Blue Door, Dry Spell, Sinking Elliott

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Anais Jay


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nash.”

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Excited?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He didn’t. “I like you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elliott told him what a damn lucky boy he was.

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

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

“Why are you smiling like that?”

“You just remind me of someone.”

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where are you?”

“You’re not serious, are you?”

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

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

“Where in the world are you chaperoning?”

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

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

*

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

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

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

“I said ‘her voice is like mom’s!’”

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

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

“Natasha?”

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

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

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

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

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

Elliott’s lack of response prompted him to continue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elliott experienced his first nightmare that night.

*

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

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

“You’re only catching up on it now?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Family jokes, huh?”

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

“Pops? That’s lame.”

“It’s cool.”

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

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

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

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

“Which one stayed with you?”

“Stability did,” he said. “Pops did.”

“Neither stayed with me.”

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

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

“Why didn’t you say so much earlier?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

Our Happiest of Places

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
David Thom


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ok, mum, I’ll follow you.”

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” is all I can say.

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

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

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

“About what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

And I can feel my mother’s memories.

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

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

Rise Up Singing

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
Eric E. Wallace


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“See who I found!”

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

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

“…very near this spot. Neat, huh?”

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

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

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

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

“You mean LeBraun?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She also liked his shy smile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sum-mer-time…”

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

“How long have I got?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five triumphant years, each even better than the last.

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

“…and the living is easy…”

“How long?”

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

“Months? That’s it?”

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

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

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

“What meds?”

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

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

“Some might. Yes. In these cases—”

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

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

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

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

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

“…so hush little baby…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…you’ll spread your wings…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…Nothing can harm you…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hush little baby… don’t you cry.”

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

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

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

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

“Summertime.”

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

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

Hip Hip

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Alexander Drost


Blue on blue
Photo Credit: Hani AlYousif

Ten years have gone by, and still I can bring back every humid detail of that morning when I arrived in New York. I was seventeen, and it is safe to say now that I was foolish then. That I never stopped to think that to be an artist required more resonance. I never considered that my work would only boomerang me back to the all too familiar scenery of chained pit bulls and SpaghettiOs.

I work on my canvas every day but, after months of staring, it all seems blue. The painting that is. How could such a thing have happened? Every stroke seemed so important.

To know how to paint is to know how to work in opposition, to avoid an oversaturation that only mixes to a gray. The sad truth is, that blue and gray is what most of what my work has become. Sure, I sold a few when I first started but it really is incredible how quickly that excitement wanes. It is so easy to get trapped in a process, a process that slowly becomes repetition and routine.

I am convinced that art has nothing to do with originality, only delivering what already exists but differently, more cleverly. I used to just feel it, feel it in my head but, in just ten years, everything has become stale.

I lick the palette with my brush and touch it back to the big blue. New York City traps people like me. It plays with us, then repackages with a Return to Sender stamp. Tomorrow should be the day I finally listen and squeeze these tubes dry for good. I am just used to it I guess, so by the time it all became blue and gray, so had New York.

Tonight, I walk the streets in search of a bar where I can still smoke. Summer on the island is best at night when the traffic makes a desperate attempt to sound rural. I get to my usual joint, Stranahan’s, and see Ben behind the counter drying a pint glass. It is exactly as expected, and certainly not how I want to spend what should be my last night in the city.

I continue on for maybe ten minutes until I pass a pawn shop sealed off by a big linked fence. Only one bulb inside is lit, spotlighting a white Stratocaster through the window. It is the same color as my stepfather’s that he kept locked under his and my mother’s bed.

Above the stairs next door to the pawn shop sits a folded chalkboard outside of, judging by the smell, what seems like a hookah bar: “TONIGHT Jai Bahrami.” There are no signals of an audience here, and the two dozen or so lights around the sign blink in varying states of disrepair.

“Hip! Hip!” tunes from inside the bar. “When you’re on a holiday.” I know it instantly. There is a strangeness in the cover, the voice. It is much deeper than the original.

The whole tone of the place suggests that not many people have been down those steps and inside. The bar is a dark red inside and has only three round tables before the stage.

