Martin at lunch. Glenn Rogers, two n’s, no d? Your boyfriend at DeKalb? Did you know he’s seeing someone else? She’s a friend of Lisa’s—Annemarie Angelucci. We’re calling Annemarie after school to tell her to break up with him. We think you should break up with him, too.”

Rhonda came to her feet. Sherry rose next and then Holly. Rhonda dropped a swim towel on her friend’s right foot.

“What a flake!” Patrice said.

“Even you deserve better than that,” Teresa said, turning to leave.

A faint noise squeaked up Rhonda’s throat. “Wait,” she said. Drops of water in the nearest shower stall measured the painful, hushed moments. “Glenn is my cousin. Please don’t get him in trouble with Annemarie.”

Teresa grunted.

“I wanted you to think I had a boyfriend.”

Patrice said, “See? Told you no one would be interested in that.”

They walked to the mirrors, caught the elbows of some other girls, and leaned in confidentially to talk to them. The others turned to look at Rhonda.

If she’d been a child, Rhonda reflected as she walked to the edge of the pool, she would have believed that her confession would assure her return to the ranks of the happily anonymous at Lafayette. But she knew better. She dove into the pool, swam to the middle of the deep end, and began treading water endlessly, waiting for the body of a girl to catch up with the mind of a young woman.

Between Detroit and Chi-town

2016-09-15 14.37.24.jpgBetween Detroit and Chi-town

Barbara Ruth

 

Dear Bob,

Happy birthday, son. I’m sure this email comes as a surprise.

I can’t really tell you much about where I am now Is it heaven? Hell? ‘m still trying to decide. I pay attention to the lives of my loved ones on earth, so when you’re happy, I’m in heaven.

I know you’ve been wondering about that story, my claim to fame. Why did Barb know about it and not you? How come you hadn’t heard that story every time a new person walked in the door who I could convince to sit down and listen? Why didn’t your mother mention it?

Barb only knows about it because she woke up when the phone rang. And that nosy girl stayed up to find out where I was going in the middle of the night.

Here’s the whole story: Ron the bartender called me around 10:00 at night. As you remember, Constantine was a very small town. Of course the bartender in the main bar on Main Street and the school’s only band director knew each other. We were the only Kells listed in the phone book. I knew if he called that late it was going to be important.

“Kell, you’ve got to come over.” My first thought was some former student of mine had gotten himself too drunk to drive home and Ron couldn’t think of anyone else to call. I was figuring out some response to that when Ron continued,

“There’s someone here you’ve got to meet. Come as soon as you can. If you don’t, you’re going to kick yourself for the rest of your life. And bring your horn.”

I told your mother what Ron had said to me. “Are you going out, at this hour? You have school tomorrow.”

The only excuse I had was my curiosity. “You don’t want me kicking myself the rest of my life,” I told her. “It’ll make it awfully hard for you to sleep in the same bed with me.”

She sighed and went back to her book in what I decided was a friendly way. “I’ll try not to make any noise coming or going, even though Barb won’t be asleep yet.”

“She’s a night owl, like her father. She’ll probably try to convince you to take her along.”

“And then Bobby will have to come. I think I’d better leave before I’m taking my whole family into a bar at 10:30 at night. Although that would keep the faculty lounge buzzing.”

“Good night, Dick.”

Sure enough Barb was still awake, standing in the hall in her polka dot pajamas. “What time is it? Who called so late?” Nine years old and she had her mother’s inflections down pat.

“Everything’s fine. Don’t talk so loud, you’ll wake your brother. You should be sleeping too.” She was in her foot-stomping, eye-rolling phase then. She stayed in that one quite a while, so you might be able to picture her dramatic return to her bedroom.

This was when we lived on Canaris Street, not so far from Ron’s Bar. I figured if I was going I might as well take my clarinet, as requested. When I parked the car I looked at it and hesitated. “What the hell?” I tucked the case under my arm and made my way into the bar.

Ron saw me right away. “Kell!” he shouted. “Over here.” He waved me over to one of the few booths and joined me there. Three Black men in expensive overcoats looked up from their drinks. “This is the guy I was telling you about,” Ron continued, turning to them. “Dick Kell, our local band director.” He looked back at me. “Didn’t you used to play in a band?”

I hadn’t even ordered a drink yet but I felt like I’d knocked back half a dozen. Louis Armstrong sitting in a booth in a bar in Constantine Michigan! I didn’t know who the other two gentlemen were, but there was no mistaking THAT face.
Turns out they were his driver and a guy who played trombone. I was embarrassed I didn’t recognize the trombonist’s name. “My guys – band and road crew – we’re traveling in three cars,” Satchmo said. “The others went on ahead, but the three of us decided to rest a spell. We figured if the whole crew stopped in here it might be too much of a good thing.” We all laughed.

I admit I was no stranger to Ron’s establishment. And I had never seen one of the local Black guys in the bar. “You’re probably right,” I said. “There’s a limit to how much jazz Constantine can take on a weeknight.”

All three of them looked beat. Their laughter was filled with fatigue. Maybe they liked my joke, but I think they were just being polite. They were nice enough to ask me about my music, so I told Louis Armstrong I played a little swing in college, no big deal.

“I know the barkeep told you to bring your horn. Let’s see what you got,” Satchmo said. Before I could answer he continued, “My baby’s right here beside me.” He lifted a cornet case, beat up worse than the one you had. I guess his had seen a lot more miles. From it he lifted a beautiful horn, a Selmer-Challenger cornet. “Go ‘head. You can hold it.” He reached it out to me and I took Louis Armstrong’s cornet in my hands, thinking back to my swing band days, being on the road, admiring some other cat’s horn.

Ron brought me a much needed drink and I took out my clarinet and we played a little, right there in the bar. Ron kept saying “Look! That’s Louis Armstrong! That’s Dick Kell playing with Louis Armstrong.”

The odd thing was, none of the customers seemed all that impressed. They glanced at us, then looked back in their shot glasses for the answers to the questions of their lives.
We played “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “String Of Pearls”. He let me pick the songs and we started in unison, then he harmonized, then improvized while I plugged on.
I tried a few adventurous turns and he took the melodic line, nodding encouragement. I was nervous he’d start scat singing and I’d forget what key we were in, but he didn’t and I didn’t either.

They’d played a club the night before in Detroit and had a recording date the next day in Chicago. “I love Chi-town,” Satchmo said. “Best ribs outside of N’awlins.”

Those guys were so polite. I think they would have closed the bar with me and Ron probably would have kicked out the other patrons and let us stay all night. But I felt sorry for the three of them, making chit chat with a high school band director in a one traffic light town, when all they wanted was to get some rest. There was no hotel in Constantine, at least not in 1955. I worried they’d ask me about a decent place they could stay the night, where there’d be no trouble. But they probably realized I wouldn’t know the answer to that question.

I told them the wife was probably waiting up for me.

Satchmo rolled those eyes of his. “Oh man, I know how that is. You best be getting on home.”

When I tiptoed into the house, Barb came running to the door. “What happened?” she asked, her own eyes wide.

“I just played with Louis Armstrong.”

“You did not. You just stayed out late on a school night and you’re trying to get away with it.”

I didn’t know whether to laugh or shake her. “I’m the parent here, not you. Go on to bed now.” She gave a big sigh, just like her mother. I thought she went to her room, but she must have heard some of my conversation with Evie, who’d fallen asleep with her book on her lap, her glasses still on her nose.
She startled awake when I came in. “What happened?” she asked, like an echo. “What time is it anyway?”

“A little after midnight. What a night!” I started in, ready to relish the night again in the telling.

“What do you mean you played with him? You played music? You mean you went somewhere and played along with a record of Louis Armstrong?”

“I mean I went to Ron’s Bar and met the actual Louis Armstrong, one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time, and he invited me to play music with him.”

“How many songs did you play?”

“Two. They each lasted a long time.”

She didn’t seem all that impressed. I guess she just wanted to get back to sleep. One of the highlights of my musical life and I didn’t have anyone to appreciate it.

Neither your mother nor your sister said anything about it at breakfast the next morning. You were four at the time. I didn’t think you’d give me the reaction I wanted. I expected to hear about it in the faculty lounge or around town. Surely Ron would be telling the story for years.

Maybe he did. He certainly told me about it every time I went into his bar. But I already knew. And nobody else seemed to care. I did tell a few cornet students over the years. You remember Junior Bixby? I told him.But I didn’t want to face more disinterest or disbelief so aside from those few I knew the story to myself.

I should have told you when you were ten or twenty or maybe fifty. I realize you would have liked to hear about it, and from me. Well, now you have.

 

Love you always and happy birthday,

Dad

Secrets of the Boardwalk

img_1445Secrets of the Boardwalk

Ron Singer
Last week, Amy, a close friend of ours, told Joan, my wife, that she was worried about Bob, her husband. On two consecutive days, he had uncharacteristically wandered off on his own. The first morning, out of the blue, he had announced his intention of taking the subway out to Coney Island “for a walk on the boardwalk.” Since they normally go to C.I. in tandem, and since she had to work that day (Office Manager for a law firm), she urged him to wait for the weekend. But he refused.

The next day, he went again. That evening, as they were having dinner, his nose red from the spring sunshine and the depleted ozone layer, he made a speech that she interpreted as a semi-confession. Or, as she put it, “His sunburnt nose kept getting longer.”

Joan, who has a practically phonographic memory, quoted Amy’s account of the semi-confession: ‘’’ “ ‘Boy, you wouldn’t believe the characters you run into on the boardwalk these days –junkies, winos, Three Card Monte sharps, restaurant touts who practically mug you. I even saw a couple of teen-aged prostitutes pretending to be fortunetellers! They had a card table, costumes, the works. Can you beat that?’ “ ‘’’
For Amy, the last part had been the kicker: “ ‘The way he described those girls, the look on his face… furtive… I smelled a very big rat!’ ”

Bob is a CPA who owns a small business specializing in the personal income taxes of civil servants, including teachers. (He does ours.) Anything but “furtive,” he normally sounds like an accountant: precise, laconic, on the dry side. Since he had been extremely busy for the two or three months leading up to the end of tax season a few weeks ago, it was easy to see why he had wanted to stretch his legs and suck in some sea air and sunshine. But, obviously, Amy didn’t see it that way.

“I think she’s right,” was Joan’s verdict.

“No opinion.”

* * *

Yesterday, putting their heads together, the women hatched a scheme to find out whether there was fire behind the smoke– a scheme that involved me! As Joan explained at breakfast this morning, “See if you can draw him into a man-to-man confessional, Jerry. Think of it as a chance to make positive use of those world-class social skills you’re always bragging about. You know, have a few drinks…tell him about the time…”

Uh, oh, I thought, here it comes! She was going to bring up the passionate kiss I had admitted to having shared with a sexy young colleague at an office party shortly before my retirement four years ago. Well, she did bring it up, but thankfully, without the pain and rancor that had greeted the original confession. I’ll say this for Joan: she wields a mean wit, but she’s not like that Marx sister, Carpo. (Or is it Carpa?) Even better, I was relieved that the old kiss was all she brought up.

“Sure,” I said. “Why not?”

As soon as she had bustled off to her job (Assistant Principal at a charter school), I called Bob. Although the four of us occasionally went out for brunch together, and although he and I sometimes took walks, we never met for drinks. To keep him from smelling a rat of his own, I would do this my way.

“Beautiful day, eh, Bob?”

“Good morning, Jerry! Yes, indeed! Spring has finally sprung.”

“You must be glad tax season is over.”

“And how!”

“How about a walk in the Gardens today? I hear the cherry blossoms are out. You available?”

“Sounds good,” he said, “Actually, I promised Joe I’d look over an audit notice he got from the IRS. But there’s no hurry, I’m not even going to charge him.”

“That’s very generous of you. Hey, I have a better idea! Let’s take the train out to Brighton. We can have lunch at that Bukharin place with the big Plaster-of-Paris pierogi outside, then walk over to Coney Island on the boardwalk.”

“Actually, I was just there last week, Jerr. Twice, in fact.”
It was time to cut to the chase. “Aha! So you don’t want to go again. I can certainly understand why, after what happened to you with those two prost…”

“ ‘After what happened’ to me’? Nothing happened, Jerry! Amy told Joan about that?”

“Yep. She said something about a pair of ho’s tricked out as fortune-tellers.”

“Well, yes.” There was a brief pause. “But so what? Sure, let’s go for a walk on the boardwalk.”

“Great!”

By now, I wanted to end this conversation, which was making me feel like the guilty party. Maybe, Joan and Amy were right: uncovering the truth about Bob’s boardwalk adventures would require more finesse than I had realized.

* * *

Since we live only a few blocks apart, we agreed to meet at a nearby subway entrance in half an hour. Twenty-nine minutes later, I arrived at the station to find him already waiting. Hurrying down the stairs, we caught a B.B.-bound train. Since the MTA was doing their usual massive infrastructure repairs, we sped past some half-renovated stations without stopping, which made the long trip somewhat shorter. Isn’t it always like that when you’re not in a hurry?

This line goes back and forth between underground and elevated. When it is elevated, it runs above neighborhoods of great variety, ranging from tree-lined streets with big, fancy, stand-alone homes, to commercial districts featuring discount this-and-that stores, to industrial parks full of rooftop graffiti and deserted-looking factories. In some places, every sign is in Chinese. Brooklyn is an exhilarating place to travel through –fast. Since neither of us had brought along a book, we shared Bob’s paper, which we then left on the train, so (as he put it) “some lucky stranger will save $2.50.”

A few minutes before noon, we reached Brighton Avenue and climbed down the long flight of stairs to 6th Street. I love going to B.B. I have never visited Odessa, but I imagine it could be the model for this bustling, vaguely nefarious commercial artery. It’s always a pleasure to be back in old New York, for here you can still find real commercial enterprises –good, cheap restaurants, greengrocers, naughty nightclubs, cavernous ethnic food stores, and exotic clothing emporia. God protect B.B. from gentrification!

Bob and I walked the four short blocks south to 2nd Street, and turned left toward the big pierogi. But when we got there, to our disappointment, we were assaulted through the window by what sounded like the soundtrack from a Central-Asian soft-core porn video. We could also see that all five tables were occupied.

“Let’s take the walk first,” I suggested. “We can grab a hot dog at Nathan’s.”

