A Call from Virginia

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Vela Damon

The chirp of the cell phone awakens you, the modern day rooster crowing at dawn. But it’s Saturday. Nowhere special to be, no need for an alarm. Who could be calling at this hour? You squint at the caller ID, eyes muzzy from lack of eyeglasses and sleep. Virginia, you think it says. But you don’t know a Virginia.

You set the phone aside unanswered, roll over to catch a few more winks.

Later, the memory is gray, uncertain. No missed calls. No Virginia.

During supper, the phone chirps again. You move to answer it, but your husband moves faster. He takes the phone into the bedroom, closes the door. You sit at the table, staring at the food growing cold on his plate. So specially prepared, such a waste. Surely he hasn’t been eating enough.

You wonder which one of you will miss him more when he finally does.

You, or Virginia.

Vela grew up in the south surrounded by kudzu and not much else. For fun, she had a choice between books and mischief. Usually she chose books. Now she lives in a kudzu-free region of the Lone Star state. When she’s not writing, she hopes to run across some of that mischief she passed up as a kid.

Swing Shift

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Steve Krause


Her hybrid hummed into the parking lot; it made more noise when she harshly shut the door with more than a degree of anger than it did on the road. Flakes of snow swelled and flurried but did not fall or stick. The sky was gray and uninviting, the parking lot was still and empty, and Enzo’s stood imposing and cold before her.

Kjerstin opened the bar that Friday afternoon because Tim the former-crackhead chef and Mike the current-cokehead main server had both called in ill. Alonzo gave Mike the evening off and called in Kjerstin, who had closed both previous nights and who was supposed to be off. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to work, not that she didn’t want or need the money, but she had a life, had kids, and had another job. She grumbled and growled in dissatisfaction. She sighed, be-aproned herself—that was her special term for it—and put on a “happy face,” which was the only way to greet Alonzo, unless one had a way to shift the blame to somebody else. In that case “Ugly Face,” as Kjerstin called it, was warranted, for it would redirect wrath toward the guilty party. But if the buck stopped with you, don’t tempt fate, she told herself. It was something she never employed at work, for it tended to scare those around her; Anna and Graeme had only witnessed it as victims once in the past five years, and hadn’t made that mistake again.

Alonzo was fair enough, as managers went, though the unwritten and accepted sexism of the job rankled a bit. He had a chart in his head, one closely associated with BMI, and indexing height and maximum-allowed weights. At 5’8″ she was allowed to reach 140 lbs. before she lost her job, though his measurement was less actual weight than it was perception, and so remaining muscular and fit afforded her a few extra pounds. His semi-official rule was that if she exceeded the weight at which she’d been hired by more than 5% she could lose her job.

It was no idle threat; when Alice left for greener pastures the week before it was more that she was being put out to pasture for being perceived as a heifer. “If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen,” Alonzo was fond of saying, but he was fond of saying many things, and as long as she brought in the bucks she was certain she would be fine, Kjerstin told herself as she wiped the exhaustion from her eyes and swept her hands over the black apron and the white of her sleeves to remove any lingering wrinkles. When Patrick packed on 25 lbs., though, not an eye was batted. They’d never hired a woman who was over 150 lbs. in the first place.

Female servers were part of the draw, part of the decor, so the reasoning went.

Happy hour would not start for another hour and she would be out and on her way home well after dark but before the evening news. Which meant she’d be lucky to take home a buck in tips. Which meant it was a worthless shift.

As for Tim, she expected to see him in shortly unless he was truly sick and not just hungover. Alonzo was in for that reason; if Tim didn’t show, he’d cover, but if Tim didn’t show and didn’t have a good excuse, he’d also have no excuse to come back in except to pick up his final check.

She poured herself a glass of ice water and made her rounds, checking all the tables. The mechanism of her success was a steel-trap memory, not quite photographic, for such a thing was a mere urban legend, but good enough to keep a half-dozen orders in her mind at any given time. Maybe she could handle more, but as a rule the cautious server never took on more than seven tables; those that did shortchanged themselves and their clients, leading to shoddy—and justifiably so—tips. Seven was usually Kjerstin’s “Hell No!” number, though she’d once covered twelve when duty demanded it and they weren’t that demanding as tables went. The competition was for packed tables. She had settled for worse, for anemic, poorly populated regions of the seating chart, and with Janice sharing the shift with her, the fight for alpha-bitch supremacy would continue.

It was very primatological. Or perhaps just canine.

It wasn’t just the perks of submission and having nits picked out of your fur; it had responsibility, including the protection of the younger females. Janice was a disaster waiting to happen.



The reality, though, Kjerstin knew, was that Friday was “amateur night.” The serious diners came in Sundays, Mondays, and Tuesdays.

Kjerstin glanced around the room and noticed the wine steward. She would have to kill him. Dwayne was drunk again. She glanced at her watch and sighed. Barely a customer had entered; he’d barely had time to get hammered but had managed nonetheless. “Don’t touch my stuff, bitch!” he’d shouted at her a week before over some squabble in the cellar. Why Alonzo hadn’t fired him for his boozing and collection of the choice wines for his own use escaped her. If he talked to her like that again, she’d made it clear, Alonzo wouldn’t have the chance to fire Dwayne. Her first reaction when he’d gotten angry was to laugh, but she had learned that such a reaction usually only made matters worse. Then later the actual annoyance really set in. Perhaps Alonzo kept Dwayne as a balance; management already felt there were too many females around as it was. That she was infinitely more qualified for the steward position, hell, that small dogs were more qualified, barely entered Alonzo’s mind.

The night before she’d opened a $200 bottle of Veuve Clicquot 1991 and a $250 of Heitz Martha’s Vineyard 1999, but although she received obscene wine discounts as an employee she was not quite enough of a wine nerd to blow her cash on the fermented grapes; she could only justify the expenditure as an investment, which defeated her main purpose in collecting wines: drinking them.

The steward tended to “lose” bottles; when she came for a pricey one not long ago he couldn’t find it, but several hours later, after her customers had had to settle for their second or third choice—after she’d made the recommendation, knowing what was on the list, and was made to look the fool—the bottle magically appeared at another table.

Kjerstin stretched and looked up at the ceiling. It was so different than the floor, which was hardwood, shiny, consisted of many long panels fit together, and amber-brown; whereas the ceiling, visible by day if not by night when the lights came on, was black and bumpy, traversed by many exposed pipes for heating and cooling and whatever else the innards of the building needed. It reminded her that as snooty as the job was, as snooty as most of the customers were, the wine bar was just some joint in a strip mall, some place in a generic building that had a facade and decorations. It was just the current inhabitant and nothing particularly special.



