Enlightenment

Fiction
Isabel S. Miles


Photo Credit: Erik Forsberg/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Photo Credit: Erik Forsberg/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

For me the penny dropped in my late thirties when I got into Zen. Since then I’ve meditated most mornings. In the evenings I listen, genuinely listen, to Bach or early Cohen and when I water my plants I truly see them. Constant, unforced awareness is key. It really helped when he, he… here and now, remember, here and now.

Caught myself just in time. It’s so easy to slip into the past or future: illusions both. Meanwhile, real moments, each an opportunity for wonder and joy, slip by. Right now I bite into my buttered scone, savouring the complex textures and flavours. Lemon lifts the Lapsang Souchong to a smoky clarity. I sip and order another. The intensity of the buttery crumbliness is only slightly diminished second time round.

Back in my office, I focus on the job in hand. First I clean and tidy the desk. There’s a smudge of ink, or it might be chocolate, on the surface and I fetch a damp paper towel. After that I sharpen my pencils and refill my fountain pen. I have chosen to write the draft by hand. Writing attentively, appreciating the flow of ink to words, lends beauty and meaning to even the Belgian marketing plan. Of course, I’ll have to type it into the computer later. It’s nearly half-past five when my boss sticks her head round the door. ‘Tuesday’s the deadline remember.’ As if I didn’t know. Meanwhile, though, it’s Friday. Stay in the moment.

In the supermarket I walk past the ready meals, preferring real food. There’s plenty of rice at home and I only need a few vegetables. Out of the corner of my eye I notice the “Two eat for £10” offer. Since he, well, anyway, nowadays, I always shop anti-clockwise. It feels right in a yin yang sort of way. So I circumnavigate the bread stand to check out the deal. Sometimes it’s all meat but tonight there’s mushroom risotto with goat’s cheese and caramelised onions! Slowly, side-stepping greed, I put it into my basket. Now the side dish. Italian salad or roast potatoes? Lastly I choose the cheesecake as it’s made with real Sicilian lemons and I think I might have a cold starting. The Sauvignon Blanc is lower in alcohol than the Shiraz so I pick it up. Then I change my mind; goat’s cheese demands red. Back round the way I came in. Someone’s staring at me. I close my eyes and repeat my mantra four times, silently of course. Good, he’s gone. As I’m paying I recollect my vegan supper plan and I do need to lose a few pounds but it’s too late now. Anyway, it’s Friday and I deserve a treat.

Darkness is falling as I put my key in the lock and the last few leaves on the cherry are barely clinging on against the east wind. Next week the clocks change and it’ll be dark by this time. Even now the house has a sinister look. This will be my first winter here without him but I have no regrets. ‘Here and now,’ I tell myself firmly.

Systematically I go round the house: switching on the lights, drawing the curtains, looking under the beds twice and into the wardrobes three times. As always, I check the shower. Then I switch on Classic FM in the kitchen, living room and bedroom. Before I wash and start cooking, I just check again that I locked the door properly.

 

Risotto and roast potatoes make a great combination. The crunch of one brings out the creamy softness of the other. I wonder why they aren’t served together more often. If people were more awake they might be. Most people live their lives on autopilot, unblissfully unaware. Not I, I focus on drying the plate then on polishing the cutlery with the tea towel. The curve of the fork is beautiful. Before bed I play my Buddhist Garden CD and sip the last of the Shiraz. There’s nothing un-Zen about a good glass of wine as long as you truly taste it.

Saturday morning is a fresh start. Apart from goat’s milk and yoghourt I’ll be vegan today. I accidentally make muesli for two but I’ll work it off at yoga. During the class I lose myself completely in the grace and precision of the asanas. My tree barely sways. Lunch is at the Good Life with Jenny. Wholemeal lasagne is so much healthier and the cheese they use here is made with vegetarian rennet. Their fruit salad with sour cream is so full of life it zings. Jenny can’t go to the gallery with me after all, but I’m happy on my own, each moment a wonder. After I’ve absorbed the paintings I spend an hour in Boots, browsing the alternative therapy shelves.

Saturday is one of my cleaning days. I used to hate it but now, simply by staying continually alert, I’ve discovered the joy of housework. At one time I would rush through the house in an hour and imagine it was spotless. Now it takes me six hours just to clean the bathroom, seven if I’m not in a hurry. As I’ve worked so hard, I keep supper simple, Thai curry with my special fried rice. After supper I read the Dalai Lama’s latest. Since I haven’t had a single drink I reward myself with cream in my hot chocolate.

As always my parents welcome me with hugs and a full roast dinner. Sunday is our special day and the only time I eat meat. Afterwards we veg out with a DVD then I help Mum prepare tea while Dad takes the dog out. Soon it’ll be time to head off. Sometimes, passing my old room, I feel like I could just curl up on the familiar mattress and stay there forever. This evening I spend so long in the bathroom my mum has to shout up twice and I pull myself together, closing the cabinet. Misery is an illusion. Just focus… ‘Om Namah Shivayah, Om Namah Shi…’

‘How are you doing love?’ mum asks as I pull on my jacket and dig out my car keys. ‘Are you finding it any easier?’ I’m perfectly all right and I wish she wouldn’t fuss. Still I kiss the top of her head. She smells like home and I want a cuddle but daren’t have one.

‘I’m fine, Mum,’ I say. ‘Don’t keep reminding me just when I’ve forgotten all about him.’

‘Did you call Marion?’ she asks.

