Can The Small Talk

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Amanda “The Bellman” Marlowe

Writers tend to listen to the conversations around them. We’re always looking for snippets that would make a good scene, or trigger that best-selling novel’s plot. With cell phones, there’s a lot more to overhear than there used to be. And half of a conversation can be far more interesting than the whole conversation. The woman on the train seat next to yours is buying life insurance for her young children, but you hear her say “No, that’s too expensive. Forget the health insurance, just give me the life insurance.” The writer’s brain immediately supplies the backstory: She’s about to murder her children for the insurance money. The kid yelling into his cell phone about how much he hates his dad becomes the main character in your next angstful coming-of-age story. We’ve all done that sort of thing.

And people talk on cell phones almost everywhere, so it’s hard not to overhear them. They’ll break up with their lovers at full volume at a bus stop. They’ll chew their kids out as they’re walking down the street with a Bluetooth headset. You can’t tell the weirdoes from everyone else anymore—almost everybody is talking to thin air now. Everywhere. And I do mean everywhere. Even in the bathroom.

Three times this past weekend, I’ve heard a phone ring in a public ladies’ room. Once in a McDonald’s, and twice at an airport. This didn’t surprise me particularly. What surprised me was that the gals, who were all on the can at the time, answered.

Maybe I’m not up on today’s etiquette, but I think it’s gross to answer a phone when you are in the bathroom. I would really prefer you let me leave you a voicemail message. Even without the germ issue, there are some things that you just don’t need to share with the world. Bathroom trips (as that CNN anchor found out recently) are very high on that list. I don’t need to know you are going to the bathroom. I really don’t. So if you’re in the stall, and your phone rings, check your caller ID. If it’s my number, do us both a favor and just let it ring.

I understand some people live with the phone in the hand, or the Bluetooth ear piece permanently attached, but really… is there any phone call so desperate you have to answer it in the john instead of calling someone back about five minutes later? Certainly none of the conversations I was privileged to overhear were particularly noteworthy. They weren’t even story-worthy. They almost all of them ran something like this:


“Oh, hi. Look, can I call you back in about five minutes? I’m in the bathroom.”

I’m sorry. There’s not much writing material in that sort of conversation. Well, okay, I admit that’s an obvious lie—it did fuel this Snark Zone essay.


E-mail: bellman[at]


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]

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


A Midsummer Tale ~ Third Place
David N. Scott

Ian was a tad on the diminutive side, but wiry, a member of the water polo team and thus inherently tough and well-trained—just not on the football-playing, weight-lifting axis his peers looked for. Two years later, he would emerge into spectacular success dancing around in golden underwear as the title character in the Rocky Horror Picture Show, but he was still a bit introverted then.

We were sitting in summer school, the two of us happy to have a good friend to take the class with. We were inseparable then, two lonely dudes hoping to expand our social circle and meet some ladies. Well, chicks, ten years ago. Sitting there in class, miserable, glad to be next to each other, we never could’ve anticipated not talking for almost a decade, keeping in touch via the occasional message on MySpace. Life is strange sometimes.

But, back to the story. Here it was a couple of weeks into summer school: geometry, to be precise. And, frankly, I’m pissed. At seventeen, I’d been working at my parents’ company for about six months, and I’d found that I liked working and hated school. Plus, at seventeen, you’re aching to grow up—you can taste it, but it’s still off somewhere. It’s funny, looking back at it—best of times, and all. But you couldn’t have told me that then.

I was sitting at a small desk, wearing all black, T-shirt, slacks, steel-toed dress shoes, and a nice black cotton blazer. The air conditioning in the little classroom was a nice break from the heat outside, but I wouldn’t have admitted it back then; I wore the jacket constantly. Why? Well, frankly, it covered my love handles. Even at my peak level of fitness things were still hanging around me. Well, on me, really.

Ian was already starting to dress a bit like me; he would eventually culminate by wearing his own jacket and steel-toes and driving an old-model sports car, like me, which was when it reached a pretty disturbing level. But, back then it was only black jeans and a T-shirt, almost sensible except for the heat. Like me, but not too much.

Anyway, I was doing pretty well up until that point; I’d been on the distinguished honor roll circa junior high, but fallen off the wagon when I hit high school. They had a lot of meetings for people like me—honor students who started getting their first Fs freshman year—and they tried to explain it with pressure, lots of classes, blah blah etcetera.

But the fact was, high school was boring. Teachers read off of overheads and didn’t give a rat’s ass if you even pretended to pay attention. They didn’t stop, rarely asked for questions, and droned on and on. Math was the worst; I didn’t want to wear glasses for the sake of vanity, and the stuff didn’t make sense when I heard it out loud. That and I didn’t do the homework.

It had changed for this class, though—I was alert, I was attentive, I was engaged like my life depended on it. I was sick of taking the same damn classes over and over again, and I was never, ever going to take geometry again. Which worked fine, really—combined with the advantage of having taken the class before, everything was clicking into place: theorems, proofs, the whole bit.

I didn’t even mind much when Ian cheated—the old scholastic confidence had dripped pretty low in recent months, so having someone want to peek on my sheets for answers was kind of invigorating. Besides, he was a friend, and who wants to see a friend drop off the world academically? His dad was pretty hard on him, too. It led me to adopt a laissez-faire approach (well, Government and Economics was still two semesters away, so I wouldn’t have called it that then). Basically, Ian would peek over my shoulder, and instead of being a nerd and covering my paper, I’d let him have access, keeping my arm low. I felt a bit bad, but it wasn’t me cheating, right? It was him. Well, the school’s statements on plagiarism disagreed. But I’m not there yet, though I’m at least getting close. In fact, as I turned in my test and put my head down to catch a nappy, I was as cheerful and peaceful as could be.

This sentiment continued on until the last bell, at which point I grinned a bit before adopting my usual teenage smirk, picked up my black leather book bag (backpacks were passé!), waited for Ian to get his stuff together, nodded to a few people, including the teacher, and headed for the door.

Ms. Tiedemann—she was the teacher, if you hadn’t guessed—had other ideas, though. She was an oddity among teachers, young and just getting started, unlike the other dull-eyed gray-haired lifers populating the big desks. This summer school class was the second class she’d taught at our school—I’d failed the first one, in regular semester.

Looking back on it, she was probably quite pretty: slim and petite, with dark hair, pale skin, and green eyes. But at the time, she was pure evil. She didn’t explain things well, she had a horrible, annoying voice, and she’d started summer school by wandering over to Ian and me and demanding to know “if we were going to try this time”—the aforementioned horrible voice ringing through the room.

So, no “Hot For Teacher” here, though I do feel obligated to point out that she wasn’t your stereotypical blue-haired lady. But, at that moment she was glaring at us, as if we should already know what we’d done. And, of course, we did. But, Ian and I both had overbearing dads and that made us good at lying. When she glared at us, she got blank looks, faces that transmitted I want to go home and What do you want now with absolutely no I am guilty in the mix.

She frowned in response, trying to outpace our teenage bluster, a difficult task given her insecurity, a human weakness I am only able to see now, more than a decade later. “I looked at your test papers, and it looks like you two cheated.”

We two? That part helped me look quizzical. What do you mean, we two? Ian copied my test. I shrug at her. “What do you mean?”

She made an exasperated sound and produced the papers. “I mean they have the same grade, the same two mistakes—you both thought a postulate needed to be proved—and they even both have this little doodle.” She pointed over at something that was supposed to have been a rectangle, and was now crossed out—crossed out, in fact, in an identical manner on both papers.

Somehow, I stopped myself from rolling my eyes at this. God, what a moron. He copied the scratch-outs, too? And he couldn’t have taken one hit for the team, marked one damn thing different?

But, instead of rolling my eyes, I looked thoughtful. I furrowed my brow; I touched my chin. What to say? And then, I gave Ms. Tiedemann a brief glance from under my half-closed lids and realized something. She was looking at me beseechingly, hopefully. She’s hoping I say something convincing. And, why not? Really, it was pretty obvious—if she failed us now, we would pop back up in September. For a third time. Bad pennies and all.

I began to speak. “Well…” I trailed off again, falling back into thought, Ian and the teacher both looking at me with hope, entranced by the “well.” I cleared my throat, and began again. “Well…” I paused and looked at her, brow still furrowed, confused. “Ian and I did study together.”

She looked at me with a glimmer of hope. “Really?”

I nodded to her. “Sure, we even had the same study sheet—maybe it had the same mistakes on it. But, I mean, I thought it was right—I thought it said a postulate had to be proved.”

She frowned. “No, a theorem has to be proved. You made the same mistake on the test.”

I know that, stupid. You just told me. But, instead, I blinked, feigning surprise. “Really?” I shrugged. “Well, I guess that could explain it.” She looked relieved at first, her green eyes softening, but then she straightened up again, stern. “Well, I guess if you showed me the notes.”

I nodded to her. “I think I still have them at home—I could go get them.” I glanced over at Ian. “Can you find yours?”

Ian caught on quick, thankfully—he imitated my thoughtful pose, then nodded. “Yeah, I think so.”

Ms. Tiedemann looked at us for a long time, then nodded once. “Bring them back fast.”

I nodded once more. “Give us an hour.”


And then, we were off—out of the room and down the hall—I dared not speak until we were across the quad, past the classrooms and unconcerned students, and into the sparsely-filled parking lot. Then, I lead the way to my big Chevy S-10 Tahoe, climbed in and opened the door for Ian. He climbed onto the cloth, slightly-ripe interior, and then we took off and sped down the road towards my house.

I always drove that truck fast—I was, of course, a teenager, and more to the point I was bummed to drive a big black truck, secretly craving the sports car I got later. I was driving like a moron, which would get us back twice as fast. It also gave me an excuse to maintain an exaggerated focus on the road and thus not say much to Ian, turn the music up to blasting—my memory fails me here, but I’d reckon it was something by Metallica or one of N.I.N.’s good albums—and generally try not to scream at him for being a complete moron.

Once we were there, it was easy. I copied down the last chapter’s big headings and summaries into a word processor document, making sure to make that one mistake since apparently the other one was not particularly unusual, and then I poured some soda on it, scuffed it up a bit, and dried it off with a hair dryer.

Soon, it was nicely dirty and used-looking. Ian’s, on the other hand, was still flawless and clean. I glared at him. “You’re supposed to make it look old.”

He shook his head, folded it up carefully, and put it into his wallet. “Nah. I’m the neat freak, so mine’ll be folded all nice and clean. You’re the slob, so yours should be messed up.”

I glared at this, a bit, but really I had no particular expertise in forging study sheets. I sighed and accepted it, then played the music loud on the way back to not bitch about that. Soon, we were zooming into the parking lot, headed for a space—I had a tendency to speed and then stomp on the brakes, letting the truck skid into parking spaces, for some reason; it would eventually be a major factor in the truck’s demise—and then we rolled out of the truck, headed back. We had an excess of time of adolescent awkwardness, so we did that sort of fast-walk thing back to the classroom before handing our so-called study sheets to Ms. Tiedemann, both holding our breath as she frowned at them, scrutinizing them.

