Grausam

Fiction
Amber Kelly-Anderson


white and yellow cat
Photo Credit: Sebastien Batardy

“I suppose there is something of meanness in most people,” the grandmother said, her hands, brown speckled canyons of blue and white, tucking the floral duvet gently around the red-haired, snow-faced girl. “My father perhaps had more than his share.”

Her voice was simple, her words secure in their stating, as if she were explaining the multiplication tables to her students or the proper timing for cooking an egg. The German lilt, a musical underscore to all her words even though she had been born in America, seemed even more pronounced on the word meanness; perhaps she noticed it, for she sucked her teeth slightly after she said it, a mauve wax stain drawing a horizon line across her incisors.

The granddaughter did not question where her bedtime story was going, having begun in such a way. On the nightstand the leather book of fairytales, with its gold-lettered title long lost to the fingers of children and grandparents lay dormant, waiting for another evening when the grandfather would be home from walking the dog in time for the red-haired girl’s bedtime. At first the granddaughter had begged to stay up until his return, but when the grandmother had told her she might have the rare treat of milk in the bedroom, she had agreed.

With the absence of the grandfather and the presence of the grandmother, the room was somehow changed. The plain, neat furniture seemed bigger and the walls whiter. Yet the little girl still felt comfort knowing that the monsters were not under the bed or lurking behind the sliding closet doors. The strong presence of the woman seated on the edge of the bed assured of that.

The granddaughter snuggled further into the carved twin daybed that smelled of musty down, her hands crossed on top of the covers, hoping that coupled with her peach satin nightgown adorned in creamy lace she had the appearance of the children she had seen in the grandmother’s cross-stitch pattern book. Little angels tucked into an earthly bed of down and flowers.

“I was about your age, I believe,” the grandmother continued. “We were at the farm for Independence Day, although I did not know what that was until my father’s brother, Uncle Eerie, told me. I just knew I was going to leave the city and my chores. I had never seen any animal but dogs and cats before. And even those I had not seen as babies. Perhaps that is why I was so eager.”

The smell of musty down was soon replaced with warm hay and sweet manure as the granddaughter was herself climbing up the hayloft of Uncle Eerie’s farm, even though she’d never been there, her imagination spinning wildly on the Tilt-A-Whirl of adventure, not knowing where the story would stop. She was the grandmother at seven years old, same hazel eyes, same awkward gait caused by naturally turned out, boney feet, growing up five hundred miles north of the Texas house they now occupied as the story unwound. The eyes, green-tinted with excitement, peeked over the edge of the loft and searched for signs of fur in the sea of beige sticks. But what caught their attention first was the soft sound of mewing. It was not like the yowling of the tom cats from Detroit: this sound was soft drops of velvet pitter-patting in her ears.

She scrambled into the hayloft, knees scraping on the uneven wooden beams. Off to the right the mewing grew louder. Excitement pulsed through her so that it was easy to ignore the ant-march of itchiness twisting up her bare legs.

Back home in Detroit the house was void of animals or anything that made a mess. The mother was a stiff woman of crispness, buttons, and buckets of strong smelling water that left red, raw hands after long hours of dipping white rags. She rarely spoke English, even to her husband, who spoke little German, although he understood enough. But Uncle Eerie’s farm was a wonderland of fur and hay and flowers and strange new foods that came from the trees and the ground—it was as if the world was not sad and poor and hungry.

“There are kittens,” Aunt May had told her that morning. “In the hayloft. Pick one out if you want.”

The hazel eyes instantly sparked green, darting from one parent to the other, waiting for the inevitable refusal. No one said anything. The sound of chewing seemed to engulf the room. Moments before she had great plans to savor the fresh milk; they did not have milk at home because of the cost. But the richness was forgotten at the promise of a kitten and she had shoveled in the biscuits and milk before anyone could say another word. The overly large feet had scrambled across the clean wood floor, slipping and causing a great spill, but no one seemed to notice. She ran to where the kittens waited, warm at their mother’s side, just out of view in the hay.

The first kitten was fat and gray, obviously the head of the litter. He was unafraid of the hazel-eyed stranger, creeping through the hay. Instead he crouched and pounced, his paws barely moving from their starting position. His landing was still unsteady and he tumbled like a rolling ball onto his back. The ruckus of his spill roused the other kittens from their breakfast and they began to stumble through the hay toward their guest, slightly drunk on their morning milk. Oranges, creams, and more grays—six little mewing creatures moved toward the wide-eyed girl. The fingers danced forward to the fur, so soft. Some kittens jumped away, some leaned in. Soon all were rubbing the slim white arms and hands, face and neck. The kittens smelled like warm milk and apples. The tiny paws and tongues and noses—it was too much—and the girl forgot why she had come.

The mama, orange-striped and skinny, lay listlessly watching the scene unfold. If she was concerned for the safety of her babies, she did not show it. When a white hand strayed from the kittens to stroke her head, she purred in appreciation, letting out a tiny thankful meow. The girl inhaled deeply and wondered if this was the smell of happiness. The tickle started at her chin and crept up her face, around the outside of her mouth, culminating in the slightly upturned nose. She sneezed once. The kittens scattered.

The tears that filled her eyes were of unclear origin—the sneeze or the fleeing kittens. Possibly both. She reached blindly for fur, desperate. But all of the kittens were just out of reach. She wanted to crawl forward with groping arms, relentlessly scooping up kittens. A soft sound, like a kiss, floated through the loft as tiny yellow ears, followed by bright green eyes, peeked over the mama’s back. Paws plopped—one, two—on the mama’s back and a tiny yellow kitten emerged.

Love spread like fresh jam on warm bread and she knew she had found her kitten. It was so simple, like yawning in the sun.

“Buttercup,” she whispered. The kitten mewed slightly and then closed its eyes as it pressed its face into a white hand just moments before it was scooped up and pressed into the calico-clothed chest.

 

“I had never owned anything before,” the grandmother continued, her heart years away with a yellow kitten. “I had never had anything that was just mine. I waited for my parents to tell me that I could not take her. But they never said anything, one way or the other.”

 

After three days of visiting Buttercup in her kingdom of the hayloft, the day had arrived to take her to her new home in Detroit. The girl wondered how Buttercup would like life as a city cat, if she would be sick on the ride home, if the kitten would sleep on her bed at night.

