Don’t Trust Reflections

It’s been weeks since I had seen my face.

It feels so strange now, Kevin sat across from me in our small tent, a chessboard sat on the floor between us. He looked down before making his first move, moving his king’s pawn forward one space. Nobody knows how or why they started appearing, all we know is that while reflections are the only way to see them, reflective surfaces are also the only way they could get you. When the news broke, people panicked. Anything reflective was smashed and thrown away. The lucky ones got out; Kevin and I were able to get some camping supplies together and make it out to the woods before the worst happened.

“At least we have each other, and….” I paused, I knew the silver lining in all this, but it just felt wrong after everything that happened. I took a breath and matched his move, moving my king’s pawn forward one space.

I looked up to meet Kevin’s eyes with my own. “It’s okay, Caitlin, you can say it.” I let out a deep sigh, and a light cloud formed as my warm breath met the cold air.

“At least we are together, and, in a way, looking at each other is the closest we have to see our own reflection, kind of. Well, it’s more than most people can, at least.”

My twin looked me directly in the eyes before looking down and considering his next move. Despite being born only mere seconds before me, Kevin was always the more protective of the two of us. When I would get myself into trouble, he was always there to help bail me out. We did everything together, and he was my brother as well as my best friend. “Guess there is a silver lining in that, but-”

“Stop.” I cut him off. We were both thinking the same thing, but I couldn’t bear to hear it out loud right now. “It’s your move.”

Kevin let out an understanding sigh as he glanced at the opaque water bottle beside him. We had barely managed to fill it before things really got out of hand. We were the lucky ones, far enough outside the city and some supplies to keep us alive, at least until things calmed down. Although we both knew in the back of our minds that there was no way to know if it would ever be safe to return to our home and find some semblance of normal life. There were only a few sips of water left, going down to the nearby river felt too risky, and neither of us knew when it would snow next. Instead, we sat in this tent, day after day, playing chess and just talking.

He looked down at the board again, his hand drifting over each piece as he considered every possible move. Eventually, his hand settled on the pawn in front of his queen and moved it forward one space as well. After so many games of chess between us, it often came down to who made the first attack; One simple mistake could snowball the entire game, so it became a game of patience. I placed my hand on my queen pawn and moved it forward one space.

We continued on in silence, move after move. Kevin would make a play, and I would copy it. There was only the rustling of the forest as animals scurried through the grass, and birds flew through the trees and called out to each other.

The peace was only occasionally interrupted by a gunshot ringing out, leading to a moment of silence as if the entire forest briefly held its breath. It hoped that the sound was simply someone hunting for food but knew all too well of the much more likely alternative. Sanity and resources were both in short supply these days. The further you could get from other people, often the safer you would be.

The game continued on; nearly every piece had been moved, the board still in perfect symmetry as I matched each of my brother’s moves, neither of us willing to take the first piece.

We both glanced at the board, each contemplating our next moves in the game. In tandem, we lifted our heads to look directly at each other. When our eyes finally met, we froze and then spoke at the same time.

Kevin whispered, “Caitlin.”

I whispered, “Kevin.”

For what felt like a lifetime, the two of us stared at each other. Neither of us moved, and I wasn’t sure if we even could if we tried. The forest fell silent, and the world seemed to disappear around us. Quickly there was nothing left but me, my brother, and the small chess board between us. In the corner of my eye, I saw a flash of movement. Then everything went black.


Andy Pressman grew up in suburban Philadelphia and has been attached to the city since he was born. He grew up always loving telling and sharing stories and writing short stories has been the best way to share that love. Writing has become a comfort activity for Andy, as it’s a wonderful escape from normal life into endless fantastic worlds, and he takes extra joy in sharing those worlds he creates with others.

Journey to the Mangrove

There they are again, far below Elaine’s 20th-story window sitting on a bench outside the adjacent building—a newer senior residence, not as tall as hers. She’s noticed them for several nights now as she rises from bed to go to the bathroom. They linger, ensconced in the white glow of an outside lamp. Beyond them a tiny patch of mangrove hugs the shoreline of the bay. This dwindling strip of wetland trees is currently shrouded in darkness, but Elaine knows it well from her more mobile days when she wandered there often, hoping for a glimpse of sea turtles or dolphins, or possibly even a manatee floating among the tangle of stilt-like prop roots. A small piece of wild that miraculously persists in the midst of rapidly multiplying high-rises.

Who are these night dwellers on the bench? Residents? Employees? Sweethearts? Friends? What are they saying? Elaine glimpses them again just before sunrise when she makes yet another bathroom visit. She maneuvers her walker to the window for a better look, silently cursing her decline from women’s tennis champion back in college to this. She can’t make out their gender, age, or other identifying characteristics. No facial features or hair or flesh, only the general shapes, maybe an arm or leg. They curl toward one another like vines to sunlight, spellbound in rapt and soulful conversation.

Every night it’s the same scene: huddled figures on the bench, always illuminated within the encircling blackness beside the night-covered mangrove, like actors spotlighted on stage. Elaine watches over and over again from her audience perch high above, as bewitched by them as they are with each other. How is there enough in the world to talk about hour upon hour? She’s never had enough interest in anyone to sustain a dialogue that long. And yet here’s proof it can happen. Perhaps her mother was right: she should have developed social skills expected of her instead of concentrating so single-mindedly on her education and career teaching science at a private Long Island girl’s school.

Elaine plays with possibilities and finally concludes the figures below must be lovers, ancient and creaking like herself, meeting in the wee hours for a rendezvous, grabbing at one last chance for connection. It’s a radical interpretation that energizes her. She’s been hoping to die.

Nothing but misery now, aching knees and old crab-like fingers barely supple enough to grasp a fork or cup. Not a shred of love left. Marvin and Ben—two husbands gone. Not that either would have communed with her till dawn. Disappointments, both, in too many ways to inventory, certainly incapable of such cozy intimacy. She never was able to change either one. Nor Daniel, her only child, shared with Marvin. All that’s left between them now: a brief once-a-week Sunday phone call filled with just enough terse sentences to call it conversation.

Not much different from the residents of her building, most of whom nod if they must rather than greet her outright. Certainly, she hasn’t offered many greetings herself in the ten years she’s lived here, but that’s not her fault. Most of them are dull and spent, focused more on their pains and petty gripes and what’s for dinner than discussing anything remotely intellectual—the future of globalization, ocean warming, the promise of artificial intelligence, even something innocuous like new book recommendations or the latest sculpture exhibition downtown. It’s a source of profound frustration for Elaine that she shares so little in common with her fellow residents, or anyone if truth be told. It’s been that way for most of her ninety-two years. If only there was someone now to talk to. About anything at all. Even for a bit.

####

At nightfall, Elaine applies plum-colored lipstick and combs her thin, white hair for the first time in days, then inches out of her apartment with the help of her walker toward the elevator. She’s forced to stop every few steps to catch her breath and regroup. Her knees are on fire. She trembles from the effort to stand as she rides down to the lobby, and exits the elevator into utter silence, as if the world has ceased living. The grand overhead chandelier barely casts enough light to make out the marble floors or tastefully placed planters filled with philodendron and bromeliads. She shuffles past the mousy night woman manning the front desk. Elaine doesn’t remember her name, and the woman barely glances up before gazing back down at her phone. Not even a nod of acknowledgement. The place looks like a luxury hotel—they could certainly act the part, too.

“Rude,” Elaine mutters, but then her anxiety inundates her thoughts. What if her fresh adult diaper doesn’t last the trip? Or she can’t muster the energy to get back? Why has she been consigned to such loneliness in this world that continually falls short?

Oh, never mind, she chides herself as she hobbles out the front entrance toward the building next door, impatient with the gloom that continually permeates her mind. She’s determined to see these lovers up close and join them. Surely, they’ll invite her to sit.

The air carries a hint of cool but it’s not unpleasant on Elaine’s skin. She can feel the sea breeze gently sweeping in from the Gulf across the boulevard from her building. It’s been years since she’s gone out after sundown. How lush the sweet fragrance of night-blooming jasmine, and so quiet without the constant hum of daytime traffic. No moon or stars, but the sky is luminescent as if lit from behind by some soft flame. Against it, Elaine can make out the silhouettes of towering coconut palms, the branching trunks of gumbo limbo trees planted in a row along the walkway, and even the giant crown of the majestic banyan tree that stands near the parking garage with its magnificent twisting braids of aerial roots. How exotic and alien compared to the red oaks, cedars, and sugar maples on Long Island, where she lived her entire life before moving here.

Elaine rounds the back of the building, stopping again and again along the dimly lit walkway to muster more strength. It seems it’s already taken hours to get this far, and every muscle and joint throbs from the grueling effort. But, oh, how she’s missed this beauty, the sweet touch of nature, the only part of life that has ever neared perfection in her estimation with its orderly almighty interconnectedness. So, unlike the human world, which has resulted in nothing but a cascade of disappointments.

Elaine gasps at the sight of two luminous figures ahead on the bench. They look different than they do from her tower window. They don’t move. Their low voices don’t fill the darkness as she imagined they would. She can’t make out their features any better than on high. She inches nearer and nearer—until they’re completely indistinct. In fact, they disappear.

Elaine lowers herself slowly to the bench—their bench—nestled in their soft light. Perfectly alone. “My god,” she murmurs, running her hand across the cool seat. No one has been here tonight. Were they ever?

####

Elaine sits for some time by the hidden mangrove, weighed down by hurt so deep it seems impossible to soothe. It pounds down her entire length from crown to slack belly to old misshapen toes. “Why?” she groans.

She gathers strength to rise, falls back to the bench and strains up again, over and over. If only this were her time to go, be done with this. It’s all too much, these disappointments. Please, she pleads silently, but, of course, the end never comes. Why is she made to keep living?

Elaine finally manages to steady herself upright, clutching her walker and steeling herself for the exertion and patience she’ll need to get back home. As she’s always done in life—maneuvering through moments that displease her by sheer force of will. Too many ordeals to count.

And then she hears it. Something she can’t identify in the mangrove. Not an actual sound exactly; it’s more like a low-level rumbling that isn’t truly audible. She feels it in her gut calling her, something like the sudden sensation of being watched when no one’s in sight.

“Nonsense,” Elaine mumbles and turns for her long shuffle home. Likely just her increasingly odd and unpredictable imagination, which has somehow convinced her that lovers sat here only moments before. Or a hallucination brought on by exhaustion—it’s well past her bedtime after all. Or faulty hearing that’s misconstrued the very real rustling of a marsh rabbit seeking nocturnal shelter, or an osprey arranging its feathers for sleep, or a drowsing alligator. Or perhaps even a … what?

Next, you’ll be imagining mermaids. Elaine bristles at this ridiculous thought as the rumbling calls again. She sinks back to the bench, alarm prickling her skin. A name floats in. Bonbibi. From a teacher’s training workshop on coastal ecology she once attended. Goddess of the vast mangrove forests of eastern India, revered by villagers for her protection against man-eating tigers. But Bonbibi’s defense comes with a catch, one that still strikes Elaine as quite sensible: No one is to take more than they need from the mangrove. Greed mustn’t upset the splendid balance of nature, which provides for all needs, something Bonbibi is sworn to uphold.

You’ve been greedy. The weight of these words is like a slam to Elaine’s head.

“It’s not true,” she cries. Why must she imagine goddesses when she’s in the dark, by herself, far from bed, at her age? She feels leaden, all of her—her thoughts, her bones, life that refuses to depart her burdensome body—so weighty a thousand muscled men couldn’t keep her from sinking into the bowels of the world. How will she ever rise from this bench?

“One of your heart chambers is empty,” Marvin had once shouted, the only time he ever raised his voice. “No amount of giving ever fills it.”

“No!” she hisses, pounding her fist on the bench. What did Marvin know anyway? He, who never dressed quite right, mostly cheap polyesters and poor-quality cottons, made worse by his lazy posture. His lack of geographical knowledge and disinterest in international affairs. His disregard for art and theater. His preference for ballgames—baseball, basketball, football, golf—he loved them all and nothing else nearly as much. An ill-informed man in most regards. Oh, she loved him despite all that. She could never explain it. Yet she never lost an opportunity to remind him of his deficits, left him magazine articles about politics and dragged him to art galleries, told him to sit up straighter and use his brains, all in hopes that he’d finally better himself. I push you because I love you. She used to say this to him. Surely, he knew she cared. It felt like love to her—nurturing him to cultivate his best self.

You’ve been greedy.

Heaviness tugs harder at Elaine. She had said the same thing to Ben, whom she loved slightly less but still did love. Also, a disappointment—unable to read the veiled motives and desires of others, making it impossible to discuss friends and family because he lacked useful insight. Indifferent to her urgings that he be more aware of those around him, live less on the surface, develop his powers of perception.

And Daniel, poor Daniel. How she loved her son most of all. Struggled to toughen him up, as any mother would, pushed him to pay attention in school and perfect his manners, act right, stop falling short. “Please try harder and be your best,” she’d beg. How else to succeed in a world where everyone judges you? I push you because I love you. Daniel finally closed up and hunkered down until he could flee for good.

Slumped on the bench, Elaine sees it all so clearly. The horror she’s wreaked—the truth of her greed. Not greed for clothes or furniture or jewels or land, though she hasn’t lacked for any of these. But greed for control. For life to be just as she wants it with every book and objet d’art in place, no unexpected complications to mar her days, no traffic jams, loud noises, dirt, spills, or telemarketers interrupting dinner. No unruliness or unpredictable behavior from family or acquaintances, especially after she’s laid down her preferred conduct.

Her greed has demanded more of others than can be expected of any human soul. Greed driven by fear. All-consuming fear that life won’t provide for all her needs—particularly her innermost yearnings to belong, to matter. That people will leave if she doesn’t keep them in line. That they’ll hurt her, fail her, disappoint her. That their imperfections will show her in a bad light. What a thing to consider at her age when her time is almost up. Too late to rectify. But she had to take matters into her own hands.

“I’m sorry,” Elaine moans. She’s never uttered those words before. They nearly choke her.

These three men were terrified of her, terrorized. She sees that now. They were good men, flawed like anyone. Yet what if they’d expected perfection of her like she did of them, withholding full loving acceptance until she vanquished every defect and weakness? How miserably she’d have failed—has failed—at being perfect. She sees that now. Her demands have resulted in exactly what she’s always feared most: Abandonment. No one loves her, not a soul in the world.

“Forgive me,” Elaine pleads. A scorching despair spreads through her like poison, nearly intolerable. And just as her endurance is almost exhausted a profound sense of protection envelopes her. Perhaps death has come finally, providing a painful though necessary review of her years on earth before ushering her to the next world.

“I’m sorry.” It seems the easiest thing to say in the velvet sanctuary of beautiful love that’s gently escorting her from life toward longed-for death. “I’m sorry,” she proclaims again to the night. She means it now with all her being, from her deepest recesses. As if Bonbibi’s protective grace has arrived to remind her she’s a beloved part of life, loved just as she is, in a way she’s never loved anyone. No need for greed and control. No need for fear. As if she herself is a goddess with infinite capacity for forgiveness and love—for herself most of all. Why was it so hard for ninety-two years? How easy it is now.

####

“You broke your hip falling off that bench,” the nurse’s aide says.

Elaine contemplates the young woman bearing a food tray, dressed in maroon scrubs with a cartoonish bunny tattooed on her right wrist and the word “SMILE” scrawled across her left. Entirely banal. “I didn’t know,” Elaine whispers tentatively, unsure if this vapid woman is merely a dream. “I thought I died.”

“Not your time.” The woman smiles, a kind but not wholehearted smile, something you offer a stranger in need. Definitely not a dream, just another young woman like so many Elaine taught—women with significant potential—filling silences with empty conversation and their empty skin with hackneyed images. No originality. “Must be a reason you’re still here,” the woman says.

Elaine mines her brain, scouring through folds of gray matter, into the nooks and crannies of memory, rummaging through all that appeared so vivid and certain in the pre-dawn hours, hungering for that feeling of peace and belonging—that glimpse of heaven. Surely that’s where she was headed. Why is she still here?

“Thank you,” she says as the woman sets the tray before her. It’s been years since she’s uttered those words. They fill her like warm soup. She can be kind, even to someone so insipid. But only for a moment. Already love’s fine embrace is fading, its nighttime caresses nearly beyond remembrance. Whatever she encountered by the mangrove—so profound and massive and beyond explanation—no longer feels so true under the fluorescent lights of her hospital room.

Elaine lifts the cover off her plate: Salisbury steak and mashed potatoes, soggy green beans, and chocolate pudding in a disposable plastic cup with peel-off foil lid. A wave of displeasure churns inside her. She doesn’t want to see through fault-finding eyes. If only those lenses of joy, compassion, and gratitude from earlier would return, affirming that she lacks for nothing, that she’s blessed to be alive. Elaine samples the pudding and spits it into her napkin. Surely this could be better; they could try harder. She rings for the aide to remove her tray.

Panic grows when no one comes right away. It mounts with each minute she waits. How long must she stay here? Why doesn’t anyone care?

Elaine squeezes her eyes shut, wringing out agitation, commanding muscles and thoughts to uncoil. Nothing’s ever right, but panic is useless. So are tempting visions she obviously can’t sustain. They require too much. She must go on. And with that, she expels a sigh, discharging everything she saw and understood on the bench by the mangrove. No more torturous reckoning of past wrongdoing—of what must change and grow, of what could still be. Elaine releases it all to the familiar comfort of habitual disenchantment. Beyond the reach of self-scrutiny and remorse. Beyond enlightenment.


Sidney Stevens is an author with an MA in journalism from the University of Michigan. Her short stories are forthcoming or have appeared in literary journals, including Oyster River Pages, The Woven Tale Press, Scribble, Hedge Apple, The Wild Word, Bright Flash Literary Review, OyeDrum, and The Centifictionist. Her creative nonfiction has been published in Newsweek, The Dillydoun Review, and Nature’s Healing Spirit. She lives in Coopersburg, PA.

The Simple Truth

Nature’s assorted players stir themselves into motion, from the lowly insects to the elusive reptiles to the lofty mammals. It is early morning, and there are approximately thirteen hours of daylight ahead. Thirteen hours of creaturely struggle and ambition and hope. And choices. Those who make the correct choices will survive until evening. The others, unfortunately, will – today – succumb to the realities of corporeal competition and natural consequences.

I ponder all of this while lying at the edge of dawn on the second day (first morning) of a two-day wilderness hiatus, alone in a small tent, flap open, with my loyal dog Sophie lying halfway in. Her paw is on my arm, and her muzzle is pushing insistently against my cheek, urging me to action. “Nature calls,” she might say if she could speak humanese. Habits must be as strong for dogs as they are for humans. At home, I would now open the back door and let her go outside. Here, we are already outside. But she still wants me to rise and accompany her, as if my presence will provide official sanction for her morning business. There’s an unalterable ritual involved, and it must unfold in its complete form: man with dog, walking, sniffing, walking further, stopping, peeing and/or shitting, turning, and repeating, etc. All creatures have rituals, from the spider-web spinners to the lumberjack beavers to the corporate executives practicing the latest Tony Robbins techniques for business success. Rituals are probably as important for survival as good choices are.

I lie on my back now, part way out of the tent, staring at the green translucence of the trees above, listening to the soft rush of the nearby river, and savoring this groggy yet mindful moment. My mind typically races like this first thing upon waking up. It’s as if, being deprived of reality-based thought during the dreaming hours, the brain is making up for lost time, probing and savoring and analyzing every bit of worldly sensory data it can get its hands on. At times, maybe I think too much for my own good.

The dog has given up on me for the moment and is groping and probing through the trees at the edge of the campsite. Above the rustling, I hear a change in the steady sound of the river. It sounds like a small boat or canoe, with the high-pitched splashing of oars plus the lower rumbling of the vessel as it cuts through the water. I push myself to a semi-sitting position and peek around the edge of the tent toward the river. The stiffness in my joints probably comes from a combination of yesterday’s long walk and the effects of sleeping in the damp, cool September air. By the time I look, the craft has passed and is no longer in sight through the clearing in the trees and bushes lying between my tent and the water’s edge.

