Hell is a Dry Heat

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Chris DeWildt


Junkyard Cat
Photo Credit: Roy Schreffler

The old man woke early. He felt the springs of his cot bed poking through the sheet and he smiled as he remembered when he was like a spring, full of stored energy and purpose. He laughed lightly through the discomfort because he’d come to expect it, and there was a certain pleasure he could take in the pain, the gentle prodding to rise that he may not have been able to generate himself. He rolled slowly to his side and barely resisted gravity as his legs fell from the bed, hit the grit-dusted, wooden floor of his cabin. He called it a cabin, shack is the way others put it, a name that did not do it justice, but was not altogether off the mark. Still, it was weather-proofed and clean as it could be with the old man as creator and caretaker. He breathed deeply the quickly warming air and lay still for a moment longer, a twisted sculpture of torso and legs, bent like some old liver-spotted sycamore finally blown crooked by years and years of a light, persistent breeze.

He parted the curtain that separated the small sleeping room from the main room of the cabin, still bare-chested in old blue corduroy pants that were nearly falling off under the awning of his great gorilla belly. The hair was long gone, but the muscle was still massive and strong and carried him through the day. The old man circled his hand over the skin, as if making a wish upon it.

The cats, sensing his awakening, came forth from the piles of discarded goods that surrounded the home like caricatures of the distant mountains. The beasts with memory of a time of warm winters by a hearth, these animals snaked through his legs and purred and the old man took notice of them as to avoid a fall that he knew would crack a hip.

Outside, more cats lay in the sun, flopping lazy tails and he stepped past them and pulled an armload of wood from the neat pile that lined the length of the cabin and then set it back so he could tie down the corner of tarp roof that had come loose in the night. The old man gathered the wood and again stepped over the cats before loading the belly of the old Franklin stove. Poofing clouds of ash escaped the stove’s mighty gut and disappeared, mixing with the clean air. He struck a blue-tip match on a chipped tooth and lit a rolled piece of newspaper. He held the paper to the dry wood and it began to burn quickly. The old man closed the door of the stove and put on a kettle of gathered rainwater to boil for coffee.

While he waited for the water he fed the cats from a bag which itself had a picture of a cat on it. The old man was not one to cater to the felines, nothing more than companionship, same as was what they offered, but the boy had brought the food and the old man thought it a sin to waste the gift. The boy had reminded him that the cats killed the rats and the old man reminded the boy that it was their nature and if the old man died in the night they would probably eat him too. At that the boy had laughed, but when he saw the seriousness in the old man’s eyes he stopped and the next day brought the bag of food. The old man watched the cats gather around the hubcap in which he’d poured the meal and stroked them as they ate greedily and tried to appease the parasites in their guts. The old man plucked ticks from behind their ears and sliced at the hard red bodies with his hard thumb and fingernail, checking and rechecking each of them until they no longer moved upon release of the pressure. He hated them and tried to see past their nature, but he could not. He believed in God and purpose, but could not for his life rationalize a purpose for the ticks. Though he’d killed them for years, he had not been struck down so he figured perhaps even God had regrets.

The old man collected the dead ticks in his palm. He lifted one of the burner covers and turned his palm over and dropped the ticks into the flame. He listened to them crackle and managed to force a feeling of sadness for them in their final purpose even though they had done the cats wrong. Wrong or not, nature or not, regret or not, they were only what they were and could be nothing else.

The old man put the ticks out of his mind and took the dried, used coffee grounds from the windowsill. The window was once part of a car windshield and the wall was built around it so that it was not a square but closer to another, undefined shape. It did not need to be square to let him look out in anticipation of the boy’s visits, to let the sunlight dry his coffee grounds and allow him one more gift from their grains.

He rewrapped the cheesecloth tight around the grounds and placed them inside his porcelain cup, poured the hot water over them and watched the clear water change color, the swirling leak from the cheesecloth spinning and spreading and changing the water to an even brown. He had dry beans to grind, raw beans to roast, and living beans to pick in his small garden behind the shack, but he believed in getting everything he could from the things he had. The boy laughed at his weak coffee and told him about a shop across town where people spent upwards of five dollars for a single cup and the old man thought he was trying to tease him, but the boy insisted and the man had no choice but to believe because he wasn’t interested or curious enough to confirm such a trivial piece of information, no matter how ridiculous it seemed to him. He had only a few plants and enough coffee to last the rest of his life and each cup cost less than the one before it. He displaced judgment and remembered he had what he needed and had his way and was comfortable enough for an old man and was thankful he did not need five dollars for a cup of coffee, and remembering that truth made the weak brown water taste very pleasant.

*

The man knew something was different that morning when it was not only the boy behind his locked gates, the chain links waiting for him to open them so the world could come and add to his mountains of debris. The boy was accompanied by three others and they stood straddling their bikes, looking at the old man as he approached, and then to the boy who would speak for them all.

“What’s this?”

“These are friends of mine, from the neighborhood. Can I borrow the twenty-two?”

“For? You squirrel hunting?”

“No. Coyote killed Mike’s dog and we’re going to find it and kill it.”

The old man looked over the boys, for Mike, but no boy came forward as the offended party.

“You know it was a coyote?”

“Had to be. There’s been lots of dogs bloodied and some missing. And people have seen it. Come up the wash, I figure. Dry, you know?”

The old man did know and his mind’s eye went to his rain barrel and he knew that if it didn’t rain soon he’d need to buy water or maybe even break down and contract the tools for a well. The river that ran through the back of the property had shrunk to a urine-stream trickle.

“So can we borrow it?”

“You think you can kill it if you find it?”

“You’ve seen me pick off rats and squirrels. I can put one through their heads at twenty yards. I can get a good shot on a coyote.”

The old man didn’t doubt it. The boy did not know how to shoot when he first began coming to the junkyard cabin, but the old man had worked with him and the boy took to killing very comfortably.

“You can borrow it.” The old man turned away and listened to the sound of bicycle tires in the dirt behind him. The boys did not speak because he was there and that made him smile. Shy boys were funny to him. What was he to be feared? He was the old man at the dump, part legend, part joke.

He took the gun from inside the cabin, it was secured in a tied off blue-jean-leg holster with braided shoestrings tied to both ends as a shoulder strap. He handed the gun to the boy and the boy slung it over his shoulder and around his back in a smooth, familiar motion. He nodded thanks and turned away on his bike. The other boys parted the way for him and then turned their own bikes and followed, peddling slowly at first and then faster, as if the old man was some kind of magnetic force that only allowed them to move freely the greater the distance between them.

*

The old man finished his coffee and pushed aside his disappointment that he would not have the boy’s company that day. He had a special project he was tending to and would have liked to hear the boy’s thoughts, if only for amusement. He was such a modern boy and always commented on the curious ways he found in the old man’s actions and words and habits and beliefs, but the old man liked him and his way. The boy was proof of how far the old man had drifted from everything else, but also proof that maybe it wasn’t completely hopeless. Despite his wisecracking and suggestions, the boy was quick to learn and eager to try. And if nothing else, a few of the old man’s lessons might make it another generation before there was nothing left of him but the rusted, rotting remains of the junk and his own dusty bones.

The special project had started as a dream, not a wish but a nighttime tale spun from somewhere deep within his soul. The dream had come often and he had initially pushed it aside, but it returned and the man had decided to ponder it. The dream was nothing elaborate or fantastic. It was a riverbed, dry and dead. There was a single large rock, two feet by two feet near the opposite bank. He knew the rock. The old man stood beside that river just watching the dirt be dirt, the rock be a rock. And that was all, no other clues as to what it could have meant, just a feeling, its significance brought on by repetition of the dream, hinting that perhaps there was something of value to be found in that dry old dream of a river come and gone. So the old man had taken to meditating on the dream and looked for metaphors and thought about his own life and why he may want to pay such attention to this dream, but he was unable to come up with a single thing. A dry riverbed? Not so unusual in the desert. His standing beside it? He’d stood beside many dry beds, crossed them on horseback when people still rode horses, cursed them when they offered no respite for either he nor Gwen Clover, his mare. Finally, he resolved to do nothing until he had the dream again and then he would still do nothing but let the old spirits guide him through the meaning of the dream, the meaning he could not parse on his own. And the previous night, the dream came again. The old man had pushed it out of his mind, refused to think through it again and waited for the guidance he’d asked for, and that very morning it had come to him with the sound of the popping ticks in the fire.

He’d felt an old feeling of joy well up, but he tamped it down quickly, not wanting that joy to become some sort of unwarranted pride. He knew that it was not his reward to accept. He’d asked for help and received it, like a man trapped under a rockslide who calls for aid in the dust, equally grateful for a hand or death. Pride was the old man watching others lift the rocks, pulling him free, and then turning around and taking the credit himself because it was he that cried out. That he would not do. He was to be only a vessel. And even if the vision was something created solely within him, no one could ever make him believe it.

The old man put on his boots and walked the winding paths of his junk mountains. Though it looked a hodgepodge of trash, there was a method to it, like with like. There were pieces of automobiles on the south side of the property, almost a full car if a man cared to play mad scientist. Wooden, dry-rotted things in another pile, old tires in another. The boy liked to climb that tire pile and he often scrambled to the top before he left in the evenings, watching the sun set behind the true mountains on the horizon. He said it was beautiful and the old man nodded, acknowledging the opinion. The lights of the town had brightened the land and the old man did not like the blue-black sky as much as the pure black he remembered as a boy, as a young man. But he knew the boy was sincere in his praise of nature and because of that the old man would not dispute it or try to better the boy’s image with one of his own.

The old man found the pile, or was led to it, and began pulling scraps of metal from its shape. He loaded his wheelbarrow full of the scrap and returned again and again, loading up more material for the creation that would flow from him. The old man did not notice the heat as his hands sweat inside leather gloves and the new pile of metal grew in the middle of the junk yard. He moved old rusted water heaters, pipe, raw copper wire and the like. Most of the metal was unrecognizable as anything man-made except for the fact that it did indeed exist. The old man let his thoughts drift to the objects’ initial states of creation, whatever they were, and he wondered if anyone or even the objects themselves had an idea what they would someday be part of.

He continued all day, pulling objects and scraps from piles, making his new mound of the chosen. The cats came to watch him. They lay in the sun, tails flapping and slapping puffs of dust from the earth, just observing the man and his work in between their naps. The old man sweat that day like a young man and looked fondly toward the ache of used muscles, a pleasant pain he hadn’t experienced for a time. The old man did not break for lunch or water, he felt nourished by his work, cooled by his own sweat like a horse, and at the end of the day, when he did drink the tepid, slightly acidic water from the rain barrel, it was the best he’d tasted.

That night he lay naked atop his blanket, ushering in sleep, hungry for the daylight that would allow him the sight to continue. He remembered the boy just before drifting away and wondered if the coyote had been found, but could not long consider any imagined scenario. Fatigue was upon him and he accepted it.

The dream came again and the old man woke remembering his project, recharged and ready to begin. He forced himself to eat a bowl of chicken stock, boiling the broth alongside his water for coffee. He ground his roasted coffee beans and the caffeine invigorated and excited him. He allowed himself the tiniest thoughts and plans as he waited for the sun and the light.

When it came he went to the hand-built shed behind his cabin, near his garden, and pulled from its guts the old mig welder and goggles, hoisted the tools with little strain into the wheelbarrow and brought it to the pile of scrap. The day lost all time as the old man again worked through the heat and the minutes, the hot scorching flame from the torch blazed hotter than the sun upon his skin. He first worked with the rusted hot water heater, affixing pipe, six pieces, with only a phantom of thought pressing him on.

Upon completion of this task he found he’d created a form in which the barrel rested horizontally upon the six legs of pipe. He affixed a rusted-out metal pail to one end of the water heater and then added two rounded, dead, headlight eyes. He heated the metal to a pliable form with the torch and hammered the mass into shape, rounding out the contours of the figure. He bent copper wire into wings, filled them out with mesh from an old screen door and lashing it together with long leather cord. He continued to work, to shape the mass and his mind drifted.

The old man was a young man on horseback, on Gwen Clover, standing beside the riverbed. It was not yet dry and he watched a young brown Yaqui Indian girl scrub the beautifully handmade cotton clothing on the rock jutting from the cold clean water. He spurred the mare and she stepped into the river, the soles of his boots skimming the surface. The girl looked at him fearfully at first, as if she’d been alone in the universe, and then her eyes smiled at him when realization of another soul came to be.

“Hello,” he said.

The girl nodded and tried to continue the washing, but the distraction in her heart numbed her fingers and she made clumsy passes over the scrub rock with the fabric. She laughed at herself and put the work aside. She looked up at him, sweat glazing her and she passed a forearm across her brow.

“Would you like to ride with me?”

She considered the washing and then left it all on the side of the river. She took his hand and allowed herself to be hoisted behind him on the saddle. He spurred the horse on again, led her east with the bridle. The girl held around his waist tightly as Gwen Clover gained speed through the scrubby desert brush. She looked back but could see nothing of the task she’d abandoned. She held tighter.

He took her to a pecan grove and they had one another in the shade. They ate raw pecans and watched a train puff black smoke on the horizon. He took her into town and they were married the next day with no rings. She wore white flowers in her hair. He purchased the small ranch the following morning. They knew nothing about goats but they learned together and made enough money to support two comfortably. She used her knowledge of the land to coax forth an acre of cotton and another of corn. She bore him no children. They were happy.

The old man sat puffing before the creature that had come from his hands through the spirits’ asking. It was a wasp like the one that had stung her and swelled her throat. They’d arrived at the hospital in time to learn she had a cancer strangling her uterus. They learned of it just in time to prepare for her death. The old man stroked the wasp, its rolled tin can stinger was smooth and sharp. The old man laid a hand on the thorax. It was hot from the sun and the old man took in the burning heat. His palms were thick with work and dulled to the extremes by age. The burning was pleasant. He stepped back and watched the heat radiate in watery waves from the entire body of the wasp. He looked through the heat and beyond the gate of his dump. He looked for the boy, the group of boys on bicycles, but they did not come. He gathered his tools and retired for the day.

