Tryst (Editor’s Choice, Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction)

NYC, Winter 1985

I thrashed against the pillows, fist twisted into the linen, leg braced on a column of my canopy bed when my telephone rang. I kicked the satin coverlet over the phone to muffle it and plunged back into the fantasy of the hunk on a deserted island. On the cruise, I’d rebuffed him as beneath me, but now we were stranded together. I brought him a lobster; he dropped it. Night after night, I stupidly handed him rope with which he tied me to a palm tree. His betrayal flinted my anger. I scratched his neck and licked the blood, then savored the metallic aftertaste. His bronze chest gleamed, clean-shaven despite the fact that we were shipwrecked.

Giancarlo Giannini was about to fuck me when my answering machine clicked on.

“Stop masturbating and pick up,” Max said.

How did he know that? I stayed in bed. Let him talk to the tape.

“Are you still fantasizing about getting hammered by that hunchback blacksmith?”

I wanted to wring Max’s neck. I should have never told him that twisted fantasy; he mocked it, so he’d ruined it.

“Cause I realized he’s the ancient—” Max coughed. “Hold on. I’ll call back.”

“Vulcan,” I finished his sentence. Never thought of that. I buried my head in Mother’s satin pillow and tried to recapture the torrid scene, but the rope on my wrists slackened—did I have to instruct the shipwrecked lunk in proper nautical knots? He’d lost interest—even my imaginary lovers didn’t like me. In a coup de grace, the lobster I wanted more than the man crawled toward the surf, dragging its large claw. My Swept Away daydream swept away.

The phone rang again, and Max spoke to the machine. “EZ, I need you. Please, I have nobody else.”

“Whose fault is that?” I asked the answering machine.

“I only get one call.”

I talked though he couldn’t hear me. “Are you in prison?”

“I’m in Saint Vincent’s Hospital, and the nurses are killing me, which is completely unnecessary. I’m dying as fast as I can.”

I laughed. Max was a complete hypochondriac; he worked himself into hysterics, prognosticating the direst illness whenever he was constipated, calling me at seven in the morning to discuss the problem. But when he really fell ill, he refused to get help. I’d told him to get that cough checked out; it had sounded bad last time we met, the night he dumped me, two months back. It was freezing this February. He needed to stop cruising on the windy piers off Christopher Street at night. Let the doctors treat him. If I visit, he’ll only demand that I spring him.

The answering machine tape ran out. Max rang a third time. I struggled to my elbow and brushed the hair stuck to my lips.

“Dear Elizabeth, please pick up. I don’t have a phone, and if they catch me using this one, I won’t be able to call again.”

I reached down and answered. “You win.”

“Thank you. You are my true friend. I can’t say what I want on the phone; I need to see you. I wheeled my bed into someone’s room to use their line, but there will be hell if the nurses catch me contaminating the receiver.”

“Can I call someone for you?”

“No. It’s like Moscow in the Thirties. People vanish in the night.”

“Let’s not get dramatic.” I looked out my window across the park and the tumbledown conservancy gardens.

“Listen, you have to help me check out. I can’t afford this.”

“You don’t have insurance?”

“Of course not. Who can get insurance? Anyway, it’s no use. Chekhov said doctors are like lawyers, except lawyers just take your money, while doctors take the money and kill you.”

“You have to submit to their regime—”

“I did. They keep adding medicines to counter the side effects of the last dose. Chekhov said if many remedies are suggested, you can be sure there is no cure.”

“Enough Chekhov.”

“He was my pediatrician. Mom gave me his stories when I fell sick.”

“Chekhov died young.”

“Could you come soon?”

The phone rang again as soon as I dropped the receiver. The real estate agent left a message that she wanted to show Mom’s apartment to people who were “dying for it.”

I dressed and counted the money I’d saved from working. Three thousand. Not enough for rent and two months’ deposit, broker’s fee, and utilities, but I could split Max’s rent. This was a good moment to spring the proposal, with him incapacitated. I’d have his flat to myself. I grinned at my conniving as I left Mother’s house, crossed Fifth Avenue, and entered Central Park.

In the late afternoon light, I walked into my own shadow as I crossed to the West Side. Above the tree line, the wilderness of Manhattan raised its prickly head. I rushed through the woods I’d gazed out at from my childhood room, nights, sure that wolves lurked on the great hill and watered at Harlem Meer by moonlight.

 

Last Valentine’s Day, Max had taken me into this deserted corner of the park and given me a red velvet cloak “to warn the wolves.” Lined in satin and edged in brocade, an extravagance he could ill afford on his Radio Shack salary. As he draped it over my shoulders, he shivered. “Virgins scare the wolf more than anything.” As dusk fell, he built a fire by the lake. He roasted pomegranate-marinated shashlik, which he fed me; I nipped his fingers.

To that evening rendezvous I’d carried my grandmother’s pistol—winter nights, police didn’t patrol the park except in cars, their windows rolled up. Grandma had brought the gold-filigreed Remington by train from Denver; she’d tucked it under the pillow in her Plaza suite, and her new husband had said, “Darling, I don’t think you need this in Manhattan.” Times had changed. A mugger had shot Max’s KGB friend on the meadow; the doctors at Bellevue had sewn him up.

Standing close to the fire for warmth, I held the revolver’s pearl handle engraved with Oma’s maiden initials. I grilled Max on irregular verbs. “Burn, burned burnt.”

“Shoot, shotted, shut,” he tried.

“Nyet.”

Max baited me. “I slept with a Brazilian.”

“You slut! How many is a Brazilian?” I hefted the empty gun at Max, who stood in the snow in his grey army coat. I drew a bead on his drop-dead face, but the gun could not touch the Siberian distance of his eyes. He had smuggled his beauty out of the Soviet Union into my world. The moment hovered, eerie, romantic as a duel in deep snow—except I alone had the pistol.

He flinched in my gun sight.

“Don’t you trust me?”

“As far as I can throw Lenin’s tomb.”

I squinted down the barrel. Any minute now, he’d slip into the woods of the Ramble to squander his handsome looks on a stranger in the dark while I stomped the coals of our dwindling fire.

His eyes flashed. “I can see the tabloid cover. Little Red Riding Hood Kills Wolf.”

I didn’t want to kill him, I wanted to seduce him, but you can’t tame a wolf with a gun.

 

This week, a cold snap had hit the city; I crossed the park swiftly. Over me, the branches encased in ice rubbed against each other with a grim sound like an animal chewing a limb caught in a trap.

I vowed to give up my grudge against Max as I crossed the path where, one afternoon, he’d noticed my limp. “Just a splinter,” I’d said. I had kicked my empty bed, and a sliver had lodged in my big toe. I’d offered him a pocketknife. “Could you cut it out?” He had me sit on a park bench while he knelt. He’d worked at it, ignoring the knife I held, and then he’d sucked the wood from my foot. Passing that bench, I turned and walked backward. If only I could go back in time and unwind what went wrong. I tripped and turned forward. One can’t unhurt someone. Can’t unlove them, either.

Ice sheaths from the trees lay shattered on the sidewalk outside the park, glinting like broken bottlenecks in the streetlights. I rushed down the subway steps at Columbus Avenue. On the downtown subway platform, I watched the rats on the tracks. As the rats fled and the rails clattered, I thought of a joke to amuse Max: A casket walked into a bar, and the waiter said, “We don’t serve dead people here.” The casket pulled itself upright and said, “I’m not dead, just coffin.”

The train downtown screeched to a halt. I studied the sign, blackened by graffiti, and guessed it said B. The R didn’t stop here, except on occasions when the N/R line was diverted because of a body under the B or something. The car I boarded was empty except for a man whose swollen feet were bound with stained bandages. I scooped all the change in my pocket and poured it into his hands. The coins slipped between his fingers to the floor while I stared at his black palms. I glanced at my reflection in the subway pane above him: pallid, feral.

He looked up, mouth agape as if asking me to place a coin on his tongue so he could cough it up to pay Charon.

The train doors opened at my stop, and I stepped off. On a station bench, two figures intertwined under dark, heavy coats. Grotesque, insectish. I hurried past.