“Sounds good. Get a little exercise before our unhealthy lunch.”

Even on the side street, we could feel a stiff, chilly wind blowing in from the ocean. Although we were both sensibly dressed, I worried we would freeze our butts off. At the boardwalk, we turned right, toward C.I. Pushing against the crosswinds, we must have made a funny couple. Bob is about six-two, and stoops, trudging along with his hands clasped behind his back. Several inches shorter, I’m “squat” (i.e. big gut), and I take quick little steps, like a kid learning to roller skate. Joan says I look as if I’m running away from something. My shadow? My past?

I had last visited B.B. (with her) about two years ago, just before the city suffered the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. As Bob and I hurried along now, some of the differences I noticed may have been Sandy-related. The ocean side of the boardwalk was dotted with new, one-story, very solid-looking buildings on stout concrete poles. Although there were no signs or other indications of their purpose, I would have guessed they were hurricane-proof restrooms, the proverbial brick shit houses, except that there were other buildings marked as restrooms, on the landward side.
Down on the beach, in addition to a few walkers and joggers, there was a large gathering of seagulls, forming an amoeba in the sand. They looked as if they had flopped down from the sky.

“Birds of a feather flop together,” I quipped. “What are they doing there?”

“Enjoying the sunshine,” Bob opined. “ Just like us, Jerr.”

Since it was a weekday, and so early in the season, traffic on the boardwalk was thin. Thin, in two senses, in number and, I could have sworn, girth: there seemed to be fewer jumbo Russians and others than in summer. Nor was there as good a selection of the hilariously garish outfits I always enjoy at B.B. But there were still a few doozies, such as a middle-aged peroxide blonde wearing a blue fake-fur vest over a paisley kaftan.

The demographic that day seemed deceptively like the peaceable kingdom. On a basketball court in a playground on the landward side (BB at B.B.), I saw a pale, fat boy who, although hatless, looked Jewish. He was gesticulating, and I heard him shout, “Paco! Paco! Pass it to Mohammed! Shoot, Mohamed! Shoot!”

Mohamed, a gawky boy wearing big black-rimmed glasses, launched a clunker off the side of the backboard. These boys belonged to the Bricklayers’ Union. At sixty-seven, I could still have schooled them in the art of the jump shot.

About halfway to Coney Island, spotting an empty bench facing the ocean, we decided to ignore the wind and rest for a few moments. By this point, I must say, I was disappointed that we had not encountered the fortunetellers. I pictured two young cuties seated at a card table, wearing turbans and leather hot pants. As if we were oxygen-deprived, Bob and I sucked in the sea air.

Then, suddenly, there they were, bookending us on our bench, squeezing us together! Showtime! They must have been eighteen or nineteen. One was a faux-redhead, the other a faux-blonde. They were heavily made up, siliconized, and wearing enough perfume to Ralph Laurenify “the multitudinous seas” –i.e. I could no longer smell the salty air. They were dressed like models posing as professional athletes: spandex running-suits in shocking pastels, and day-glow, multi-colored running shoes. Instead of turbans, they sported bright orange baseball caps, worn backwards.

“Hello there, Mr. Bob, baby!” said the blonde, who had plopped down on his end. Her accent combined Russian with Brooklyn-ese. Phonetically, the greeting sounded like, “Alloo there, Meezterr Pob, pay-bee.” You get the idea.

“And, also, hello to you, also, Meezter Zexie,” said the redhead, a contralto, flashing a high-wattage smile and poking me with an elbow.

“Aren’t you going to introduce us to your friend?” asked the blonde. Not waiting for him to reply, she added, “How about going under the boardwalk again, Bobby? I think you loved that big kiss I gave you last week, didn’t you, you naughty boy! Or this time, maybe something a beet more … serious?”

“Perhaps, you would also like, also, to go under the boardwalk, with me, Mr. Bob’s Nice Friend,” suggested the redhead. “A wonderful soul kiss for only ten dollars, if you’re too scary to do anything else.” She winked at me.

“Or too chip! ” added the blonde. They laughed uproariously.

“ ‘Oh, when the sub goess dowwwn…,’ ” they sang, in unison, dissolving in more laughter.

Bob blushed vermilion. “Not today, girls. I’m still dizzy from last time,” he said, in a weak attempt at levity. Wearing what can only be called a shit-eating half grin, he turned and winked at me.
 Well, that cat had finally sprung from the bag! Joan had been right, after all –sort of. Poor Bob! All he had done was buy a kiss, just like we boys used to do at those carnival booths in the innocent old days. Except, back then, it had cost a nickel.

To make the rest of this long story short, I extricated us from the girls by tossing them a few compliments and ten bucks apiece, “for lunch money.” We left them on the bench, shouting lewd suggestions and blowing kisses as we hurried off. By the time I looked back, they were both texting away furiously.

The rest of the “outing” went pretty much as could be expected. We ate under an umbrella at Nathan’s (the smaller one, on the boardwalk), trying to warm our hands with hot coffee, which we did not drink for fear of being unable to sleep that night. (They didn’t have decaf.) I enjoyed my hot dog, but Bob did not look as if he enjoyed his, at all. ***
Thus concludes the day’s adventures of Bob and Jerry, two typical middle-aged men. All that remains to be said is that, on the way home, I easily persuaded him to confess his peccadillo to Amy. You may be able to guess how I did it. After swearing him to secrecy, I told him about the hottie I was seeing in the Bronx.

For fairness’ sake, the end of this story will be told from the wives’ point of view. The next day, Amy and Joan are in their respective offices, talking on their cell phones. As Amy recounts Bob’s spluttered confession, employing elaborate, hilarious mimicry, the women almost die of laughter. When she finishes, there is a pause. Neither of them wants to get back to work. This is too much fun!

“You know, Joan,” Amy remarks, “your Jerry is so clever and persuasive … cute, too. Quite a guy! In fact, I’d be surprised if he never…”

Joan clears her throat. “Now, now, that’s not nice, dear! Let’s not go there.”

And, closing their phones, they leave it at that.

The Chronicle

The Chronicle

Chris Macalino

 

I’m going to start with the grape… This note took a while because I was afraid that I’d be wrong about The Chronicle. I knew the produce this year would yield the sweetest fruit and so I tested this theory. The nearest fruit I had available was at home and yes, they were just right. When I took that piece from my kitchen fruit bowl, I whispered in excitement, “It’s possible…”

Maybe I just felt drawn to the possibility of The Chronicle, knowing something not everybody would, a newsworthy story just popping up. So I brushed off what hesitation kept holding me back and jumped at the chance to learn something: The only thing to fear was agoraphobia. This realization motivated me to liquid courage.

The next grapes I caught were at my nephews Christening, it was summer in The Children’s Museum at The Forks. I worked up a thirst and the fruit took me; they were marvelous. I became certain that The Chronicle was a miracle with size and grandeur. I nearly hogged all the berries! Thinking back, it really wasn’t even summer, it was actually before or after beach season. It sure felt like summer because they were so damn’ good.  I got a little intoxicated by their flavor.

My cousins and uncle were there too, we found our way at about two minutes beyond the parking lot. The location held a discovery, an out of sight nursery of fruit trees. I guess a chapter of growers had a roll to show everyone an orchard of a new friendly variety. I promised myself that when these trees began to bear fruit, I’d let them be and then there will be enough for an entire party.

 

(A great art critic can literally predict how a painting would taste, simply by the colors of the materials used on a panel surface. This dates back to the alchemical presence of organic and mineral parts for making paints. Egg-yolk was always used for yellow and egg-whites were saved for other colors. Egg-shells made amazing blues and flowers were quite remarkable for hot and warm colors like orange or redZests, saps, nectars, and mosses were also used for bases when creating a whole palette.)

The color of grapes varies with its exposure to the sun; similar to apples, peaches, and pears. One cheek of the fruit may appear darker or lighter compared to another side of the fruit. The skin of the grape is also very different from its flesh / the inside of the fruit / some refer to these very sweet parts as “treasure”.

The different parts of a berry (which includes the skin, the treasures, and seeds) are made to take in the elements: We have’ natural sources like water moisture, rain, and wind. We also have the periodic elements from beneath the soil which tend to rise-up chemically and affect the berries. Then there is The Sun and its rays, shining down these grapes for our vintage… The best wine just feels brilliant, to think they’ll be remembering all of this year each and every time we have this kind of Chronicle. It might last an eternity.

 

Some of us are new beginners in The Chronicle – the slang term for a new beginner is newbie. Speaking of winemaking, I like to think of that as related to “new berries”.

I can’t tell the name of the first wine that I had for 2015 but I remember it was white. There was a new section at the grocery store, the addition of a Liquor Mart. The clerk had mentioned the reds would arrive during November. So I went to the next Liquor Mart just to see if there was more I could learn. She was right! All the 2015s were white.

My University training came in handy that day… I was dreaming of cellars, body mechanics, and how a lot of adolescents would spend their time learning subjects in these kinds of places. They would bend their knees with enough balance to sustain minutes, holding a stance to read the right wine. I imagined Picasso must have started his career in cellars, then when he completed training, became the best in the world. I’d like a bottle from that period.

This Christmas, I found the first red wine I could afford. It’s from Australia with the name of a marsupial on the label. The clerk said I had to wait three years for the 2015s to come in… That was the good news, it’s true that it will be awhile. (3+ years is just enough time to heal.) It almost feels like everyone who might know about The Chronicle is like a friend or a drinking buddy from another galaxy far from my perch at The Inn.

An article on the topic did post statistics that most of the vintage would be consumed in the year it’s produced: This proves one year is preceded and followed by many years of skill and soul searching.

 

I wouldn’t call it a perversion but I believe that all bottles should literally have a ship inside of them. One could drink the bottle then keep it as a work of art! They could do all sorts of fantastic things with bottles and modern technology like make them bigger and fancier. This ship-in-a-bottle-wine could be made entirely out of glass… shipbuilders could retire at vineyards. Truly, I believe physics makes anything possible like sharing as an option.

I once thought that opening an old bottle and pouring it down the ground through a filter was a neat way to free a genie. Enjoying a drink was supposed to be a wish come true but all I’ve ever wished was to be is a great artist* There are different kinds of artists and I just want to be one of them. I’ve tried everything from helping to working and teaching but alas, it never continues for very long. Something always cripples my brain or breaks my heart. As I write this, part of me worries about being a “Fish” like the inspiration for Moby Dick or Old Man and the Sea.

I’m scared to think that people around would learn about my drinking and perversely novelize me as some kind of vampire. The great writers stopped doing that ever since Romanticism and Herman Melville’s period and also Ernest Hemingway’s adventures. I suppose Jung said it best – that fear comes from a psychological instinct -where wine has a cognitive irrational association with blood – and the oxymoron of wine as blood gets mythologized into vampirism – then subversively through the universal insight of The Surrealists we get to their point of wine good, “Ahoy!” We’re saved for it takes a good man to feel drunk off wine.

 

I’m just an uncle which means I’m not responsible for anyone but myself… and of course I know this is not true in light of individuality. Even in my failure, I still know there is a responsibility large enough for me to care about, to keep up with, and fulfill any promise of talent in my family.

I’m partly-responsible for my nieces, nephews, godchildren and those I take under my wing. I’m supposed to be the guy who teaches them how to control their drinking, and be careful of over-eating, or at least figure out a way to explain why life is a dream! I always have to be around to tell them that their problems can be solved. “Whatever vices they have must be lead to virtue.” Kind of like sex: It’s a biological need to make love but it’s also a matter of ecology to refrain from being The One.

There has to be somebody out there who could do the math… (One row field at the country vineyard could amount to one bottle. Then all those grapes are used to make wine, and after a period of time, wine is mixed in with other wines to produce a vintage. Soon, it will be bottled up and ready for logistics.) There’s still an opportunity to go to those fields and sunbathe, feel the ecstasy of being free then years later remember the brightness of those summer days. Count the rows their length and width with height, show yourself the theorem for The Chronicle. It’s an event for the ages, there’s a party and everyone is invited! It’s re-materialization as in “Remat” which is the belief that heaven can be described: like how particles or light waves and magnetic fields can make electrons into photons that can form into beings who are similar to our shape… It’s closing time?

 

 

On the Crossing of Streets

On the Crossing of Streets

Katarina Boudreaux

“Now you know that’s no way to be” Minnie says.

A.J. closes his eyes.

“Why can’t you just get a job?” Minnie continues. “We aren’t made of money.”

A.J.’s eyes stay closed. For a moment, he feels he is a saint, but only for a moment.

“Now come on, baby,” he starts, but Minnie is already in full tirade mode.

A.J. stays at the kitchen table for another few minutes, half listening, half thinking about some tropical paradise, then he gets up and walks toward the front door.

Minnie follows him “…and now you’re just gonna sit out there and talk to those good for nothing’s you call friends, and I’m supposed to be cooking your food that I get with two quarters and a piece of tin foil…”

A.J. closes the door behind him and arches his back. He doesn’t blame Minnie. She’s a good woman just trying to get a little more out of him then what he’s giving.

“Nothing wrong with wanting” he says to the empty street, then sits down in his fold-up chair. “Nothing wrong with it at all.”

A.J. knows about wanting, and there was a time A.J. would have done anything for Minnie. He remembers how it was, and how hard he had worked for those years. He had worked on the waterfront; back-breaking labor, men pushing men just to see how hard a man could be pushed.

A.J. had decided it didn’t suit him and spits to the left of the porch rail: not the work, not the powerful men, not the money.

“Damn” he says out loud. Usually his outdoor chair is a place of comfort, like his own personal Balm in Gilead. But out here by himself, he feels an ache inside. It’s something painful, like a fist holding his heart too tight.

“Now it comes” he says to the birds, and decides he is having a heart attack.

He gets up from the lawn chair, but then Smokey comes out his front door guffawing about how bright it is this time of day, and A.J. sits back down.

“Hell, thought I was having a heart attack before you appeared. I’m thinking now I was just having a panic attack” A.J. says good-naturedly. “I thought you might be dead in that house of yours.”

Smokey grabs a lawn chair from his porch, opens the gate, and walks the four or five steps to A.J.’s place.

“Nah. Just stretching out the day. Stretching it on out” Smokey says and reaches in his front shirt pocket for a cigar and lights it.

