The Kielbasy Run

Tucked into Philadelphia’s northeastern section, the small neighborhood of Port Richmond is still asleep. It’s 5:30 on a cold December morning, and a fog has fallen over the narrow streets and row-homes. Abandoned factories and ornate churches, still illuminated by the moon, cast elongated shadows across the neighborhood. Most residents are still snug in the warmth of their beds, I am not one of them.  For the past 17 years, my mom, Aunt Pat and I have embarked on the “Kielbasy Run.” Set during the week before Christmas, we put on layer after layer of clothing and take the 20-minute drive on an empty I-95 to my family’s old Polish neighborhood, Port Richmond.  The ride is mostly silent; Aunt Pat tries to catch up on sleep after consecutive night shifts at Jefferson Hospital, and I stare out the window.

Our destination—Czerw’s Deli—is located on Tilton Street, which closer resembles a back alleyway than a usable road. After parallel parking a few blocks away (the closest we can get to the store), we venture into the below-zero temperatures and wait in line outside. The store won’t be open until 7 a.m., but the line already reaches the end of the block. We do all of this in search of one thing: authentic Polish food.

We wait in line with familiar faces from years past. There’s the businessman taking a day off from work, the father with his young children who drove in from New Jersey and the old woman (hair still in curlers) who lives around the block.

Thirty minutes later, we pass the screen door leading to the back of the deli—a source of warmth and a sign we are nearing the main entrance.  Through the screen, I can make out the faint figure of an old woman, hunched over with her cane faithfully by her side. Her hands move slowly and steadily as she packs beef into cabbage leaves. Her measurements are by memory, the movements of her fingers automatic. After wrapping up the finished product, she hobbles to the back hallway, calls out for one of her sons and hands off the package.

Just then, a large man—his white apron covered in reddish-brown stains—flings open the screen door and steps into the cold air to check the smoker. As he removes the lid, warm smoke and the woodsy smell of meat diffuses through the line. He grumbles to himself as he dips a finger in the juice pooling under the meat and raises it to his mouth.

“Needs more onions,” he states with a smack of his lips. He disappears back into the kitchen.

After nearly an hour in the cold, we make it to the large, wooden door. Inside, the deli is long and narrow, with enough room for only 10 customers. The line stretches along the back wall next to shelves packed with everything from Jewish rye bread to kosher dill pickles. One shelf displays four kinds of babka—cheese, raspberry, poppy seed and sometimes chocolate. In the back corner of the deli is a freezer full of pierogis. A large barrel full of sauerkraut gives the store its distinctive sour delicious smell of onions and garlic.

When we finally reach the deli counter, one of the three blond brothers takes our order.

“What’ll it be ladies?” the oldest brother asks in a gruff voice.

Mom recites our order like clockwork:

“Four pounds kabanosa, one pound fresh kielbasy, a pound of fresh bacon—sliced thick—one cheese babka, and four dozen onion & cheese pierogis.”

The rounded glass case is filled with red meat ranging from slab bacon to smoked kielbasy. Yellowed newspaper clippings hang in frames behind the counter, and a photograph of Pope John Paul II dutifully overlooks the cash register. After making our purchases, our food is handed to us in a large brown paper bag—20 pounds of pure culinary heaven. Our parcels act as a source of heat as we make our way back outside. Customers in line outside eye the trophy in our arms as we walk past.

The rest of our day is spent driving to three or four Polish bakeries—most are easy to spot with the country’s red and white colors proudly displayed. As we drive from bakery to bakery, my mom and aunt point out familiar landmarks:

“This is the cemetery where Babci [Grandma] is buried.”

“There’s the corner store our cousin used to own.”

“Here is where I first learned to drive our orange station wagon.”

Our foggy car windows display family history like a photo album. With each street comes another memory, and with each memory comes another anecdote.

By now it’s nearly 1 p.m., and we make our way into the last bakery for our most valued item: paczkis. Paczkis (pronounced PUNCH-keys) are Polish doughnuts filled with fruit jelly or cream. Their airy dough makes them significantly better than traditional American doughnuts. We select a variety of paczkis in flavors such as plum, prune and apricot.

As I walk back to the car—paczki in hand—the chilling wind hardly bothers me. I remove my thick gloves and let the powdered sugar fall onto my skin. The purple jelly stains my lips and tongue. I gaze once more at the grandiose churches dotting the avenue. From where I stand I can see the churches where great-grandma Frances Rybicki, great-grandpa Mikolaj Czekaj and grandma Catherine Wojcik all lived out the major events of their lives. I smile as our car pulls away and these familiar landmarks disappear into the Philadelphia skyline.

Once back at Aunt Pat’s house, the crinkling of the brown paper bag acts as the dinner bell. My five cousins—Brook, Matt, Monica, Chris and Erica—come running down three flights of stairs. We gather around my aunt’s round table and immediately begin to unwrap food from its paper packaging. We laugh for hours as Mom and Aunt Pat continue to share stories while we feast. Once my belly is finally full and I can’t bear to eat another paczki, there’s one thought running through my mind: I can’t wait until next year.

Born & raised in northeast Philadelphia, Rachel Garman has always had a passion for telling stories. She recently graduated from Penn State with a degree in print journalism, and she is currently a Public Relations Specialist for Penn State IT Communications. When not busy writing, Rachel continues her quest for the perfect doughnut (paczkis are currently in her top five).

Leavened by Doris Ferleger

Doris Ferleger’s appropriately named new book Leavened speaks of the devotion of family. The book explores the familiar themes in Ferleger’s work of her and her family’s Jewish identity as survivors of the Holocaust. She does this through weaving recurring threads of ceremony, sacrifice and food. The collection’s title and its cover painting by writer and artist Natalie Goldberg contrast the adjective “leavened” against the rush of unleavened of Biblical significance. These elements speak to the time and attention Ferleger has given these characters, voices and stories. Each poem is a meditation that seems to resolutely set a new place at the table of the feast of her work.

The subject of survival is a familiar one, but these poems stun the reader with their sharpened craft and honesty. There are so many poems told in the voices of long-dead relatives that could have been overwrought, or worse, caricatures. Instead, Ferleger tempers every potentially sentimentalized story with starkly heartbreaking details. There is a powerful section in the first third of the book that explores the importance of different foods to two generations of family. The poems “Sitting on a Suitcase” (about an uncle guarding thousands of pieces of stale bread inside a suitcase instead of consuming them), “First Supper,” “Salt,” “Lucky” (about Momma licking salt from a train’s windows to survive), “Salami” and “Raspberry” (about confronting an aunt’s suicidal wish) form a masterful progression. Her lines, in “Inheritance,” describing Poppa’s lack of visible scars after the war, “unless you counted/his vigilant eyes, screams in the night/in his native tongue, though terror/sounds the same in any language” made this reviewer burst into tears.

Not every poem in this collection is sad. There are the poems in the latter half that reflect on the family’s current generation and the different productive ways that a brother and sister process their parents’ grief. Ferleger compares her family’s growth to Aspen roots cropping up in unexpected places. The final poems “Another Creation Story” and “Leavened” (of the title) are widely encompassing poems that, placed next to each other, are tinged with the losses and lessons she and her family have learned. They are the microscope and telescope of the collection. Ferleger’s unflinching treatment of these stories forces readers to see. There is a new refugee crisis today; especially in this time of mounting human suffering and need, this is a fiercely important book because it dares to show the smallest ways in which the world’s problems become the fears, fixations and hopes of one family.

Tenth of No Wonder

Tenth of No Wonder, month

of plucked birds, caverns

stuffed with stale bread,

the hearts fed

to cats who lick

their lips. More

hot chocolate, more bourbon,

more to lose in fewer

words of shivered

shorter lines. Earlier

dark and earlier still

till after Dissemble

when we will celebrate

future perfect Spring.

Nancy Scott’s over 650 essays and poems have appeared in magazines, literary journals, anthologies, newspapers, and as audio commentaries. She has published three chapbooks, and won First Prize in the 2009 International Onkyo Braille Essay Contest. Recent work appears in Breath and Shadow, Braille Forum, Disabilities Studies Quarterly, Philadelphia Stories, and Wordgathering.


Stone (at a lover’s grave)

Her husband turned to the afterlife when

something incurable found a way to him,

prepared for things that soon might go on

somewhere beyond his body, even bought

two plots hoping his wife would one day

join him. And after he passed she arrived


at the cemetery each day, ready to seed

the loose, dark earth in prayer, engaging

in her own funerals over the vacancy at

his side—until the soil where they’d sleep

forever was washed in every empty answer.

There’s a churchyard in us all we keep alive,


wicks we light, angels we purchase to polish

the grounds of our past, other days digging

to a smooth surface—Until we meet again,

their stone says. It’s a date, the unsigned end

signing some new romance she can’t refuse.

There are things that won’t wash away even


if they wash away, and it’s hard to turn down

a heaven the love of your life has left you,

to give away the gift of a grave. Sometimes

it’s pure hell waiting for a name, wondering

who you’ll meet again when you meet again,

what was cured, if it matters. Sometimes.

George Bishop’s work has appeared in Carolina Quarterly & Lindenwood Review. Forthcoming work will be featured in Pirene’s Fountain. He is the author of seven chapbooks. Bishop won the 2013 Peter Meinke Prize at YellowJacket Press for his chapbook Following Myself Home and was a 2014 Pushcart Prize nominee. He attended Rutgers University and now lives in Saint Cloud, Florida.


I smell stars, loudly –

singing rings of chorus, orbits. Towards us, comets—

named them after us. Named them Halley,

Hale-bopp— tear drops

on fire.


I can lay

on my back on the hillside

by the road,

sniffing out Cadillacs and autoshow

Edsels, winesap taillights, tasting

speed, and cinnamon


blood, hot blood shining

in pale moonlight—

tar black engine oil blood.


A Jake brake pulses, echoes, and rolls

over hills. It fills the still air, the stale night

and bare trees with shuddering leaves.


In rings of purple my retinas lattice

tear detach. Afterimage burns which streak

in green neon


through my galaxy

of void I see all.

CJ Cioc is a Rosemont College graduate with his MFA in Creative Writing. His poetry collection “Capitulum” recently earned him Thesis of the Year and thesis with distinction. As an undergrad he served as a contributing editor for the campus magazine, Calliope, before graduating with his BA in English. He was awarded the Martha E. Martin Writing award for both Fiction and Poetry. CJ lives in the Pocono Mountains where he enjoys backpacking on the Appalachian Trail, sleeping in, and mending stone walls.

