I Ask You for a Cigarette

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
SK Elliot


Photo Credit: Douglas Eshenbaugh/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

An R.V. coughs to a halt in the parking lot. I want to rest in this quiet dry moment until the end of time. But I know that cannot be so. We are standing above the visitor’s centre on a scenic platform. We’ve been on the Appalachian Trail for 112 days. And this is where we peel off. We’re supposed to go to a funeral. Part of me likes being able to look out over what we are quitting. Like I am finally making some peace with years of failure that have crept up on me. Then, I lift my heavy legs, walk over to the railing, and ask you for a cigarette.

In the gift shop you rifle through a tourist book of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. My feet are sweating and tingling from standing around. Something in me wants to keep walking. Even if it is nothing more than my feet. I am aware of that feeling in my gut again. It haunts me. A frustrated, sad, stuck feeling.

I can tell that your flesh is warm so I reach out to touch it. You look up from a glossy page and at that moment I want to tell you exactly how much I love you. I want you to know how tenderly my entire heart is wrapped around you. Even though it curls back at times. But this feeling saunters by and I look up at you without knowing what to say. “Are you hungry?” and I am not talking about a physical hunger.

“Yeah, a bit.”

I could feel nothing of that kind of passion the night before. We shared a meal of beans and wieners with a Swiss couple hiking in the other direction, towards Maine. Her name was Sophie. Blond, big blue eyes, a tight tanned body. Every inch of her was gorgeous. It is a nice name to say out loud; Sophie. You kept saying her name and then pausing. I noticed that you were lost in an uncertain moment of time.

“Sophie,”—leaves rustle, a morning dove coos—“would you pass me my beer there?”

“Sophie,”—the water boils over the edges of a pot and sizzles on the burner—“what do you think of America?” There was something in that long space. After her name. Space that shouldn’t have been there.

Later when you touched me your being seemed to be elsewhere. Your mouth tasted unfamiliar, almost like metal. Like some strange chemistry coursing through your veins. When I closed my eyes I saw a little boy full of excitement. All over my body I could feel your grown-up hands with complex needs. And that made me want you more. I wanted you everywhere at once. I wanted our two bodies to fill up the space after Sophie’s name.

“Well then, breakfast?” You say this with your eyes sucked back into the world of gloss. But I am not hungry, not for food. I am hardly ever hungry for food. Though the roundness of my thighs and the breadth of my stomach tell another story.

We get a ride into town with the woman who has just cleaned the toilets at the dam. I ask her what time she starts work.

“Five a.m., girl. I hate it but ain’t much else to do round here. Times are hard. The economy ain’t what it used to be.”

I nod, mostly to prove that I am listening. But I have never known hard times, not the kind she’s talking about. I grew up in Montreal. In a big, old house that sat on an immense lawn with big, old trees. My professor parents made lots of money and squared it away like good soldiers. There were no hard times in Montreal, at least not for me.

A song on the radio chases down my thoughts. It’s been ages since I have heard music. It hasn’t even been playing in my head. Despite the heat I shiver. “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac, the quintessential break-up song. A voice that is like velvet and rust slowly dancing in an empty pool hall. I lean back into ripped vinyl and watch my wrist bumping up and down on the baby seat. Its movement and the song and the heat of the day pack together into a tiny little speck. I am utterly mesmerized. Something like gratitude washes over me and I sing along with Stevie.

We get into town. The cleaning lady lets us off at a diner.

“Git the waffles, they’re delicious.”

My belly grumbles as if to thank her. Once we have picked a table we order two coffees and two waters. I realize we haven’t sat down in front of each other for some time.

While hiking we ate our meals mostly in silence, sitting on hot rocks. Looking out over the towns below, the endless sea of blue-green. The hazy silhouettes of more and more mountains in the distance. Once the sun was down they would transform into ominous, dark masses sprinkled with glowing dots. I would lust for what was below. A different me: thinner, more agile, less achy.

Soon I realize I have guzzled my coffee. I flag down the waitress. She fills up my cup and I vow to stay present for a few minutes. If only to enjoy a hot cup of coffee. “What are you going to have?” I lean over towards you. I notice your eyes on my breasts. They are cradled in my bra. My dirty, sweaty shirt dangling, barely covering them. Your eyes slowly retreat back to the menu.

“Mmmmm, waffles, I guess. And a double side order of bacon. You?”

And as if I could really hear what you are asking, I go for it.

“What will we do, Johnny?” It’s like a half-born question to try to nudge you into a conversation about what was and what is to come.

You look up again. I am sitting up straight this time. I can feel the curve in my back, all the way down to my sitting bones. I can feel the flesh of my butt splayed around those grounding bones. I can feel my thighs firmly resting on the bench. Moist, sticky, glowing from all the sun. And like a bud, my tightly packed insides open. Cautiously at first and then I can feel it, the alive and the breath.

I am not sure what you’re thinking. You always keep an even temperament. Even back in Virginia when we learned about your uncle’s truck, smashed into hundreds of pieces on the highway. You take a sip from your glass of water. You clear your throat and drink some coffee.

“I don’t know, Becky. I don’t know what we should do.”

And I love you all the more for this answer. It is entirely perfect, this answer.

The waitress comes over to our table. She can’t be more than nineteen. Some menus under her arm, a pen behind her ear. Her hair a pleasant mess around her flushed cheeks. Her skirt is short, her legs long and lean. I sneak a glance at you to gauge your level of interest in this attractive creature. But your face is buried in the menu again.

We place our order and stare out into the room. Worry rolls into my mind again like fog in a seaport. There is a young family sitting at another table. A little girl and boy are driving their forks through a city of cups, salt and pepper shakers. Their parents are lost in an intense conversation.

You never had much luck with women, or at least that’s what you told me the day we met. The apple trees were in full blossom and you were sitting on the boardwalk looking out at the lake. I stopped to take a picture and you came up to me.

“I know this is crazy,” you said later at a bar downtown. “I’m hiking the Appalachian Trail this summer and I know we’ve just met and I know we’ve had too much bourbon but would you come with me?”

When I fell asleep that night, your long body folded around me.

We sit in silence till the food comes. I eat like an abandoned cat. Licking at the last traces. My body’s metabolism is still in full tilt. I sigh as I think about regaining the ten or more pounds that I lost on the trail.

“What?” you say.

“Oh, I’m just thinking about Mars. That Rover thing, the data it’s collecting.” This is one of your favourite topics and I cannot admit the ordinary truth. My preoccupation with weight is ridiculous and embarrassing and I could never explain to you how I constantly battle with the fluctuating size of my body.

“Unhun,” you say. You lean back into the wall and put your feet up along the length of the bench. You also ate fast and are in the midst of a digestive haze. “Well, Beck, I don’t know either. I have had a really good time.” You look up like you’re carefully hanging heavy keys on a little thumb tack.

I feel exhausted. Not from hiking. The kind of exhaustion that is hardly ever there when I first wake up in the morning. It’s the kind of heaviness that comes with slowly remembering all of steps and missteps that cannot be retraced. Like being in a maze, with no start and no finish. I ask you for another cigarette and tell you I’ll be outside.

When I step out into warmth I see the mountains. I feel sad and alive in equal parts. My body bends gently into crumbling steps. I light the cigarette. I inhale and the smoke fingers the walls of my mouth. It hits the back of my lungs and then I let it out. I am breathing deeply. I don’t know what I want to do but I know what I can do. I won’t go to the funeral and I won’t go to Asheville with you afterwards. Instead, I’ll go back to Montreal, to my parents. I’ll crawl up in one of those big, old sugar maples and sit and be still. And for a moment things will feel easy again, uncomplicated and manageable. I’ll look down on the world and you won’t be in it. And I won’t ask you for a cigarette.

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SK Elliot is currently undertaking a degree in Biochemistry. She lives with her husband in a small farm house in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. Email: sarahzadie[at]gmail.com

A Pot of Tea

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Vanessa Levin-Pompetzki


Photo Credit: 約克夏飼主/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

The first week of summer vacation, Olivia and her grandmother bake scones. Nelle sits her granddaughter down at the island in the middle of the kitchen, tosses her ingredients to measure and weigh.

“Lavender in the scones?”

“A girl after my own heart,” Nelle says. Nelle uses lavender for more than baking—her favorite thing is to add a teaspoon of it to a pot of Earl Grey tea. After they shape the scones and put them in the oven, Nelle gets hot water ready and measures out the tea.

“Mom never measures out the tea,” Olivia says, and Nelle laughs.

“Which is why mine is always better.”

But Olivia isn’t sure—her grandmother’s tea is consistent, and her mother’s isn’t. Sometimes it’s sharp and bitter, other times too pale in color, but once in a while it’s the best cup she’s ever had.

“She thinks hers is better,” Olivia says.

“You’ll think yours is better soon enough.”

The hot water boils with a sharp whistle. Nelle takes the kettle off the stove with a kitchen towel wrapped round the handle—they have an electric kettle, sitting in a corner, but Nelle refuses to use it.

Every morning, Olivia is awoken by the whistling sound of the kettle as her grandmother makes a morning pot of Earl Grey.

Nelle pours the water carefully, then carries the blue china teapot to the island in the middle of the kitchen where Olivia sits. “Get the cream and the butter, Olive,” she says, and goes to check on the scones again.

Within minutes they are sitting down to an afternoon feast of scones and tea. Olivia breaks open a scone, watches steam rise in great curls. She slathers it with butter in a rebellious sort of way—Nelle would never comment on it, but Olivia can just imagine the way her mother’s eyebrows would rise.

“I noticed you’ve been over at Angela’s a lot lately,” Nelle says. She pours Olivia a second cup of tea. Olivia stirs in one sugar cube and a bit of cream, taking a sip to get scone crumbs out of her mouth.

“Yeah, I have.” Angela is loud and she’s funny and she’s Spanish and her mother always smokes at the kitchen table during breakfast. Angela wears black nail polish and she even dyed her hair once. And she’s sixteen to Olivia’s fifteen—it’s only half a year difference in age, but it’s enough.

“Don’t listen to your mother about her,” Nelle says matter-of-factly, as if she disagrees with Olivia’s mother all the time. “The important thing with friends who are louder than you is to know what’s in here,” Nelle says, and she reaches over to tap Olivia’s chest, right where her heart is.

“I know what’s in there,” Olivia says, but Nelle’s words prick at her skin. Does she? She is only a few years a teenager and Angela is already sixteen, big and bold and beautiful and so very sure of herself.

“Have another scone,” Nelle says, and she puts two on Olivia’s plate.

When the pot of tea is about to run empty, Olivia knows without asking that it’s time to make another. Always two, Nelle says, three if we’re desperate.

 

“How did she die?” Angela asks, tucking her legs beneath her.

“Heart attack,” Olivia mutters. They are sitting on Olivia’s bedroom floor, a tub of cookies that a neighbor brought over between them. Olivia has eaten five of them and she’s nibbling on a sixth.

“I’m so sorry, Liv.”

“Yeah.”

Olivia keeps glancing over at the teapot, beautifully white with blue flowers curling around its sides. It was Nelle’s favorite teapot, and, after Olivia begged her mother, Diane let her have it. But it doesn’t feel right to use it without her grandmother there.

“If you ever want to feel her presence again, I know something we can do,” Angela says.

Olivia shoves the rest of the cookie into her mouth. She knows what Angela is talking about—magick. Angela is a proud Wiccan, and she’s always trying to give Olivia crystals to carry in her pocket, gifting her with candles and herbs. “Maybe,” Olivia says.

The next morning, there is no whistle of a teapot. Instead there is the gentle chime of the hot pot. It sounds like the noise a stone makes in an empty cave.

There is no dessert for a week, not until Olivia drags out Nelle’s favorite cookbook and puts a chocolate cake in the oven. She proudly serves a slice to her mother after dinner, careful to make sure it’s a small piece.

“Lovebug,” Diane says, eyeing the size of the slice Olivia cuts for herself, “I don’t think it’s good for our health to have sweets around the house all the time.”

At night, Olivia turns on Jeopardy, but it isn’t the same without Nelle’s voice shouting all the wrong answers. When she can’t sleep and her throat hurts from trying to cry quietly, when her nose keeps running and her bed is too hot, she slips down the hall and into Nelle’s room. Diane made the bed. It looks exactly the same, just quiet. Olivia lies on top of the covers, cool and soothing against her cheek.

The next day, she goes over to Angela’s.

 

“Ready?”

Olivia nods. Her stomach is a writhing pit of worms, and there is a hard rock of guilt in her throat. Nelle, who went to church every week, probably wouldn’t approve. But Olivia is desperate. So here she is, sitting on Angela’s bedroom floor, praying to a god, any god, that this will work.

Angela uses a stick of chalk to draw a circle around them, sets a black candle in the middle of the circle. Olivia takes the thyme she brought from Nelle’s garden and they twist it into a wreath, encircle the candle. Angela has Olivia light the candle with a match.

“We have to say it at the same time,” Angela says, “and think of Nelle when you say it.”

That won’t be hard, Olivia knows. They speak, haltingly, together: “You who lived yesterday, I’ll call you from my mind to yours, come back from the shadows into the light and show yourself here.”

Olivia waits. Her skin goosebumps. She thinks of Nelle and how she kneaded her bread by hand even though they had a mixer, how she thought there was something alien and magical about crop circles, how she liked to tell stories about Olivia’s early years (sometimes so fantastical Olivia suspected she was lying).

The candle’s flame flickers, and Angela’s face splits into a wide grin. “She’s here.” Angela whispers, “Can’t you feel her?”

When Olivia closes her eyes, she is sure that she can. It is almost as if her grandmother is right there, pressing a cheek against hers, as if there is a hand around her heart, squeezing softly.

“I think so,” she whispers back.

“Do you have any questions?” Angela asks.

“No,” Olivia says, keeping her eyes shut, afraid to open them—afraid to ruin whatever it is she feels, deep in her bones, warm and familiar. “Just… I miss you.” She stays there for a while, her heart pounding madly, her palms turned toward the ceiling. There is pressure on them, just a little, just enough for her to know.

“We should let her go,” Angela says after a while, and Olivia’s eyes flicker open. The candle between them has burnt down to half its size, and the room smells like thyme.

Olivia nods, and they speak together, “You who lived yesterday, thank you, now fly away from this earth and join the world of spirits.”

Angela blows out the candle.

 

Olivia builds herself an altar in her closet. She takes cardboard boxes and stacks them on each other, turning them to create little levels, little platforms, on the corners of the lower boxes. Draping scarves over the boxes, she lines them with little candles, herbs, a large abalone shell that she rests her smudge stick in. After looking up altars on the internet and finding websites with flashing icons and black backgrounds, she reads about the god candle and the goddess candle, a pentagon. She adds some of those things, but mostly she makes it her own. She steals one of the lighters kept in the kitchen, and Diane muses out loud once that she swore there were two of them and goes out to buy another.

She even buys a goblet when she is out at the mall with Angela, unsupervised and with two twenty dollar bills in her pocket. It is tarnished and embellished with curling Celtic knots, and it rests heavy in her hand. Angela coyly suggests she borrow some wine from Diane for a spell here or there.

And even though Olivia calls Angela up, asks her about this spell or that, she does not show Angela her altar. It is a thing for only her. Olivia takes Nelle’s teapot and sets it at the back. She chooses rose quartz down for love, hematite to fight negative energy, aquamarine for courage, blue tourmaline for healing and opening (sometimes she has trouble breathing).

When her lungs do close up, or when Diane is shouting about the mess in the living room, or when it’s so hot outside and her body aches like little fairies have been using it as a trampoline, Olivia will open her closet and slide the door closed, sit down in front of the quiet altar. There is a sliver of light from where the doors don’t quite meet, a line that comes down right across her lap. She lights her candles. If there is still a tablespoon of wine left from when she poured a bit into her ceremonial goblet after her mother had gone to bed, she will sip it carefully. She pretends she is a priestess and the wine a gift from the Goddess, and, in the dark of her closet, it doesn’t feel silly at all.

 

Angela’s mother goes away for the weekend and, after nagging at her mother for several days, Olivia is allowed to stay with Angela. On the first night, they read tarot and do a spell to ensure that they stay best friends forever. Angela jokes about how “middle school” it is, but both girls eagerly join hands in the circle, prick their fingers with needles and mix their blood.

The second night, they light a fire in the backyard. It’s a new moon, and the sky is clear, stars like little pinpricks in a black sheet held taut over the sun. In firelight, Angela strips down, tossing every bit of clothing behind her. Olivia, fingers shaking, follows suit, but she cannot help the way her hands slide to cover the softness of her stomach, the thickness of her thighs.

As they spin, dizzily about the fire, Olivia cannot stop looking at Angela—her dark hair falls down her back in wild waves, her skin alight. It is in this moment that Olivia finds herself believing in the truth of magick. She feels it deep in her gut, down to her toes, and when Angela pauses to smile at her, to take a hand in her own, Olivia forgets to worry that she is naked. She forgets to care about anything beyond the light the fire casts as they dance, together, in mad circles around the fire.

 

One morning, Olivia goes downstairs to make tea and finds that Nelle’s old kettle is gone from the stove. Rage and righteousness well up and out of her eyes.

Diane finds her in the garage, throwing rotten banana peels, papers covered in coffee grounds, and unidentifiable chunks from the garbage can and onto the floor.

“What are you doing!” Diane shouts, but Olivia is beyond words. She keeps going, her hands wet and stomach turning. Diane tries to grab her arm but Olivia has spotted the kettle. She wrenches away from her mother’s grip and yanks it out of the bin, holds it in the air like a trophy. Diane lets out a heavy sigh.

“Lovebug, we don’t need that anymore.”

“Yes, we do,” Olivia says, stalking into the house. Diane follows her, watches as her daughter washes the old kettle thoroughly in water so hot that her hands turn raw and pink.

Diane tucks an escaped strand of frizzy hair behind Olivia’s ear, rests her palm against her daughter’s cheek. “It might be good not to have so many things of hers lying around. It can make things harder.”

But Olivia just fills up the kettle with water and sets it on the stove to boil. She makes sure to glare at her mother. “It’s already hard.”

Diane leaves the kettle alone after that.

 

In early July, Diane’s ex-boyfriend brings over a bottle of vodka. Diane makes a face at it and chucks it into the trash without pouring it down the sink. (Diane has been throwing a lot of things away. Her own things, Nelle’s things, Olivia’s things. Olivia thinks it’s a phase.)

Thinking of Angela, Olivia makes her way back to the garbage sitting in the garage, digs it out from where it smells of rotting meat and other bottles Diane couldn’t be bothered to recycle. She rinses it in her bathroom sink, squinching up her nose, and drips lavender essential oil on the outside of the bottle to get rid of the clinging garbage stink.

It occurs to her that Nelle would disapprove.

She puts the vodka beneath her bed. It is a few weeks before she has the guts to get it out, to present it to Angela like the grandest gift she could get her.

“Oooh!” Angela squeals, and she breaks its seal, a scent not unlike rubbing alcohol drifting up. Olivia gets up off the bedroom floor to light incense.

“Let’s be careful though,” Angela adds, pouring out just a couple of glugs into a mug. She sips it, winces, and hands it back to Olivia, who does the same.

“Have you ever kissed anyone?” Angela asks when they are on their second mug of vodka. She is swaying a little to the music Olivia put on, her eyes half-closed and dreamy.

“No. Have you?”

“Yeah, a couple boys, but they were all terrible.”

Olivia smiles down into the mug. “Well, of course they were.” She can’t imagine ever wanting to kiss a boy—she wants to kiss Angela, who is sitting across from her in a black dress, a Wiccan pentacle tied around her neck. Angela has lips that are a beautiful, plush pink.

“Because they were boys?”

“Duh!”

“You think you could do better?”

The vodka makes her bold. “I know I could,” Olivia says with a grin, leaning in just a little, just enough—

Angela moves forward onto her hands, presses warm lips against Olivia’s. Olivia’s chest is an empty cavern, striving for air. She tries to do what she’s seen in the movies, what she has practiced on pillows and on the back of her hand since she was eleven.

It’s over in a heartbeat. Angela leans back, picks up the mug again.

Olivia raises her eyebrows. “Well?”

“You were right.”

 

After several nights of quiet, furtive hands and lips, the girls grow bold. Angela slips a knee between Olivia’s thighs—Olivia lets her fingers graze lower than the soft rounding of a breast.

Angela leans against Olivia’s shoulder on the couch, watching TV with Diane. Olivia holds Angela’s hand at the mall. Diane comments on how close they’ve grown, and Olivia barely stammers when she replies with a “yes, very.”

Angela suggests that they perform a ritual for power, sitting across from each other. When they hold hands, Olivia’s entire body is electric. After the ritual, they wind up in Olivia’s bed, limbs a tangle, nearly caught by Diane bringing them lemonade.

When Olivia is alone after a particularly bold session with Angela, her fingers wander to her lips, red and swollen, and then there is something on her chest—like a mountain, like a clamp around her heart squeezing the blood right out of it.