‘No,’ I say. ‘It’s her turn. Anyway I don’t need Marion. I told you I spent yesterday with Jenny. I’ve got loads of friends, and you and Dad of course. I’m really lucky. Now I’ve got to go. Things to do!’ Normally I’d go into the living room and kiss Dad goodbye but tonight I just shout through. It’s all I can manage not to cry till I’m safely on the main road. For two minutes I let it wash through me, then give myself a shake. ‘All shall be well,’ I whisper. ‘All manner of things shall…’ Suddenly I realise I’ve closed my eyes to concentrate. I shouldn’t do that when I’m driving. ‘All manner of things will be well,’ I repeat, calmly and clearly, eyes wide open.

All the time I’m checking the house I’m struggling to hold it together but I keep on focussing. Several glasses of wine and a cheese feast pizza later, all really is well. I am watching a wonderful documentary on the origins of the universe. Gravity waves are passing through me right now as I sit here on my couch. We are so small in space and time.

It’s Monday, eleven a.m. and I’ve just got back from coffee break and am cleaning my desk, when Jenny appears again. ‘Tomorrow remember,’ she says. ‘Oh, by the way, you have chocolate on your chin.’ When the door is closed I make a face at it. Five years ago Jenny worked for me and she wasn’t always so efficient herself. Did I pester her? On and on and on? Of course not! Then I recollect myself. Anger hurts me not her. Like it hurts me not him. Anger hurts me not him and I let it go. I swallow and repeat my special secret mantra. I have to repeat it sixteen times, silently of course.

Mary, Bob, and I walk down to the canteen as usual but I just buy a few sandwiches and a couple of bags of crisps to keep me going while I finish the report. There’s more to do than I had realised. Actually I might have to work late, so I pick up another bag of crisps and some chocolate. By the time I’ve finished and tidied up my desk properly it’s eight p.m. I print out a hard copy and leave it on Jenny’s desk, next to the photo of her husband and children playing with their dog. I could get a dog. Or maybe a cat? Only the security man and I are left in the building. ‘You’re looking a bit tired, love,’ he says as I sign out. ‘Watch you don’t overdo it.’ He’s a nice man. People are kind.

It’s too late to cook but I’ve a choice of three takeaways. Neither pizza nor Chinese feel right but the curry house is excellent. While I wait I have a lager and the waiter asks if I’d like poppadum and pickle but I save my appetite. Orion is just visible as I turn into my garden and the naked branches of the cherry tree are silhouetted against a moon that’s just past full. The night is clear and calm and unbearably beautiful and I want to scream but I manage not to.

Before eating I bathe and put on the pyjamas he bought me last Christmas. They’re a little tight now but they’re cosy and they feel a bit like love. I go to my bedside drawer and take out the packets. Mum and Dad both get several months’ supplies at a time. These are my Mum’s and tomorrow she’ll look and see they’re missing. While I grind them in my lovely olive-wood pestle and mortar I hope the note will help.

Off and on, all through my life, it has struck me how much precious time we miss. Many mornings, I arrive at work and realise that I have no recollection of the journey. What a waste. Now I look at my photos and wonder, what happened to all the moments in between? Seeing my dad in his suede jacket I remember its feel against my cheek, elbow-high at the time. Not just that, I remember the jacket’s smell of wood smoke and the dazzling light of sun on snow that day, that moment. But where did the others go?

Pink tablets crumble easily but blue ones are really hard. I enjoy the delicate mauve that develops as they break down. Carefully I tip the powder into my lovely fragrant korma. They use fresh coriander and it’s flecked with green. His eyes were a different shade of green. Now the curry’s flecked with blue and pink too. I pour a glass of Pinot Grigio and turn the music up. Spem in Alium isn’t music it’s enlightenment and eternal joy.

Picking up my fork I appreciate the strange beauty of metal, ponder the weirdness of cutlery. The curry is delicious, contrasting meltingly yielding aubergine with grainy lentils. Right now, right here, I savour it all, not least the slight alien bitterness of the drugs. Awareness floods me: the sublime music, the light shining through the petals of the freesias, their perfume mingling with the spices, the delightful coolness of the wine. Slowly, thoughtfully, I finish my food, wiping the last of the sauce up with naan bread, the last little specks of blue. All gone. Mindfully I sip the pale golden wine. This will definitely be my last glass.

pencilIsabel Miles lives, writes and walks in the North Yorkshire Moors. She has published short stories in WTD Magazine, The View from Here and Ink, Sweat and Tears and poems in Shooter and Grey Sparrow Journal. She has completed a children’s novel and an adult novel, both of which she is seeking to publish. Email: smilesisabel[at]gmail.com.

The Cleaning Lady from Western Nebraska

Fiction
Karl Harshbarger


Photo Credit: Phil Roeder/Flickr (CC-by)

Photo Credit: Phil Roeder/Flickr (CC-by)

At 8:35 on the morning of October 11th, 1972, Dr. Richard Pickering, a newly-minted assistant professor of English literature at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, Nebraska, was sipping his coffee in the only halfway decent restaurant near the university. Which is to say, the music in the restaurant wasn’t too loud and the fake plastic-leather seats of the booths along the restaurant’s windows weren’t too ugly.

It certainly wasn’t the kind of restaurant Pickering was used to back in Boston. Those cafes offered racks of newspapers and magazines, seats on different levels which you would choose depending on your mood, plus, of course, a full selection of coffees and teas. At this restaurant near the University of Nebraska if you ordered coffee, that’s what you got, coffee, and there certainly weren’t any racks of newspapers or magazines.

However, on this morning, Pickering noticed that two businessmen-types who had just gotten up from their booth had apparently left a newspaper behind them. So Pickering went up along the booths, took the newspaper and when he got back to his own booth spread the paper out in front of him. Of course, it was the local, Lincoln, paper.