The old man’s work took on that of ritual. He was up before the sun and feeding the cats and remembering dreams, using the visions to guide him. Somewhere was tucked the plan for his creation but he did not dare look for it. To look was to mistrust the spirits and then the work would be his and would not give credence to those that had come before, those who had gone. The man worked and did not know what he was making until, as if coming out of a trance, he could see the shaped twisted metal before him, taking the form of some living beast from his past. The exception was a tree. It was a pecan tree and upon that he allowed himself to look and linger and remember. After it came to be, the tree was the last thing he touched in the evening and the first to feel his rough, cracked palm in the dawn.

*

In less than a week the old man had created a menagerie of rusted life, set large and still in the midst of the piles of metal and plastic and other things worn and forgotten. There was the wasp and the tree and there was the deer, a revered life symbol of the Yaqui people. A turtle to carry away the worries of all those in the world, a horse, and then again, for her, a grove of rusted flowers atop television antennas, planted and glowing up in the midst of these animals. He’d used all of the materials he’d gathered that first day, not a scrap remained, and the old man felt he was finished. He admired the work, the spirits’ work, and tried not to be proud. It was very hard as the things from his vessel hands were things of beauty, but he reminded himself that he was lost until giving himself to the spirits. It was not his to hold or to have beheld by anyone for his own sake.

The old man dreamed again that night. It was not of the river or the rock or of her or of pecans. He dreamt he was the coyote, laughing in the night, nipping the heels of a deer, killing stray dogs, and he could taste the blood on his tongue as he yelped in the moonlight across the cool valley plain. The blood was warm and filled his belly with a greater hunger, as if the nourishing liquid fed not him, but the hunger itself, growing it stronger. With each stride the hunger pressed him on, making him more powerful, making the instinct to kill the deer that much greater. And then he was a young man, in a jail cell and still drunk. The blood he now tasted was his own after a fight, after she was dead. The need to hurt had grown with each swallow from the bottle, with each thought. The bourbon whiskey came up sweet with his burps as he sobbed alone behind the bars. After his release he watched the crops die, and the goats were killed by coyotes. He saw the ranch house fall apart around him, patched and cobbled back together with this and that from the piles he’d begun to collect.

The old man woke and heard his tarp roof flapping somewhere in the wind. He heard hard rain all around the shack, the storm extending for miles beyond him, he heard every drop. The monsoon had come and he tried to recapture the pain of the dream but it ran like water through his fingers. The darkness told him it was still very early and he thought about things other than himself. The boy, where was the boy? He hoped the coyote had not created trouble. A fighting coyote could be a rabid coyote. These worries put the old man back into a fitful sleep in which he was not anywhere but where he was, on a cot, in a cabin, in a junkyard, on the edge of town where the desert became its own again. He was alone but for the cats that meowed and howled and fought one another, wet and angry. This was rest.

*

The old man sat with his coffee at his small table, his good work resting deep in his mind and soul. He read the paper from the week before, tracing each line of each story, lines that were already faded and no longer left ink on his hard finger tips. There was the honk of a car horn and the old man remembered it was Saturday and that he’d have many new loads of scrap dropped off for disposal. The horn got him to his feet and he finished the last swallow of his weak coffee. There would be no rest.

The cats followed the old man into the sunshine, but the ground was not yet dry. The old man’s boots sunk slightly with each step and the land held him, as if trying to keep him, slow him for some unknown purpose of its own. Each drying grain had its purpose.

He looked at the creation as he passed, at the sloping ground within the scrap piles and the pond. It was the pond he’d seen after every monsoon rain, but this day it took on a new life, shone and sparkled with sunshine, the clouds reflected among the creations, the wonderful beasts that looked up and down and in all directions at once. It seemed a wonder to him and the spirits surely had a hand in this, surely; his own old form was reflected as well, and there was no doubt.

The old man stood at the locked gate, fingers hanging, anchored on the chain link, his dangling elbow moving slightly with his breath.

“Sheriff.”

“Hey, Marty. You give the Williams kid your twenty-two?”

“I did. He get that coyote? Did it get him?”

“Is that what they fed ya? Boy I wish. Those kids been on a regular crime spree. Home invasions, raping, killing, stealin’ anything they could carry off. Plenty of sin to go around. Sons of bitches’ll be going away, that’s a truth. We just had to see they was tellin’ the truth ’bout that gun. Make sure you weren’t dead in here.” The sheriff snorted hard and spit on the damp earth outside the gates. “Said they were goin’ after a coyote?”

“That’s what he told me. I believed him.”

The sheriff put his hand on the fence like the old man’s. “God damn shame,” the sheriff said and the men looked past each other for a long time.

“What you got goin’ on back there, Marty?”

The old man turned and saw the creation, rusted, flooded, silly-looking and nothing more than the junk it came from. He looked back to, and then past the sheriff. There was a growing line of pickups full of scrap to drop off, the drivers hidden safely behind sun-blasted glass.

pencil

Chris DeWildt’s website. Email: csdewildt[at]yahoo.com

As I Walk Out One Evening

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
HC Hsu


london bus
Photo Credit: Anthony Kelly

Beautiful

It was early in the evening. I was walking down the street, on the side of a big, busy road.

I was walking, and walking… and a person appeared before me, about fifty feet away.

I shouldn’t say ‘appeared,’ because the person was clearly there before I was there, and I just hadn’t noticed him.

Perception is a weird thing: often we see only what we want to see, even if we don’t know fully what we want, or even what it is we are seeing. It’s a bit like misplacing your keys and being locked out of your own house. But, we somehow seem to have learned to deal with the former, to the extent that we hardly even notice it any more.

I saw this man. He was sitting on the raised concrete partition bordering the sidewalk and a parking lot on the left, belonging to a 7-Eleven. He was wearing a T-shirt, faded blue workman jeans, and gum-sole boots. Dark, curly hair down to his neck, covering the profile of his face. He just sat there, legs apart, arms resting in between, head slightly drooped.

Cars kept coming toward and passing me, as I kept walking. As I walked closer and closer to the person, I didn’t know why, I had an urge to look at his face. A strange, and rather powerful desire. Like I had predicted something was about to happen.

And now waited ebulliently, for the proof. For the realization.

As I passed him, I looked, and saw the man’s face. Black. Gashes, criss-crossed on a flesh canvas, in varying lengths, and widths, like branding marks, where the skin had been scissored and turned inside out so that new, newer skin, grew even more thickly and heartily along the edges, merging the one into another, scar upon scar, so that eyes, nose, mouth became pushed, pulled, contorted, distorted, in every which direction, touching, where they shouldn’t, then flying apart—disappearing, beyond any recognizability whatsoever. Like a go board drawn and half-washed away in the sand, all before nightfall.

Realizing the man had turned his head toward me, I looked away. And walked on.

Then all of a sudden, I heard a voice behind me.

It was the man’s voice.

He said:

‘You are beautiful.’

*

There is a man sitting behind me writing. I feel like he is my ghost. One day I will die, and my ghost will die again.

*

 

Change

At the bus stop, behind me, squatting down and sitting on the imaginary line where the skyscraper meets the sidewalk, a man, in his thirties or forties, maybe younger, and wearing washed-out, frayed jeans and a short-sleeve white T-shirt with spots of brown and yellow, was speaking. Evenly, tranquilly, monotonously. Neither loud nor soft, as if he were simply having a conversation with someone, but using only one word:

Change. Change. Change. Change. Change. Change.

Just one word. Again and again. Over and over, like a mantra. Without joy or sadness, neither warm nor cold, without interest, or disinterest, just, simply, over and over again, in a single, even, regular rhythm, that is automatic and mechanical. As if it were no longer a voice, or even language, no different, from breathing, or the beating of a heart valve, or the mere grinding of gears in a machine.

Change. Change. Change.

An eternal demand.

 

Seats

A few months ago I was riding the bus.

It was morning, and rain was drizzling. The sky hadn’t lit up yet. Glancing at the full seats in the back, I sat down in one of the handicap seats in front. At this point, I usually close my eyes and continue my butterfly dreams of Zhuang Zhou until my destination.

Probably because of the rain and traffic, the bus kept swaying and stopping. As soon as I drifted off again I was jolted back into consciousness, uselessly trying to lap at the shallow shore of sleep that was receding farther and farther away.

The more awake, and delineated, each time, my mind became, the more and more annoyed I got. Starting with how idiotic people are as if they’re cavemen witnessing rain for the first time ‘for yet seven days’; how inefficient public transport authorities and infrastructures are on a good day, never mind in a cataclysm like a chiffon of morning mist; how I have to get up at an ungodly hour—surely an affront to nature and the heavenly way of things… from the passengers, to the bus driver, the mayor, the governor, the President, God… a grudge is born, and no one guilty in the conspiracy against peace and rest can escape being consumed by its fury…

Then a man and a woman boarded the bus.

It was an old man and an old woman, probably in their seventies at least. The man had a soft olive complexion, short white hair parted to the side, thin, outward-sloping grey brows, dark squinting eyes, thin lips, a smile brimming in his eyes instead of his lips. He didn’t look Caucasian, wearing what looked like a blue Chinese changshan, with an old plum-colored purse in his hand. The woman was white, her face more wrinkled and pale, with thinning grey-and-white hair parted in the middle down to her neck. She was in a long-sleeve green shirt and mint-colored pants, and had an oxygen mask on.

The two of them were about the same height by each other, diminutive and wan. The man slid the two bus passes he was holding in his hand through the reader, and then, with the woman on his other arm, shuffled toward the seats next to mine. They sat down. The man carefully put the bus passes back in his shirt pocket, and put his hand on the woman’s hand, lifted it and set it back down on his own leg. After a while, he raised and put his arm around her shoulder, and pulled her closer to him. The woman leaned in, then on him.

They never said a word to each other.

Suddenly I felt extremely childish, and ashamed.

I still think of that couple every now and then, especially when I feel down.

Love is not always found in sonnets and epic legends. Sometimes it’s found in the handicap seats of a city bus.

*

A branch from a tree fell, one amidst many, and can no longer grow forward, or be traced back.

*

 

An argument

Walking down the street this morning, I saw some people arguing on the side of the road.

A slender woman, who looked to be in her sixties, in a teal-colored dress and white heels, with shoulder-length dyed dark-brown hair and a wrinkle-lined mouth, which, making her appear as if permanently sad and sulking, seemed to wither and recede farther into but a tiny hole, opening and closing, as sounds threaded through like click-clacking beads, forming the syllables of her sentences, was trying to say something.

A younger man—bald, dressed in head-to-toe black, with a small, black-and-brown Chihuahua sitting right beside his dirt-encrusted Panama-style jungle boot, its small head cocked up and alert, eyes glinting, watching the woman, who stood about two feet away from them—cut her off.

‘Where do you get off being self-righteous?’ His voice was loud and distinct, and several passersby turned their heads to look to see what’s going on.

She got out— ‘I’m not——‘ It was a high and lilting voice, with the oooot drawn out at the end.

Yes, you are!‘ The young man yelled. ‘It’s my dog. It’s not for sale!’

That seemed to be the end of the argument. But, instead of both parties moving on, or at least away from each other, the man and the woman both stood in place, neither being willing to concede to the other their area of the sidewalk. The Chihuahua, also, sat still.

I was coming up to them in the middle of the sidewalk, so I stepped off onto the road, and stepped back on again as I passed them.

I walked a little ways, for a bit, and looked back. The woman had walked behind me and turned onto a cross street. I could still see her; walking briskly, her head lowered, she was wiping away her eyes with the palm of her hands. Farther back, around the corner, on the original street, the young man had sat down legs crossed on the ground, and was holding the dog in his lap, sniffing, rubbing the top of its head, and lightly burying his face into the dog’s fur, and then, slowly, and gently, he placed a small aluminum can out front, on the ground of the sidewalk.

A bus sped past me, drumming up a cloud of faintly red, strange, brick-colored dust, in its wake.

 

A bag of roses

At noon I went out and saw a big black plastic trash bag lying next to the dumpster; the bag was filled with roses. White, peeking out from the open bag, fresh, abundant, entangled, bright. Almost exuberant. Someone had left them there. For some reason—perhaps the occasion in which they were used was over, perhaps there were too many, perhaps someone simply didn’t want them. So there they lay, next to cardboard boxes, newspapers, ads and fliers, plastic bottles, old foodstuffs, dirty styrofoam containers, small plastic bags filled with trash, and other odds and ends by the dumpster. White, creamy, with a pale, almost imperceptible shade of yellow at the base of the petals, like a solitary soft murmur, one, criss-crossing with another, gathering, building, multiplying, until they became a mesh of rumpled, fuzzy clamor, sprouting out of a giant, black flower-shaped mouth. Blossoming, withering. I thought of taking one home, but didn’t, and left.

*

An old couple was ambling and picking flowers along the side of the road. I had been staring at them, and when we came up to each other, the old man, Indian, said hello. I mouthed a hi and averted my eyes, somewhat embarrassed. The man seemed a bit displeased, and turned to his wife in a gold-trimmed purple sarong, saying: ‘Kids today.’

*

 

Crying

A kid was crying in the street.

I was walking behind. The kid was a few paces in front of me, walking, while crying. There was a woman walking a few paces in front of him. Probably the mother. Neither of them turned around. I couldn’t see their faces.

Judging from the height and frame, I guessed the kid to be no more than three years old. Buzzed black hair. He didn’t try to hide his face in his arms or wipe away the tears with his hands. He was just crying. Howling. And wailing. Screaming. Almost. Without any restraint or reserve, without a care as to where he was, or anything or anyone that was around him. Just sad to the extreme, from an intolerable pain, that seemed to vibrate down to the very core of one’s being, a piercing line of steel. Then exploding into a million shards, pure sounds, borne away by the wind.

The boy walked in a steady pace behind his mother, as if the act of crying were something completely separate from the rest of his body, and the movement of his legs. In white sneakers. Tiny. And always just a few steps, behind her. The woman, neither fat nor thin, had straight, shoulder-length black hair, and wore a short black dress, and low black heels. Underneath the net of yowls and snivels, the sharp hard clicks of heels on concrete interspersed the long, more languid quashes of rubber tennis soles. The woman never turned around. I don’t know if it’d be the same if the boy were a man, or if it were the woman who was crying.