She invokes the Goddess, but her voice shakes and the weight grows. Her lungs shrink. She does a spell for peace, leaping out of bed to light a blue candle, fanning sage above her head. But the panic is stubborn. Her mind is a slippery wine glass, like the one she dropped in the sink washing dishes the other day. No amount of chanting or candles can stop it from shattering.

She imagines Nelle, watching from heaven, thinks how disappointed she must be. Her granddaughter can’t keep herself together and now she’s turned to witchcraft despite all the times Nelle put her in Vacation Bible School as a kid.

Olivia tries to will her away, push the weight off her chest, but the altar in her closet feels less like safety and more like a lie.

It takes a couple glugs of the vodka beneath her bed to get the weight to ease. Her pillow remains soaked with tears and black mascara streaks, so she finds a dry corner and presses her face into it. She is an empty seashell. Hollow, but hold it up to your ear—

Can you hear something?

 

One day in late July, Olivia returns to her bedroom from a quick bathroom break, and finds Angela standing in front of her open closet, staring at her altar. Olivia’s cheeks run hot and she hurts like her ribs are curving inward.

“What’s this?” Angela asks, bending, her fingers skimming the blue-and-white china teapot.

“An altar. I made it a while ago,” she says, hoping her voice sounds dismissive. Olivia is all too aware of how different it looks in sharp midday light, all magick sucked away—a cardboard fantasy built by a stupid, naive little girl.

“Quaint,” Angela says, and Olivia does not—can not—miss the mocking in her voice.

Sharp anger hits her in the stomach. She steps forward, slams the closet doors closed. Angela touches Olivia’s arm, seeming to regret her words.

“Olive, I’m sorry.”

But the use of Nelle’s pet name adds pain to her anger, and Olivia just snaps, “Don’t call me that.”

There is no kissing that day.

 

There are quiet apologies made, but the next time Olivia and Angela wind up naked in bed, there is something different. A recklessness that pushes them further. It’s a need. It’s power and control. It’s the same feeling Olivia had when she first did magick—nagging guilt, rush of pleasure, something deep in her blood urging her on.

Later, Diane invites her out to sunbathe on the porch, and Olivia feels like a different person. She thinks of the neediness of it all, watching a red sun through her eyelids—of the line crossed from fooling around into sex, of the detached loneliness that comes after a hard spike of pleasure.

 

Angela mentions that she knows a spell that could help them find true love. Olivia has known for a while that they are not each other’s, but the suggestion makes her body hurt like her friend just drop-kicked her across the room.

“Sure,” Olivia says. They have to write down who they want their true love to be, and they write at the same time. But Olivia finds that she can’t—there is a vivid pain across the bridge of her nose, and she just scribbles nonsensical words down after she sees that Angela has written “he.”

 

Olivia’s sixteenth birthday approaches, and she and Angela have stopped kissing. Olivia thinks Angela might have crossed a line she never planned. Kisses and touching were things girls just did sometimes, but they moved beyond that. Angela’s true love would be a man—Olivia’s would not.

Would Olivia have told Nelle everything? She always had, always inherently trusted her grandmother where her mother had to work for that trust. For the first time, Olivia wonders if Diane resented that. Not for the first time, Olivia wonders if she would have fallen for magick or for Angela if Nelle hadn’t died—where would Olivia be, then?

And would she give up Angela to have Nelle back? Would she give up her brief affair with magick, with control, with love? Would she give up her first time, tangled in sweaty limbs and sweet lips? She wonders if that’s how death works—how death gets you, keeps you submerged, how you lose the fight. But still.

She would give anything.

Later that day, Diane catches Olivia unable to breathe—Olivia has dropped Nelle’s teapot. The lid chipped, a sharp little nick on one side, and suddenly her lungs were empty and closing in like fake walls in a haunted house.

Diane names it—“Are you having a panic attack?”—presses her cool hand to Olivia’s forehead, instructs her how to breathe, holds her tight.

The following week, Olivia is prescribed a little jar of pills to take when her lungs are trying to kill her. They work much better than praying or magick or even vodka. She needs to take one after she and Angela go to the movies and Angela tells her she kissed a boy named Roberto.

 

Olivia’s sixteenth birthday party is loud and drunk. Olivia invites all of her friends and Diane invites all of hers. Diane decorates, stringing white lights all through the house, hanging red Chinese paper lanterns and star lamps in the corner of every room. Scarves and bejeweled pillows cushion every seat and chair—Olivia thinks it looks like the inside of one of those hippy dippy shops that always smells of musky incense.

In previous years, Nelle spent all day in the kitchen. Olivia remembers the way it smelled—of roses and sugar and sweet, moist cake. Olivia would poke her head around the corner, and Nelle would tell her to come taste, stick a frosting-covered finger in Olivia’s mouth. She always made the same cake for Olivia’s birthday: a honey cake frosted with rose and cardamom, covered in fresh, soft figs.

Olivia’s favorite thing about her birthday is the timing—fig season.

This year, though, Angela informed her that wasps and figs go hand in hand. The wasp crawls into the male fig, lays eggs, and dies. The babies emerge, and the cycle continues. Olivia finds it fitting—death and her favorite fruit.

When Nelle would have Olivia taste the frosting, Olivia would always tell her to add more cardamom.

This year, there is no honey cake. Olivia will turn sixteen without Nelle and without figs. But she does have her mother, who is kind despite how alien Olivia finds her, and she has Angela, who arrives to the party an hour early.

Olivia answers the door, and Angela stands there in all of her Wiccan glory, wearing a pentacle necklace and holding a box of beautiful figs.

“Happy birthday,” Angela says, and Olivia hugs her until she manages to blink the tears out of her eyes.

And then it’s almost seven o’ seven, the exact minute of her birth sixteen years ago. All of her mother’s friends are loud and drunk and all of her friends are loud and sober. Diane stands behind her daughter, finishing her toast, and Olivia holds a glass of punch.

Every face at the party is watching her. The clock clicks over to seven o’ seven, and Diane hurries—

“My daughter, my heart, how happy I am to know you. What a woman you will be.”

Cheers. Olivia sips her drink, and everyone congratulates her. It makes her feel a bit strange, a bit lost—all she has done is grow up, and she had no choice in that.

Her mother’s friends, dressed in bright colors, their cheeks flushed and lips loose, kiss her and wish her well. Olivia’s friends titter about how nice she looks, dressed in a pretty white sundress, her light brown curls wild and long. They lean on her shoulder and bring her punch.

Right when Olivia starts to feel tight in the chest, her fingers shaking, unable to say “thank you” to another person, Angela finds her. She pulls her into the bathroom, locks the door. The roar of the party quiets. A candle flickers across Angela’s dark features. Olivia breathes.

“Here,” Angela says, and out of her pocket she pulls a handful of figs.

“Oh, yes,” Olivia says with a moan. She eats them in seconds, licking her fingers. Then Angela hands her a glass—it is full of golden liquid.

“Cheers,” Angela says.

“What is it?”

“Tequila. The liquor is all very unguarded in the kitchen.”

Olivia takes a big sip. It burns but it also makes her insides feel lighter.

“Thank you,” Olivia says, handing her back the glass and sitting on the toilet lid.

Angela hovers over her, dark eyes sparkling. She takes a sip herself, winces, takes another sip. “Listen, Liv… if you don’t want to do Wicca anymore, it’s okay.”

Olivia’s chest feels tight. “I’ve lost the… truth of it,” she tries to explain. She’s lost the truth of the two of them, too, but she thinks maybe she found a new one. With friendship instead of kisses and a different kind of pleasure.

Angela touches her friend’s cheek, a gesture that sets Olivia’s heart on fire. “It was a summer love,” Angela says, and Olivia knows she isn’t just talking about the magick.

They finish the glass of tequila, brush their teeth to try to get the pervasive scent off their tongues. Olivia’s head is full of clouds as she turns to her friend, grinning widely. “Can you smell it on me?” she asks.

Angela leans over, presses warm lips against Olivia’s, a final offering. “Not at all,” she says. When they leave the bathroom, Angela offers Olivia her arm as if she is a gentleman and Olivia her lady, and they head, giggling, back into the party.

 

After the party has ended and Diane has collapsed in her bed, drunk and snoring, Olivia makes her way back downstairs, tiptoeing through streamers and party hats, into a kitchen whose counters are cluttered with glasses and plates and forks sticky with cake. She pulls out the teapot, fills it with water, and sets it on the stove—she waits.

She measures out Earl Gray, adds a teaspoon of lavender. She thinks of the saying “a watched pot never boils” but she also knows that it has to boil eventually, even if she never takes her eyes from it. At the first soft whistle she snatches it off the stove.

Then she thinks of her grandmother, the way she would pour so carefully. Olivia pours like she always does, nearly overfills it.

She hasn’t turned on a single light, and everything is awash in blue darkness. Olivia thinks that it suits the teapot very well, with its blue china flowers, the stark white of it dulled in the dark. When she pours the tea it feels as ritual as the spells she’s been doing all summer, and even though she knows it isn’t magick, there is something magical about it—tea at three in the morning, the dead quiet of a world asleep.

She adds a bit of cream, whiteness blooming within her teacup, settling into the perfect creaminess. It is perhaps the best pot of tea she has ever made, and there is an ache at the thought. She lets the ache sit there, lets it find a home in the hollow of her throat. After a while, the tea washes it away.

She gets up to make another pot.

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Vanessa Levin-Pompetzki’s favorite thing to do is weave together imaginary worlds (often with magic), but she also frequents used bookstores and enjoys a good cup of tea. She lives in South Carolina with a very inconsiderate cat. She won a mini-contest with On The Premises and has been published with Twisted Sister Lit Mag. Email: v.levinpompetzki[at]gmail.com

The Formula for Skipping Stones

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
LS Bassen


Photo Credit: Owen Jones/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

For two summer weeks, on and off, we’d seen one another, the fisherman and I. He was in an old motor boat out at the end of the C of the New Hampshire cove, and I was sitting on a boulder well within the center of the letter at the lake’s edge. I’d just turned fourteen, brought by my aunt and uncle to take care of my cousin. When three-year-old Kenny napped and my aunt did whatever she liked in the large cabin, I was free to search about the woods and shore. I often ended up at what I named Lonely Rock that looked out onto the wide Winnepesaukee. The water around the giant rock was deep and clear. I often watched minnows in miniature schools. Out at the pine-covered point of the cove was the fisherman. I never waved at him, but each day he brought the boat in a little closer. By the end of two weeks, I could see more than the silhouette of the man. He looked old, in his late fifties, his long face a mottled tan. It seemed to me that every time he threw in his line, he reached back with a shining fish he’d admire and then toss back before it drowned in air.

When he brought the boat right up to Lonely Rock, I held stiff as the stone.

“Hey, you,” he said, his thin body shaking at the steering wheel. I knew how to handle a boat as big. My uncle rented one, and I was proud he’d taught me to dock the twenty-four footer easily even though home in New York, I was two years too young even for a learner’s permit.

I didn’t answer him. The breeze blew across his back, from the lake toward the land. I breathed pine and water, pipe smoke and sweat stink. It was a strong male smell, like the beer another girl in the cabin colony and I had discovered. The brown glass bottles had been hidden in a stone-covered roadside culvert. Kathy and I tasted some of the beer before we broke all the rest, shattering them against a low stone wall nearby.

“Hey, you,” the fisherman repeated. “Wanna ride?”

He nudged the boat up against Lonely Rock. In the stern, I saw feathery lures arranged in a metal tackle box. I looked over my shoulder to the hill clearing and cabins.

“Wheah ya friends?” he asked.

“I don’t have any friends. No one’s talking to me.”

“Me eithah.”

“What did you do?” I said.

“Long stawhy,” he said.

The teeth he wasn’t missing were brown-speckled, like pebbles in the sand at the lake’s edge.

He moved quickly for all his shaking, leaning over the boat’s glass windshield, giving me a hand stepping onto the bow. Then I climbed over and sat on the mate’s seat. He turned on the ignition, which coughed wetly a few times, and backed the boat out into the cove. In a few moments, we were well beyond it, on the open lake. Speed lifted the prow out of the water and gusted the summer air. I shook out my loosened braids.

“You look’t like a Penacook boy,” he said, disappointed, “but ya eyes ah blue. Y’act like a boy. Why’s no one talking to you fah?”

“It’s a long stawhy,” I imitated. Then I blurted, “I did something bad.”

“Who ain’t?” He cut the motor.

“No one likes me anymore.”

“I don’t like guhls. Name’s John.”

“Well, John, where’s all this forgiveness you hear about in church?”

“Guess that’s wheah it stays,” he said.

“How do I act like a boy?”

“Got no brains. Like t’go fast?”

He started up the engine again and raced us across the water faster and farther than I’d ever been out before. We must have been miles from the cove. Still, there was more and more lake, more bends and curves we took at high speed, water splashing in our faces when he steeped a turn. I stood up to feel the spray hit, and John yelled over the motor noise, “Siddown goddammit!” He reached out and pulled me into the seat and slowed the engine. Gasoline fumes sweetened the lake air. He turned the boat around and headed back to the cove. He left me off not at Lonely Rock but on the narrow lip of beach by the point where he usually fished.

“Next time weah a suit so ya can swim,” John said.

*

Every day it didn’t rain I went out on a different boat with Old John. I didn’t tell anyone about him. I thought it served them all right since no one was talking to me. My aunt was tight-lipped around me and kept shaking her head, muttering about my father and what would happen when I got home. Meanwhile, she didn’t have any problem with me playing Cinderella to her Wicked Stepmother. She told me the unidentified bites or rash I’d gotten were fair punishment. I had to wear dishwashing rubber gloves and couldn’t go swimming, she said, because it could spread. So I sat in the big white Adirondack chairs on the hill, watching my little cousin race his toy cars in and out of the elaborate pine cone obstacle course I’d created for him. I looked down the hill to the lake where Kathy, my beer-smashing pal from Beverly, Massachusetts, was off duty from babysitting her four younger brothers and sister. She was swimming with the Swampscott minister’s son Tim, his thirteen-year-old half-sister Diane, and Jay, the townie boy from Passaconaway. Both boys were handsome.

Some days, standing on the beach, the boys skipped stones. Jay’s always flew farther than Tim’s. While I wondered what Galileo or Newton could make of it, Kathy and Tim’s half-sister cheered the boys on.

In our first week at Winnepesaukee, Diane and I had taken out a row boat and shared stories about our older brothers.

“Behind a billboard?!” I choked. Diane rowed the boat in circles while I reached to regain the oar I’d dropped. When I tried to explain what incest was, she refused to believe that she was no longer a virgin.

During my cousin’s afternoon nap time, I’d go sit on Lonely Rock. I imagined how it locked into the lake in winter when Jay said you could walk across the ice. Jay lived on a farm. He said that after the frozen months what New Hampshire looked forward to most was the coming of the new lambs. He said he’d pulled live lambs right out of ewes. In the summer, he also worked at a bakery in Wolfeboro where I’d seen him “selling overpriced cookies to overweight tourists.”

I’d hear whatever boat Old John was in that day before I’d see him clear the point. I’d jump up and run through a pine-needled forest hemming deeper woods, running over the rocks and hollows among the trees, fleet as the Penacook Winnepesaukee natives I imagined there long before. The boat sputtered in neutral. I got on without Old John’s help. He snorted at my aunt’s orders.

“Found a fine place to fish,” he said, before he gave me the wheel and I pushed the throttle into drive, “and ya go ahead swim.”

He directed me around turns to a new, hidden cove. I couldn’t tell one bend in the lake from another, but they seemed recognizable to Old John. By this time I’d confessed to him, and we had a way of doing things beside one another. Some talk, Old John tied knots, taught me Cat’s Cradle or fished, and I’d swim. He’d show me a fish and name it and tell me its ways while it squirmed in his shaking hands. He’d lean over the boat and let the fish back into the water near enough to where I was treading to make me squeal at the thought of it swimming through my legs. It always made Old John laugh, and then I’d laugh, too.

“What do you do?” I eventually asked when were returning to the point at our cove.

“Always keep one for supper and one for breakfast,” he avoided. “Wha’d’ya do?”

“I go to school, of course. I’m going into ninth grade. What’s your profession?”

He snorted again. “I do what I can.”

“I mean it, John.”

“I’m an escaped convict.”

I was thrilled. “Like Magwitch in Great Expectations! That’s a book on our list for next year so I read it ahead. So I’m Pip? You steal these boats? I could change my name.”

“Bahrrow ’em. No one the wiseah. Ya name’s okay. ‘Leenda,’ they say. Means pretty. Changed mine to John. Lotta Johns. Lotta leaves ont trees, ev’ry one jus’ ta leaf.”

I agreed. “It’s my father’s middle name. Dr. Theodore John McDermott. He makes me eat calcium tablets bigger than communion wafers because the Russians resumed above ground testing, and he’s afraid the Strontium-90 will leach calcium from my bones.”

We neared the point, and I slowed the boat. He held the wheel as I turned, reached for a sweatshirt. While it was still over my head, Old John said, “It wasn’t such a bad thing you done with eitha boy, the ministah’s son. Was t’othah one, Jay’s fault, talkin’ ’bout you.”

I’d described kissing Jay when he’d walked me back from the beach in the dark and confessed about going into the apple orchard behind the cabins one night with the Swampscott boy, how I’d run away from Tim after fighting him off.

With the sweatshirt still covering my face, I said, “No, I was all wrong. Diane told me what Tim did. I knew Kathy liked him and didn’t tell her. When he said to meet him, I did. Back home in New York, I’m a Good Girl. Up here, they’re all blond and I’m not, so they think I’m a…” I couldn’t repeat the word Jay had called me.

Old John pulled the sweatshirt down so my turtle head popped out. “Jus’ ’cause you wanted some kissin’ and have th’sense of a buttahfish?”

We were at the point then, and I started clambering off the boat, but not before Old John caught my sleeve. I thought it was to steady me. He made me fall back against him. His smoky, sweaty smell was friendly by then. But he pulled me to him and kissed me harder than either boy had. Those mottled teeth hitting mine! He tasted sickening of beer and age, and I pushed him with enough force that I fell out of the boat. My heart thundered with adrenaline. Stunned, I tread water and saw minnows scatter. Old John backed the boat away.

“You said you didn’t like girls,” I shouted.

He yelled over the motor, “I like you!”

*

Linda was neither an old child nor a young adult. On the number line, she saw herself going up only to fourteen for her recent birthday, a primer page in a Universal encyclopedia of possibly infinitely numbered, disconnected dot-to-dots. She’d heard a singsong: Freshmen don’t know they don’t know; sophomores know they don’t know; juniors don’t know they know; and seniors know that they know! Linda didn’t know that she didn’t know she possessed any agency, nor that she lacked fear. She only knew things happened. The Earth moved around the Sun, and the Moon around the Earth in ways better explained by science than mythology, which is what Linda called religion ever since, at eleven, she had been stunned by her mother’s reaction to Sputnik, “But where does God live now?”

The convict’s kiss shocked, flattered, repulsed, and disappointed her. Those were some dot-to-dots to try to connect. All the recent kisses had no different effect from her secret practice at home against the wooden leg of a Queen Anne chair while the family had watched TV. So far, kissing was all mechanics and momentum, no communion. She thought there must be something wrong with her. She was like the Betsy McCall paper doll on the last page of her mother’s monthly magazine. She had stopped cutting out and playing with them but still looked for them every month. Betsy McCall was flat, two-dimensional, a little girl. Linda was a big girl who acted like a boy and felt nothing when kissed.

The next day, Linda was in hiding, waiting at the point for Old John.

He was surprised to see her emerge from the pines. He had been sitting behind the wheel trying to calm his shaking hands by tying knots. It was late August, autumn chill in the air, leaves turning. There wasn’t going to be much time. Beside him on the mate’s seat was last week’s newspaper whose rumpled front page reported that in Moscow, downed American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers had been convicted of espionage against the Soviet Union and sentenced to ten years imprisonment. Ten years didn’t sound long.

Linda was dressed in jeans and a thick sweater. The motor idled.

“Why did you do that?” she demanded.

“Why’d ya come back fah?’

“To say goodbye. We’re going back to New York later today. To ask.”

“What?”

“Why do you shake all the time?”

He held up a sloppy bowline knot. “Parkinson’s. Ev’ry thing’s got a name when they don’ know whah t’is.”

“I didn’t feel anything with you either.”

He laughed. “Me, neithah. Ya not a boy, jus’ a green apple. Ya shoulda felt scaihed.”

“What are you scared of?”

“Not much left t’. Surpris’d ain’t bin found, but maybe wasn’ much lookin’.” He tapped the newspaper. “Don’ worry so much about Russians and bombs. But don’ you nevah go nowheah with a strangeah again.”

*

My father smelled like the brown bottles and Old John. It was the cherry pipe smoke and sweat. My father didn’t shake, but he looked sad. Kathy and I had smashed the beer against the low stone wall, laughing at the explosions of foam, glad to be rebelling against grown-up deception.