Tim arrived late. He was as cooked as a lard-covered frog in a pot of hot oil. His eyes were so red they almost dripped blood. Instead of sneaking in the back, he came in through the front and pushed his way past a few guests; evidently he’d been dropped off out front by a friend who was in a better condition to drive. Kjerstin almost pitied him; he was a great cook, and but for little relapses, which never involved the things that fucked him up in the first place but did often include other pills or booze, he was making progress. Dwayne, the wine steward, had it in for both Kjerstin and Tim, and she was loath to give him another reason to go after her, but she couldn’t leave Tim to Dwayne’s mercy, or Alonzo’s for that matter, so as soon as she saw him come in she hurried to him and navigated him around pillars and corners, staying out of sight of either danger. She got Tim in the kitchen, while her tables waited, and in an apron and at a table with knives in his hands as quickly as possible. She nodded at an assistant chef, Jorge, glanced around for Alonzo, who was probably in his office, if not patrolling the floor, and sure that everything would be fine for another night, she returned to her tables.

Jon was fucking things up, she noticed. He had the pacing wrong; he rarely worked tables. The key to the gig was spacing things out so the customer didn’t get his or her dinner too close to the salad, for example, but in this case he’d clearly put the order for the dinner in too soon after the salad, as if he were just unloading a delivery of food orders for some magical later dispersal. But as he walked by he twisted an old Hall & Oates tune and sang out the side of his mouth to Kjerstin, while nodding toward the woman at his table, “She’s a sloooow eater…”

Kjerstin almost snarfed diet soda from her nose, and then she heard the brewing of a commotion at the entrance.

Over her shoulder she saw a bulky man in a suit and tie, a bad comb-over, and a trophy wife on his right arm. Kjerstin had served him before and recognized him as a coach at the university. Before him, her back to Kjerstin, stood Taryn, a classic, very attractive, quiet, petite, friendly, and well-adjusted young thing in a committed and well-adjusted relationship. Taryn was being her usual, super-friendly self, though Kjerstin could feel the approach of ice. Taryn looked at the books and told the customer that it would be an hour and a half wait. The restaurant had filled up; an hour and a half, though, might have been pushing it.

The trophy wife confronted Taryn by dropping the classic douchebag ultra-despicable question, “Do you know who we are?”

The small server turned her attention to the spousal unit and replied deadpan after going a few degrees even colder, “I do. But I suppose just this once we can overlook it and serve you.”

The slight went unnoticed by the couple, who were too full of themselves to imagine this little girl might have issued a smackdown, but Kjerstin resisted staying around for the conclusion and instead retreated to the back where she retrieved an order. Much hooting and joy was felt and heard, and the rumor was that the coach had once been cruel to Taryn’s boyfriend. Kjerstin just smiled, pleased that she hadn’t dealt all evening with Janice, and pleased that Taryn had developed a backbone, for it was the alpha female’s job to protect her weaker peers, the responsibility of the appointment.

Her shift was near its end, she had her buck-fifty net, and only one last new table. She approached, and the man, who had been seated by Taryn, lowered his menu and smiled.

“Good evening,” Kjerstin began in a dignified but pleasant tone. “My name is Kjerstin, and I will be your server this evening.” Anna and Graeme should be home and cleaning the kitchen after consuming the leftovers she left out ready to reheat, she thought. It was a family movie night. She could still make it.

“Thank you,” replied the man, gentlemanly and stately. His eyes were large, brown and watery, as if they could penetrate one’s soul and yet were always on the verge of sympathetic tears. His hair, black streaked with gray, was short and curly, and accentuated a brown mulatto face featuring a sharp nose and strong, wide cheeks. He closed his menu. “My name is Leslie, and a colleague recommended this establishment to me since I am new in town. I was hoping you could recommend a dish and a wine.”

His words and voice were smooth and endearing, though like a good tannic wine, subtly dangerous and dry. She glanced at her watch as she adjusted the towel over her arm and her order pad; she could still see the kids, and this one might prove to be a worthy tip.

Steve Krause is a graduate student in Madison, Wisconsin, where he is completing a PhD on analogy in 18th-century aesthetics.

“Swing Shift” was written in response to a set of Sunday Brunch Prompts. The Sunday Brunch Chats run at 1 p.m. ET / 10 a.m. PT each Sunday.


Best of the Boards
Jennifer L. Justice

She picks out the seeds,
Sweet juice
running down crimson fingers.
She licks them clean, hungry
for change.

One by one
She chews.
Her choices stick
between her molars.
Every bite means she can never
go back.

She swallows,


Jennifer is a recent college grad with the crazy desire to work with kids. She currently goes by Ms. Justice and spends her days corralling hyperactive teenagers—a.k.a. teaching 7th grade. She’s been told she needs her own superhero theme song, but she’s still working on the lyrics. Email: jjustice[at]olivet.edu


Best of the Boards
Liz Mierzejewski

Pictures fell and rolled
as she thought them.
On the ground behind her,
they drifted like dry ice
trails and eddies,
curling about her feet.
Tribes of half-done creations
fought and melted
in her retreating wake.


Liz Mierzejewski is a middle school science teacher in Connecticut. Writing fiction is a recent fascination, including a successful 2006 NaNoWriMo. Just a few more dreams to be realized… E-mail: mizem55[at]yahoo.com

The Lesson

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Alan Walkington

I’d always wished I was smarter, then maybe Papa Jed wouldn’t have whupped me so often. It’s not like I didn’t try. I really did it’s just that I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. Like when Papa Jed was teaching Ma some manners and I should of just minded my own damn business like Papa Jed told me. But my mouth come open all by itself and I said please don’t you hit her no more please don’t. Mama told me hush child I got it comin’ but it was too late cause Papa Jed was already pulling his belt out of his britches and it had that big old brass buckle on it which hurt something fierce. It didn’t do no good anyway cause when he was done with me he went back to giving Mama the rest of her lesson. Mama said it was her fault anyway she should of knowed to have dinner hot for him even if he did come home so late.

Papa Jed was big on giving lessons. He always said he gave his best lessons when he’d got some good liquor inside of him and I guess it was true but he did a pretty fair job of it just about any old time.

I remember once when I was squatted down besides him while he was changing the tire on our old Chevy truck and I handed him the tire iron when what he wanted was the lug wrench. He said Jolene, if’n you was a boy like you shoulda been you’d have knowed proper what to hand me. Instead now I gotta teach you. He gave me a real good lesson right then and he wasn’t liquored up a bit. If’n I’d had shoes on it prob’ly wouldn’t have hurt so much. Mama said my toes wasn’t broke or nothing but I remember I sure did hobble round for a week or so.

Papa Jed’s lessons wasn’t all bad. He taught me to take quail and dove with the twenty gauge and rabbits with the twenty-two. You know when a rabbit is running out of a field sometimes it stops just at the edge of the bushes and looks back? That’s when you want to shoot it. Bang. One shot in the head so you don’t spoil the meat and Papa Jed got rabbit stew for dinner.

Usually I can get two of them so Mama and me can have some too. Mostly he don’t whup me for using the extra shell as long as I don’t miss. He taught me about missing real early on in the lessons telling me kid you better bring something back for each one of them shells I give you cause I’m sure as hell gonna count ’em when I get home.