As I stand, Sophie returns to me, stumbling and limping ridiculously, oblivious to her own woundedness in the form of a sprained rear right leg. Sometime yesterday evening, she apparently got caught in a hole or lost her footing on the trail or something. I first noticed the limping as I sat by our campfire last night, watching her chase bugs. I say I noticed because the way she’s acting, it seems that she is unaware of any problem and oblivious to any pain. A dog in denial, Sophie disappears again for a few moments into the bushes north of the campsite and returns with her nose ringed with fresh brown dirt. Her fur is wet from the dew that covers everything surrounding us. She then disappears in the direction of the river. I can hear the splashing sounds as she tests the water, no doubt slurping up a few mouthfuls in the process. Sophie is happy to romp and jump with abandon, worsening her leg in the process, the pain being simply an irrelevant inconvenience. I think to myself (here we go again), is it denial, or is it, instead, transcendence? I mean, if Sophie could talk, would she say (in denial), “No problem, I’m okay, really. Let’s go, man.” Or would she explain, “Hey, life goes on. Everybody hurts to some extent. I do not separate myself from my injuries. Rather, I become, or I am, my injury. Okay, let’s go, man.” Canine Zen.

I spread a blanket close to the front of the tent and sit upon it. The campfire is smoldering slightly, so I stir it up and throw in some newspapers and kindling. In no time, the fire returns to life. I add the half-burned log that I moved aside last night before falling asleep. Then, opening the ancient Coleman stove on the ground nearby, I commence pumping, then turning the knob, then holding a flaming match until the fire poofs to life. When I walk to the river to collect water in an aluminum pan, dog frumping along by my side, I look both ways, up and downstream, for signs of the canoe or boat that passed by. Nothing in sight.

The risen sun is brilliant over the river. The light is playing and sparkling on the moving water, part direct sunlight and part reflective light from overhanging branches and leaves. This will be a perfect morning for photography. Maybe I’ll get some good close-up macro shots of the dewdrops on leaves and on the few remaining late summer asters or fleabane or touch-me-nots. I am looking forward to the continuing solitude. This area, being isolated and primitive, doesn’t attract many campers at any time, but now, in late September, I’m not surprised that I am the only overnight visitor. Before returning to my breakfast, I lean down and splash an exhilarating double handful of water into my face.

Back at the blanket, the dog sits by me as I wait for the coffee water to boil, her haunches pressed against me, face across my right knee, eyes turned up toward me. It’s that look of pure adoration and loyalty of which only dogs are truly capable. I remove three eggs from a plastic container, cracking and dumping them into a small flat pan. With the pan over the second flame on the Coleman, I stir the eggs then sit back down to wait some more.

My mind, as I have said, tends to ramble in the early morning, and now I’m thinking of the dewdrops and how, in a close-up photo, they often appear so deliberately placed, in patterned rows along a leaf-edge or neatly arranged around the circle of a flower’s central disk. It is all so purposeful, so well planned. Furthermore, it’s a purpose that can only be revealed to someone taking the time to look and look close. Still, the beauty and the purpose speak for themselves, once discovered. In human affairs, purposefulness — though equally real — is less tangible and more obscure, even to the earnest seeker. Human purpose is also open to endless and conflicting interpretations, and it insists upon its own explanation. How many times do we ask one another, “Why did you do that?” or something similar? With nature’s purpose, however, an explanation is beside the point. It just is. Of course, I’m only speaking for myself here.

As if my musings on human purpose have the power to call matter into being, I hear a decidedly human-like rustling in the bushes. It’s coming from the direction of a narrow trail that heads in a southerly direction along the river bank. I catch sight of increasing shadows and movement in the bushes just before my visitor emerges, dressed in a uniform that immediately identifies her as a park ranger.

“Hi,” I start the conversation.

“Hi. Did you sleep here last night?” As she speaks, she is wiping spider webs from her wet dew-splattered sleeves and from the thighs of her pants.

“Yes.” I reach down to remove the egg pan from the fire and turn off the flame.

“You didn’t happen to see a canoe go by with three people – teenagers – did you? Sometime yesterday, in the late afternoon?” She removes a small notebook and pen from her breast pocket and prepares to record the very next words to emerge from my mouth.

“No. I got here in the morning, but I was out walking most of the day. I thought I heard something this morning, though, which I now guess was you … in a canoe, maybe? Otherwise, I haven’t heard or seen anything unusual.” She’s writing as I ask, “Is something wrong? Are they missing?” I realize in a split second that it’s probably a stupid question, but the ranger doesn’t treat it so. Nor does she confirm that she, in fact, arrived by boat.

“Well, they came in yesterday. A friend was supposed to pick them up first thing this morning about five miles downstream from here, at the Fulton Bend camping area. But, this morning, they weren’t there.”

“Are there any other campsites between here and there?”

“Yes. Windham Hollow. About two miles downstream, near a spot where the rapids get pretty rough. It’s really treacherous now with all the rain we’ve had. I’m worried they may have gotten themselves in trouble. There are notices at every launch point telling people not to canoe down that far unless they are trained and properly equipped. But, you know, sometimes people don’t listen to advice like that.”

“Uh-huh,” I agree, pouring boiling water over a pile of instant coffee crystals in a yellow plastic cup and turning off the flame. “Would you like some coffee?”

“No, thanks,” the ranger says absently as if I have just interrupted her train of thought. When she continues, I detect a condescending tone in her voice. “It’s the simple truth. Like they know that the danger is there, but just figure they’ll be the exception. Like they’re invulnerable or something.” She pauses as if reflecting upon her statements. “Well, I’m going to head downstream. I just stopped here when I saw the smoke from your fire. If you see anything, I’d appreciate it if you’d call the park office. The number is on the park brochure; if you have that. If necessary, they can get in touch with me.” She removes a phone from her belt, looking at it closely as if to evaluate its condition.

“Okay, yeah, got it.”

“By the way, I’m Ranger Lazinski.” From reading her black plastic name tag, I already know her full name to be Sharon R. Lazinski.

“I’m Eric Adams. Nice to meet you. I’ll call if I see anything.” I’m ready to shake hands, but Ranger Lazinski has both of hers occupied with the pen, notebook, and phone.

Saying “Thanks,” she turns and walks briskly back down the trail in the direction of her (I assume) canoe. Just before disappearing into the thicket, she turns and – without smiling – says, “Enjoy the rest of your visit.”

“Thanks,” I say in return, with a quick wave.

As the ranger vanishes, my thoughts turn from the three teenagers, and their possible plight, to thinking about how, at any given moment (like this one), there are millions of separate lives going on across the planet, running their separate and diverse courses, sometimes intersecting at accidental and unpredictable moments. Two or more unrelated life stories can thereby become connected in important ways, each affecting the other in, again, an unpredictable, or at least unknowable, manner. So, here is me, here is Ranger Sharon R. Lazinski, here are three teenagers. Our lives are now connected, like it or not. Even though I have not encountered the teenagers themselves, I do know about them, so they are in my life. And actually, even though the teenagers do not know about me (yet?), I am, in a sense, part of their lives, too.

What does this mean? It means that I think too much, about too little, too early in the day; that’s what it means. By noon, these questions will seem irrelevant. I know this from experience.

This latest stream-of-consciousness session, however useless, brings me around to consider the various intersections in my own recent life, which have brought me to this day and this campsite and this glorious place of mostly isolated relaxation and reflection.

It all begins with the fact that I am losing my job. I am being fired. Or, as they put it gently in the insulating world of academia, I have been “retrenched.” I looked up these two words. To retrench is to “cut down, reduce, or diminish.” To fire is to “dismiss from a job.” While the former sounds more polite and somehow acceptable, the latter is clearly more accurate, from my perspective anyway.

At any rate, my college teaching position is being eliminated (not “reduced” or “diminished” but wiped out entirely). Therefore, by default, I will disappear (or be “retrenched”) along with it. They tell me that I should not take it personally; it has nothing to do with me: not my professional performance or my obvious contributions to the college or my potential future contribution, etc., etc. It’s just that, well, I’ve become expendable. In these past five years, I have acquired tenure, earned the respect of students and colleagues, and even been encouraged to pursue the administrative route. Encouraged. Reinforced. Provided with a sense of future and mission. And then, whoops, sorry, no longer needed.

It was a Thursday, 11:00 a.m., out of the blue. I am invited to a meeting, and the bomb is dropped. Wow, numbness sets in, then denial, then confusion, then anger, then an overwhelming sense of betrayal and, strangely, embarrassment. I am embarrassed that I have spent five years of my life with an organization that could do this to someone, based on expediency and economics alone, with no regard for merit or reputation or experience or ability. Is it only in academia that one could get away with such inept, counter-productive, short-sighted management? Probably not, actually. But from the middle of such situations, it’s natural to feel singled out.

Back at the college, it was somewhere between the “confusion” and “anger” phases that I wrote a piece for the college newspaper, which, of course, they immediately agreed to print, given its overtly inflammatory tone and provocative potential. Laced with phrases like “the administration’s disgraceful secret tactics” and “robbing our students of the education they purchased in good faith,” the article described how our university had lied to students, lied to faculty, sabotaged collaborative bottom-up reforms, and insulated itself from input and from the influence of students and faculty in whose name it exists. All to serve the holy cause of numbers and dollars. And on and on and on. They printed the article verbatim, unedited. Soon the local paper called, then the local radio station, then the public station fifty miles away in Binghamton. It seemed that I had single-handedly created the issue-of-the-week. I had, at the same time, seriously angered the entire third floor of the college administration building. This was not what I had in mind, or so I told myself and others. I was as honestly surprised as anyone when this mild-mannered, soft-spoken, normally polite assistant professor turned into a raging media pit bull.

The word “betrayal” became a bouncing projectile in the ensuing verbal war between the college administration and me. They said, in effect, “You have betrayed the college, indeed the whole state system, with your rantings and ravings.” They stopped just short of extending my betrayal to “education in general throughout the universe as we know it.” For my part, I continued to accuse the third-floor gang of betraying me, lying to me, betraying all of us, which ultimately hurts the students, and on and on and on.

So, the whole damn thing just blew up beyond reason and, now, here I am, on a two-day retreat, at the insistence of my loving and understanding wife, in an isolated campsite in a relatively remote part of Adirondack Park. Back home, the sparks continue to fly, but – for now – I am pleasantly and refreshingly separated from all of it. Physically separated, that is. For now.

After my breakfast of coffee (two teaspoons, as usual, for the first eye-opening cup) and scrambled eggs, eaten standing up, I start out with the dog. Even away from home, in a strange environment, the morning dog-and-master walk is undertaken almost unconsciously. This is simply what we do first thing, usually before breakfast at home, without stopping to decide or consider. As the dog begins her goofy limp-dance, I am reminded that this should be a brief walk for the dog’s sake, though she will certainly not agree.

A narrow trail leads east from the campsite toward the river’s edge, joining — at roughly 90 degrees — another trail running north and south about ten feet from the water; it’s the same trail from which Ranger Sharon (what was her last name?) appeared a short time before. We take the southern route, finding that the trail narrows rather suddenly, becoming overgrown with various bushes and small trees at waist and chest level. At this time of day, it is impossible to avoid becoming soaked from the dew. However, the terrain is perfect for the dog who slips beneath the wet canopy just ahead of me. We walk a short way, a hundred yards or so, and I turn to go back just as the dog – apparently distracted by a squirrel or some other real or imagined creature – takes off down the trail, silly-looking bum leg dangling behind. Soon I lose sight of her beneath the brush, but I can hear that she has stopped and is now sniffing and snorting and pawing the ground not far ahead of me. A moment later, she returns with a blue fluorescent-type baseball cap dangling from her mouth.

“Oh, nice find, Sophie,” I say sarcastically, then notice that the cap, clean and new-looking, lacks signs of having been on the ground for any period of time. Walking on, I discover why.

As soon as I see the body sprawled across the trail, I draw in a spontaneous and audible breath. Then, some sort of survival-rescue instinct kicks in, and I am kneeling by the body, quickly but calmly checking for vital signs. It is a male, 17 or 18 years old, with longish dark hair, dressed in a multi-colored flannel shirt and black jeans. Yes, there is breathing. No, there is no blood in sight. No, the body doesn’t look contorted in any way that would suggest broken bones. There are no signs of struggle. In fact, the young man at my feet appears to be simply sleeping. This hunch is confirmed when, as I nudge his shoulder, he awakes suddenly with a moan, a cough, and a groggy, confused expression that is quickly replaced by a terrified look of realization and dread.

“Oh, God,” are his first words.

“What is it? How did you get here? What’s…”

He raises his head from the dirt to speak. “My friends. Julie. Brandon. I think Bran’s dead.” He points feebly back up the trail from which he had apparently come as his head falls back to the ground.

“Can you stand? Are you hurt?” As he seems to make an attempt to move and perhaps stand, I say, “Come on, we’ll go and get some help for your friends.”

I reach down, grasping him by the shoulders and helping him into an approximate standing position. I hold tight to his staggering, exhausted frame as we negotiate the trail back toward the campsite. Sophie, sensing that this is serious business, keeps her distance, lumbering on ahead of us but looking back frequently.

“What’s your name?” I ask, mostly just to make him talk, to keep him awake and, perhaps, alive.

“Tom.”

“Okay, Tom, look, everything is going to work out here. You can just rest while I call the park rangers. They’ll get an ambulance in here to…” I stop in mid-sentence. To what? Take your dead friend (or friends) to the morgue? I don’t finish the sentence.

It takes less than five minutes for us to reach my tent. I help Tom to the blanket, where he lies, head on the ground again, staring straight ahead with eyes open in a blank stare. The dog resists the likely temptation to go over and lick Tom’s face or nuzzle against him.

In less than 15 minutes, Ranger Sharon (Lazinski, I am reminded as I read her name tag) arrives at the campsite to announce that an emergency medical team is on the way. When the two EMT vans arrive, the medical technicians (four in all) help Tom into one of them. Someone suggests that I ride along (as a witness?), so I join the ranger in her state-issued, gray Ford Taurus, and she allows the dog to jump into the back seat. Our caravan, led by the ranger’s car, moves up the road toward Windham Hollow. I am aware of a general mood of trepidation surrounding us, like the hint of fog that engulfs the three vehicles as they move with urgent deliberation. As we bump along, tires shoot occasional stones, each with a pop and a smack as it hits a tree or a softer whoosh as the stone penetrates the thick forest brush along the road.

We park at Windham Hollow and move, as a team, down the trail, and through unoccupied campsites, toward the river. It is not surprising to find nothing at or near the riverbank since Ranger Lazinski had only recently searched this area from her canoe. It is deeper in the brush, at least 20 feet from shore, that we discover the two bodies, still soaked and – at first – both looking to be absent of any life signs. A closer inspection reveals this initial impression to be half true.

A male, about 18 years old, taller but much thinner than Tom, is spread grotesquely beneath some branches, with arms and legs at awkward and random angles, a large pool of dried blood beneath his bruised head. This must be Brandon. Even though the eyes are closed, the badly bruised face wears an expression of resignation that seems to reveal the young man’s final reflections upon the life draining from his battered body.

Julie, unconscious but breathing, rests her head upon the right thigh of her lifeless companion. She awakes moments after our arrival. With eyes open, her face forms the same expression of dreaded remembrance that Tom had displayed upon awaking on the trail.

As the emergency team takes over, Ranger Lazinski walks off toward the south as if she has spotted something. Sure enough, she soon bends to pull the battered front end of a canoe from some brush that must be about thirty feet from the water. Amazingly, someone had the presence of mind to drag the damaged canoe from the water after the accident.

Julie is carried to the ambulance that already holds Tom, while Brandon — his body placed on a stretcher and covered head to toe with a sheet – is solemnly placed in the back of the second vehicle. After turning around in the small parking area, the vans pull away. As I stand motionless, watching, an unexpected and nameless sensation comes over me. I become contemplative, not in itself unusual, but, in this case, it’s an empty sort of contemplation. It’s as if the events of the previous – how long, one hour perhaps, a little more? – are infused with significance and deep implications that I can only sense but not yet truly comprehend.

After the EMT vans disappear through the trees, Ranger Lazinski looks at me as if searching for something profound to say. Instead, she comes up with the predictable, “Are you okay?”

“Yes, thanks. Boy, it’s something else, isn’t it, the way things happen?” I turn my head to look out over the scene toward the river as if searching for a clue or an explanation.

“Yeah, well, you know, nature doesn’t play around. But she does play fair. It’s the simple truth.” I turn back to face her and wonder if she is repeating a quotation from somewhere or if she has just manufactured that bit of wisdom on the spot. Then she continues with a shrug of her shoulders and a wave of her left hand, palm up, in the direction of the river.

“I mean, the rules are plain. They’re obvious. Play it straight, and you’re okay. But, buck the natural order – by running dangerous rapids over a rocky river ledge, for example – and you have to accept the consequences. It’s a brutal truth, yes, but a simple one at the same time.”

The ranger walks a few steps in the direction of her car, but I can tell she isn’t finished speaking. “You can depend upon the songs of the birds with as much confidence as you can count on the deadly grip of the grizzly bear. Mother Nature is always true to her word. And consistent, too, with both the good and the bad.”

With the hint of a laugh, she adds, “And that’s something you don’t find too often in the human realm, do you, that consistency?” Then with another short laugh and slight embarrassment at her own pontificating, she concludes, “Hey, maybe that’s why I’m a forest ranger.”

I offer my own muttered chuckle in response and say, “Yeah, well, thanks. I’d better go pack up my stuff. Time to get back to civilization, as they say.” The dog, forgotten these past 10 or 15 minutes, limps into sight at the sound of my call, dripping from an apparent dip in the cooling river.

“Okay, let’s go,” says Sharon. So we climb into her car and drive to my campsite.

With my loyal wounded companion beside me, I make my way down the trail from the dirt road to my tent. The muffled rumble of the ranger’s car, fading with distance, is replaced by the persistent buzzing chirp of the curious chickadee that watches me from a nearby tree. The wind can barely be heard moving the trees overhead while the river broadcasts a soft flowing gurgle.

I sit on the blanket and concentrate upon these sounds like a mantra, relishing their persistence and … what? Conviction? Confidence? My body seems to absorb the sounds, becoming heavy in the process. With eyes closed, I feel my new weight as I sink and settle into the blanket. This is the most relaxed I’ve been during these two days, indeed, in a long time. The sounds wash over and around me, cleansing me and purifying the moment.

In this state of balance and tranquil awareness, I am not mindful of the competing sounds that might exist outside the boundaries of this present calm. I can almost forget the noise that waits, “back there,” to eventually, inescapably, intrude upon this serenity.


Jeff McLaughlin was born and raised in Reading, Pennsylvania and currently lives in Chester County. A former elementary school teacher, he has most recently served as Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at West Chester University. Previous work has appeared in publications including PXV Arts, Listener, and various academic journals. McLaughlin is also a “junk-art” sculptor and singer-songwriter, whose work can be found at www.moondogmotel.com.

Brompton’s Mixture

My grandmother fancied herself a glamorous woman, an old-fashioned movie star, but in fact she weighed seventy-nine pounds and had ropes of veins running up her arms.  She rarely changed out of her front-zip housecoat with crumpled, used tissues in one pocket and a pack of Pall Malls in the other. Her hearing aid squealed on and off as she neared various electric household appliances and she’d grimace as she screwed her fingers into her ear to shift the broadcast channel.

The vestigial efforts she made at grooming were rudimentary.  Each day she brushed her teeth with Comet cleanser to scour the tea stains and cigarette tar off of her teeth.  She wore shiny gold bedroom slippers that slapped her cracked heels when she walked like flip-flops, and she tucked the badly dyed wisps of her hair under a crooked wig.  Her fingernails, though thick and ridged, were always neatly painted.  By me.

I loved her.

My grandmother had terminal pancreatic cancer and was taking longer to die than the doctors had expected. Every day after school and on weekend nights I got to stay with her to make sure she drank her prescribed Brompton’s Mixture and no more. Brompton’s Mixture was a combination of potable morphine, cocaine, whiskey, and honey, invented at the Royal Brompton Hospital in London for the most ill of patients. I had a key to the fridge where it was kept in Dixie cups, and I knew it was important that I kept the key on a string around my neck. I did not know that she had become a morphine addict.