I order a beer, light a cigarette, and turn to watch the music. There are maybe twenty people watching Jai Bahrami, a few younger kids dancing, and a man in a dark suit sitting in the corner. From my experience with the bartender, I assume that I am the only person who speaks English in the entire joint.

As I look to the band, I get a bizarre lapse of familiarity. I have had a number of unusual experiences in New York, but I have never felt such strange deja vu as this. I raise my head and look more closely at Jai. Still I cannot recall ever having seen him before. His hair is long and black and he is playing the strings with such ease. It is the kind of sound that you think you recognize immediately but know that you have never heard before.

Jai hammers his hand against his guitar in a windmill-like strum. Pulling back his hair with one hand, he giggles the neck and reverberates the overdrive.

“Thank you for letting me play for you. Good Night.” The lights above the stage lower as I swivel around and realize that I haven’t touched my beer. The singer closes and locks the case to his guitar then walks to my end of the bar.

“Mind if I sit down?” he asks in a Middle Eastern accent. He has a long distinguishable nose, the kind of face you would automatically notice, one who if I had met before I would be able to recognize immediately.

“Please.” I hold up a palm and he drags up a wooden stool and sits next to me. I can see him eyeballing the cigarettes next to my beer. I lift the lip of the pack and pull up on two of the butts, offering him one which he graciously accepts. “You sound great up there.” I say.

“Thank you, very much.” He lights the cigarette.

“Weezer was my jam growing up.”

This makes him chuckle as he shakes out his match.

“By the way, do I know you? I can’t seem to remember if we’ve met before.”

“I do not believe so, friend.” His English is surprisingly good. “Jai.”

“Zack.” I take his hand. “Where did you learn to play like that Jai?”

“Iran.”

“Iran?” I can tell he was from somewhere in that part of the world by his accent but I wouldn’t have dared to guess. “You guys got rock and roll out there?” I ask.

He takes a long drag of his cigarette.

I should not have prodded so much. Maybe asked a different question.

“Not much, no.” He lets out a long breath after this leaving me unsure if I have insulted him.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to—”

“No. No, it is fine.” He motions to the bartender for a beer. “Iran is a split.”

“A split?”

“Yes. It is split, like, urban.” He runs his hand through his hair and unbuttons the top of his flannel. “There are conservatives like you see on TV. People who are very inward and have never left Iran. Who have never even heard of The Beatles. And there is the city, people like me.”

“Boys with long hair and skinny jeans?”

This makes him laugh.

I touch a spot a few inches below my shoulder. “Mine used to be down to here.”

“Have you heard of the Basijis?” he says.

“They’re like police right?”

“Well, yes. They are religious police, hair cutters.” He sets down his drink. “They, do not like rock and roll. They will stop you for dressing like this.” He motions towards my jeans. “They arrest you for playing an electric guitar.”

I think of the white Stratocaster in the window, how carrying it home could make you a criminal. “So, how did you practice?”

“You are allowed to practice at home, but rock and roll shows are very forbidden. You are not allowed fans or to play covers.”

“Is that why you came to America?”

“For music? Yes. Mainly.” There is a long pause. He puts out his cigarette and looks at me as if he were staring into the cage of an animal at the zoo. “You’ve got blue on you,” he says pointing towards a stain of paint on my cheek.

“Thank you. I’m a—a painter.” I wipe off the smudge.

“An artist?” He turns to face me completely. “Another creative. New York is such a fantastic place for that.”

I turn back towards my beer. I have had this conversation too many times before. Some other kid comes to the city to be an artist. I know because I was that kid for the past ten years; luckily I have ripened to know how low the odds of a breakout are. I think it has made me more rational regarding what I can actually achieve.

Jai flips through his wallet and removes an old faded photograph of him and three other boys. “My brothers,” he says and hands me the photograph. He points to the tallest boy in the middle holding a bass guitar. “Amir, he is a writer. He wrote a story about New York when he was just ten. This one, this one here is Farid. He is an artist too.” He points to the shortest of the brothers holding two drumsticks.

“Do they live here with you?” I ask.

Jai returns the photo to his wallet. “No,” he says, dropping his eyes down to the bar. “They are with police.”

“Police? In Iran?”

“Yes. They arrest anyone they think violates their values.”