Mama and me was hanging out the wash one day and she was looking at the sky and sayin’ Lord I hope it don’t come up a storm this afternoon. I said maybe we should wait to hang it out but she says no child this is wash day and Papa Jed expects to see the wash on the line when he comes in for supper and if that was what Papa Jed wanted then that was what we’d better give him. That afternoon it blackened up good and we got thunder and lightning and it blew like it weren’t never gonna stop and for a few minutes the rain come down like to choke a frog. We had to chase the wash halfway over the hill in the mud. Mama was sayin’ oh God oh God oh God like it was some kind of prayer but I guess God wasn’t listening cause Papa Jed come back while we was still trying to get the wash hung back up. He gave us both a good lesson on how important it was to watch the weather and all that and especially how important it was to have his supper on the table when he come home. It did hurt some but I guess I’m getting used to it cause I didn’t cry much at all. Mama didn’t look so good though and Papa Jed said don’t you croak on me woman till that bitch pup of yours is big enough to take your place.

Papa Jed had took to being around when I had my Saturday bath. He’d just sit back in his chair rockin’ and spittin’ in an old paper cup and watching me in that big copper tub by the wood stove. He’d say to Mama growin’ up some ain’t she and Mama’d clamp her lips tight together and not say nothing at all. Then Papa Jed would laugh and say you want me to dry you off sweety? I didn’t see what there was about me to give him any interest. I mean I got nothing nowhere no tits no hips no butt nothing I’m straighter and skinnier than a stick of kindling. Mama whispered to me don’t you let him near you child but what am I supposed to do? Anyways he ain’t never done nothing but look.

Sometimes I’d ask Mama about my own sweet pa who didn’t come back from the fighting. I wished I could remember him better. Mama says I don’t remember him at all I just remember what she’s told me cause I was too little when he went away but I don’t think that’s right. I remember a man holding me who didn’t smell like liquor and I remember being held in strong arms that tossed me way up in the air while I laughed. I think I do anyway. I want to. I don’t ask too often cause it makes Mama cry. Once she told me child I’m so sorry it shouldn’t be like this for you and I said Mama how else could it be I’m just a natural bad seed like Papa Jed says but she just cried harder so I didn’t say nothin’ more.

I found out a while back that my real pa was Papa Jed’s baby brother so when he got killed over there it was just natural for Papa Jed to take over. He’d been in prison so they hadn’t took him for a soldier like they did my real pa. Papa Jed said that even if Mama was spoiled rotten it wasn’t no hardship on him to take her on cause he figured he could straighten her out pretty quick and anyway his own woman had got sick the lazy bitch and went and died on him. And then he’d say that back then Mama was a real pretty little thing just barely fifteen even if she’d already whelped once and shit just look at her now.

It must of been harder for him to teach Mama the proper ways of things then he figured on cause he kept on having to give her lessons. He gives them to both of us, now, cause I’m a natural bad seed he says. I ain’t sure I know what he means cause if I’m just naturally bad how is he going to teach me any different? Sometimes he says it seems like he’s trying to teach a pig to whistle.

I used to wish I had me a little sister to play with. I almost had one called Bitsy but the poor little thing never got a chance to grow up. Mama says she was a colicky baby and she just cried and cried. Papa Jed told Mama woman you better make that little shit shut her damn noise hole before I do. Mama tried but Bitsy just kept on crying. I said to Mama that I didn’t think you could die of colic and Mama said that wasn’t what she died of and hush child don’t talk about it. Every now and again Mama has me put on a dress and we walk down the dirt road to the gravel one and up over the hill to the old church graveyard and visit her plot and get rid of the weeds and stuff and put some wild flowers on it if there’s any around. It was most of seven miles there so we didn’t go all that often. When we did, Papa Jed’d just laugh and say whyn’t you grab some of them fake things from some other grave they wouldn’t miss them then you wouldn’t have to go back so often. Mama usually just cries and hugs me tight. Like I said I’d have liked a sister but It’s probably best Bitsy passed over when she did.

At least I’ve got a dog. Had me one I mean. Brownie is his name was his name since he’s in that hole over there. He used to be Papa Jed’s dog but even though he wasn’t a pointer Papa Jed kept trying to get him to hold point. He just couldn’t and he kept breaking and flushing the birds before Papa John was ready. Mama said Jed that poor dog don’t have the slightest idea what it is you want from him but Papa Jed said women you better keep your damn mouth shut unless you want to get out here and point birds your own damn self so she shut up. He finally had to give up after he dusted off Brownie with birdshot for flushing a covey too quick.

Brownie was gun-shy after that and anyway couldn’t see all that good with just the one eye. Whenever Papa Jed was around he’d crawl under the porch and stay there. I used to sneak under there with him all warm and cozy and he’d roll over and let me rub his belly. Sometimes I’d take a nap there with my head on him for a pillow so that made him my dog I guess.

Yesterday after supper the bitch from the Cullen’s place come over the hill all in heat and sure enough Brownie was having at her right out front when Papa Jed came home all liquored up. He’s yelling you son-of-a-bitch which I guess was true in Brownie’s case anyways and he grabbed a stick of firewood and started beating them two dogs with it. They finally broke loose from each other and the bitch takes off back over the hill but Brownie twisted the wrong way and got hit up alongside the head. He run off under the porch yelping and shaking his head with blood flinging off all over the place.

Brownie kept crying during supper and Papa Jed said that he’d better stop making that damn noise or by God he’d go out there and stop it permanent. I wanted to go out there and get under the porch with Brownie but Papa Jed said hell no you stay right here I don’t want you bring all them fleas back inside and Mama said hush child don’t make it worse. I was really scared for Brownie until he finally shut up. I guess I was still scared even after.

Next morning after Papa Jed left I crawled under the porch with Brownie. At first I thought maybe he was all right but when he turned his head and licked my face I saw there wasn’t nothing but dried blood and pus where his good eye ought to be. I might have screamed I don’t really remember. I do remember Mama putting her arms around me and saying good sweet Jesus why have you let this happen to me and we both cried. I cried for Brownie and I guess Mama cried for everything.

Papa Jed come home for supper and said Jolene he’s your damn worthless dog He’s gonna die anyway you get rid of him or I’ll just cut his damn throat and let him bleed out right there. Mama said God’s pity on you, you cursed miserable man how did you live this long you worthless excuse for a human being and he punched her in the stomach and I screamed I’ll do it Papa Jed I’ll do it but he kept hitting her anyway. Mama served him supper all hunched over. I tried to help her but she just said oh child go outside with your dog now please now. So I did. I wasn’t hungry anyway.

Papa Jed give me one shell for the twenty-two and went back to the fields saying listen good brat you’d best have got rid of that damn dog when I get back for dinner. I went back in the house as soon as his boots left the porch and saw mama sit right down in the middle of the floor with bright red bubbles coming from her mouth. Her eyes are closed and I take her head in my lap and she whispers oh God sweety you gotta leave right now there’s some money I hide in the bottom of the flour bin oh it hurts so much go go please don’t let him do it to you too please God help her like you never helped me oh God oh and she stops talking for a moment and then she opens her eyes and says in almost her normal voice I saw it back during the mine accidents Jolene there are ribs stuck right through my lungs and I’m dead already I just ain’t stopped breathing yet take the money and leave anything is better than this I’m so so sorry child I love you so much.