When I returned from New Hampshire, my parents and brother were waiting in the car in front of my aunt and uncle’s house. After the long drive and longer summer, it was good to get out of the car, a new 1960 Buick station wagon, that Clydesdale of automobiles. I hugged my father, but he didn’t come inside where I carried my sleeping cousin. I put Kenny to bed while my uncle went around opening windows, and my aunt did something in the kitchen with my mother and brother, who, I noticed, hadn’t stayed with our father. Just another disconnected dot.

As I came out of the bedroom, my mother grabbed my shoulder and pulled me into the pink-and-gray hall bathroom. She shut and locked the door.

“Your aunt told me. You are just like your father,” she hissed.

I’d never seen her that angry even during the Kennedy–Nixon bouts she had with my father. They argued about everything, but before I’d left for the summer, it was politics. He’d voted for Eisenhower, and she and my aunt were not only Democrats, but also Catholic like Kennedy, who I only cared was handsome.

“It will take every cent we have—and my uncle who is a State Supreme Court judge—to keep your father out of prison and save his license!”

I became so dizzy, I fell. It took hours of that day and years later to make sense out of my mother’s fury. At home that same night, she sent my older brother to my bedroom.

“Are you chaste?!” he demanded.

For the first time in my life I said, “Fuck you.”

Later that September, before the Kennedy–Nixon debate, the family drove up to Troy in the huge Buick station wagon. I sat in the smaller rear seat with Kenny, feeling carsick facing backwards at the past rather than ahead to the future. I attempted and failed to keep Kenny busy for awhile playing with string; a three-year-old’s attention span and finger control were equally unreliable. I did a few of the eight turns Old John had taught me: Soldier’s Bed, Candles, Manger, Diamonds, Cat’s Eye, Fish in a Dish, Clock, and Cat’s Cradle. My uncle was at the wheel, and my aunt sat beside him. With my maternal grandmother, my mother was crammed between my father and brother in the middle. The radio was on in the front of the car, and my uncle was explaining about “payoffs” when my brother snapped, “You’re stupid.”

There was some swerving and yelling, and Kenny didn’t know whether to cry. My brother’s cramped position—also as firstborn and family genius—he eventually won a Nobel—kept any hand from being raised to smack him.

In November, Kennedy won the election. Three years later, after skipping my senior year of high school, I felt the same dizziness again. I was a freshman at a college where tests were administered on a non-proctoring honor system, so it was a shock when our French professor entered, crying, “Ah, mademoiselles, on à assassine Le President!”

Even before we’d left New Hampshire, I knew my aunt had been wrong about swimming spreading the rash. In time, I ripened and mastered Cat’s Cradle, studied geometric topology, and won a minor award in 2007 for a paper chronicling the 1867 faulty atomic theory known as the Tait conjectures that quantum theory eclipsed for awhile. By the end of the twentieth century, knot theory had reemerged. Useful regarding DNA and polymers in biology and chemistry, its related braid theory figured in the development of quantum computers’ resistance to decoherence.

My father’s license was suspended during my college freshman year, but thereafter he practiced medicine until he died the year I was pregnant with my firstborn. To his wake, one of his immigrant patients who had paid in barter since the fifties, brought jugs of homemade wine and frozen packages of deer he’d hunted. A Guinness World Record for stone skipping was set in 1992, thirty-eight bounces, filmed on the Blanco River in Texas, bested once in 2007 and twice in 2014. Galileo and Newton had gotten the laws of motion moving, but it was a French physicist who developed a formula for estimating how many times a stone would skip based on spin and speed. The key to a good skip, Lyderic Bocquet said in 2004, lay in spinning the stone. Engineers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory proposed a HyperSoar airplane, which would skip along Earth’s upper atmosphere at five to twelve times the speed of sound.

In 2010, Boeing was reported designing an experimental military weapon that could fly twenty-five miles above Earth, then drift up into space and down again. When it hit the denser air of the upper atmosphere, it would bounce back up like a stone hitting water. Eighteen skips would be enough to get HyperSoar from Chicago to Rome in seventy-two minutes. As of June 2015, the U.S. military was reportedly developing such a new hypersonic vehicle that could take flight by 2023, building upon research from a 2013 test flight of the experimental X-51A Waverider.*

What’s it to be, then, sorrow over the depths to which a stone may sink or celebration of its defiance of gravity? Kathy surprised me by calling at the very end of that August at the beginning of the sixties. She put her phone up to her radio and told me to listen to the song that had just come on, the one we’d sung to each other all summer. Then with the radio in the background, Kathy sang and once again together we imitated Brenda Lee’s melodious growling of “Sweet Nothings.

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Website: lsbassen.com  Email: LSBASSEN[at]aol.com

The Net

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
Gail Webber


Photo Credit: Austin Kirk/Flickr (CC-by)

Photo Credit: Austin Kirk/Flickr (CC-by)

We didn’t get to Franklinton very often, and a new pet store was a pleasant surprise, but the three dead guppies in the first aquarium I checked were a bad sign. There was no one to tell except a man at the cash register who was on the phone. He was old, maybe thirty-five, and so thin he was almost skinny, but he had great eyebrows. When he saw me he smiled and held up one finger, universal sign language for, “Be with you in a minute.”

My mother was up the street looking for clothes to fit my surprise baby sister. In the little lake town where we lived in the early 1960s, there was a post office and a great ice cream store, but the only clothing available was fancy stuff for the summer people. To get reasonably priced things you had to drive to Franklinton where there was a department store. I went along that day because I knew that store had a pet department in the basement and I had fourteenth birthday money from my grandmother. When the department store fish proved uninteresting, I left to explore town and that was how I accidentally found the pet store.

I had just over an hour before I was supposed to meet Mom at the car, so while I waited for the man, I peered into the tanks one by one. There were some fish I could identify and even distinguish males from females, but there were others I’d only seen in books. I took my time. As soon as the man was done talking, he came over and said, “Hi,” but nothing more. I learned later that “hi” was how he wanted his employees to greet customers, considering the usual “Can I help you?” unfriendly and pushy.

“You’ve got a couple dead guppies,” I said and pointed. His smile faded and he turned toward the guppy tank, but then the phone rang again.

“There’s a net in that methylene blue wash,” he said on his way back to the counter. “Over there in the corner, see it? Go ahead and scoop them out and bring them here.” He indicated the glass counter where the register was, and then picked up the receiver. “Franklinton Pet.”

Really? I was perfectly capable of that little task, but it seemed a strange thing to ask a customer to do. Why not, I thought, and picked up one of the nets. I shook it a little to get the excess off, and then fished out the dead guppies. The man nodded to me and mouthed “thank you” when I put the whole thing, wet net and dead fish, on the counter.

It wasn’t until I was inspecting the baby Jack Dempseys that I noticed the nickel-sized blue stain on the yellow T-shirt I’d just gotten for my birthday. I groaned, knowing how methylene blue stains—I’d used it before to cure itch. But my new shirt! I didn’t get many new clothes, not with the way things were at home. The baby clothes Mom was buying that day were going to be the big splurge for the month.

Behind me, I heard the phone being replaced in the cradle, and then a ripping sound. When I turned, I saw the guy put a long strip of masking tape across the front of the tank where the dead fish had been and write NOT FOR SALE on the tape. “Mouth rot,” he said to me. From his pocket he pulled a blister pack of capsules and emptied two of them into the tank. They turned the water orange. Then he reached in and pulled out the box filter, leaving the air hose to bubble, and dried his hands on his pants. When he saw me watching he explained, “Charcoal deactivates tetracycline so you have to take the filter out.”

I nodded, though that was new information. Apparently this guy wouldn’t sell fish from an infected tank. That impressed me, and I thought maybe I’d get fish from him after all if I could find some I liked that would get along with what I already had. I figured I’d have to go back and look at prices, though.

He surprised me by saying, “Oh, no,” while he was looking at my chest. I didn’t know what to think and felt myself blush. I was used to guys at school looking there, but not most grown men. As far as I was concerned, my new shape was mostly a good thing, but sometimes my cup size was an embarrassment. Everything I ate or drank seemed to land on that shelf.

“I feel responsible,” he said. “Vinegar and vitamin C.”

I had no idea what he was talking about but was grateful he was looking at my eyes. “What?”

“It gets methylene blue out of clothes.” He nodded at the stain on my chest and then found my eyes again. “I know because I’ve done that a hundred times. Crush up a vitamin C tablet in one part vinegar and five parts water and soak the spot as soon as you get home.”

I don’t even remember exactly how it happened, but by the time I left with a trio of killifish, I had a summer job working for Richard at Franklinton Pet. I didn’t even have to spend any birthday money because the killies were my pay for an hour of cleaning water spots off the aquarium fronts. This would be my first job that didn’t involve mowing or painting. I knew the hour bus ride each way would be a pain, but I was looking forward to all the money I could save for college. Plus I’d be learning new things.

It was June, so I figured I’d have the rest of the month and then all of July and most of August to work as many hours as Richard would let me. His wife had just had their third child, all girls he said, and the baby made it harder for her to come in to help like she used to.

I guess her having the three kids made other things problematic, too, because by the middle of August, Richard was showing more than a casual interest in what I was wearing and how I did my hair. In those days, you dressed up for a job, even if it was one that involved catching snakes and chameleons, and cleaning hamster runs and bird cages. I even learned how to put my hair up in a twist because he said he liked it and I thought it made me look older. I was a good worker, and he always complimented me, but not just for doing a good job. Honestly, I liked the attention, and I don’t know, maybe I needed it. My only boyfriend so far—albeit a rather platonic one—had dumped me for a senior girl, and nobody else was asking me out. I had come to believe I must not be girlfriend material—that my first boyfriend had been a fluke, and I was destined to be alone for the rest of my life. Maybe that was why Richard’s approval was important, why I wanted to believe it meant something.

My job was supposed to be just for the summer, so my parents were surprised in September when I asked if I could keep working during the school year. My grades were excellent, and I was involved in everything from student government and debate club to all the sports they would let girls play in those days, and Mom and Dad said they thought working would be too much. I argued that my friends managed that same kind of busy schedule as well as boyfriends, and that since I didn’t have one, I had extra time especially on weekends and vacations. I told them how much I’d saved for college that summer and they were surprised. After they finally agreed and I had time to think, I considered looking for a different job. The truth was that despite Richard’s interest in me being exciting and affirming, it confused me. But I stayed.

It was the month before Christmas that year when we started keeping the store open on Sundays, and Richard’s wife offered to let me stay over at their house on Saturday nights because as she said, it made better sense. Being open that extra day made a big difference in the weekly take, something I knew because a few basic accounting duties were added to my responsibilities. But as the month wore on, it seemed there was more and more to do after Richard and I closed the store on Saturday nights. At least I assume that was what he told his wife. I knew it was wrong, and I blamed myself, believing that I must be a truly bad person to get involved with him at all, and worse for not calling a halt to what was going on. It was my first experience with guilt that ran so deep, and it changed how I saw myself. I was two people, the honor roll student during the week and something else the rest of the time. All the time.

“Tawdry” was a word I came to understand that first year, and over the next two I found myself thinking of men quite differently than I had before Richard. I lost myself for a while, who I was and who I wanted to be. Still, I kept working there and I kept up those relationships—the one with Richard and the one with his wife and children—until right before I graduated and left for college.

Even after I was far away I felt guilty enough to wonder if I’d ever feel good again. The longer I was gone, the less I understood how I could have let myself be used like that, and I hated myself for being so stupid. After the self-loathing came fear that I’d ruined my chances of ever having an authentic relationship with a man. It was the 1960s, and though attitudes about how women should behave were supposedly changing in the cities, most of the same old expectations held for women where I lived and where I went to college. How could anyone love a woman who’d done what I did? I couldn’t expect that anyone else would respect me when I didn’t respect myself.

But someone did, and that changed everything again, this time for the better.

By the end of my freshman year when I went home for the summer, I wasn’t much older, but I was a more savvy girl than the one who’d left ten months earlier. I was more confident and outspoken, and in some ways harder. I was also angry. There had been no contact between us after I left, but I intended to see Richard, not for the reason I knew he’d expect, but to confront him. What he’d done was wrong and I wanted to tell him so. I wasn’t without blame; I wasn’t exactly a child when it started and I let it go on. But I’d also been clueless… and he was the adult.

I went in the propped-open front door of his store and stopped with my back to it, about ten feet from where he stood at the counter. No one else was in the store.

“Look at you!” Richard grinned. He didn’t approach me as I expected, and instead leaned back against the wall behind the register.

He looked older than I remembered, with dark circles under his eyes, and his hair looked oily. Even from a distance I could see the dirt under his too-long fingernails and realized there had always been that black line where the white of his nails stopped.

“With that long hair and your clothes, you’re a cute little hippy girl, aren’t you.” He said it like it was a fact and not a question.

All that I planned to say to him, every stinging and freeing thing I wanted to say to him, flew out of my head and I just stood there mute.

“We hoped we’d hear from you, but then I guess you had lots going on.” He cocked one knee forward and put his hands in his pockets.

We? Really? I thought. And what is “going on” supposed to mean? All in my head, but then I knew where to start. “You had no right,” I blurted. “Back then, you had no right.” If he’d looked ashamed or angry, I would have known how to continue, but the quizzical expression on his face and the crooked half-smile shut me up.

“No right about what?” he asked me. “I can see you’re pissed about something, kiddo, but I have no idea what you mean. What’s up?”

Anyone watching would have thought he was innocent. My throat closed up and made that choking sound it always does when I’m caught off guard and try to talk, so I stopped. I’m not sure how long I stood there before I heard someone’s footsteps behind me. When I turned, I saw her, a young girl in a purple pleated skirt and sweater. Her blonde hair was piled up on top of her head making her look like she was playing dress-up, and she carried a bag with a familiar logo. Tony’s Place was where we used to get meatball subs.

“Hi,” she said to me as she passed by on her way to the counter, and then to Richard she said, “Ready for some lunch, Ricky?”

pencilGail Webber taught science, middle school through college, for thirty-two years, and then worked with children and teenagers considered at-risk. Since retiring, she has returned to her old love, writing fiction. She lives and works on a tiny farm in western Maryland. Gail is new to the publishing arena, with one middle grade novel published three years ago, and short stories appearing in The Tower Journal and Persimmon Tree. A second novel is out for consideration, and she says that a third is keeping her up nights. Email: gail_webber[at]hotmail.com

Liberal Arts

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Heather Finnegan


Photo Credit: Alexander Boden/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Photo Credit: Alexander Boden/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

The security guard could tell immediately that the young girl was wearing layers of stolen lace underwear beneath her shirt and tight jeans. He did not even have to see the look on her eyeliner-smudged face when she saw him in the Sears elevator, floor five.

“Oh,” he said. “The elevator’s broken. Been stopping at every floor for no reason all day. But it’s fine to use.” The girl, who had greasy brown hair and smelled like sticky buns, stepped on nervously. It was the summer between his first and sophomore years of college—they didn’t use the word “freshmen” at his school because it excluded women from their daily vocabulary—and he had just finished a seminar on ethics where he learned about stepping into another’s shoes. Maybe, he thought, she couldn’t afford the underwear she needed. Maybe her dad just died of a ravaging brain cancer or Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and her mom, who’d dropped out of college to birth her and her two triplet-sisters, was still trying to pay off the debt of his medical bills with only a seventy-five-cents-to-a-dollar minimum wage job. It was possible, he thought. He should be nice to her. She could probably use a little kindness and guidance in her life.

“So,” he said. “Having a good day?”

“Fine,” she said, crossing her arms.

“That’s good,” he said. “Mine was good too. Would be better if it weren’t for this elevator though.” The door opened onto floor four, home goods and as-seen-on-TV items. The security guard often came here during his breaks to use the scalp scratchers. The girl didn’t say anything. He held down the close door button. “So,” he said. “You in school?”

“It’s summer,” she said.

“Right,” he said. “But… in the fall?” She told him she would be starting high school but didn’t say where. He thought maybe she went to the “inner city” school and was embarrassed to say so. “Do you think you’ll go to college?” he asked.

She shrugged.

“I study at a liberal arts school,” he said.

“Cool,” she said.

“Yeah,” he said. “Liberal arts schools are cool because they teach you how to think instead of what to think. It’s way different than high school and vocational schools. Good different.”

“Cool,” she said.

Then he thought, what if she couldn’t afford a fancy liberal arts school? He had been lucky, winning a scholarship for badminton, but what if she wasn’t supposed to go to college? Plenty of people weren’t supposed to go to college. Maybe she was supposed to be a sales representative or a hairdresser or a full-time surrogate or something. Then he thought those were typical women’s jobs and maybe she could be a plumber or a construction worker or a security guard like himself. Also, he should use the word “cosmetologist.” Not “hair dresser.” The elevator stopped on the third floor, which was full of lots of overpriced, nonsensical books. The security guard had only visited the floor once and got scared because he couldn’t tell where the floor ended. The rows of books situated in little hexagonal displays seemed to go on forever, like an endless beehive or something.

“But it’s not all great,” he said. “Liberal arts school. Once I read this graphic novel about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for an English class. It was okay but I didn’t like it because it was all in black-and-white, only I couldn’t tell my professor that,” he said. “I had to tell him I didn’t like it because it showed a really harsh bias toward the Palestinians by not mentioning any of their violent acts in ancient or in modern times. But I don’t really know much about the Palestinians’ violent acts because that book didn’t teach me any and no one’s taught it in any of my history classes. I was just kind of bullshitting,” he said. Shit, he thought. Did he just tell her college was about bullshitting?

“Cool,” she said.

The door opened on the second floor which sold no goods at all but housed a large concrete gate with an old, peering gatekeeper and a sign labeled “das Gesetz.” He started to panic. He was running out of time.

“But I could have learned more if I wanted to,” he said. “I could have studied abroad in Jerusalem this summer. That graphic novel, it said that you can find whatever you’re looking for in Jerusalem as long as you know what it is you’re looking for.”

“Wow,” she said.

“Yeah,” he said. “ I didn’t go because I couldn’t afford it. But I could have found grants and scholarships and stuff if I tried,” he said so as not to discourage her. “And I got this job for the summer which has been cool,” he said. “College is full of great opportunities like that. Like, if you work hard then you can learn about whatever it is you want to learn about. But it’s like that The Mamas & the Papas song. ‘You gotta know where you wanna go,’” he sang. “Just have a goal and go for it,” he said.

“I think it’s ‘Go where you wanna go,’” she said.

“Right. Same thing,” he said. “What I mean is college is a really cool opportunity. It can be really important,” he said. “Or not,” he said. The door opened onto the first floor which, like most department stores, sold makeup and perfumes and fancy watches. “Cosmetics,” he thought. Not “makeup.” “There are lots of parties,” he said.

She stepped out of the elevator and power-walked toward the exit.

He stepped out, too, and called to her, “Have a great day!”

“Thanks,” she said, which made him feel accomplished.

He remembered that he was supposed to have gotten off on the fifth floor to relieve another guard for break, but the elevator door had already closed. He pressed the button and played Candy Crush on his cell phone while he waited for the car to return.

pencilHeather Finnegan’s work has appeared or is soon to appear in The Interlochen Review, Cargoes, The Quaker, and Litmus. She is graduating from the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities and will be attending the University of Pennsylvania in the fall. Email: finneganhr[at]gmail.com

The English Girl

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
Sarah Evans


Photo Credit: Anthony Conti/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Photo Credit: Anthony Conti/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

After the day’s work, they gathered round the fissured table that sat beneath the shading branches of a fir tree. Today it was the turn of the English girl to cook. There had been teasing, inevitably, about English cooking, which felt unfair given Swiss cuisine stretched no further than melted cheese. Her style in any case was not typically English: tonight it was a casserole of Mediterranean vegetables and lentils.

The English girl. It had started as a joke. Already when she arrived, there was a French girl called Marie, and although the two could have been distinguished by the form of pronunciation, nationality provided a simpler distinction. The English girl smiled when she was called that. She didn’t seem to mind and the name stuck.

The day had faded into evening and the earlier warmth of the sun was released back from the hard-baked earth; it lingered as a glow on skin. The English girl’s nose was peeling in small, white flakes—raw pink beneath—and it would burn again if she weren’t more careful. The backs of her hands were stained nut-brown, the deepness of pigmentation continuing up her arms, until close to her shoulders the colour lightened by degrees, reflecting the varying sleeve lengths of the four cotton shirts which she rotated, rinsing one out each evening.

That night there was someone new at the table. She saw him first in profile, from a distance, knowing instantly from the rapid ease with which he chatted to Anneliese that he was one of the permanent staff.

The English girl had volunteered to work for Fourth World for three months, the whole of her university summer holiday. She had arrived with a rucksack, whose weight she had struggled beneath on the long walk from the station. She had been there a month now and people had come and gone. Permanent staff moved between locations. Most volunteers worked only for two weeks or so.

As she approached the table, the large earthenware dish weighing heavily under her hands, she was aware of how her arm muscles had strengthened over the weeks of light manual work. She concentrated step by step, fearful that a tree root might set her tripping. Her stomach growled with the aroma of herbs and garlic and she observed how, even sitting, the newcomer appeared short and squat. His skin was gypsy dark, the type of brown that comes from living outdoors; his hair was black dots against his scalp, continuing into the stubble on his chin. Thuggish looking was her first thought, registering simultaneously that a certain type of ugliness—Jack Nicholson ugliness—can be attractive in a man. She noticed those things even before the moment when—food delivered safely to the table—she turned her eyes more openly on him and felt his gaze on her, unsettling in its masculine conceit.