She and I slept in her room in two twin beds, her close to the hallway, and I in the bed by the window.  I was a light sleeper, so I woke when she roused to have a cigarette or to walk the house in the night.  By the time she switched on the bedside table light, grabbed her Pall Malls, smacked the pack against her palm, placed a cigarette between her dried lips and flicked open the metal lighter lid, I was sitting up.

“Go back to bed,” she said, her voice dusky.

“I’m up anyway.”

“You’re too young.  Go back to bed.”  She pulled the flame to the tip of her cigarette, illuminating her face while she drew a deep breath.

“You shouldn’t smoke in bed,” I said, sitting across from her, our pale knees touching in the narrow aisle.  She finished her inhale and held it for a moment, then blew it forcefully to the side, away from me.

“I know.”  Then leveling her gaze, “Don’t you ever let me catch you smoking.”

We had our most peaceful conversations in the middle of the night while she smoked, nylon nightgown hanging off of her bony shoulders, heels tucked up under her.

“You know, I would have slept with Jack Kennedy if he had asked me.”

“Who is Jack Kennedy?” I asked, lying down because she made me.

“Oh, for goodness sake!  What do they teach you in school?” Tap, tap, the ash dropped into the glass ashtray.

“Nothing about a guy called Jack.  Who was he?”

“The president who put the man on the moon.  Honestly.”

“That was John Kennedy,” I said, emphasis on the John.

“Not to me, he wasn’t.” And then as if to herself, “Not to me.”

 

On some nights, I could get her to tell me a story.

“Tell me the story about the Green Dress.”

“I don’t want to tell that story.”

“Tell it.”

“I’ve told you that a million times.”

“Tell me again.”

“Well.”  A pause.  A gathering.   “My mother. Your Great Grandma Crick.  She was a cruel woman.  She made me work in the bakery from four in the morning until four in the afternoon when I was a young girl.  Younger than you.  And she made me sell eggs in the street like we were poor.  And we weren’t poor.  And the boys would tease me and chase me, so I ran.”

She crushed her cigarette, turned out the light and lay down on her side facing me, sliding her hands between her knees.

“Then what happened?” My whisper seemed loud in the stillness of the dark.

“I could run.  You know, like you can run, like the wind.  And I could dance.  All the boys wanted to dance with me.  So one Saturday, there was going to be the big dance.  I kept some of the money I’d earned from the bakery and bought a green dress.  Made with a bodice.  You know.  And silk.  So I laid it out on my bed that morning before I went to the bakery.”  I could hear her breathe.  Slow and even.  Her small body looked like a child’s in the dark.  “When I came home, Great Grandma Crick had taken scissors and cut my dress into a million pieces.”

“Did you go?  To the dance?”  I knew the answer.

“I’ll tell you where I went,” she said.  “I went over to Aunt Rhoda’s house and lived with her.”  She sighed and rolled on her back. “Aunt Rhoda didn’t cut up people’s dresses.”

 

We had some of our most expansive silences as she sat up in bed, left hand pressed into the mattress to support her, right hand holding her cigarette.  I listened for the little bah sound of her lips letting go of the filter, the weighty pause as she held onto the smoke, and the long fffff of her exhale.  Sometimes she stalled, gazing softly into the distance while her ash grew longer and longer, finally dropping unnoticed onto the carpet.

One night the pain struck violently. I was sleeping and I heard her yelling. “Oh-oh!”  She was in her bed in a ball on her side.  She yelled, “Oh!”  Both arms, crossed over her belly, knees up to her nose.  She rocked and yelled.

“Nana!”

“Oh!  Oh!”

“What’s wrong?”  I leaned over her in the dark. She flailed her arms like a blind woman, hitting me in the side of the face.  I ducked and put my hand on her side to reassure.  She grabbed my fingers, grinding bone on bone. Though tiny, she was strong, made of piano wire and gristle. “I am here,” I whispered.  Her eyes were wild and unfocused. She shook her head back and forth. I said, “My hand,” and she let go and rolled onto her side, groaning.

After enough time had passed that I thought she had fallen back to sleep, she got up and ran, doubled over.  I chased her down the three quick steps into the sunken living room and hugged her to the floor.

“I can’t hear!” she shouted.  “Get me my hearing aid!  Get me my hearing aid!!!!”

I told her, “There’s nothing to hear.”

“Get me my hearing aid,” she yelled, so I ran to her bedside, yanked the drawer, snatched the hearing aid and ran back.

She put it in.  It whined.  She jammed it deeper.  I shouted, “Let me do it,” and grabbed her wrist, forcing her arm away from her ear.  We stayed like that, a stalemate, an accidental arm wrestle until I felt the fear and strength drain from her and found myself holding her limp arm aloft, the loose skin gathered around my too firm grasp, her pulse pounding louder beneath my clenched fingertips. I softened my grip and guided her hand to her lap. “I’m going to take it out and fix it,” I told her, breathless, and she turned her face slowly, as though watching a distant bird fly along the horizon, and I realized she was offering me her ear.  I removed the flesh-colored aid and flicked the miniature button to off. “There.” I replaced it. “Better?”  She nodded, pushing it deeper with her fingers.  Breathing heavily, I hugged her to me, pressing my forehead into hers.

 

I had been staying at my grandparents’ home my whole life. My parents had had four children born close together, boom boom boom boom, so my grandparents had moved up the street to help out while my father put himself through night school.  On the weekends, my older brother Drew and I went over to my grandparents’ house so my mother could focus on the babies.  My grandfather, Da, was alive back then, walking around in a pressed white T-shirt, grey Sears trousers with the permanent seam down each leg, and a worn leather belt.  He was a fix-it man when he wasn’t working at the Mill, so he and Drew built and dismantled things with tools while I spent my time with Nana.

My grandmother was bewitching back then, thin when other people’s grandmothers were heavy, modern when other grandmothers were dowdy.  She decorated her house in gold-painted furniture and dressed up every day.  In her bedroom bureau, she had a drawer exclusively for belts and another exclusively for scarves.  Her foot was a size five, which, according to her, was a sign of a delicate and glamorous nature, so her closet held little high-heeled shoes I outgrew in third grade.

I didn’t care that she rarely left the house except for bowling night, or that she only had an eighth-grade education and didn’t like to read.  All I knew was this:  When she asked me what made me happy, I would tell her lots of presents on birthdays and Christmas.  When I asked her what made her happy, she would say, “I’m happy when you’re happy,” and I knew it, in my young heart, to be the truth.

 

The living room clock in my grandmother’s house was imitation gilded gold and rococo, consistent with her fancy but inexpensive taste.  At night, the outside light from the lamppost illuminated the clock face through the large picture window.  On the bad nights, the clock reminded us how long we had to wait until her next dose.

“Well?” my grandmother asked once she stopped worrying her hearing aid.

“An hour and twenty minutes,” I told her as we collected ourselves from the living room floor.  We moved the short distance to the lounge chair that faced the window.  I had inherited her narrow hips so we could sit, side by side, between the cushioned arms.

She reached for her cigarettes and slid the lighter out of the cellophane wrapper.  Her lower leg bounced nervously.

“Are you cold?” I asked.  “Do you need your house coat?”  She flicked the lighter and leaned toward the flame.

“No,” she said out of the corner of her mouth.  A car drove by under the streetlight outside and we both watched its red tail-lights disappear around the curve. “You know,” she said, snapping her lighter shut, “I wanted you to be the flower girl in Debbie’s wedding.”  She dropped her head to the palm of her free hand and began to weep.  “Aunt Ida told me you would be the flower girl.”  Aunt Ida was not my aunt and Debbie was not my cousin, but we always referred to them that way.  Debbie had gotten married nine years earlier.  “She told me you would be.  She said you would be the flower girl.”

“But Nana, you know I never wanted to.” I stroked her bony back, trying to rub the ancient regret away.

“Don’t be silly, every girl wants to be a flower girl.”  She looked at me with watery eyes.

“Not me,” I said.  “Flower girls have to wear dresses,” and she registered the truth, at least for that moment, and looked down.  Digging under her seat cushion, she pulled out some old, crumpled tissues and wiped her eyes.

“You always were such a tomboy,” she said, blowing her nose.  “You know your mother had to write to the school about that.”

“I know.”

“They didn’t like that you wouldn’t wear the dresses, but your mother said, ‘You’re either going to let her wear the pants, or you’re going to see her underwear because she’s always upside down.’”  She elbowed me and smiled through her tears.  “On the monkey bars.  You know.”   She chuckled to herself and looked out the window.  “I wonder what they thought of that note.  Stupid men.”

The living room clock ticked loudly.  I glanced at it.

After a while, she looked down at her diamond rings, heavy, swinging around her bony fingers.  “You know these were Great Grandma Crick’s.”  She twisted one off and handed it to me.  “They bought this one in Atlantic City.  Did I ever tell you that?”

“No,” I said, but I had heard it as well.

“This was the one she got after he beat her up.  Black and blue.  He took her to Atlantic City to make it up to her and bought a cheap diamond ring.  And she took it.”  I tried it on for a moment and felt its uncomfortable heft, then handed it back, placing it in her warm palm.  “That’s right.  Don’t let it touch your skin.  It might burn you.”

I smiled.  She took a drag on her cigarette.  “Horrible woman.”

We both looked at the ticking clock.

Over the next forty-five minutes I watched my grandmother slowly deflate.  Though she had been leaning on me before, I could feel her weight, heavy now, begin to sag and it became an effort to hold myself upright.  Her shoulder jabbed into my ribs and her head rested on my upper arm.  Her fingers hung so loose around her cigarette I worried the butt would drop onto the floor.  My grandmother, wrestling just an hour before, became limp, boneless.  Sleeping, but not.  A glistening strand of saliva stretched from her lower lip to her lap and I snapped it with my finger.

“Let’s go to bed,” I said, kissing her forehead and working my way to face her.  Heaving her up, I tucked my arm under her knees and lifted.  She drooped and slid, light for a person but heavy for her size, her dead weight folding her in half.  I had to stop twice on the short trip to bolster her with my thigh.

She poured off me as I lay her down, immediately curling into a ball, a pill bug.  After covering her with the bedspread, I set my digital watch alarm for 6:30 a.m., her next dose, and lay on my side, facing her.   I slid my hands between my knees and watched as her back rose and fell, rose and fell, rose and fell.

 

“Toast?” I asked her, as she padded into the kitchen only twenty minutes after her Brompton’s, ready for the day in her housecoat, her lips red with lipstick and her wig on straight. I grabbed the bread out of the breadbox and put two slices of Wonder into the toaster.

“Thank you,” she said, leaning to the side to reach for her Pall Malls. She sat in one of the two chrome chairs around the little table. “Did you sleep well?” she asked.

“I did. Did you?”  The casual morning banter.

“Yes,” she explained with a cigarette pinched in one corner of her mouth while she fished in her other pocket for her lighter.

The toast popped and the acrid smell of blackened bread filled the air. I took the stick of butter from the large refrigerator and cut off a chunk.  I never liked the buttering of my grandmother’s toast: pressing cold, hard butter onto crumbling burnt toast.

“What are you going to do today?” she asked as I placed the toast in front of her.

“Hang out with you.”

“Oh, honey.  Don’t waste your time,” she said, “What about a boyfriend?”

“Uch,” I grunted, getting my Cheerios and bowl out of the cupboard.

“Don’t ‘uch’ me.  You’re a beautiful girl.  It’s the only thing I ever wanted; to live to see you married.”   I turned on her.  She waved me away before I could get started.  “It’s wonderful to fall in love.  You deserve that in your life.”  She looked off to the side and sucked on her cigarette, drawing in her cheeks and filling her lungs with smoke to make her point.

The kettle whistled and I filled her teacup, adding a Lipton tea bag and watching the tannin-colored smoke bleed into the water.

“Dad tells me Great Grandpa Crick was no better than Great Grandma Crick.”

“He was a drunk,” she conceded, placing her cigarette in the ashtray between us.  A single plume of white smoke rose straight up then swirled in an invisible air current.  “But he wasn’t cruel like she was.  Your Great Grandma Crick, she was a jealous woman.   If your grandfather hadn’t come along to take me away, I’d probably still be scrubbing pots in the bakery basement.”

“Because you were beautiful.”

“Because I was beautiful,” she agreed.  Old Great Grandma Crick with her bulbous hernia from a lifetime of lifting copper pots, knuckles the size of horse chestnuts and lower eyelids that peeled away from her eyeballs to reveal their pink interior in a way that made me feel as though I were looking at someone’s insides.  She was so ugly.  No wonder there was strife.

“Dad says Great Grandma Crick chased Great Grandpa Crick around the dining room table with a butcher knife,” I announced, angling for some information about family lore I’d heard at home.

“It was a paring knife,” she confirmed, carefully pulling her red lips away from her teeth to take a bite of toast. “But he’s right.  She did.”

“No way.”

“It’s true.”  She set her toast down.

“But why?”  I had been certain the knife story was myth.

“He was an embarrassment,” she said, as though this were obvious. “After he’d get the early morning baking done, he’d go to the bar and get himself drunk.  Then he’d stagger up the street from pole to pole in the middle of the day.  She didn’t like that.”  She zigzagged her hand back and forth, pole-to-pole, pole-to-pole.

“I don’t think I’d like that either,” I said, tipping my bowl to my mouth to drink the milk.

“Oh, she didn’t care that he was drunk.” She flashed disapproval; Nana wasn’t one for bad table manners.  “She just didn’t like that he did it out in the open in the middle of the day.  Great Grandma Crick said it didn’t look good.  She said people would buy their bread from someone whose husband didn’t stagger up the street in broad daylight.  She always worried about appearances.  She always worried about the money.”

“I remember her and her money,” I said, standing. “She had a penny jar in her kitchen cabinet behind the doily drapes. Whenever we went to visit, she would show it to me and say, ‘I’m saving all this for you. It’s our little secret.’”

“Well?” Nana smirked.

“Well what?” I asked.

“Did she ever give it to you?”

“No.”

“There you go,” she said as she stood, stubbing out a perfectly good cigarette.

 

We sat. We talked. We laughed without a care or a glance to the Brompton’s fridge.  After a while, though, she became fatigued and walked to her room, stooped and holding her arm in front of her abdomen as though protecting it.  I followed.

There, I helped her remove her housecoat and sat her on the bed.  She paused to catch her breath, then lay down on her side.  I gently pulled her wig from her head, careful not to pull her hair, and set it on the skull-shaped Styrofoam stand on her dresser, stabbing a single straight pin through the top to keep it in place. I filled her water glass and placed her cigarettes on the night table.  Because it was time, I walked back in the kitchen and removed the string from around my neck, careful not to catch the key in my hair.

The smell was overwhelming to me when I opened the refrigerator.  Brompton’s mixture was musky, strongly alcoholic, viscous, and dark amber in color.  The Dixie cups in which each dose was kept had softened a bit where the liquid had been, as if the contents had been eating away at the internal structure.

I gently grabbed a single cup and closed the door, locking it.  I walked carefully to Nana’s room, holding the cup out in front of me, as though it was precious and toxic, because it was.  When I got to her room, she was cramped up, eyes closed and moaning quietly.   I sat on the edge of her bed and placed my hand on her shoulder.  Her flesh was loose on her bones, warm and familiar.

“I have it,” I said.  She opened her eyes slightly and began to push herself up.  I put the cup on the night table.

“Let me help you,” I said as I reached around her to pull her up to sitting.

“Oh, honey,” she apologized, forehead on my shoulder to prop herself.
“Shhh.”

I took the cup and held it out to her.  She steadied herself on the edge of the bed and then reached.

 

She tossed it back quickly both because it was vile and because she had learned that it would bring her relief within minutes.  My grandmother, who casually chewed Excedrin, shuddered with revulsion at its unmatched bitterness.  She crushed the cup and kept it in her hand as she lay back down, her nightgown twisting around her as she rolled to face away from me.

“Want some water?” I suggested. “It won’t be so nasty.”  She waved it away with the slightest gesture of her hand, so I sat and rubbed her back in circles, waiting quietly for the medicine to numb her body.

Over a period of twenty minutes, she unfurled so slowly that you might not have noticed it if you stared only at her.  But if you looked away for a while, then looked back, you would see that eventually she lay on her back, ringed hand resting gently on her stomach.  I waited until she was still for quite some time before reaching across her for the crumpled Dixie cup that had fallen from her hand onto the mattress. I dropped it into the plastic wastebasket filled with tissues and crushed cups.  I tidied her covers and switched off the light.

I bent to kiss her soft, lined forehead, moments earlier so furrowed in pain, and smelled a rotting whiff of the Brompton’s on her breath.  I grabbed her free hand and kissed the back of it, then rubbed my own kiss off.  Her nails looked good.  I was getting better at the polishing. Her eyes opened just a bit.

“Hey,” I said.  She smiled ever so slightly at me, but she was no longer very present.

“I’ll be back in a bit.  Go to sleep now.”  Her eyes began to fill with water.  I reached across and took a fresh tissue from the box.

“You’re good now,” I said, dabbing.  She reached up and grabbed my arm, squeezing me toward her with a strength I could not believe.

“I love you most of all,” she mouthed.

“I love you most of all,” I said, and watched her eyes slowly close.

And I waited with her there, until her grip loosened completely.


Kathy Smith grew up in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania and earned B.S. in economics at the University of Pennsylvania. She went on to earn an MBA from University of California at Berkeley. Though she still dabbles in finance, her greatest joy is being a mom of three, followed by writing. Her work has appeared in Apiary, and she has won two honorable mention awards from Glimmer Train. She resides in Bryn Mawr with her beloved husband and snoring bulldogs.

Mr. Salameh Gets Drunk at the Wedding

There was a man in the ballroom of the Sheraton wearing a skirt.

Mr. Salameh watched the man approach the buffet. He still couldn’t believe he was at a wedding—his son’s wedding—where you had to stand in line and fetch your own food. So many insults, so many things wrong with this wedding.  A daughter-in-law who couldn’t pronounce her new husband’s name. A wedding that cost a year’s salary. A fight with his wife. A DJ who played American music that sounded like a video game. A celebration less than forty days after they’d buried his mother. The mass for her soul hadn’t even been said, and here was her only grandson, dancing a strange dance with his skinny wife, flapping their arms like terrified birds.

And now, this man.

A man with a red beard and bare legs, at his son’s wedding, eating pork on a stick istaghfurallah.

“Meghan’s family is proud of their culture, just like we are,” Raed had argued. “You have to respect that.”

But they had a culture too. He’d asked Raed for Arabic music, and that’s when his future daughter-in-law revealed her dark side. “My aunt is a harpist and she’s playing a special song,” she insisted, her blue eyes staring boldly at Mr. Salameh, momentarily breaking her sweet  act. Mr. Salameh wasn’t stupid. He’d been in America for thirty years. He knew the elusiveness of delicate white women, how they drew Arab boys to them like planets to a fiery star, how they turned their young men into blushing, stammering fools. He saw how Meghan, with her pink nails, her slim wrists, her tiny waist, transformed Raed, his football-playing, lawyer son, his only son—the child he’d poured all his energy and love into, the child he’d prayed—well, no matter all that now because like a witch, she changed him from a proud racehorse into a mule that lowers itself to the ground for its back to be loaded. And while she was controlling him with her glossy smiles, she’d say, “Culture isn’t everything. Ray and I are both Leos,” like it was such a big fucking deal. One-twelfth of the world are Leos, Mr. Salameh wanted to shout at her every time she said it.

All around him, people talked lightly, and laughed. My mother is dead, he wanted to shout. Stop clinking your glasses. But they continued talking about the tall, dark, handsome groom and the bride who looked like a model. The man in the skirt was back in the buffet line, piling his plate with so much chicken, steak, and pork—so much meat, these Americans, and then they wonder why they’re always so tired. Mr. Salameh thought Raed should count him as four guests, not one.

