Games Writers Play

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Theryn “Beaver” Fleming


I’m addicted to Bloglines.

Believe it or not, this is a good thing. Pre-Bloglines, I had a Favorites folder where I kept all the blogs I read and I spent way too much time clicking through it, checking for new posts, multiple times per day. Now, I just check Bloglines. And if I don’t have time to read new posts right away, that’s okay, too. They’ll be there waiting for me when I do have time.

It’s been liberating.

At the same time, it means that I keep adding feeds to my account—there’s just so much good stuff out there that I can’t pass up. I think I’m over 90 now. I know! But just as when I first got online and discovered that I had no clue what a true obsession was, I’ve realized that no matter how bad you think you’ve got it, there’s always someone who’s taken it a step further: a while ago I talked to someone who subscribes to over 200 feeds.

Two hundred! And one of them is BoingBoing! (I unsubscribed to BoingBoing because I couldn’t keep up. They post too much.) Immediately I felt better about my crazy habit.

My main blog-addiction is to the genre known as “lit blogs”—blogs that focus on writing and/or reading. Unlike the frivolity that is TWoP or Gawker, I consider reading lit blogs a necessity.

Lit blogs keep me up-to-date on what’s happening in the publishing industry. I edit a literary journal. I write. I read (books, that is). Gotta keep myself informed! That’s where Bookslut, Bookninja, Maud Newton et al. come in.

They introduce me to writers I might otherwise never have heard of—Tayari Jones and Laila Lalami, for instance. Those who think writers should never “give their writing away” should think again. Blogs are brilliant marketing tools—and not just for those who’ve turned a blog directly into a book. They introduce readers to a writer’s style and, in many cases, build up a rabidly loyal audience who will snap up anything those writers produce. You think if Dooce or Miss Snark wrote books they wouldn’t sell? (Honestly, how does Heather Armstrong not have a book deal yet? Hmm, maybe she does and she’s just not saying…)

But most importantly, they let me see that most other writers play silly games with themselves too. You know what I mean. The memes. The lists. The writing challenges. The lists/challenges. The contests. The entries themselves. The writing or writing-related stuff writers do instead of working on whatever it is they think they “should” be working on.

Last year the buzz was all about The 50 Book Challenge. Everyone was doing it. The premise is simple: read 50 books in one year. Want to add a writing element? Write a review of each one.

Ooh, so tempting. It’s clearly doable. And so easily justifiable. A writer needs to read, right? But just think of the excuses: Can’t write! Falling behind on my book quota! Yeah, I better not let myself get caught up in that one. I already have enough to read (You do want me to read those Toasted Cheese submissions, don’t you?).

So far this year, it seems to be a toss-up between Library Thing (where you can catalog the books in your personal library) and 43 Things, which encourages people to make a list of goals. 43 Things, of course, is a riff on the old “Things to do before I die” list (a much more delightful title, in my opinion). Since it also gives people the option of listing things they’ve already done, it could also be considered a spin-off of the ubiquitous “50/100 Things About Me” lists.

Again, so easy to justify. Organizing your books—seems admirable. Making a “To Do” list—what could be wrong with that?

Then I checked out the “All-Time Most Popular Goals” at 43 Things. The top three?

  1. lose weight 7032 people
  2. stop procrastinating 6688 people
  3. write a book 5346 people

Hmm. Perhaps these are roads down which a person who used to put off studying for final exams until she had cleaned the oven and defrosted the fridge shouldn’t travel. Fortunately, I already made a “Things to do before I die” list (about ten years ago—I know, I’m so ahead of the curve), so I don’t feel a great desire to jump on that bandwagon. Though it did make me curious about what I put on my list back then. I think it’s in one of my old writing notebooks. Maybe I should go look for it…

Okay, so I’m easily distracted. But the games we play aren’t all about procrastination. Think about NaNoWriMo. On one level, yes, it works because it addresses both procrastination and perfectionism, but on another level it works because if you successfully complete the challenge, you are left with a concrete product that you can tell people about. Neither of my NaNovels are actually complete—50,000 words doesn’t seem to be adequate—yet I’m still able to say, “I won NaNoWriMo,” instead of “I’m working on a novel.” And I’ve found instead of that “Oh, right, sure” look you get to know so well as a writer, people will actually give you props! It’s like magic.

This is what the games are about I think. A book is a long-term proposition. It can be discouraging to be in the middle of a project for a really long time. Completing something—even just a list of 43 things—gives you a little ego boost, a sense of accomplishment. It gives you something that you can share. It’s not time wasted from your main project; it’s what keeps you going on your main project.

Just make sure you get back to your novel before you start cleaning the oven.

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Beaver posts sporadically about writing and reading. E-mail: beaver[at]toasted-cheese.com.

The Ice Cream Man

Best of the Boards
Mark Paxson


When there’s nothing to harvest, Pedro pushes his ice cream cart through the streets of Watsonville. It is a meticulously planned route that begins around 10:00 in the dusty neighborhoods on the eastern edge of town. Even though it’s early, he hopes that kids playing in the street will want a cold treat. As the lunch hour approaches, the route takes Pedro through the small downtown and the surrounding commercial areas. Once he’s sold a few Popsicles and ice cream sandwiches to workers taking a mid-day break, Pedro heads back through more residential streets. Kids playing with hoses. Kids playing tag. Kids playing baseball in the street. They can hear the little bell on the cart jingle from a block or two away. Doors slam, kids yell for money and come running with coins dancing in their hands.

The smiles and laughs from the children should make Pedro happy, but there is too much sadness in his life. So, he plasters a fake smile on his face as he hands out his frozen treats and the children snatch them and run away.

As the afternoon turns to evening, Pedro pushes the cart towards home. Over the course of a day he will push the cart through more than ten miles of the town’s streets. He has made a few more dollars to send back to his parents in Mexico and to keep food on the table for Miguel, his own happy little boy.

When Pedro gets home, he gets Miguel from the neighbor who watches him during the day.

Gracias, senorita,” he mumbles as he takes Miguel by the hand.

De nada,” Maria replies. Pedro doesn’t notice how Maria’s hand lingers on his as he passes a few of the precious dollars he has earned to her.

Miguel, having just turned three, is a ball of fire. Non-stop movement. Non-stop chatter. Pedro can’t help but laugh and smile watching Miguel. The hour or two Pedro has with his son before he puts him down to sleep is the only time Pedro allows himself to be happy. He has to for the little boy’s sake.

They play. They wrestle. When Miguel goes to bed, Pedro lies next to him and tells him stories about Mexico, about home, about his grandparents. He has not been able to tell Miguel stories about his mother. Not yet. Those memories are still too painful.

Once Miguel’s eyes have closed and he is sleeping peacefully, Pedro gets up, kisses him lightly on the cheek and goes out to the kitchen. He gets his dinner and a cerveza and sits down at the small, worn kitchen table. As he eats his meal—rice, beans and a couple of tortillas made by the neighbor who watches his little boy and whose hand lingers on his own—Pedro does what he has done every night for the last year and a half. He relives the night he lost Isabella, his wife.

They grew up together in a small town in Mexico, surrounded by family and friends. Everybody knew everybody and everybody knew Pedro and Isabella would marry some day. As early as sixth grade, other kids would make fun of them because of how close they had grown.

A few years after the couple proved everybody right and married, Miguel was born. Shortly after his first birthday, they decided to cross the border to California. Pedro and Isabella dreamed of a better life, a life they didn’t think possible in their desolate corner of Mexico.

On their journey to California, after they had crossed the Rio Grande and crouched their way through a small tunnel that funneled illegal immigrants into the country, they were packed into a van with its seats taken out. Fifteen people were packed into the back, sitting side by side on the floor. Packed in like sardines. The air was stifling and the aroma of sweat and fear filled the van.

Suddenly, the driver slammed on the brakes. The tires squealed. The van veered to the left and began to tip over. It seemed as though it took forever, but in reality it was over in a second or two. In that time, Pedro curled into a protective ball around his son, who was sitting on his lap, and tried to reach for Isabella. He didn’t reach her in time. As the van crashed over onto its side, he could feel her slide past him and slam into the wall.

The back doors burst open and the occupants began stumbling out. Pedro carried Miguel out and turned to look for his wife. She didn’t follow him out, so he went back to the doors and peered in.

There were three bodies scattered in the corner, jumbled up with each other. One of them was the girl Pedro had known for years. The girl he had loved since the beginning of his time. The girl who had grown into a woman and become his wife and who bore his child. He could see the features on her face, frozen in place. He could see that her head was bent awkwardly to the left. Her eyes stared blankly into space. Pedro had lost her while in search of a dream.

Every night, over a plate of rice and beans, he relives that night. He can still feel her slip out of his grasp and hear the thud as she hits the side of the van. He no longer remembers the feel of his wife in his arms. He only remembers his hand reaching for her that night. He no longer remembers her laugh. He only remembers the sound of the thud. He no longer remembers the smile that used to light up her face. He remembers only the sight of her eyes staring into space.

That night Pedro had to run with Miguel in his arms to avoid being arrested. He ran and ran and left Isabella behind. He wasn’t able to bury her or properly mourn her. Now he mourns her the only way he can. Every night. Alone. Reliving that night. Tears running down his cheeks. At some point, he rises from the kitchen table, rinses off his plate, and goes to bed. The next day, he will sell frozen treats to happy children dancing in the streets and wrestle with his son before putting him to bed. Then he will sit by himself and try to remember Isabella, his wife.

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Mark Paxson is an attorney in California with two kids, a wife, two dogs, three guinea pigs, and a fish. A couple of years ago he began writing a novel, One Night in Bridgeport, about a man falsely accused of rape. Now in the middle of a painful rewrite of that novel, he fills his limited free time with short stories. He’s looking forward to finishing his first novel and moving on to the all-important second novel.

The Meeting, Short and Fleeting

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
Sheela Jaywant


It wasn’t a knock, more like a single, strong thud on the door. It startled him terribly, reminded him of… what? He couldn’t remember. His pulse raced, though, for there was something amiss: he’d just stepped outside a second or two ago, to check his mailbox and hadn’t seen anyone at all. He hadn’t heard the lift stop either. Nor had he heard any footsteps. The old tiles gave away the slightest movement. Of course, the bell hadn’t been working and he’d been postponing getting it repaired. Friends who dropped by didn’t need it anyway. They merely called out his name. But no one ever came in the afternoon. The temperature outside must have been around 38 degrees C. He unlatched the door. A young woman stood there. Saleswoman?

“I’m doing a project on birdhits and flight safety,” she said even before he fully opened the door. He wasn’t used to being thus disturbed in his routine. A most unusual thing to say, he thought. No salesperson, this.

“A project? You could have called,” he said, still blocking her way, “and made an appointment.” She seemed to ignore his words. Ignored even him, then climbed over the inch-high threshold and almost forced her way in. Good manners gave way to good sense, and he let her in.

“There was no time,” she said. Her voice was shrill, whiny, and there was something about her that made him suspicious, uncomfortable. She seemed to know her way around, appeared to be familiar with him, treated him as an acquaintance.

Long years of training had honed his instincts to danger. This person alerted his nerves.

Of course, it had been almost five years since he’d hung up his uniform, but the basic qualities of a fighter pilot remained. He wanted to be proactive, to be prepared, to know his ‘adversary’. Could one call a chit of a girl an adversary? Couldn’t say how old she was, could be twelve or twenty. She was slight, but with broad, stooping shoulders. Long fingers, short legs, short hair, darting eyes. Expressionless. She wore a furry poncho-like blouse over her jeans that flapped as she walked. She seemed to skip rather than walk. She looked like a foreigner. Or perhaps she was from the North East, though their noses weren’t so long. Slight, but sturdy. Those people did have complexions like these, specially the tribals. But for a tribal to have come all this way to Goa on the southwest coast… didn’t seem feasible. He was curious, rather than suspicious. Something was bothering him. It wasn’t just the element of surprise of her visit that made him uncomfortable.

“What is this project, who are you doing it for, how did you trace me, what do you need from me?” When Rajkumar got irritated, he always talked fast and he was annoyed at himself for having allowed her in, for not being able to figure out why he was so uncomfortable with her.

“May I introduce myself?” she asked calmly, eyeing him intently.

He nodded, surprised at the confidence of this stranger. “Yeah. I’m Rajkumar, retired, Wing Commander, Indian Air Force…”

“I know. I’m Cheel,” she said.

He shook her hand.

She clutched his tightly for a moment, just a moment.

“So, Cheel, sit down here. Can I get you something to drink?”

“Just water, thanks.”

She took short, quick sips of the liquid, enjoying it as if it were a rare wine, raising her little chin up as she swallowed it. He could almost see the liquid travel down her throat.

“How can I help you, ma’am?” She was staring at the Air Force mementos displayed on the wall, the shelves, engrossed.

Quickly, but in clear tones and words, still staring at the photographs and the statuettes, she told him she was from the University of Ambar, West Bengal, a zoologist, doing her Ph.D. on birds and their impact on humans, in her state. It was much later, after she’d gone, that he wondered who was paying for her fare, her stay… Indeed, where was she staying; there wasn’t a hotel for miles near here, nor any public transport. Was there really an Ambar in West Bengal? In retrospect, another revelation: Ambar meant ‘sky’ in Hindi.

“You,” it sounded more like an accusation than an enquiry, “had had a birdhit in April 2004, over Ghaziabad. You were flying a Mig 23. Here (and she thrust out a file at him) are all the details.”

“How did you… where did you…?” He didn’t read it. He should have.

“Got it from the Net.”

The Air Force put these details up on the Net? Weren’t they secret? But that, too, he thought of after she’d gone.

“Besides,” she continued, “It was all over the papers, and I have the cuttings.”

How could he have been so slack… How could he not have asked to see those cuttings… Ah, he learned the hard way that some moments couldn’t be rewound.

“Here, I’m going to switch on my tape recorder, so I can go through what you’ve said and be sure there’s no mistake.” She then walked across the small drawing room and went straight… as if she knew… towards the corridor. There she stood before an ugly chair, a folding one, made of green metal pipes, rusty hinges and faded brown canvas.

“That,” said Rajkumar, “was my ejection seat.”

“Tell me,” she said facing him directly. “What happened?”

“It was an early morning sortie. I was about 3 kilometers up when I had a birdhit. I ejected.”

“Then?”

“I landed in a field; the chopper came to rescue me; I was in hospital for a week.”

“Then?”

“I was back to flying after a month’s rest.”

“Then?”

When Rajkumar got angry, he roared. Lady or no lady, this was getting a bit too much. “Then nothing.” She wasn’t fazed by his volume or tone.

“Did you see the bird you hit?”

“Haven’t you done your homework? There’s never any time to see or even blink, dammit. The damage is done and within seconds you’re out. Or dead.”

“That was true for the bird. It didn’t see you.”

“That’s life.”

“That’s death.”

“What kind of research is this?”

“What bird was it?”

“A vulture, maybe eagle, I don’t know. They’d sent the feathers and flesh that they found in the crash debris to the Bombay Natural History Society for identification. No, it was a kite, I remember… I forget the scientific name… They said it was rare in that area, very unusual. Must have weighed about five to eight kilos, rather big, too, they said… You’re looking pale, can I get you some water?”

“Rare in the area… It was hungry, searching for food.”

“Yeah, perhaps. Plenty of cattle dying out there those days, with the drought.”

“No place to live… ” Had he heard right? She seemed a bit ill, now, this girl, he thought. What was she mumbling under her breath? He tried to guide her back to the drawing room where they could sit comfortably on the sofa, but she insisted on standing before that ejection seat.

“What did you feel?”

“To my bad luck, I’d lost some speed, and the aircraft went into a spin as well. Which meant it was yawing, pitching, and rolling at the same time.”

“What does that mean?”

“You haven’t done your homework. You’re doing research, eh? It means the aircraft’s nose and tail were see-sawing, the wings were see-sawing and moving sideways, too, all at the same time, whilst hurtling down to the earth.”