‘This is Johannes,’ Anneliese said, in her German-accented English. ‘And this is Marie. The English girl.’

 

The end of that week marked some local festival, providing the excuse for a party with folk music playing on a battered CD, and a roughly-built brick barbecue filling the air with smoke and the smell of burning fat. Sitting in the cool of a falling evening, eating burgers dripping grease between torn hunks of rustic bread, the English girl found herself perched on the end of a bench with Johannes at her side. All week she had been conscious of his presence, while he had shown no sign of noticing her.

Johannes pushed his plate away, declaring himself—‘How you say? Stuffed?’—slouching forward over one elbow, the skin of his forearm dark, the hairs darker still, one hand reaching for his chunky glass, the other under the table and settling on the English girl’s knee. The heavy feel of it frissoned through her. She abandoned a burnt nub of meat and sipped her lukewarm beer, its hue almost black, its taste heavily hopped and bitter. She focussed on her expression remaining smooth.

English was the common language for the group, the only language which all of them—the French, German, Italian, Spanish, Polish—knew at least a little of. Johannes was talking, his bad English lapsing sometimes into rapid German, which Anneliese translated in summarised form. He shifted further forward over the table, the bulk of his body lending weight to strong opinion, his legs spreading so his denim covered thigh now pressed the length of the English girl’s. She was wearing wide shorts which reached halfway to her knee. His hand followed the ridge of her leg, then curled inwards so his thumb hooked over the top of her leg and his fingers rested on her inner thigh.

And all the time he talked.

The English girl sat unmoving and silent. She had no particular desire to talk to Johannes or to thrust herself into the conversation. She liked the fact that he was the natural focus and everyone was listening and that what he expressed chimed so fully with her own beliefs.

The Fourth World. She had tried to explain it to friends at college. Poverty exists in all societies, she said, feeling self-conscious and anxious that she would sound pious. Even in the most affluent countries there exists a substrata, outside the common flow, who remain trapped. The Fourth World, like a fourth dimension, coexisting with and yet invisible to those who prefer not to look. The centre where she was spending the summer would provide an alpine holiday for poor families; she and the volunteers were carrying out essential maintenance—building wooden fences, turning an old horse carriage into a children’s playhouse and preparing flower and vegetable gardens—before the centre could open. She remembered the scepticism on her friends’ faces. Poverty? In Switzerland? ‘You should see my bank balance,’ Thomas had said. ‘I think I must qualify.’ She had smiled politely and felt a flash of dislike.

Sitting here now, she could feel Johannes’ passion transmitting through his faulty English, through the heat of his body and his gesticulating hand; his passion mirrored her own notions of equality and fairness, views that her friends—firm believers in the magic of markets and capitalism—declared naïve. She liked that others here would see how the line of their bodies was pressed together without seeing what was happening beneath the table.

His fingers reached higher. She remained perfectly still, aware, vaguely—because everything that evening felt vague, perhaps due to the beer, perhaps more fundamentally—that to surrender so easily with no indication of her own will, went against all her feminist principles. She thought, but only fleetingly, of Thomas, who she had started dating towards the end of term, and whom she had so far fended off as far as full sex was concerned. What was she waiting for, he’d asked, exasperated.

Johannes said something—‘but there it is, no?’—bringing his diatribe to an end and removing his hand from her leg equally abruptly. Dismay crashed and crushed, and stupid thoughts chuntered through her brain, that he would not like her precisely because she seemed so readily acquiescent. He shifted away, turning his back on her, swinging a leg to straddle over the wooden bench, all the while laughing and talking unintelligibly fast to Anneliese. The English girl smiled with muscle-ache inanity.

She stared down at her brown hands and cupped them around her empty glass, certain suddenly that Anneliese, that everyone, would see how she had been discarded. Then she felt the touch of his hand on her shoulder. ‘Kommst du,’ he said, his head jerking towards the clearing and the others. ‘Come.’ She scrambled to standing, banging her hip hard on the wooden table, fearful that if she hesitated she would lose the moment and its momentum.

The cassette player had been replaced by an accordion, played by the Spanish guy whose name was Jesus, the awkwardness of which made her shy to talk to him.

People were dancing to a fast French jive and Johannes had taken her hand and was pulling her towards the centre of the group.

‘No,’ she said, pulling back and laughing, conscious of just how much she hated dancing, aware that allowing yes to groping then saying no to dancing was perverse.

Johannes stood his ground, gripping her hand firmly, and he stood there—squat and insistent—ignoring her no, and gesturing to the group of dancers with his stance. Her resistance slackened and she was drawn into a dance that she had no knowledge of.

The music rollicked and rolled. Johannes’s rhythm, his sequences of steps, became hers. He pulled her in close—chest to chest—then cast her outwards to arm’s length. They circled round, then rapidly changed direction. Partners were swapped, without her having any say in it, and suddenly she was in someone else’s arms and her fleeting gracefulness deserted her; she felt clumsy, acutely aware of why it was she’d never liked dancing. Johannes reclaimed her, or perhaps it was just the chancy outcome. She felt herself lifted off her feet; her thighs tightened round his hips as he swung her around and then she was tilting downwards so it seemed her head might bounce along the ground. But it didn’t, because he knew precisely the moment to swing her back upright.

She found herself passed along again, this time landing with the Polish guy who’d been trailing her all week and whose bumbling movements served to exaggerate her own ineptitude. Out of breath, she mumbled excuses and extracted herself from his clinging hold to draw back to the edges of the group, standing under the shadow of trees, watching. Waiting.

A figure appeared out of the darkness beside her and the two of them stood there. She listened to his breathing and the shuffle of pine leaves beneath his feet. Then he took her hand, pulling her back amongst the firs. Vegetation crunched and the world smelt of dried-out green and sunsoaked earth. It was dark, getting darker amidst the thickening branches, but at the same time her eyes were adjusting and shapes in denser shades of black emerged and there was a path of sorts, forming a silver ribbon through the trees.

Johannes stopped when they came to a narrow clearing, lit by a sliver of a moon. Something swooped in near—a bat perhaps—and she jerked away from it, turning into him, feeling his hands touching her shoulders and the damp heat of his breath against her neck.

He pressed her against a tree and whispered low, guttural words. Her hands reached behind to the textured bark, which was rough like the stubble on Johannes’s chin as his mouth met hers.

 

She woke next morning in the ancient bed with its sagging mattress, under a bedspread that was poked through with the sharp ends of feathers. Light filtered through the flaking, green-painted shutters in sharp lines. The air smelt of wood resin, of stale sweat and sex, and she thought of what had happened in the woods and of how Johannes had returned with her to this bed, then slipped away at first light. She stretched her body out long and thin and contemplated the effort of walking down the external wooden staircase to the outside toilet. Her hand touched the smooth rawness of her face and she remembered Johannes’s skin sandpapering hers. Sex as exfoliant. Glancing at the pale glow of her alarm clock, she realised how much she’d overslept.

A little later, she emerged from the weight of feathers and pulled clean clothes over her unwashed body. Descending the steps, she waved at the farmer who had donated the use of his room and called out, ‘Grusse!

Walking down the hill took ten minutes and her heartbeat rose as she opened the door into the large wooden chalet, finding everyone already finishing breakfast. Everyone except Johannes.

‘Hi!’ She offered a vague salute from the doorway as she made straight for the bathrooms, where she could get a shower and emerge fresh and clean.

Anneliese rose from the table and headed purposefully her way. She could feel the heat of her face and the stink of her body radiating outwards. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘For being late.’

Anneliese’s smile was wide and tight as she delivered an instruction that the showers needed cleaning, which could easily have waited. The English girl’s simple pleasure on waking transmuted now to embarrassment and she wondered if Anneliese and Johannes were lovers, or might once have been.

Johannes appeared at lunchtime, and there was nothing to indicate that she was any more to him than anyone else, less in fact, because the English girl didn’t speak any German and his English was bad. He sat beside her as they ate, not touching, but nonetheless sitting a little closer than he needed to. And by evening, he had gone.

 

Time moved forwards; people arrived and left; gradually the days shortened and the humid heat gave way to thunderstorms, breaking on the distant jagged peaks. Until it was her last day.

Anneliese proposed a farewell party.

‘There’s no need,’ the English girl said.

‘But we must do something,’ Anneliese insisted in her somewhat correct and distant tone. Of course, Anneliese always had such a lot to do with new volunteers turning up and needing to be instructed; she had little time for friendship.

Johannes hadn’t visited for ten days. The English girl had never understood the schedule by which he appeared and then went away. She began to think that she would leave and not have seen him to say goodbye.

The weather had turned cooler and they ate indoors. An iron fondue pot—containing four types of laboriously grated cheese—was placed in the centre of the table and served with roughly-cut cubes of bread alongside large carafes of local, yeasty wine.

Please would Johannes come. It felt an awkward type of prayer.

Then just as she was willing him to be there, just as it seemed hopeless that he would come, he materialised in that way he had, appearing with a magician’s flourish as if from a hat. He greeted Anneliese in German, explaining something at length, before offering a vaguer greeting round the table and then nudging in beside the English girl whose skin was flushing hot beneath her tan as she passed him the basket filled with bread.

‘So,’ he said to her, scraping the bread across the layer of cheese that by now was congealing at the bottom of the pot, ‘English girl.’ She was sure he must know her name, though she couldn’t remember him ever using it. ‘You go home tomorrow.’

‘Yes,’ she said, her voice far too bright. ‘I’m afraid so.’ And she thought it was a strange phrase, and that she was in fact deeply afraid. ‘My summer’s up.’

‘A pity,’ he said. ‘Wir werden dich vermissen.’ He’d miss her, or, more accurately, they would miss her.

‘Me too,’ she said, ‘Mich auch,’ thinking how much she would miss the shifting community she been absorbed into, the broken communication which operated at a deeper dimension than the competitive chit-chat of her college friends with their constant striving to entertain.

The evening continued with more wine, talk and laughter. Finally, she separated herself to walk up the hill. She walked slowly into the darkness and waited for Johannes with his unhurried footsteps to slip in beside her, the way he had done, on and off, all summer. They walked, hand in hand, beneath the wide scattering of stars.

 

The next morning, he rose early from the ancient bed in the wooden house, and he parted with a simple, ‘Bis bald!’—he’d see her soon—despite the fact he wouldn’t.

He was gone by the time she descended to the centre for breakfast. She set off shortly afterwards, carrying her large rucksack back along the road to the small station where she would take a local train, and then more trains and then a ferry, which would deliver her back to England. England, where her tan would fade and her muscles slacken, and the summer turn to anecdote. England, where, she would cease to be the English girl. Where she would rebecome Marie.

pencilSarah Evans has had over a hundred stories published in anthologies, magazines and online. Prizes have been awarded by, amongst others: Words and Women, Winston Fletcher, Stratford Literary Festival, Glass Woman and Rubery. And publishing outlets include: the Bridport Prize, Unthank Books, Bloomsbury and Best New Writing. She has also had work performed in London, Hong Kong and New York.

Get on the Plane, Jane

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
Susan Shiney


Photo Credit: Guilherme Yagui/Flickr (CC-by)

Photo Credit: Guilherme Yagui/Flickr (CC-by)

Jane Shade floated on a turtle-shaped raft in her mother’s pool. The California sun attacked her pearl skin. She slipped her foot under the raft and flipped it over, sank to the bottom, sat cross-legged, and screamed.

Forty-eight hours earlier:

Jane woke up to the sounds of roosters hollering their dominance. She heard their wings flapping and feet shuffling right outside her window. The rooster’s crow was interrupted by the morning puja of her Hindu neighbors that rolled their tongues in a high-pitched “yay, yay, yay” chanting. Then, the morning call to prayer from the nearby mosque, the Imam took awhile to clear his throat on the microphone before serenading with an elongated “Allah Akbar”. The once-jarring sounds when she had first moved to Bangladesh had morphed over a year-and-a-half into the alarm clock of an adventurer.

Jane’s back wasn’t sore anymore from the wooden slab of a bed with a thin padding. She wasn’t surprised when the fan didn’t turn on, she knew electricity was a thing to savor, not expect. She waved at the two kids staring through the window at her, the strange-looking blonde and blue-eyed foreigner. The children screamed after they realized they had been caught and pushed hard at each other trying to be the first to run away. She put on her shalwar kameez, a dress, scarf, and cotton baggy pants outfit, which felt as normal as a T-shirt and jeans once had.

She walked to her middle school to teach English. Each class was filled with fifty students and it was a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants atmosphere, the books were incorrect and by the time she quieted down the back of the classroom, the front was up in arms. It was like a seesaw she balanced for an hour, and then moved on to the next class. The students would leave notes on her desk thanking her, and hugged her often. At night she taught a college class she had developed on women’s topics, a way for women to discuss current events. She often left the class feeling guilty that she was taking more from the experience than her students.

After eating a Bengali meal with her neighbors that lavished her with kindness, she would fall asleep reading a book by candlelight. Every night she would wake up with a sudden jolt to blow out the candle.

This was life. This was normal. This was now over.

Her cell phone rang as she ate her Cornflakes.

“Hello?” she questioned, since Craig had never called her before.

“Jane, you need to grab a paper and pen.”

“What do you mean? Why?” She was shaken by the forcefulness of his voice.

“Just do it.”

She moved obediently.

“Got it. What’s going on?”

“Write this down. Due to safety and security measures…” Then he paused waiting for her squiggles of writing to stop.

“Yeah, go ahead.”

“…Peace Corps is evacuating the country.”

She wrote it down and it wasn’t real until she saw the words reflected back at her. “Wait. What? We are leaving? When? We have eight months of service left. Was someone hurt? Is everyone all right?”

“Jane, I don’t know anything and I don’t have time to help you process. We have eight hours to pack and go to the capital. You are my second phone call; I have to get ready to leave, and then you have two more phone calls to make.”

“Holy shit.”

She made her two phone calls and was equally as cold and rushed, the reality kept setting in as it hit the others. She thought to herself, I have to pack, I have to say goodbye, what the hell am I going to do in the U.S. I don’t have any money. The eight-month cushion had given her enough time to push away the decisions she had been avoiding since she joined the Peace Corps. She had to actually figure out what to do with her life.

She went through her apartment and rapidly started making piles and filling the one bag she was allowed to bring. She stopped as her eyes rested on a postcard from her brother she had on the table—he was backpacking before starting college in the fall.

He wrote, “Hey Sis, Europe is awesome. Loving being away from Mom. She is not doing well with both of us being gone. Total empty nest syndrome. I had to get out of that house. Anyway, I am on a train to Germany now, Munich first, then off to Berlin. I promise not to get too drunk. Stay safe! Bill.”

“I’m going to the States.” She whispered as images of home flashed before her eyes. There was some excitement bubbling up about the luxuries of the U.S., the food, the comfort, the normalcy. She had pushed away thoughts of America for so long to stay strong. Endorphins began to spread and pulsed through her body, which powered her through the next eight hours of packing, sorting, phone calls, and crying farewells. She went on autopilot and everything started to blur together in a spinning motion.

In the capital. On a plane. Debrief presentations. Apologies for the lack of information they could give about the evacuation. A readjustment allowance check would be sent “soon” with the $250.00 per month earned for every month served. Hugs and tears with the other volunteers. Medical tests. Signatures on stacks of papers.

Nine-month application process. Eighteen months of service. Forty-eight hours and life had flopped on its head. Now she was staring at her childhood home in Southern California, noticing that the air tasted light with just a pinch of pollution. She was an alien life form dealing with a new atmosphere.

In that moment, she kept blinking her eyes wondering why the house she had always taken for granted seemed to have grown and swelled to its current size, covered in opulence. She felt like the house would swallow her up and wipe clean her experiences for the last couple of years.

“Aren’t you coming in? I have lunch all ready.” Cynthia, her mother said as she gathered Jane’s things and carried them into the house, her feminine muscles extending on her tall frame.

Jane didn’t rush to lift a finger.

She remembered a conversation with her mother, where she said “Mommy, I am a big girl, I can wipe my own bummy now.”

She took the toilet paper from her mom and pushed her out of the bathroom with all the force her six-year-old hands could muster.

Being a single parent for most of her life, Cynthia was used to doing everything. She was financially taken care of by her husband’s inheritance after he died. Without the need to work, her focus had always been her children.

Jane wanted to be in open spaces, she wished she could stay in a tent in the front yard.

Cynthia opened the door again. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah.. Here I come.” She shook her hands trying to force out the anxiety, it didn’t work, and the cog in her neck twisted to the right and pulled in her shoulder tendons even more.

When she entered the house, her senses were in hyperdrive; her eyes darted around focusing in on the details. The doors fit perfectly into their frames. She was taken aback by the level of cleanliness in a house that had insulation and screens on the windows. In Bangladesh, you basically had to carry a broom everywhere you went. Without dirt, it felt so sterile, like a hospital.

The wooden floors were hypnotic; they caught the light in different places as she moved, and seemed to cater their form to her feet. Jane was used to cement that was cool and firm. She wondered if they had a butler, maids, and white chocolate fondue fountains that she had forgotten about.

“Did you remodel at all, while I was gone?”

“What are you talking about?” her mother said, and felt Jane’s forehead instinctively.

Jane moved around carefully inspecting the furniture and the walls like she was in a museum. She kept touching things. She was not sure where to sit.

Jane’s eyes widened the second she saw the dining table. It was covered in food: cheeseburgers, macaroni and cheese, meatloaf, salad, broccoli covered in cheese, cheesecake, every favorite food she had ever had while growing up.

“This cannot be normal American portion sizes!” she yelled. She didn’t trust her memory anymore.

“What? I didn’t know what to make you, so I made everything I know you like.”

Her nose not processing the feast in the room disturbed Jane; open sewers in the streets, burning trash, and sweaty pre-teens that hadn’t had the deodorant talk yet had dulled her sense of smell.

Jane wasn’t hungry but she felt the pressure to eat. Feeling her mother’s deep need for approval, she said, “This looks amazing, very thoughtful of you, thank you.”

Three days passed in a haze of eating, sleeping, and watching really bad television. When she woke up on the fourth day, boredom set in. She gave herself a once over and imagined her body bulging at her thighs, hips, belly, and upper arms. She could hear the forklift beeping as it lifted her up off the couch. “I have got to get out of this place.”

She decided it was time to call her best friend, Nia Lascaux. Nia was the kind of friend that made sure boys always asked Jane to dance at parties, used her social capital to squash rumors before they spread in high school, and drove seven hours across California to help her decorate her dorm room. She was also the only one to follow through with their promises of sending care packages to her with all sorts of American treasures.

Jane had wanted to call her sooner, but she didn’t want to hear, “What are you going to do now?”

Jane rested on her bed and let her eyes scan her walls. She had ribbons and awards from all her accomplishments laughing at her. Now she was a couch potato, no idea of the next step. Her work was her identity; now she was a lump in her mother’s house at twenty-three years old, already a failure.

Nia answered on the second ring.

“Hi. So happy to hear from you! How are you adjusting? What are your plans? Are you staying in California?” Nia’s high-spirited tone grated on Jane’s nerves.

“I don’t know. I feel like the rug has been pulled out on my life. It was so hard carving a routine there, I had just figured it out,” she said, as she hunched over.

On the following Saturday morning, Nia came over, her silky black hair running down her cute top and her green eyes glowing as she entered the living room and saw Jane in her sweatpants engulfed by the couch.

“Ok. It is time to get out of here, let’s get dressed.”

Nia pushed her out the door and they went to their favorite Japanese restaurant. As they drove, Jane stared out the window and had this sensation of a ghost town. It looked like humans had dominated every square inch of land with concrete and asphalt, only occasionally allowing a plastic-looking palm tree to grow and highlight the parking of the sea of mini-malls. Bangladesh is one of the most populated countries in the world. It was like a cushion of people at all times, rotating conversations, people huddled in circles, everyone waving and using their hands to communicate. Here in Fullerton, California it felt so desolate and lonely. A town sprouted in the shadow of nearby Disneyland. People walked by each other on the streets and were ignored. There was no sense of community. They looked afraid of each other, taking special attention to not cross paths or make eye contact. It was hard to believe they were so close to the happiest place on Earth.

“I can’t believe I missed your wedding. Where did you guys go for your honeymoon? I remember you saying something about Hawaii.” It hurt Jane to miss the wedding; she couldn’t believe Nia was getting married so young, but kept that opinion to herself.

“I wanted to go, but Dean hates traveling, we went to Santa Barbara for the weekend.”

“How is married life treating you?”

“It is great. Dean and I are so happy. Everything is getting comfortable now, that first year was rough as we learned to live together and compromise about everything. What about you? What happened to that guy you were seeing?”

Jane hated that this was where the conversation had gone so quickly.