“And being a writer and a musician is too western?”

“Yes. Even being an artist.” Jai lifts an eyebrow as he says this. “I love New York. You and I are so lucky to be here. To be able to create, and destroy. We have no bounds.”

I catch myself unwillingly rolling my eyes as he says this. I draw the tip of my finger along the grain of the wood countertop. I want to tell him the truth. How hard and unlikely it is that he would make money with his music. That it is not about talent and all about connections. I want to tell him that even in the west, creatives still starve.

“You know it’s hard, Jai. Not everyone gets so lucky.”

“Luck is big Zack. But, I already won. Just because I am here. Because I can sing and play for you, because you could walk in here and listen.”

“Have you always thought like that? People still fail in New York. Too often actually.” And in fact, I only know artists who failed in the city.

“Fail? I play music for a living. Not just music, rock and roll. In America!” He finishes the last of his pint and stands up from the stool and pulls back his hair. “I can’t think of a better way to fail.” Jai slings his guitar case over his shoulder and I can tell that our conversation is at an end.

“I must go. Great to meet you, Zack.” Jai holds out his hand and I take it firmly.

“Good luck, Jai.” I smile and he smiles back.

Jai ascends the stairs and the man in the dark suit exits behind him.

I mull over our conversation for a few minutes until the bartender rings the bell for last call. Paying my bill, I return back up the stairs I had entered from earlier. It must be around three in the morning and there are no signs of a taxi. Luckily, it is a warm summer night to walk off a beer buzz.

As I step out on the street, I can hear two men laughing at the end of the block behind me. It is Jai, holding his guitar case, and the man with the dark suit. The man in the suit is all smiles and holds out his arm motioning towards the opened back end of a limousine. Jai shakes the man’s hand and ducks into the open limo. The driver closes the door behind them both and pulls down the boulevard.

Instead of being shocked, I find myself laughing, and turn back to face the outside of the bar. The owner shuts off the sign, leaving the alleyway almost in complete darkness. The only light comes from inside the pawn shop over that white Stratocaster. “Rock and roll in America.” I laugh. How could he fail?

I kick along a beer can that has escaped from a trash bin in the alley. I finally reach my apartment and spread myself onto the sofa, staring at that big blue canvas. The curtains are drawn closed and the metallic tubes of oil and suspended pigment are squeezed completely dry. I can see the city’s lights slowly dimming as morning comes to greet the island in the sun.

As my head finally rests on top of the pillow, a faint banner of white streams across the sky outside the window. I think of Jai and the white Stratocaster, how he must have felt finally stepping into that limo. I watch the wet dabs of blue dry into smaller and smaller skewed circles as a great sense of accomplishment descends upon me. The painting is not finished; it will never be finished. It is a process which only builds and removes more and more layers. This canvas will always require more paint, more paint that I will have to get tomorrow.

pencilAlexander Drost was born in New Jersey. He is a twin. He has a B.A. in Creative Writing and Sculpture from the University of Colorado. You can find his work online in Blotterature Literary Magazine and 3Elements Review. He currently lives and works in Boulder, Colorado. Email: amdrost[at]hotmail.com

When We Still Knew What It Meant to Be Kids

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
Krista Varela


Dirty pool
Photo Credit: Éole Wind

That summer before high school, the desert was ruthless.

The weeds had become overgrown, shooting up through the ground to graze our ankles and lodge themselves in our socks when we’d run outside. They sucked the ground dry of its nutrients, leaving cracks in the dirt like the cracks on our chapped lips.

The sun bruised our skin red. Our shoes baked on the pavement, the plastic on the tips of our shoelaces melted as we dragged them across the sidewalks.

The hot winds blew and tried to stir things up, but nothing changed; dirt and sediment settled on the bottom of the stagnant swimming pool, turning the water murky and thick.

There were days when it was so hot, our dreams flickered in front of us like mirages on the blacktop, disappearing the closer we got to reaching them.

And yet, there was still the mural of horses painted on the front of your house; mustangs and appaloosas, spotted browns, whites, and blacks, bucking and prancing through a field of lush grass and unfastened wooden fences, an entire other world painted against a pink wall—giving us hope that there was life beyond this place we were living.