“You didn’t get the handle the first time, did you?”

“No, I was lucky the second time. The first time, nothing happened. Then the seat fired.”

“Then?”

“I tumbled upwards, unconscious with the blood flow and everything till the parachute jerked me awake once more. I saw the plane go down, down. There was a sharp pain in my back. But I was more worried about where I’d land.”

She interrupted him. “All birds worry about that. All their lives.”

He was now enjoying the narration, remembering an episode that none but those who’d been through it would understand. (And none were interested in hearing about.) Those words, ‘eject-eject-eject’, the sudden gush of adrenalin, that fear, the overcoming of it, the lessons he’d learnt as a pupil, the blessings of his ancestors, the holding of the breath as he faced unknown danger, the surge of blood… and the catapulting, up and away, defying gravity, forced out into space, not knowing whether he’d be dead or alive… not knowing whether he was dead or alive till the parachute opened, floating down earthwards, seeing the site of the crash below him, realizing it wasn’t even a couple of seconds since he’d been hit and he was already safe on the ground… Later, in the hospital, he read a lot of books about religion, near-death experiences, life after death, he was rambling now, soliloquizing, opening his heart to her.

He heard her interrupt: “…yes, the body does move slower than the soul, doesn’t it?”—and ignored it.

“…Ah, what was interesting to my children, though, was the ejection kit.”

“Hmm?”

“I’ll show you.” He dragged a small bag out from under the ejection seat. The girl watched, fascinated. “This is the survival kit. The knife—see the three edges? They’re sharp and tough, can slice through the neck of a grown buffalo with a swipe. Two kilos of solid steel. (He almost handed it over to her to feel it, then withdrew, for giving a weapon to a stranger would be stupid. Years of military conditioning at work!) Made in Russia. There were chocolates in this metal box. And this is the water bottle. The medicines, of course, weren’t needed in my case. Nor the flares. I discarded those. There was a compass, too, I think it’s lost now.”

“Did you keep something of the bird?”

“Why, no. There isn’t anything to keep in a crash. Everything gets incinerated. Very tiny bits of feather or bone or flesh or a smattering of blood is what we scrape off and put into plastic bottles to send for identification. The canopy pieces may have a little hair or something stuck to it.”

“Didn’t you ever wonder why such a rare bird hit you? I mean, why was it there at all?” She seemed on the verge of tears. Perhaps he was imagining it. Perhaps she was one of those very involved activists fighting for the rights of birds of prey. She was difficult to read. So far she hadn’t asked him any technical questions, though the tape-recorder was on.

“Nope. Some stupid bird came in my way, caused a loss of 22 crore rupees to the country. Such a lovely machine reduced to ashes.”

She seemed to be shivering.

“Are you ill?” he asked, now concerned.

“I’m fine,” she said. “It’s just that… You’re talking about money, about a machine. Wonder what the bird felt.”

He was convinced: she had to be an animal rights’ lawyer.

“Birds feel? In any case, there wasn’t any time to think or anything; it all happened so quickly.”

“Are birds usually found at 3 kilometers up in the air?”

“Yeah, sometimes. Yeah, maybe not. Didn’t think about that. We’d learnt about it, but can’t remember now. It’s been a long time ago.”

“Adventurous bird.”

“Yeah, maybe it came to see the planes.” He was sarcastic.

She mumbled something again. It sounded like “It did,” but Wing Commander (Ret’d.) Raj Kumar couldn’t be certain. He offered her some tea, biscuits. She didn’t want any.

“Birds are curious,” she said softly. “They can see, they want to see closely, any stranger in the sky.”

Silence. Wacko, thought Rajkumar. He wished he wasn’t alone. Who knew what this woman’s intentions were. He was certain she wasn’t into research or anything, but couldn’t make out what she wanted. If her objective was theft, she was wasting her time; he owned nothing of value. Did she have an accomplice outside? To break the silence, he spoke. “My wife makes excellent tea. You could wait till she comes. She’ll be home soon.”

“I know, by five,” she said confidently.

“Yeah, five,” he echoed. Vaguely, he wondered, how did she know that? They disturbed him, her words. He decided to distract her.

From the ejection kit bag, he took out the folded parachute. She felt it with her fingers. Then she swung around and draped it around herself. The action twirled it in the air. It floated up above her head, up to the ceiling, then fell upon her and to the ground. She stepped out.

He said, “This is what saved me. The guys who packed it, who checked the ejection seat, they did a good job. I’m here because of them. I was lucky I could eject in time. Some pilots are unlucky. They go down. There’s no time to eject. Bang and it’s over.”

“No time, quite right,” she whispered. “So quick, no time.”

He began to put away the kit. “What about the questions you wanted to ask me?” he said, guiding her from the corridor to the drawing room again.

She stroked the ejection seat, the small kit-bag, then followed him.

“Afterwards, what did you think about, in hospital, at home?”

“Initially about the pain I had in the back. I couldn’t move my neck, or sit or walk without wincing. I took medicines for the pain. Then, after ten days or so, I began to walk around in the house. Took me about a month to really feel normal again. I was lucky, didn’t have a compression fracture or anything.”

“What about the bird, did you think about it?”

“No.”

“Never?”

“Never. Why?”

“It must’ve suffered, too. Broken wings, crushed back.”

“Nope, it was dead before it knew it was hit.”

“You think so?”

“Sure.”

“But at the moment of impact? It might have felt something? Pain, perhaps fright?”

“Perhaps, I don’t know. Never gave it a thought. Is that part of your research? Birds and flight safety?”

“The safety of birds also ought to be a consideration, right?”

Yes, he thought, this nut is a bird lover all right. Maybe a vegan. Better change the topic. Didn’t want any tears or scenes.

“…right?” She was waiting for her answer.

“Absolutely,” he said diplomatically, wondering if her tape-recorder was working and what material she was going to get from it.

“You flew for a living…”

“Birds fly for a living, too,” he joked, trying to dilute the seriousness.

“It’s not the same thing.” The veins in her neck were getting turgid; lines of tension were visible on her forehead.

“Ma’am, Cheel, Ma’am,” he said cautiously, comfortingly, in a ‘there-there’ manner. “Are you sure you won’t have something to drink?”

She shook her head so vigorously, even her shoulders moved, and her poncho flapped around her. When she stretched her elbows out, they actually looked like wings. What lengths these activists go to, he thought, wearing these funny outfits.

As suddenly as she’d come, she packed her things into her sling bag and headed for the door.

“You’re going?” he asked.

“Yes.” She was abrupt.

“Wait. In a few moments, my wife will be here. She’d like to meet you, I’m sure.” He could clearly hear the rumble of his wife’s car in the distance.

“I’m going,” she said, opened the door, and with a quick look at him, stepped out. He watched her trot away, briskly, puzzled at the intensity with which she saw him. Her eyes seemed to pierce him, through him. Her glance was brief, but intense. He didn’t know what to make of this encounter. Was she planning to return?

He put his hand on his chest… What was that? A sharp, sudden, agonizing pain in his chest. As he fell, he saw his wife’s car come into view.

It was in the ICU, when he was stable, that he told his wife about her.

“You were hallucinating,” she said. Happens, sometimes, when the oxygen supply to the brain is hampered, the doctor explained.

No, he insisted. She was real. No one believed him. It was whilst he was recuperating, in the peace and solitude of the ward that he tried to make sense of the incident. All that he could remember of her was her hooked nose. Like a beak, he thought.

It was on the third day that two things occurred to him: cheel means ‘kite’ in Hindi and how did she know that he’d pulled the handle twice before he ejected? He hadn’t told anyone. How did she know? He sat up, shocked.

The pain in his chest was overwhelming, as if it had been hit by a tractor. Is this what it feels like to be hit by an aircraft, he thought before he passed out.

The Cardiac Pulmonary Resuscitation team was by his side in minutes.

“Strange,” said the intensive care doctor who attended to him. “The ECG is normal, but this patient showed all the classical signs of a cardiac arrest.”

Stranger still was the single feather that his wife found stuck to the ejection seat. She’d never seen it before. It belonged, said an ornithologist friend, to a tropical bird of prey.
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“I’m a 48-year-old freelance writer from India. My work, mainly features and interviews, has been published in several national newspapers. In 2003, my book Quilted, Stories of Middle Class India was published (reviewed on www.SAWNET.com). I do a weekly column for a local newspaper. On the Net, my work can be read on www.chowk.com.” E-mail: sheelajaywant[at]yahoo.co.in.

The Last Time?

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Charlie Thrun


I watch from a window seat of a Douglas DC-3, as the large aircraft circles a small island south of Japan. It’s February in the year 1953, less than ten years after the war. Another war is drawing to an end in Korea, but I managed to avoid that particular altercation. This time I’m a civilian, never having been in the service. This time around, I do as many others have done, and buy a politician.

The aircraft lands at the only airport, a military one that shares space with civilian flights. There’ll soon be another field, but right now the other is still damaged from WWII. Because it’s a charter flight, and there are no other planes arriving for awhile, I easily pass through customs.

“You got any dirty pictures, explosives, or large amounts of American money,” the bored American customs agent asks, glancing over my passport. The document isn’t really required since the island is under American Military Law—as part of the reparations agreement with Japan. Although relatively small, with a population of something like 100,000 poor souls—half American Military, the island is getting crowded. There are two bases, along with an air force contingent at the airport. The last three times around, I had been an army sergeant stationed at the one base. Not bad duty but I was getting tired of the military bull.

Finally getting smart on my third time around, I made a point of memorizing certain facts, such as winning sports teams and stock market reports. This time I’m well set up, a millionaire at eighteen. Money is the least of my problems. Amiko is the only thing on my mind.

Amiko. The very name gives me chills and stretches my nerves raw. Maybe this time? I can only pray. I take out a faded photo, taken with my arm around her in 1969, a long time ago. No, not a mistake, 1969. Married to her then. It’s the closest I’ve gotten to the girl in the last 180 years.

This is the earliest I’ve been here. I kind of wish I had a way to see the base, how it looks before I’ve been stationed here. I flag down a taxi. This one is a beat up Jeep painted bright orange. After WWII the military sold a lot of these Jeeps, mostly worn out and shot up, to natives. Better than hauling them all the way back to the States.

“Take me to Shansabaru.” I order the driver, in Japanese, and throw my bags on the small back seat.

“You don’t want to go there, nothing to do in Shansabaru, sir. I take you to Blue Moon bar, maybe? Many girls?” he answers in English.

“No. Shansabaru,” I state emphatically. Obviously he thinks I’m in the military, young men my age are never civilian visitors, unless with their parents. Shrugging at losing his commission from the bar, he turns the key and we leave for the village.

I look around, trying to keep my mind off Amiko. I can almost sense her presence as we get closer to her mountain home. Shansabaru is a small village about halfway up the small volcanic mountain that dominates the island. Leaving the airport, and its ocean breeze, we enter a two-lane paved road. At one point, I can see road workers making repairs. They consist of not only men, but also women, some with small children strapped to their backs. As the female workers swing picks and dig with shovels, the children sleep quietly. After a half-mile, we turn onto a one lane road, also paved. From there, we enter a dirt lane. Only four more miles, I think, as we proceed uphill on the winding path.

Even the smells of the jungle remind me of Amiko; everything reminds me of my lost love. We pass a large grass hut that serves as a one room schoolhouse. I sit forward, almost touching the startled driver, as I peer past his hands and head. Maybe I can see her, I think, as we pass; but all the children are inside. A few minutes later, springs protesting, we jerk to a stop in the center of the village. The road splits and goes off on two tangents, neither wide enough for the vehicle.

“You owe me fifty-cent American.” The driver reaches out his hand and turns off the key, not bothering to exit the vehicle. With a village that small, he doesn’t bother to ask my final destination. After I pay him, he starts up again and backs up until he finds a place to turn around.

I watch the Jeep disappear, melding into the jungle. Looking around, I check the place out. It’s both familiar and strange. An old hut with a shed where Mr. Mori’s house will later stand. Some of the homes look the same, except for being newer than I’m used to.

Seeing Grandma Yoshi’s store, I pick up my bags and walk toward it. There’s a nice looking middle-aged woman behind the counter, shapely posterior raised as she bends to search under a shelf. It takes me a few seconds to recognize her as Grandma Yoshi herself.

“‘Ello GI… Wa’ ya’ want?” I almost laugh at her struggling with English. Later, I knew her as a busybody whom would never shut up, in Japanese or English.

“Do you know where I can find Matsu?” I ask, in Japanese, eliciting a smile of relief.

“You know Matsu?” she gives me a nose crunching frown, as though something about me puzzles her.

“Well, in a way, we go way back. Do you know where I can find him?”

“I think Matsu would be in his field. You go to the left for…”

“I know the field. Thank you, Miss—.” I have to leave it at that. I never have known her last name.

I leave my bags alongside the store and turn left. As I walk closer, I can smell composted piles of human shit. Fermented with native leaves and garbage, it will be used as fertilizer. Kenji Matsu is kneeling in his taro patch, pulling weeds, when I approach. Since he’s an old friend, the two of us often getting drunk together on the local sake, I have to remind myself we are again strangers.

“Mr. Matsu? Could I talk to you a minute?” He glances at me, straightens up, and stretches.

“Yes. I am Kenji Matsu?”

“I would like to know if you have any houses to rent?” Kenji owns half the village and rents many of the homes. I also remember him telling me of the hard times right after the war. Most of the natives left when the Japanese army occupied the island. At that time, they had a lot of land but few to farm it. He ran a little sake plant during the war, making the strong wine like beverage out of sugarcane he grew himself. It had been a hard life since the Japanese paid little, but wouldn’t let him quit making it. “Hey, it built up my muscles,” he would brag, flexing them.

“I have houses, several, GI. But no inside water, no power.” Damn, I thought, I haven’t considered that point, the village hasn’t gotten electricity yet. Well, I have money. Maybe I can get power up here, anything to make Amiko comfortable.

“No matter, Mr. Matsu. I can get by without them. I’m a determined man.”

“You speak good Japanese for such a young American.”

“I studied the language for a long time, Mr. Matsu. Don’t worry, I won’t cause any trouble.” I have known him long enough to almost read his mind. He will have visions of me making noise, having parties, and making an ass out of myself. “I’m a civilian, here to study your customs,” I lie.

He rents me the house I want. I’m surprised it’s even there at this early date. The two-room building, made from split tree-trunks and sporting a thatched roof, had looked new when I owned it, two lifetimes ago and sixteen years later. I want that particular building because it stands between Amiko’s parents’ home and the school. I can watch her on her way back and forth to study.

I never met her parents, living on the army base the first two times around. On the third, I remembered enough ball scores to make some money. I still hadn’t adjusted to my condition. But, just in case, I made a point to study such things, which makes me a millionaire this time around. In any case, on the third swing, I had enough money to not only buy the house but make even more of an ass of myself with drunken parties.

*

I sit at the window of the rented house, smelling the thatch roof and other odors of a scenic jungled countryside, waiting for my love to walk by. So far, there have only been three old men, and a huge water buffalo led by a small child.

I’ve been waiting for only a couple of hours or fifty years, according to your viewpoint. Kenji had insisted I have a few drinks of his homemade sake before leaving me to my own devices. I once owned this house. It’s made from rough, hand-carved planks, with a straw roof two feet thick. When it starts to leak, like it will in another seventeen-and-a-half years, you just add another layer. Of course old Lisumo, the roofer, will have been dead about two years by then. Time is really subjective when you live the same years over and over again, ad infinitum.

I hear the gong of a school bell, a faint but distinctive sound, in the distance. She will be walking by, on the dusty one lane dirt road, in a few minutes. My legs go into an uncontrollable shiver as sweating hands clasp the windowsill tightly, unconscious of splinters from the rough wood. I can’t control my emotions. I haven’t seen my love for almost fifty years. I wonder if I will recognize her, after all this time and her being so much younger. I have the old photograph propped up on the windowsill. I don’t know how, but somehow, I find the photo in my pocket every time I cycle back to the past. It’s a village photo taken in front of the little store.