“It didn’t work out. We weren’t serious or anything. It was too exhausting having to be so careful about being alone with a man in my apartment. I didn’t want it to be a scandal.”

“We need to get you dating.”

A pin-like pain erupted in Jane’s side. Like she was saying they needed to get her a new arm, a body part was missing from her because she didn’t have a boyfriend. She hesitated for fear of conflict with Nia, and then pushed herself. “Why do you think I need a boyfriend?”

“Not a boyfriend, dating, it will get you back in the game. It is a muscle, you need to work out your dating skills.”

“I need to find a job. It has been two weeks, I am just wasting my time.”

“Are you thinking about teaching here?”

“I can’t. I don’t have any official certifications. I don’t even know that what I did there counts for anything here.”

“You need to get settled, want me to help you set up a profile online? We can do it now on my phone.”

No, Jane thought. That is the last thing she wanted to deal with. She looked at her friend and said, “Sure. What picture should I use?”

Nia set up five dates for her over the next couple of weeks. It gave her something to do. She pushed for coffee dates, much easier to get away from in case it didn’t work out and cheap.

Her first date was at the café in downtown. She texted that she was there and saw a hand go up. He was a fair-looking, slightly pudgy man with glasses and gelled up hair. He was wearing a crisp superman blue-and-red shirt with jeans. Nothing, not a spark, Jane thought. She was relieved so she could be more comfortable talking with him without worrying about impressing him.

“Hi. I’m Topher. Nice to meet you.”

Jane noticed Topher had a comfort in himself, strong eye contact, firm handshake, and he sat up straight.

Topher had always lived in Southern California and was working the same job he had had since high school as a grocery shop cashier.

“The pay is so good with the unions. I don’t want to leave.”

“Do you like it?” Jane heard the judgment in her voice and winced.

He looked perplexed by the question as if that was something that had nothing to do with making a living. “I guess. It pays the bills.” He laughed and shrugged; there was lightness to his manner.

“Do you think you will be a lifer there?”

“I don’t know. Should I really have that figured out right now? I am only twenty-three. I got my degree in Communications, so it is open for me to do something else. I’m young, life is short, and the present is good.”

Topher started to let his gaze drift around the café, and sat further back in his chair. Jane noticed and didn’t care. Everyone had grilled her. Let someone else share in her turmoil over the future. His lack of worry was pissing her off. Why was he exempt from the pressures of the world?

There was a silence hanging loudly between them. Jane had to break it. “It kills me that I don’t know what my path is.”

“What are you doing now?” Topher asked, half-interested.

“I just came back from teaching English as a volunteer in Bangladesh.”

Topher looked like he had been shot with a stun gun, as if she had said she had studied to be an astronaut in Texas or single-handedly created a vaccine for some unknown disease.

Eventually he cleared his throat and said, “What was that like?” He seemed impressed and annoyed at the same time.

She stared at him blankly with images of starving children, people yellowed with jaundice, rice paddy fields, and bamboo huts flashing in her mind. This was the first time she had spoken with someone who hadn’t read her email tirades for the last two years. She wished she had a book written on her experience, so she could slam it on the table: “It’s better if you just read the book.”

“It was amazing. It was hard. It is a traditional Muslim country and that brought a lot of challenges. The pace of life was so much slower. I have never been so aware of what it means to be a woman.” She looked up to his completely glazed-over eyes. This was one of the few things Peace Corps had warned them about coming home, the inability for others to stay interested in listening about their travels. The people back home tended to squirm in their chairs like kindergartners. She fought the urge to slap their wrists with rulers and yell, “Pay attention!”

After several awkward pauses one longer than the next, Topher looked at his watch and said, “Well, hey, I have a friend I need to meet up with, it was nice meeting you.” He gave her a couple pats on the back as he left.

Jane sat at the café for two more hours, staring out the window ruminating in her thoughts. She hadn’t gotten good blank, gadget-free thinking time since being home. It felt marvelous.

Two weeks later, Jane was sitting and fighting with her interview clothes that she bought in a thrift store. She felt the impulse to stretch her sleeves, like her suit was condensing a size with every breath she took. Although the Muslim costume seemed inhibiting, you had to hand it over to them for figuring out comfort. She missed the light fabric. She felt like an imposter in a suit.

She chose to apply to this job because it was closest to the beach. The beach was an hour’s drive from her mother’s house and the one thing Jane loved about Southern California. Huntington Beach had waves perfect for body surfing, an ocean floor that didn’t have rocks or muddy spots, and a coast large enough that you could find a solitary spot easily. She did a geographical search and applied to every entry-level job she could find. Let the universe choose her path by whoever called her back.

She waited to speak with the Investment Sales Representative about the secretary position.

Jane was lost in a daydream of herself filing papers in a zen-like fashion when her interviewer entered and filled the room with his personality. This was the man that talked you into investing everything you had. Tristan Mackenzie, Esquire had slicked black hair, an expensive fitted suit and shiny cufflinks.

Jane was thinking of her last interview for a volunteer position in San Francisco.

She was so shaken and awkward the interviewer interrupted her mid-sentence, put her hand on her shoulder and said, “You are doing great, honey.”

She felt the difference her time in Asia had imprinted on her. She could handle the interview for a mindless job near the beach. That power had been earned.

Tristan asked questions with general introductions and she robotically answered, verifying and expanding on her experience. While she looked around his office of various monetary trinkets, expensive furniture, pictures on his desk of yachts and cars, Jane thought to herself, I could have his job. But did she want it? She sat up straighter and felt the power surge from her spine.

“Tell me how you handled a difficult situation.”

“While living with my host family I visited a leprosy hospital in the village and had dinner with some foreigners. I came home after dark and my whole host family was livid, my host sisters red-faced from tears. They screamed at me that the Taliban was in that village. It took me two weeks to mend the relations with them. A couple weeks later I moved out because of the pressure they gave me on knowing where I was at all times, but I still kept a good relationship with them because those connections are what keep you safe. When I was out past dark after that I used a rickshaw driver I knew, and made friends at checkpoints along the road and made sure everyone could see me say ‘hello’ each time I passed. They were my guardian angels. I never felt safe, but I knew how to appear safe and adapt to life there.”

Tristan just looked at her with his mouth open and seemed impressed for the rest of the interview.

Cynthia Shade was waiting outside. Jane felt her erect posture wilt as she greeted her mom.

The next day, she got a phone call from Tristan letting her know she got the job. The excitement was followed by a hollow pit of dread in Jane’s belly. She was already mourning the loss of her couch time. That was the crappy thing about jobs, you had to actually work.

Job, near the beach, that was the aim. Her first couple days on the job were exciting with being trained and learning the ropes. The fourth day she had everything down and stared at the clock for eight hours. Time hadn’t moved that slow since the power would go out and she would watch bugs fly in the puddles of sweat her body formed. She would will those fans to come back on focusing her attention on the blades, she would say, “You will move”.

After enduring a long bus ride home from work, she sat down at the computer to check her email. She still admired the lighting speed of the Internet connection in the U.S. She opened the email browser to a new email and a surge of fireworks began at her toes and exploded in her ears. With her heart pumping she clicked on the email with the subject line: Teaching Job in Bangkok.

She realized she could keep molding back into the American cookie-cutter life or jump out of the oven before her body hardened. She was going through the motions and had a strong sense of wasting time. She didn’t know what direction to choose, but living in California felt like a derailment.

Six weeks of turmoil and in three seconds she knew the next step.

The following morning Nia and Jane had plans to spend the day together. Jane decided to tell Nia first, to practice for the discussion with her mom.

Jane and Nia were sitting by the pool with their feet dangling at the surface. It was all Jane could think about, so she just blurted it out. “I’m going to take a teaching job in Thailand.”

“What? When did this happen?”

“I got the email last night. One of my friends from Peace Corps is teaching there and they are looking for another teacher.”

“So you don’t even have the job yet.” Nia’s shoulders moved closer to her ears as she spoke.

“If I don’t get that job, I will get another job there. It turns out there are a lot of job opportunities in Bangkok. I was up all night doing research.”

“Why don’t you go back to Bangladesh, then.”

“The political situation is all messed up, that is why we were evacuated in the first place. When I joined the Peace Corps, I was hoping they would send me to Thailand.”

Nia crinkled her forehead and said, “You don’t have the money for that. You just got home and I know it is difficult for you, but even when you come back from Thailand you will have to adjust back to life in the U.S. then, too.” You could see the anger in Nia’s face rise up like a thermometer. “How are you going to settle down with a guy if you are moving all over the place. We planned to have kids together.”

This set off a fire in Jane. “In the fifth grade we talked about that. I don’t even know if I want kids at all, what is with you. I’m not like you. You are tied down by your marriage, I don’t want to compromise, I want to do whatever I want, whenever I want.” She felt empowered and light from finally being honest with her friend.

Nia moved backward as if she had been hit. “I am free to do whatever I want.”

“Why don’t you travel?” Jane blurted out without thinking.

“That is the normal childhood dream, as an adult I feel like I need to have responsibilities. You are just running away because you don’t know what you want to do with your life. I can’t just throw money away like you do.” Nia started kicking the water in frustration.

“I feel it in my bones. I need to go to Thailand.”

They heard a slam on the table behind them; they turned around and saw Cynthia with a platter of snacks spread out across the table and her eyes ablaze.

Nia and Jane both jumped up away from the pool.

“Running to Thailand?” Cynthia said this through clamped-down teeth, like her jaw had been wired shut.

“Mom, why don’t you sit down.”

“Are you leaving me again? You are finally safe now. You had to leave the country because people wanted to hurt the volunteers.” Her voice cracked as she spoke.

“Mom, you know this isn’t working out for me. I am unhappy. I am not done living abroad yet.”

“I have done nothing but take care of you for the last couple of weeks, I gave you whatever you wanted. This is how you repay me?”

“I didn’t ask for all of this. A random political group was throwing around threats, my volunteer program closed, and I was just thrown here.”

Her mom starts wailing. “I’m sorry that I make you so miserable.”

Jane could see what was happening, her mother was trying to be her puppet master and Jane was ready to cut the strings.

“I love you both, but I need to be me and make myself happy.” She left the two of them staring at the pool and went for a walk around the park, her victory lap.

After two weeks of silent treatment and awkward conversations with Nia and her mom, Jane’s readjustment allowance arrived in the mail, two-thousand-and-five-hundred beautiful pieces of freedom. She got the job in Thailand and sent all of her immigration paperwork into the consulate. She bought her ticket for Bangkok that day.

Jane purchased an open-ended ticket for Nia and put it in an envelope and shoved it under her best friend’s door. Hopefully, she would come visit Bangkok in the next year. She wanted Nia to realize her lack of traveling was not a financial issue, but her fear of the unknown.

Jane also grabbed a class catalog from the local community college and highlighted some classes for her mother to consider in the fall. The Post-it note on the front read, “You are an excellent caretaker, I think you could really help people, use your time now to go back to school like you have always dreamed of. I know you will make a phenomenal nurse. Thank you for everything. I love you so much.” She put all of the completed registration forms inside the catalog.

She took her luggage and left without saying goodbye. She didn’t want to help other people deal with her leaving, that was for them to figure out.

Twelve hours later, her plane touched the beautiful land of Siam. The nuns from the Catholic school were waiting for her at the airport. They were two tiny elderly women dressed in all-white. They were shy and kept smiling. They bowed and greeted her with a “Sawat dee ka.”

Jane bowed back and said, “Sawat dee ka.” The first Thai words out of her mouth tasted good.

On the drive to the private condo, they passed massive Buddhist temples covered in gold, red, and green tiles. Jane couldn’t stop taking pictures. She knew the tourist feeling would wear off quickly.

When they arrived at her apartment, Jane face was already sore from smiling. The nuns showed her to her room. They had filled her fridge with groceries and showed her how to use the cable TV. It was a small studio apartment and she did three circles with her arms spread out and her feet kicking behind her. It was her space.

Another foreign teacher came in to introduce herself. She had just arrived a month ago from Nebraska.

“Do you know how long you are going to stay here?” Omaha-girl said as she moved to the window to check out Jane’s view of the lake.

Jane spread herself out over her new bed and flayed out her arms and legs as if she were trying to make an angel in snow.

“No idea,” she said, and then laughed. Everything felt open and possible.

“I haven’t done much teaching before. I think I want to be a teacher when I go back to Nebraska. What about you, is education your career?”

“Maybe.” And for the first time, not knowing felt like freedom and not a prison.

pencilSusan Shiney is a writer, painter, and teacher living outside of Bordeaux, France. She received her Masters in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages from Teachers College, Columbia University. She is originally from California and frequently misses the incredible weather. She has taught English in Bangladesh, Thailand, New York City, and now France. She loves learning languages, but hates having to speak them. Email: susanshiney[at]gmail.com

Blue Door, Dry Spell, Sinking Elliott

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Anais Jay


Photo Credit: Mike Bitzenhofer/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Mike Bitzenhofer/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Elliott was talking to her over the phone when that happened in the province. He supposed this fact made meeting with her in person a necessity. She needed an explanation. Soon after his summer trip ended, they agreed to meet in Makati City.

Natasha’s now-red hair fell over her shoulder in a loose braid. Any other day, he’d have joked about how the color made the freckles scattered across her face look like a side-effect of an allergy. He smiled at her instead, knowing this was not a good time to pretend she wasn’t scowling at him. “They’re not handing Nicky over to me,” he said. “Not yet. Or maybe never. But Nicky told me he’d like to stay with me until college.”

She leaned over the table. “Elli, you may be great with caring for spoiled children—“

“You weren’t spoiled, Nash,” he said.” You were bossy. Rich kids are prone to be bossy by nature. And you’re not bossy now anyway.”

“So you’re saying I dropped the attitude because I became broke?”

“Nash.”

“I was bitchy at twelve, admit it. And any sane eighteen-year-old would’ve dropped me off in the middle of nowhere to go make out with his girlfriend,” she said. “Dad would’ve believed you had you told him I ran away. The guy trusts you. But you didn’t drop me off in the middle of nowhere. And now you want to be Nicky’s legal guardian? I was like that because I was ignorant. He’s like that because he’s in pain. He’s way worse than I was. I see it in your face every time you mention his name.”

*

He’d heard stories from his cousins, but the enormity of the responsibility hadn’t occurred to him until he came by the house to fetch Nicky. The end of March, hot enough to scald his lungs with each inhale, only signaled the start of the Philippines’ hottest summer. Worries about heatstroke and insufficient ventilation in both private and public schools forced the Department of Education to end the school year one week early. This, for Elliott, meant begging his boss to transfer his leave to an earlier date.

He sat slouched on the torn couch, listening to his elder cousins gasp and make exaggerated remarks on their experiences with Nicky. The three dysfunctional electric fans, accompanied by the heat and the house’s claustrophobic ambiance, amplified his escalating horror of spending a two-week vacation with Nicky.

Apparently, the ten-year-old boy couldn’t last a day without making one person cry. This talent of his knew no age limit. Both adult and toddler fell for his defiant attitude, which he defended was his innocent attempt at making friends. Based on the stories Elliot heard in the past two hours and sixteen minutes, though, Nicky was more likely making enemies.

Elliott’s cousins, however, couldn’t give him up to social services. Their financial troubles certainly called for it, but they loved Nicky’s parents too much to be so cruel. Besides, he suspected they enjoyed the financial support all their relatives sent them for Nicky’s sake.
As they were complaining about Elliott’s infrequent visits to their nephew, their uncle’s pick-up truck pulled up in front of the house. He stood to help, but the eldest of his cousins told him to stay put. “This is routine,” she told him while fanning herself with a dog-eared bridal magazine. “It’s simply one of the many things guardians have to cope with. I can’t believe Uncle Jackie is taking him away from us to shove into your arms! You’re only twenty-seven!”

Defending his maturity made him worry of sounding like Natasha, so he merely returned to his spot on the couch and answered with a smile. With all their complaining he was surprised they weren’t treating him like a savior.

“I’m home!” The crutch tips entered the house first, then his braced leg, followed by the rest of Nicky. “Uncle Elliott! Tang ina! Am I leaving today?”

“Excited?” he asked.

“Hell yeah!” He grinned at his aunts. “Finally!”

Uncle Jackie put a stop to the brewing commotion simply by entering the house, leaning against the front door, and lighting his cigarette. From the angry aunts to Nicky, his gaze travelled to Elliott’s face and rested there. His tired eyes reminded Elliott of bad days. “Clean up well at his parents’ house, will ya?”

After much reprimanding and chaotic packing, Elliot managed to place Nicky in his car and drive towards Batangas. Remembering the energetic waving of his cousin’s hands as they said their goodbyes made him smile as he glimpsed Nicky from the rearview mirror. He’d never know for sure whether they wanted this kid or not.

Nicky maxed the air conditioning system and lounged on the backseat. “When are you adopting me, Uncle Elli?”

“I’m not really adopting you, kid. Your aunts and uncles—the good ones—simply want to transfer you to my care.”

“The good side of the family.” He pressed the flat of his good foot against the window. “Why?”

“They want you to stay with someone you like. Please put your foot down.”

He didn’t. “I like you?”

His high-pitched voice made Elliott laugh in spite of the traffic in Edsa. “They assumed that’s the case. That isn’t the case?”

“That isn’t the case,” he said. “You didn’t even attend my birthday party. I was stuck with stupid children my age and adults who don’t really care about me. Where were you?”

His girlfriend had phoned him that day to take her to the hospital. It wasn’t spotting, she insisted. She was having a miscarriage. Of course, he couldn’t tell that to a child. He had no choice but to lie. Perhaps this was the perfect opportunity to punish his boss.

One question rolled in after another. What was the name of his boss? What did he even do for a living? Sell cars? Did that mean he had twenty cars of his own? If so, he’d like to live with Elliott. How about Elliott’s girlfriend? He had one, didn’t he? A single drive to the province gave him sufficient time to retell his life story, excluding private matters like his car accident at eighteen years old, his girlfriend’s personal dilemma, and even Natasha. For some reason, mentioning her to anybody made him feel as though he was acknowledging a part of his life he’d rather keep to himself.

The sound of rain against the car revived his awareness. The sky had switched from solid blue to a mix of pink and orange. Low, grey clouds swept in to blur the dividing line between day and night. The car traversed the narrow and muddy road to Nicky’s old house. The silhouettes of trees lining their path appeared to bend low in acknowledgement of Nicky’s return. The swaying electrical lines and continual flashes of light from nearby houses seemed to do the same for him.

As the house’s caretaker—an old man covered in a neon pink raincoat that obviously belonged to his daughter—dragged the bamboo gates inwards to let them through, Elliott held the steering wheel still for a moment to glimpse Nicky. The boy had fallen asleep and was now drooling on the seat cushion.

Elliott told him what a damn lucky boy he was.

Nicky opened one eye and then the other. “Do I look funny, Uncle Elli?”

“That brave face? Funny? Of course not!”

“Why are you smiling like that?”

“You just remind me of someone.”

*

That someone. He’d only seen Natasha once after their first encounter, at a restaurant while he was having lunch out with his colleagues near her college. She’d been with three other girls on a queue to the right of his queue, and just as they had the first time they met after eight years, they caught each other’s eye and Elliott approached her.

They might’ve exchanged numbers afterwards in a promise to keep in touch, but neither had sent the other a message in the months succeeding their second encounter. He supposed that was why he hesitated before answering her call while he and Nicky were having lunch of salted eggs, tomatoes, barbeque, and rice.

Elliott licked his fingers clean and debated whether or not he should risk staining his new phone. He put the call on loudspeaker. Nicky simply looked at him over his food, waiting for the caller to speak.

“Elliott,” she said. “Lukas is planning to buy a car and I told him I’ll ask your opinion.”

The lack of polite but awkward greetings took him aback for a moment. “Men who say they’ll buy a car are usually sure of what they want. Unless, of course, it’s a family car. Then yes, he’ll need expert advice.”

There was a hissing on her end. “Your jokes, they’re—how should I say it without hinting how much I want to chase you with a sharp object?”

Elliott laughed for Nicky’s sake. The boy had been somber since waking up in his hometown. One of them needed to act normal. “Romantic?” he said.

“Where are you?”

“You’re not serious, are you?”

“I’m serious about asking your opinion on cars. My boyfriend is an impulsive buyer.”

“We can talk about it over the phone. My hands are tied right now. Chaperoning my nephew—just to be clear. You’re on loudspeaker.”

“Where in the world are you chaperoning?”

“Batangas. The sea is a fantastic view in the morning,” he said, wiping his hands on his wet swimming trunks and putting the phone next to his ear. “Is everything okay with you?”

Her voice muffled and disappeared as the call got disconnected altogether. A local fishing boat appeared from the sea’s horizon, stealing Nicky’s attention. The laughter of children with sandy hair and deep brown skin echoed from the shore in front of a green-fenced property owned by a politician. The squawk of a bird and the shifting of the floating hut as it rode the waves reminded him this wasn’t the best place to hold phone conversations.