Mrs. Salameh approached, looking angelic, even though he knew she was still upset. His beautiful wife, in a sky-blue satin dress. You’ll be overdressed, he’d warned her. They’ll all be wearing jeans probably. She didn’t care. He’s my only son, she’d said. And I’m going to look like the mother of the groom, she’d declared.

“Are you going to eat?” his wife asked, slipping her hand into his as he strolled to the bar and ordered another drink. It felt nice to speak to someone in Arabic.

“Are you still angry?” he asked her.

“You need to eat,” she replied, wearing her patient smile. She indulged him a lot and he was grateful to her.

“This whole thing…everything is so rushed.”

“They had to marry before Lent,” his wife said calmly. “You know that. It was bad timing about your mother.”

“She’s only been dead three weeks,” he said, shaking his head. “And by the way….There is a man here wearing a dress.”

“Allah yerhamha,” she said. “I miss your mother too.”

“They should have waited. It’s not even been forty days.”

“If they waited, it would be Lent. No weddings during Lent.” That was the voice she used when she was annoyed with him, and it was his signal to stop. Sometimes he wanted her to drop the serene veil she always wore. For her to be as angry as he was.

“The living,” he continued, “used to pause for the dead. Out of respect.”

“Let me put you a plate. You should eat something. How many drinks have you had?”

“I’m not eating.” Something caught his attention. “Look…there he is. Do you see him?”

She ignored his question. “People are watching. You’re the father of the groom.”

“Do you see what that man is doing?”

She finally turned and looked. “I saw him. He’s very nice. His wife is the aunt. The harpist. We haven’t met her yet.”

“Why do we have to have their music but not our music?” Mr. Salameh asked.

“Everyone can tell that you’re not happy.”

“I’m not happy. You can see the bride’s tits right down the front of her damn dress. I’m scared to stand next to her in case something falls out—”

Khalas.” Her voice was firm, so he snapped his mouth shut. She put her arm through his. “I’m going to fix you a plate. And then we’re going to chat with Raed and maybe take some pictures. And then we’re going to smile and shake hands with everyone. We will mingle. You will look happy.”

“There’s nobody here whose hand I want to shake.”

“Your nephew Marcus came. We should say hello to him. I’m glad he did, even though you wouldn’t let me invite his sister.”

“Her own father doesn’t talk to her. Why would I invite her?”

Mrs. Salameh muttered Allah give me patience, dropped his arm, and headed towards the buffet line. As he watched her walk away, he noticed Meghan’s father approaching. Raed’s father-in-law. It was too late to escape, so he drained his glass as the man trudged towards him. His hair was white and stuck out at all angles on his head, and his glasses slipped down his bulbous nose. He looked like a white Husni from the Ghawar movies—a man nobody could take seriously, no matter how dressed up he got.

“I think they need us at the front for more photos, Wah-leed.”

“Ok. Ok. I go get my wife.”

“Just the fathers now, I think.” He clapped Mr. Salameh on the back and pulled him toward the head table, where Raed and Meghan stood. “Enjoying yourself?”

“Yes.”

“It’s ok that we had alcohol, right?”

“Yes, of course.” He held up his own glass. “I tell you before we are Christians, not Muslims.” As if to make a point, he beckoned to a waiter, handed over his empty glass, and took a fresh one off the tray.

“Gotta always ask, you know. This way the culture doesn’t become a problem.” He was only half-listening to Mr. Salameh anyway, waving at other guests. Before they reached the front of the room, the man stopped and waved his hand around. “Like some of your guests here, they’re wearing head scarves. That’s not gonna be something Raed surprises my Meghan with, right? In a few years?”

“We are not Muslims.” Mr. Salameh’s head started to hurt. “These are our friends.”

“Right.”

“But our guests—they are not forced to wear.” He nodded towards Mrs. Hamdi, who stood to the side with her husband. “That lady right there, she is pediatrician. She run the whole clinic at Bayview. Their daughter, she is soccer player. She play for big Maryland team.”

“She wears that thing while she plays?”

“Yes.”

“Some things are ok. Some things…I gotta ask.” Meghan’s father shrugged. “This country is changing. Not all the new people coming in are like you, you know.”

Mr. Salameh thought about his mother, who was so kind and sweet and would have still looked at this man and muttered, “Kalb ibn kalb.” He glanced up at his son Raed, who stood tall besides his elf-wife and wondered, how could he do this to me?

They took the damn picture. The mothers came too. There were more pictures. He drank another glass but saw his wife’s glare and declined another one. More and more people joined the picture: Raed and Meghan’s coworkers, cousins, friends. He wondered who would see this picture in ten years, twenty years. Maybe his grandchildren? In forty years, his great-grandchildren? He wanted them to see him smiling, but not too broadly. He was going to lose his son. He’d already lost him. And if his grandchildren grew up feeling lost in the world, unattached to anything, he wanted them to know that, even before their birth, he had anticipated this, and he had been sad.

“I wish Sitti Fayrouz were here,” Raed told him somberly, as they posed for a father-son picture.

“Is that your grandmother?” his tiny wife asked.

Raed nodded sadly, and everyone made a sympathetic sound, like a rush of emotion, even though they had been dancing something called a curly shuffle a few minutes before.

He wished his son hadn’t said that.

Because now, he was sinking into his memory of those final days in the hospice when she was gasping for breath. He’d sat many long hours in that room with her, just the two of them sheltering from the rest of the world. Over the beeping of her machines, she’d mumbled to him, when she’d thought he was his dead brother, and talked to him so lovingly in her delirium. “I missed you, Michel. Where have you been?” And in his own desperation to comfort her, he’d lied. He’d pretended to be Michel, who could make everyone smile just by walking into a room and who should have been the one to live anyway.

And that’s why, now, Mr. Salameh couldn’t stop himself from replying to his son, “You should have respected her memory, then.”

“Stop, Baba.” Raed said firmly.

“You’re disrespecting her memory. And I don’t even know why I came for this.”

“Waleed.” That was his wife.

“I’m telling you all,” he shouted in Arabic, “that I don’t even know why I am here. There is nothing for me at this wedding.”

Several people tried to calm him. Then he heard, “Uncle Waleed.” That was his nephew, Marcus, who barely talked to them anymore. “Let’s take this somewhere else.”

“Why are you always bossing people around?” he asked Marcus, who gave him a dry look like he wanted to pick him up and throw him. He could too, the beast, he was taller than Raed and even wider and more muscular.

“This isn’t the time.”

“I guess we should be glad you’re even here,” Mr. Salameh shouted.

“I’ll give you one warning.”

“Or what? One warning? For what?”

Raed whispered something hurriedly to his fairy wife, who walked away with her father, clutching his arm as if she couldn’t stand on her own skinny legs.

“Are you drunk?” Raed asked him.

“Yes,” replied Mr. Salameh. “I am as drunk as Peter at the Last Supper.” He yelled towards Raed’s father-in-law. “Peter, you hear? Not Mohammad! Peter!”

Marcus rolled his eyes.

“You’re mad at us because we don’t talk to your sister? Isn’t that it?”

Marcus became very quiet.

“Nobody talks to her.” Mr. Salameh had him now. What could he say? “Why would we? She’s not welcome here. She’s shacking up with her boyfriend…” he shouted, getting close to his nephew.

The punch hit him in the stomach. Later, his wife would say Marcus had spared him his face. All he knew in the moment was that he was suddenly lying on the floor of the ballroom. When he registered the gasps and felt the pain shoot through his abdomen, he understood: Marcus had knocked him flat on his ass.

Within minutes, there was a stampede of people to the front of the hall. Some lifted him, others squawked nervously like chickens. “What happened?” “Why did the big guy hit the groom’s father?” “Should we call the police?”

“No bolice. No bolice,” he heard his wife imploring someone. “Everything eez ok.”

“We’re ok, everybody,” Raed said. “Not a fight. Just an accident. My father tripped.”

The muttering changed as people who had not really seen the punch began to absorb and repeat the new story.

And that was it. Marcus, who was heading out the door, was no longer the aggressor. The story morphed quickly: he, Mr. Salameh, was a drunk fool who’d embarrassed himself at his only son’s wedding.

“I’m leaving,” he announced, standing up. “This is not right. This hasn’t been right from the beginning.” He walked out slowly; his hand pressed to his side. It hurt to breathe.

Raed didn’t follow him out.

When he turned back to look, he saw Raed at the front, looking angry and disappointed, his arm around his wife to comfort her.

His wife and a few others did follow him. He told them, after a few minutes, that he was fine. They wandered off, including Mrs. Salameh, who said, “I’m going to check on Raed.” Alone, he trudged through the Sheraton’s carpeted hallways until he found himself in an empty lounge room. He stood under a large chandelier, assembled from thousands of glass beads, each one reflecting the light to look bigger and more important than it really was. The chandelier cascaded down into a cone shape, like a big light ready to beam him up to heaven. Maybe that wasn’t where he’d end up, he thought, looking around at the ornate room, lined with tall vases of flowers, plush carpeting, rich sofas and chairs. He slumped onto one couch and stared up at that conical chandelier, which seemed to be pointed down, cocked, and aimed right at his heart.

It was a few seconds later when he heard the music. A soft, rippling sound, like a qanoun. He shook his head, but it was still there. He looked around the lounge, he was alone, but he realized it was coming from a side room. He stood up and lurched unsteadily toward what looked like a break room for employees. Inside, a group of servers, wearing black vests and pants with white shirts, stood listening reverently to a woman sitting behind a large harp, hugging it as if it were a child.

He didn’t know the song she was playing and humming, but it soothed him. And then she looked up, stared into his eyes, and he gasped loudly.

“You,” he said, holding out his hand.

“Hello,” she said quietly, tilting her head to the side just as she used to do before. “What a coincidence.”

“My God. I thought I will never see you again.”

“I do see patients’ families sometimes. It’s always nice to reconnect.” She spoke softly, stood up and held out her hands.

He gripped them and remembered how warm they’d felt, rubbing his back, holding the prayer beads on his rosary for him when he’d collapsed into sobs. They were not smooth hands, even though her face looked young. Her hands were worn, like supple leather that has been broken. They’d held his mother’s hands during an injection, they’d lifted his mother by the arms, held a stethoscope to her lungs, to her back. They’d dipped a sponge into a shallow bucket to clean his mother’s legs and feet, and they’d run a comb through his mother’s long, uncut, white hair. And in the end, they’d pulled the sheet gently over his mother’s contorted face.

“The groom is my son.”

“Ah. The bride is my husband’s cousin. I promised her I’d play for her. It’s an old family song.”

“Your husband…he’s out there?”

“Yes. Did you meet him? He has a long beard.”

“Yes. I see him. He is wearing a skirt?”

She laughed softly. “I always remember our conversations so fondly.” She was indulging him, he could tell, the way his wife did. “It’s called a kilt. I’m sure you’ve seen one before. Our family plaid is the design he’s wearing.”

It’s still a skirt, he thought, but this time, he kept it in his own mind. There suddenly didn’t seem to be any pleasure, any benefit to shocking someone, to packing his thoughts into a bullet and firing it into his listener. He felt, so strongly right then, that he would rather hurt himself, than insult this woman.

“Thank you for what you did. For my mother.”

“It was a difficult few weeks. And I’m glad I had a chance to know her. She was lovely.”

He squeezed her hand again, his throat thick, but his mind clear.

“Will you come and listen to me play?”

“Everyone in there.” He shrugged. “Nobody happy with me.”

“Oh, I can’t believe that.”

“It’s true.”

“I’d love for you to hear the song, though.” She patted his shoulder. “Won’t you come and listen?”

He did, sitting just inside the door at a vacant table. He watched and listened as she fluttered her hands over the strings, pulling out a lovely, echoing sound, along with her pretty voice. He’d walked in on her once singing to his mother, he remembered—the Ave Maria. He watched as people in Meghan’s family stood and listened reverently to her. Mrs. Salameh’s head was craned, looking around the room for him. I’m back here, he wanted to tell her. I’m ok. I’m listening.


Susan Muaddi Darraj won the American Book Award and the AWP Grace Paley Prize for her short story collection, A Curious Land: Stories from Home. Her writing has been recognized with a Ford Fellowship from USA Artists and an Individual Artist Award from the Maryland State Arts Council. In January 2020, Capstone Books launched her debut children’s chapter book series, Farah Rocks, for which she won the Arab American Book Award. Susan grew up in South Philadelphia and now lives in Baltimore, where she teaches fiction writing at The Johns Hopkins University.

Like Speaking in Morse Code

Do you need instructions? (Y/N)

>n

You wake up to yelling from downstairs, just like yesterday. You find your glasses on the nightstand and feel the world come back into focus. Your room has gotten progressively filthier since you arrived here. There was a point, only a few months ago, when you could still navigate the mess to find what you needed—deodorant, misplaced socks, the expensive calculator required for Trig. But now, five months in, anything that falls to the ground is as good as gone.

Beside you in bed is your laptop, still on from the night before. This might be the only object that will never be lost to the heap. You don’t know what you’d do without it.

> open laptop

The computer powers out of Sleep Mode. You lean in and study the screen, trying to remember where you left off.

Before you can read any further, you’re interrupted by more screaming from downstairs. “Are you awake?!”

> ignore

You turn back to the laptop and begin reading.

The game opens in a top-secret underground prison somewhere in the middle of Kansas. There’s a long description of how oppressive the room feels. The player doesn’t know why he’s been imprisoned—something about a shadowy organization of elites intent on world domination. You remember this being better.

You hear footsteps in the hallway, each one louder than the last. When they stop, Pop swings open the door. “You’re late!” He’s still yelling, even though you’re now in the same room. “What the hell are you waiting for?”

> say “i guess i overslept”

“I guess I overslept,” you say.

“Well, now you’re awake.” His voice is softer now, and more difficult to disregard. “Put on some clothes and grab some food.” As he walks back downstairs, you close the laptop, find your bookbag amidst the wreckage on the floor, and get dressed.

> go to the kitchen

Pop’s at the stove, cracking eggs over his cast-iron pan. “So what’s with this sleep pattern,” he says. It’s technically a question, but he delivers it as a statement. You’re not sure how to provide an answer. You’re not even sure he’s looking for one.

> say “i was writing”

“I was writing,” you say.

He cracks another egg. “You seem to think you can get through high school without sleep.”

Up until five months ago, you’d only spent time with Pop on holidays. It wasn’t that you’d disliked him; you hadn’t had any say in the matter. According to your mother, the family was toxic. Anathema. “My dad’s so judgmental,” she always said.

She wasn’t wrong about that. Since you began staying with Pop, he’s made it clear that you need to “shape up,” to “get to working,” to “get serious.” You nod every time he mentions these things, though you’re not sure if he really expects you to change. You’re sixteen. Part of you thinks he knows that you’re not actually listening.

“You need to focus on your schoolwork,” he says now, placing some runny eggs and dry toast in front of you. “And to be able to focus on your schoolwork, you need sleep.”

> eat quickly and head to the bus

You scarf down the plate in silence as Pop drones on about manhood and responsibility and “the defining moments in our lives.” With your mouth still full, you head for the door before he can start his daily lecture about steering clear of your Mom’s mistakes.

The yellow bus pulls up to the corner just as you arrive. As you board, you scan for open seats. Only two remain. There’s one in the back row, where the kids with vape pens sit and blow grape-scented rings, and then there’s the cramped space behind the driver.

> sit behind the driver and take out laptop

You take the seat behind the driver and open your laptop. Almost everyone on the bus is staring at a screen, but they’re watching their favorite YouTubers beg for subscriptions or listening to whiny songs about pharmaceuticals and heartbreak. But you, you’re different. You’re working.

You once tried to explain it all to a classmate, a shy kid with greasy hair you thought might be sympathetic, maybe even interested. It didn’t work.

“It’s a game?” he asked.

You nodded.

“But it’s only words?”

You knew elaborating would be pointless.

> open new doc

You open a new Doc and rack your brain for phrases you’ve heard over the last few days. You type “THE BORDERLINE” at the top of the page and stare at the way it sits against the white background. Your cursor blinks, like it’s taunting you to press Delete.

You ignore that impulse and instead try to imagine where the story might open. You try to imagine the options that would be offered to the player. You try to imagine the narratives that would arise from their choices, and the ones after those, and the ones after those. You start to get a bit dizzy, but you keep typing, hoping some of it will make more sense than whatever it was that you’d written the night before.

The bus pulls to a stop. You’ve arrived at school.

> hide

Sorry, I didn’t understand that request.

> hide under seat

Sorry, I didn’t understand that request.

> head to first period

Ms. Andrews is already starting the lesson when you arrive. “I want to give you some time to work on your memoir projects today,” she says as you settle into your desk. It’s an assignment the class started last week. You, however, haven’t written a word. Any minute that Ms. Andrews had allowed for in-class writing, you’d instead spent working on “THE FAMILY,” an adventure game about Giuseppe Crambino’s attempt to take his rightful place at the head of the Crambino Crime Syndicate. You’d been twenty rooms in when you realized you didn’t know anything about the mob. Demoralized, you’d pressed Ctrl+A and deleted the whole thing. The fifteen thousand words you’d written had suddenly vanished and were replaced by an unvarnished white space.

“Alright,” Ms. Andrews says, “let’s get to work!”

> open the borderline

You take out your laptop, power it back from Sleep Mode, and reopen the Doc containing “THE BORDERLINE.” You decide to avoid reading whatever you’d written on the bus. You want to focus on addition, not subtraction, so you begin typing whatever comes to mind. Character sketches, possible rooms, narrative webs—all of it could be valuable, so long as you can find the right place. At this point, the only goal is to try and keep your fingers moving as fast as your train of thought.

When you look up from your frantic typing, you realize Ms. Andrews is behind you. “Are you working on your memoir?” You know this is what she’d call a rhetorical question.

>lie

“Yes,” you say. You know it is not convincing.

She squats beside you, hovering just above the ground so she’s eye-level. “You know, your grandfather told me that this is an interest of yours. Honestly? I think it sounds pretty cool.” She’s smiling, but you can tell it’s forced. The whole thing feels like an act. You imagine Ms. Andrews and Pops in this classroom, sitting across from one another in comically small student desks, hatching this elaborate, pathetic plan to try and solve the problem that is your life.

>don’t respond

You don’t respond.

“You know, I used to play some of these games when I was a kid,” Ms. Andrews says. “Floppy disks. Do you know what those are?”

>say “yes”

“Yes,” you say.

“And what I remember about all of those games is that they’re so focused on storytelling. I mean, if you’re spending all your free time writing these games, then you must do a lot of writing.” She smiles. This is meant to be comforting. “It just makes me think that if you dedicate some of that effort towards the writing assignments for this class, then your grades will improve. I bet your games will get better, too.”

>don’t respond

You don’t respond.

“You know,” she says, lowering her voice so the other students won’t hear. “I really think an assignment like this one, where you’re asked to dive into your past, to sift through your memories, might be especially helpful for you.” She pauses. “I know you’ve been through a lot.”

What you want to say is that your writing has nothing to do with the past. It doesn’t follow a straight line backwards. It doesn’t follow any straight lines. No, your writing is concerned with the present. Your stories suggest that everything could suddenly change at any given moment, that nothing is ever truly fixed, that everything depends on your next move.

>say “can i use the bathroom”

“Can I use the bathroom?” you say. Ms. Andrews nods and moves on to the next student. You almost feel bad. She’s convinced that she’s finally broken through. She really believes you’re headed to the bathroom to have a good cry and throw some cold water on your face, that you’ll return to the room a new man, ready to exorcise all of your pain through the 750 word assignment.

>leave classroom with backpack

When Ms. Andrews begins working with another student, you grab your backpack and walk out the door. The restroom is to the east, a few hundred feet away. Ten feet to the west is an emergency exit you’ve seen teachers use for clandestine smoke breaks.

>take exit door to the west and walk off campus

You step outside the door, amazed by how much fresher the air feels. There were rumors that the school building was still rife with asbestos and now you’re certain they’re true.

You’re not too familiar with the neighborhood around school. You’ve never ventured off-campus for lunch like some of the older kids and you’ve never paid attention to street signs and landmarks on your bus ride in. That time’s always been dedicated to working on the next game.

