Fickle Grapes

Fiction
Ann Tinkham


According to some, he was one of those Oreo guys—black on the outside, white on the inside. He was resilient, witty as hell, and played people well. Poverty had made him strong. She was a Jewish mainliner, neurotic, unmedicated (unlike most other Jewish mainliners), with chaotic hair, and a Jewish butt. Privilege had made her soft.

Her Jewish relatives made sure she never forgot those who perished in the concentration camps. They could be kibitzing at a deli, and Auschwitz would make its way in between the bagels and lox. She learned to carry her guilt in her tote bag. She could strike a guilty expression in two seconds flat. No one ever suspected that it was faux-guilt.

Rachel hadn’t yet told her parents that Thomas was black. They knew he wasn’t Jewish, which was bad enough. She had been programmed from conception that the only suitable boys were the Stewart Cohens, Bruce Bermans, and Ron Kleins of the world. Of course, she was never the least bit interested in the boys in her Hebrew class; she had always been drawn to boys and men of color. First, it was Ricky Alvarado, a Hispanic. Then it was Ethan Lee, a Chinese-American. Now, it was Thomas James, a man with two first names from North Philadelphia—a neighborhood like Harlem before its renaissance.

When her parents saw her fondness for boys of color, they pulled her out of her diversity-tolerant Friend’s school and put her in a Jewish school for girls. This gorging on all things Jewish made Rachel feel that if she added one more Jewish element to her life, she would die of a Judaic gluttony.

The truth, according to her grandmother, was that any boy who wasn’t Jewish was the enemy and would eventually side with the next Hitler of the world—because there was going to be one. Many Jews believed in the return of Hitler the way Christians believed in the rebirth of Christ. To Rachel, the lines between Hitler and the way Christians saw Jesus, were blurred. Rachel tried to remind her grandmother that Hitler was Aryan, not black or Hispanic. This didn’t seem to help. Every non-Jewish boy was a Hitler candidate. And any time Rachel dated a Hitler candidate, her grandmother sat anticipatory shiva, as though she were expecting Rachel’s imminent death.

Rachel had intended to tell her parents many times about Thomas—after her cousin’s bar mitzvah, after Seder dinner, at their family gathering at the Jersey shore, but there was never a good time. Her parents first approached the problem of the non-Jewish boyfriend by making innocuous suggestions. “You know, Danny Aaron is single again. I can set you up; just say the word,” her mother would say. When that didn’t work, they tried guilt. “Your Uncle Abraham, God rest his soul, would have wanted to see you with a nice Jewish boy.” Why “nice” and “Jewish boy” were always coupled, Rachel didn’t understand.

When all else failed, her parents tried scare tactics. “Rebecca Horowitz married a cockamamie WASP, who abducted the children during their divorce. They were found abandoned in the woods behind a trailer park in Alabama. A Jew would never do that. For God’s sake, a sane Jew would never set foot in Alabama.”

Rachel had had many conversations with herself—first motivational, then shaming, about breaking the news before the face-to-face meeting. She had let time slip through her fingers as she devised and rehearsed various angles. An angle would seem perfect, but would fall flat during the rehearsal. “Remember the song, Ebony and Ivory? Well, that’s like me and Thomas.” Nope, too cheesy, like the song, she thought.

Then Rachel imagined pairing race with comments about the Rendell Administration. “Thomas was the first African-American appointed to the Rendell administration.” Or perhaps this: “Thomas was the first black student from North Philly High to get a full scholarship to the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy at Princeton.” Good angle, she’d slip it in among the accolades. She managed to tell her parents all his accomplishments, but she sidestepped the racial bomb dropping.

As Thomas and Rachel approached her parents’ door, she felt the sudden need for a panic attack dog. These were dogs that accompanied a person stricken by panic disorder. They would sense the oncoming panic attack and remove the panicking person from the scene. Where was her dog when she needed it?

If Rachel had let herself think rationally about the situation, she would have realized that Thomas was exactly the kind of man her parents had hoped she would find—accomplished, witty, cultured, and compassionate. But she was certain that her parents would object to the packaging. They always had a way of making her feel like she was doing the wrong thing; she never felt that they saw who she truly was. Around her parents, Rachel felt invisible.

Her father threw the door open.

“Dad, this is Thomas.” Rachel’s heart was skipping beats and racing simultaneously.

“Well, it’s very nice to meet you Thomas,” her dad said without a hitch.

“You as well. To finally meet you after all the great things I’ve heard is my pleasure.” Thomas was calm, using his most polished public policy persona.

“I’m sure the reviews have been mixed, knowing Rachel,” her father winked. “Hannah, they’re here,” he yelled down the hallway.

Rachel’s mom scurried toward the door with a potholder in hand. She greeted Rachel with a peck on the cheek and then said, “Where’s Thomas?” looking for another person beyond the landing.

“This is Thomas, mom.”

Her mother stared at Thomas, as though she could will him to change into the person she had imagined. She clumsily shifted her potholder from one hand to the other and reached out to shake his hand.

“It’s true. I’m Thomas. It is wonderful to finally meet you, Mrs. Frisch.”

“Oh, well, do come in.”

The foursome shifted and organized themselves awkwardly, the way people do when they’ve just met and questions are begging to be asked.

“So Rachel tells us that you worked for the Rendell administration. You know, he was Jewish. Don’t you?”

Oh no, here it comes, Rachel thought. The Jewish theme already.

“Yes, as a matter of fact, I would like to see him become the first Jewish president of the United States.”

“Oh, wouldn’t that be a miracle? It’ll never happen in my lifetime. Americans would more sooner elect Arnold Schwarzenegger than a Jew. I still have to pinch myself when I think the Terminator is running Calyfornia,” her mother said, mocking Arnold’s thick German accent.

“No kidding. When I first heard he was running, I thought my friends were playing a joke on me.”

“When I first heard it, I thought I was having a senior moment. Like when my poor mother with advanced Alzheimer’s saw Reagan on the cover of Time magazine. She said, ‘What’s he doing on the cover? He’s a B-rate movie actor.'”

Thomas laughed a deep, hearty laugh. Rachel followed suit nervously.

“Mrs. Frisch, which do you think will be first: a Jewish, female, or African-American president?” The foursome laughed nervously. Rachel felt they were creeping into potentially dangerous territory. “I’d put my money on a woman.”

“How about some wine? Do we have any Californian pinot noir? It’s Thomas’s favorite.” Rachel whisked her mom away to the wine cellar to divert any potentially controversial subject threads—such as race, religion, or politics.

“Why didn’t you tell us, Rachel? Talk about putting us on the spot. You probably did this on purpose, so you wouldn’t get an earful. But surely he’s just transitional,” her mother chastised her as soon as they were out of earshot.

“Transitioning from what to what? From someone I like to someone you like?”

“From someone less suitable to someone more suitable.”

“To someone Jewish, you mean.”

“Or Anglo.”

“In a matter of minutes, you’ve expanded the acceptable dating pool from Jews to white men?”

“Mulatto children have such a difficult life.”

“Who said anything about children?”

“Well, I just think it would be easier all around for you to marry a Jew.”

“Easier for you, you mean.”

“I want what’s best for you.”

“You mean, you want what’s best for you to be what’s best for me… What’s best for me is Thomas.”

“You’re doing this to hurt us. Aren’t you?”

“God, mom. Why would I choose someone just to hurt you?”

“All I ever wanted was…”

“This isn’t about you. For once in your life, can’t you see that? Thomas is the first man I’ve ever really loved.”

Her mother disappeared into the back of the wine cellar. Rachel started to wonder if she would emerge again before the evening was over. She called out to Rachel, “What kind of wine did you say Thomas liked?”

“California pinot noir.” Rachel could hear her mother picking up bottles, looking at them, and then placing them back into their slots. Clink, silence, clatter. She must have considered a dozen bottles before finally selecting one. She re-emerged with two bottles and held them up for Rachel to see. Rachel nodded, but she didn’t know anything about wine, except for general categories, like merlot, pinot noir, and cabernet sauvignon. They ascended from the darkness without speaking.

