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

UP

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

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

“Is this everything?” Dan asks, panting.

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

“You’ll need a couch.”

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

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

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

 

DOWN

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

 

20C

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

 

DOWN

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

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

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

DOWN

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

“No.”

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

“I just moved in last month.”

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

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

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

show her: storm windows (leaking).

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

“Everyone calls me Snaggle.”

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

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

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

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

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

Paranormal Rise as Residents Spend More QT at Home

Well Woman Learns Dark Secret

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

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

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

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

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

Doris is my hero.

20C

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

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

 

UP

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

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

 

DOWN

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

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

“Is Carlos the nice one?”

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

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

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

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

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

 

20C

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

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

 

DOWN

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

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

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

 

DOWN

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

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

 

20C

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

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

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

 

UP

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

DOWN

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

 

20C

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

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

 

UP

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

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

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

 

UP

Here are the elevator demographics of Metropolitan Towers:

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

 

DOWN

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

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

I did.

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

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

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

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

The two women exchange a puzzled glance.

“How so?” Carmine asks.

“Never mind,” I say.

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

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

But I doubt it.

 

DOWN

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

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

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

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

“Sheez. I was just asking.”

It feels good to hate Dan.

 

20C

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

Friendships (fractured)

Career (missing)

Self-pity (leaking)

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

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

 

DOWN

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

1) I must escape this apartment.

2) I must call Dima.

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

A bell dings.

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

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

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

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

 

UP

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

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

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

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

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

“That sounds really difficult,” my sister sympathizes.

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

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

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

 

20C

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

Loneliness massacre.

 

DOWN

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

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

 

DOWN

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

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

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

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

“Mmhmm,” Charlotte murmurs.

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

 

20C

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

 

UP

I’ve found another hero.

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

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

“Red’s my favorite color too!”

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s your name, dear?”

“Everyone calls me Snaggle.”

“That’s an odd name.”

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

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

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

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

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

 

DOWN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

20C

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

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

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

 

UP

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

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

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

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

 

20C

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

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

 

UP

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

DOWN

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

“Snaggle!” Doris cackles.

“Ruthie, darling!” Elayne cries.

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

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

“You’re wearing red, Ruthie!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, I think, don’t fuck with us.

“Back to the top!” Doris cries.

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

 

UP

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

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

Part-time Teach Turns Full-Time Trapped!

Lift Lady Learns Lesson

Local Prof Ages into Famed Elevator ROL

Whatever happens, I’ll adapt.

 

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

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

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

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

# #

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

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

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

“Who?”

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

“Nonbelievers.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

# #

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

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

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

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

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

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

# #

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

# #

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

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

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

# #

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can’t get the vaccine.”

“Of course, you can, baby.”

“No, I can’t.”

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

“I don’t feel well.”

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

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

“Mom. I—”

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

My stomach clenched around my secret.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m not doing it,” Jeb repeated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

# #

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Selim never returned.

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

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

Ameena nods.

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

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

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

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

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

“No!” she screamed.

He laughed and kissed her.

**

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ameena, listen—”

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

Her interview at the embassy was scheduled in early April.

 

**

 

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You cooked these yourself?”

He nods, asks how the kids are doing.

“Oh, I need to call them!” she says.

“I messaged them already.”

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

A small sigh escapes her lips.

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

She eats in silence. He eats in small bites.

“You’re a good cook,” she says.

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

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

She smiles. “No, one spoon now.”

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

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

**

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

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

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

“Are you okay?” she asks.

“Yes, just tired.”

“Why don’t you lie down?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m sorry,” he says.

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

Ameena grins.

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

“It turned out not bad,” he says.

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

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

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

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

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

They both laugh.

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

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

**

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

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

“Well, this is America.”

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

**

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

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

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

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

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

“You really think so?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

**

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

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


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

 

Uncle (First Place Winner of the Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction)

Uncle always lived in the other house. By himself. When he was younger, before I was born, he was a truck driver. Then he was a drummer for a while with a band called Texas Red. Then he got married but his wife left him after three years. Then he got sick and had to stay in a looney bin for a while. When he got out, he moved into the other house on Mama’s property. Ten miles outside of Glenville, in southern Indiana. He stayed holed up in the other house, most of the time, in his bedroom that smelled like a man’s armpit.

When I was in sixth grade, Uncle took me to the pasture where the cows grazed when my Grandpa was still alive and showed me how to shoot his rifle. He taught me how to load in the cartridges and aim and shoot. I pulled the trigger four times before I hit a beer can off the fence post. Uncle whooped and kicked the toe of his boot in the dirt when I did that. He took the gun from me, reloaded it, and handed it back to me.

Smiling he said, “Now shoot me, Stacy.”

He thumped himself on the chest and said, “Aim right here baby girl. Shoot me out of my misery.”

I laughed at him and I heard Mama calling for me, so I handed him back the gun. I thought he was teasing me. I was sure that first time, he was just teasing. He told me we’d do target practice again sometime, but when I told Mama about it, she said no, no more target practice because she wasn’t sure if he was still taking his meds, so we never did.

Sometimes, at night, Uncle would put on his clodhopper boots and light a kerosene lantern and leash up Porter, Mama’s hound dog, and take his gun and Porter up into the thirty-seven-acre woods that grew behind Mama’s house and partly behind his. Sometimes in the morning, there’d be a raccoon, skinned and cleaned and floating headless, in a big pot of cold salt water on Mama’s covered porch. Sometimes he left Porter behind and went up alone. On those times, I could hear him shooting in the woods so late at night that the moon was already to the other side of the sky.

Uncle drank Johnny Walker sometimes and when he was drunk, he didn’t want nobody to come to his house. I’m the one who brought him his breakfast. I’d walk it over, set it on the kitchen counter and yell at him to come down for his breakfast. I’d collect the dishes from the morning before, but when he was heavy drinking, he called Mama on the phone and told her not to send no motherfucking eggs and bacon over because he’s sick of being poisoned by her cooking and she was just a half-sister know nothing bitch.

Mama took the breakfast over herself on those days and made him get out of bed and clean his stinky, drunk ass up. I would go with her, trailing behind like a puppy dog, as she marched the loaded tray over to his door. Mama would get his pills out of the bathroom, shake them into her hand and run him a glass of tap water. While he was taking the pills, Mama took the cartridges from his rifle that sat catty-corner by his refrigerator on those days too, because she said she don’t want to have to clean Uncle’s brains off the greasy walls.

That way of living, that breakfast routine, that coon hunting, went on for a while. From the time I was nine years old until I was thirteen.

One day, Uncle yelled down at me to bring the breakfast up to him and not leave it on the kitchen counter. I never did that before and was a little nervous of what I might find up there in the dark dust at the top of the stairs. I walked it up and left it at the door of his bedroom, then ran down. I feared Uncle because sometimes he yelled cusswords and he had that gun that Mama said she wish he didn’t have but if she took it from him, he’d just call his old drinking buddy, Curtis, to drive him to Junior’s to buy another one. Uncle got a disability check, and he didn’t use it for nothing but to call Curtis to give him a ride to town to buy whiskey and sometimes gave the check to Mama for his groceries or when she needed to pay his phone bill or the property taxes.

Next morning, Uncle told me to bring the breakfast up to him again. I did, and I was fixing to leave it at the bedroom door when Uncle jerked open the bedroom door and stood there with no shirt on, wearing a pair of old jeans, cut off at the knee. Uncle was pale and skinny, and his chest was curved in a little. Uncle smelled terrible, like he just burped up whiskey and blew his breath into the air.

“Bring that tray on in here Stacy and set it down on the nightstand there.”

I wasn’t sure if I should, but he was smiling a little and he seemed normal acting.  I went on in and set the tray down. I tried not to crinkle up my nose at the stinky smell coming from the bed.

“Look what I did to that microwave, Stacy,” Uncle said. He pointed to his broken up dented microwave that was on top of his clothes dresser.  I looked at it, nodded and fast-walked out of the bedroom and down the stairs.

When I got to the bottom of the staircase, I yelled up to Uncle. “Mama wants you to take your meds.”

He shouted down at me. “Tell your Mama I don’t need no meds. I ain’t crazy. And I taught that coon dog to fly. He can fly now, Stacy. Porter can fly. I’m not dreaming, I taught him. High enough to get in them trees and catch a raccoon. Tell your mom she’s got a special dog.”

I went to the kitchen and picked up the tray of dishes from the morning before and high tailed it back to Mama’s house. I turned to look at Uncle’s house just once. Uncle was watching me from out the bedroom window.

Next day, when I brought over his breakfast, he didn’t say anything. Didn’t yell down the stairs, didn’t look out the window when I walked back to Mama’s.

The day after that was the same and then the same again. Uncle went hunting that second night and, in the morning, Mama found a raccoon floating in water on the covered porch.

On my thirteenth birthday, Mama called Uncle and asked if he wanted us to bring over a slice of birthday cake. After a long quiet conversation, Uncle must have said yes, because Mama hung up the phone, cut a big slice of chocolate cake and put it on a paper plate. Mama was crying while she did this. It was a silent cry. Tears but no sobbing.

“Mama,” I said. “It’s okay. You ain’t seen Uncle for a long time now, he’ll be happy to see you.”

“Yeah, I know. He just makes me sad, though. When I go over there, he always has to argue with me. He’s run out of his meds and won’t let me take him to the doctor for the refills.”

She ran her hand over the top of her head like she was checking to see if it was still there.

“I’ll just put the cake in the kitchen and leave.”

This was different to me, not the routine. Not different in a good way but I can’t figure out why it seemed wrong. It wasn’t usually what happened. I usually carried eggs and toast and bacon and coffee in the early morning. Now Mama was carrying birthday cake in the afternoon.

She took the plate of cake and walked on to Uncle’s house. I went behind her. I saw a movement at Uncle’s window, when I looked up directly, the curtains waved a little like Uncle had been looking and just dropped them back down.

When we got close to the house, Uncle came out naked, with his man stuff hanging out for us to see. He had his gun.

“Happy Birthday, Stacy,” Uncle said, and he grabbed the cake from Mama at the same time he handed me his rifle.

“Reckon you’re old enough now. I don’t have any presents for you so I’m giving you my rifle. Okay?”

I didn’t want his rifle, but I didn’t know how to say no to Uncle, so I took it.

Back to Mama he said, “I’m tired of you using your microwave oven to read my thoughts. And… and I know what goes on in them microwaves. You’re just trying to get proof to send me back to the looney bin, so you can have all the land and my house. I’m not crazy. And I lost your dog. I’m sorry about that. He just flew away, and I can’t find him nowhere.”

“Thank you,” I said loudly, interrupting his rant. I ran the rifle back to the house, while Mama stood and argued with him.

When she came back, I handed her the rifle and she took out the cartridges and put them in the kitchen drawer, then carried the gun down to the basement. Mama hid it behind a rolled-up carpet in the corner by the meat freezer.