A.J. and Smokey sit in silence and watch more four-wheeled and some two-wheeled people roll by.

“I wonder if Sloppy Joe is going to make it out this morning” Smokey says.

Sloppy Joe had been drinking a bit more each day, and A.J. knows the signs. His own father had pickled himself from the inside out with the liquor, and although Sloppy Joe is a friend, A.J. doesn’t know how to tell him to cut back.

“Well, we’ll see; nothing to do but just wait and see” A.J. says.

“We could have an intervention” Smokey says.

“We could” A.J. says and settles more comfortably in his chair and changes the subject to dominoes.

After the sun is really up and moving across the sky, A.J. feels his stomach begin a rumble dance. The conversation has died down to guffaws and snorts, so A.J. cracks the front door and calls to Minnie. “Do you have some lunch, Minnie? Smokey’s out here, so maybe some lunch for him too?”

A.J. knows Minnie has lunch; she always has lunch. Sure enough, Minnie throws the window open and passes a plate through it. She doesn’t say anything, and she doesn’t have to; A.J. knows what she’s said a thousand times for a thousand days, and he also knows she’ll say it a thousand more times before it’s all over.

“Now that’s nice of you, Minnie” Smokey says in appreciation and sniffs the two nice po-boys on the plate. “Overstuffed, and just the way they should be.”

Minnie has already shut the window, but A.J. calls out “earning your wings here, honey” then focuses on the plate.

After the first few bites, he looks over at Sloppy Joe’s. “Should be up and out by now” he says to Smokey.

“”Reckon so” Smokey says.

They chew in silence, both now looking at Sloppy Joe’s across the street.

“She didn’t give us napkins” Smokey says.

“Don’t have any” A.J. says and decides that Sloppy Joe’s house doesn’t look so bad. It’s worn like the rest of the homes in A.J.’s neighborhood, but you can still see the fineness in how the house was built. The yard is overrun, and the car has one wheel off, and if there was a dog it’s long gone by now, or else a skeleton still chained to the tree.

“I can’t remember the last time Sloppy took that car out” Smokey says.

A.J. nods and chews his bite of po-boy. “That wheel has been off for a few years now.”

They eat in silence a few more minutes. “Well, I guess we could cross the street” Smokey says. “Take a look.”

“What you’re talking is nonsense to me” A.J. says stiffly. Since the big happening, A.J. hadn’t walked further than the street corner one way, and two blocks the other way. And he hand’t wanted to walk the two blocks.

Minnie had made him go and get milk.

“It’s not nonsense. That all happened what — twenty, thirty years ago?” Smokey relights his cigar and sits further back in his lawn chair.

A.J. doesn’t answer. He knows that Smokey knows it’s exactly twenty-six years ago since the big happening. He had come home from the waterfront and his son was dead in his front yard, and Minnie was sitting on the curb crying.

Sometimes he still hears Minnie say “Bubba T. ran my boy over, ran him down” like she is trying to convince herself that it happened.

Sirens still bother him, and though Bubba T. had tried for years to talk to him, and A.J. knew Minnie had forgiven him long ago, A.J. had not, would not, speak to him or around him.

Bubba T.”s wheel had blown out right when Minnie was waving to him, and she had their little boy right beside her waiting to cross the street. Bubba T had lost control for an instant, and A.J.’s little boy was hit by the side view mirror. Killed on impact the medical professionals had told him, and Minnie had just cried and cried there in the street.

“I’m not crossing the street” A.J. mumbles and reaches behind him and knocks on the window. “Po-boys were great, Minnie honey. Can you pick up the plates so the flies don’t get on them?”

Minnie surprises A.J. by coming out the front door. She stands in front of him on the porch. A.J. hands her his plate, and Smokey starts to say something but she holds up her free hand and points to Sloppy Joe’s.

“Where’s he at? I see two po-boys gone, and the normal number I make, well that’s three. So I’m asking” she says.

“He forgot to come out” A.J. says right over Smokey saying “we were just talking about how maybe we should go on and cross the street and be neighborly and check in on him.”

Minnie looks at A.J., then at Smokey. “Thinking about it?”

“We are considering it” Smokey says politely.

“You two are sitting here being fed like house cats and your friend may not even be breathing, that’s what” Minnie says and picks up Smokey’s plate. “I’m going to have to clean these plates then go check on a fool of a man…”

Minnie moves off the porch and through the front door and slams the door behind her with her foot. A.J. knows it’s her foot, and has often wondered how she stays balanced when she throws it out to close the door.

“Pay her no mind. She’s on a tear today” A.J. says and reaches for the cooler.

Smokey grabs A.J.’s hand. “I’m thinking we should pay her mind. She just gave us a beat down right here on our own porch. Well your porch, but close enough to mine to be mine.”

A.J. snatches his hand from Smokey. “Are you holding my hand on my own front porch Smokey?”

“Seems like I’ll have to hold it for you to cross the street” Smokey retorts and takes a long pull on his cigar.

“Damn cigar. Why do you have to smoke that on my porch?” A.J. fans the air about his head. It’s suddenly thick and clammy and he feels like a smoked cigar, all spent out and smelly.

“You never said not to” Smokey says.

They sit in an uneasy silence for a moment, then Smokey says “I’m gonna have to hold both your hands or what?”

A.J. doesn’t say anything because he is thinking about Sloppy Joe. He does about twenty years of thinking, and then he says “I’m not going to cross…”

The door flies open and Minnie yells “CROSS THE DAMN STREET, A.J., OR GET THE HELL OUT OF THIS HOUSE.” Minnie stomps her foot, then slams the door shut behind her and…locks it.

A.J. is stunned. He looks at the door, then looks at Smokey.

Smokey clears his throat. “I don’t think she’s going to open it.”

A.J. swivels to face Smokey. “I’m not a violent man, but I’m thinking you need to be leaving or I’m going to do some violence right here on my porch. There’s no reason to disrespect a man on his own porch.”

“All right” Smokey replies, then clears his throat. “I’ll leave with you. It’s about napping time, so best get this thing done if it’s going to be done.”

A.J. sees his boy’s face in his mind, and it is shaped like Minnie’s, but has his eyes. A.J. can’t move. “My boy…” he starts then stops.

“Has been dead a long time now, A.J.” Smokey says and looks across the street. “We’ve got someone else to care about now. Time to cross this street.”

Smokey puts his feet side by side and hoists himself up from the lawn chair. “We’re friends, A.J.”

A.J. nods and his mind goes into a time warp. He sees Sloppy coming across the street to tell them Beth left him; sees Sloppy helping him clean up after the last hurricane, drunk as he was; sees Sloppy bringing Minnie some old weeds he calls flowers to thank her for lunch.

A.J. tries to picture his boy; but he can’t get past the face shape and the eyes.

“I guess it’s time to go across the street” A.J. whispers. He licks his lips and stands up with intent.

The first three steps are just off the porch. When they come to the street edge, he looks back at his house, and he sees the curtains move in the front window. He knows Minnie is watching and waiting.

A.J. suddenly remembers how cool the water was when he dove off the big rock one summer long, long ago in Sister Lake. He was airborne and free and then he was in the water, his eyes wide, then he was back up to the surface and he was covered in sunshine.

His foot hits the street pavement and it is like Minnie’s eyes propel him on. Smokey is beside him, hanging back a little, maybe in case he starts to fall, or starts to run, or starts to cry.

“I don’t need a nursemaid, Smokey, I’m not a little girl” A.J. says gruffly and crosses the center line.

Two, three, four more steps and he is over the curb. He stops in front of Sloppy Joe’s house and the world is a loud buzz.

Smokey is saying something, and he turns to open Sloppy’s gate. A.J. follows though he isn’t hearing, isn’t listening, isn’t breathing.

His mind keeps saying that he has crossed the street in broad daylight on a Monday afternoon.

They are up to the front door, and Smokey knocks. The door swings open, unlocked, and A.J. hears Smokey say something like “only a damn fool would sleep with his door unlocked in this neighborhood.”

Smokey steps into the front room. A.J. takes a deep breath and follows.

Bottles are knee-high, and Smokey starts wading toward the back room. All the houses in the neighborhood are shotguns, and A.J. vaguely remembers being in Sloppy Joe’s house when another family lived in it, another family with a little boy the same age as A.J. Jr.

A.J. sinks to his knees in the bottles and something breaks inside his chest. There’s a hardness, then a lightness, and he feels the world spin a little, turn dark then white, until he finally opens his eyes.

Something is under his right knee.

“Sloppy?” A.J. croaks.

Standing up, A.J. looks at Sloppy’s left shoe and then realizes Smokey is right behind him. Smokey kneels down, digs for Sloppy’s head, and then hoists the whole body over so he is face up.

“Hell, what could make a man bury himself in bottles, vomit, and piss on himself?” Smokey asks and puts his hand over Sloppy Joe’s nose.

“Some things” A.J. replies and touches Smokey’s wrist.

Smokey puts a hand on A.J.’s shoulder. “Is your phone working? He’s breathing, but I think we need an ambulance out here.”

A.J. nods, and waves Smokey to the door.

Smokey moves to it, then turns and asks “you’re staying with Sloppy?”

A.J. nods again, and moves to put a plastic bottle under Sloppy’s head.

“Damn fool’s lucky he didn’t drown himself in his own vomit” Smokey says and walks through the front door and runs across the street.

A.J. can see Minnie in their front yard. Her hands are at her side and she is crying. He knows she is crying; he doesn’t have to be close enough to see it.

Smokey puts his hand on her shoulder and turns her, and A.J. watches as they go into his house.

“Sloppy man. We’re going to be fine now” A.J. whispers. “I crossed this street and if you quit breathing it won’t be worth anything. And I won’t pay for your funeral either, so I’d breathe if I were you. Pauper’s graves aren’t nice.”

Sloppy doesn’t answer, but A.J. doesn’t need him to.

A.J. looks down at his pants. Dry.

Rabid Redemption

Rabid Redemption

Linda Boroff

 

Sometime during Charlene’s thirteenth summer, she became convinced that she had contracted rabies and had only two weeks to live. Thirteen is an addled age anyway, a sort of staging ground for adult neuroses; Charlene had read that her brain was sprouting synapses at a blazing rate, and all this additional circuitry not only spawned weird anxieties, it stored them away in spacious new quarters for quick access and long shelf life.

Looking back, Charlene could easily see the traits that would someday make her more Emma Bovary than Jo March; more Lily Bart than Emma Woodhouse. But even at thirteen, worrying oneself into a frenzy over rabies when one had not even been bitten crossed the line from eccentric into full-blown neurotic. Charlene knew that her fear was ridiculous and told herself so by the hour. Yet, the fear persisted, its teeth deep and locked on, shaking the girl like a rabid wolverine.

She attributed some of her hypochondria to being an early and undiscriminating reader. As a small child visiting the neighborhood library, she had not turned left and descended into the children’s section, with its perky decorations and gentle, rhyming tales. She went straight up the stairs and took her seat amidst brutal adult reality.

At age nine, browsing the science section, she had come upon The Merck Manual, that handy, authoritative guide to afflictions major and minor. The Merck had no bedside manner, minced no words, softened nothing, and comforted never. Charlene’s mouth dried as she read the lists of diseases and symptoms: she had leprosy, she realized, in addition to glaucoma, trichinosis, acromegaly and, just possibly, sleeping sickness. She was riddled with tumors, all inoperable. Turning to the mental illness section, she identified her manic depressive psychosis, incipient schizophrenia and progressive megalomania.

Charlene’s two uncles, younger brothers of her father, attended medical school at the University of Minnesota. They would drop by sometimes to grab a lunch, stethoscopes swinging like whips from their necks, throwing around words like dextrinosis and saccharomycetaceae and Paget von Schrötter syndrome. At the arrival of these two family princelings, a cold chill would lift the hairs on the back of Charlene’s neck. What if they noticed her lesions? Her lassitude and malaise? She tried to breathe normally around them, but it still sounded like rales and stridor.

Usually, with time, the mundane issues of school and social life would distract her, and her fears would eventually fade or be replaced by others. In later years, though, she could see that she was only banking them up like glowing coals; they lay dormant but alive, awaiting their summons to erupt again.

Summer of Hydrophobia

For a hypochondriac, rabies just may be the perfect storm: rare but incurable, agonizing beyond belief, and capable of hiding in plain view. When it came to sheer horror, rabies rang the bell, thanks to the evolutionary genius of the rabies virus.

The disease (Charlene read, barely breathing) was usually spread by the bite of a mobile creature. The virus acts on the victim’s brain in such a way as to bring about, in dogs, for example—still overwhelmingly the commonest host—an irresistible urge to bite. As a child, she had sat weeping beside her friends in the theater at the fate of Old Yeller; the finest dog that had ever lived, transformed by rabies into a snarling death’s head, raging to destroy the boy who loved him. This evil metamorphosis was the work of the most cunning virus that had ever set its perfidious endoplasmic reticulum on planet earth.

Rabies, as Charlene learned, was actually a trio of deadly sisters who went by the elegant stage names Lyssavirus, Ephemerovirus and Vesiculovirus. With their non-segmented, negative-stranded RNA genomes, the sisters turned heads and dominated the red carpet at any danse macabre. Despite their age—thousands of years—they were eternally fresh and deadly, reliably contagious, forever renewing themselves.

On this particular summer, having made it through eighth grade, Charlene had joined her mother and younger sister for a summer visit to the mother’s own sister, who lived on Long Island.

The visit started benignly enough. Aunt Elinor had two daughters; the older daughter, who was the same age as Charlene, had recently adopted an amiable German Shepherd named Wolf, whom she had acquired from some unknown source. Strays were fairly common in what was then a semi-rural neighborhood.

Charlene, nearly five-feet-ten and as skinny as Olive Oyl, her detested nickname, loved dogs with the fierce, desperate love of the outcast, the misunderstood. And so It fell upon poor Wolf to provoke her worst ever episode of hypochondria.

It began with a teensy, nagging doubt. Did that hangnail on her thumb qualify as an open wound? It had bled, she recalled. She stared at the tender scab until her teeth began to chatter. And how about that blister she had just popped on her other hand? Another invitation to the Viral Sisters? She and Wolf had played catch with his saliva-drenched tennis ball; they had rolled about on the floor wrestling. They had shared snacks. Had the dog been vaccinated? Charlene tried to assure herself that he must have been, but her cousin seemed to be ignoring her tentative queries. She knew Charlene well, that particular cousin, and she was something of a sadist, not above tweaking Charlene’s anxiety just a little bit, with a teasing sidelong glance. “I would miss you if you died,” the cousin said with a sigh, and looked at Charlene with her pale blue eyes of infinite sadness.