It was afternoon. There were other pedestrians on the street. No one bothered to look, or they merely tossed a quick glance over and, maybe out of politeness, re-directed their gaze elsewhere right away.

As if no one, not even the boy himself, heard these gut-wrenching, blood-curdling cries, in the middle of a street, under the bright spring sun.

 

Evidence

I was standing in line.

A tall man stood in front of me. I couldn’t see his face, only the back of his head, which was bald. He was thin, and his scalp enveloped a bony, sprout-shaped skull, with a fleshy protuberance slightly jutting out at the midpoint between the top of his head, and the back of his neck. There was a crease under the bulge that extended from behind the middle of his left ear to his right, curving upward. It made the back of his head look like a smiley face. But incomplete.

There was a long, extremely thin strand of red hair, glimmering under the overhead fluorescent pipe, almost transparent and invisible, gently lying across the back of his neck, touching it, but at the same time, hovering over, and above it.

Like a secret memento, a nearly imperceptible trace, unbeknownst to the one to whom it was left, or even to the one who left it, a line connecting them both, even as their backs turned, and began to separate, to move in opposite directions, never to meet again.

Like evidence, that we once were.

*

An old man sat in the front of the bus in an electric wheelchair. The wheelchair was black, with a bright orangish-red and yellow nylon sack hanging from the push handles down the back. He was wearing a black baseball cap that, on the back, read ‘Air Force’; beneath it, his scalp peeked out in the space between the fabric seam and the plastic strap. When I got up he glanced at me, nodded and lowered his head, and turned away. I got off the bus.

*

 

Traveling

On the bus home today, the shades were drawn down on the large bus windows. The shades were composed of hundreds and hundreds of little circular perforations. The early afternoon sunlight shone in, while the rest of the outside scenery stayed behind, flowing along, struggling to seep through the rows and rows of tiny holes, plastered against the surface of this net, as it morphed from buildings, into trees, then into masses of people, and then into a large silvery, rippling, shimmering lake. Latching on to the traveling bus. No matter what form or shape it assumed, it could only show through, visible, only, from inside, as a finely pixelated image, like a facsimile of an impressionist painting.

It’s kind of fun to see the city this way. I think people who like to travel, or wish they traveled, a lot, need to open up their eyes, and minds, more, to what is already there around them. Traveling is not going to new places. It is experiencing things in new ways.

*

I don’t like mountain laurels. The faded purple, that bubbly pungent, tryingly sweet scent, like royalty that’s been made to hide and live like commoners after the revolution, being forced to smile, it makes me sad.

*

 

Parallel

You get on.

You don’t see me.

You take the seat two rows in front of me.

I see your backside, the back of your head, your dark brown, somewhat frizzed and wavy hair. For some reason, I don’t tap you on the back, or your shoulder (I see you turn around—surprised, smiling, your eyes sparkling, an underwater cavernous limestone blue—‘Hey, when did you get on?’ you ask, and try to stand up as you jolt forward, your body leaving your seat, as you find a way to balance yourself and move toward me)—but I stay still, and we remain where we are.

I watch you. I don’t see your face. It’s a strange feeling, as if I were no longer me, or were somewhere else completely, or I had simply disappeared, evaporated, from here and now. It occurs to me I had never up until then, seen you. In your completeness.

In your solitude.

I wonder what you are like without me.

Yourself plus the world minus me.

It’s a strange feeling, but I feel a lightness and clarity. A bright whiteness shines through me.

I can see an outline of myself.

We ride across the water. You look out. At that moment, I see your face, reflected in the glass, translucent, overlaid with reflections of the brilliant blue rippling water, the passing trees, and the sky.

I wonder sometimes whether you are lost in your own thoughts.

 

‘When the sun is folded up, and the stars fall, the mountains are made to move, and the seas boil, then every soul shall understand what it has done.’ (The Quran)

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HC Hsu was born in Taipei. He is the author of the short story collection Love Is Sweeter (Lethe, May 2013). Finalist for the 2013 Wendell Mayo Award and The Austin Chronicle 21st Short Story Prize, and Third Prize Winner of the 2013 Memoir essay competition, he has written for Liberty Times, Epoch Times, Words Without Borders, Two Lines, PRISM International, Renditions, Far Enough East, Cha, Pif Magazine, Big Bridge, nthposition, 100 Word Story, and many others. He has served as translator for the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China and is currently a research fellow at the Europäische Universität für Interdisziplinäre Studien, Switzerland. Email: khsuhc[at]gmail.com

The Adolescent Letters

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
Anna Shuster


The Adolescent Letters
Photo Credit: Anna Shuster

A warm August wind followed me down the street to the mailbox, playing with the corners of the envelope in my hand. Inside that unassuming swathe of white lay everything I’d never said to her, everything I hoped would break the silence stretching between us.

We’d been best friends. I just hoped these few words could bring that back.

I waited the rest of the summer for an answer, some little white letter that would tell me everything was ok. But that answer didn’t come until alarm clocks and school bells once again appeared in my life.

I’d almost forgotten about my pathetic attempts at communication when I found it—a folded piece of yellow legal paper peeking out of my backpack. Its blue lines revealed a tumble of apologies scrawled in the loopy, half-cursive script that could only have been penned by my best friend.

I read and reread these half-explanations dipped in guilt, signed with her distinctive nickname, and found myself trying to reassure the paper that everything was all right.

If my foggy eyes were any indication, I needed that same convincing.

I realize I still haven’t responded to your letter. How inconsiderate. I really enjoyed it, if I haven’t already mentioned that. I probably haven’t. Basically, don’t worry about me. I know that right now you’re scoffing while reading this. But it’s the truth. I’ll be fine. Things have just been weird recently. And I’m a stupid teenager. However, the most important thing: DO NOT TAKE THIS PERSONALLY. Please. Trust me when I say that it’s better that I’m withdrawing from all—and I mean all—of humanity right now. For everyone involved. Look, you’re an amazing person and an even more amazing friend. I do not want to lose that. Having said that: it’d be both rude and stupid of me to force you to wait for me until I get out of this. If you choose to, wonderful. I’d be eternally grateful. Stay happy. Stay you. You’re beautiful. -CRSFD

My heart broke a little bit more with each word, but the last six almost did me in entirely. Deep breaths filled the next few seconds of my life, and I glanced around to make sure no one could see the raw emotion I was feeling.

I realized after composing myself that I had to make a choice. Abandoning her completely was out of the question, obviously. But more choices remained: would I try to bring her out of this self-imposed isolation, or would I hope and wait for her to come back?

Being the coward I was, I opted for the latter.

That’s not to say I didn’t try—briefly. One day I went with her to the music room, a favorite secluded spot we’d both discovered. But my attempts at conversation were snatched from my mouth by melancholy piano refrains.

I didn’t try anymore after that.

In retrospect, I realize that was a risk—I could have lost her for good. But mercifully for my foolish self, she did come back.

Her resurrection came in the form of a chai tea latte and a proposal one sudden afternoon. She remembered the letter I’d written months ago, and wanted a return to that kind of correspondence. Though this offer seemed to me to come from out of the blue, I wholeheartedly agreed. Then, finally, the awkward, obligatory smile she’d worn around me for so long widened into a legitimate grin.

The next morning, a neatly folded piece of legal paper awaited me in my otherwise chaotic locker.

I fumbled it open and devoured the words it offered me. After reading and rereading what she’d taken the time to write to me, I began a carefully crafted reply on my own white, lined pages.

From there spun several months of the good old days. Laughing, talking, and confiding wedged themselves into our days, and penning letters back and forth took up many of our nights. We would insert doodles and song lyrics into the margins, inking every surface of the lined pages we sent back and forth. Hers were always better than mine.

Some days, I would just sit and admire the artistry she put into her letters. Others, she’d give me more to marvel at. One day, I remember clearly, a delicate origami butterfly sat waiting for me among my textbooks. That was a good day.

From this newfound correspondence our old friendship was reborn. We went to concerts and record stores together. We played music together and talked about everything: boys, classes, British musicians, guilt, depression. Our letters were always filled with some kind of passionate discussion of life, love, or how much we hated chem class.

And we were supportive, naturally, but in the oddest ways. I still remember the days after I broke up with my first boyfriend, and how she drew little cartoons to make me feel better. They worked.

As the year began its race towards the finish line, though, letters were more hurried. School work took priority over doodles, vocab words replaced heartfelt ones.

In short, the honeymoon ended.

We started running out of things to say before conversations even started. Letters became more awkward, words more forced. We tried to keep up the dialogue between us, but it was crumbling. I didn’t think much of this slow descent at the time, but she did.

Without my notice, she started retreating into herself again, bit by bit. But this time, I wasn’t the one who could save her. Another friend, a better friend, swooped in for the rescue.

Soon enough, she was encased in a new fortress of friends. I sat outside the gates, unable to shake the feeling that I’d failed somehow.

By now it’s summer once again, and the letters have long stopped coming. I open up the box I keep them in, take in their familiar, musty scent. I pick through them one by one, remembering the stories behind each one. I keep picking through them, memory by memory, until I’m right back at the beginning, walking down the road with a little white envelope in my hand.

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Anna is a high school student and managing editor of her school paper. Writing, music, and F. Scott Fitzgerald are the main focal points of her life. She loves more than she probably should, but she doesn’t mind. Email: bluemoonesp[at]gmail.com

Being My Mom

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Amy Gantt


Being My Mom
Photo Credit: Amy Gantt

In the spring of 1992, when I was seventeen years old, I got out the purple pen I’d bought myself with the money I earned cleaning the furniture store in the tiny downtown of Wallace, North Carolina. I sat on my bed, my notebook balanced against my knees, and I chewed on my pen as I thought about what I wanted to say to her, how honest I wanted to be. And, dry-eyed, I wrote Mama a letter.

Then, shaking, I carefully folded it in thirds and sealed it in a plain, white envelope and printed her name on the outside in purple block letters. I wondered when she’d get the letter, how long I’d carry around this knot of worry in my gut.

When she called me into her room to talk, I slouched in, hands buried in my pockets, and I refused to meet her eyes. I was afraid that I’d see she’d been crying.

“I don’t even understand what this is,” she said. “What does this say?” She pointed at a scrawl of names.

“Those are,” I said. “I mean, these are the people you work with, you know, L.D. and Verna and Ray and all them. And that—” I pointed at a nearly illegible scrawl. “That says ‘an-guh-tham.’ I didn’t know how to spell it. You know, that thing you have to watch while you’re working.”

“Oh,” she said. After a long, miserable pause, she said, “So this is how you feel about me.”

“No, Mama, I mean, I guess. I just—I just wish that things were different. I thought they would be, after Daddy left.”

“I don’t see you helping out much,” she said. “I have to work. I wish I could be around with y’all all the time, but I can’t.”

“But when you are here, you just, I mean, like, the other night, when James was so upset. I mean, he’s only nine years old, and I had to go and get him to stop crying.”

“That wasn’t any of your business,” Mama said. “You didn’t even know what was going on, and when you undermine me like that it doesn’t make it any easier.”

“I just didn’t want him to be so upset.” I felt the unshed tears burning behind my eyes, and I looked up into Mama’s face for the first time. There was anger and under that, pain, and under that, the exhaustion of Sisyphus.

I sagged under the weight of what I’d done, fucked it up again.

“Are we done?” I asked.

“I guess, unless you have anything else you want to say.”

I shook my head.

*

Mama,

First of all, I love you, and this is extremely difficult for me to do simply because I love you. However, there are some things I need to tell you. If I tried to talk to you, you would hear me, but you wouldn’t really comprehend what I’d be saying. Please read this and think about what I’m writing.

I value our friendship, but I am your daughter. That’s hard enough without having to be your best friend. I have my own life, and I really need to live it myself. You tell me almost everything, but when was the last time you sat down and really, really listened to me or asked if everything was going okay? If you have asked me, I know you didn’t really want to hear that I have been severely depressed since school started, and that I have prayed time and again just to die, to go home. I enjoy talking with you, but I have to say what I have to say in short bursts because you seem to only pause with your narratives about Brian, Ray, Verna, the jimco, the angatham, James Keene, L.D., or whoever, to catch your breath. We’re not talking; you’re talking. We used to be close because you listened but now you talk and talk and talk; and then you get angry when I am tired and want to go to bed. After I’m gone next year, don’t dump on Kevin, please. Find a friend outside of work, a female friend that you can trust and talk to. I know you’ve got to talk to someone about Ray, but that someone shouldn’t be me. I’m your daughter for God’s sake.

I know you love me, if for no other reason than the fact that I’m your daughter, but when are you going to be my mom? You’ve been my friend, my enemy, and my sister since I’ve been an adolescent, but what I need most is a mom. I wish that you had been tougher, made rules and made sure I stuck by them. You are fortunate that I am more mature than the average seventeen-year-old, because I would have really taken advantage of your inconsistencies. Be tougher on the boys; they need to know what to expect from you, always. Don’t get angry with me for wanting to go out with my friends, whether they’re the Bowdens or Ann Marie. I need friends outside of this family as much as you do. Also, don’t resent my friends. I’m not trying to find someone to take your place, but I do need a break from our family, as much as I love you and the boys. Support me, but don’t monopolize me.

Do you remember when I got my first report card this year? It was the best report card I’d ever gotten, and all you had to say was “That’s good.” And James got on the B Honor Roll for the first time and he was so proud, but you didn’t give him a pat on the back either. No matter what we do, we never feel like it’s good enough for you. Give us a pat on the back, don’t take us for granted. Before Daddy left, I asked you once if you would spend more time with us once Daddy left, and you said yes. You talked about going fishing and walking in the woods, and “exploring” like we used to do when I was small. Now it seems that you have no time for anyone but Ray. You’ve got to be uptown at 8:00 because Ray worked late. You get off at 12:00 on Sunday, but you spend the afternoon with Ray, not us. I know you love Ray, but you see him seven days a week, or if you don’t go to work, you spend the entire day looking for him. Why not take that Sunday afternoon to take us walking at the river? We need you, Mama, but you’re seldom there for us.