Girolamo Zini

Age: 20

Nationality/Place of Origin: Istria, Trieste

Description: rope-walker

Cause of Death: Died of atlanto-axial disclocation (broken neck)


The secret to balance

is to always fall up—

Even in training, I rarely

felt the net on my back.

I pointed my nose

away from the hills,

seeing what I needed to see

through the soles

of my bare feet.

The secret to my trade

is to only desire

the path the rope stretches

in front of you.

So I followed it every day,

the crowd’s roar

making tidal noise.

I never cared until I heard

Elena’s voice

in the throng below.

For one second,

my feet forgot their work.

My eyes found her face,

and took the rest of me falling

Although a resident of northeast Georgia, Michelle Castleberry enjoys visiting Philadelphia whenever possible. She is working on a series of poems based on the Hyrtl Skull Collection from the M?tter Museum. Her first book is Dissecting the Angel and Other Poems.

Adalbert Czaptieonesz

ge: 51

Nationality/Place of Origin: Poland

Description: Catholic

Cause of Death: Cut his throat because of extreme poverty


Sew me into the dirt in pieces

beside the potatoes and beets.

Pay the debtors with the next harvest.


Do not trouble my wife.


Do not trouble my sons.


They are blameless.


Strew me in the furrows at night

after the crows go to sleep.


This labor cannot be witnessed

by sun or any friend.


Tamp the dirt over my flesh

using my last pair of boots.


My people once owned the mountains.

Then we ran down with the thaw,

my forefathers drinking

more potatoes than they grew.

Now the few of us left

are folded under the valley’s skin.

The shadow of the mountain

always over us.


Feed me back to this valley.


I left my wife and sons,

pale as tubers in the cottage,

warmed by fire from branches

stolen from the orchard.

Their bones wash up under their skin

like saplings in a flood plain.


Their names are the last

words I speak

before I open my throat

a different way, offer

a poor man’s wine

to the rich man’s soil.


Although a resident of northeast Georgia, Michelle Castleberry enjoys visiting Philadelphia whenever possible. She is working on a series of poems based on the Hyrtl Skull Collection from the M?tter Museum. Her first book is Dissecting the Angel and Other Poems    

49 Seconds in the Box (Third Place Marguerite McGlinn Award Winner)

Mira waits in the lobby of her building for the elevator, a canvas bag with an All Things

Considered logo over her right shoulder.   One of her neighbors, Arnie Paul, who has recently moved into the building, steps up beside her.  Also waiting is a pair of millennials who live on the third and fourth floors respectively, in condos the owners have rented out.  Both have their eyes fixed on their phones, checking messages, texting.  The elevator dings.  There is a slight pause between the signal that the car has arrived and when the door slides open.

Mira and Arnie start to enter the elevator simultaneously, playing “after you Alfonse” for a moment.  Then Mira yields and Arnie goes first.  The millennials follow her.  Arnie notices that Mira does not have her dog with her.  It is the first time Arnie has ever seen her without her Labrador snugged up against her leg.  Mira shifts the All Things Considered bag from right shoulder to left.  The bag holds the leash and collar of the missing dog, Jake.  Mira finds her spot, then stares at the floor.

Arnie pushes the button for the seventh floor, the floor on which they both live, she at 706, he at 702.  At the last minute, a man with a Roto-Rooter uniform enters.  He carries a toolbox and a drain snake.  He seems to have come from nowhere.  He chunks his toolbox onto the floor, pulls a folded up work order out of his shirt pocket, reads it, and stuffs it back in.

The door of the elevator glides shut.  There is a familiar click as the interior and exterior elevator doors disengage.  The Roto-Rooter man reaches over and pushes two.  Glancing up, Mira notices that the buttons for three, four, and seven are already pushed, but she has not seen that happen.  Arnie has pushed the seven for both of them.

As soon as the elevator starts to rise, Mira counts under her breath. She is counting backwards from forty-nine.  This is the second time she has counted down today. She is coming from the vet’s office.  The vet has cared for Jake for eleven years, ever since he was a puppy.  Dr. “Please call me Steve” Saylor, is solicitous and kind.  He sits on the linoleum floor during exams and procedures, getting down on the dog’s level, clearly a dog lover.

Mira looks at her shoes, hoping her neighbor does not talk to her.  She does not particularly like him and does not want to talk to anyone today.  Arnie has made it abundantly clear that he was not a dog lover.  Despite this, Mira feels sorry for him.  Arnie is the caretaker of his dying wife. Mira sometimes hears her moan when she passes their door on the way to her own apartment.

The five passengers ride in silence.  The whir of the motor and the winding sound of the lift cable fill the car. When Mira’s daughter comes to visit, she always complains about how long it takes for the elevator to make the climb from the ground to the top floor.  “That’s five minutes of my life I’ll never get back,” she says each time to her mother.  She has always been prone to exaggeration, though Mira cedes the point about the elevator’s speed.

The elevator dings as it stops at the second floor. The door opens. Mira pauses in her countdown. When Mira timed the ride years ago, she pushed start on her wristwatch timer precisely when they started to rise.  The trip clocked out at forty-nine seconds.  She checked and rechecked it a dozen times.  Since then, each time she rides she counts backwards under her breath from forty-nine, finding a kind of meditative purpose in it, her dog at heel, her hand scratching his head.  Today, waiting in the vet’s office, with Jake lying at her feet, she made a tally.  Four outings together a day, times two trips each time, one down and one up, times three hundred sixty five days a year, equals two thousand nine hundred twenty trips a year, times eleven years equals thirty two thousand, one hundred twenty trips up and down.  At forty nine seconds per trip, that’s one million five hundred seventy three thousand, eight hundred eighty seconds, divided by sixty seconds per minute equals twenty six thousand, two hundred thirty one minutes, divided by sixty is four hundred thirty seven hours, divided by twenty-four equals eighteen days.  Eighteen days of her life in forty-nine second increments.  If that isn’t proof of love, she thinks now, trying to comfort herself, but lets the thought go unfinished.

When the doors open on the second floor, the Roto-Rooter man hefts up his toolbox in a two handed, two-step move, like he is doing a clean-and-jerk, and exits.  He stands in the elevator foyer, looking down the hall.  Then the door closes.  He is gone forever, Mira thinks.  The elevator restarts. Mira resumes counting.

The elevator is a tasteful updating of the original gated freight lift that had been an advertised feature of the building when it opened as a shoe factory in 1916.  Restored during the condo conversion the year Mira bought in, it has a marble floor and a new door, but all of the sculpted brass fittings from the original have been preserved.  Having made as many trips as she has over the years, she understands her daughter’s pique; sometimes the elevator feels like it is glacially slow.  Today is such a day.  Because it was the only elevator in a building with fifty-four apartments, there are almost always other riders, and therefore multiple stops.  If it stops at every floor it can take as long as two minutes.  The car is rated for 2000 pounds, roughly the weight of six people.

Thinking of her calculations again, Mira begins to silently weep.  On her shoulder, the All

Things Considered bag is suddenly unbearably heavy.   The elevator dings as it stops at the third floor. Mira pauses in her counting. The door opens. One of the millennial kids gets off.  He never looks up from his phone, never says a word to the rest of them or acknowledges them in any way. The door closes.  The elevator starts; Mira resumes counting.

Years ago, Mira had given up engaging in the debate over whether dogs really understood language.  She knew they did.  She dismissed all the arguments against that position, from the history of the Harry the Horse case and all those false claims, to the idea that dogs only responded to tone of voice or body language and couldn’t understand words, and all of the other nonsense the unobservant or prejudicial spouted about dog understanding and response.  As far as she was concerned, anyone who claimed dogs could not understand language had never lived with one or tried to train one.

She knew her dogs understood words. Jake, the best of all of them, distinguished between them, and responded differently to different ones, no matter what tone of voice they were delivered in. Recently she had read in the Times that Finnish scientists using MRI’s on dog brains had demonstrated that trained dogs responded physiologically to words exactly the same way people did, no matter whose voice spoke them.  It pleased her to know that, under scientific scrutiny, dog brains lit up for words the same way her own brain did.  These same scientists had also demonstrated that hearing its owner’s voice made a dog’s brain light up in the same way human brains light up when they hear the voices of the ones they love.

At 71, Arnie still goes to his office for part of each day, if his wife is able to be without him. His wife, dying of breast cancer, is in home-hospice care, and cries constantly.  Now aware that Mira is silently crying, Arnie thinks ‘I am surrounded by weeping women.’  He decides not to ask Mira what’s the matter.

Arnie has been going to this same office for nearly forty-three years, a law firm that bears his name as one of the founding partners. The occasional matter he handles tends to require more hand holding of ancient clients than actual knowledge of law.  The younger partners handle the legal work now.  Though his briefcase is polished leather and looks like it contains items of importance, he is bringing it home empty except for an uneaten apple, a half full bottle of Ensure, and his keys.  These are not untypical contents.

Mira shifts the bag from her shoulder to her arms.  As she looks inside, a gasp catches audibly in her throat, causing Arnie to make momentary eye contact with her, then look away.  She could not explain why she wants to bring Jake’s gear home, or what use she could possibly have for it.

At the fourth floor, the elevator dings then stops again. Mira pauses in her counting. The door opens. The other kid gets off.  Then the elevator is empty other than Mira and Arnie.  They continue to avoid eye contact.  The door closes.  The elevator starts; Mira resumes counting.

As a child, in Reading, PA, Arnie had lived on the outskirts of town near an immense dairy farm.  The farmer had dogs, and their job was to scare off anything that came too close to the cows.  Or at least that’s how Arnie understood it.  In fact, most of the dogs on the dairy farm were herders, used to move cows from pasture to pasture when the grass in one area was eaten down to the nubs, or back to the barn for milking.  The farmers and his sons did not treat their dogs like pets, not like the people who lived in Arnie’s building now, who dressed their animals with absurd sweat shirts and elaborate collars.  Arnie had not liked the farm dogs, and had been chased and bitten as kid, but with distance and age he had come to admire them.  They were working animals, he told himself, not substitute children.  In his apartment building, even the hipsters cuddled and coddled their pooches as if they were family members, showing them deference and making excuses for them that they would not make for human children if they had any. Or maybe they would.  Even though Arnie recognized that Mira’s dog had been better behaved than most of the others in his building, he was purposeless as far as Arnie was concerned, and therefore essentially a resource waster, beneath his contempt.