“Please don’t die, okay?”

So Charlene tried to ignore the growing drumbeat: anyway, she knew that rabies had been nearly eradicated in the U.S. Practically. Nearly. Almost. So it was not impossible, but merely unlikely that she was infected. “Unlikely” sounded too much like a roll of the dice to offer much comfort. Lying alone in bed, Charlene’s efforts to reassure herself collapsed before the onslaught of full-fledged panic.

Confessing her fear to an adult would be a double whammy: not only would she not get the vaccine, but her distorted mental architecture would be exposed to all the world. Caught between these two dreaded outcomes, Charlene trembled through her dwindling time on earth.

As the incubation period and her lifespan shrank by the desperate hour, she still could not muster the nerve to tell anybody. She knew that the adults, with indulgent grins, would first try to reassure her. Charlene’s mother would use the opportunity to flog everyone with her daughter’s high reading level. She would explain to Charlene that she could not possibly have rabies and needn’t worry over such things for one more minute. Charlene would note the hint of warning in her voice that she had better not embarrass her mother any further in this preposterous way. Her mother and aunt together would dismiss Charlene’s anxiety—sealing her fate. Charlene pictured them at her bedside as she lay in restraints foaming and convulsing. “She tried to tell us,” they would wail. “We didn’t believe her.”

Somebody must have coaxed the fear into the open at last, and word quickly spread: Crazy Charlene was worried that Wolf was rabid. She quickly became a figure of welcome fun in a visit that had begun to grow dull.

That evening, Charlene’s cousin approached her, holding out a tepid glass of milk. “Here,” she said, with faux sweetness, “this will make you feel better.” Charlene grabbed the milk with rabid fury and hurled it across her cousin’s new canopy bed. The canopy was decorated with lilacs and green tendrils above a border of cotton lace; its beauty and feminine elegance were the wonder of the family. The ensuing fracas brought the two mothers running to see milk pooling in the center of the canopy and dripping from the posters onto the mattress. Charlene’s cousin widened her eyes to the absolute limit of innocence, insisting disingenuously that she had “only been trying to comfort” her frightened guest. Charlene the perpetrator, wounded and impotent, called her very own cousin a liar and a sadist.

Charlene’s mother set her chin and narrowed her eyes. Hopeless, Charlene realized that she alone was responsible for ruining the visit and abusing her family’s hospitality. That very night, she was packed up and shuttled off to the home of another relative, there to wait out her span on earth. “I forgive you, I hope you get well soon,” her cousin had whispered in her ear, as Charlene departed.

Sometime after the dreaded Day 14 had come and gone uneventfully, and back now in her own bedroom, Charlene awakened and looked around at the scuffed linoleum floors and faded blue walls. Her father’s chronically unstable business had left nothing in the budget for updating the decor of Charlene’s early childhood, so the wall still sported a series of painted wooden hangings: a footsore Cinderella racing home from the ball; her coach morphing back into a pumpkin—what if Cinderella got sealed inside, Charlene had always wondered—and the footmen sprouting disturbing mouse tails that bulged from their livery. Dr. Seuss characters capered mockingly across her curtains.

But the utter mental clarity that Charlene felt that morning told her, and for certain, that she was not rabid. In her relief, she grasped, vaguely, that such good fortune carried with it a sort of mandate that she rise and encounter the world that awaited her—today, and on Day Twenty, and even perhaps on Day Five Thousand Seven Hundred and Seventy-Five. Whatever befell her in life, it would almost certainly not be rabies, which was, after all, only a guarantee that it would be something.

Secrets of the Boardwalk

 

Secrets of the Boardwalk

Ron Singer

 

Last week, Amy, a close friend of ours, told Joan, my wife, that she was worried about Bob, her husband. On two consecutive days, he had uncharacteristically wandered off on his own. The first morning, out of the blue, he had announced his intention of taking the subway out to Coney Island “for a walk on the boardwalk.” Since they normally go to C.I. in tandem, and since she had to work that day (Office Manager for a law firm), she urged him to wait for the weekend. But he refused.

The next day, he went again. That evening, as they were having dinner, his nose red from the spring sunshine and the depleted ozone layer, he made a speech that she interpreted as a semi-confession. Or, as she put it, “His sunburnt nose kept getting longer.”

Joan, who has a practically phonographic memory, quoted Amy’s account of the semi-confession: ‘’’ “ ‘Boy, you wouldn’t believe the characters you run into on the boardwalk these days –junkies, winos, Three Card Monte sharps, restaurant touts who practically mug you. I even saw a couple of teen-aged prostitutes pretending to be fortunetellers! They had a card table, costumes, the works. Can you beat that?’ “ ‘’’
For Amy, the last part had been the kicker: “ ‘The way he described those girls, the look on his face… furtive… I smelled a very big rat!’ ”

Bob is a CPA who owns a small business specializing in the personal income taxes of civil servants, including teachers. (He does ours.) Anything but “furtive,” he normally sounds like an accountant: precise, laconic, on the dry side. Since he had been extremely busy for the two or three months leading up to the end of tax season a few weeks ago, it was easy to see why he had wanted to stretch his legs and suck in some sea air and sunshine. But, obviously, Amy didn’t see it that way.

“I think she’s right,” was Joan’s verdict.

“No opinion.”

* * *

Yesterday, putting their heads together, the women hatched a scheme to find out whether there was fire behind the smoke– a scheme that involved me! As Joan explained at breakfast this morning, “See if you can draw him into a man-to-man confessional, Jerry. Think of it as a chance to make positive use of those world-class social skills you’re always bragging about. You know, have a few drinks…tell him about the time…”

Uh, oh, I thought, here it comes! She was going to bring up the passionate kiss I had admitted to having shared with a sexy young colleague at an office party shortly before my retirement four years ago. Well, she did bring it up, but thankfully, without the pain and rancor that had greeted the original confession. I’ll say this for Joan: she wields a mean wit, but she’s not like that Marx sister, Carpo. (Or is it Carpa?) Even better, I was relieved that the old kiss was all she brought up.

“Sure,” I said. “Why not?”

As soon as she had bustled off to her job (Assistant Principal at a charter school), I called Bob. Although the four of us occasionally went out for brunch together, and although he and I sometimes took walks, we never met for drinks. To keep him from smelling a rat of his own, I would do this my way.

“Beautiful day, eh, Bob?”

“Good morning, Jerry! Yes, indeed! Spring has finally sprung.”

“You must be glad tax season is over.”

“And how!”

“How about a walk in the Gardens today? I hear the cherry blossoms are out. You available?”

“Sounds good,” he said, “Actually, I promised Joe I’d look over an audit notice he got from the IRS. But there’s no hurry, I’m not even going to charge him.”

“That’s very generous of you. Hey, I have a better idea! Let’s take the train out to Brighton. We can have lunch at that Bukharin place with the big Plaster-of-Paris pierogi outside, then walk over to Coney Island on the boardwalk.”

“Actually, I was just there last week, Jerr. Twice, in fact.”
It was time to cut to the chase. “Aha! So you don’t want to go again. I can certainly understand why, after what happened to you with those two prost…”

“ ‘After what happened’ to me’? Nothing happened, Jerry! Amy told Joan about that?”

“Yep. She said something about a pair of ho’s tricked out as fortune-tellers.”

“Well, yes.” There was a brief pause. “But so what? Sure, let’s go for a walk on the boardwalk.”

“Great!”

By now, I wanted to end this conversation, which was making me feel like the guilty party. Maybe, Joan and Amy were right: uncovering the truth about Bob’s boardwalk adventures would require more finesse than I had realized. * * *
Since we live only a few blocks apart, we agreed to meet at a nearby subway entrance in half an hour. Twenty-nine minutes later, I arrived at the station to find him already waiting. Hurrying down the stairs, we caught a B.B.-bound train. Since the MTA was doing their usual massive infrastructure repairs, we sped past some half-renovated stations without stopping, which made the long trip somewhat shorter. Isn’t it always like that when you’re not in a hurry?

This line goes back and forth between underground and elevated. When it is elevated, it runs above neighborhoods of great variety, ranging from tree-lined streets with big, fancy, stand-alone homes, to commercial districts featuring discount this-and-that stores, to industrial parks full of rooftop graffiti and deserted-looking factories. In some places, every sign is in Chinese. Brooklyn is an exhilarating place to travel through –fast. Since neither of us had brought along a book, we shared Bob’s paper, which we then left on the train, so (as he put it) “some lucky stranger will save $2.50.”

A few minutes before noon, we reached Brighton Avenue and climbed down the long flight of stairs to 6th Street. I love going to B.B. I have never visited Odessa, but I imagine it could be the model for this bustling, vaguely nefarious commercial artery. It’s always a pleasure to be back in old New York, for here you can still find real commercial enterprises –good, cheap restaurants, greengrocers, naughty nightclubs, cavernous ethnic food stores, and exotic clothing emporia. God protect B.B. from gentrification!
Bob and I walked the four short blocks south to 2nd Street, and turned left toward the big pierogi. But when we got there, to our disappointment, we were assaulted through the window by what sounded like the soundtrack from a Central-Asian soft-core porn video. We could also see that all five tables were occupied.

“Let’s take the walk first,” I suggested. “We can grab a hot dog at Nathan’s.”

“Sounds good. Get a little exercise before our unhealthy lunch.”

Even on the side street, we could feel a stiff, chilly wind blowing in from the ocean. Although we were both sensibly dressed, I worried we would freeze our butts off. At the boardwalk, we turned right, toward C.I. Pushing against the crosswinds, we must have made a funny couple. Bob is about six-two, and stoops, trudging along with his hands clasped behind his back. Several inches shorter, I’m “squat” (i.e. big gut), and I take quick little steps, like a kid learning to roller skate. Joan says I look as if I’m running away from something. My shadow? My past?

I had last visited B.B. (with her) about two years ago, just before the city suffered the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. As Bob and I hurried along now, some of the differences I noticed may have been Sandy-related. The ocean side of the boardwalk was dotted with new, one-story, very solid-looking buildings on stout concrete poles. Although there were no signs or other indications of their purpose, I would have guessed they were hurricane-proof restrooms, the proverbial brick shit houses, except that there were other buildings marked as restrooms, on the landward side.
Down on the beach, in addition to a few walkers and joggers, there was a large gathering of seagulls, forming an amoeba in the sand. They looked as if they had flopped down from the sky.

“Birds of a feather flop together,” I quipped. “What are they doing there?”

“Enjoying the sunshine,” Bob opined. “ Just like us, Jerr.”
Since it was a weekday, and so early in the season, traffic on the boardwalk was thin. Thin, in two senses, in number and, I could have sworn, girth: there seemed to be fewer jumbo Russians and others than in summer. Nor was there as good a selection of the hilariously garish outfits I always enjoy at B.B. But there were still a few doozies, such as a middle-aged peroxide blonde wearing a blue fake-fur vest over a paisley kaftan.
The demographic that day seemed deceptively like the peaceable kingdom. On a basketball court in a playground on the landward side (BB at B.B.), I saw a pale, fat boy who, although hatless, looked Jewish. He was gesticulating, and I heard him shout, “Paco! Paco! Pass it to Mohammed! Shoot, Mohamed! Shoot!”

Mohamed, a gawky boy wearing big black-rimmed glasses, launched a clunker off the side of the backboard. These boys belonged to the Bricklayers’ Union. At sixty-seven, I could still have schooled them in the art of the jump shot.

About halfway to Coney Island, spotting an empty bench facing the ocean, we decided to ignore the wind and rest for a few moments. By this point, I must say, I was disappointed that we had not encountered the fortunetellers. I pictured two young cuties seated at a card table, wearing turbans and leather hot pants. As if we were oxygen-deprived, Bob and I sucked in the sea air.

Then, suddenly, there they were, bookending us on our bench, squeezing us together! Showtime! They must have been eighteen or nineteen. One was a faux-redhead, the other a faux-blonde. They were heavily made up, siliconized, and wearing enough perfume to Ralph Laurenify “the multitudinous seas” –i.e. I could no longer smell the salty air.

They were dressed like models posing as professional athletes: spandex running-suits in shocking pastels, and day-glow, multi-colored running shoes. Instead of turbans, they sported bright orange baseball caps, worn backwards.

“Hello there, Mr. Bob, baby!” said the blonde, who had plopped down on his end. Her accent combined Russian with Brooklyn-ese. Phonetically, the greeting sounded like, “Alloo there, Meezterr Pob, pay-bee.” You get the idea.

“And, also, hello to you, also, Meezter Zexie,” said the redhead, a contralto, flashing a high-wattage smile and poking me with an elbow.

“Aren’t you going to introduce us to your friend?” asked the blonde. Not waiting for him to reply, she added, “How about going under the boardwalk again, Bobby? I think you loved that big kiss I gave you last week, didn’t you, you naughty boy! Or this time, maybe something a beet more … serious?”

“Perhaps, you would also like, also, to go under the boardwalk, with me, Mr. Bob’s Nice Friend,” suggested the redhead. “A wonderful soul kiss for only ten dollars, if you’re too scary to do anything else.” She winked at me.

“Or too chip! ” added the blonde. They laughed uproariously.

“ ‘Oh, when the sub goess dowwwn…,’ ” they sang, in unison, dissolving in more laughter.

Bob blushed vermilion. “Not today, girls. I’m still dizzy from last time,” he said, in a weak attempt at levity. Wearing what can only be called a shit-eating half grin, he turned and winked at me.
 Well, that cat had finally sprung from the bag! Joan had been right, after all –sort of. Poor Bob! All he had done was buy a kiss, just like we boys used to do at those carnival booths in the innocent old days. Except, back then, it had cost a nickel.

To make the rest of this long story short, I extricated us from the girls by tossing them a few compliments and ten bucks apiece, “for lunch money.” We left them on the bench, shouting lewd suggestions and blowing kisses as we hurried off. By the time I looked back, they were both texting away furiously.