Every time I tell you something about a guy that I like, or a secret dream that I have, or anything like that, you laugh at me, or him, or my dream. I’m not talented enough, or he’s too old, or that’s stupid. You don’t know how much your discouragement hurts me. For example, when I told you that I wanted to take a course in acting in college, you laughed at me and told me that I would never be able to do anything like that. Mama, I love acting, not as a career, but as a hobby. Don’t destroy my dreams, my hopes, my ambitions. I need them, too. You also hurt me deeply when you say stuff like “What happened to your hair?” or “Your makeup looks terrible!” or “I hate those clothes.” Did you ever realize how much I idolized you? No longer. I am too disillusioned with you to ever worship you the way I once did. I’ve been hurt too deeply too many times. Please don’t disillusion the boys. They need a mom, as much if not more than I do. Love them, be there for them, and above all, show them what a mother is supposed to be like. It’s too late for me, but not for them. I hope we can get things straight.

Loveya,

Amy

*

“I think,” I said, furrowing my brow the way I always do when I’m trying to articulate something that’s only been an itch in a dusty corner of my mind. “I think that my mom always just kind of wanted to be a mom. She loved being a mom, and now that we’re bigger and don’t need her so much anymore, she doesn’t know what to do. So she just holds on tighter.” I was 21 years old, four months into my first real relationship with a woman, and Allie was furious that Mama had tried to guilt me into going to her nursing school graduation instead of camping along the river with her.

The truth was, I did feel guilty. I mean, really, it was just a graduation—not a funeral or something. I didn’t even see the point of my own graduation, a year off. Certainly, my high school graduation had been one big day of bullshit. The last time I saw my father, the man who had caused me so much pain, was the day of my high school graduation. He sat with Mama and her parents and my brothers, and he wept openly as I sat on the stage, glaring at him. I channeled my rage into my valedictory speech, starting with a quote about suicide and finishing with an imperative to my class to get as far from Wallace-Rose Hill High School as possible, even if—maybe because—it was home. When he disappeared again, after a dinner of fried seafood at the Magnolia Restaurant, I was relieved. I was done with that part of my life, and good riddance.

And now, Mama was finally getting her nursing degree. I had a girlfriend, who I’d already moved in with, already exchanged plain gold bands with, who wanted me to be a grown-up and listen to my partner—my new family—and not my mother, who was part of my old family.

“She needs to quit trying to control everything you do. I don’t even like hearing you talk to her on the phone ’cause I know you’re just going to give into whatever she wants.” Allie’s eyes hardened and her lips tightened in a line, just like her mother’s did when she was angry. “She’s got a problem with you because you’re a lesbian, and you need to start standing up for yourself for a change.”

Allie was right. I did need to stand up for myself. Every time I was with Mama, I fell into the same patterns we’d created over my lifetime—I wanted to please her, to make her proud, to be a good daughter and a good friend. I wanted to give Mama whatever she wanted or needed, no matter what. No matter if I had to give up parts of myself to make her happy. No matter if I had to avoid mentioning my girlfriend to keep from seeing her look of disapproval.

But I was right, too. Mama really had loved being a mom.

“Why did you quit college?” I asked Mama during one of our late-night talks after my brothers had gone to bed. I sat on the floor of her dark bedroom, my back resting against her dresser. I stared at the glow on the tip of her cigarette. She took a long drag and the glow flared, bathing her face in orange shadow. I loved these talks, and I dreaded them, too. I was a senior in high school, struggling with the emotional fall-out of no longer needing to protect myself from my father, and feeling in some indefinable way that I was responsible for keeping the rest of my family together. These talks made me feel like her equal; they made me feel like she relied on me as her equal, like a grown-up, with all the fears and responsibilities that went with it.

“Well, I didn’t really want to go to college,” she said, “but Grandmama and Granddaddy told me I had to. So I went to UNC-Greensboro, about as far away from home as I could get.”

I nodded, even though I knew she couldn’t really see me in the dark. I wasn’t surprised that Grandmama and Granddaddy expected her to go to college—they were probably surprised it was even a question. They were both college-educated, and as far as I knew, Grandmama had worked her whole life as a teacher. Grandmama’s mother hadn’t gone to college, and when she left Grandmama’s abusive father, she worked hard to make sure that all three of her daughters went to college. They needed to be able to take care of themselves, not to rely too much on someone else to take care of them. Granddaddy was from a highly-educated family of lawyers and businessmen, people who read and worked hard and did everything right, always.

There was no way Mama was going to get away with skipping college, in their minds.

“I met your daddy while I was at UNC-G,” Mama said. She sounded a little wistful, a little sad.

“But he didn’t go there,” I said. “How did you meet him?” Daddy was six years older than Mama, and he’d only managed one year of Bible college before he dropped out. I knew the story of how they’d met from Daddy’s point of view. He’d told me on one of those mornings when he’d invaded my bedroom. He’d bragged about how he could get any college girl into bed, and when he saw Mama on the tennis courts, he had to have her.

“I met him at the tennis courts on campus, not long after I got to Greensboro, and we just started going out. I told Grandmama and Granddaddy that we were going to get married. They were not happy. But eventually they agreed, when we threatened to elope to South Carolina, but they said I’d have to wear Aunt Linda’s wedding dress. They wouldn’t buy me my own.” She took another drag of the cigarette, and I listened to the familiar hiss and crackle. She exhaled and smoke swirled through the darkness. “They made me promise I’d stay in school, but I hated it then. I tried going to a technical school for graphic arts, but I hated that, too. I just wanted to have a baby and stay home and play with you, so I did.”

She was nineteen when she and Daddy got married at the First Baptist Church in Wallace. She was twenty when I was born. I’d counted the months so many times, hoping I’d find out that she’d been pregnant when she got married, that there was some compelling reason for her to marry him. Something other than love. But she wasn’t. I was born almost exactly a year after they said their vows.

“I almost left him,” she said quietly. “When you were a baby. Things were bad, and I just couldn’t put up with it anymore, so I packed up all our stuff and put you in your carseat and started driving back to Wallace. But then a Kenny Rogers song came on the radio, and it was so sweet, about all the things he missed about the woman he loved, and I started thinking about what I’d miss about Daddy, and I just turned around and went back.” I heard the shrug, the it is what it is, in her voice.

I thought about what my life would’ve been like in that alternate timeline. I wondered what made her want to leave then, but when things had been really bad for so long, she still grieved when he finally packed his things and drove back to his hometown. Had he hit her? Had he had an affair with a woman who was younger and who hadn’t just had a baby? I’d never know. If she’d left, my brothers never would’ve been born, and I thought about whether I would have given them up for the chance to grow up without an alcoholic monster for a father.

I wondered what it would have been like, just me and Mama, a team against the world.

Mama stayed home with us until I was eleven, and she threw herself into being the kind of mom she had wanted to be when she dropped out of college. We played in the yard of whatever house we were living in and made up games. We walked to the library once a week during the summers to get books. She brought home butcher paper from the grocery store and taped it to the wall so we could draw murals in crayon and magic marker and watercolors. She showed us how to turn over rocks to play with the roly-polies who lived under them, and she made us promise never ever to play with snakes or spiders, not even baby ones. She took us exploring in the woods, and she organized Saturday afternoon bike trips around town, the smallest kids strapped into seats on Mama’s and Daddy’s bikes.

When we misbehaved, she’d swat us with her hand, and when we really misbehaved, she’d spank our bare legs with the flyswatter and tell us how disappointed she was. She dealt with tantrums by ignoring us, and with disobedience in public by embarrassing us or pretending to leave us behind. When we were good, the world was full of love.

When I was eight, I learned the word “recuperate,” and I felt guilty that I wanted so much for Mama to pick me up and hold me. But after her fourth child was born, Mama had to have a hysterectomy, and that meant she couldn’t pick up any of us until she was done recuperating. The four pregnancies and her return to childcare duties too soon after each one meant that her uterus dropped and pressed on her bladder, making her incontinent. She put a clean towel down everywhere she sat, even in the car to go to the grocery store. While she was in the hospital, Daddy bought her a new car that she hadn’t leaked on, a used brown station wagon that, he assured me, would not need me to pound on the starter to get it to crank, and wouldn’t need to be driven backwards when the transmission fluid leaked out, either.

We stood in the parking lot around the new car and waved at Mama, up in her hospital room. She tried to smile, but I could see the pain and desperation in her face. Later, I heard the arguments. How were we going to be able to make car payments when we could hardly afford rent and utilities and clothes and groceries and diapers?

By the time I was a senior in high school, thinking of college as an escape rather than a sentence, we didn’t have to worry about Daddy’s impulse purchases, or the loans he’d take out at the pawn shop, or the bills he claimed to pay and didn’t. And, finally, Mama was going back to school.

“I tried to go back to school sometimes,” Mama said, stubbing out her cigarette. The smell of burning filter filled the room and I wrinkled my nose. “Every time I’d try, though, Daddy would get all pissy. Supper wasn’t cooked on time, or the laundry wasn’t finished, or y’all needed more attention. He’d get mad every time I tried to do my homework. So I just gave up.”

“But now you can go back,” I said.

She’d decided she wanted to be a nurse, and she was going to James Sprunt Community College in the fall. “Just basic stuff the first year, English and math and history and stuff. I’ve still got to work to keep a roof over y’all’s head,” she said. And she did it, too, working long shifts at StevcoKnit on the weekends and at nights, while going to school full time. When she couldn’t keep up with the schoolwork, the shift work, and the mom-work anymore, she asked for a layoff. The company was already cutting back on their staff, and they agreed. She and my brothers lived on unemployment and student loans, and she got her degree in three years.

I was right when I told my girlfriend that Mama had loved being a mom, and she did try to hold onto me too tightly, to tell me how I should live my life. I responded by arrogantly pushing her away. My phone calls with her were fewer and farther between, and I tried not to call when Allie was around. When she was, though, Allie listened intently for any hint that I was giving into Mama. “And why do you always have to call her?” Allie asked. “She’s just trying to manipulate you into feeling guilty again. She ought to call you if she wants to talk to you so much.”

I asked Mama why she never called me, and she sighed deeply.

“I don’t want to bother you,” she said. “I don’t know what your schedule is like, and I don’t want to disturb Allie, either.”

When Allie left me for a woman in my master’s program, I called Mama before I told anyone else, and even though I’d pushed her away and disappointed her in more ways that I could count, she immediately offered to leave right then and drive the two hours to Raleigh to bring me home.

“I can drive,” I said tearfully. “It’ll be good for me. Maybe I can clear my head some.”

“Are you sure? I don’t mind.”

“I’m sure,” I said.

When I got to the clinic where she worked as a pediatric nurse, we walked out the back door to the nurses’ smoking area, and she held me tightly and let me cry. She listened, not interrupting, not telling me that it was for the best, or that she’d known all along that it would never work out. She just held me.

*

It was the fall of 2007, and Mama was dying. My husband and I had flown home for my brother Kevin’s wedding reception, and we helped Mama with the preparations for the brunch she was hosting at the newlyweds’ home the morning after the party. She dragged the cord for her oxygen tank around the kitchen, while she mixed up eggs and showed me the recipe she’d found for pumpkin pinwheels.

“I keep tripping over your leash,” I told her, kicking the clear plastic tubing out from under foot.

She laughed. “It is a leash, isn’t it?” She pulled it off and lit a cigarette. “I need to go pick up some stuff, some more cigarettes and soft drinks and stuff. Y’all need anything?”

“A drink,” I muttered.

“You’ll have to get that yourself,” she said with mock seriousness, her eyes sparkling. “I don’t buy ‘adult beverages’.”

I stuck my tongue out at her.

She left me in charge while she went off to the store, and I royally fucked up the dough and had to start over.

“What am I supposed to do again?” I muttered at the print-out Mama had given me. I was modifying a recipe that looked like it was supposed to work and didn’t. Or maybe I couldn’t follow directions. The fear of her disappointment flooded through my body, and though I laughed with Richard at the gooey mess, I felt the old hysteria building. It had to be perfect. I could not disappoint her.

When she got back home, I admitted my mistake and showed her the mound of doughy crumbs. “It wouldn’t roll up. It just kinda did… this,” I said, waving my hand vaguely.

She teased me about not being able to cook, and picked a lump of dough off the top. “It tastes good, at least,” she said. “Do you think we’re gonna have enough?”

“I think so,” I said, pointing to the rolls of cake and frosting that were more or less behaving themselves. “What do you think? I can go get some more pumpkin if you think we need to make another couple of batches.”

“Nah, that looks fine,” she said. “There’ll be plenty of food.”

When we got to Kevin’s house, more than two hours from Wallace, I helped Mama unload all the food she’d made and all the decorations—the candles and faux fishing nets and seashells and sand dollars and beach-themed plates—she’d brought for her perfect brunch.

“What do you need me to do?” I asked.

“Nothin’,” Mama said. “I’m gonna decorate when we get back tonight, and there won’t be much to do in the morning.”

“So what time do you want me and Richard to be here tomorrow?” I asked.

She shrugged, and one of the earpieces of her oxygen tube fell off. She fitted it back with a practiced motion that reminded me of just how sick she was. “Whenever. I told Kevin it was from nine ’til about eleven, but people can just drop in whenever they feel like it.”

“Okay, that sounds good,” I said.

Richard and I got to Kevin’s the next morning around quarter to nine.

“Where have you been?” Mama hissed. “I still haven’t got the decorations up yet, and people’ll be here any minute!”

“I, well. I’m sorry, Mama,” I said. “I thought you had everything under control.”

“I just wasn’t expecting you to sleep all mornin’,” she said.

I clenched my fists and put them deep in my pockets.

By the time we got back to Mama’s house, pain and exhaustion lined her face.

“I guess we should start packing up,” I said to her. “Do you want me to get you anything first?”