>use gps on phone to find route home

You pull out your phone and type in Pops’ address. The app starts buffering, the circle icon spinning over and over again, asking you to just wait a little bit longer. As you’re staring, you feel someone approaching. You tell yourself not to panic, but you also begin thinking of plausible excuses for why you’re not in class.

“Do you remember me?” You look up to find an older woman. She’s smiling wide, exposing her unnaturally white teeth. “I was a friend of your mom’s.” She says this like it’s a good thing. You figure they must have fallen out of touch before everything happened.

“Okay,” you say. It comes out of your mouth without thinking. You hope it somehow sounds polite.

“How’s she been?” the woman says.

You don’t know how to answer the question. She’s wearing a navy pantsuit, the kind Mom wore years ago back when she was working the front desk at the law firm on the other side of the city. Maybe Mom knew this woman back then. Maybe this woman still works there. Maybe everyone at the law firm wears pantsuits, and smiles when they ask questions, and reaches the bare minimum of what qualifies as a “functioning adult.” As far as you can tell, the woman seems to have her life together. You wonder if she has kids at home. You wonder what they think of her. You wonder if they appreciate the fact that their mom is simply present, if they realize what a blessing it is to have a reliably boring parent capable of patience and self-control.

The woman’s smile turns to a concerned stare. “Are you all right?” she says.

> run

Where do you want to run?

> home

You turn away from the woman, in what you hope is the direction of Pops’ house. You start with a fast walk, but in just a few steps it turns into a jog. The woman is calling after you, wondering if she said something wrong, but you don’t respond. Soon enough, you’re sprinting, and the laptop in your bag bangs against your spine with every step.

After a few blocks, you stop to catch your breath. You’re hunched over, hands on your knees, panting as you stare at the sidewalk. When your pulse has finally returned to its normal pace, you take in the surroundings: you’re in front of the post office, across from the 4 Points Deli. Pops’ place is just a few minutes from here. You know he’ll be furious when he sees you at home, but you’re too tired to spend the day wandering around town. You’ll suck up your pride and nod along with his lecture, hoping that such obvious appeasement will stop him from throwing you in the car and delivering you back to Andrews’s English class.

When you enter the house, Pops is fast asleep on the living room couch. You realize you’ve never actually considered what he does all day while you’re at school. Observing him there, eyes shut tight and legs propped up on the armrest, you wonder why. His skin seems to be losing its pigment, exposing purple and blue veins that remind you of the human anatomy chapter in your Biology textbook. It’s easy to forget that he’s old enough to require a mid-morning nap, that taking you in is not something he’d planned for when he’d retired almost two decades earlier.

>go to bedroom

You quietly climb the stairs and return to your room. You lie down on the bed and open your laptop. “THE BORDERLINE” is still on the screen and you read the first few lines again, trying to put yourself back in the state-of-mind you’d found before Ms. Andrews had interrupted. But no matter how many times you re-read the opening, you can’t find the words to continue. You’re still thinking about Pops lying on the couch, about the smiling woman from the street, about the awkward way Ms. Andrews whispered, “I know you’ve been through a lot.”

You’re still thinking about Mom. You’re always thinking about Mom.

You close the file for “THE BORDERLINE” and re-open what you’d started last night: “LIKE SPEAKING IN MORSE CODE.” You highlight all of the story’s text, every description of that oppressive underground bunker and the player’s confusion at his situation, and press Delete. All that remains is the title, centered at the top of the Doc, waiting for direction.

“You wake up to yelling from downstairs,” you type, “just like yesterday.”


Kevin M. Kearney’s writing has appeared in Necessary Fiction, X-R-A-Y, Hobart, and elsewhere. He’s a fiction editor at Rejection Letters and a staff writer for PopMatters. He lives and teaches in Philadelphia. More of his work can be found at kevinmkearney.com.

Fluttering Heart

You said we needed a cage. We found one at a thrift store. It was a round cage with a big domed top that reminded me of a mosque or a Russian church. There were three perches inside and plenty of floor space. I’m sure it wasn’t brass, but the bars were that color and set far enough apart to not obscure the view looking in. Nobody wanted it to feel like a prison. We brought it home. It sat on your lap on the ride. It was a nice day and the sun came through the windows and reflected on the bars of the cage. You absolutely tapped your fingers on the bars. When you noticed you were doing it you stopped, looked over to me, and smiled.

We put the cage in the library because it was out of the way but not too out of the way, and it looked good in front of the yellow walls in that room. We had already moved the old end table from your mother’s bedroom set into that room, just for the cage. When we put the cage on it we stepped back to look at it and held hands. It was like putting up a Christmas tree or painting a new child’s room.

After dinner that night we had sex in the bedroom with the window open. I had been on top, and afterwards you rolled me over and playfully pinned me with your hands on my chest. I though it’d be like that, but that’s no way to catch a heart. We both sat up in bed facing each other. You rested your fingers against my chest and then, gently, reached in. My heart hesitated at first. You knew better than to reach for it, just kept your hand still and waited patiently instead. It didn’t take long for my heart to step into your hand and perch on your fingers. You brought it out of my ribcage and I closed my chest as it beat calmly between us. It was easy.

It liked its new surroundings right away, hearts being naturally inclined to small enclosed spaces. You fell into the habit of talking to it, and we gave it time out of its cage every day to perch on our hands and fly around the room. Every time I needed a book from the library, I would admire it the heart, I have to admit, preening or sitting in the bottom of its cage in the sun. It didn’t sing in the morning, but there was a soft, steady heartbeat below life at our place at any time of the day.

Hearts can live for years. When our friends would come over you would show them the library, your face full of pride and happiness any time they showed an interest in my heart. They would stand looking at it sleeping in its cage, laugh with surprise if it happened to turn in a circle. You were patient, letting them look at it as long as they wanted. More than once, a visitor would begin to cry, softly, while looking at the heart, or exhale deep breaths slowly through their lips like blowing out candles on a birthday cake. We would kiss, just once, in the doorway.

I loved going to the museum with you. We would spend the whole day. I loved the people as much as the art: the students sketching in their notepads on the floor, families whispering or talking too loudly, the people standing in front of a single painting to look as deeply into it as one can. There was always at least someone in front of van Gogh’s sunflowers doing that, a lot of times lots of people. But only one room over would be Renoir, women bathing together in water and light. You bought me a postcard once of that one. Do you remember hooking your thumb into the waistband of my jeans while we looked at that painting? I could feel my heart back home doing what hearts do in moments like that.

After we started fighting more often, and then after we stopped, I saved that postcard, packing it with the rest of my things. We divided the books in the library, which didn’t take long. They were mostly mine. My heart watched us from its usual perch. It was time, we agreed. I took off my shirt. Then, maybe after a moment of hesitation for both of us, I undid my belt and stepped out of my pants and underwear. You opened the cage. My heart, again, as always, perched on your fingers. You moved your hand to my chest and rested it there for a moment: your hand, my chest, my heart beating between us. Then you reached in, gentle as before. My heart returned to my body. It seemed to recognize the place.

The other day I was walking in the park by the church when I saw some robins bathing in a puddle. It is still spring. I watched them tilt their heads to listen for worms under the mud. They ran a few steps if they heard nothing to try again in a different spot. If they did hear the thump thump thump of a worm as it pulsed through the body of the planet they plunged their beaks into the mud and, as often as not, pulled him out to beat his dirty body against the ground and eat him. It was a nice day, wet and warm and living.

I don’t know what happened to the cage. I’m assuming that you sold it, or put it outside by the sidewalk with a sign that said “Free.”


Neil Craig Kennedy is a librarian. His book A Jigsaw Puzzle is available from Finishing Line Press. He lives outside Philadelphia.

ONLINE BONUS: UPs & DOWNs (Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction Finalist)

UP

I move into Metropolitan Towers during the heat and hollow of an empty summer, when all of New York City is racked by disease, and the sidewalks stink of anxiety. Dima and I broke up in June, and I can’t afford our old Harlem apartment by myself. I can afford the Towers, which consist of two 1960s Brutalist brown squares with a few cement balconies that cantilever drunkenly off the sides of the building. Windows have been replaced over the years, and now the glass is mismatched: some panes shine blue in the sunlight, others reflect a cheap shade of turquoise, still others have been buffered by city grit into a scratched ugly beige. The building was originally designed for single men to commute to Wall Street. Every apartment is a studio.

My building has four elevators, one of which has been outfitted with black curtains to accommodate my move-in. My sister and her husband, Dan, stuff the elevator full of IKEA bedposts, my broken desk, a bedside table, and boxes of books.

“Is this everything?” Dan asks, panting.

“All the furniture, at least. I have more clothes and kitchen stuff.”

“You’ll need a couch.”

“Maybe.” I don’t want to give Dan any credit. He’s the reason my sister moved to Philadelphia.

The three of us crowd into the elevator. Dan smells like sweat and self-satisfaction. As the elevator ferries us skywards, I watch the red numbers shapeshift beneath the glowing word UP. My fresh start is at the top of this building. My new beginning.

The mirrored ceiling reflects my upturned face: short mousy hair; eyes like two scared fish. I’ve never lived alone before.

 

DOWN

I’ve ridden the elevator a dozen times this week and have determined that there are two attractive men in my building. One has a golden retriever. The other goes for regular morning jogs.

 

20C

In the weeks following my move-in, before teaching starts up again, loneliness germinates in my apartment. It grows mostly at night, festering in the dark, thriving on dampness. By sunrise it has shot up spores. The spores are small but strangely flesh-colored.

 

DOWN

Complaining is the one conversation topic that requires no preamble. Forced together in the elevators of Metropolitan Towers, my fellow residents and I skip the greetings and commence griping. Grievances vary: closet shelves (collapsing), door hinges (over-painted), electrical sockets (broken), light switches (flickering), smells (gross). One person tells me the elevators are shrinking, but no one has confirmed that yet.

I’ve learned to write down my complaints on yellow sticky notes – describing the broken thing in as much detail as possible – otherwise, Jeremy at the front desk tends to get the work order wrong. I think he just makes them up. Twice now I’ve complained about a sparkless burner, only to find a workman banging on my door trying to fix my faucet. Whenever I mention these errors to Jeremy, he blames them on flukes in the “system,” which — as far as I can tell —is an open Word document.

Fixing broken things used to be Dima’s responsibility. He believed home maintenance was a matter of personal integrity. He insisted on repairing everything himself. Consequently, half the pipes in our old apartment were duct taped beyond recognition. Now the dysfunctions of my current studio feel punitive as if Dima left them for me on purpose.

DOWN

One morning, I wait for the elevator — armed with a yellow sticky, dusting loneliness spores off my shoulders like dandruff — when a shriveled, old white woman rattles towards me with a pushcart full of newspapers, bananas, and pill bottles. She starts complaining immediately: “Did you notice the A/C is out again? I’ve had to sleep every night in my underpants with the fans blasting. And that construction noise — ugh! What city crook gave ‘em a permit to start at 7 am? You sleep much?”

“No.”

“Because it’s too noisy! You know it didn’t used to be this way. I’ve lived here all my life. Used to be a much quieter town. It’s these developers. They’ll build on every square inch. Don’t give a rat’s ass about the architecture or the people or anything. You new? Never seen you before.”

“I just moved in last month.”

“Welcome. Don’t go to the Sprove market or whatever the hell it’s called across the street, some copyright nonsense. I think it used to say Grove, but they had to change it to Sprove – anyways, don’t go there. Hoof it over to Shoprite by the mall. It’s the same stuff but cheaper.”

The elevator arrives, and we trundle on. The woman is so small that her rolling cart reaches up to her chest. Her collared Hawaiian shirt is tiny enough for a child. The armholes gape around her bony, waggling arms, yet her voice seems to take up more space in the elevator than my whole body.

“What you got there?” she asks, pointing a minuscule finger at my sticky note. I

show her: storm windows (leaking).

“Use a towel to soak it up. Or collect it and water your plants. That’s what I do. Saves resources. What’s your name?”

“Everyone calls me Snaggle.”

“Snaggle? What kinda name is that?”
I tug down my mask and show her my crooked front incisor.

“Aw yeah, I see. You like it when people call you that?”

I shrug. It had never occurred to me to protest the nickname. I let people call me what they want.

“Anyways, I’m Doris,” she says. “I’m bringing the newspapers to my friend Elayne on seven. She don’t get out much.”

The New York Post and Daily News stare up at me, covers soaked in headlines:

Paranormal Rise as Residents Spend More QT at Home

Well Woman Learns Dark Secret

Area Man Manifests Millions: ‘Cash just showed up on my porch in a paper bag’

“Does this elevator seem smaller than normal? Or did I mix up my pills again?” Doris laughs with a smoker’s rattle.

“I think it really is shrinking,” I say.

Then Doris issues a mantra of Big City Zen: “Ehn, screw it. I’ll adapt.”

The doors open, and she waves a skeletal hand. “See ya later, honey.”

Doris is my hero.

20C

The loneliness spores have mutated. They’ve grown eyestalks with stick-brown irises—the color of Dima’s and the stalks glow in the dark. I can’t sleep for all the glowing. Whenever I wake at night, I find the eyebulbs gazing at me lovingly? Accusingly? Blinking their white lids. I wonder if I manifested the stalks, like the man from Doris’s newspaper.

In the morning, I scrape them off the walls and throw them in the garbage.

 

UP

Mercifully, the semester starts. I’m happier when I’m busy, clacking away at my laptop in the corner. Days and weeks glide by, frictionless. Pieces of my sanity start to slide off the never-ending screens. Zoom workshops and retraining programs keep trying to fix something that isn’t working, like adding more lubricant to what is fundamentally disappointing sex.

Today the sky is blue. I flee the confines of my apartment and walk the neighborhood, seeking texture. The breeze blows autumnal scents of ripening leaves, car exhaust, the smell of uneaten fruit inside children’s lunchboxes. The day is so open and bright that I don’t want to return to my apartment. The elevator doors unfold like the arms of a warden.

 

DOWN

My northern neighbor, a middle-aged Indian divorcée, joins me at our floor’s elevator bank with her daughter, who looks to be about eight or nine years old. The girl wears pink leggings on her thin, stork-like legs and a sequined top that matches her facemask. She flutters down the hall, giving her light-up sneakers a peppy hop-skip. It reminds me of when I used to work in elementary schools, back when teaching meant the joy and germ of human contact: kids sneezing on my sweater, grubby hands grabbing after recess, bodies crashing into my legs in eagerness to get to the carpet for storytime.

“Did you hear that the elevators are shrinking?” my neighbor asks as we sidle into the car. “Carlos at the front desk told me. Apparently, they measured: shrunk at least ten inches since July.”

“Is Carlos the nice one?”

“Yeah, he’s a good guy. Usually hands out pencils on the first day of school.” She smiles at her daughter. “Of course, this year is different.”

I ask the girl what she’s learning in her online classes so far. She says multiplication. I throw her a soft ball: “What’s two times 2?” The girl hesitates, twisting her fingers around as if trying to wring the answer from her skin.

“What’s two times two?” her mother repeats, shaking her shoulder. “Don’t you know?”

The girl’s wide eyes dart from her mother to me, and ocular sprint back and forth.

“It’s ok. I was never very good at math either,” I say, hoping to relieve the pressure. The girl squeaks. Maybe the shrinking elevators are a manifestation of my dwindling social awareness.

 

20C

My lonelinesses crawl out of the primordial ooze. They add appendages. I can no longer scrape away the legless spores. Instead, I have to run around my apartment with a broom, trying to sweep up the many-limbed creatures that cartwheel across my floor, making a game of evading me.

At least their eyes look less like Dima’s. Now the eyestalks develop the slit yellow pupils of a hunter.

 

DOWN

Hot Jogging Man gets on at the twelfth floor. He is Korean and tall, with jet-black hair and thick eyebrows. He has forgotten to wear a mask, and when he sees mine, he makes the appropriate gestures of guilt and shame. He covers his mouth with one hand while cueing up a playlist on his phone. I watch him scroll, triceps sliding beneath the skin of his upper arms, wide thumbs teasing the screen.

I wonder if he has the same happy trail as Dima, the same slightly concaved chest. I bet he has abs; I bet he’s hardened and hairless under that hoodie. I imagine licking Jogging Man’s stomach, squeezing his arms. I want to floss my teeth with his sweatband, bury my nose between his butt cheeks, scratch track marks into the wide wings of his back.

Jogging Man shoots me a startled look. I jerk my eyes down and away, heart pounding. Can he hear my thoughts?

 

DOWN

Welp, the Hinge date was a huge mistake. In the morning, I walk him to the elevator. “It’s cozy in here, isn’t it?” he says, stepping into the wood-paneled car. I tell him to go down alone. I don’t want him to try to hold my hand.

Back in my apartment, I write a new sticky note for the front desk: elevator shrinking (along with my prospects and expectations).

 

20C

The many-limbed eyestalks multiply quickly until, at last, I am overrun by lonelinesses. I give up trying to exterminate them. Instead, I simply flick them off my bed in the morning, toe them away from the toilet, tweeze them from the leaves of potted plants, their tiny suckers flailing. I can barely get dressed for all the tentacled creatures hanging off my shirtsleeves.

My one rule is that the lonelinesses cannot leave the apartment. “Please,” I beg, cracking my front door. “Stay back!” Sometimes I throw them a crust of stale bread dipped in saltwater, just to distract the horde long enough for me to flee. The lonelinesses love anything that tastes like tears.

I shouldn’t feed them, yet I feel guilty they even exist. I’m pretty sure it’s my fault.

 

UP

Metropolitan Towers finally hires a repair company to examine the shrinking elevators. One car remains operational while the repairmen evaluate the problem. Lines form. Everyone looks annoyed. Jeremy goosesteps up and down the lobby with a tape measure, enforcing six feet apart. We wait for twenty minutes.

Eventually, I pile into the elevator with a bald Puerto Rican guy I’ve never seen before. As soon as the doors close, he starts grumbling.

“It’s these Indian families. There are too many of them! They have too many children, and now we wait for everything.”

“Um, I think it’s the elevators that are the problem. Four cars should be enough if they weren’t shrinking.”

But the man doesn’t want to hear my structural explanations. He wants someone to blame, or even better, a monolithic group of someones. He says that this building was meant for single people, and now all of these Indian families have moved in. “I’ve lived here for twenty years, and I’ve never had to wait so long for the elevator. It’s ridiculous.”

I open my mouth to contradict him, but before I can say anything, the man exits on the fourth floor.

 

DOWN

There is a lone dog in the elevator today, a Schnauzer, who stares up at me with wet eyes. Someone has lost their dog.

 

20C

Every morning I wake up panicked, heavy under a blanket of lonelinesses, their suckered tentacles all over my sheets and face. Then as the day wears on, the sheer magnitude of the problem lulls me into ambivalence. I get used to brushing lonelinesses off the couch. It becomes second nature to scan each forkful before eating (I suspect the lonelinesses are poisonous; their skins are slimy like tropical frogs). At night I collapse under the covers, relieved the battle is over.

But I don’t sleep well. The lonelinesses make these annoying little absences of sound, and the collective roar of their silence is deafening.

 

UP

Today I read Tolstoy in the park, an old copy of War and Peace that was Dima’s from college. The story is operatic: Napoleon marches towards Russia. Disaster looms. Natasha longs for love. The 1812 comet bursts across the night sky. I thought I might get bored, but I don’t. Political events keep redirecting the narrative arc of the characters’ lives, or maybe the characters’ lives keep redirecting the narrative arc of political events. At any rate, I flip a page, and death hangs over the wounded Prince Andrew Bolkonski just as it hangs over all of Russia. Look, Tolstoy whispers, see how divinely permeable we all are? Even a distant tragedy can fracture the fragile talisman of a person’s life.

Dima has written something next to a description of Natasha weeping: so confused. I become enraged. How dare he judge Natasha for going through her process? Pierre is constantly confused, but Dima never makes a note about him. Would I have stayed with this man if there hadn’t been a pandemic? Would Natasha have married Prince Andrew? I leave the park feeling porous and exposed.

