The Voice of the People

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Amanda “The Bellman” Marlowe

As I was leafing through my copy of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth, I came across two letters. I knew what they were, of course. I had heard the story behind them more than once, and read them, but it was still a thrill to find them tucked inside the book.

One letter was a copy of a letter my mother had written Mr. Wilder when she was sixteen:

(A note on it indicated it was copied from a scratch version in 1949 and had been sent sometime in May 1947)

Each year the Senior Public Speaking Class of [our school] presents a [festival] made up of scenes from well-known plays. This year our title was from Wilde to Wilder. We gave the first and third acts from The Skin of Our Teeth. I had the part of Mrs. Antrobus in the third act, which we did in assembly this morning. It was an experience. We had been rehearsing for months so that we could get as much out of it as possible in order to get across everything to our audience. Our director was a young man who had been in the Navy during the war and had carried your play with him throughout all the action he had seen. Because it meant so much to him and because its message hit us between the eyes, we tried very hard to create the right atmosphere. Each rehearsal found us deeper into the meaning of the third act. This morning’s performance was all that we hoped it would be. The play is so powerful that students from the seventh grade up were profoundly interested.

It meant a great deal to me to be able to work on Mrs. Antrobus. My interpretation was naturally lacking because I don’t think a sixteen year old girl could really understand her, but I learned an awful lot. Those students who had other parts had the same experience and it did something for us nothing else could. I wanted to tell you what your play meant to group of high school students and to thank you.

Also tucked in the book was Mr. Wilder’s handwritten response:

(dated June 27, 1947)

Forgive my delay in replying to your kind letter. I am delighted that you and your fellow students found the experience rewarding. On thinking it over I realize that that is a third act that can very easily be played separately. You can imagine with what interest I read letters from Germans who are seeing it in Berlin; who themselves are coming out of cellars; and who write me that they listen urgently to those “three things” that give Mr. Antrobus the courage to go on.

All best wishes to you in your work and again thank you for your letter.

Sincerely yours,
Thornton Wilder


Letter from Thornton Wilder

I had first read these letters years ago, when my mother first introduced to me to The Skin of Our Teeth, back when I was a teen. But several things struck me as I read this exchange again both as an adult and as a writer.

The first thing that struck me was how technology has made authors much more accessible. When I was a child, encouraged by my mother’s story of Wilder’s answer, I would occasionally send a letter to a favorite author, care of the publishing house. I had to take it on faith the mail made it there, as I was never graced with an answer as my mother was.

But today most of my favorite authors keep tabs on their email lists, posting occasionally, answering fan queries. Others have blogs, responding to fan comments as they can. They use Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and direct messages from them tend to be available 24/7. They may still only pick a few people to answer directly, but they answer in public for everyone to see. And there is something less personal about a public reply, meant for more eyes than just yours. There’s something a written letter gives you: the feeling that it is tangible, that it is your reply and yours alone, something you can show to your children, or leave for them to find as they leaf through an old book. I don’t think my children, who are digital age children through and through, would ever consider writing an author an actual letter, unless it was part of an assignment for a class. They would seek out the digital outlet first. Their children might come across an ancient blog comment, with a reply from the author. Maybe. However, they will never come across an unexpected letter signed by the author while leafing through an old book. There’s something a little sad about that.

The second thing that struck me was how both my mother’s letter and Mr. Wilder’s response referred to experience, and how different people bring their own experiences to a work. Act Three of The Skin of Our Teeth opens after a seven-year long war. Mrs. Antrobus and her daughter have been hiding in a bunker all that time. (The world has been destroyed and rebuilt several times. This is the first act in which we see the aftermath of the latest destruction of the world—both Act I and Act II end with destruction imminent.) The Navy man who directed my mother in Act III brought his experience to the play in a way that my mother, as a sixteen-year-old, could not. The Germans mentioned by Mr. Wilder also brought a uniquely heightened experience with them as they watched the play.

The author has one experience in mind when creating the work, but people’s reactions to and interpretations of it will vary widely. The work is not truly completed until it has been interpreted by someone else. And while authors and artists have control over the final work, they have no control over how it is interpreted. But that’s a good thing. It is the story that allows for this variation of meaning among readers, that speaks to people in different ways, that speaks to something inside that makes you uniquely you—it is that story that becomes “an experience.” It is the reader or the viewer who completes the work, and brings to it a deeper and richer experience that only they can understand.

And perhaps my mother’s connection to the play was one of the reasons I’ve always preferred it to Wilder’s better-known Our Town.


Now I remember what three things always went together when I was able to see things most clearly: three things.
Three things:
The voice of the people in their confusion and need.
And the thought of you and the children and this house…
And… Maggie! I didn’t dare ask you: my books! They haven’t been lost, have they?


E-mail: bellman[at]

Gramps’s Record Player

Best of the Boards
Mark Paxson

It was Gramps’s old record player that did it. In the end, it almost ripped us apart, which would have been ironic. In the end, it brought us back together again.

My first memory of the record player was from a day my parents left me with my grandparents. Back in the mid-seventies when I was probably five or six years old. My grandparents were supposed to watch me while my parents shopped for a car. Mama had wrecked the car the week before and Daddy was none too happy about having to buy a new one. The last thing he wanted was for “the sniveling little brat” to come with them.

When Mama dropped me off, I did my best to live up to Daddy’s view of me. I sniveled and cried. As Mama walked down the pathway to the street, where Daddy sat in Gramps’s car waiting, I screamed and stomped my feet. It did no good. Mama got in the car, closed the door, and blew me a kiss while I held my hand out and cried for her.

As Daddy drove the car down the tree-lined street, Gramps picked me up and kissed me on my cheek, his rough stubble a memory I haven’t forgotten. “Come, little one,” he said in his old country accent. “Let us listen to some music.” He took me into the front room and sat me down in his recliner.

While I tried to control my sobs, Gramps went to a cabinet in the corner. On top was his record player. It had fake wood paneling and two huge speakers on the floor next to the cabinet. Gramps lifted the arm and placed the needle down on the spinning platter, bringing forth a crackle from those speakers. My sniveling stopped. Through the opening seconds of hissing and snapping, Gramps walked to the chair I sat in. He leaned over and picked me up, a small grunt escaping from him as he did so. He sat down in the chair and put me in his lap as the music began.

I have no idea what the song was, but it soothed me. Within seconds I had stopped crying while the delicate sounds emanated from the speakers and Gramps rubbed my back. Every few seconds, he whispered, “Shhhhh.”

In the years ahead, Gramps’s old record player worked its magic. When I was grown, along with my brother and our cousins, our grandparents’ house was where we always returned for the traditional family get-togethers. For Thanksgiving, we ate Gramma’s dry turkey and drier stuffing. At Christmas, we enjoyed her baked ham and macaroni-and-cheese out of a box. For anniversaries and birthdays, weddings and funerals, we shared in potlucks and Gramma’s version of food.

Every time we got together there was always a point at which voices would rise, forks would be slammed to the table. Whether it was politics or religion, whether Aunt Suzie should have been invited or whether distant cousin Bill was a drunk, something always caused a stir that would end when Gramps rose from the table. “It is time for some music,” he would mutter to himself, but loudly enough for everybody to hear. Gramps, who was old back in the seventies when I was just a boy, would hobble to the front room. Soon, the crackle and hiss would make its way into the dining room and a few seconds later an orchestra filled with strings and woodwinds would follow.

When Gramps returned and sat back down in his chair, the creak of his joints overriding the music for just the briefest of seconds, he would look at his family reaching down the sides of the table. “Now, what were we talking about?” For the rest of the evening, whatever conflict had arisen was forgotten. The music did its trick.

When Gramps died, preceded only a couple of months by Gramma, he left no will. Just a house full of stuff accumulated over the ninety-one years of his life. We gathered there one Saturday afternoon. All of the cousins. My brother, John, and I. Chris and Chelsea. Our mothers, Gramps and Gramma’s only children, didn’t want to have anything to do with going through their stuff. It was too painful for them. “Take what you want,” Mama said. “Whatever’s left, give to Goodwill.”

The four of us were barely in the front door when Chris stated, “I want the record player,” and headed straight to it.

“Uh-uh,” John said. “Not so fast.”

Chris stood up and turned towards John. “What? You think you get it? You don’t even like music. You don’t own a CD, let alone a record. You wouldn’t know what to do with it.”

“Yeah, but maybe Chelsea wants it or Sherri,” John replied, nodding his head in my direction.

“I don’t want anything else. You can all fight over everything else in this house, but the record player’s mine,” Chris said, taking a step towards John. It was amazing how quickly his anger had risen.

“Chris, you don’t get to just march in here and order us around and tell us what you get and what we get.”

“John, it’s okay,” Chelsea said. “I don’t want—”

“The record player is mine.” Chris walked over to John and jabbed him in the chest with each word. “End of story.”

John didn’t back down, he batted Chris’s hand away and turned a bright shade of red. “Don’t do that again.”

I did the only thing I could think of to do. While the two men, acting like little boys, stared each other down, I went to Gramps’s record player and turned it on. Once the disc was spinning, I picked up the needle and placed it on the edge. I turned the volume up so that the crackle and hiss filled the room, followed a few seconds later by the sound of a lone violin eeking out a mournful melody.

By the time the first song was over, the four of us stood huddling together, wiping our tears and promising to do better.

Mark Paxson spends his time toiling away as an attorney, filling the role of soccer and baseball dad, and writing when he can. He can be reached at mpacks[at]

“Gramps’s Record Player” took third place in‘s July Flash Fiction category.

Always Date an Honest Drug Dealer

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
Amy Rideg

My landlord planted corn last summer where he had previously envisioned putting a hot tub. He mused that he had planted the seeds too closely together but thought they would grow just the same. Before this, the most he ever tended the yard was to give it a mow when the weeds got waist high in areas visible to the neighbors. That yields some pretty hearty weeds considering he stands at about six-foot-three. I figured if he grew corn the way he grew weeds, we would have a fine harvest.

Yuki1 was his garden inspiration. He said she could plant what she wanted in his yard if he would be able to eat some of what she reaped. I wondered how the deal worked as I watched him tending to the patch of ground he had hoed, where he had planted corn seeds too closely together, and that she had only visited a handful of times. I figured it didn’t matter as long as the weeds were being whacked at more regular intervals.

My landlord is proof that Santa Barbara’s dating scene is great for people looking for a good time but not for those seeking a serious relationship. He is in his early forties and has yet to find The One. As my landlord resolved to grow corn and win Yuki, I also resolved to find love. I had been looking before, but I approached the search with fervor as I neared the big three-O. I pushed myself to be the socialite I never dreamed of becoming. I attended classes at the city college, went to sing karaoke downtown, frequented the fundraising nights at the art museum, and started dancing salsa. The year started off with some sparks, but by summertime things were sizzling.

I met Poetry Guy in poetry class at the city college. We went out for drinks and ended up watching a movie at his house after he promised it would be G-rated—his behavior, not the movie. He told me on our second date, a walk on the beach, that he had a habit of disappearing for weeks at a time, hindering his ability to have a real relationship. This was after he had disappeared for a week after our first date. Our next date was The Cure concert at the Santa Barbara Bowl, where we had front row seats and could see Robert Smith’s blood-red lipstick and mascara up close. Poetry Guy danced like he was trapped in a box and only mildly trying to escape, even after a couple glasses of wine. After the concert we drank more wine under his poetry-inspiring cyprus tree and listened to the waves crash against the cliffs. There was almost no moon that night and so we held onto each other, tripping our way back to his place. Inside, we watched his favorite documentary on birds and kissed while I fended off any further advances. The next day he came over to my house to watch a movie. I thought maybe he had broken his habit, but after that night I didn’t hear from him for several months.

Lesson #1: If he tells you he can’t have a real relationship, listen. And if he dances like your father and has a favorite bird documentary, run for the hills.

I met The Bartender while going to karaoke. I was swept away by his charm, the kind all bartenders possess to get good tips. My friends consistently told me that I could do better. We went to dinner at a newly-opened tapas bar, and I have learned to articulate “tapas” very carefully, since every coworker I told thought he had taken me to amateur night at the local gentleman’s club. I assured them no shirts came off that night. We savored the variety of tapas he ordered for us, then he burped and blew it from his lips like he was exhaling the smoke from a cigarette. Perhaps that should have tipped me off. When I failed to see him at the karaoke bar two consecutive weekends, I texted him and over lunch he told me he had been fired because one of his customers came to buy from him at the bar. Weed is a side business of his. How very considerate of him to tell me he’s a drug dealer before our meal began. Once he did, I felt at ease. Probably because I knew it would be the last time we would ever intentionally see each other.

Lesson #2: Always date an honest drug dealer. It saves you a lot of time.

Next came The Bartender’s friend, The Farmer. Perhaps I was foolish to date friends within the same time frame, but after I met The Farmer and exchanged numbers with him, it took him a whole month to get in touch with me since pistachio farms two hours outside of Santa Barbara proper get horrible cell phone reception. He told me he almost hadn’t contacted me because it had been so long, but his friend, The Bartender, told him he should. Our first date was sushi and Chardonnay, followed by a walk along the beach and a stop for ice cream. He then showed me his parents’ house and introduced me to his entire family. A few weeks after that, and after the end of The Bartender, he picked me up and drove me high up into the mountains overlooking Santa Barbara. He bought us sandwiches for the drive, which took a little over an hour. We hiked and then found a campsite where he prepared dinner. After devouring freshly-grilled salmon, garlic mashed potatoes, a garden salad with homemade dressing, and a glass of merlot, we changed into our bathing suits to sit in the natural hot springs among the rocks on the side of the mountain. It was romantic paradise. I never heard from him after that date, but did see him downtown months later with another date on his arm. No worries. I had a date on my arm too.

Lesson #3: If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. But while it lasts, enjoy getting pampered.