The rest of the “outing” went pretty much as could be expected. We ate under an umbrella at Nathan’s (the smaller one, on the boardwalk), trying to warm our hands with hot coffee, which we did not drink for fear of being unable to sleep that night. (They didn’t have decaf.) I enjoyed my hot dog, but Bob did not look as if he enjoyed his, at all.

***

Thus concludes the day’s adventures of Bob and Jerry, two typical middle-aged men. All that remains to be said is that, on the way home, I easily persuaded him to confess his peccadillo to Amy. You may be able to guess how I did it. After swearing him to secrecy, I told him about the hottie I was seeing in the Bronx.

For fairness’ sake, the end of this story will be told from the wives’ point of view. The next day, Amy and Joan are in their respective offices, talking on their cell phones. As Amy recounts Bob’s spluttered confession, employing elaborate, hilarious mimicry, the women almost die of laughter. When she finishes, there is a pause. Neither of them wants to get back to work. This is too much fun!

“You know, Joan,” Amy remarks, “your Jerry is so clever and persuasive … cute, too. Quite a guy! In fact, I’d be surprised if he never…”

Joan clears her throat. “Now, now, that’s not nice, dear! Let’s not go there.”

And, closing their phones, they leave it at that.

Prince

IMG_2894

PRINCE
By Brent Allen

His dad said it seemed warm, but it was spring and this would be a cool day in the fall. So James wore the jacket grandma O’Malley got him for Christmas, and his father wore the matching one she had bought for him. Grandma thought it was cute, but James thought it was dumb and his dad agreed, but they couldn’t tell grandma what they thought.

James held his father’s hand and thought about asking his dad to carry him, but he was too big now. That was what little kids did. He was still a kid, duh, but not a little kid.

Prince walked off the path sometimes, but he was older now and stayed closer to them than he had in the past. He loved the woods. James knew because Prince’s tail wagged like he was swatting flies.

James was huffing when they got to the clearing and the lake opened wide and far. His father let go of James’ hand and scrambled down the incline to the side of the lake. He put down the tackle and folding chairs, touched the water with his shoe, and turned back to James and opened his arms.

“I can do it,” James said.

“OK,” his father said, but James knew he was watching closely as he slid down the slope. He stopped at his father’s feet and let his father pull him up so he could brush off his pants. When his father told him they were clean enough and they were old jeans anyway, James stepped to the edge of the lake and touched the surface with his shoe.
“Maybe we could get a boat,” James said.
His father looked at Prince, and James said, “Oh.”
He didn’t do too well,” his father said.
“Remember how we lost some of the worms?”
“He almost tipped us over.”
James bent down and put his nose against Prince’s muzzle. His dog was panting after the climb down the slope.
“No boat,” James said. “It’s OK, Prince. We don’t need a boat.” When Prince tried to lick him, James fell backward and wiped his face with his sleeve.
“They’ll be biting today,” his father said. His father could always tell.
“I hope I get one this big,” James said, and he spread his arms wide.
“No whales in this lake,” his father said.
James laughed and wiped away Prince’s slobber some more.
He and his father prepared their hooks and his father reminded James how to toss the line. James held the button down and released it with a perfect, arcing, toss and his father said “Whoa, James, I can’t beat that,” and James was happy.

They talked about school and Miss Delacroix and how James liked being in her class. His father understood why James was pleased with his teacher and they laughed about that because James was old enough to understand when a woman was pretty. Miss Delacroix was very pretty.

Prince walked around them for a while, keeping close, sniffing the water and the bait, but he curled up next to the tackle boxes and fell asleep before they caught their first fish.

Prince was still sleeping when James felt the first nibble. His father had not noticed, and James jerked the line. It was too quick — he should have waited for more nibbles — but he set his hook.

“Nice job, son,” his father said. “That’s the way to do it. Reel it in slowly.”

“I know, dad,” James said. “Slowly. Slowly.” He wound the spool with the handle. “I think it’s big,” he said.

Prince had finally woken up and he watched James. For a second, James thought the fish had slipped the hook, but he felt it tug again and he reeled it in very slowly. His father got a nibble, too, but he lost the fish and reeled in his line. He slipped a nightcrawler on the hook and waited for James before he tossed the line.

“Got it under control?” his father said.

James nodded. “It’s close, but I don’t think it’s that big.”

His father tossed his line and let the bobber float while he watched James.

“I can see it,” James said. He reeled faster until the fish was out of water. It was a blue gill, and it was pretty big. Prince was interested and watched intently with his tail in a fierce wag.

“Let me take it off the hook,” his father said.

“I think I can do it.”

His father looked at him askew and nodded. It was a big moment. James held the fish tightly and slipped it off the hook without getting poked by the fins or the hook.

“You’re a regular pro, now,” his father said.

“James, one; Dad, zero,” James said, and they both laughed and Prince plopped down next to the tackle boxes and fell asleep again. James let his father slap the fish against a rock and gut it with the knife that had belonged to James’ grandfather.

“Someday, this will be yours,” his father said. James hoped it would be soon.

It was an hour before twilight before they were tired of fishing and talking. James had three to his father’s two and his father had promised a sundae on the way home for James’ victory. His father had caught a large bass and tried to change the rules to win by total weight, but James would not allow it, and his father conceded that it was number and not weight and he would have to correct that next time they came unless James caught a really big fish. They took four of the fish home to eat and Prince slept the whole way home.

II

It was the kind of hot that only the heart of summer can bring. James’ mother refused to cook inside, so his father grilled hamburgers in the back yard and drank a Pabst Blue Ribbon from a bottle. James’ mother held his baby sister Jessica and shuttled patties and cheese and buns to his father, who wore a big, dirty, apron that said “Please kiss the Grillmaster.”

Prince sauntered across the yard. He was older now and he coughed a lot and his dad said he would have to go to the vet soon if he didn’t get better. James watched as Prince toppled on his left side and James yelled “Dad!”

His father dropped a hamburger and the spatula on the grass and ran over to Prince and tried to get him up. James saw Prince cough up white froth tinged with red. The old dog whimpered. He had never done that before, and James was scared.

“Mary,” his father said. He motioned with his hands and James did not understand. But his mother returned with a bowl of water and his father took it and put it in front of Prince. When he did not move, James’ father poured some of the water on his teeth and Prince lapped at it a little. James’ father tried to help Prince up, but Prince whimpered again and started coughing.

“Oh, God, Mary,” his father said. “I’ve got to take him.”

“David —“

“Look at him.”

His father knelt down and picked Prince up. Prince whimpered at first, but he stopped by the time they got to the car and James’ mother opened the back door and James’ father put Prince on the seat. Jessica sucked on her bottle and watched. James got in the back seat with Prince and closed the door.

“Not today, buddy,” his father said. “You stay home with your mom and sister.”

“I want to go,” James said.

“No,” his father said.

“You don’t want me to see him…” James said. He could not bring himself to say “die.”

His father rested his head against the steering wheel.

“I don’t want you to see me,” he said.

Prince was leaking slobber on the back seat, but the red was gone. James did not move.

“He’s my dog,” James said. “I’m old enough.” James saw his mother looking at his father, and his father nodded and kissed her.

“I guess you are,” his father said, but his voice was weak and not like his father at all.

They were silent on the ride to the vet. Prince raised his head to sniff the wind, but he got too tired to keep it up. When the car hit a bump on the road, Prince whimpered, and then he fell asleep.

James’ dad pulled up in front of the vet’s office. It was an old white home with an addition where the vet operated on dogs. It needed a paint job and on the side by the surgery, flakes of dirty white paint littered the lawn.

“James, you go get us signed in.”

James kicked open the door and ran to the office. Kathy, his favorite attendant, was there and he spewed out a rush of words that made her face go sad.

“The doctor’s with someone, sweetie, but I’ll get him,” Kathy said. “Don’t you worry.”

James’ father arrived at the door and Kathy came from behind the desk and hugged James and went to get the doctor. His father was still holding Prince when Dr. Bob opened the door of the consultation room and motioned for James father to follow him to the surgery. An old woman with a cat in a cage watched them leave.

James’ father placed Prince on the floor because he couldn’t lift him on the observation table. He leaned against the wall and the doctor said it was OK, and that he should take a minute to catch his breath.

“We’ll just take a look right here,” he said.

James’ father nodded as his breathing slowed. He wiped sweat from his forehead and the top of his head. Dr. Bob looked in Prince’s eyes and his mouth and he tapped Prince’s swollen stomach. When he was done, he stood up and looked at James and his father said, “Go ahead.”

“There’s nothing I can do but put old Prince out of his pain,”

Dr. Bob said. “He’s had an incident.” He looked at James again and James’ father nodded his head.

“I’m surprised he made it this far,” Dr. Bob said.

“How long?” James’ father said.

“He’s in a lot of pain,” Dr. Bob said. “It’s time, David. It’s been coming and it’s here.”

“Let’s do it, then,” James’ father said. His voice that did not sound like him at all.

“Do you want James with you?”

“Yes,” his father said.

That’s when James cried. It was so stupid, but he stopped when the doctor came with the big needle and his father lay down next to Prince and stroked his head and told him it was all going to be all right. He was still wearing the apron that said “Please kiss the Grillmaster.” Dr. Bob sat down on the other side of Price and held his back leg and rubbed with his thumb until he found what he wanted. He put the needle in Prince, but Prince did not whimper.

“It will be quick,” Dr. Bob said. “A minute or so. He won’t feel a thing. He’ll go to sleep.”

“It’s all right, big guy,” James’ father said. James watched as Dr. Bob pressed his thumb to the back of the needle and pushed the contents into Prince’s leg until the needle was empty. Prince’s head moved slightly, and he rolled his eyes around and James was sure Prince was looking at him when his eyes stopped moving. James looked at his father, and sweat was running down his face, but when he looked at his dad again, the water came from his left eye and rolled down his cheek.

On the way out of the office, James held his father’s hand for the last time.

III

It was the kind of cold fall day that would be warm in the spring. James followed his father through the woods and they talked about Miss Delacroix and her upcoming marriage to Mr. Courtlen, a sixth-grade teacher. He had proposed in her class and James had been there and thought it all very stupid and even sad in a way he did not understand.

He did not tell his dad; there were some things he had to figure out on his own.

His dad let him scramble down the slope to the lake without offering to help. James brushed his pants off while his father bent down and touched the water’s edge. The lake was strangely placid for this time of the year and the waves were little ripples dying on the shore.

“We could get a boat,” his father said.

James touched the surface of the water, and then he and his father looked back into the woods for what seemed a long time, but it wasn’t. They prepared their lines and watched as the bobbers made little ripples on the water’s surface.

“Maybe next time, dad,” James said.

“Yeah,” his father said. “Maybe next time.”

Sa Belle-Soeur

IMG_2907Sa Belle-Soeur

Sivan Slapak

 

“Est-ce que mon beau-frère est venu?” Justine asks. She’s one of the oldest at the senior’s residence. They are twenty ladies, at various levels of dementia. For today’s Christmas party, they’ve had their hair and makeup done, by the matronly Russian cosmetician who’s booked for such occasions. When she’s done primping them, the aides gently herd the ladies to the sitting room to listen to the volunteer guitarists, who stumble through electric versions of holiday classics. The room of freshly-coiffed grey heads nod, waiting in anticipation. Then drift. And then return with a pleased jolt to notice the morning’s festive atmosphere, to be told again that it’s Christmas and that there will soon be visitors.

Oh yes, people are coming, they remember. Deep and blurry affection rises up as relatives arrive, colouring the residents’ cheeks when grandchildren they don’t quite recall lean over to kiss them.

Justine never married. A slight woman who favours wool cardigans and pleated skirts, she retains the air of shy compliance cultivated by the nuns of her schooldays. She still wears a wispy pageboy, and recently took to petting a stuffed toy cat, Nitouche, that she carries in the bag of her walker.

Jean-Pierre, her brother-in-law, is her last remaining family member, and doesn’t visit often. When he does, the aides on duty point subtly, knowingly. Demure Justine became much more animated in his presence, almost coquettish.

With the Christian staff on holiday for the week, the Muslim workers jump in to organize the party. “Eid Sa’id!” They wink rakishly at each other under elf hats atop hijabs, rolling out the Christmas bûche and mistletoe for their mainly French-Canadian Catholic residents.

“Why is her dry cleaning bill so high?” Jean-Pierre approaches Fatma, head of the floor, waving Justine’s account record at her. “She always wears the same thing when I visit. The same thing every day.”

“That’s absolutely not true.” Fatma doesn’t add that he only comes a few times a year, so how could he know what she wears? “She cares very much about her appearance.” She gestures over to Justine, sitting daintily in a tan-coloured suit.

“She doesn’t know what she’s wearing. She has Alzheimer’s. She doesn’t remember a thing!”

Fatma tsks, turns away. How to explain to this man that losing one’s memory doesn’t mean losing one’s sense of pride, of self. Not yet. The habits one gathers throughout a lifetime, of brushing one’s hair to a certain side, or a preferred colour. These things that together make up a personality. Or the desire to look pretty for one’s guests. And that Justine asked for her string of pearls when she was told Jean-Pierre would be visiting.

Justine and Jean-Pierre sit, shoulders touching, on the plastic-covered couch. Christmas rock now blares on the stereo, filling up the silence of the crowded room. Jean-Pierre in his loose jeans, Justine with legs crossed at the ankle like a schoolgirl. She smiles timidly and laughs when he leans in and makes a comment about the music. They’re surrounded by the other residents, their walkers and awkward family members. Jean-Pierre looks around, squeamish.

He pats Justine’s hand and she turns her head to him, their faces matching in paleness. Paper-thin translucent skin. He can see the pink rim of her eyelids behind her square glasses—the same style she’s worn since she was a teenager, when he’d met her as Agathe’s little sister. He squeezes her palm. Ma belle-soeur.

Fatma announces, at a senior-friendly decibel: “We want to thank our guests for coming today, and for bringing delicious food for our Christmas buffet! Everyone’s invited to partake!”

The aides begin to lead the ladies to the folding tables they’ve set with green plastic and red plates, poinsettias as centerpieces.

Justine takes a seat and glances around anxiously as the other ladies are maneuvered into chairs surrounding hers.

“Where is Jean-Pierre, my brother-in-law?”