It’s the first truly cold day of winter. My nasal passages freeze when I’m outside, but back in the Towers, they thaw and begin to run. I need to wipe my nostrils, but a Chinese couple gets into the elevator with me, and I don’t want to make them uncomfortable by lifting my mask. So, I let the snot run down my chin, feeling brave.

 

UP

Here are the elevator demographics of Metropolitan Towers:

  1. Indian families have children and bicycles but no pets.
  2. Young white couples have pets but no bicycles.
  3. Old white singles have Slavic or Puerto Rican accents and reek of cigarette smoke.
  4. Chinese couples do not have children or bicycles or pets, and they do not smoke.
  5. Rutgers students smoke pot.

 

DOWN

Two thirty-something women wait at the elevator bank on my floor. They hold hands. They look friendly and in love. One woman sports a shade of carmine lipstick that I would normally compliment, but today I am in a dismal mood.

My best friend Inez, who recently broke up with her boyfriend, called me this morning to say that I was not supportive enough when she was with her boyfriend. She said I’d seemed overeager for them to break up. She’d concluded that I was jealous of her, and although she’d already forgiven me for my jealousy, she needed to hear me apologize for it.

I did.

“But don’t worry, I can help you work on your jealousy,” she said. “We can do this together.” I hung up and sobbed. I resented Inez for misunderstanding me. I resented myself for caving so easily.

“Do you mind facing away from us in the elevator?” the carmine lipstick woman asks. “It’s nothing personal. It’s just that we’re really getting worried about the shrinking cars.”

“I can’t believe they haven’t fixed them yet,” the un-lipsticked woman says. “Worst time to have shrinking elevators, during a pandemic. Frickin’ nightmare.”

I think of all the ways I’ve manifested my own worst nightmares: “Maybe they’re shrinking because of the pandemic,” I say.

The two women exchange a puzzled glance.

“How so?” Carmine asks.

“Never mind,” I say.

The elevator arrives, and the three of us ride down in silence. I stand at an angle in the corner, staring at the peeling wood panels. I want to smooth things over with the couple, but I can’t seem to claw my way out of my hoodie. I think the hoodie has become sentient and is slowly digesting me. I’m being pumped deeper and deeper through the bowels of my own sweatshirt. I’ve noticed this about my life lately: the lonelier I get, the more I feel affected by the objects of the world as if they were absorbing my life force.

When we reach the lobby, the two women hurry away.  I try to comfort myself: maybe I’ll get another chance to make a better impression.

But I doubt it.

 

DOWN

It’s an unseasonably warm day in early December, and I’ve been laid off from my job at Rutgers. They usually give me a full schedule in the spring, but the financial emergency has forced them to tighten their belts. My position is cut, along with 399 other adjunct professors across all Rutgers campuses.

My sister calls me as I drag myself to the elevator to suck down a few breaths of fresh air. She asks if there’s anything I need. I hesitate as the list of things I actually need sieves through the filter of what I can reasonably ask someone to give me: self-confidence, tenderness, a hug, reassurance that everything —absolutely everything—is going to be ok.

“Are you in the elevator?” Dan chimes from the speakerphone.

“No, Dan. I’m dying. That beeping is my heart monitor in the ICU.”

“Sheez. I was just asking.”

It feels good to hate Dan.

 

20C

            I go to war with my lonelinesses, or more precisely, my lonelinesses go to war with me. They draw borders around the corners of my studio. They split into a complex network of tribes, the inner politics of which are too complicated for me to understand. I am their only common enemy. As soon as I open my front door, they shoot at me from behind barricades of dirty laundry, their tentacles unleashing an onslaught of crumpled yellow sticky notes, onto which they’ve scrawled work orders:

Friendships (fractured)

Career (missing)

Self-pity (leaking)

I return fire, kicking away their sweatpant trenches with one easy swipe. The lonelinesses retreat to plan their next attack.

But as soon as the troops are scattered, I go about my normal business. The truth is: I don’t really want to hurt the lonelinesses. They’re my only company.

 

DOWN

I’ve read too many news articles today. I quickly decide that:

1) I must escape this apartment.

2) I must call Dima.

I dial in the elevator, but Dima’s voicemail answers, and I hang up. Why don’t elevators have windows? Why are these cars so small? Who designed these things to look like hurtling yo-yo coffins? I’m hyperventilating. The elevator walls squeeze tight as a trachea. I swear I can see them move. Pretty soon, I’ll be stuck in here and I’ll never get out.

A bell dings.

Hot Jogging Man hops on. He recognizes me and gestures to his mask, dark eyes smiling. “Oh, hey! I got my mask now. I remember last time that kinda freaked you out.”

The notion hits me that life has been continuing on outside my head, but it seems too good to be true. Suddenly all I want to do is put Hot Jogging Man at ease. I want to be generous to all mankind as I wish that all mankind would be generous with me (and as I secretly fear that they won’t be). This gentle soul has remembered me!

“No, it’s fine!” I say. “I’m sorry if I had a weird reaction.”

We chuckle, mutually reassuring one another until we reach the first floor. Jogging Man gives me an uncomplicated wave goodbye. I stand in the lobby in disbelief, staring at the landscape paintings, the rubber doormats, the chair with its stack of uncollected newspapers. Everything looks well-lit, tired, but orderly. No one knows that I have been panicking. Some people haven’t even picked up the news today.

 

UP

Days sneak past me like teenagers slinking out past curfew. I feel like a divorcée smoking long cigarettes in the living room while my days tiptoe out the back door. Each day thinks it’s being very clever, giggling as it clicks the latch and runs off, escaping over the shadowy lawn. They think that I don’t notice their passing, but I do. I covet the parties they must be attending, the clandestine meetings with other young axis-spinners. At the same time, I feel apart from them, in an era of no-days, smoke rising from my tattered silk nightgown, the living room darkening around me.

I’m a little drunk. No one has contacted me in some indeterminate length of time. The emptiness seems to stretch on forever. Finally, I call Inez. She says that she wants space from our friendship. She needs some time to herself.

We hang up, and I pour a glass of whiskey and pace my apartment. I didn’t even get to tell Inez about the shrinking elevators. She would have instantly known what they meant. I wonder if my best friend’s rejection portends my own unlikability. I drink more.

Usually, when my phone is silent, I drag myself to the elevators and go somewhere, talk to anyone. When the elevators are empty, I pick up my phone, talk to someone, say anything. Today, I do both. I press the elevator button and dial my sister.

“Hey! How you doing?” she answers, and in an instant, everything comes tumbling out. I monologue about my lonelinesses, about my job, about my sneaky ungrateful days, about the nightgown and the smoke and Inez, who won’t speak to me, and how wretched that feels.

“That sounds really difficult,” my sister sympathizes.

Dan adds: “Well, you’re an extrovert, Snaggle, living alone for the first time, going through a break-up, plus job insecurity. This is a rough time for you.”

“Duh, Dan,” I say. I regret the words as soon as they leave my mouth.

“You’ve got to stop talking to him like that,” my sister whispers angrily. “It hurts his feelings.”

 

20C

My resolve builds in the elevator. By the time I open my apartment door I am armed in a suit of rage. I snatch a frying pan from above the oven and start swinging. I smash eyebulbs and tentacles and suckers and silences. I smash them all. In the end, I am sweating. My apartment is coated in guts. The counters are smeared with toxic rainbow goop.

Loneliness massacre.

 

DOWN

I’ve been rehired at Rutgers, but only for one class. They apologize, but that’s all they have available for the spring. Enrollment is down 30% after the first semester of remote learning. I spend two days calculating groceries, internet bills, credit cards, student loan payments, then decide to sell the couch that Dan guilted me into buying. When the Craigslister knocks, I help him haul the sofa to the elevators, but it barely fits.

“There was plenty of room when I bought this thing six months ago,” I apologize, as we stuff in an armrest.

 

DOWN

A woman named Charlotte is in the elevator today. She says that the residents have drafted a petition demanding that the elevators be replaced, or else we will implement a rent strike. I want to drink the conviction pouring out of her eyes. I want to rub her life force into my skin.

“Will you sign?” she asks, handing me the clipboard. We’re so tight in the tiny car that she prods the petition painfully into my chest. From this close I can see that Charlotte wings her eyeliner like Inez, that she has clear plastic glasses like my sister. She offers me her back as a writing surface.

“Thanks,” she says. “I’ll send out email updates to let everyone know how management responds.” When I return the clipboard our fingers touch, I linger on her hand, exert just the slightest bit of pressure, feel the warm blood circulating beneath her skin. Panic flashes across her face, and I pull away.

“Thank you for organizing this,” I say, like the non-threatening non-pervert that I am.

“Mmhmm,” Charlotte murmurs.

I hold my own hand the rest of the way down.

 

20C

For a few days—with the lonelinesses gone—I finally get some sleep.

 

UP

I’ve found another hero.

The first time I saw her was at a distance, as she was walking away down the sidewalk. She was wearing just as fabulous an outfit then as she is now, all flashy bright colors and shoulder pads and neon lipstick and a hat as if she has not changed her wardrobe since Sunday morning circa 1985, and she doesn’t give a damn who knows it. This is what amazes me about really old ladies: their I-don’t-give-a-fuck-ness.

In the elevator, I compliment the woman’s outfit, and she pivots to a philosophical musing on color: “Red never fails to delight.”

“Red’s my favorite color too!”

“I always thought the desk clerks should wear some color instead of those drab white and black uniforms.”

“Like maybe a scarf or a beret, an accent piece,” I say.

“An accent piece, exactly!” she smiles. “Maybe a brooch?”

“Or some big earrings. And a feathered headband!”

The woman throws back her head and laughs, placing a hand on my arm as if we were guests at the Met Gala and I was some clever New York hedge funder instead of an unwashed teacher with a grocery cart full of ramen.

“What’s your name, dear?”

“Everyone calls me Snaggle.”

“That’s an odd name.”

“Well,” I hesitate. Yet with the lonelinesses gone, I am filled with a desire to be known, “Actually, my name is Ruth.”

“Ruth! That’s lovely! Why didn’t you say that in the first place?”

“I guess I always thought it was an old lady name. No offense.”

“Darling, no offense taken.” The woman leans forward conspiratorially, her black hair peeking out from her hat. “Old ladies are the freest people on earth.” The elevator dings on seven.

“Hope to see you around, Ruthie darling, although I can’t say I get out much.” That’s when I realize: this is Doris’s friend, the one who reads trashy newspapers and eats plenty of potassium. She sashays down the hall, looking regal, trailing Chanel.

 

DOWN

The attractive man with the golden retriever enters on floor eighteen, and I frantically glance down to check what I’m wearing. These days the word “outfit” has lost all meaning. Clothing equals skin covering. Most days, I would gladly wear a beige Communist jumpsuit with a unisex crotch flap just to simplify things.

On this particular morning, I have apparently decided to don a pair of psychedelic bike shorts and a t-shirt from the Women’s March that says, “Paws Off My Pussy.” The bike shorts are too small. My thighs make swollen collagen rings around the base of the leg holes. My leg hairs stick out at all angles. Plus, I’m wearing a winter hat with earflaps. The laundry room is always freezing but putting on a coat requires hangers and buttons and zippers, and back in my apartment. I’d convinced myself that heat escapes exclusively through the head, so it seemed reasonable to pull on a cap and leave my house looking like a lazy feminist logger.

At least I curled my hair this morning. I curled it for a Zoom call with my colleagues, but then the meeting was canceled. On second thought, maybe the hair makes it worse. Now I look like the kind of nut job who spends thirty minutes curling her hair but no time putting on proper clothes. I’m like an old widow who carefully applies lipstick and then strolls down Main Street with her dress tucked into her underpants. I’m the Millennial Grey Gardens. I’m Boo Radley with breasts.

The dog sniffs, and Attractive Man gives me a once-over. I want to offer an explanation, maybe make a witty joke, but instead I find myself narrating.

“I’m doing laundry,” I say. “It’s cold down there. So I put on the hat.”

The attractive man takes out his earbud. “I’m sorry, did you say something?”

“I said: don’t you wish we could all just wear beige Communist jumpsuits? Then we’d never have to pick out an outfit.”

The man looks surprised. He gives a loud, genuine laugh that makes his dog bark.

 

20C

A few of the lonelinesses return. I doubt I’ll ever be completely rid of them. But these lonelinesses seem different, more mature. Apparently, the next phase of evolution— past eyestalks, anger, warfare, and tribalism —is a sense of humor. The lonelinesses tumble about my room pulling pranks. They draw mustaches on my photographs and write expletives in the margins of my textbooks. I sweep them up and stick them in a jar to keep them out of trouble, but the lonelinesses sucker their tentacles against the glass, making suggestive wet faces at me. It’s pretty funny.

At night they glow inside the jar, diffusing warm, pleasant light.

I don’t feed the lonelinesses anymore, but I put some cotton balls in there to make them comfortable.

 

UP

The elevator cars are now so diminished that Management decrees only two people at a time, and they have to stand facing opposite directions so as not to breathe on each other.

I board the car with a load of laundry just as the Puerto Rican man sidles up with his groceries. We angle away as per instructions. His TV dinners fill the car with the aroma of frozen breading and peas. He’s stockpiled enough HungryMan dinners to last through an apocalypse. Meanwhile, I’m light on food this week.

The elevator beeps upwards, second floor, third. I don’t have much time. Quickly, with muscle memory cultivated from years of stealing lipstick at the mall, I snatch a frozen product off his cart and stuff it on top of my laundry. The fourth floor dawns. The man maneuvers out, and my heart pounds with adrenaline.

Tonight, I shall feast on HungryMan’s Chicken Bacon Ranch: dinner of justice.

 

20C

               I unscrew the lid of the loneliness lamp and allow what few creatures are left to wander freely about my apartment. By this point they’re pretty tame. Sometimes they hop into my pockets, and we go for a walk together around the neighborhood. The lonelinesses wave their bright tentacles at passersby. Every once in a while, someone recognizes them and waves back.

One night in late March, it rains. My windows leak down the outer walls of my apartment. The lonelinesses turn their nasal slits towards the smell of water. Inspired, I scoop them up and stick them one by one against the crevasse of my windows, forming a seam. To my delight, the trickling stops. The lonelinesses suckle happily. My apartment becomes dry and cozy. Apparently, I can fix things.

 

UP

The elevator repairmen are back. Once again only one of the miniature cars is working. Residents snake out the double doors and down the sidewalk: the Puerto Rican with his groceries, the Indian divorcée with her daughter, the carmine lipstick couple clutching their decrepit, wet-eyed Schnauzer. Hot Jogging Man runs past us. A pod of Rutgers boys follows. Jeremy barks orders about maintaining distance and gives tips for hand washing. “Get under those fingernails, people!” he yells.

Personally, I’m in heaven. I don’t even have much laundry in this bag – just a couple of washcloths and some underwear. I’m here to bask in the company of my fellow disgruntled human beings.

“What are we supposed to do if the elevators keep shrinking?” someone asks.

“I went to the management office yesterday. They’re so rude.”

Charlotte passes around her clipboard. “Sign our petition!”

“Can I pet your dog?” I ask the carmine couple. They nod. As I scratch behind his ears, the Schnauzer lowers his lids. “Nice lipstick color, by the way.”

 

DOWN

 As soon as the elevator doors open on twenty, smoke comes pouring out. Behind the thick white curtain, two figures appear, one tall, dark, and statuesque, the other short, pale, and shriveled like muses of Ancient Greece, or operatic divas rising through a trap door. It’s Doris and Elayne, my heroes, the Really Old Ladies (ROLs) of Metropolitan Towers. They beckon to me, giggling through plumes of weed:

“Snaggle!” Doris cackles.

“Ruthie, darling!” Elayne cries.

Hands reach out and pull me into the car. The doors close.

The two women grin at me, smoke curling around their wrinkled visages. Their eyes are red-rimmed. We squeeze so tight that I can feel the nylon fabric of Elayne’s pantsuit crushing against my cheek.

“You’re wearing red, Ruthie!”

Doris’s papery hand lifts my wrist. “Puff, puff pass honey,” she says, sticking the joint in between my fingers. The weed is surprisingly dank. I exhale above our heads, watching myself in the cloudy ceiling, my bloodshot eyes like two stoned fish.

“This is chronic shit. Where’d you guys get it?”

“Rutgers kids,” Elayne says. “I do love college boys. They’ve got good grass.”

We all laugh. Doris’s chuckle sounds cobwebbed as if she’s been brewing it for years in the cauldron of her chest.

The doors open on the lobby. A Chinese couple stares at us, holding their cart of groceries.

“Hello, Carlos darling!” Elayne waves. “How’s that little daughter of yours?”

“Uh-un, you can’t be hotboxing the elevators, Miss Elayne,” Jeremy says. “I don’t care how long you lived here. People have got to use those elevators. You ladies need to get on out.”

“Time to go, girls,” Doris smashes the Door Close button.

Jeremy barrels forward. “Did you hear me? Doris? Elayne? I’m not playin’”

But Carlos holds him back, shaking his head: “Don’t fuck wit the ol’ ladies, bruh.”

Yeah, I think, don’t fuck with us.

“Back to the top!” Doris cries.

“Ta-ta, Carlos darling,” Elayne calls, and Doris and I smash the elevator button fast fast fast like we are protagonists in a heist movie. The doors clamp shut. We cheer, throwing our wizened fists into the air. We’re free! We’re the freest people on earth!

 

UP

Finally, the elevators have shrunk so small they can only fit one person. I take a long walk in the spring rain, and by the time I return to the Towers, my clothes are soaked. I call the minuscule elevator and squeeze in, filling the space. Wood panels hug my shoulders. The floor numbers rise beneath the glowing UP arrow. And then – somewhere around the seventh floor – I feel it: the walls move. The shift would be imperceptible if I weren’t so tightly wedged, but yes – it’s there. I might not be able to get out now.

Finally, I think. I am truly trapped. No more ambiguous waiting, no more sneaky days, no more loneliness tentacles hanging on me as I sleep. I’ll just ride the ups and downs of this elevator forever. Doris and Elayne will testify about my entrapment to the local news stations. Charlotte will lobby on my behalf. Hot Jogging man will be attracted to my fame. Inez and Dima will see my New York Post headline:

Part-time Teach Turns Full-Time Trapped!

Lift Lady Learns Lesson

Local Prof Ages into Famed Elevator ROL

Whatever happens, I’ll adapt.

 

Experimental Trials (Third Place Winner of the Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction)

After the first, which was of course televised, a silence swept over the land. Networks later reported a full four minutes and thirty-nine seconds of dead air during which the camera simply recorded the creeping progress. It was the black-haired man—whose body was slowly rising from the exam table, carried by invisible hands to hover six inches above the linoleum tiles of the vaccine site—who finally broke the silence. “Jesus,” he whispered.

From his ratty armchair my father said, “Those nonbelievers on Possum Drive must be shitting themselves right about now.” Over the course of the four and a half minutes, during which the man’s body had moved steadily, gracefully through the air, my brother Jeb had scooted closer and closer to the television. The blues and golds from the screen illuminated the soft round skin of his cheeks. My mother crossed herself and said, “God is good.”

My father included the black-haired man, Jacob Blackwell, in our evening prayers that night. Fingers twisted into my nightgown, I tried to focus on his wooden voiced recitation, but another moment hung in my mind, twisting and flashing and untwisting on its long string, a suncatcher grabbing all the surrounding light and scattering it, fracturing everything with its sharp angles.

# #

The floating man was on the front page of the Kentucky Gazette the next morning alongside an interview with a scientist who spent a lot of time talking about density and gas in the body and possible chemical reactions in the bloodstream.

“These people wouldn’t know God if He hit them upside the head with a two-by-four,” my father said, letting the thin pages flutter back into place on the table. “Miracle!” he declared over the rim of his coffee cup. “Miracle!”

My mother flipped to the case count for Alabaster. “Two more deaths.”

“Who?”

There was quiet in the kitchen as she rifled through to the obituaries.

“Nonbelievers.”

My father nodded. No one from the congregation had died of the virus.