I see some schoolchildren coming down the road toward me. There are some in groups and others walking by themselves. I search their faces as they walk closer. There! One of the girls, about twelve years old, is walking alone on the edge of the dusty road, inky-black hair shining in the sunlight. As she approaches, I look closer, trying to see through my veil of tears.

Could it be my love? I’m not sure, and can only wipe my face with my sleeve and return my gaze to the road.

When she’s almost abreast of my open window, I see the familiar face. The lovely nose that I so long to touch, beneath those beautiful, dark, slanted eyes. The lips that have smiled at me both in the past and in my endless dreams, those lips I long to taste again.

This time around, she’s only twelve years old. I wanted to try early this time. My body is eighteen but my mind and memories are those of a very old man, an old and frustrated man.

I have an affliction that occurs every sixty-eight years. After I fall asleep on my seventy-eighth birthday, I wake in my own ten-year-old body, keeping all my memories and the picture. It’s happened three times already. The feeling isn’t so bad at first, but at the onset of puberty my feelings get steadily stronger, and stronger yet as the years and decades roll by. My curse is that I have yet to win her love. Although I know her every nuance and thought through constant study and repetition, have even married her once, I cannot seem to earn her love.

This time around I’m starting when she’s younger and, hopefully, more impressionable. This time, having money and being a civilian, I intend to back her father in his dream business, one she’s often mentioned. He works on a fishing boat and has always dreamed of owning his own. Hell, I can buy him dozens.

I’ve tried many other methods, like learning the language, customs, even the Shinto religion. I gave up drinking long ago to impress her, anything to show my eternal devotion. Of course, I study her to learn her preferences and have changed my image more than once.

When learning she had a fad for medical training, I graduated from medical school. I’ve tried to acquire every skill I could think of to impress this little girl. All to no avail. Although I often come close, I’ve never really won her complete affection. Remember, I’ve had a lot of time to try, better than spending those long years in pining my life away.

Money’s no problem. I’ve memorized almost every Irish Sweepstakes number, even State Lottery winners in the future, along with all the pertinent stock market fluctuations.

Now, I can only wipe my tears and watch the gorgeous, eminently desirable young schoolgirl, strolling unconcernedly down a narrow dirt road. As I see her stop to pick a stalk of cut sugarcane from a pile in a nearby field, I wonder if I am in my own personal brand of hell. Doomed to reach out for her love, in vain, throughout eternity.

*

“So, Mr. Yoshiro, sir,” I tell him, we’re sitting on the edge of his small porch. I can hear Amiko and her mother arguing about something inside the house, a rich home for this community. “I came to the island to invest. I think this place has a great potential in the fishing industry,” I lie like a pro. “I’ve paid for studies that show that, since the war, aquatic animals are proliferating offshore. I’ve been checking things out and think you might want to invest in a boat.

“Because of current and projected laws, and limitations on foreign investment,” Blah, blah, blah, “the craft would be in your name, with me as a silent partner.” I lay it on thick. Of course, it’s exactly what he wants to hear. “You don’t have to pay me anything up front. Just repay me, with slight interest of course, from your profits. As far as anyone else knows, you’re the boss.”

While he’s considering the offer, one he can hardly refuse, I see lovely young Amiko peering from the window, observing us. It takes all my reserve effort not to stare back. I force myself to look over and smile, secretly taking a mental snapshot for posterity.

“When will this begin, Mr. Adams?” he asks.

“Immediately,” I answer, “You can quit your job right away, if you prefer. I’ll write you a check right now, if you like my offer, and you can start the ordering process tomorrow. I’d like a brand new, and large one, if you concur.”

Although he tries to hold to his Oriental inscrutability, it’s a lost cause. He can see all his dreams coming true. We shake hands and I write him out a check, huge by his standards, but chicken feed from my point of view.

Of course, Mr. Akio Yoshiro has to take me inside and introduce me to his family, Michiko his wife and, of course, the beautiful Amiko.

We all squat at a low polished wooden table and have tea that Michiko brews. I have almost forgotten how delicious real Japanese green tea tastes. In the US we only get a pale imitation. Why is it, that the US rarely gets the real thing in imported food items? Any store in the Orient has dozens of types and brands of rice, for instance, yet in the US we have two or three.

Maybe I clasp Amiko’s hand too long, I don’t know, but she has to jerk it away. I can see some sort of emotion in her young eyes. After all, at twelve or thirteen, a tall good looking boy of eighteen might well interest her. I sincerely hope so.

I’m happy—hell, elated—as I walk home at the dusky end of a good day.

*

I have to go to town in the morning. I came here directly from the airport and Grandma, excuse me, Yoshiko’s store carries very few items. A really nice looking and friendly middle-aged woman, she hardly looks like a grandmother.

In any case, I step into the store.

“Good morning, Mr. Adams.” Yoshiko hurries around the counter to greet me with a smile. It doesn’t take long for word to get around, I think, that a rich American lives here. I imagine she thought I was only another GI the first time. I grin back.

“Good morning, Miss Yoshiko, can you call me a taxi, please?”

“Of course, Johnny. Do you wish a soda? I have Coca Cola, Pepsi Cola, and Nehi?” she asks, “And may I ask how you know my name?”

“Maybe a Coca Cola. Oh, and I guess someone told me. It fits you well. You look like you have had a lot of it.” Yoshi means good luck.

“Yes, I have, Mr. Adams. It took a lot just to stay alive during the war.”

I do what shopping I can at the store while I wait for the taxi. It’s no doubt more expensive than in town, but good public relations.

Finally the taxi arrives, another rebuilt and painted Jeep.

“Thank you, Mr. Adams. Don’t worry about this,” she says, pointing to my goods piled on her counter. “I’ll deliver them to your home.”

While in the nearby and larger town of Tairabaru, I stop and buy my own vehicle, also a rebuilt Jeep of course. Driving myself home, I see Mr. Yoshiro in one of the stores as I pass. He doesn’t see me, but looks to be very happy.

Parking among some bushes behind the thatched hut, I carry my other purchases inside. It’s much cooler there, with a breeze from the open windows. In a semi-darkened corner of the bedroom, I see a vase I never noticed before. It contains three Higo Camellias, in three different colors: red, white, and blue. Very distinctive. During my last time around, I had become enamored of them. Amiko had brought me the same combination, inspired by the red, white, and blue of the American flag.

Can she have been to my house while I was gone? It must be, since who else knows my favorite? But then, at the moment, how the hell does even she know?

I put away all my purchases, both from town and the small village store, hoping Amiko will return.

*

Having forgotten bread, I walk to the little store the next morning, to find it closed. Thinking something might well be wrong—Miss Yoshiko is always open at this hour—I stop my knocking on the door, and hurry around to the back. I remember that there has never been a lock on that door. The original owner only feared thieves from out of town and kept losing keys, so the only lock he installed was inside the front door. The unlockable back door was common knowledge in the village. Intra-village thievery is almost unknown.

I find Miss Yoshiko slumped on her stool, head and upper torso sprawled across the counter. An empty sake bottle balances on its side at the outer edge of the surface. It over-balances, and drops to the floor with a dull clunk as I raise her hand to check her pulse.

It’s hard to check hers with my own beating so fast. Her face is now uncovered and turned to the side. The mixed odors of sake, perfume, and woman reach my nostrils, quickly replaced by a sour odor as fluids gush over my hand and the counter. Obviously, the woman is alive.

I find a shallow pan for her to finish vomiting in, then wipe her face with one of a display of dishtowels. She’s obviously only dead drunk, I decide, having been in that condition myself. Since she can’t sit up, and I don’t want to lay her on the nasty looking counter or floor, I pull over another stool and sit there holding her erect.

I don’t know why, but I’m worried about the woman. It’s the first time I’ve known her to drink, in all these years. Grandma Yoshi has always been a stabilizing influence to us all.

My face inches from the side of her head, she turns—eyes glassy—looks at me, and throws her arms around my neck. Like a long lost lover, I think.

“Johnny, my Johnny. It is you, after all this time. You’ve really returned,” she mumbles, kissing me full on the lips, forcing sake breath into my mouth.

As the words penetrate my mind, I go into some sort of shock. All this time? Returned?

“What are you talking about? What do you mean?” I shake her gently.

“I—I— I don’t know, Johnny. I died. I died, and came back, as a little girl,” she tells me. “I don’t understand, I died?”

I’m frozen, literally frozen, between her drunken sobs and flowing tears. I can’t understand my feelings of fear, understanding, weariness, relief, so damn many emotions and all together, as she continues.

“I fell in love with you, many years ago. But you only wanted the young girl, that Amiko. You wouldn’t look at me. You wouldn’t look, and I was only six or eight years older than you. You wouldn’t look. Then I died. I died and came back. Why? Why does God prolong my suffering?

“Now, take it easy, Yoshiko. I’m here. Take it easy. Please. I have a lot of thinking to do.” I was also crying. We would have been one hell of a sight, if anyone were watching.

“Why? I hate God, I hate Him. To do this to me. Now—how can He be so heartless—now you come back, and still chase after that same girl. Lemme have another drink, the same girl, the same damn girl.” She pounds her fists on the counter, splashing vomit around the room. Head twisting, tears flying like violent rain, she collapses into my arms.

I hold her for hours, my mind in a muddle, as I finally understand. I now know why, though not how. The ways of the Lord are strange, and often beyond our understanding. I remember that she’s also in the picture.

A week later, I sign my share of the boat over to Akio and, holding Amiko tightly for the last time, kiss the little girl goodbye. Yoshiko and I have to hurry to catch a boat. She wants to be married in Japan. Maybe this will be the last time around for both of us, but then, that’s up to God.

pencil

“New writer, old man, sometimes fulla crap. My best buddy is a rat, if that means anything. Wanta be a riter, an tryin hard at it too. Live in upper Ohio. To find me, you start at Sandusky, and go downriver, until you reach the crotch.” Somehow, appropriate. E-mail: hvysmker[at]woh.rr.com.

Ardennes ’44

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Joseph Noonan


The waiting was easier at night, but only by a little. Alone in the dark of the barren upstairs room, Argent found it at least bearable to sit, nursing his found whiskey and waiting for the sound of war. He listened with a jittering awareness. They’d trained him to be aware. They’d trained him to remember. They’d trained him to obey. Now he hated that awareness, cursed his memories, and wished he’d never learned to obey. He wrapped his greatcoat closer around him and pawed through the remnants of someone’s old fire, long cold. His empty stomach nearly revolted against the whiskey. His clothes stank of cordite and sweat, blood and fear.

In the daytime, his manic eyes would cover the walls and bookcases endlessly. They did so now, but in the darkness the edges of the room melted away under an alcoholic gauze. He ached for sleep as well as food. Argent couldn’t remember the last time he’d been able to put his head down for more than a few desperate minutes of semi-awareness. And now, even that would be impossible. He’d done his best to block all the doors shut from inside and pushed whatever furniture he could move against the upstairs windows. It wouldn’t be enough. He wished he could smoke. Smoking helped, but the ember in the darkness could be enough to give him away. Now all he could do was wait. Wait and mutter and rock, clutched bottle tilted to his lips as he sipped at the bitterness.

Argent knew that the machines coming now would be green ones, with white stars painted on them. He didn’t much care. The gray ones with the black crosses painted on them were just as eager to grind you under. The machines would be coming soon. Not the simple, useful farm machines his father had owned when Argent was a boy near Frankfurt. He had grown up around well-designed machinery. He had understood the need to respect the moving parts, the belts and gears and pulleys, since before he could read. He held no respect, nothing but a terrified disdain for these new machines, even if some of them could fly. The treaded ones could crawl faster than he could run, even when he’d had two sound legs. And they all knew hunger, for other machines and for the men beside them.

At first his mind had balked at the speed and ferocity with which the things spewed death at their enemies. He found soon enough that, in their randomness, anything in their way was an enemy. His final concession to the realities of war had come with the acceptance that these machines were perverse in design, with completely different reasons for being than those from his childhood. Their sole purpose was to be dangerous. Lethal. All the safety housings and shields had been deliberately removed, and the unfortunates near by were all encouraged—no, required—to get as close as possible to the spinning gears, the flashing blades. Were made to touch them. Feed them. The machines were mindless but voracious. And they were everywhere. They came from the woods and out of the sky. Day and night didn’t matter to them. There weren’t enough warm bodies anywhere to satisfy their want, and they would devour him if they could. Once he had accepted that fact, killing those who tended the machines had been easier.

Argent crawled to the front of the room and gazed out through his barricade. He heard nothing but the whisper of falling snow and a light breeze passing through whatever was left of the town. The snow looked lumpy and strange as it fell. He finally realized that it was mixed with ashes. He looked out to the west, and could see the low clouds lit from below with a dull orange glow. He had a brief disorientation, like vertigo, thinking that somehow the world had flipped and the dawn was rising in the west. But no, it was just the forest hugely burning, maybe twenty kilometers away, maybe less. The wind had shifted to carry the ash to him and now he could smell the woods burning. How long before the real dawn? He had no idea.

As he started to draw back away from the window, a glint of blue light caught his eye from the village square below him. He turned back to watch as a small group of young children appeared from behind the central fountain. They were holding hands and chanting a complicated melody. At times it sounded like a schoolyard song, and at others, a dirge. The primary tune struck a note of familiarity with Argent.

He saw that the shades before him all had a glowing bluish cast. He could see the fountain through their shapes as they passed before it. Their small feet didn’t appear to actually touch the ground as they moved around. He couldn’t tell if they were aware of him watching. As they chanted, they went through a simple series of dance steps. In all, it lasted for several minutes. Argent’s glazed eyes were unable to look away. He was too numb for terror at the sight of a few dead schoolchildren, but they held his shattered attention. Gradually the glow began to fade from the square, and the children with it. Only the melody lingered a bit longer before it, too, vanished. The silence returned, with the falling snow and ash and the wind.

Argent still stared out at the again-empty square, trying to place the melody. It seemed important that he remember. He realized finally why it was familiar. When he’d first dragged himself up the stairs, he had checked the rest of the house for squatters like himself, or remaining family members like the dead boy downstairs. There had been no one. But in the rear of the house, in what had once been someone’s small bedroom, he’d found a tiny black lacquered music box. When he wound it, a miniature ballerina popped spinning from the box and the tiny metal tangs had sprung over the posts to play the same tune the children had just been chanting. He crawled now to the rear of the room to where he’d left it.

*

He’d set all of his trophies on a small table standing beside the doorway to the bedroom. The music box was one of them. He’d placed it a little bit off to the side from the others, because it was so different. All of his other mementos would definitely qualify as war souvenirs. There was the .45 caliber pistol taken from a dead American GI half a year ago in northern France. There was also a bayonet—he wasn’t sure what nationality, just that it wasn’t German. He had found it pinning one of his own Gruppe against the blasted remnants of a huge oak tree in another town square. When he’d pulled it free, the man had slid soundlessly to the ground. Nothing to be done for him. Argent couldn’t even remember what village that had been in now. Almost all of the other keepsakes were much more personal, victory reminders—dogtags if he could find them, an ear or finger if not. All taken by force from someone who had always been, just moments before, intent on killing him.

These last had been a recent development, the body parts. Argent had known as he started taking them that something fundamental within him was forever gone. He felt a dull sadness at its passing, but was helpless to prevent it. He was beyond redemption. He realized that there was very little left in him now that was human. The winning didn’t even mean anything to him now. Every grim victory just meant that he got to live a little longer, out of spite if nothing else.

His last fight, hand-to-hand and man-to-man, had been the price of admission into this house. It had been against a terrified boy barely old enough to shave, but had been vicious and frantic. Argent had had nothing more than his knife at hand, his ammunition gone days before. He was looking for a place to hide, and eventually had come upon the one last unblasted house by the village fountain. He’d been crawling through a broken window, dragging his ruined left leg in behind him when a closet door had exploded open, and he’d been set upon by the boy.