“Yeah,” she said. “Can you go get me a Diet Sun Drop? And I’ll change clothes and feed the dog, and then I can sit down and rest a minute.”

“Sure,” I said.

When I got back from the kitchen, she was still standing up, wearing one of her knee-length knit nightgowns, waiting for me. “I wanted to give you this,” she said. Her mouth was in a line, her blue eyes flat.

“What is it?” I asked, taking the envelope from her. I looked, and recognized my purple handwriting. “Oh,” I said.

“So now you have it back,” she said. “Now I need to just sit down and have a cigarette. I am tired.”

I slouched back through the house, burning with remembered humiliation and fear, wondering why she had given the letter back. Forgiveness? To remind me, when she was just months from death, that I had hurt her? To show me what a stupid kid I’d been? To remind me of all the disappointments, all the anger, we’d experienced over the years?

When Allie left me eight years before, I’d fallen right back into Mama’s orbit, with her on the periphery of all the decisions I’d made. She had cast her shadow on every memory, creeping into all my dark nights and standing beside me through all my fuck-ups. She gave me advice when I worried I’d gotten an STD, she reassured me when I didn’t get interviews for jobs I thought I wanted, she teased me and laughed with me, and cheered for me when I moved to Boston. Somehow, simultaneously, she saw me both as her baby and as myself, even as we repeated the well-worn grooves of our fears and our failures and our love.

And, I decided, that’s what she was doing when she handed back the letter, just as she had always done—just being there, being my mom.

Some names have been changed.

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Amy Gantt grew up in rural North Carolina and moved to the Boston area eight years ago. She writes grant proposals for a university, and she writes true stories about her life, particularly about family relationships and how those relationships don’t end, even after death. She is currently working on a memoir about caring for her mother as she died of ovarian cancer, and when she loses her nerve, she recites the words tattooed on her left arm: “Remember your name, Do not lose hope. What you seek will be found. Trust ghosts. […] Trust your heart, and trust your story.” Email: amygantt74[at]gmail.com

Brief from Oma

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
Laura Story Johnson


Brief from Oma
Photo Credit: Laura Story Johnson

When their family finally got off Ellis Island, my great-great-grandfather purchased his five daughters and one son the biggest orange he had ever seen. He splurged to celebrate their feet touching New York City streets. My great-grandmother coughed and so they’d waited and waited in the warren of rooms, praying that the harbor breeze would clear her lungs, blow them forward: deliverance. “If she goes back, we will all go back,” my great-great-grandfather said. Back to Germany, back to starvation. It was November, 1923 and my great-grandmother was twelve years old. It took her a few days to recover from the two weeks on the ocean, but the officials eventually let them through. My great-great-grandfather cut the orange, split it between his thin and worn family. Hope tasted sour and they had to choke it down.

My great-grandmother would laugh when she told of the grapefruit they all confused with an orange. Her laugh rumbled in her lungs, triggered a cough that never really went away, just like her accent. In America she learned English and became a teacher. She taught her students to say Jamaica: “Yamyaca.” She fell in love and married a horseman, keeping her marriage a secret because teachers could not marry. Eventually she delivered the twins she’d hidden under her dress and learned to cook. At the restaurant she made meals for businessmen, city folk. At home on the farm she made tiny cookies with aniseed, hardtack I hated as a child and longed for as an adult.

After I graduated from college she continued to mail me boxes of the tiny cookies: “kleügens” she called them. My new boyfriend knew them as pfeffernüsse. We ate them together at our plastic kitchen table looking out the window across our Soviet apartment complex. We dipped them in warm water that tasted, faintly, of coffee. I fiddled with the emptied packets of “Coffee King: American Flavor” from the window shop under our stairs as I told him about my Oma. Her strength was the reason I’d moved, the foundation that made me brave enough to seek meaning in foreign places. She always told me to see the world. And there I sat, around the world from her, eating something she had cooked in her Iowa kitchen. I could see her hands: long fingers, knuckles large with arthritis and farming, working the dough into little balls. They were my hands. Or, my hands were hers. The weight of a family recipe that had traveled so far sank in my chest and I suddenly longed to be closer to her. I wanted to soak her up before an inevitable happening that I couldn’t say out loud would occur. Instead I choked down the lump in my throat and put the rest of the kleügens in our cupboard.

I wrote her letters from Mongolia and told her the things we were experiencing. She wrote me back, sometimes confusing German with English as her mind so filled with life let the bubbles of memory overflow. I visited her on a cold November day when I returned for a couple of weeks to the United States. My boyfriend’s job kept him in Mongolia while I left. She asked me about my students and told me about her time as a teacher, experiences not that far removed from the book I was reading to my third graders. I taught my students to say pioneer: “Laura.” It was my name. Or, my name was hers. Some of my students thought that I was Laura Ingalls Wilder and that the book told the story of my life in America. I would laugh when I told of their confusion.

Laura Ingalls Wilder was a teacher too. Like my Oma, she was only a teenager when she first stood in front of a classroom. Like my Oma, she married a man who loved farming and horses. Like my Oma, the stories of her childhood seemed a world away and yet were mine. Everything had changed since she was a girl. In a lifetime the places she knew became unrecognizable. I realized that my students lived in a place where, seemingly, nothing had ever changed.

When a Mongolian colleague hosted us at her home, a ger on the steppe, I watched her third grade son gather dung for the fire. He was struggling in my class, grappling with the pronunciation of English words. He couldn’t understand our book, but maybe it wasn’t the words. What I understood seeing him leap onto a horse bareback was that for him that life, my Oma’s life, my life, were all the same. Time meant nothing; it was just foreign. When I was home, time meant everything. I held my Oma’s hand and we sat together on her couch, looking at the autumn leaves out the window and making plans for the summer when I would be back.

Like my Oma, I fell in love while I was a teacher. I decided to leave my job in Mongolia at the end of the school year to return home. My boyfriend decided to go with me. We knew we wanted to get married, but I needed him to meet my Oma, to be a part of my family before he joined my family. I mailed my Oma a picture of the two of us smiling and wearing red hats against the falling snow of Ulaanbaatar. I sent Russian fur hats home as gifts and sewed stockings out of silk from China. At Christmas we set the box of kleügens out in our living room and ate them with cocoa we made from grinding up chocolate bars into warmed milk. I wrote my great-grandmother a card and taught my boyfriend to say words in German. Letter: “brief.”

It was an unusually warm April day when my mother called. A postcard to my Oma, a picture of three little Mongolian boys holding lambs tucked in their del, sat on my desk. I’d typed it to make it easier for her to read, used a new ribbon in my ancient Olivetti. I wrote that I felt the energy of spring and told her we would be home in July; we’d already purchased our tickets. Then my mother’s broken voice said it out loud and hanging up the phone was an impossible happening. I let the foreign beeping of an ended phone call carry me with it, my hands, her hands, the phone’s cradle. Eventually I walked to my desk and clutched the postcard to my heart. I wept knowing that she would never receive it. Summer came early to Mongolia that year, but it was too late. I was too far away and couldn’t go back for the funeral.

A week after my mom’s phone call all of our snow had melted. On a beautiful Sunday afternoon my boyfriend and I hiked to the hills outside of Ulaanbaatar. There on a sunbaked ledge he built an ovoo, an offering of sticks sculpted into the celebration of a life, of all life. The ovoo pointed out across the valley toward the mountains we could see on the other side, shimmering in the distance. I faced west, home, and breathed in the warm blue sky. Then I sat on a rock and wrote my last letter to my Oma. I filled the page and strung a piece of string through it, tying it to the ovoo along with two blue prayer scarves. I held my boyfriend’s hand and said goodbye to her. She taught me to say goodbye: “Auf Wiedersehen.” It meant until we see each other again.

The following Tuesday morning there was an envelope waiting for me in my postal box. I couldn’t breathe when I saw the handwriting. Ten days after her death I got a letter from my Oma. She’d mailed it before she passed and suddenly there I sat in another world than her, holding something she had written. I clutched it to my heart before I could open it. When I finally did, I found another miracle. She wrote about the picture I sent her. The words were brief, but they were everything. She recognized the warmth I needed in his eyes and told me. She knew. From a picture, from a letter, they became family. I took the letter home to him and searched for the box of kleügens, tucked at the back of our cupboard. Somehow there were a few left and I ate them with the man I would marry. We didn’t dip them in anything. Kleügens soften with age.

In November she crossed an ocean. In November I crossed an ocean. In November my great-grandmother arrived in America. In November I held her hand. Beginnings. Endings. Hope. An unusually warm November day took my voice through an intense happening. I had to whisper to say her name out loud.

It was November, 2010 and my daughter was just a few minutes old. Lying with her at my breast, I stared into her black eyes, wondering at the journey, at her passage: deliverance. My husband cut an orange, split it between us. It was the sweetest thing I had ever tasted. We named our beautiful miracle after my Oma.

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Laura Story Johnson is an attorney working in human rights research and advocacy. Born and raised in Iowa, she has lived in New York City, bush Alaska, Mongolia, Boston, west of the Zambezi River in Zambia, and in Austria. Her work has appeared in the South Loop Review. She currently resides in Chicago with her husband and two young children. Email: lstory.johnson[at]gmail.com

Stepping into Summer

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
Tony Press


dsc03469.jpg
Photo Credit: Mike Linksvayer

It is colder than it looked from my living room. After three glorious days of sunshine, during which I had been pent up within walled structures, this is my morning to walk it off.

I wear my old hooded soccer sweatshirt, which for years has felt thick and warm, but today is thin and not so protective. The breeze whips off the ocean, pausing only to plant cold kisses on my face. I keep the hood on. Summer on the coast can be hot, can freeze your ass off. Yesterday we hit 85 degrees right here, and today the radio is talking about 90-plus degrees “all over” but they never mention our corner, unprotected from sudden fog—nature’s air conditioner—and crisp sea air. Yes, sometimes, we do get the heat, but we’ll see about today.

I walk up San Pedro, glancing toward Hill Street, toward 2008 grad Teresa, and her baby, whom I’ve never seen. I suspect Teresa is worried about my reaction, as I had long harped “no babies” to my classes, and especially to the trio of Teresa, Lety, and Fabiola—so strong, so intelligent, each of them. Fabiola, too, has a baby, and I did see Fabiola and her baby, by chance, a few weeks ago. It was a fun, quick conversation, and we promised to meet soon for a longer visit. We set one up, but she didn’t show. I need to contact Teresa and Fabiola. I need them to know I still love them.

Lety, as yet, has no babies, is thriving in community college, and will be accepted by the university. Whether she can afford to go is another story. Not a good one.

Brisk walking takes away the chill, and soon I am flirting with sweat.

Across from Holy Angels Church I watch streams of people entering from all directions. A blue car briefly double-parks to let out a woman with a walker. She is about my age. I used to be young. Soon she is off the street and inside for Sunday Mass. The car moves on.

Around the corner on Mission Street it is quiet again. Few cars and almost no pedestrians, but two men walk toward me before disappearing into a doorway. What could be open at 8 a.m. on a Sunday? I reach the door: Al-Anon. Good for them, and glad it wasn’t me.

I cross the street and continue north. Two more men, could be brothers to the first two. They enter Gino’s Club: “where friends meet,” a bar that may have survived both earthquakes of the last century. I check its hours: open 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. seven days a week. Not good for them, glad it wasn’t me.

Climbing the gentle Mission grade, I turn right just before the War Memorial onto a small street I hadn’t noticed before. Just a block long, then it bends into an alley. I almost take a photo of an ancient, weather-beaten house. It could be a good photo, but what would I do with it? Last night I took a couple of photos of two mariachi musicians walking down Bartlett Street in the city, ready to make their rounds. The driveway next to the old house has a Harley and two yellow tow trucks. I don’t take the photo.

I angle up to the west on Brunswick. Approaching Chelsea Court I remember that a few students live there: Susie, the sweetheart who tried to kill herself a few months ago, and Jason, one of my biggest failures last year.

Susie and a friend unexpectedly turn the corner and walk in my direction. We smile, hug, say “good morning,” and separate. She’s doing well, has good support. I think she’ll make it.

A minute later, at 9:02 a.m., Jason and a woman appear. It may be his mother or aunt, I don’t know. She doesn’t see me, and crosses the street. Jason does, and stops. I say, “good morning.” He wears the black leather jacket he lives in, the Cincinnati Reds baseball cap he must sleep in, and the smirk that, too, is all-weather, all the time. He stares for a moment, no expression of surprise, though I’ve never been on this street, says nothing, and crosses the street to join the woman. They walk up the hill on the west sidewalk and I match them, but a little behind, on the east side. I decide I will go any direction Jason doesn’t, at the next intersection. They go left so I continue straight. I walk a couple of blocks, again impressed that Jason has maintained his silence for me, hasn’t spoken to me for four months. He has determination, no question about that, and I failed him in many ways, not simply on his report card.

I’m over the hill and out of the wind. Off with the sweatshirt, it really is going to be hot. Thank you, God, I need it.

Turn another random corner and find myself on Hanover Street. Jessica, one of my first absolute wondrous students, from ten years back, lives somewhere on this street, I learned last week, but I can’t think of the address. Is it 565? Don’t know. She had a baby less than two weeks ago, and her sister, another gem, gave me the address. I walk awhile, three or four blocks, secretly hoping I might see, or be seen by, Jessica or someone who knows me. Doesn’t happen.

I spot a park a block over, and turn that way. It must be, and is, Lincoln Park. Two men do tai chi, two others shoot hoops, and two women, perhaps spouses of the first men, circumambulate the park. This is a place students love, not just for the name. I’d forgotten how small it was.

The western sky is changing from grey to blue, with a few perfect clouds, and the temperature is definitely warmer.

I see Mission Street again and walk toward it. On Mission again I realize I was actually all the way inside San Francisco, the Daly City welcome sign maybe 100 yards to my left. I look toward San Francisco, still mulling the idea of finding breakfast, but see nothing, so I head back to Daly City.