He scanned the headlines. Lots of town news and one story from western Nebraska: “COURT DECIDES AGAINST WOMAN IN EMPLOYMENT CASE,” the headline said.

Well, in a café in Boston he would have been reading The New York Times.

Pickering pushed the newspaper aside and looked at his watch: an hour and a half before he would stand in front of his 70 (more or less, sometimes a lot less) students in his Introduction to American Literature course at 11:00 and hold forth on John Dos Passos.

So: to business.

Pickering reached in his briefcase, pulled out his folder on John Dos Passos, opened it and spread the lecture notes out in front of him.

Yes, John Dos Passos, thought Pickering.

He pictured himself in front of the class. Without question, without any question at all, he imagined himself saying, John Dos Passos was one of the most important American writers of the Twentieth Century. Well, certainly not as an accomplished a writer as, say, Faulkner, nor, for that matter, Hemingway; but, still, one of the most important American writers. Indeed, perhaps more important than Faulkner or Hemingway. Because this is the critical point the class should remember: Dos Passos was totally committed to the social struggles of his day.

Yes, thought Pickering.

He liked that phrase.

“Totally committed to the social struggles of his day.”

He would have to remember that.

He looked at his watch. Now one hour and twenty minutes.

His eyes wandered over to the newspaper he had shoved aside and again he saw the headline which said, “COURT DECIDES AGAINST WOMAN IN EMPLOYMENT CASE.” He pulled the newspaper over to him and read the sub-headline: “Lawyer for Woman Vows to Take Case to Higher Court.”

Really? thought Pickering.

He continued reading. It seemed that there was this woman (the article only identified the woman by her first name, Laura) out in a town called Ashburn in western Nebraska who had had a job as a cleaning woman at a correctional institution for delinquent girls. The woman noticed that some members of the staff were abusing the girls in their charge. The woman reported her observations to her superiors and shortly thereafter she was fired from her job. Her lawyer claimed that she had been fired because she had reported the abuse. The matter went to the local court and the court decided against the woman.

Pickering thought about it. He tried to imagine what it was like out there in western Nebraska. Wasn’t that where the prairie started? Endless grasslands? Very few towns? That kind of thing? Maybe a few cowboys around?

Just at that moment he heard a loud growling coming from outside the windows of the restaurant and looking out saw one of those huge, red farm tractors pulling an even bigger arrangement of plows with both gangs of plows held high in the air.

Good grief, thought Pickering. A farm tractor! In Lincoln! Near the University!

Enough.

Pickering shoved his notes on Dos Passos back into the folder, placed the folder in his briefcase, stood up, at the last moment took the newspaper and inserted it into his briefcase as well, and went up along the line of booths to the counter to pay.

*

At least the campus at the university wasn’t quite as barren as the rest of the city of Lincoln. Parts of it looked a touch European, a gate somewhere giving the appearance of entering a medieval city. On the other hand, the building which housed his office, The Annex, was strictly, utterly utilitarian, built only as a temporary building directly after the war. It had never been torn down and Pickering, as well as a number of other newly-arrived instructors from different disciplines, had been assigned an office there.

Pickering pushed at the glass front door of The Annex and saw the sterile-looking vestibule and the bumps of plastic which served as chairs along the walls.

“Hey, Richard!”

That was Carter. He looked for all the world like an undergraduate, small and chubby with flaming red hair. Maybe he was an undergraduate. Only he wasn’t. Officially he held the title as “Special Assistant to the Dean of the Law School,” but Pickering knew Carter didn’t have a thing to do with the Law School and was instead used by the University as a point man in its relationships with the local and state politicians. There was even a strong rumor that Carter had been hired because he was related to the current governor of the state.

“So, how the hell are you?”

“I’m not bad,” said Pickering. “Not bad at all.”

“Hey! Glad to hear it Richard. Very, very glad to hear it!”

Coming from anyone else this kind of talk would sound like, well, undergraduate talk. But coming from Carter it somehow seemed more sincere.

“But, Richard, everything’s thumbs up?”

“Well, maybe there are one or two things,” said Pickering.

Carter fixed his eyes on Pickering. He also had this way of giving over his complete attention to you.

“One or two things? Like what, Richard?”

“Well…” said Pickering.

To break this overflow of attention Pickering reached into his briefcase, pulled out the newspaper he had taken from the restaurant and said, “Hey, have you read about this?”

“What, Richard?”

“Really interesting story here.”

Pickering unfolded the newspaper so Carter could see the headlines on the front page.

“This one,” said Pickering pointing to the headline about the woman in western Nebraska.

Carter had a glance.

“Oh, that’s Laura. Laura Cartwright.”

“Yes, Laura, that’s her name.”

“Tim Rice’s her lawyer. Not a bad guy.”

Suddenly Pickering understood that Carter knew a lot more about this story than he did.

“There’s some talk of her appealing to a higher court,” offered Pickering.

“Not a chance,” said Carter.

“Oh?”

“Not a chance in hell.”

“Oh,” said Pickering.

“Tim’s just bluffing.”

“Oh, yeah,” said Pickering.

“Hey!” said Carter grasping Pickering’s hand.

This was his way of bringing the conversation to a close.

“Hey!” said Pickering.

“Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do!” said Carter disappearing back into his office.

Pickering put the newspaper back in his briefcase and headed up the stairs to the second floor and his office.

*

No students were waiting for him out in the hallway. This was a bit of a relief because now he could have uninterrupted time to go over his lecture notes before his little performance. He closed and locked the door of his office, sat down behind his desk, reached in his briefcase, found the newspaper which he set aside on his desk, pulled out the folder on John Dos Passos and spread the notes in front of him.

John Dos Passos.