Normally, the fight would have been no contest. Argent outweighed the boy by at least 50 kilos, and carried his service knife against the other’s improvised club—simply a piece of wood with some cloth wound around it for a handle. The boy’s sudden appearance had a least given him a fighting chance, which he took with both hands. Argent was still half in and half out of the window, his bad leg was tangled against the sill and he had been badly surprised.

The boy had been on him immediately, trying to crush his windpipe from behind with one arm. With the other, he’d rained blows down on the German’s head. Argent saw his vision going dark as he fought for air. With a final convulsive heave, he threw his body forward, scoring the bad leg over the jagged remains of the window. The boy had ridden him down to the floor inside. Argent bellowed with rage and pain when the leg twisted beneath them as they fell.

The boy was on him again as quickly as he could scoop his club back up. Argent batted it away, to land in a corner. As the boy leapt to retrieve it, Argent grabbed an ankle, spilling him back to the floor. Argent clawed for his sheathed service knife with his other hand. Denied the chance to retrieve his weapon, the boy instead dove back and onto Argent’s chest, shrieking and trying now to thumb out his eyes. Argent threw his left arm over his face, protecting his vision. He drove the knife upward and home with his right. It slid easily up through the ribs and into the heart.

The boy’s lips curled back in a wild snarl as the light faded from his eyes and his last breath wheezed out into Argent’s face. The boy collapsed forward onto Agent and lay still. Argent whooped in ragged gasps of air, finally steadying himself enough to roll the now-dead weight off and sit upright. He wasn’t sure how long he sat there by the body, bloody, dazed and wracked with trembling, before he reached over and took an ear. He’d shoved it into his bag with the rest, and continued into the house, lying on his side now and pushing his way forward with his good leg.

*

He pushed his way forward the same way now, taking the music box down as he reached the table by the doorway. None of the other souvenirs there held any real interest for him any longer. He wanted to hear the song again, watch the ballerina twirl. The delicate key unlocked something singular, he was certain. His blunt, awkward fingers trembled slightly as he wound the spring inside, gently so as to not overtighten and ruin it. Once finished, he released the key and held the box before him, and readied himself for whatever was to come. He still jumped a bit when the box popped open, and the graceful figurine inside appeared. The tune was indeed the same as the one the children in the square had sung. It echoed strangely in the barren room.

At first he saw nothing more than the twirling figure, but as he stared at it longer, he became aware of a soft blue glow filling the doorway into the bedroom to his right. His shoulder on that side felt chilled. He finally took his eyes from the music box and looked into the room. He saw a young girl, bathed in blue wavering light, hovering just above the floor across the threshold. Coldness spilled from the doorway. The light pulsed gently, in time with the rhythm of the music. Argent stared raptly at the figure before him.

Like the children from the square, she was transparent. He could see the wall behind through the girl. Unlike them, she did not dance or sing, simply stared at Argent with deep knowing eyes. He was no longer uncertain that these figures could see him—the girl’s eyes followed his small motions as he hitched himself around to a sitting position, his back against the doorframe and the box on his lap. Although the hair on the back of his neck had bristled erect, he felt fascination more than fear. He mouthed a few silent words in greeting, but the child remained as quiet as stone. Perhaps she had been a mute in life—the dead children by the fountain had been capable of singing.

Argent held the box out towards the girl. She finally smiled as the figure spun before her, and her gaze shifted to watch it, but nothing more. Argent sat there holding up the box until the spring was nearly unwound, the tune beginning to slow and lose its tempo. The girl’s eyes became cloudy as the blue light around her started to stutter and fade, and she winked from existence as suddenly as a blown out candle’s flame when the box spun to a halt.

Argent took the whiskey bottle from his pocket, twisted the cap off with jittering fingers and took a long shuddering drink. Then another, just as long. The alcohol quickly laced its way into his head. Once again, he was uncertain how long he sat there recovering himself from a trembling fit. Hunger, exhaustion, blood loss and fear had left him broken. His leg was worse than useless, a constant agony. But in spite of all of it, he was sure of one thing—he wanted to see her again. The fascination won out over the fear. He decided to wind the box a second time, just to see if he could summon the girl again. Hell, the machines were coming for him. What better time to make friends with the dead?

Argent wound the box more quickly this time, already knowing when he needed to stop. He held his breath and the key for a second longer, then released both. As before, the music filled the near-empty room with an echoing version of the children’s song. Shortly the blue light began to flicker in the bedroom. This time Argent watched the light instead of the music box. It came brighter and faster, finally appearing to coalesce into the form of the girl, floating just above the floor.

Argent could swear she was closer this time—nearer the door than the bed. He could have reached out and tried to touch her. He knew on some childlike, instinctive level that he should not. She again spied the music box that he held out before her, and smiled. This time, Argent actually spoke a simple greeting. He was suddenly convinced that her name had been Maria, and called her by name. She responded to the sound, and looked into Argent’s eyes rather than at the ballerina. He saw how deep and dark they truly were. He pulled his gaze away, afraid of losing himself in them. Not yet. He still had some time.

Some time, but not much. Argent felt, rather than heard, the explosion of a large shell somewhere outside the village. The house shuddered. The few remaining windows rattled in their frames. Plaster dust floated down from the ceiling onto his clothes, onto the box. The first explosion was followed closely by another, then another. Both were increasingly nearer than the first. Now he could hear the dull whumping thuds of the blasts, not just feel them. The machines were here, hurling their deadly offspring into the village as their keepers adjusted for range and walked the shells towards their targets. Damn them. Damn them all.

Argent held out the box until the spring unwound again, and watched again as the girl winked from existence. He drank some more, wiping away with his sleeve the whiskey that slopped past the bottle’s neck and over his chin. Setting the bottle down to spill at his side, he wound the spring again.

The girl appeared, this time closer again than before. She was no longer smiling. Her eyes never looked towards the box again, just at Argent, with a more insistent urgency. He refused to look into them for longer than a second at a time. He simply waited until the spring unwound, then wound it again. She was closer. The spring ran down. He wound it again. Closer still. Wound it again. Closest.

The girl was floating just beside him now, almost hovering over him. Her coldness ran straight through him, pinning him to the doorframe like a thousand dark icicles. The forgotten bottle lay on the floor beside him. Its last mouthful ran out onto the floorboards and into his shattered leg. He was beyond feeling it. He gazed finally up into the girl’s eyes, saw the inviting blackness there. She reached out to touch his shoulder. He felt a crackling chill race down his arm and through his hand, but the fingers holding the music box never loosened. The ballerina twirled, the music played.

Argent had only the briefest of moments to register the sound, like cloth tearing. An incoming shell punched through the roof of the house and into the room behind him. He had a momentary sense of brilliant lightning and a roaring noise so loud it was incomprehensible as sound. Then nothing but silence and the darkness of the blue girl’s eyes.

*

Sergeant Leon Kawalski had drawn duty sweeping the town for stragglers, either villagers or POWs. He doubted there would be any of either, considering the pounding the place had taken from artillery and air support before the ground troops advanced. There didn’t seem to be a tree left standing, or a single building intact. All the bricked corners stood divorced from their walls, now just piles of reddish dust lying in the streets. No nesting places left for snipers. That was good. Smoke was still seeping from beneath the blasted remnants of roofs and up from cellars, all blended together in new random geometries. A slight breeze pushed the smoke around as it rose. Except for the clinking of the men’s gear as they walked, there was almost no sound. It reminded him of the aftermath of tornado strikes back home, but on a very much larger scale. Even the smell seemed the same—powdered mortar, smoke and organic decay. He was grateful for the cigarette smoke lacing up into his nose. At least it killed the smell a little. Some of the dead had been so for days.

“Hey, Leon. anything over there?”

“Nah, same old shit. Whatta they expect us to find? We blasted the place for three days.”

As he said this, Leon stepped over another pile of rubble, into the outer corner of what must have been at least a two-story house, judging by what was left. His boot slipped and he slid down quickly on the other side, just saving himself from a fall. He stepped down onto something soft and yielding. Looking down, he could just make out the grimed edge of a greatcoat’s sleeve. The owner of the coat was buried under the bricks and wood. Next to Leon’s foot, the blackened fingers of the hand sticking out of the sleeve clutched a small wooden box of some sort. Leon bent down and pried the box away, brushing it off for a better look as he stood. The box was painted black, dusty but intact, with one side holding a protruding metal key. Leon wound the key a couple of times and as he released it, the lid popped open to reveal a tiny blue ballerina, twirling. The box began to play a tune which Leon couldn’t have named, but seemed pleasant enough. Lilting, almost haunting. He grunted to himself, surprised the tiny machine had survived. And what the hell was a German soldier doing with it? Whatever it had been, he certainly wouldn’t miss it now. For a moment, from the corner of his eye, Leon saw a blue light flash in a darker rear corner. He turned quickly to follow the movement, thinking the worst—Kraut!—but saw nothing more. After a moment, his pulse started to slow and his breathing returned to something like normal. Christ, now he was jumping at shadows. Leon closed the music box up and slid it into his kitbag, thinking it’d make a nice memento to save for Jane, waiting for him back in Kansas. At least he hoped she’d be waiting.

Kawalski scrambled to catch up with the other sweepers, and they finally clambered onto the backs of tanks waiting at the eastern edge of the town. The diesel exhausts coughed and the treads spun as the convoy moved east again. As he rode out of town and into the fields, Leon was humming an almost familiar tune and thinking of home.

pencil

“Middle-aged, married (Hi, Linda!), father of two. No fine arts education—all secondary and later college has been technical. Entire adult career spent in technical work—electronics, computers, network administration, service supervision. Avid reader, decided it’s time to produce rather than just consume. Favorite authors: the list could be a long one, but needs to include John Steinbeck, Robert Pirsig, Lee Child, Stephen King.” E-mail: j.e.noonan[at]verizon.net.

Marrakech Verses

Beaver’s Pick
Laura Jo Hess


Out of every corner of my eye at any time of day, there is someone pressing their forehead to the ground, praying for forgiveness or hope. So why not tap them on the shoulder, smeh he li, Sidi, and ask, have you ever loved a place as much as you love it here or have you even been so disappointed or are you even happy: to my sister in the kitchen. Everyday: shwia.

So why not write about it, about contradiction in people’s faces, in the land, the inherent disappointment you feel as you walk past a wall lined with beggars and their children strewn across their chests in blankets older than your parents. This is Marrakech and there is a world in every brick in the street, a history to every drum circle. I couldn’t do anything but write about being here, about being in-between in a land that itself is constantly in limbo. And walking among the city: tourist or participant? Then, what it means to stay or to leave; to be in the village or the city; to employ language as silence or vice versa; to be a man or a woman? There is an edge of the world here, in this city, where you can dangle your feet and memorize the people who will pass you by, the number of steps it takes to go from the park to the mosque and what people look like before they pray. There is such a place in this city and I couldn’t feasibly leave the country without becoming part of it, recording it, needing it. This city is a drug. You wake up and you’re enveloped by the scents of the fires in the food stalls or the amount of times you feel loved just by the woman in the hijab who holds your hand to cross the street. You learn to need this city, this world where you’ve never been and never will be again, since you can order in Arabic and become a sliver better than the next tourist who couldn’t possibly know the meaning of hamdullah. So I came to Marrakech and watched my feet move over gravel and I found people who wanted to sit on buckets with me and tell me stories about their lives, their succession. Or they didn’t, so I created them, because I am allowing life to a person that may never know such happiness or pain. Does it hurt? Maybe, but maybe not.

It is getting colder in Marrakech and people change with the weather. If it is raining, there will be a man holding an umbrella for you all the way down the street. Or if it’s beautiful there is orange juice and music. Or if it’s not, they are still there. Chantal says it’s safe to say Morocco is the place she grew up, Morocco with single cigarettes and balconies where you can sit for hours watching palm trees in the winter. Something happened here, she says as she walks in colors to the local café. Something changed don’t you see all said in one breath. Sometimes I smile and nod and sometimes not. Sometimes we order in French but usually Arabic. Sometimes we get bread with our harira and sometimes the tea is three dirham more than the previous day. Sometimes Romby kisses our heads as we enter and sometimes he just sits silently with us listening to our foreign speech.

So what about creating a love life for the woman in the park or being mildly obsessed with contrast and Moroccan identity. Is it unethical to use real names of these wonderful or ordinary people who I meet on the curb while eating yogurt? No, because they will never see it and if they do they will not understand and if they do they will only feel beautiful and important because they are important and maybe they’ve never felt so before.

But oh my God I think I may be drowning here in Morocco and becoming infatuated with things like cobblestone and crooked trees or women in hijabs on mopeds or the SIDA festival in the park where the posters are of a woman’s henna-covered hands holding a condom and then some Arabic writing explaining it. I stand there amidst fountains and police officers and hip-hop music from speakers and I attempt to read the words, sounding out the letters. There are boys in the corner rapping to 50 Cent and girls in dance contests thrusting their bodies forward, as if to say, look here I’m so much stronger than you. Why yes, I never doubted it. You’re beautiful and probably brilliant and yet you’ll probably never leave the country. But do you really want to? Yes? Well then why, let me ask you why.

 

1.

Here in Morocco, you can either stay and choose to breathe with your entire body, or you can leave, abandoning everything and the only thing you understand:

To stay is to sit with your feet crossed under your thighs and whistle music through a tin cylinder, propelling snakes to rise from authentic urns sitting at your toes. The tourists think you are beautiful: you in your mustard yellow jilaba and fez cap. You must not understand why they stare. It’s because the sharp music hurts their ears and the smoke their eyes. But they are nonetheless amazed. To be here is to thrust your leg on to the lap of a boy and ask him to heal your pain, the prolonged pain in your knee. Or to hear Allah on the loudspeaker, praying then coughing, (his barbaric yawp from the rooftops)1 five times a day and refuse beggars just as often. Marrakech is beautiful in the daytime—the square shaped by orange stands and umbrellas: people who understand suffering. To stand behind arcs of dark-haired men and tourists with cameras wrapped over their chests, to watch children dance for small change. The boy in the middle just walks around shaking his shoulders, but he is so beautiful that it works.

This is why the youth here are suffering: walking back and forth over the same sidewalks and slapping hands with the same boys, drinking the same coffee or tea, dreaming of away, anywhere they could make love, drink, not pray so much and still be Muslim. A boy weeps: Before I knew America, I was going to be a sports teacher, spend days teaching kids how to place the ball on their toes. But now, now I’m dreaming of the states, flat land, and opportunities. Take me with you. You watch him watch you tell him it’s impossible. He sighs. You touch his shoulder, soon, one day.

Or—you tell him, you could always leave. Begging your way to Tangier, to stand on the port with your hands crossed in front of your body, imagining what the mountains of Spain would feel like under your feet. But do you think you can handle Spain after this, after years of being in a place where women cover their heads and Allah holds your hand as your cross the street? There is no second here, after Allah, but in Spain, there might be. But leaving promises more freedom and the chance to feel not so harmful. Leaving means no winter coats in fall, abandoning the dying voice over the intercom. It won’t feel as holy there, but maybe that’s what you’re going for.

But even the Spanish enclaves are not safe. You are not away yet. The Polisario Front takes over the desert. They’ve found you, crouching there among the dunes. But you’ve managed to slip a photographer your phone number; he clutches it in his hands, watching the bus leave with you aboard. You’ve got no water, no food: We are going to die. But at least the news groups can track your movement, make it into a cover story. My God, Morocco doesn’t want you.2

They are trying to send you home, but you’ve swallowed your papers, erased your identity, and sent your children into hiding. Spain won’t let go of the land. Blame it on nationalism, pride, but my God people are dying, crying, suffering. You’ve tried for months to exit this land, taken the dirt between your toes. Now: you’ve given up. You’ll board the plane with the hundreds of other migrants back to Mali, back to Algeria. You’ll tap on your door with the back of your fingernail, your wife will answer, and she’ll know you’ve failed because you’ve returned. You say nothing. She holds you.