Her mother presented the two bottles to Thomas, announcing, “Kistler Cuvee Catherine Vineyard Russian River 2002 and 1992.”

“Excellent,” said Thomas. He smiled and winked at Rachel, “Pinot noir is my favorite variety—even though it’s a fickle grape. It is sexy but temperamental and can be an unpredictable performer: it is difficult to grow, and is finicky about the climate it is grown in.”

“Yes, yes. A fickle grape. I like that! My favorite pinots come from the regions around Santa Barbara and the Russian River,” her mother added, while opening the 2002 bottle. She handed the cork to Thomas, who smelled it and nodded with approval. She poured his glass and waited for his reaction. He sipped, swished, and swallowed.

“Sublime, Mrs. Frisch.” His reaction dismantled her wrinkled brow expression; her face lit up.

“Don’t you think that once you’ve tasted a great pinot you’re hooked for life?”

Rachel felt an urgent need to escape, her blood still boiling from the cellar talk. With a tilt of her head toward the stairs, Rachel summoned Thomas upstairs to her childhood bedroom as Mrs. Frisch walked back into the kitchen to finish her dinner preparations.

“Are you okay, Rach? You seem tense. Your parents are charming.”

“Yeah, you should have seen the charming scene down in the wine cellar. My mom is freaked out about us. This is going to be a long evening.”

“Well, she must not be that freaked. That pinot goes for $300 and $400 a pop.”

“What? You’re kidding.”

“Nope, it’s top of the line.”

Rachel’s eyes widened with astonishment. Her mother didn’t part with her high-end bottles of wine easily. They only made their appearance on very special occasions, such as engagements, bar mitzvahs, and anniversaries. Rachel took Thomas’s hand, and together they descended the steps. Rachel breathed easily for what felt like the first time that night. She started to believe that she wasn’t going to have to make an impossible choice.

The pair re-entered the dining room as her mother was filling the wine glasses with the 1992 vintage, the higher-end bottle. Thomas took the chair next to Mrs. Frisch.

“Shouldn’t we let it breathe?” Rachel asked, glancing at her mother and then Thomas. “That’s about all I know about red wine—that it has to breathe.”

“Actually, in this case, no.” Thomas winked at Mrs. Frisch. “Some older wines become fragile with age and may release their spirit very quickly after the cork is popped.”

Rachel reached for her glass, ready for a swig.

“Ah, ah, Rachel. Not until we’ve had a toast,” her mother said with a twinkle in her eye. She was in her element when the focus was on her fine wine collection. Rachel pulled her hand back and shrunk into her seat.

“If you had a young wine, you’d want to let it breathe to make up for the oxidation that occurs with fine wines as they age in the cellar. When it comes to wine, there’s no substitute for aging.” Thomas explained as his eyes caught the sparkle of the liquid grapes in the crystal glasses.

Her mother looked up at Thomas with a knowing smile and then filled his glass half full, twisting the bottle so as not to lose a drop. He grasped the stem of the glass with his long fingers and held it up to the light to admire its ruby red color. He then swirled the wine in the glass to release the aroma.

“Go ahead, Thomas, give it a try.” Her mother couldn’t wait until the toast to have him sample one of the premiere bottles from her collection. Thomas swirled the wine once more and took a sip. He then took a slightly larger sip and aerated the wine in his mouth, making a slight slurping sound. Thomas closed his eyes and sat in silence, his fingers still wrapped around the stem. Rachel looked at her mother out of the corner of her eye. She was literally on the edge of her seat. The kitchen clock tick-tocked five times.

Thomas opened his eyes and said, “Soft, velvety, with a superb richness and depth. Like liquid silk.” Her mother’s face beamed, and then she leaned toward Thomas and touched his shoulder.

“Did you detect the black cherry?”

“Red berries and violets. What a brilliant finish.”

Rachel could have sworn that her mother almost clapped in glee. She rolled her eyes, embarrassed by her mother’s giddiness over the wine tasting with Thomas. No one noticed.

For once, Rachel didn’t care that she felt invisible.
pencil

“I live in Boulder, CO and am an instructional designer. I have written 30 online courses in business, medical, and safety topics. I am working on a nonfiction book, LESSONS FROM BAD GIRLS, and a novel, ANALYZING ABBEY. My short story, “The Era of Lanterns and Bells” will appear in an upcoming issue of Wild Violet.” E-mail: timmytink[at]hotmail.com.

Pillaged

Fiction
Gina Sakalarios-Rogers


Mrs. Fisk is a collector. Cup and saucer sets, linens, and anything at all related to monkeys. Those are the things she looks for, but she’ll buy anything she thinks is “a steal.”

We arrived at the house at 25 Meadowlark Lane at 8:30 on a damp, windy Florida February morning. We needed to get there early so no one would beat us to the treasures. Whenever Mrs. Fisk used this word, I saw old ladies dragging chests of Sinatra records, flowery dresses, and strings of pearls from attics and basements. Pirates with etiquette.

There was a small cluster of nine or ten people gathered on the front porch. They all knew one another and greeted Mrs. Fisk as she claimed the bottom step. She introduced me by saying, “She’s a first-timer.”

While I was trying to decide between an excited or somber “hello,” a young man in well-worn khakis with many pockets and a faded yellow linen shirt thrust his hand at me. “Good luck in there. If you see something you want pick it up, don’t leave and think it over while you look around. If you do, it won’t be there when you go back for it.” He was obviously going with excited, potential treasure outweighing the presence of death.

“What are you hunting?” asked a tall man in a red flannel shirt.

“I like books,” I said. I’d chosen somber, with a politely excited smile.

“Ah. There’s always books. You can have them. I’m after the tools. You aren’t looking for tools too are you?”

“No. Just books.”

“Good enough.”

As 9:00 approached, the mood on the porch became tense and the loose crowd of people began to form a clear line. People shifted one foot to another, waiting for the door to open. No more fellow felling on the porch steps, now. Position was important. Everyone decided which room to head for first.

“They won’t let us in until exactly 9:00. The guy that’s running this sale never does,” Mrs. Fisk told me. “You have to really bargain with him, too. He’ll tell you that prices are firm the first day of the sale, but if you bother him enough he’ll break down just to get rid of you. If he doesn’t, hide what you want and come back for it tomorrow.”

He opened the door one minute early.

“He must be in a good mood,” I said.

The door opened and a tall young man in glasses waved everyone in. He had a table set up by the door and he greeted the first few people rushing through the door by name, including Mrs. Fisk. She just nodded. I smiled, head down, and said, “Hello.”

The hall opened into a dining room that once may have been very elegant. A massive Eastlake mahogany dining set was the centerpiece of the room. Large, white price stickers marred the deep glow of the dining table, china cabinet, and sideboard. Beyond this room was a living room with a long yellow embroidered couch, a slender ebony inlaid coffee table, and a delicate Victorian wicker rocker, all spoiled by the round white price stickers. The living room and dining room were separated by an archway and there was a lady standing in the arch.

“She works here. Makes sure no one steals anything,” Mrs. Fisk said, as she rummaged through a box of linens next to the sideboard.

“What do you mean works here? Isn’t this someone’s home?”

“Oh, no. Well, yes, it was, or is. I don’t know the story on this house. Amanda,” she called to the lady in the doorway, “is this person dead or in a home? What’s the story?”

“She passed away.”

“Thanks,” Mrs. Fisk said and went back to rifling through the linens, scattering them onto the floor at her feet. “Go find your books. You don’t have to stick with me.”

“The books are in the study,” Amanda said. “Go through the kitchen and around the corner past the back door.”

“Thanks. This is my first time,” I explained.

In the kitchen a woman and her husband had dumped a drawer of flatware on the counter and were pulling out all the forks, separating them into small piles according to pattern. I stepped over the drawer that lay discarded in the middle of the floor into another hallway.

There were delicate, hand colored etchings of Paris and Rome lining the walls of the hall, sloppy red prices scrawled onto the price stickers. The hardwood floor framed a blue, gold, and green rug. Persian or Oriental, I didn’t know, but I got the feel from it that I wasn’t going to be able to afford anything I might find in this house.