Then she closes her eyes and in a minute she does stop breathing. I drag her over to the bed and manage to lift her up. I’m only eleven but I think I weigh more than she does. Did. I don’t know why I ain’t crying.

I go outside and do what I have to do with Brownie and he takes forever to die. His legs keep scrabbling in the dust and he keeps trying to lick my hand so I keep it where he can reach it till he stops moving. I’m finally crying as I dig the hole for him and it takes me all afternoon cause the tears keep getting in my way.

I’ve wiped the snot off my face and I’m sitting on the porch steps with the twenty-two acrost my lap when Papa Jed comes home for dinner. Papa Jed looks at the doggie-grave and at me and at the twenty-two and says well it looks like you finally did something like I told you to do and I said yes Papa Jed except I used the knife like you were going to. He stops and looks at me funny and says where’s your mama, girl? But I’m not paying him no mind anymore.

I let him see me break the rifle open, slide that shell into the breach and click it back closed. I say to him you taught me good Papa Jed I’m only gonna need me the one shell. Papa Jed takes a couple of steps back real slow and then he turns and runs for the bushes but right beside the outhouse he stops and looks back. Like I said, he’s taught me good, Papa Jed has.

“I am a retired software engineer who was born and raised in Santa Clara Valley, but lived for years in Tennessee and Idaho. I am now fulfilling my dream of being a full-time RVer. Or was that a nightmare? The jury is still out.” E-mail: ursus[at]walkington.org

Among the Herd

Best of the Boards
Emma Steinfeld

I enter the lobby of the medical office building and check the directory on the wall between the two elevators. I’ve been here a thousand times—okay, that’s a slight exaggeration—but I’ve certainly been here a lot more often than I would like, so you would think I would remember what floor my doctor is on, but I never do. Maybe it’s a subconscious thing. My mind is trying to trick me. It thinks that if it doesn’t tell me the floor, I’ll just turn and leave. Ah, if only…

I push the up arrow button and watch the race between the floor-o-meters above the elevators. The right elevator appears to have gotten waylaid on the second floor and the left one wins. There’s the obligatory ding sound, and the doors open. I enter the lift and push my floor button just as a woman enters the lobby and walks toward the elevator. I glance at her out of the corner of my eye as she enters, careful not to make eye contact as per Elevator Etiquette, and can’t help but notice her condition.

We exit the elevator on the third floor and make a left down the hallway, passing the offices of all the various ‘gists—an ophthalmologist, a cardiologist, and a nephrologist—until I arrive at my doctor’s office with my elevator companion right on my heels.

I sign in on the receptionist’s clipboard and take a seat. The waiting room is about three-quarters full, but I spot a chair that will enable me to sit by myself, as it has a table on each side of it. I don’t like talking to strangers to begin with—probably a result of having the Dangerous Stranger warnings drilled into my head as a child—but I really hate doctor’s-office-waiting-room stranger chitchat. Especially the kind elicited by being in this particular doctor’s waiting room. I walk through the maze of bellies, taking special note of all the feet sticking out in the aisle, lest I trip and fall into someone’s girth.

The tables on either side of me are replete with reading material—a fortunate situation, since I forgot to bring a book or magazine with me. I peruse the choices the doctor has provided me. There are several cardboard displays of medical pamphlets and I scan them, thinking maybe I will be able to diagnose myself and won’t need to sit around and wait to see the doctor. My choices consist of: How Your Baby Grows: A Monthly Diary of Your Baby’s Development, Baby Basics: Your Month by Month Guide to a Healthy Pregnancy, Smoking and Pregnancy, Drugs and Pregnancy, Alcohol and Pregnancy, Prenatal Care, Men Have Babies Too, and Cesarean Birth. For a moment, I think I may have found a winner with Eating for Two, but realize they aren’t just talking about having a healthy appetite. Even if I were pregnant, I don’t see a pamphlet that would be of use to me, since none of them seem to include the number for the local suicide hotline. Apparently, pap smears, uterine fibroids, mammograms, ovarian cysts, endometriosis, tubal ligations and other methods of birth control, cervical dysplasia, and menopause are not important enough topics, when compared with pregnancy, to warrant even a pamphlet or two.

I turn to the selection of magazines: Parents Magazine, Prima Baby, American Baby, Pregnancy Magazine, and Parenting. I consider whether I might have time to scurry down to my car to grab my Toyota Prius owner’s manual, as it would surely be more riveting than the material provided here.

In my boredom, I scan the waiting room. The furniture, paint, and wallpaper are all particularly nauseating shades of pastel blue and pink. Not a color scheme I would think of as particularly adult-like. Why are gyn/ob offices decorated for those yet to be born instead of the actual patients who are, with any luck, mostly adults?

There are only two of us who are not visibly pregnant—the other woman appears to be in her early- to mid-60s. Of course, with the recent news reports of women giving birth well into their 50s and 60s, it’s quite possible that she’s simply not showing yet and I am, indeed, the only woman in the room with an uninhabited uterus.

With the exception of the older woman, every last one of the women in the waiting room is visibly pregnant. If nothing else, the crappy clothing selection alone would keep me from reproducing. They’re all wearing shirts that are different colored and patterned versions of a babydoll nighty. And they’re all—every last one of them—pastel. What’s with all the pastels?

Every two or three minutes a nurse enters the waiting room and calls out a name, causing one of the maternal masses to have to do the grunt-strain-shimmy-shake boogie out of her seat and then waddle across the room. Perhaps they should install a little mini crane to help their patients get up. Or they could invest in some of those electric chairs for the elderly I’ve seen advertised on television that rise up and gently dump out the occupant.

The entrance door opens and another obviously pregnant woman signs in and joins her herd. She unzips her coat and struggles to get her arms out of the sleeves. She doesn’t appear to look like she’s old enough to drive, let alone give birth. When she finally gets her coat off, she reveals something other than the babydoll-esque shirt the rest of her covey is sporting. She’s togged up in what appears to be a non-maternity T-shirt that might well have been too tight even before her bun started baking. Her shirt and pants do not meet over the vast real estate that is her stomach, revealing dark red stretch marks and a funny looking circle that, once upon a time, must have been her navel. I try not to stare, but it’s like a car wreck with ambulances and fire trucks… you don’t want to look for fear of the ghastly sights you may observe, but you just can’t help yourself.

“Emma,” a nurse calls from her intermittent post at the corral gate. Ah… music to my ears. I grab my purse and bolt toward her. I’ll have to wait a while longer once I get in the examining room, but at least I won’t feel like the silver pinball in a room full of bumpers.

Emma Steinfeld publishes the web-log EriePressible: The Blog and helps edit the BrockLog. When not at her unfulfilling job, she spends her time blogging, writing, attempting to learn Italian, and working with friends to open a literary center in Erie, Pennsylvania. She resides in Erie with her inamorato and their dog, a feisty PugPei they rescued from a shelter. E-mail: emma.steinfeld[at]gmail.com

Careful Wishes

Best of the Boards
Alan Walkington

Like all Monday mornings in my classroom, this one brought with it a small measure of insanity. It was the first week in October, and here in the mountains the mornings were starting to get chilly. I was standing at the cloakroom door answering “Good Morning, Miss Johnson” from twenty-three first-graders and trying to straighten out the noisy traffic jam as they crowded in to hang up jackets and put lunch sacks on the shelf.