But tourists are confused, because they hear the French built up the medina in Marrakech, they created the cloth rooftops and the disappearing food markets, but this is Morocco and those are Moroccans. This is Marrakech and that is a man sitting on cardboard reading palms and he’s never even met someone from another country. This is a land where Tangier tastes like Spain to some, and others, it’s the heart of the country. Like Paul Bowles and the Beats making it their land, learning the correct way to walk and writing at single desks in dim hotel rooms.3 Tangier was the creative center and now, now, now they say it’s a land of hustlers, a place only for people to hide.

 

2.

The city is poison. I am telling you this because I must.

Sufjan emerges from the barn dressed in camouflage pants and a flannel shirt. He is barefoot and doused in cologne. He’s running after bubbles, crying when they pop, and spinning in circles to Arabic music. I hand him a lollipop and he beams, hiding it in his pocket for later. They’ll never teach him to refuse candy from strangers; there is no reason for fear. But I do not pity them for liking it here: with their wheelbarrow and chickens bleeding at the neck, with knit leggings and children entertained only with a plastic bag and a wooden stick on wheels. In the village, they wouldn’t understand depression, mostly because it doesn’t have reason to exist.

My mother says the eighth graders are cutting themselves this year. They are so sad, she mumbles across the phone line, and all the times I have feared this. In a windowless office in a brick building, she listens to a girl complain about how her boyfriend didn’t say hi to her in the hallway or how she isn’t invited to the birthday party this weekend. My mother, motionless, thinking is this really suffering? She remembers about Amina, how I told her she would be a regular kid in the states, crouching in alleyways holding cigarettes between her fingers. She would be cursing at her mother and demanding new clothes and notebooks, complaining when the cable goes out. But here, she’s wearing the same sweater set to school for a week, and holding her brother’s hand to help him walk.4 She kisses you every time you leave the room and each time you enter. She’ll take your hand and draw henna shapes she’s learned from the side of the box or show you how to milk the cow and pick tea leaves from the ground. I’ve never been somewhere like this, you whisper, wiping your face with the backside of your hand, grinning.

Time passes with you melting down against a concrete wall with a pillow behind your shoulders while Amina watches you from the doorway, imagining what reading a book would feel like, knowing she’ll always feed the chickens instead. In a few years she’ll be chosen for marriage: standing with her head down and her hands crossed over her chest. A woman will point at her, hold her face, study her body and the shape of her eyebrows. Yes, this one. And she’ll walk to the arms of a thirty-year-old man. All this while she contemplates how many times she’s tried to leave: On the way to school, what if I didn’t come back? Herding the sheep, I could disappear.

But: In the city you are bred to fail. You cook pasta in Missouri, but it was grown on a hillside in Italy, or if you are tired, you drive to a restaurant and sit for hours being fed by strangers. My father on Tuesday nights at the Italian restaurant: what a country that you can enter hungry and leave full. But in the village, you must wake at dawn to knead the bread; the chicken is from the pen and the vegetables from the garden. The oranges are grown in the backyard and the only store is a hanout with laundry detergent and apricot jam. I feel queasy at the site of a bleeding carcass, and they laugh, asking: how else would we eat?

Let’s tell the women about gay marriage and eating disorders. Sometimes people don’t eat because they fear image. Let’s tell them about our suffering, cured by medicine swallowed once a day. If you are sad, just take this pill and you should feel better. But the translator knows this world better than us. He says the women would feel uncomfortable, and imagine what his father would say. H’shuma.

And the drum circles in Marrakech, can we talk about the drum circles? Yes, there are men in drag who think they can imitate the beauty of a woman dancing, but have you ever seen a mother put a tape in a cassette player and take the scarf from her head and tie it around her waist? This is in the village, where Zhor is dancing and grinning while Sufjan runs around her, pantless. This is Zhor who is beaten by her husband, who sleeps with her children on either side of her, because she doesn’t want to touch her husband unless she has to. In the drum circle these men think this is funny, being men because women don’t dance in public, it isn’t done. But in the club there is a woman scantily dressed in a pink halter top and she moves like a flamingo. She dances like a bird. But her stomach is showing and it reminds the bartender of the porn he’s been looking at online since he was sixteen. And in the village, please don’t tell the women about this. Please god no. Please let that birth control pamphlet floating around be something they found in the trash, something that blew out of the window of a passing car, something that got carried here. Don’t tell them about it. It isn’t worth it.

If this is the village, then what is the city? On the front page today, Malawi is suffering. Unees Malay, 17, has two children with a seventy-year-old man. Her father sold her in exchange for a cow. I didn’t know it was abuse, he tells the reporter, I just needed food, some money5. But Unees seems far away from here, from the men dressed in bright colors and tambourines or the women at the souks, Hello, in a nasal voice as you walk by, henna? A Moroccan teenager tells you how her cousin is abroad in Africa: Africa! Then she goes off in her tight jeans and tennis shoes and you stand there, almost motionless, thinking, but this is Africa.

If the city is poison, what is the village? Africa?

 

3.

In Morocco you learn to pour tea with delicacy, holding the pot between your fingers, raising it from the surface as the liquid rolls out. This is unique to Morocco and yet it has nothing to do with language. But everything else does, everything revolves around it or the lack of it or the connection between it and silence. Have you ever listened to the sound of a broom against gravel or the voice of a woman who is dying, begging? Well, start listening.

Then there is silence like the village: holding your hands to your head acting like an animal, muttering solopan, as to ask if you can ride the donkey to the well in the afternoon. Or your village mother pointing to your stomach and lacing her hands together in front of hers, protruding them forward, and lifting her shirt to show you her stomach, zwina. There’s the silence at the café when you hear change jingling in the palm of a shoe shiner, but you can’t locate him. But it doesn’t matter because you know what he looks like and that he’s holding a wooden block beneath his arm, trying to catch the eye of the man at the table to his right, hoping he’ll notice his need for shiny shoes.

Then language: the café owner shuffles over to your table holding a piece of paper. Pulls the chair out from under the table, sits down next to you. He asks you to spell panoramic in French.
Mershi Francais.
But you’re American. You’re white.
I know.
Failure translated into English, so you can understand.

My god to the tourists who think they can digest this in two weeks, a month. My god to myself—only four months. But there’s a man dressed up in a costume with an animal carcass strewn across his chest asking if you’d like a photograph and it takes all the strength you have not to twist your mouth into a small diamond and say don’t you see I’m not like them? Except you are, just more interested.

Here, there is language and there is silence. Language like the cab driver who speaks slow Arabic so you can understand, so thrilled that you’re even trying. Or the Danes at breakfast who pass you the butter and say go for it, probably a phrase they learned last night over dinner. Or the American boy, pulled from school to accompany his mother on her Fulbright, dragged from his home for a year, thrown into a place where the woman at the front desk doesn’t understand what a coat hanger is and people stare because he is so frightened and it shows.

Then: there is silence heavier than this. Like the woman who tucks her hair under her scarf and puckers her lips in an attempt to feel beautiful. But she might return home to a man who will never love her, who doesn’t understand what it means, who follows foreigners on the street. It’s normal, you’re told over dinner, to have your husband take a second wife. It’s normal to want to disappear, she says. It’s not normal, you scream across the table, there’s so much more. The greetings are the worst: everyday Lebas B’chair Hamdullah. They don’t even listen to the response; you could be dying and no one would even notice. But Marrakech doesn’t hurt you anymore. It doesn’t know how.

Because:
Somewhere a Muslim boy is drinking on a roof terrace while his mother washes the dishes and his sister sews a dress. If disappointment had a taste, this is it, down his throat. In his stomach. I am sorry for your pain.

Because:
In a park you smile at the woman cleaning benches and she says she’s Fatima and can you be friends. Tomorrow at three o’clock, your life will change.

Because:
Your father doesn’t love you. Or he does, too much.

Because:
A boy goes to the hammam by himself for the first time and he sits among buckets and tiles that are as big as his body, but he’s been here before so he knows the hot water is on the left and the cold the right and he isn’t scared of the men with beards and chest hair because why would he be?

Because:
Amina in the village herds the sheep and wears nail polish but she’s never felt beautiful a day in her whole life.

Because:
In Morocco, you do things like sit at cafes with tea you’ve never tasted before here and look people in the eyes and stop looking when the call of prayer comes on the speaker. You learn the land and digest the air. You’re healed and angry all at once.

Because:
In Jemaa al Fna you breathe deeply and sit in circles among drums and men and there are no tourists here because they are all on the hotel terrace drinking alcohol and mocking the call to prayer. It is just you and the man with the mullet and his band.

Because:
It’s ending and you’ve just arrived.6

 

4.

It isn’t just the men that want to shake your hand. On a bench in a park a woman with a scarf on her head asks your name, if you have a phone. She sits near to you and writes her name in Arabic in your notebook. Her hair is tied up and you imagine she is beautiful, out of her pale blue uniform and sneakers. Here, there are men and there are women. The women look at you and smile and they have henna on their hands and you emerge from the park at the same time as them and they hold your face and thank God for your existence and that you talk in broken Arabic to the little boy in front of them. But the men just ride on bikes and whisper gazelle to you as you walk by. But at a park, on a Monday, you meet the most wonderful woman and you want to take her to coffee and ask her if she’s ever met someone who didn’t want something from her. I don’t want anything from you, you tell her. You change her life just by showing up in a T-shirt and painted feet. I lived in a village, you say. I’ve never been to a village, she says; probably never will.

The man on the terrace is John. He is ordinary and not. He is from England. He hates Morocco and loves it all at once. But don’t put words in his mouth. If I told you about my life, he whispers in a voice that you know hurts to speak, you would be horrified. Simply horrified. But last night you dreamed of sweet tea and stage fright. You dreamed of men who spin their head and wait for money to be laid at their feet. You dreamed of lovers in the park, holding fingers, touching sides, wondering if they’ll marry, or if they are really in love. Last night you created a hotel bus boy who sits at a table with some foreigners: English French Spanish Arabic Berber, he says, this is what I speak. This is how it works in Morocco. Brilliant people hold so much and then they are bus boys at a hotel, guards at a garden. And he stumbles in later, with a tray of cookies arranged neatly on a napkin. Then thirty minutes after, smelling of beer, mumbling I have no friends and sitting with his feet on the floor, his eyes indefinitely downward, ashamed. Or you could meet Mohammed in the porcelain shop, who gives you free tajine dishes if only you promise to return. Do you have a family you ask, a home? He shakes his head, I have a baccalaureate degree. No family and glasses bigger than his face, but he is educated, and happy posing in pictures in front of his pots. Imagine Mohammed in the morning riding in through the streets (there are no streets), on his bicycle (he owns no bicycle), trying to teach his son (he has no son) to cross safely. Look left right up down until your feet reach the curb. And pray, don’t forget to pray, son. And Mohammed as you leave, at the doorway, waving. These are the men.

The women, the women are even lovelier. They learn to walk so people watch them. Cover their ears and pray for sound. Or sit on a stool with a pack of cigarettes and wonder how much they can sell them for and what they’ll possibly buy with that twenty dirham. Or Hind at the hotel, kissing your head each time you emerge from the stairway and you are not the man who demands three pillows or the vegetarian woman who simply cannot survive on Moroccan food. You call from the room, Hind, hello, you say into the receiver, Lebas? She is so happy to hear your voice. Stay another week, she says, you just must. The women are so silent and so mysterious like one day you’ll wake up and the entire town will be unveiled. Like they are so delicate and walk with babies on their backs and coconut cookies on a tray in front of them extending their arm at the elbow to offer you some. M’breetch. Ana Shbet. And everything you would say if only you spoke the same language.

At a café on a Saturday, you are sitting with your feet on a chair during call to prayer. A man shuffles by with no nose and a plastic bag. You write his childhood:

He was six, playing futbol in the street and it started raining and he ran so fast he fell in a puddle and he wept and held his knees, lying on his side, waiting for someone to pick him up. At home there is a cat that stays outside the doorway and sometimes we give him fish left over but sometimes papak says Ahmed don’t you give him fish, if you dare. I don’t work fifteen hours a day to feed the cat. But sometimes I’d take my fish and lay it outside anyways because I didn’t like to think of the cat dying. What if the cat died then what? This was the first day he remembered.

His brother kissing a boy on the rooftop and him peering from the staircase, eyes wide, his brother on his knees begging please please don’t tell mamak please no please. And him in the doorway, paralyzed. I don’t know I don’t know what was that why what? But Hicham sometimes he and Simo, they go on the roof but always I thought it was hash and that’s why they went on the roof but my God my God what now? This was the second day he remembered.

Then in the Jemaa al Fna three years ago he was walking with his cane and a girl comes up to him squeezes his palm. She is foreign, maybe twelve, but knows his eyes and hands him ten dirhams. My shoes, my shoes can be shiny now. These shoes, just as good as that man I promise my shoes will be shiny too. This was the third day.

There is a day, a few years from now, when he’ll wake up in the alleyway and he count the branches above his head and pray no one would see him suffering like this and he’ll sit up and this will be his death and all he cares to remember.7

His story is complete now.

Or, or it could be like this: You could sit down to talk to a man with no teeth and a porcupine. You could sit down on a piece of plastic and pet the animal, holding the spikes, grinning with this man. You could ask him his name and if he is from here and listen to his response and understand it even though it’s in Arabic, even though nearby there is a man who has long curly gray hair and dark skin. He is shirtless, poised around a tea pot of scalding water. Look at me, he says with his arms, his shoulders. Suddenly, you realize: this is not a game, this is terror. The circus man is preparing to pour boiling water over his body for the change in the bottom of your pocket. Pain for money here: that is how it works today. And the child sitting at the edge of the crowd swaying back and forth, starving and freezing, and the tourists ogling at him with pity, him thinking, didn’t your mother ever teach you not to stare? No, no one ever told them it is wrong to buy alcohol and sell it to young Muslims whose parents would cry if they knew. Or photograph the beautiful colorful spices in baskets and not pay the man for his gorgeous dreadlocks and color. But in the medina they get fed up with the persistent battering etcetera. But this is Morocco and you are in it indefinitely.

It is getting colder here and now you use all three blankets and wear close-toed shoes and even the interactions change. You know, most people talk to tourists for money, says a boy in a plaid flannel shirt with a dictionary in his back pocket, but not me. That’s not why I am talking to you. You smirk. Oh yeah? What are you talking to me for? He pulls his lips together tightly, trying to figure out what to say that means you’re foreign and I can’t help it. Help it—like it’s a disease.

 

5.

It is late in December and you must retire now. Your shoes are worn through to the soles and your clothes soiled with dirt. You close your eyes and it’s over. It’s over you say to yourself as you board the train. It’s over and you’ve changed. It’s over and you’ve learned about the color of hands and the width of roads in this country. Remember when you were handed dates on the train home and it was Ramadan and you knew what to do with them and you read the Arabic aloud to the woman next to you and she laughed like a little girl. Mezyan she says and takes your hand B’chair Hamdullah like she was your grandma or something and she loved you more with each blink and breath. You’ve got one foot on the train and your hand on the bar and Marrakech in the background but not Marrakech just the train station. Marrakech is back there with the people with the snakes and the monkeys. It’s with the oranges and the man selling teeth. Yes, for tourists, but my God he is selling teeth. Marrakech is an anthem and you’re leaving it and you’re younger and my God are you happy.