At a deli on Fourteenth Street, I brought white lilies, wrapped them in a tabloid, and headed for the hospital’s jutting white edifice and jagged black gap, a steel grimace. I went to St. Vincent’s old portico and, as I entered, wondered which room Dylan Thomas had died in.

The receptionist gave me Max’s room number, and I went to the isolation ward, ignoring the signs on the doors. The acrid scent of disinfectant stung my nostrils. Gurneys lined the walls like railroad cars shunted to a sidetrack. On each cot lay a thin figure, asleep beneath blankets.

I asked an orderly as he passed, “Where are the H rooms?”

“Here. H is for hall.”

“H-6?”

He gestured toward a torn bit of masking tape with 6 written on it, stuck to the wall over a bed. Yellow tape marked a small rectangle on the floor, a pretend room.

The thin form in the gurney curled toward the wall. A dinner tray lay untouched on his bed. The man rocked to whatever played on his headphones. The man with shorn hair couldn’t be Max, I thought, but he was a master of masks, dyed his paper-white hair red, then black, as if trying to fit in with a deck of playing cards. I opened the Walkman; the cassette was Bowie’s Changes. The head wearing the earphones still rocked, though the cassette had stopped. I lifted it, and the tape unspooled, a crinkled strip of confetti.

He turned, and I flinched at the sight of Max’s face. His skin seemed to have shrunk, a mask torn at the mouth, a botched clown grin. Red sores ringed his neck—had someone ripped his spiked collar inside out? His beard shocked me; he’d always shaved, even his torso.

I tried to smile, and Max’s face contorted in disgust—he had not molded me into the sunshine lady who cheered people up.

I looked askance at Max in a hospital gown, who had technical questions on the fine points of preppy style not covered at Bronx Science. He’d asked me, sunning on Columbia’s steps, “Is there anything Lilly Pulitzer that a man can wear?” I’d lied, “No.”

From the narrow bed, he studied my face.

“You could do more with your looks.”

“Like what?”

“Kill.” He waved his hand to the side. “You’re already famous, but only I realize it.”

Max had been the one sure to earn fame, barreling head-on for it. Fame had become a strange homelessness, gleaming cold.

No table or windowsill, no vase. I held the flowers.

Max tapped the newspaper wrapped around them. “What’s happening out there?”

“Donald Trump offered to negotiate with the Soviets on nuclear arms. Says he knows most everything about them and can learn the rest in an hour and a half.”

“Send him to the Kremlin.” Max placed a splayed hand over the photo of Trump’s face. “Blond Stalin.” He collapsed back into the mattress, and his thin arms flopped beside him, hitting the metal railings. “Ow. No pillows allowed because I might suffocate.”

He’d always had a huge bed. Every few months, when he moved from one fourth-floor walk-up to another, he called me to help him carry his California king. Why didn’t he ask the men who had slept in it with him? I dragged the stained mattress along the street; the fabric ripped, peeling back to expose the plastic. He’d yell at me, “Don’t drag the tip,” and I’d snap back, “I’m circumcising it.”

A nurse came and I asked her for a pillow and a glass for the flowers.

She swabbed the soft crotch of his elbow, then plunged a needle and worked a tube down under his skin.

Max squeezed my wrist. “I might as well have mainlined heroin.” He looked away while she hooked the saline drip.

He coughed, and the nurse jerked away. I held his hand. She grimaced at the glittering spit on my wrist.

When she left, I lowered the lilies to his nose; the pistils’ gold dust slippers trembled as he exhaled.

He breathed in their scent. “Lilies smell like cunts of angels.”

“You’ve never had an angel.”

An orderly dumped Max’s untouched dinner tray into the biohazard bin. I stared at his thick plastic gloves.

Max said, “The lilies and I have something in common.”

“What?”

“We’ll soon be dead.” Max nodded toward the man in the bed behind his. “Last night he said, ‘Who are all these people with wings?’”

I rested the bouquet on my friend’s chest.

He stroked the back of my hand. “You are my last love.”

“Shut up.” I shuddered. “What happened to your boyfriend?”

“Richard dumped me, so I went to the piers, where a man smacked me and threw me into the river. My head hit the pier post on the way down.”

“Was this a hate crime?”

“Love crime, hate crime, hard to tell.” Max shook his head. “The water glittered in the city light, a sea of stars at two in the morning. The river gripped me—no one held me like that. I let myself drift. Then I rammed against the sanitation dock. The workers heard me yell.”

“Well, that cured your urge to prowl the piers.”

“I went the next weekend to look for him.”

“To have him arrested?”

“To thank him.”

I started to swear and then fell silent when a nun approached, rosary beads on her wrist.

She leaned over Max. “Would you like me to pray with you?”

“God doesn’t care about me.”

The nun looked my way.

I shook my head. “God hates me, too.”

“Here’s a prayer,” Max said. “Dear God, you suck.”

The Sister veiled hurt with humility.

I pointed to the hard mattress under Max’s head. “We could use a pillow.”

When the nun left, I bit my lip, and it bled. I understood her bewilderment at this new illness that had quickly filled her halls with men whose secret rites excluded us.

Max took up his story again. “I felt fine after my swim, but EMS took me to the hospital, and here I got the flu and staph and every other germ on the ward.”

A janitor rolled Max’s gurney to the opposite wall and passed a mop, then rinsed it in a bucket. People were dying, and someone still had to sweep the floor. The wheels creaked as he moved down the hall.

“Alternate side of the street parking day,” Max said. “Move me back before someone else takes my place.

Over the cot hung an old print of Christ, arms open as he walked through a field of lilies. Above their white trumpets, pale butterflies fluttered. The flower fashioned the creature a home of wings, opening; the butterfly closed its wings to enter the lily’s throat, and it seemed to me, standing below, that the creature entered into the reflection of itself. Were heaven and earth that intimate?

Max touched the flowers I’d brought him; their petals darkened under his thumb. He held them up to the picture. “I bet Christ never walked through a garden in his life.”

From one room came a low moan.

Max saw my head turn toward that door. “He lost all his skin. Experimental medicine.”

“Do they give him morphine?

“Nuns? Illegal drugs?”

The man in the room cried out. A nurse went in. She gave me a pillow and a half-full water glass as she passed us.

Max cast a glance back at the religious print. “Don’t say anything treacly about me when I’m dead.”

The nurse left the room, shaking down the mercury in a thermometer, then returned to the station behind the double doors.

Max watched her leave. “Could you do one favor for me? I left shoes at the cobbler. I don’t want him stiffed for the labor. All those old shoes stuffed onto shelves at the shop, tongues crisscrossed with black lines, I wondered who had forgotten them. Now I suspect they’re dead.”

I looked at Max’s bare feet. Undertakers put shoes on corpses—not that they needed them, but to let them go barefoot would disturb those left behind as if the floor of the afterworld were strewn with shattered glass.

Max clutched his shoulders and rocked. “It comes in waves.”

I watched, helpless, as someone falling through air looked down at a man drowning.

“Save me.” He raised a hand toward my face. “The pain.”

I lowered my forehead to the rail.

Max traced the curve of my widow’s peak. “I want your face to be the last thing I see on this earth. You were the most beautiful woman I ever knew.”

I raised my head.

“Except for your mother. She’s more beautiful.”

I pressed the pillow over his face.

“Arderrr.”

I tossed the pillow aside. “I want to hurt you, not kill you. That’s game over.”

“You sucked at Atari.” He stroked my cheek. Max leaned to my ear, and though he whispered, he spoke with force. “I need you to kill me.”

The hair on my arms rose.

“Please. You have to mix pills and alcohol, and they won’t let me have liquor.”

I hid my hands below the bed; one hand clawed the other. I could not kill the man I cared for most. He’d hurt me, but that had tightened the knot that bound us.

From the bedrail hung a plastic bag. He untied it, fumbled inside, and gave me an envelope addressed in shattered script to The Hemlock Society.

“Call them. They’ll tell you which pills to collect.”

I shook my head.