*

After their conversation earlier that day, he realized his father wasn’t lying when he said real friendships didn’t rust in the face of time and distance. That he’d experience such friendship with the girl who used to be only as tall as his elbow was beyond him. It seemed the years, combined with their current financial equality, made it easier to relate to one other.

Perhaps it was too obvious that he was thinking about her, because the soonest he and Nicky finished shopping (or he finished shopping while Nicky sat with the house’s caretaker in his vegetable stall) in the dry market and buckled themselves in the car, Nicky said, “Her voice is like mom’s.”

“You leg hurts?” He lowered the radio to hear him above Up Dharma Down’s “Oo.” “Stop scratching under the splint. It’ll—“

“I said ‘her voice is like mom’s!’”

Elliott gawked at him while he tried to recall which among the many women they encountered that day he was talking about. Exposure to eccentric phrases such as ‘anla pa’ and ‘ano ga’ also made it more difficult to put names on faces.

Nicky hit the back of the driver’s seat. “The woman on the phone!”

“Natasha?”

“Mom’s voice was like that,” he said, suddenly solemn. “Quiet. And kinda hoarse. Just like your friend’s.”

“Yeah. Now that I think about it, your mom’s always been softspoken.” He reclined the driver’s seat and stretched his arms overhead, tired from lifting heavy bags of groceries. Turning, he saw Nicky watching him. ”Hey, you’ve been a little down since we arrived at Matabungkay. Are you sure you’re all right with being back in your old house and packing your parents’ stuff? Just tell me and I’ll take care of it on my own for you.”

“I’m okay.” He shrugged. “I guess I’ve got to give them their stuff when they’re back, right? But I don’t understand why Dad’s selling our house. Where will we stay when Dad’s back from Kuwait and Mom’s back from London?”

“…we’ll have to think about that when they’re here, won’t we?”

“Does Dad even know you’re going to be, like, my new father?”

Elliott’s lack of response prompted him to continue.

“Because if he doesn’t, we have to tell him. I don’t care if he’s busy with his other family. So does Mom. She has to know I’m transferring to another relative again.”

Elliott wondered if Nicky’s parents even cared to know. Theirs was a classic case of abandonment. No warnings, no explanations. They simply transferred money to Uncle Jackie’s bank account and gave him instructions to care for their son.

The month prior to vacation, he and Elliott had stayed up late drinking beer and discussing Nicky’s situation. Uncle Jackie admitted he tried to stop them—sterner on Maria than Romeo—from working abroad. He was sure they were simply looking for a way to escape the mistake of their youth and the resulting obligation that bound them for years.

“That’s a good thought,” Elliott said. “I’ll give them a call once we return to the city. Sounds good?”

“That’s good enough. Now let’s go home fast. I’m starving. Cook a delicious dinner for me, okay?”

He set up the living room and prepared the couch for Nicky before heading to the kitchen. Nicky’s cast was due to be removed in five weeks, but he didn’t like to take chances. He plugged in one of Andrew E.’s movies and annoyed Nicky when he blocked the television while slipping pillows underneath his broken leg. Amidst Nicky’s complaints, Elliott reminded him to take plenty of rest and to call him for anything he may need. The boy, eyes suddenly wet, grimaced and muttered, “Fine.”

Elliott experienced his first nightmare that night.

*

Natasha returned to the armchair across from him and slipped her phone into her pocket. Curling on the chair, she pulled the cuffs of her knitted sweatshirt over her hands and motioned to his coffee. “Two things: don’t waste my money, and that’s good coffee.”

“Sorry.” He took a sip, noting how he distorted the coffee art of a bicycle in the process, and transferred his gaze to the downpour outside. It was a storm similar to this one that reunited them eight months ago. “We have a thing for storms, don’t we?”

“You’re only catching up on it now?”

“I’m guessing by your frown that your conversation with Lukas didn’t end well.”

“It did,” she said. “Doesn’t give me enough reason to be happy, though. Anyway, what were you telling me about that nightmare?”

He refrained from asking her if she was okay and instead followed her lead. “Logically, it wasn’t a nightmare.”

Natasha drank her coffee and switched to water. “Why’d you call it a nightmare?”

“I suppose it scared me enough to deserve to be called a nightmare.”

“Did you dream about having ten children, all of whom were crying in one nursery while a woman who’s supposed to be your wife is giving birth to twins?”

“Family jokes, huh?”

“Family jokes,” she said with a smirk, proud of herself. “C’mon, spit it out already.”

Elliot turned his hands palm-up and leaned back on the armchair. “It was just about me walking in this building that I know—for some strange reason—I built. The corridors are carpeted and the end of the hall has this boring square window. Fish paper instead of glass. Very traditional-looking. And the doors are blue with peepholes and silver three-digit numbers on them. And while I was passing by, I was memorizing who lived in which room. Relatives. Friends. But there’s this room at the end that doesn’t have a number or… an owner. A tenant. Whatever that person should be. I woke up parched and just feeling dry and stiff but at the same time like I was sinking in some part of the sea. I thought maybe I took warnings against the summer heat too lightly. But that was my only available time for Nicky and we had to sort his parents’ stuff. I thought of too many things at once. I couldn’t go back to sleep.”

Natasha held the rim of her cup against her lower lip. “That’s a… cute nightmare. Blue door, dry spell, sinking Elliott? Maybe it will help to pinpoint which part really got to you?”

“I thought it was just the effect of leaving the city. But I wasn’t convinced. That’s why it’s frightening,” he said, rather loudly. “Because I can’t pinpoint which part of it frightens me.”

*

If he were to guess, though, what frightened him most was its effect on him.

Their itinerary for their second day consisted of eating nothing but grilled meat, and listening to Nicky’s playlist of strictly screamo songs while they sorted out his parents’ belongings. Uncle Jackie planned to sell the furniture along with the house, which narrowed their task to exploring closets and drawers for private possessions.

The first closet they opened contained Maria’s clothes. The dust made him turn away to sneeze. He wanted to leave Maria’s things for last, but Nicky eyed the dresses with such longing that he couldn’t close the closet on his face.

He helped Nicky sit on the bed. “Your mom’s my best cousin—” tugging the dresses free from the hangers and piling them on his left arm. “—she stormed into my house the second she found out my mom left me and my father, and she embraced me and cried. Until now I can’t understand why your mother was so sad. So I cried with her, because I thought it must’ve been that bad that my cousin had to cry for what happened to me and Pops—my dad. I call him Pops.”

“Pops? That’s lame.”

“It’s cool.”

“It makes you sound sentimental. Like a girl kind of sentimental.”

“Maybe, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It’s my way of showing Pops that I love him.”
Nicky folded the dresses Elliott put beside him. The boy’s sullen expression made him regret ever mentioning anything about his parents. Elliott unzipped a brown travel bag and dropped some of the folded clothes inside. “Did your aunts teach you to fold clothes? You’re pretty good at that.”

“Uncle Elli, why’d your mother leave you?”

“She and Pops didn’t get along well. The one wanted adventure, the other wanted stability.”

“Which one stayed with you?”

“Stability did,” he said. “Pops did.”

“Neither stayed with me.”

He tossed a dress to Nicky’s face. “We stayed with you. Your aunts, uncles, and cousins.”

“But that doesn’t change a thing,” he said, head bowed and fingers fumbling the buttons of a polka-dot dress. “Everybody’s been avoiding talking about her since she left me. And I really miss her.”

“Why didn’t you say so much earlier?”

Nicky blinked at him, looking torn between throwing a fit and crying.

Elliott chuckled and ruffled his hair. “I spent a lot of time with her as a child. I have plenty to tell you.”

They spent the entire afternoon going from room to room, opening drawers and packing clothes left in termite-infested closets while sharing what they remembered of Nicky’s parents. Cruel as Maria and Romeo had been to Nicky, Elliott felt the need to give him something to hold onto while he was young. The years would smear their distant images, similar to the way the image of Elliott’s mother had smeared in his memories. The lack of talk and photographs did nothing to help the rising ache of Elliott’s curiosity. Or was it the pang of betrayal that hurt him? Because he remembered Maria but couldn’t even tell if his own mother had straight or curly hair.

The second nightmare happened that night. He’d been lucky not to have hit Nicky when he jolted, especially because the boy had been curled up next to him on the bed. The banging of the balcony’s wooden sliding doors worsened his headache, so he decided to leave them open wide enough to lessen the noise.

The moon glowed faintly behind the clouds. The crash of each wave intensified the pulsating in his temples, and the whisper of the water’s retreat lugged with it his calm. Elliott closed his eyes and tried to overpower his panic with the sound of traffic—of cars zooming past the street below his apartment—and of footsteps and keys echoing in the corridor. But the province’s silence blocked the formation of these familiar images and sounds. It kept dragging him back to his dream, where this time he was standing in front of the vacant room’s door, knocking, expecting the nobody that was somebody to answer.

He didn’t start calling people until the following morning, when he and Nicky were back on the floating hut. Elliott had covered Nicky’s cast with two plastic bags and brought pillows to let the boy rest on the built-in wooden bench.

A hut owned by a family of eight floated past theirs. They waved and offered plates of liempo, paella, and sinigang. Elliott traded their packed lunch of menudo and grilled chicken and shared a bottle of beer with the older men in the family.

They asked about Nicky, who chose to hide his face in a book about school jokes, and kept his cast propped on pillows. With the chances of him interacting with strangers being slim, Elliott made up an excuse to push their hut back to shore and return home earlier than planned. The last thing he wanted was to divulge strangers with confidences. He knew how awkward it could get when people questioned the absence of a parent or—in Nicky’s case—parents. Just the idea of putting logic in abandonment was suffocating.

*

He felt outright suffocated by the time he was watching an animated series with Nicky. He excused himself and dialed his father’s number first. The conversation was brief: how are you? How are you coping with Nicky? To his father, he asked if the family he was driving for treated him kindly. Somewhere between comparing the families Pops had drive for in his life, they segued to Natasha’s family. That was when Elliott admitted to having encountered Natasha late the previous year. He hadn’t asked about Natasha’s father, Sir Edgar, but he promised to ask for Pop’s sake. Pops loved Sir Edgar like a brother. Elliott felt guilty for telling him about Natasha without news of Sir Edgar.

He scrolled down his phone’s contact records. Next he called Jake, his college friend. They discussed Elliott’s decision to resign from work and take the bar exam. “Get a license. You’d be better of working as an engineer than a car dealer. Everybody knows you’ve been unhappy with it for a while. Although, they do remember to mention you’re good at hiding it. Which is bullshit, because it’s not a compliment, Elli, it’s an insult.”

Much contemplation and sweating came with the effort to call Adrienne two days later. She answered the call on the last ring and said, “Yes?” Elliott made a final attempt to change her mind about their cool off. No, he didn’t mind that she had had a miscarriage. He didn’t mind that she cheated on him while she was on a business trip in Hong Kong. It hadn’t even occurred to him to ask if the baby was even his. He kept on repeating that he understood. He swore he did. Adrienne ended their argument with a request he’d heard before: leave me alone.

*

They spent their first two weeks there maintaining this routine. They got up at ten in the morning, settled in their floating hut, ate brunch of salted eggs, grilled meat, and fruits, and read books until one in the afternoon. Before pulling the floating hut back to shore, Elliott would swim to the coral reef to take in the view of the rest of the sea, and swim back to carry Nicky home.

Both naturally tan, they weren’t surprised when they took a picture to send Uncle Jackie and received a comment an hour later that they’d both gotten so much darker they could be mistaken for charcoal. He and Nicky laughed at each other’s sunburnt faces afterwards, having failed to notice this change for themselves due to their preoccupation with the paperbacks Nicky’s parents left behind.

Elliott took this opportunity to ask Nicky why he preferred to spend his summer this way.. Nicky merely picked his nose with a scowl, moving his pinky finger as though picking through his brain, and answered that his parents always spent summers doing the same thing day after day. “It’s never been exciting living with them, so I guess that’s why they wanted to start a new life somewhere. Can people just do that, Elliott? Will you ever do that to someone?”

He smiled at him and asked what he wanted to do for the remainder of the summer. “You’ll get bored, eventually, and we still have two more weeks to go.”

“Eh? I thought you had to get back to work soon?”

“Nah. I like it here. And this will be our last chance to enjoy this place before it gets sold.”

*

He called Natasha at sundown. While he listened to the endless ringing, he closed his eyes to push back his nausea. Last night’s nightmare progressed to the point that the blue door of the vacant room had parted, and he’d seen there was a nobody inside.

Natasha greeted him with a story of how her illustration for a children’s book won an award at her college. The prize money was five digits. She’d have enough to pay her electric bill. Elliott congratulated her and expressed his amusement at problems he never thought she’d have. Somewhere between cutting her short to tell her about his mother and her inquiries about his aloofness, the image of the sky and the sea before him blended and turned into night.

*

“Nicky saw me collapse. He tripped a number of times on his way to the caretaker’s cottage to get help, which got the both of us hospitalized for two days. Uncle Jackie and Pops weren’t happy about it—who would be? Nicky and I were like helpless children.” He lowered his cup of coffee as he laughed at the memory of them in the hospital. “Nicky’s broken leg got worse. He blamed me and we got into a fight and I made him cry. Imagine me making a ten-year-old boy cry! I surprised even myself! Doctor said I was fatigued and stressed. Pops thought it was heat stroke. I was lucky I only had a rat-shaped bruise on my upper right shoulder from colliding with a chair. I realized if I hadn’t hit the chair, I could’ve cracked my skull on the edge of the nearby table instead. It was a blessing in disguise. Gave me a good reason to slack off my responsibilities, too, and spend the rest of April idling on the beach. One time, Nicky actually thanked me for just fainting. He ran because he thought I was dying. Apparently, he knew the entire time that I’d been having nightmares.”

The rumblings of the thunderstorm and the chatter of faceless customers filled the gaps where Natasha’s jokes and Elliott’s responses fit. They stretched that gap by staring at each other for a while, quiet.

The café lost electricity. The customers groaned and threw complaints at the café staff. As the generator kicked in and the light flickered and an old Tagalog song blared on and off the speakers, Natasha finished her coffee, put her cup down, and said, “You still miss your mother, don’t you?”

pencilAnais Jay is a 20-year-old freelance writer residing in the Philippines. She produces content for clients in America, Australia, and the United Kingdom, and contributes fiction and non-fiction works to both local and international publications. Her goal in life is to shoot people with words and endless outbursts of mad art. Visit her at PapelKo.

Our Happiest of Places

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
David Thom


Photo Credit: Moti Krispil/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Photo Credit: Moti Krispil/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

I cannot remember clearly how it happened, I don’t know if what I remember is right. I suppose all memories are like that, remain like that; they don’t belong to the time they happened, they belong to us. I remember rain, lots of rain and a little boy with his father and a pleasure I cannot remember happening since—if it has, it hasn’t stayed in my mind.

“Come on, Dad, we’re nearly there, they’ll all be gone by the time we get down there!” I yelled back at my father, letting go of his hand.

“Ok, son, slow down though, eh? These rocks are slippery so be careful, and don’t go too far,” my father shouted back (he always emphasised the be).

“Yes, Dad,” I shouted back happily with a smirk from under my baseball cap.

We had been coming to the same place for summer holidays since before I can remember. That year my dad took me fishing for the first time. No fancy boats or lessons. No apps or internet to tell you the best places to go; this was the eighties. It was just me and my dad, off the wild rocks on the outrageous North Atlantic coast with two rods and a bag of feathers. Mackerel were our prey. I remember wanting nothing more than to bring some home to an expectant and, I think that day, proud mother. When I think of childhood memories, spending countless hours on those rocks with my father and then on my own when I was a teenager, I see them as gloriously happy and sunny times. But like all the childhood memories I have of those holidays in west Cork, they are distorted by the artistry of the heart, turned poetic by passing time. But I like to think not that night. That night was and has stayed ferociously happy in my memory. It was grey when we left our holiday house and raining by the time we got to the rocks but we didn’t care. Like all good Irish men we already had our raincoats on. I was still young but had a lifetime of rain already. My father who couldn’t even light his pipe anymore looked like a drowned rat. He waited patiently so I could, as I would retell the story in later years, pull a leviathan from the sea.

“Come on, son, time to go. We’ll come back tomorrow.”

“Ahhhh, just one more, Dad, pleeeeeease?” I said, pulling my line in. Without waiting for permission, I threw it into the sea again, further I thought than I had done the whole evening. I focused as my rod bent with the retreating waves as it had done every time that wet evening. I watched with life-depending intensity but this time, oh no, not this time… it didn’t straighten! My dad was already dismantling his rod when I roared, “Dad, Dad, look I have one! I have one!”

“It’s probably just caught in the weeds,” he said as the rain dripped off his nose.

“No, no, come ‘ere I can feel it wriggling it must be a fish it has to be a fish come on and feel it!”

My father duly obliged. He took the rod and felt its weight and lo and behold declared, “You’re right son you have one on the line there. Now don’t panic.” He bent down to my level and handed the rod back to me, my heart racing. “Reel it in nice and slow like I showed you. That’s it, good boy.”

After a few adrenaline-pumped seconds I could see it glimmering through the water, wildly leaping to get off my feathers. But, alas, this was to be that mackerel’s last day in the foam of the North Atlantic and it was the first day I would bring dinner home to my mother.

We gutted it right there on the rocks, my dad showing me how to break its neck. He held his rough, scale-covered hands around mine as he pulled his penknife down its belly, the tobacco grinds from his pipe mixing with blood and fish guts as he thrust my fingers to pull its insides out. I was awestruck at the wonder of it all. I was a master of life in that moment, the only fisherman. We carefully climbed back up the rocks, my hand in his. I loved him so much in that moment. I felt like a champion, as if life would never be as good as this again. At home my mother grilled it with lemon, parsley, and garlic and I ate the whole thing, chips on the side, too. It was the greatest moment so far of my short life. But most of all in that place, that night I was my father’s son.

*

It’s different now, though. My parents live there now, not in the same house we rented for another twenty-odd summers after that night but just down the road. They live in a beautiful house surrounded by rolling violet-and-green wild hills that change colour every day. They are happy there. They can sit at their kitchen table and off in the distance watch the haze of the Atlantic crash on the shore. It is a million miles from the dreary suburban monotony of most of my childhood, the one that dominates my memory. It is, my mother says, the only place they can live, because it is the place she says, “where we have always been happiest.”

Those words linger in mind. “Where we have always been happiest.” They stay there at the front of mind; I can feel them pressing against my forehead. By ‘we’ she means all of us, even me and my sister. She imposes her happy memories on me. I am selfish and I know it but I cannot stop it. Those memories, hers and mine, stay there now especially as I return home again. Not to my childhood home, but to their home, their happy place. I am returning home because my mother needs me. My father is ill. It is the summer and my mother is all alone in her happiest of places. I am a teacher, no work for months, I have no excuse so I come home.

Other memories come back to me as well as I land at the airport. The way we used to drive down here from Dublin—it took seven hours back then, stopping for elevenses and lunch, always a picnic. That was before they built the motorways, of course. It still takes my parents that long to drive the same route though. Age slowing them down. I can see my sister and me fighting in the back seat, despising each other’s existence as only a brother and sister can. And I can see myself, a little boy, blonde hair, anticipating the two weeks ahead, the adventure, the beaches, ice creams and fish and chips. But most of all the break from my real life, of the long, grey, friendless summer that each holiday was a long-awaited break from. I was a shy child, introverted. I can see flashes of cheese and tomato sandwiches with dry crusts, flasks of tea and beakers of milk, the car stuffed with food and suitcases. My parents arguing and making up. The rain, the sun, the wandering western sea.

But as I walk through arrivals a more recent memory does not become reality. I am on my own, no girlfriend, no wife. Just me. Strangers embrace their returning sons, daughters, brothers and sisters and I am sick, sick with envy. I look around for my father, but as with when you wake in the blissful few seconds before you remember the awful thing that happened the day before, the memory of why he is not here comes flooding back. I walk on past strangers’ heartfelt reveries. Even if he was here I think to myself there would be no outwards show of emotion. Only a solemn hand shake and a ‘how are you?’ The silence in the car would eventually be broken by small talk about the football and asking for the hundredth time how my flight was. To an onlooker it might seem that we are strangers, but it’s our own way. In those words that have never been spoken, if you look close enough are, “I love you son it’s good to have you home,” and “I love you too, Dad.” But not this time. This time I buy a pack of cigarettes and head for the rental cars.

I haven’t been back for a while, more than a year, and now I’m going to spend the entire summer here. That thought hits me as I am driving down the dual carriageway and I break into a sweat and pull in at a service station. It’ll be me all alone with my mother who will be worrying herself into an early grave before my father goes. My sister can’t come, not yet. She lives in Australia now and the kids are still in nappies. She’s going to wait and see how ‘things play out.’ Those are her words by the way, not mine. That’s how she describes her response to her father’s impending death. She is her father’s daughter if nothing else.  I, on the other hand, didn’t get that far away from Ireland. England is as far as I went. Originally London and now Reading because I can’t afford London. How clichéd is that? Irish, both kids emigrated: Australia and England. I’ll be telling you my name is Patrick next. My girlfriend decided to take the news of my father’s impending death as a chance for us to ‘spend time apart,’ ‘a break’ she called it, so we ‘can grow.’ I told her that if she was that cold and had so little emotion in the face of a man about to lose his father we must already be related. “But Patrick you don’t even like your dad!” she said as I packed to leave. An accusation I denied, of course.