For her birthday, I bought my friend Daniela a VIP pass to Santa Barbara Museum Nights, an event a coworker had called a meat market. The same meat that frequented local bars was just dressed up in fancier clothes. Daniela donned a navy-blue tube dress while I wore an emerald-green halter dress. At the swanky cocktail party, Daniela exchanged compliments with a curly-haired fellow. He told her he liked her glasses and she said she liked his eyebrows. She went home with Eyebrow Guy while I hung out with a guy who volunteered at the museum event. I was much too sober for the drunken kisses he planted on me. And when I drove him home, he insisted that I pull over so he could throw some chairs situated on the side of the street. It was two nights before the Santa Barbara Solstice Parade, and locals had diligently placed their chairs along the street to save a spot to watch the parade. Diligence is ludicrous to a drunk, so the chairs landed haphazardly in someone’s lawn. When we got to his house, I went inside to use the restroom and was tackled on the bed. I excused myself. My distinct memories of that night were two black bananas sitting in a hanging wire basket in the kitchen and him running after me to make up for his behavior.

Lesson #4: Never enter a man’s house who has thrown furniture in your presence. Not even to use the bathroom.

The following week, Daniela asked me to go to Vegas. We left six hours behind schedule, stopping on our way out of town so she could give Eyebrow Guy a kiss goodbye. I had seen Rotten Bananas at Trader Joe’s when we went to get road trip goodies and Daniela made me text him afterwards, saying he deserved a second chance. We planned to watch the Euro 2008 soccer final the Sunday morning after Daniela and I returned from Vegas. Friday night Daniela and I went dancing at Pure, the nightclub in Caesar’s Palace, and met a group of guys who were Vegas regulars. We left the club in time for them to buy us a sunrise breakfast. Vegas #1 asked me to marry him as we passed by the hotel chapel, saying that our kids would be hot. After a nap, Daniela and I went to the pool where our Vegas #1s had said they would meet us. Instead, the #1s didn’t show up and we met round #2. It was my Vegas #2’s birthday, so we joined them in their room to celebrate with champagne. We saw the #1s in the lobby before getting dinner with the #2s. They told us they were turned away at the exclusive pool party and asked us to join them for dinner. I reluctantly said goodbye to my #1 since we had promised to dine with the #2s. After a late dinner with the #2s, Daniela was gambling and I wanted to take a nap before driving home, so I went with Vegas #2 back to his room. He immediately started tugging at my clothes and putting his unwelcome hands all over me. I escaped and called Vegas #1 for comfort. He asked me to come to the club where he was dancing, but Daniela and I were done with Vegas. A week later I left Vegas #1 a voicemail, thinking we’d had a connection. He never called me back.

Lesson #5: Guys you meet in Vegas are not interested in relationships, so don’t attempt to contact them after crossing the Nevada state line. Even if they have proposed marriage and mentioned your future children.

I was running on almost no sleep when I met Rotten Bananas to watch the soccer game. He bought me lunch afterwards and we talked more with the friends who joined us than with each other. We never went out again but wave when we see each other at museum events.

Lesson #6: If there’s no chemistry without alcohol, say goodbye. But free steak bites at a local pub almost make up for Rotten Bananas.

The Friend was a guy who I’d known casually for years. He’d had a crush on me in the past and I always wondered if a relationship were possible with him. He was passionate about the Pittsburgh Steelers, still lived among beer cans and empty pizza boxes, and was about twice my size. Nonetheless, I thought I’d take a chance. After we hung out multiple times among friends after years of minimal contact, we finally went to lunch, sans friends, at a popular place by the beach. We had good conversation and he picked up the tab. On the ride home, the date took a wrong turn. When I said my landlord cooked sometimes, he proceeded to say he couldn’t believe that my landlord let me out of the kitchen. I told him he was losing points and I suppose he figured he had lost them all because we never went out again.

Lesson #7: If you haven’t been out with him after you’ve known him several years, there’s probably a subconscious reason. And if he thinks you belong in the kitchen, he wants a maid not a girlfriend.

I went with my friend Marcela to the monthly event at the art museum. She mingled solo for a bit and brought back a guy who had been flirting with her. Since she has a boyfriend, she thought she would help me out. Immediately I pegged him as an Asian Lover. He was a ghostly-white guy flirting with my Filipina friend, his last girlfriend was Japanese, and when I told him I was half Japanese, his eyebrows raised and he squared his body towards me. I had been targeted. Our date was at a Vietnamese restaurant and the Asian Lover seemed just as drunk in the middle of the work day as the night I had met him. He droned on about how he owned a house and had a great job and then split the less-than-twenty-dollar tab down to the fact that he had an iced tea and I only consumed water. I didn’t respond to his text inviting me out again.

Lesson #8: It doesn’t matter if he has a house and a cushy job if he’s not courteous enough to pick up a small-change tab on a first date. Who knows, maybe he didn’t want to pay for the non-Asian half of me.

One of my landlord’s coworkers had been dumped earlier that year, so when he started contacting me on Facebook, I took it as more than just friendly interest. The Coworker asked me to go out for dinner to enjoy some Italian food and beer. The conversation never halted, mainly due to the fact that he filled every empty moment with stories or casual comments. We walked around downtown since Old Spanish Days, better known to locals as Fiesta, was in full swing and people were out listening to the live music, throwing confetti-filled eggs at each other, and making their way into crowded bars. I was neither excited nor upset as the date ended. Our next date was over a gelato and he kept the words flowing while I watched his gelato melt. After that, I let our Facebook communication fizzle.

Lesson #9: If the first date leaves you ambivalent, give it a second chance. Checking your watch every five minutes is not considered ambivalence.

I never considered the Skinny Dude in a Hat who frequented karaoke until he told me he’d quit smoking and drinking. I didn’t know if it was for good, but it was enough to get me to go to dinner with him one night before singing. He was a writer too and we exchanged stories we’d written. He made me laugh all through dinner and I thought his tireless wit might help me overlook the balding head under the well-worn hat. We ran into The Farmer and his date on our way into the karaoke bar and I was grateful to match him date for date. After we got inside, the ex-girlfriend of Skinny Dude in a Hat appeared. He split his time between us, which led me to believe that maybe we weren’t really on a date but that I was just his jealousy generator. I sang a duet with my friend, Mr. Wannabe American Idol, and during the instrumental, he asked me to go to coffee. I accepted. Skinny Dude in a Hat seemed surprised that I didn’t follow up on our literature swapping.

Lesson #10: If his ex just so happens to be on your date with you, you are probably a pawn in the “I want you back” game. Bald heads can be overlooked, but jealous little exes cannot.

Mr. Wannabe American Idol had offered to buy me a drink many times. I turned him down because I’m not a big drinker and also because I was only interested in him as a friend. Our coffee date turned into a gelato date since I don’t drink coffee. He impressed me by showing up half an hour late and not calling to inform me of his tardiness until I was about to leave. Besides his late entrance, I was still put off by his unusual speech patterns and perpetual smile, both of which seemed false and theatrical, much like his singing. Something about gelato makes me want to check the time, and I couldn’t wait to leave that date to go to my salsa class.

Lesson #11: Your first impression is usually right; people seldom get better with time. Especially if it’s the clock ticking as you wait for them to show up.

My salsa class turned out to be a date in disguise. A sexy, Latin Dance Machine had asked me to check out another salsa class. He was already there and told me we should go walk around since they were reviewing the basics. He asked if I wanted to go for coffee and I smiled at how I was considering drinking coffee with him when I bluntly refused to drink it with Mr. Wannabe American Idol. We ended up sitting on a bench, talking and then returning to the dance class. Our first real date was another night of dancing. He was waiting outside of the establishment and paid for both of us. We danced for hours and he bought us water during breaks. As the night waned, he asked for a ride home. He held my hand as we walked to my car and opened the car door for me. We sat and listened to music, singing to one another in Spanish and English. The Latin Dance Machine danced through my brain non-stop. My sister and my mom hadn’t met him but they were wary since he was younger than me, was not as gainfully employed, and also because he reminded them of a past relationship of mine that had ended badly. I decided to give him a fair try and he still opens my car door for me almost a year later.

Lesson #12: Listen to what your own heart and mind are telling you. Your family can only see the surface.

My landlord didn’t impress Yuki with his corn-growing skills. He harvested it too late and only had one ear that was entirely edible. The rest had black rot and worms. He had to chop off the tops of those ears to salvage the good parts.

Final Lesson: Planting seeds too close together can yield a large harvest, though only one might survive. You just have to chop the heads off the rest.

Names have been changed for the privacy of individuals mentioned.


Amy Rideg is a software engineer in Santa Barbara. She completed a minor in English at California Polytechnic, San Luis Obispo. Besides writing, she enjoys dancing, singing, and learning foreign languages. E-mail: Amy.Rideg[at]

Gym Bag Steak

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Timothy L. Marsh

When I knew Conrad he was a sick old man who drank too much and couldn’t walk anymore. He watched cooking shows and World War II documentaries and occasionally listened to Johnny Cash records. He lived with one of his daughters in a house he’d built with his own two hands in 1957 when whiskey cost a dollar and Newfoundlanders still did things like build their own houses.

The house was going to hell because Conrad couldn’t walk anymore and none of his four sons wanted to get their hands dirty. His sons were all some kind of businessman. They wouldn’t come over to fix leaks or tighten doorknobs. They didn’t want to deal with it. Conrad sat by while his daughter relied on professionals who overcharged for repairs and didn’t show up on time or do the job correctly. Conrad would watch grimly from his chair while the repairmen performed their services and when they left he would gripe and point out everything they’d done wrong but of course his daughter never listened. He was old and couldn’t walk and didn’t know what was what anymore.

“It’s goddamn awful getting old,” Conrad would complain, “and even worse getting old around your children.”

Conrad was dying of a dozen conditions of which uselessness was the most malignant. He drank fat glasses of Johnnie Walker and had his own easy chair in the front room that nobody else ever sat in because it was always as if he was sitting there anyway. Once he’d been a great craftsman and had built houses for every member of his family, even the ones he didn’t like. Then his knees gave up the ghost and his hands rusted shut with arthritis. Out of ten once nimble and efficient fingers only two had any functionability, a thumb and one finger which could still be peeled open with the aid of his daughter and used to feebly grip his whiskies.

He didn’t go outside anymore, but sometimes he would turn the dusty venetians and gaze out the window past the front yard where Infancy had wandered into Boyhood, Boyhood into Youth, Youth into sober and heedful Manhood, and Manhood into Age, the snowy ice-summit, where he perched trembling and malfunctioned, trying to make out all the countries and climates his life had crossed.

Conrad had many stories but there was one story he always told. Whenever I came over he would track this story down and proudly spread it out before me like the trophy hide of a rare animal that didn’t exist in the United States or even in Newfoundland anymore.

It was a story from his youth.

He was a young man, not yet out of his twenties. It was a brisk summer eve and all the boys were over for a cookout. He had just gotten married and built their first home. His wife was pregnant with their first son. The future was a honeyed fragrance.

There was an old man carrying a gym bag and hanging around the neighborhood that day. Nobody had ever seen him before. The old man wandered around the property as though he was lost and then he came over to Conrad’s fence and stared at the cookout. He was crippled on one side of his body. The right side of his face dipped below the left like a partly fallen banner. Maybe he’d had a stroke.

It was a little uncomfortable. Everybody at the cookout was very young and fresh and the old man was very old and life-walloped. They didn’t have much in common with him.

The old man didn’t say anything for a long time and then all at once he called for the cookout’s attention. “Boys,” he almost groaned. His voice sounded like rheumatism.

Everybody ignored him. They didn’t know the old man and figured he was there to beg for food or money.

“Boys,” he called again, louder this time, and this time Conrad went over.

The old man didn’t introduce himself. He didn’t say anything. He set the gym bag on the ground. Then he dropped slowly to a knee and unzipped the bag and presented a dozen fresh wet steaks sealed in plastic just like the grocery store.

That was because they had come from the grocery store.

The old man had stolen or bulk-bought the steaks and was following the scent of summer barbeques to every house, selling them. Conrad was incredulous. “Are you serious?” he laughed. “Gym bag steaks?”

The old man just knelt there. There was nothing on his face but all the years that added up to ending his life selling meat from a bag.

Conrad looked back at the boys. He was a moral young man who believed that God kept a gracious finger on every life and two fingers on the lives of the charitable.

He took out his wallet and bought a gym bag steak for seventy-five cents. The old man took the money without thanks. He dropped the coins into the bag and then zipped the bag up and faded with the dusk-light into the breezy summer eve.

Everybody said it was disgusting and probably dangerous. They told Conrad there was plenty of food from people he knew to fill him up. His wife threatened to leave him if he died of food poisoning. But Conrad wasn’t about to waste his money. He put that steak on the grill and cooked it medium-rare and when he took his first bite his senses rejoiced in the surprising and savory warm succulence, and he literally gasped. He cut the steak into pieces and served everyone a bite and they all agreed it was a remarkable cut. The perfect steak for his life.

For the rest of that summer Conrad kept an eye out for that old man. Every time he had a barbeque he’d start the grill early and let the aroma of meat and charcoal carry with the wind, casting a line for the old man and his bag of delicious protein. The old man never came around again. Maybe it was a one-time only offer. Maybe the old man moved on to other barbeques in other towns. There was plenty of speculation.

Conrad always told that story but I couldn’t say whether or not he liked to tell it. In whichever case, he always made sure to mention that it was the best steak he ever ate. Whenever he talked about his life you could see that steak in his eyes, warm in the mouth, perfectly cut, fresh and full of juice.