Glossary of terms/people

  • Smeh hi li, Sidi – excuse me, sir
  • Shwia – a little bit
  • Hamdullah – thanks be to Allah
  • Harira – moroccan soup
  • Romby – waiter at a café
  • Sufijan – host brother in the village
  • Amina – girl in the village
  • H’shuma – shame on you
  • Solopan – donkey
  • Zwina – beautiful
  • Meshi – not
  • Lebas – how are you (The best translation is ça va in French)
  • B’chair – good (classical Arabic)
  • Gazelle – literally Gazelle, but often name used by men to refer to women
  • M’breetch – I don’t want it
  • Ana Shbet – I am full
  • Jemaa al Fna ­ center of Marrakech
  • Mezyan – good (modern Arabic)
  1. Whitman, Walt. Song of Myself. *imagine Whitman in Morocco
  2. Agence France-Presse. Morocco Said to Abandon Hundreds of Migrants in Desert. October 14, 2005. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/10/14/international/africa/14wire-morocco.html
  3. Pension Palace in Tangier, said to be the place where The Sheltering Sky, based on the novel by Paul Bowles, was filmed. It also used to be a common place for immigrants to hide out while waiting to flee, as seen in a documentary.
  4. Her brother, Mohammed, had a disorder where his knees often caused him great pain
  5. LaFraniere, Sharon. “Young brides pay the price of African poverty.” The International Herald Tribune November 27, 2005.
  6. Form by Rand, Ayn. We the Living.
  7. Form by Ayn Rand. We the Living.

pencil

“I am twenty years old. I am a junior in College in Connecticut, NOT UCONN, but this small school that no one really knows about. I just spent a semester in Morocco and I’m pretty obsessed with the country as a whole.” E-mail: ljhes[at]conncoll.edu.

Crazy, Psycho, Irrational, Neurotic, Obsessive

Billiard’s Pick
Molly Each


When my sister calls me up and tells me that she’s moving to Spain, I don’t believe her. She’s mostly all talk, so I figure this idea will be forgotten by tomorrow, just like her unfinished novel (all three pages), her house in the Hamptons, her marriage to George Clooney, her reality television show idea, and her invention that allows one to apply sunscreen on their back with no outside assistance. And even when we sit side by side at my kitchen table looking at pictures of the flat she’s renting near Plaza Espana in central Madrid, I don’t believe her. And even when we share a bottle of champagne to celebrate her job at Telemundo, a Madrid television station, and even when she shows me a printout of her e-ticket, which was a steal on Priceline, and even when I see her name on caller ID, yet only hear a voice that sounds like hers in a loud stream of one long Spanish sentence through the receiver, I still don’t believe her. And I lie in bed at night, tossing and turning and trying to figure out why she would leave. Her family is here, her friends are here, she has a beautiful house and a nice job, and she’s never even been to Spain! But the biggest thing, the thing that keeps me up through almost a whole night of Nick at Nite reruns, is that she knows there is no way I’ll be able to function without her, so why is she leaving me?

Granted we’ve had our fights, like the time we got in a brawl backstage during our dance recital because she blurted the contents of my diary to our fellow ballerinas, and the time that she yanked the kitchen chair out from under me and cracked my tailbone and laughed so hard she cried, and even now tears come to her eyes at the memory. And the time that she ratted on me the night that I drank for the first time and I got in major trouble, and I mean major trouble, trouble like my mother’s lips still purse when that memory comes up kind of trouble. But Sis and I can laugh about all that now (although the laughs don’t come as easily when my tailbone aches right before it starts raining) because we’re close as can be.

I help her pack up her gorgeous Pottery Barn home, and store what can fit in the basement of what my mother calls my “starter home” (which is just a nice way of saying it is very small and not much to speak of) and what can’t fit (most of it) we put it into one of those enormous storage buildings with the orange doors off the highway. After, we drive to my house and I put the tea kettle on, and we sit on my couch, careful to avoid the giant tear in the upholstery, and stare at my stark white walls, listening to the water bubble against the metal louder and louder until the piercing whistle echoes through my house. We sit facing one another, sharing a blanket and sipping grapefruit green tea, and cry. Well, I cry.

“But what I am going to do without you?”

“You’ll be fine,” she bows her chin but raises her eyes in the stop-being-ridiculous-look that she and my mother love to give me. “You’ll do lots of cool things- hey! You should ask out your crush at Caribou! That’d be fun!”

“But I can’t do it if you’re not here! How will I know what to do? And who else will I talk to a hundred times a day? Who else can I tell everything to? And how am I supposed to let the crazy, psycho, irrational, neurotic, obsessive part of me emerge every once in a while and still feel loved? Huh? How!?”

She listens to me with a teary, sympathetic look in her green eyes, but she is remarkably calm.

“We’ll get you some calling cards, and you can call whenever you want,” she says.

“What if they don’t work? What if I can’t get a hold of you? What if I call the wrong number and I can’t understand what they are saying?”

“Email! You can email all the time, and I promise I’ll check it every day.”

“But what if they don’t go through? Email doesn’t always work! Sometimes they get lost!”

“You can come visit me, too! Won’t that be fun? Spain?” I shake my head very fast and very long. I’ll never go to Spain because I’m very bitter at it for stealing my sister.

“But (hic) it’s (hic) not (hic) the (hic) saaaammmmeeee!” I can’t catch my breath and I give myself a wicked case of hiccups. We stand up and walk across the plastic liners to the front door. We hug for a few moments before she says she needs to get home because Airport Taxi will be there in an hour. She kisses me on the cheek and promises she’ll call when she’s settled but to definitely email whenever I can, and I hate her for saying that because she knows that I think email is only appropriate when you hardly know the person or haven’t seen them since high school, or you only have one or two things to say and definitely inappropriate for keeping in touch with the person who knows you best in the entire world.

But she leaves, and I collapse onto the couch, hearing the upholstery tear as I land, and I hold my knees to my chest and cry, and after the top of my coffee table is covered in a sea of used tissues, I pop in Beaches, and Steel Magnolias, and when I just can’t even handle another wave of tears, I throw in Ghostbusters and Mallrats to laugh instead, but they’re not as funny as I remember. And then I glance at the clock on my VCR and it’s been 8 hours that we haven’t spoken, and I realize that this is what it’s going to be like except that it’s going to be 24 and 48 and 72 and even more and another wave of tears wells quickly.

The first few weeks are hard. I reach for my cell phone a ridiculous number of times before remembering that she isn’t going to pick up. I make a thousand mental notes a day of things to tell or ask her but they vanish each morning when I stare at my work computer, trying to remember my Yahoo! password, and typing in every name and number that has ever been important to me, until my boss passes by and reminds me that people are actually in the library and may need help. My mom calls and demands I get out of the house more, or she’ll call Dr. Maxwell, so I spend more time at the Caribou on my corner and I almost ask my crush to go to a movie, but know that I won’t know what to say or what to wear without my sister around. But mostly I just walk around all day feeling as though something is missing, or that I have forgotten something. But everything is in place.

After a month, and then another month, I am used to the way things are. I buy calling cards to contact her in Spain. Sometimes she answers, “Hola!” and doesn’t speak English until I yell in frustration, “These cards cost a lot of money!” But secretly I’m very proud of her for learning a new language. I finally figure out my Yahoo! password and tape it to my computer screen, and send her an email every single day, and though she doesn’t email back very often, I still get to tell her little and big things, which I write as they happen in a notebook that is both cute and practical, and it conveniently fits into all of my purses. Then after three months, I’m used to the way things are, and the biggest problem left is that the crazy, psycho, irrational, neurotic, obsessive part of me has not emerged for three months because it fears it will not be loved after its appearance, and I fear for its repression. But eventually I have become supportive and am proud to have a sister who lives abroad, and I think that I might actually go and visit Spain because I’m not so bitter toward it for stealing my sister anymore.

After my sister has been gone for almost exactly six months, I’m standing at the counter, and my Caribou crush asks me if I’d like to go out sometime. I don’t know how it happened, since when I order my jasmine green tea my conversation is stunned silent by his beautiful brown eyes, and his shaggy brown hair that he always moves out of his face by a quick backwards jerk of his neck, which may sound lame but in reality is very cute. So I’m not sure why he asked me, but I say yes. We plan to meet for coffee at Starbucks that night, but I can’t find anything to wear. I pose in front of the three-way mirror in my bedroom for hours in 57 different outfits: shirts with jeans, sweaters with skirts, all of which are very early nineties or make my legs look stubby. I mess my brown hair into 118 different hairstyles, all of which make my face look fat. My forehead falls against the mirror in an, “I wish sis was here” moment and then my neck jerks back as I remember the boxes of my sister’s beautiful wardrobe that are chilling out in the storage room in my basement. I figure that she would want her clothes to run around and breathe, and it is my responsibility to do so.

So I venture down the creaky, unpainted wooden stairs to my basement, which is basically just a small, dark, dirty room with brick walls and a concrete floor that makes my toes curl up when they reach it. Aside from the boxes, all that is down there is an emergency food supply (at the insistence of my mother, who ensures we are prepared for any end-of-the-world-type occurrences through monthly outings to Costco), and a few things I don’t use but can’t yet part with, like my old dehumidifier and some broken dishes, thus I have only been down there one or two times in my life because I am pretty sure it’s full of mice or squirrels or something equally as eager to give me rabies. I sweep the dying beam of a flashlight across the floor, flinching at the pile of mouse droppings in the corner. The dim light, along with the one ray of sun creeping in from the small window near the ceiling, helps me see the cord for the light hanging in the exact middle of the room. I shuffle over, feel the cord, wrap it around my hand several times and pull. My sister is sitting Indian-style on her blue puffy ski jacket, almost directly in front of me.

“I thought you were in Spain!” I say at the same time that she says, “I wondered when you would come to raid my clothes!”

“I have a date with the Caribou guy.”

“Well, it’s about time!” she says, standing up and opening her boxes of clothes. She rummages for a moment, and the rustle of wool against denim, denim against cotton, back and forth, is loud in the quiet basement. She holds up a shirt in each hand—a wool black v-neck shirt in the right, and a deep orange turtleneck sweater in the left, which are the exact same shirts I would have chosen.

I start to cry, and then my knees kind of give out on me, and I fall down onto my butt, hitting the concrete floor hard, and I feel it in my tailbone.

“It’s okay, there’s a lot more in here!” And she looks through the box again, and the rustle begins again, her shoulders and head bent over.

“No, I’m just so glad to see you!” I cry into my lap, my body bent over into what is probably some sort of yoga position, and my arched back shakes.

She kneels down to give me a hug.

“Everyone thinks you are living in Spain!” I bury my head in my hands and she rubs my back with her palm, sitting down next to me.

“Well, the day after I got to Madrid I discovered that I forgot my day planner, and we both know how lost I am without my day planner.”

I nod, wiping my cheeks, because my sister is one of those people who can’t make a single move without consulting her day planner.

“So I paced around my new apartment very confused for two days straight, unsure of what I was supposed to do, since it was all in my planner. Finally, after doing nothing for two days, I thought maybe I accidentally packed it away in a box with my shoes.”

I look at her pile of boxes, noticing the word “shoes” scrawled in big black marker. I didn’t even know she left her shoes here, or I may have been down sooner.

“So I flew back and took a taxi to your house, but you weren’t home, so I climbed in the basement window. You really should keep that locked, you know. Well, I dug through my shoes and there was my planner! So I sat down to see what I had missed, and before I knew it I had been down here for something like, nine hours!”

“Wow, that’s a long time!” I sniffle.

“Tell me about it! The longer I was down here, the more I enjoyed the peace and quiet, so I decided to stay for a while. I hardly ever get a moment to think, you know?” She wrinkled her nose a bit. “That metallicy-dirt smell kind of bothered me at first, but I got used to it. It’s quite comfortable down here. You really should do something with this room.”

I look around. Against the wall is a comfortable-looking homemade mattress composed of her winter jackets. “Nice bed,” I say, as my sister digs her hand into my armpit to help raise my shocked body. I survey the boxes of Corn Flakes, cans of tomato soup, canned corn, peas, and green beans, bottles of water, bowl and can opener that have been organized on top of and around a box with “purses” scrawled in black ink, and they are neater and tidier than my own kitchen upstairs. I pick up the cell phone that sits on her bed. “So do you still have a Spanish number?”

“Yeah, but it’s probably going to be turned off any day now. I’ve just been too busy to pay my bill for the last few months.”

I nod understandingly, since I rarely pay my bills either.

“Hey, do you have any ice cream? I’ve had a mad craving for months now.”

I climb upstairs and she follows after securing the lock on the window, and she heads right to the freezer, throwing it open and letting a gust of cool air into the room. In the bright kitchen light, I notice that my sister looks great. She’s lost a bit of her baby fat, and her arms look much more toned. She’s a bit pale, but still looks great, a lot more like our mom.

“Have you been working out?”

“Yeah. Thanks for noticing! Push-ups and sit-ups, really. We can go through my routine later, if you want.”

I nod excitedly.

She digs out two pints of Ben and Jerry’s Half-Baked and we park on the ripped couch in front of the television and watch Beaches and Steel Magnolias and cry, but this time it’s more of a happy cry for me. And then we watch Ghostbusters and Mallrats and once again they are absolutely hilarious, and I’m having so much fun that I forget that I left the hot Caribou guy sitting at Starbucks, thus probably ruining my chances for good. But I don’t care because I am happy and life is back to normal.

My sis decides she’ll stay with me for a few days before venturing outside, citing a need to gradually reconnect with the outside world, and I completely understand because sometimes I feel like that even when I wake up in the morning. So I call in sick for a few days, and we wrap ourselves in blankets on my couch and watch movies and cheesy television shows like Full House and take Cosmo quizzes and I fill her in on Aunt Jodie’s awful new Tina Turner/mullet haircut and how much the family hates cousin Stacey’s new boyfriend because he came to a family birthday party drunk and fell into the cake, and six months’ worth of gossip that she has missed. And I get to show her the three new porcelain birds that I’ve added to my collection, and the new Britney Spears dance that I taught myself from watching MTV. She loves it. And finally the crazy, psycho, irrational, neurotic, obsessive part of me that has started to rumble and shake breaks the seams and bursts forth uncontrollably, and my sister assures me that I’m not weird and that she still loves me. And that feeling that something is missing has disappeared for good.

One morning, I walk down from my room and the house is very quiet. The TV is black and silent, the coffee maker isn’t dripping and steaming, and I can’t hear the tick-tick-tick of typing coming from the computer room. On the kitchen table I find a note from my sister.

Hey! I’m feeling ready to conquer the world. I’m going to head over to Mom’s house to say hello. Talk to you later!

So I call my mom to see if the three of us should go out to lunch or something, but she has no idea what I am talking about.

“Honey, it says here in my planner that I have bridge this afternoon, so lunch is out.” And I can see her pulling her head back to see over her glasses into her green leather planner that is always by her side. “What is the matter with you, anyway? Your sister is in Spain.”

“No, Mom, everyone just thought she was in Spain, but she’s been in my basement spending some time by herself! She’s back!” I am so excited my voice is shaking a little.

“Honey, are you feeling all right?”

“Mom, I’m the best I’ve been in forever since she came back!”

“Honey, I think you should start seeing Dr. Maxwell again.”

“Mom, I’m fine. Seriously. Sis probably just stopped for a venti caramel macchiato at Starbucks, you know how she loves those.”

“Honey, are you taking your medicine? You don’t sound okay. What if I just stop over later today?”

“No, no, no, no, no, I’m fine. I’m fine!” I hang up, knowing my mom will call back and apologize as soon as my sister gets there. I head downstairs for the fourth time in my life to bring up some of her boxes and unpack them for her, but when I pull the cord of the light, her bed of coats isn’t there. “Hmm, that’s thoughtful of her to have cleaned up the basement,” I think. Then I look at the end-of-the-world provisions and see that they are all in their original packaging. “Hmm, that was nice of her to restock them in case of emergency.” Then I hear this tiny squeak, and a small scratching sound, so I sprint up the stairs without turning off the light. I go to the living room to clean up all the blankets and empty pints of Ben and Jerry’s but the blankets are in their normal place, and the pints of Half-Baked are still full and tucked away in the freezer.

So I grab one of my unused phone cards out of my desk drawer, and turn it around in my hand in confusion when the operator says choppily, “You have 10 minutes remaining” because when would I have used it? She answers, “Hola!

“Sis! Where are you? Why aren’t you over at mom’s yet? I was thinking we could all go out to lunch.”