Next thing I know, Mama is calling Uncle and continuing the argument about coming outside with no clothes on and giving a loaded rifle to her daughter. Mama told him there is no way to use a microwave oven to get into his brain and that he needs to get back on his meds. Mama said if he ever does anything crazy like that again, she’ll call the sheriff to take him back to the psycho hospital, where he belongs.

In the morning, Mama made him scrambled eggs and biscuits and she took them over herself. Mama said she wanted to apologize for her angry conversation the night before and talk Uncle into letting her take him back to the doctor. Mama only stayed a short time and when she came back, her face was red, and her mouth was in a frown.

Uncle was gone from the house. And Porter was gone too. Mama walked up to the edge of the trees, hoping to see Uncle coming out from the woods. When evening came, Mama waited inside her house, listening all night for a holler from Uncle or a coon dog howl from Porter, and watching out the kitchen window for any sign of Uncle or Porter. When morning came, Mama called the sheriff.

After an hour or so, a brown and tan sheriff’s car pulled into the driveway. Sheriff got out and walked around with Mama looking for clues, I guess, or something. Mama walked the sheriff up to Uncle’s house. They went inside, and I heard Mama yelling then she screamed, and I heard two shots.

Uncle ran outside naked and came running toward Mama’s house. I went quick down to the basement and got my birthday rifle. I ran back up to the kitchen and opened the drawer where Mama hid the cartridges.

By that time, Uncle was on the front porch, with his hand on the door handle. When he opened the door, I raised the rifle. I pointed it straight at his face. Uncle just froze, stood there looking at the end of the rifle, then back at me.

“Shoot me, Stacy, because I just killed your mama and that fat ass sheriff with his own gun.”

My hands went weak when I heard that and I wavered for a moment, but I brought the rifle back up and held it firm.

“Come on, do it, baby girl. Shoot me out of my misery.”

“Why’d you kill Mama?” I screamed.

“It’s your birthday and I wanted to give you something to remember.”

He cried then, tears running down his cheeks, face turning red. I was crying too, but I held the rifle aimed steady at his face.

“That’s a lie, Stacy. I didn’t want to kill nobody, but I don’t want to go back to the looney bin. Microwaves are puttin my thoughts out there so everybody can say I’m crazy.”

Uncle backed away, ran out the front door. Ran back into his house and came out with a set of keys. Uncle got into the sheriff’s brown and tan and backed out of the driveway, squealing tires, and kicking up gravel. I called 911 and soon I see one state police car pull into Mama’s driveway and two other police cars speeding on. A helicopter passed above, and I knew they were chasing Uncle.

A moment later, I saw Porter. He was flying behind the helicopter. His long hound ears were flapping like hummingbird wings. He dipped and bumped through the air but stayed dangerously close to the helicopter. I was scared for him. I called for him to come down, but he didn’t hear me.


I am an African American writer who started seriously focusing on writing fiction in the late twentieth century. I was published in literary magazines such as North Atlantic Review, The Crucible, Buffalo Spree, and Punchnel’s. In 2000, I won second place in the Ohio Valley Fiction Contest. I became interested in other things and didn’t start writing again until 2013. Since then, I’ve had some success. In 2017, I won the grand prize in a one-act play contest, presented by the 30XNinety theatre in Mandeville, a suburb of New Orleans. In March 2019, I won the Etchings Press annual competition for novellas. I was second runner-up in the Daisy Pettles writer-in-residence competition in May 2020. I was named as an honoree in the Emerging Author category for the Indiana Author’s Awards in September 2020. This year in April, I was named as one of ten finalists for the SAG/INDIE Screenwriting Fellowship. I did not win. Durn it.  In May, my story, “Savonne, Not Vonny,” was named as a semi-finalist for the Chanticleer International Book Awards (CIBA) program for short stories and novelettes.

 

Something a Ghost Told Me at Dachau

I’m not the type to fall under the spell of a false religion. The lesson has been on the books for ages. The catastrophes supposedly done out of desperation are more closely connected to opportunism than conviction. It’s been irrefutably argued that even Hitler was not a true believer.

However, lies, particularly the Big Lie, have real world consequences. Moments after I walked into Germany’s first concentration camp in Dachau, a hand gripped my right shoulder. A voice rattled my cranium, ominously stating, “The whole of Dachau is guilty.”

I didn’t ignore its exhortation. But its meaning was sidetracked by overwhelmed senses. Waves of human sweat permeated the air of dirty stained wood barracks. Forty-seven years later and I could still smell the perspiration of condemned prisoners. I visited the memorial of Methodist pastors murdered for their faith. Dachau was not a killing ground for Jews alone. Nazi’s arranged high altitude experiments in sealed chambers for Russian prisoners of war, Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and various Catholic and Protestant ministers.

I sat in the cinema and watched films of victims with shattered ear drums, suffering from hallucinations and brain damage stumble out of chambers and die. Their disfigured bodies hauled off to a crematorium on site. Once I saw the ashes of human remains float above the camp into the environs of the town, I immediately understood what the voice exclaimed.

The town of Dachau was regularly visited with ash raining down on its cottages and streets. After the liberation the townspeople told visiting journalists they had no idea what was going on at the camp. Security forces prevented them from asking questions. The Camp’s walls and four towers were not tall enough from many in the town’s buildings and elevation to block forced labor, torture, and the bodies of failed escapes hanging across barbed wire.

But the raining ash sticks in my conscience. The whole of Dachau is guilty. Each day walking to the bakery covered in black human ash. Each week walking to church wiping away the last remains of people utterly destroyed. How do you explain this? How do you answer your God when the time comes? Why shouldn’t Hell open its mouth and swallow this place like a rat eaten by a snake?

I left the Camp, and that hand left my shoulder. Many people were killed in that camp for being artists. Maybe one reached out to me to make sure I do not forget what I saw. I am no cosmic judge. How an entire town is morally weighed is beyond my understanding. I needed a drink and a good dinner. I did both in another town. Every so often, staring at the sky and wishing eternal peace for the persecuted.


Mark Antony Rossi is an USAF Cold War veteran, poet, playwright, and host of the literary podcast “Strength To Be Human,”
https://strengthtobehuman.podbean.com. His work has been published in Bombfire Lit, Earth & Altar, Lethe (Turkey), Leere Mitte (Germany) and Uncomfortable Revolution and has work forthcoming on Ariel Chart, Granfallon, Indian Periodical (India) & Route 7 Review.

Mid-Century Triptych

Stanley’s Hunch

Shelly’s fiancé. Dirk. What kind of name is that? Stanley’s hand twitches. A horsefly bumps against the screen. Dirk’s smooth. Maybe too smooth. Knocks back Scotch like it’s water. Cocky. Ok, so was Stanley back in the day. But there’s something else that he can’t put his finger on. Dirk’s parents—they’re decent enough. They can be pain-in-the-ass-yacht-club snooty. But they’ve got the yacht, they’ve got the yacht.

And yeah, isn’t that what he wanted for her, putting in 70 + hours building his business to give her the best? Even returning to the ring when cash was low. Nearly got himself killed. He’d do it again. You’d better believe it. Sent her to Germantown Friends when the neighbor kids went to Northeast. The pricey business college for girls up in Rhode Island. His Shelly won’t marry no bum with a busted-up face and scarred hands. A guy who stinks of diesel fuel, fingernails black with chassis grease. Find someone with smarts and money, he told her. In that order? She asked, and he said, Nah, and they both laughed. Hell. But Dirk? Stanley could ask Marlene to talk to her but planning the wedding has helped ease that stepmother thing. It’s nice when they laugh together.

Sometimes he just wants to lock Shelly in her room. She’s been turning men’s heads since she was twelve. She’s got her mother’s sparkle. Those blue eyes wide as the ocean. Every guy was in love with Julie. Even after she got sick. Docs falling all over themselves for that high-beam smile. The surgeon’s face when he realized Stanley was Julie’s husband! Like, how’d this lout land her? And Shelly introducing him last week to Dirk’s father, who looked from Stanley to her, Stanley to her. Like, how in the world does this happen?

Now it’ll be Dirk’s job to protect her. Dirk. Christ.

Maybe it’s just father-of-the-bride jitters, but Stanley finds himself back in that old nightmare. No one said, but part of him knew Julie was dying. He knew and he didn’t know. In his dream, he’s in the ring, but can’t see his opponent. There were just gloves. Huge. Black. Hammering hammering hammering. A hook to his jaw, corkscrew jab to his kidney. His footwork is shot to hell. He tries to twist away, but he’s locked in cement. Another hit to the kidney and he’s down. He’d piss blood for a week.

 

Dirk’s Rehearsal

It’s been building all evening, each under-her-breath comment his mother makes at the rehearsal dinner fueling it, each complaint from his future mother-in-law with her purse-string lips, Shelly yoyoing between giggling and pouting, and that look his father gives him as they argue over who will sit where, that same old look no matter how hard he works, how smart, the old fucker’s never satisfied, he could sell a million boats, load each one with every option in the book, it will never be enough, he will never be enough, and it’s that sucker-punch look his father sneaks in every goddamn single time, and he never sees it coming–how does he never see it coming?–and after the bullshit about the bar tab, the tip, the centerpieces, his lack of a tie, to top it all off, there’s Shelly’s stupid stupid giggle when they go parking after the restaurant, and when he levers the car seat down, she starts whining she doesn’t want to have sex, It’s the night before our wedding, Dirk! and she rounds her big blue eyes and pushes his hand away and fuck! can’t he even get some relief. They’ve been screwing since their third date, and now she’s going all virgin on him? and when his fingers move further up her leg she slaps him, not even a play slap like she sometimes does, his cheek stings, dammit! and that’s it, he lets loose, fingers coiling into fists, he gives in to his rage, stoking it, pretending he is even drunker than he is, but his fists avoid her face and somewhere inside he recognizes he’s been moving towards this all along; it’s that cool calculation to avoid her face with his fists that shocks him, appalls him, makes him howl inside for who he once was, for who, until this moment, he might still have been.

 

Shelly’s Secret

Shelly waits until her parents’ bedroom darkens, then slips off her shoes, opens the door, moves through the dark living room where the cuckoo clock screams 2 A.M. and she stops on the stairs, realizing it’s the last night she’ll hear the clock at this hour and how sweet and sad this moment should be, but now it’s just lonely and awful and upstairs under the fluorescent bathroom light bruises bloom on her arms and ribs and she knows knows that her father will kill Dirk if he finds out and it’s this, this certainty, more than the white cake at the bakery, the white dress in her closet (thank god for its Victorian collar, the tapered lace sleeves that graze her fingertips), more than everyone waiting to watch her walk down the aisle, more than the shame if she backs out now, after all the decisions and preparations and checklists, the fights over flowers and the dessert table that makes it impossible and her legs shake as she sits on the toilet to pee, shake as she washes her hands, as she wipes the mascara and glimmer shadow from her eyes—how blue and startled they look, pink-rimmed like a rabbit’s (is that why Dirk calls her Bunny?) and she stares long and hard, wondering what he sees when he looks at her, wondering how they’ve lasted this long (he’s always had a temper, he’s screamed at her, put his fist through a wall inches from her face, once even pushed her but instantly his eyes filled with self-loathing, and she always knew it wasn’t her he was mad at, it was work, his dad, the guy who cut him out on the Boulevard, the barkeep who told him he’d had enough, it was never her he was mad at and how tender he was afterwards, his fingertips tentative, gentle, but tonight was different, it was everything and for the first time she was just another thing in that everything, and maybe she should have just slept with him or at least given him a hand-job, after all, why shouldn’t he expect something (how about a little sugar, Bunny?) to tide him over, but she can’t shake what she saw in his eyes, something calculating and cold, but what would she say, how would she explain (her father will kill him) and so she turns off the bathroom light, tiptoes to her bedroom, searches the bottom dresser drawer for her old baby doll pajamas, soft and thin with wear, the elastic loose, and she climbs into her childhood bed, the sheets smelling faintly of sunlight, listens to the murmur of traffic beyond the park, and waits for tomorrow.