The young guy in the khakis whom I had met out front was in the study. I hadn’t gotten his name, so I tagged him Zippo guy when I saw his fanaticism for the lighters he was inspecting.

“You’re a special one,” he said to a lighter he held close to his nose. “Ah, flinty. Don’t you love that smell.”

There was a sign on the wall that said, “Hard covers $2 Paperbacks 50 cents unless otherwise marked.” The large room was filled with books.

I could see myself sitting in an overstuffed lounge chair in the middle of the room, a lamp on a small table next to me, and books lining every wall. Paperbacks mixed in with hard covers. Books arranged not according to what they looked like, what they were worth, and especially not alphabetically, but according to subject. History with history, adventure with adventure, classics with classics, plays with plays, mysteries with mysteries, reference books with reference books, and on and on.

Now there were crooked piles of books on the floor, on tables, under tables where they had fallen off, some crammed into bookcases wherever they would fit, and those few that still stood, somehow managing to transcend the chaos to stand dignified and upright.

The books were piled up in the room like a pirate’s booty waiting to be discovered, so I dug in. The chaos enticed me, made me less reverent and cautious in my handling of the books than I was in the rare and used bookstores I frequented.

*

I was almost finished going through the books an hour later. I couldn’t linger over the books the way I wanted because of a man who had come in wearing a bright blue T-shirt with “Book Cellar” and a phone number printed in bright gold letters across the back. He crowded next to me and started grabbing books before I was able to get into a comfortable mood with them.

I had worked my way around the room where the Zippo guy was still fondling lighters. “You need a box to protect your things,” he said.

I looked down at the books in my stack. There were some I’d been hunting for a few months—the last two original James Bond paperbacks I needed to finish my set and a 1920s hard cover edition of Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. I didn’t want to lose these. “A box. Sure. Where can I find one?”

He pointed under the table. When I pulled out the box a stack of small red leather books with gold-lettered spines fell over. They were only about half the size of a paperback. I reached for them, but the book guy, who’d lurked closer to me when I bent under the table, got them first. He thumbed through them, then looked around the room, scanning the shelves and the piles on the floor.

“Have you seen any more of these?” he asked.

I shook my head at the ass.

“Well then,” he said holding the books out to me, “you can have them. They aren’t worth anything without the rest of the set.”

I held small late Victorian editions of Shakespeare’s plays Antony and Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, and Titus Andronicus in my hands. They each had fine etchings before the title page. The pages were thin, but heavy, paper and there was a red ribbon to be used as a page marker sewn into the binding. The page edges were gilt.

“These are more valuable than you think,” I said to him.

He came up from under the table with two Dickens volumes in his hand. “No they aren’t,” he said. “Not unless you have the rest of the set. Even then, they are common.”

I turned my back on him and pretended to be interested in the Zippo guy’s lighters.

He pulled a book and its cargo of lighters closer.

“I already have one of those,” I said. “Mine is from 1932. Is that a Webster’s New International? It looks just like mine. I weighed it on my bathroom scale right after I bought it. 15 pounds. I’ve never had mine appraised.”

The Zippo guy shrugged. “I don’t know what it’s worth. I’m only paying two bucks for it though, no more.”

“Why do you want it?” I asked the Zippo guy.

He just shrugged.

“There she is. Are you having any luck? Find any good deals?” Mrs. Fisk came rushing into the room. She peeked into my box. “Well, I guess you have. I’ve got some more looking to do, but I want to go ahead and pay for these things so I don’t have to lug them around.” She held up a small box full of linens, topped off by a small porcelain monkey holding a violin. “I found another little guy for my monkey band. I need your keys so I can lock this stuff in your car. Want me to take those books out for you so you can look around some more?”

“Yes. Thanks.” I gave her the keys and some money for the books.

“I’ll bargain him down on these for you,” she said. “No use paying full price if you are going to take so many off their hands.”

*

When I passed through the kitchen again it was wrecked. A woman was stuffing cans and boxes of food into a garbage bag. “It’s free,” she said. “They can’t charge for it.” She pulled a bottle of vodka out of the cabinet over the oven. “The booze is free too.”

In the hall to the bedrooms, people were shuffling past each other with armloads of stuff.

In the first bedroom a lady not much older than Mrs. Fisk was dumping some cheap costume jewelry into her purse and into the pocket of her purple jacket.

In the next bedroom there were clothes piled on a large metal canopy bed. The blue brocade bedspread was in a heap on the floor. There didn’t seem to be anyone in the room, so I went in. I picked up a pink chenille sweater from the floor. A sign on the wall read, “Dresses, purses, shoes, other clothing $4.” Cheaper than the thrift store I went to sometimes.

I had one arm into the sweater when a lady in a white dress suit with a Chanel scarf around her neck came out of the closet. “Hey, that’s mine. I threw it on the bed there. That’s my pile.”

She bumped into the dresser, sending a picture frame sliding across the floor. A skinny gray-haired lady in too bright pink lipstick smiled up at me from the photo at my feet.

“That sweater was on my pile, miss.” The lady in the Chanel shook a hanger at me. “Give me the sweater.” She tugged on the empty sleeve so hard I spun half around and tripped over my own feet. When I hit the floor, the woman pulled the sweater free. She picked up the pile of clothes on the bed and looked down at me, and said, “Pink is my color.” Then she left.

I lifted the dust ruffle of the bed to find the picture that had slid under when I fell to the floor. I grabbed the photo and slid around the bed on my butt towards a book shaped dark object at the head of the bed.

It was Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. An appointment card for a doctor’s visit, dated only three weeks ago, for Anna Marchette marked the page where Robert Jordan and Maria feel the earth move.

I hugged the book to my chest, set the photo of Anna face down on the night table, and left the bedroom.

The book didn’t look new, but it was in very good condition. There were a few minor bumps to the corners and a little tear in the dust jacket at the top of the spine, but these were minor flaws. I opened to the publication page. First edition. In good condition. Original dust jacket. There was no shiny white price tag in or on the book. Someone could buy it for the two dollar hard cover price announced on the signs in the study.

I hurried down the hall, holding the book tight. Mrs. Fisk and a friend were waiting for me.

A tall elderly woman was sitting on the embroidered yellow couch clutching a photo album to her chest and watching people pillaging Anna’s home for bargains and treasures.

“This is her sister’s house,” Mrs. Fisk whispered.

“It is,” said her friend. She was a small woman, who barely came up to my chin. “She shouldn’t be here. I never understand why family comes to these things.”

“I would think it would be unpleasant for them,” said Mrs. Fisk. “I wouldn’t want people rummaging through my family things, or my own at that. Buying my things. That’s awful to think of.”

Mrs. Fisk turned her back to the sister and stepped in close to her friend. She pulled a small brooch out of her dress pocket. “Look what I found stashed under the bathroom sink. Someone must have hid it there for tomorrow when Bill will half price and negotiate.”

“Oh, that’s pretty,” said her friend. “How much is it?”

“I don’t know. There’s no tag on it.”

“Well, just slip it in your pocket. They don’t know it’s here.”

“That’s stealing,” I said.

“They’ll never miss it. Besides the lady’s dead, she doesn’t need it. If it was important to the sister she would have found it,” Mrs. Fisk said, slipping the brooch back into her pocket. “Are you ready?”

I held the Hemingway at my side, tapping the bulk of it against my thigh.

“Yes.”

*

The line at the front door was long and slow, so I was trapped listening to Mrs. Fisk prattle on about her monkey band.

“Do you need that book for your collection?” Mrs. Fisk asked me.

“I’m not a collector.”

“But you have all those books,” said Mrs. Fisk. “All neat and dusted. You take good care of them like I do my linens and my monkeys. I’d call that a collection, which makes you a collector.”

“I don’t buy them to collect. I buy them to enjoy,” I said.

“So do I,” Mrs. Fisk said. She was smiling at me like she knew something I didn’t. This old woman who was going to steal a junky old brooch she could very well afford to pay for. I could never afford a first edition Hemingway. She was just smiling and smiling as if even when she did pay for something she wasn’t stealing. That’s what she did; she looked for “steals.” She’d said it to me a hundred times. “Oh look at this monkey, it was a steal. What a treasure.”