Quiet little Martha Durbin rushed through, knocking Jimmy Reston flat on his bottom as she went past. Jimmy, face scrunched up, sat there on the floor trying to decide if he was hurt and how offended he should be. This kind of interaction with Martha was outside his experience. It was outside all of our experiences.

Breathing hard, her face red and tear-tracked, Martha threw her jacket at a hook and slammed her lunch box onto the shelf. She pushed her way out of the cloakroom, stomped over to her chair, and sat down, her little hands fisted and her jaw clenched tight.

Martha wasn’t what you would call pretty, but she was cute enough in a tomboyish way. Auburn braids tied off in red ribbons. Bangs cut short. Long dark lashes surrounding big shy hazel eyes. Front teeth missing. Freckles everywhere. She often had scabs on her knees and scratches on her arms and legs. Her clothes were old, clean, and carefully mended hand-me-downs, but there was nothing unusual about that around here. She was always quiet and reserved.

I threaded my way through the clots of noisy children over to Martha’s table. I looked around the classroom. Time to exert control. “Okay class! Good morning and let’s get started. Everyone to their seats!”

I ignored the scrambling and not very quiet whispering and got down on one knee at face level with Martha. “Are you all right?”

Martha knuckled her eyes, and wiped her nose on her arm. I searched the many pockets of my teacher’s smock until I found a tissue. Martha’s eyes, lashes still shining with tears, slowly left the table in front of her and lifted to meet mine. One at a time, she unfisted her hands. I reached over and wiped her face. “Here.”

She took the tissue from me.


Martha blew and then finished cleaning her face. She began twisting the tissue between both hands. Sighing, I reached over and retrieved the damp wad.

“I’m sorry, Miss Johnson,” she said. “I didn’t mean to hurt Jimmy.”

“Oh, I don’t think you hurt anything but his dignity,” I replied. “But what do we do when we accidentally bump into someone?”

“Apologize,” she whispered. “Do I have to? Now?”

“If you think you should,” I said, “then it’s probably best to get it over with.”

Martha looked over at Jimmy, who was now standing and rubbing his bottom with both hands. “I’m sorry, Jimmy.”

Jimmy looked at me and frowned, his lower lip jutting out as he considered possible courses of action. I nodded encouragingly.

“All right,” he said, “but don’t do it again.”

“And you, sweetheart.” I turned my attention back to Martha. “What on earth happened to you?”

“Nothing, Miss Johnson. Anyway, it ain’t nothing you can fix.”

The ‘ain’t’ got ignored. “Are you sure?” I asked. “I’m pretty good at fixing things.”

Martha just shook her head. That would have to do for now, I thought. But I’d look into things later.

I didn’t want to continue the morning with anything that required much in the way of concentration, so I passed out the Shapes and Colors worksheets. My next twenty minutes were spent helping hot little hands keep their crayons mostly inside the lines. Martha only finished half the assignment and the colors she used were dark blue, brown, and black.

Calmed somewhat after the frenetic start, the class moved on to the arithmetic lesson. Arithmetic was still tedious and confusing for many, but things kept getting better. It thrilled me to see a face suddenly brighten as they realized for the first time ‘that’s what she meant!’

Martha chewed the point off her pencil, and had to use the sharpener on the back wall. I saw her peeking inside the cloakroom as she ground away at the pencil. When she finally came back to her seat, she sat there doodling and glancing over her shoulder occasionally.

The morning progressed from arithmetic to penmanship, through milk and graham crackers, and then morning recess. Finally story time came around and I finished the last chapter of our current, remarkably silly, book just before lunch.

I was considering ignoring the state-recommended list and introducing the children to The Little Prince next. There was certainly room for some taming here.

“And so Miranda, the good witch, waved her magic wand and turned the big, bad wolf into a little brown toad. Hoppy and Stinky and all their friends lived happily ever after. And they never had to worry about the big bad wolf ever again.”

“That’s not right, Teacher,” Jesse proclaimed. “Nobody could do that!”

“Could so,” Martha said in her soft little voice. “My Granny could. She says you can do anything you want, if you just wish hard enough.”

“It truly is make-believe, Martha,” I said. “There really aren’t any such things as witches.”

“Not witches, maybe,” Martha insisted, her voice more strident with each word. “But that other? About the toad? That could really happen!”

Her comment was punctuated by a tinny crash coming from the cloakroom. As heads turned towards the back of the room, Martha jumped to her feet, both hands at her mouth. A very large mouse ran through the cloakroom door. It sat on its haunches, nose and whiskers twitching and looked around.

It was too large, really, almost as big and fat as George the Hamster, but definitely a mouse. Short sleek gray fur, long naked tail, bright beady black eyes, twitching nose, sharp little teeth. Before more than the first ‘Look out’ could be shouted, or the first scream voiced, it scurried into the classroom.

Tables skidded across the floor. Chairs crashed over. Girls, and not a few boys, screamed. Someone shouted, “Stomp it!” over and over.

Martha paled and shrieked, “Don’t hurt him, don’t hurt him!”

I grabbed the wastebasket, upended the contents onto the floor, and trapped the skittering creature beneath it. “Okay, everybody, settle down,” I said. “The excitement’s over.”

Martha was on her knees with an ear pressed to the side of the wastebasket. “I can hear him,” she said. “I think he’s all right.”

I looked over at Our Animal Friends corner. George the Hamster was busy grooming herself. The snake cage was empty, however. Rosie the Boa had escaped his captivity over the summer and was still missing. His home, a dry aquarium with a wire top, was available for temporary use.

“I think this critter might bite,” I said.

Martha nodded vigorous agreement.

“You could throw something over it,” Patrick suggested.

“Good idea,” I replied. “You want to run and get your jacket?”


I guess not, I thought. Martha was to the cloakroom and back with hers before I could even ask. “Okay. Martha, when I say ‘now,’ you tip the wastebasket, and I’ll grab it with your jacket. Then we’ll put it in Rosie’s cage.”

Capture accomplished, I carried the wiggling mouse, shrouded in Martha’s jacket, back to the empty cage. I dropped it in and Patrick plopped the screen back on top. The mouse sat on its haunches and chittered angrily at us. I set the Campbell’s tomato soup can full of gravel on the screen to hold it down. I hoped it did a better job than it had with Rosie.

“Lunch time,” I said, quite unnecessarily, as the bell rang. “Grab your lunches and everybody go on outside to eat. Martha, stay and help me clean up, please.”

It took a while to clear everyone out, but eventually I could shut the door of the suddenly quiet classroom. Martha gathered the trash I’d dumped and put it back into the wastebasket while I straightened tables and righted tipped chairs.

“Get your lunch,” I said, “and sit up here at my desk with me. We’ll eat together and have a nice talk.”

Martha put her battered yellow lunch-box on my desk and opened it. Kool-Aid was leaking from the thermos and holes were chewed through the waxed paper of her sandwich. Tiny black pellets covered everything. Martha looked down at the floor, face tight, arms crossed and hands beginning to turn into fists once more.