Mary Rohrer-Dann is the author of Taking the Long Way Home (Kelsay Books, 2021) and La Scaffetta: Poems from the Foundling Drawer (Tempest Productions, Inc.) Additional work appears/is forthcoming in The Clackamas Review, Vestal Review, Third Wednesday, Rat’s Ass Review, Flash Fiction Magazine, Philadelphia Stories (issue 2!) and other venues. Although she has long lived in central PA, she is still a Philly girl at heart, and is finishing a collection of story-poems based on the Philadelphia neighborhood she grew up in.

Sunrise

I knocked on my aunt’s door as insistently as my cold knuckles and army gloves would let me. The sound was pathetic and I’d be surprised if she could hear it. But just in case she could, I took a step back to wait.

This was the kind of cold that stabs through whatever you’re wearing, including skin, fat, and muscle. Newly-made blood cells were chinking off each other as they came out of my bone marrow already frozen. I pulled my overcoat tighter around myself, no mean feat considering the thickness of the sweater I was wearing, and buried my chin, mouth, and nose into my scarf.

I wasn’t wearing a hat, but I’d piled up a bunch of my hair on top of my head to imitate one. It didn’t really work. All it meant was loose strands caught the breeze and fluttered around my head, occasionally whipping at fresh snow.

“January fucking sucks.” The steam from my muffled voice puffed through the folds of my scarf. I rubbed my gloved hands together in a caricature of hypothermia. My brother mailed me these gloves from Vietnam. Apparently some bureaucratic fuck up issued his artillery battalion cold weather uniforms, despite Vietnam not having a winter worth mentioning. Pat made sure his sister came out ahead though and swiped me some gloves and socks. Thick wool and olive green. I was wearing the socks too.

I wanted a cigarette, but I didn’t want to deal with inarticulate wool fingers fumbling around in my coat pockets trying to find my pack and lighter. So I suffered.

I turned back to face my aunt’s house. It was a two storey row home of red brick that could probably stand up to nuclear war, despite being built forty years before that was something we had to worry about.

The first floor only had three rooms, the living room, dining room, and kitchen. Naturally, it’s where we spent most of our time. Listening to the radio, playing card and board games, cooking, backing, eating, and talking well past everyone should be asleep.

Upstairs was two bedrooms, so space for guests. But usually the guest space was for me and my five brothers and sisters when we needed to bail out of our own house. We’d all used it. I once stayed for two weeks.

It was why I was there now.

All in all, it was a respectable home for someone in her situation. Her situation being that of an unmarried woman. An unmarried woman on that side of forty. An unmarried immigrant woman on that side of forty.

I put my ear up to the door. I couldn’t hear anyone behind it.

“Fuck it.” I pulled the glove off my right hand, brought my balled up fist to my mouth, and breathed into it, trying to defrost them to the point where they could function. When I was satisfied I sent my half-feeling fingers into my overcoat pocket for my cigarettes. I took the pack out, shook it, caught a cigarette and put it between my lips. The pack went back in and out came the lighter, another surplus gift from my brother.

I flipped it open and flicked the flint. The flame kissed the front of the cigarette and I sucked. With a metallic snap, I shut the lighter and dropped it in my pocket. My hand wandered in after it and I thumbed the edges of the departing bus schedule folded in my pocket.

I’d picked it up after a particularly ugly debate with my parents. You’d think they wouldn’t take my political dissent so personally, but I guess when one of your sons is wrapped up in a war that looks like it won’t end before another one has to go over too, dissent gets sharply intimate.

I let out the smoke from my first drag slowly, trying to get it to catch in my scarf and hang around my head like a cloud. Instead, it was whipped up and whisked away by a sharp winter wind that stung my cheeks and threw snow in my face.

I don’t blame Pat for getting dragged overseas. I couldn’t even if I wanted to, he was drafted. And it goes without saying I wanted him home, safe and sound, as soon as he can make that happen.

But it’s well within my rights to parse out where my support begins and ends and it begins and ends with Pat. I’m not buying into the rest of it the way they have and I’m not going to stick around so that every single sit-down dinner devolves into a diatribe on threats both foreign and domestic.

I put the cigarette back in my mouth and figured I might as well try another knock now that it had been a little while and my glove was off.

Almost immediately, the door swung open and my aunt, Bridget Collins, appeared. She looked perpetually windswept, with wild gray curls and stinging red on her cheeks. At five-foot-ten, she had a good four inches on me. She was certainly wider. Her shoulders were used to work and constant movement. Coming to America had put a few pounds on her, but they added to her overall sense of resilience.

She looked me up and down with gray-green eyes, no smile or tension on her face. “Put that shit out.” She turned to go back in the house, leaving the door open for me to follow. “Nineteen years old, thinking she can suck down tar and fucking smoke and there’ll not be consequences for it.”

Even though she was laying out an early death for me, her voice made me smile. Hers was the music of a working class, west-Irish woman. Conviction was in plentiful supply and the edges came off when it was time for tenderness. It carried me along, soft and firm, insistent and pleasant.

I dropped the cigarette into the deepening snow and stepped across the threshold.

She was already in the kitchen, evidenced by utensils thunking and metal racks clanging. Making noise for noise’s sake.

Her voice curled through the house. “Wipe your shoes. They’re using too much salt on the street and it ruins my carpet.”

I dragged my boots across a bristled welcome mat, then sat on the chair just inside the door to unlace them. My breath fogged in front of me. “Bridget, it’s barely warmer in here than it is outside.”

“We’re at a generous 60 on the thermostat. Are you wearing my jumper?”

I glanced at my torso to confirm what I already knew. It was one of hers. A big, itchy, coarse thing, made for warmth in air that never fully dried. Definitely not style.

I couldn’t remember if she’d brought it with her when she followed my dad to America or if she’d knitted it herself. In either case, it hadn’t actually been given to me. I found it in her closet a few years ago and just took it. She never asked for it back, but she also always referred to it as “hers.”

“Yeah.”

“Then you’ll be fine. Come grab an apron.”

I put the boots back on the linoleum and walked to the dining room to hang my coat on one of the chairs. I took a moment to admire the decor.

It was a fairly simple room. The only furniture was a table, six accompanying chairs, and a buffet. All were solid wood.

On the buffet were a few keepsakes, mementos, and photographs. She had my dad’s war medals from his time in the Pacific, a letter my brother wrote her from Vietnam, and a couple photos of us kids at various holidays and events.

There were sketches too. An old stone archway, a fishing boat, and a handful of Celtic knots. One of a pub with an Irish name I couldn’t pronounce. They were snapshots of her childhood and adolescence in Galway, done by her own hand.

On the wall was her contribution to the watercolor medium. The sun was rising or setting, I couldn’t really tell. An orange-red sun spilled hazy light over a coastal city and its marine environs, both bathed in purple and pink. Smudges in suits, caps, and dresses filled the cobbled streets and watched fishing boats head into the bay.

Bridget’s voice jolted me back to her house. “Where the hell did you get to?”

“I’m coming, I’m coming.”

When I joined her in the kitchen, she was holding out an apron for me. I dropped the top loop over my head and bent my arms behind my back to tie the string.

“Let me.” She spun me around, pulled the strings around my waist, and tied them tight. She turned me back to face her and lit up with a smile. “Katherine. Hello.”

I always liked the way she said my name. Most other people I know put it through their fucking noses, but here she was, putting that music back into it.

Dad talks this way too, which you’d expect since they both came from the same place, but there’s a hell of a difference between listening to a paternal lecture and an aunt’s pleasantries.

She released me and turned back to the counter. “What’s on the menu, Bridget?”

“I was in the mood for scones.”

I injected some sarcasm into my voice. “Homesick?”

The answer came offhand. “Always.” Her eyes flicked from the mixing bowls on the counter to my sweater then back.

I felt blood rush to my cheeks and bent to look in the baking cabinet. Sacks of different kinds of flours, sugars, syrups, powders, and spices stared back at me. I pushed a few sacks from side to side, lifted brown sugar and white sugar, poked a bag of chocolate chips.

“Self-raising flour and caster sugar, Katie.” Her voice was level.

~

The crumbs of flour, sugar, and butter pushed between my fingers and through the creases in my palm. They combined, balled up, and fell out of my hand. Dry, greasy, unappetizing balls of grittiness that in no way indicated they’d eventually turn into the sweet, bready companion for a strong cup of tea.

Bridget was at my shoulder, watching me push the flour and butter together. She nodded her approval. “That’ll do us nicely.”

I took my hand out of the pile of crumbs and rubbed my fingers together, trying to get as much of the butter and flour as possible off my hands and into the bottom of the metal mixing bowl. When I was done, I went to the sink and turned on the hot water. I kept a finger under the water to monitor the temperature.

Bridget was giving me side-eyes as soon as I turned the tap handle. “I’d say that’s hot now, no?”

“If I try to wash my hands with this, all I’ll do is make another big pat of butter at the bottom of your sink. Nothing’s melting right now.”

“So you’ll dump half the fucking Brandywine down the drain?”

I sneered, hopefully playfully. “If that’s what it takes.”

The hint of a smile twitched at the corners of her mouth as she went to the fridge and pulled out eggs and milk. She put them on the counter next to my bowl full of crumbs. “One of these, then the milk until it looks wet enough.”

Warm water finally came from the tap, so I rubbed a bar of soap between my butter-greased fingers and got to work.

I felt eyes on the back of my neck, so I turned my head to peek over my shoulder.

Bridget was standing in the doorway, staring at me. The gears in her head looked to be turning. “Does your father know you’re here?”

“I’d say he’s safely assumed where I am.” I muttered the next part. “And why I’m here.”

If she heard my dig against her brother, Bridget didn’t let on. “Will you be spending the night?”

“Could I?”

“You’re always welcome here, I just need to know so I can make up the guest room. I washed the linens and they’re not on the bed.”

“I don’t want to put you out.”

“Not at all.”

“Thanks, Bridget.”

She went upstairs, still wearing her apron.

~

A ring of wet dairy clung to the sides of the bowl, refusing to be mixed into the rest of the batter. I dug the whisk deeper in and turned it like a spoon. I sped up, hoping the shock of having the metal cage back on them so quickly might scatter the grains.