*

Do you remember how we met? I’m not sure who was the first to say hello in that year before high school. We shared a lot of the same friends back then, because you were in band, and I wished I had been cool enough to be in band. My parents had just officially divorced, still battling custody issues while they fought about my dad’s drinking, and my mom couldn’t afford for me to rent an instrument. I still hung out with the band kids anyway. But the fact that your parents were divorced too was what drew me to you at first; I didn’t know anyone else who had a family like mine.

We spent much of our free time roaming around your neighborhood and exploring the alley because we were on the threshold of something, but we didn’t quite know what. Mostly I think we just tried to stay out of the house so that your mom wouldn’t make us do chores.

You also introduced me to a lot of music I had never heard before. We spent hours listening to your stereo because iPods didn’t exist yet. We’d play music with the volume turned all the way up, and your mom would pound on the wall for us to turn it down when she was hungover and had a headache.

Before we knew each other that well, you asked me once if I had ever been molested, but you didn’t use that word. It was in that shy roundabout way that kids ask when they’re not sure how to talk about things—do you remember what you told me? You confessed that your grandfather and uncle had shown themselves to you before with a strong smell of whiskey on their breath. But you could already hold you own. You knew how to handle and talk to drunken family members in a way that I hadn’t learned yet. “Put that thing away, old man,” you’d said. I never told you, but it scared me when you told me that. It scared me when I’d see your uncle at your house with a beer in his hand, and I’d wonder if he would try it again. I knew I wasn’t as brave as you were.

We were at your house once, just the two of us, watching a movie. You got up and went to the kitchen to get something to drink. You probably don’t even remember, but you asked me if I wanted a wine cooler from the refrigerator. I had never tried alcohol before. I didn’t know what to do. I never told you, but when you asked me, my stomach seized up in knots, worried about what we were capable of, even though it was no worse than what I knew other kids our age were doing. It’s not like you were offering me the wine in the cabinet above the fridge, or the bottle of gin under your mom’s bed. We’d both grown up watching our parents drink and saw the emotional extremes that came with it—the carefree elation and the utter despair, the hard fall from one to the other. That was the moment I realized that could be us someday, so overwhelmed by life that it was the only way to cope.

I wasn’t ready.

I didn’t know then that our first drink together would be almost a decade later in Las Vegas celebrating our twenty-first birthdays. But at thirteen years old, I just wasn’t ready. “No, thanks,” I said, and you came back to join me on the couch with a glass of water instead.

*

My dad would tease you about the different colors that you’d dye in your hair, and you’d tease him right back. None of my friends had ever done that before; they were always too intimidated by his gruff voice and sarcasm. My dad knew that your own father wasn’t around, and he tried to fill in as a role model in your life. Even though he spent night after night taking shots of tequila while he cleaned up the bar that he owned and only saw us a few times a week, that had to be better than being away from your kids across the country right? My dad still asks about you, says he loves you like a daughter.

My mom loved you too because it was impossible not to, but she probably thought you were a little too wild for me at times. Remember that evening at my house when we sprayed the walls of my room with hair glitter from a can? I never told you, but my mom pulled me aside before we took you home and asked me if we had been drinking. The smell from the aerosol can had smelled like alcohol to her. I’m not sure if she believed me when I said no, even though I let her smell my breath. There were days after that when I’d be sitting in my room, and the light would catch just right, and the glitter would sparkle on the walls.

*

That ruthless summer before freshman year, we were in your backyard swimming in the pool. The radio was on, and “The Boys of Summer” by Don Henley was playing. I knew the song because The Ataris had recently come out with a cover of it. Your mom was outside with us, barefoot on the patio, and she was dancing with her eyes closed and a cigarette in her hand. She swayed side to side, slowly waving her arms in the air, and there was something so beautiful about the way that she moved, as if the song could have played forever and she’d have just kept dancing. Your mom had gained weight since I first met her, probably from the alcohol, and her face had stretched into wrinkles from smoking so many cigarettes and worrying about paying the bills, but in that moment you couldn’t see any of that.