Cross over and climb Bepler, thinking that Roberto and Maila live here somewhere. I don’t see brother or sister. I do walk to the top, giving me a good view in three directions. The southern sky has joined the west as a lighter and more appealing sight. The north is still grey but I’m not going that way.

After Bepler I wind my way down toward the BART station. In the parking lot I see perhaps twenty men, and a couple of women, all dressed in black with white shirts, a conclave of religious folks. A bit later I cross paths with a man clearly on his way to join them, and his hair makes me think they might be Hassidic Jews, but I don’t remember the others looking like that. There was lots of smiling and hugging within the group. Maybe they were waiting for a chartered bus; maybe they had just been delivered by one. Maybe they’re heading for a casino, who knows?

Now on Junipero Serra, walking in front of the Century Cinema. There are people going to the movies at what, ten in the morning? The marquee shows a 10 a.m. start for a handful of slasher flicks. Happy Sunday, everyone.

Walking through the Subway and Starbucks passage, I spot Alexis, who graduated four or five years ago, setting up in Subway. There are no customers, but it is open for breakfast. We catch up across the counter. A current student, Diana, has just started working here, and she told me that her manager was a former student of mine—“Allie or Alice.” I’ve never had an Alice. The next day, Diana reported the name as Alexis, and we figured it out.

Alexis said that after just one week Diana is an excellent worker: “She knows how to do everything already.”

I told her I wasn’t surprised, that “she’s nice, intelligent, and hard-working; what else could you want?”

“And I only speak English with her,” Alexis smiled, but she was serious.

Alexis is in only by chance this morning. Last night the guy who was supposed to open today got drunk and sick in Alexis’s car as she gave him a ride home. Another passenger was hit by some of it and no one was happy. Alexis told him to stay home, she’d do the shift, which means she’ll be here for him until 2 p.m., then go to her regular 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. over at the Geneva branch.

She likes this site better; she only takes the bus when she works at the other place, because of “all the car break-ins.” Different people over there, she says.

Alexis is coaching a soccer team: the High Tides, or something like that, and is loving it. She promises to come to campus to talk to my students in September.

Time to get going. I pass Duggan’s Mortuary and think of April. I always think of her when I am here. She died last year at twenty-four, after years of struggle with an inexplicable disease. She always wanted to be Juliet in freshman English. I remember at the viewing, just before people began to speak, a man in the second row pulled out a Chronicle and started to do the crossword. Made as much sense as anything else.

Passed where Jerry’s Café used to be, where we had a “Meet and Greet” when I was managing a friend’s school board campaign, and where I didn’t use the right name for the café in the publicity. Jerry was not happy.

Cross over, and on the curve above the freeway I realize how very close I am to home. Just a year ago—last July when I was so lazy, so heavy—I would have thought, “Oh, I still have so far to go,” even if I were just coming from BART. Now I’m Paul Bunyan striding across town, covering blocks in a single step.

And on toward Washington Street, and I pass beside Fabiola’s apartment building and remind myself again I need to see her, see the baby, send a gift. Despite the two hours-plus I’ve been walking, the 12,000 steps my invisible pedometer would clock, it feels small: this morning, these neighborhoods, those memories I carry. At my mailbox I pause, wipe my forehead with my sweatshirt, and remember that if we had this weather every day, I couldn’t afford to live here. And I know if the valley hits 100, we’ll be back in the fog, and the artichoke plant will be happy.

I’ll take what I can get.

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Tony Press lives near the Pacific. His fiction appears (or will soon) in JMWW, Rio Grande Review, SFWP Journal, Toasted Cheese, The Postcard Press, Blink-Ink, BorderSenses, Switchback, Ranfurly Review, The Linnet’s Wings, Boston Literary Magazine, Qarrtsiluni, Menda City Review, Foundling Review, Temenos, Thema, MacGuffin, Shine Journal, 5×5, Lichen, and two anthologies: Crab Lines Off The Pier and Tales from the Courtroom. His poetry appears in 34th Parallel, Contemporary Verse 2, Inkwell, Spitball, Words-Myth, The Aurorean, Turning Wheel, and the anthology The Heart as Origami. Non-fiction appears soon in Quay. Email: tonypress108[at]gmail.com

Still Water

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Nancy Bouchard


Wading PEI National Park
Photo Credit: Bobcatnorth

My daughter wades in knee-deep ocean water, afraid of being eaten by a shark even though I’ve told her the water is too warm, too shallow, that I’ve been swimming in this water for over forty years and I’ve yet to see one. I tell her that sharks like warmer places to swim even though I don’t know where I got that fact from but it seems like it could be true. She rolls her eyes. She doesn’t believe me because she watches the National Geographic channel and sees people losing limbs. We’ve been here a week and she hasn’t made it in yet. She’s been doing the old lady splash, throwing water onto her arms, wiping her neck with her painted 14-year-old fingernails, never taking her eye off the horizon, seeing fins in the feathers of seagulls.

As we walk back towards the towels she tells me about a dream she had last night. A shark walked into her bedroom on human feet and sat at the bottom of her bed. She screamed for her oldest brother and he came in and put a towel over it, told her it was safe. She didn’t believe him.

“I’m canceling cable,” I tell her. “No more When Nature Attacks before we go on vacation.

“It was Shark Week not When Nature Attacks,” she says.

We sit until the sun squats low in the sky, dipping behind the big mansion squeezed between two small, weather-worn cottages. We enter week two of our vacation in a different space than when we got here. Settled into the ebb and flow of the tide and its pace, the stress of our everyday lives carried out to sea, we watch the sun go down.

The night before, at this exact moment, I was on a second date with a man named Ken even though I didn’t much care for him on the first date. Determined to change my strategy about my habit of trusting men that shouldn’t be trusted, I decided to look at things logically. If all of my instincts about the men I was drawn to up to this point had been so horribly wrong I figured I should go against instinct. I texted him that I was at the beach soul-searching and I was sorry I never called him back. He texted back, Can I pick you up, take you to dinner, walk the beach with you and maybe you can tell me what you’ve discovered in your soul. I texted back, Yes, to the beach, yes, to the walk, no to the soul.

I’m getting better. I’ve pulled back the curtain for men who have wanted to look inside, only to find out they were in search of a weakness, my Achilles’ heel.

Ken was polite, funny, smart, financially successful, well-traveled, had decent table manners, and when he spoke, the tense of his subjects matched his verbs. It’s the little things. He also had good shoulders, wide caps that sat atop some decent biceps. We ate clams and steak at a restaurant that overlooked the marsh.

We walked the beach after dinner and of course, the conversation turned to past relationships. Before I was married and divorced, the golden rule of dating was that you don’t talk about your ex-whatevers. Every man I’ve dated or been in a relationship with since my divorce has wanted to know what happened, what went wrong. Wanted to know how many men I’ve been in relationships with; in other words, how many men I have slept with. As if.

I mentioned that I was hurt badly in my last attempt at love and I am guarded, that my heart seems sometimes to be in transition. I told him that I’ve had tenants, but no owners. I told him that Jack, the last man to rent out space, had a secret he kept from me. I kept it simple but the little I said was too much.

“An affair?” he asked me.

“No, not an affair.”

“Prison record?”

“No.”

“Oh,” he said, “a disease, he put you at risk for something.” And I noticed those broad shoulders that I had a second before admired, pulled back a little, the corners of his mouth and bottom lip went a little tighter.

“No.”

“Okay, don’t tell me, I want to guess.”

“I’m not telling you anyway,” I said and I knew the rest of the night he was thinking about it, trying to imagine what it could be. He thought he would find out something about me if he could uncover the tragic flaw of the last man I loved. I didn’t tell him that it’s not that simple. I didn’t tell him that I’m not that girl anymore so even if he knew it doesn’t matter. I didn’t tell him because there’s a part of me that agrees with the assumption that I am the sum of the men I’ve loved. That the act of choosing them in fact reveals my own tragic character flaw. I said goodbye to Ken and realized there was a reason I never called him back. Progress.

My aunt visits the next day and brings cannoli, pistachio muffins, and her own heartache like an anchor. She, too, has swum in unsafe waters. She says it’s because we are both Cancers, actually born on the same day in July, thirteen years apart. She says it’s because we are moon children and ruled by the changing tide. We both agree, sitting there on the beach, that there is no hope. That we are fatally flawed when it comes to finding love and that now at forty-something and fifty-something, we are simply no longer willing to take the risk.

Emma has been hovering enough feet away that she can’t hear our conversation but walks over and rips off her cover-up. “I’m ready,” she says.

“Really?” I ask.

“Will you come in with me?”

“Let’s go,” I say.

We make our down to the water’s edge as the last bits of sun are visible on the horizon. And the three of us, three generations, stand where the tide meets the sand. Emma grabs ahold of my hand.

“I don’t want you to come in,” she says.

I nod, afraid to say anything that will change her mind.

“You watch for sharks, okay?” she says.

“I will,” I tell her. And I watch as she pushes back the tide. I watch as she dives into a wave, surfacing right after it breaks, turns back around and smiles. And together we feel the sun.

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Nancy lives with her three children and their arthritic rottweiler. They all swim in the chilly New England water and have yet to fall victim to a shark attack. In those other months of the year, Nancy teaches English to high school students, eats dark chocolate, drinks too much coffee, and makes up excuses to skip the gym. Email: peacelovingchic[at]gmail.com

The Land Between Two Rivers

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
Bint Arab


Tigris
Photo Credit: Adam Henning

When Hulagu Khan, Genghis’s grandson, attacked the land between two rivers, he destroyed Baghdad. The Tigris turned black with ink from the books his Mongols took from the libraries and threw into the water. Hundreds of thousands of bodies filled the alleys and paved the roads: men and women, adults and children and babies—everyone. He had to move his camp upwind to avoid the stench of the corpses. Blood flowed so thick the fighters stood ankle-deep in it. The rivers were black, and the streets were red.

The year was 1258 CE. The rivers bore witness; follow the rivers and you follow the story.

Hulagu Bush, the son, will attack Baghdad in 2003 CE. It will mark the end of the siege. By then I will be exhausted from years of rationing cups of sugar, flour, and rice. Relief will bring me to tears, not once but twice.

My scalp will prickle whenever I think of the petrol tanks on the top floor of our house, but we will not be hit by missiles.

I will stop going to Monsoor Girls’ High School one year short of graduation because Mama will make me stay home with her. I won’t know how well my school survived the bombing and the looting. My cousin Fadia, my father’s sister’s daughter, will tell me that our school still stands, though the blue tile mosaic over the entrance has gone, crushed to powder. In a casual, throwaway tone, she will say that the fountain in the courtyard crumbled and stands empty, dry as the desert. I will tell her that her haircut is old-fashioned, jealous that she will graduate though I was always smarter than her. I will feel a little guilty at the sight of her flushed cheeks and will offer to cut her hair myself.

Mama’s hair will turn white in those first three days after the invasion. She will use henna to hide it.

Abu Taif’s bakery, the little stone building a five-minute walk from my old high school, will stay open on the day of the invasion, and he will make certain that everyone knows that he has to. He will be ordered: Bake or die. Father will buy Abu Taif’s loaves, but Mama will continue to buy bread from Umm Hussein because hers are so airy and full of holes on the inside. When I go with Mama to pick up the bread, Umm Hussein will say: Whatever God decides will come to pass. In exchange for a cup of our flour, Umm Hussein will bake bread for us and wish blessings upon us. Her diamond-shaped loaves of sammoon will always have the crisp, golden patches that I love. After the invasion, her family will stay in their home a few blocks east of us, though the Hanafis next door to them will warn the Shi’ites to leave for everyone’s sake. For the sake of peace and safety. For the love of God. Leave or we will all pay the price.

Two weeks after Umm Hussein’s family moves, the Hanafis’ generator will explode.

Neither rivers of ink nor rivers of blood will mark the American invasion. Hard drives will have replaced books, and besides, the rivers will be so low that no one will bother to throw anything in them. Father, son of Omar, will say that we don’t need water from the rivers. We come from desert people. I will know that he is lying: we came from book-reading, aqueduct-building people. People who had built the walls of Mustansiriyya College six-feet thick to keep the heat out. They couldn’t think when they were thirsty any more than I can.

Poets and scholars had made Baghdad, the land between two rivers. The land between wars. Between thirsts. When the rivers finally dry out completely, surely then Baghdad will turn to dust and blow away on the wind, and no one will be left to bear witness.

When the Americans come, stories will pool in alleys and doorways, stories about bread and petrol, cement and cables and fire. Two days before the invasion, six columns of smoke from defense trenches of oil set on fire will surround our neighborhood like the points of a star. The rivers won’t turn black, but the sky will. It will make me choke and gag.

Bridges built and re-built with each new war will be bombed again: al-Sarafiyyah. al-A’immah. al-Adhamiyyah. More than I can name. For six months, the best way to cross the river will be by boat. After the invasion, the fisherman Abu Laith will not be able to make a living from fishing so he will become a ferryman. Father will pay Abu Laith a quarter of a dinar whenever he needs to cross the Tigris in that motorboat-that-used-to-be-a-fishing-boat. Because the bridges will be impassable, our stories will back up and fill the streets, a scummy green lapping against the walls of people’s houses. Sometimes the stories will run into the sewers and drip into the rivers where the waters will record them.

Often our stories will just turn yellow.

It will rain in the winter, then hail will fall, then it will rain again. And throughout the summer we will not have water.

Reeds and other wet things that grow along the riverbanks will die out. As a young man, my Uncle Tariq, Father’s oldest brother, went swimming in the Tigris one day, never to return alive. Weeds had grasped his legs and held him under long after my father, just a boy then, went home. There will be no weeds to rescue me. As an old man, Father’s eyes won’t tear up at the tale of his brother. We won’t have water to spare for that kind of thing. It will be enough that the river remembers.

The market near al-Adhamiyyah bridge that had been full of fat fish with bright red gills and clear eyes will become barren. Abu Laith’s stall will be empty. Father will say the fish are small and stinky and he won’t waste our money on them. Father will be old by then; he will have forgotten how smelly all fish were even before the Americans came. I won’t go with him to the market to judge for myself because there will be no point.