Yes, thought Pickering.

That phrase came to him again: “John Dos Passos was totally committed to the social struggles of his day.”

He imagined himself standing in front of all those students—well, perhaps the 50 or so who actually would show up—and started by reminding the students that they were about to undertake to consider one of the giants of Twentieth Century American writers: John Dos Passos. While it certainly had to be admitted that Dos Passos wasn’t on the same level as Faulkner or even Hemingway, in a sense Dos Passos was greater than those two because (and here came that phrase) he was totally committed to the social struggles of his day.

Yes, thought Pickering.

Because he would explain to the students that very few of us—and he certainly included himself in this analysis—were committed to the social struggles of our day. We all, or most of us, at least, do everything we can to avoid the obvious social injustices around us.

You don’t believe me? Really? Well, just let me share a story with you. How many of you know that the newspapers are reporting this morning that a woman in western Nebraska (her name is Laura—I will only use her first name) lost her job as a cleaning lady in a school for delinquent girls. She had been doing what cleaning ladies do, you know, mopping floors, cleaning out toilets, that kind of thing, when she saw staff members abusing girls in their care. Doing things I choose not to describe. She reported this outrage to her superiors.

And what happened? Please! What do you think happened? The strong against the weak! The rich against the poor! This woman was called into her boss’s office and was informed that she was fired.

Suddenly Pickering realized that he had lost himself standing there in front of the class.

Actually, of course, in reality, he would never say most of those things. In fact, hardly any at all.

He looked at his watch. Still half an hour.

So he had some time to spare.

He pulled his typewriter over to the center of the desk, chose a piece of paper with the stationary of the English Department, University of Nebraska at the top, inserted the paper in the roller of the machine and began to type:

Dear Laura,

I am absolutely shocked by the way the institution where you were employed has acted. I simply can’t imagine that the administration of this institution feels that protecting its own image is of more importance than the duty it owes to the girls in its care.

I’m sure you have received many letters of support—not only mine. But I want to say that if you ever find yourself in eastern Nebraska and especially if you find yourself in Lincoln please look me up at the University. (My office is on the 2nd floor of a building called, The Annex.) Believe me, I will try to help you in any way I can.

Very truly yours,

Richard C. Pickering, Ph.D.

Assistant professor

Pickering pulled the sheet of paper out of the typewriter, read it and signed it just above where he had typed Richard C. Pickering, Ph.D.

He inserted an envelope (again with the stationary of the English Department, University of Nebraska on it) into the typewriter and typed in, “Laura Cartwright.”

Then he realized he didn’t know Laura Cartwright’s address.

Oh, to hell with it. He’d trust to luck. Maybe it would get there and maybe it wouldn’t.

He typed the second line, “Institution for Delinquent Girls,” then the third line, Ashburn, Nebraska.

That should do it, Pickering thought.

Pickering folded the letter, slipped it in the envelope, sealed the envelope and placed a stamp on the envelope.

He would mail the letter at the English Department office on his way to class.

*

Two months later, in fact, on the morning of December 14th, Pickering was sitting at his desk in his office on the second floor of The Annex. Outside a foot of snow covered the entire campus, Christmas lights adorned a huge pine tree in front of the library and to Pickering’s surprise there were even lit Christmas decorations downstairs in the vestibule of The Annex. Most of the students had already taken their finals and left the campus. Even some of the faculty had managed to start their Christmas break.

But not yet Pickering. He was pushing to finish up his grades as the deadline for handing them in was at three o’clock this afternoon. At four o’clock, or thereabouts, he would attend the English Department Christmas party, tonight he was invited to dinner at the home of a full professor in one of the best residential areas of Lincoln and tomorrow morning he would catch a plane to Boston for his Christmas holidays. In Boston he would see his good friends and undoubtedly would also sit in a corner of a nice café enjoying a special cup of coffee.

He had just finished a pile of little, blue essay booklets from his Introduction to American Literature course and was beginning to enter the grades in his grade book when he thought he heard a slight knocking at his office door.

“Yes?” said Pickering.

But nothing.

He had started entering grades again when he again heard the slight knocking again.

“Yes?” he called.

This time when nothing happened, Pickering got up, crossed his office and opened the door.

No student, that was for sure. An older woman, at least 60 or 65, with white hair and wearing an old coat which had seen better days, stood in the hallway. A battered, leather suitcase was at her side.

“Dr. Pickering?” said the lady in a barely audible voice.

“Yes?”

“I’m here.”

Pickering didn’t understand. Why was this woman standing in front of his office door?

“I’m Laura Cartwright,” said the woman.

The woman put her hand into one of the pockets of her coat and pulled out a piece of paper folded over many times. She unfolded the piece of paper and held it out to Pickering.

But even before Pickering took it he knew what it was. His letter. The letter he had sent out to western Nebraska two months ago.

My God! Now this woman was standing in front of his office door.

Pickering pretended to read the letter.

When he was done reading, or, rather, when he was done pretending to read the letter, he said, “Ah, yes…”

“I’m here,” the woman repeated.

“Yes,” said Pickering. “Well, won’t you please come into my office, Mrs. Cartwright?”

He led the way in and once he was behind his desk he indicated a chair.

“Perhaps you could take that one.”

The woman placed her suitcase down next to the chair, sat, folded her hands in her lap and looked at Pickering.

“Ah, yes, so you’re here,” said Pickering.

“Yes,” said the woman.

“And did I understand your name correctly: ‘Cartwright.’”

“Yes, I am Laura Cartwright.”

“Ah, yes,” said Pickering.

The woman continued to look at Pickering.

“And you are from…?”

“Ashburn,” said the woman.