“What is that book?” she asked now. “It looks old.”

“It’s a Hemingway, and it is old.”

“That makes it valuable doesn’t it?” she asked.

“Old doesn’t necessarily mean valuable. It’s two bucks and that’s what I’m paying.”

“See. A steal.”

“The brooch you’re stealing,” I said. “What’s it worth? Are you really going to enjoy it, stealing it from a dead lady like a grave robber.”

“Oh, my god,” yelled Mrs. Fisk. “Oh, how can you? Did you hear what she said? Stealing? Me? Never. No.”

Her friend hugged her as people in line started to look our way. I think I must have been the only one who saw Mrs. Fisk slip the brooch down the front of her friend’s dress.

I fled to the living room.

There was the sister, Anna’s sister, sitting on the couch looking through photo albums.

“Excuse me,” I said, sliding the Hemingway onto the couch between myself and the sister. “I think you might want this.”

The sister looked at the Hemingway. “I’m not much of a reader,” she said. “Anna was. She loved her books.”

The Zippo guy came up to us holding out a stack of letters. “I found these in an old dictionary. I looked at a couple. They’ve never been sent, but they were written by the lady that used to live here.” He smiled and winked at me as if we had some secret to share.

“My sister,” the woman said, taking the letters. She ran her fingers across the faint blue print on the first letter. “This one’s to her daughter, Isabella. She died when she was only fourteen. Anna told me she wrote letters to her and to our brother Horace who was killed in World War II. I looked all over the house for these.”

The Zippo guy handed her a handkerchief from one of his many pants pockets.

“Thank you,” she said.

“There’s only one with a stamp. I think that’s a good stamp, too. Worth a little bit of money,” he told her.

“Thank you for returning them to me.” She peeked into the Zippo guy’s boxes. “Oh, Henry’s lighters. I wish one of the kids had wanted these. Henry took such care of them.”

“I can tell.”

The sister reached into the Zippo box and pulled out a lighter. “Why don’t you just slip out the back door with me,” she said, stroking the surface of the lighter in her hand. “I’d much rather give them away than have them sold. It won’t seem so impersonal.”

The Zippo guy smiled, but shook his head. “Oh, no. You don’t need to do that.”

But of course Anna’s sister insisted. The Zippo guy’s resistance disappeared.

I grabbed the Hemingway and got up from the couch unnoticed by the sister and the crooked Zippo guy. I slipped into the hall, pressing my back to the wall and peeking around the corner to keep the Zippo guy and the sister in my sight.

I had tried to give the Hemingway to the sister. I was being honest. More honest than the guy she was leading through the kitchen and out the back door.

I hurried behind them hoping to get to the back door before the sister came back in and locked it.

“What are you doing?”

My hand was on the doorknob; I could have run.

Amanda was behind me. I stared at the “Adams’ Auctions and Estates” on her shirt, thinking fast, fast. What could I say?

“I was just looking outside for my friend. She’s not in here anywhere. I thought maybe she went outside.”

“Have you paid for that book you’re walking out with?” she asked.

“I’m not walking out with it. Mrs. Fisk told me she paid for it when she paid for my other books earlier.”

“Where are the other books?” Amanda asked.

“In my car,” I mumbled.

“Why do you still have that one then?” She held her hand out for the book.

“Do you know Mrs. Fisk?” I asked.

“Yes,” she replied. “Too well.”

“She put a brooch she found in the bathroom down the front of her friend’s dress so that she wouldn’t have to pay for it. It looked expensive.”

She reached past me and locked the door.

“Anna’s sister won’t be able to get back in now. She helped the guy who buys lighters carry his things outside. She wanted him to have them for free.” I said this as if I thought it was the sweetest thing I had ever heard.

“Jesus, you people. Out this door?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said. Go, go, go.

She went, leaving the door open.

I waited a beat and locked the door.

About five minutes later it was easy to slip past the chaos of people in the hallway held up by the argument between Bill, the Zippo guy, and Anna’s sister.

pencil

“I am currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Southern Mississippi and an adjunct instructor of Composition, Literature, and Creative Writing at the University of West Florida in Pensacola. I have only 3 publication credits, however: a short story in Product, a short story in Emerald Coast Review X, and a poem in Nightmares. I write constantly, but am woefully undisciplined when it comes to submitting my work. I enjoy the writing much more than the marketing, I guess.” E-mail: ras[at]uwf.edu.

Glenn Miller and the Vases

Fiction
Tara Kenway


The sun came shining through the trees like knives. I squinted, pulling down the sunshade in the car. It didn’t make much difference, as it was a low sun that as soon as I’d driven past the trees shone straight into my eyes again, blinding them.

‘Didn’t you bring your sunglasses?’ Jane asked.

I felt my face. ‘No, I forgot.’

‘Idiot.’

We were on our way to visit her parents. The first trip of the year and it was already June. Her mother phoned every day and most of the time left long, rambling messages that Jane deleted unlistened to.

Her father didn’t really speak at all and generally ignored me, hoping I wouldn’t exist if he didn’t accept it. The visits were always nightmarish, with the mother talking at 100mph—even if her husband did want to say something, he didn’t have much opportunity.

‘Are you okay?’ I asked.

Jane nodded, looking out the window.

‘You know how it is—mum’s birthday, dad’s birthday, and Christmas. Sounds like I’m talking about a prescription—three visits a year until symptoms cease,’ she said in a doctor’s voice, forcing herself to smile.

‘Did you bring the present?’ I asked.

‘Now you think to ask? We’re already halfway there. Anyway, it’s in the back.’

We’d bought a vase, like we did every year. I wanted to buy something else, just to break the monotony, but Jane had got her mother a vase every year since she was a child and had made her one at playschool. It was a tradition, like the three-times-a-year visits.

I hated these visits. Her embarrassed-looking mother always referred to me as ‘Samantha-Jane’s-friend’, as if it were all one word, to a father who refused to look at me. Jane tried to convince me he’d come around eventually, ‘especially as you like motorbikes’, but she’d been wrong. She spoke to her mother in the kitchen whilst her father and I sat in the sitting room, or in the garden if it was the June visit, saying nothing.

The only positive thing about the June visit was that the weather was usually good. As we turned into the drive her mother came out of the house before I’d even had the chance to turn the car off, knocking on Jane’s window and smiling at us both.

‘You found us okay then?’ she asked

‘Mum, I used to live here, remember?’ Jane laughed.

We got out of the car.

‘I thought we’d eat in the garden today,’ her mum said, as if it were a new idea.

‘Lovely,’ Jane replied.

‘And how are you Samantha?’ her mother asked, giving me a swift peck on the cheek.

‘Fine thanks. Happy birthday. 38 isn’t it?’ I smiled. That was my line for June.

Formalities over, we went inside. Their house was a small, semi-detached not far from the station. The front garden was neatly trimmed, with various climbing flowers that tried to caress the walls. Jane’s old room overlooked the garage, and when she was in her teens she used to crawl out onto the roof to smoke cigarettes and look at the stars.

After we’d wiped our feet, Jane went into the kitchen and left me stranded in the sitting room with her father and the vases. There were hundreds of them covering the top half of two walls. I’d once suggested putting flowers in some of them, only to have her father say, ‘Flowers are for the garden.’ End of discussion.

Today he was sitting in his armchair, his newspaper folded neatly in his lap.

‘Hallo Mr. Smith.’

He shook open his paper and started doing the crossword. I sat down and waited for the others to come back. I looked at the vases on their shelves, lined up like soldiers, and tried to see if there were any new ones. Her mother’s favourite was lilac and hand-painted with flowers. Jane bought it for her in a craft shop in Cornwall on our first weekend away together. She saw it on the first day and put it on the bedside table. That night when we were making love she stopped suddenly.

‘What’s up?’ I asked.

‘Give me a second.’ She rolled over and put the vase in the drawer and closed it. ‘That’s better. Now, where were we?’

I wasn’t Jane’s first girlfriend but I was the first she took home to present to her parents. Her mother was fine once she saw I didn’t have devil’s horns and a forked tail, but her father didn’t say a word. Later, as he took the dishes into the kitchen we overheard the frantic whispering of her mother.