Eventually, she nodded, either fooled or able to pretend to be so. “Yes, they both have the same mistake.” She sighed. “I’ll let it go this time, but it had better not happen again.”

Actually, as I would confide to Ian over chili fries later, it would probably be enough to not absolutely copy my test close enough to make it obvious to a blind person. Ian learned that lesson—he passed the class with a ‘B’ to my ‘A’, always careful to only copy enough answers to pass the test.

And that was summer school. I suppose it set patterns in stone that continued for a lifetime—I still am an excellent liar and inventor of tales, which helps me make a living in sales, and hopefully, eventually, as an author. Ian, on the other hand, continued to need other people to give him structure; he joined the air force several listless years later and recently confided to me that he is terrified to stop re-enlisting, lest his life come apart within a few months, dissolving into a drug-induced haze.

So we were then, so we are now. What else can be said?

David N. Scott is an up and coming author and dabbling blogger who resides in Orange County, California, where he is an undergraduate student at Hope International University. He spends most of his creative time working on his novels, but he has previously been published at 8763 Wonderland and in the Shadow Sacrament online journal. He has also had a creative non-fiction story accepted for publication by Valentine Bonnaire. His blog,, has been listed by High Class Blogs, and is a content provider for Newstex’s Blogs On Demand. E-mail: DnJScott[at]

Annual Ritual, Then Alone Again

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Sheela Jaywant

“They’ve come, Aaji-Bai, they’re here.” Alka yelled like it was unexpected.

The old ladies’ eyes clouded over with emotion. Bai lay in a corner, upon neatly folded layers of clean sheets, her frail frame curled up in a fetal position possibly due to some orthopedic condition. Maybe arthritis, maybe osteoporosis. Movement was possible, but painful. The skin was wrinkled, fragile. Aaji sat upon a string bed, legs dangling lifelessly post-stroke, a little distance away, her back resting against a single thin pillow helped up by the wall behind her. Both had bald gums. They incessantly moved their chins, drooled, and found it difficult to form words correctly. A stale odor of decay seemed to hover around them.

“Alka,” they said, all choked up, “warn them, tell them how we look, they will be afraid. They will think we’re witches.”

“How can you think like that? They are your grandchildren, grandnieces, nephews. They see you every year. They won’t be afraid. They have to come in.”

Bai: “My eyelids have curled outwards, they look so red and horrible.”

Aaji: “Old people look scary.”

“I shouldn’t have held the mirror for you. I shouldn’t have.” Alka sounded exasperated.

“Is that the taxi?”

The twenty-something servant girl, Alka, scurried out to help with the luggage, wiping her hands on the back of her frayed, once-colorful skirt.

The vehicle rattled and growled into the narrow, winding lane, the fauna on either side scraping its windows. The neighborhood children ran after it, touching and patting it as it passed by. It stopped by the giant peepul tree that stood sentinel over this ancestral house for at least a hundred years. Four bedraggled adolescents crawled out of the rusty, black and yellow Ambassador, stretching and twisting the tiredness out of their limbs.

The villagers, crowding around, gaped at the clothes: “They’re wearing shoes,” somebody whispered loudly. A snigger went around: these city-types thought they were Portuguese or British, hah?

One local smart aleck could tell them something: he had, oh yes he had, actually sat in a car once. And he knew, he had seen, the trees running alongside the road. One of the grandchildren sniggered right back. The sound reached Bai’s sharp ears. She could see but blurs through the window, but she could hear their voices clearly. Aaji couldn’t hear too well. But she didn’t have cataracts. She remarked to her sister-in-law who lay as helpless as she, and as excited: “They look so fair, so plump, we must get someone to rid this place of the Evil Eye.” She spoke up with authority, though her voice wasn’t strong. “They must be hungry, Alka, hurry up and put the rice on the stove.”

“Let me fetch the luggage first,” Alka retorted in a complaining voice, the sound echoing through the doors of the compartmentalized rooms of that huge old mansion, balancing a bag on her head, hugging a hold-all to her chest.

“Have you washed the rice thoroughly?” Bai took up the thread.

“Aaji-Bai, your grandchildren won’t get a single weevil or stone in their rice, I promise you. I’ve ruined my eyes cleaning the grains.” Alka swung the luggage to the floor of the large balcony, then scurried inside.

Sudanmama’s voice boomed through the thick, old, mud walls. “Everybody, washed your feet? Hands? Go in, then.”

The two old ladies were always referred to as a single entity, Aaji-Bai. Sisters-in-law since the ages of eight and nine (they married young those days, remember?), one was widowed before she reached puberty, and had come to stay permanently in her brother’s home, forever devoted to his family of nine children. The two ladies had grown together, slogged together, shared food, suffered grief, never separated, and were now, in the eventide of their lives, handicapped and lonely together. To the rest of the family, they seemed to share an identity.

Of the brood, Sudanmama was the only offspring of the clan who’d opted not to go Bombay or beyond so that he could be close to the Ancestral Home and Aaji-Bai. He lived in nearby Vasco and monitored their care. He had picked up the children from the harbor at Panaji and brought them here, four hours away by bus-ferry-taxi.

Aaji-Bai were frail and immobile, totally dependent on the servants to do every personal task. If something itched, they couldn’t scratch. Alka did it for them, guided by their instructions… where, how much, how long. Their grey, sparse hair was oiled and tightly tied into little knots behind their heads. Their necks stuck out from drooping shoulders, hunched backs, hollow chests. Wrapped in nine-yard saris, neither wore a blouse. The loose end, padar, of that unstitched garment covered their torso.

“Start frying the fish,” Bai ordered gently. “Feed them, they must be hungry.”

Aaji: “Before lunch, get rid of the Evil Eye. Throw four red chillies into the fire, then a fistful of mustard seeds. Make sure they splutter.”

The grand-teenagers smirked: “… these … superstitions …”

“You aren’t afraid of the Evil Eye?” Aaji-Bai chorused.


“How,” exclaimed the two grannies, “brave they are, see? The Evil Eye doesn’t affect the brave. Alka… lunch.”

“Oh I won’t keep anyone starving,” the exasperated Alka mumbled. “They’ve only just arrived and you’ve begun fussing already.”

The visitors, Sudanmama, his wife Sushilamami and the children, Geeta, Savita, Raina and Trilok, entered the kitchen where the two grannies and the servant were. The traditional formalities were done: in turn each touched the feet of the elders and bowed before the family deities. The rice and curries agitatedly bubbled in copper and brass cauldrons on the wood-lit stoves that squatted in a row at one end of the wall; slices of fish sizzled in coconut oil alongside them on a huge griddle. Smoke and aroma crept over and around, adding micro-thickness to the blackened walls. They sat on individual wooden platforms on the floor, chatting with each other, exchanging news about the family.

Each year, of the 43 members of the clan, at least 15 came here, to Canacona, Goa, during the holidays, either from Bombay, or Delhi, or even abroad. Some for a week, others for a fortnight, or a month. This was a ritual most of the families from the western coast did each summer vacation. The previous generation, until the 1950s, had seen a mass migration from the villages to Bombay and the longing to keep ‘in touch with one’s roots’ was strong. In the Native Place, the oldies made sure the dabbas or tins were full of sweet ladoos and savory shev or chivda.

Aaji-Bai repeatedly said of the children: “How clever they are, they speak English, they seem to know everything, so young, and yet so knowledgeable.” Hearing them talk about their young, city-bred lives was like stepping into another century, another world.

When, after lunch, the floor was smeared with cow dung, Alka spread her fingers to make circular designs so that it looked pretty when it dried. The children balked, and told her and Aaji-Bai about tiles. Glazed, smooth, white and clean that could be wiped so they’d look like new. No one used dung anywhere, anymore. The women nodded in appreciation: “Living in Bombay is something else,” they agreed. “We’re bumpkins.”

Aaji-Bai were as interested in feeding the children as they were in listening to the stories about their schools/friends/games/teachers/neighbors and more.

“How was the journey?”

The four grandchildren took turns, interrupting and overlapping their conversations constantly: “Ma made us get up before five.” “We took a taxi to the docks.” “We climbed a plank to the deck.” “We had to find place to spread our mats and luggage comfortably.” “Savita and Trilok got sick.” “Our water-bottles and food boxes were kept away from the edge.” “We saw some people from last year, too, you know, who were coming to their Ancestral Homes during the vacations.” “The ship stopped by Ratnagiri at night.” “One boat came close to our ship.” “There were men with lanterns and ropes and car tyres who helped everyone climb down… who wanted to go to Ratnagiri.”

Savita had flown in a plane. The grannies didn’t quite understand what it felt like to be in the sky. They had sat in a car. Maybe once, maybe thrice, they couldn’t recall. They were in awe that she knew something they could never experience. They asked her a hundred questions about that. How could something that was not a bird fly?

These annual guests were their link to a world beyond terrible loneliness and the 24×7 fear of death. Once, during a chat, Raina asked what would happen if one of them died. “Stupid,’ her cousins hissed and chatted on awkwardly. Aaji pragmatically replied: “The other will live on.”

Unpacking was an event. The ‘hold-all’ was a large, rectangular green canvas sheet with large pockets at either ends that held pillows, shoes, gifts, old clothes for Alka, new saris for Aaji-Bai, some steel utensils, an umbrella, books, underwear, footwear, talcum powder, soap, even one bedpan.

“So useful,” was Aaji-Bai’s appreciative comment when the last item was shown off. How big, they marveled, must be the market in Bombay, and how much money all these things must have cost. The biscuits, the chocolates, even fresh carrots and peas, for these were luxuries here, not easily available.

They had even got with them a plastic toy phone to show them what a phone looked like. Aaji-Bai were touched.

Each dawn, the children raced out to greet the buffaloes before they were taken to graze. For their morning baths, the water had to be drawn from the well and heated in a huge copper pot that stood on a frame above a pile of smoldering coconut husk.

“Aaji-Bai, in our flats, water flows out from taps.”

“We have electric geysers and proper bathrooms.”

It was hard to explain. Here, the single toilet shed was a distance away at the back of the house. The excreta that lay on the sloping shelf was eaten by stray pigs.

“We use a flush,” the children said. It took them an hour to tell them how it worked, what it was. Also, every flat had not one, but two toilets. Aaji-Bai couldn’t imagine why, but they listened, fascinated. Here, for a family of twenty, one toilet sufficed.

Trilok, the most talkative, told them more: “There are two or maybe four flats per floor in buildings. And how many floors? Four, five or even ten in a building.” The girls drew a sketch to describe what a building, a street, looked like. A map was drawn to show the locality where they lived.

“See Aaji,” said Bai one day. “These girls have our genes, our blood, and they can read, write, draw.”