“All right, just choke me to death. I heard one man tied a plastic bag around his head, but I don’t want to go with a sack on my face that says, ‘Have a nice day.’”

“What about me? What if they find I did it?”

“You are the most selfish girl ever.” Max waved his fingers. “Nobody is interested in you or me. Seven men have died in this hallway. Nobody investigates anything. They shove you in a bag so fast your last breath fogs the plastic.”

I reached through the bars of his bed. “I could have loved you.”

“But you never did. I invested a lot to make you the bitch who could do this.”

I shoved the bed, and it swerved away, jerking the IV line in his elbow crease. Blood pooled beneath the skin.

He closed the crook of his arm. “Listen, I have Hepatitis, TB, and cancer. I’m an entire hospital wing sausaged into one skin. To top it all, I have shingles, which are excruciatingly painful.”

What the hell was that—I thought they were things nailed to roofs.

He pointed to the boils on his throat, stained garish red from mercurochrome. “Once, I brushed past a leper; terrified of catching it, I researched leprosy. You think it’s a flesh-eating virus, but it just makes you numb, and when you can’t feel pain in your eyes, you scratch yourself blind. Lepers have no feeling in their fingers, so they carelessly cut them until they’re stubs. I wish I had leprosy. There’s a cyst on the tip of my penis. Do you want to see?”

“No, never!”

“It stings when I piss. When I get too weak to lift myself to the pan, the nurse will insert a Fosse—”

“Bob Fosse? Dream on.”

He threw back his head, but the laugh was silent. I saw black lumps on his white gums.

“I mean Foley. My tonsils are swollen and gag me. The doctors plan to cut my throat open and put in a tube, and then I won’t be able to talk.”

Every shining thing that was ever going to happen to him, the pictures in Time and Life, the wild nights, the whispers and sexual exploits, crumpled in my clenched fist. I crushed the lilies against the wall, then dropped them on the floor.

“I need you to be brave, not just reckless.”

He tapped my wrist. “What time is it?”

I checked my watch. “Seven twenty.”

“Night or morning? Prisoners are always executed at dawn to keep people’s spirits up.”

“Night.”

“Good. Less chance our tryst interrupted.” He arched his neck for me to throttle.

“I can’t do it in the hallway.”

He glanced at the empty corridor, then took my hand and laid it on his chest. “Look, the meter’s running, and this is one expensive ride. I’m sixth in line for a room—that many men have to die. Visiting hour ends in ten minutes.”

I arranged the sheet over him. “Sleep tight.”

He cast the sheet off and took deep breaths before he could speak. “At night, the illnesses scream at each other, and I can’t sleep; the light never dies in this hallway. I dreamed that a surgeon vowed to save me. He took a knife to my chest and sliced down the middle, then stripped my skin to the sides. He lifted my head to show me the thin bones winged out like a fish skeleton and said, ‘See, you had wings.’ I had to learn to fly from the inside, and no one could teach me. I thought maybe if I breathe—why are you crying? There’s no crying in dreams.”

My hands crossed on my chest.

“Don’t make me beg for my own death.”

I bowed my head.

“Do not write on my tombstone what you wished I had been”

I turned away and zipped my coat.

“Do not go.”

***

Either the girl in my medicine cabinet mirror had to go, or I would. I tried to smile, and the silent girl bared her teeth in a snarl. I raised my hand to my forehead and dug my thumb into the purple bruise stippled with orange, the impossible shade of sad anger. The queasy ache of flesh pressed against skull comforted.

My face in the glass withdrew into darkness as if the man who’d pistol-whipped me had stripped half a mask, but there were masks of loss beneath that. Let us pass over the incident. It happened all the time in New York. So I got out at the wrong subway exit after visiting Max, and I’d surrendered the wad of bills in my pocket. My black eye was nothing compared to what others suffered. Nothing next to Max’s pain.

Max had said he’d be happy if he could switch into my skin. Three days had passed since I’d seen him at St. Vincent’s. The meds would have kicked in, and he’d laugh at the bruise, who said my face was a silver prize I didn’t deserve, who called me doll in French, Poupée, with a Russian accent that made it sound like “Poopy.”

I read the clock over my shoulder in the mirror. The hands stretched straight away from each other, plumb up and down: 6 A.M. The train at this hour would be empty except for the men who slept on the benches; they’d leave me alone. I pulled a down jacket over my sweats, scrounged two tokens, and set off for the hospital.

 

The guard inside the front door glanced up at me and said, “Emergency entrance down the block.”

I walked past him. The isolation ward smelled of shit masked by ammonia scented with faux pine, each smell trying to suffocate the one below. Gurneys lined the hall, the figures lying in each covered in white sheets. Max had said that six men would have to die for him to get off the hallway, and now he had a private room. These must be new patients, but they seemed the same old men. One called out. No help came. Sunday before dawn, a skeleton crew manned the nurse station behind closed doors.

At the end of the hall was the room the receptionist had written on a slip.

“Is this Max,” I asked on the lintel step.

“Nyet.” The form in the narrow metal bed turned away as it held the IV cord to a thin neck. “If I could knot it in a garrote.”

I recognized his gravelly voice and came to the bed. Max turned, and I tried to stifle my shock. He seemed hollowed, a soul of skin stretched over a skeleton.

He saw me and winced. “Who raped your face?”

My nostrils burned, and I went to the window. Three days alone in this room must have felt several forevers—he who shunned hospitals as the cells where the sick put the ill. Outside, a garbage truck compacted trash, and through the windowpane came the machinery’s muffled hum and the high-pitched crackle of glass.

Max coughed. What had happened to his tongue? I reached toward him, and he pulled away, flattening his back to the wall. He clenched his jaw and shot me a scathing glance that enforced the distance he kept between us. He gazed away, toward the bedside table with an empty vase.

“Water?”

He jerked his head in response.

“What do you want?”

His eyes flashed stark blue in the fluorescent light. “You.” He watched hope open my lips, then ended the sentence, “to kill me.”

He rocked in pain, and his hospital gown fell open. I saw for the first time that cock I wanted to own. It flopped down, scab-black, along his pale thigh. I saw that the clock had run out of blood. Why would time heal me and kill Max? Time was irrational, two-faced—something watches failed to show us.

“Don’t cry.” He lifted his arm and tucked a fallen lock behind my ear. “I know I’ve hurt you, but we need to get over that.”

“So I can hurt you more.” I sucked in a breath that seared the skin inside my lungs. Neither words nor silence would embalm the scars from words we’d hurled at each other.

“Do it.”

I stiffened.

“Now.”

That sharp word in the sunk in, a needle to the chest. I went to close the door and returned to Max. Air narrowed around my right arm, a constricting sleeve; all I’d never said sheathed my hand as it hovered over him.

“Let’s go quickly.” He swept his hand away from his body, reached up as if to brush away the bruise on my brow. His hands slid down to my wrists and clasped my hand, then pressed my palm to his throat. I yanked free. He held my hand again, tighter, and stared with pure adoration that struck a last slap, after all, I’d failed at.

“Now, now.” I echoed his last words, softening them, then leaned with both hands on his neck and chest. His torso writhed. Ten seconds, then twenty. At thirty seconds, his hand released me; a man cannot hold your hand while you kill him. My wrist entangled in the drip line, a crimson bracelet. One minute in, I lost my hold.

His gasp dissected itself into spit.

I hooked a foot on a metal crossbar, hiked my other leg onto the bed to get myself over him, then slid my knee across the mattress to rest in the hollow below his ribs. I bore down with all my weight on his chest, my left hand on his windpipe. His arms flailed, and his nail scratched my lip. I swallowed the iron-bitter reminder and tightened my grip on Max. Ninety seconds. He knocked the empty vase to the floor where it smashed.

One hundred seconds. He looked up at me as I held him in passing between worlds. I forced my face to remain calm, to be the last thing he wanted to see in this world. His eyes widened; the white threads of his irises furled back from the night behind them.