‘At least try and be polite, for goodness sake,’ she hissed.

So now he responded to some questions, answering ‘how are you’ with ‘fine’ that still sounded like ‘fuck you’ to me. I had never realised such innocuous words could be so loaded.

Mother: Offer the girls potatoes, Gordon.

Gordon: Potatoes? Fuck you.

Me: Thank you. You too.

Jane knew this is what we did and had given up long ago.

‘You’re as bad as each other,’ she said.

‘He started it,’ I grumbled. ‘Miserable old sod.’ These discussions always ended in her being silent and me apologising. Quite what for, I wasn’t sure but the apology always seemed to work.

And at first I did try, but after receiving illicit insults with every vegetable dish I gave up.

We once saw Jane’s mum by herself—a nerve-wracking experience as she hadn’t told Gordon she was meeting us and was paranoid he’d find out.

‘You’re sure that wasn’t him?’ she asked, turning around in her seat to follow the portly man who had just walked past. We were in the sterile end of the shopping centre, where all the shops looked the same, and the customers were mainly young mothers with three children, or pensioners who came here every week for tea and a bun.

‘Mum come on. Dad never comes to this part of town. When have you known him to change a habit? Anyway, why didn’t you just tell him you were seeing us?’

Her mother looked at me, and we both understood it was my fault.

‘Gordon doesn’t like new things very much,’ she said, nibbling at the carrot cake in front of her.

‘Sam’s hardly new now mum,’ Jane said, taking my hand. ‘He’ll have to accept it one day.’

‘Your father can be a little stubborn, dear.’

I said nothing, afraid that if I made one comment about Gordon, the floodgates would crash open.

Her mother sighed. ‘He wasn’t always like that you know. Before you were born we used to dance in the garden every evening in the summer. He had an old gramophone that he’d plug in and I’d put my heels on and we’d dance to Glenn Miller for hours.’

‘Sounds romantic,’ I said.

‘It was. Except for the fact that my heels kept sinking in the grass and we’d have to start over.’ She laughed at the memory.

‘Didn’t you ever try barefoot?’ Jane asked.

‘Just once but I trod on a slug and thought I’m not doing that again!’

‘Why did you stop?’ Jane asked.

‘Once my heel sunk in and Gordon didn’t notice. He spun me around—he was ever so good at that—and we both heard this snap. It sounded like I’d trodden on a twig. Then I had a shooting pain up my leg, and thought that wasn’t a twig! I had broken my ankle. Gordon blamed himself and felt terrible. Even when the plaster was off he refused to dance again. I suggested it a few times but he wouldn’t even hear of it.’ She shrugged. I went to take the bill but she took it from my hand. ‘This one is on me, Sam.’

She went into the bar and I saw her talking to the barman, laughing at something he said.

‘I didn’t know Gordon danced,’ I said.

‘Neither did I,’ Jane said, watching her mother.

Over the years I’d tried to memorize the order of the vases—Jane’s playgroup, green and yellow, red roses, Bognor Regis beach… Any new vase was merely added on at the end, and each visit was like playing that kid’s memory game: I went to the market and bought one apple, one banana and 75 vases.

If the new vase were too big for its shelf, Gordon would unload all of the vases from the given shelf, and put them on the floor in a group but still in order. He moved the shelf down and then reloaded all the vases, with the new recruit at the end.

Once, I’d asked why he didn’t just put the new vase on a shelf where it fit.

‘Because new vases go at the end.’ Fuck you.

Lunch today was roast lamb with homemade mint sauce, potatoes and two other vegetables, lightly steamed, and a white wine from Marks and Spencer. To follow there was a selection of cheeses and the birthday cake. The lunch was always the best part of the visit. Jane’s mother put into cooking all the colours and perfumes she couldn’t put in her vases. The complete opposite of my family where eating fish fingers was a special occasion.

Over lunch, Jane broke the news that we were buying a flat together. We’d already been living together for three years and the landlord had wanted to increase the rent, so we looked around and found a place not far from Wimbledon Tube station and the park.

‘You remember the park, don’t you mum?’

Her mother thought for a moment. ‘There’s a nice little pub nearby, isn’t there?’

‘That’s the one. Samantha goes running there and saw the For Sale sign.’

‘That’s wonderful, isn’t it Gordon?’

‘Wonderful.’ He put more potatoes on his plate, the sun shining off his bald spot, burning red like a traffic light.

‘When do you move then?’ her mother asked.

‘Next week. We’ve both taken a couple of days off and rented a van, so it shouldn’t be too bad,’ I said, wondering if Gordon’s head would be sore the next day.

‘Make sure you wrap your china up carefully. I’m ever so good at that. I remember when we got married and my mother gave me her second set of china, but she didn’t have the box and I spent a whole Sunday afternoon wrapping up cups and plates. And we didn’t break anything when we moved, did we Gordon? Which was a pity really as the second set of china was rather nasty!’ She giggled the way she always did when she said something daring.

She stood up and started to clear the dishes away, knives and forks clattering. Jane gave her a hand and I was left with Gordon.

I never knew what to say in these silences. Anything I said just made things worse. I topped my wine up as Jane was going to drive home, and sat there and drank. Odd strands of conversation drifted out of the kitchen, but we stayed buried in silence. I finished the wine, accidentally letting the bottle thud on the table. Gordon glanced at me, and blinked, as if that would clear me from the garden. Finally Jane hustled her mother out of the kitchen and made her sit down.

‘Sam, give me a hand will you?’ she asked.

I stood up, feeling the wine rush to my head. I steadied myself against the kitchen sink, and watched as Jane got the cake out of the fridge.

‘Where’re the matches?’ she asked, opening and closing various drawers.

I handed them to her, not trusting myself to light the candles without setting fire to something.

‘How much have you drunk?’ Jane asked, laughing and slapping my arm. She pushed me into the garden, whispering, ‘Start singing!’

Jane followed me, carrying the cake with five candles on it, one hand cupped around the flames to stop them blowing out.

‘Happy Birthday to you! Happy Birthday to you!’ we sang.

Gordon sang too, his voice a melodic bass that never failed to surprise me when I heard it.

‘It’s time for your present Mum,’ Jane said once her mother had blown out the candles. She handed her a long narrow package. Her mother carefully unwrapped it and took out the vase.

‘Oh, you’ve outdone yourself this year, Jane. Hasn’t she Gordon? Look at that!’

‘I’ll have to move the shelf.’ he replied.

It was a long narrow vase, designed to hold three long stemmed roses.

‘Are you sure, Gordon? It might fit,’ she said, looking at it.

‘It’s not that tall,’ I said.

‘It won’t fit.’ Fuck you.

Jane’d bought it a couple of months earlier from an antiques shop on the King’s Road.

‘Tad phallic, isn’t it?’ I said, holding the vase in my hand.

‘Oh god, don’t even think it!’ She looked at the vase in horror, snatching it back from me. ‘Can you imagine my dad’s face if you said that at the table!’

‘Phallic vases go on the second shelf,’ I said, imitating Gordon. I smiled at her. ‘It might finally break the ice. You never know.’ I topped up her wine and she took a sip. She put the vase on the table in front of us.

‘God, I’ve bought my mother a phallic vase. I can’t give it to her now. If I look at you, I’ll start laughing and then I’ll have to explain why.’

‘At least it’ll brighten up the afternoon.’

‘I’ll have to think about it.’

‘And Gordon will be peeved because he’ll have to move the shelf. Perfect present choice, Jane. Well done.’

The vase sat tall and erect in the centre of the table. I tried to catch Jane’s eye but she refused to look at me.

‘I’d better move the shelf,’ said Gordon, standing up.

‘Well, there’s no need to worry about it this second,’ said Jane’s mother, gently pulling him back into his seat. ‘Let’s enjoy the rest of the sunshine.’ Her mother turned the vase so she could see the design on the other side. She smiled at Jane.

‘Anyone for tea?’ she asked.

‘That’d be lovely mum. Why don’t I take the vase inside?’ Jane said.

‘No. Leave it there. I want to enjoy looking at it while I drink my tea.’