Jake was the finest dog Mira had ever trained.  It was Jake for whom she had coined the term ‘Box’ as a command meaning ‘enter the elevator.’  ‘Box’ was part of the simplified, mostly monosyllabic vocabulary she spoke to direct his movement and activities.  The single word ‘Elevator,’ which Mira could have used as a command, seemed too cumbersome.  Inelegant. Inefficient.  Mira wanted to be sure that she could always control her dogs with simple verbal instructions.  Sit.  Wait.  Stay.  Okay.  Leash.  Chair.  Box.

Arnie knows that Mira has written a best-selling training guide specifically aimed at people who live in tight city apartments with large dogs.  The book brought Mira surprise fame and fortune at a time in her life when she would have least expected it.  Eleven years ago she had been 56, a refugee from the suburbs, a middle-aged widow living on the proceeds of her husband’s life insurance.

The elevator dings as it stops at the fifth floor.  The doors open, but there is no one on the elevator getting off and no one on the landing getting on.  Mira pauses in her counting, waiting for the door to cycle. It seems to take forever, but finally closes.

She could hardly have guessed when she started work on the dog book that she herself and her best boy, Jake, would become favorites on the local talk show circuit, or that her highly responsive but non- trick performing dog would become the model for the great urban house pet. The book had led to classes and workshops, the spreading of her training gospel.  But she had also heard her name raised in anger at community meetings where shop keepers and dog hating residents had accused her of “abetting” the large dog influx into center city apartments, with the attendant street-level problems of too much pee and poop.  “If Mira Hendricks hadn’t written that damned book about how easy it was to keep large dogs in apartments,” she heard one of her neighbors fume at one of those meetings, “we wouldn’t be doing the sidewalk ballet we do every morning to avoid the dog shit.” No one at that meeting seemed to know she was among them, though it was generally known that she lived in the neighborhood.  She learned to let these kinds of comments pass.  It was the humans, of course, who deserved her neighbors’ anger, for not picking up after their pets, but it was the dogs that got banned from buildings and parks as a result.

She wanted Jake to be a good citizen, to live unobtrusively among the humans with whom he shared sidewalks and lifts and hallways.  She taught him as a puppy not to jump up on people, not to respond to strangers inviting him over for pets or treats, unless she gave him permission

The command she used to allow Jake to respond to anyone’s offer to pet him was ‘Get love.’  Arnie had heard Mira say it the one time he had sought to pet Jake, the week after he moved in, a gesture of neighborliness he had no intention of repeating.  Labrador Retrievers, the breed Mira had as pets since childhood, responded best to short, clear commands they heard consistently in recognizable situations.   In this way Jake had been trained to understand the etiquette of the elevator.  At the threshold, on the single command, “sit”, he waited until the door opened.  He did not lunge when it did.  He waited until given permission to enter.  On the word “box” he entered and sat, waiting until the doors opened at the destination floor.  Once there, Mira said “okay,” meaning it was all right to exit. He never pulled her or strained on the leash.  Even Arnie noticed this.

The elevator dings as it passes the sixth floor.  The leash was never a restraint for Jake, but a signal that an out-of-apartment adventure was about to begin.  She used the word “leash” to mean ‘come and get geared up,’ to mean ‘let’s go out for our walk.’  He always came eagerly.

This morning, for the first time ever, calling him to the leash felt like a betrayal.  There would be no adventure.  There would be no return home.  It did not matter that in the last few weeks, when they walked, he would shit out a thin, bloody gruel and then lie down in the snow and close his eyes. Metastasized cancer, clearly dying, but unable to die.  It did not matter that he could not tell her in words that she had his permission, or that he signaled he was ready, that he knew his time had come. She knew what he was saying.

Arnie and Mira face in different directions as they ride to their floor.  Typically, Mira comes into the elevator with Jake at heel, turns to face forward with the dog by her side. Arnie nearly always rides with his back against the side wall, looking at the other riders in profile, if there are any.  Arnie wonders now, in the silence of their ascent, if this choice makes other passengers uncomfortable.  Making people uncomfortable is one of the many tactics he has used as an attorney to get the upper hand over his opponents. He has done it so long, and it is so deeply ingrained, that he barely notices that people stand off from him. Looking at Mira opposite him in the elevator car, he is struck by how youthful she looks.  Or perhaps it is that, in comparison to his wife, and despite her tears, Mira looks hale and hearty to him.

Nearing their floor the elevator slows.  Arnie turns toward the front. When he first moved in, Arnie thought living in a building would prove friendlier than the gated community where he and his wife had lived west of the city, before she became sick, before she could no longer manage.  At the ding on the seventh floor, the door opens.  Mira rushes out ahead of him, toward her apartment.  She does not hear any sounds coming from Arnie’s apartment as she passes, and tries not to think about what that silence might mean.

She already has the key in her hand when she reaches her door.  Arnie watches her from his door, takes a deep breath, steeling himself to go inside, then suddenly he calls out to Mira, “Are you all right?”  “No I am fucking not,” Mira wants to shout at him, “and I never will be,” but she simply cannot make the words come.

Before the vet gave Jake the injections, when they were all sitting together on the floor of the consultation room, the dog’s head in her lap, she leaned into his ear and whispered, “Get Love.”  The dog, nearly too weak to breathe, none-the-less licked her hand.  After the first shot of sedatives and the second of barbiturates, Mira counted down to Jake’s death.  She scratched his head and nuzzled his neck, an act of devotion, waiting for his heart to stop.  Forty-nine, forty-eight, forty-seven, forty-six.  She knew it was an arbitrary place to start, but it felt right to her, and she desperately wanted him to make it, one last time, to the end.  At twenty-four she knew he was gone, but she did not stop counting.  Twenty-three, twenty-two, twenty-one.  All the way down to zero. 

Larry Loebell is a Philadelphia-based playwright, fiction writer, filmmaker, and teacher. He is a four-time recipient of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellowship in playwriting, and was a Barrymore nominee for his play, House, Divided. He wrote and directed the film, Dostoyevsky Man, and his second feature, Portrait Master, will premier in 2016. He has recently completed a short story collection, which includes 49 Seconds in the Box . Read more at 

Cul De Sac (Second Place Marguerite McGlinn Award Winner)

The first night her parents arrive from India is the one that means the most, because there is so much to look forward to, even now, even after everything that’s happened.

As the car turns into Swapna’s street, evening is creeping in on the neighborhood. The house that will soon belong exclusively to her is white with gold squares of light at the windows and stands at the end of the cul de sac. Even as families gather for dinner in the other homes, this one waits in silence. Swapna’s parents notice as soon as they climb out of the car.

“It’s so quiet,” says her mother, putting a hand to her chest. The crickets chirp in unison, emphasizing the silence when they pause.

“This is a residential neighborhood,” Swapna shrugs. “That’s why we – I – chose it.”

She opens the door with some hesitation. What she has grown accustomed to is likely to appear unnerving to her parents. They have always found America lonely. But tonight, the quiet desolation of the living room, which Linda cleaned only yesterday with such meticulous care, slams them in the face. Swapna catches a glimpse of their surprised and tired faces and wishes again that she hadn’t yielded to their requests to come and “help.”

Her father is too exhausted to reflect but her mother, never quite able to switch off her intuition or her concern for her daughter, looks around and sniffs. Swapna wonders with sudden panic if she is searching for Tom’s smell. Linda and she have sprayed bottles of bleach, window cleaner, floor polish, fabric softener, carpet stain remover, and other liquids in the last six months, in a maniacal bid to sanitize, but one never knows. Swapna hopes her mother cannot smell the debris of her marriage on her first night here.

The longer the interval between their meetings, the more significant the reunions become. She knows her parents feel it too, because even though they are so tired they feel like they are walking inside a cloud, they insist on staying up with her for a while. Eventually, when her father goes to bed, Swapna and her mother sit on the cream leather sofa. They barely talk, and every few minutes her mother lets out a yawn so wide and mournful that it makes Swapna want to curl up right there and doze off. Finally, her mother’s eyes start to close and Swapna nudges her towards her room gently.

“Tomorrow,” Ma says, as she stands up. “Tomorrow, we will talk about everything.”

Swapna goes to her own room and slips under the covers from where she can stare out at the large ghostly moon in the blue-black sky. Tonight she feels like a child again. She feels safe and warm and knows that unlike the last five months, tonight she will sleep through the night.

The next morning, as soon as she wakes up, Swapna remembers that some remnants of Tom linger around the house. The mug with the picture of the Eiffel Tower that he brought back from a European History conference stands among the other mugs on the top kitchen shelf. His toolbox lies in the garage for a time when Swapna might need to fix something even though she, like most other Indian women, has never learned to fix anything in her life. His faded brown corduroy jacket, which he wore on his walks every evening through the mild Atlanta winter, hangs in the closet. His books are in the library they built together over the years. Most of them are biographies. Of American presidents, European royalty, country musicians, baseball players. All of them have his name on the first page, scrawled in ink, alongside the dates and locations where he purchased them. Vienna, New Orleans, Toronto, New York, Jaipur. Somewhere there is a box full of Italian ties in various shades of red, the one vanity he permitted himself despite the jeers from his scholarly colleagues. When Swapna opens the top drawer of her dresser each morning, a blue Tiffany’s box stares at her. She never glances inside. She doesn’t need to. She knows what lies there, how it sparkles in the sun, and how it feels against her skin, hard and cold.

The way she speaks of Tom, anyone would think he were dead.

She wonders if her parents will discover any of these objects. It makes her almost smile to think how things remain the same over the years. The first time her parents visited her in the apartment she then shared with two roommates up north, back when Swapna was just a graduate student, she had removed things before they arrived. The bottle of whiskey from her bookshelf, the tube of KY Jelly from her bathroom closet, the packet of condoms from her nightstand, the subscription to the adult channels, and all pictures of Tom. This time, she did not bother to hide anything. That is the strange thing about marriage, even a failed one. It gives you a kind of legitimacy that no relationship can, at least not if you are Indian.

 She finds her father in the living room, studying the switch for the air conditioning.

“Why do you have it on all the time?” he asks. “How much is your electricity bill?”

The question irritates Swapna. The temperature is in the eighties outside, and soon the house will warm up. It’s summer in the deep south, she wants to tell him. Everyone uses air-conditioning. It’s not India. But she says nothing and goes into the kitchen where her mother is making tea.