“Currently I am on a folklore fellowship at Memorial University, Newfoundland. In the last year my work has appeared or been accepted in several literary magazines, including The Crab Orchard Review, The Nashwaak Review, The New Quarterly, The Newfoundland Quarterly, Green Hills Literary Lantern and The Oregon Literary Review, among others.” E-mail: timlmar[at]

After Seven Long Years

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
Sheela Jaywant

It must have been around three in the afternoon, because my son had already had his lunch and had sat down to do his homework. His school-timings were from seven in the morning till one, and by the time he took the rickshaw home, it was 1:30. My dog and I, we usually waited for him outside the compound. It was maybe 49 degrees Celsius, probably even higher in the direct sun that day, for I distinctly remember we stayed in the shade of the khejdi tree that stood sentinel at the gate. I observed the sunflowers, drooping, yet facing stoically upwards: the stalks were nearly seven feet high and the blooms six inches across.

My maid, who watered the garden, had commented but a few weeks ago, “Madam, we haven’t had such lovely flowers for nearly seven years now.”

“Touch wood,” I reacted.

“This year, the crop is good, too,” she went on. “Jowari, bajri, ragi, the rural crops are ready for harvest. The water-levels in the wells and baodis have been better. They say the near the canals, the kinoo trees have borne fruit—not since little Sita was born have we seen such greenery.” And Sita, her daughter, was now seven years old.

In Jodhpur, at the edge of the Thar, in India’s Rajasthan, greenery is a rare luxury. It’s a semi-arid zone bordering a cruel, lifeless desert. The neem is the one tree that isn’t stark and thorny. The rest of the flora comprises tall shrubs that stray wandering camels munch upon. To have a garden like mine, a small patch, really, was the height of luxury. Precious water couldn’t be ‘wasted’ so we’d recycle and channel our kitchen overflow onto it. If you looked closely, the water looked ‘dirty,’ but it nourished the seeds, and the plants gave us great pleasure.

This was a good year, we’d guessed, and they should last through the winter, from September till February. (Most years, we got the municipal water supply for about half-an-hour every day, and we had to fill up drums and buckets and make do with whatever we could fill. We couldn’t afford to buy water from the private tankers.) Even the reptiles in our compound, the monitor lizards, and the owls sensed the goodness around them. Flocks of mynas and babblers chirped from dawn to dusk, feasting on seeds and nectar. The bunches of papayas were ripening from yellow to saffron, the ‘drum-stick’ trees were full of lacy, white inflorescences. Squirrels kept scurrying to and from the branches. We had to tie the pregnant bitter-gourd and pumpkin creepers that climbed our wire fencing to keep them from trailing on the ground. This was going to be a season of plenty.

“Ma,” Saurabh told me, “I think there’s going to be a dust-storm.”

Normally, I’d get irritated with any distraction, knowing well how he loved to wriggle out of doing math or Sanskrit. Besides, the season for dust-storms was over; it was the end of August. But, one could never take a chance. A glance outside the grilled windows seemed to confirm what he was saying. The sky was getting hazy; if we weren’t quick enough, the fine dust would creep in through every tiny crack and crevice, hang around the rooms, making us gasp uncomfortably, before it settled on the furniture. It’d take us days to brush and sweep it off.

“Hurry,” I barked, as I scurried from one window to another of that huge colonial bungalow, locking each pane tightly, drawing the curtains, sealing the gaps with wet balls or twisted ‘ropes’ of crumpled newspaper.

Then, “Lock that stupid animal up,” I said, annoyed at Lopsang, our energetic Labrador, who believed we were doing all this to entertain him; he was eagerly dragging and chewing our careful stuffing to shreds.

“Come, Loppy, come,” Saurabh patiently coaxed and tricked him into a bedroom, shut the door, and as we later discovered, ‘forgot’ to latch it tightly.

The sky seemed to be getting overcast, for the blinding sunlight was appearing less white; maybe it wasn’t a dust-storm after all. I thought, “It’s going to drizzle. Much needed, this rain. For years, there hasn’t been any. This year, already we’ve had a couple of strong pre-monsoon showers and that’s how the fields are green.”

The soil in Jodhpur is clayey: even a couple of inches of precious rain gets soaked up, the baodis and lakes fill up with water and weather stays moist and humid for many days. The soil is nutritious, and baby shoots really, well, shoot up from the ground, a pleasure to behold. No wonder the farmers heartily celebrate such years, such weather, when the Gods are exceptionally kind. Why, this year the spinach, radish, brinjals and okhras were so fresh, so tasty, so aplenty we actually avoided eating sprouted pulses, our staple through the lean months.

The phone rang. I presumed it was my husband, wanting to inform me that he’d be late yet again.

The urgency in his “hullow” made my heart lurch for a fraction of a second. Bad news? We lived in an Air Force world, and fatal accidents were part of the risky profession of fighter flying.

“Ya??” I said, bracing myself for whatever he’d say next.

Unexpectedly, he urged, “Hurry and lock all the doors and windows, there are insects raining from the sky.”

“What? I don’t understand.” He wasn’t one to play practical jokes. Had I heard wrong? “What?” I asked him again.

He repeated, slowly and clearly this time: “Yes, in-sects. Locust-clouds are over us. Locusts. Hurry up and do as you’re told.”

Our house was sealed already, for we’d anticipated dust. Saurabh and I stood at the window, watching the greyness get darker, like it was going to pour. Just then, one of his friends came by on a cycle and stopped at our gate. We saw him get off, put it on the stand, then stretch a hand out and look at the sky. We saw a look of great surprise and fright come over his face. His eyes widened, he flailed his hands about as if fighting off some invisible attacker, slapping the air, and raced towards our house. As we opened the door, he shouted, “Saurabh, get a stick, something’s falling from the sky and it’s alive.”

Moments later, we were all out, Lopsang included (it never did take him long to discover some way, violent mostly, to escape from any room), surrounded by confusion. I instinctively shut the door behind me. The dog was yelping, pawing and attacking these strange creatures that fell so hard and fast, snapping at them, shaking his head vigorously. The boys were armed with badminton racquets and brooms, thwacking ‘the enemy’ with all their might, running helter-skelter, helpless against the sheer numbers. The servant and her children were wailing like it was doomsday. The insects that fell on the cement drive made light metallic sounds: ‘tuk-tuk, tuk, tuk.’ I was hypnotized: it was raining locusts. This was unbelievable. The shiny black thingies were flying in all directions, finger-long, slender, hard, thudding onto the roof, tapping menacingly at the glass panes. The enormous, grey, monstrous cloud was really a swarm. It loomed dangerously in the now invisible sky, frightening us, not too high above us. This was the look of Death, coming in from the West, as if directly from the sun, now on its downward journey for the day. Many locusts settled upon the plants, the hedge, the trees.

“Woh, oh-oh,” yelled the boys excitedly, “Look-at-that-look-there-look-here-look-look-look.”

The pretty yellow flowers, the green leaves… were gone. In seconds, these creatures had chewed them to nothingness. Other than the stalks, the bare branches, we could see nothing. The weeds, the grass, the trees, all stripped bare, all gone.

The cries of the servants were getting comprehensible: what I was witnessing was a tiny episode in a Silent Calamity. The larger destruction was happening miles away; farmers must be in despair, I thought. Their precious crop, the harvest, the result of so many months, nay, years of slogging, was being reduced to nothing at all by these migrants from Hell. Famine, drought weren’t newspaper headlines here. They were realities that drew visitors to the crematorium.

On the road, the scooterists halted their vehicles and ran inside the closest houses or shops for shelter. Unlike in the rains, there was no way they could stand ‘neath trees or awnings. Cows, goats, cats, fled where they could. We stopped our battle. We gave up. There was a sudden drop in energy levels and we watched, helpless, frail, afraid of the might of the locusts. Millions of them. Those that reached the ground seemed to disappear below the surface. They sat on their tails menacingly, then rotated and screwed their way downwards.

Dreadful, fascinating moments, those, frozen forever in our minds. The ‘attack’ lasted for less than two hours. We saw the ‘cloud’ buzz away to some other hapless destination.

Later, there was gossip that they were driven here by jealous enemies. There were rumours that wicked people had cast the Evil Eye over this kingdom (democracy or not, the locals still ‘belong’ to the Maharaja by some complicated social custom). Someone said the swarm traveled from Africa across the sea and from here it’d go towards parts of China. Politicians had a field day offering packets of relief, making full use of this unexpected opportunity. The ruling government had to declare it an emergency. A pest-control company hired helicopters to spray hundreds of hectares with toxic chemicals to kill the beasts. One of our neighbours, a scientist, told us, “The female lays her eggs about six inches down in the soil. The larvae bore their way out to whatever remains above and eat it all up as they grow into nasty adulthood.” Whatever was left to eat.

To kill them, the soil itself has to be ‘treated’. This poisoned soil won’t support any crop for a couple of years, he said. I was in tears. I have seen streams of sweat pouring down the foreheads and backs of the simple rural folk here as they tilled their meager land. Their ambitions are simple: grow food, store it, eat it until the next good-rain year. They’ve shared their spare bounty with us. A bunch of thin green pods, a sprig of mint from their backyards. Some chillies, some garlic. Anything edible is valuable here.

When the weather-gods let them down, the locals flock to the towns in search of back-breaking labour: breaking stones or ferrying sand manually in metal vessels perched on their heads. That’s the only way they can stave off starvation. Life is hard, but there’s money, there’s food. When there’s no rain, there’s drought, when there’s a good crop, these locusts pay a visit. Yet, they don’t give up the toil. Ploughing, sowing, growing, cutting, threshing, sorting, storing… routine perfected over generations, not to be given up by bad naseeb.

Mercifully, even this year, a part of the crop had been harvested and stored in tin-sheet barns, safe from obvious harm. It was treated, guarded against rodents, fungus, mould. It wasn’t going to be enough to last the district for even a year, but something was better than nothing. Many of the grafted plants, some of the ber trees, weren’t affected.


I once asked a neighbour whom I met again long years after we’d left Jodhpur, what she remembered most about the place.

“The palaces?”

“Oh yes.”

“The exotic, coloured costumes, the royalty, the old-world charm?”

“Oh yes.”

“The rich musical heritage, the rugged terrain, the starlit skies?”

“Oh yes.”

Then she turned and looked me in the eyes. “Do you remember that afternoon when… you know, the planet seemed to turn against us, when we saw what Death looked like?”

It was my turn to answer: “Oh yes.”

That was one summer afternoon in the midst of a harvest season I wasn’t likely to ever forget.


Sheela Jaywant is a Mumbai based author of six books, which include: Quilted (stories of middle class India); Melting Moments (anthology of essays); The Liftman and Other Stories. She’s written a play, and is a columnist. She earns a living working in the administration of a hospital. E-mail: sheelajaywant[at]

Survival of the Fittest

Bonnets’s Pick
Tamara K. Adelman

I’m forced to relax when I arrive on the island before my bike and bag. So, I head to the beach with my book, Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales. At first I balked at the subtitle, Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why. After all, it’s just an Ironman: a hopefully safe race that happens by choice. I mean, you do sign up for these things.

The book is not about Ironmans—although swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112, then running 26.2, a full marathon, might kill some people—it’s about how fighter pilots learn to override their emotions and their instincts at crucial moments, how they focus so supremely that at times, they don’t even know who their mothers are. It’s helping me to develop the proper mindset for my fourth Ironman race, becoming a sort of bible that comforts me from my bedside table, and I’m grateful to my friend back in LA who recommended it.

Tears come to my eyes the next day when I go back to the airport and my bike box is there; partially I’m relieved, but now I have no excuse to get out of doing the race.

Ironman Lanzarote is known in the triathlon world as the hardest race there is. Perfect for me. It’s not that I’m not scared. I am. Its reputation as a survival race frightens me. Ironmans are hard enough, I know, last year I nearly perished on a course in Malaysia, but it inspired to me to sign up for Lanzarote. What makes this race so brutal is the bike course, climbing over 8,000 feet, with savage winds whipping across lava fields that have short little walls built up to protect vegetation, not triathletes.

Lanzarote is one of the Canary Islands, off the northwest coast of Africa and owned by Spain. A lot of people ask me if this is my first Ironman.

Even in Ironman, people judge you by your looks, your equipment. I try not to get intimidated because I know that I’ve trained up some of the most arduous climbs in Malibu and Ventura County, up Yerba Buena, Deer Creek, and Piuma. These climbs are worlds in themselves, and sometimes my legs turned so slowly all I could do was count to mark my progress. My legs are big and strong and I hope in some ways intimidating, even if I don’t look like a runner.

The race has a graduate school feel to it. Racers have been in the sport for a while: nobody is fat, nobody is slow, and there are not a lot of women. I’m worried I won’t make the bike cut off. I’d been warned that it may be too windy to eat and drink while biking, as I usually do. I might have to stop, put my feet down. Nutrition is a crucial part of successful Ironman racing; will I lose too much time?

There are two other athletes on the van tour of the course, and none of us can stand to look over the side when we reach the highest climb, at The Mirador del Rio. It is too scary. Of course this is where our ironman bike ride will culminate. Oh, to be a tourist admiring the view.

There are as many Americans registered as there are people from the Netherlands: 24. I have never had anything in common with anyone from the Netherlands before, and I enjoy meeting Edward, who is as big as a giant, on the bus tour. I feel instantly attracted to him, but we’re here to race, so that’s what we talk about. He’s been here all week training in the wind, trying to decide if he will use a disc wheel, which is a solid carbon wheel that is heavy, on the back of his bike. They usually produce a faster time, but are not recommended for this race because of the side winds. He thinks because he is larger athlete it will be OK for him, that he won’t blow around too much on the course. He wants to qualify for the world championship in Kona.

When we get back from our tour, we get a coffee, take a swim, and later have dinner where he shows up dressed to the hilt with nicer shoes than me, and Italian sunglasses pushed up on his head.

I stay in a hotel in Puerto del Carmen, overlooking the blue space between islands. The Mediterranean is a shimmering sheath at night. I’ve never had such a good view of a swim course, but I’m worried about the sharp left turn four-hundred meters in—not that I’ll miss the turn and swim to Africa, but how I’ll get around it without getting swum over by the 1200 other racers. There is no fresh water on the island—the water supply has to be desalinated before you can drink it, and it still tastes weird; there is a white residue on everything.