“Ah, yes, Ashburn. And that’s in…?”

“Western Nebraska.”

“Ah, yes,” said Pickering.

“Near Manning.”

“Oh, Manning.”

“Yes,” said the woman.

“Ah, I see. Now, Mrs. Cartwright, may I inquire why you have come to Lincoln? You have relatives here? Perhaps family?”

“No.”

“Friends?”

“No.”

“No friends? No family?”

“No.”

Suddenly Pickering understood. This woman, this complete stranger, this Mrs. Cartwright, had traveled to Lincoln from western Nebraska (probably by bus) entirely because he, Pickering, had sent her a letter in which he had promised to be of some help to her.

Which was hardly fair. Considering. Because he had so many things to do. First, he had to get his grades in no later than three o’clock today. That was a requirement set by the university. He hadn’t set it. And he had to pack for tomorrow’s trip to Boston. Not to mention the English Department Christmas party at four o’clock followed by the invitation to dinner. What was he supposed to do? Take this woman with him?

Pickering looked across the desk at Mrs. Cartwright. She sat there with her hands folded in her lap looking back at him.

“Now, Mrs. Cartwright, I have to tell you that you have caught me at an especially busy time.”

The expression on her face didn’t change.

So he continued.

“Yes, you see, I’m quite busy now. I mean, it’s the end of the semester and I have many things to do.

Pickering didn’t quite know how it happened. One moment Mrs. Cartwright was looking at him and the next moment she was crying. Although the expression on her face hadn’t changed. But he saw the tears starting down her cheeks.

“Although, yes, well, Mrs. Cartwright…”

Suddenly Pickering saw a way out.

He reached for his phone and dialed the undergraduate-looking guy, Carter, the one with the flaming red hair and the connections to the governor’s office. Maybe Carter could handle this.

The phone rang one time, two times, three times, four times, five times, and then, thank God, Pickering heard Carter’s voice.

“Helloooo!” said Carter in his cheery voice.

“Carter. This is Richard. Upstairs.”

“Richard! And how the hell are you? What’s up?”

Pickering explained that, as a matter of fact, he had a guest in his office, a woman, whom he was sure Carter would want to meet. Could he bring his guest down now? More or less immediately?

“Hey, of course, Richard. You know I’ve always got time for you.”

A few more pleasantries before Pickering hung up.

He looked over at Mrs. Cartwright who was looking back at him. Traces of tears were still on her cheeks.

“We’re in luck, Mrs. Cartwright. Things may be turning out okay. Quite okay. You see, fortunately I have this friend. He is very well-connected. Even perhaps at the governor’s office.”

*

Carter was waiting at the door of his office and as soon as he saw Pickering and Mrs. Cartwright coming down the stairs, shouted up, “Richard, hey, nice to see you.”

“Hey,” called Pickering back,.

Carter turned to Mrs. Cartwright.

“And, pray tell, who is this, our illustrious guest?”

“May I introduce Mrs. Laura Cartwright,” said Pickering, and he quickly went into a brief history of Mrs. Cartwright’s reporting child abuse to her superiors at an institution for delinquent girls in western Nebraska.

“Ah, yes!” replied Carter. “Mrs. Cartwright: Honored! Very brave of you, Mrs. Cartwright.”

Carter made a little half-bow.

“Please!” said Carter. “Won’t the two of you come into my office?”

Pickering saw his chance.

“So, Carter, if you don’t mind I’ve really got to get on with things. You know, the end of the semester.”

“What?” said Carter.

Pickering turned to the woman.

“Mrs. Cartwright, I’ve got to be going now, but I’ll be leaving you in the very best of hands. I think Mr.—” Pickering paused because he realized he didn’t know Carter’s last name. But he continued, “Mr. Carter here will take care of you, set you up, that kind of thing. Right, Carter?”

“Richard—?” said Carter.

“I knew you would. I absolutely knew you would,” said Pickering and with that he turned and started up the stairs.

At his office he locked his office door. Why? Just for beginners, so he could finish his grades in time for the three o’clock deadline (a deadline which had been set by the university, certainly not by himself) and at four o’clock he was obligated to attend the English Department Christmas party and not to forget the invitation to dinner at 7:00 at a full professor’s house. And tomorrow, yes, tomorrow, he would fly to Boston and in Boston he would surely visit with the friends and also finally sit in some nice corner of some nice café finally having an excellent cup of coffee and reading The New York Times, the real news, the important news, the news that actually made a difference.

pencilKarl Harshbarger is an American writer (living in Germany) who has had over 90 publications of his stories in such magazines as The Atlantic Monthly, Ploughshares, The Iowa Review, The Antioch Review, The New England Review and The Prairie Schooner. Two of his stories have been selected for the list of “Distinguished Stories” in Best American Short Stories and thirteen of his stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. E-mail: yeskarl[at]gmx.net

Pavlov’s Puppies

Fiction
Sharon L. Dean


Photo Credit: Lee Cannon/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Photo Credit: Lee Cannon/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Miss Ellen Stockwell was one of our own, the smartest kid who ever went through Deerborn Elementary School, my father used to tell me. Those days we had only an elementary school and when Ellen graduated from high school the next town over, people weren’t surprised that she disappeared. She left permanently, they thought, to work and study with “foreign intellectu’ls.” But roots run deep in New Hampshire’s north country, and a few years later, Ellen returned from a rumored apprenticeship at the Pavlov Institute. She appeared one day at the bus station, suitcase in one hand, a small girl-child in the other.