As I was pouring cereal, we received a call from the Grace Fellowship phone tree. Ma put the call on speakerphone, so we could all listen to Sister Alice share the pastor’s message about God’s gift. Sister Alice had a stutter, and Jeb was bouncing in place, impatient to return to his Lincoln logs long before she finished. She got it out at last. The plague was over. The earth had been cleansed of wickedness. Sloth, gluttony, covetousness, wrath, pride, and lust had been wiped out. Adulterers, homosexuals, murderers, rapists, criminals, and thieves had received their judgement. God had sent a sign that it was time to begin anew in His holy name, and Jacob Blackwell was that sign.

“Amen,” we said as one into the speakerphone, and then my mother hung up and called the Bradburys to repeat the message. My father cut Blackwell’s picture out of the paper, emptied a gold picture frame of a photo of his mother, and inserted the floating man. He hung it in the kitchen between a print of the Madonna and a brass crucifixion.

At school the Grace fellowshippers were already talking about Blackwell as the Second Coming. After lunch we piled into the gym.

“Six feet apart! Six feet apart!” Mrs. Kanoffel kept yelling as the science teacher fussed with the projector which was showing nothing but blue. In the echo chamber of cement bricks, I heard Millie Zarturo laugh, or I thought I heard her laugh. She would be in the back with the nonbelievers. I didn’t turn my head to look for her. Then the Fox News logo came into focus. It was warm in the gym, and the breath in my mask slipped up to fog the lenses of my glasses until I had to take them off and wipe them every few minutes. Blackwell was still floating. They showed a short clip of him hovering around the hospital room where he was being kept for observation, eating his breakfast in mid-air. They were doing it again, this time with a woman. She had short red hair that curled out on either side of her face. Black wires and electrodes were connected to her temples, her chest, and just about everywhere. The doctor administering the vaccine stepped back as soon as the liquid entered her body.

At first, nothing happened and the fellowshippers sitting together in the front row of the bleachers nodded at one another. “He shall come again in glory to judge—” Shirly Baker began, then there was a tugging on the wires. The camera frame zoomed out. Her legs were lifting. Her shoulders rose. There she was, a solid two inches above the red pleather of the exam table. I think she could have gone higher if she weren’t hooked up to all those machines which just kept chugging along. Nothing beeped rapidly like in those hospital shows. No plunging red lines appeared on the monitors. A few of the nonbelievers on the back rows of the bleachers laughed.

“There seem to be no adverse side effects,” one doctor said later, standing beside the floating woman.

When we got home from school, Dad wasn’t there. We ate without him and didn’t hear his car in the driveway until late. Every afternoon that week after lunch we trekked to the gym to watch the breaking news coverage. Our experiments for the county science fair went forgotten. The trifold was tucked away in the back of my closet, and although I often thought of those five green dots left by her sleeping hand, I did not take the board out to study them. I tried to let the dust settle over my guilt.

On Wednesday, an older man levitated six and a half inches off the ground. On Thursday, a young woman made it nearly a foot. On Friday monozygotic twins hovered at exactly the same height. On Saturday, to quiet Jeb, Ma ushered us into the station wagon, and we drove the two hours to the Louisville Slugger Museum. “Your father needs to rest,” she said when Jeb asked why he wasn’t coming.

On Sunday, in the sun-filled sanctuary, which smelled overpoweringly of disinfectant, the pastor gave a sermon called, “Are You Worthy of God’s Kingdom?” He began with the flood. Our congregation, he said, was a mighty ark which protected us from the waters of destruction because we were found to be righteous in His eyes. The virus had cleansed the earth of the sinful, but only those who were truly pure of heart would enter heaven. Pastor Pierce explained that the vaccine was a test of holiness. The higher we floated, the closer we were to God. My father, clean shaven for the first time this week, seemed finally at peace in the warm glow of the pastor’s words.

The monozygotic twins died of back-to-back heart attacks that night. The doctors said it had nothing to do with the injection, but suddenly nobody besides us wanted anything to do with the clinical trials. Government funding was cut overnight, and the plan for the multi-city pilot delivery program was halted. That’s why the experimental trials were moved to Alabaster. There was such a clamour for it from Grace Fellowship that those white coats packed up their Erlenmeyer flasks and came on out here in two weeks flat. Everyone wanted to know they were worthy of God’s kingdom. It was the school nurse who told me, when I couldn’t stop crying during the annual 7th grade eye exam, that children wouldn’t be included in the experimental trials.

“Not until you’re eighteen,” she said, eyes kind over her powder blue mask.

So I tried to erase the memory of Milly Zarturo. If I couldn’t remember the sin, maybe it wouldn’t count.

# #

The doctors thought the floating would dissipate with time, but Blackwell was still averaging four and three-eighths inches off the ground three months later. Soon the aisles of the Piggly Wiggly were full of floating men and women. Nonbelievers would ask my mother to hand them the last box of Bisquick on the top shelf, and she would extend her arm. Jeb and I had to get the groceries on the bottom shelves. Once you were up there, floating, it didn’t seem you could come down so easily. The bike shop in town had offered to install clips on the brake and gas pedals, so vaccinated adults could drive, and soon all the elders in the congregation were floating around in cycling shoes.

I had thought it would be a sort of graceful gliding, but my father, one of the highest floaters at eleven and a quarter inches, couldn’t carry a cup of coffee to his armchair without spilling it. “At least I don’t have to wear those dang masks anymore,” he would say cheerfully every time the coffee sloshed from his mug. The floaters walked through the air, which seemed to be an invisible bumpy surface beneath their feet. Sometimes they stepped into holes, sinking to nearly an inch above the floor. When this happened, they stumbled, but they didn’t seem capable of falling. Something in the air seemed to catch them before they reached the ground. Mrs. Popejoy with her flowered cane and thick prescription glasses had taken to shuffling everywhere so as to avoid the craters.

Not long after all the adults had been vaccinated, Grace Fellowship began a petition to allow children into the experimental trials. Pretty soon news vans were parked outside the church day and night. Men and women with perfect hair, wearing tailored suits and surgical masks, milled around in the courtyard as Pastor Pierce preached about salvation and waved his clipboard in the air. One of the Sisters had tied a pen on a string to the clipboard, and it shook and trembled and jumped as the pastor gesticulated.

A girl from the high school, a nonbeliever named Sarah-Bell, dressed up in a Grace Fellowship jumper and kerchief and gave an interview to Robert MacNeil. A couple of fellowshippers saw it on the PBS news hour. Apparently Sarah-Bell talked a bunch of BS about wanting to float and how her ma told her she would throw her out of the house if she didn’t make it at least five inches off the ground. Jeremiah showed me the clip in the library while we were working on our social studies homework. “You can tell she’s trying not to laugh,” he said, as Sarah-Bell lifted a hand to cover her face. The shot switched to a closeup of Mr. McNeil looking directly into the camera. He sighed deeply and began talking about societal pressures in religious communities. I pulled off the headphones, looked out the window, chewed on my lip, then looked back at Jeremiah. “Did you hear about Mayweather?” He shook his head.

There had been a rumor going around the school that Tommy Mayweather had sex with a nonbeliever back in September, but when he got the vaccine on his eighteenth birthday, he floated eight and a half inches. I whispered this to Jeremiah over the large, laminated map showing Christopher Columbus’ travels which we were supposed to be copying into our notes. “Maybe God doesn’t care if you have sex. Maybe all this time we’ve been wrong about what He has forbidden.” Jeremiah’s tongue was protruding from his lips, and the tip wiggled slightly as he glanced at the map and then back at his drawing, forehead scrunched in concentration. “Or maybe that whole thing was a rumor and Tommy never had sex with anyone.”

At night in bed, after Jeb had turned out the light, I lay awake wondering how God measured sin. Apparently none of the adults had a sin heavy enough to keep them on the ground, even Mrs. Perzinsky who used to be an underwear model. Pastor Pierce had said the virus cleansed the world of wickedness, and I was still here, so that must mean my sin had been forgiven, at least part-way. I tried to forget about Millie Zarturo and the shimmer of tiny golden hairs on her flushed cheek and the scent of the warm air just above her skin.

# #

In November, a lawyer from Grace Fellowship sued the experimental trials on the grounds of religious freedom, saying children had a right to receive the vaccine. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court. It took a long time, and during those months I tried to be good and righteous. I did visualizations like when the gym teacher told us to imagine the ball striking the center of the bat. I imagined washing the stain from my soul the way Ma had taught me to scrub the menstrual blood from my underwear. I closed my eyes hard until I could see the soap froth turn pink and feel my fingers become icy beneath the cold water, until I saw the stain stream over the porcelain basin and spiral down the drain.

We were hanging garland at the church, getting ready for the Christmas pageant later that week, when one of the older boys poked his head into the sanctuary and yelled, “They found one.” He took off down the carpeted hall. We clutched the skirts of our jumpers and followed.

The large room in the church basement was packed. The television showed a grainy recording of a woman I didn’t recognize. She was small with short brown hair and a stern mouth. After nine months of the pandemic, a few nonbelievers had shown up for the experimental trials. All had floated.

A man in a white coat administered the vaccine. There was a long silence. The digital timestamp on the bottom right of the footage flashed away the seconds. Nothing happened. The woman’s feet remained on the floor. The scene cut back to a bright newsroom where Robert MacNeil was interviewing a scientist. The red and white headline along the bottom of the screen read, “Anomalous Woman.” I looked around for the pastor but couldn’t find his face in the crowded room. “What does it mean?” one of the younger kids asked in a whisper. My father, leaning against a beat-up piano in the corner, said simply, “God missed one.”

She was dead by the eleven o’clock news. From my hiding spot, I peeked through the slats in the banister. They showed the crumpled sheet-metal of her white Honda illuminated in the darkness by flashing ambulance lights at the intersection of fifth and Broadway, and then a bunch of photos from her Facebook page. She had been a nurse and a single mom. Two of her coworkers had recently died of the virus. “She was desperate to protect herself and her son,” a crying woman explained to a shaky camera beside the accident site in the gently falling snow. The screen cut to a photo of the woman on a sled, holding a child on her lap. My mother turned off the television and rose from the couch with her tea. It was then that I noticed the empty armchair. My father was still at the deacon’s meeting.

At school the next day, Ronny Buckman said his older brother had seen the woman walking the boulevard plenty of times and that she had been a prostitute. He said all those photos of her in scrubs were just from a Halloween party. By lunchtime there was a rumor that the car accident had been a setup, and that Pastor Pierce had something to do with it. I wasn’t sure if the rumor came from a fellowshipper or a nonbeliever, but suddenly it was everywhere. Older nonbelievers shouted the rumor to one another with a smile in the hallway between classes. In the cafeteria, a group of older fellowship boys began banging on the table and chanting Pastor Pierce’s name until Mrs. Kanoffel approached with a stern look.

It was taco day, and the beans had soaked through the bottom of the hard-shell taco, so it tore in my hands and spilled in my lap when I lifted it to my mouth. I put the taco down and drank two cartons of chocolate milk. I glanced across the cafeteria to where a group of nonbelievers were exchanging gifts. Millie Zarturo was somewhere behind the shiny gift bags and thick red ribbons, but I could not make out her face.

It was the last day of school before Christmas vacation, and we had a test in every class that afternoon. When I asked Jeremiah what he thought about the rumor, he just shrugged over his flashcards and said the woman’s death was inevitable, i-n-e-v-i-t-a-b-l-e. It was one of the words on our English spelling list. “Of course God was going to intervene. I-n-t-e-r-v-e-n-e.” But did he think Pastor Pierce had intervened? “Only He is omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent.” And he proceeded to spell each word.

# #

In February, they came out with another vaccine that didn’t make you float. Most of the nonbelievers in town got vaccinated with the new one, and things finally started to feel normal again.

That spring every boy in fifth grade signed up for the baseball team. We went to every game, my parents hovering over the last row in the bleachers, behind the nonbelievers and the out-of-towners. Jeb played shortstop like Pee Wee Reese, pounding his left hand into his glove and spitting into the red clay. His raggedy bowl cut was too long, and he was forever shaking the hair from his eyes before crouching into his low stance, glove hovering in the air before him. He refused to let my mother cut his hair all season. He said it was his good luck charm. When my mother repeated the Grace Fellowship adage, “There is no such thing as good luck, only God’s luck,” he only shrugged and went to his room.

One Saturday he jumped nearly three feet to catch a rogue hit, the maw of his red-brown glove roaring into the air. The out-of-towners gave him a standing ovation. My father whooped and clapped and said, “Just think of when he can fly.” Pastor Pierce had started to call it flying, even though you still had to lift your feet to move, and no one seemed to be able to make it higher than fourteen inches. A girl from the school newspaper caught the play with her camera, and the picture was on the front page, “Miraculous Catch.” My father shook his head over the headline. “These people wouldn’t know a miracle if it hit them upside the head with a two-by-four.”

# #

We were in the middle of Kentucky-mandated standardized testing when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Grace Fellowship. None of the teachers told us, but we knew because Grace Fellowship parents started picking their kids up early. I imagined holding the sin in my hand, closing it in my fist, pictured it compacting, draining, shrinking to nothing. How much sin were you allowed to carry into His Kingdom? How much was too much to fly? What if they gave me the shot and I rose a quarter of an inch and nothing more?

From inside the silent rooms with butcher paper hanging over the reference charts on the walls, I could hear my father’s voice in the hallway, arguing with Mrs. Kanoffel. “She can finish the test later.” “State rules require-” He was already walking towards the door. I knew the skid and shuffle of my father’s footsteps, knew them in the aisles at church, knew them coming down the stairs early on Sundays, knew the soft sound as he moved through the uneven air. I could hear my blood rushing through my ears like a river rushing towards an edge. Ma and Dad had taken us to Niagara Falls when I was nine and Jeb was six. For a moment I could feel the clouds of cold mist on my skin, feel the force of the water stampeding against the eroding rocks, and hear the middle-aged woman in the blue raincoat behind us muttering to her friend, “They never talk about how many people died going over those falls by accident.”

On my way to the front of the room, I passed Millie Zarturo’s bent head. The tributaries of her brown curly hair split off one after the other, revealing a sliver of her milk-white scalp as she meticulously filled in perfect circles with her number two pencil. Millie was a nonbeliever. She would finish her test uninterrupted. She would walk home, maybe stopping at the corner store for a pack of gum, then she would watch some after-school sitcom my father would never let us see. During the commercial breaks maybe she would check the local news, but she wouldn’t think of me. I was nothing to her, and she didn’t know; it was the only reason I hadn’t asked her to forgive me. I had thought about apologizing a hundred times, but I couldn’t apologize without telling her what I had done. I thought if I never said it out loud, maybe it would cease to exist.

“Hurry up,” my father kept saying as we walked down the hallways covered in student artwork. “Hurry up. There’ll be a line already.” Jeb was with him, and as we ran to keep up with my father’s long strides, I could hear the hiss and rub of his backpack straps. He was holding his glove. It was a Tuesday, which meant practice. The playoffs were next week.

My hands were trembling, and it took several tries to secure the metal tongue of the seatbelt into place. Pastor Pierce says we all choose our path. Man makes his own fate. Sweat slid down my training bra. I was in seventh grade, and I had already ruined the rest of my life.

The sun was in my eyes as we drove to the vaccine site. I raised a hand against the bright orb, but my face still felt hot in the shade of my palm. We rode across the train tracks, and as the car jolted over each bump, I realized I wasn’t going to heaven. The car lurched once more and puke erupted, orange and stinging from my nose and mouth, coating the yellow and blue atlas in the backseat pocket of the passenger side, the center console, the window. My gray jumper was warm and wet against my skin. I blinked back whatever else threatened to come up. My father pulled over, but there wasn’t much to be done. We drove the rest of the way with the windows down.

The line was the longest I had ever seen in my life, reaching its thin arm down County Route 603. The afternoon sun baked the vomit onto my dress until it formed a crusty continental outline. We waited, and I watched the shifting of our shadows with the sun’s trajectory across the sky. The whole congregation seemed to be here, but the kids were quiet. Ronny Buckman was two places ahead of us in line, but he didn’t seem to have any jokes today. He just chewed on his fingernails until his mother slapped his hand out of his mouth, and then he scrunched his eyes against the sun and stared into the distance. It wouldn’t be long now.

When she got off work at five, Ma brought me a new jumper and we waited in line together. As the vaccination tents drew nearer, the claps and whoops became audible. Then we could see them, the newly risen emerging from the plastic flaps, boys from the school band, girls I had played tag with at the church potluck, floating slowly, unsteadily, to the glistening parking lot. I flexed my fingers incessantly as I waited until the skin, brittle from so much hand sanitizer, cracked and began to bleed.

It had been over four hours, and I decided I couldn’t get the vaccine.

My father was down the line talking to Neil Caringo, hands pushed deep into his pants pockets, leaning back on his heels, so I turned to my mother. She had her eyes closed against the sharp angle of the sunset, and her lips were moving which meant she was praying. In crowded waiting rooms, when nonbelievers pulled out their cell phones, my mother closed her eyes and talked to God.

“Mom.” I spoke quietly so the McCutchins behind us in line wouldn’t hear. Her eyes remained closed. I tried again. “Mom.”

“Yes, baby.” Her eyelids were pearly orange against the setting sun. I knew I had interrupted her conversation.

“I can’t get the vaccine.”

“Of course, you can, baby.”

“No, I can’t.”

“It’s a small needle. Just a little prick and then it’s over.”

“I don’t feel well.”

“This’ll just take a minute. Don’t you have a minute for Him?”

Her eyes were still closed, the familiar wrinkle lines on her forehead smoothed away, her face a placid lake into which I was throwing an infant to drown. She held one hand in the other, cupping them softly over her stomach. She had come straight from work, still in her dental hygienist’s scrubs. On her breast pocket, an orange tabby batted at a ball of yarn. The toes of her brown clogs were scuffed, and her blue orthotics peeked out by her heels. Around her lake-like face, wisps of hair branched out like streams. If I told her, everything would change. I looked down to hide the water welling in my eyes.

“Mom. I—”

“Baby, if you got something you need to get off your chest, tell it to the Lord.” She opened her eyes now and nodded towards the tents, the dwindling line. “We’ll soon know His reply.”

My stomach clenched around my secret.

“I really don’t feel well,” I tried again. “I read you shouldn’t get a vaccine if-”

“Excuse me.” My mother tapped on the shoulder of the woman in front of us. “My daughter’s got a stomach ache. Would it be okay if we moved up the line, so we can get her home as soon as possible?”

My lip split beneath the pressure of my teeth as we moved rapidly up the remainder of the line this way, stepping ahead of quiet nods and muted smiles until we were next. Jeb stood at my mother’s side, buried in the pages of a baseball book from the library. There were claps and cheers from within the tent in front of us, and then a ninth grade boy with an electric pink Band-Aid on his bicep floated through the flaps.

“Next,” a woman in pink rubber gloves waved.

“Jeb can go first.” I shoved my hands into my pockets to hide their shaking.

“I’m not doing it,” Jeb said, nose still in his book.

“What’s that?” My father was at my mother’s side now, ready to go in with us.

“I’m not doing it,” Jeb repeated.

“Is the kingdom of heaven not-” my father began, but Jeb interrupted.

“Coach says we aren’t eligible for the playoffs if we float.”

The woman with the pink gloves put a hand on her hip. From the tent beside her, another woman poked her head out and called, “I can take whoever’s next over here.”

“Come on,” my mother said, stepping forward. My father reached for Jeb’s hand, but Jeb pulled away and took off running. A ripple passed down the line as folks turned their heads to watch the Douglas boy sprinting down Route 603, his too long hair flowing like a ribbon in his wake. Maybe if I had run too, everything would have turned out differently.

Then my mother’s hand was in the small of my back, pushing me forward. The tent flaps drew back. The woman with the pink gloves was scrubbing my upper arm with an alcohol swab. I closed my eyes and told God I would pay any price to atone for my sin and be allowed into His kingdom. I felt the sting of the needle and imagined the plunger in reverse, imagined the woman drawing the sin out of me, those two minutes of my existence exiting my body, filling the syringe with a thin blue substance which would never again enter my life.