The next day Cheryl from my tri club arrives. She’s brought her friend Pam who is not racing. I’ve never met either of them before—there are 1200 athletes in the group—but they’re the closest things to friends from home I have here. Cheryl’s rented a car. I’ve seen the bike course, I say, and I don’t think we can drive it. I’ve met someone here—from the Netherlands, named Edward, and I think we should invite him to come with us, and make him drive. She is astounded, but I tell her, take my word for it.

That night, my heart rate increases as I try to fall sleep to images of the cyclists I’d seen struggling against the wind and the beautiful empty scenery. I go into the bathroom and get half a sleeping pill, which is unusual for me, but I’m glad when my eyes get heavy. I brought them in case I had trouble with the time change, not anxiety.

We start our bike course tour in the smallest rental car imaginable with Edward, the giant, driving. Pam has to sit behind him since she is so small. We all have maps and are like a group of golfers in a cart with our commentary about the road surfaces, false flats, and blowing flags. There’s only one fight: me backseat driving Edward, but to my credit I defend him for thinking we missed a left turn before we came to the land of 1000 Palms and after the hillside restaurant. We continue the great debate on whether he should ride his disc wheel.

Driving along the bike course through the towns of Yaiza, Timanfaya, Teguise, Tinajo, and Haria, Haria stands out as a romantic place that makes me want to drink beer and take a nap, which I would do under different circumstances. Arriving at the Club La Santa, the race headquarters, an athletic complex used for European training camps, Edward manages to make his own parking spot wedging between a pole and another car, a reverse parallel park, displaying a skill set that we Americans wouldn’t even think of. On the way into the compound, Cheryl tells me she’ll help Edward pick up his girlfriend who’s flying in tomorrow from Croatia. I figure she’s probably a model, and maybe he could have said something to me in all the time we’ve spend together, but I can’t worry about this now, the race is two days away.

La Santa is a “barracks” in the middle of nowhere. It is an athlete’s version of a resort boiled down to the essentials: a massive compound with a made-for-windsurfing waterway and swimming pools the right size with the proper lane markers. I buy a T-shirt that says “Enjoy the Club La Santa Lifestyle.” Now I’ve really been somewhere. I find the simplicity of the place appealing. The Germans are here; they do all the good races—and they are fast. The Belgians are here, too; they’re easy to spot on training rides, as they don’t wear helmets.

On race day, the swim goes well for me. The water is turquoise and little fish are visible below. It’s two loops, 2.4 miles, and I wish it were longer, like five miles. I’ve shaved five minutes off my time since last year in Malaysia, and I’m glad I took those swim lessons.

The bike course is like a picture book open before me. Caves, camels, castles, mineral lakes, and wild surfers lend drama to this arid landscape spotted with low white buildings on thin roads lined with bougainvillea. When I reach the spot where Mark Herremans, the pro who is now paralyzed, crashed, I slow down. Sadly there are racers who have not heeded the caution signs. It’s hard to watch racers go away in a medical vehicle. But there’s a German girl named Diana ahead and we play cat and mouse on the bike—she stops twice to collect herself and as I pass her I encourage her and she does the same for me. I tell her, it’s all downhill from here. Her accent, “It vould be nice,” echoes in my ears as it has been my only verbal input all day. Despite her complaints, I love every minute of my ride, especially when I hit the 5-6 hour mark, knowing I have it in the bag at the 2000-foot peak of Mirador del Rio—overlooking the other islands in the Canaries. I feel like I can almost see Africa beyond. It’s the most dramatic thing I’ve ever seen, but it’s given more personal meaning because I turned the pedals to get here. Robert, the newbie from Ireland, is near me now and we share a moment of camaraderie until I leave him behind on the descent.

Some round-a-bouts have me worried on the way in—after Malaysia last year I developed an irrational fear of getting lost on a bike course. But, I spend the last 40 miles feeling good in a way that didn’t feel suspiciously “too good” in terms of pacing and passing people easily. There’s some fast sections due to back wind and downhills with new pavement and here I’m glad to be heavier than a toothpick as I travel fast, reaching a top speed of 45 miles per hour. The best advice I got on how to approach this bike course came from Donald, who’d done the race four times before. Treat it like sailing, he said, expect wind everywhere, and have a little bit of fun with it. Donald says the race is purification for him, which gets me to wondering what he’s doing the rest of his year.

I reach the dismount line, blowing kisses to the officials and I would kiss my bike seat too, if I had not peed on it twice. I’m afraid to take my bike shoes off since I don’t have any socks on and the pavement looks hot, but I reach the transition tent having biked an 8:15, not super fast, but solid. Pam rubs more sunblock on me and it feels like a massage.

The inevitable worst part of the race is here, the marathon. It’s four loops, 6.2 miles each, along the main drag with lots of lights and people. I figure I’ll time my first loop and go from there. If it was just one loop I could do it in an hour, but since there’s four it will be slower. I see Cheryl as I head out and she’s walking, holding her stomach. Running has always been unnatural to me, my most difficult challenge, but I have trained hard. Still, my loops take longer and longer, which is not the way you want it to go. The fast people are finished with the race. There’s still company out here, but less with each loop. The coveted wristbands that mark our laps are my only hope; they feel like “Wilson” did to Tom Hanks in Castaway. It’s 5:00 PM and I’ve been on this race course since 7:00 AM.

In Deep Survival, people who were lost at sea or in the mountains survived by keeping a schedule of certain tasks, celebrating small accomplishments, and staying focused. I do this in my race. On the run, I take a salt tab every 30 minutes like I have done since I got on the bike in the morning. I’m so focused that I reset my watch on each loop to follow a schedule. Using the top and bottom of the hour is easiest. I have to pee but I’m afraid it will be too distracting. I celebrate sometimes just getting to the next light post.

According to the book, the survival experience for those who triumphed was a transformation. In some ways it meant going against their instinct: not giving up because you are exhausted. By the third loop of the run I am completely demoralized, but I refuse to lose my form even though I’m not really running anymore. I’m moving without putting my heels down, like Ian taught me, but I’m gaining little ground. I’m a tinder bundle trying to ignite. If somebody blows on me I will catch. I don’t want to disappoint Ian and Cherie (my coaches) but I have the worst blisters I’ve ever had and I’m not good at this, I think. Maybe I can tell the race people that this is hard enough, so can I have the medal anyway. But then somebody with a crisp British accent, yells, “Tamara, you are brilliant!” and I believe it.

Other people along the way say a word or two as I go by. “Anima” is one. I figure out this means, “Amazing.” Also, I hear, “Respect.” I really like this country, the people here.

I sing songs to myself—or rather broken phrases from songs: “Hey Delilah, don’t you worry, anymore…” something I’d heard at the pre-race meeting. I make a promise to myself to buy the whole CD and enjoy driving and listening to it while re-living my race from the seat of my car eating ice cream. It isn’t until halfway through the final lap, when I know I have it, that I let myself pee. It is better than ice cream.

The finish line looms, and my transformation is almost complete. I realize that in spite of the training and support from others, when my plane crashes in the Andes, when my pick comes loose in an Everest crevasse, I need to be there for myself. Even if I go to pieces, the pieces would be greater than the whole of who I used to be. A piece of me would be enough.

The lights glow ahead of me, the sound of the crowd buzzes louder. I hear real music and start running fast, getting happy: I’m on fire. At 16 hours and 23 minutes, it isn’t my best time, but it is my best race, my best finish ever.


E-mail: tadelman[at]


Ana’a Pick
Robert Wexelblatt

Uncle Richard rubbed his hands together and looked benignly down on us. “Good. You’re here. Now, what’ll it be? Gin with your tonic, or vodka?”

I turned toward Bonnie.

“Vodka,” she said eagerly.

“And for you?” asked Uncle Richard with a kindly smile.

“Same’s fine.”

He started toward the kitchen then turned back. “Lime?”

We both nodded, good little guests side by side on the white couch.

Uncle Richard’s house was very white. It was spacious, attractive, well furnished, filled with light, imaginatively landscaped, and centrally air-conditioned. The cathedral ceiling soared so loftily above our heads I felt like a French peasant at Chartres. I’d expected something more cramped. For their first three golden years Uncle Richard and Aunt Edith had occupied a one-bedroom condo in Delray Beach. Then they’d decided that, what with their investments gushing cash, they could spring for a bigger place. So they bought into a new development on an ex-orange grove. Here, my uncle had explained, they could comfortably put up guests, their two kids, the grandchildren, old neighbors who’d yet to emigrate. Our own invitation was a standing one, though this was the first we’d made use of it. Bonnie and I were both working hard; we were on the make. She was busy becoming indispensable at her pharmaceutical company while I was trying to do the same at the university where I was second-in-command of the Office of the Registrar.

My uncle’s open invitation was sincere. He and I had hit it off when I was a baby, precursor of a new generation. We’d always been fond of each other and talked, with ready sympathy and even candor. As my somewhat stuffy father’s easy-going younger brother Richard had a measure of authority for me but without the electric charge. As his nephew I afforded some of the advantages of a son without any responsibility or risk of resentment. As a boy, what I’d found irresistible about my Uncle Richard was the way he not only licensed my irreverence but shared and encouraged it.

When my aunt and uncle were getting ready to move he’d said, “Come down any time” with so much sincerity I almost believed he needed my company. Then, only a month before they were to move into their dream house, Aunt Edith died of a stroke. “Just fell down in the parking lot of the Winn-Dixie,” Richard told me over the phone. He repeated this sentence when I flew down for the funeral and every time I’d phoned him since, which was once a week. Either he couldn’t get over the suddenness of it or he was affronted that the solemnity of death should be smirched by the banality of a supermarket.

By way of solace I quoted Cicero’s prayer to him: “The lightning before the doctors.”

“Well, there is that,” he allowed.

Richard had moved into the house anyway and ever since had found himself at one end of a conveyor belt trundling friends and relatives to his door. In October, surveying his social calendar with me, he’d confided that a spell of solitude wouldn’t be unwelcome. “I feel I’m neglecting our—excuse me—my new friends.”

I didn’t find the prospect of begging for a time-slot entirely agreeable.

What sent me and Bonnie south was the shock of our circle’s first divorce, or the recognition forced on us by it. Fred and Mariel had seemed happier than we were and better matched. They were always smooching in public, touching. Their separation provoked Bonnie and me to begin probing the fissures in our own relations, and it seemed to us they were wide and getting wider. This scared us, as if we might divorce too, even without actually willing it. It was a rough autumn, furtively inspecting each other for marks of ennui or exasperation, signs of disgust or infidelity. We’d only been married a few years and should have been thinking of children; now we were afraid to have any. We didn’t ignore the tension. On the contrary, it became our chief topic of conversation. Bonnie talked about our problems openly and exhaustively while I did it gingerly. We were like two untrained soldiers discussing how to disarm an unfamiliar bomb, only Bonnie thought we could fix it and I wasn’t so sure.

“For God’s sake, let’s go away,” Bonnie urged one frigid January night as we lay in bed after a round of picking at half-formed scabs.


“Just for a few days. Away from here.”

I was dubious. “Where?”

“Some place warm. Some place with sun and a beach. We could go see your Uncle Richard. He’s so sweet and I had to miss the funeral and he did say any time.”

This was an unexpected suggestion. Perhaps Bonnie reckoned the sight of a lonesome widower would impress on me the advantages of even a compromised conjugal life.

“Yes, we’re married people,” I’d been saying, “that’s our identity now. We crossed that particular line. I’m what people call a married man and you’re a married woman. But that can change overnight.”

“Marriage isn’t an abstract condition, or it shouldn’t be,” she’d replied thoughtfully. “You aren’t married the way you’re, say, Buddhist or brown-eyed. It isn’t existential. You get married to someone. We’re married to each other.”

I wanted to battle against being comforted but I also yearned to lose the argument, if that’s what it was. “And what if you decide you don’t want to be married to me any more, even if you like being married? Or turn it around. What if you still love me but just can’t bear being married to me.”

“But I do want to. You’re the one who isn’t sure, isn’t fully committed.”

“That’s not true.”

She was exasperated. “Well, then why are we—?”

“I don’t know. Jesus, I really don’t.”

In those days I permitted all sort of possibilities to pass through me like cosmic rays, everything from adultery to having triplets to outright desertion. My daydreams were passive and so I felt no responsibility for them. Bonnie, I assumed, was doing the same. We weren’t accountable to each other for this private subversion but there it was. I began to feel our marriage becoming a fragile bridge that would collapse if it had to bear even one more car.

It was February, always the longest month of the year. With sick days and a little scrambling we could both swing the trip. Uncle Richard was perfect. When I phoned he didn’t even wait for me ask. Renewing his invitation was almost the first thing he said. We set a date; we made plane reservations; we cleared our calendars. Bonnie bought some new clothes and I wondered if this weren’t just a useless distraction from whatever ailed us. Were we trying to run from the beast or choosing the ground on which to confront it?

“Umm,” sighed Bonnie as she came in late from work in overcoat and scarf and runny nose. “Next week the beach,” she said bravely.

All my life I’ve pretended to like the beach in the same way I’ve faked joy on New Year’s Eve. It isn’t simply hypocrisy or conformity but a wish to participate in the joys of others, or at least not to be a wet blanket. I grit my teeth and smile but the fact is beaches bore me. I hate the heat and the sun, the smells and most of the sights. The ocean frightens me. Since I was a child told how much fun I was having I’ve kept this aversion to myself, along with my indifference to ice cream, so as not to appear—what?—un-American? an ascetic? Not to enjoy what was universally liked wasn’t a distinction; it was shameful. After all, vacations, holidays, and fatty desserts are all pure pleasures, conceived to be delightful in their very emptiness, and to reject them, not out of puritanical rigor but simply because for me they aren’t pleasures, seemed perverse and anti-social. I was glad enough to get away, looking forward to seeing my uncle, but I dreaded the sand and the waves.