“Of course I do, he’s just my dad that’s all, and we’re not supposed to get along. Anyway, how would you know what it’s like?” I retorted. She had never known her father and any chance of reconciliation when or if I returned died with those words.

But now here I am sipping on a Styrofoam cappuccino from a machine on my way to a place I don’t want to be. I know how my mother will be. She will momentarily switch her worry from Dad to me, worrying about my job, my lack of a girlfriend and things like if I have a pension yet. Then reality will strike her again, and the thought that soon she will be alone, alone in her happiest of places will flood her mind and she will be silent.  I’m smoking as I get a text from her, she is going to the hospital to see “your father—meet you there?” I know it probably took her five minutes to write that text. ‘Ok’ is all I can write back.

*

He is much frailer than the last time I saw him. His hair is all grey and much thinner. He was a big man in his pomp but now he seems so much smaller, the disease that is taking him has devoured him already. ‘There’s not much left’ I think. But whether I am referring to him or time I don’t know. He is sleeping with a tube up his nose, one of those tubes that has two more sticking up the nostrils. I can hear his breath wheezing up and down. Nothing new there, though. In a quiet room full of people you could always hear my father breathing; it was like that for most of my adult life, the result of a lifelong dedication to tobacco. I stand there watching him sleep. He is much worse than my mother had told me on the phone. I suddenly feel her hand on my shoulder and we hug. She leads me out of the room to the canteen and we sit in the plastic wooden chairs, depressed sad-looking people everywhere, including us. I’m surprised it has a canteen, it’s a tiny hospital. I hate the place already.

‘How are you?’ she asks, how’s so-and-so? The job etcetera… etcetera… blah blah.

I cut her off. “Mum,” I say with purpose. “Why didn’t you tell me how sick he is?” and with that I can see the tears in her eyes. The anxiety is eating her.

“Why didn’t you tell me he was this bad, Mum?”

“I didn’t to want to worry you is all, Patrick. I know you broke up with your girlfriend and you’re not having a great time at work, Patrick, I just wanted to…” she trailed off, crying hard. Mums are like that, though, aren’t they? Their world will literally be falling apart and they will be worried about you. She was never good at taking care of herself, my mum. She knows I tell my sister more than I tell her. She knows my sister tells her more than she tells me. Even though they live thousands of miles apart, telling my sister anything is the quickest way for my mother to find out.

There is a long silence before she speaks again. “He won’t wake up again today, love, let’s go home and have a nice cup of tea. I think I just need a nice cup of tea and I’ll be fine.” All the world’s problems, all you need is a cup of tea.

“Ok, mum, I’ll follow you.”

She smiled and left. As she walked out, I walked back into my father’s room and sat beside him. I watched his face, his big nose pointed up in the air, his chest struggling up and down. I don’t cry anymore or can’t, I’m not sure which. But there watching him, so helpless, I felt them coming, stinging my eyes. I touched his hand. In years past he would have physically pulled himself away from any non-essential physical contact with me, with another man. He had reduced us to airport handshakes and man-hugs. But now he could not resist. I had a sudden urge to hold his hand and so that is what I did. My mind focused on a vision of his mother, my granny, years ago, older than he is now, and dead in a hospital bed. I remember feeling how tragic it was. Her own husband, my grandfather, had died years before and she had lived all alone in her big house for years. I didn’t feel bad that she was dead, she had a long life, most of it happy. But I felt sick with guilt that she was all alone when she died. It had been sudden and we couldn’t get there in time. All I felt was guilt. Not so much that she was alone when she left this world, but that I was not there. The two things are different. One is remorse, one is selfishness.  I resolve there and then that I will not let that happen to my father and when he is gone, to my mother.

*

We find ourselves at their kitchen table. Drinking tea, watching the glorious Irish summer lash against the window. It is mid-June, and it is nine degrees outside, “six with the chill factor,” my mother reminds me. We have our jackets on inside—“your father doesn’t like the heating on in the summer, waste of money,” she reminds me.

“It’s good to have you home,” she says, breaking another silence. I can’t say it to her. I don’t have the heart to tell her that this isn’t my home, her happiest of places is not mine. It’s not where I grew up. This place existed for years in her mind, with every summer visit she built it until eventually with retirement they found it and bought it. This house is them; it is their whole life together, their marriage, what they always wanted. Their daily routines are etched into the place; the path from the firewood basket to the door, the tea mug stains on their bedside tables from their morning cups, the coffee cup stains on the sitting room table from their lunch cups, the dinner already being prepared mid-afternoon. But this time it’s me she is cooking for, not Dad. She hasn’t had to change her routine, not yet.

I bring the dog for an afternoon walk around the country lanes they call home. The rolling green fields endowed with gorse and heather. It is June and the foxgloves and irises are everywhere daring to bloom in the cold Irish summer bringing the countryside alive with their colour. We walk for a long time. The dog a few feet in front. She doesn’t like me, never did, she is loyal only to my father. I throw the tennis ball but she shows no interest. Every now and then she looks back at me, turning and raising to see if he is there behind her but then she realises it’s me not him. I can see the disappointment in her face. It breaks my heart. We walk further and further until I realise where we are. It’s raining again but I don’t feel it. It’s cold but I don’t care. I remember being there with him again. I stop short of walking down the grassy path to the rocks.

“Come on, Dad, we’re nearly there, they’ll all be gone by the time we get down there.”

I turn and walk away, the dog as soaking and miserable as I am as we walk away from my happiest of memories.

*

June becomes July and the foxgloves are all gone, their green skeletons blowing in the wind with curled and sun-singed purple tinges blowing in the mid-summer breeze. The weather has improved—it’s in the mid-teens now—but my father has not. He is slowly getting worse, weaker, sleeping longer, breathing heavier.

My mother and I fall into a routine. We have breakfast early and I drive us into see him. We sit with him for a while and then go and have our lunch. Sometimes we go home, sometimes to a café, never to the hospital canteen. In the afternoon, I bring my mother back and leave her there. I return to the house and walk the dog. She has not seen my dad in months now and she can’t forget. She is so lonely. I return to the hospital in the late afternoon to collect my mother and say goodbye to my father. I can tell he hates being there. It’s affecting his mind, the boredom. I bring him books and DVDs but they only work for a short while. He is grouchy, but then again he is dying.

One Sunday afternoon she says she can’t go back, that she needs a break, some fresh air. She’ll take the dog. Would I mind going to see him on my own? I can tell by the look in her eyes she needs the break. She walks out with the lead in her hand before I can think of an excuse not to. The dog is immediately happier, but I know it won’t last.

I hesitate as I get out of the car. I have a cigarette and eventually go in. He is asleep and snoring. Not like the boom he used to let out but a low, deep gurgling snore. I watch him sleep. I have seen my father asleep so many times and never watched. It’s not something you normally do, is it? Watch someone else sleep, especially your dad. As I look at him I feel that urge to hold his hand again. It’s old and wrinkled with liver spots now. But it still feels the same as it always did. Safe and warm. I close my eyes and when I open them again he is wide awake, staring right back at me. He withdraws his hand sharply, not saying anything about it.

“Where’s your mother?” he asks. I decide to be honest with him. “She needed a break, Dad.”

He understands but he is disappointed it’s me here not her. The routine keeps him going, just like the dog. There is silence for a while until he asks, “How are my tomatoes doing?” and then goes on about the broad beans and then the courgettes and the lettuces. He asks about them all: the potatoes, the apple trees. They are fine, I keep saying. Mum and I look after it all in the evenings, after dinner, and I do some in between walking the dog and collecting Mum. He never once asks about me, my life, how I’m doing, and I’ve had enough of it. I have been back over a month and we haven’t had a real conversation, not even about football. This might even be the first time we have been alone since the day I arrived home.

“I’m grand by the way,” I say sarcastically with more than a little sanctimony in my tone.

“No, you’re not,” he shoots back, darting a look at me and I am stunned. I was expecting a ‘that’s good’ or no reply but not that, not the truth.

“What?” is all I can say.

“You’re not grand at all. I can tell you know? You think I have no idea, you kids, you and your sister, you think I have no emotions, but I do, you know? I’m your father, I wiped your arse and cleaned up your puke. I can tell.”

I can’t let it go. I can’t be happy that in all these years he is now actually reaching out to me, being honest. He might even start talking about his feelings. “I’m grand, Dad, honestly, leave it out will ye?”

“Grand? Bollix you’re grand.” He has stunned me again; he never swears. “Your mother told me.”

“About what?”

“That you’ve no job, your one, that girl you were with, she’s gone, that you’re living in some shithole in Reading.” He pauses. “For fuck’s sake, Paddy, Reading! I was there was once, you know? Awful kip.”

“It’s all I can afford,” I say, hating myself for it.

He sighs and looks at me straight in the eye. I can see the disappointment he has in his only son. “Jesus, man,” he says. “It’s all I can afford,” he says, mimicking me. “You still don’t get it do you?” He is exasperated with me.

“Calm down, Dad, I’m fine, honestly.” I’m not. “You’ll make yourself…”

“What?” he shoots in. “Sick? I’m dying, you eejit. In case you hadn’t noticed. I’m riddled and my own son is sitting here telling me he’s grand when he hasn’t even started living his life yet! For fuck’s sake,” he says, looking up at the ceiling. “Give me strength. At least your sister went and saw a bit of the world. But all you did was go on the piss and become a teacher.”

I stand up to leave, not because he is wrong but because I realise I’m a self-righteous, self-indulgent little prick and I know he is right and I can’t stand it.

“When are you going to work it out son?” he calls, as I walk down the sterile corridors.

As I walk back to the car all I can think about is how since I have come back here, to their ‘happy place’ all I have thought about is myself and how I don’t want to be there. I speed out of the hospital car park.

*

After that day my father takes a turn for the worse. My mother knows something has happened between us and it weighs on her. I come home late that night after driving around for hours. I don’t talk and go straight to bed. He can now only talk on really good days. My sister books flights, hoping he’ll hang on a few more weeks so she can see him.

I don’t spend any time alone with him for a while. His words hanging over me, I walk the country lanes of that place. I walk them in July and find myself in August, the late summer sun putting stars in my eyes as I walk around the bend. My actions are hurting my mother but I still can’t get over myself. I am stuck on the now, on why things happen, feeling sorry for myself. My father is light years ahead of me and I never saw it. He is just smarter than me, older and wiser.

Each day the doctors tell us it could be days, maybe weeks. My mother is in some kind of denial or maybe she is just prepared, smarter and wiser than me. She stares at nothing and everything, at her awaiting seclusion. We continue our routine, too afraid to talk about it. Then one day she breaks the monotony and asks me to go in alone. We drive to the hospital together but as we got out of the car she looks at the sliding doors, the nurses outside smoking. I can smell the smoke mixed with the disinfectant wafting out the doors. I look at her and don’t need to ask why.

I sit down by my father and stare at him asleep under his oxygen mask. I don’t hold his hand this time. I watch, paralysed or maybe blocked. Something always stands there in my mind blocking my emotions. He has had troubling breathing on his own for a while now. I know there’s not long to go. Somewhere in his sleep he knows I am there and slowly his eyes open and he is awake. He is thinner still than when I first walked into this room months ago. But this time I do not move my hand, he moves his. He looks around the room as if confused for a while and then he sees me. His eyes lock on mine and he smiles and he moves his arm to the edge of the bed, the palm of his hand facing up. I can see my hand moving towards his. I am so scared to touch it but he takes my hand in his and I let go. Whatever has been holding me, whatever has been blocking me finally collapses and I weep and sob as he dies around me. I lower my head onto the bed and weep more, his hands still rough, in my hair.

He tries to talk but he can’t summon the strength to lift the mask off his face so I lean in and all he can whisper is ‘I’m glad you came back,’ over and over again. I have been here since we argued but I know who he is talking about now and who he is talking to. He’s talking to the boy who was his son that day, who for a brief moment he made master of all of life. I can feel his weak heart. He knows I am the one who is sorry. Sorry for wasting my life so far and that I have figured it out. I tell him and he smiles. He is happy, in pain and happy. We stay like that for a while. A son letting go and a father happy in the thought his son will live life past that day. I watch him fall asleep. I watch him sleep his last sleep. Somewhere in the time between his eyes closing on his last light and the late summer sun fading outside he takes his last breaths into his wasted lungs and the last thing he feels is his son’s hand in his.

*

The swiftness of death often belies the lifetime it took to arrive. It distorts our memories and leaves us with feelings of regret and happiness. Regret over what might have been and happiness of resolution. I really don’t remember leaving his hand back on the white sheets and walking past the nurses and I don’t really remember cradling my mother as we wept hopelessly together or the silence on the other end of the phone as I told my sister. I know these things happened but they are only visions now in my mind.

But I know I was wearing a black suit and white shirt and black tie with nice shiny shoes as I walked down the grassy path to the cliffs. The late August sun was shining down on the wet rocks and the wild green ocean was glimmering in front of me. In my hand only a rod and a bag of feathers, the best-dressed fisherman those rocks had ever seen. As I launched my line into the waves one more time I could feel all the moments to come pour over me and all the moments that had been wash away. With the sun warming my cheeks I could feel my own words, “Come on, Dad, we’re nearly there, they’ll all be gone by the time we get down there.”

And I can feel my mother’s memories.

I am in my happiest of places. I am in our happiest of places and I know that none of us will ever be alone in that place again.

pencilDavid Thom is originally from Dublin, Ireland, but has not lived there since 2007. He is currently not living anywhere. He and his wife are on a round-the-world trip (which they hope will never end) seeing the world and hoping to find a place that they might call home one day. Email: david.f.thom[at]gmail.com

Rise Up Singing

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
Eric E. Wallace


Deadly Listeria Food Poisoning: Who are at Risk?
Photo Credit: James Palinsad

Cheetah Kenyatta McGuire backstage: barefoot, in tattered harlot calico, the dress blue-black like bruises, a slash of red sash around her waist, minimal stage makeup on her striking face. She was standing a half-story up, the platform nudging the back of the flats. Reflective safety markers winked at her from the dimness. Cheetah, exotic and talented, knew all about receiving winks.

Something razored in her abdomen. She flinched, shifted her weight. Gritty boards grumbled beneath her, tried to sliver her bare feet.

Directly through the set-piece door, its inner dark edges haloed by house lights, was a fictive Charleston, South Carolina, circa 1925, and the tangled world of Porgy, of Bess, of Crown, of Sportin’ Life and all the others in Catfish Row.

Beyond, past the footlights, was today’s real Charleston, with a standing-room-only Spoleto Festival crowd ready to see and to hear opera’s brightest rising star.

For the last five years, Cheetah McGuire had been racing along a very fast track, a fire in her belly, a huge need to sing. Not for money, which now arrived steadily. Not for fame, which now had found her. She simply had to sing.

“The odd thing, my dear, is your humility.” Madame DeNice sipped a sherry. “Very rare in someone who’ll soon be a superstar.” Gwendolyn Nice had aimed for the top, fallen short, resurrected herself as a demanding teacher whose students likened her to Marchesi, Lehmann or Thebom.

The veranda was humid, the air heavy with honeysuckle. Cheetah fanned herself with a menu. “I have passion. Isn’t that enough?”

“Oh, it’s most important. I told you that the day I took you on. Yes, you have real passion. But success changes people. And in our world so much is hubris. I’m amazed you’ve held on to the essential you.” Madame DeNice smiled. Two beads of sweat slalomed down her powdered nose and jumped into her sherry.

Rain thrummed on the stagehouse roof. Cheetah heard a dull karumph of thunder. She thought of the cannons booming at Fort Sumter, out there in the bay, shots which led, through years of slaughter, to the end of slavery.

Her own lineage was not from Southern slaves. Cheetah’s genes came directly from modern East Africa. Kenyan mother, Irish-American father. Gentle Swahili dance ethnographer meets arrogant New York neurosurgeon. That was thunder too, tamed by love. Asante sana, Mama.

And all for what? Five days after Cheetah’s twenty-first birthday, Mwana Ongoro McGuire and Dr. Patrick Halloran McGuire, on holiday in Mombasa, were obliterated by a terrorist bomb. Instant nothingness. You can’t flee fate.

“We gave you the name Cheetah, so beautiful, so sleek, so fast,” her mother had often told her, “so you can outrun all the troubles of the world.”

“And have you? Outrun them?” asked Harald, curled beside her, the evening Chicago breeze snapping the hotel curtains in a lively foxtrot. Harald, his Nordic face paler than the moon, leisurely traced the long mauve scar plunging down her abdomen.

Cheetah arrested his hand. “That’s why I sing,” she whispered. “Tra-la. So nothing can catch me.”

“What’s this scar anyway, Cat?” Harald’s insistent finger slid along the thin ridge of imperfection. “Something pretty major?”

“A Central Park slasher. Druggie running crazy. I was saved by a policeman. On a big horse. Entered right on cue, my knight in blue wool. But now I can’t remember his name. Officer, Officer… Krupke or something.”

Cheetah giggled and hummed Bernstein. But her thoughts, not of blue knights, were of dark nights, of the deep scars of memory.

The rain grew frantic. The storm hadn’t deterred the audience. Over the orchestra’s tuning, the antiphonal coughing, the raincoats rustling, the umbrellas sighing to the floor, Cheetah could hear the soft surge of collective breathing. It heaved in anticipation. No one wanted to miss hearing Cheetah McGuire.

“A voice of honey, charged with lightning,” one critic wrote. “Astonishing range,” said another. “Every note is astounding.”

Natural talent was one thing. But finding the right teacher had taken time, and the years of studio work were increasingly arduous, the intense focus cruelly demanding. Madame DeNice cajoled, bullied, challenged, pushed harder and harder, a tyrant, a demon.

Cheetah stuck it out, above all wanting to honor her parents. Her Puccini recital was a triumph. Even if the audience consisted mostly of her fellow students.

Cheetah’s voice was fiercely operatic, dramatic and lyrical. Tinged with spiritual quirkiness and gospel fervor. Husky with jazz. Edged with shared sadness, loss and love.

“God, girl, have you got it!” Amalie Root raised her champagne glass. Amalie had become Cheetah’s best friend. They were celebrating at a rare party at Madame DeNice’s Brooklyn studio. “What amazes me, is it hasn’t gone to your head.”

“Not yet, anyway,” laughed Cheetah. She hoped it never would, remembering her mother’s quiet grace. Mwana radiated confidence, never displayed conceit.

And now plump and genial Amalie—a perfect second soprano ready to bring Serena to life—was meditating down there in the wings, gaudy turban on her head, bulky handbag clasped to her bosom. Having a friend in the show was wonderful, especially on such a long tour. Especially with so much to confide.

“That jerk is back again?” Amalie banged her cup on the table. The coffee spilled through the iron fretwork and dripped onto her knees. “Shit.” She dabbed with a paper napkin. “Shit. And that applies to LeBraun too. Girl, he only comes around because you’re tasting fame.”

Amalie reached for another donut. This week Porgy and Bess was jazzing up New Orleans. Perfect time for a beignet binge at the Café Du Monde.

Cheetah exhaled a cloud of powdered sugar. “God, this stuff could kill my high notes. But it’s divine. Look, LeBraun’s a—a sometime thing.”

“That sounds like a song with very crappy lyrics. What about Harald?”

“Harald’s sweet.” Cheetah moistened a finger and rubbed it around the sugared plate. A horse-drawn carriage clop-clattered by in the street, jingling.

“Yeah, sweet on you. The boy’s a genius. Best damn lighting designer anywhere. How he treats you with those special spotlights is amazing. It’s gotta be love. But that LeBraun…”

“He’s been good to me, Am. I like his no-nonsense approach to life.”

“You call a criminal career ‘no-nonsense’?”

Cheetah smiled, unbaited. “I don’t think he’s a criminal. Just a wheeler-dealer. A fast track kind of guy. Power in a man appeals to me.”

“Well, I can’t seem to keep a man of any kind. So what do I know?” Amalie sipped her coffee and made a face.

The sour stink of Mississippi mud blew from the levee. Cheetah, her fingers reaching for another beignet, sat back, wrinkling her nose.

Waiting on her platform, Cheetah could smell dust as old as the grand old city of Charleston itself. Damp. Wet ropes. Lubricating oil. Something electric. Greasepaint. Talcum. Thrusting through that mélange, pulling at her, was a fragrant ray of jasmine.

Gardenias, hidden, filled the cemetery with sweet overtones. The air was oversopped with humidity, the sky painfully dazzling. Harald led Cheetah between the headstones, his slight limp oddly endearing.

“See who I found!”

The small gray marker was half-hidden by a sagging rosebush. Cheetah blinked through sweat and looked at the inscription. It took her a moment before she remembered it was DuBose Heyward’s novel which inspired Gershwin to write Porgy and Bess.