I will find light pink dust in my ears, in my hair, between my fingers. Father will think I’m too young to remember how it was, but he will be wrong. I am ancient like the rivers.

I was and always will be.

When the Americans come, the streets will stay dry. Blood won’t run here; it will burn and turn to ash before it hits the ground.

How could anyone bleed from a bullet wound if dust runs through their veins?

Faces will blacken, if you could even tell they had been faces. Hajji Majeed’s flesh will fuse with his steering wheel at the traffic circle by the fifteenth police station. They will say that he was kidnapped and forced to blow himself up or his family would be slaughtered.

The smell of burning plastic will join forces with the smell of burning garbage.

My cousin Zaid, my mother’s sister’s son, will be splattered against the wall of a bookstore on Mutanabbi Street. He will have written his name on a paper kept in his boot. His mother will wail but she won’t cry.

Our jasmine plant will stop flowering in June and dry up. Mama will not throw the woody stems out. She will say that she is waiting for the water to come back so she can revive the plant.

We will leave the faucets on so that when water trickles through, the bowls and buckets underneath will catch the drips. Whenever a drop rips itself from the kitchen spout, I will know from the deep ping that follows how full the jar beneath it is.

It will drip. Sometimes. Mostly it will just be quiet.

The house will be louder when my brother Haitham is home. He will grow four centimeters in one summer. He will tell me that his school is still there, just lacking books and windows. The plastic sheets they tape over the window frames will not keep the heat out. I will try to show Haitham some things from my old texts, but he won’t respect me like a real teacher; he will only be interested in the pictures. Even I will get bored with my old books. The green cloth cover will be faded and frayed, with grey cardboard bones showing from underneath the tears. The picture of him will still adorn the first page. One year after he is executed, I will have the courage to rip that page out and shred it.

Haitham will love the history stories Father tells. So will I, except for when Father says we come from desert people. Why won’t he remember?

Follow the rivers.

I will count the drips the way I counted spoons of tea or missile strikes near our house. I will count the neighbors who move away just as I counted the loaves of bread Umm Hussein baked for us or the empty flowerpots in our yard.

I will count the books on my shelf.

In March, the humidity will bully its way through our house and make my hair curl. I will wonder why the water is in the air instead of on the ground or in the pipes. I will not believe my Uncle Hazim, father of Zaid, when he says the river levels are low. I will not be able to imagine how the rivers could be short on water when the bridges have been repaired and our stories have sunk into the Tigris. I will remember how it rained the month before. I will think my uncle is lying.

In August, the bougainvillea will try to bloom its hell-inspired red flowers.

In December, I will beg Mama to let me go back to school. In February she will relent.

After they fix the al-A’immah bridge, the Shi’ites will use it one holy day to come to the shrine in al-Adhamiyyah. They will hear a rumor of a bomber come to kill them; they will panic and run. They will fall by the hundreds into the Tigris where many of them will drown. Haitham will see it all from the riverside. He will come home bright-eyed and talking too loud, full of stories about how he and his schoolmates had tried to help. His friend Salaam, son of I don’t know who, will be exhausted from swimming in the river to fish out survivors. Haitham and his gang will decide to become better swimmers just in case, but they will forget that resolve in a week.

There won’t be enough water in the river to make good their promise to themselves. The river will barely be full enough to hold the stories I whisper into the drain.

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Bint Arab is Iraqi American, born in Baghdad and raised in Brooklyn. Today she lives in Texas, where being a New Yorker makes her more of a stranger in a strange land than being Arab American ever could. Her stories have been published in Expanded Horizons, 50 to 1, Every Day Fiction, and Absent Willow Review. She administers the writers’ forums at Bibliophilia.

New Age Break-Up

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
Marissa VanWingen


Caitlin BW
Photo Credit: Paul Li

We had a whirlwind relationship from the start. Everything happened so fast. We weren’t perfect; we didn’t have an ideal relationship. We were both young, but I thought we were going to grow up together. I never thought things would come crashing down. He promised me forever and I believed him.

We had only been dating six months when he proposed, and the fact that we were five hours apart made our time together even shorter. We had seen each other a total of four times, possibly adding up to a month’s time face-to-face. He told me time didn’t matter; when you know someone is the one, you just know. Everything about the night he proposed was like a fairy tale. I was the Princess and he was my Prince Charming. He came to rescue me and we were going to live happily ever after.

It was two a.m. and we had been driving all night from his parents’ house in Indiana. I was wearing a tattered pair of jeans and a sweater that I’d had on the past two days. He had me wait in the car a few minutes before he led me in the front door with my eyes tightly closed. When I opened them, there were candles lit all over the apartment. Right in front of me he spelled out “will you” with rose buds. He took my hand in his and said, “Marry me?”

His hands were shaking as I nodded lovingly. There were tears in my eyes. I never thought a day like this would ever come for me. When he put the ring on my finger I tried to catch a glimpse of it, but he wrapped me tightly in his arms. My ear was pressed against his chest and I could hear his heart racing.

“I want to take care of you for the rest of our lives. I knew the second we met that you were the one. All I want is you.”

There he was, my Knight in Shining Armor. Telling me everything was going to be okay and that my whole life would be different. He was there to whisk me away. After minutes of still not believing the situation, I took a second to look down at my hand. I couldn’t believe the ring. It was flawless. He knew exactly what I wanted. The diamond wasn’t too big, the cut was simple, and it was silver and small. It looked as though the ring was made for my hand only, and it was perfectly mine.

After that night, our life was nothing like a fairy tale. Our relationship had a lot of rocks in it, but I thought we could fix the things that were broken. I thought we were in it together, forever and always.

I would get mad that he didn’t call me, and he would get angry that I was so upset. Because we were in a long-distance relationship, I felt it was important to talk every night. I needed that emotional intimacy since I didn’t constantly have the physical contact. If I didn’t get to curl up with him every night, I needed to feel safe some other way. All I asked for was to hear him say he loved me every night before I went to bed.

We both knew that it was going to be hard from the start. Nothing other than storybooks makes marriage and spending the rest of your life with someone easy. Just because he was in the military didn’t mean he loved me any less. We believed we could make it all work: deployments and the constant unknown of where he might get moved to next. I knew there were thousands of possibilities and none of it was within my control. And even though I knew he could be shipped out in the morning, I always believed we had what it took. I thought I was everything he wanted. He would tell me how perfect I was in his eyes, how he loved everything about me and how he couldn’t see himself with anyone else.

I knew I’d have to give up a lot, but that was okay with me. I was willing to follow him all around the world, and be the military wife. My only stipulation was as long as he was in the military I didn’t want to get pregnant. I didn’t think it was fair to move around all the time with children. So as long as it was just the two of us, I was prepared to go wherever he did.

The five-hour barrier was hard on both of us, but I think it affected me the most. I would pick fights with him just to know that he still cared. All I really wanted was for him to tell me everything would be okay. I wanted to hear him say he loved me unconditionally and was never going to let me go. That no matter how bad things were, he was in it forever.

Like a real married couple, we fought a lot about money. He spent every dime that he made, and I’m extremely frugal. Some of the things he bought were extravagant gifts for me, but I was never able to appreciate them. I always thought about how much it cost and how that money should be going to something else, like a savings account. I would say things like “I can’t believe how much money you spent.” He couldn’t see that material things meant nothing to me, that I would much rather have just known he was there with me for the rest of our lives. Or that we had money to build our future lives together and some day, possibly a family. He was all about the right now while I was about tomorrow.

I imagined the idea of us living together, in our own castle. Everything would be perfect. We would both be working, and he would get marriage pay. Once we moved on base, we wouldn’t have to pay rent or very much in gas. I saw myself taking charge of the finances and giving him an allowance for food when he was at work. We wouldn’t have to worry anymore. He wouldn’t be able to spend outside our means. We wouldn’t have anything to fight about anymore. Everything would be kisses and hugs.

 

I work as a lifeguard on base. It isn’t the job I always dreamed about, but it makes enough money for now. Plus, the hours are flexible so I can be home whenever he is. And if he gets orders, it will be easy to just transfer my position from base to base. He doesn’t have to do shift work anymore. Instead of changing hours every month, he works 9–5 Monday through Friday, and always gets home on time. He never keeps me waiting long, and if it looks like it was going to be late, he calls and lets me know.

I get home and pick up the house a little, and throw a load of laundry in the machine. I put on my blue-and-white checkered apron. While the clothes are in the washer I start to make dinner for two. First I make a chocolate cake for dessert, because it needs time to bake. I make my own tomato sauce from fresh tomatoes and parsley. Then it’s time to move the laundry from the washer to the dryer.

Twenty minutes before he will walk through the door, I boil some water and put the spaghetti noodles in. I slice and butter the French bread, then season it just right.

The timer goes off, and the cake is perfectly done. I take it out and set it on the counter to cool.

After I put the pasta in the pot to boil, I unload the dryer and place the basket in our room, to be folded and put away after dinner.

With five minutes to go, I drain the pasta, but the bread under the broiler and set the table. Candles and wine. Not a moment later I hear a key in the lock.

“Honey, I’m home!” he says as he opens the door and places his keys in the basket.

“I’ve made dinner. Come, sit and let’s eat.” I pour a glass of wine for both of us. Kiss his cheek and sit opposite him at the table. We eat our dinner, have our dessert and then he does the dishes. After dinner we sit on the couch together holding hands. It is the definition of happily ever after. We are the perfect married couple, living in wedded bliss.

 

Instead, he had to be in control of everything. When he lost control of our relationship, he stopped trying. He looked me in the eyes and lied right to my face about a 600-dollar credit card bill. He hadn’t paid it like he promised. It took me well over a month to finally confront him about it. We were never the same after that.

I remember the day it all fell apart better than I remember his proposal. I was sitting with my knees up to my chin and my feet on my folded-up futon. My arms were wrapped around my legs. I was wearing pajama shorts and a tank top because my room was really warm.

Tears were falling from my eyes as I shook like a leaf. I hadn’t heard from him in almost a week. I didn’t know where he was or why he was ignoring me. He wanted to marry me and spend the rest of his life with me, but he didn’t want to talk to me?

My phone vibrated and I felt the futon move. I grabbed it and saw his name immediately in the text message inbox.

“I’m with my parents right now. I still love you but I don’t think I can do this anymore. I need some time to think. I’m sorry.”

Through my tears and shaking hands I replied immediately.

“What do you need to think about… us?”

After minutes of constantly picking up my phone and making sure it was still working, I got a reply.

A two-word reply. “Yeah us.”

That was it? I quickly wrote back. “Will you PLEASE just call me?”

Wait.

“NO! I’m with my parents. I’m still mad about some things so I will call in a few days.”

I was pissed off and angrily typed through the tears. “If this is going to end, I don’t want it to end in a text message, so please. Just call me.”

I didn’t really believe that this could be the end. Not now. I had already envisioned our perfect marriage. I had bought the perfect wedding dress. The invitations were made, the colors picked out. This was supposed to be my happily-ever-after. Didn’t he remember that?

We had been through too much to really call it quits now. I tried to end it before, but he promised he would change then. That he would fix the mistakes he made. Things were supposed to be different, be perfect. I waited for his response. I knew he was getting mad because he hated that I couldn’t let anything go. But feelings like that didn’t matter to me at that moment. I was trying to save my fairy tale. It wasn’t supposed to end this way. It was never supposed to end.

“I have more class than that. I would never end it in a text message. You should know me better than that.”

I sat and stared at his answer. I had no idea how to respond. “I can give you a few days, but know this. I’m not going to wait around for you forever.” I thought he would be happy that I was giving him time. That was out of character for me. I was already falling apart; I didn’t think I could hold it together for a few days.

“OMFG! All I’m asking for is a couple of goddamn days so I know if this is what I want for the rest of my fucking life ok?”

I couldn’t believe my eyes. I typed back with a fury. “DON’T YOU EVER TALK TO ME LIKE THAT! All I said is I won’t be waiting around for you forever and you respond that way? Take your couple of days. I guess this is good night. I love you.” I couldn’t control anything anymore. The tears fell without stopping; my body shook uncontrollably. I had to keep reminding myself to breathe.

“I’m sorry. I love you too.”

I thought things were okay because he said he loved me too. Things couldn’t end if he loved me. That’s not how love works.

That’s not how love works in the movies. But in real life, it was the end.

I felt so alone, but there was nothing I could do. The empty apartment was getting to me. I couldn’t stand not being close to anyone who loved me. I wanted to go for a walk to clear my head, but I couldn’t stop shaking enough to put on my shoes. My tears made it impossible to see, so I just stayed where I was and cried.

I didn’t sleep at all that night. I cried every second until I had no tears left. When the tears ran out, I began to dry heave. My body still wouldn’t move and I couldn’t even speak. When I tried, no words would even come out because my throat was so dry. Every thought, every image, started the tears all over again.

I was strong and didn’t call him for a week, at which point I broke down. I knew he wasn’t going to answer, but I called anyway. I tried not to sound too defeated, too broken.

I pictured him sitting on the couch staring blankly at the TV. Nothing was on, but he didn’t want to get up and change the station. His phone was in his pocket and when he heard it go off he grabbed it immediately.

He saw the nickname he gave me come across the screen: “Incoming call: Peanut.” But he wasn’t man enough to answer. He knew once he heard my voice he would give in to my sobs. He let it go to voicemail.

“I was okay waiting for a couple of days while you figured stuff out, but it’s been a week. When I said I wasn’t going to wait around forever, this is what I meant. I’m leaving for New Orleans next Friday. If I don’t hear from you before I get on that plane, you’ll never hear my voice again. I’m done. I’ll send you the phone back when I get there, and that will be the end. I’m really hurt by all of this, but I still love you, and always will. Please just call me, and give me that much.”

After the icon popped up saying he had one new voicemail, he clicked to listen to it. Three words in he quickly hit delete. He couldn’t stand to hear my voice shaking because he knew that I was crying. He hated to see me cry.