So I said, “Yippee!” as if I meant it.


I convinced Uncle Richard to put off his barbecue for one night and let us take him out to dinner. He chose a seafood place called Mother’s. It was pleasant and familiar, with its captain’s chairs, fishing paraphernalia on the walls, and walnut veneer wainscoting. Anyone from almost anywhere would have felt comfortable there. I was impressed by the number of people Richard greeted and who greeted him; not all of them were widows, either. We were introduced around and endured the customary snowbird jokes. Most wanted to know precisely how low the temperatures had been back home, a request for a reassurance, I supposed, or a variety of schadenfreude. Bonnie and I answered docilely. “Old folks are obsessed with other people’s weather and their own digestion,” she cracked to me later.

Once we were seated, Richard and I traded family stories—who was up to what, the latest medical data, who’d moved where, a bit of gossip concerning a cousin whose wife had deserted him, the question being whether it was for a man or a woman. Bonnie bore all this patiently and my uncle rewarded her by devoting the entire remainder of the meal to interviewing her. He insisted on hearing everything about her job, her prospects, her colleagues, her sister the urban anthropologist, her parents—who, I discovered, were also weighing a permanent move south. This was news to me.

After the table had been cleared and we were waiting for dessert, Richard beamed at us as he asked, “So, I don’t know if it’s been like this with either of you, but I remember feeling I was playing at being a grown-up for a year or two after I got hitched to Edith. You kids used to it by now?”

Bonnie replied without answering the question. “You miss her,” she said. I was puzzled because my wife seldom states the obvious but Richard understood. It was the first time he’d mentioned my aunt. What Bonnie conveyed wasn’t a query but sympathy, and he laid his hand on hers. I thought he didn’t particularly like Bonnie and put his hand on hers just because he was fond of me. It must be nice for Richard to have a young woman around, I mused, looking over Mother’s, which really ought to have been called Grandmother’s.

A man lumbered over to our table and, with incongruous tenderness, patted my uncle on the back. The fellow was huge, about six-six, and built on rectangular lines. Graying red hair curled over his ears; his pate was shiny.

My uncle turned. “Ah, Charlie MacLaughlin in the flesh,” he laughed affectionately.

“About time you sallied forth from your castle, Lionheart,” growled MacLaughlin. “I’d begun to wonder if you were being held for ransom again.”

This Richard the First business was evidently a private joke between them. I liked the way MacLaughlin teased my uncle. It made me like him too—that and the way Richard laughed when he saw him. This must be one of the new, neglected friends, I assumed. There was no Mrs. MacLaughlin in sight.

My uncle introduced us and I was pleased that MacLaughlin, enveloping my hand in his massive grip, resisted inquiring about the temperature up north. What he said was, “Call me Mack, like the truck.” Bonnie giggled.

“Mack,” said my uncle proudly, “may not know everything but he’s done almost everything. He’s my widower guru.”

Mack’s great red face turned redder. “Listen to him,” he said.

“He’s been a Marine judo instructor, worked on oil tankers, also an electrician, salmon fisherman, a claims adjuster, a trained—what d’you call guys who drill oil wells?”

“Roughneck?” Bonnie suggested.

“That’s it. Even a private detective. Right, Mack?” My uncle bragged.

Mack shrugged and looked from me to Bonnie. “Couldn’t hold a job. But look, Your Majesty, I’ve got to go. Just wanted to say hi.”

“No, no,” cried Richard. “Sit. Join us.”

“Sorry, gotta be off. Really. Pinochle.”

“Then how about joining us for dinner tomorrow night? I’m barbecuing,” Richard added enticingly.

Mack hesitated, doubtful.

“Drinks at five.”

“I wouldn’t want—”

“Isn’t the king’s wish the same as a command?” asked Bonnie archly. We both liked this Frigidaire of a man.


The guest room was large, again with high white walls. On these Uncle Richard had hung three paintings, all of picturesque subjects by local artists of some talent. Shells were spread on top of the bureau, navy blue sheets on the bed; by the window stood a matched pair of wicker armchairs. They were painted white and had tufted blue cushions on the seats. Everywhere white and blue, even in the pictures with their white clouds, waves, and birds, their blue seas and skies. This two-tone combo was crisp and bracing, evoking summertime and good hygiene. Bonnie was exhilarated. She said the room put her in mind of the nicer catalogues, that she liked my uncle more than ever, that Mack seemed a perfect chum for him. Then she turned on the television to catch the eleven o’clock news. She dislikes being out of touch and had gone all day without an update. The lead story was something about an alligator and a quick-thinking caddie on a golf course. Bonnie began to unpack the bags. I decided to shower. We were both too weary to pick anything apart, even our marriage.


Science demystifies by getting us to concentrate so much on the how that we blithely, even scornfully ignore the why. Very likely, the scientists of my acquaintance suggest, there isn’t any why, at least none we can verify, or there are too many whys and so any given one is unreliable. You want metaphysics, go down the hall and turn left. This works pretty well for astronomy and physics, which may concern us but aren’t personal matters. With dreams it’s different. Brain science hasn’t made dreams less mysterious, any less urgent as regards the why. Debunk Freud all you like—and his biblical predecessors Joseph and Daniel—we still need and heed them. In fact, the mechanics of dreaming, which part of the neocortex is or isn’t doing what, actually suggests something meaningful may be going on. At least you can’t disprove it. And so we all try to catch up with our dreams, even when they appear to be about the past rather than the future. These symbolic narratives demand an exegesis.

I had a perplexing dream that first night in King Richard’s castle, between the navy blue sheets and the white ceiling as Bonnie breathed softly and the air-conditioning hummed. It was one of those vivid ones you’re still convinced of for a few unsettling seconds after you wake, a time when reality flutters.

In the dream, not every detail of which I can recall, I am arrested. I’m living in an apartment where everything’s white. Someone lives there with me. I’m pretty sure it’s a woman but can’t say if it’s Bonnie. This roommate is, so to speak, an offstage presence in the dream which begins something like the first page of Kafka’s Trial, an unconscious plagiarism or perhaps an homage from the unconscious itself. It’s a terribly bright morning. Sunlight shines through the window over the kitchen sink and reflects blindingly off the white furniture and walls. I’m just out of bed, sitting at the kitchen table waiting for the coffee to brew. Three men clamber up the stairs and show themselves at the door, which is wide open. The first over the threshold is bald and wears a bad suit; he is the detective in charge. Behind him loom two uniformed officers. The inspector, while perfectly willing to tell me that they are there to take me into custody, is reluctant to reveal the charge when I ask. In fact, he seems to find my question disconcerting, as if I had said something in bad taste or were not playing by the rules. He hints, however, that when the charges are disclosed, as they will be at my arraignment, they will have to do with actions tending to the undermining of good public order. I remark that the charge is rather vague. Not without embarrassment, the detective lets me know I’ve been under surveillance for some time and that it’s a question of important social conventions. I seem to know what he’s referring to; in fact, I admit to myself that the charge is legitimate. Nonetheless, I protest my innocence, objecting that what he’s hinting at isn’t a violation of any existing law. I know what I am saying is only pro forma, and he looks as if he’s heard it all before.

In my opinion, the point of the dream isn’t that I’m arrested in it but that I feel guilty. It isn’t like The Trial where Joseph K. requires the whole book to accustom himself to his guilt and submit to the awful court which is both divine and demonic. What counts is the feeling behind a dream, and what I felt was culpable for something I hadn’t yet done, had perhaps hardly even thought of doing but nevertheless might do. The authorities had somehow ferreted this out, knew my plans even better than I did, and moved in to forestall the crime, which had something to do with that offstage presence with whom I shared the cramped, glaring apartment. And so, in the dream, I began to fret about my prospective life as a prisoner, as a convict. How might I defend myself, how would I be able to sleep, when would I smoke my pipe? From these self-centered anxieties, I forced myself up into consciousness.

No interpretation is other than provisional; the interpretation of a dream is apt to be colored by the dreamer’s immediate concerns. Was that bald detective a version of Mack, suggested by the fact that he’d once been a private investigator? Was the woman both at the heart of the dream and absent from it Bonnie? Was the pre-empted crime, the action tending to the undermining of good public order, that I was about to do something to our marriage? I admit this is how I understood the dream, more as a warning than a prophecy. I decided the police represented my conscience or perhaps that part of it that had been successfully conditioned by the forces of good public order. As regards myself, the dream was ambiguous because I was at once in rebellion against the social order and disposed to submit to its verdict. But what of the white glare of that small apartment? Was it merely a detail borrowed from my uncle’s décor or significant in some way—purity, blankness, sterility?

All this I thought through in a matter of seconds, those that followed the reassuring recognition that it was, as we say, “only a dream.” After that, I put it away, just as Bonnie had our clothes.

She was already up. The bed beside me wasn’t even warm.

When I got down she and Uncle Richard were eating cereal and laying their plans. The beach, of course, topped the list. We’d all go together, then Richard would leave us to run some errands. He had to pick up another steak for Mack. We could bake as long as long as the sunblock lasted, then grab some lunch, take a drive, visit the lighthouse, the wildlife preserve, the shell museum, the shops and galleries. Up to us. Bonnie liked the idea of a leisurely lunch by the ocean and some shopping. Uncle Richard suggested a restaurant and promised me a not altogether provincial bookstore.

And so the day went by without a word about our problems. We behaved like a couple in a commercial, frolicking in the waves, delighting over things in stores, smiling, smiling. We hadn’t forgotten; we weren’t even denying, only waiting—I for Bonnie to speak first and she for me. It was an Alphonse and Gaston routine, a jockeying for moral advantage.


Uncle Richard’s banquet was not only delicious but interesting. Having spent the day outdoors, Bonnie and I felt we’d earned the right to eat a lot. Mack also brought a good appetite along with some good beer. As for Uncle Richard, the more we all consumed the jollier he became.

“I like cooking for other people,” he remarked to me as we stood by his gas grill. “It’s a good metaphor.”

“How’s that?”

“Oh, for lots of things, I guess. Teaching, for one. You used to teach. Doesn’t a teacher get pleasure from watching the young digest what he’s cooked up for them?”

“Sure,” I said uncertainly.

“Or being in love.”

“In love?”

“Selfishness as a form of altruism, or vice versa?”

“Why selfishness?”

“Sorry, I’m putting it badly. I mean when you get your pleasure from somebody else’s, from being the cause of it.” He paused slightly. “You and Bonnie?”

“Sure, sure. That is, I think I know what you mean.” This came out with more ambivalence than I’d intended.

Richard flipped the steaks and laid down circular slabs of Vidalia onion. “When Edith was alive I concentrated it all on her, you know. That sort of pleasure.”

“Um, I’m sorry—”

“It was too narrow, I see that now, but it was just lovely. Can you believe I still remember the first time she called me ‘you big lug’? More than fifty years ago, but that was the moment when I knew I had her. Sometimes nothing’s more intimate than an insult.”

I tried to recall if Bonnie had ever spoken to me in just that way. Then I asked myself if such endearing insults might really be a kind of resistance, a checking rather than deepening of intimacy. Bonnie and I had learned how to jab, but I didn’t think our sparring constituted a good intimacy, the kind you’d enjoy remembering half a century later.

Bonnie and Mack were sitting on the white couch drinking and eating cheeses. From the deck I could only see the backs of their heads, Mack’s dome was much higher than Bonnie’s brown tresses. He was doing most of the talking. Bonnie seemed to be paying close attention.

What made the evening so interesting, I later thought, was how the permutations worked out. Over the four hours we went through the six possible pairings, as if it were a square dance. Bonnie and I exchanged looks and nervous smiles but few words. Uncle Richard and I spoke over the grill and during the cleaning up. Bonnie spent a lot of time drawing Mack out, knowing how readily even a taciturn man will speak to an attentive young woman. It was like Othello telling war stories to Desdemona, I thought. Mack and I hardly exchanged a word but at the end of the evening the couples formed anew. Bonnie said she wanted another beach day but that I probably wouldn’t. While this was true, it sounded as though she wanted to be rid of me. Richard and Mack looked meaningfully at each other—a change of plans? a sense of something not quite right—and it was quickly arranged that in the morning Mack would take me out in his Boston whaler while Richard and Bonnie went to the beach, then to the wildlife preserve to check out birds and alligators.


I have a Ph.D., which is an asset when it comes to pushing the product at my place of employment but otherwise pretty useless. Seeing the dimness of my prospects, I jumped from teaching to administration before I could be denied tenure and sent to swell the proletariat of the spirit. I understand perfectly that, professionally speaking, I’m a parasite, that the real work of the institution is carried out by its faculty and students, the cooking and eating. Nevertheless, like most of my colleagues, I find it convenient to forget this, to behave as if it’s we, not they, who are the university. We talk of the faculty and students the way corporate executives do of workers and customers. It’s because of this rather than my doctorate that I’m never intimidated by even the most distinguished of professors, even the kind who are so eminent that their field of vision is seldom marred by an undergraduate. I call full professors by their first names. My office is larger than most of theirs.

Mack, on the other hand, intimidated me. Big, competent, many years my senior, he made me feel like a tyro. On the boat with him I felt out of my element twice over. However, this wasn’t bad. I felt happy and irresponsible. I was as inquisitive as a boy about the whaler, the fishing gear, the bait, what was swimming below us. I wanted to hear all the local names. I was just as curious about Mack himself, a man with a ton of what the English used to call bottom. If he was laconic I felt this was because he knew too much to be loquacious. In my world words are too often the point—a world of words about other words—but with Mack every statement had to have a solid referent. And this is why his thoughtfulness made a profound impression on me. Here was a man of action turned to reflection, like Conrad’s Marlow in retirement.

He began by filling me in on Uncle Richard. “He nearly went under at first.”

“Under?” I thought of the water.