“I don’t know what the fuck is wrong here.” I held the bowl out for her to inspect. “Maybe I put in too much milk.”

“It’s possible.” She took the bowl and whisk from me and mixed. The metal of the whisk gave a ringing scrape along the bottom of the bowl. “No. No. Just pockets of crumbs stuck on the bottom. Not quite mixed yet.”

I huffed.

“Don’t let it bother you.” Bridget smirked. “For time immemorial, bakers have been vexed by clumpy flour.”

I shrugged. “I’m better than this.”

“You are.” There wasn’t scolding in her response. Just a statement.

She turned her attention to the bowl.

Since I was ten or eleven, I’d been walking down and dropping on an apron to join the production line. I’ve made at least six different types of soda bread, another twelve breads that required yeast, and three more that had us pouring bottles of stout into the batter.

We’ve churned out biscuits, “biscuits,” muffins, barmbrack for Halloween, and virtually every birthday cake me and my siblings have ever wanted, along with a few we didn’t.

Small hand-held pastries pour out of this kitchen with the kind of regularity military commanders kill for and in numbers that could feed the Marines and Vietcong, with enough left over we could host tea for even our most casual acquaintances.

Some days, I saw more of Bridget’s kitchen than I did my own bedroom.

But for all the time I’d spent here and with everything I’d put in and taken out of the oven, I’d never actually watched my aunt work. So I did. I leaned back against the sink and watched her fix my careless mixing.

She pulled the whisk in firm, steady circles. When she wasn’t satisfied with that, she stabbed at the clumps with the foremost wire. The metal from the bowl and the whisk scraped and rang against each other to a slow beat that would shame a metronome.

It was an effortless thing. I knew she baked before she came here. Some bakery in the middle of Galway, at the intersection of an unmarked street and mislabeled lane. Long closed by now.

Her gaze left her kitchen, her house, her street, our city, our county, our state. Her eyes looked instead at something a few feet below her and three thousand miles to the northeast.

And she was singing. There weren’t notes. There was no tune. It was only breath, re-enacting a song she’d already sung.

I must away now…

I was an intruder. Out of place in the kitchen where I’d supplied armies of relatives and neighbors.

This morning’s tempest, I have to cross…

I shifted my weight from one foot to the other. The floor’s linoleum crackled against its aging adhesive.

He knelt down gently upon a stone…

I went to her glassware cabinet and clinked glasses against each other, some so hard I thought I might chip them.

And more than near drenched…

I took one from the cabinet and put it below the tap. Water rushed from the faucet.

Until that long night was past and gone…

The words left Bridget. As they did, she adjusted the bowl in the crook of her arm, stopped mixing, and turned her full attention to the batter.

I slurped my water.

Bridget looked up at me, smiled, and handed me the bowl. “We’re grand now, so.”

~

The two of us looked proudly down at a row of three-inch, raisin and chocolate circles, salvaged from heinous mixing and distraction.

Bridget handed me a brush, a fork, an egg, and a bowl. “You know what’s next.” She turned to heat the oven.

I cracked the egg into the bowl, beat it to a yellow foam, and dipped the brush. Anywhere I saw flour dust or dry dough, I dragged the brush. There were thirty-six in all and I treated each one as if it was going to a photoshoot for Julia Child, if she would ever deign to dignify Irish baking.

Bridget opened the front of the oven. “It’s bound to be hot enough by now. Stick them in there and set yourself a timer.”

The baking tray scraped along the rack and I clicked the timer to seventeen minutes.

On top of the stove, steam poured from a cast iron kettle I hadn’t seen or heard Bridget fill. She wrapped the handle in a towel and poured the water into a teapot. “We’ll have one while we wait?”

I knew better than to treat it as a genuine question.

She waved me away. “Go sit at the dining room table. I’ll drop it down to you.”

~

In the dining room, I stood in front of her watercolor. The scene was devoid of minute features, mostly due to the limitations of the medium, not Bridget’s talent. It didn’t matter. I filled in the details myself.

The women had gray-green eyes, just like Bridget. The men looked out through the blue gradients of my father, a dark navy that turned to ice closer to the pupil.

Some of the landlubbers had kempt mustaches and others were clean shaven, but the fishermen had red and brown beards that would catch the spray coming off the bow of their boats. Their shouted orders, jokes, and shanties carried between boats.

Women’s silver earrings, brand new purchases they were showcasing to friends and neighbors, caught the multicolored light. They emitted bashful laughs at compliments and pointed to jewelers’ storefronts.

It seemed like a cold day, whatever time it was, and the people’s cheeks were red and drying out. Wind rushed off green mountains and the calm bay water to whip across the gentry’s faces. Men held their hats against the wind, desperately trying to hide bad haircuts and bald spots, but women let their brown, black, gray, and red locks bounce in the gust.

I heard Bridget’s feet behind me, along with the sound of her fully stocked tea tray being placed on the table.

“You painted this, right?” I didn’t turn around as I asked.

“I did, aye.” She stood up and went back into the kitchen. I could tell from the noise that she was rummaging through her liquor cabinet. She came back in with a half-empty bottle of whiskey and dropped it on the table. “Would you sit down? You’re making me nervous, putting all that stress on your knees.”

I picked the seat catty corner from her, the one with my overcoat hanging off the back.

She held my eyes for a moment and I got the sense she was calculating.

She poured a healthy measure of whiskey into both of our cups. “Don’t tell your father. He’s bought into the drinking age here for some reason. I suspect it’s because he has American kids.”

I added milk and sugar and stirred both into the tea and whiskey and jerked my head toward the watercolor. “Have you told me what it is?”

“If you’re asking that, probably not.”

There was a long pause. There was the clink of metal on porcelain as she scooped sugar from its dish.

Impatience got the better of me. “Well?”

She stirred in her milk and sugar. “Not much to tell. I woke up too early one day. There was no going back to sleep — believe me, I tried — so I threw something on and headed out. That jumper, actually, if memory serves. That’s what I saw that morning.”

I fingered a few of the gaps between the yarn of my sweater. “Short shrift for something that you clearly spent so long on.”

She smiled, sighed, and changed the subject. “Your brother sent me a picture.”

“Oh, lemme see.” I held out an expectant hand.

She went to a pile of mail on the buffet. “Apparently some journalist popped round with one of those cameras. You know, where you take the picture and it comes out and develops as you shake it. He had a regular camera, too, like. But that was for the papers. The instant was for anyone who wanted to send something home.”

“It’s a good thought.”

“I’m inclined to agree. Here it is. Right on top.” She took the picture from its envelope and handed it to me.

My breath caught. My oldest brother, Pat, was leaning on 155mm Howitzer like it was the wicker furniture on our front porch. There were sandbags and guard towers and bunkers visible in the background, and jungle hills behind that, but those barely registered. I could only see my brother.

He hadn’t wanted to go in the first place, but when they called his number, there he went. Now here was a pale Polaroid facsimile of the man we sent away.

He was smiling, but it was a begrudging smile, at ease in spite of himself. He wasn’t necessarily having a bad time, but it certainly wasn’t the way he wanted to spend his mid-twenties. There was a cigarette in his mouth and his red hair was shorter than I’d ever seen it. His shirt was unbuttoned almost halfway down his torso and his sleeves were rolled up past his elbows. Dog tags glinted against his bare chest.

I flipped the picture over and found my real brother. On the back was his chicken-scratch, recognizable immediately, immediately frustrating. “Vietnam is lovely this time of year. A bit noisy. I hope you’re well, Aunt Bridget.” There was a line break, then under it, in parentheses, “You too, Katherine.”

I sat back in my chair and blinked tears from my eyes. I dragged one hand across my nose. With the other, I pushed hair off my forehead and behind my ear.

“Six months. It feels longer.”

She took the picture back and looked at it, pride written in bold letters across her face. “It always does.”

She traded the picture for the whiskey bottle and swigged directly, then offered it to me.

I took it. “Sláinte.”

“You listen to me sometimes.”

“When you’re being interesting.”

I put the bottle back halfway between us.

Bridget had a face on her similar to when she was mixing in the kitchen, and she was tapping her spoon against the table. Her voice lapsed into an odd sentimentality I’d never heard. “I think one of the things I miss most about home is when the winter rain finally breaks.”

She laid the spoon flat and picked up the teacup. “You kids, and this is nothing against you, but you kids don’t seem to appreciate the kind of sun you get here. Even on the coldest winter day, you might still see the sun. The sun’s a bit sarcastic about it, I’ll grant you that, because the day will still freeze boiling water. So it’s not so pleasant, but at least the sun is out. At home, you might as well replace the sky with a thick fucking blanket of damp and wind between the months of October and March. Throw on your wool everything, because this is the way we’re living for the winter. Indoors at home or sprinting to the pub or indoors after sprinting to the pub. If you have a job, you’ll go there for the day, but eventually you have to leave and face the rain and there it is again.”

She put her empty cup back on the table. “It was February and it was cold. Not cold like here, but home’s humid cold. So I threw on that jumper and went outside and I’m glad I did because it started raining later and fuck did it keep going.”

She looked up at the painting for the first time since she came in the room.

“But everyone was out that morning. Like we had an alarm clock set for the only sunrise that would be worth watching. And we went down to watch the fishermen go out from the Claddagh, all of us pretending the winter wasn’t going to punish us for it later.”

She poured two fresh cups of improvised toddies. As she did, she examined every available inch of my face. She even ventured down to my shoulders to see if the slope or lack thereof would tell her something.

Evidently it didn’t, because she reached into the apron she was still wearing and pulled out the Greyhound bus schedule that was previously in my coat pocket. She slid it in front of me. “Big plans?”

Instinct took over and I threw my hand into the coat pocket. It was empty. “I was brainstorming.”

“This is more than throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks.”

I paused. I had to.

Bridget kept probing. “Is there a destination in mind? The wild west is written all over this schedule, but there’s nothing final.”

“San Francisco. I have the ticket already. One way.”

I nodded.

“Any particular reason?”

“It’s always warm. I like hills. I think the lifestyle might agree with me.”

“I think it might too.”

My eyes snapped to hers. “What?”

“From what I’ve heard about the place, it’d suit you. Young people, war protests, female liberation, flowers. They seem like things you’d like.”

My voice fell to almost a whisper. “Dad’s not there.”

With a barking laugh and a nod, Bridget said, “You’ll miss that one day. But not while you’re young.”

We both took another swig from the whiskey bottle.

“You asked me if I was homesick. I know I’m American now, with the immigration and naturalization and citizenship and voting and true-blue all that. And I love this house. I love this city. I love what I found here.” She reached across and squeezed my hand to emphasize the point.

A flash of guilt crossed her face. “But those pink and purple and orange and red sunrises, mornings you can’t get here, never go away. They don’t. They just don’t.”

She looked at me and I stared at our joined hands.

After long seconds, she released me. “When will you go?”

My voice betrayed me as it shook. “Two days.”

She nodded. “Do your parents know? Does your father know?”

“It hasn’t come up.”