Before school started, your mom lost her job, and she stopped nagging you to clean the pool. She couldn’t make her mortgage payment so you would probably have to move, so what was the point of keeping it clean anyway? I was surprised by how quickly it got dirty. In a matter of weeks, the bottom was completely covered in muck. The longer it went, the less clean water there was, and eventually, you couldn’t even see two inches below the surface.

We managed to get a block of dry ice from the grocery store once. Chipping off pieces onto the pool steps, we watched the water around it bubble and the dirt scatter, leaving a small ring of clear water around the ice. There was something so dangerous about handling the dry ice ourselves, but there was something so harmless about placing it in the water, and something so comforting about seeing a small bit of clarity in an entire pool of filth.

*

The desert was ruthless that summer, but the fall was even worse.

I remember the day your mom died. It was just after Halloween. I was in freshman English class, and I got a slip calling me into the office. I was led to the counselor’s office, where I saw you sitting at the table with someone I didn’t know. Everyone was looking at us with gentle smiles, in that way that people do when they know bad news before you do, looking at us if we were fragile and already broken.

You were in shock; you weren’t crying. Maybe you had finished crying before I got there, or maybe you couldn’t cry yet. The reality that our lives had changed permanently wouldn’t sink in for a long time. Until then, alcoholism was this vague term that we knew our parents fit in to somehow, but just referred to the everyday bullshit that we had to put up with, like when your mom slept in every day until noon or when my father got road rage for no reason at all.

But after that, alcoholism became real—a real disease that caused liver failure and bleeding ulcers and took parents away from their children.

The next day was my mom’s birthday. I asked her if I could see you that night. I could tell she was disappointed that I wasn’t spending her birthday with her, but she understood. Somehow it didn’t seem right to celebrate with my mom when you could never again be with your own. I think about you every year on November third, a day that was both a beginning and an end.

*

We’ve never again had a summer quite like that one. You moved across the country to live with your dad, down south where the air was wet and thick. Life still wasn’t easy, taking care of another parent that bounced around from one job to the next holding a bottle in a brown paper bag, but you managed. You knew how to hold your own. A few years later I left the desert too, to spend my summers gazing out into the Pacific and share my new home in rolling green hills with cows and wild turkeys. But I still watched from afar as my own dad lost so many things because he refused to throw out the bottle of tequila on his desk: his job, his driver’s license, half of his front tooth.

The last time I drove by your house, the mural of horses was gone. The people living there now painted over the entire wall with a dull gray. Perhaps the horses moved on to greener pastures.

Every time I hear “The Boys of Summer” on the radio, I think of that summer when we still knew what it meant to be kids. I think of that day we spent in the pool, swimming until our fingertips wrinkled and the tips of our noses turned red. I think of the smell of chlorine, the sound of cicadas singing in the trees. I think of the hot concrete, the way our feet burned as we dashed across the yard to turn up the radio. When I hear that song, I picture your mom, and wonder if she too was thinking about being a teenager when life feels both so immediate and so nostalgic. I can see her so clearly, her brown hair shining in the Arizona sun, in that eternal moment, dancing.

pencilKrista recently graduated with her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Saint Mary’s College of California. She currently resides in Concord, California with her partner and their miniature dachshund. This is her first publication. Email: kdvarela[at]gmail.com

Summer Fruits

A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
Pauline Wiles


Gooseberries
Photo Credit: Christian Guthier

It was the mountain of plump, shiny gooseberries which first caught my eye. Piled in an old-fashioned wicker basket, each had veins so delicate, they might have been painted on by hand. Then I noticed him, sitting in the shade, bent over his task. Methodically, he topped and tailed the glossy fruit: slice, slice, then dropped them into a huge stainless steel tub at his side—plink. He was dressed in chef’s whites, but his head was bare, his hair no more than a few wispy strands of grey.

I had spent the first part of the morning exploring the walled vegetable garden, where eager beans climbed wigwams to the sky and plump marrows lazed on the soil. The garden was well-tended: patches of damp earth and a faint peaty smell told me the crops had been watered early in the day. The sweet peas had been well-picked, as is necessary, to encourage fresh growth. I wondered who was the lucky recipient of the scented blooms.