One hundred twenty seconds. My hands ached for release. I willed them to hold on and tightened the tendons like puppet strings. The blood in my head deafened; if anyone knocked on the door, I couldn’t hear. A hard chill fell over me as dark sparks scattered around us. The watch face on my hand blackened. I had to count the seconds to myself. One hundred sixty. The air scraped my lungs as if it were shaved with steel. One hundred eighty seconds.

His head fell to the side, away from me. Max lay still. It took all my strength to let go. My arm hung, adrenaline numb as if my skin had been a glove shucked inside out and cast off.

I unwound my foot from the wheel and stepped back. My boot ground broken glass with its heel as I left.

 

Down the subway steps, I slipped my token in the slot and stepped through the metal cage into the station. Men lay curled on the soiled cement. The loss kept rushing past me, dragging cigarette butts, papers, and cups onto the tracks. Strands of hair whipped my face. On the wind drifted the front page of an old Post. In the yellowed photo, Reagan waved as he boarded a helicopter for another vacation.

I boarded the train and stood holding a metal strap.

Desperate, illegible scribbles covered the window, written by shadowy figures that slipped out at night to prove they existed to those who would never see them.

Skittish after the attack, I scanned the car for threats. That’s when I caught sight of a pallid face opposite, over the man’s head. The quicksilver girl in her silent world. A black wall passed through my flesh—or I passed through it. Dirt starkened her bloodless skin. On either side rose black lace wings of writing. With them, the gray window face floated overhead. Ragged graffiti writ on the pane crossed her chest like black surgical thread had roughly sewn it up. Something had been taken from her breast and something else sewn in.

The last time I’d ridden the subway with Max, I’d told him how Gorky had followed the elderly Tolstoy on a walk through his estate. Tolstoy saw a lizard bask in the sun on a rock and asked the animal, “Are you happy?”

Max cut in with the line Tolstoy told the lizard: “I’m not.”


Holly Woodward is a Russian poet who became one of the famed women snipers in World War II, and a Moscow actress who become part of the Red Orchestra network of spies fighting the Nazis. 

Oh, snap, those are the heroines of the novel she is writing. Holly leads a less interesting life as a writer and artist.

She served as writer in residence at St. Albans, Washington National Cathedral, and was a fellow for four years at CUNY Graduate Center’s Writers’ Institute. Woodward enjoyed a year as a doctoral fellow at Moscow University. She also studied at Leningrad University and has an MFA from Columbia.

Her poetry and fiction have won prizes from Story Magazine, the 92nd Street Y, and New Letters, among other honors. 

 

Portrait of a Stranger (Second Place Winner of the Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction)

Philadelphia, January 4, 1992

I could paint his face from memory. Crinkled and putty-colored and as aggravated as a tub of stucco. Right now, he’s grimacing at the newspaper, holding the front page a foot from his scowl and craning his neck all the way back like whatever he’s reading smells worse than the truth. He takes zero notice as I pull up in front of the building. The doorman tells him I’m here. Waiting. I nudge a few cans of turpentine under the seat and pick a dried flake of magnesium-yellow paint off the steering wheel. He walks over to the passenger side and signals for me to roll down the window. Bored circles in the air. Like he’s swinging a noisemaker with nothing at all pleasant to announce. His laser-blue eyes scan me over like a high-tech security device. I know what he sees.

He shifts his little black reading glasses up the bridge of his nose and sniffs. “We’ll take my car.” Then he backs away, waving me on with the paper. No hello, no smile, just a cue to move forward. With caution.

I wish I had my own daily rag to brandish, but I don’t. From the rearview mirror, I see him checking his watch.

“Traffic?” His eyes still on the time.

“There was tunnel congestion and then some idiot—”

“—Let’s just go. I don’t wanna be late.”

The keys to his pale yellow Caddy land in my fist. I straighten a kink in my spine and get in. The air is old, fraught with evidence of cigarette butts and stale cherry Life Savers. I move up the driver’s seat and adjust the mirrors.

“Don’t forget to put those back the way you found them. It always screws me up whenever you or your mother drive this car.”

“We can go in mine.”

“No.” He stops himself from any further comment. There are so few things he resists saying that I take his reserve as kindness.

The light turns red, and I hit the brake pedal. The Caddy jerks to a stop.

He tenses up against the worn leather.

“Easy on your old man, little girl. Easy.” The weak scaffolding of his faded plaid jacket barely props him up anymore. One false move and something might shake loose from his rafters—his Sunday jacket deconstructing. “You’re already grinning and you haven’t won anything yet.”

“I guess I’m just looking forward to getting there. Has it changed much?”

He belches softly and stares out at the road. “Everything changes, little girl. Everything. Believe me.”

He’s probably right. There was a time when he was able to smile back.

 

We arrive at the racetrack and make our way to the upper circle of the Philly Park clubhouse, a custom he’s kept from the days when even Mom enjoyed it here. She preferred not rubbing elbows with the riffraff and felt the dining room was a more sophisticated experience. A penguin-ed waiter escorts us over to a table where ice water and leatherette menus mark our places.

I don’t consult the menu; I know exactly what I want. “I’ll have the Caesar, please.”

The server’s barbed eyebrows spike at my good choice.

“And gimme a cup of black coffee, would ya? I’ll get some food later.” The menu gets pushed back toward our tuxedoed friend as the coffee is poured.

Coffee is the primer, a first coat before all the fiery layers of whiskey go down. He won’t get any food later. He dumps half the cream in his cup, his spoon clanging as if calling for order in all the cloudiness. One sip and he summons the waiter again.

“You call this coffee? Ballentine’s straight up, please.”

A raw egg cracks into the wooden bowl on top of the cart and my thoughts converge on all the things about to be tossed into the air in front of me. The big, creamy Caesar arrives like a long-awaited rendezvous, but I keep my mouth shut, not wanting to spoil an old hunger.

“Here. Put this on the Tunisian trainer, would ya?” He pulls two hundred-dollar bills out of his front jacket pocket, then a third.

I take the money from his hand, brushing the frayed edges of his sleeves, limp tracks of thread circling his wrist. He always dressed impeccably, but these days the slickness and preening are missing.

“What’s the horse’s name?” I get up to place the bet, still troubled by his cuffs.

He hijacks a minute before answering me, filling the space with ploys of status and guessing games. The more presumptuous his mood, the longer it takes him to respond as if he’s only stating the obvious. Then he tilts his drugstore specs toward the tip of his bloated nose. “Bet the one with the Tunisian trainer.”

I skim through the racing form and try to identify anything particularly North African in the jumble of rare names and tricky statistics. I think he gets a kick out of watching me scramble.

“I don’t know which one you’re talking about, and all bets have to be posted in five minutes. So just tell me the name of the horse, please.”

“And this is my brightest kid….” He burps in mild disgust.

I storm off with my order—but not to the ticket window. Instead, I make my way to the ladies’ room, identified by a horse head with Mares written underneath, and proceed toward the stalls. Three hundred dollars. All that money thrown away on a horse race. Three bills delivered like a direct threat, each zero poking fun at my struggle to make the rent. Who gives a damn about Tunisian trainers? I’ve got three hundred dollars and two minutes before posting. Screw it.

A bony woman edges her way past me, tucking her tickets into a flesh-colored purse. I shove my bills to the bottom of my pocket, splash myself with cool water from the dingy sink and check my reflection in the mirror. Those are his brooding eyes, half-closed as if scrutinizing some lost detail. The same reckless lips and protruding chin too. It’s his face, all right—the one that keeps showing up in my self-portraits—the ones I never finish because of the way they stare back.

 

He’s holding court at the table, his gaze fixed on the racing form, his drink severely diminished. I won’t put up with any more punishing laser scans or pop quizzes on Arabian horsemen. I take a seat and shoot him a disapproving look—one I’ve appropriated from Mom—then emphasize my choice of beverage to the passing waiter.

“Hot coffee, please.”

“And another whiskey for her old man,” Dad counters.

And they’re off!” A piercing voice pipes in over the loudspeakers. Ten thoroughbreds speed out of the gate, kicking up a great wake of mud around each miniature man in bright-colored clothing. It’s de Kooning through a kaleidoscope; hues and forms ricochet until I can’t make out anything, just a vast, splashy tableau stretching in front of me.