Aunt May gave her niece a small basket to bring home her new friend, lined with a soft checkered napkin. Buttercup snuggled into the cloth with no protests, sucking slightly on her paw to lull herself to sleep as she and her new owner settled into their spot in the backseat of the Hup, right behind the father. The girl had said the kitten’s name only to herself, but she wanted to stitch it on white linen taken from the bin when the family returned home. Maybe if the piece was small enough maybe no one would notice it was missing. Aunt May and Uncle Eerie kissed their niece on the cheek and told her to enjoy the kitten. The girl’s smile could not be erased as the car pulled away from the farm with Buttercup snuggled in the cotton, sleeping, and her paw still in her mouth.

The ride to Detroit took five hours and the girl did not move for the entire trip. One hour into the trip the first cramp began in her buttocks: first the right and then the left. Fingers of pain spread from her buttocks into her hips, fingernails dragging through the back of her legs and up her spine. Still she kept the basket so motionless, so perfect.

 

Inside the basket, the kitten slept much of the way, her paws limp one moment, kneading the checked cloth or the air the next. The girl watched each movement with the delight of a new mother over a sleeping infant. Every twitching whisker or soft mew was a kiss on her heart even as she struggled to keep the basket still, the vines of pain wrapping themselves around her arms, causing them to shake before the pain snaked its way up her spine triggering a clench in her jaw. She could actually hear her teeth scraping together as her jaw tightened.

When the father stopped to relieve himself, she stayed in her seat, even though she felt the discomfort of fullness and the basket pressing on her bladder. But she did not want to risk her kitten being carried off or getting lost. On the road once more, the mile markers to Detroit ticked down. The girl wanted to scream, she was so excited to bring her kitten home, but she remained very still. So very still.

A hard right turn indicated that they were nearing their little home on the east side of Detroit. Her muscles started to twitch as she waited for the car to slow. A lifetime of adventures were ready to begin.

The father swung the door of the car open, his giant hand reaching into the backseat as if to grab his daughter. Instead, he grabbed the basket that had not shifted for five long hours. Jerking it from the lap, he let it hang loosely at his side as if it were an afterthought while he strode toward the metal garbage cans lining the street in front of the small house. He lifted the lid, and as simply as tossing out a used tissue, tossed the basket inside. The garbage can lid clanged once, sickening as a snapping bone. He did not look to his wife or daughter as he walked toward the house. The little girl in the backseat looked to the empty hands, tears threatening to strike.

“Bill,” the mother called after him. “Wieder hier.” Come back here.

The father paused.

“Sollten Sie nicht ihr bringen sie alles diese weise, wenn es nicht hält.”

You shouldn’t have let her bring it all this way if it wasn’t for keeps.

He did not answer, only ducked his head as he walked into the house. It wasn’t clear if he didn’t understand her, or he just didn’t care. Both were highly probable.

“Bitten,” the mother called after him. Please. He did respond.

The mother did not look at the girl, empty-lapped in the car, nor did she look at the garbage can. She just picked up her small carpet bag and walked toward the house.

“Kommen, Unna. Es gibt chores zu tun.”

Come, Unna. There are chores to do.

The girl could not move. Everything within her festered with such pain—her aching muscles, her full bladder, her stomach and chest melting into a great boil of sorrow.

“Unna.” The mother was at the door. She did not turn around to look at the girl, but her voice was like a bee sting. “Bitten,” she added, softly, the balm for the swelling wound.

The girl spun slowly on the seat. She stepped out of the car, her eyes burning as if they were being held open under the ocean. For a moment she felt as if she might be sick; the churning hot liquid gushing through her stomach and face, barely contained under her skin, might suddenly spurt forth from her mouth. Then a merciless fear punched into her, threatening to spill all that raged through her—the fear that she might hear the scratch of a claw or small meowing. Her hands pressed against her ears, wishing she could push hard enough to crush the fear from her mind. The terror was such that she did not notice the warm spreading between her legs, soaking her skirt; first hot, then cold as the fabric clung to her skinny thighs. And she ran to the house, leaving the car door open and the garbage can lid closed. Before she could pass through the door, the mother’s hands caught the girl’s shoulders, forcing her hands down and away from her ears. The girl fought back. Her hands jerked back to her head like a snapping bear trap.

“Stop it.” The mother’s hands gripped the girl’s arms again but softened to flesh shackles ringing at the frail wrists. Slowly, both mother and daughter lowered their hands. The daughter tried to look at the mother, but the older woman was occupied in the carpet bag resting at her feet.

“Nimm dies,” she said, producing a large crocheted shawl.

Take this.

The girl did not move.

“Nimm dies,” she repeated, wrapping the shawl around her daughter’s waist, covering the soaked skirt. “Wascht euch vor dem Vater sieht sie.”

Clean yourself before your father sees you.

“Why?” the girl asked as the mother picked up her bag and walked into the hallway. Somehow she could not find the strength to move past the threshold.

“Warum?” she repeated in German when there was no answer.

The mother stood for a moment with her face away from the daughter. Perhaps she was looking for her husband to ensure he would not hear her answer. Perhaps she was looking for an answer.

“Denn die Welt ist grausam,” she finally whispered to herself before walking out of the hallway, tilting slightly at the weight of the bag in her hand.

Because the world is cruel.

 

“I have never known why he did that,” the grandmother said. “And we never talked about it again.” She licked her dry, thin lips. “Perhaps some things we are not meant to understand, only to experience.”

The granddaughter did not know what to say. Sadness like she had never known forced itself over her. Something pulled loose and floated away, a piece of preciousness blown away in the windy nighttime sky.

“I have always hoped that kitten escaped.” Her face, hollow cheeks with thin lips grasping at slightly protruding teeth, withered like the fallen crab apples littering the backyard, croned in the beams of lamplight. The granddaughter sensed that even though the woman remained in the room, she was very much alone. The sliding closet doors, suspended from the top of the doorframe, seemed to swing slightly, though there was no breeze for the windows were closed. The room felt cold.