She didn’t say anything for a minute. When she finally did, we were finishing a conversation she’d been on the receiving end of decades ago. We were standing on a wharf in the west of Ireland. A suitcase with enough fresh baked scones to take me across the Atlantic sat next to my feet and we were watching deckhands extend a gangplank down to a waiting crowd.

Bridget saw me off. “We’ll be here when you get back. However long you’re gone, however long you need to stay away, we’ll be here when it’s over.”


Dillon is from Wilmington, Delaware. His fiction has previously appeared in Caesura Literary Magazine, The Main Street Journal, and The Broadkill Review in the United States, and The Galway Review and Ropes Literary Journal in Ireland. Most recently, he had poetry appear in Vox Galvia in Galway. He also completed his MA in Writing at NUI Galway in Ireland.

Coal Black

The story of what happened during the summer of 2020 is lost, or rather, someone just dusted it over, and if you just put a little breath on it, you’ll reveal it all. The only abnormalities you can find in the official records have to do with the weather. If you want to know what was really going on, you’ve got to compare what you find on social media with what was officially reported. Check BallSnatch, Fakebutt, and Ingrastam. You’ll see. Things just don’t match up. Maybe you’ve got to water gaze, get a clean bowl, and fill it. Maybe you’ll get some answers that way. I don’t know.

Back then, the reporters gave no indication that anything was unusual; they continued to report the weather like nothing was wrong.  It was August, and not once had officials given us citizens an explanation for why it hadn’t rained all summer. Every city experiences an occasional drought, but it wasn’t dry. Far from it. There should have at least been a mention of it. No official source—no TV weatherman, no newspaper, not even weather.net—gave an explanation for the all-encompassing mushy grayness hovering over the city. Each morning a thick fog rolled in off the Delaware river. It was so massive. It looked like God had hiked her puffy white skirt above her knees to avoid the water. Then, for the rest of the day, a seemingly malcontent, monochromatic shadow colored everything, and no one said anything about it. Imagine normal, temperate, summer weather being like this all of a sudden:

Dawn rises, and there might be a wind that’s a little aggressive, a little more than flirtatious with the hair that hangs about your neck. It teases, and then it definitely threatens, slowly becomes tempestuous. And by mid-morning the sky cracks and rolls but never opens.

There was no rain. Never. At least there wasn’t any officially reported. Every day with the same recorded smile, the weather person, in her too tight cocktail dress and pin-up girl makeup,  announced the same, “Smothering humidity, high temperatures, severely overcast skies, possible rain.”  But it was ridiculous. Everyone knew that it rained. Just not continuously, and not over a very large area.  It was known to rain on one person, or one car, or one house at a time. In torrents. Hurricane conditions for an average of four square feet for an average of four seconds. They didn’t lie, not really. The media, indeed the people, simply ignored these uprisings that only amounted to the discomfort of a few, people who were often other anyway.

A new fried chicken and milkshake place had opened up across from the park, next to the new tiny art gallery, opposite the popsicle store, the pickle store, the mayonnaise store, and the barley beer store. It seemed to Sunny that there was now a store for everything in this neighborhood. How about a Qtip and cotton ball store? A dish soap store? Sunny imagined one day, these specialty stores would cover the city. And instead of a supermarket, you’d get each ingredient for your sandwich from a different store. At the end, your tomato on rye with vegan curry mayonnaise would cost over $100. How ridiculous would that be? But for now, couldn’t a sweet, thick milkshake cheer her, lift the numbing grey fog clinging to her mind and heart?

As if in defense of the thought, an angry steel cloud began forming over her head as soon as she stepped off the number 40 bus. Sunny barely escaped the rain. She stepped quickly through the glass doors that had been covered in plywood after the last riots. Merry bells rang, startled her, bright sounds to match the shockingly bright white walls and halogen lights. The inside of the shop had been sterilized of all of the violence and uncertainty that filled the streets around it.

Sunny ordered her shake from the counter girl with the blond hair. She had a plastic smile and empty blue eyes.

“Vegan shake please.”

“I’ll bring it out to you in 10. No chicken today?”

“Vegan.”

“Right,” she said with a tiny smirk.

Sunny slid onto a stool at the counter in the back and carefully peeled off her damp cardigan. From her vantage point she could people watch. She could clearly see everyone sitting at tables and booths. There was a thin slice of glass left uncovered by the plywood, and so she could also spy the anonymous raincoats and umbrellas walking past outside the shop.

There was a Black couple in the booth closest to the window that kept grabbing her attention. They were the only other Black people in the restaurant. And although most of the Black faces she passed in the streets were gloomy and wet, victims of rain, their houses maybe even torn up by the summer’s flash storms, they seemed to be happy. The sun wasn’t shining at all, and still their faces were reflecting some source of inner light. The waitress brought over a basket of hot chicken, which she sat in the middle of their table.

“Gimme some,” the girl said.

The man looked at her with a devious grin. “Better keep your hands off my food woman.”

She placed her hands on the table and leaned forward ready to pounce.

“I will bite the shit outta you,” he said, still smiling. “Stop playing!” he placed a protective arm in front of the basket.

The brown man began to eat greedily. He barely held in his laughter and paused to drop the chicken and lick his fingers to cool the burning. His date saw her chance. She pushed his arm aside and snatched a wing just as he was about to attempt another bite.

“Let me try this here. The girls at my school said this place got good chicken.” The woman pulled the wing from her mouth; her teeth took most of the meat from the bone.

The man spoke first, “This is nasty as hell,” he said, “it’s soggy as fuck.”

“Dang!” she said and spit the bite she had taken back into the basket.” Ain’t no salt on it or nothin…”

“And that piece you bit is bloody in the middle.” She looked as if she wanted to vomit. “That’s so trife.”

“That’s what you get, woman. How you gone let some white girls tell you where to get chicken in your own hood? What the hell is ‘artisan fried chicken’ anyway?”

“I coulda got better chicken on the block with some salt pepper ketchup.”

“Right?”

“Like $.10 a wing.”

“Alllll day!”

They both laughed until they were holding their bellies. They sat closer together. He grabbed the back of her neck and they pressed lips. Sunny swiveled her stool back toward the counter and sighed. Her milkshake had come and melted. She hadn’t even noticed. It was just as well.

Twisting to and fro on her stool, Sunny glanced once more at the couple as they made their way to the door in each other’s arms. They were the brightest in the room, not the walls or the lights, and when they left, they carried the sun out with them. Sunny imagined that they were in love. The way the girl kept smiling and the way the boy kept touching her, she imagined she must have been witnessing love or something like that.

Sunny paid for her forgotten milkshake and left. Her rain cloud had waited above the door of the shop to escort her home. She glanced at it threateningly from time to time as she walked the four blocks to her house. She didn’t even bother to put her umbrella back up.

“Fuck it,” she thought, “let it rain.”

But it didn’t.

****

The front door of her apartment was open, but the lights were off. She wondered where her roommate was. As she neared the top of the stairs in the communal hallway, she could hear a commotion in the bathroom. A less experienced partygoer may not have recognized the faint noises she heard as retching. But she knew, before she saw, that Mel was throwing up into the toilet. Sunny took the last few steps in bounds.

She found Mel with her head in the toilet looking distressed and even more pale than usual. She helped her into her bedroom and sat her on the bed. Sunny noticed that her personal cloud had hung around, and was now outside Sunny’s bedroom window making a storm just for her. Fat droplets began to assault the pane. Mel lowered her face as her eyes also began to shower the front of her lavender tank top. Her tears came in torrents. Puddles began to form in her upturned, cupped hands.

“I’m pregnant Sunny and I think it’s Allen’s.” Mel did her best to push her words through the water.

“Wow, Mel. Can I be the god mom?”

“Don’t be stupid. I can’t have this baby.”

Sunny moved to her friend’s side. “I’ll help you,” she said and gently brushed the hair out of Mel’s eyes. She held her tear-soaked hand. “And you won’t have to worry about money. Your parents will give you money right?”

“Not for a half Black baby Sunny. They’d just die. They’d disown me! For real this time…”

Sunny stood up and moved away. “Well, no that’s crazy, Mel. It’s your baby, so they’ll love it. Besides, your parents aren’t racists. They’ve always been really nice to me. How many times have I been to their house?”

“That’s because you can’t get their daughter pregnant, dummy.  Of course we are nice to Black people, we don’t fucking have babies with them. My nanny was your color Sunny,”  Mel stood glaring. “I’m getting rid of it, that’s what I’m going to do.”

“Mel!”

“I’m sorry,” she said quietly. “I just can’t do it.” And she left the room.

Sunny stood in the same place in the middle of the floor, staring at the empty spot on the edge of her bed where her friend had just been. She didn’t think. She just stood wondering what to think or do, if anything was to be thought or done. She turned toward the window, which the darkened sky had transformed into a mirror. For a moment the rain racing down the glass almost made it look like Sunny was crying, but she wasn’t. She couldn’t. She certainly wanted to but couldn’t choose between the many reasons why she might. Her friend had been the one crying, but somehow, Sunny was the one soaking wet. Now the rain was inside. She ran her hands over her cottony, kinky curls and briefly felt self-conscious; felt herself an enemy of her own skin.

Then Sunny felt anger but she felt love too. She remembered the couple she had seen in the restaurant, how they radiated love. For a brief moment, Sunny wanted to curse Mel, but instead she said this prayer for her and her baby:

I hope this child is born. I hope it’s born full of love and health, she prayed, and Dear God, I pray it’s born black as coal.


Misty Sol, a writer/visual artist from small-town Pennsylvania creates art to explore Black people’s connections to family, nature, and speculation. When she isn’t painting, writing, or homeschooling her two kids, Misty enjoys making meals from scratch, gardening, and foraging for wild edible plants. She currently lives in and creates in Philadelphia. Misty’s work is featured in both literary and visual genres in our winter 2021 edition. Visit www.mistysol.com.

Nobody Makes it Big in Philly

Elizabeth did the best she could to make ends meet. There were times she’d pay the light bill and times the lights went out. Sometimes we had a place to stay, other times we had to flee in exodus. Those times, I could never bring more than I could carry. We’d get to the apartment of some new artist boyfriend of hers that I had to call “uncle” so and so, and he was gonna take care of us, but it never lasted for more than a few months. We always outstayed our welcome.

I always assumed my father was one of the many artists she had lived with. I had no pictures or physical description, just the drunken ramblings of my mother yelling in an ear-piercing tone that I “looked like that motherfucker.” I remember going through a phase where I studied every brown-skinned man on the street and wondered if he was my father.  His name did not appear on my birth certificate, so all I could do was wonder.

When I was around eight, she settled with Fingers, a pianist and singer.  She followed him from gig to gig, usually stumbling home in the early twilight hours. A tap at my feet would signal their return, and I’d awake to see his tall, dark figure standing over the bed.  All I could see were his eyes in the moonlight and the red-orange of his cigarette dangling from those curving dark-colored lips. I was forced to sleep on the couch in the living room.