“You are confusing illiteracy with intelligence, Aaji-Bai,” said Geeta, comfortingly. “You forget that you calculated what provisions you needed for an entire year. You stocked it with care. You supervised the harvesting of the coconuts and the threshing of the rice. Without stepping out of the house. That, too, for an extended family of so many members. Who taught you to preserve mangoes with precision? In so many different ways?”

Long forgotten pride fibrillated in the aged hearts. They blushed.

They had once learnt to write on a slate, with a chalk, but the memory of it was erased decades ago. Geeta put a pencil in their hands, one at a time, and helped each write her name on paper. They had written on paper before, but it had been an unaffordable luxury. The feel of the act of writing… what joy! The paper was held close to their faces so they could see.

Bai tremulously sang a song. Tunelessly, but in rhythm. Aaji said, “She made it herself, words and tune.”

“You wrote it?” asked Raina wonderingly.

“I don’t know how to write,” said Bai.

“When did you make it up?”

“When I was about your age.”

“You still remember it?”

“There are many more that I remember. But most I have forgotten.”

Geeta quickly got out her notebook to write down whatever she did remember. Aaji-Bai were embarrassed, overwhelmed by this unfamiliar attention. It was a strange feeling; the third generation was leading the way. Tradition said elders were wiser and better. “Here,” thought Aaji-Bai, “these children are our gurus.”

The house, with its load-bearing walls, was dark because of the few and small windows. The inside hadn’t been whitewashed for decades. The pyramid-shaped, high, tiled roof rose above a geometric network of wooden beams that rested on a central, enormous tree trunk that was the main pillar of the house. A thin cloud of cobwebs dispersed the few beams of sunlight that entered through the glass pieces located at some places on it. At night, little oil wick-lamps, diyas, were lit to dispel the darkness. One couldn’t call it light, so dim were the flames. Time and again the children tried to explain what electricity was. But for Aaji-Bai, who hadn’t stepped out in many, many years, and when they had, in the years gone by, it was never without an escort, a good reason… and then, too, to the home of a relative… it was fantasy.

Did they have friends? Why no, only menfolk had friends. Women had sisters, cousins, sisters-in-law, nieces, moms, grandaunts… no friends. The children asked questions that evoked peals of laughter from the grannies.

Somehow, the roles had changed. Seasoned elders were learning from the raw young. “You don’t know what a switch is? It’s on the wall. You press it, it makes a “pit” sound, and the bulbs come on. You don’t know what a bulb is? Wires?” The children laughed at their ignorance, exasperated, but tickled. The grannies joined in, not minding them, not considering it ridicule but fun. No matter what, the company of the young ones gave them joy, brought them knowledge.

Evenings were long and interesting. Aaji-Bai were carried out, bundled in their sheets, to the balcony by the front door and kept there on the cement bench or a reclining armchair. The rustling trees, the singing insects, the starry sky, were unchanging. They tried to imagine bustling streets with cars, people, brightness. It was hard. But they were curious. And they asked questions, questions, questions.

In their turn, they told the children about the mangoes, bananas, jackfruits, pineapples, the different kinds of fish… stories about the other members of the family, from the past, the characters that lived in the village, the days of their youth. Untouched by ‘civilization’ it was a life of routine, little drama, robust struggle. Rupees weren’t needed. Bartering of goods was the system. Music, dance, drama were known of, but seldom witnessed. They were hungry to know about the lives of their progeny. They saw films? Plays? Tell us more, tell us more, they pleaded.

Through words, imagination, they skipped through two generations. The battery-operated transistor crackled alive occasionally, but the sound was so distorted, and Aaji-Bai hard of hearing, that it was practically of no use. It wasn’t just the big things that impressed them. Blackboards in schools, teachers—women teachers—wearing skirts, girls in trousers, swimming in large pools, cycling, traveling alone by train, all this was magical, incredible. They lapped up every word hungrily. Under the Portuguese, the information they had got was often only by word of mouth. Newspapers weren’t available. They had known no personal, social or economic freedom. Independence, governments, had made no difference to their lives. As females, they were ‘destined’ to cook, clean, tidy, chop, peel, wash… have babies. Families were large, tasks endless.

“Even leisure hours had to be used to stitch clothes, grind flour, or cook seasonal snacks.”

When the children gossiped about their friends: ‘she said this’; ‘he always does that’ and stuff, they were amazed at how human nature, no matter where, no matter how well-read, didn’t change.

After a fortnight—how the days had sped by, how much they’d learnt—the taxi from Vasco was hired for the day so the children could be taken to the ferry. Beyond the river, they would travel up by bus to Panaji to board the ship to Bombay.


“Alka, we can hear the sounds of the children. Doesn’t seem like they’ve gone.”

“Did they eat the snacks?”

“Do you remember, about the cinema they talked of? Something about photographs moving, talking, on walls?”

“There are little machines that do the grinding… this electirissitee… what could that be?”

“The phone… Raina got us that toy, that was nice… couldn’t see properly because of my eyes…”

“Next year they are going to get us spectacles.”

And the wait for the next summer visit, the countdown of eleven months, began.


“I’m a hospital administrator who enjoys writing. I do a weekly column for a local newspaper, write for TC and” E-mail: cmjaywant[at]

Dreams from the Dust Bowl

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
Debby Katz

At 7:35 on a Monday morning, with a firm punch of the stapler, Nozomi Sensei posted the results the students would soon be craning their necks to see. Who would be the Sports Day captains this year? Tetsuya Mori, captain of the soccer team? Kenji Yamamoto, captain of the baseball team? Or the dreamboat of the cram school scene, basketball captain Naoki Kawahara? The teachers’ selection was about to initiate an intense month of cheering practice, marching drills, and megaphone abuse leading up to that grandest of all Japanese school traditions, Sports Day, or taiikutaikai. Summer had officially begun.

I was equally expectant. For as long as I had been a middle school teacher here, I had yet to see a girl captain. A PE teacher who spent most of taiikutaikai chain smoking in the shade of the judges’ tent explained gruffly in Japanese, “Girls cannot be leaders! Girls are not strong like boys!” He threw up a soft tennis ball and caught it with a downward smack. “Girls can be vice-captains,” he conceded, tipping his chair onto its back two legs.

The vice-captain was responsible for ten fanatical ninth grade leaders who spent afternoons shouting at their teammates through a megaphone during cheering practices. Team leadership was highly coveted because it meant participation in oendan, an event that is similar in function, if not appearance, to American cheerleading. For weeks before taiikutaikai, the four groups of leaders stationed themselves in empty classrooms after school, watching videos of local high school oendan competitions and heatedly discussing how they were going to knot their team headbands and which kid was going to start the performance with what variation on a front hand spring triple toe combination.

A few weeks before taiikutaikai, while walking the hallways after school, careful to step over bunches of students cutting out headbands, I made a surprising discovery. In a near empty classroom, Yui Nagata, the loud captain of the softball team and an excellent if difficult student, suddenly leaped up from the seat in which she was slumped and switched off the TV images that nine other students had been intensely studying. “That’s the opening we want!” she announced. ” I’ll be in the front. Then we’ll count off boy girl boy girl.” One boy, clearly her vice-captain, stood against the wall waiting for instructions. “Kimura-kun will teach us the arm movements today,” she announced authoritatively, throwing him a glance. She looked past him out to the hallway and saw me. “Debby Sensei!” She waved excitedly, her stern expression melting into an impish grin. “Do you want to watch us practice?” she asked in Japanese.

“Of course!” I answered in English. “Yui, are you the team captain?”

Yui nodded proudly, her short hair flopping onto her forehead. “Oh, yes yes!” She pointed her thumb at her chest, Tarzan-style, causing a smattering of laughter from her watchful peers. “I am green girl!”

“Wow! That’s great!” I beamed, smiling along to show that I was in on the joke, whatever it was. “Congratulations!”

“Oh, yes yes, thank you, yes yes,” she crowed, taking my outstretched hand and pumping it vigorously.

“Are you the only girl captain?” I asked slowly, my arm flying up and down across my line of vision.

“Oh, yes yes!” Yui replied loudly, nodding her head like a marionette. Behind her, girls clapped their hands over their faces and smothered their giggles, feigning embarrassment for Yui’s behavior. Clearly, Yui failed to grasp the implied gravity of my question. I wasn’t even sure she grasped my English.

“Bye bye bye bye,” she added in singsong as she released my hand. She then turned back to the others, who could see from her face that the show was over. “Ok, let’s start!” she commanded in Japanese. I was quickly forgotten as they shuffled to their feet.

I watched them for a few minutes before moving on. Further down the hall, I heard the scuffle and cheers of the blue team practicing. Yui’s unserious reaction to my congratulations, while not surprising, stuck with me for several days. I hadn’t expected that the appointment of a girl captain would cause an immediate overturning of established gender assumptions, but somehow I wanted Yui to show more pride in her singular achievement.

Still, I recognized Yui’s belief that if she wanted to be taken seriously as a captain, she had to act like she imagined a boy would: tough, fearless, and strident. Her disregard of the girlishness many of her female peers so readily embraced and perpetuated was admirable for the respect it commanded. I thought of the cool intensity of her squint from the pitcher’s mound before she wound back her arm like a powerfully churning windmill. The genderless moxie of this new leadership role wasn’t such a stretch for her.

Despite my interest in her unique standing, however, Yui was not a student for whom I felt a strong personal affinity. I wouldn’t say I disliked her. But coupled with that showy goofiness that led me to believe she was trying to make fun of me, she had an uncanny ability to make me feel distinctly self-conscious when, slumped in her chair, she fixed me with one her bored, withering looks in class.

After weeks of opening ceremony practice, cancelled classes, and mounting anticipation that threatened to pop off the roof of the school, taiikutaikai finally arrived. Morning sunlight worked its way through the lush trees, splashing the sand field with white puddles. Suspended from the trees on green netting four stunning team banners flared like sails in the hot wind. At the first blasts from the band, the students began marching out from under the shade of the trees in perfect rectangles, team by team.

After the opening ceremony, the relay races began. Yui and her team leaders boosted morale in front of their team tent, beating a large taiko drum and running alongside their respective team members with a green flag on a pole the length of five seventh grade students stacked end-to-end. Yui watched every event with hawk eyes. She clapped her hands tensely, barked encouragement into her megaphone, and walked back and forth, leading cheers. She knew that even the most comical events meant the gain or loss of precious points for her team. In a game called tamaire, students hurled beanbags up toward tiny baskets suspended twenty feet off the ground on wobbling reeds held by a teammate. In another, kibasen, teams of four seventh grade boys carried a tiny classmate on their shoulders. The raised boys valiantly tried to rip the hats off their airborne competitors as their supporters on the ground careened into each other. The great American dust bowl meets its match in the Japanese school sand field. For several minutes, clusters of students disappeared in billowing clouds of sand, and when the air cleared, the field was littered with colored caps and the tangled bodies of the losers crawling despondently back to their team tents.