“What will you eat for breakfast?” her mother asks.

“Ma,” Swapna protests. “It’s the first day. Don’t do chores.”

It’s no use of course. By the end of the day the kitchen looks different. Drops of water cover the sink and the counters, and even splash on the tile floor. The trashcan goes from empty to full. Swapna finds crumbs everywhere. She wonders why she bothered to get the house cleaned. When her parents go outside to admire the backyard, Swapna grabs a paper towel to and wipe the counters dry and mop up the floor. It is not India, she wants to say to her mother. Don’t make everything wet.

But when her father goes to bed right after dinner, her mother fights her jetlag and sits on the couch with her again. Swapna opens her Facebook page. They scroll down the newsfeed while she points out all her friends. Her colleagues, her grad school cohorts from Philly, and some of her old friends from Calcutta. Her mother looks intently and listens to every word, asking questions about the people she used to know. Where is she now? How old are her children? Are his parents alright? Then, suddenly, comes the question that catches Swapna off guard.

“Is Tom on Facebook?” her mother asks casually, without looking at her.

“No,” Swapna says.

There is no need to go into detail. Her mother does not need to know that she unfriended him the day they had the talk, back in the winter when the trees were bare and reached into the sky with skeletal arms. That night, still shaking from the confrontation, she hadn’t been sure if the unfriending was irreversible. But the gesture, ripe with symbolism, was not to be undone. Her mother does not need to know that she still goes to his profile sometimes, even though she can’t see his posts. Swapna looks at his profile picture, an old one, where he wears a red T-shirt and baseball cap and a two-day stubble, still looking like the Tom she knew. If she stares at the thumbnail photograph long enough, he morphs into a stranger. Her mother doesn’t have to know that Swapna needed to unfriend him, not out of anger or pride, but because she could not bear to see the girl’s casual posts on his wall. The photographs of helpless animals in shelters, the blogs about photography, the updates about running. And then his comments on those posts, so courteous, so decent.

“That,” her mother says, pointing. “Who is that?”

They both look at the picture of the Indian man with a receding hairline and a soft, round belly. He is not on Swapna’s friend list, but Facebook recommends that she add him.

“Joydeep,” her mother says peering.

And so it is. Despite the softening of his body and the roundness of his face, despite the thinning of hair, he still looks boyish and sweet. He is wearing a dress shirt tucked into black trousers, looking a lot more dapper than before. A pair of sunglasses hangs down the front of his shirt.

“Do you talk to him?” she asks, with the innocence of one who does not really understand the complicated mechanics of Facebook.

Even before she finishes the question, Swapna sends him a friend request. It has been so long. Surely, he has forgiven her by now. They are both middle-aged. They have found other people to direct all their strong emotions at in the past two decades.

It is after midnight when her mother finally goes to bed. Swapna keeps checking her Facebook page until Joydeep accepts her friend request. She lies in bed and looks at his photographs, trying to piece together a lifetime, when he sends her a one-line message saying, Good to hear from you, you look happy.

She takes her parents to see the Coca Cola museum, where they gaze at vintage ads. Her father and she stand in the tasting room side by side, sipping miniature plastic cups filled with different flavors of soda from around the world. Green tea from Japan, raspberry from New Zealand, candy pine nut from South Africa. He tastes each one with a serious look on his face and makes a brief comment as if the company’s future depends on him. Swapna watches him drink the fizzy liquids with the sincerity of a professional taster. His forehead is lined with creases and he looks frailer than she remembers from two years ago. He always looks less authoritative in America than in India. He speaks more softly and does not laugh as much. She wonders if it is the old uncertainty he feels in this foreign land, or if he is particularly debilitated because of her situation. He will turn seventy-seven in a few months. She should not have gone four years without seeing her parents.

He turns to her and says, “Try this one Buri. It’s very refreshing.”

He offers his cup. The soda is golden, like ginger ale. So many beverages on tap here in America, on every office floor, in public Laundromats, rest areas on the highway, the lobby of every apartment complex, and all over on university campuses. How Swapna had marveled at this when she first came here as a graduate student in the nineties. How jaded she has become since then. But when her father calls her by her pet name, Buri, for a moment she feels innocent again.

The last time Swapna was at the Coke museum was with a tourist friend from Germany, and Tom. Afterwards the three of them had gone to eat tapas. They drank two pitchers of sangria between them. Tom was a far better host than her, ensuring that their guest was constantly entertained. Swapna allows herself a little fantasy. If he were here now, he would walk ahead with her father, pointing out things to him, citing scientific facts about soda. Baba would keep up an endless stream of questioning, making Tom swell with the sense of his own importance. Meanwhile, her mother and she could have talked too.

There is so much Swapna wants to talk to her about, but where does one begin? On the night when she came home slightly drunk from the office Christmas party and extended an arm to Tom, only to be pushed away? Or on the afternoon at the gallery when she caught a glimpse of his former student, twenty-something and thin as a reed, laughing like she was high at something Tom said? Or maybe one begins much earlier, on the day when they bought this house when her bank balance was a third of his, and yet they decided to split the mortgage in equal halves because she fancied herself a feminist.

No, none of them is the beginning of course. Swapna knows that. She knows there was a morning back in Calcutta eighteen years ago, when her mother woke her up at first light of dawn for the turmeric bath. Bulu pishi led the other aunts on her father’s side to begin the ulu-uli, until the sound of their high-pitched voices rang out through all the rooms like a siren. The guests stared at the Americans. How the cousins nudged one another and giggled when Tom startled himself and everyone else by pricking his forefinger on a fishbone during lunch. Swapna apologized later for not having warned him but he simply laughed.

She had tried to see the wedding circus through Tom’s eyes. The heavy crimson sari and layers of gold jewelry that wore her down until she could barely move, the mournful notes of the shehnai that played all evening until the last guest was gone, the giant paan leaf she used to shield her face from the groom, the exchange of marigold garlands. Through it all, Swapna pretended she was an onlooker, white, foreign, fascinated, watching everything for the very first time. And despite her abhorrence of ritual, the sight of Tom, wrapped in a white and gold dhoti and silk kurta, made it quite charming.

Swapna finds herself thinking of that day for the first time in years, and wonders what she would do if she had a time machine. If she could go back to that day with the hindsight she now has, would she still go through with it? Her parents walk ahead, not speaking. Her father is almost a foot taller than her mother. The back of his head is bald and hers grey. Swapna watches them walk side-by-side, in sync. They have been married forty-eight years and they met only once before their wedding. It seems improbable but there it is. Yet another cliché from the country she has left behind, but all the sneering in the world cannot make her marriage more successful than theirs.

At night, a message from Joydeep pops up on her iPhone screen. He asks how she’s been. It’s a strange question, given how much time has passed since they last spoke. She considers the question, wondering how she has been since that night twenty years ago, when she hung up the phone after breaking up with him.

“Fine,” she tells him. “You?”

He tells her the basics. He moved to Bombay some years ago, to work for Microsoft, which she finds ironic because that’s what Indian men are supposed to do in America. He lives alone in a western suburb and has a small house in Goa where he spends many of his weekends.

“That sounds wonderful,” she says.

Swapna recalls the flat he shared with his parents when they were in college. It was right next to the busy market where hawkers set up their fly-by-night stands and sold oily fried snacks, cheap plastic jewelry, and produce. Sometimes, on their way back from college, Swapna and Joydeep would climb off the bus and stop at the market to buy guavas and oranges. During the frequent power cuts, the shopkeepers would light their kerosene lamps and lay them on the ground. The streets and houses stood in darkness, but the bazaar flickered with the yellow lights from the lamps.

 Now he drives a Honda City to his weekend house on the beach.

“So,” she types. “You finally became a capitalist.”

He adds a laughing emoticon. “If you can’t beat em, you know.” He sounds almost American. “Living in India is expensive now, especially Bombay. One has to survive.”

Swapna wonders when survival in the motherland became synonymous with vacation homes and Japanese sedans. But, immediately, she feels guilty. It is the guilt of the Non Resident Indian, the latent double standard of one who casually pulls out cans of soda from vending machines placed strategically for maximum consumption. Besides, something in Joydeep’s voice suggests a lack of contentment. Or maybe, in her misery, she is simply seeking company.

One morning, she wakes up to find her mother muttering as she opens shelves in the kitchen. She randomly takes out unopened cans and jars and reads labels. She starts to throw away things from the fridge.

“Buri,” she says decisively when she sees Swapna. “I need to cook. You cannot live like this. You are not a student any more. You are.” She does not complete the sentence, which makes Swapna wonder what she thinks she is. Scientist? Middle-aged? Divorced?

There is no stopping her mother now. She makes a list. They go to the grocery store. Her father comes along because he is fascinated by American grocery stores. He insists on calling them supermarkets. Swapna hopes they do not run into any black people because her father also refers to them by the wrong word. His idea of America has changed little from when she was a little girl. Now, he pushes the cart while Swapna leads the way and her mother makes the selections. The women pour over things and consult while her father stares at the rows of cereals. A customer barks at him to get out of the way because he’s blocking the aisle.

“Sorry, sorry, sorry,” he says instantly, ashamed and concerned about the breaching of grocery aisle propriety in America.

To compensate for his apologies, Swapna glares at the woman’s back as she walks away. How uncharacteristically rude she has just been for this gracious city.

Her mother leans toward her and whispers, “Racist?”

“Maybe she’s tired or frustrated about something or unhappy. Maybe,” she pauses. “Her husband left her for another woman.” She grins.

Her mother looks at her without smiling.

“I don’t think you should joke about serious things. This is your problem, this is why you annoy people,” she says, with her lips pursed.

Swapna avoids speaking to either of them for the remainder of the trip. The thought of carrying the tilapia filets, ground beef, spinach, carrots, and beets back home, makes her weary. She already bought all the things she thought her parents would enjoy, stocking up the fridge in the days before their arrival. Liver pate, prosciutto, various cheeses, portabella, asparagus. What was all that for?

“This is for you,” her mother says. “You need to eat the things you miss. Especially now that you don’t come to India.”

She wants to tell her mother she misses nothing, at least nothing edible. What she misses is not from India, and her mother can’t cook it up for her. But since she is trying not to have conversation, she says nothing. While they wait at the checkout counter, Swapna glances at her phone to see when Joydeep was last online.