Trixie Dipper, Day’s a-Waitin,’ Captain of My Heart, Tam Tam, Zeus’ Fire, Heaven’s Door. A breathless string of non-sequiturs flies from the announcer at monotonous hyper-speed. Names and numbers and necks and furlongs.

“…Deep in the stretch…coming round the clubhouse turn and heading for home…and it’s number two, Tam Tam, by a nose!”

I snap out of my Abstract Impressionist reverie. “Damnit. I thought Day’s a-Waitin’ had it pegged.”

Day’s a-Waitin’? Did you say Day’s a-Waitin’?” His program slaps the table. “You put my three hundred bucks on that piece-a-shit horse after I expressly told you who’d win?”

“Sorry, Dad, but you never actually said—”

“—My dear, could you tell me who the trainer is for Tam Tam?” He aims his crossword pen at the racing form, tapping it twice. Tap tap. I follow his pointer and read the small print next to the horse’s name: Azzedine Bahbar.

“Sounds rather Tunisian, don’t you think?” He dismissively waves me off before hoisting his glasses back into position and studying the next race.

I spend the next few races devoid of interest, searching here and there for horses with names I can relate to: Delusion’s Child or Daughter ‘till the Death. But all I find are names like Warrior King and Shifty Dancer. It’s not a good day for the dark horse.

He collects money and whiskey in equal turns, madly scribbling notes in the margins of the form. There’s a pattern in how he picks his runners: He only bets the horses with a history of excuses. So if a horse ran fourth in its previous race, but the jockey wasn’t whipping the horse’s left side, then that’s reason enough for the horse to have lost. But whipped correctly, that same horse could win, in which case, he’ll bet on him. Or if the horse lost because it rained, then he’d probably do better with no mud. A sunny day could make a difference. He mutters things like, “How the hell could the horse win with that rider? Today, he’s got his usual boy.” And the margins get filled with cryptic calculations: rain + sub rider, ran 2nd, cold = trot. There’s always a possibility a runner can win, given a second chance. He’s betting the excuses all the time.

I’d like to ask him why as I poke at my soggy Caesar.

After each losing race, he rips up the ticket and pitches it in the air. It’s something I’ve seen him do a thousand times. Once when I was a kid, after a big win, he drove to my school, dug deep into his golf pants and sprinkled dollar bills on the blacktop. Then he threw back his head and cackled like some rich, crazed Pied Piper while money and children piled up around him. Maybe it was the scrambling that made him happy. But his showboating pissed off the principal. Dad claimed it was a lesson about survival, about groveling around on your hands and knees while some jerk offers you alms. He insisted that most kids would be doing that for the rest of their lives; they just didn’t know it yet. They think the jerk is a nice guy. In the end, he said, survival was the only real lesson to learn.

He slugs back his fifth whiskey as the clubhouse waiter places a silver ice bucket on the table, and the maître d’ ceremoniously waddles over to greet us. This is a man with no formal education, a man who knows how to shake hands with the left or the right, to speak enough English to charm the ladies, enough proper Italian to satisfy the men, and plenty of unspoken words for don’t worry, you’ll get the best table in the house.

“Signor Vittori, piacere verderle. A pleasure to see you.” His labored speech is disrupted by a generous launch of spittle.

Dad plunks his drink down and acknowledges the familiar, dribbling gentleman. “Rafael, come sta?”

            “Bene, bene, e questa bella ragazza?  She must be your daughter.”

“Si, la figlia, Mia.” 

I can never tell if he means “my daughter” or “the daughter, Mia.” I assume it’s the latter because of the extra emphasis, and for that reason, I feel dispossessed whenever he says it.

“Well, she has your face, Rex. You can’t mistake that. But does she have your smarts too, eh?” Another superficial volley between men when in the company of a female.

Dad rotates toward his stubby compatriot as the air around him marinades in smoke and whiskey. “My smarts? You wanna know if she’s got my smarts? My kids would be lucky if they got my cobwebs.”

The shock of having provoked an insult seizes the jovial maître d’ who looks at me with centuries of shame painted in pushpin Calabrese eyes.

I will not give my father the satisfaction of a score. “If DNA is a bunch of random strands that develop in dim, dusty spaces, then I’ll bet we got both his smarts and his cobwebs.” I inch my empty coffee cup forward, indicating a refill.

The maître d’ exhales, settling uneasily back into his charm. Dad nods almost imperceptibly, probably thinking, “The kid doesn’t take my shit.”

I feel vindicated and flick a pitted black olive across the table to celebrate.

The line is suddenly clear: Where I, this filly, have been sired, where I get my swift comebacks, my defensive instincts, my breeding. My twenty-eight years of lineage are not printed up in a long rectangular form with block type but are a simple read nonetheless. Grandfather: a volatile workhorse; grandmother: a strong broodmare; father: hasty runner, inconsistent (list of excuses to follow); mother: easy-rider. Vittori, Altieri, Sarono. Breeding is never just an equation of two, but of many, tracing the bloodlines all the way back. A horse’s greatness depends on speed and endurance, its size and the distance it can cover while moving its fastest. The sum total of all of the strengths and handicaps add up to a stakes-winning family or not. And just like the racehorse, it seems our chances in life are tied to our own unique genealogy.

 

Dad remains buried in his racing form like a conjurer adrift in spells. His eyes are heavy with alchemy, turning them into hard beads of cobalt like he sees something no one else can. Then he whispers, “The grandson of Watusi. Well, I’ll be damned.”

“Watusi?”

“Now, that was an unbelievable horse. Brought over by a wealthy pineapple grower from Malaysia. Man, that stallion could run. They sired him good, I’ll bet.” He sets down the form and narrows his stare. “You and Ricky used to like him. You’d go see him over in his stall. But you wouldn’t remember Watusi…”

I say nothing. A father who has no idea what I like for breakfast, which painters I emulate, what my dead-end job is all about, or why I leave Manhattan to spend my Saturday in Philly with him. But he knows the horse I bet when I was thirteen.

Of course, I remember Watusi. I can never forget him or the mare in heat that was being held for him in the breeding shed. Before the horses got near each other, a short fat man with a washcloth and solvent cleaned their genitals while a group of people clustered around to observe. A bald guy went up front to film the whole thing. Ricky and I followed.

Let’s hope we get another champ! That’s what the breeder said when he let Watusi in the stall with the mare. The stallion was colossal in his state of excitement. Ricky was too embarrassed to watch. I couldn’t peel my eyes away. Watusi mounted the mare, pulling himself up with his teeth and hooves. A massive black leather cape protected her coat from the sexual mauling. The guy with the camera looked like he was shooting a porno. When it was over, he wiped the sweat from his shiny head and subtly held the camera in front of his crotch to cover any sign of arousal. All the men were probably feeling the same, thinking about whom they’d like to do that to and when, comparing their own prowess to that of the noble steed.

They took a sample of the stallion’s sperm to test his fertility and better gauge the probability for real success, as opposed to a quickie in the shed. The breeder made sure he left with the videotape as proof of his professional matchmaking. Everyone was in a congratulatory mood when the job was finished. They were all picturing the finest outcome—another Secretariat or War Admiral—and pretending it was all so civilized. As if successful breeding comes from nothing more than a series of staged rapes and arranged marriages.

It shook me to the core. I knew something irreversible had just happened, and I could never erase it from my mind. It would haunt me every time I’d encounter a horse, or a big man, or a defenseless woman or a black cape or large teeth. It would plague my sleep. And all these years later, I thought I would not be vexed by disturbing images of dominating stallions and captive mares and that I wouldn’t fall prey to my father’s games. But here I am all over again. A willing victim.

“I remember Watusi.”

“That stallion was a king, believe me. A king! Now let’s see what his grandson is up to.…”

 

Races eight, nine, and ten, I play only the favorites.

He examines my choice for the eleventh and final race and rolls his eyes. “Samothrace?”

“Yup.”

“Another favorite?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Excuse your old man for asking, but didn’t you pick chalks for the past three races and lose them all?”