“Good night, mien Liebling.” The kiss pressed from her craggy lips onto the granddaughter’s freckled cheek. Neither felt it. With a twist of the gold key lodged in its base, an opaque white hurricane lamp emitted its soft glow, a sentinel against the night. Even from across the room the granddaughter could make out the individual brushstrokes of the pasque flowers silhouetted by the light, each leaf and petal painted by a now-dead woman who found beauty in her handiwork instead of her marriage and daughter. The little girl was counting the bruise-colored petals when the bedroom door latch clicked into place. She plucked the petals in her mind, pasting them back and tearing them again until her tears and sleep sealed her hazel eyes, now the color of melted city snow dripped into the gutter.

On the other side of the door, in the shadowy hall, the grandmother’s hand remained on the knob, her arms itching, as they often did, the way a scratch itches as it begins to heal.

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Amber Kelly-Anderson holds a BFA from New York University and MA from Sul Ross State University. She is an Assistant Professor of English and History at Howard College. Her work has been featured in The Sage, Soul Speak, and The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2012. Email: akelly_anderson[at]yahoo.com

Happy Ending

Fiction
Ryan N. Hejmanowski


Bench
Photo Credit: David Hawkins-Weeks

The bench overlooked a corner of Bradenton that was well populated but not very often viewed from that vantage point. The ledge was there more by accident than by plan and the city maintenance crews had long forgotten about it. The paths leading down from above, and the one that had led up from down below, were overgrown fully. It was simply a bench sitting on the side of a hill with no direct path leading to it.

Even though the paths were unused, the bench itself was tended meticulously. The iron supports were always painted a lustrous gloss black without a single spot of rust or deterioration. The wooden planks were covered in British racing green and they shone in the sun with a gloss of their own. Each board was smooth along its surface without any indication that there were knots or blemishes in their length. Had the hillside bench been sitting with the rest of them in the park far below, it would have stood out.

The others were decrepit in comparison with their years of weathering, tears, and shit staining their visage. It was a function of frequent use by the homeless people looking for a comfortable, well-lit place to rest coupled with the general malaise of the government employees tasked with caring for them. It meant that they were cleaned about once a year and repainted every three years. To make matters worse, the repainting process usually didn’t involve any sort of cleaning beforehand. So there were simply layers upon layers of paint mixed with grime and bodily fluids to form a shell over the metal and wood. It made for a surface that was horribly uneven and usually cracking at various points.

James Madison was the reason that the hillside bench stood with unknowing pride in the sunshine every sixth of June. Not the historical figure, but James Madison who lived on Arlington Lane in the city below the bench. He was an average man who went to work for forty years in the nearby aviation factory where aircraft were conceived, born, and reproduced until their useful lives came to a close. During his forty years, James had conceived as many planes but only saw three of them actually birthed.

There were still copies of his last plane being produced. He would always catch himself looking up to the sky whenever he heard a jet overhead, hoping to catch a view of the latest variant of his fighter, dubbed the F-60 by his employer. No matter how many times he looked, James always knew it wasn’t one of his because of the sound. Most people couldn’t recognize the difference between a military jet and a commercial airliner. James knew instantly from the not-so-subtle differences in the turbines. His military children had raucous, vicious, uncaring engines that screamed even when cruising. The commercial airliners had larger turbofan engines that were tamer, gentler creatures that tried hard not to assault the ear as they passed.

Even knowing the differences in the turbines, he always glanced up hoping that his hearing was going bad and he would catch a glimpse of his baby flying proudly above. It had happened once before and that was years ago. He was walking along the street hand-in-hand with his fiancé, Rebecca Walsh. He stopped in amazement with the grin of an infant amazed by the mobile hanging above his crib. The enthrallment was such that he completely lost the thread of their conversation. Rebecca didn’t mind that as much as being rudely jerked to a stop by James’s iron grip.

“What is wrong with you?” she snapped as she spun around to face James. Only then did she see the childlike expression on his upturned face. She had known him long enough to know what he did for a living and she had no illusions about it. One part of her heart was touched with tenderness at watching her love entranced by the inherent beauty in his creation. The other part of her railed against her love of James in the name of all the people that would be murdered by being on the wrong end of his offspring. It was all she could do to keep from slapping him soundly at that moment but she held it together for the sake of their love.

It was the first of his aircraft to see production. He couldn’t help but look up every time one of them streaked across the sky in the most graceful of arcs. Occasionally he would catch one of them executing a turn out of the controlled airspace pattern that covered the majority of the town. It meant that watching the planes was a generally boring endeavor with the occasional turn being the pinnacle of excitement.

James didn’t care how boring it was to anyone else because he saw the beauty in every rivet and aluminum strut running through his planes. He loved the artistry of conceiving and designing an aircraft that could go twice the speed of sound and still land as gently as a sparrow alighting upon a thin branch. It was the balance between the sleek, eloquent skin covering the unbridled fury of a turbine spinning at over one hundred thousand revolutions per minute. The smallest piece being out of balance would create a catastrophic failure that would rip his baby apart from the inside out. The fact that his airframe could handle such barely controlled rage was a form of art that he just couldn’t explain.

“Nothing at all, my love,” James said in response to his abrupt halt and gave Rebecca a gentle kiss that temporarily wiped away the war between her heart and head. “You know how I get around airplanes. I have the attention span of a small child in a room full of shiny things.”

His final words rubbed her the wrong way because she knew he didn’t get that way about all airplanes… just his. Her response came out more acidic than she had expected but she felt justified nonetheless when she branded him a death-merchant before stomping off down the street. That evening ended with a heated argument that James couldn’t bring under control with any amount of understanding on his part or pleading for understanding on Rebecca’s part. It was that night that they both recognized there were certain topics that they would never agree on.

It was almost a year later when they finally realized the impact it was going to have on their relationship. Before that realization, they shared many days hiking through the hills on the outskirts of Bradenton. That was how they first found a discarded park bench in the weeds. To say it was pathetic would have been kind. Most of the wood was rotted through in more than one place and the iron supports were rusted terribly. James saw the way that Rebecca looked at it, envisioning the two of them sitting next to one another watching the sun setting before turning to go inside and retire for the evening.

Although that vision was never realized, he made it a point to restore the bench to pristine condition. First, he went back to the site alone and pulled all the iron supports out of the weeds. He spent his lunch hours at work taking an industrial sandblaster to them. Surprisingly, the rust was only on the surface and the sandblasting produced a clean piece of iron that was only pitted in a few spots. Those spots were filled with automotive body filler and sanded smooth. Then he took them home and spent some free time in the evenings painting them in the garage. It was easy to do since he and Rebecca weren’t married and, therefore, didn’t live together.