No one knew where the girl-child came from, but she had the curliest, reddest hair this side of Concord. Even Ellen’s widowed father must not have known, for he alone among the Stockwells had been a talking man. People speculated about an abandoned lover or a patient at the Pavlov Institute who had fathered the child before he lapsed into permanent schizophrenia. Deerborn is not a prying town, so no one asked even a year later, when the child and Ellen’s father both died of the same unexplained malady of the nervous system.

Ellen was left, the only surviving Stockwell, the owner of a steadily declining house on Stockwell Hill just down from the elementary school. She became Miss Ellen, hired to teach alongside the aging Miss Jansen, who may have frowned upon the young teacher’s newfangled ideas, but hadn’t energy to protest.

We were eleven children in Miss Ellen’s class, the beginning of a rising generation of war babies. Stacey Grant, an undersized first grader, sat next to me all that overwhelming fall when I was learning that school meant more than reading and writing. Stacey never appeared for recess. She stayed inside for what Miss Ellen called special help and what we thought connected somehow to her motherless childhood. Joe Grant never allowed his only child, born of a protracted labor that killed her mother, to mix with the other children. I would study her frail body, her drifting eyes, her mouth that would go slack when she wasn’t mumbling. But she remained for me as much an enigma as Miss Ellen.

What Miss Ellen would do with her during recess time we never knew, and when the school board called all of us in to “explain about Miss Ellen and Stacey Grant,” we had nothing to tell except that if she started to moan in class, Miss Ellen would ring a little bell and the moaning would stop. She never called on Stacey or put her in a reading group or had her do the morning jumping jacks. But she didn’t ignore her either. Every time we’d change from arithmetic to reading or reading to art projects, she’d first attend to Stacey. She’d give her a piece of paper and a crayon or the beaded abacus or any of her drawerful of assorted and mysterious objects that looked like two-piece puzzles. Stacey could never fit the pieces together any more than she could draw with the crayons or make sense of the abacus.

Perhaps the first thing we learned, the thing I most remember, was Miss Ellen kneeling next to Stacey’s desk, her soft blond hair even with Stacey’s red braids, her thin, pale hands placing a crayon or puzzle or the abacus into Stacey’s uncontrolled grasp. Then she would ring her little bell, rise, begin our lesson in a voice too strong for her thin body, and Stacey would stay quiet. Until one day after we’d faced the school board, Stacey was gone.

Miss Ellen remained just a month longer, a month I remember as filled with oddities and the ever-present bell. Every morning she would take out paper and pencil and books and give us some vague sort of instructions. As soon as recess came, she would ask me to be Pavlov’s puppy, a term she uttered with hushed wonder. She would take me into the closet, sit me on her lap, and stroke the ponytail that tried to tame my thick red hair. Then she would read from a great book of fairy tales that lived the rest of the day on a shelf in back of the schoolroom.

When she finished a story, she would take me off her lap and stand me in front of her. She would ask me to retell the story.  If I summarized poorly, she would turn out the light. If I recited well, she would ring the bell and give me a piece of candy out of a tin with a picture of a fruit on the lid. Over and over for what must have been a month, Miss Ellen led me through the game, the times I performed well lengthening each day. I remember it not as unpleasant but as confusing and very tiring and as a ravenous hunger for the little pieces of candy. For years, I dreamed about fairy tales, but their contents would fade when I woke up, leaving a longing I can only describe as an emptiness like the one I feel when there’s a holiday and I have no place to go.

On the last day, the police came and I was pulled from the closet before recess ended. Miss Ellen never returned to the school, almost never emerged from her house, and never called on anyone to keep that house in any kind of repair. Gradually she became known as the town eccentric, the woman children were afraid of, the one adults left to her peace. The one I could not forget.

I have lived alone for years now, in a neat, tiny house next to Miss Ellen’s on Stockwell Hill. I have watched the children quicken their pace and hunch their shoulders as they rush past her house. It isn’t one of the oldest houses in Deerborn, but, built before 1900, it should have been respectably old. Instead, it stands like a cancer next to the sidewalk, its paint chipping, its shutters askew, its half-drawn shades obscuring the darkness within. No window is ever battened down to keep out the January winds or opened on the hottest dog days of summer. No one sweeps the cluttered porch that covers a full side of the house.

In summer, the house smells vaguely of the skunk that lives somewhere in the overgrown yard. Even in January, the porch smells of dampness and rot, not the rancid smell of decaying garbage, but the musty smell of wet newspapers and cardboard boxes.

I began to notice a change in January that soon became obvious to others. Old rumors surfaced from sixty years of silence. Though she was in her nineties, Miss Ellen could still walk the quarter-mile to the village where she bought her boxes and bags of dried food and begged a jug of water and a day-old newspaper. Before the children were freed from school, she would be back in that house, cocooned beneath a nest of blankets and newspapers—we never believed she read those day-old papers—in the lone back room that sometimes was lighted by an oil lamp.

It was this burning lamp that first signaled the change. From my bedroom window, I could see it lighting up the back room until after ten o’clock, though it was the coldest time of the year so that in her heatless house Miss Ellen should long ago have nested down. January was the month when ordinarily the lamp burned least often, Miss Ellen’s nighttime hours increasing in direct proportion with the decreasing hours of sunlight. I often thought that only her south-facing window kept her from perishing during the cold winter.

The first night I noticed the lamp, I thought Miss Ellen must have fallen asleep and I prepared to keep an all-night vigil for fear the house and its papers would ignite. But before midnight the lamp stopped burning and I went to bed more puzzled than relieved. The next night, the lamp burned again. By the third night, I knew that Miss Ellen was not falling asleep, and by the end of the week, the rumors had begun. Each day when Miss Ellen begged water for her plumbingless house, she bought a little tin of French hard candies made without artificial color, a fruit design on each lid signaling the flavor within.