At last it was time for the last and most highly anticipated competition, oendan. As the dust settled over the blindingly bright field, the three hundred members of the green team not dancing in the oendan assembled on bleachers in the center, clutching their green headbands. With a thwack from their drummer, the oendan performers, led by Yui, burst out from the trees, running, cart wheeling, and howling like a chorus of teapots at full boil. They gathered in a perfect triangle, knees bent in identical right angles, with Yui at the helm. She brought her hands in front of her in prayer position, closed her eyes, and bent her head. Gone was the green girl who nearly shook my arm off for the amusement of her peers and scratched her name into her desk with her pencil until she was caught. Here was a poised, serious team captain determined to win. The students behind her stood frozen, their eyes focused on a distant point beyond their audience. The grind of the photographer’s feet in the sand was the only sound.

Suddenly Yui threw her head back and released a powerful, wordless shout, and her teammates clicked into motion. As they executed their synchronized movements, lunges, leaps, and dazzling poses, the students on the bleachers behind them unfurled, lifted, and waved their headbands, making a perfectly shifting backdrop of green. Each team leader’s face was a mask of concentration. They knew they were being judged on their speed, symmetry, flexibility, and grace. Every moment of stillness, held for several quivering seconds, was met with the clicking of cameras and the scratching of pencils.

In a few minutes, it was all over. Blinking away the sweat that dripped into their eyes, Yui and the team leaders, breathing heavily, ran swiftly off the field while the other students quietly dismounted from the bleachers and walked in silent lines back to their team tent. Moments later, the blue team filed out, and the drums beat steadily again to announce the oendan participants.

After the last oendan, teachers, PTA members, and students exempt from the games because of injuries efficiently tallied the scores with pencils and solar calculators. The team leaders sat in their tents staring at their laps or, in the case of some girls, squeezing each other’s hands. Yui, however, stood alone in front of the tent. She squinted up at the scores hanging on colored banners out of the window of the fourth floor art classroom, trying to calculate what rank her team’s oendan and banner needed to pull into first place. She vaguely chewed on a hangnail. Suddenly, she turned back to her tent, picked up the megaphone, and loudly led her team in a last round of cheers. Tired and dusty, the three hundred seventh, eighth and ninth graders promptly heeded her command.

The final results were handed to the school principal as the beleaguered students marched back out onto the sand field across the long bands of the setting sun. Lined up in twenty-four lines fifty students deep, the knots of their headbands slightly askew after much emphatic retying, the students anxiously awaited their taiikutaikai fate.

Small scatterings of cheers and applause erupted through the lines as the principal read out the homerooms with the highest points in each grade and the winning banner and oendan. With each announcement, team leaders’ mouths silently worked through the math, trying to calculate as quickly as possible the shifting possibility of victory.

Finally, the team captains were summoned to the podium and assembled in front of the principal, their solemn faces about a foot in front of his knees. Among the three boys, bangs lifted over her headband, Yui looked like a tough, brown nut as Rambo. The field was silent but for the wind that kicked up sand and furiously snapped the Japanese flag overhead. Parents leaned against the ropes around the field, their digital cameras poised. Returning high school students gathered near the judges’ tents.

The principal cleared his throat and garbled through an endless speech about teamwork, athleticism, and middle school glory as the tension on the four team leaders’ faces expanded like balloons about to pop. At last, he began reading the total scores of the four teams, from lowest to highest. At the first announcement, crushing disappointment crossed over the faces of the white team like a dark cloud. Their captain stoically took his award in both hands from the principal. Tears welled up in the eyes of his teammates as he turned to them and raised the certificate shakily over his head. Next, the red team captain bowed, received his certificate, and returned to his team, digging his fists into his eyes.

Now, only two team captains stood in front of the principal: Yui and Tetsuya Mori, the blue team captain. Behind them, their respective team leaders stared at the ground, unmoving, waiting. A few seventh grade students in the very back of the outside lines leaned out to try to get a better view. “The second place team is…”

I glanced over at Yui. Her eyes were fixed on the principal’s knees, but her own legs were shaking slightly. Side by side, she and Mori-kun could have been twins, save for his buzz cut that made his head look like a tennis ball.


Three hundred green shoulders slumped as Mori-kun leapt into the air and the members of the blue team let out squeals of joy. The poker face that Yui had so carefully cultivated cracked as she took the certificate with both hands, bowed, and lifted it up in front of her team. But her teammates’ eyes quickly moved to Mori-kun, who, with a smile worthy of an Olympic champion, stepped forward to receive the winner’s flag. Despite stern reprimands from the PE teacher, who removed the cigarette from his mouth to tell the students to calm down, the blue team could not receive the news without hopping up and down with excitement, throwing their arms around each other like family members on a game show.

Before the teams made their final march around their field, sadness at the passing of their last middle school taiikutaikai had spread in the form of rampant hysteria to virtually all the ninth graders. By the time the students began dismantling their tents, the field had descended into a scene out of a Civil War movie. Girls shuddering with sorrow howled and clutched each other as tears and snot spilt over their swollen pink faces; boys dragged their dusty arms across their wet eyes as they pulled their chairs back to their classrooms.

After cleaning the field, their tears dried on dusty sports uniforms, the ninth graders began their ritual of signing headbands in their classrooms. Students of the opposite sex shyly approached each other and traded markers. Girls knelt at desks, carefully drawing anime characters and hearts onto the strips of cloth, and bored boys took advantage of a rare lack of supervision to relax in the hallways against the walls, snapping their headbands at each other’s ankles and butts.

I found Yui in her homeroom, industriously signing her team members’ headbands like a celebrity distributing autographs. Although her face was streaked with dried tears, her joyous, carefree cackle exploded across the classroom. When she saw me, she waved her fist, clutching a headband. “Ms. Debby, hello hello how are you!” she shouted.

I hadn’t really expected to see her crushed, but I felt a flood of relief to see that jack-o-lantern grin. “Yui, you were awesome!” I told her in English, knowing that it was an expression she would understand.

She gave me a bold thumbs up from across the room. “Green is best! Number one cool!” The students around her giggled, which clearly pleased her. In Japanese, she cheerfully commanded, “Debby Sensei, sign my headband now!”

As if I were in middle school all over again, I felt a glow of flattery for being singled out by someone so socially important. I smoothed the swath of cloth against a desk, thinking about what to write. A few students peered over my shoulder and smacked each other over the novelty of English on a taiikutaikai headband. “Yui,” I wrote carefully, “You are a superstar.”

She took it from me eagerly and read aloud, “You… are… a…” her face scrunched up comically on the last word. “Debby Sensei, I can’t read this!” she mugged in Japanese. I took the headband back and drew a crooked star on it. “Bright star,” I told her in Japanese, pointing the marker at her.

“Oh, yes yes, thank you,” she replied with exaggerated humility, bowing and clutching the headband to her chest. I took up the next headband held in my face by a grinning boy in thick glasses. “Sign mine the same, please,” he asked in Japanese. I was happy to oblige, but I wrote a different message. After all, there was only one taiikutaikai captain in our midst. She retied her headband tightly so that my star shone from her forehead, a crooked beacon floating above the constellation of her freckles and her wide, satisfied smile.


After her graduation from Wellesley College in 2002, Debby Katz spent two years dodging volleyballs and winning her students over with stickers as a middle school teacher in Kumamoto City, Japan. Since returning to New York, she has protected herself from the drudgery of her full-time job by writing and making overstuffed scrapbooks. This fall, she will start the PhD program in English at the City University of New York. E-mail: debbykatz[at]

The Peddler

Boots’s Pick
Edward Rodosek

“Tara,” Marcel glanced at me over the newspaper, “the Bodoni Circus came into town yesterday.”

“Bodoni? I’ve heard about it.” I didn’t stop mincing the greens I was preparing. “Shall we go?”

He smiled. “You don’t care a pin for circus shows, Tara. But I know you’re mad about the fortune-telling.”

I stopped my work and gazed askance at him.

“Okay, okay,” he consented. “We could take a peep. Maybe they have some interesting animals.”

I chuckled. “I hope you don’t try to bribe some tamer to allow you to wash an elephant like you did last time.”

The doorbell buzzed and Marcel glanced through the window at the front yard. “It’s Bill. He surely brought me the last issue of Threatened Nature.”

I saw him talking with the postman. Then the local tramp, Ida, hobbled along the sidewalk pushing her shopping cart and Marcel gave her some change. Coming back, he waved at our neighbor, Stillman, who was out watering his geraniums.

Our cat, Kitty, entered the kitchen with Marcel. When he bowed down and caressed her, Kitty jumped up on a chair. He gave her a small vanilla cake from the jar.

“Why do you feed Kitty so much?” I objected. “Look how fat she is.”

“Oh, she’s just mad about those vanilla cakes,” he said smiling.


Our old Ford inched through the dense crowd in the City Amusement Park.

“It’s hopeless,” Marcel said. “We’ll never find a free parking space.”

“Look,” I shouted, “there on the left!”

He made a sharp curve into the last free space. I stepped out of the car onto the soaked grass, but the mud presented a slippery obstacle.

“Give me your hand, Cinderella,” Marcel said, “or you’ll lose your shoe.”

I chuckled. “Oh, Prince Charming, thank you so much. Where is the ticket office?”

We started to hustle through the crowd to a deafening roll of drums. A brass band thundered, and sawdust stuck to the mud that was already caking our shoes. Finally, we managed to find seats on a bench pressed between a fat man and a mother with a whimpering baby on her lap.

The show was already in full swing; in the middle of the arena, a huge cage was set and the tamer in it cracked his whip.

“Look, Tara,” Marcel’s eyes widened. “The tigers—four, five, six! Aren’t they magnificent?”

Soon the workers removed the cage and the elephants came in, holding one another by the tail. After them riders appeared showing their customary skill on the galloping horses, and then not too brilliant trapeze artists, and then a pretty dull snake-man. There were all the usual circus appearances but none of them were any more than average.

I glimpsed at Marcel who was trying to subdue his yawning. I neared my lips to his ear and he nodded with relief. While we got up and squeezed out of the big tent, the uproar behind us became more bearable.

I took Marcel’s arm and we walked along the row of brightly decorated stalls and countless little twinkling lights.

“Where do you wish to go now?” he asked.

“Wait,” I said. “I think we shouldn’t need to search for too long.” After several steps, I stopped and pointed to the left.

“Aha, I knew it; that was the real reason we came here.” In a loud voice he read the worn-out inscription over the entrance to a small cabin. “‘The Omniscient Fatima—your past, your future, useful advice for you’. Oh, what a cliché! Do you really want to enter?”

“What a silly question. Give me a tenner.”

He sighed and handed me the bill.

“Will you wait here for me, Marcel? I won’t be too long inside—ten, maybe fifteen minutes at most.”

“That’s out of the question. I’m going to find a tent with beautiful young belly dancers. Maybe they’ll also serve the arrack and an opium pipe.”

I frowned.

“Okay,” he added. “I’m going to look around the nearby stalls and I’ll be back here in twenty minutes or so.”