I used to share the same bed with my mother, sleeping on her right side, while her night guest laid to her left.  Until one evening, Fingers got mad and shouted, “When is he gonna get a bed of his own?” Ever since then, I was forced to sleep on the lumpy old couch in the living room.  I hated laying there alone in the dark while he enjoyed the comfort and warmth of the bed and my mother’s affections. Watching from the crack in the door as their bodies merged in the moonlight, I’d see how he held my mother, and how she looked at him. Fingers would call her “Baby,” and he’d sing to her.

In the morning, I’d have to tiptoe past their sleeping half-naked bodies, with the fragrance of cigarettes, liquor, and sex stinging my young nose. Forging my way to the bathroom and stepping on their carelessly flicked cigarette butts, together with empty bottles of Night Train lining the threadbare carpet. This became a part of my morning routine. Fingers would usually stir a little when I closed the door after having used the bathroom. He’d rub his eyes, smile dryly, and say something like, “Hey little man.” I’d scowl at him and walk back to the couch, wishing he’d leave so I could sleep comfortably.

When Fingers slipped out the front door in the morning before mom could prepare breakfast, I could hear her quietly sobbing in the bathroom. When she finally made her appearance in the living room, she’d push a bowl of cereal towards me.

As Fingers and Elizabeth’s relationship progressed, there would be weeks Elizabeth wouldn’t come home and I’d be left alone to fend for myself with nothing but liquor bottles in the apartment. Eventually I found my solace in those bottles. I’d sit in the living room and drink until I passed out, my little body numb to the reality of neglect. While alone, I began to channel my thoughts into a black and white marbled composition book, waxing poetic about the things that didn’t make any sense to me, about not knowing my father, about how poorly Fingers treated Elizabeth, and how I wished for a place to call a permanent home.

By the end of the year, Fingers stayed with us. I stayed as far away from home as possible. I passed the hours after school in the library, meandering through the art section, falling in love with the surrealism of Dali, the artful graffiti of Basquiat, and the collage of Romare Bearden. I began to see my world of abandoned buildings and liquor stores in geometric patterns. I began drawing and sketching this world in a spiral pad, seeing the images before the pen ever touched the paper. I consumed the writings of Richard Wright and listened to the sounds of Gil Scott Heron and The Last Poets. I was in the library until they kicked me out.

Elizabeth and Fingers were up nights talking about moving to New York. Fingers said he was tired of taking the Chinatown bus.

“Nobody ever made it big in Philly,” he told my mother.

A few weeks later, my mother told me that we were moving. I didn’t bat an eye. I got up from the couch and started the familiar ritual of shoving my clothes into my duffel bag. Moving in with Fingers would be just another of our many relocations.

“What kind of dump he taking us to?” I asked.

“Baby, there ain’t no place for you where we going.” I walked down the stairs with my duffel bag and waited for Fingers to start up his Monte Carlo.

I hopped in the back, not sure where I was going. Fingers looked at me through the rearview mirror for a while. I wasn’t about to give him the satisfaction of seeing me cry or asking my mother to pick me over her lover. Elizabeth sat in the passenger’s seat and remained silent as the car went down Grays Ferry Avenue.


Pietra Dunmore’s writing has appeared in Rogue Agent, Penumbra, Causeway Lit, Pine Hills Review, Rigorous, and Hippocampus Magazine.

Feral Wives (Third Place Winner of the Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction)

Feral Wives

The Feral Wives have left us, that much is clear. What is less clear is why, and for how long. Surely their absence must be an aberration, a temporary detour from the long, slow, steady march of civilization. For how would we go on without them? And they without us?

We know so little. Their means of survival, their patterns of migration, their social structure—if they can be said to have one—all remain mysterious. We can theorize, of course, but little can be said with any certainty. We have learned that they tend to travel in groups of six to twelve—though communities of twenty or more are not unknown. They prefer to stay on the move, building temporary shelters from the materials close at hand and then disassembling them, so that the only traces they leave behind might be a pile of sticks and leaves, a charcoal pit, a few bones. And yes, they hunt, fish, and trap, though we have little idea how, since they do not appear to be armed in the conventional sense. They seem to know things that we have lost, and to have lost things that we know.

Those who are returned to us—sometimes by misadventure, more often by force—are of little help. They understand our questions but do not answer them. Have they been sworn to secrecy? Attempts to reintegrate them inevitably fail. In extended periods of captivity—for this is clearly how they see it—they become despondent, sometimes even catatonic. We can warehouse them, or we can set them free. Either way, they no longer belong to or among us.

***

We were at a rest stop somewhere in Ohio when Katrina finally bolted.

She’d been slumped over in the passenger seat all morning, face pressed against the glass, staring out at the monotonous landscape of fields, farms, and factories scrolling by on the turnpike. I was at the wheel, trying to put as many miles as possible behind us, with the vague notion that a change of scene might mean a change of outcome. The girls rode in the back, uncharacteristically quiet, Chelsea clinging to her phone, Greta to Mr. Tiddles, her stuffed rabbit. They were anxious, looking to us for cues on this odd, unexpected journey. I had none to offer.

To the extent that I had a plan, it was to keep driving west, chasing the sun until it set, then find a cheap motel for the night. Rinse and repeat. I’d thought maybe we could outrun destiny, and if not, then at least we’d be on the run as a unit. Maybe at some point we’d just ditch the car and the hastily packed suitcases and tramp off into the wilderness together. That didn’t seem to happen to others, but why couldn’t we be different? Or maybe we’d just keep going, all the way to the Pacific, and then . . . what?

Something made Katrina perk up. She raised her head and squared her shoulders, the muscles on the back of her neck tensing. I stole a sideways glance out the passenger window to see what might have caught her attention, but it was just the same thing we’d been seeing for hours: rows of soy and corn stretching into the distance, punctuated by an occasional barn or silo. Perhaps sensing my gaze, she turned to face me. Her eyes, curtained by wisps of her long blond-going-to-gray hair, were open wide, pupils dilated. She was looking, not at me, but right through me, beyond me, to something that wasn’t there, or not yet there, though I had the feeling that the sheer intensity of her gaze could almost bring it into being, whatever it was. Not for the first time in recent weeks, I also had the visceral sense that I was no longer looking at my wife of fourteen years but at a complete stranger. God knows what she saw when she looked back at me.

The angry blast of a truck horn in the left lane snapped my attention back to the road. I’d been drifting, and I jerked the wheel to the right as an oil tanker whizzed by mere inches away.

“What is it, Dad?” said Chelsea, her voice tight with worry. “What happened?” At nine, to her sister’s four, Chelsea had become their spokesperson for the trip.

“It’s fine, honey,” I told her. “I was just getting a little too close to that truck, so he was letting me know.”

“Mom, what were you looking at over there?” she asked.

“Nothing,” said Katrina absently. “Go back to sleep.” Neither girl had slept a wink since we’d left our home in Harrisburg in the early dawn.

“I have to pee,” said Greta.

“How bad, muffin?” I asked. “Can you wait a little while?”

“Kinda bad,” she said. In the rear-view mirror I could see her squirming in her seat. She hugged Mr. Tiddles so tightly that his torso slumped forward, his long ears drooping over her tiny thighs.

I sighed. “OK, let me see what I can do.” I’d been holding on myself since at least Pittsburgh and had finally reached that point of Zen where my angry bladder seemed to belong to someone else. Now, with the prospect of relief, the urgency returned. I saw a sign ahead promising a rest stop in five miles.

“Hang in there,” I told Greta, taking the Subaru up to eighty to pass a row of cars and trucks in the right-hand lane. In four minutes flat we were pulling into the Muskingum County Rest Area. We drove past a long line of stopped tractor trailers and turned into one of the angled parking spaces for cars. Ahead, up a paved walkway, was the visitor center, a low concrete building with a flying-saucer-shaped metal roof. A path to the right led to a pavilion with a few empty picnic tables, beyond which lay grassy hills with stands of tall oaks, and, beyond that, the woods. A cell tower loomed out of the trees like a sentry.

“OK, let’s go,” I said, opening the door and unfolding my stiff legs. By the time I stood up, Chelsea and Greta were already out of the car and on their way up the sidewalk. “Wait up!” I called, but they kept going, Greta pulling her older sister by the hand toward the glass doors of the visitor center. I poked my head inside the car. “Are you coming?” I asked Katrina. “I don’t want them running off alone.”

“They’ll be okay,” she said, not looking up. “They’re survivors, Steve.”

“Alrighty, then,” I said, not wanting to argue the point. “Do you want anything? Coffee? A snack?”

She shook her head.

“We may not stop for a while after this.”

“It’s best to keep moving.”

“Suit yourself.” I pushed the door closed and hurried up the path. We’d had a lot of disconnected conversations like this lately, and I was running out of patience. So, apparently, was she.

The bathroom stop turned into a snack run, which was quickly upgraded to lunch, and then I couldn’t resist getting in line at the Starbucks for an iced mocha latté, my one weakness. By the time we emerged from the building, laden with greasy bags and sweaty drinks, Katrina was gone. Not only that, but she’d left the passenger door wide open, with all of our stuff in plain view of anyone wandering by.

“Where’s Mom?” asked Greta.

“I guess she went for a walk,” I said. She’d left her phone in the cup holder between the seats, and her suitcase was still with the others in the luggage compartment. I scanned the surrounding area but saw no sign of her. A wave of panic rose from my gut to my chest and lodged there. I didn’t want to alarm the girls, so I said, “Let’s go over to the picnic tables. We can eat our lunch while we wait for her to come back.”

She didn’t come back.

“Maybe she’s inside, looking for us,” I said, though I didn’t really believe it. “Let’s go check.”

We dumped the remains of our picnic into the waste bin and headed for the building. Several couples passed us on their way out, retirees in tennis shoes and oversized sweatshirts. The kind of people you saw on the road in late September. We must have seemed out of place, and perhaps a bit panicky, as we attracted looks of curiosity and concern. One of the women leaned over and whispered something to her husband, then gave the girls a sympathetic nod. Save your pity, I thought. We’ll be fine.

The visitor center was humming with activity, as people headed in every direction at once, alone and in clumps. I looked around the place and saw no sign of Katrina. I sent the girls into the women’s room, but they returned without their mother. We combed the food court, to no avail. I asked some of the employees if they’d seen a fortyish woman in jeans and a fuzzy brown sweater. Not much to go on, I realized, but we had to try. They just shrugged. Greta began to cry, and Chelsea took her by the hand. More people were staring at us now. More whispers and knowing looks.

“She must be outside,” I said. “C’mon, let’s go, girls.”

We walked the perimeter of the rest area, where the mown grass gave way to woods, calling “Katrina” and “Mom” at the top of our lungs. The dark, silent forest swallowed our cries. The only other sound was the rumble of trucks out on the highway. I saw no paths or obvious points of entry, just weeds and underbrush, thorns and poison ivy. Discarded candy wrappers, Styrofoam cups, and plastic bags had blown up against the edge of the wood, like sea foam washed up by the tide. The idea of stepping over them and into that dense mess of foliage with the girls in tow made me deeply uneasy. So did the idea of leaving them standing there at the edge of the wood.