Once he had all the supports finished, it was a simple matter of getting the lumber and putting a proper finish on it. The color was an indulgence he allowed himself. British racing green was one of his favorite colors even though it was only in style overseas on the racing circuits at the time. It took some finagling on his part but he managed to get some imported. Within a day of receiving the paint he had all the wood painted to a lustrous finish that was as smooth as any car he’d ever seen.

It was only a few days after all the pieces were prepared that James spent an idle Tuesday hauling the components up to the ridge. He took the day off just for the occasion and spent it in sublime pleasure. The wood was bolted easily to the iron supports and the bench took shape in little time. He then set some concrete blocks in the dirt so the bench had support. He knew it would sink over time, so he set the blocks slightly higher than the earth hoping that it would level out a little over time. He wasn’t disappointed on that count as the bench settled in beautifully.

Once he was done assembly, and seating, the bench he went down the hill to get Rebecca. Things had been strained between them since the first time he saw one of his aircraft flying overhead. Things hadn’t gotten much better when he won approval of a second design in the weeks before the bench was finished. James knew that they would never agree on his work. He was certain that she would accept it as part of him and it was just taking time for her to work through that. He did what he could to assure her of his love and the bench was just another gesture in an endless string of them.

The day was beautiful with generous amounts of sun and a gentle breeze that kept it from getting too warm. They trudged up the hill with a bit of stilted conversation that James found normal as of late. Rebecca followed behind him without offering much to open conversation on her own. When they reached the ridgeline, James asked Rebecca to close her eyes and he led her by the hand to where the bench sat waiting. He did the typical unveiling by telling her to open her eyes and then beaming at her with a huge smile that bordered on grotesque, awaiting the praise that he was sure to receive for such a gesture.

Instead, Rebecca took his hand and led him to the bench so they could sit. Bradenton spread out before them as they simply sat there, side by side. They sat in silence for a few minutes as James became a bit confused.

“So, what…” he started.

“Shhh,” Rebecca stopped him with. She did this every time he tried to talk over the next hour. It did little to put him at ease and started to trouble him deeply by the time the hour mark approached. During that time, Rebecca simply sat with her arms folded across her chest, refusing to speak to James. She simply stared straight ahead and James tried to convince himself that she was simply shutting him up to sit and enjoy the view.

Only as the sun started to set and the town was bathed in oblique lighting that gave it a warm, soft glow did Rebecca speak. She reached down and took James’s hand in her own but she continued to stare straight ahead.

“I’m leaving town tomorrow and I’m not coming back,” she began and instantly raised her other hand to ward off any commentary on his behalf. “I love you more than I’ve ever loved anyone but I can’t get past your job. Actually, it’s not the job. I can’t get past your love of your job. I know it’s selfish but I will not be that closely associated with death and destruction. I won’t contribute to it and staying with you would do exactly that.”

With those words, Rebecca let go of James’s hand, stood up, and walked away. James simply sat there and let her go without protest, knowing that there was nothing he could say to change things.

The years passed and James thought of Rebecca often. Every June he would begin the process of cleaning and restoring the bench that he first installed on that hillside over thirty years before. He would start on the first of the month and by the afternoon of the sixth it would always look as fresh as he had first built it. He was always surprised that it was still there when he went back on June first. Age made him somewhat more cynical and he always expected to see the bench missing or just destroyed by vandals. Instead, it simply sat there, overgrown by weeds, waiting his arrival and its rebirth.

Every sixth of June, James would sit on that bench watching his corner of Bradenton until the sunset. He freely admitted to himself that he was waiting for Rebecca to return and take a seat next to him so they could relive that moment and he could do something to change it.

This year, on the sixth of June, James got a surprise he had hoped for. As the sun was starting to set he caught movement out of the corner of his eye. He realized that Rebecca was sitting next to him with her arms crossed on her chest. He didn’t turn to see her for fear that she was just a figment of his imagination and would vanish at his recognition. He sat rigidly with his heart hammering in his chest. James knew it wasn’t good for someone of his years to have a heart running out of control but he didn’t care. He knew that it was his time to make amends for his inaction years ago. He drew a deep breath, preparing to talk. Rebecca interrupted him before he could get his words out.

“You know it was one of your planes that dropped a bomb and killed me, right?” was all she said.

It was enough to drive the breath from his chest and rational thought from his mind. The feeling of her hand closing over his was enough to ensure that he would never return to that bench. Using what time he had left, he cried until the sun had vanished below the horizon.

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Ryan currently works as a photographer and videographer in the Chicago area, as well as practicing law. He earned his Bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice with a minor in Literature. He began writing when he was in grade school and hasn’t stopped since. Recently, another of his short stories, “Howlin’ For You,” was published at Necrology Shorts. Email: hejmonger[at]hejmonger.com

Reading the Signs in Seoul

Fiction
James Dante


_IMG_0919
Photo Credit: redslmdr

While making lunch for Jae-Min’s children, I had the portable Samsung TV on top of the kitchen counter. That day Armed Forces Korea Network had devoted most of its coverage to the protests downtown. It was May First, International Labor Day. The unions, now angered by massive lay-offs, had ended their truce with the government, leading to 20,000 workers and students waving pipes and anti-American banners. Definitely the wrong day for Jae-Min to be traveling by herself through the city, but some well-to-do couple downtown wanted a private English lesson for their son in middle school, and, apparently, it had to be on that day. She couldn’t turn the work down, having lost her job at Ripe Apple Language Institute. When I called her cell phone, she had been stuck on a city bus that the protest had halted. In the background I could hear the mob.

“My God, Jake, this is my country.”

“What’s happening?”

“Outside I see many—”

I heard glass break. Jae-Min shouted. When she caught her breath, she told me a rioter had thrown a bottle against her window.

“Never stop talking,” she said. “I must hear your voice.”

We stayed connected until her bus cleared the crowd. When she finally made it to my place, she ran straight to Jong-Su and Go-Eun and embraced both at once. Turning to me she said, “This evening we are all having dinner at Sun-Hee’s home. You should come at six o’clock.”