By now, the sun was high. The imposing orange-brick walls refused entry to any hint of breeze. My hip was troubling me; I was in need of a sit-down. Where better than the tearoom? At National Trust properties, they are a reliable choice for quality baking and tea served in a proper pot.

*

With my handbag slung inelegantly across my body and awkward walking stick hooked over my arm, I managed to carry my tray outside to the patio. I saw first the fruit, then its keeper. From the speed he was working, I hoped the gooseberries weren’t needed for today’s lunch.

‘They’re keeping you busy this morning,’ I said to him as I shuffled by. I never used to start conversations with strangers, but recently I’ve found entire days can pass without me speaking to anyone.

The chef lifted his head and looked in my general direction, but not straight at me. His face was round and weather-beaten. ‘It’s all I’m good for, these days.’

There was precious little shade on the patio and I couldn’t face the indignity of grappling with one of the furled umbrellas. A small round table next to him was vacant.

‘I’m going to sit here in the shade, if you don’t mind.’ I leaned my stick against the wall of the building before lowering myself carefully towards a little wooden chair. My joints shrieked and I had to allow gravity to take me the last couple of inches. Fortunately, the chair held. One of these days, it wouldn’t.

‘You help yourself, my dear.’ He reached for a cloth to wipe his fingers. It was lying on the table almost next to his hand, but it took him a couple of pats to find it.

I looked more closely, nodding to myself as I understood. He was almost blind.

I poured a careful splash of milk into my cup, then added the tea. ‘It’s going to be another scorcher.’

‘It is,’ he agreed.’I don’t know who’s going to want a hot pudding on a day like this, but there you have it.’

‘Are they going in a pie, then?’ I sipped my tea gratefully.

‘Crumble. So I’m told.’ Slice, slice, plink. ‘I don’t decide the menu, not any more.’

Again, he looked in my direction and I saw his cloudy eyes. Cataracts, almost certainly.

‘But you used to decide what to cook?’

‘I’ve worked here since before the house was given over to the National Trust,’ he said. ‘Before the family ran into problems, couldn’t pay the inheritance tax. It was a different place, back then.’

I had the luxury of being able to observe, without him knowing I was staring. I guessed he was in his seventies. Apart from his eyes, he seemed to be in good health.

‘Oh yes, I’ve cooked for the rich and famous,’ he continued. ‘Made lunch for Elizabeth Taylor, once. Trout, it was. Trout with almonds.’ He stared off into the distance for a few moments before resuming his work. His fingers were still nimble, just slow.

‘But now you can’t cook, because of your eyes?’

‘That’s right, lass. A blind chef isn’t much use to anyone.’

I liked being called lass. That hadn’t happened in a long time. ‘Have you had your cataracts looked at?’

‘Oh, no. Nobody’s taking a paring knife to my eyeballs.’ He sniffed. ‘I don’t trust hospitals. Too many folk die in those places.’

I laughed. ‘I don’t think they do.’

‘My mother died, for starters. Having me.’

‘I’m sorry.’ I coughed awkwardly.

He shrugged. ‘My father never forgave me.’

‘It was hardly your fault.’

‘No. But he never came to terms with it. He couldn’t talk about her, drunk or sober. I spent the next forty years trying to apologise for being born.’

‘Then what happened?’

‘He died.’

I said nothing, but drank my tea and listened to the steady rhythm of his work. The plink of falling gooseberries had changed to a plunk: he must have filled up the bottom layer of the tub.

‘Then, there was Billy Morse,’ he continued. ‘The boys at school—they either ignored me, or poked fun at me. Being ignored was preferable, obviously. I got by just fine with no friends: found a corner of the playground and kept my head down. But one day, out of the blue, Billy Morse shared his lunch. There was never much food around at my house, you see. I had to find it myself, or go hungry.’

That made sense, with no mother and a father gone to pieces.

‘Yes, Billy scuffed up to me in his short trousers, sat down and offered me half his ham sandwich.’ Slice, slice, plunk. ‘We were friends for life.’

I poured extra hot water into the pot and hassled the bag with my teaspoon.

‘Last winter, they took Billy into hospital for his prostate. Routine, they said. Just a couple of days, they said.’

I murmured, so he would know I was listening.