We went over the entire rest area twice, then returned to the car and sat with the windows down. Greta continued crying and sniffling, while Chelsea stroked her sister’s hair and I sat in the front thinking about next steps. It was Chelsea who finally broke the silence. “We lost her, Dad,” she said.

It sounded like an accusation.

***

HOST: Welcome back. I’m Megan McCready, and this is “Here and Now.” Today we’re talking about the so-called Feral Wives. Who are they? Why are they leaving? Where are they going? What can we do to bring them back? Joining me this morning are two experts: Roger Reed of MROWWW. Roger, why don’t you tell us what that stands for?

ROGER: Sure. It’s Men Rebuilding Our World Without Women.

HOST: Welcome.

ROGER: Pleased to be here.

HOST: And over here we have Vanessa van der Velde, professor of women’s studies at Barnard College and author of Fleeing to the Future: Manifesto for a New Feminism. Professor van der Velde, thanks for joining us.

VANESSA: My pleasure. And just Vanessa is fine.

HOST: Roger, let’s start with you. Why do you think this is happening, and why now?

ROGER: Well, it’s pretty clear, really. As a species we’ve reached a breaking point. For millennia, human society was shaped around a simple concept: the nuclear family, with one man, one woman, and their biological offspring.

VANESSA: Not al- . . .

ROGER: And it worked, or at least it worked well enough that every society in the world ended up adopting some version of this model and building a cosmology around it.

VANESSA: Not ev- . . .

ROGER: And the reason it worked was because there were clearly defined roles and a hierarchy for enacting and enforcing them, with the woman as the primary caretaker, and the man as the head and decision-maker.

VANESSA: Whoa, I . . .

ROGER: But in the last, let’s say, five decades or so, there’s been a coordinated effort to undermine the natural order of things and replace it with something else, something based on destructive and misguided notions of fairness and equality.

VANESSA: What’s mis- . . .

HOST: So you blame feminism?
ROGER: No, not at all, Megan. I blame men.

VANESSA: Can I just . . .

HOST: Why do you blame men?

ROGER: For being weak. Too many of us have abdicated our natural role, and it’s left our women rudderless. They’re leaving because we haven’t been fulfilling our social and biological imperatives as the male of the species.

HOST: Which are?

ROGER: I call it the three P’s: Provide, Protect, and Preside.

VANESSA: If I may . . .

ROGER: It’s like the proverbial three-legged stool. You take away one leg and the whole thing collapses. I’d argue that all three are eroding, and what we’re seeing now are the consequences.

HOST: And you, Vanessa, how about it? Do you think Roger is right?

VANESSA: I couldn’t disagree more. He’s right that we’ve had centuries of patriarchy but look where it’s gotten us. A planet on the brink of disaster, a society that’s literally being pulled apart. And all because of men’s insatiable need to dominate everything—women, nature, each other. This is what’s driving these women away. They’re returning to nature as allies against a system that aims to destroy everything. It’s a survival instinct . . .

ROGER: Vanessa, Vanessa, please, you know that just isn’t true. Our survival as a species has always depended on subduing and exploiting nature at every turn. That’s the whole basis of civilization, going all the way back to the Fertile Crescent.

VANESSA: Fertility is nature, Roger, and women . . .

[Crosstalk]

HOST: We have to . . .

[More crosstalk]

HOST: We have to break for commercial. I want to thank you both for being here. When we come back, we’ll be joined by a bounty hunter who’s been reuniting families across the country. He calls it rescue, others say it’s kidnapping. What do you think? Stay tuned.

***

We stayed in the rest-stop parking lot until dinnertime. I knew with increasing certainty that Katrina was gone, but I was reluctant to leave in case she changed her mind. If we left, how would she ever find us? We made several trips to the visitor center for various things, and to have another look around the premises. And then it started to get dark, and the girls were getting restless and asking too many questions I couldn’t answer, so I decided it was time to move on. But first we had to leave a note or something inside.

I herded the girls into the visitor center one last time, looking for someone official to ask about where to leave a notice. The best I could do was a uniformed janitor emptying trash cans in the food court. I explained our dilemma, and he pointed to a kiosk against the wall that I’d somehow overlooked in our previous passes through the building. Under a sign that read “Have You Seen Us?” was a unit that could easily have been mistaken for an ATM. On the screen, at roughly six-second intervals, appeared a succession of captioned photos of women: “Regina Simpson / Age 36 / Last seen Steubenville, Ohio / August 7, 2023. If located, please contact….” Regina was pictured seated at a table and clutching a large kitchen knife in her hand, blade pointed toward the ceiling. On the table in front of her was a birthday cake, candles ablaze. She was facing the camera, and there it was again, that look I’d seen in my wife’s eyes just hours earlier, gazing past us, through us, into a future we couldn’t see. A wave of vertigo swept over me, and I clutched the edges of the counter to steady myself. Then the picture was replaced by another, and the feeling passed.

A green button to the lower right of the screen was labeled “New Entry.” Reluctantly, I pressed it, and a touchscreen menu appeared. I entered Katrina’s name, date of birth, and “Last seen Muskingum County Rest Area, Ohio,” along with the date and contact info. All that was left was to upload a photo. I pulled out my phone and began scrolling through the gallery: memes, pictures of the girls on their bikes, of a fender-bender I’d been involved in a few months earlier, of the girls in last year’s Halloween costumes, more memes . . . did I really not have a picture of Katrina?

“Chelsea, do you have a decent picture of Mom on your phone?”

After much discussion, we settled on one from last summer, of Katrina kneeling in the garden. She was looking at the camera and smiling, her hand cupped around a large, ripe tomato. We uploaded the photo and then stood there, waiting for it to come around on the screen. After a couple of minutes, she appeared among the procession of the missing and then was gone from us again. For the first time that day, I felt tears gathering at the corners of my eyes.

***

DESPITE SETBACKS, PA HUNTERS HARVEST 74 ELK THIS SEASON

HARRISBURG, PA – Eighty-nine hunters took part in Pennsylvania’s one-week general elk hunt, which closed Nov. 9. Most left elk country with a trophy. For those licensed to hunt bulls, the success rate was 100 percent.

The harvest included eleven bulls estimated to weigh 700 pounds or more. The heaviest, taken in Clinton County, tipped the scales at 800 pounds and had a 10-by-9 rack. Some hefty antlerless elk were also taken in the harvest. Ten of the 62 cows taken by hunters weighed over 500 pounds.

Harvest numbers were down somewhat from previous years, due to the closure of several areas following sightings of non-hunters in the vicinity. State Game Commission wardens also investigated several reports of unlawful harvesting, including the partial remains of one bull discovered in Carbon County. No arrests were made.

All hunters are urged to use caution due to increased activity in state game areas unrelated to licensed harvesting of wildlife. Accidental shooting incidents such as those reported in Illinois, Michigan, and Tennessee have not occurred in Pennsylvania to date. We’d like to keep it that way.

Pennsylvania State Game Commission Bulletin

***

The closest motel I could find was two exits and twenty-some miles away. The taciturn Indian-American couple who ran the place handed over the keys without comment, and Chelsea and I unloaded the bags and brought them in while Greta stood outside in the pale yellow glow of a streetlight, clutching Mr. Tiddles and sucking her thumb.

“Greta,” I said as I emerged from the room for a second load, “Thumb.” We’d made a bargain whereby she got to take Mr. Tiddles everywhere in exchange for not sucking her thumb.

“Dad, leave her alone,” said Chelsea.

“We can’t suspend the rules just because Mom isn’t here.”

Greta threw Mr. Tiddles to the pavement, stomped into the motel room, and slammed the door.

“Nice going,” said Chelsea.

“You know, you could cut me a little slack,” I said. “It’s not like this is easy for me.”

She rolled her eyes, retrieved the rabbit from the sidewalk, then joined her sister in the room, closing the door behind her.

“Chelsea, Greta, I’m sorry!” I called after them.

I tried the door. It was bolted from the inside.

After much cajoling, I managed to get them out of the room and back in the car, and we drove off in search of a restaurant. The motel owners hadn’t been especially helpful, but it seemed there was a diner a couple of miles down the road. After driving back and forth through the town, which was really just a cluster of dull clapboard houses with rusting cars in the driveways and plastic toys on the lawn, we finally spotted the neon sign on a side road that led back in the direction of the interstate. It didn’t look promising—just a dull stainless-steel-plated box of a place, with a handful of old cars and trucks parked out front—and I was half-tempted to drive the twenty-five miles back to the rest stop for Sbarro or Wendy’s, but the weight of the day was settling over me like a damp wool blanket. I needed a meal and a bed, perhaps not even in that order. I pulled into the lot and parked.

In contrast to the dingy exterior, everything inside was bright and shiny and smelled like disinfectant, even the menus, which were almost as large as the Sunday comics section. Our waitress, whose name was Sandy, wore a white uniform and a cheerful smile that seemed like an extension of the decor. She asked where we were from and where we were going. The first one was easy, the second one not so much. I was about to say that we were “headed west,” but Greta beat me to the punch.

“Our mommy ran away today,” she said.

“Oh, darling, I’m so sorry. You must be worried about her.”

Sandy continued talking to the girls, asking them questions about their mother, all the while ignoring me. Finally, I could stand it no longer and cut in.

“They’re fine,” I said. “We’re fine.”

“No we aren’t,” said Chelsea.

Greta, who had finally calmed down somewhat on the way over, began crying again.

I sensed a coup building and I was outnumbered, so I backed down.

Sandy brought the girls multiple refills on the sodas that came with their grilled cheese sandwiches, and then threw in two free sundaes for dessert—as though an excess of sugar would somehow soften the loss of their mother. With me she was curt and direct. “Are you finished with that, sir?” she asked, looking at my half-finished hamburger and pile of fries.

“I couldn’t eat another bite,” I said. My appetite had fled, and fatigue was settling in.

“Your check.” She slapped it face down on the table in front of me.

Is this how it’s going to be? I thought. Damnit, I’m the one who stayed behind.

Just for spite, I left her an outrageously large tip.

***

It was sometime last year when we first heard about the Feral Wives, though I don’t think they were even called that yet. It was a Sunday morning. The kids were watching TV in the den while Katrina made pancakes and I did the New York Times crossword. We had NPR on in the background, and a report came on about an unusually large number of missing-persons cases involving women in various parts of the country. The women were believed to be alive, and some had been spotted traveling in groups, usually in rural areas. Supermarkets and restaurants in these areas had also reported overnight break-ins that many thought were related to the disappearances. A local sheriff somewhere in the Midwest was interviewed, as was one of the husbands. Both seemed completely at a loss to explain the phenomenon. “I just keep waiting,” said the husband, “and wondering why.”

“That’s weird,” I said. “I mean, it sounds almost like an internet hoax to me, or some kind of hysteria. Remember all those clown sightings back in, when was that?”

“I believe this is real,” said Katrina.

“So what do you think it’s about? Why would they do this?”

“I’m sure they have their reasons.”