“I’m in Madrid, silly. What is the matter with you?” And she sounds just like my mother when she says this, and I can hear the clinking of dishes and the blinging of a cash register and a collective cloud of voices in the background as she shouts away from the phone, “Senor! Puedo tener un café con leche,” and he shouts, “Algo mas?” and she says, “Nada mas, gracias.

“Why are you speaking Spanish?”

“Because they speak Spanish in Spain. Are you okay? Oh, can you do me a favor? I think I left my day planner in one of the boxes in your basement. Could you mail it here?”

“But you were just here! You just got it, remember? You came back for it!”

“What are you talking about? Are you okay? Should I call Mom? Did you stop taking your meds again?”

“I’m fine. I’m fine!” And I decide to just wait for her at home, and in the meantime I unpack her boxes in the guest bedroom so she will be more comfortable when she returns. I pace around my house, picking at my cuticles, worried that something has happened to her, or that she’s gotten lost because she’s been away for so long. I hear a knock on the door and I run, excited that she has made it home. But it’s my mom. We hug and she comes in and I ask, “Where’s Sis?”

“Honey, you know your sister is in Spain,” and she bows her chin but looks up with her eyes in the stop-being-ridiculous look.

“Yeah, but Mom, she was here,” and I get that anxiety in my gut, the same anxiety that I got the first time they took me to Dr. Maxwell. “She forgot her planner and had to come back.” Why doesn’t she believe me?

“Okay honey.”

“You believe me?” I start to cry because I’m so happy, and I bury my head in my mom’s shoulder, but when I look up, Dr. Maxwell is standing in my doorway.

“Hi there, Jane. How are you today?” He’s kneeling down like he’s talking to a child, and he says, “Looks like you forgot to take your medication, eh?” And he holds out a full orange pill bottle, which is identical to all the other full orange pill bottles that are buried and tucked in the plants around my house so nobody can find them. He shakes it like a maraca. And the doctor is on one side and my mom is on the other, both holding a hand an inch above my arms, like if I decide to take off they’ll catch me, which they wouldn’t. But I take the medicine anyway, if it will make them happy. But I know it doesn’t do anything. Once again I walk around feeling as though I have forgotten something, or that something is missing, and repress the crazy, psycho, irrational, neurotic, obsessive part of me and resume emailing my sister, although I am quite confused as to where she is responding from. I miss her like crazy again.

But the good news is that I spend time at Caribou again, and the hot Caribou guy’s beautiful brown eyes are very understanding about standing him up. When I explain that I had “family issues,” he smiles kindly and moves his hair with a backwards jerk of his neck, and my crush on him is definitely increased. And when we go out we talk for hours, and I let it slip about my sister’s return and he listens with his eyes wide and lips slightly open, and he says, “I can’t believe it,” and I say, “I know, I couldn’t believe it either!” But I know he does believe me, and now I really like him.

After the date I try to call my sister but must dial the wrong number because someone just keeps speaking Spanish while I say, “um, um, mi hermana?” Which I thankfully remember from 2nd grade Spanish. After they hang up on me, I creep into the basement where the light is still on, and stretch on my tiptoes to reach the window and I unlock it. Just in case she wants to come back.

pencil

“I am currently a Creative Writing MFA student at Columbia College in Chicago. I’ve been published in the Evergreen Park Reporter, the Columbia College Story Week Reader 2005 and the upcoming 2006 edition, and was recently chosen as a featured reader at Columbia’s 2005 Creative Non-Fiction week.” E-mail: mollyeach[at]yahoo.com.

Three Poems

Baker’s Pick
Lita Sorensen


Earnestness
This morning the question gleams with particles of sun. There’s crying; there’s laughter.
What do you make of it?
—Joy Harjo, from “The Woman Who Fell From the Sky”

You see the black-limbed tree caught across
broad harvest moon dotted full of crows,
their calls like dry barks in dark air.

Then there’s Sara’s painting, all air & wax-rendered
sky, half-buried crows
dance beneath the breadth of surface.

You hear the poet’s voice free itself
from the radio in bright stars; extol
the virtue of crows, their black-clad
parson seriousness alert against snow-choked hills—

You see Native American song
comparing crows and death like arrows to the heart
and the nature of the universe—

But like notes on a page of Chinese writing
the melody escapes you;
dim crows get caught at the back of your throat.

 

How can we know the dancer from the dance?
—found phrase, Yeats

We cannot know her from her dance,
succinct in metaphors
toe to bar, toe to floor
creating swan movements
with air.

We might ask who she is, under the mystique
of words, like a lover questions
the one he holds after clasping
a body in underwater roots, currents—
maybe in relief. But still, we cannot know.

The steps are too intricate. Spider webs
of fibers woven
in will, in water, in sweat.

You may christen her in despair—
that you love her, or that you feel nothing
for her, for you cannot know why
she is tied to a ribbon of this life

like a neuron, an atom frozen
yet dancing in god-like vacancy
alive in rhythmic swaying.

The amplitudes vary. You can see her step
like ripples on a lake, or move like a mad
summer storm, angry with thunder—

All a brief interlude.

 

Night and its forces…
—a found phrase (after Michael Ondaatje)

Like a sumac bush hiding
twigs and leaves and magenta
shadows

Giving itself to darkness
and sublimation—

The world was always yours.
In moments of ordinary beauty
you knew it: the slim sylvan
moon climbing the sky beyond
prairie-town buildings,
“Night Blue,” the name of

some panavision cathode ray tube
shade, real this time.

The world is hush, is solitude,
and for all those not listening
is foolish, is fear—

For it is everything:
the whir of the air conditioners in
the background, the tenants asleep
bathed in the cool light of television
screens; the tall sonorous trees, dark;
their leaves whispering of things
known years ago;

the small, sad opossum
crawling over stone steps
to hide, much maligned by humans;
the sparks of stars remote above
the noisy clatter of cities, illuminating
car lots and park lands alike.

There is no way to make reparation.
And night has known this from
first knowledge of days.

See how illumination grows.
Photographs record all the earth
and her inhabitants;
yet none of it to eyes that remain unedited.

Lush landscapes, parking lots
the same to lenses
recording the same
cold light, or dew dropped screen.

pencil

Lita Sorensen’s poetry has been published in various online and print journals, among them, Briar Cliff Review, Dislocate, Wolf Moon Press Journal, Coffee House Poetry Press (UK), (all forthcoming), The Cortland Review, Ink and Ashes, Amoskeag: The Journal of Southern New Hampshire University, Yemassee: The Journal of the University of South Carolina, Poetry Midwest, Bovine-Free Wyoming, and The Wild Goose Poetry Review: The Journal of North Carolina—Piedmont College. A selection, “Quarto, with Crows,” will also be included in an upcoming anthology, Beat the Blackened Wing: An Anthology of Crows. In addition, she has published three books of nonfiction for young adults for Rosen Press in New York City. She has a master’s degree in creative writing, and recently moved west to Arizona from Iowa City, IA, where she lives with her partner, Matt, and a big red dog named Iris. E-mail: lsoren[at]msn.com.

The Cleaning

Fiction
John Riha


Parker always wore gloves when he cleaned the gutters. He used large, stiff, chemical-resistant gloves made of advanced-composition neoprene, and if you could see what all was in Parker’s gutters you would use those types of gloves, too. The gutters on Parker’s house had been installed without the proper amount of incline, and by early summer each metal channel had turned into a stagnant pond full of vile muck—gelatinous oak blossoms and decomposing leaves and tangles of pine needles and blobs of bird poop that congealed in the warm, standing water into a vile mush capable of breeding God-knows-what mutant strains of virulent bacteria and flesh-eating paramecia. Maple seeds settled into this rotting stew, helicoptering down from the surrounding trees by the thousands, and eventually a little forest took root in Parker’s gutters. Along about June baby maple trees began poking their nodding green heads out over the eaves to where Parker could see them as he motored up the driveway, the sudden profusion always something of a marvel. Nature was so determined! So opportunistic! And yes, it was time to clean the gutters.

He could have the gutters serviced, of course, but it was a point of personal pride that he complete his own home maintenance tasks, no matter how odious the job. When it came to taking care of things around his house, no one would be as conscientious as Parker. Call him meticulous. Fastidious. Even obsessive. It should be noted that Parker was a high school algebra teacher, and it is easy to speculate that he applied mathematical precision and a love for absolutes to even such a mundane task as cleaning the gutters. It is also true that the one or two times he had engaged people to clean out his gutters they never showed up. Think about it— how reliable could a person be whose chosen profession was to scoop rotting bilge from other people’s lives? About as reliable as cheddar cheese left out in the hot sun, that’s for sure.

Parker removed most of the gunk by hand and deposited it in a 3-mil plastic garbage bag. The 3-mils were the toughest you could buy and Parker settled for nothing less. He scraped out the remainder with a small garden trowel. He was especially careful to scoop up all the little stone granules that had come loose from the shingles and settled to the bottoms of the channels. He finished off each section by spritzing it with disinfectant and wiping it out with a sponge. When he had cleared and swabbed as far as he could safely reach he carefully climbed down, one rung at a time, centering his weight with utmost care, each move methodically composed. Then he repositioned his ladder and climbed back up with the same deliberation. He did not climb unless the ladder felt well-anchored and steady. Rock-solid. Ever since his neighbor, Reynolds, had died in that unfortunate accident, Parker was particularly sensitive to the issue of safety. He had no desire to tempt the gods. In fact, lately he had begun to think of the large, two-story house where he lived as impractical. What was he doing up on tall ladders every spring and fall, cleaning gutters, repairing windows, washing siding and all? He was giving serious consideration to moving. A single-story house would so much more manageable. Besides, the old neighborhood held unpleasant memories. Ghosts. Time to move on.

Parker sighed at the memory of Reynolds lying on the concrete driveway, his head cracked open and cranial matter leaking out. Hard to imagine a man more dead than that. Reynolds had ended up all tangled and askew, like a pile of damp laundry at the bottom of a chute. Dying, Parker surmised, is not graceful. All the stuff that holds us together just lets go. Whoosh! Gone. What’s left? Rubble. Ooze. Imprecision and randomness.

Parker had witnessed the death. More than witnessed, actually. He had been right there, giving his neighbor a hand. What are neighbors for? In Parker’s book, anyway. But Reynolds had been stupid. He had tried to clean the gutters on a blustery fall day, with winds gusting to forty miles an hour! Good grief! Parker had seen this folly and come across the street to anchor the ladder, hold it steady. Try some other day, Parker had advised. But Reynolds—strange, foolish man—had insisted on forging ahead. Got a business trip, he had said. Only day I’ve got to do household chores. Or some baloney. That’s what Reynolds had said.

And that’s what Parker told the police Reynolds had said when the patrol car and the paramedics finally arrived. He explained how it happened in detail. It had been a battle, Parker said. The winds were fierce. He, Parker, had held onto the ladder for all he was worth. Come down, he had called to Reynolds. Just got one more bit to do, Reynolds replied. Almost done. Leaning out, way out, to scoop gunk into a cheap plastic bag with an ungloved hand. Occasionally stuff dripped out between Reynolds fingers but thankfully the wind tore the yuck away before it could fall upon Parker. Reynolds was twenty-five feet up in the air. Like a circus act. A balancing wonder bear on a high-wire unicycle. You’re leaning too far, Parker called up. The ladder’s moving. Almost done, Reynolds shouted back, a hint of irritation in his voice. But then a gust came along and Parker sensed a shift toward something inevitable, irretrievable. Perhaps there is a physics formula, an equation, that describes this point of no return—the moment when fate leans one way or the other and a life hangs in the balance. A point where, if A is a weight at the end of a long ladder, and A gets a certain degree off-center, then the muscular power required to prevent a mishap was beyond what a mortal man might possess. Parker felt the disaster taking shape in his hands. He knew the distance to the driveway; realized that if the ladder should lean too far, then the man at the top would be dashed against solid, unforgiving concrete.

And sure enough, it happened.

Reynolds hadn’t made a sound on the way down. He had looked surprised, of course, and he clung bravely to his little plastic bag full of gutter crap. But he was doomed, and Parker had the remarkable experience of looking into the eyes of a dead man who was yet alive. In that terrible moment, an understanding passed between them. It was difficult to describe, but each knew the other in a new and profound way. Reynolds was gathering speed, plummeting along a lethal arc, headed for the middle of the driveway. Indeed the wet spot that remained after they hauled his carcass away was precisely dead center. If one would forgive that particular term.

If the truth be known, Parker was not terribly saddened by the calamity. Amazed, perhaps, by his proximity to it. Watching a violent death is not an everyday occurrence. But he harbored little remorse. He shed no tears. You see, Reynolds was not a nice man. He was a gloomy, enigmatic fellow, shrouded in some sort of bitterness. Possibly a disturbed childhood was at the root. On those rare occasions when Reynolds appeared affable and buoyant, Parker suspected the temporary effects of mood-altering medications. Reynolds was an orthopedic surgeon, so he had money, and indeed his house was the largest on the block, but Reynolds kept the world at bay. He was not charitable. He turned away Girls Scouts selling cookies, and he deliberately darkened his windows and refused to answer the door at Halloween, although he clearly was home. He borrowed items and returned them broken, if at all. Once Parker had lent the man a fine electric hedge clipper that had come back with three teeth missing, a bent blade, and the grumbled complaint that the clipper was “a worthless tool.” An offer of apology or repair was not forthcoming. So all in all, Parker had to manufacture some dismay when he talked to the police. It was one of those things.

Also, it pained Parker to notice how dismissive Reynolds was of his lovely wife, Maria. He berated her openly for the smallest transgressions, such as parking too close to the edge of the driveway or wearing shoes that he did not approve. Parker heard them on occasion as they got in and out of their car. The Reynoldses could not have known, but the walls of their garage acted like a megaphone, and channeled their quarrels directly towards Parker. He could hear Reynolds’ voice, cut with sarcasm, lash his wife. This pained Parker, who had chatted with Maria Reynolds at various opportunities and thought she was a completely wonderful person. Witty, engaging, and sensible. She was also quite beautiful, with cascades of lovely brown hair and a full figure that Parker, a widower of many years, found difficult to ignore. Parker could not help but feel for Maria Reynolds, and there were times, moments when they met on the street hauling recyclables to the curb, that Parker detected a plea, a desperation in Maria’s eyes that Parker interpreted as a deep and profound desire to be saved from a soulless marriage.

Parker climbed down and moved his ladder. How easy this would be in a single-story house! No more wrestling with a cumbersome extension ladder, or long tubes for washing second-story siding, or clambering up to remove a torn screen. Why, even if a person were to fall from the roof of a single-story house, the worse that would happen would be a broken wrist or somesuch. He congratulated himself on his decision to move and start over. Change was good. Therapeutic. He resisted change for so many years that he had denied himself its charms, no doubt. The truth be known, change was wonderful. Life-affirming. Life was for the living.

The door to his house opened and Maria stepped outside. His new wife. His bride. Mrs. Maria Parker. Who would have thought that a man like himself deserved such a marvelous woman? That he would do anything for her was already proven. He had done everything possible. And it had been worth it.

Maria looked radiant, refreshed, polished to perfection by the late morning light. She, too, displayed the wondrous effects of change. Seeing her, it made even more sense to move away from here, this old neighborhood, and begin their new adventure. Together. He supposed he could thank Reynolds, in a way. The old boy had squirreled away his money, surprisingly sensible investments and all, and the Widow Reynolds had inherited a tidy bundle. Not that he, Parker, needed the money. He had done well for himself, considering. But, you know, the more the merrier.

Maria looked at him, hand over her eyes to shade from the sun, and within the crescent of shadow that cupped her face he could see her smile.

“Hollis,” she called. “How are you doing?”

“I’m good,” he replied. “Almost done.”

“I’m worried about you up there.”

Even those few words made his heart swell. How long since he had heard caring words from a woman? Since long before his first wife had taken that awful tumble down the basement steps. And now he and Maria were bonded together, their tragic histories making them stronger, more complete. “I’m fine.”