Along with the fruited candies, we began to see Vera talking to her. Vera was the daughter of a middle-aged widower, who had long ago lost all control of her. The villagers kept one wary eye on her and with the other ignored which of the town toughs were hanging around her. Gradually, Vera began to appear every day at Miss Ellen’s. Each night, I heard the soft, high tinkle of a bell.

As winter passed and the weather began to soften, Vera and Miss Ellen would emerge from the house together, Vera’s body seeming to fatten in direct proportion to how Miss Ellen’s dissolved. On the warmest days they would sit on the step of the porch while the sun was high. We began to joke about how with her red hair, Vera could have been a teenaged incarnation of Miss Ellen’s dead child. But eventually we ignored them, taking them out only once in awhile for a piece of local color to share with visitors.

That spring the gypsy moths invaded, covering our trees and lawns and driveways in masses of brown caterpillars. At night we could hear them munching through the new greenery and in the morning we would sweep away their droppings, using cleanliness as a battle tactic. Except for Miss Ellen, whose house the caterpillars chose to cover, or perhaps whose house they retreated to when we swept them away from our own. Soon they transformed the cracking, dirty white clapboards into brown undulations, a moving sea of infestation that seemed nourished more by the house’s decay than by the emerging leaves of the tree in front of it. They crept through the cracks in the front door and through torn plastic that covered the broken windows. We began to see them crawling along the insides of the shades and curtains.

The porch was a breeding ground. Children were instructed to cross the street before they walked past Miss Ellen’s house. Parents called the school, which called the county health department, which assured us all that unless we let them crawl on us, gypsy moths were harmless and would naturally kill themselves off with their own gluttony. So we swept and we scrubbed, and shuddered when Miss Ellen walked through her porch without brushing a path for herself. Even Vera knew enough to push aside caterpillars. One day I watched her walk behind Miss Ellen delicately picking them off the back of a skirt I recognized as one I had put in the recycle box outside the village store.

Toward the end of the infestation, when we could walk outside in the morning without sweeping away square gypsy moth droppings, Vera came from Miss Ellen’s house alone. She looked haggard, as spent as the dying gypsy moths. She spoke to no one and even her father didn’t know why she left town or where she had gone.

After five days when Miss Ellen hadn’t appeared for her supply of groceries and newspapers, I called the police chief, who called the ambulance squad to follow him into the house. They parked on the edge of the sidewalk, lights flashing in anticipation of what we knew they would find. A Deerborn crowd gathered to watch as they climbed to the porch.

I saw the skunk I had known must be living off Miss Ellen’s debris. It dove under what looked like an old hassock, its fur blending with the hassock’s spilling insides. The porch was covered with dead or dying caterpillars, a few that had managed to metamorphosize to the moth stage resting in a tight group on a plastic bag caught on the edge of a torn screen. I could smell death, like a pile of sweaty clothes thrown against a radiator and cooked, the body odor putrefying as the sweat dried. No one stopped me when I followed them inside.

Miss Ellen must have been dead the whole week. She lay on top of a ragged blanket, curled in a fetal ball in a darkened corner. My skirt was tangled around her hips, revealing bare legs covered with the dried ooze of sores. Two hatched moths moved along her body, nibbling the fabric of her clothes. Trailing down her back was her blond hair, darkened with dirt and age. I saw the hair move, and move again, and again, alive with nesting caterpillars.

A tiny baby lay in her arms, naked and red, its umbilical cord wrapped around its neck.

Next to the shriveled bodies, I saw the supplies of the schoolroom I remembered so well. The book of fairy tales, a supply of candy, the little bell. I picked up the bell and heard its same sharp tinkle. Beneath it lay a diary. I opened it to the last page. “Vera will give me back my child. She will be the last.”

I closed the diary, put it in my pocket, and reached for the book, the bell, and the tin of candy.

I rarely go out now. I watch the changing seasons wrap themselves around the house on Stockwell Hill. I read the fairy tales I remember so well. I recite the stories. When I take a recess from my work, I ring the little bell and eat a piece of candy.

pencilSharon L. Dean earned undergraduate and graduate degrees at the University of New Hampshire, a state she lived in until a recent move to the west coast. In New Hampshire, she taught writing and literature at Rivier University. Before she turned to fiction, she wrote academic books and articles, mostly on the nineteenth-century writer Constance Fenimore Woolson and the contemporary writer Joyce Carol Oates. She is the author of two mystery novels, Tour de Trace and Death of the Keynote Speaker. Email: drsdean[at]gmail.com

Tango Tuesdays

Flash
Tara Roeder


Photo Credit: Karl Lindsay/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Karl Lindsay/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

The couples dancing class was, in retrospect, the worst idea I’ve ever had. Worse than the rooster sanctuary. Tango Tuesdays—my alliterative downfall.

I didn’t even know that astronauts were still a thing. Who could compete with her? Lunar boots and a rose in her mouth? That tiny, diaphanous dress? It just wasn’t fair.

I knew where you were the night you never came home. I didn’t believe the story about the hospital, or the fake scar. I could picture the two of you floating together, bodies entwined, triumphantly defying gravity.

When I emerged from the flooded basement that morning, I saw it in your eyes. A calculated, assessing look. The stars, or this waterlogged woman triumphantly gripping a monkey wrench?