‘You won’t get me near those places now.’ He stopped slicing for several seconds.

‘I’m sorry about your mother and your friend,’ I said, ‘But I can tell you, hospitals aren’t as dangerous as all that.’

‘Hmmph. What are you then, a doctor?’

‘No, a nurse,’ I said, a little crisply. ‘Retired, I mean.’

‘And I suppose you worked with eyes.’

‘No, paediatrics.’

I hadn’t started off in paediatrics. That was the most popular ward, and I wasn’t pretty or funny or persuasive, like the other new nurses. So they sent me to oncology. There, I witnessed white pain and dark suffering that twisted my stomach and sent me running to the toilet to retch. After the first year, I learned to see without remembering, to touch without feeling, my emotions for the patients as starched as my uniform.

My thirty-seventh birthday turned into thirty-eight and then thirty-nine, and Fred and I still hadn’t had a child. The gap in our family threatened to swallow me. I went to the hospital administrators and told them that unless they transferred me to paediatrics, I would leave the profession and train as a teacher. Within three months, they moved me to a children’s ward and that’s where I stayed for the next two decades. I might not be a mother, but I shaped the lives of thousands of children.

‘I saw hundreds of operations,’ I told my gooseberry friend. ‘I know what I’m talking about.’

‘And how many of them died?’

‘Not many.’ I paused. ‘Well, not many who weren’t going to die in any case.’

He chuckled. ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’

‘I just came from the walled garden.’ I changed the topic. ‘Beautiful looking vegetables.’

He nodded. ‘Yes, it’s a fine plot. A grand kitchen garden. I used to stroll down there in the early evening and eye up what might be ready for the following day. In summer, this estate was darn near self-sufficient.’

I thought of the pitiful tomato plants in the back garden of my house, the home Fred and I had bought when we were first married. My vegetable bed was growing more weeds than food this year. Darned hip. I had waited stubbornly until it was unbearable, before seeking help. Foolish mistake.

‘What’s your favorite dish to cook?’ I asked him. ‘If you could, I mean.’

‘Ah, that’s easy.’ He smiled. ‘Game pie.’

‘Game pie?’

‘From scratch. Rabbit, venison, pheasant. Carrots, potatoes, pastry, everything from scratch. I’d prepare the game myself. No short-cuts.’

‘I don’t often see that on menus, these days.’

‘No, folks are too squeamish to make it—or too lazy, I don’t know which. But I bake a wonderful game pie. Of course, you have to plan ahead.’

‘And it’s not really a dish for a day like today.’ My patch of shade was shrinking and I shuffled my chair back a fraction.

‘No, no, it’s an autumn dish, winter, even. October, November, when the nights are getting chilly and there’s mist in the air. November’s best.’

He had paused in his work, his head lifted, as if he were looking out across the estate, to where the deer were grazing peacefully.

‘You know,’ I waited a few moments and then said carefully, ‘I need a hip replacement and there’s a six-month waiting list. My vegetable plot will be a jungle when I eventually get back to it.’

‘I’m sorry to hear it,’ he said.

‘The wait’s much shorter, for cataracts.’ I hoped I was right about this. ‘You’d see your GP, who’d send you to a specialist, and then they’d probably do it in day surgery. You’d be in and out in less time than it’s taking you to humiliate those gooseberries.’

‘You’re a cheeky lass.’ He gave a chuckle.

I had finished my tea and gathered my things together. I found my stick, then hoisted myself up, using the edge of the wobbly table for support.

‘Who knows, you might be making game pie this autumn,’ I said.

‘I might, I might.’

‘Well, I’ll look for it on the menu, then. In November.’

As I walked away, I tried to read his expression. But with his eyes so foggy, there were no clues, just the gentle nodding of his head in time with his work.

Slice, slice, plunk.

pencil

British by birth, Pauline Wiles moved to California eight years ago and, apart from a yearning for afternoon tea and historic homes, has never looked back. Her work has been published by House of Fifty, Open Exchange and Alfie Dog Fiction. Pauline’s debut novel, Saving Saffron Sweeting, was published in spring 2013. Email: paulinewiles[at]gmail.com

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)

pencil

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.

pencil

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.

pencil

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