That night, when she gets under the covers she feels an old familiar stirring. It is almost like excitement. As the computer lights up, she finds herself shivering a little.

“How can you chat at work?’ she asks.

“Don’t worry, I’m the boss.” He adds a smiley, fat, yellow, infinitely cheerful. “No one’s in my office. I can do whatever I want.”

“Why did you never marry?” It is only a faint curiosity.

“Never found the right person after you. I was too cynical and angry, then time passed, I got busy with work, and it seemed too much of an effort.”

“Do you have a girlfriend?” She wonders if he will protest this intrusion, or say she has no right to ask him things like this.

“Yes. In Goa. I see her when I go.”


“It’s fine. Life is fine. Just enjoy the moment.”

“Yes, I suppose.”

She thinks he must be a good lover. In college, Joydeep, Swapna and their friends often skipped classes and hung out at each other’s homes in the afternoons. The fun part about going to Swapna’s parents’ flat was the food her mother would make for them. Cheese pakoras, home made pizza, fish fry, potato tikkis. They would sit on the balcony and eat, drink numerous cups of tea, and talk. Sometimes, her mother would join them briefly. Her friends tried to include her in the conversations. Mashi, join us, they would say, making room. The food is delicious as always. Only Joydeep would look uncomfortable. He would stare at his scrawny hands or long feet, and not say a word while her mother was there. Later, he admitted that he was intimidated. It was the little things, he would say. The thin gold necklace her mother always wore. The piano in the living room, which he knew she played. The pipe her father smoked. Whenever her mother was around, he seemed to freeze. Swapna wanted so much for him to be lively, to tell his jokes and impress her with his knowledge of Marx and Jung and Derrida.

The Joydeep that Swapna knew privately was a boy of simple but acute pleasures. In India they did not have enough privacy for sex. Instead, they went to the movies. Mostly afternoon shows, when the sun beat down on the streets with unrelenting force. To escape the heat and humidity, they bought plastic packets of salted popcorn and hot chips, and sat in the cool darkness of Lighthouse or Globe or New Empire, the three theatres around New Market that played Hollywood movies a few months after their global release. In the darkness, Swapna glanced at Joydeep’s profile many times. His cheekbones were so sharp and his face so thin, they made him look ghostly in the blue light of the screen. His goatee made him look slightly older than his years. They sat with their elbows touching on the same armrest. He always watched the movie so intently, observing every detail of filmmaking, while she let her mind wonder. The seats around them at that time of day were nearly all empty. If he had wanted to, he could have kissed her. Many of their friends went to the movies for that. She waited for him to turn to her with blazing eyes, but at the movies he never did.

Some winter days, when the nip in the air chapped their lips and the sunshine actually felt good, they took a bus to the zoo. Swapna still remembers thinking that the animals looked uniformly depressed. And there is this one memory, an image, of monkey pairs searching one another for head lice. Joydeep and she spent hours outside the monkey arena, watching them do this. How carefully, how patiently, they would look for the lice. That is love, Joydeep once said to her. It was unlike him to speak overtly about emotions. When I grow up, he said, I want to be a monkey.

The cooking begins on Sunday. Her silent, cold kitchen is transformed into a cauldron of scents and sounds. The pressure cooker hisses and whistles. The microwave beeps. Oil sizzles in the pan. A cloud of steam rises from the pot. The kitchen smells of turmeric and cumin. Swapna chops vegetables on the counter facing the backyard. She can see the back of her father’s bald head as he sits out on the porch, reading the newspaper. The grass is lush after a night of rain. She watches her mother cook, hoping to acquire some magical culinary talent from the act of observing. Her mother in the kitchen is brisk and confident. Her fingers move swiftly. She asks Swapna for the garam masala. But Swapna has no idea where it is. It’s been so long since she made Indian food. Tom did most of the cooking until six months ago. Even the last night, before he left, he cooked spaghetti and meatballs. They drank a glass of wine. Swapna drank two. No, three. She drank a lot that night. She broke a glass. He stayed calm. He calmly cleared up the table, loaded the dishwasher, wiped the counters. He wanted to make sure, he said, that the house was tidy before he left. Because he knew how much she sucked at housework. He said it without malice.

Swapna is impressed with her mother’s efficiency in her foreign kitchen. It is not just about making food for her family, though that is her mother’s calling. It is the shrewd wisdom with which she senses things, what to buy, how much to pay, when to cook, when to eat, what medications to track, whether or not to nap. While she is here, Swapna is tempted to abandon all responsibility and let her make the decisions. She wants to simply crumple up like a used paper towel and yield. She is so tired of being self-sufficient.

“How is he doing?” her mother asks as the turmeric-coated tilapia fries in the hot oil.


She glances sideways at her daughter.

“Tom? He’s fine I think. We don’t communicate. His lawyer talks to my lawyer.”

“Surely he will pay you something? After what he did?”

“We’ll see. It’s hard to prove.”

“But he was? Wasn’t he?”

Why won’t her mother utter the words? Why won’t she say adultery or cheating or any of those words that would instantly condemn him to some Hindu hell? Swapna doesn’t respond at first because she doesn’t really know. What she wants more than anything else is to know. But she cannot bear the thought that his denials were true, that the marriage in fact disintegrated for other reasons.

“What do you think Ma?” She finally asks. “Do you think he was having an affair with that girl? They were always texting. They went to art events together. They had so much in common.”

“They were both American,” her mother says.

That’s all. That’s all she has to say. As if that is enough.

The kitchen smells of fried fish, warm and fragrant now, but tomorrow, and over the next few days, it will turn into a stink that will refuse to go despite copious quantities of air freshener. If Tom were here, he would have thrown a fit. Broil the fish, don’t fry it, he would yell. The house will stink for days. Perhaps her mother is right. Perhaps his American self couldn’t bear the burden of her any longer.

But now that they have broached the subject, her mother looks deflated. Her movements are suddenly slower. Swapna feels so sorry to have done this to her aging parents.

“It’s ok Ma. Lots of people get divorced nowadays. You should understand. You’re not like other people of your generation.” She wants to point out how her parents eat beef, how they read poetry, how they watch documentaries on the Middle East. How her mother has even exchanged her Bengali sari for the salwaar kameez. They should be fine with divorce.

“You don’t understand,” her mother says, laying down the wooden spatula with some force. “We will not live for long. Baba is nearly 77. I am 70. How long do we have? Then, what will you do?”

“I have friends.”

“Who? Where are these friends? No one visits you. You are always alone.”

“Not always,” Swapna protests. “They are busy with work and families. And besides, it’s the summer. You know that during the summer I don’t see people much.”

“You will have no one when we are gone.” She turns to the skillet, and carefully picks up each piece of fish and places it on a paper towel.

Swapna leaves the kitchen to demonstrate her anger, and joins Baba on the porch. They talk about the world news. He says nothing about Tom or her marriage or her lonely future. The grass is moist, and Swapna can see her mother cooking tilapia in yoghurt and a light meat stew with vegetables through the kitchen window, as she sits with her father and discusses current affairs. She could be sixteen, in a condo in south Calcutta, with a future as open as the sea.

In the middle of the night, with all the lights off except the blue from the computer, Facebook offers a virtual party, with videos, photographs, news reports, jokes, confessions, and recipes streaming constantly on her news feed. How can anyone ever feel alone again, she wonders, with all this stimuli from all these people playing endlessly in one’s bedroom? The inevitable thought occurs to her. If such a platform had existed when she first left India as a nervous young grad student, would she have kept going with Joydeep? If they could have talked on Skype on weekends and kept abreast of one another’s activities every second of the day, would they have stayed together?

The evening before she left India, twenty years ago, a college friend had invited them all over for a proper farewell. In the middle of the party, the group of friends ceremoniously handed her a goodbye gift. It was a brown and tan upright suitcase. Joydeep gave her nothing. When the others were preoccupied with their drinking, he pulled her into the bathroom and kissed her. They ran the tap so it would drown any sounds. He was a scrawny boy whose bristly goatee tickled her chin. She had stifled a laugh. The next day, after the airplane took off, leaving a trail of lights below, she thought of how the kiss felt and wept quietly in her seat.

They wrote letters for a while and gradually she wrote less and less. His became more and more desperate. His accounts of the unshaven, scruffy Bengali boys sitting on the steps of their fathers’ houses and smoking, talking about Communism and Kafka, began to fill her with disgust. No one went anywhere or did anything interesting in Calcutta. One day, she met Tom at a seminar on the French Revolution. He was nearly a foot taller than her, and so confident, and so curious about everything Indian. The first time she visited his parents in suburban Ohio, everything was so clean. The wine glasses shimmered on the table, the fireplace flickered all evening, and snow fell softly outside. Everything in her old life seemed to fade away in a few brief months.

But now Joydeep and Swapna chat like old friends, and she wonders if she erred in picking a midwestern white man over someone who grew up listening to the same music, speaking the same language, and smelling the same odors. How had she lost herself so, in just two years in the West?

The elections have just ended in India. Swapna’s newsfeed is crammed with reactions, celebratory and otherwise. Joydeep falls in the latter camp.

“Bloody rightwing Hindus,” he types. “They will fuck us and squeeze every shred of independent thinking from their followers and dignity from the rest of us.”

A wave of relief washes over Swapna. She can imagine the look of disgust on his face and the snarl in his voice. Here is the same old Joydeep, fiery and passionate about politics and human rights. She remembers how he marched across campus with the red Communist Party flag. She remembers his torn jeans and khadi tunic, and the canvas tote bags he swung across his shoulder. She is tempted to provoke him further, to drive him to a point of frenzy.

“But the economy? Your jobs? Aren’t those important? The new government is supposed to lure in foreign investors again. Doesn’t the prime minister have an impressive record in his home state?”

“Impressive record???!!!!”

Swapna pulls the comforter over her even though it is a warm and humid night. “You mean the murders and riots??? The rest is his crony media campaign. The poor haven’t benefitted. Muslims haven’t benefitted. What fucking record are you talking about?”

She smiles in the semi darkness. “You haven’t changed that much after all.”

“But you have.”

It catches her by surprise. “Really?”

“Yes, you’re calmer, and not in a good way. Like something’s left you. Spirit or romance or that innocent faith in the world.”

“I’m a realist now,” Swapna says.

“It’s not enough,” says Joydeep. “I will retire in a few years and move to Goa, where I can climb coconut trees and sip feni, watch the waves lap the shore, and write a book.”