After dinner we had the vase ceremony. This involved Jane’s mum putting the vase on the shelf and everyone saying, ‘It’s lovely!’ Obviously this was when the vase fit. When it didn’t, we had to watch Gordon try and fit it on the shelf, holding it at different angles as if he could catch the shelf off guard, and squeeze the rebel in. Failing, he then said: ‘It’ll have to come down.’

The first time this happened, I thought it meant we could go back in the garden for another piece of cake, but no. We all had to stand and watch as Gordon took off all the vases from a shelf, one by one. I offered to help once and received a jagged look from Jane and silence from her parents. Shelf adjustment was Gordon’s job.

We finished lunch and Gordon cleared his throat and picked up the vase.

‘Let’s see about this then.’ He stood up, holding the vase in his hand like a truncheon. He went through the patio doors into the lounge. We all stood up and followed him.

There were four shelves in the lounge—two on one wall and two on the other. The vases stood silently, waiting to see what Gordon would do with them. He went to the lower shelf and tried to put the vase on. It was about one centimetre too tall.

‘Sorry, dad,’ Jane said.

‘Surely we can put it on a higher shelf just this once, can’t we Gordon?’ her mother said. ‘What will happen if we don’t put it with the others?’

Gordon looked at her and for a second I thought he might say yes, but he just blinked a few times and said: ‘No. Its place is here. I’ll go and get my tools.’ He put the vase on the floor and went to the cupboard under the stairs where he kept his toolbox.

How many times had the two of them watched this ritual? Her mum didn’t just get vases for her birthday, but also for Mother’s Day, Easter, and Christmas and often if they invited people over for dinner, they brought a vase, as there was no point bringing flowers.

‘Jane, come on. Can’t you talk him out of it? Just once?’ I whispered.

She was just about to reply when Gordon came back in with his toolbox.

Gordon slowly took down every vase. The shelf wasn’t attached to the brackets, so he just had to pick up the piece of wood and lean it against the wall. He took a pencil and marked where he wanted to move the shelf. He drilled a new hole, making the vases on the shelf above jiggle in excitement. When he’d finished, he put the shelf back in its place and checked it was straight with a spirit level. Satisfied, he started replacing the vases, starting with the troublesome phallic one, and working backwards.

The problem was that the vase after Jane’s latest was a heavy Inca vase made in Mexico. It fitted onto the shelf perfectly, so Gordon didn’t give a second thought. But all by itself on the shelf, it was too heavy. The second he took his hands away, the shelf shot up like a pinball flipper, hitting the shelf above it with such force that it too jumped, causing the vases to slide. Once one slid, it knocked into the next and suddenly the vases started raining down from the first shelf like lemmings, directly onto the other vases that were waiting below.

There was an immense silence once the noise had stopped. Gordon’s hands were still frozen where the Mexican vase used to be.

‘Are you all right, Gordon?’ his wife asked finally.

His hands were trembling.

‘I’m s-sorry Jean,’ he finally stuttered.

‘They’re just vases, Dad,’ Jane said.

He turned around slowly. ‘They’re not just vases, Jane. They’re your mum’s vases’. His left eye was twitching madly.

We all stood in silence looking at the remains of the vases.

Jane’s mother sighed deeply. ‘You know, I think I’ve had enough of this.’ She crossed the room and turned on the radio, turning the dial until she found some big band music. She turned up the volume and danced a few steps until she arrived at the surviving vases. ‘Gordon, sweetheart.’

He looked at her, tears starting to run from his left eye.

‘They are just vases.’ She took one and dropped it onto the floor where it split into three large pieces. ‘So is this one. Look.’ She lifted his face to make him watch as she took another, this time throwing it onto the floor where it smashed. She took another, offering it to Gordon like a piece of cake. He was frozen and stood there, left eye still twitching, saying nothing.

‘Jane, can I tempt you?’ her mother said, holding out a vase.

‘With pleasure.’ She smiled and smashed the vase.

‘Samantha?’

‘Thank you. That’d be lovely.’ I launched the vase against the wall, where it exploded.

‘Gordon? Are you sure?’ his wife repeated, this time standing close to him, closing his fingers around the vase. ‘I love you,’ she whispered,’ and it is just a vase.’ She kissed him on the cheek, and gently wiped away a stray tear. ‘Try it. It’s rather liberating.’

He looked at the vase in his hand as if seeing it for the first time.

‘But Jean—‘ he began.

‘But Jean, nothing,’ Jane’s mother said. ‘Throw it. For me. Please?’

He looked again at the vase in his hand, this time weighing it up like it was a problem to solve.

‘It’s what you want?’ he asked.

‘Yes.’

He nodded to himself, a silent decision taken. He turned away from the wall and took a few steps, rubbing the vase against his trouser leg like a cricket ball. He turned to face the wall, and bowled the vase over arm against the wall. ‘And he’s out!’ he shouted, holding his arms above his head. Jane’s mother kissed him on the cheek, and handed him another.

Jane took my hand and smiled.

We smashed all the vases that afternoon, except one—the one Jane had made at playgroup. It was the only one that had ever mattered.

In the car on the way home, Jane was quiet as she drove. I put my hand on her knee and she looked across at me.

‘Never again can you say my family is strange,’ I said.

She laughed and continued driving.

pencil

“I was born in England, but spent seven years in Italy (Florence is my second home and I swear I must have been Italian in a previous life) and now live in Paris. To pay for food, etc. I sell books. To maintain some semblance of sanity, I write and play hide and seek with my cat, Angelo.” E-mail: kenway.tara[at]lycos.com.

Desert Creatures

Fiction
Anna Evans


A tiny lizard fissured the white wall, about a foot above the cool, marble floor. I knelt beside him, feeling the ridges of the floor tiles press into my bare knees. He wasn’t black, as I had first thought, but a mass of densely packed dark emerald green scales, his eyes dull bubbles of blood. “Look, Bryce,” I said. “Isn’t he gorgeous?”

Bryce lounged on the bed, hands behind his head, sandals mussing the woven silk bedspread. “This room costs too much to be infested with wild life. Come here!”

Reluctantly I left the lizard, sat awkwardly on the bed beside Bryce’s muscular, hairy legs. He waved at the window. Through it the pyramids loomed, almost as ancient as nature itself. “That’s what we came to see. I’ve already arranged for us to ride out there at the crack of dawn tomorrow. We have lizards in New Jersey, Laura. Don’t act so dumb.”

I looked back at the wall; I hadn’t sensed the slightest movement, but the lizard had gone.

The next morning the alarm went off at six. Groggily, I surfaced. We had flown in to Cairo the afternoon before and the seven hour time difference must have disoriented me. I hadn’t got to sleep until two or so. Bryce, more used to flitting between time zones, stood over his suitcase, pulling clothes out and discarding them in a heap. “Get up, lazybones! Don’t forget, you have to wear long pants to ride.” I knuckled my eyes and dragged myself out of bed, then pulled on pale gray cargo pants and a T-shirt. Bryce was already posing by the door, rugged in faded Levi’s, with a trace of stubble shadowing his firm jaw.

In the high-ceilinged lobby of the Mena House Hotel we were met by a serious looking young Egyptian who introduced himself as Omar. His opaque dark eyes sized us up. “You good riders?”

“Sure,” said Bryce, even though I could count on one hand the times he had been on a horse, all of them with me. I nodded.

“Okay. I get horses for you.” Omar led us down the cobbled drive and out of the gates of the hotel. The main thoroughfare—not much more than a dirt track with a layer of tarmac thrown at it—was dotted with little groupings, each consisting of a young Egyptian boy and a bunch of horses. The groups all looked the same: one grubby urchin, several long-limbed dusty horses, all Arabian, as far as I could tell. I had never seen so many Arabs in one place. Omar scanned the road, then set out confidently toward a distant boy.

When we got close I could see why he had chosen these animals. He was understandably concerned that Bryce’s solid six-foot physique would prove too heavy for the Arabs. The youth in front of us held the reins of a much heavier limbed gray, standing about sixteen hands, probably from Arab stock crossbred with something more like the sturdy plains horses I was used to.