When I went out again—confused and disappointed—Marcel wasn’t there yet. Of course, I had only been inside five minutes.

I still couldn’t grasp why had the fortune-teller behaved in such an odd manner. After she had taken the tenner, she offered me a crystal ball, prophesying from coffee grounds or reading the future from my hand.

Madam Fatima was babbling all the time while I reached out my left palm and she held it under the table lamp. Instantly she became silent and her bronzed face went noticeably numb. She released my hand, got up, gave the tenner back to me, and began to excuse herself.

“Sorry, Ma’am. Regretfully I couldn’t see anything from your palm. My magic power is helpless in your case; that happens sometimes, you know.”

She neither replied to my question nor did she listen to my objections.

“Sorry again, ma’am, no hard feelings.” Then she helped me, gently but firmly, out of her cabin.

That damned gypsy must have been nuts, no doubt about that. And I was crazy for persuading Marcel to visit that silly circus. I should simply forget the entire incident.

I took a walk to the nearest sweets stall and ordered a coffee. After about twenty minutes, I decided to return to the fortune-teller’s cabin.

Marcel wasn’t there yet, so I ambled through the stalls looking around. Then I noticed a dark, lonely figure standing aside with his back to the crowd.

“Hey, Marcel!”

He turned as if he had just waked up and his strange, absentminded gaze amazed me.

“Where have you been, Marcel? Is everything okay?”

He nodded without saying a word and stepped up to me. Then he pulled the car keys out of his pocket and without looking at me, he headed toward our car. Trying to keep pace with him, I looked at his profile and noticed he was… he was different in a way.

His expression was severe, lips tightly pressed, a protruding chin, his gaze fixed straight forward. Had Marcel always been that way? No, it was different. For heaven’s sake, I surely know my husband after seven years of marriage.

His silence made me nervous. “Did you find anything interesting?” I inquired.

Marcel shrugged his shoulders, still avoiding my eyes.

I wanted to know and I didn’t want to stop asking until I found out. “You’ve certainly visited the lion’s cubs? Or a hypnotist? The House of Ghosts?”

He shook his head repeatedly and that irritated me. “Damn it, don’t be so mysterious! Where have you been?”

Marcel hesitated. “I was at a peddler’s. His tent stood at the south end of the alley.”

“At a peddler? What was he selling? Did you find anything worth buying?”

Marcel shrugged again. “He didn’t have anything I wanted. So we just talked for a while.”

“You talked with a total stranger—what about?”

“Oh, I don’t remember. About this and that. Nothing in particular.”

“I don’t believe that,” I commented. “It must have been more then nothing in particular for you to look so absentminded now.”

“I am not absentminded.” His voice became gruff. “I don’t know what you want from me.”

He unlocked the car and we scarcely entered as he drove away even before I had time to fasten my seat belt.

Neither of us broke the silence all the way home.

Marcel garaged the car while I went upstairs to our bedroom. I undressed and stretched out on the sheets. There were no signs that my husband would come after me. I picked up a book but after some time I realized I didn’t have a clue what I was reading. So, I turned the light off but I wasn’t sleepy at all. I lay on the bed, miserable, hopeless, exhausted, and confused. Finally, I went to the bathroom, looked for a sleeping pill, and washed it down with a gulp of unpleasant tepid water.

All I needed now was a good, long sleep. In the morning, everything will be okay, as always.


I didn’t know how long I had slept when a brutal hand grabbed me and turned me over on my back. What…? Only a moment later I realized it was Marcel.

“Hey, wait!” I protested. “If you suddenly want sex, this is not a way to—”

Marcel’s hand covered my mouth and before I managed to push him away, he parted my legs with his knees. I resisted and tried to tumble aside but his body was heavy. He took me violently, without any kisses, and without any foreplay, as if I were a whore. He didn’t care a bit about my rage and it didn’t disturb him in the least. I felt only disgust and shame.

Luckily, he finished quickly and tumbled from me on to his side of the bed. Tears of despair fell down my cheeks; I started to strike him with my hands, I punched him with clenched fists—his back, his arms and legs and the pillow with which he protected his head.

Finally, I could only sob. I tottered to the bathroom and started to rub my body with a soaped sponge. I stayed under the warm shower so long I nearly fell asleep in the shower. Feeling dizzy I descended the stairs into the living room, grabbed a pillow and a blanket and lay down on the sofa bed.


The sun streaming through the living room windows woke me at eleven. I had a swollen tongue and a repulsive taste in my mouth. I got up and then I recalled what had happened the night before. An odd mixture of feelings flashed through my mind—disbelief, anger, and humiliation.

Marcel was on duty, thank God, so he wouldn’t return before six. By then I would have to decide what I should do. How I should behave? What would be proper to say to him? But, that wasn’t just an ordinary quarrel, damn it! It was… It was something I couldn’t understand. It was as if I had dealings with a stranger instead with my Marcel, my husband, whom I had known all those years.

I pondered at least a dozen possibilities about how I should behave and I discarded them one after another. Not scolding, not reproaching, not a threat of divorce—nothing seemed proper to me. I puttered around the house, tried to tidy up the rooms, displaced things aimlessly and then put them back. Before I realized the time had passed, I heard the well-known sound of Marcel’s car.

Oh, God, was it possible that it was already six o’clock? My pulls fastened, my mouth was dry and my palms wet. I sat down in the armchair against the door so I could see his face the moment he entered. I heard Marcel’s steps coming near and then he entered the living room.

“You are not Marcel, are you?” I heard saying myself. “Who the devil are you?”

“I don’t know what you are talking about.” He needed only a few seconds to overcome his first surprise. His gaze seemed soulless.

“You are not my husband.” I stared at his stern features. “I want my husband—I want my real Marcel to come back! He shall love me again, the way he loved me earlier, all those years!”

He glared at me. “Tara, you’re either drunk or out of your mind.” His voice was restrained, his attitude steady.

“What… Oh, God, what happened at that damned peddler’s? What has that devil done with you? Did he implant something in you… some demon?” I was on the brink of tears and I felt my fists clenching so hard my nails thrust into my palms. “Answer me, damn you!”

“Why should I answer you?” His voice remained indifferent. “You just said I was not your husband. I’m somebody else, a stranger. Therefore you haven’t any right to ask me personal questions.” Calm and self-controlled, he walked into his study and closed the door.

I wanted to go after him and confront him head on. I wanted to say him he had no right to treat me the way he did. But I couldn’t do that. All my arguments seemed unconvincing and my entire imagination vanished.

I was still sitting in the armchair when he came out of the study dressed in an old sweater and flannels. The odd thing was that I felt an embarrassment while he obviously didn’t. He took armfuls of books from the shelves and carried them out into our backyard. I was dumbfounded for among these discards were five or six complete bounded volumes of Threatened Nature, his favorite magazine.

Not long after that, I noticed the smell of smoke. I went to the window and saw Marcel burning the magazines inside an old steel barrel. I didn’t understand. He loved these magazines and before yesterday he had been literally obsessed with reading them.

I went to the kitchen to make a sandwich or two, for my own supper only. While I was buttering my bread, I heard a painful groan from outside and noticed something white flying past the kitchen window. What—?

I rushed to the window just in time to notice our white cat running away from Marcel, who watched it scornfully. He kicked it! He kicked Kitty, our beloved pet that he’d always caressed and spoiled!

My blood was boiling. I had patience when he treated me rudely but that was too much! I won’t allow him to wreak his malice on the poor animal. I rushed through the entrance hall but Marcel was already getting into our old Ford. Then he turned the car onto the street running over a neighbor child’s bike.

“What are you doing, you bastard?” I shouted with rage. Then I realized it wasn’t an accident for he braked and backed over it again, distorting the bicycle. Then he accelerated down the empty street.

I was dismayed. Who could I ask for help or at least for advice? My parents were dead, my only sister was somewhere overseas, and my best friend Sophie was in the maternity ward at the hospital. What about an adviser for married couples or a shrink? Oh, no. They would surely demand I should first talk reasonably with my husband.

I shook my head. Maybe that was the only way. I mustn’t give up after the first try. I have to persuade Marcel to listen to me and both of us have to try understanding each other. Calmly, as two adult, civilized people.

Hours passed, and then it grew dark but Marcel still didn’t return. Late in the evening, I went upstairs to our bedroom. I grabbed Marcel’s pajamas, two pillows and a blanket. I held them as far from me as I could—and carried them downstairs to the living room. Tonight I was going to sleep in the bedroom. In the locked bedroom.

Again, I waited in vain for hours waiting for sleep. And again, I had to get up to fetch a sleeping pill. The living room was still empty and quiet.


The slanting beams of the rising sun woke me up. I heard Marcel’s steps from below and the opening and closing of the living room door. While I descended the stairs I saw Marcel’s bedclothes folded up where I had left them the night before. So, he didn’t come home until morning. He’d never done such a thing during all seven years of marriage.

He entered the room and this time he didn’t avoid my gaze, he only nodded to me.

“Marcel, do you have a minute or two for me now?”

“Of course.” The words weren’t hostile; in fact they were strangely neutral.

“We must talk about what happened. I will be open-minded and I expect you’d be the same, okay?”

He shrugged. “I’ve nothing to hide. I also wouldn’t lie to you—if that is what you mean.”

“Everything… Everything is different since we came from that… oh, hundred times cursed circus! I haven’t the slightest idea what that damned peddler has done to you. But it had to be something awful—something evil.”

His attitude remained calm. “Why are you thinking that way?”

“Listen… Marcel.” I could barely utter that name. “From that evening you became a total stranger to me. And probably I became a total stranger to you, too.”

He tacitly shrugged, obviously agreeing with what I’d said.

“Help me to understand, at least that much I deserve after seven years of marriage.” I had to dry my tears and I hated that emotional response of mine. “You… You have to give me back my Marcel as he used to be. We both must take certain steps, together.”

“What do you propose?”

“We must go back together. I mean to the place where all this began. Let’s go to the circus again. We must find that peddler and force him… No, we can offer him money. I have quite a lot of my own savings. We can pay him, as much as he wants. All I want is that he lifts that spell from you, for heaven’s sake. Marcel?”

“Okay, if that’s all you want.” He spoke as if we were going out for a newspaper. “And forget about your savings. He wouldn’t claim any money from us.”

I wondered about Marcel’s swift agreement. No objections, no irony—was that possible? Marcel led the way into the garage while I grabbed my purse. My hands were trembling so hard my keys fell on the floor.

There were not nearly so many visitors as there had been that fatal evening. Many of the market stalls were closed, including Madam Fatima’s cabin, and I was frightened the peddler would already be gone, too. Marcel drove along the main alley to the end and then he stopped in front of a large tent.

The peddler’s tent was entirely different from all the others. A black, semi-translucent foil was strained tightly over a kind of slender, deceptively fragile framework. In front of the tent an empty, smooth plate, resembling black glass, was placed. It seemed to me the plate hovered inexplicably, without any support, about three feet above the ground.