Fatma sees him in the hallway, standing stiffly and gazing at the pictures of Christmas scenes the residents made in art class, cotton balls glued carefully to construction paper. Displayed on the bulletin board as though this is preschool, and not the railway station between home and death.

“He’s waiting till you finish eating, and then will rejoin you.”

Justine smiles in relief, raises her fork to pick at her salad.

Jean-Pierre takes in the room of seniors, wordlessly doddering over their Christmas lunch, while the guests hover over them. He can’t stand being here for another minute. He grabs his coat and quickly leaves, marching out into the chilly snowless afternoon.

Fatma doesn’t notice him go. She’s made bastillah, a Moroccan chicken dish, and is doling it out for the guests, who praise the fine pastry shell she decorated with cinnamon and almonds. She’s also brought her gold-embossed tea glasses, and fresh nana from home. It’s not my holiday, but this is my party too.

“Justine, would you like some tea?” She holds a smoky pink glass out to her.

“Non, merci. Ou est mon beau frère?” Justine asked, prying herself up from the table and leaning on her walker.

“I’ll go find him.”

Fatma hands the teapot to Hind and goes down the narrow hallway, peering into every room.

“Monsieur Fiquet? Jean-Pierre?” Perhaps he’s resting on the second floor, in Justine’s room?

Upstairs she finds Adel at a table with Madeleine, who’d become agitated and was led away from the party.

“No, I don’t want lunch. My husband is home waiting for me, and I need to eat with him. I don’t want to ruin my appetite, you know.”

“But just a bite, Madame Bonhomme.”

“No, he’ll be upset if we don’t eat together.” Madeleine gets up and stomps to her room.

Adel and Fatma exchange looks. Madeleine’s husband died three years earlier, a fact she often forgets.

“Adel,” Fatma switches to Arabic. “Where’s Jean-Pierre?”

“I saw him take his coat about twenty minutes ago. He left.”

Fatma’s eyes widen in dismay. She knows what Jean-Pierre would say if she called to confront him: ‘She won’t remember anyway, that I was there, or that I left.’

She feels his leaving settles something she’d suspected. He may be over ninety, but he still wears his clothes with casual finesse. Laugh lines etch his face in a way that affirmed his good looks from long ago, a knowledge he still carries. A man who was never careful with women’s emotions, she’s sure of it.

Justine sits on the plastic-draped couch again, her cardigan lank and her feet crossed. Her small face perks to attention every time someone enters the room.

“Who doesn’t know that expression?” Fatma thinks, putting a hand on her heart. I’ve known it, the hope and dread. I hate that man, she thinks, only vaguely acknowledging who she means.
“Est-ce que mon beau frère est revenu?” Justine asked Hind, who’s circling with homemade shortbread cookies, two per resident. Justine has pulled out Nitouche and perched him on her lap, strokes his ears lightly.

“Not yet. I’m sure he’ll come soon.”

Fatma remains in the kitchen, tsking, hoping Justine will soon forget he’d been there.

Jean-Pierre strides outside. It’s frigid but not slippery, thank goodness. Little Justine, now at that place. He’d married Agathe and loved her, enough anyway. Together for almost fifty years. They never had children, but the house was full of family.

Justine, la petite. He doesn’t know why she never married. Her primness, perhaps. Maybe she should have taken the veil after all, like they all used to joke.

But that one Christmas Eve, when he’d had too much wine at dinner and come into the kitchen to see her washing dishes at the sink. He’d wrapped his arms around her from the back, kissed her neck and then dropped his empty glass into the soapy water. He left the kitchen and never mentioned it again, nor did she. Warmed by the wine it was a passing urge, seemed the right response to the sight of her delicate nape, her hair bobbed neatly in the middle. Like Agathe’s.

And now Agathe is gone and Justine is tucked away, her mind fading fast. Perhaps a blessing. His own senility is seeping in like fog, but he still has enough lucidity to see what a ruin lies ahead for him too. The shuffling seniors, the forced revelry, the ammonia-scented floors.

No, he would rather preserve that recollection as long as he can. When he’d strayed into the kitchen looking for his wife, and found her apron tied around her sister’s slender back. The sweet longing, the heated adoration of those sealed seconds.

With the fear that his own memory is crumbling quickly into rubble, he doesn’t want to impose sad new images on this fragile wistfulness, doesn’t yet want to say goodbye to that lovely young girl. His belle-soeur.

Justine lifts her hand to smooth her hair, touch her pearls. Jean-Pierre is coming to the Christmas party today. She turns her head to the side, hiding a trembling smile.

Understanding Cows

Understanding Cows

C.S. Lemprière

It was the end of October, hunting season. Grampa told everybody he was going up to the cabin with Uncle John to do some deer hunting. Nothing unusual about that because they did that every year. But then Uncle John phoned wanting to talk to Grampa and Dad said, “I thought he was up at the cabin with you?” Dad and my uncles went looking for Grampa and found him dead up at the cabin. Turns out Grampa had gone up to the cabin a week early. By himself.

The doctor was sure Grampa died of organ failure. He hadn’t taken any food or water up to the cabin, or lit a fire to keep himself warm. My Aunt Jess got suspicious and looked at the pill bottles on his bedside table ‒ turns out he had way more than he was supposed to because he wasn’t taking them.

I was so sad I couldn’t get out of bed for a week. At his funeral, my little niece Joy kept staring at Grampa’s hands like they were suddenly going to shoot up and go for her nose, like when he played that oops, I got your nose game with her. Then she wanted to climb up into the coffin beside him and would have if my sister Angela hadn’t dragged her away. That’s exactly what I felt like doing.

My mom and all my aunts blamed themselves: We should have got somebody in to look after him, we shouldn’t have left him alone in his house like that, not with his mind going, we should’ve paid more attention, made sure he was taking his pills properly…

But what could we have done, short of locking him up in his own house? Standing guard to make sure he ate his vegetables and took his pills? He didn’t want to come and live with any of us. He always said he was perfectly capable of looking after himself. And he was, basically. It’s true that his mind was playing tricks on him. I remember once when he was making Kraft dinner for us and couldn’t find the strainer for the macaroni. When he went to ask me, he forgot the word “strainer”. “You know what I mean, Rose, goddamn it! That thing like a net but made of metal, you know, for pasta!” I laughed thinking about a strainer being called a net, but Grampa didn’t think it was so funny. Now, thinking about it, I can see why. Imagine opening your mouth and the word not coming out. And sometimes he’d get mixed up too. He’d forget how to get a DVD to play, or how to set the washing machine, or where he put his slippers. We’d be having Sunday dinner and Aunt Lizzie would ask him to pass the potatoes. Grampa would turn and look at her, puzzled like. You could tell he was coming back from far away.

We all noticed that Grampa was getting quieter too. Grampa was someone who always had something to say about everything, sometimes too much, said my Granma when she was alive. Or as my Aunt Jess put it, Grampa could talk the ear off a pig. I remember going with Grampa to see Uncle Larry’s grave in the cemetery up the road. Larry was Grampa’s oldest boy but he died in a motorcycle accident when he was seventeen. I knew that Grampa was trying to illustrate what would happen to me if I got the motorcycle I wanted when I turned sixteen. When we walked along between the rows of graves, Grampa stopped to tell me the life story of every single person buried there. “Look, there’s old Mr. Maclean, he married Sally Fisher from over on the 4th. They had six kids, the oldest was Johnnie, he bought the turkey farm up the 5th. The next, now that would’ve been Eric, never seen such a good-for-nothing! Couldn’t find his way out of a paper bag. God knows what he’s doing now, probably not much. Then there was Sally, I went to school with Sally, she was a tough one, played baseball with the boys, the only girl that ever got the strap, too bad she ended marrying that Arnold, a guy more crooked than a dog’s hind leg. Then there was Jill….”

Then last Easter Grampa tripped going up the cellar stairs. He went to the hospital for X-rays, and they said his hip was all smashed and needed surgery to fix it. But when they did all the tests to see if hip surgery was even possible, they discovered he had a bad heart. So he ended up having two surgeries, the first to clear the arteries in his heart with little balloons, and the second to put a new metal joint in his hip.

Then, just when they were about to let him come home, he got a bad infection that gave him the runs. He had to wear a diaper because he couldn’t get to the bathroom on time. He kept trying to make it so he wouldn’t have to call the nurse. The doctors got worried that he was going to fall again and so they sent a social worker round to talk to him, to try and persuade him to be more reasonable. “Cooperative” was the word they used. Don’t think it worked.

So in the end Grampa was in the hospital for over a month. I went on weekends with Mom to visit but I never knew what to say. He looked so tiny lying there in the white sheets, the bright light from the window shining down on his fluffy white hair. The yellow walls, the antiseptic smell, the blinking machines, the cheerful nurses coming in and out all the time ‒ it all sucked the words right out of my mouth. So I just sat on the bed and held his hand.

One time I bought him a bouquet of flowers that I had picked in our garden. It seemed like a good idea because I saw lots of flowers on bedside tables in the other rooms. But then I regretted it because Grampa sniffed them and said how beautiful they were about fifty times. Which showed he was just trying to be nice and didn’t know what else to say. Now I know what I should have brought him: a bag of jujubes, his favourite candy. Or Smarties, his second favourite.

When Grampa came home he was so skinny it looked like a breeze would blow him over and he had to take a dozen pills. He was tired a lot of the time too. But he was so happy! He said he would never, ever go back to the hospital, not in a million years.

Every day after school I went along the road to his house. I made us each a cup of coffee and two pieces of raisin toast. Then we watched TV together until suppertime. Sometimes I’d skip supper at home and make us Kraft dinner. We watched a lot of Seinfeld reruns. He loved the one when George goes out to save a whale that got its breathing hole blocked by Kramer’s golf ball. George tells his friends the story in a big dramatic way: The sea was angry that day, my friends,like an old man trying to send back soup in a deli. Grampa loved that line. He kept saying things like, The cat was angry that day (when one of the barn cats scratched my littlest niece), or The washing machine was angry that day (when one of his socks disappeared).

Then my Dad got Grampa cable so he’d have something to do now that he couldn’t help out around the farm. So we started watching movies together. He hadn’t watched a lot of movies because he’d been so busy on the farm his whole life. We watched super long ones like Gone with the Wind and Titanic. And funny ones like Men in Black. Now I remember that he really liked one called The Woman Who Thinks Like a Cow. It was a documentary about an autistic woman named Temple Grandin. I remember thinking: of course a dairy farmer would like this!

“Wasn’t that something how she got down on the ground to see the world like cows do?” said Grampa.

“Dunno. Seems pretty obvious to me.” I said.

“How? How is that obvious, smarty pants?”

“I dunno. Like that cows don’t want to go in a dark barn. Nobody likes going in a dark barn.”

“Well, if it’s so obvious why didn’t those experts figure it out? Before they hired Temple, they were ready to tear down that barn and build a new one. Would have cost them a fortune.”

“I guess.”

“See how she figured out that the main emotion of cows is fear, just like humans? That they were panicking out of fear?”

“I guess.”

“Just like that cow that got out of the barn last summer. She was scared like that. She wasn’t crazy, just scared.”

“I guess.”

“You know I’m right, said Grampa, sighing.

I just didn’t want to talk about that cow. But now I do.

I remember that it was August and that it felt like the hottest day of the summer. The cicadas were buzzing like wood saws and the dogs were panting so hard they couldn’t sleep, even in the shade of the giant maple trees beside our house. It was so hot that my brothers Tyler and Travis had been sent home by the landscaping company at noon. I was thinking of calling my best friend Lily and seeing if she wanted to go to the air-conditioned mall.

I was in the kitchen making Dad and me a sandwich when the telephone rang. It was Uncle Dave, who was up at the barn helping Uncle Ronnie move some heifers into pens. From the sounds of it, something bad had happened to Uncle Ronnie.

When we got to the barn, Uncle Ronnie was curled up on the floor, moaning and clutching his side.

“What the hell happened here?” said Dad.

But Uncle Dave hadn’t seen what happened and Uncle Ronnie could barely talk. He whispered what sounded like “cow…hit…me”, which I thought was funny but impossible, because how could a cow hit a man?

“What cow?” said Dad.

Uncle Ronnie couldn’t elaborate because he was turning grey like he was going to pass out. We looked around and Uncle Dave saw that a cow was missing, then that the back door of the barn was wide open.

“Jesus, one of the cows must’ve charged him and taken off,” said Dad.

Dad tried to help Uncle Ronnie up but he screamed in pain and his eyes started rolling back into his head.

“Go call the ambulance, Rose.” said Dad.

So I went off to the farmhouse to phone. Grampa was sitting watching the news and heard my conversation with the 911 guy. When the two of us got to the barn, we headed out into the field with Dad to find the runaway cow.

The cow was standing in the ditch that runs across the field. We could see the top part of her above the tall phragmites growing in the ditch. It wasn’t very deep, only about five feet. When she saw us coming, she started snorting and waving her head. She tried to get up the bank but kept slipping. She was panicking so much her eyes were big like saucers. Finally, she got so tired she flopped down on her knees and stopped trying.

“What are we going to do?” I asked.

“I dunno know.” said Dad, “Maybe we’ll have to get more people, get some rope and try to pull her out.”

“I could go get Mom or Tyler, they’re home.”

“No,” said Grampa. “She doesn’t need more people around. Best to leave her alone so she can calm down. Then she’ll get herself out.”

“We don’t have all day,” said Dad. “We’ve got to get her back in the barn. I have to start milking in a few hours.”

“Just leave her with me. I can get her back in. Rose can help me.” said Grampa.

“No, you’ll never get her back in, not when she’s like this.”

“I will, she’ll calm down.”

“Not so sure about that. Rose, you stay here with your Grampa while I go and check on Ronnie.”

So Grampa and I sat down on the edge of the ditch. The angelica was blooming up and down the sides of the ditch, the bees were buzzing all over them, and the sky was a huge blue dome over our heads. We watched a shiny silver airplane crawl across the sky like a tiny bug, leaving a long white line in the blueness. I felt little like that bug, except down here on earth. At first we talked but then the sun made us sleepy and we just sat there and watched the cow and the bees and the sky. It felt like we had all the time in the world. Even the poor cow closed her eyes for a nap.

We heard the ambulance come screaming down our road. It pulled into the barnyard and two paramedics jumped out and rushed into the barn with Dad. A few minutes later they came back out, pushed the stretcher with Uncle Ronnie into the back of the ambulance and sped off.