After they left, I cranked up the television and went to work on the sticky plates and cups piled to the top of the sink. At the Mom-and-Pop grocery near my place, I could usually score a box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese Dinner or some other American goody that had been commandeered from one of the U.S. military bases. This came in handy whenever I watched the kids. By the spring of ’98, Jong-Su, her son, and Go-Eun, her daughter, had been staying at my place a lot, especially since Jae-Min now had graduate studies at Yonsei University. More important, she had, while her husband was picking up day labor out of town, fled with her children and moved into her sister’s home. Jong-Su was now nine and Go-Eun had just turned eight. By then, they had figured out that my role in their mother’s life was something other than some man from work. Go-Eun looked more like her mother every week. She seemed like a reserved child, sitting quietly for hours at a time on the bedroom floor, recklessly coloring in her book or dismembering body parts off of dolls. The boy, of course, was all energy. I came to regard Jong-Su as more than a seedling from the father, and I hoped he saw me as more than the awkward ingredient in his soup. So there I went, buying Nike sneakers and movie tickets. I had already succeeded in becoming Saturday’s hero. If all goes well, I thought, I might just avoid becoming Monday’s asshole.

Later that afternoon, I received a surprise phone call from my friend Grady McDow. The previous year Grady and I first met at a pizza joint close to the language institute. At that time he worked for a travel guide publisher, a job he considered several steps beneath his talents. He had often invited me along on local shoots or daytrips. Ancient palaces. Water gardens. Outdoor markets where you could buy anything from pottery to a hog’s head. The most intense day had been our excursion to the Demilitarized Zone, that volatile border with North Korea, that line where democracy and Kentucky Fried Chicken ended. Eventually he landed a position as a photojournalist with Asia Chronicles, a monthly news magazine based in Ohio. When Grady called, he had just returned to Seoul to cover the street protests.

“This Asian economic crisis stuff is a hot topic right now,” he said. “All the big media outlets have got their Asia correspondents on it. And since I was the only one on staff with Korea experience, they booked a flight for me.”

“It looks like you’ll never again have to take pictures of the tombs of dead kings.”

“A dead king’s not going to knock you over the head with a goddamn nightstick,” he said, making light of it.

When I updated Grady on my dramatic narrative, including the fire and my life with Jae-Min, his response sounded more jaded than concerned, as if everything happening to me was a logical consequence. Grady, being in the early stage of a white mane, often felt the need to dispense advice and wisdom. He had good points. Sometimes. Grady needed to return to the protest, and he wanted me to meet him at the park downtown where the action was taking place.

“Maybe the next national crisis,” I said.

Somehow I ended up in a taxi moving toward downtown. The driver complained and stopped the cab at the first sight of the armored police vehicles. I continued on foot to where the protest had spilled out from the park and onto the streets. Ringleaders with megaphones fired up the crowd. Workers, once loyal to their pro-labor president, now pushed against a perimeter of black helmets and body shields that guarded the buildings along the main boulevard. Lines of riot police, resembling a thousand Darth Vaders, pushed back with even greater force, knocking people to the ground.

Three guys on a rooftop threw burning sticks down upon the police line while the crowd in the street cheered them on. Bodies moved in choppy currents and settled into areas where windows shattered, building signs fell, and images of President Kim and Uncle Sam burned in effigy. A few calm pockets existed within the storm. Small groups sat in circles, eating out of bowls and drinking from thermoses. They laughed and socialized, appearing indifferent to the spontaneous violence around them.

An unshaven man, with his gut popping out of his T-shirt, walked up to me with a camera and had me pose with his group. A woman handed me a plywood sign with Korean writing. She had me hold it up while the man snapped the picture. As I walked off, they laughed, leading me to suspect the sign had some anti-American message.

In one area, several camera crews with banners, such as NBC and CNN, held their positions. While an officer confronted a photographer, I heard what sounded like a cannon blast. A dense cloud of yellow smoke engulfed a group of protesters that had been throwing glass bottles at the police line. As the smoke cleared, I could see people bent over and on their knees, coughing. My stomach sank, and my palms were wet. I needed to find my way out.

Among the reporters and cameras, I recognized one man’s wild body language. About fifty yards away stood Grady McDow. I shouted his name. There was too much noise. Approaching him, I saw why Grady and a few others had concentrated on one spot. Three or four protesters were wielding pipes and sticks at some officers who had broken off from the police barrier. The men in black started swinging their batons and using their body shields like bulldozers. One man was laid to the ground with a single blow to the forehead. Grady aligned himself for a shot while three officers charged toward him.

A black uniform and face shield stood before me, halting my forward movement. I stepped sideways and saw two officers trying to wrestle Grady’s camera from his hands. That’s when a baton went into Grady’s leg. He dropped to his knees. Within moments they had Grady face down on the asphalt.

The black uniform turned its attention toward a guy throwing rocks at the police line. I sprinted ahead but could no longer see Grady. A van had pulled up to that spot, and the police were pushing some handcuffed protesters into the back. I knew I had gotten too close when I felt two solid arms wrapping around my torso. The tension forced the air from my lungs with one sharp burst. When he loosened his grip, I spun around, striking the protective padding on his chest with my forearm. Two other officers sandwiched me, each grabbing an arm. They dragged me toward the van. One of the cops pulled my arms back and handcuffed me. Then they threw me into the back of the vehicle. Grady sat with his back propped against the corner. His face burned bright red. He didn’t look badly hurt, although he kept twitching one of his knees. He opened his eyes and experienced a few moments of disbelief before saying, “What the fuck?”

Inside the police station, they herded us, Grady limping a bit, into a large open area with several desks and rows of chairs for the prisoners. The place reeked of cigarette smoke and body odor, both circulated by the desk fans. An officer removed our handcuffs and sat us in front of a desk covered with file folders. On the wall was an enclosed gun rack with a dozen or so rifles. At the desk sat a man with gray sideburns and bifocals. His name was Sergeant Pak. The man could obviously speak English but was not eager to prove how well. Grady and I picked up on the tension between the arresting officers and their superior when he saw Grady’s press credentials. This put a grin on Grady’s face lasting at least a minute. Then the senior officer jotted down the information on my resident’s card.