He went to the kitchen and grabbed a bottle of Jack Daniels and drank it straight from the bottle the rest of the night. He only got up to smoke. On his way out the door he punched a giant hole in the wall. He knew he wasn’t Prince Charming. He knew there was no happily ever after. He also knew right then, that he made the biggest mistake of his life. He lost the best thing that would ever happen to him.

That message was the longest I had gone without crying in a week. I didn’t want him to hear the vulnerability in my voice and I tried to sound mad. I know I failed miserably and instead he could hear my heart breaking through the phone.

I never heard from him again. He never called a few days later. We didn’t have time to fix what was broken. He didn’t have more class than that. My picture-perfect marriage was nothing more than a dream inside my head. He didn’t come riding in to save me. Instead he left me with a shattered world and my heart in pieces. It wasn’t a happily ever after, The End.
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Marissa VanWingen is orignally from Michigan, but hasn’t lived there in over two years. She recently graduated from the University of Iowa with a major in Journalism and Mass Communications and a second concentration in English. She currently lives in New Orleans where she is working to start her real life. She is always reading and writing and is a football fanatic. Email: marissavanwingen[at]gmail.com

My Grandfather

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Esperanza Paz C. del Casal


Boys playing beneath the coconut tree
Photo Credit: Jeremy del Rosario

When a person dies, what is most remembered about him? The way he spoke? His peculiar little quirks? The manner of his death? My grandfather died in his home, attended by his daughter and the two in-house caretakers she hired. He died unable to walk, barely able to move, and his mind already halfway into the netherworld. I never personally saw him in this condition. My last memory of him is as a thin, small body in a coffin I would never have thought he could fit in. He looked peaceful, yes, but in life he was larger. He would never have fit in that coffin when he was alive.

In life he was loud, and when he really warmed up to a subject, his speech raced with his thoughts so that words would run together and sentences had no end. He loved to eat, and he loved to wander through his neighborhood on foot. He could be a disciplinarian when the need arose, but I remember him laughing easily, a witty comment ready on his lips.

These are the things that I can recall when I think of him. Of course, there are also things that I don’t know, things I could never comprehend about him and the life that he’d known. When I was a child I used to think that I knew him quite well. I knew that if he cooked at all he only ever cooked one thing, and it was one of his favorite things to eat. I knew that tennis was his favorite sport, and he would come home from playing on the courts and rub garlic on the strings of his racket. I knew that my grandmother had a sharp tongue, but his could be sharper. I knew that he found me funny and can remember saying things as a child that used to make him laugh, and the more serious I was about the things I said, the harder he laughed. I knew that my acting like a tomboy while still in diapers delighted him and that to him my chubbiness while in his and my grandmother’s care was a sign of his wealth.

I realize that most of these memories aren’t necessarily the same ones others have of him. We are, after all, viewed in different ways by different people, and after my parents, siblings, and I emigrated to the U.S. we only occasionally had contact with either of my grandparents. In other words, there is a gap in what I know about my grandfather, about who he really was as a person. So I listened hard while we were in the Philippines for his funeral to what my father had to say about my grandfather’s past.

He was born September 15, 1931, somewhere in the mountains of the island of Cebu in the Philippines. When he was about eleven, World War II was being waged by the Japanese right there in the neighborhoods where he played with his friends. I’ve wondered what that means exactly. What does it mean when war is being waged at your doorstep? From recent images of wars taking place around the world, I’ve realized two things that would most impact an eleven-year-old boy: lack of food and restricted movement. According to my father, whose sources remain unclear, the Japanese would raid towns and villages. They discovered when and where the weekly markets were held and disrupted them, sometimes in search of the Filipino guerrilla militia, sometimes to ensure that Filipinos didn’t congregate too often in large groups. Standard precautions undertaken by an efficient occupying force would ensure that the chances of a local rebellion were minimized. My grandfather ran around a few of these markets with his best friend with the type of freedom one can only associate with Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.

There was always a warning before the Japanese arrived, and I can see it almost as a game for my grandfather and his friend to sneak away just in the nick of time. Did they hear the screams as they ran through the coconut groves? Probably. Did they know what those screams signified? I can imagine them telling each other tales of people’s throats being slit, women being stabbed, babies being thrown in the air and skewered on bayonets. These are the atrocities my father described to me to illustrate my grandfather’s experience of war, recounted to him by other old men who saw it themselves.

As the months rolled by, the Japanese became more acclimated to the heat and the land, and one day they arrived at a market quite unexpectedly. I prefer to think of my grandfather yelling to his friend and immediately taking off for the trees, dodging the Japs that were suddenly everywhere and trusting that his friend was right behind him. I prefer to think that it was only when he acquired the relative safety of a grove that he realized that his friend wasn’t with him after all. I prefer this sequence of events than the alternative in which he sees with his own eyes his best friend’s stomach being ripped open with a bayonet.

I imagine him crouching among the vegetation, trembling at the screams, feeling like he should go back and yet almost faint with the thought that he should himself be killed. I see him waiting as long as he dared, glimpsing other people rushing away to safety. Someone must have seen him and urged him to go home.

“What are you still doing here?” a man would have said.

My grandfather would have recognized him as one of the locals vaguely associated with the Filipino militia. He would have stared at him blankly, not sure how to explain. My friend, he wanted to say, I don’t know what to do. He’s still over there. I don’t know where he is.

He was trembling. The urge to pee was overwhelming. Sweat was beading on his forehead, and his bare feet slid a little on his rubber flip-flops as he shifted nervously.

The man looked behind him. Vegetation was being roughly disturbed. “Run!” he whispered urgently to my grandfather.

My grandfather froze, his eyes widening.

The man grabbed his arm and shook him violently. “Run!” he whispered again. “To your grandmother’s house. Don’t go to your mother’s!” He shoved him hard.

My grandfather stumbled, but suddenly his legs remembered how to move. They were shaky at first, but momentum steadied them eventually.

As he bolted through the trees, adrenaline pumping through his veins, his mind cleared. Avoid the roads, he thought to himself. It was not unheard of for the Japs to delay the arrival of some of their troops, and sometimes they came by a different route. Avoid all roads. He was heading down towards the sea, towards the town where his grandmother lived. It would have taken him more than a day by foot if he followed the roads, but he kept himself among the trees and the shrubs. The terrain became harder to travel through, became more unfamiliar as the sun sunk lower and lower into the horizon. His limbs were shaking again, but now it was less from fear than from exhaustion. His stomach growled in protest, and his muscles ached as he climbed and slid down one difficult slope after another.

Only the unavoidable dimness of night convinced him to stop. He sat against a coconut tree, his mind running again but now more slowly. Various scenarios played out before his unseeing eyes regarding his friend’s demise, for in retrospect he was sure that they had both started running as soon as he yelled, and he had never before out-run him.

He started crying then, in the full, unhindered way that most children do. When he had no more tears to shed, he paid closer attention to his growling stomach. Ignoring his aching limbs, he got up and climbed the tree he had been leaning against. At the top, he shook the laden limb as hard as he could until some coconuts fell, and when he got back down on the ground he looked for a sharp rock to help peel away the thick green fibrous coating that protected the brittle brown shell. When he got to it, he cracked open the brown shell and hungrily drank the milk and juices. Next, he broke the shell into smaller pieces and ate the coconut meat by scraping it off with his teeth. He went through a second coconut before the need to sleep overtook him.

At dawn, the sound of roosters crowing roused him, and he wondered as he lay awake whether or not he should abandon the idea of going to his grandmother’s and instead go back to his mother. But perhaps that man he met yesterday was trying to tell him that his mother had herself gone to his grandmother’s. The guerrillas were probably staging something and had warned others to stay away.

My grandfather moved less hurriedly that second day. He heard the sounds of people in their everyday activities but avoided them except to borrow a heavy knife to cut down a bunch of bananas. The mangoes he plucked right out of the trees. By afternoon, he decided that he could probably cover more ground at night. The heat of day was tiring him, and all he wanted to do was find some shade and sleep. Besides, there was even less likelihood of encountering any Japs at night. He didn’t keep track of how long it took him to get to his grandmother’s town. When he reached its outskirts, he felt like he had traveled for ages, and suddenly he didn’t want to be among other people. He didn’t want to have to talk to anyone. Not yet anyway. So he holed up in the wilderness for a few more nights, unable to sleep, barely eating. What troubled him most was the sense of guilt that had evolved and grown within him in his solitude. What could I have done to save my best friend, he kept asking himself. The knowledge that he never went back for him gnawed at his guts, and yet he knew that to have done so would have meant sharing in his fate.

He grew tired of his own company eventually, grew tired of mulling over the same thoughts. His guilt dissolved inside and was no longer a heavy, alien lump which demanded all his energy to carry. It had become tiny little crystals that spread throughout his body and were absorbed in his blood. It was a part of him now. When he looked out at the world, he was looking at an image focused by the experience of losing a friend and not having done anything to stop it.

And what he noticed was that the world continued as before. Nothing had changed. His reticence then seemed absurd. Others could blame him if they wished, but there was nothing he could do about it now. Life continued.

He made his way down to his grandmother’s house and knocked at her door. Her face registered surprise; her hand automatically clutched at her heart. He had been missing for so long that they thought he had died. And yet, there he stood, thinner than when she last saw him, more haggard and silent.

She fed him, made up a bed for him, and glossed over his reluctance to speak by telling him the latest war news. As he slept, she sent word to his mother that he was alive but needed to rest. To that end, she let him sleep well past noon the next day. Food was on the ready for his consumption. And most of all, she asked him nothing. Not one question passed her lips, though she had to wonder where he had been all this time, what he saw, what he knew. He merely looked at her with his big, almond-shaped eyes. No smile in them now, no mischief. She recognized in them the same quietly observant blankness that he wore when he was a toddler learning about the world around him, and that convinced her that he needed to stay in the relative safety of her house rather than in the unpredictable battleground that the mountains were becoming.

His mother sent word back not long after. She would insist on seeing him to gauge for herself how he was, so against his grandmother’s own judgment, she brought him back to his village shortly after his arrival at her doorstep. As his grandmother had predicted, his mother took one look at him and said firmly, “You’ll stay with your grandma.”

On the road back to the seaside town, a group of men overtook them. They were just returning from digging up the latest mass grave left by the Japanese after their market day visit.

“We finally got around to the one they left some days ago,” one of them related after exchanging greetings. “Can barely recognize any of the corpses now.”

My grandfather’s grandmother shifted uneasily and glanced at him.

“Hey, didn’t I see you at that market with your friend?” the same man said to my grandfather. “Your friend was killed, wasn’t he?”

At that, his grandmother sputtered in indignation. “You callous fool!” she cried. “He’s just a child!”

And so ensued a small commotion on the roadside as his mother tried to calm his grandmother, the accused man tried to justify himself, and the other men either supported the accused or tried to extricate their group completely.

“What about the other boy’s family?” the man finally asked. “Don’t they deserve some comfort?

His grandmother sputtered some more. What did her grandson have to do with the other boy’s death?

“He could help out, you know. You don’t have to shelter him; he already sees war every day.”

“You leave him be!” his grandmother said, her finger pointed threateningly at the man.

“All he has to do is identify the body.”

“Come, that’s enough,” the others interposed.

“Everyone’s doing their part. He has to do his. His friend’s family deserves this one act of kindness from him.”

“If they want their boy’s body, they can very well identify it themselves,” his grandmother snapped.

“It’ll be in even worse condition by the time we get them to the site,” he persisted.

“You shameful man,” his mother said in wonder. “Why are you trying so hard to expose my son to more violence? Can’t you just let it drop, and apologize to an old woman simply trying to protect a child?”

“He has to grow up some time. Just like the rest of us!” He grunted as his friends hauled him away.

My grandfather’s mother and grandmother hurried him along, but he couldn’t un-hear what had been said. The idea of duty kept whirling through his head, and before long he decided that he had to find his friend’s body. He had left him there; it was only right that he should be the one to bring him back to his family.

His mother and grandmother eventually capitulated to his wish, delivered as it was with the quiet stubbornness that they knew would spell outright defiance if they tried to forbid his going. When they got to the grave site, however, they realized that the horrid man they had encountered had either lied or was more ignorant of the situation than they thought, for there looking through the rows of bodies were the dead boy’s parents.

The two adults glanced at each other and sighed with relief. My grandfather didn’t need to be subjected to the gruesome sight ahead of them after all.

Without a word, he ran from them, and before they could grab him he was at the side of his best friend’s mother.

“That’s him,” she whispered to no one in particular, tears streaming down her gaunt face.

But it didn’t look like him at all. And the smell was horrendous. My grandfather covered his nose and mouth with his shirt and continued to stare down at the remains of what was clearly a boy with his abdominal cavity ripped open. What remained of his clothes did look familiar, but everything else was completely alien. My grandfather kept staring, searching for something recognizable in the decomposing pile of organic matter. Those who knew him and saw him that day would wonder that he didn’t cry at all.

He took that last image of his friend home with him, but he never could reconcile it with the memory he had of him as a living person. That corpse wasn’t his friend, he decided. His friend was gone. His spirit had moved on, and my grandfather knew that he would have to move on as well.

I could never, in my right mind, claim that my grandfather was the only person to have known tragedy during that war in that particular part of the world. What is of interest to me is that he evolved from the boy who experienced tragic loss and guilt to the man I remember—a man whose character never hinted at tragedy. He did not become a beggar or a thief. He didn’t sink into insanity. He wasn’t hardened by his past. He was fortunate.

None of my family got up to say anything at his funeral. I, for one, am not comfortable with speaking in public, but I do want to share his memory. And this is the only way I can comfortably do just that. My grandmother would cringe at this insistence on dwelling on one of the less cheerful aspects of his life (“We danced often” was the only thing she would say about her own experience of the war, insisting that she hardly ever left the cave where her family hid in the mountains). But dwelling on one of the most influential experiences of his life—despite how uncomfortably sad it makes me feel—is, I think, the best way to honor his memory because it illustrates more vividly than any eulogy just how resilient and pragmatic an individual he was.
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Esperanza is a paper-pusher by day, an avid novel reader by night, and a would-be writer when she can spare the time. Email: esper.del[at]gmail.com