The peddler was standing in front of his tent. A tall, self-confident figure, donned in a black mantle, black hood over his head, huge sunglasses, black beard, and a mustache. His lips were blubber, sensual, like on the pictures of Pan chasing a frightened virgin.

My mind got instantly blank. I couldn’t recall any of the words that I’d earlier prepared to say to him. Marcel was the one who restored the situation. He stepped forward and said calmly, “I’ve been here earlier, remember? The day before yesterday, in the evening.”

“Oh, yes, of course.” The peddler’s sensual lips widened in a kind of demonic smile. “You were the one who was interested in— Well then, let’s forget that. What can I do for you now?”

“I have… We have a sort of complaint.”

“Really? Such things happen to me very rarely. Still, I’m wholly at your service. You’ll tell me what seems to be wrong and I’ll try to correct that.” While the peddler was talking, I had a feeling his black glasses were fixed on me. “Perhaps it would be better if we talk inside my tent? After you, please!”

He flashed a smile at me, politely stretched his left arm, a door-size part of the tent slipped aside, and we entered.


During the first part of our ride home, Marcel and I remained silent.

It must have been raining meanwhile for on the uneven parts of the street surface many puddles remained. That district was sparsely populated so walkers were rare.

Each time Marcel noticed a puddle near the sidewalk he drove the car close to the curb and spattered a pedestrian with muddy rainwater. That seemed to me so funny I chuckled at every such occasion, especially when the wet splattered person responded by using strong language.

“Hey,” I made a comment, “you missed that one.”

“That wasn’t my fault,” he objected. “The puddle was too small.”

Then, I noticed a stray Doberman so I called Marcel’s attention to it.

“You better fasten your seat belt,” he said, as he sharply turned aside and stepped on the accelerator. The dog began to run for its life in a zigzag manner. I stooped forward as far as the seat belt allowed me, licked my lips, and watched the exciting chase. Marcel kept twisting like a professional racing driver, speeding up and breaking violently. Three or four times we nearly got the Doberman but then it found a gap in a hedge and swooped through it.

“What a pity!” I said. “Still, you were wonderful, darling.”

Several blocks from our house, we saw the old local tramp Ida carrying an apple in her hand. About the time she started to push her shopping cart over a stripped crossing Marcel put the engine in neutral, and we silently drove close behind her back.

Then he pressed the horn.

The old woman gave a shriek, her cart overturned, and all her belongings strewed on the asphalt ground. Her apple rolled slowly across the entire width of the road until the curb on the other side stopped it. I roared with laughter when I saw she was pressing her hand on her chest, her eyes horrified by fear.

After Marcel locked the garage, a thought occurred to me.

“Listen, Darling,” I said, “maybe we could pay a visit to the Stallmans’ this evening. What do you say?”

“Sure,” Marcel said. “We could chat a little, play cards, and even afford ourselves some drink. Was that what you had in mind?”

“Yes, Darling. Besides that we could suggest to the Stallmans that we should go to that peddler… I mean… to the Bodoni Circus, all together. They have three children, so it wouldn’t be too hard to persuade them.”

“That’s a good idea,” he said.


Edward Alexander Rodosek is a Construction Engineer, Doctor of Technical Science and Senior Professor in Faculty of Civil Engineering, Ljubljana, Slovenia, European Union. He is married to Rina and they have one daughter, Tejka. His pastimes are chess and long walks with his golden retriever Simba. Besides his professional work he writes science fiction, mostly at night. He is an author of ten collections of short sci fi stories and four novels (see: in Slovenia with good reviews. Several of his short stories have been published in SF magazines in USA and UK (Aphelion, Brew City, Down in the Dirt, Dreams Passage, Expressions, Jupiter, Midnight Times, Nocturnal Ooze, Quantum Muse, Sacred Twilight, Silver Thought, Spinnings, Spoiled Ink, Static Movement, Thirteen, Ultraverse, Vermeer, Whisper of Wickedness). E-mail: lesim[at]

My Father’s Last Breath

Billiard’s Pick
Laurent Boulanger

City public hospitals are all the same. They are crowded with the sick, the wounded, the weary, doctors, nurses, specialists, cleaners, visitors, and flower sellers. They smell of commercial detergent and chemicals, and nobody ever smiles unless they feel like they have an obligation to cheer someone else up. They are maze-like, and it’s easy to lose oneself right at the end of the west wing when one is supposed to be at the end of the east wing, or to go up and down for a half hour just to find a toilet that is accessible to visitors, not just patients and hospital staff.

I’d been in and out of hospitals whenever my father’s health deteriorated, but I had never attended a hospital on such a regular basis. My father usually came back home on the same day after being checked and administered the right cocktail of medication like a victim of an epileptic fit who needed to get on with life.

Hospitals scared me. They are like churches, where someone else decides the fate of other people’s lives, where the sins from the past come to haunt you, where you find yourself repenting and praying to a God you have ignored for the majority of your life. In hospitals, the doctors are the gods, and the nurses are the angels.

Sometimes, while sitting in the waiting room of the critical care unit and flicking through a magazine or losing myself in Proust’s A La Recherche Des Temps Perdus, my concentration was snapped by someone’s cry of pain and despair. The shriek of another person’s suffering cleaved the core of my soul like a hand to the throat. I was suddenly reminded that nothing lasts forever, and that life doesn’t always end in the peaceful quietness of the night in the comfort of one’s home amongst the familiarity of objects accumulated over a lifetime.

During my first month at the orphanage, I visited my father every Tuesday. The people at the orphanage wouldn’t allow me more visits, no matter how sick my father got. There were rules and regulations written in stone over a century ago, and nobody was willing to bend them, even if the sky suddenly fell to the earth and swallowed us all. I could beg and put on a sorry face—I could have bribed the entire establishment had I had the means to do so—but it would have made no difference whatsoever. The rules were the Ten Commandments of the orphanage, and the only ones who lived outside those rules were those who had escaped to a better world.

My father’s left lung had collapsed without warning on that sunny June afternoon when our lives had radically changed. The doctor in charge of my father’s convalescence at the hospital told me the technical term for a collapsed lung was tension pneumothorax, but I could refer to it as tension pneumo. Doctor talk, he confided to me as if he were my big brother. I liked him. He was in his late-twenties and good looking—different from other doctors who sported grey hair and bulging stomachs like overfed turkeys ready for the annual festive season slaughter. I was a child, but he spoke to me as if I were an adult. He never bothered to change his intonation or vocabulary to bridge our age difference or tried to patronize me with his encyclopedic medical knowledge. He shared complex diagnoses and prognoses like loved ones give you a cuddle after you’ve run into a door left ajar.

We were sitting in his office at the hospital when he explained what had happened to my father. He used the help of a color chart pinned to the back wall, right behind his chair. The chart showed a full-frontal cross-section of the respiratory system, including the larynx, trachea, bronchi, diaphragm, and lungs. Next to it was a chart of the heart in blue and red sections, showing the pathway of blood traveling from body tissues to the right atrium and to the right ventricle. I had seen similar charts pinned to the walls of the science classroom back at school and remembered the difficulty I had in memorizing all the strange names that someone a long time ago had assigned to every organ and function of the body.

The doctor’s name was Alfred Herrmann, and his family originated from Germany. He’d been born in Strasbourg, in the very same hospital he was now working for. He insisted that I call him by his first name, which felt strange because at school we were forced to address the teachers by their surnames. Even the teachers addressed us by our surnames. I wasn’t Clotilde, but Mademoiselle Benoît.

With his plastic biro, Dr. Herrmann pointed to the left lung on the color chart—the one colored blue—and said, ‘See this large blood vessel?’ He indicated a large artery attached to the top end of the heart.

I nodded.

‘For some reason, it has burst and caused the lung to collapse in the process. As a result, your father’s heart doesn’t pump enough blood, and thus is incapable of delivering the required amount of oxygen to the vital tissues and organs. Your father will remain in critical care for the next few days, but we’ll look after him as best as we can.’

‘Is he going to live?’

‘He’s stable and he’s being constantly monitored. His heart is still weak from the trauma, so it’s important that he rests.’

‘When can he go home?’

‘I can’t say at this stage, but I’m going to be honest with you, Clotilde, you’re looking at least at another two to three months in hospital, and that is in the hope that his condition improves gradually without any complications.’

I sighed. How was I going to cope for that long at the orphanage by only seeing my father once a week? I missed him like a plant misses the healing rays of the sun.

Dr. Herrmann took me to the hospital canteen and bought me a lunch of salad and Swiss cheese and a chocolate mousse. I told him they didn’t feed us well at the orphanage, and the food tasted horrible. I told him people were making fun of me, called me Virgin Mary, and I was scared and I wished I didn’t have to be there. I wanted him to know he had to hurry up and make my father feel good again.

‘I’m doing the best I can,’ Dr. Herrmann said, ‘but life is cruel sometimes. We’re not always the ones who decide on people’s fate.’

I locked my eyes with his and said, ‘It’s God’s Will, I know.’

He didn’t reply, but his face expressed surprise at my answer.

He reached for my hand and squeezed it.

I let tears roll down my face. ‘I’m so tired of everything, I want a normal life again.’

‘You’re a brave little girl,’ he finally said. ‘Maybe I can do something about getting you out of the orphanage. I have a friend who knows a friend who’s a caseworker with the department of social security. A few phone calls, and we might be able to find you a placement with a nice family.’ He smiled as if he’d just revealed the meaning of life. ‘How does that sound?’

‘It sounds fine,’ I said because he was being nice, and I hated the idea of upsetting him.

But his offer wasn’t agreeable.

I didn’t want a placement with a nice family. I wanted my father back, and I wanted to go home.


I shared a room with another girl, Martine, thirteen years old, long greasy dark hair down her back and a china-white complexion. Her green eyes peered out from two small slits, which looked as if they’d been cut into her flesh with a scalpel. She wore the same pair of jeans every day, jeans so tight she could hardly move, and a white, cropped cotton top, and no bra. Her little nichons were clearly visible through the T-shirt. I had no breasts to speak of, so at times I was envious, and at others I thought she was cheap. She spoke to me even though I didn’t respond, because the last thing I needed was people trying to be friends with me. Most of the time I was moody and thought about nothing but my father.

I stole a packet of shaving blades from the nurse’s room and tucked it on the inside cover of my pillow. I wrote everything I thought and felt in my diary. If I beat the odds and somehow managed to live to be older, I would remember what it was like to be the girl the world had rejected like a dog forced to fend for itself in a world that no longer had the heart to care for those who needed it the most.

I recorded my innermost desires.

If my father died, I wanted to die on the same day. They would bury us together in the same grave, shamefully hidden at the back of the cemetery amongst tall weeds, a site that nobody visited, where the homeless, bastards, and criminals were concealed from the public.

When it was known that I was my father’s daughter, the Catholic Church stripped him of his ministry like a judge strips a convicted criminal of his dignity. I was the burden of his shame, and I would follow him to the grave.