“A teacher. Why the foolishness?” he said, eyes peering over his black frames.

“He didn’t do anything, except be in the wrong place,” Grady said.

“I will write your charges next, Mr. Grady.”

“What charges?”

“Interfering with police procedures. When Officer Chun gives me the report, there can be more charges.”

The thin and jittery Office Chun started speaking to Sergeant Pak. Grady leaned toward me. “Look, it’s a Korean Barney Fife.”

“No talking!” said another officer standing near the desk.

“I’m sure the American Embassy will have a lot to say about this,” I said indignantly.

Sergeant Pak slid his phone toward me and said something to his men. They laughed. Even Grady chuckled a little.

“Don’t bother,” Grady said to me. “Unless you’re importing or exporting something, the American Embassy isn’t too concerned.”

An hour later, two officers escorted our group up a stairwell to the holding cells. They threw our group into a cell with a dozen other militants. Grady and I could barely hear each other over the noise. The air was heavy, like a sauna. One guy squeezed between Grady and me as he pushed his way toward the steel bars.

“Don’t sweat it,” Grady said. “When we get out of here, I’ll call the foreign press corps. They got lawyers that handle this kind of shit.”

An officer opened the door and ordered half of the prisoners out. A guy standing at the toilet pled for another minute. Once they left, Grady and I sat on the bench along the wall.

“They can’t afford bad relations with the foreign press,” Grady said. “The Korean government likes to piss and moan about us, but the truth is they don’t want to lose any more foreign investors. That’s how the country got into this mess in the first place.”

“Don’t you remember? We saw Uncle Sam burning in the streets.”

“Since when do laid-off workers and college radicals start calling the shots?”

Earlier, during my processing, I had given the sergeant Jae-Min’s number. I was expecting her to show up at any moment wearing the same distraught look she had when she came to the emergency room the prior summer. Grady sat quietly for a long while, then suddenly turned his head to me.

“You know, it really isn’t our fault,” he said.

“That we’re in a holding cell?”

“That we’re not married and settled down.”

My silence didn’t deter him from dispensing his wisdom.

“Ever notice what happens when you tell a married man, even a happily married man, that you’re single?”

“Not really,” I said, looking away.

“Sure you have. He gives you that little smirk. That look that says Do a blonde for me. It’s got to sink into a man’s subconscious.”

“What’re you talking about?”

“Every man wants that one last bit of excitement before he settles down to play Ward Cleaver. What you did is a lot better than going to whorehouse, I’ve got to admit. But I’ll bet you didn’t even call her to cancel, did you? Shame on you. Such an inconsiderate male you are.”

“I called her and left a message. Besides, none of this matters in the end. We’re going to get married once we get the legal situation worked out.”

“You’re going to be okay no matter what,” he said, with one of those annoying slaps on the back.

Despite the noise and the oversized incandescent light over our heads, I managed to nod off for a while. Later Grady nudged me awake. An officer stood outside the cell.

“Looks like they’re releasing us,” Grady said.

It was a few minutes past midnight. The officer let Grady and me out of the cell and took us back to the same processing desk. Sergeant Pak was still on duty, his head struggling to stay upright. Jae-Min was sitting in one of the chairs, her arms folded.

“You, of course,” she said, looking at Grady.

I sat next to her. When I touched her shoulder, she recoiled. The man in charge raised his eyeglasses, rubbed his lids, and flipped through a stack of documents.

“Mr. Grady.”

They dropped the charges against Grady but warned him against a repeat performance. The man then dropped Grady’s camera and wallet onto the desk. Grady grabbed his camera and opened it.

“Where’s the film?”

“Confiscated,” he said coldly.

“Ain’t that fucking lovely!”

“My patience is gone, Mr. Grady! You should go.”

Grady sat back down and folded his arms. The officer picked up another stack of documents. It was my turn to get released.

“You too can leave, Mr. Jacob.”

“Thank you. Thank you.”

“I am dismissing charges. I hope you have a good trip home to California in two weeks,” he said with a yellow smile.

“What?”

“Your resident identification is now confiscated. Next week the immigration center here in Seoul will reissue identification valid for ten days.”

Jae-Min slid downward in her chair, holding her stomach.

“Now this isn’t really necessary,” I said with the diplomacy of a mob lawyer. “I admit that I made a big mistake, and I’m very sorry. But if you just let me go, you’ll never have to worry about me again.”

He leaned back in his chair and looked at Jae-Min.

“You can return to Korea in the future if you find another sponsorship. If a possibility. May not be easy with this police report in file.”

He signaled one of his men who then made Jae-Min, Grady, and me get up from the chairs. When I stopped and tried approaching the desk, Grady grabbed the back of my shirt.

“Let me go!”

“We’re done here,” he said. “Don’t make it worse.”

Outside the police station, a long line of parked patrol cars flashed their red and blue lights, which lit up the side of the building and the sidewalk. A humid breeze passed over us. Grady stretched his arms up toward the night sky and took a deep breath.

“The sweet air of freedom!”

“Speak for yourself,” I said.

Jae-Min started walking ahead of Grady and me. I couldn’t think of anything worthwhile to say to her. I’m sorry? Everything will be all right? Though it was good she didn’t want to talk at the moment, I still needed some evidence we were still a couple.

Jae-Min had to park several blocks away. When we reached her car, Grady said, “I can grab a cab so you two lovebirds can chat.”

“No,” she said.

In the car she remained silent for at least fifteen minutes until saying, “Is our life together only a game for you?”

Grady stared out the window, pretending not to pay attention.

“And you his friend,” she said to Grady.

Jae-Min said something in Korean, knowing he’d understand.

“Hey, little girl. Where did that language come from?” he said.

She looked at me.

“I called to your home and you were not there. I needed to talk to you, to hear your voice.”

“I know.”

“You don’t know,” she said, wiping an eye with her sleeve.

Earlier that day Jae-Min had found a form letter from Yonsei University that had been misplaced for a few days. It was to notify her that she failed to be awarded a scholarship for which she had applied. Without it she most likely wouldn’t be able to continue her studies.

“Later I had to return my children to my husband’s home. My husband was waiting for them. Then I waited for your call, and it was the police calling to me.”

“Don’t worry. If I can get rehired, I should be back in Korea within a few months.”