“Oh,” she said. “Buried right here in Charleston. And we’ll be performing…”

“…very near this spot. Neat, huh?”

Cheetah let him enjoy his moment. She sought out a bench. “Look, Harald, I came with you because I thought we needed a quiet place to talk. Same subject as Atlanta.”

“Oh, yeah, that subject. Well, no place quieter than a graveyard.” He studied two crows wheeling above an ancient magnolia.

“We’ve had a very good run,” she said. “Us, I mean. But…”

“You sound like a producer. God, Cat. What’s changed things? Him?”

“You mean LeBraun?”

“Not that jerk. Your new skinny mulatto.” Harald kicked at the base of a crumbling tombstone. It moved slightly, grating. Harald recoiled.

Cheetah watched, not really focusing. “Who? Palmtree?”

“‘Palmtree’? You gotta be kidding. What kind of a name is…?” Harald tried to adjust the tombstone. The crows chided.

So Harald had seen her conferring with her latest dealer. Hookups on a tour were fast. The Diva Drug Network. Sing for your needs. No waiting. Who knew the guy’s real name, but he went by Palmtree. Not her type. No way. Christ, he talked to himself in Gullah. Missing a chunk of one ear. Downright odd. And he was a drug dealer, for God’s sake. Next to that even LeBraun’s shady operations seemed okay.

But suddenly Cheetah realized how Palmtree could be of additional use.

“I love you, Cat. I really do.” Harald stood over her with the sun behind him. He was throwing a protective shadow on her face. But forcing her to look at him to avoid squinting. He knew his lighting.

She squinted anyway, grimaced. “Palmtree’s only, oh, symptomatic. Something has just… slipped for me,” she said. “I didn’t plan it. We can’t go on. You should find a woman who’s a lot more stable than I am. You’re a great guy, Harald, but I’m sorry. I don’t… I’m so sorry.”

Harald slumped. His shadow fled. The sun’s angry glare hit Cheetah full in the face. But it was Harald who was blinded. By her lies.

A red light blinked. Cheetah looked down and saw the assistant stage manager giving her the one minute signal. She acknowledged it with a half-salute, belatedly remembering that was part of her father’s collection of mocking gestures.

Harald leaned over the onstage lighting console, adjusting something. He turned, looked up. Cheetah saw confusion, pain.

The old rehearsal theater in Queens reeked of Pine-Sol. Someone had tried to mask the mustiness. Cheetah’s nose twitched. Maybe this will improve my vibrato.

“Can you hold it right there, Miss McGuire?” A voice from above.

She shielded her eyes. A white oval peered down from the darkness. Were those freckles? Eyeglasses twinkled two stars toward her.

“Call me Cheetah.” She virtually sang the words. How else do you respond to heaven?

A few moments later he limped along the stage. “I’m Harald Thorpe. Lighting designer. The union doesn’t want me up there, but I need those viewpoints.”

Cheetah smiled. “I won’t tell if you won’t.”

His blush was charming. “Sorry this preliminary stuff’s taking so long. I’ve got new ideas, and I’m pretty fussy about my lighting.”

“That’s okay. I’m pretty fussy about my singing. We don’t want to take this show on the road until everything’s perfect.”

She also liked his shy smile.

A wave of discomfort surged in Cheetah’s abdomen, tumbling sharp-edged surfboards through her gut. She felt like going back to her dressing room. Can’t. Mustn’t. She fingered the small envelope tucked in her dress pocket.

The pain eased. She watched Ziggy Canton wheelchairing from his post at the stage door, skillfully negotiating between the prop tables. Ziggy’s large-headed cat, Barrymore, strutted behind the wheels. That cat knew he was lord of the theater.

Cheetah half-smiled, thinking of yesterday, when LeBraun encountered Barrymore in the theater alley.

It was no contest. Tomcat one, macho man zero. Who’d have known her sometime guy was severely allergic to cats? Sneezing and scratching, LeBraun stumbled up the alley. Cheetah ran after him.

“How come you can be around me?” she asked, resisting the urge to purr.

LeBraun, still twitching, reached for her. “You I can tame.”

Cheetah stepped back. “Don’t be so sure.”

A trumpet player took a last showy staccato gallop up a scale. The pianist countered with a honky-tonk riff. Sweat ran down Cheetah’s arms. She felt it sneaking between her breasts.

And now nerves. Waiting to go on, she was nervous. That didn’t compute. Usually she had incredible coolness. One of her strengths. But tonight she had the jitters. Side effects?

“I love the effects you create. Your lighting is magical.” Cheetah had bumped into the lighting guy on the subway platform after a rehearsal. Hal. No, Harald.

Soft pinks and reds washed over his face. “That’s a great compliment, coming from you. But it’s your voice that’s magical. It’s pure synesthesia for me, so full of light and color.” He blushed again.

They talked about singing, about art. A Manhattan train hissed into the station. They sat together. Harald enthused about light in the paintings of Edward Hopper. Cheetah said she liked Hopper. Harald blurted out an invitation. A retrospective at MOMA.

“Why not?” Cheetah was startled, but pleased. As usual LeBraun was off somewhere. Probably catting around. He had no real hold on her. Besides, this was just two professionals sharing a passion.

Passion. Who knew dry old Eddie Hopper could start such things? And so quickly.

After they left the exhibit, they strolled up West 53rd, eating spumoni.

Harald surprised her again. “You’re seeing someone, right?” he asked. “The big guy who shows up now and then? Or is he your uncle?” Spumoni dripped onto his shirt.

Cheetah laughed. “LeBraun? Not my uncle, no. Hard to describe. He travels a lot. We sometimes see each other. It’s an on-again, off-again thing.”

Harald seemed to glow in the early evening sun. “Well, how’d you feel if I took the off times?”

Cheetah’s smile melted the rest of the ice cream.

The stage manager signaled some kind of hold. Too much waiting. Too much thinking time. Too much need. Cheetah reached into her pocket, worked a tablet from the envelope. She snapped it in two, palmed half, brought it to her mouth, swallowed it with saliva.

Morphine was her friend, her ally. But it meant she needed more and more willpower to keep the singing right. Tonight, the last performance of the tour, her singing had to be good. No, it had to be exceptional.

She saw one of the field hands practicing twirls and leaps, light as cotton.

“You move like a dancer, Cat.” Harald watched Cheetah step through the tall grass of the headland. They were hiking on Angel Island. San Francisco shimmered across the silvered bay. A city not easily wowed. But it had taken to Cheetah McGuire.

“My mother’s influence. Dance was her life.”

They sat on a clovered knoll. Cheetah talked about Mwana’s poise and charm. Patrick’s overabundance of surgeon ego. Harald laughed.

When she told him how her parents died, he fell silent. “Strange to say,” he finally murmured, “but I envy you. Instant death. And at a great remove.” He leaned against her. “Your grief must have been terrible. But up close, death is even worse. When I was fourteen, I watched my grandmother dying. Five weeks in a gloomy back bedroom. I still hear her wheezing, her spitting. Still remember the smells.”

A small white butterfly meandered near his head. “Later I had to leave college to nurse my mother. A really vicious cancer. Went to her brain. She hung on for months. You watch those you love dying, you go crazy. Never, never again. I prefer to embrace life. Hang on to beauty, to light.”

The warm air breathed eucalyptus and pine. Cheetah slipped an arm around him. I could love this man.

She watched two stagehands conferring over a cue sheet. James Jimson, playing Porgy, practiced his shuffling crippled walk. Billy Royale, Crown, was intent on deep knee bends. Billy reminded her of LeBraun. Large, burly, radiating assurance. But LeBraun didn’t have Billy’s sensitivity. Or his luscious baritone voice. LeBraun spoke in a craggy-edged bass.

“You hidin’ any of them leopard spots down here, Cheetah-gal?” LeBraun snuffled around under the sheets. “I knows you gotta have spots. Them wild cats always does.” Cheetah laughed and tried to pull him up. She liked his playful side. When it didn’t veer into something rougher.

They met at a party in Soho. LeBraun Dixon overwhelmed her with confidence, expensive cologne and a prizewinning smile. Not my type. But there was a hole in her life and he could fill it. Beauty and the businessman.

“What business?” she asked. Apparently LeBraun traveled a lot.

“Buyin’ and sellin’, sellin’ and buyin’.” What more you need to know, Baby?” Cheetah thought if he’d had a trained voice he’d have been perfect playing Mephistopheles in Faust. Devil in more ways than one.

LeBraun’s travels meant his path sometimes crisscrossed with Cheetah’s touring schedule. He showed up in in Anchorage, of all places. What can he have to sell to Eskimos? They snuggled high in one of the towers at the Captain Cook, winter lights twinkling below.

Whiskey betrayed him, and he spoke too longingly about a woman in Seattle. He knew he’d been caught.

“Sure, I’m cheatin’ on you. Takes a Cheetah to know one, don’t it?” Big deep laugh wrapped in that incredible smile. “But I always comes back to you, Baby, don’t I?”

And so he did, even after she’d begun seeing Harald. She didn’t always accept LeBraun’s surprise returns, but she couldn’t seem to send him away forever. All that focus on perfecting her singing, she’d never found time to master the rest of her life.

Cheetah’s abdomen burned. She tried to ignore it, thought about the audience. LeBraun should be sitting in the theater, freshly-arrived from Godknowswhere. He’d easily commandeered a ticket to the sold-out Spoleto performance, likely making some scalper very happy. Or scaring him to death.

Another awaiting her entrance: Madame DeNice, who broke down and cried when Cheetah had phoned to say the festival tickets, hotel and air were all taken care of. Who’d have guessed her tyrannical old teacher was so sentimental? Or so fond of hotel sherry?

And someone else should be there. Cheetah peered through a small opening in a flat. In the front row, tall and gangly, sat Palmtree, muttering to himself. He was in full drug-dealer-at-the-opera regalia. White dinner jacket, orange tropical shirt, purple cummerbund. His mauled ear was accented with an emerald stud.

“You wants what, gal?” Palmtree had slipped Cheetah the envelope and was ready to split.

“I’ll get you a great seat. You might even like the show.”

“It ain’t dat. I dig opera. Shit, don’t look so shocked. But comin’ on sweet for you, I dunno. You ain’t no conkywine for dis bruddah. I goes for w’ite meat.”

Cheetah squinted up the alley. The light was overbright, searing. The stage door swung into the glimmering heat. Harald came out and turned in their direction. Cheetah pulled Palmtree close, whispering in his good ear.

“A cash proposition, nothing else. Fifty more if you hug me tight right now.”

Palmtree shrugged and hugged her hard, sliding a knowing hand along her bottom. He stank of cigarettes and barbecue sauce. Cheetah heard Harald limping toward them. He stopped, shuffled, limped the other way. The footsteps receded. Palmtree gave Cheetah’s bottom a bonus squeeze. Yeah, white meat indeed.

The house lights dimmed, hushing the audience. The stage lights came up. Catfish Row burst into action. Cheetah sensed the conductor’s arms rising, felt his downbeat. Her heart leapt to synchronize.

The rain tried to drum in counterpoint to Gershwin’s orchestral roughhousing, failed, faded.

Cheetah loved Gershwin, loved his genius at fusing many types of music. What a waste, she thought, dying so young. Dying of a brain tumor. Wait! Dr. McGuire can save him! But who can save the doctor? Focus, focus.

A smoke-sultry clarinet solo began putting the brakes on the musical helter-skelter.

Cheetah straightened. Shook her shoulders. Took a breath. Opened the door and stepped out, now Bess through and through.

She stood on a landing, awash in light and warmth. On the rickety steps just below sat Clara, slowly rocking her baby. Every performance Melissa Stuart tried not to give Cheetah a ‘you stole my solo’ look. Tonight Mel turned to the baby a moment too late. If eyes could set fires, Cheetah thought, the swaddled bundle would be furiously ablaze.

“I can’t take the first solo from Mel. It belongs to Clara, not to Bess. Not to me.”

Dirk d’Angelo ran his fingers through thick silvered hair. Bottle assist.

“Look, sure, Cheetah. Until you came along, Clara would have sung it. And Porgy would have been my production’s main focus. Status quo show.” Dirk fondled one of his Tony medallions. “But art needs to be organic. If I don’t let your magnificent Bess rule the roost, George and Ira Gershwin will scream in their graves. Hell, their ghosts will chase me down Broadway. Get me run over by a taxi.”

He took Cheetah by the shoulders. None too gently. “Cheetah, kid, you were made for Bess. “Summertime” is your ticket to the Met, La Scala, wherever you wanna go.”

She pulled back. “I just wish we could make it up to Melissa.” Does ambition need to be cutthroat?

Slow chords, punctuated by bells and piano. The frantic syncopations of Catfish Row gave way to an amble. A tiny new spotlight found Bess, caressed her.

Cheetah smiled wistfully at the baby, turned, lost elsewhere. She gazed towards an imaginary sky.

Those who knew the opera expected a simple lullaby. But from the start, Cheetah’s singing was different. Every note, every syllable, was also about: yearning.

“Sum-mer-time…”

Cheetah held each of the three notes for a long time, the last forever.

“How long have I got?”

“I can’t say for sure.” Marion Stein looked more haggard than usual. A piece of straw hung from her hair. Romp in the hay? Cheetah was amazed at being distracted, calm. Even flip. She decided her subconscious had always expected this moment. Remission isn’t cure.

Dr. Stein searched for the right words. Cheetah’s heart went out to her. The living have to bear so much more than the dead.

Stein sighed heavily. The straw fell onto her desk, the thin golden arrow pointing to a plastic model of the female organs. Bullseye.

Six years ago the news had seemed more devastating. Young women weren’t supposed to have late stage ovarian cancer. Cheetah had just won her Met Regionals and was ready to compete in the majors.

She dropped out of everything. Suffered two tough surgeries. Endured interminable sessions of harsh chemotherapy. Braved fatiguing attempts to stay in shape.

She struggled to hang on to her music despite the pain, the nausea, and especially the fear. You lose both your parents in a bizarre tragedy. A few years later your own life is in extreme jeopardy. Why did these things happen?

At the end of the treatments, the oncologists were guardedly optimistic. They put Cheetah in the ‘five years and watch’ category. She charged back into singing. With the help of Madame DeNice, she sang at major recitals, got the attention of the critics, snagged better and better roles in regional opera and last fall easily won the role of Bess in Dirk d’Angelo’s revival of Porgy and Bess. Few knew of her fight. Of the threat hanging over her. She tried hard to forget it herself.

Five triumphant years, each even better than the last.

Cheetah looked past the audience. Harald’s lighting gave her an unusual radiance.

“…and the living is easy…”

“How long?”

Dr. Stein looked directly at her. Hazel eyes. I never noticed. “Two to five months. I’m very sorry.”

“Months? That’s it?”

“Barring intervention from the God you said you didn’t believe in. Or has that changed?”

“No, that hasn’t changed. Can I keep singing?”

The doctor was startled. “Well, the meds and so on…”

“What meds?”

“You’ll need drugs to make you more comfortable.”

Cheetah felt a frightening clarity. “And they’ll interfere? With my singing?”

“Some might. Yes. In these cases—”

“What if I want to keep going? At least through this tour?”

Dr. Stein saw the determination. “How much longer?”

“Memphis. Atlanta. Then the Spoleto Festival in Charleston. Another two months.”

“I can give you pain killers which shouldn’t make you too loopy. We can at least try.”

As Cheetah turned toward Clara and the infant, she ignored the shredder running somewhere deep inside. Palmtree’s little envelope sang from her pocket. She’d take another fix as soon as she went offstage. Something extra Marion Stein couldn’t legally offer.

“…so hush little baby…”

There were times when she needed to hold Harald so tightly. Not only for her own sake. Harald needed comfort and she wanted to give it. But he surprised her.

One free evening in San Francisco they were wandering through the rambling grounds of the Presidio. The warm air whispered of juniper, roses, the Pacific.

They stopped to look at long rows of headstones gleaming in the lingering sunset. Harald told her he wanted to share something.

He said that despite being so close to death in his youth, soon afterwards he began visiting old cemeteries. He found them beautiful. He liked to read the inscriptions, touch the relative permanence of old stone, learn to respect the value of memory.

And cemeteries were places where the interplay of sun and shadow, of branches and breezes, made the light seem hallowed, even inspiring.

“So one day you’ll visit me in some cemetery?” Cheetah asked. “And be inspired?”

“Oh, Cat,” he said. “You already inspire me. You’ll be singing long after I’m gone.”

Cheetah saw the Golden Gate Bridge through tall stands of windblown evergreens. Its lights danced like fireflies.

All of Catfish Row was watching Bess, every face absorbed. Cheetah remained stationary. She didn’t need to move. Her voice held everyone.

“…you’ll spread your wings…”

So easy to jump. Cheetah stared down from the open hotel window, saw the manic rush and tumble of the city. But she heard nothing at all. New York was silent. Silent, waiting.

She remembered the day she’d learned of the Kenya bombings, her mother and father simply gone, their immense vitality no more, their huge presence in her life abruptly removed. For weeks, numbness trumped horror. And then the dreams came.

Somehow she’d risen again, nurtured her talent, found great focus.

Then the devastating cancer diagnosis. She’d fought back a second time, found artistic success. But now…

“Huzuni kwenda.” In the silence, she heard her mother’s voice. “Sorrow will pass.”

Cheetah remembered her father taking them to Ireland. They visited his mother’s modest grave in a small country churchyard. Afterwards, Patrick hoisted Cheetah up and perched his spindly seven-year-old atop a wall of ancient stacked stones. He gazed for a long time at the unending fields of green, then cleared his throat, quickly tucked his emotions into his pocket along with his monogrammed gold silk handkerchief. Grief will pass.

Cheetah collapsed on a couch, let go, and cried and cried.

As she pulled the last Kleenex from the fancy enameled box, she noticed the pile of wadded tissues on the floor. Laughed. Jeez, I cried this out six years ago.

How ironic, she thought. The fire which had driven her, pushed her to success, was to be the fire which would kill her. But not until I’m ready.

She drank some water, settled herself, and returned a phone call. She told them she wasn’t available. But she had a suggestion.

“Her name’s Melissa Stuart, spelled u-a-r-t. Luscious soprano voice. Sings Clara with us. She’s fantastic. Audition her and you’ll love her. Dirk will second the motion. But can you keep it a secret who recommended her?”

Cheetah put down the phone. No more recitals. No Mimi at Santa Fe. No Aida at the Met. No international tours. But Bess would thrive for a few more weeks in the South. Bess would sing her heart out.

The clamor of the city returned. Cheetah closed the window. Her mother’s lilting voice came to her again. “Si kitu kukuumiza…”

“…Nothing can harm you…”

Cheetah was more than halfway through the song. She was drenched. Harald’s lighting seemed more intense. It was burning her up.

“What’s really killing me…” Cheetah stopped and laughed. Amalie gulped at her second mint julep. Cheetah touched her friend’s arm.

“You’re a wonderfully-strong person, Am. I love you for it. What’s really got me is Harald. I haven’t told him. I can’t. I’m not sure the poor guy can handle it. I don’t think he should stick around to watch me dying.”

Amalie’s makeup had dribbled, settled around her chin. She jerked at a napkin and blotted her face.

They were in Atlanta. An Italian restaurant at Peachtree and Peachtree. Everything’s peachy. Except.

“If I can make him back off, if we’re no longer close, it could be easier for him.”

“Don’t do that. Quit the tour right now.” Amalie tore savagely at a piece of mint. “Run away with him. To Paris. Love him for every second remaining.”

“Sounds very operatic.” Cheetah got the giggles. “But the soprano always dies in the last act.” She shook with laughter. “Opera houses are littered with dead sopranos.”

Amalie’s smile was bleak. “Yeah, but those divas get up for curtain calls and maybe a bunch of flowers.” She crumpled. “God, Cheetah.”

“No. No running away. Harald will be fine. I’ll figure something out, Am. But for sure, I’m going to sing and sing and… well, just sing.”

“Hush little baby… don’t you cry.”

Cheetah’s last syllable hovered. Hovered. Hovered, slowly fading. The orchestra’s final notes trailed.

Gershwin intended the piece to end there. Gently rock the baby, receive the applause. On with the show.

But this was Cheetah’s song, her moment, and she still had a final gift for her listeners, one more moment of beauty to savor and share.

Before the audience, still silent, enraptured, could interrupt, Cheetah McGuire breathed deeply, straightened, sang unaccompanied. As though she had all the time in the world.

“Summertime.”

That one word, pure, evocative, so languid it stretched toward the eternal, curled round the theater like lazy blue smoke, like aching desire, like a beautiful creature loping along with infinite grace, leaving every trouble far behind.

pencilEric E. Wallace writes fiction, plays, poetry and humor. His work has been published in Alaska Magazine, Alaska Quarterly Review, Rosebud, The First Line, Writers Digest and many other periodicals, in six anthologies, and online at WritersWeekly.com, where he has won several short story competitions. His short story “Cell Block” appears in the June 2014 issue of Toasted Cheese. A collection of his stories, Undertow, was published in 2014. Eric lives in Eagle, Idaho. Email: ericewallace[at]gmail.com