Tears spring to her eyes at the vision. It is like the cover of a romance novel. So foolish, so embarrassing.

 “You should come visit me in Goa. Or better still, come live with me. Rekindle.”

“What?” Her heart may have stopped as she waits for his response. It has been a long time since anyone has flirted with her.

“Your romantic side,” he says. “Innocence.”

“What about your girlfriend?”

A chubby yellow smiley appears on the screen, before the chat abruptly ceases and the green light next to his name goes out.

The night before her parents leave, she finds it impossible to sleep. She gets out of bed in the middle of the night and wanders to the living room. It is raining softly and the large bay windows are fogged up. Swapna makes her way to the couch and finds her mother sitting there, staring out of the same window. She sits next to her and they gaze outside as if the window is a TV.

 “What will happen to you when we leave?” her mother asks.

“The same things that happened before you arrived Ma,” she says. But the truth is she is a little afraid too. This departure feels different, more significant somehow.

“How will you live alone?”

“Please Ma, I am not a child. I came here alone, when I knew no one and had nothing. Now look.” She waves her hand around the house. She is a senior researcher for the US government, she has colleagues and friends and even in laws though soon they will not be hers. Still, she has built a community in this country, and lives on her own terms. All this she wants to tell her mother but instead she simply waves her hand as if that gesture might encompass an entire existence.

“Perhaps it is our fault,” her mother says.

Swapna looks at her, surprised. She expected blame, not guilt.

“How can it be your fault?”

“We should not have allowed you to come here. You could have lived in India, married Joydeep or some other Bengali boy, and we would all have been nearby. We should have put our foot down when you wanted to marry an American.”

“Ma,” Swapna begins, startled by the anger rising in her breast. “Allowed? You would not have allowed me?” she pauses to collect herself. “What would I have done in India? Got a nine to five job and popped out a couple of babies? Or stayed at home and not even worked like so many of my old friends? I love my job, Ma. And you know, I did love Tom too. He was so interesting.” She yells out the last word and realizes only then that it is true.

Her mother starts to weep. Swapna shakes her head in frustration. Behind them a light comes on in the hallway. It is her father.

“What are you both doing? It is the last night.”

He stands in the arched doorway, silhouetted against the light.

“Stop crying. Stop,” he says abruptly to his wife. “This is not the time to cry.”

“Isn’t it our fault?” her mother asks him. “Your sisters had warned us before the wedding. Maybe we should have tried to stop her.”

He comes towards them in the dim light and Swapna sees that he is shaking his head. “Stop her from what Malati? It was twenty years ago. How could we know? No one knew what the future held, not even Tom. He was so sincere. Don’t you remember? He took the bus everywhere in Calcutta, and ate with his hands. Don’t you remember how he cooked with you in the kitchen and how he tried to learn Bengali? It must have been so hard for him, and yet I never heard him complain.”

Swapna feels her father’s hand on her head. It is surprisingly steady. She wills it to stay there awhile and tries to memorize its shape on her head. Her father strokes her hair and beside them her mother’s tears slowly subside into an occasional sniff. They stay like that for a while, and watch the sky. Tomorrow her parents will disappear into it. A day later, they will look at it from different hemispheres. But now, in this moment, they are united.

Swapna wonders what Joydeep would say if he knew that she has begun to think of him during the day. Or that she checks her phone for messages every few hours. There is a level of comfort in their online conversations that reminds her of a less complicated time. Despite the superficial changes, Joydeep and she belong to the same community, and share the same sensibility. This is what she had thought of Tom once.

He begins tonight’s chat with the most intimate of questions. “Where’s Tom now?”

“He lives with Julia,” she says. “She’s very young. And not even very pretty.”

“Who’s paying whom?

“She’s a student, works as a bartender to pay her bills. So he must take care of her.”

“No I mean you and he. Who’s paying? Settlement? Is the house yours?”

“Oh that. Our lawyers are working on that. I’ve been asked to stay single for a few months.” Swapna adds a smiley.

“You should squeeze him. Don’t let him get away. When in the States…”

“I don’t know if I care that much. I have a job. And in Georgia it’s all about how much either of us needs. I do have the house because it was half mine anyway.” Swapna looks around her room at the floral wallpaper, the shag carpet, and the furniture they had bought slowly, over months, with their first paychecks. The large window reveals the dark night sky over the backyard. The house has a sunroom, where Tom and she read on Sunday mornings after he brewed cappuccino for them both on his high-end espresso maker. The basement downstairs is full of their winter clothes which they haven’t used since they moved down south. Tom’s down coat and hers, their thick wool scarves and hats, and winter boots, lie entangled together in old boxes that haven’t been opened in a few years.  Yes, this house is hers, and she can live out her life in it, surrounded by their memories.

She glances back at the screen and sees Joydeep’s words waiting for her. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable. It’s just that after all this time I still feel protective of you.”

It has been a long time since Swapna has had a man feel protective of her. This was the patriarchal impulse she had once fought. In Tom she had found the liberal white man who treated her as his equal and expected her to solve her own problems. How refreshing it had seemed then. But now, this instant, faced with the prospect of her parents leaving the next day and a future spent in solitude, she finds herself longing for a pair of protective arms around her.

“My parents leave tomorrow,” she says.

Joydeep sends her a little red heart. “It will be lonely. I wish I were there to keep you company.”

“Their being here has been so comforting. I didn’t realize just how much it would help.”

“After they leave, we can chat every night before you sleep.”

“You’re sweet. Thank you.” The thought of chatting with Joydeep relieves some of the weight that has lately settled in her chest. She wonders what might have happened if they had found each other online before Tom left. Then she thinks of destiny. Fate. Those Indian words she once sneered at. Is this how things were meant to be? With a return to her youth and to whatever she had left behind? In the next room, her parents sleep, her father’s gentle snores drift through the walls. In the morning, her mother will make a last cup of tea for her. Swapna wishes this night could last eternally.

“I hope your parents are heavy sleepers,” Joydeep types.

“Yes, unless Ma is up worrying about me.”

“How long has it been?”

“Six months.”

“You must miss things.”

“It’s only occasional now. The anger’s faded. Some days I’m really happy to be free.”

“But you must still miss some things.”

Swapna looks at the screen, a little confused about what he means.

“What was it like being married to an American?”

“I don’t know. How does one sum it up? Same as being married to anyone else I would think. Complicated.”

“But Americans are less traditional. Especially a man like Tom who married an India. He must have been very liberal.”

“Yes he was. That was one of the nice things about him.”

“How nice?”


“What kind of things did you do? Did you experiment much?”

“Wait, what are you talking about? You mean like drugs?”

“No, I mean, did he teach you stuff? You’ve been in the States 22 years, you must know all kinds of things.”

The room suddenly feels cooler than before. Swapna tries to recall if she locked all the doors.

As if on cue, Joydeep types, “My door is locked. Tell me some of the things you did. While your parents are in the next room. More fun this way.”

“Joydeep,” Swapna begins. Her fingers hover over the keyboard, searching for words that might explain what she’s feeling now, or any of the emotions she has undergone in the past six months.

“Do you remember us kissing in Janani’s bathroom the night before you left for the States? How it turned us on but we couldn’t do anything because of all the people right outside? I have never been more aroused in my life.”

Her father’s snores get louder. The clock ticks on the nightstand next to her. Its metronomic beat sounds like someone’s heart.

When she doesn’t respond for several minutes, Joydeep types, “Tomorrow, after your parents leave, ping me. It’s ok if you wake me up.”

She still says nothing. Posts keep streaming on her newsfeed. Baby pictures, someone’s lunch menu, a conversation someone overheard in a coffee shop in Seattle. Minute-by-minute accounts of life around the globe pour in.

“I get lonely too Swapna. This corporate life, this traffic, the crowds, the noise. It’s all deafening. All I crave is a human connection.”

“This is your idea of a connection? Cyber sex?”

“Come on Swapna.” Everyone in India is doing it. Young, old, single, married, everyone. And you? You’re free, and in America. You of all people should not pretend to be a prude. We are both alone.”

“You girlfriend in Goa?”

“She’s sweet. Really shy and not very aggressive. Not a cosmopolitan, if you know what I mean.”

“I should sleep,” Swapna types. “I think you are not quite well. You sound a bit messed up.”

I am not well? And what about you?”

She knows she should let it go, end the chat, and turn off the laptop, but she feels compelled to type something definitive, as if putting the words down on the screen will make her life’s decisions mean something.

“We have nothing in common Joydeep.”

The words come faster at her now, and Swapna notices how he misspells them. “Oh yah? And what did you hsve in commmon with Tom? You on your high hoarse. You think I need help? What about you? What will you do for the rest of your life?”

Swapna closes the chat abruptly without saying goodbye. She lies in bed, trying to swallow the queasy feeling that’s washing over her. Once or twice she gulps hard to push back the acid that’s climbing up her throat. The room is plunged in cool darkness now, free of the harsh glare of the computer screen. She lies there and ponders Joydeep’s final question to her. What will she do with the rest of her life, what will she do when her parents are dead and there is absolutely no one to call her own?

On the way to the airport, her parents argue about whether to leave the window up or down, whether her father has remembered the tickets, and whether they should grab a bite before boarding. Swapna drives absent-mindedly, listening to her mother scold her father for no reason.

“How can you fight constantly just when you’re leaving?” she finally asks.

Her father turns to her. His tone is gentle when he speaks. “It is because we are leaving. She is upset.”

This is how he sums up forty-eight years of marriage, Swapna thinks, with this primal understanding of the other person.

Swapna watches them leave at the airport, and bites her lower lip to concentrate on that pain. Their backs recede slowly out of sight. As always when her parents leave, she feels momentarily orphaned.

Instead of heading home, Swapna goes to the zoo for the first time in eleven years. She buys herself a ticket and walks slowly around the grounds. It is the peak of summer. Even the animals want to stay inside. Only a few other fools like her have ventured to the zoo today. Swapna makes her way to the primate section. They come in various sizes and shades. Drill, lemur, tamarin, macaque. Swapna stops suddenly in front of the orangutans. There are two of them. They are large, almost like adult humans, and they sit close together, their bodies touching. In fact, every time one of them moves slightly, so does the other, in tandem, as if tied with an invisible rope. They move slowly, inching their way across the large outdoor cage.