Grady interrupted. “I can help out with the money part. Asia Chronicles wants me to do interviews. We’re looking for human interest pieces. You know, laid-off workers, protesters. They’ve got the budget to pay for a translator for me. A hundred bucks American per day. That’s nothing to sneeze at.”

“It’s not a bad idea,” I said.

Jae-Min didn’t respond.

“Go on,” Grady said. “Take the Ugly American’s money.”

“I don’t need!” she snapped.

After we dropped Grady off at the Hyatt Regency, Jae-Min and I continued on to my place. Simultaneously we turned our heads to each other, then looked away. We couldn’t discuss the fact that in two weeks I’d be gone. It seemed unreal. I wasn’t a troublemaker or someone who would gamble our future together, although at the time I appeared to be both of these things. The world had become a wrap-around mirror, showing me all of my unflattering angles. For the most part, the Korean authorities had spared me, but the justice mattering most was Jae-Min’s. I imagined her revising our history until it read as another sad chapter in her life. This was all wrong. For me, the past two years had been the only years worth remembering. That day brought about an event, not a conclusion. I had to make her see this.

I had two Spartan rooms in the basement of an old building that had a traditional medicine shop on the ground floor. A few weeks after moving in, I stopped noticing the pungent that seeped down into my place. During her visits, Jae-Min nested as much as possible. The girly decorations. Jasmine jar in the bathroom. She bought a roll of thick material and draped the windows. In addition to giving us a measure of privacy, the coverings kept us from having to see the iron security bars.

By the time I finished showering, she appeared to have calmed down. I sat next to her on the bed as she watched a late newscast.

“How did the tutoring go with the boy today?” I asked. For a moment, she seemed to have forgotten about it.

“Good,” she said, almost smiling. “He is clever, of course. He has no choice.”

Then she laughed a little.

“The boy asked me, ‘Why do people in English say falling in love? Is it the same as word as falling down the stairs?'”

“That is funny.”

“Funny and true. American people also say, ‘My imagination is running away with me.’ Yes, my imagination and I, together like foolish friends, running far away.”

Jae-Min noticed the bruise on my upper arm.

“They were rough putting me into the van.”

“Good.”

 

The last time I heard from Grady, he was scheduled to take the train down to Ulsan, a city on the southeastern coast. With the help of a local college boy, he planned to do a series of human interest stories. Hyundai Motors, the pillar of Ulsan’s economy, had laid-off twenty percent of its workers. The shock waves had torn throughout every home in the region. By the time Grady was due back in Seoul, I would already be gone. At the Immigration Office I picked up my reissued resident’s identification that would expire in twelve days.

I had already gone to speak with Mr. Chung, my boss at Ripe Apple Language Institute. After the predicted shouting session, his practical side took over. He realized it made more sense to rehire me than to start looking for a new English teacher. Chung felt fairly certain he could secure another work visa for me because of his contacts inside the Immigration Office who were open to his style of persuasion, which meant a letter envelope stuffed with cash. He enjoyed saying, “In Korea human relations are more important than regulations.”

I tried calling Jae-Min a few times but couldn’t get through to her. I walked over to her sister’s place. Sun-Hee, Jae-Min’s younger sister, had her own little bachelorette pad, making her interesting to all the young men in the neighborhood and scandalous to their mothers. Jae-Min was lucky to have such a sibling, who willingly took her and her children in when her husband could no longer control his outbursts. Oddly, I found the door unlocked when I arrived.

“Anyone home? Jae-Min? Sun-Hee?”

I heard a noise coming from inside their bedroom. Surprisingly, the door was locked. I pounded on it and continued until Sun-Hee finally cracked the door open.

“My sister not here,” she said, smiling nervously.

“Where is she? Never mind. I’ll just leave her a note on the dresser.”

Sun-Hee resisted as I pushed against the door.

“You got a man in there?”

“Nobody here!”

“Come on. I want to meet the stud.”

I moved her small body clear of the doorway. She was alone, and the beds were perfectly made.

“Where’s your writing paper? I just want to…”

Before completely focusing my eyes, I sensed something had changed. After a few moments, it struck me. Everything belonging to Jae-Min and the children was gone. I imagined where her clothes, books, sheet music, and photographs would’ve been if the world were right. I grabbed Sun-Hee’s shoulders and spun her around toward me. She tensed and flared her nostrils. I recognized the look on Sun-Hee’s face, the anguish I hadn’t seen for nearly two years. I was about to interrogate her but stopped myself. I already knew enough.

pencil

Though originally from Western New York, James Dante has lived in Northern California for most of his life. After graduating from the University of California at Davis with a degree in international relations, he became a bored government worker and later caught the teaching bug in South Korea. He continues to teach adult learners, and sometimes he learns something himself. “Reading the Signs in Seoul” is an excerpt from his unpublished novel The Tiger’s Wedding. Other excerpts have appeared in Rosebud. Email: JDante[at]aol.com

Two Poems

Poetry
Cynthia Sharp


teapot
Photo Credit: Nikolai Vassiliev

The Summer We Never Had

In the summer we never had
there is time
for endless evenings
of coffee and poetry
conversation
amid the spark of fireflies
in the city heat

as voices from late night
gatherings on porches
drift in open windows
I no longer pretend
you are in my room
just to study

we are no longer pending
on outside approval
only the potential
we elevate
each other to

in the summer we never had
I don’t have to be
anything more than I am
and it doesn’t matter
that my hair finds its way
into dreadlocks

there is red wine and lovemaking
daisies that last the night
my single bed is luxurious enough
and I never have to get over you

I taste forever
how it would have been
and never let you go

 

Inviting Jesus to Tea

When Jesus enters the circle
dress casual and warm
allow spaces
for his wisdom
don’t be embarrassed
when he appears
at the ceremony
keep on praying
all my relations
invite him to dance
He is a relation

When he stays for tea
wear mauve
use the best china
keep on praying
Aboriginal and
do rub his feet
He’s probably tired
of what’s been done
in his name

“Inviting Jesus to Tea” was inspired on Vancouver Island in the spring of ’97. We were called upon in a Medicine Circle to invite all our relations, when the spirit of my maternal grandmother brought Jesus with her into the Aboriginal healing ceremony, compelling me to be in unison all the parts of who I am.

pencil

Cynthia Sharp is currently at work on a trilogy of fantasy novels in between poems lamenting her lost twenties. She studied creative writing at York University in Toronto, where she wishes she had spent more summers. Email: inthelightwt[at]gmail.com

Five Poems

Poetry
Doug Bolling


Pebbles
Photo Credit: Sue Langford

Rain Diary

The days we two collected
like smooth pebbles on
beaches of childhood.