“My goodness,” I said. “I don’t think you’re going to be eating that. Let’s get it cleaned up.”

Off we went to the sink. Sandwich into the garbage, Kool-Aid drained from the broken thermos. Everything rinsed and dried. Back to my desk.

“I hope you like PB and J,” I said, “cause that’s what we’re having for lunch.” I gave Martha half my sandwich. We ate quietly, washing the peanut butter and jelly down with water.

I ruffled Martha’s hair with my hand and turned her face towards mine. “It’s time for you to tell me what’s going on.”

“I didn’t mean to!” Martha’s face crumpled into tears. “He was taking my cookies, and I got mad!”

“Who was?”

“Joe,” she said. “He’s so mean! But I didn’t mean to, really I didn’t. And now I don’t know what to do! Granny’s going to be so mad at me!”

Joe, a fat bully of a fourth-grader, was Martha’s brother. They lived with their maternal grandmother on a small farm up one of the creeks. Among other bits of nastiness, Joe raided the lunchboxes of younger children for their deserts. I suspected it wouldn’t be long before he graduated to more adult misdemeanors.

“Just what is it you didn’t mean to do?”

“I wished he was little, like a mouse,” she whispered, “and then he was!”

This would be a good time not to laugh, I thought. I tried to keep my face neutral.

“Granny says to be careful what I wish for. But I didn’t think this wish would come true. Really, I didn’t! Most of them don’t!”

I opened my mouth to say something and then realized I had no idea what to say. So I just smiled and nodded my head encouragingly.

“And I don’t know how to unwish it! That’s why I put him in my lunch box. I have to take him home and maybe Granny knows how to unwish it for me.”

Martha looked at her hand. “And he bit me,” she said. “Hard!”

I encourage imagination in children, but this was pushing the limits.

“So I have to take him home after school, Miss Johnson. Please!”

“Let me think about it, Martha,” I said. I wasn’t sure about sending a mouse home with anyone without some warning. Although, from the sound of things, Granny would be able to handle most anything that came her way.

I checked with the attendance office. Joe was absent that day. Probably playing hooky, I thought.

The afternoon went much more smoothly then the morning, although during nap time, the mouse kept squeaking and chittering and trying to climb the glass walls of the cage. After that, Martha spent her free time back in Our Animal Friends corner, whispering to it.

After the final bell, as the kids were trooping out the door, I took Martha aside. “I’m sorry, honey, but I can’t let you take that mouse home without your grandmother’s permission. If you could bring a note tomorrow?”

Martha’s expression became even more worried. “But he’ll get hungry! And he’ll be all alone here!”

“Don’t worry. I’ll give him some of George the Hamster’s food. I’m sure she won’t object. And I doubt if he’ll mind being alone for a while.”

Martha shrugged into her coat and started out the door. “Tell him not to worry, all right? Tell him Grandma’ll fix it.” She turned her face towards me. “Please?”

“All right sweetheart.” I supposed I could do that. “Don’t you worry either.”

If someone saw me crouched down in front of an old aquarium, telling a mouse not to worry about being alone at night, it would just confirm what they already figured. Five years of teaching first grade had turned my mind to mush. By myself, finally, I barely suppressed a giggling fit.

Before I went home, though, I made sure that the mouse had water and some hamster food. And as directed, I told him not to worry, that Grandma would take care of everything tomorrow. He made a valiant effort to take a piece of my finger off at every opportunity. I mentioned something about mousetraps and he actually stood on his hind legs and hissed at me.

The next morning Martha was her usual quiet self, although she kept smiling as she worked. When I had the opportunity, I asked her how Granny liked the idea of having a mouse come home in Martha’s lunchbox. She looked at me seriously, and told me again that Granny would fix everything. “She’s coming in at lunchtime,” Martha explained. “She’ll take Joe home then.”

I don’t know how I expected ‘Granny’ to look. A bit witch-like, I suppose. In fact, she was a slender attractive women in her early fifties dressed in faded jeans and a grey sweatshirt decorated with the cartoon characters Sylvester and Tweety Bird. Her short gray hair was caught up in a blue bandanna.

She carried a small wire cage with her into which she loaded the mouse. Joe? Naw. Although it made no attempt to sever any of her fingers. In fact, it seemed quite subdued.

“Uh… what are you going to do with that creature?” I asked.

“Oh, I think I’ll keep it around in the cage a couple of more days then turn it loose,” Granny replied.

I told her how much I admired her granddaughter’s… creative?… imagination.

She just laughed. “Yes,” she replied. “She does get carried away at times.”

And that was that.

Don’t ask me to explain any of this. I’m as certain as I can be that it was all just silliness in a little girl’s head. But Joe missed three days of school, and when he came back he was a very different boy. Better, I guess. He was certainly less of a bully. And he was very, very cautious around his little sister.


“I am a retired software engineer who was born and raised in Santa Clara Valley, but lived for years in Tennessee and Idaho. I am now fulfilling my dream of being a full-time RVer. Or was that a nightmare? The jury is still out.” E-mail: ursus[at]walkington.org.


Best of the Boards
Joseph Noonan

“Hey, hey, hey, buddy, what do you think you’re doing? You gotta pay for that.”

I hated that phrase. “You gotta pay for that.” It almost got me killed once.

The man behind the counter seemed unhappy about something. Agitated.

“What, this?” I held up the map. Just a standard, folded-up road map. I’d grabbed it from the rack on my way towards the door. Only half of my mind was on the counter man and his objections. The other half was buzzing with the effect that the map had just had on me. I’d reached out to pick it up, seeing that it swam in and out of focus, making me a little lightheaded.

I don’t know why, but all my life maps have seemed kind of spooky to me. I know, I know. It sounds weird to me too, when I say it, but it’s the truth. They fascinate me. How can a piece of paper with some squiggly colored lines on it give you the knowledge to get to someplace you’ve never been before?

“Yeah, that. You gotta pay.”

“I thought they were, you know, free. I just gave you over forty bucks for gas and food.” If you could call what I’d scooped out of the rotating warmer tray “food.”

He waved in reverse, beckoning me back. “Come here. Let me see that thing.”

I walked back, went to hand the map over to him. He snatched it out of my fingers before I could let go.

And if you’ve never been there before, how do you know where you really are when you arrive? You trust the map. You believe it, and you believe in it. It’s almost like the map created the destination for you.

He rolled a sodden unlit cigar into the corner of his mouth. “Let’s just see here, now… what’s this say on the front?”


He made a big show of peering myopically at the folded packet. He apparently didn’t see anything truly out of the ordinary about it. I watched as it glimmered in his hand. My head was still reeling.

Oh sure, I know what you’re thinking. The destination was always there, not dependent upon your arrival to make it exist.

“Right up here in the corner… two… a period… nine… five. And this funny thing in front of the two looks like, what… a dollar sign? Dollar sign means money. Two-ninety-five. Two dollars ninety-five. Does that sound like free to you? Doesn’t sound like free to me. So, are you gonna buy it or what?”