Then Dad came back out with Uncle Dave. Dad and then Uncle Dave got down in the ditch and pushed on the cow’s hind end. We tried nice words, we tried shouting, we tried pulling on a rope tied around her neck. We tried everything. But the cow kept falling all over the place, snorting and mooing like we were trying to kill her. She looked confused, scared and exhausted.

“We’re going have to shoot the thing, can’t see any other way,” Dad said.

“Let’s leave her for a bit, let her calm down and get her energy back,” said Grampa.

“No, it’s never going to work.”

“Sure it is. Let’s just leave her for a bit.”

“And then what? Say we do leave her for a couple of hours, even all night, a week? And then say by some miracle we do manage to get her out and back in the barn. Then what? This cow’s been nothing but trouble since the day we got her. Always been unpredictable, a bit crazy. Look what she did to Ronnie ‒ gave him a concussion and probably a few broken ribs too. Could have killed him!

“And how do you know that? Nobody knows that.” said Grampa. “Let’s wait a bit. I can stay out here ‘til she calms down. I got nothing better to do. You go on back in and do the milking.”

“I can stay with Grampa,” I said.

“No, I want it settled now,” said Dad.

“What’s the hurry?” said Grampa.

Dad could see that Grampa was really wanting to save that cow. He turned to Grampa and said, kind of sad like: “There’s no hurry. It’s just something that’s got to be done. You know that, Dad. You know we can’t have a cow like that around.”

Grampa didn’t say anything. He just looked down at his feet and then out into the big blue sky.

Dad told me and Grampa to go back to the farmhouse, that he would take care of it. Grampa took my hand as we walked back to his house. In my head, I could see my Dad getting the shotgun out of the closet.

I was in Grampa’s kitchen, making us a cup of coffee, when the gun went off. I starting crying and Grampa put his arms around me.

Today was Embarrassing Enough

Today was Embarrassing Enough
Lori Ann Bloomfield

Rachel sat on the red sofa and considered the blue sofa. Then she moved to the blue sofa and considered the red sofa. She tried, but failed, to imagine either of them in her living room, in the empty space where, until two weeks ago, the white sofa had been. Andy had taken the white sofa with him when he’d moved out. This hadn’t bothered Rachel as much as it should have. She’d worried so much about keeping it clean she had never been able to relax on it. She wanted a sofa she could sink in to. One she could drink tea on, or red wine, if she became the sort of person who drank red wine.

It was Saturday afternoon and Rachel was alone at Ikea. When she and Andy had first moved in together they had come to Ikea almost every weekend. Andy had jokingly described Rachel’s decorating style as, “Zen, except without the calm or the style.”

It was true that Rachel’s apartment had been pretty empty when Andy moved in. She could never decide what to buy. One thing that had impressed her about Andy was how he could gaze out over a showroom filled with fifty armchairs, his blue eyes narrowed like a gunslinger’s, and know instantly which would look best in the corner beside the window.

Frustrated and filled with indecision, Rachel stood up and limped away. The heel of her right foot felt hot and sore. It was these new black leather boots she’d let Angela talk her into buying when they went therapy shopping after Andy left.

The usual crowd of Saturday shoppers was at Ikea: the young couples, the frazzled mothers, the reluctant men allowing themselves to be dragged along in order to keep the peace. And Andy.

Rachel spotted him as he was staring intently at a throw cushion on a black leather sofa. He had a look on his face Rachel recognized. It meant that Andy almost, but not quite, liked the object he was crushing with his gaze. This particular cushion had a fault. It would be perfect to Andy if only it were a different colour, or material, or plumpness. As Rachel watched, Andy dismissed the cushion and turned to a slim blonde man in an expensive overcoat. The look Andy gave him was as warm and gooey as a caramel left in the summer sun. Rachel did not recognize this look.

Rachel ducked down and sat on the nearest sofa. How could she have not known Andy was gay? They had lived together for almost three years. All she could think about was how many pastel-coloured shirts he owned. She’d even bought him a few.

Rachel scrunched down even further. She wanted to call Angela but was afraid Andy would hear her voice. She had to get out of here before he saw her. She’d wait for him to thread his way through the living room department then when he was safely in the kitchen section she’d backtrack and make a dash for the parking lot.

“Look at that print! It looks like something Elton John would vomit,” she heard Andy say.

Rachel wanted to close her eyes the way she’d done when she was a child playing hide and seek, but they were still open when Andy and his boyfriend came around the edge of the sofa she was sitting on and stood with their backs to her. They were laughing at a sofa with a neon pink flower print. It reminded Rachel of a pair of rubber boots she’d had as a child. She’d loved those boots.

Just as she was about to sneak away, Andy turned.

“Rachel!” His voice went high with surprise.

“Hi, Andy.” She tried to sound casual as if it were the most natural thing in the world to meet your ex-boyfriend at Ikea with his new boyfriend.

“You’re not thinking of buying that sofa, are you? It would look hideous in the apartment,” Andy said.

Rachel looked down. She was not even aware of what the sofa she was sitting on looked like. It was burgundy leather.

“No. Definitely not.” Rachel sprang to her feet. “I’m thinking of going vegan.”

She had no idea where that idea had come from. But if Andy could go gay, she could go vegan, she figured.

The man with Andy said, “Don’t tell her what she can and can’t buy. It’s her apartment. She can get whatever sofa she wants. She could even buy that one.” He turned to point at the Elton John vomit over his shoulder. “Though I wouldn’t advise it. I’m Sully, by the way,” he said, extending his hand.

Andy squirmed as they shook hands. Sully, however, seemed to be enjoying himself.

“We were just on our way to the cafeteria for a coffee. Care to join us?” Sully said.

Andy looked so aghast that Rachel said yes.

Sully positioned Rachel in the middle and together the three of them walked to the cafeteria. Rachel and Andy had never gone to the cafeteria when they were together. Andy had always made fun of the cheap breakfasts and meatball specials. They’d sounded good to Rachel, but she’d never admitted that.

But here he was, dutifully following her and Sully through the cafeteria line-up. She glanced back, wondering if he wore the same look as the men who were trailing along behind their wives. Andy met her gaze with a look somewhere between fury and fear. It reminded her of the time she’d gotten up during the night to pee and had surprised him masturbating in the bathroom.

Sully filled a paper cup with coffee and added a splash of milk. His hand wavered over the sugar then fell back to his side. “I prefer honey,” she said to Rachel.

At the cash registrar they each paid for their own coffee. Rachel wondered how gay men decided who paid. Maybe they always just paid for their own. Then she wondered why she was thinking about such stupid stuff.

They sat at a table beside the window. Sully and Andy on one side, Rachel on the other, across from Sully. There was an awkward silence after the scraping of chairs and the settling down into their seats. Rachel had a history of saying embarrassing things to fill silences like this one so she forced herself to stare quietly out the window at the parking lot below. Today was embarrassing enough without adding words to it.

The sky was grey overcast, the cars mostly black or white. But inside, Ikea was a riot of colour. Rachel knew that whatever most people bought here today they would take home and squash the vibrancy out of it. Rachel knew she did it too, but didn’t want to. She wanted to learn the trick of keeping the vibrancy in things.

“Andy told me you work in advertising,” Sully was the first to break the silence, unsurprisingly.

“Insurance, actually,” Rachel said.

Sully nodded, already bored. He was probably regretting inviting her to coffee. If this was going to be fun he was going to have to work harder than he’d anticipated. “I’m a massage therapist,” he volunteered. “I rent a small room in a yoga studio downtown. If you ever need a massage…” He smiled brightly at Rachel.

Andy shot Sully a look which made Sully laugh. He tilted his head way back so that Rachel could see the edge of his straight white teeth and the pink at the back of his throat. To appease Andy he slipped a hand under the table. The two men’s eyes met and they exchanged a secret smile.

Rachel looked at the tabletop. She knew she shouldn’t be here, but she didn’t know where she should be.

A stout woman with tight grey curls stopped at their table. She wore a sweatshirt with a kitten on the front. Her glasses hung on a necklace made of pink plastic beads that bounced softly against her considerable bustline.

“You’re twins, right?” She wagged a finger between Sully and Rachel. “My brother, Gus and I were fraternal twins. He died just last year. I miss him more than my husband. It’s funny, when you start looking for twins you see them everywhere.”

Sully tilted his head and considered Rachel. Then he turned to the woman and smiled brightly. “I think I would miss my sister more than my husband, too.”

A look of confusion clouded the woman’s face then cleared. It was like watching a gust of wind blow across a pond on an otherwise still day.

“You’re both gorgeous. Enjoy your day,” she said before tottering off.

“Thanks for stopping by,” Sully called after her.

Andy stared down stonily at his fingernails.

Sully ran a hand expertly down his back and said, “You should loosen up. Relax or else you’re going to give yourself one of your headaches and then you won’t be any fun.”

“I already have one.”

Mostly from habit, though from a bit of sympathy too, Rachel opened her purse and found some aspirin. She handed the small bottle across the table. Wordlessly Andy shook two, then three, pills into his palm. He washed them down with a gulp of coffee. “Thanks,” he said, handing the now empty bottle back. He didn’t meet Rachel’s eye.

“If we are going to be mistaken for brother and sister I think you should get a better haircut,” Sully said to Rachel.

“You don’t look alike,” Andy hissed.

Sully winked at Rachel as though they really did have a familial bond, as if they did share a secret language.

Rachel could see that she and Sully were both slightly built. They shared long, willowy limbs and fine features. They were both fair-haired and blue-eyed, though Sully’s eyes were brighter. They each had small ears that sat tight to their heads and Rachel imagined that inside his shoes Sully had long, thin white feet like her own. She did not let her imagination go any further. They looked alike, though the idea of twins was pushing it.

“How come you guys are at Ikea?” Rachel asked. She wished she hadn’t said guys. It sounded weird.

The two men exchanged a wary look.

“Because he doesn’t like my place and wants to change it,” Sully said.

“That’s not true,” Andy burst out. “It’s need cohesion, that’s all.” He turned to Rachel. “It’s hodge podge, but all it needs is the right few pieces to pull it together.”

Rachel looked at Sully. “He did the same thing when he moved into my place. Changed everything to suit him.”

“Maybe he should get his own place,” Sully said. Then he tried to soften it with a smile.

“Maybe he should be an interior decorator instead of a financial advisor, then he could do this all day long and get paid for it,” Rachel said.

“That’s too gay for Andy. Isn’t it Andy?” said Sully.

“If I wanted to be an interior decorator, I’d be one. I only like designing my own space. I don’t care about anyone else’s,” Andy said. Rachel could tell he was straining to keep his voice calm.

“We were arguing about this over by the sofas,” Sully said.

“We weren’t arguing,” Andy insisted.

“I think Andy is ashamed to be gay,” Sully said.

Andy massaged his left temple and stared down at his coffee. Rachel could tell the aspirins had been wasted on him. She should have kept them.

“Andy didn’t say he was leaving you for a man, did he?” Sully demanded. Rachel suspected that Sully was not as angry as he sounded. He just liked to fight.

“What Andy and I talk about is between Andy and me,” Rachel said.

Sully looked surprised, like a spoiled child that was finally reprimanded.

“Then I’ll leave you two alone to chat.” Sully stood up like he were on a stage, not in the Ikea cafeteria. He stormed off, his coat swaying dramatically behind him. Rachel had the feeling that was why he had bought it.

Andy watched Sully leave then took a sip of coffee.

“You’d better go after him,” Rachel said. She was surprised how calm her voice sounded. She was even more surprised by how calm she felt.

For the first time that day Andy smiled at Rachel. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his keys. Holding them up like they were a prize he said, “Sully has forgotten that I drove.”

They laughed but not from happiness or even malice. It was simply a release of tension. Then it was over and the awkwardness snuck back in. Rachel drained her coffee cup and stood up. “Still, you should go after him. Make sure he’s alright.”

“What are you going to do?” Andy asked.

“I’m going to buy a sofa. But don’t even ask which one because I’m not telling you. I’m buying the one I want and I refuse to be talked out of it.”

Andy raised one eyebrow and smiled wryly. Then he gave a small shrug and held up both hands.

Rachel waved good-bye. A lump was forming in her throat and she didn’t trust her voice. She could feel Andy watching her as she left the cafeteria but didn’t know what he was thinking. Probably she never had.

As she threaded her way through the Saturday shoppers she thought again of those long forgotten rubber boots from childhood. She remembered twirling in them on the sidewalk in front of her house and feeling pretty. She had not worried then how she looked, or whether anyone was watching, or what they were thinking if they were.

Charity Case

Charity Case

Howie Good

1

Swallowing a handful of pills solves every problem, although I didn’t necessarily want it that way. Nearby is another me that I can’t see but that sees me. It’s impossible when looking around not to imagine some prior tragedy, all the deserted cities the jungle overgrew. Whatever happened to the right to be lazy? I try to tell myself that if less is more, then nothing must be even more. A woman outside the Stop & Shop is collecting money in a can, her eyes like rusted bullet holes.

2

You look up from what you’re doing, interrupted by a chain of thunderstorms moving through the region, something that might mean something, broken people and animals, and the way they stand, and the trouble they get in. The wallpaper pattern repeats the image of a body hanging from a lamp post. It sounds horrifying, but that’s the idea. You and everyone else have begun to suffer the effects. Often eyes become red. So I press my eyes shut. This is wrong, I say and keep saying until my voice gives out.

3

A farmer and his wife, after their horse dies, want to carry machine guns so they can intimidate passing motorists. They go immediately to a lawyer. No skin off my ass. In the United States we have a curious relationship to death – a very crazy old man, unanchored by horizons, riding on a cloud beyond the beyond, where simple words look like galaxies.

4

Some years are bright and funky – and even reportedly saved a man’s life once. But she had a sad little funeral. It was rainy. It was all wrong. And I was thinking, God, she loved life so much, everything in the world, including the air. Like the Sufis say, “Life is a dream, and death is waking up.” Not that anyone will.