‘Martine!’ I yelled.

Martine—who was sleeping next to me in a single bunk—grunted in reply. She’d been at the orphanage on-and-off for six years now. Her parents were junkies, and she’d been made ward of the state. Every time social security found her a placement in a home, it didn’t last. It was hard for her to get on with everyone, including myself. I didn’t like her, but on that particular night, there was nobody else I could turn to.

I jumped from my bed. ‘Martine, I think I’m dying!’

She stumbled from her metal-frame bed and flicked on the light from her side table. ‘What? What have you done?’

I looked down my legs—dark blood painted my thighs and my nightgown like random brushstrokes from the doubtful hands of a painter’s apprentice—and remembered the shaving blades hidden inside the cover of my pillowcase.

‘I think I cut myself.’ I pulled my nightgown up to my thighs. Where did the blood come from?

Martine’s eyes met mine and I read cruelty in them.

‘You’re menstruating, espèce de petite conne,’ she said with a smirk.


‘You’re a woman now,’ my father said. The skin on his face appeared gaunter than during my previous visits, almost translucent, and the bags under his eyes were so heavy, they might as well have been drawn with a charcoal pen.

His room at the hospital was small, but at least he didn’t have to share it with anyone. A large crucifix hung above his bed head. A plastic tube was coming from under the white sheets, as well as wiring attached to an EKG monitor. All this machinery scared me. Even though I knew nothing about medical procedures, I was certain that if someone still had to rely on a lot of equipment to stay alive, it meant that he couldn’t be doing all that well.

I sat on a white plastic chair next to his bed, my small hands grasping at my knees. He no longer smelled of pipe tobacco, but of freshly washed sheets and disinfectant. His hair was dull and combed to one side like a schoolboy whose mother had just cleaned him up before he had to go out into the big, dangerous world. He looked helpless—a lamb caught in a hunter’s trap. This was not the father I knew and the memory of him I wanted to take back to the orphanage with me.

‘There are many things I should have told you about what happens when a man and woman get together,’ he said. It should have been your mother’s job, and I didn’t know how to go about it.’

‘It’s all right,’ I said, ‘Martine has told me everything.’

The expression on his face eased as if someone had just announced he would be able to go home that same afternoon. I realized he must have been counting the days backwards as to when it would have been appropriate for me to know about human reproduction, but Martine had fortuitously saved him from the burden.

I explained how Martine was my roommate, how her parents could no longer take care of her, and other family members didn’t want the burden of bringing up a child who wasn’t their own. I told him there had been a court case where her mother tried to retain custody of her child, but a government social worker convinced the judge that she was an unfit mother who was still a junkie, and that Martine was better off without her. I told him Martine had been raped at the age of twelve by a twenty-five-year-old man whom she’d become too friendly with. I told him how she wished people would understand what she’d been going through and stopped treating her as if she had a mental disorder. If they could only realise she was just a victim of fate. She refused to talk to psychologists or psychiatrists because she was too proud, and doing so would have been an admission that there was something wrong with her.

My father listened attentively without interrupting.

‘Is she a good friend?’ he asked when I had nothing more to day.

‘She’s just here and I’m just there.’

There was a pause, which felt like eternity. I could see the effort it took him just to breathe, and it made me sick to my stomach. I wished I were the one lying on his bed with him sitting next to me, comforting me and telling me how I was going to pull through. I didn’t know what to say to him to make him feel better. He’d always been the parent, and now it was my turn. He didn’t say how guilty he felt that he’d become an affliction in my life, but the pain was clearly visible in his eyes, like that of a man who’d stopped believing in angels.

When I left the hospital I cried all the way to the orphanage.


Martine and I inevitably became close friends. I turned twelve, and she made me drink two full glasses of white wine to celebrate my rite of passage to womanhood. My father usually diluted the wine with water before giving it to me at lunch or dinner. I had never drunk wine undiluted before, and the alcohol went straight to my brain. It was liquid fire blended with fruit juice, and firecrackers exploded in my head.

I shared my first cigarette with Martine and coughed through its entire length. With my second cigarette, I stopped inhaling completely, but held the smoke in my mouth for a few seconds before releasing it in the confinement of our bedroom.

We were not allowed to smoke or drink at the orphanage, but Martine had never been caught.

‘If you get caught, deny everything, there’s nothing they can do.’ Her fishnet stockings had a hole in them, and she wore her mascara generously like Brigitte Bardot did in the sixties.

‘But lying is a sin,’ I protested.


‘So, you shouldn’t lie.’

‘If it gets me out of trouble, I lie. It’s easy, nobody can tell the difference anyway. No wonder they call you Virgin Mary. Haven’t you ever done anything wrong in your life?’

She kept the cigarettes and the wine locked in a large, green metal trunk under her bed. She was really clever, assertive and proud, and her defiant attitude excited me.


That night when we ate dinner at the canteen, I threw up all over the table and was sent to the infirmary. My throwing-up had a domino effect, and three other kids vomited straight after seeing me emptying my stomach contents onto my plate of mashed potatoes, green peas, and low-grade minced meat.

‘Have you been drinking?’ the nurse asked, her pointy nose too close to my breath. She was young and seemed to cause no serious threat. She was almost smiling when she asked me the question.

‘No,’ I lied.

‘Who gave you the wine?’

‘I haven’t been drinking.’ A headache was thundering on both my temples, and I just wanted to lie down and die.

My first white lie.

Maybe they’d put me in hospital in the same room as my father’s, and we’d share the same EKG monitor—two heartbeats pulsing into the one machine. Maybe they’d think my left lung was collapsing, that I was suffering from some kind of hereditary illness that’s passed on from fathers to daughters, and then they’d realise we were meant to be one forever, and it would be pointless to separate us because fate would inevitably bring us back together.

‘I’ll let it go for the time being,’ the nurse said. ‘I’ll put it down as indigestion, but if you come back here drunk again, I’ll have to report you.’

She gave me a tablet and sent me to my room.

Martine was right.

Lying was easy.


That same night, Martine told me more about boys.

‘They’re only after one thing,’ she said, both of us lying on my narrow, single bunk in the dark, sharing a cigarette. A lamppost outside lit the room brightly enough for us to see. The glow of the cigarette was the most visible thing, and every time one of us took a drag, the smoker’s face became clear.

‘What?’ I took a puff, coughed and passed it on to her. I felt grown-up because I did what grow-ups told me I couldn’t do.

‘Your body.’

She said that as if it was a bad thing, but I wasn’t so sure myself. At school I began to notice boys, but I never wondered if my curiosity was a bad thing or not. I knew their thinking differed from our thinking, and I was intrigued about my own body, so maybe it wasn’t so strange at all. I could understand why they’d be interested in Martine’s body because I was too. I wanted to look like her—to have more curves without trying, to walk with my butt wiggling, to project an air of confidence, looking as if I knew what life was all about. I wanted that badly. I didn’t want to be a girl any more. I wanted to be a woman, and I wanted boys to look at me the way they looked at her.

She told me how her father forced her to have sex with him when she was nine years old, and at first I didn’t believe her. She had already told me about how she was raped at the age of twelve, so how much worse could her life have been?

‘He used to come at around midnight,’ Martine said, lighting a new cigarette, ‘when mum was asleep, her brain simmering in Valium and alcohol. The bastard crept into my room like a killer in the night. I never got to sleep before then because I knew he would be coming. He made it sound like there was nothing wrong with what we did. I didn’t know at the time because I never told anyone. It just felt bad, that’s all. I didn’t like doing what he made me do, but he was my father, and at school they kept telling us that we had to obey our parents. I thought other girls’ fathers did the same to them—I thought that was what fathers did.’

I couldn’t even imagine my father doing what he did to her. It wasn’t even something that had crossed my mind because I had never imagined that people could be horrible enough to do things to their own children.

I blew smoke into the air.

‘But why?’ I asked.

‘Because he wanted to,’ she said and took another drag.

‘But why? What about your mother?’

‘It wasn’t the same. He liked them tight.’

‘Oh,’ I nodded, pretending I understood what she’d just told me.

I thought about my father at hospital. Dr. Herrmann told me that he was getting better. Herrmann also told me that he’d rung up a friend, the one who knew a caseworker, and they would find me a family soon. But now I was getting used to being with Martine. She was older than me, and she knew more than I did, and she told me things about life that my father never told me. I liked that. It was like having a big sister.

‘You want more wine?’ she asked.

‘Don’t think so, I’m still feeling sick.’

‘Ah, come on, don’t be a baby.’

She poured me another glass, a cigarette butt hanging from one corner of her mouth, and we fell asleep drunk into each other’s arms.


On my next visit to the hospital, I wore tight Levi’s and a white-cropped cotton top. When I climbed the steps to the foyer, I noticed people were looking at me more than they usually would, especially the men. It didn’t matter whether they were older or younger, doctors, janitors, or patients, they all looked at me the same way—I was a slice of chocolate cake and they hadn’t eaten for a month. I loved the attention I was getting.

I kept my chin up and walked straight across the polished floor. I didn’t need to stop at reception because I knew where my father’s room was. I had been visiting for three months now, once a week. It was my thirteenth visit, and the visiting felt as if it would never end. At times I wondered what my life would be like if he died. Probably not much different from now except that I would visit him once a week at the cemetery instead of the hospital. I felt a lump in my throat.

In the elevator, I checked my reflection in the mirror. Martine had helped me with the make-up. I’d never worn make-up before and still had to get used to the idea. My lips were bright red—painted with blood—and my cheeks rosy like those of an alcoholic. I had Brigitte Bardot’s eyes—eyelashes twice as long and thick as they were that morning. Martine said I looked sensual. I checked sensual in the dictionary and it read tending to arouse the bodily appetites, esp. the sexual appetite. That was exactly what I had been aiming at. My father said I was a woman now, and he was right. I was going to make him proud.


‘What on earth has got into you?’ my father screamed when he saw me walked in the room. How could he scream so loud with his lung condition? The beeping on the EKG quickened like I had seen on TV when someone gets a heart attack. He hunched himself over on the bed.

I stood there as if someone had just grabbed me by the throat and held me against the back wall of the room and was about the shred me to pieces.

‘Is it this Martine girl?’ he went on.

I had never seen him so angry before, thundering words at me like bullets from a gun when all I knew from him was kindness and patience. For a split second I thought about Martine’s father, and how maybe there was a dark side to every man that I didn’t know about—even my father.

‘But, Papa—‘

‘Look at yourself, Clotilde, you look like a slut!’

I wanted to tell him that that was exactly what I wanted to look like, and who was he to tell me off since he wasn’t even looking after me any more. I wanted to tell him that none of this would have happened if he’d never let my mother leave us, and if he’d married her. I wanted to tell him that he’d ruined all our lives by not marrying my mother, and that I missed her even if I didn’t remember ever being with her. Fat tears rolled down my cheeks.

‘I’m sorry,’ I said.