“That’s right. All the favorites lost.”

“Your father may not know much, but he do know horses. Now, let me ask you: Do you know why the favorites don’t win?”

I exaggerate my exhaustion.

“I’ll tell you why. Because if the favorites won all the time, then there’d be nothin’ but white people. Think about that.” He smacks his lips to suck at the souvenir of whiskey and slams five-hundred dollars on the table with emphatic, end-of-lesson punctuation.

“Now go and play the number-two horse for your father. I’m gonna risk it all, little girl, on the least favorite of all: the darkest dark horse, Nevermore.” His voice gets low and literary when he says it. 

The knot in my stomach slips downward as I use my last bit of strength to walk away from the table with the remaining stack of bills.

“Nevermore,” I hear myself say to the cashier as she takes my bet. Nevermore to win. Nevermore to place. Nevermore to show. There it is: five-hundred dollars on the longshot. I feel a sudden pang of sympathy with the horse, knowing there’s always someone on his back, riding him, leading him on, forcing him round and round, even when it’s certain he’ll lose. Solidarity is my only consolation as I slide the money under the metal gate.

The eleventh race comes and goes. Dad jabs out his cigarette with a decisive party’s-over twist.

“You know, I went to the track last week and bet a horse in the eleventh called Writer’s Daughter. Had terrible odds. The worst. Guess what? It won. Can you believe that? Writer’s Daughter. It was just a hunch.” He tries to sound enthused, but habit makes him cough instead.

I say nothing.

“You wouldn’t understand….”

I understand. The writer, the one he dreamed of being. And me. He was betting on us. I get it.

An awful rattle rises in him, which I pretend not to notice. As he bends over, spitting yellow globs into his napkin, I can only think about one thing: The Taiwanese businessman who came for dinner. He tried to impress Dad by drinking too much wine and devouring Mom’s meal. But he turned green after the sausage and peppers. He opened his jacket and regurgitated the antipasto in the inside pocket, then kept on talking as if nothing had occurred. It was masterful. Dad sat there respectfully conversing and continued to eat, mopping up the lumpy red sauce with his bread. Mom panicked. Ricky did imitations. And I learned something useful: Almost anything can be ignored if you try hard enough.

Dad coughs for the hundredth time, amassing sour contents in the table linen. I continue to disregard it, but his skewering blue eyes knock me off guard. They leave me with the terror that I might not always have them around. He lights up yet another Marlboro in front of them.

“Why can’t you stop?”

A protracted draw on his cigarette. “What difference does it make?”

“Could be life or death.”

He pats at the corners of his mouth, coaxing the words to come out dryly, carefully. “You know, there are a lot of scared people in the world flapping around like fish, hoping that they won’t get hooked—hooked on smokes, hooked on booze, hooked on horses. And the ones that get caught think they’ll get released. They think they can beat the odds and make it. Make what? I look around, and I don’t see any winners. All I see are gutless corpses. So don’t try and sell me on life, little girl.”

“But what else is there?”

“There’s sacrifice. Like the saints and martyrs and Jesus. Just consider His actions. There he was, washing the feet of his apostles before his own crucifixion. That’s like going to the racetrack broke and paying for everyone else’s debts.”

“Well, Dad, Jesus must have had a hunch of his own….”

A lengthy silence. Furlongs of stifled reflection. But now he’s the one scrambling. He discards the racing form with all its tiny markings and smooths back a few pewter strands on top of his thinning crown. The restlessness drains out of him; the bluster dies down. What’s left is unraveling.

It’s time to forget all desires and disappointments, steady myself against the musty headrest of his pale yellow Cadillac and drive him safely back home.

 

A green Chevy swerves in front of us. The guy is leaning on the horn and yelling something nasty. Dad croaks Va fa’n culo” from a half-sleep. My hero.

I turn on the radio and change lanes. The first bare notes of music drift through the speakers. A searing soprano elevates the score like a flock of birds lifting off a wire. He likes opera. The Italians mostly: Verdi, Puccini. I don’t think he gives the Germans a second thought. Not since World War II. His favorite singer was always Lanza. He’d belt out imitations of Canio in I Pagliacci.

I slam on the brakes, nearly missing the exit. The jolt wakes up my passenger, who crows “Nevermore…” under acid breath. He lost the big race and is going home a bit broker than he was when we left. But he’s used to that.

I pull into the Lincoln Society Tower with its burgundy and gold sign in lavishly flowing script like a giant wine label. The sign is supposed to make the people living here believe they’ve made a tasteful choice in choosing to inhabit a concrete high-rise off Route 1. Dad settles into the dependability of his plaid blazer as the engine goes off and the mirror and the seat are adjusted to their original positions.

Searching out my own car keys, I come across the crisp three hundred-dollar bills in my pocket and feel the burden of my keep. “Listen, Dad; you remember the first race? The one with that Tunisian trainer?”

“You mean Azzedine Bahbar?”

“Yeah, well, I didn’t put your money on Day’s a-Waitin’. I didn’t put your money on any horse.” I take the bills and press them into his palm.

He chuckles at the stowed-away cash and shakes his head. Then he plucks two tickets from his jacket. Tam Tam, the winner of the first race, is printed on both. “I bet the horse myself. Just in case. Besides, I wanted you to go home with a little something.”

I feel more guilt than gratitude as he folds the bills back into my hand. My own second chance. “I’ll put it toward art supplies. I’m working on a new portrait.”

“Any good?”

“It’s turning out okay.”

“I’ll bet it is.”

As he turns toward the light of the building, I take in the jagged angles of his profile, the embattled trenches that have burrowed into his brow, and I sense, perhaps for the very first time, that I look nothing like him.

“Thanks for taking your old man to the track.” He waves his newspaper, clearing me for departure. Then a stolen look back.

I say goodbye, noticing the place where his scowl resides, a small smile taking hold. His first of the day.


Born and raised in Philadelphia, Gina Angelone became a global citizen at age seventeen and has lived, worked, and traveled the world as a film director, producer, and writer.

Gina’s TV work is the recipient of two Emmy awards and multiple nominations. Her documentaries have garnered top festival prizes and notable grants from the NEA, Philadelphia Foundation, William Penn Foundation, Graham Foundation, New York Women in Film, Speranza Foundation, and the American Academy of Arts & Letters, among others.

Credits include founding Producer of Bravoʼs “Inside the Actors Studio,” Writer/Director of the original series, “Defining Beauty” (Disney), and Writer/Producer/Director of feature documentaries “Connections” (PBS), “René & I,” (NBC), “Itʼs Better to Jump,” (theatrical release).

 

Here is as Good a Place as Any (First Place Winner of the Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction)

ELIZA IS SITTING ON THE EDGE OF THE CITY, on a hill from which the lights, streaming east toward the river, would’ve been beautiful if there were any. She is sitting and remembering.

She is remembering Daniel at the wheel of a yellow sedan the night they decided to get married, driving ten miles an hour into a stop sign. She is remembering his eyes crinkling in surprise at the impact, his too tall head hitting the rearview mirror.

She is remembering saying to Daniel, You’re drunk, even though she was too drunk to drive herself.

She is remembering Daniel replying, No, just high.

She is remembering Daniel getting out of the car and looking at the pole and then the car and then back at the pole, as if trying to figure out what happened.

She is remembering Daniel saying, You know, you’re right. I did have a beer or two.

She is remembering thinking I know you did, Daniel. Three pilsners. I counted them carefully. Thinking for every one you had, I could have two, the sharp crack of your new can opening an allowance for me.

She is remembering holding a cold can of soda from the vending machine at the body shop against the red welt on his forehead as it slowly turned purple. Holding his hand and kissing him carefully on the eyebrow. Getting a headache in the waiting room from the smell of oil and junk food and paint and the white thrum of the fluorescent lights as she slowly became sober. The shop replacing the window and pounding out the dents in the bumper, only charging them for the window.

The mechanic saying, You’re a cute couple. Too young to die being stupid.

Daniel saying later as they drove home, At what age is it okay to die being stupid?