Source for #4: Allison Meier, “The Funeral of Artists” at <http://hyperallergic.com/179082/the-funerals-of-artists&gt;

A Day in Three Parts

A Day in Three Parts

Jill Talbot

A Night in the McDonald’sIMG_0238

Half expecting to be kicked out, I wrote this out expecting to be drained, forgiven, but all that came was more of the same, until I’m sorry for being sorry and have forgotten why. For whatever I did, I apologize, profusely, out of the flesh of seedy bars. I have become one of those people who talks to themselves in McDonald’s and goes to church in the bathroom. The taste of regret, smell of fat and Barbie Girl playing, that hugely sexist pop song of the nineties we all hated to love and loved to hate, like McDonald’s at midnight.

Sort of like being in a fishbowl—the decorations—obviously for the people looking in and not its inhabitants and incredibly unnatural; so unnatural one does not know any longer how to behave. I could try suing McDonald’s for coffee that is too hot as that woman did down south. Sue the mechanic, the zoo, sue BC ferries. Find the missing parts in McDonald’s parking lots. Except the coffee isn’t hot at all—it tastes like charcoal and lukewarm soup. Everything is greasy in the ghetto.

The McDonald’s has been closed for an hour, if I leave I won’t be able to return. For the third time my life was saved by the cost of missed ferries and cell phone chargers. I’m going back to the mechanic.

images-2

A Day at Horseshoe Bay

What do you get if you write, “I’m sorry” a million times over? Would it mean more had you written it once? Does it make a difference if it’s hand-written, typed individually or copy pasted? Am I sorry the way Bill Clinton was or am I sorry the way his Hillary was? Am I sorry the way the caught robber was or the way the maker of the Titanic was? Stuck in a long lineup the damn truck held us all back.

A man once jumped off a Horseshoe Bay bound ferry, said that he wanted to get to a basketball game on time, they kept him in the psych ward only overnight. Sometimes I am surprised this doesn’t happen more often. Might call it a death drive but—perhaps—he just wanted to swim. Perhaps he time travelled and thought he was on the Titanic. Perhaps he was a physicist who could prove it’s possible to be in two places at once.

Maybe he was tired of BC ferries announcements or the smell of White Spot. Maybe he was a polar bear in disguise. Maybe he needed an alibi. Maybe he wanted to be written about by people like me who have nothing to do but wonder why people don’t jump and why they do. Maybe he wanted to visit a psych ward. Which are, by the way, overrated. I jumped once, too.

A Morning with the Mechanic

Snooze. “The fucking fuck is fucking fucked.” I’ve heard two people quote a mechanic that way. One was a famous poet, the other, something less noble, which is really more noble, don’t you think? Both were from saw mills where being fucking fucked was a daily occurrence. I wonder if it was the same mechanic or if this is just a new language.

This is the language I use for my alarm clock—amongst other things, such as Canada Post and feral turkeys. The clock replies with something similar so we both begin our day in such a way. No wonder the truck is fucking fucked. Karma’s a bitch.

A Good Day for Nudnik Fish

A Good Day for Nudnik Fish

Larry Lefkowitz

coelacanth-blue-990x366

I prefer my Tel Aviv from the vintage days – before the upper crust skyscrapers disturbed the eyes and the hype the ears, and most of all, before the arrival of the glitzy marina. I berth my skiff wherever I find a bit of sand on the shore that hasn’t yet been taken for private development. Nobody disturbs the boat — it’s been around so long they know it’s mine — vintage, like me. I make it a point to fish with my back to the skyscrapers, facing the horizon.

Usually it takes me a while to catch the first fish. But that day as I sat in the skiff on the sea, they simply weren’t biting. Changing bait, changing fishing spots – gornisht. “Can you pull in the leviathan with a fishhook?” asks Job. I would settle for a fish far smaller than leviathan, I mused — and then the fish jumped into the boat. I pounced on him before he could jump out of the boat. “Wait long enough and they come to you,” I shouted triumphantly the old fisherman’s wisdom.

He turned out to be a disappointingly small fish, though a pretty one – a type I had never seen before — with gold scales that put those of your aquarium goldfish in the shade. I picked him up to toss him back. He was too small for frying.

“Don’t do that,” the fish pleaded. “Not before using your three wishes.”

A talking fish. Trouble. If you tell people a talking fish jumped into your boat, even bait-sellers will give you the fish eye.

Continue reading A Good Day for Nudnik Fish

ONE WAY WEST

FullSizeRender-11

 

Excerpt from the novel Un passage vers l’Occident, by Didier Leclair, translated by Elaine Kennedy with Sheryl Curtis

The small fishing boat taking Africans to the coast of Spain was heaving in high waves. Each time the hull pounded the water, the passengers cried out in panic. None of them was used to being on a boat. For some, it was their first time out on the open water and they vowed it would be their last. Drenched with spray, they clung to their seats and the side of the boat, determined to set foot on Spanish soil. All seven were desperate to reach Europe and escape the poverty and fratricidal wars in their homelands. Some intended to stay in Spain; others hoped to go on to Italy, Germany, France or Belgium. Their final destinations varied, but their goal was the same—to flee to a rich country. Each of them had an infallible plan for disappearing into the night when they arrived. They would join an uncle or a brother who had already settled in the West. They knew the names of cities and streets, along with a few words in several European languages to help them find their way. The bolder ones even imagined meeting another African who would provide information, assistance or shelter. Yet all these schemes were no more than dreams until they managed to cross the Strait of Gibraltar. Their new life could not begin until they had completed this first leg of the journey across fifteen kilometres of water up to three hundred and fifty metres deep. Across a treacherous arm of the sea that can be smooth when it’s supposed to be rough and that can slam the cliffs when it seems to be calm. But then, this gateway to the Mediterranean separates Africa from Europe. A natural divide filled with age-old waters, it marks the boundary between two worlds of growing disparity: Western Europe, capable of providing for its citizens, and Africa, unable to meet the basic needs of the majority. This contrast, spawning envy and hatred, is mirrored in the rough and unpredictable waters of the strait. Continue reading ONE WAY WEST

Sedalia, Missouri

Sedalia, Missouri

by
Jacob Potashnik

Winter, 1990. The walk from the hovercraft to the train station was short but left me wet and thoroughly chilled to the bone. The weather, a mix of wind and pelting rain and snow was an affront. On the quay for the train from Boulogne to Paris, Mr. Six/Four bent low and easily hoisted a limp sack of a young man out of a wheel chair and into his huge arms. A porter folded the chair and lead the way. A woman, grey-haired frail, thin, at least sixty-five, follows.

My seat was across the aisle from theirs and they were quick to smile and nod to me as they settled in. He who I had taken for a young man, was not a young man and his story was very clear. Forty, remarkably thick dark hair falling like a wave over his forehead, thin, gray, gleaming skin, Kaposi’s sarcoma, full blown AIDS.

At the first pass of the car snack service Six/Four ordered coffee.

“Teddy,” the woman stage whispered, “Will you look at that?”

It was the standard French train café filtre, a two stage plastic unit, hot water goes in the top, filtered coffee drains into the bottom. Six/Four was so pleased he was beaming but Teddy has seen it all before.

“Wait till you taste it,” he muttered, smiling gamely.

“Well, I never,” said the woman in admiration. “They make such a fuss.”

“Smells heavenly,” Six/Four agreed. “After the English stuff.”

Continue reading Sedalia, Missouri

Nothing Will Suffice

Nothing Will Suffice

by Andre Narbonne

The Facebook notice follows the funeral in short order. Joan has just lost her husband, Bryce, and now the children she grew up with in a Northern Ontario mining town in the days before computers are back and posting pictures.

Is this my Joannie Crebb? My name is Marie Benoit. If you’re the right Joannie you’ll remember me as Marie Boutin. I’ve married into a new B. LOL. The kids from Balmerville have formed a group and we’d like you to join – if this is the right Joannie. Can you be the first hit on Google? We’re all so hard to find except Geoffrey. LOL. Always in jail.

She accepts the invitation: clicks “Join Group” and scrolls through their lives.

The pictures are curiously similar. The girls she ran with the last time she ran for the sheer pleasure of it have grown into chubbier versions of themselves. In the seventies they came across as daring but the daring didn’t take. They housewife – or trailer-wife, depending on the northerness of the mining town into which they’ve gravitated. They proud parent twenty-year-old children or they adoringly grandparent toddlers. Their Facebook walls are the record of a generation enamoured of fantasy to the point of being prosaic. They have little interest in current events but post daily on the afterlife. Aphorisms substitute for self-evaluation, conspiracies for politics.

Continue reading Nothing Will Suffice

Right of Way

Right of Way

by Kate Sheckler

Two wrongs don’t make a right. Words her mother repeated so often that Holly cannot think of them without hearing her mother’s tone, the inflection of superior wisdom shaping each rounded vowel and clipping the T at the end with decision and a sure knowledge of the meaning of those two words – wrong/right. For Holly, it’s a distinction that is never obvious, one that hides behind details each of which changes the picture suggesting options and alternative views, details that remind Holly of all the reasons things have turned out the way they have – so it is with indecision that she stands at this counter covered with melamine, cool, chipped, and engrained with grime. She considers the embedded pattern of grunge as if it holds an encoded message, some decisive statement that offers an opinion on this thing she is about to do. But the grub gray lines, set permanently in the textured surface, offer nothing, and she turns her attention to the papers waiting for a signature. Her signature. Holly Baxter nee Holly Meredith. The forms sit, flat and unobtrusive, yet still Holly can feel their pressure and bites her lip, wincing as the cut opens again with an additional tearing of the delicate skin. The salt metallic of blood on the tip of her tongue, she considers the papers once more. Black and white, they offer no middle ground.

Continue reading Right of Way

Waiting

Waiting

by Kerri McCourt

Late at night, I am up devouring various adoption blogs. A woman posts a video of herself as she receives the first peek of her soon-to-be daughter. I watch, voyeuristically, as the woman views the photo on her computer screen, and simultaneously talks with her social worker via speaker phone.

Seeing the photo, the woman’s eyes light up. She places a hand over her heart, staring at the photograph. She narrows her eyes, tilts forward. She peers closer, and suddenly gasps.

“Are those penguins?”

Around the photograph is a decorative border of distinctive black and white birds.

“Yes, I think so,” comes the voice of the social worker.

“You don’t know what this means! Oh my goodness!” She turns, gesturing to a shelf behind her that holds numerous ornaments. “I’ve gathered penguins my whole life.”

Earlier in her blog entry, this woman had pondered: upon seeing this child chosen for her, would she know, feel it in her heart that the baby was hers? Penguins confirmed the verdict with a resounding yes.

I close the lap top and pick up my latest cross stitching project. Stitching centers me, passes time in a meditative way. Over the years, I stitched many designs: birds, flowers, landscapes. Many Christmases ago, I finished a stocking for my baby-to-be. It sits, unused, on a shelf in a closet filled with never worn clothes, waiting. Now I work on a ballerina, the most intricate of the pieces I’ve done. The kit contains many colors and hues, including metallic threads that catch the light, sparkle in the sunlight when it pours in the windows. In the stillness of the night, I thread the needle.

Continue reading Waiting

Little Light of Mine

Little Light of Mine

by Kerri McCourt

I am visiting my brother at his house. Tired, hurting, Jon rests in bed. Rain splatters against the bedroom window like messy tears. Mom’s here too. She sits on the edge of his bed. Absentmindedly, she picks at a cold crust of tuna melt left over on Jon’s plate, and pops a piece of cheese covered bread into her mouth.

“Look at me. I shouldn’t be eating this. I’m not hungry. Nibbling isn’t going to help me lose weight.” Light conversation is a facade, a cling to normalcy.

“You’re about to lose a hundred and sixty five pounds,” Jon says.

Snapshots of a shared childhood come into focus. Trips to the lake, games of hide and seek. Now, a brutal nightmare finds us. There’s nowhere to hide.

I am dedicated to Jon’s health; to loving, supporting, and spending precious time with him. Devotion is a burning torch. Simultaneously, it ignites an additional, deeply personal commitment. A long held desire flickers, illuminating more brightly than ever before. A leap of faith, an invitation to believe. To believe in the power of dreams, miracles, and hope. To believe in a future that holds all that and more.

Tomorrow is a smug assumption; there are people to embrace, dreams to fulfill. Here. Now. Priorities shift, instantly. The essential and important is seen anew, with sudden clarity.

A seed dropped into soil, takes root.

Continue reading Little Light of Mine

LISTENING TO THE DIVINE SHOUT BEFORE DRIVING AROUND THE FROGS THAT LEAVE THE LOAM

LISTENING TO THE DIVINE SHOUT BEFORE DRIVING AROUND THE FROGS THAT LEAVE THE LOAM

by Brian Michael Barbeito

 

I went to the place where the urban meets the rural and walked down sandy pathways to see ponds. The dusk was going to announce itself there. I had been trying to escape the day because the day had been a lurid artifact- too bright, too angled, and in point of fact, too new. I just needed to see the tree lines where the difficult storms had grown vexatious taken the leaves and branches ragged across tornado –like skies fluttering like a bat can seem to flutter. At the bottom of summits I watched the rocks grand and small. There was a great stillness, a preternatural quietude and so I, in turn, to honor such a natural silence, remained quiet. It wasn’t difficult as I was alone. I had the queer idea that some metaphysical presence might make itself known. Not a deva or sprite, no, nothing like that. And not a guardian angel or whispered message from the large Bur Oaks, Pines, or feral shrubs. Then what? To tell the truth, I did not and do not know. I just thought something might happen there. It did and it did not. I didn’t hear or see anything, and cannot tell a lie. But there was something in the silence. Maybe it is something they speak about in the perennial philosophy, if the perennial philosophy speaks anywhere of a silence that seems to shout the divine. It was. It was. It was. It was a grace that rang out from the quiet dusk pond by the crescive and verdant meandering path walls, from the thunder miles and miles away that did lightly erupt into the air across pregnant and warning cumulus, and from the dense thicket making a perimeter around the outside of the back of the water that sat still and stoically as a rooftop for the water spiders. I was grateful. I had not seen God A Person or a burning bush, but I had received through the agency of nature some calmness. That is how I felt after hearing the sum of the sound of the forest and water. Afterwards, it started to rain. I had to use my high beams or ‘Brights’ as some people used to call them. I noticed that the rain disturbs the frogs and they begin to come out to the roads, the one-lane highways I had to traverse. I tried to maneuver around them so as not to hurt even one. Difficult. I managed well enough. I was glad, even a bit heart-swept to arrive home.