No one could blame you. But if you answered my calls, you wouldn’t regret it. When I said I was going to poison you, I didn’t actually mean it and you know it. It was the gin talking.

pencilTara Roeder teaches writing in New York City. Her work has recently appeared in venues including Hobart, The Bombay Gin, Two Serious Ladies, Cheap Pop, and DOGZPLOT. Her chapbook, (all the things you’re not), is available from dancing girl press. Email: roedert[at]stjohns.edu

Years ago, in Firenze

Flash
Andrew Bertaina


Photo Credit: Amélien Bayle/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Photo Credit: Amélien Bayle/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Years later, long after we’ve left one another, I visit again, the serpentine streets of Florence. I search down those cobblestone streets, past Saint Mark’s and the street vendors, for the sandwich shop where we had prosciutto Parmesan sandwiches and two glasses of red wine a decade before. Back then, the shop was run by two brothers, jovial men, who wore all white, including large chef hats, as they sliced the cheese and meat in precise portions. Then they pulled the wine glasses, catching light and turning iridescent, from the small rack above the counter. For hours, I walk the streets in vain, peering in variety shops and shoe stores. After an hour or two, it becomes clear that the shop and the brothers and the wine glasses are gone, and I’m here in Florence, searching for all the things that I’ve lost.

pencilAndrew Bertaina currently lives and works in Washington, DC. His work has appeared in more than twenty publications including: The Three Penny Review, Hobart, Fiction Southeast, Literary Orphans,Sierra Nevada Review, Eclectica, Prick of the Spindle, Bayou Magazine, and Catamaran Literary Reader. He is currently a reader and book reviewer for Fiction Southeast. Email: abertain[at]hotmail.com

Two Poems

Poetry
Diane Webster


Photo Credit: Ed Kennedy/Flickr (CC-by)

Photo Credit: Ed Kennedy/Flickr (CC-by)

 

Frozen Flat

Valentine’s Day the deflated
snowman and Santa blobs
lie frozen in the lawn
like stepped-on chocolate pieces
still covered in wrappers
after the Halloween frenzy
to haul candy beggings
back home to savor
until Christmas stockings bulge
more, more, more
and the groundhog sees his shadow
for six weeks more of winter
pooled around the low profile
inflatables smiling in snow;
hand across a flat heart.

 

Hermit Myth

Of course hermits are wise old men
unconcerned with other people’s issues.
They remain mysterious in solitude
because most people can’t stand
a moment not connected
to cell phone, TV, internet and chat rooms.
Hermit is a profession to aspire to:
if you’re lucky, no one knows you exist,
if they do, they think you’re crazy
and give you the moniker of ghost
of the woods kind of like Bigfoot,
fun to leave footprints, tufts of fur
and not be seen except in nightmares
or corners of eyes, then gone.

pencilDiane Webster enjoys the challenge of picturing images into words to fit her poems. If she can envision her poem, she can write what she sees and her readers can visualize her ideas. That’s the excitement of writing. Her work has appeared in The Hurricane Review, Eunoia Review, Illya’s Honey, and other literary magazines. Email: diaweb[at]hotmail.com

Three Poems

Poetry
Bobbi Sinha-Morey


Photo Credit: Joey Hamidon/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Joey Hamidon/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

 

The Faint Scent Of Lemon

My father sits on the porch
smoking his weed, his skin clean
as the morning with the faint scent
of lemon. Brownies beside him,
walnuts and pork rind. He seldom
shows love; doesn’t know how.
If he puts his arm around you it’s
a bear hug, rough-tongued but milky
and salty too. Mostly he is alone,
living out here by himself, keeping
the sharp sting of his solitary labors
hidden, constantly eating even though
he’s so skinny. He’s like a cloved
orange shut inside a drawer with all
the spikes turned inwards except for
a few rare moments, when everything
comes together. Silent prayer is too
much of an effort for him and he wears
the past like a noose of lead around
his neck. I wish I could untie it for him.
The slim envelope of his soul flaps
over his head, and I wish I didn’t have
to see him wither away. One night on
Thursday, at ten p.m., the door of my
room opened on its own, a gust of
energy coming in, and I knew he had
died. It was him.

 

Without A Home

Without a home and my
nine-month-old baby brother
born in a shed, I wake after
sleeping under the trees,
my hair in tangles and twigs,
me covered in gooseflesh.
These eyes roam the forest
in memory, where I’ve had
to live with my small family.
I sit there shivering, scraps
from a church luncheon on
a paper plate, eaten in agonizing
crumbs by a fate I’d never thought
we’d see. The coldness of the wet
winter weather, rain puddles
collecting a glassy sage soup.
I eat this limpid air, wishing
there were a god to lift us away
from here. On days when you
don’t see the shy, mild sun
we live in the earthly twilight,
a darkness that lasts.

 

Boulder, Utah

Far away from my home—
fireflies on a dusk lawn,
and sunset ambling through
the pines, I’m now alone with
two of my friends stranded in
a dry land with only peelu to
chew on, a plant pleasant enough
to taste, to provide water while
we walk miles each day in the sun.
By night we huddle closely for
warmth trying to sleep on flat rock.
At times like this I dream of the
orange heads of California poppies
glowing like small fires in the under-
brush. In the day, after Lucy has
caught a fish in the river, each one
of  us try to make fire with two pieces
of rock. Me with no survival skills
feel my arms growing tired, not wanting
to give up, then I hear other voices float
in like a wave on the shore telling me
to try just a little bit more. Soon a little
smoking bird’s nest grew and the fire
rose higher when I gently whispered
into it with my breath. We ate dinner
that night, swam in the river, a cooler
light on our skin, a peaceful moon
folding us in.

pencilBobbi Sinha-Morey‘s poetry has appeared in a variety of places such as Plainsongs, Taproot Literary Review, The Path, Orbis, The Laughing Dog, and Knot Magazine, among others. Her books of poetry are available at Write Words, Inc. Her work has been nominated for Best of the Net. Email: isedmorey1[at]aol.com