It was back in September, the day Jacob Blackwell floated, in the darkness of morning hours long preceding the school day. The science fair was Wednesday, and I had carried our unfinished trifold over to Millie Zarturo’s house. Thin bodies of markers rolled over the slanted bedroom floor and collected in a dip beneath her bed. When I was finished with my third of the trifold, I reeled myself up from the pool of that exhausted compliance and found Millie asleep on the floor. The uncapped green marker in her hand had left several small dashes on the poster where her sleeping body had shifted.

I found the green cap and reached for the marker, but my fingers settled instead on her mask, and then they were unhooking the elastic from the seashell of her ear. I wanted her to be a fellowshipper. I wanted to walk to church with her and gossip after choir practice. I wanted to brush the hem of her jumper with my pinky as we sat on the worn wooden pews. I wanted to see what was under her mask. Milly’s pink lips were parted in sleep. Her cheeks were flushed, and as I leaned closer in the shine of her desk lamp, I could make out the shimmer of tiny golden hairs, a whisper of the down that covered the goslings in spring. I pulled my mask off and leaned closer, bringing my nose to the warmed air above her cheek. The faintest aroma of laundry detergent and peppermint rose to meet me, and another smell I couldn’t pin down, something gentle, the smell of warmth if warmth had a scent. My lips brushed her cheek, gliding over those soft downy hairs, my mouth opened.

I felt a sharp pain as something was removed from my body; then I heard my mother clapping.

# #

It took my father and the other men from the church a long time to find Jeb. When it grew dark, they returned to the house for flashlights. Still unsteady in the air, I crouched by the hutch in the living room, scrounging for more AAA batteries for our camping lantern. I was still awake when the phone rang in the middle of the night, and I knew that meant they had found him.  “They’re taking him now? God bless,” I heard my mother say softly into the hallway phone.

The next morning, my mother woke me at six to get ready for school. It took longer than usual, being up so close to the shower head, having to crouch to reach the bottom drawer of my dresser. I was running late by the time I entered the kitchen. Jeb sat at the table in front of a bowl of Cheerios. Dark circles crouched under his eyes. My mother hadn’t brushed his hair, and it poked out at awkward angles. An electric pink Band-Aid peeked out from beneath the lip of his shirt sleeve. When my mother grabbed her keys wordlessly, Jeb stood, feet still on the floor, and reached for his backpack, and I knew God had heard my prayer and answered with His swift and terrible judgement.


Olivia Fantini grew up in Massachusetts and spent six years teaching middle school. She is currently an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Minnesota where she was awarded the Gesell Fellowship. Her fiction has appeared in TriQuarterly. She is currently at work on a novel and a memoir.

Ameena Goes to America (Second Place Winner of the Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction)

A young white officer asks her in heavily accented Bengali, “What’s the purpose of your visit?”

“Cancer,” Ameena replies in English, standing in front of a glass window. “My husband cancer.”

The officer at the American embassy, Dhaka, gives her a sharp look, checks her papers, then abruptly disappears through the side door. When he returns, he types on his computer, and says her visa application has been approved.

Ameena thanks Allah that the man hasn’t asked her any complicated questions about her husband. Twenty years ago, when Selim left for America, she was thirty-one, her son was five, and her daughter three.

Selim never returned.

The first few years he called every week and sent enough money that she was contemplating buying a small apartment. Then came the attack on the Twin Towers, and he lost his job at the store in Manhattan. That was when all the trouble began.

Outside the embassy, Ameena catches her son smoking on the street. He drops the cigarette and crushes it underfoot. “Did you get the visa?” he asks.

Ameena nods.

Beside her son in an autorickshaw, her mind wanders back to the early days of her marriage. Selim smoked a pack of Benson & Hedges every day. He loved spending time with friends and talking politics at the neighborhood cafés. He worked buying stock from garment factories and selling them to the local clothing stores.

She thinks of the day Selim took her to a char island. He had heard about this newly deposited expanse of land in the River Meghna. One Friday, they had an early breakfast and took a bus to Narayanganj. From there they had a long but refreshing rickshaw ride on dirt roads through farmlands—mile after mile of mustard fields. The scent of mustard flowers in the spring breeze was intense, intoxicating.

It was a beautiful day. After the boat dropped them off on the island, they wandered about for a few minutes and spotted no sign of human presence anywhere—only a vast, sandy land surrounded by water. Selim pulled her hand and they ran like children. He stopped and gave a Tarzan’s jungle call, cupping his hands around his mouth. “Ameena,” he shouted, “how about we never go back, and just live here? We’ll be the king and queen of this island.”

“Yeah, that’d be fantastic!” she said.

They walked side by side, his arm draped over her shoulder. They dipped their feet into the water of the Meghna. Then without warning he picked her up in his arms. She found herself dangling above the water. He rocked her body, saying, “I’m dropping you.”

“No!” she screamed.

He laughed and kissed her.

**

After Selim lost his job in Manhattan, Ameena heard from him less and less. Whenever he phoned, he talked about uncertainties. Illegal immigrants were being detained. He didn’t go out much fearing deportation. The other day, he said, a fat white man spat on him in the street, calling him a terrorist, telling him to go back where he came from. That same day, after getting home, Selim shaved off his short black beard.

When he had said this, Ameena had trembled and tears raced down her cheeks. She didn’t mention she was having bad dreams about him. Just the night before, she had screamed for help as Selim was dragged into the street and beaten. She woke up panting, soaked in perspiration. When she came to her senses, she clasped her shaking hands together hard and asked Allah to keep her husband safe. Later, in her dawn prayer, she also prayed for the recovery of the Bangladeshi man she’d heard on the news had been shot in the face at a Dallas gas station.

“Please, come back home,” she implored Selim. “We don’t need American dollars. We will be happy here together.”

Selim said he was moving to another state soon. “You know, Ameena, it’s a great country to live in, but you need the legal status.”

Months after he settled in New Jersey, his friend in New York called to tell her that Selim was living with a Mexican woman.

In April, when Ameena finally received a call from Selim, she exploded. He tried to explain that he just rented a room in her apartment in preparation for entering into a contract marriage. “Ameena, don’t be mad. Some people do it here to get papers. It’s not real.”

She cried and begged him to return home immediately. “You have to choose either me or your America.”

“Ameena, listen—”

She wouldn’t listen. She yelled and cursed him. She asked him not to contact her anymore. “Many wives become widows at a young age,” she said. “I’ll consider my husband dead.”

Ameena moved in with her mother. She loved to sew. She became a seamstress for neighbors, friends, and relatives. They paid her well, but she could meet only half of her expenses. Her twin brother, who had a thriving import business, started giving her a monthly allowance.

When anyone asked Ameena about her husband, she faked a smile and said, “He lives in America.” Selim phoned occasionally to speak with the children and wired money prior to festivals. Then news reached Ameena that her husband had moved out of the home of the Mexican woman; his plan didn’t work out, and now he was sleeping with a white woman. Five years later she heard from someone that his asylum application had been granted. But his new status wouldn’t allow him to travel back to Bangladesh. She didn’t understand.

Not long after, her son made her tea in the evening and said, “Daddy wants me to study in the U.S.”

For half a minute, without a word, Ameena observed her nineteen-year-old son. Her face slowly tightened. “Never,” she said. “You want to be like your father?” She pushed the cup away, spilling tea on the table.

**

In September 2016, Ameena learned from Selim’s sister that he had lung cancer. At the end of the year his health deteriorated, and he had surgery. Could she fly to America to take care of her husband, his sister had asked. Ameena said no, and again she was asked in December. Then, in January, Selim called. She heard a forgotten yet familiar voice, now scratchy and strained. She pursed her lips but couldn’t form any words. After a moment she managed to speak. Her words and his words were punctuated by long pauses. He told her that he would send the necessary papers. She would need to get a passport.

Her interview at the embassy was scheduled in early April.

 

**

 

Ameena has never felt so distinguished in her life. For the last three months, no matter who she met, she has heard the same question: When are you going to America?

Her flight is at one in the morning. A day’s journey from Dhaka to New York, with a four-hour layover in Dubai. A bus is hired to carry her relatives, who insisted on coming to the airport to give her a send-off. They all hug her, and some cry at the immigration checkpoint.

She starts sweating when boarding begins. It’s her first time flying. She is given a window seat, and a flight attendant helps her fasten the seatbelt. She stiffens and holds her breath as the plane takes off. She says a prayer, and for a moment thinks she will never see her husband or her children again. But before long she realizes that the aircraft is in midair, and she gazes in wonder at the glittering skyline of Dhaka.

**

In the arrivals lounge at JFK, Ameena catches a stranger waving his hand at her. She does not recognize him until she hears her name. Selim is shockingly thin, his face so red, Adam’s apple sticking out. His head is shaved. Back home on her bedroom wall there is a family picture in which their children are standing on either side of Selim and her. Twenty years later, he matches so little of his earlier self, scarcely resembling that image of him anchored deep in her memory. It must be the cancer, she decides.

“You haven’t changed much,” Selim says in the car. He peppers her with questions. How was the flight? Did she face any problems anywhere? In Dubai? At immigration? He breathes heavily between sentences.

From the driver’s seat his friend, Rafiq Bhai, glances at her in the rearview mirror. He says it was his idea to get her assistance at Dubai Airport, so she wouldn’t have to struggle with her limited English.

“You’ve come at the right time,” he says to her, stopping the car before a condo. “It’s almost summer here.”

When Selim reaches for the luggage, Rafiq Bhai says, “You’re not supposed to lift anything heavy.”

In the elevator, Selim stands close to Ameena, his body brushing against hers. His breathing is labored and rapid.

Selim opens an apartment door numbered 17 and guides her into a sizable living room. His friend leaves, saying to call him whenever they need him.

“You can freshen up,” Selim says, pointing to another room. “I’ll warm up some food.”

Ameena takes one of her suitcases into the bedroom and shuts the door. She hears laughing and loud conversation emanating from outside. Through the window she peers down at the balcony of the apartment opposite. Wine glasses in hand, a couple of men with women in skimpy outfits are sitting in the late afternoon sun. She checks the window, but it has no curtain like back home. She moves into the corner of the room and changes into salwar kameez.

At the kitchen table, there is rice, mashed eggplant, chicken curry and dal.

“Eggplant?” She eyes him. “You don’t eat eggplant.”

“But you like it,” he says, serving her rice.

“You cooked these yourself?”

He nods, asks how the kids are doing.

“Oh, I need to call them!” she says.

“I messaged them already.”

She looks at his plate. He has taken a small portion of rice. He meets her eyes and says, “I can’t eat much.”

A small sigh escapes her lips.

He coughs. “It’s the chemo. It kills the appetite.”

She eats in silence. He eats in small bites.

“You’re a good cook,” she says.

After dinner, while Ameena does the washing-up, Selim makes her milk tea.

“Do you still take two spoons in your tea?” he asks.

She smiles. “No, one spoon now.”

He hands her the tea mug. Her fingers touch his for a second.

An hour later, as she yawns, Selim tells her to get some sleep. Ameena goes to the bedroom. When she wakes up, everything is quiet and dark. She peers out the half-open window; the night sky is clear, with a crescent moon. She slips out of the bedroom to use the bathroom and finds Selim asleep on the living room sofa.

**

The following day he takes her to an Indian grocery store, just around the corner. On the streets she spots Bangladeshi faces, hears them talking aloud, and makes out a Bengali song blaring from a jewelry shop. “It doesn’t feel like America here,” she tells him on their way home.

“It’s Jackson Heights,” he says, laughing. “A little Bangladesh.”

Ameena looks for spices in the kitchen cupboard and sets to cooking. Selim wants to help, but he starts coughing.

“Are you okay?” she asks.

“Yes, just tired.”

“Why don’t you lie down?”

“That’s what I do most of the time. Let me sit at the table and talk to you.”

He grabs a chair and inhales. He tells her that he drove a taxi for years, until last August, when he got the diagnosis. That was when he quit smoking.

That night Ameena settles in the sofa bed and says Selim should use the bedroom.

“You have health issues,” she says. “You need a bigger bed.”

“Why don’t we share the bed instead?” he says.

She holds his gaze. He lowers his eyes and enters the bedroom. Rubbing lotion on her hands, Ameena stretches out on the sofa. The rooms are still; the only sound she hears now is Selim’s wheeze, rhythmic and loud as the ticking of a clock at night. His words echo in her head. Why don’t we share the bed instead?

She slides off the sofa and tiptoes into his room. In the semidarkness, she makes out his eyes, looking at her. He moves over and makes room in the bed. For a long while, lying side by side on their backs, they stay silent. Then he places his hand on hers. She trembles. His hand is cold.

“I’m sorry,” he says.

She doesn’t answer. Eyes closed; she sees Dhaka: The small one-bedroom apartment they rented after their marriage. Their Saturday nights at the movies. Their first vacation in the mountains of Chittagong. The birth of their first child.

In the first few months, after Selim left for America, she hardly slept at night, staring at his empty side of the bed. She missed his touch. His smell. His cigarette breath. His occasional snoring.

“Forgive me, Ameena,” he murmurs and rubs the back of her hand. “I’m happy you came.”

She sighs, staring up at the ceiling. She imagines unknown figures—the women her husband slept with—filling in the two-inch gap between her and him in the bed, pushing them apart. Hispanic, white…were there more? She feels small. Tears spill from the corners of her eyes.

**

Ameena gets up early, says her morning prayer, makes herself milk tea, and watches the day breaking from the balcony. Then she reads the Quran while sitting at the kitchen table. At eight, she wakes Selim for breakfast.

Every other day she visits the grocery store by herself to buy vegetables. Often Selim asks her to check the mailbox on her way back. She doesn’t understand the washing machines in the building’s basement. She prefers to hand-wash their laundry in the bathtub.

Twice, morning and afternoon, she and Selim sit on the balcony. She sips tea, and he coffee.

“Do you remember the char island in Narayanganj?” she asks him one day.

He squints for a moment and then a slow smile brightens his face. “How can I forget? We spent some beautiful hours there, didn’t we?

Ameena grins.

“I enjoyed the boatman’s song too,” he laughs.

It was already afternoon on the char island, Ameena recalls. She asked him how they would get back to the other side of the river. They’d hired a boat to get here, but no boats were seen anchored at the island. They stood at the shore waving to the passing rowboats in the distance until a man in a canoe noticed them and came to their assistance.

The boatman agreed to ferry them across the river. On board, Selim asked him to sing a song, if he could. The man was in his twenties and chatty. He belted out a Bengali folk song. The world will remain forever as it is. And someday we’ll leave this beautiful world behind…  

**

One warm Monday, Selim says, “I’m feeling good today. Let’s go out.”

He orders an Uber and ten minutes later they are in front of a Bengali clothing store.

“Don’t waste money,” she tells him. “I’ve brought enough dresses from Dhaka.”

He doesn’t listen. He buys her salwar-kameez, a sari, and a pair of sandals. Afterward, he takes her to Hudson River Park. The park is swarming with people. Ameena feels uncomfortable seeing the women everywhere wearing so little clothing.

“Why are they lying like this under this hot sun?” she asks.

“It’s called sunbathing. As we love winter in Bangladesh, Americans love summer. So when it’s a nice sunny day like this, people come out in the park to enjoy the sun.”

They have ice cream. Ameena wonders if Selim remembers that last week was their wedding anniversary.

Later that month, Selim invites his friend to dinner. Ameena cooks all afternoon, then has a shower, and puts on the new sari.

Rafiq Bhai visits with his wife. After the meal, the two men talk about Bangladeshi politics on the balcony. Rafiq Bhai’s wife is fairly young. Ameena learns from the woman that she is his second wife. The first wife, in Dhaka, divorced him and married his cousin while Rafiq Bhai was in the U.S. The young woman has been in America two years now. No, her parents didn’t force her into this marriage. She herself consented to it because Rafiq Bhai had a green card.

**

On a drizzly day in August, Ameena passes Selim his morning medicines and a glass of water. “Your hair has grown long,” she says. “You need a cut.”

He returns the empty tumbler. “Do you want to do it? You once gave me a haircut, remember?”

She does remember. It was in the first year of their marriage. On a rainy day in Dhaka, when he was about to set off for a salon with a tattered umbrella, she suggested giving him a trim.

“It turned out not bad,” he says.

She smiles demurely. “Do you have good scissors?”

Selim finds her scissors. In the living room, Ameena spreads outdated newspapers on the floor and places a chair on them. With another sheet of newspaper, she makes a hole in the center and slides it over Selim’s head to catch the falling hair.

An hour later Selim stands before the bathroom mirror. “It’s almost perfect.” He looks at her and adds quickly, “That’s my fault, of course. I couldn’t provide all of the haircutting kit that barbers need.”

“See, I have many skills.” She leans on the bathroom doorway.

“I know. I’m amazed by your dexterous hands. Maybe we should open a salon.”

They both laugh.

Before going for a shower, Selim says, “Ameena, I didn’t tell, I applied for you and our kids to come over. It’s a lengthy process. The problem is, to sponsor and bring you all here permanently, I need to be employed. But in my current condition—” he pauses and sighs.

She touches his shoulder. “Don’t worry about these things now.”

**

Over the weekend, they attend a small wedding. The groom is Bangladeshi and the bride, Pakistani, Selim informs her. Some women come to chat with Ameena. “So glad that you made it to the US at last,” they say. One short woman about her age sits beside her during dinner. She tells her some of the latest community gossip. A fifteen-year-old girl invited her white boyfriend home when the parents were out, only to get caught by her father who is a devout Muslim and came to the States on DV Lottery. He gave her a good beating. She called the police and had him arrested.

“The child had her father arrested?” Ameena asks. “What kind of daughter is she?”

“Well, this is America.”

She tells Ameena she was a high school teacher in Dhaka. Her early days in New York were full of struggles. She started with a cleaning job. “Think of my situation,” she says. “I was a respected teacher back home. In America, I had to clean shit in toilets. They call it living the American dream.” She laughs and says she now works at a nursing home and earns more than her husband.

**

In early September, Selim has increasing breathing difficulties and coughs up blood. At night, he sleeps with his head and chest elevated with three pillows. Ameena rubs lukewarm mustard oil on his chest. He stays in bed all day now, wearing a beanie she knitted for him.

In October, after two visits to the hospital, a nurse comes to the apartment to set up an oxygen machine beside the bed. She shows Ameena how to use it and tells her to call 911 in case of emergency.

Some weeks after, on a cold and windy evening, Selim is moved to the hospital. Ameena is allowed to stay overnight with him. Rafiq Bhai chauffeurs her back and forth to the apartment. A few days later, she learns how to take a bus. It’s only five stops to the hospital. She cooks and brings meals for him, but he cannot eat. He drinks very little.

The next Saturday it is bitterly cold. That afternoon is the last time Selim can breathe without the ventilator.

“I wish I never came to America,” he says, his hoarse voice almost a whisper. “Wish I could turn back the time.”

“You really think so?”

“I regret what I’ve done to you, to our children.” He pauses and coughs. “I don’t expect you to forgive me.”

“I’ve forgiven you already. That’s why I agreed to come.”

“You have a great heart, Ameena. I am—I’ve been terrible.”

“Oh, don’t say that. You’ll get better soon.” She interlocks her fingers with his. “After you get well, we can visit Dhaka and I will take you to the char island.”

His face beams, then darkens, and then his eyes get misty.

He goes into a deep sleep. He stops responding. Tubes crisscross his body.

**

Rafiq Bhai manages everything. Hospital, burial, certificates. She has to sign a lot of papers.

It starts snowing on the day of her flight. She stands motionless by the bedroom window, watching the silent snow whitening the earth. Everything is so gray, so barren. Ameena thinks of Selim’s phone call the first time he saw snow. She asked him what it looks like. “It’s like cotton floating in the air,” he said. Ameena slides the sash open. She extends her hand through the window to feel the falling flakes on her palm.


Rahad Abir is a writer from Bangladesh. His work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review, The Bombay Literary Magazine, Himal Southasian, Courrier International, The Wire, BRICK LANE TALES anthology, and elsewhere. He has an MFA in fiction from Boston University. He received the 2017-18 Charles Pick Fellowship at the University of East Anglia. Currently he is working on a short story collection, which was a finalist for the 2021 Miami Book Fair Emerging Writer Fellowship.