How, now, Joanna, they slide
away in the rain of your
departure.

The words that held us
together for most of five years
or so it seemed.
How we sang one another into
belief in something unending.

And now it rains throughout
the known world.
And now you are gone like a light
in storm that was here and
now not.

 

Talking It Out

World I ask you.
I ask you over and over.

River overflows. My favorite
library will sink
or swim.

And I still have no answers
on the wireless set
of soul.

Is it enough to be filled
with pictures and sounds
telling the story of my
life my death here in
the whorl of mirage.

And if I step through the
scrim of things what will
I find but you world still
keeping your vast mouth shut
like a door without hinges.

And if I walk out into moonlight
(so lovely so there)
what will I say to the
stranger who rides always

beside me, more me than
myself.

 

Shortfall

We wrote wildly.
The shadows.
Sunlight crumpled
into a heap
next door to
the sea.

it was dark.
Our souls,
circuitry locked
inside a
cortex.

we had tried to enter
there demanding a
genuine recognition
scene.

No curtain parted.

What else but to
rush onward
or side to side
pushing ourselves
along on the
carapace
of a pen.

So much white paper.
So much needing to be
inscripted with the
blood ink
of whatever
we were.

But the disconnect.
The shortfall.

This curious trick
of the gods
who must have
laughed in
their sleep.

 

Passage

It slides through me
silent as light.

Time the word.
Time the god
building mosaics
out of past present
future

leaving us mostly the
frail parchment
of memory.

Love. Lovers. To love.
The lure of this,
the syntax made of
verbs, nouns, the
enfoldings of
flesh.

This body
calculating its measures,
hiding behind soul
that comes and goes,
a sea gull along
the wind wracked
shore.

So much unknown.
Even books slowly
uncoiling into their
appointed atoms.

It is dangerous
to walk here
being entirely of time,
the vanishings
only moments
away.

 

Night Search

Sometimes in night
planes of light enter and
leave the soul.

This is not thought that can
be touched.

Who has weighed sorrow
in the chemical lab.

Who has carried love around
in a box of exact
proportions.

Long ago I understood
I didn’t exist.

That what they told me of
myself is only a shadow
without substance.

Sometimes I wrote a poem
hoping for more.

For you who has filled
the cup of yourself
to send music
through the flattened
air if only for a
few moments.

pencil

Doug Bolling’s poetry has appeared widely in literary magazines including Georgetown Review, Poetalk, Italian Americana, Connecticut River Review, Illuminations, Trajectory, Blueline and Earthshine among others. He has received two Pushcart Prize nominations. Once upon a time he lived for a year and a half in France and now resides in the greater Chicago area. Email: dougbolling[at]att.net

Four Poems

Poetry
Rachel Barenblat


Path to Isolation
Photo Credit: Javier Kohen

First Night in Buenos Aires

Old political cartoons
punctuate the pink walls.
Our waiter wears black tie,
brings out dish after dish:

steaks the size of dinner plates
and homemade noodles
and lettuce with vinegar,
sweet onion on the side.

We cap the day
with bright limoncello
and a wobbly walk on cobblestones
like Europe, refracted.

By breakfast—coffee,
medialunas smeared with dulce,
watching the city wake
through wrought-iron doors—

two cells have collided
inside me, beginning
their long journey
into the wide world

and we set off on foot
to explore,
never dreaming
what adventures lie ahead.

 

New World Order

I slam on the brakes
and the crockery in the back seat
slides forward with a crash

unpacking the dishes
in my sister’s kitchen I weep
as though they mattered

the next day
a mental thread snags
on the calendar’s sharp edge

and I realize my body
is already at work
forming you

I choose grape juice
for my four cups of joy
not yet able to imagine

your squeals of delight
as I chant the fifteen steps
from kindling the candles

to singing Had Gadya,
the unfamiliar joys
of our newly-disordered lives

 

Sustenance

The taquería doubles as a car wash.
You’re asleep in the backseat
when we pull in. Sun glints
off of tinted Suburban windows.

Iced tea in a Styrofoam cup
too big for our rented cup-holders.
The flour tortillas are homemade
and the salsa tingles my tongue.

Next year we’ll sit at a Formica table
and cut a bean-and-cheese into wedges
your pudgy fingers can hold.
We’ll wipe your ecstatic face clean.

Now all we can do is rave quietly
about this dingy corner of heaven
and drive away, keeping secret
what sustenance remains in store.

 

Push

The nurses taught us to pin and tuck
a thin blanket into a straitjacket

each night when bedtime arrived
your dad would kneel over you on the rug

now you sleep limp like an old rag doll
your twiga and your plush rabbit akimbo

but when you’re awake you push back
against baby gates and mountainous stairs

if I’ve chosen the wrong foods
or if I’m not paying enough attention

you scatter what’s on the tray
then glance at me sly and sideways

no, I don’t want to clean shells
and cheese off the kitchen floor, but

secretly I love to watch you
stretch your wings

you’re a chimera, half dad and half mom
and all you, from your furrowed brow

to your feet fighting to break forth
from the terrible tyranny of socks

claim your birthright and your blessing
unlock every strap and burst free

pencil

These poems are part of Rachel Barenblat’s as-yet-unpublished second book of poems, which has the working title Waiting to Unfold. Her first book-length collection of poems, 70 faces, was published by Phoenicia Publishing in January of last year. 70 faces is a collection of poems written in response to Torah. She is also author of four chapbooks of poetry, and her poems have appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies, among them Phoebe, The Jewish Women’s Literary Annual, and The New Orleans Review. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, and was ordained as a rabbi by ALEPH: the Alliance for Jewish Renewal. Today she serves a small congregation in North Adams; in her spare time she’s a contributing editor for Zeek, a Jewish journal of thought and culture. Rachel lives in western Massachusetts with her husband and their son. Email: rbarenblat[at]gmail.com