Omar began to negotiate in free-flowing Arabic with the young lad. Egyptian pounds changed hands, but I didn’t see how many. The boy handed Omar the reins to three horses: the one I had earmarked for Bryce, plus a shorter, pretty bay mare, and finally a chestnut gelding with the classic dished profile and flared nostrils of the breed. “He’s beautiful,” I breathed.

Omar grinned at me, showing white teeth. “You know horses,” he said, nodding with approval. “This is Karim. You take him.”

I swung myself up into the saddle and took a minute to shorten my stirrups a notch.

Bryce struggled to mount until Omar gave him a discreet leg up, but once astride, he lounged back like a cowboy, the reins gathered in one hand. “Yee haw!” he said, raising his empty hand up and back like a rodeo rider.

Omar turned to me. “We ride once round the pyramids, just walk, trot. Then we can run the horses out into the desert. We stop for drink, then trot them back across desert, then walk home. Okay?”

I smiled my understanding. Karim felt strong and supple between my thighs. At a signal from Omar, I squeezed Karim’s flanks with my heels, and we walked on.

As we approached the pyramids Bryce pulled his slim digital camera from his pocket in preparation. We walked the horses around a discreetly wired perimeter fence, at a distance of a few hundred meters. Even so you could see that the slopes of the pyramids, which appeared smooth from the distance of the hotel room, were actually tiny steps, much eroded by time and desert winds. Bryce snapped a couple of shots, then stuffed the camera back in his pocket. “I got better pictures from the hotel balcony,” he said.

The outsides of the monuments were bereft of markings, the entrances blocked off with scaffolding and tarpaulins. “Renovations,” said Omar, seeing Bryce’s scowl.

Once we had completed the circuit, we turned the horses towards the open dunes. Omar gave Bryce a skeptical look. Clearly he had made his own assessment of Bryce’s riding ability. “You hold tight to Maggie,” he said. “She take you for ride.” He made a funny click with his tongue on his teeth and pressed his heels into the bay mare. She sprang forward like a tiger unleashed toward prey. Karim needed little urging to follow, and Maggie gamely took up the rear.

Then we were galloping, across the sand, the horses’ manes fanning out as they stretched their noses ahead and flattened their shoulders. I felt like I was flying. I was Lawrence of Arabia, about to rescue his comrades from a Bedouin stronghold. I looked back. Maggie couldn’t keep up with the Arabs, which was a good thing, as Bryce was struggling just to stay on. A glorious feeling of freedom swept down from the sand dunes like a hawk and perched on the windblown space between my shoulder blades; I leaned into the gallop and gave myself up to its rhythms.

Eventually we pulled up by a cluster of sand colored Bedouin style tents. The horses were hot and sweaty, foaming at the nostrils. I could feel damp patches under my own arms, my blood pumping through my limbs. An involuntary grin spread across my face. “Wow! That was awesome,” I said, then I dismounted and began to pet Karim on his cheeks and neck, “Good boy! Good boy!”

I sensed Omar behind me, then heard his deep, expressionless voice: “Miss, ask Mr. Bryce to get off please. Maggie needs water and a rest.” I turned. Bryce, red faced and breathing heavily, was still sitting on Maggie with a dazed expression creasing his face. Maggie looked exhausted; she hadn’t been bred to race a pair of Arabs, especially carrying a two-hundred-pound dead weight.

“Bryce!” I said, tugging his arm. “Look, there’s a sign for Coke!”

Bryce leaned forward, swiveled, and almost tumbled to the ground, just as—miracle of miracles—two small ragamuffins emerged from one of the tents lugging a cooler, open to display the familiar shaped and labeled bottles. I gave over the money they asked for; it sounded like a lot, but I suddenly felt the sandpapery dryness of my throat. I swigged and gulped at the cold sweet liquid until it was gone, aware that Bryce was doing the same. I didn’t even like Coke.

Afterwards we brought the horses back to the road just outside the Mena House, alternating walk and trot. We didn’t speak much; I was still exhilarated from my wild desert gallop. The sun was hanging just above the horizon now, and already my pants were sticking uncomfortably to my thighs.

I stiffened as I handed Karim’s reins back to Omar. My mount’s glossy chestnut coat was flecked with salt and slick with sweat. Normally I would never return a horse to a livery stables in such a condition, but would rub him down myself.

Omar caught my eye. “Is okay. Is my job. Karim is good horse. He likes you.”

I managed a smile. Bryce thwacked Maggie heartily on the rump so she let out a little squeal. “Camels tomorrow!” he bellowed.

After showering, we spent the day in Cairo, first at the Egyptian Museum, and then shopping for souvenirs and gifts for Bryce’s family. I bought a glass pyramid paperweight for Bryce Senior. Next I chose an elegant snakeskin purse for Maddy, who—I realized with a sensation akin to joy—would soon be my mother-in-law. On our first meeting, Maddy had hugged me and told me how much she’d always wanted a daughter. For my part I had always wanted a mother like Maddy, a trim and stylish woman who campaigned tirelessly for her various charities and yet had always managed to be there for her sons.

Bryce, wearing his baseball cap and fanny pack, continuously cracked jokes in a loud voice. Even Tutankhamen’s gold death mask couldn’t silence him. He didn’t listen to the fascinating history of papyrus, although he bought several scrolls. He refused to drink the carpet-sellers’ hot, black tea. I shrank inside myself and caught the eyes of the native sellers. I imagined what they really felt beneath the polite veneer, as thin and yet impermeable a coating as on the papyrus itself.

I never looked at Bryce critically in New Jersey, I realized. There, he was in his element. As a former football player and Princeton graduate, now working for a renowned consultancy firm, he wasn’t someone whose deeper feelings were ever brought into question. Even in the Philadelphia airport, when he produced the ring, he didn’t so much ask me to marry him as expect me to fawn awestruck over the idea. He said he would get down on one knee in Cairo, so we could tell our friends we got engaged in sight of the Great Pyramids. As we rattled back to the hotel in a rickety cab, I twisted the ring on my finger. He hadn’t done it yet.

We ate dinner on the balcony of the hotel restaurant. I ordered the meat kebabs, muskily sweet and tender, and drank bottled water. Bryce had shrimp, despite my reminders of dire possibilities, and washed them down with glass after glass of whiskey. He enthused about the Nile cruise to Alexandria we would take in a few days. I found myself thinking of Karim, the earnest smell of willing horse beneath my body, and of Omar, observing Bryce discreetly with inscrutable eyes.

When we got back to the room, I glanced at the window, and gasped in admiration. Apparently there were lights set up around the bases of the pyramids, and right now they were lit up, shading the sloping sides in different colors of blue, red and green. But Bryce’s attention was elsewhere.

“Eww,” he said. “It’s that slimy little lizard again.” Reluctantly, I looked away from the window, only to see Bryce swoop on a tiny dark green form like a bird of prey and snatch it up between thumb and forefinger, then hurl it out of the open window.

“It wasn’t doing any harm,” I protested.

“You don’t know that,” said Bryce. “They’re probably like flies and have all sorts of germs on their feet.” He made a point of washing his hands with hot water and soap; I made a point of getting into bed and pretending to fall straight to sleep. In reality I lay in bed awake again until late, imagining the little lizard, cast into unfamiliar undergrowth, bravely trying to make his way back to whatever home he had known.

I knew how he felt. When I was in Junior High, my parents divorced and my mother, on being awarded custody, moved back to New York in an attempt to reclaim the career in high finance she believed my arrival had ruined. An only child, I passed the next six years being minded by a series of housekeepers during the week and spending weekends and vacations at my father’s apartment in Princeton, watching him play footsie with a succession of young blonde girlfriends. It was no wonder I idolized Maddy and Bryce, whose solid thirty-year marriage had produced three strapping sons.

The next morning, when the alarm went off at six once more, I awoke readily, but shuddered as I remembered what was planned. I didn’t want to ride camels. I’d seen the beasts, dumb and slavering, carting tourists around inelegantly the previous day. Why would one want to get on such a thing, when one could choose instead the restrained muscular power of a horse?