Apparently free road maps had gone the way of the dinosaur whose remains I’d just pumped into my tank, and the greasy jerkoff behind the counter wanted to make a point of it. If he’d only known what the map could really be worth to me, he might not have settled for as little as $2.95.

But for YOU, personally, that location didn’t really exist until you got there… it was just an idea, maybe someplace someone described to you, or someplace like New York or Vegas. Places that you’ve seen on TV and in movies and magazines so many times that you’re convinced you would recognize them instantly.

“I said, are you gonna buy it or not?”

“I’m not sure, now. You’ve got it all stained with tobacco juice.”

Slow burn.

Whoever owned the shirt the guy was wearing was named Stan, according to the embroidered tag over the pocket. Judging by the tension on the buttons, I wasn’t convinced this was Stan. The shirt was about three sizes too small for him. Maybe Stan was tied up somewhere out in back and this guy had been robbing the place when I pulled in.

“Stan” glared at me for a few more moments. I stood there and let him.

“Look, do you want it or not? It’s two ninety-five.” The cigar rolled back to the other side of his mouth. Stan was letting me off the hook. Maybe he needed to get back to rifling the register.

I laid three bills out on the counter and took the map back from him. I headed to the door and made my own slow show of replacing the original in the stand and taking a fresh one. The new one was shimmering so much it looked like it was about to explode out of the rack when I reached for it. I didn’t look back before walking out to the Blazer.

And since all the biggest buildings and landmarks match the pictures you have in your head when you arrive, you have no trouble accepting that you’re there. New York. Or Vegas. Or a thousand other places no one cares as much about.

I looked in all four cardinal directions before climbing in, just stood for a minute and let the sun blast down on me. I warmed myself like a lizard on a rock. I’d once been cold for a long time. The heat felt good. It was only a little after nine in the morning, and already the blacktop was soft enough that you could push a stick down into it. Not much to see anywhere around.

The dry wind kicked a paper wrapper across the lot and thrummed through the power lines. This was just one of those thousand places no one really cared as much about as New York or Vegas, not worth even a small dot on the map in my hand. Just red scorched hills all around, two ribbons of cracked asphalt crossing in the desert, and therefore enough justification for someone to build Stan’s mini-mart and put in some gas pumps.

I climbed in so the wind wouldn’t make managing the map difficult and unfolded it across the steering wheel. I looked long and hard at the area directly north of where my car sat now, searching for anything that didn’t jive with my memory. I’d spent a lot of time learning the smallest details of the area from seven other maps, all from different publishers, all stashed now in a box on the back seat. After poring over every road, turnoff, land feature and junction within fifty miles, all familiar, I switched to examining the area to the west. All very methodical. Also all very familiar. All very fruitless. I clicked over to the wedge within fifty miles south.


I saw it within a moment of starting over the southern quadrant. I tried not to let excitement get the better of me. But I was sure. As often as it happens, the feeling is always the same. And I always have to slow myself down, double-check against the other maps to make sure my new find is real. I knew I’d pull the others out of the box in a minute, spread them each out, and compare them to this new one. But I also knew I wasn’t wrong. The feeling is always solid and certain. I just wanted to sit and let it breath like a wine.

But I’m still not convinced that maps don’t create the places we go when we use them…

This map had something new on it.

I sat in the warmth of the car for a while, just letting the heat seep into me, watching the hills shimmering out in front. I was enjoying the moment. Then I reached into the box on the back seat and pulled out the other maps of the area. I unfolded each out over the others and paged through them in turn. I compared each map’s representation of the southern section and confirmed my find—there was no record on any of the others of the stretch of railroad track that Stan’s new map showed. It was about twenty miles south of the intersection where I was sitting. The spur section appeared to start up from nothing, about ten miles to the west. There was a small square symbol at that end, maybe a depot or something. The tracks ran for about thirty miles straight into a low set of hills to the east and vanished.

I sat a little longer and thought about this. No one built new railroads any more. There were plenty of new highways and roadwork. The desert was getting gobbled up continually by new housing. Suburbs spread wider and wider circles around large urban areas. Irrigation systems and dams were being added everywhere. Changes on the map to show all of these were to be expected. But nobody was building railroads any more. All the main routes had been laid down over a century ago, and a lot of them were abandoned now. The robber barons were long gone.

I figured this was worth a twenty-mile drive. I folded the maps back up and returned them to the box, weighted down with a brick. I tend to drive fast, with the windows rolled down. I cranked over the engine and turned left out of Stan’s lot, headed south. If Stan really was tied up out in back, he’d have to wait for someone else to rescue him. I tossed the crappy food out onto the roadway as I drove. I suddenly wasn’t very hungry.


“Middle-aged, married (Hi, Linda!), father of two. No fine arts education—all secondary and later college has been technical. Entire adult career spent in technical work—electronics, computers, network administration, service supervision. Avid reader, decided it’s time to produce rather than just consume. Favorite authors: the list could be a long one, but needs to include John Steinbeck, Robert Pirsig, Lee Child, Stephen King.” E-mail: j.e.noonan[at]verizon.net.

The story “Columbus” is a work in progress, hopefully part of a larger body of work to come.

Turn Around

Best of the Boards
Sheela Jaywant

She recoiled and whimpered as he swooped her up in his arms, turned her face away from the stiff uniformed chest. The skin of her lower back, where her blouse and sweater had moved up, away from her flannel, trouser-like salwar, felt the cold buckle of his belt. She recognized the emblems and stripes of the Indian Army. Conditioning made her cringe.

“Stay away, Badriya,” her father used to warn, “Hide when you see any stranger.”

Once, she would have sprinted and sunk into the shrubbery around the village at the mere suspicion of a newcomer’s presence. Now, her limbs weren’t protesting as they might have before the earthquake, when, just at the start of winter, the house fell down. She had been sleeping, cuddled between her mother and brothers, on rough mattresses spread over the bare floor. The staccato shots that echoed across the Pakistani border didn’t bother her; she was used to those. Then, suddenly, she was beneath a gray, weepy sky, shivering, alone, surrounded by stones. Had she imagined that thunder-like sound? Where was she? Was she dreaming? Where was Ma? What was all this… wood? Who was crying? Allah, what was happening? The scene still seemed real, yet distant. The mountains were there, and some trees, but where were the houses? In the darkness she saw hands, legs, faces. Unmoving. She saw familiar clothes, vessels, crushed, spread out. Moans stabbed the silence. Wails of pain. Inhuman, indistinct, scary.

Next day, someone removed the stones, picked her up. Then she felt pain, hunger, cold, miserable. One brother had died in her mother’s arms, she learnt, and her mother in the Army hospital at Srinagar. The others had gone to Allah in their sleep, their bodies crushed by the fallen walls. She was carried, like now, in a soldier’s arms, to a tent. The bloody flesh that hung from her leg was swabbed with a burning liquid and bandaged. Despite the acrid smell and nausea, she ate warm dal and rotis. Someone who she had been taught was ‘the enemy’ fed her. She swallowed the spoonfuls instinctively. Unwillingly. She was terrified, helpless, confused. He held a crackling radio to her ear. ‘Aid for the earthquake victims was coming in from all parts of the world,’ she heard. At ten, her world ended at Kupwara, Kashmir. She wasn’t sure where Delhi was.