She is remembering, later, meeting her sister Joan at the airport and taking her to a Mexican restaurant in South Philly where they could be alone for a whole hour, and she could have a margarita without feeling a tightening in her throat. The restaurant having Joan’s name at the door because Joan made a reservation everywhere she went, giving Joan another opportunity to say how much she hated her name, her 1950s housewife, hairspray starlet, dad’s secretary name.

Saying, What’s up with you, Joan? Holding a chip in the salsa verde so long it turned limp.

Joan saying, What’s up with everyone, Eliza. My boss is a prepper who steals creamer and salt packets and silverware from the kitchen for his undisclosed-location apocalypse shelter. I can’t quit my job because there’s no better one, and all I can say is I’m so glad to see my baby sister.

Eliza enjoying — although she was often worried that she looked too young — being the baby sister in this moment. The sister with possibility.

Joan giving Eliza a look when she declined a second margarita. Joan saying, Back at home already in your mind, aren’t you? Imagining what Daniel and Jovie are up to, and what they’ll eat for dinner? Be here, Eliza, be here.

But, really, feeling right there. Floating on the warm alcohol burn in her stomach and the feeling of control, the knowledge that she could turn the drinking on and off like a tap. Thinking, it’s not that I’m addicted but that drinking the correct amount seems impossible. It was either nothing or as much as I could hold. Who wouldn’t want the feeling of having a combustion engine inside your chest, the ability to run barefoot over glass and not feel a thing? But that night, riding the crest without tipping over.

She is remembering Daniel’s parents saying go ahead, have children. If the world is ending, you might as well get the joy of watching someone grow up, of having someone to love so much that a piece of you is always thinking about them no matter where you are. She is remembering being struck by the phrase, A piece of you is always thinking about them no matter where you are.

She is remembering the day she found out she was pregnant. Telling Daniel, You have to stop drinking and smoking, fucking around with our lives. This is real; we’re adults now. Not letting him see the panic, the desire to drink and drink until tasting oblivion but not quite reaching it. Wanting a barrier between her and that possibility.

Daniel saying, Our situations are the containers that shape our lives, as he carried six-packs and office boxes full of bourbon bottles to the curb.

Asking, What does that mean?

It means we’ll figure it out.

Daniel labeling the boxes:

Free, please take! 

Good quality. We stopped drinking for our baby. 

Save the Earth,

Your Neighbor

She is remembering Jovie crawling and then standing up and then walking.

Daniel saying, It scares me so much.

What? she’d asked.

Every moment I’m not watching her, and every moment I am watching her.

Saying, A piece of you is always thinking about her no matter where you are—

What?

What about your parents—never mind.

Laying at the bottom of the stairs in the middle of the night after uncounted glasses of bourbon. If she doesn’t count, she can’t be scared by the number. Thinking, no matter where you are. No matter where you are. No matter where you are.

Rain, rain, rain. Joan visiting for Jovie’s fourth birthday. Storm drains clogged with leaves and garbage. Cars splashing water from the street onto their front porch.

Joan saying, This weather, this fucking weather. Can’t let it decide what you do.

Setting up lunch at the rotting picnic table in their backyard covered with a giant umbrella. Shoes sinking into the porous ground.

Joan laughing, saying fuck it! and then slapping a hand over her mouth. Sorry, Eliza, sorry, Jovie! Jovie jumping with two feet to create the biggest splash. Four sets of shirts and pants bunched together over the shower rod like soggy, deflated humans.

The next day, hearing that the airport runways were covered in two feet of water. The lowest point in the city, practically below sea level. The Delaware could overtake it without even trying.

Joan saying, Who planned this? What idiots.

The airport delaying and delaying. Eliza coming home from work to find puzzles half-completed and dinner partly made, the sink full of dishes, Joan still in her pajamas. Jovie having so much fun she fell asleep in her clothes every night.

A week later, finding Joan in the kitchen, standing in the cool glow of the refrigerator. It was in the mid-90s and swampy, and their air conditioner was deemed non-essential by the city since there was no one under the age of 3 or over the age of 65 in the house.

Saying, You okay, Joanie?

Joan saying, Yes. The cool air just feels good on my skin.

Don’t leave it open too long.

Okay. Hey, what if I just stayed here?

What?

What if I just stayed here. I like being here with you. Here is as good a place as any.

As good a place as any for what?

For everything. For being hot and going to the grocery store and playing with Jovie on the carpet.

Thinking, Is that what life is? How tedious it sounds.

Don’t worry. The airports will reopen soon.

Wishing she had said to Joan, Then stay.

Three weeks later, hearing on the radio that the airports were opening. Leaving immediately from work, no explanation to her supervisor, who was sitting in one of the pleather waiting room chairs reading a novel. The internet had been down all week, no one had worked for days, but everyone who had kids still came in, hoping for a paycheck. And silence.

Taking Joan to the airport and staying with her for five hours as they got her tickets, checked her bag, waded through security. When they got near the front, saying, Here you are.

Joan saying, Yes, goodbye. Love you, too. Joan taking a folded envelope out of her pocket and handing it to Eliza. Joan saying, We’ll meet there if we ever need it.

On the outside of the envelope, in Joan’s loose handwriting, the address of their grandparents’ house in the Poconos. On the inside, a set of keys.

Saying, But we don’t even own it anymore.

The new owners live in the city and never go out there. They didn’t even change the locks.

Kissing, hugging, Joan going off through the airport doors.

Bringing new boxes of liquor into the apartment. Arguing with Daniel in whispers. Saying, If the world is ending, I need something, give me this, give me this. I can control it.

Daniel saying, Fine, but I won’t touch it, I can’t touch it, I won’t be your reason.

Saying, Fine. Fine. Fine. Fine. Fine.

Dosing out the bottles carefully. No more than a drink a day, evenings only. Weeks of tentative, joyous success before evenings became afternoons became lunch. One becoming two becoming four becoming six becoming eight.

Their yellow sedan driving into the stoop outside their apartment. Thinking who did that, was that me? How surprising it was. That was what she felt most, surprise.

The worst snowstorm in the city’s history. Losing power and heat, snow so thick all they could see was white out the windows. Not even a scented candle for light. Going to the bathroom at three in the morning and finding Jovie in her coat and boots, standing on a stool to get a better look through the open window, her torso halfway out like she’d already started to fall. Grabbing Jovie by the shoulders and pulling her away from the window, then shutting it with a slam. Picking Jovie up and carrying her back to her room while she cried and kicked.

Saying, Never, ever, ever open those windows.

I wasn’t going to go out; I just wanted to look! I was just looking!

Snot shining around Jovie’s mouth and on her chin, dripping down onto her coat.

Putting Jovie in bed in her coat and boots, throwing the blankets over her, holding down her kicking legs. Thinking, I will love you no matter what you do, no matter where you are, but don’t do that, stay safe for me, stay safe.

Staying there, like a weighted blanket, until Jovie fell asleep, and then finishing a bottle of gin and hoping her hands would stop shaking. Thinking, what if I’d been too drunk then? What if I saw her fall or accidentally pushed her out and forgot about it until the next morning? What if the next time the car hits her instead of the porch?

Remembering when Daniel grew out his beard, running his brush-bristle cheeks up and down her thighs. Daniel, Daniel, Daniel.

Receiving Joan’s letter. The letter saying, Come now. We’re here already. I was having nightmares of bridges collapsing and being stuck a few states away from you. Jim is here. Just come out and see what you think, if it could work. Come now. The postmark three weeks old.

She is remembering considering telling Daniel. Considering telling Daniel, except, except.

Thinking it’s just an experiment.

Thinking he will say No, if he says anything.

Thinking he will probably not even say No—he has said hardly anything to me since I brought the boxes back—but if he did say something, he will say It’s best to be with people. He believes in the city, maybe in a way that only someone from a small town can. He believes in the power of the city to sustain itself, to keep going through sheer will, to sustain its permanence. He gets upset when bars and shops he’s never been in close down. The city that’s been here since before the declaration, before Washington was even born, he’d said once. There were always people everywhere in this country, she’d said. Just not white people. Right, he’d said. Fair.