Bryce had seemed determined we should ride them though. “How can you go to Egypt and not ride a camel, Laura?” he’d asked the night before, rolling his eyes at the sky as though I were a first grader unwilling to admit the world was round.

However this morning Bryce’s covers had not moved, despite the tinny guitar music emanating from the radio. I knew he would blame me if we missed our chance to ride camels, so I leaned over him and slid the covers slowly down from over his face, then, when he still didn’t budge, I nudged his arm. “Bryce, it’s six,” I cooed. “If we’re going to ride, we have to do it early, remember, before it gets too hot.”

Bryce moaned, and pulled the covers back up.

“Bryce,” I tried again. “We have to be at the pier at seven tomorrow. This is our last chance to ride camels. Come on, honey.”

He opened one bloodshot eye, then the other. “Ohhhh,” he groaned theatrically. “I think that shellfish must have got to me, babe. I’m dying here.”

I observed him skeptically. Shellfish or whiskey, either way, it didn’t look much like he was getting out of bed.

“You go,” he said, snuggling back down. “Get Ahmed or whatever his name is to take a photo of you that we can show our friends, okay?”

“Omar,” I said. “Okay then. See you later.”

Omar stood in the hotel lobby just like the day before. “Good morning, Miss,” he said, inclining his head in a tiny bow. “You want to ride camels today, yes? Where is Mr. Bryce?”

“Just me today, Omar,” I said. “Mr. Bryce has a bad stomach.” I patted mine to make my meaning clear.

“Okay,” he said, then cocking his head and showing those white teeth again, he added “You still want ride camels?”

“Horses.”

A big grin spread across Omar’s face. “Good,” he said. “Camels not clean, not smart. We ride horses. I have horse special for just you.”

Today we bypassed all the groups of waiting boys with horses, even Karim, though I recognized his clever head and could have sworn he whinnied at me. Omar led me to a stable block a way down the road and set back on a side street. The usual urchin stood outside, holding a couple of bay Arabs by the reins. I tried not to look disappointed, but neither of them was the horse that Karim was.

Omar talked long and low to the boy without any money changing hands. At last the boy shrugged. Then Omar entered the stable block and a few minutes later returned leading the most magnificent black horse I had even seen. He stood about fifteen-and-a-half hands—tall for an Arab—and he stared me down with haughty eyes as Omar tacked him up. “This is Balthazar,” said Omar.

“He’s incredible,” I said, holding Balthazar’s gaze and reaching a hand out to pat him slowly but firmly on the neck. “He must be more money to ride. You must tell me what I owe.”

Omar gave a snort. “Balthazar is my horse, Miss. Pay nothing. Only understand, Balthazar is not—how you say—cut? He has spirit. You must be respectful.”

I tried not to betray any nervousness. Omar was letting me ride his black Arabian pureblood stallion. I could ride camels at Philadelphia Zoo any time I chose. Where else was I going to get this kind of opportunity?

I let Omar give me a leg up onto the big horse, partly so Balthazar could understand his master’s complicity in my riding him. The difference between being astride Balthazar and Karim was like the difference between a 1000cc and 250cc motorbike; I could feel the raw power restrained beneath me, ready for me to release. Balthazar’s smooth flanks rippled as we set off toward the pyramids.

I noticed that the boy was following us on one of the bay geldings at a respectful distance, and asked Omar why.

“I cannot be alone in the desert with you, Miss,” said Omar, beside me on the taller gelding. I flushed, but Omar remained fully composed. “Do not concern yourself, Miss,” he added. “It is his job.”

I don’t think I can explain fully how wonderful it felt to gallop across the desert on Balthazar. I could hear the bass beat of his hooves on the compacted sand, smell the salty steam rising off his neck, feel his coarse black mane in my fingers. I was running with the wind; Balthazar was the wind. I hung on like a tick on an eagle’s back. Nothing had ever got close to this experience.

As we stopped by the tents at the end of the gallop, I slid off laughing. My knees felt weak, and for a minute I felt they might collapse beneath me. Omar steadied me by the arm. His fingers felt sure and gentle, as you would expect from a man who loved horses. He handed me a Coke, and we sat down on the sand facing each other. “I knew you would like Balthazar,” he said.

“I love him; I want to adopt him,” I said, and immediately felt like a crass American for saying such a cutesy thing. Omar didn’t seem to notice.

“I must tell you something important,” he said, “even though my English is not so good.” I looked at him curiously. Behind his head the red orb of the sun was beginning to creep over the horizon. We had a few minutes only before we would need to head back.

“People and horses are the same,” he said. “I see them on the outside, but I must see how they are in their heads. This is how I know that some people must not ride some horses. Maybe they do not feel things deeply; perhaps they are not gentle enough. They may not be bad people, just wrong for the horses.”

Omar sipped his Coke and lowered his eyes. I twisted the engagement ring on my finger—the ring was way too loose. I wondered if Bryce would actually propose in sight of the Great Pyramids, or if he would assume everything was settled already.

It would be a big wedding, I knew. Maddy and Bryce Senior would want the best for us. I wondered if my parents would even come. I felt uncertainty blow over me like the desert wind, and shivered, despite the early sun warm against my back. I stood up. “Take me home, Balthazar,” I whispered, stroking his velvety muzzle. He whinnied softly and nuzzled me back.

pencil

“I am a British citizen but permanent resident of NJ, where I am raising two daughters. I write short fiction and poetry, and have had over 100 poems published in various journals. My story “Skins” won an Honorable Mention in the 2003 Byline Short Short Story Contest. My story “Gritty” won Second Prize in the Fiction “Words on the Wall” contest at the 2004 Philadelphia Writers’ Conference and was subsequently published by the e-zine Outsider Ink. My short story “Impressions” won Third Prize in the Fourteenth Great Blue Beacon Short-Short Story Contest and appears in the latest issue of The Stockpot. My short story “Refuge” was published by Toasted Cheese.” E-mail: evnsanna[at]comcast.net.

Overlooked

Flash
Leigh Adamkiewicz


The box was sitting in the middle of the bedroom when I moved in.

It was a black and white shoebox, one corner crumpled from an old blow. It was covered in a thick blanket of dust. It sat in a stray ray of sunshine, glowing like a birthday present. Intentionally placed.

Ridiculous. I didn’t know who had had the apartment before me. The landlord only said that they had left suddenly. Their departure had been my salvation. The office’s new branch opened here on Tuesday, and I hadn’t found an apartment yet.

I had been the kid who wrote her name in magic marker on all her toys. I had wept when Mom moved anything in my room. Boundaries have always been a big thing with me.

I nudged the box with my big toe, pushing it across the faded wall-to-wall carpeting, into my closet.

I left it there and I told myself that they must have been coming back for it.

Two promotions later George moved in. After a late night discussion, we were through my storage spaces, looking for his areas. I don’t know why I waited until he was at work before I started on the closet.

I could feel something move inside the shoebox as I picked it up.

It rolled around, uneven and heavy. I didn’t like the way it felt.

I put it in one of the brown paper grocery bags I kept stacked under the sink. I sealed it with a line of staples. Then I pushed it to the back of the hall closet’s top shelf. I hid it behind the Scrabble game and old phone books.

After two more promotions I found myself packing up for our move into our new house.

The bag was still there. I found it behind George’s bowling shoes, behind my knitting books, behind our wedding photos.

Behind all the clutter that had come and gone it sat crisply under a layer of dust.

It troubled me.

The pen from the bank becomes just another pen in your junk drawer. The CD you borrow from a co-worker becomes the one you’ve always had.

You hold onto something long enough, you begin to feel entitled.

I had had that box for so long that I should have wanted to open it.

But I didn’t.

Even after all this time, it was still someone else’s secret. It was something strange and unwanted. The last thing I wanted to know was what I had been quietly caring for all this time.

I cleaned out the closet and placed the bag back on the top shelf.

I closed the door.

And I left the apartment.

pencil

Besides forwarding her writing ambitions Leigh Adamkiewicz enjoys creating goofy webcomics under the pen name ‘Melvina Wright’. She currently works at an Ohio-based Not-For-Profit institution and lives with her mother and younger sister. E-mail: ladamkie[at]kent.edu.