This man, who was carrying her now, said nothing. Where was he taking her? Who was he? Would he do ‘things’ to her? Kill her? What?

It had been two-and-a-half months since the earthquake. Badriya had worn and eaten whatever she was given. Quiet, withdrawn, sad. Her leg was still in plaster. She couldn’t even limp without help. The man carried her over the rubble in the village. A light blanket of green covered the scape. The clouds over the mountains were thinner, the morning sun more yellow. The snow had melted into a grey slush. Tiny buds dotted the almond and apple trees. In a month, the boughs would be bare no more. Amongst the ruins she recognized some collapsed structures. A lump came to her throat. Her body moved with the rhythm of his steps. She moved her eyes to see whatever… was left of her world. They crossed the graveyard. Did her father lie there? The others? Who knew? Beyond it stood the tents where the man was purposefully heading. What was he going to do to her? Where could she run? How? Allah, help me, help me, she mumbled in prayer.

The loud murmur from inside one tent fell as soon as the flap was moved aside. A second’s silence, then a single voice: “Badriya?” Followed by a cheerful roar: “Badriya-a-a.” She raised her head from the man’s chest and… flailed her arms and injured legs to get down and partly hop, partly crawl towards her childhood mates, sitting cross-legged on the floor, in the makeshift ‘classroom’ where they were following the school routine, doing lessons in a temporary-camp environment. Each face she recognized brought tears to her eyes. Hug, hug, hug. The uniformed man picked her up again, to carry her to her place on a mat in one corner.

She snuggled trustingly now; she was amongst her own, he was no longer the ‘enemy’.


“I’m a hospital administrator whose work can be read on Chowk.com and Toasted-Cheese.com. I do a weekly column for a local newspaper and my book, Quilted—Stories of Middle Class India, has been reviewed on Sawnet.org.” E-mail: sheelajaywant[at]yahoo.co.in.

The Ice Cream Man

Best of the Boards
Mark Paxson

When there’s nothing to harvest, Pedro pushes his ice cream cart through the streets of Watsonville. It is a meticulously planned route that begins around 10:00 in the dusty neighborhoods on the eastern edge of town. Even though it’s early, he hopes that kids playing in the street will want a cold treat. As the lunch hour approaches, the route takes Pedro through the small downtown and the surrounding commercial areas. Once he’s sold a few Popsicles and ice cream sandwiches to workers taking a mid-day break, Pedro heads back through more residential streets. Kids playing with hoses. Kids playing tag. Kids playing baseball in the street. They can hear the little bell on the cart jingle from a block or two away. Doors slam, kids yell for money and come running with coins dancing in their hands.

The smiles and laughs from the children should make Pedro happy, but there is too much sadness in his life. So, he plasters a fake smile on his face as he hands out his frozen treats and the children snatch them and run away.

As the afternoon turns to evening, Pedro pushes the cart towards home. Over the course of a day he will push the cart through more than ten miles of the town’s streets. He has made a few more dollars to send back to his parents in Mexico and to keep food on the table for Miguel, his own happy little boy.

When Pedro gets home, he gets Miguel from the neighbor who watches him during the day.

Gracias, senorita,” he mumbles as he takes Miguel by the hand.

De nada,” Maria replies. Pedro doesn’t notice how Maria’s hand lingers on his as he passes a few of the precious dollars he has earned to her.

Miguel, having just turned three, is a ball of fire. Non-stop movement. Non-stop chatter. Pedro can’t help but laugh and smile watching Miguel. The hour or two Pedro has with his son before he puts him down to sleep is the only time Pedro allows himself to be happy. He has to for the little boy’s sake.

They play. They wrestle. When Miguel goes to bed, Pedro lies next to him and tells him stories about Mexico, about home, about his grandparents. He has not been able to tell Miguel stories about his mother. Not yet. Those memories are still too painful.

Once Miguel’s eyes have closed and he is sleeping peacefully, Pedro gets up, kisses him lightly on the cheek and goes out to the kitchen. He gets his dinner and a cerveza and sits down at the small, worn kitchen table. As he eats his meal—rice, beans and a couple of tortillas made by the neighbor who watches his little boy and whose hand lingers on his own—Pedro does what he has done every night for the last year and a half. He relives the night he lost Isabella, his wife.

They grew up together in a small town in Mexico, surrounded by family and friends. Everybody knew everybody and everybody knew Pedro and Isabella would marry some day. As early as sixth grade, other kids would make fun of them because of how close they had grown.

A few years after the couple proved everybody right and married, Miguel was born. Shortly after his first birthday, they decided to cross the border to California. Pedro and Isabella dreamed of a better life, a life they didn’t think possible in their desolate corner of Mexico.

On their journey to California, after they had crossed the Rio Grande and crouched their way through a small tunnel that funneled illegal immigrants into the country, they were packed into a van with its seats taken out. Fifteen people were packed into the back, sitting side by side on the floor. Packed in like sardines. The air was stifling and the aroma of sweat and fear filled the van.

Suddenly, the driver slammed on the brakes. The tires squealed. The van veered to the left and began to tip over. It seemed as though it took forever, but in reality it was over in a second or two. In that time, Pedro curled into a protective ball around his son, who was sitting on his lap, and tried to reach for Isabella. He didn’t reach her in time. As the van crashed over onto its side, he could feel her slide past him and slam into the wall.

The back doors burst open and the occupants began stumbling out. Pedro carried Miguel out and turned to look for his wife. She didn’t follow him out, so he went back to the doors and peered in.

There were three bodies scattered in the corner, jumbled up with each other. One of them was the girl Pedro had known for years. The girl he had loved since the beginning of his time. The girl who had grown into a woman and become his wife and who bore his child. He could see the features on her face, frozen in place. He could see that her head was bent awkwardly to the left. Her eyes stared blankly into space. Pedro had lost her while in search of a dream.

Every night, over a plate of rice and beans, he relives that night. He can still feel her slip out of his grasp and hear the thud as she hits the side of the van. He no longer remembers the feel of his wife in his arms. He only remembers his hand reaching for her that night. He no longer remembers her laugh. He only remembers the sound of the thud. He no longer remembers the smile that used to light up her face. He remembers only the sight of her eyes staring into space.

That night Pedro had to run with Miguel in his arms to avoid being arrested. He ran and ran and left Isabella behind. He wasn’t able to bury her or properly mourn her. Now he mourns her the only way he can. Every night. Alone. Reliving that night. Tears running down his cheeks. At some point, he rises from the kitchen table, rinses off his plate, and goes to bed. The next day, he will sell frozen treats to happy children dancing in the streets and wrestle with his son before putting him to bed. Then he will sit by himself and try to remember Isabella, his wife.


Mark Paxson is an attorney in California with two kids, a wife, two dogs, three guinea pigs, and a fish. A couple of years ago he began writing a novel, One Night in Bridgeport, about a man falsely accused of rape. Now in the middle of a painful rewrite of that novel, he fills his limited free time with short stories. He’s looking forward to finishing his first novel and moving on to the all-important second novel.