Thinking maybe they will do better without me, without someone who can’t be trusted to remember what she did the day before, who likes giving in and taking the drink, making a night out of it. Who prefers a string of disconnected days to long, steady hours preparing food and learning how to sew and making candles out of animal fat.

Thinking, but maybe I can become that person. Do I want that?

Writing, A piece of me will always be thinking about her, no matter where I am, on a notecard and putting it on the kitchen table. Thinking about changing it to say, “thinking about you,” but deciding against it. Taking the boxes out the sidewalk. Writing,

Free! 

Please take. Drink responsibly.

Mourning the earth, your neighbor. 

Deciding to leave them the car, walking to the train station, and then walking three hours to the house. Joan welcoming her as if she’d just come back from a run, nodding towards her old room and saying, You’ll be in there, of course. Where are Jovie and Daniel?

Saying, Not coming, I don’t think. Maybe later. Not answering any other questions about Jovie.

She is remembering learning from Jim about foraging edible plants and tying knots in fishing line for hooks, braiding rope out of old plastic bags and long grass and bits of wool. Jim the boy scout, Jim the man’s man she could never take seriously, Jim, the man who wanted to be a father so badly and will probably never be. Sifting flour and counting cans of vegetables. Stripping pine branches and bark off cut logs and leaving them to dry. To burn well, they must be dry.

The first week, then two weeks, then four weeks. Joan stopping her questions about Jovie, about Daniel, and in a way that being a blessing. The long hours of the sober day, the sober morning, the sober afternoon, the sober night. Quietness and stillness unlike any she could remember as if she’d slipped outside the whole world or misremembered that another world had ever existed.

She is remembering stacking wood, reading books about septic systems and well water, digging latrine trenches, boiling jars to sterilize them, ripping old bedding and clothes into bandages. Going on long walks to map the immediate perimeter and scout nearby houses.

Saying What if it’s not enough, Joan?

Thinking what if, after all the work, the necessities of life carefully prepared, what she really missed was something that she could not find or make, like her friends or Jovie’s school or her old neighborhood, its nineteenth-century rowhouses that had been built along the trolley lines, the gnarled trees that grew around poles and power lines.

A car pluming dust down the driveway. Thinking, Daniel and Jovie, Daniel and Jovie, Daniel and Jovie. Instead, a college friend of Joan’s arriving with the dust. The friend telling stories of the city. A dangerous place. Full of crime and starved animals.

Asking the friend, How many people are still there?

Him responding, Who bothers to count?

What about the parks, the museums, the rivers?

Who cares about them? Buildings are rotting, and people are being killed by roof collapses, fires, lead paint, asbestos insulation, contaminated water, waist-deep floods. They started turning off the electricity after sunset to conserve resources. Some people still work during the day, and then at night there’s nothing to do but sleep.

Asking, did you come from there?

The friend saying, No, I wouldn’t go near that place. Haven’t been in years.

Joan saying, We’re safe up here. The floods can’t reach us; the mountain air is clean, and the well still works.

Coming back from the toilet, seeing Joan and the friend in the forest, fucking desperately, almost cruelly. Hiding herself belly down in the thick forest loam, spongy and sharp as an old mattress, unable to look away. Joan holding a pine tree in her hands, completely naked. Joan’s skin covered in red splotches. Wanting to move, to close her eyes, but being unable to translate that desire from brain to muscles. She does not know anymore where her life ends, and the lives of others start around her. And there is something fascinating about their bodies, about their sounds. They are not like the animals that live in the forest; they are loud and obtrusive, their skin and clothes cut like neon through the carefully laced background of green-yellow leaves, mottled trunks, fermenting forest soup. And in the underbrush, Eliza, like a deer, spending so much time alone has made her timid, rooted in place by the sound of human footsteps. Thinking where is the line, how do animals know when to stay still and when to run?

A knife slip while chopping root vegetables just to see. Just to test that she’s still here. Seeing the slit in her hand slowly unfurl before the blood wells. Silly. Two weeks later, scraping along the jagged rocks by the lake. A week after that thrusting her hand into boiling water. Thinking maybe it is better if I’d seen what happened in the city. Thinking maybe I’d rather be dead in the city than safe in the mountains. Thinking, two years. God, how could it have been two years?

*

It was not the thought of any one person that compelled her to wake, to slip a children’s mountain bike out of the shed, to pack the extra inner tubes in her backpack even though she was not sure they were the right size. It was simply the feeling that she was floating away from the rest of the world, from Daniel and Jovie and even Joan and Jim, from the mountains and the trees and the small, two-bedroom cabin. She was losing clarity. Her mood was unpredictable; she rarely knew what day of the week it was. The feeling of boundaries was gone, between her and her environment, between thoughts that were reasonable and those that were dangerous, between missing Jovie and Daniel and remembering why she had come in the first place. She felt like something left too long in water, on the border of dissolving.

She was worried about having enough to drink and eat, about getting tired and not being able to finish in one day, about being attacked. But mostly about something going wrong with the bike and being stuck a hundred miles away from the city. When she left, she knew she could not go back.

Riding the bike was life-giving. The air was cool and calm, and it made a sound when it whizzed around her head that she’d forgotten about. It lapped at her ears. For so long, the sounds she’d known were animal or human. But these sounds, the wind and mechanical whirr, these reminded her of the old world. Speed. Machinery on pavement. Early morning city streets slick with rain. She almost smelled coffee and plastic trash bags, car exhaust and dog urine.

She knew the highways were her best chance. Flat and straight, and hopefully not too potholed. Much better than cycling through back roads, damaging the bike, and getting lost. It took all day, with only a few breaks to eat and pee, but she didn’t tire. By the time she was approaching the city, it was getting dark.

And now she is on the hill with her bike, sitting and remembering and deciding. Deciding what to say to Daniel if she goes back to their old apartment and he’s still there. What do you say to someone who you’ve betrayed like that?

She walks east into the city, rolling the bike along with her. She’s unfamiliar with approaching from this direction, through Cobbs Creek Park at the west end of the city and onto Baltimore Avenue. She expected chaos or silence. Blackened buildings, or perhaps cult signs painted onto walls. She expected fences and death, emptiness and hungry stray dogs. She didn’t expect sweet night air, the droning whine of cicadas. Murmurs of conversations and shouts, live music. She thinks, People are spread out here, all the way to the river’s dark edge and over that to the Delaware and over that to the sea. The city feels unbelievably large, each block a little universe. She passes friends and couples walking, people walking alone. A few bicycles click down the middle of the street, moving slowly to navigate the cratered asphalt, the protruding metal of the trolley tracks, straight and taught as guitar strings. She is used to this darkness. It is the darkness of the country, the sticky, tangible darkness that your eyes can turn to a navigable gray-blue if you stay in it long enough. A darkness clear enough for moonlight to cut through and guide your feet. Usually Eliza would walk quickly down a dark street like this, listening for footsteps behind her. But she has the bike, she can always ride away. She is slowed by the sounds, the sensation, immersed in it like liquid, that there are thousands of other people around her.

She is thinking, what if they’ve moved; what if Daniel is in love with someone else? Thinking, I don’t care, I came back for Jovie and Daniel and even our neighbors, in whatever way I can have them.

She is walking to the front door of the apartment with a plan. A plan to say, No matter where I was, a piece of me was always thinking of you. The two of you. Always, always. But thinking that was not, is not, enough.

Daniel opening the door.


Robert Sorrell Bynum is a bi short story writer who grew up in the Midwest but became an adult in Philadelphia. In the city, he was a member of the Kelly Writers House Writers Workshop for 5 years where he first wrote and workshopped his Marguerite McGlinn Prize story “Here is as Good a Place as Any.” His nonfiction, journalism, and book reviews have been published in the South Side Weekly, Mosaic: Art and Literary Journal, and Philly lit mag The Cleaver.  Robert pushes the boundaries of realism in his fiction while still being deeply engaged in the dynamics, nuances, and politics of the present. He is currently pursuing an MFA in fiction at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he lives with his partner, Elizabeth. 

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.

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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.