She took a step toward him, hand still held over her eyes. “It’s getting windy.”

Funny, he hadn’t noticed. Given his sensitivity to issues affecting his safety, particularly around the house, you’d think he would have picked up on the stiffening breeze. But now he felt it acutely, the wind lifting the cuffs of his trousers so they beat around his ankles. Reflexively, he reached out and gripped one of the gutters with a bulky glove, knowing there would be no salvation in the flimsy metal. And his situation crystallized. He was that precise distance away from his own driveway, the gray concrete made white by the sun.

Maria had reached the foot of his ladder. She stood there with her hands firmly gripping the aluminum legs. Her face was upturned. At this moment, looking directly into the light, she did not look as pretty as he remembered. And when was it that she looked so beautiful? How far ago? Can the distance from the beginning of a single instant to its end be so vast? Could it be measured?

“I’ll hold the ladder for you,” she said, her voice unrecognizable.

“No,” he pleaded. “Don’t.”

But she did.
pencil

“I’ve been published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, The Missouri Review, and flashquake.com. I’ve written lots of non-fiction articles and have been published in Esquire, GQ, Men’s Journal, and others. Currently, I’m the Executive Editor of Better Homes and Gardens.” E-mail: jriha[at]mchsi.com.

The Way Things Are Now

Fiction
Terri Moran


The sun was setting and the temperature was dropping. Ken’s hands had begun to ache from the chill. Although he had finished raking and bagging the leaves an hour ago, he continued to loiter in the front yard, finding things to do to look busy. He was watching the blue Ford Focus parked in front of Mrs. Myrick’s house. A man sat inside the car. Ken hadn’t been back in the neighborhood long, having just moved home in July to care for his father. But everyone knew about the Myricks. The story had been all over the news for weeks when he was a kid. How their son, Ricky, had asked to stay out past his curfew to go to a football game at his middle school and then had just disappeared. Ricky and Ken had played together as kids, gone to school together. Ken remembered him as a good kid, obedient, not the sort to run away. The police suspected foul play, but no body was ever found. Ricky just never came back. Mr. and Mrs. Myrick got divorced not too long after things settled down. Mrs. Myrick still lived alone in the house.

The Ford’s engine revved and its headlights came on. It pulled slowly away from the Myricks’ curb, swung into the driveway across the street and backed out, headed in the opposite direction. The red glow from the taillights brightened as the driver slowed in front of Ken’s house. The passenger-side window slid down, and the driver leaned over the console. Ken stayed where he was, leaving the strip of grass that separated the sidewalk from the street in between them.

“Do you know the woman who lives in that house?”

“Yeah,” Ken gave a half-nod.

“Would you please let her know that her son is okay? That’s the message. Her son is okay.”

Then the man drove off. Ken hadn’t asked who he was or how he knew about Ricky. He tried to get the guy’s plate number, but that was after he was halfway down the road and it was too dark to see. Now that he thought about it, maybe the guy didn’t want to be seen, since the light over the license plate was burned out or missing. It was twilight, the Ford was low to the ground, and the guy was across the car, on the driver’s side, so Ken didn’t even get a good look at him. Was he the guy who took Ricky—since obviously if what he was saying was true, Ricky had been alive these thirty years. Maybe he was Ricky. In the darkness, he looked like he could have been around Ken’s age.

But he could have been some crackpot. Old news was easy to find nowadays, and maybe he was just someone who wanted to toy with Mrs. Myrick. Give her hope where no hope was warranted. Ken heaved a bag of leaves onto his shoulder and dragged the other one behind him, through the gate, into the backyard, out the gate to the alley. It was getting colder, and he wanted to get inside, take a warm shower. Watch a movie with his dad. Ken went back out front to get the rake and the box of trash bags, locked them in the storage shed out back, and went into the house.

He could smell the fire his father had made. Hear it too. Ken enjoyed the wood fires they had in this house. He and Sharon hadn’t been able to have a wood burning fireplace in Denver. Well, they could have had one, but if they actually wanted to use the thing with any sort of regularity, they had to opt for gas. Clean burning fuel. Small towns in the middle of nowhere, though, they didn’t try to tell you how to live. If Ken had gone out in the front yard and chopped down his dad’s 100-year-old tree to use for kindling, no one would have said a word. No homeowners associations here. He liked that. People should be able to be in charge of their own lives and make their own decisions without worrying about what everyone else wanted.

“Want to watch Patton tonight, Dad?” Ken called into the living room.

“I’m a step ahead of you, boy. It’s all set up and ready to go.”

He smiled. Things were peaceful here with his dad. He was glad he had moved back. His dad had set aside enough money over the years that Ken didn’t have to have a job, could just live here and take care of things. Mow the lawn in the summer, rake leaves in the fall, shovel snow in the winter. He did the grocery shopping, cooked meals, drove the old man to doctor’s appointments, the household things his mother had done before she died five years ago. It was good for both him and his dad. Ken felt needed, and his dad had someone to care for him as his ability to breathe became more impaired. He’d quit the cigarettes six months ago, but it was too little too late. His oxygen tank went wherever he did now.

The timing worked out very well for Ken. The downsizing had been rumored for months, but it didn’t happen until he had made the trip east to see his father in the hospital. When he got back to work the following week, the layoffs were announced. Fortunately, the agency was small enough that the event wasn’t newsworthy, and Ken didn’t mention the job loss. He just offered to move back and take care of his dad. His brother and sisters were amazed at his sacrifice and willing to let him make it. His father resisted at first, uncomfortable at the idea of his son giving up his job and his life, but Ken persuaded him, pointing out that, really, he was in the best position to make a change. The one-year lease on the apartment he’d moved into when he and Sharon divorced was up in a month, and sure, there weren’t many jobs for advertising executives in Plainfield, but family was important to Ken. He loved his dad.

He wasn’t sure why he let people make the assumptions they did, and at times he felt bad for not setting them straight, except that setting them straight would almost surely invite pity. Divorced, unemployed, middle-aged provided he lived to be 84. Did it hurt anyone? Did he have to divulge every detail of his life? It had been fortuitous timing, and nothing but good was coming of it.

He was glad to have a home again.

“Just let me take a quick shower, Dad, and I’ll be right there.”

Ken bent forward and let the hot shower run on his low back, easing the ache out. He wondered again who the man in the Focus might have been, and, more to the point, he wondered what he should do about it. Clearly, if the guy was just some sick joker, he should do nothing. But how to know that? If the man was the person who had taken Ricky, then the police should be involved. Unfortunately, though, he didn’t have a lot to give them. A guy he couldn’t describe driving a car he couldn’t identify by anything more than its make, model, and color. Why would the person who took Ricky resurface now anyway? Maybe it was one of those deals you heard about every now and then where he was taken by a couple who really wanted a kid. Maybe they raised him as their own, were really nice people (as kidnappers went), and now the man felt remorse for having acted in what clearly was only his own self-interest.

Most puzzling was the possibility that the man had been Ricky. If that were the case, why involve Ken at all? Why not just knock on his mother’s door and give her the reunion she no doubt had been praying for these past three decades? Instead he drives down the street and asks some neighbor guy, some former classmate, to tell his mom he’s okay? What kind of sense did that make? Ken found himself getting angry about the whole thing. There didn’t seem to be any good way to deal with the situation. If he let it go, he’d deprive Mrs. Myrick of knowing that her son was, possibly, alive. If he told her, especially if the guy was some nut, it would just cause her more anguish, when she’d clearly had more than her share. If he told the cops, he’d look like an idiot for failing to get more information and as a result of that failure, they wouldn’t be able to do much anyway. Talk about a no-win situation. He decided to dry off, watch the movie with his dad. Sleep on it.

The following morning Ken sat across the table while his dad ate his oatmeal and read the paper. He scanned the street for blue Fords, but didn’t see any. He watched the kids walking up the street to Washington Middle School, where he and Ricky had gone. Except for Ricky’s disappearance, nothing bad had ever happened in Plainfield. Far as he knew, no one had ever even gotten divorced but the Myricks. Life here had been secure and stable. Boring, he had thought at the time. He’d gone away to college, moved to a big city, got a big job, married, and now had nothing left to show for it. Sharon had sold the house in Denver and moved to Orlando with her new husband. He was 42 years old, unemployed and living with his dad. He wondered how Plainfield could stay the same, when everything else changed so much. Maybe it was that sameness that made it feel like home.

“What do you know about Mrs. Myrick, Dad?”

“Carolyn Myrick? What about her?” His dad didn’t look up from the sports page.

“Just what do you know. How is she doing? Does she have a job? Did anyone ever hear anything more about Ricky? You know, that kind of thing.”

“As I understand it, the police never did find anything else out about the boy. You knew she and Ted divorced—I guess that was while you were still in school. I heard not too many years after that that he remarried. Started another family, I believe. Carolyn never did marry again, didn’t even keep company with anyone, as I recall. Don’t remember her having a job either. She mostly just stayed in that house. Wasn’t the same after everything happened, though. Not like she went off her nut or anything, but she just wasn’t the same, not all friendly and social like she used to be. Stopped tending her flowers and visiting around the neighborhood. And, well, folks were uncomfortable around her after what happened, like they thought her bad luck might rub off. Guess she must have felt that. Pretty much just kept to herself, poor woman.” He took another bite of oatmeal. “What makes you ask about her?”

“I don’t know. Just thinking about Ricky, I guess.”

As he walked up the street, Ken really noticed the Myrick house for the first time since he’d been back. It looked like the kind of house kids would hurry past on their way home at night. There was a low wrought-iron fence around it with a gate that actually hung crookedly off its hinges. He remembered when he was a kid the fence had been covered with sweet peas and all sorts of climbers. Now the yard was bare, except for the blanket of leaves from the giant oak, which, now that it was stripped, Ken could see needed a good pruning.

He crossed over to the Myricks’ side of the street. The house needed some paint, too. That would take a couple of weeks, if someone tried to tackle it by himself. It was a big old house. He reached for the gate, smiling at the squeak when he pushed it open. He rang the doorbell and listened, heard a three-note chime. At least that still worked.

As happened each time he saw someone from his childhood since his return, he was surprised by Mrs. Myrick’s appearance. He remembered a woman in her thirties, dark curly hair, slender, pretty, and in front of him was a little grandmother who almost came up to his shoulder, with her gray hair actually twisted back in a bun.

“Why, Kenny Chamberlain! I am so pleased to see you. Please do come in.”

“I’m sorry I haven’t stopped by sooner, Mrs. Myrick. I really should have.”

“Well, I’m glad you have now, Kenny. Please, sit. Could I get you something? Coffee? Tea?”

“Smells like you might have some coffee on. If you do, I could take a cup of that. Black. Thank you, Mrs. Myrick.”

Ken sat on the formal sofa and looked around the room as she bustled around in the kitchen. It clearly was what they used to call a “front room,” a place where people didn’t spend much time, unless they had company. Ken looked at the magazines arranged on the coffee table in front of him. Quilter’s, Good Housekeeping, A Taste of Home, which appeared to be some sort of cooking magazine. He thumbed through that, wondering just who Mrs. Myrick might prepare such meals for. There had been no other children but Ricky, and he recalled that as a kid he never noticed lots of family at the Myricks’. Even before Ricky’s disappearance, their house had been sadly quiet. Always cared for, always seasonally decorated with a jack-o-lantern on the porch or pictures of cartoonish turkeys taped in the window or red and green lights, but lacking in the bustle and the human activity that bespoke a holiday.

Mrs. Myrick returned carrying a tray with a small coffee carafe and two cups, as well as a plate of cookies. She placed the tray on the table and carefully poured him a cup.

“So, Kenny, what did bring you back to Plainfield?” she asked as she took a seat on the chair across from him.

“Oh, my dad wasn’t doing so well after his last hospitalization and, well, my brother, Phil, lives up in Boston with his family, and Sue and Rose and their families are all back there too. You know, jobs, kids in school. Since I’m the least encumbered, it just made sense for me to be the one to take care of him.”

“Well, he’s quite lucky to have you. The house is looking better than it has in years. And I’m sure he enjoys the company.” She smiled.

“Yes, he does. I think he’s missed having someone to watch war movies with.”

She laughed, and then they were silent for a moment. Ken listened to the refrigerator running, thought about the nice shade that the oak tree probably provided to this room in the summer time. He shifted on the couch, reached for a coaster, set down his cup.

“Mrs. Myrick, could I talk to you about Ricky?”

She had been worrying at a crocheted cover on the arm of the chair on which she sat, but now her hand became still. “Ricky?”

“Well, yes. I just, well, I guess I’ve been thinking about him, what with being back in Plainfield, and I started wondering if the police ever did find out what happened.”

“No. They never did.” She sat for a long moment staring at Ken’s cup of coffee. “He would have turned 43 yesterday, you know.”

“Yesterday was his birthday? No, I didn’t know that.”

“Indeed, it was. I’ve never forgotten the day he was born. Do you know why?”

Ken assumed the obvious answer wasn’t the one she was looking for, so he replied that he did not.

She opened a drawer in the coffee table, took out a photo album, and came to sit next to him on the couch. She turned through a few pages until she found what she was looking for, then she laid the album on Ken’s lap. He looked down and saw a picture of this house as he remembered it from his childhood, painted, cared for. Then he saw the snow, at least four feet of it. “The Blizzard,” he said.

She smiled at him. “We’d never seen snow like that in October, and we haven’t since. Ted was out for three hours shoveling, then I remember he came in to get the camera to take a picture of the mounds of snow. Just a few hours later, we were on our way to the hospital.”

They sat and looked at more pictures. Ricky at Christmas holding up a GI Joe. Mr. and Mrs. Myrick dressed up at a New Year’s Eve Party. A picture of a table set for Thanksgiving dinner with Ricky smiling and pointing to the turkey. Ken stole glances at Mrs. Myrick as she paged through the album. He tried to imagine what it must have been like for her, losing the life she had expected to live. Who would she be, if things had been different?

Mrs. Myrick had been smiling down at a picture of Ricky in a Little League uniform. She gently placed her fingertips on the image, kept them there. “Do you know, Ken, that sometimes I pretend he is here? I pretend he is with me like you are with your dad. His favorite meal was pork chops and mashed potatoes with applesauce on the side. He liked it when I would season the pork chops with rosemary. Strange for a little boy his age to care about that, but he did. So sometimes, what I do, when I miss him especially, is I buy two nice pork chops at the grocery. And I come home and I crush some dried rosemary leaves and I sprinkle them on the pork chops as they cook. The kitchen smells like frying pork chops and rosemary, and it takes me back. It just takes me back. And I set the table, a place for me and a place for Ricky. And I fix his plate and mine, and I sit and talk with him. Because I wonder how he is getting on. Do you understand? I wonder how he does. When I do that, I feel so very close to him, like he never went away.”

They sat in silence for a while, Mrs. Myrick staring at the carpet, and Ken looking at the oak tree out the window. It didn’t have to be today that he passed the message on. He could do it later, when he had a better sense of her, of how she might receive it. It didn’t have to be now. He stood to go.

“Oh, Kenny, I hope I haven’t run you off with my nonsense. It must have been seeing one of Ricky’s friends. I’m so sorry.”

“No, Mrs. Myrick, please don’t think that. I have to be getting home, to get Dad’s lunch ready. I will be sure to come back.” He paused, weighed things. “Maybe sometime you might want to come by our house for dinner.”

“I would, Kenny.”

As he walked away, the leaves crunched under his feet. Later today he’d come by with his rake, bring some oil for that gate. Good could come out of it. Kenny imagined someone out for a walk on a chilly fall night. They might look up, see the warm light of the kitchen shining out into the darkness. The family sitting around the table. Mrs. Myrick passing him a bowl piled high with mashed potatoes. His father cutting into his pork chop. The window, open just slightly to let in the fresh air. The sound of laughter. The smell of rosemary.

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“I am a writer living in Phoenix, Arizona.” E-mail: tmoran[at]cox.net.