Swapna sits on a rock and watches them. A few other people walk by. A young mother pushing a stroller stops to look at the apes. Her baby stares at them from its seat and gurgles with what Swapna assumes must be pleasure, for instead of hurrying away, the mother lingers. If she had kids, Swapna might have been a regular at the zoo. The apes, dark brown and hairy, have long, mournful faces. One of them is slightly smaller than the other. The larger orangutan waits patiently for the smaller one to catch up. They touch each other constantly.

This southern summer is scorching and humid like the tropics. Sweat trickles down her back but she cannot turn away. The apes stop in the middle of the cage. The smaller one reaches up to the larger one and begins to search for lice. It works patiently, its fingers kneading through the other’s hair. Every now and then the apes glance up and blink slowly at the sun, as if bewildered by the world outside.

Oindrila Mukherjee is an Assistant Professor at Grand Valley State University. She has worked as a journalist in Calcutta, India, and been the creative writing fellow in fiction at Emory University. She is a regular contributor to the Indian magazine Scroll, and is currently working on a novel set in India and a collection of stories about recent Indian immigrants in the U.S.

Bird Fever (First Place Marguerite McGlinn Award Winner)


When the baby’s fever reached one hundred and five, they decided they could stand it no longer. A call to the pediatrician had reached an answering machine, and they’d waited an hour, but the child was hot as a charcoal briquette and had recently begun vomiting a white, mealy substance – a cross between grade school paste and cottage cheese – that was unlike any spit-up they’d seen. Finally they loaded the baby into the Volvo and drove to the emergency room. Thomas kept the accelerator to the floor, and Allison sat in back with their son. The boy cried hoarsely with each breath, and Allison asked if Thomas finally agreed the turkeys were to blame.

“Let’s not go off the deep end,” he said. “We’re not the doctor.”

“When this is over, you’re speaking to Danny Baker,” she said. “And don’t talk to me like I’m crazy.”

The emergency room doctor took the baby’s temperature – now one hundred and six – and declared that the first order of business was to cool the child down. Seizures were a possibility if the fever remained that high. Thomas spent the next half hour lowering his screaming son again and again into cool water while a nurse tracked his temperature. The boy held tightly to him with arms and legs between soakings, and to get him free Thomas had to break the child’s hold each time. He found himself panting and crying with his son, as Allison leaned against the wall in the mercilessly bright exam room, her face in her hands.

When the fever dropped to one hundred and two, the nurse wrapped the child in a towel and laid him in his mother’s arms, where he cried and then fell into a jerky, croaking sleep. The doctor, a ruddy man with watchful blue eyes, sat with them and asked how long the boy had been ill.

“We think it’s bird flu,” Allison said.

Thomas sighed and laid a hand on her arm. “Of course we don’t know what it is, Doctor. He’s been listless for two days, no appetite, his diapers soft and yellow. The fever came on late this morning and has been building all day.”

Allison swung toward him, the child against her breast like a shield. “I was on the patio with Declan four days ago,” she said, “where we allow turkeys – wild turkeys – to come right up to the house. He was on a blanket and I was reading, and I thought I’d swept all the disgusting droppings into the grass, when I looked down and saw him playing with one of them – one of the bowel movements, I mean.” She glared at Thomas. “It was at his mouth.”

The doctor’s eyes darted between them. This was good information, he said, though bird flu was doubtful. “Despite what you hear on the news, the transmission of avian influenza from bird to human is rare, and there are no reported cases in the United States. It’s more likely your boy has a case of the everyday flu, though we’ll need further – ”

“Can we at least acknowledge,” Allison cried, “that a five-month-old child handling bird shit is a bad idea? Can we at least acknowledge that?” She said “bird shit” so loudly that conversations outside the exam room went quiet.

The doctor blinked and lifted his palms. Yes, he said, handling bird feces was never a good thing. Several illnesses might result from such contact, and knowing that the child had done so would inform their testing. Allison’s face crumpled, and she began to weep so convulsively that Thomas took the baby from her, and the nurse helped her to the examination table where she could lie down.

In the hallway the doctor put a hand on Thomas’s shoulder. “This is hard on both of you. That’s perfectly understandable.”

Thomas sensed the man was prompting him to talk about Allison. He pressed his cheek against his son’s hot forehead and whispered, “It’s bad enough having Declan so miserable, but she always jumps to the worst – ”

“She’s right to be concerned,” the doctor said, dropping his hand to cup the baby’s skull. “This boy is very sick.”

Allison had always been fearful, though there’d been a time Thomas found her timidity appealing. She was blonde and honey-skinned and an inch taller than he, and she walked with the loping, pigeon-toed stride of a model on the runway. Her father owned three restaurants in Chicago and had played outfield for the White Sox, and he’d made it clear in word and deed that his daughter deserved better than a high school math teacher. When Allison turned girlish and needy it salved a raw spot in Thomas’s pride.

Once, soon after they were engaged, she made a roast beef dinner at her apartment, and when they sat down she asked if he would light the candles. When he looked at her curiously she told him she’d never struck a match in her life.

“Daddy always did it when we were little,” she said. “And then later on it became like a family custom, and before you know it I’m in high school and college and – ” She shrugged her shoulders and laughed. “I’ve still never done it.”

Thomas lit the candles and savored knowing he’d taken the old lion’s place. He bent to kiss Allison’s lovely cheeks in the firelight and said if she needed someone to strike matches for the rest of her life, he would be that man.

And he meant it. But in the four years since, her qualms and boundaries had begun to eat at him. If he stood at an open refrigerator door more than ten seconds, she worried the pork chops would spoil and give them trichinosis. If they were sitting on the patio in the evening and a bat flew overhead, she bolted for the house for fear the creature would tangle itself in her hair, leaving Thomas to either sit alone or gather the wine glasses and follow her inside.

But whenever he’d explained the flaws in her thinking – the few times he’d tried to help her face her fears logically – there’d been hell to pay.

Shortly after he’d begun his first teaching job, they spent a weekend in the city with another couple and visited the Sears Tower, where the observation deck promised a view of four states from its thirteen-hundred-foot perch. Better yet, you reached it by one of the world’s fastest elevators.

Allison stood at the ticket booth reading the description and biting her lip, but when their friends suggested going for it she shook her head. Thomas had drunk a second beer at lunch, and he laughed more loudly than he’d intended and said, “Of course not. We could all die.”

Allison scowled at him and walked away in the Wacker Drive lobby with her arms folded across her chest. He followed her – loaded with righteousness more than regret – and their argument in front of a Baskin Robbins had clerks staring and mothers gathering their toddlers close.

“You didn’t have to embarrass me,” she said when he caught up and took her elbow. She shook him off and stared at the travertine floor.

“Do just one thing for me,” he said. “Admit that this is ludicrous. On an intellectual level at least, admit there’s nothing to be afraid of.”

“You treat me like a child.”

Thomas’s voice took on a tone he used in the classroom. “A child gives in to irrational fears, but an adult knows better. An adult knows there’s near zero chance the elevator will malfunction. An adult knows – ”

Her chin snapped up. “I know if you don’t leave me alone I’ll claw your eyes out. That’s what I know.”

He shook his head. “Have you ever once considered facing your demons and telling them to fuck off?”

She startled him by smiling. “Fuck off,” she said.

In the end she waited in a tea shop while Thomas and the other couple rode in silence to the top of the world. There, he put his forehead against the glass and looked over the seamless reaches of Lake Michigan and asked himself how Allison could name him as a tormentor, when no one cared for her like he did.

The boy’s temperature had begun to climb again, and the doctor suggested admitting him for a day or two. A regimen of anti-viral meds, fever reducers and a cool-mist vaporizer should do the trick. Allison insisted on staying, and Thomas said he would drive to the house and pack an overnight bag for both of them. She shook her head. “I want you to sleep at the house and talk to Danny Baker first thing,” she said. “I don’t want to see you again until you’ve talked to him.”

“I don’t think there’s any reason to – ” Thomas began, but she turned away, the child a sodden, reproachful weight on her shoulder.

Their neighbor Danny Baker was the town marshal. When he and his twelve-year-old son Mitch weren’t hunting or fishing, they stacked bales of straw at the wooded end of their back yard and shot steel-tipped arrows into them. They cleaned blue gills and smallmouth bass on their deck and threw the guts into the weeds, where raccoons feasted in plain sight. Lately Allison had seen Mitch spreading ears of field corn in the grass, so wild turkeys and quail would come out of the pines to feed.

But though the quail scurried for cover the moment Thomas or Allison opened the sliding door to the patio, the turkeys had grown bolder by the day. One early June evening Thomas and Danny Baker stood at the hydrangea bed that connected their back yards, and the man told him that springtime was the birds’ mating season, and the young males – “jakes,” he called them – were loaded with spunk.

“We’re either wives or rivals to them,” Danny Baker said. “They want to fuck us or fight us.” As if on cue, a male turkey stepped from the pines and strutted toward them, its head high and thrusting and its eyes fixed on their faces.

“Whoa now, uncle,” Danny Baker said. He broke off a woody hydrangea shoot and met the bird halfway. The turkey stretched its naked skull toward him, and the man stood tall and whipped the stick through the air so it made a whistling sound. “Shoo now, chief,” he said, and the bird bobbed and flounced and retreated into the trees, its ostrich-like legs muscular and springy.

“They have to know who’s top dog, is all,” Danny Baker said.

In the morning Allison called to tell him that Declan’s fever had spiked again overnight and they’d repeated the cooling baths. He had a rash and made no tears when he cried, so the doctor had ordered intravenous fluids.

“They couldn’t find a vein,” Allison said. “They poked him and poked him, and they finally had to go into his neck.” Her voice was monotonic and exhausted, but their conversation was less than a minute old when she asked him if he’d spoken to Danny Baker.

“Not yet,” Thomas said. He put down his coffee and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. “His pickup’s still in the drive.” The line buzzed with a reproving silence, and Thomas looked out the window to see the marshal and his son hoisting a portable generator onto the truck bed. “Oops, there he is now,” he said, and hung up before she could respond.

Pregnancy had lifted Allison to the top of a green hill – her fears lightened by anticipation – but the birth itself had pushed her into a helpless, tumbling roll down the other side. Labor was a bruising, thirty-six-hour grind, and when Declan’s head got stuck in the birth canal the doctor gripped it with forceps and yanked the boy so violently into the world his cheek was bloodied. Thomas woke to find himself on the tile floor, a nurse swabbing his forehead with a cold towel and his son’s squalls in his ears. And though friends had told him how wonderful the moment would be when the boy was laid on his mother’s chest, Allison began to hemorrhage, and the room filled with shouting medical staff. The baby was hustled away and Thomas was sent – still in gown and mask – to a couch in the waiting area.