“The way a drowning man’ll give up and sink, the way a climber goes to sleep before he freezes on a mountain.”

I could only come up with a cliché. “My aunt’s death hit him really hard.”

“You know he stopped eating?”

“He did?”

“Hardly anything. Sat there in that new mansion which she’d picked out everything for like it wasn’t so much her mausoleum as his.”

“You mean he lost the will to live?”

Mack shook his head. “It doesn’t feel like that. What it feels like is that life has lost its hold on you.”

Very carefully I asked, “You… too?”

Mack fiddled with his rod before deigning to give me a nod. I thought of Shakespeare’s line about having to endure, about “ripeness is all.” Mack was certainly ripe. Tempered but still accessible, you could see his vitality in his enormous hands. To my uncle he must seem not just a good but a towering example. If Mack the ex-judo instructor, the ex-roughneck, told you to go on living, you’d do it.

We fished desultorily and explored the inland waterway without saying much. If Bonnie were here, I thought, she’d get him chattering, but I lacked the knack. So it was masculine muteness for about an hour. Mack seemed to concentrate on whatever he was doing—steering the boat, playing out his line, baiting hooks—not on me. This, it turned out, was not entirely the case. At least I think so.

He pulled in at a public dock. “Thought we could use to stretch our legs a bit, grab some shade.” He pointed up the embankment. “There’s a place has an awning and cold beer up there. Here, take the painter.”

So I found myself under a striped awning—faded blue, bleached white—with Mack telling me a story. Like Marlow, he just launched into it.

He leaned on an elbow, chin in his hand. “You know, sitting here puts me in mind of something” was his once-upon-a-time. “You probably know P.I.s do basically three jobs: there’s your adultery, insurance fraud, and your missing persons. I specialized in fraud because it paid the best and I had an in with the company from when I was an adjuster. But I took on other jobs too. One day I get a call from this woman, a real piece of work she was too. Says she wants me to find her husband and offers me ten grand to do it. Of course I had a hundred questions and said we’d have to meet. ‘Okay,’ she says, ‘I’ll be there in three minutes. I’m calling from a pay phone around the corner.’ Her little joke. So she waltzes into my hole-in-the-wall and she looks like a complete flake, a hippie—the long hair and skirt, funny perfume, loads of beads and no make-up. It takes me an hour to ask all my questions.”

“Like what?”

“Like how long he’d been gone. Like did he leave a note. Like did she file a police report. Like did he take any money. That was interesting, by the way. ‘Oh no,’ she says, ‘he left me all of it, in fact a lot more than I thought he had. He filled up my bank account.’ I asked where he worked and had she heard anything from his employer. I wanted to know how well they’d been getting along. I asked if she suspected another woman or foul play. She was very patient. In fact, she came prepared, gave me a bunch of written information, all nicely typed out.”

“Had she contacted the police?”

“No. When I asked why not she said she didn’t want to, which made me suspicious.”

“Something illegal? All that money?”

“Crossed my mind. But she told me no. The money was plenty but he was a rich man. Investments he’d liquidated for her, she said. She didn’t go to the police because she felt whatever was going on was a private matter. I asked if she wanted him back. That was the only question she wasn’t ready for.”

“What did she say?”

“Her answer was the ten grand.”

“Hm,” I said, just to hold up my end.

“Three weeks later I walked into a bar in Youngstown, Ohio. I took a stool, bought a beer, and began talking to the guy next to me. I went through the usual topics, weather, sports, politics. He was polite but not what you’d call outgoing. I ordered us another round and told him he looked a little depressed. ‘Look around,’ he says, amused. I asked him if he was out of work, like half of Youngstown. He says no, he’s got a job. ‘Really?’ I say. ‘What do you do?’ ‘Sales,’ he says. I ask him what he sells and he says hardware. So I tell him I’m in sales too, farm equipment, and on the road all the time. ‘Puts a strain on the marriage,’ I say and ask if he’s married. ‘Used to be,’ he says. ‘Oh,’ I say, ‘divorced?’ He doesn’t answer.

“This was the missing husband?”

Mack smiled indulgently. “By then I knew where he lived and where he worked. I knew the name he was using. Hell, I even knew what bar he went to and which stool he put his ass on. I knew everything except one thing which is why I wanted to find him before writing up my report for his wife.”

“And that was?”

“Why he took off.”

“Was it so puzzling?”

“He left all his money behind. There was no other woman and he wasn’t in trouble at work. In fact, he handed in his resignation the day he left. According to the wife they’d been nothing but happy together. ‘Happy enough,’ was how she put it.” Mack looked at me the way he might have at a stranger in the bar. “It didn’t add up,” he explained.

Could Mack know I’d thought about doing the same thing, taking a bus to some town in the middle of the country, choosing a new name, finding some lousy job and a room and leaving Bonnie with everything except an explanation because I couldn’t pin one down myself? It was only a daydream, just whimsy. Is it possible—possible that on a sudden impulse a person would act on such a thing, turn frivolity into fact?

“Did she want him back?” I asked.

Mack leaned back in his chair and some of the tension between us relaxed. “I don’t think so. She said she just wanted to know, that’s all.”

We were quiet for a moment, listening to me not asking why the guy had taken off.

“Did you tell him—I mean did you tell him who you were?”

“He figured that out for himself.”


Article 367(2) of the Criminal Code of Belarus has been used to make journalists disappear. In Chile and Argentina the juntas caused thousands to vanish, turning disappear into a transitive verb, disappeared into a noun. Teenagers do it routinely, so do the victims of serial killers; children are plucked from suburban streets, all the men from ill-starred villages.

The unfinished novel Kafka called Der Verschollene was published under the title Amerika. He had nothing to go on but a few postcards from his uncle in Chicago and the intuition that America offers an exhilarating yet terrifying continental liberty into which anybody might disappear, going under or emerging metamorphosed, no longer the shabby immigrant with an unpronounceable name but a big shot with just the soupçon of an accent.

Disappearing is almost a national tradition. Go west, young man; start fresh; history is bunk, especially yours. Every contract comes with an escape clause.

When he was nine years old Cary Grant—still English, still Archie—came home from school to find his mother had disappeared. One day James Franklin walked into his print shop and found that his seventeen-year-old brother had vanished, breaking his indenture. There’s scarcely a trace of Ben in Boston, but he practically invented the civic life of Philadelphia. In the end, in the ultimate West, Sweet Betsy from Pike ditched her husband Ike.

The list is staggering: runaways in bus stations, name-changers in hardware stores, bigamists, grifters, the stage-struck, the bankrupt, the lighters-out. Good public order requires that we stay put and see things through, not float away on the hot air of daydreams, not abscond, but succumb to the gravity of our histories. To disappear is enticing but it’s dangerous. To give up your place, to break the entangling, sustaining webs of natural and acquired relations is like diving into the sea; the ocean can close over you in a second. To disappear can be noble, courageous, optimistic. But isn’t it also desperate to think that a limitless, unknown nothing will be better than a cramped, familiar something?


We were on the plane.

“We never actually talked.”

“I know.”

“Your parents are moving?”

“I know that too.”

“And you didn’t tell me?”

“Everything felt, I don’t know, so unsettled. I just didn’t think of it.”

“You should have.”

“People move. People move away, apart.”

“Or disappear. That’s true.”

“They’re only moving to Florida. Like your Uncle Richard.”

“I know.”

“Well, I’m here.”

“Where’s here?”

“On this plane, next to you.”

“If there’s a here here, then I’m here too.”

“Next to me.”

“Next to you.”


“So far.”

“So far.”


Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published essays, stories, and poems in a wide variety of journals, two story collections, Life in the Temperate Zone and The Decline of Our Neighborhood, a book of essays, Professors at Play, and the novel Zublinka Among Women, winner of the First Prize for Fiction, Indie Book Awards, 2008. A new collection of stories, The Artist Wears Rough Clothing, is forthcoming. E-mail: wexelblatt[at]

Boxes of Junk

Boots’s Pick
Alex Myers

When they turned off the interstate and were on the familiar suburban lanes that led to Dan’s parents’ house, he began the litany. “Don’t let my mom bully you about the wedding,” he said, his eyes locked on the road. “And don’t agree to any of her ideas. And don’t promise her anything because she never forgets.”

Rachel nodded, though she wasn’t sure Dan could see her. In truth, she liked to hear his frustration about his parents. It made her feel like a conspirator, like it was us against them, like Dan was hers.

“My dad wants to help with our move, even though I’ve told him a dozen times that we don’t need help,” he went on.

Rachel watched his profile as he talked, the way he leaned his head forward away from the head rest, as if with eagerness or tense annoyance. His hands moved needlessly on the wheel, tapping and sliding, motions unrelated to the direction of the car. They had been engaged for almost two months now, and she felt like this was the perfect moment in a relationship: commitment and security without it being over, as she thought a wedding would make it over, too complete. There was still time, she felt, to get everything just right between the two of them.

Dan continued, “My mom’s been trying to get rid of some junk up in the attic, and I don’t want it. So don’t let her talk you into taking any furniture or boxes from up there. I’ve told her that I’m not interested.”

“Sure. Of course.” She reached over from the passenger seat and squeezed his leg. He smiled at her, but from the side the smile looked a bit like a grimace. “I’ll behave,” she said. Anyway, it was good to be out of their apartment, which was mostly in boxes now, awaiting their move at the end of the month to a real house, a mortgage instead of rent, all settled down. She knew from overhearing Dan’s half of phone conversations that his mother thought they were doing it all wrong, that they should get married and then move. “I promise I won’t take any boxes, and I won’t let your mom plan our wedding.” She squeezed his leg again, but this time Dan didn’t smile.

They made the turn onto his parents’ street, and Rachel noted that Dan’s grip tightened a bit on the wheel, his head leaned farther forward, as if he were trying to see something just off in the distance. It had been a long drive, but suddenly she didn’t want it to stop; she wanted to stay in the car with Dan, just the two of them, driving around, no one but each other to talk to. She wanted to turn the radio off and just listen to him, let topics come up that they hadn’t had time to discuss, all the issues and conversations that never surfaced at home, when they were tired or distracted. But then he was turning the car into the driveway, unbuckling his seatbelt, and before she knew it his parents were at the door, coming out to greet them. He was back in their world, and Rachel knew what that meant: the subtle differences, the way he talked to his parents with a keenness, as if wanting to prove himself, the way he flopped on the couch in the living room, a sort of pure relaxation she never saw in their apartment. She’d seen it on earlier visits and wondered whether this was how he would act when they were married, once he was comfortable and at home with her.

Through the windshield, Rachel saw her future mother-in-law approach, waving, and drew in a breath. She readied herself for the greeting, for the official arrival in this other world, a world in which she was still an outsider and in which Dan was not hers, at least not fully. She let the breath out. Maybe this trip would be different.

The first time she’d met his parents, she and Dan were only dating, just free of the tentative stage of who would call whom, and into the segment where they each claimed a drawer at the other’s apartment, somewhere to leave an extra change of clothes. At the time, it felt like moving in together. At her first dinner with his parents, it reaffirmed this sensation that something serious was starting; the continuity of her relationship with Dan began to feel inevitable, as if in seeing his parents in front of her she could recognize the full dimensionality of him, the past stretching backwards out of these two people, and the future heading forwards, like a mirror, only slightly warped.

A few months later, she’d gone home with him for the fourth of July, a barbeque out back by the pool, his dad flipping burgers and cracking corny jokes. That weekend, Rachel had slept in Dan’s sister’s room, empty because the sister was across the country, somewhere in California, doing an internship at a biotech lab. It was just the one night, a hot summer night with a box fan in the window inadequately pushing the air around the room, Rachel sweaty and glad to be alone in the borrowed bed, falling asleep despite the firecrackers outside. She wondered then about Dan: would they end up together? What would it be like to really live with him?

It was in the wake of that first trip that Rachel had realized the depth of the difference when Dan was at his parents’ house. It was normal, she told herself at first, of course a person would be different around his parents than around his peers or girlfriend. But it was more than that. In a casual comment as they drove home that hot summer weekend, Dan said to her, “I never sleep so well anywhere as I sleep at home.”

Rachel thought of the hot, sticky night that had just passed, thought of the roomy queen-size bed in his air-conditioned apartment and said, “I can’t believe you were that comfortable. It was hot.”

“It’s not about heat. I mean, it’s just being at home again, the smell of the sheets, knowing my parents are in the next room. I sleep so soundly.”

Cute, she thought. At least at first. In the weeks following that, she pondered more about how she felt when she went to visit her parents: the confinement, the sensation of being drawn back into a world she thought she had escaped, her mother making what she thought were Rachel’s favorite foods, her father asking her about career plans she’d dreamed up in high school and long since abandoned. It was as if she were still sixteen in their minds, and she couldn’t wait to leave, to return to her real life. What did it mean that Dan loved this feeling of returning to childhood? That to him his parents’ house and world embodied perfection, some golden age to which he longed to return? Since the visit, Rachel had tried not to dwell too much on the conversation, but now that they were here once again, the questions returned: what made this place so special to Dan? When would that shift occur, when would their life together weigh more than his past? What did the past hold that she, the present, and their future did not?

This was the first time she’d been home with him since they were engaged, and it was also her first Thanksgiving at his house, the first time meeting all the aunts and uncles and cousins who would come for the dinner tomorrow, and the first Thanksgiving not with her own family; her parents were already asking about next year so that Rachel felt herself extended between these families, a sensation she could only imagine intensifying in the years to come until both sides had stretched her long and thin, translucent like taffy.

Dan’s dad clamped his son in his arms with a grasp that was more like a wrestling move than a hug, and Dan bent to give his mother a kiss on the cheek. She squeezed his shoulder and then stepped back, waving them into the house. “Come in, come in. Get settled. Sorry to be rude, but I’ve got something in the oven.” She turned and walked towards the kitchen. Dan’s dad had taken a suitcase from him and the two of them crossed the hall and started up the stairs, already locked into a conversation that Rachel couldn’t hear. She followed after them, noting from behind the similarities, the slightly square head, even the whorl of hair at the crown that formed a perpetual cowlick, though Dan’s was still dark brown while his father’s was gray.