“Like what?”

She shrugged and looked out the window. Outside, our neighbor Ted was bent over his lawnmower, tugging repeatedly at the starter cord. Finally it turned over, chugged a few times, and roared to life.

“Everyone is different,” she said. She didn’t elaborate; I didn’t ask.

In retrospect, I probably should have.

***

Deirdre Hendricks, Ted’s wife, was the first to go. We knew them, of course, but weren’t especially close, even though one of their two boys was in Chelsea’s class at school. Word got around, along with various rumors—that she’d run off with an unknown lover, that she’d gone back to California to live with her parents, that she’d joined a religious cult—but eventually, as other women began to follow suit, we connected her disappearance with the larger trend.

We’d see Ted on the other side of the fence, puttering around in his yard, pruning the roses, scooping the leaves out of the pool, running the leaf blower along the deck. He seemed determined to act as though everything was normal, but there was a ferocity to everything he did. I felt sorry for him, of course—but also, I have to admit, a little superior. I imagined that he must not have treated Deirdre very well, after all, for her to take off like that. And there had to be something very wrong with her as well, to abandon her kids like that. I crossed paths with him once at the supermarket and mumbled a few words of sympathy, which he brushed aside in a pretty rude way. Oh well, the guy was suffering. Most of all, though, I felt bad for the boys. Whenever I saw the two of them coming or going from the house, they always had their heads down and seemed lost. Chelsea said that Ted Jr. had been getting in fights at school.

A month or so later, a police car pulled up in front of their house, and two women in uniform got out. They helped Mrs. Hendricks out of the backseat and escorted her up the walkway to where Ted and the boys stood waiting. She wore a long white gown and walked slowly and deliberately, a policewoman at each elbow. Then they all went inside and closed the door. After that, we’d see her out on the back porch now and then, usually accompanied by her husband. There was a chain anchored to one of the porch posts, and sometimes he’d lock the end of it to a little brace she wore around her ankle so he could leave her out there. She’d sit on the folding deck chair in the sun, arms draped at her sides, until he came out and brought her back in. We saw nothing of the boys anymore. Chelsea said they had stopped going to school.

Katrina and I were sitting in the kitchen one morning, drinking coffee. It was a bright, sunny day, and normally we would have been outside, but we’d stopped using the back porch so much because we never knew when Mrs. Hendricks would be out there in her chair. Not that we interacted with her, or her with us, but it was just awkward having her sitting there.

She was out there now, in fact.

“What do you suppose happened to her?” asked Katrina.

“Our sunbathing friend over there? I don’t know.”

“She looks so . . . empty.”

“Yeah, not a lot going on there.”

“But why?”

I shook my head. “Who knows? Drugs, mind control, PTSD.”

“What if she’s only sad because she’s back here?”

“What’s wrong with here?”

“What if she was better off . . . wherever she was?”

I shrugged. “I don’t see how. She was probably half-starved. I mean, what do they eat, anyway?”

I looked out the window and noticed that she was staring at us, or at least in our direction, which was unusual. Most of the time, she seemed to keep her eyes straight ahead, even when Ted was out there with her.

“She’s watching us,” I said.

And then suddenly she stood, opened her mouth, and screamed—a long, protracted shriek that was audible even through the closed windows of our kitchen. It was painful to listen to. Ted came barreling out of the house and tried to put a hand over her mouth, then quickly pulled it away. It appeared she had bitten him. They struggled for a while, until he was finally able to subdue her, unlock the chain, and drag his wife inside the house.

“That was horrible,” said Katrina. She looked pale and shaken.

“I feel so bad for those boys,” I said. “It must be hard with their mom like that.”

***

One day, Ted knocked on our back door and asked if we’d seen his wife. Apparently, he had come outside to discover her missing. Her chain had been cut neatly in two, probably by a hacksaw. Ted said he didn’t even own one, so she must have had an accomplice.

“Are you sure you didn’t see anything?” he asked. His tone had an accusatory edge, and I half wanted to throw a punch at his pinched face.

“No,” I said.

“How about your wife? Did she …”

“No.”

He stood there for a moment, then turned abruptly and walked back across the yard toward his place.

I went down in the basement and checked our hacksaw. It still hung in its usual spot over the workbench, though I couldn’t tell if it had been used recently.

A few days later, a “For Sale” sign went up in front of the Hendricks’s house.

***

THE HOMEFRONT: WHEN MOTHERS LEAVE

It has long been accepted that some fathers will leave their families behind for extended periods of time. The reasons have varied according to culture and time period, and have included military service, sea voyages, colonial adventurism, migratory labor, and numerous other pursuits that have taken men far from home and hearth. And then there are those who choose to walk away from the burdens and responsibilities that attend raising a family. Depending on the circumstances, such men may be lauded for their service, viewed as making noble sacrifices for the sake of their families, or castigated as deadbeats and losers, but the fact remains that their absence is seen as a commonplace and even necessary fact of life.

But what about women who leave their families behind? Extended absences by mothers are likely to be judged far more harshly than those by fathers. This is true even when the woman is serving in the military or working a job that involves frequent or extended travel. While the father is likely to be seen as providing for his family or sacrificing for his country, with a mother there is the negative perception that she found something “more important” than her children, and that the children will suffer as a result.

Ample evidence exists that extended maternal absence has a negative effect on the mental health of children, but it is not clear that the impact is any more severe than it is for paternal absence. Furthermore, children raised by single fathers seem to fare just as well as those raised by single mothers. So why does this disparity in perception persist?

This question has received renewed attention lately due to the so-called Feral Wives. Reports on the phenomenon in the popular press tend to treat it as a kind of epidemic, something that arose suddenly and spontaneously, with very little precedent. Although research supports the notion that the number of women abandoning their families has spiked in the past year, this also represents the culmination of a trend that began decades ago. Much of the evidence remains anecdotal, but a recent U.K. study of walk-away moms covering the years 2015–20 indicated an increase of about 12 percent per year in the number of cases. . .

Psychology Today

***

In the weeks following Deirdre Hendricks’s second departure, other women in began disappearing. First it was Camille Fogarty, whose husband Rob was a contractor specializing in overpriced additions; then Renée Compton, who worked as a legal secretary and was married to the town supervisor; and finally, Mrs. Romberger, Chelsea’s fourth-grade teacher, who just stopped teaching one day and stared out the classroom window until the confused children finally got up and left. She didn’t come back the next day, or the next, and now they had a long-term substitute.

Not long after that, I awoke one night to find Katrina’s side of the bed empty. I rolled on my side and looked at the clock: 3:24 a.m.

I lay awake, waiting for her to return from the bathroom or wherever. When she didn’t, I slid out of bed, donned a robe, and went downstairs. The kitchen light was on and the back door stood open. I slipped on a pair of shoes and went out into the yard.

I found her standing under a tree.

“Katrina, what are you doing out here?”

“Can’t you smell it?” she said.

“Smell what?”

“The fumes. They’re choking us.”

“Katrina, I think you’re dreaming.”

“We’re dying, Steve. All of us.”

“Come back to bed.”

“You go. I want to stay out here for a while.”

“OK, whatever.” I went inside, got back in bed, and tossed and turned, finally drifting off just in time for my alarm to go off.

When I stumbled downstairs to make coffee, I found Katrina on the back porch, curled up against the door, fast asleep.

Things went downhill fast after that. Katrina stopped cooking, bathing, sleeping in our bed. She kept irregular hours, often staying up all night. I don’t know if she left the house, or where she went. I don’t know what, if anything, she ate. All I knew was that we were losing her, that it was only a matter of time before she was gone altogether from our lives. And that’s when I made the decision to take to the road. We’d head west, the four of us, to the land of new beginnings.

***

We saw them on the way back to the motel. There must have been fifteen or twenty, fanned out at the edge of the road. The high beams from the Subaru lit them up like so many statues, casting long shadows across the field from which they had emerged. Opposite them, to our right, was a stand of fir trees, their pointy peaks registering as a slightly blacker area against the darkening sky to the west. I slowed the car.

“Look, girls,” I said.

Chelsea leaned forward between the seats. Greta, who had been halfway asleep, sat up and craned her neck. “Is Mommy there?” she asked.

I had wondered the same thing, but none of the women in the group resembled Katrina. They were too old or too young, too tall or too short. I got the feeling they had been out here much longer than mere days or hours. And besides, how could she have covered all that distance in so short a time?

“I don’t think so,” I said.

“Are you sure?”

“Pretty sure.”

“We should check anyway,” said Chelsea. She unbuckled her seatbelt.

“No, Chelsea,” I said. “Stay in the car. I’ll get us closer.”

I inched the car forward. We stared at them, and they back at us, though I doubt they could see very much with the headlights shining directly on them. Even in the stark light, their faces were darkened, with webs of what might have been paint streaked across them. Most were wrapped in long robes or blankets that hung to the ground, and some wore feathers or garlands around their necks, in their hair. One of them held a long staff, a good ten feet tall, with what looked like the skull of a small animal at the top.

As if on signal, they sprang into motion and bolted across the road, their robes streaming behind them, and disappeared one by one into the trees. The last one to cross hesitated for a moment at the edge of the wood and turned back in our direction. I rolled down the window and shouted, “Hey, wait!” Then she turned and plunged into the darkness.

We drove slowly past the spot where they had disappeared, but the forest had swallowed them, and all was still and silent.

“I want to go home,” said Greta.

“We will,” I said. “Tomorrow.”

Because what else was there to do now but return? Return to the questions, the stares and whispers, the casseroles delivered to the door. The feeling that we had failed at a game whose rules no one understood, least of all the players.

I awoke early the next day to a beam of light in my face. I opened my eyes and saw Chelsea standing by the window with the heavy curtain pulled partway open. A thick slice of morning sun spilled across the double bed where Greta slept, her tiny frame curled around Mr. Tiddles, thumb stuck in her mouth. We’d have to have a talk about that thumb later.

“What do you see, honey?” I asked Chelsea, propping myself up on one elbow.

She showed no sign of having heard me, so I asked again.

“What’s out there, baby doll?”

She turned and stared at me, wordlessly, then dropped the curtain, enveloping us in darkness.

***

The Feral Wives have left us, this much is clear. But we will carry on without them. We will keep the fires burning, the wheels turning, the engines churning. We will hold down the home front, as best as we can, while we await their return. They seem to be compelled by forces beyond our control, beyond our understanding—perhaps beyond theirs as well. We do not know if they are going forward or backward, or if these directions even hold any meaning in relation to their actions. Perhaps it is enough to say that they are going. And when they get there, if they get there, perhaps someday they’ll come back for the rest of us.


David L. Updike is a writer and editor based in Philadelphia. His work has appeared in Grimoire, Daily Science Fiction, and 365 Tomorrows, among other venues. A member of the Bucks County Writers Workshop, he edited the first two issues of the group’s literary and historical journal, Neshaminy. A long-time museum publishing professional, he is currently director of publications at the Barnes Foundation. He lives in Wyncote with his wife, daughter, and more books than they could possibly ever read.