When mother and child finally came home, Allison slept in Declan’s room every night for three months. Even after nighttime feedings tapered off and she’d joined Thomas again in their bed, she continued to check the boy four and five times a night.

Once when they lay sleepless in the early dawn, she told Thomas about being a child and learning for the first time about glaciers. “I thought they were like rainstorms,” she said. “I thought you’d wake up one morning and there’d be a glacier on the horizon where a day before there was just sky.” She’d dreamed about her father picking her up and running, while behind them a wall of ice tore houses to pieces, gouged sidewalks from the earth, shredded trees.

“I’ve started having that dream again,” she said, pressing her damp face into his shoulder. “I’d forgotten about it, and now it’s back.”

Thomas pulled her to him and smoothed her hair and listened to Declan’s clotty breathing on the baby monitor, turned to full volume on the nightstand.

Now he stepped from his yard into Danny Baker’s gravel driveway and watched the man and his son wrestle the generator to the back of the truck bed and strap a gasoline can against it with a bungee cord. Only after they’d finished and jumped to the ground did the marshal acknowledge Thomas’s presence.

“How-do, professor,” he said, wiping his forehead with the back of his fist. He wore a sleeveless flannel shirt half open to his chest, and his biceps were round as softballs. “What can I do you for?”

Thomas told him that Declan was in the hospital, the doctors were trying to pin down what was making him feverish, Allison had spent the night with him there.

“That’s no good,” Danny Baker said. “I’ll tell Helen. We’ll be sending prayers your way for sure.” Mitch stood beside him and stared at Thomas. His hair was cut short to the same length all over his head and was so blonde it was nearly white.

“Anyway,” Thomas said. “The doctors think it might have something to do with the turkeys, with their droppings on our patio.”

“Is that right? That’s what the doctor said?”

“They think it’s a possibility. That’s correct,” Thomas said.

The man leaned against the truck and rubbed the stubble on his chin. “We’re sorry to hear the boy’s sick. Declan, is it?” He glanced at Mitch. The boy’s gaze hadn’t strayed from Thomas’s face. “I don’t think it’s the turkeys though, do you?”

“Probably not,” Thomas said, “but I have my orders.” He smiled, but when the marshal looked at him blankly he hurried on. “We’re going to try to keep them out of the yard, just to be on the safe side.”

“Shoot, man, that’s easy,” Danny Baker said. “Get you a tennis racket and run them off.”

“No, that’s not what I mean.” Thomas felt hot blood in his cheeks. “I’m teaching Drivers Ed this summer, and I can’t expect my wife to be chasing wild animals from the yard. Not with a new baby.”

“Wild animals,” Danny Baker repeated, and then his face brightened. “I tell you what. Get a dog. Turkeys can’t stand a yapping dog.”

Thomas sighed and gripped the truck bed rail with both hands. He leaned to and fro, making the pickup rock gently. “Allison doesn’t like – ” He felt the silence, then a breeze rustle high in the pines. “We’re not dog people,” he said.

Danny Baker glanced at the sky. “What is it you need from us, Tom?”

Thomas stepped around the wheel well so his back was to Mitch. He stared into the man’s eyes and spoke rapidly. “Look, it’s probably nothing, but my wife…we think it would be better if you didn’t spread corn in your yard. The birds are losing their fear of us, and if there’s the slightest possibility they carry disease – ”

“Done,” the man said. “If that’s all you need, we’re glad to help. More than glad.” He bent to retrieve a spade and pickaxe and threw both into the truck bed so they clattered heavily. “Is there anything else your wife needs? Anything Helen can do?”

Thomas stepped away from the pickup. “No, nothing else,” he said. “Thanks for understanding.”

“It’s nothing at all. You tell your wife she needn’t worry about turkey turds any longer,” Danny Baker said. He laughed, and Mitch smiled and unsmiled quickly.

When Thomas returned to the house he found a push broom and swept the patio clean of a fresh collection of gray-green droppings. When he turned to enter the house he saw Mitch watching him from the deck. Thomas nodded, but the boy stepped into the lawn with a rake and began scouring fiercely through the grass, sending naked corn cobs flying into the trees.

At the hospital Declan was sleeping open-mouthed, each inhalation a squeaking whimper. A tube snaked from an IV bag to a bruised place at his jugular. The pediatrician sat with Thomas and Allison and told them their son had a virus, most likely the flu, and would probably be better in a few days.

“What about the turkey droppings?” Allison said.

“That’s our conundrum,” the doctor said. “We’ve ruled out bird flu, of course, and the symptoms aren’t consistent with E. coli or salmonella. It’s possible he has a case of West Nile, and that’s no laughing matter.” The rash, the high fever and the dehydration all suggested the mosquito-borne virus.

Thomas stroked his son’s hot forehead and looked at Allison. “So it doesn’t come from the turkeys after all,” he said.

“On the contrary, it might,” the doctor said. “A mosquito bites an infected bird and then it bites us.” West Nile usually disappeared on its own, he continued, but in rare cases it turned to encephalitis, especially in infants. He asked if they had any standing water in the back yard – an unused goldfish pond, maybe, or an old tire swing – that might be a breeding place for mosquitos.

A cool feather brushed Thomas’s heart, but Allison responded that Declan was too young for a swing, and a pond wasn’t safe for a child. She looked at Thomas. “Is there anything else you can think – ”

“No,” he said. “There’s nothing else.” He felt the doctor eyeing him. “I’ll check though. Just to be sure.”

Allison rocked back and forth as the doctor recommended Declan stay in the hospital a few more days until they knew he was out of the woods. When the man left the room, she continued to rock, her hands twisting the waistband of her sweatshirt. “He’ll never be out of the woods,” she said.

“Of course he will,” Thomas said. “He said it was rare.” He stood and paced the room, squeezing fistfuls of hair until his scalp stung. He told her that Danny Baker had agreed to stop spreading corn in the yard. He’d seen Mitch raking the grass clean. Soon the turkeys would learn their place. “I’ll call off from Drivers Ed for a week,” he said. “I’ll show them who’s top dog.”

“We can’t keep our baby safe,” she said softly.

“Yes we can,” Thomas said. He knelt and grabbed her shoulders. She stared past him, and her bleakness nearly moved him to panic. He took her face in his hands and forced it to his. “I’ll fix this,” he cried. “I promise.”

Thomas drove from the hospital to a strip mall near the house. Allison had refused to go home to sleep, so he told her he would pick up a toothbrush and shampoo and return soon. Instead he went to Home Depot, where he bought one hundred feet of chicken wire, two dozen rebar stakes, a mini-sledge hammer, five citronella candles and a propane mosquito fogger.

He arrived at the house and went immediately to work. Since the turkeys had become aggressive he had stopped gardening, and his galvanized metal watering can and bird bath were full to the brim with rain water. An amber film coated both surfaces, and he dumped the watering can into the impatiens and flushed the bird bath clean with a hose. He climbed a stepladder to inspect the eaves troughs and found them full, choked with sodden pine needles. He circled the house with the ladder, scooping crud from the gutters with his hands and snaking the hose into each downspout until the clogs gave way and water flowed freely into gravel beds. He retrieved a leaf rake from the garage and swept the back yard clean of droppings, flinging them far into the pines. He used the mini-sledge to drive the rebar at intervals along the property line and stretched the chicken wire from stake to stake, anchoring it with ground staples.

He looked up once and saw Danny Baker watching him from the deck. The man called to him, but Thomas bent again to his task.

In the end the fence stood four-feet high and wove tautly from one corner of the back yard to the other. It spanned the width of the pine woods and sliced through the hydrangea bed. Thomas’s clothes were fouled by pine sludge, his hands nicked and bloodied from the wire, but he unpacked the citronella candles and placed one on the outdoor bistro table and the other four at each corner of the patio. The sun was low in the trees when he unboxed the fogger and filled the reservoir with insecticide. He lit the pilot light and walked from one edge of the yard to the other, sending clouds of poisonous smoke into the grass, the bushes, the trees. The fogger made a wet, throaty sound, and the breeze wafted the smoke skyward, where it disappeared into the green-black gloom.

When he was finished Thomas turned off the fogger and stood in the gathering dusk. The pines pressed in on him like a wall, the oldest more than eighty feet high. The woods extended a mile behind the house to wetlands beyond, and as the noise from the fogger died Thomas heard in the trees the drone of a billion crickets and katydids, peepers and toads. A flock of crows assembled in the uppermost branches and heckled him. Sand cranes called from the marsh.

He put the tools in the garage, then sat in the kitchen to call Allison. Declan was better, she said. His temperature was almost normal. They’d removed the IV from his neck. It was the flu all along.

“Oh, god. Oh, sweetheart.” Thomas sagged into his chair. He sucked in a huge lungful of air, and as he released it he began to cry and babble like a child. He described the fence, the candles, the fogger, and when she didn’t respond he gripped the phone and sobbed. “Did you hear me? Did you hear what I did?” His heart was full to bursting. “I won’t let anything bad happen to either of you. Don’t you know that?”

“I know,” she said quietly. “Take it easy.”

They hung up and Thomas sat for a few moments in the dark kitchen. Then he rose unsteadily, poured a scotch and walked back to the patio, where he lit the candles and fell into a padded deck chair. His eyes burned, and his bloody hands throbbed. The sun had fully set and a soft glow suffused everything. As he watched, a half dozen turkeys emerged from the pines onto Danny Baker’s lawn. They pecked and bobbed, snatching at the ground in reptilian syncopation. One of the jakes neared the fence, examined it briefly, then flared its wings and sprang lightly into Thomas’s yard. Soon another followed, and then another.

Robert Johnson holds an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers Workshop. His stories have appeared in the online journals Wag’s Revue and Winning Writers. He was a finalist in Glimmer Train’s 2014 “Family Matters” fiction contest and a 1st Runner Up in Pinch Journal’s 2015 Literary Awards. He lives in South Bend, Indiana, with his wife Cindy and his retriever/lab mix Ellie. Much of his Monday-Friday career has been spent teaching, and in various creative capacities at the CBS affiliate in South Bend, WSBT-TV.