It was starting already, she thought as she trailed behind them, he’s taken a step out of our world and back into theirs. The staircase was lined with family photos, Christmas when Dan was four, a birthday party from his teen years. Rachel hadn’t made it yet into this family lineup, but was sure that a wedding photo would be hung, even if this Thanksgiving visit didn’t make the cut. Pictures went by with every step, Dan, Dan, Dan—his face, smiling, with his sister, with an older woman, with some dog, maybe one he used to own, all these times and places that were part of him and not part of her.

At the top of the stairs, Dan’s father opened the door to his son’s bedroom and put the suitcase down on the floor. “Mom set up an air mattress,” he said and smiled at Rachel. “I’m sure Dan will be a gentleman and let you have the real bed.” He clapped his son on the shoulder and headed out the door. “Get settled in. Take your time.”

Rachel could hear his footsteps going downstairs. She looked at the twin bed by the window, the deflated air mattress at its foot, and smiled, thinking that if she knew Dan, they’d both crowd into his old twin-sized bed and spend an uncomfortable night pushed up against each other, having to agree when they would both turn over, rather than sleep separately. She wondered whether it was because they were engaged that they were now allowed to stay in the same room; that seemed like the sort of old-fashioned value that his parents would adhere to. But maybe it was just practicality: Dan’s sister would be coming home too and there wasn’t a bedroom to spare. Well, it was just for two nights anyway.

Dan lifted his suitcase onto the bed, unzipped it, and started to unload the contents. He turned, opened the top drawer of the dresser and chuckled, “It’s funny, but I still expect the drawers to be full. Like somehow I never moved my socks and T-shirts out of here.”

The drawers were, of course, empty, but Rachel knew what he meant, knew how a house could feel haunted, even if the only ghost was your own. She sat on the bed next to his suitcase and watched him unpack.

“Some things never change,” he said, with evident happiness, satisfaction. “Same curtains, same bedspread. I always tell my mom she should redecorate this room if she wants to, but she never does. I guess she wants me to feel at home.”

He did look at home. He had a smile on his face that she seldom saw, a look like he had just woken up from a pleasant dream: sleepy and satisfied and a little unreal. She felt a flash of resentment—what was so great about this room? But he looked so content as he transferred the little piles of T-shirts from his bag into the dresser that her anger soon dissipated.

Dan had emptied his suitcase and taken it off the bed, shoving it into the closet. He turned and looked at Rachel, and seeing her there, watching him, his face took on a new awkwardness, like he wasn’t entirely comfortable having her in his room, like it might betray him because it knew all his secrets. “I’m going to go downstairs and catch up, see what the plans are for today. But you should unpack, no rush.”

The room was unchanged since his high school days, like a time capsule that had been unearthed, preserving Dan’s interests as a seventeen-year-old. She took in each detail like she was studying artifacts in a museum: the swimming trophies on one shelf (she didn’t know he’d been on the team, let alone any good), the posters of rock bands on the walls, groups that she had forgotten existed, that had long ago been expurgated from his adult music collection. Some of the names were familiar, but only vaguely so; certainly they weren’t bands that she had been into when she was in high school. And she looked again around the room, tried to do so with a stranger’s eyes, as if she didn’t know the man who’d lived here. Tried to compare it to her memories of her high school boyfriends’ rooms: was this a guy she would have been friends with back then? Would they have dated? And if they wouldn’t have, then when did he change and grow into the person she knew?

Even as Rachel felt different than she had in high school she also felt something eternal, something essential about herself. Her room at home had been redecorated by her parents after she moved away to college; it was now a guest room and more comfortable for the transformation. When she and Dan visited, they could sleep in a queen-sized bed in a room that was hotel-like in its anonymity. Looking now at Dan’s desk, the top still cluttered with old pens, notebooks, a dusty jar of pennies, she was glad that her past had been erased, that she didn’t have to face all that when she went home now.

She shoved her unpacked suitcase next to his in the closet. The curtains didn’t prevent the mid-afternoon sunshine from coming into the room, a strand of it falling irresistibly across his bed. Rachel stretched out on top of the covers, let the patch of light hit her stomach, pretending she could feel its heat even though the start of the New England winter had already leeched the warmth from it.

She put her arms behind her head and tried to imagine Dan here as a teenager, what he lay in bed and thought about, whether he’d ever snuck a girl up here without his parents knowing it. She’d never asked him about high school girlfriends, no details anyway. Her eyes trailed across the posters, across the tidy stacks of paperbacks on the book shelf, mostly science fiction, she guessed from the titles she could see. He never read science fiction now and she wondered if it was something he didn’t like anymore, a taste that he had grown out of, or a conscious decision to leave that part of his life behind in favor of more sophisticated texts. She wanted to know how the man today related to the boy who had lived in this room; she suspected that Dan missed being here, that part of him was sad to be grown up and out of this house. But she also felt that if she were given the chance to get to know his past, to figure out what made him so happy in it, she could carry that into their marriage.

Getting up off the bed, she took one last look at the room and headed downstairs. She could hear voices coming from the kitchen, and she walked towards the back of the house. Dan and his father were leaning against the counter, chatting as Dan’s mother moved among the oven, the sink, and the flour-strewn countertop, busily assembling pies for Thanksgiving.

Dan smiled at Rachel as she walked in. “All set up there? My dad’s about to head out to the airport to pick up my sister. I figured we’ve had enough driving for today, so we’ll just stick around here, help them get things ready.”

Rachel nodded. “Sounds good.”

Dan’s father took his car keys from the hook over the counter, gave his wife a quick kiss, the sort, Rachel thought, that married couples often shared. A statement less of passion than of commitment, a gesture that was no more intimate or meaningful or romantic than balancing the checkbook or doing the laundry, or anything else that long-term couples did for each other. “I’ll be back in about an hour-and-a-half, if everything is on time,” he said and headed out the door.

“So,” said Rachel, “what can I do to help?”

“Well, my father asked me to take a look at their computer. There’s some problem with the anti-virus software.” Dan gave her a tight grin; his parents’ computer illiteracy was a standing joke. They were always calling to ask Dan how to fix basic problems.

Rachel smiled back.

“I bet my mother could use some help in the kitchen, though.”

Her smile slipped a bit, and Dan’s mother piped up from the sink. “Oh, I don’t need much help, but if you wanted to keep me company, that’s fine.”

Great, thought Rachel, Dan gets to sit on the computer and probably surf the web and check his email, while I have to sit at this counter and make small talk. Yes, here it was, that feeling that had been haunting her: Dan was at home here and she was the stranger. He had retreated from their relationship, their couple-dom, and gone back to being a son. Instead of being the supportive boyfriend, the dedicated fiancé, he was the petulant, indulged child. There was nothing she could do about it now, and she repressed a sigh as he left the room giving her arm a quick squeeze on his way out.

His mother immediately began bustling about. “Now, you just sit there and relax. Tell me about the wedding plans.”

“Can’t I help you? Do some dishes or something?” Rachel wished that Dan had picked a better chore to help with, something like cleaning leaves out of the roof gutters, where she could hold the ladder and they could be outside, which would smell like Thanksgiving. And for a while it could be just the two of them, domestically together, the young folks helping out with a strenuous chore. But he’d left her alone with his mother in the kitchen, the seat of her power. “I’m happy to wash those pans,” she offered.

“No, no. It’s all fine.” And she turned her back on Rachel, began rolling out another pie crust. “Have you picked a spot for the reception?”

This was just what Dan had warned her about, just what troubled her about his mother, the barely-below-the-surface pushiness and insistence that floated along veiled by politeness and sincerity. It was, Rachel thought, the semblance of sincerity and kindness that made her so difficult. Even after a year, Rachel still didn’t know what to call her. After the initial few meetings, she had wavered between calling her Helen and Mrs. Somers, the first seeming too familiar and the second, childish; she had finally asked at the fourth of July picnic which she preferred, but Dan’s mother had replied, “Oh, why don’t you just call me Mom. That’s what I answer to most.” This request, for some reason that Rachel couldn’t articulate, was impossible, and so she tried to work around addressing her at all and thought of her only as Dan’s mother—a title that made her remote, detached, that dragged Dan along with her.

Meanwhile, his mother was continuing as she bent over the oven, “If you don’t plan now, you’ll never get to book the spot you want, they go years in advance. I’ve told Danny this before. I know you’re waiting until you’ve moved into the new place, but really you should start thinking about this, and I am happy to help if you want me to.” She stood up and closed the oven door, just as the wave of heat and sweet odor wafted over the counter towards Rachel.

“That’s really very nice of you,” said Rachel. “But we’re just focused on the move.” She weighed her words carefully, thinking of Dan’s warning in the car. “I feel so useless sitting here when there’s work to be done. Can’t I help setting up tables and chairs or anything?”

Dan’s mother looked at her, sweetly and skeptically, as if she knew Rachel was just looking for an excuse to get out of talking with her. “Really, it’s all set. But you know what you could do, there are some boxes and stuff up in the attic that I’ve been trying to get Danny to take for months. It’s all his old stuff that he asked me to save for him. You should take it with you to the new place, you’ll have room for it there.” As she spoke, her fingers deftly crimped the pie crust along the rim of the pan, a movement that Rachel found mesmerizing. She was a mediocre and disinterested cook, and knew Dan’s mother was something of an expert—he idealized her cooking, at least—and so she watched, trying to figure out if this was something she could learn to do, to make him happy. Watching his mother’s fingers fly beneath her stream of chatter, Rachel thought it would be impossible.

“Why don’t you go on up to the attic and look for yourself. Just pull aside whatever boxes you want and Danny can carry them down later for you. Okay?”

Rachel nodded, relieved that she had been dismissed from the kitchen even as she felt a sense of doom descend; his mother had trapped her after all. These were the boxes she was supposed to ignore, the stuff she wasn’t supposed to take, that Dan didn’t want. Oh well. She’d just go up to the attic and not set anything aside; Dan couldn’t be upset with that.

She walked up the front stairs, skirting the den where she knew Dan was working on the computer. She hadn’t been up to the attic before, but the stairs were off the second-floor landing, the door next to the bathroom. She felt around for the light switch and headed up. Dan’s mother said the boxes were clearly marked, and sure enough they were, a tidy little stack of about a dozen cartons, all neatly labeled with his name. His mom must have been a schoolteacher; her handwriting was overly precise. This struck Rachel as exactly the sort of detail that she should know about Dan’s family: who they were, what they had done. But their world was walled off to her; they were a solid family unit and she was decidedly not a member. At least not yet, and she wondered if she ever would be, or if marriage would be a process of pulling Dan away from his family, if he would let himself be pulled.

She looked at the pile of boxes, wondering what was in them that Dan insisted he didn’t want. She imagined stacks of elementary school report cards, drawings he had done as a little kid, that had been stuck to the refrigerator for a few weeks, enough to fade them in the sunlight, and then stored away up here for years. Maybe somewhere in here was a clue that would open up Dan’s childhood world to her, allow her to see and understand what it was like. Perhaps this understanding would give her some degree of access, so that this house would not be like a foreign country, her fiancé a dual citizen.

There weren’t any markings on the boxes besides his name, so she didn’t know where to start and just picked one at random. She took a key from her pocket to slice the tape open and pulled back the flaps. Inside were children’s books, well-worn: Goodnight, Moon and Where the Wild Things Are. Books that were immediately, viscerally familiar. There was probably an identical box in her parents’ attic, and this realization comforted her as she flipped through the stack of books. Then her satisfaction ebbed a bit: weren’t these everyone’s childhood books? There probably wasn’t a person of her age who would be unable to identify with these. And she had to admit that she was slightly disappointed; she wanted not to unearth his secrets, certainly not to find the diary that Dan had kept in high school—not that he was the type to keep a diary—but something that would give her insight into what was so wonderful about his childhood, about his parents, that let him relax, be comfortable, be—she was afraid to admit it—himself, in this place but not with her.

Rachel pulled another box towards her, opened it to reveal board games—some she didn’t know, but also a couple of familiar ones like Candy Land and Chutes and Ladders. She shrugged to herself. Boring. She grabbed another box, tore back the flaps to find Lego, hundreds of nubby plastic blocks, a jumble of odd-shaped bits. Didn’t these things come with instructions, special kits so that you could build a perfect supermarket or moon station or whatever? What were you supposed to do with this mess?

Dan was right, all this stuff was useless. But Rachel was more annoyed with him than with his mother. Was this the best he could save from his childhood? It was as if she’d been promised treasure and gotten dirt. All these boxes of just stuff, the toys and games that filled rainy afternoons or sleepy evening hours, the times in between, when we need distraction from ourselves. Where was Dan in these boxes? These books, these games, they could belong to anyone, and Rachel felt cheated; she wanted truth, some vision of what he had been, what he had thought and felt and desired. No wonder he hadn’t wanted any of this; all these pieces of his childhood could be bought at some big chain store, new and shrink-wrapped and probably improved.

There were a few more boxes that she hadn’t opened, and maybe Rachel should have held out hope that they would contain what she was looking for. But the attic was large—it stretched out to dusty corners around her, and boxes and bins were piled everywhere. She was certain that those drawings, those childhood journals and pictures and stories were filed away somewhere but not in this pile. His mother would have bundled them up neatly and saved them for herself. Rachel felt resentment rise up in her: towards Dan? Towards his mother? She turned her back on the boxes and headed down the stairs.

From the second-floor landing she could hear voices, but she couldn’t tell whose. The sounds were tangled, and she thought maybe Dan’s sister and father had returned. She didn’t feel like facing them, wasn’t up to the forced cheerfulness of interacting with semi-strangers. She considered ducking into Dan’s old room, hiding there, to collect herself. But the old rock posters on the wall, the extraneous trophies on the shelf, would only reinforce the strangeness that she felt. How did one sojourn in another family? She wanted Dan, just him, as if she could pry him neatly out of this house, this family. But the past didn’t just disappear and couldn’t be captured, contained in dusty boxes. Nor could she suddenly belong here in the way that he did. She doubted that she could ever be that security, that comfort to Dan; she would always be second-best to his real home.

Slowly, Rachel went down to the first floor, where the murmur of conversation resolved into Dan’s and his mother’s voices. She went through the dining room, the table already laid out with linen and silver for tomorrow’s dinner. Through the doorway, she could see into the kitchen. Dan’s mom was bent over a sink full of dishes; he was leaning against the counter, talking to her. Rachel watched his hands move as he spoke, the rapid gestures she knew so well, the animation of his eyebrows. Seldom did she get to observe him like this—when he was unaware, when she could be sure he wasn’t putting on some act for her—only when he was asleep, and, sleeping, Dan’s face held none of the vigor, the desire that she could see as he spoke to his mother. Over the running water, she could hear some of what he said, but not everything. She tried to imagine what story he was telling so enthusiastically, couldn’t remember anything exciting that had happened recently. She felt another swell of resentment; then Dan lifted his eyes and saw her standing there. He smiled, a curve of his mouth that hadn’t been there before. Behind his mother’s back, he rolled his eyes—a boyish gesture, immature and rude, yet just what she wanted to see, confirming her place in his universe.

She walked into the kitchen and he turned from his mother, put an arm around her waist. He squeezed her gently against him and went on talking to his mother, picking up in the middle of some silly story from work that he’d told her weeks ago. The kitchen was warm and sweet-smelling, and Rachel leaned a little against Dan, felt him shift his feet to take her weight. Yes, she thought, there are parts of him I’ll never know, and parts of him I’ll share with his mother. But their new house had a large attic, empty right now, as all the rooms were momentarily empty, waiting for them to move in.


“I live and teach in Rhode Island. My fiction and nonfiction have been published in a variety of journals, including Apple Valley Review, flashquake, Santa Clara Review, and ghoti mag. In addition to writing, I enjoy playing the tuba, reading, and training for triathlons in my free time.” E-mail: AlexMyers1[at]

Life’s Routines

Baker’s Pick
Cheryl Lynn

When my father fell down the stairs, I decided not to help him. I was sitting in a recliner watching Jeopardy when he landed just a few feet away in a crumpled mass of arms and legs, skin and bones. He mouthed something, his eyes bulging with terror and I casually wondered, my pulse never breaking eighty, if he had broken his neck.

After taking in the sight before me and committing it to memory, I turned back to Jeopardy and tried to ignore the strange gurgling noises that came from his mouth. I realize that may seem a bit cold, but you have to understand the situation before you pass judgment on me.

You see, my father had emphysema several years before he was diagnosed with it. I bugged him to see a doctor, but he held out till the last. Some people just don’t want to know. In fact, he didn’t even go willingly. I found him passed out and burning up on the couch one afternoon. The doctors told me he had acute bronchitis.

After the second rush to the hospital months later, they called it chronic bronchitis, pumped him full of drugs and insisted that he stop smoking. He didn’t. He never would. Smoked till the day he died.

So for years I had the horrific honor of watching my father die. There are, of course, worse things to die of and worse ways in which to watch. I just liked to feel sorry for myself. It didn’t help that my mother was also slowly killing herself, but with alcohol instead of tobacco and since the divorce ten years ago, I couldn’t visit them together and save myself some gas money.

My mother hadn’t been diagnosed with anything terminal yet, but if I managed to drag her to a hospital I was sure they could identify at least three potentially serious health problems. Instead, I decided it was easier to deal with one death at a time, better to spread the gut-wrenching pain out across a few years. Well, mind-numbing might be a better term for the way I felt for my parents. For me, gut-wrenching was watching a chef prepare some form of chocolate ecstasy on TV without any chocolate within reach. Yes, I think mind-numbing would better describe it.

I never broke out into tears over some wonderful memory of them and I never wondered how I would get along without them. I knew how I would get along without them: the same as I had for the last thirty-four years. Except for when I was in diapers, I had always gotten along just fine without them.

As for wonderful memories, I didn’t really have any. Just a few and they weren’t that great. And I never cried. The last time I cried was when the schoolyard bully cut off one of my pigtails. He laughed. I cried. Then I punched him. I got much more pleasure from the punching than the crying so after that breaking out into tears was unacceptable.

It’s not that I didn’t love my parents. I loved them. In the same sort of affectionate way you feel for an old car. The thing has been with you forever so you’re attached to it, but boy does it piss you off when it breaks. You’d love to send it to the metal dump, but then again, it’s been with you forever and you take a sort of whiny pleasure in complaining about it when it does break.

So that about sums up my family life. It sucked.

My mother was a firm alcoholic by the time I was ten and she never helped me with my homework or took me to Girl Scout meetings or any of those other things mothers are supposed to do. My father smoked constantly and never talked unless he was yelling at my mother. I never had a cohesive conversation with the man. It always came in pieces.

One day he made a random statement about people needing to mind their own business. The next day he said that the poor woman on the feeding tube for fifteen years should be allowed to die. And then a week later he muttered that he would let my mother die if she wanted it. So this is the conversation.

“Hi, Hank. You watching the news?” I would ask.

“Yeah, they’re talking about that brain-dead woman who’s been on a feeding tube for fifteen years. Why don’t those people protesting just butt out? Like they have nothing else better to do but stand there for weeks?” This would be my father’s reply in my fantasy world where the moon and stars would align in just such a way that my father would utter more than his usual one or two syllable grunts.

“I agree.”

“If that had happened to your mom, I would have pulled the plug.”

“I’m sure she would have wanted it that way.”

“Don’t ever let me be like that. That’s awful. I don’t want to live like that.”

“Neither do I.”

“Look at those idiots. There’s children starving in the world and this is what they do.”

Of course, this wasn’t a real conversation. My father would never have responded that many times or with that many words, but this is what I gathered from the random statements he made.

My mother, on the other hand, could have cohesive conversations, although they weren’t always coherent. Her conversations were fragments of thoughts sliced through with alcohol and remixed to form anything but a normal, rational conversation.

“I kept telling them the blue pills weren’t working. They wouldn’t listen,” she said.

“The blue pills?” I pointed to the martini in her hand. “You know you can’t take the blue pills if you drink.”

“They just say that to scare you. Just like the commies. They take blue pills you know. And they drink like a fish.”

“The commies? You mean communists? The Cold War is over. They’re not communists anymore.”

“That’s what they want you to believe. I was watching a show last week. They were talking about the nuclear stockpiles and all the kids whose hair falls out. Have you seen the pictures?”

I shook my head.

“Of the children?”

Again, I shook my head.

“Whose hair falls out?” she said, holding onto her own hair as if I didn’t know where hair grows. “Aw!” she said throwing her hands up and sloshing her drink. “It’s terrible, just terrible.”

“Wait, does this have to do with the communists or the nuclear stockpiles?”

“The blue pills! Aren’t you listening? You know, the little children whose hair falls out.”

“Yeah, I got that. The kids take blue pills?”

“No, the commies do.”

“Is this the same blue pills you take?”

“No, but the commies take them and the kid’s hair falls out.”

“Do they take them during pregnancy?”

“No, when they’re little.”

“Well, maybe it’s the nuclear stockpiles that cause the hair to fall out.”

“No, it’s the blue pills. I saw it on TV.”

“Well, what did you watch about nuclear stockpiles?”

“Oh, well, your father used to say that the commies had a lot more nukes than they said. Which makes sense, why would they tell us? You know, your father took some pink pills about ten years ago and he wouldn’t tell me what they were. So one day I found them all and threw them away.”

“Maybe that’s why you got divorced,” I muttered.

“What? What was that?”

“How did you know it wasn’t something important?”

“How could it be? He wouldn’t tell me what they were.”

I shouldn’t talk to my mother at all except with simple yes or no responses, but curiosity always gets the better of me.


After years of chronic bronchitis, my father developed emphysema. Though I knew it would happen eventually, it was still difficult to sit there and listen to the doctor confirm the disease. My father was stone-faced, but I could tell what he was thinking, or rather what he was craving—those damned cigarettes. Even then he couldn’t quit. Even when his life depended on it he wouldn’t quit.

“What difference does it make now?” he grumbled.

Next came the oxygen tanks, the coughing, the phlegm, the regular trips to the hospital and the constant worrying that I would find him dead one day and I wondered what it would be like to find a dead body.

But he was always there in his trusted recliner watching game shows or the news with a cigarette in hand and an oxygen tube in his nose. I thought the emphysema diagnosis would significantly change our lives, but alas, life’s routines continued on. Drive a half-hour one way to literally watch my father die and an hour another way to figuratively watch my mother die.


“Hank has emphysema,” I told my mother after a few months.

“Who? Your father?”

“He has a name. I call him Hank so why don’t you?”

“I’ve never liked that you call us by our names,” she said as she swallowed the last of her drink. “It’s very disrespectful.” She stood and walked to the kitchen for a refill.

“The home you raised me in was disrespectful.”

She didn’t respond, only proceeded to mix another martini. She probably didn’t even hear me.

“He won’t quit smoking so it’s just a matter of time,” I said when she returned.

I couldn’t make out her reaction. Just like my father, my mother had a tendency to go stone-faced, but I don’t remember her being like that when I was younger. To the contrary, I saw her cry openly numerous times after she and Hank were done yelling at each other. As the years passed, the crying became much more subdued, down to just a trickle of a tear. All the years of fighting and booze had worked to preserve Betty’s face to a porcelain mask, more wrinkled than porcelain, but just as solid and unyielding.

“Did you hear me?”

She waved her hand in annoyance. “Of course I heard you, what do you want me to do about it?”

“Maybe you can call him.”

“I haven’t talked to him in almost ten years. Why would I want to start now?”

I straightened and raised my voice. “Because he’s dying.”

She looked at the TV. More game shows. “Now why did that woman pick that door? Even I can tell it’s not the right one.”

I continued to stare at her, my face growing hot, and came to realize she had no intention of responding. She chose to hide behind the mask. I stood, grabbed my coat and didn’t bother to say goodbye.


The day my father fell down the stairs was just like all the others except for the ending. He wasn’t making it up and down the stairs all that well so for the last few months he was sleeping on the couch. With a cigarette hanging from his mouth, Hank kept flicking the lighter, attempting to use the small flame that would jump up before the lack of fuel extinguished it.

He coughed and wheezed. “Can you go upstairs and get the lighter in the nightstand? Bottom drawer.”


“Just go upstairs and get it.”


He couldn’t breathe well and his arms had wasted away, but he still had enough muscle to throw the empty lighter at me. It made a sharp, cracking noise when it hit the wall behind my head.

I didn’t flinch. Instead, I slowly turned to look at him. “I’m not getting your fucking lighter, Hank.” Then, I turned back to the second round of Jeopardy.

A low, guttural sound emanated from his direction as he tried to stand and I swore I could hear his bones creaking and scraping against one another. He shuffled his way to the stairs and I had the urge to trip him as he passed, but somehow refrained. The second round was over by the time he made it to the top.

I don’t know exactly how he began his tumble down the stairs. I imagine he couldn’t wait until he got down the stairs to light his cigarette. So he stood at the edge of that top step, flicking the lighter on, breathing in his sacred tobacco, and probably overestimated the distance to the first step down, losing whatever tentative balance he had left.

Like a pinwheel, he flew downward, arms and legs flailing outward and hitting the wall, the banister and every step. When he landed at the bottom, one of his ankles was caught between the railings and the other leg was twisted behind him in a very unnatural position. One of his arms lay trapped beneath his body and his other arm rested on top of his head where his eyes focused on me.

Those eyes begged me to help, but to be honest, I never considered the idea. It was pointless. Even if the ambulance got here before he died and he made it to the hospital before he died, what would they do about it? The doctors said it was a matter of weeks.

The other reason I knew I wouldn’t help him even as he began his tumble downward was that the cigarette he lit upstairs somehow managed to make it downstairs and roll along the floor until it hit my shoe. The cigarette actually made it to my shoe before my father was done settling into his current physical state.

I watched the small wisp of smoke, rising up from the burning end, and listened to my father’s raucous descent. Those damned cigarettes had finally killed him, just not in the way we all thought they would.

I looked at my father. All I got from him for thirty-four years was cold, crude and detached. I figured it was time to return the favor and since my parents didn’t seem to give a shit, why should I? I would just tell the police I found him that way. I mean, he was dying anyway, right?

So I turned my attention back to final Jeopardy. And you want to know something? I got the answer right.

“After 15 years of writing as a serious hobby, I am now taking the idea of getting published seriously. I spent many of those years in sweaty, outdoor jobs that I loved, such as a horticulturalist at a public garden and traipsing through coastal wetlands in search of birds for the Audubon Society, but I have come to the conclusion that nothing makes me happier than writing.” E-mail: cheryl_b426[at]

When the Trees were Bare

Bellman’s Pick
Carol Lynn Grellas

I would have held a single leaf
between my own two fingers
outside her bedroom window
in the rain, until I could no longer
stand the cold and damp anymore,
if a single leaf, clinging desperately,
to what she thought a tree,
would have undone all the damage
the doctors did, the day they said
there was no cure
and took her hope away.


Carol Lynn Grellas is a two-time Pushcart nominee and the author of two chapbooks: Litany of Finger Prayers, from Pudding House Press and Object of Desire newly released from Finishing Line Press. She is widely published in magazines and online journals including most recently, The Smoking Poet, Oak Bend Review and Flutter, with work upcoming in decomP, Thick with Conviction, Poetry Midwest and Best of Boston Literary Magazine. She lives with her husband, five children and a blind dog named Ginger. E-mail: clgrellas[at]