‘What were you thinking, Clotilde?’

‘You said I was a woman now.’

He rolled his eyes to the ceiling and forced a smile. He seemed upset by my crying.

‘Come here,’ he said.

I walked hesitantly towards the bed and thought about what Martine’s father did to her.

He made me sit on the bed next to him. His hand reached for mine, but I couldn’t take it. He wiped the tears from my face with his bony fingers and covered them in dark mascara, like black ink stains on an illustrator’s skin.

‘You’re burning steps,’ he said matter-of-factly. He pulled a tissue from a box on his side-table, wet it with his saliva, and began removing the make-up from my face. ‘Don’t rush through the stages of your life. This girl you’re with, Martine, she’s not the same as you. That’s a girl who’s been around the block a few times. Who knows what she’s been up to.’

‘But she’s nice to me, she’s the only one who gives a shit.’

‘I’m not saying she’s not a nice person, but look at the influence she has on you—even your language, listen to yourself talking.’

He pointed gently with his right hand to the crucifix above his bed to make me aware that God was in the room with us.

He added, ‘You’re not my little Clotilde any more, are you?’

‘I’m sorry, Papa, I’m only trying to do my best.’

‘I know you are, and I’m sorry things have turned out the way they have.’

‘I just want to go home.’


I wanted to believe him with all my heart, but he looked sicker than he ever had. The veins on his temples and neck were snakes crawling out of his skin. Dr. Herrmann told me in two to three months my father would be ready to come back home. Three months had passed. Nothing had changed for the better.

‘I want you to be careful out there,’ my father continued. ‘People are going to take advantage of you if you’re not careful.’

I had nothing to be taken advantage of—no money, no home, no belongings. What could possibly be gained from taking advantage of me?

I stayed seated on the bed a little while longer, but neither of us said a word. Sadness weighted his eyes, and I couldn’t help feeling that I’d let him down. I wished I could just go back a few steps and be the little Clotilde he wanted me to be. I wished I’d never met Martine and her so-called ‘wise ways’. But I somehow realized that it was hard to step back into darkness once you’d seen the light. The world wasn’t made of lollipops and pink fairy floss, but of fathers and sluts, vanishing mothers and people who mysteriously took advantage of you.

I was on a full pack of cigarettes a week when I heard the news. Dr. Herrmann said that my father had put on a hell of a fight until the last minute. His right lung collapsed from doing too much work. There was nothing they could have done.

Back in July, Dr. Herrmann had told me my father was going to make it, and he didn’t.

A little white lie.

And I believed him.

I was learning fast.


The night Martine left the orphanage for good, I removed the shaving blades from the cover of my pillow. I didn’t know what I was doing. It was dark and my eyes were welled with tears. I cut my forefinger while pulling the first blade out of the plastic packaging. It didn’t hurt. I placed my finger in my mouth and sucked the blood. It tasted good, like the first ray of sunrise.

I’d never seen people slash their wrists before, and I’d never read anything about it, so I cut across my left wrist. Had I cut along the main artery instead, I would have bled to death in a crimson pool, my soul united with that of my father. They would have found me in the morning, the little Virgin Mary, the ‘nobody-gives-a-shit-about-you’ girl, the slut, the ‘little-Clotilde-bad-people-are-going-to-take-advantage-of.’

I dreamed of white wine turning red. The crucifix above my father’s hospital bed bleeding where the hands and feet of Jesus had been nailed. My face covered in bright red lipstick. People throwing stones at me while I walked my way to school. People taking advantage of me.

I dreamed of being alone and everyone leaving. I dreamed of screams no one could hear. I dreamed of my father’s face distorted with pain as he tries hard to breathe the suffocating air around. I dreamed of his pipe and smelled his eau de vie, of the way my small hand felt in his, of the way he sometimes laughed when I made a joke. I dreamed of a black crow. I dreamed of Provence and Marcel Pagnol as a child. I dreamed of Marcel Proust and Jesus Christ. I dreamed of sunsets over the Cathedral of Strasbourg, of English and German tourists with cameras.

I dreamed of blood.

Lots of blood.


Laurent Boulanger was born in Strasbourg, France in 1966. He came with his family to Australia at the age of thirteen without any English. After working a multitude of dead-end jobs, he returned to study and earned a Bachelor of Arts in Writing from Deakin University and subsequently a Master of Arts in Writing from Swinburne University. Since 1995, he’s been Australian Correspondent for Writers’ News, UK’s largest circulating magazine for writers. He is currently a tutor in the online postgraduate writing program at Swinburne University, where he is also completing his Ph.D. in Writing. E-mail: laurent[at]

Le Metro

Baker’s Pick
Valaer Murray

Paris was still dark when her plane arrived. Cornelia waited at the baggage carousel with the other, mostly French passengers, some of whom she’d glimpsed sleeping or en route to the bathroom during the flight. Compared to the bustle of JFK, she noticed how empty De Gaulle was at dawn as she waited for the clanking belt to serve up her red suitcase. It was part of the cherry-colored set her parents bought her before she went to Greece, the same suitcase that she had packed while Michel watched, sprawled on the bed in the hotel in Ipsos. Down two escalators and onto the ground floor, the taxi signs got muddled, so she stopped to look around for a moment. A grey-haired man in a navy sports coat rose from a bench near her.

“Taxi? You want taxi?”

Cornelia followed him to an elevator even though she felt sure that the taxis were on the ground floor. Then a young North African guy, dressed in a big, hooded jacket, appeared behind the supposed taxi driver. He jutted his chin at the man, shook his head quickly, and walked off. She turned away and ran towards the escalator, stopping a woman in the hall who pointed her in the direction of the taxi stand.

The cold morning chilled the sheen of sweat on her forehead when she stepped onto the curb around which a long line of taxis curved. The drivers swarmed her as she dug in her pocket for the address she had scrawled on a scrap of paper before she left. She looked in her purse, then her coat pocket, then in the outside compartments of her suitcase. One driver spoke over her shoulder in English, “Where you go, miss?”

“I don’t know!” she wailed. “I can’t find the address.”

He pulled his cell phone out of his pocket. “Number?” The taxi driver dialed the number that Cornelia had memorized over the past year. “Hi, it’s me. I’m here!”

“Ohhh good. I am so happy.” He yawned and said something else that she couldn’t understand through his thick accent.

“I lost the address. What is it?”

When the taxi driver heard her mincing pronunciation of Rue la Bruyere, he nodded and led her to his taxi parked in the back of the line. Two other taxi drivers began to follow them shouting in French. The driver calmly walked towards the car, not answering the men yelling at him. He put the luggage in the trunk and said to her, “Get in. Quick.” Cornelia obeyed.

Settled in the backseat, she tingled as her arrival washed over her. After months of scrimping and canned soup for dinner, she was finally here, for a whole week. It was all the vacation time she was going to squeeze out of Bianca, her boss and PR maven, who always managed to catch Cornelia daydreaming. The staccato drum of Bianca’s nails on her desk often snapped her out of reveries about seeing Michel again, recalling his hug or smile. To pass the oozing hours between typing up press releases, she imagined being discovered by one of the agents or managers that were in and out of the publicists’ offices, although coming to Paris seemed like much more of a real possibility and therefore more appealing. When she told her friends that she had finally bought her plane ticket, they took celebratory vodka shots with her, telling her that there was nothing more romantic than being in love in Paris. Tipsy, they giggled and said that she’d probably never come back, that she’d get married and have little French babies. Cornelia smiled with them and chewed the end of a tendril of hair, smoking cigarette after cigarette.

She had first seen Michel on a crowded Greek bus that she and her friend were taking into town. In August, the buses on the narrow island roadways teemed with noisy Italian teenagers and gaggles of sunburnt English girls. He had scruffy hair and an easy grin on his tanned face. His eyes smiled as well, and he wore khaki shorts, a white T-shirt and shell-top Adidas—timeless. The two of them spent the last five days of her vacation hand-in-hand, talking and napping on the rocky beaches and riding around the island on his rented Vespa. Her friend, it turned out, had found a Greek bartender she spent her days with, and Michel’s friends liked to wander off and talk to girls in cafes, so he and Cornelia settled into that snug, ardent couple-dom found only on vacation, when love dangles in the present, shrugging off the weight of the future.

During their intense good-bye at the small island airport, he held her hand and told her he loved her then waited at the gate until Cornelia’s friend pulled her through the door. They made every promise to keep in touch, but after she got back to the States, the fever of it subsided. She was busy moving into a new apartment and catching up at work, but on her birthday in October, he called her, and they spent the winter emailing and sending little gifts with poems and baby photos, sketches done from memory and pressed flowers.

Eight months later, they were going to see each other, and she was a desert succulent ready to burst. During long hours in front of her computer screen, she had planned out their life: the intimate ceremony atop a cliff on the Greek island, the small flat in Paris, the move back to New York after a few years, a whole life arranged precisely like the inside of a dollhouse. Uneasiness had lodged itself in her chest, plucking strings like a cello beneath her ribcage. The cab pulled up in front of a narrow building in the 9th arrondissement near Pigalle, and getting out of the taxi, she saw him rush across the street towards her. He looked anxiously in her direction as he waited in the middle of the road while a car passed, and suddenly he was there, giving her a tight hug, thanking the driver, gathering her bags. As they crossed the street, he put his arm around her shoulders and they beamed at each other—a smile of relief.

In the elevator Michel kissed her with a hard bite that surprised her and pushed her against the mirror. He stepped back and examined her face, which grew hot as she felt his eyes moving down her nose, slight and pert like a mandarin orange slice, to her pointy, witch’s chin to her pride, the lustrous brown hair that came down to just above her small, round breasts. “You look the same. So cute,” he said. She smiled, unexpectedly shy standing in front of him, and fidgeted with his coat zipper. “So do you.” His hair was longer but still scruffy, standing up on one side from the pillow, and he appeared older or maybe his face was puffy because he had just woken up. Then he said, “The flat, it is my cousin’s. He is in Saint Tropez so we can stay here for the week.”

Typically European, he lived with his parents, a dentist and a waitress, in a middle class neighborhood of the 12th arrondissement. In the living room of the strange bachelor’s pad, hung with animal skins and outfitted with a snake in its cage, they sat on the leather couch, pivoted towards each other awkwardly.

“How was the, eh, trip?”

“Fine. Long,” she paused. “I can’t believe I’m here with you after so much time.”

“It is crazy. I know.” They smiled at each other and he squeezed her hand.

“I was so nervous coming here,” she said, snuggling against him. “I didn’t know if it would be like I had pictured or if you would be the same as I remembered.”

“Ah cherie, no worries. I am the same. You are the same, perhaps more beautiful even.”

He leaned down to her, and, cupping the side of her face, kissed her slowly. It was easier to get the awkwardness out of the way with nakedness then settle into an ersatz intimacy. They had thirsty sex with little foreplay but an intense crescendo with one of her legs arched over his shoulder, and after he traced circles on her belly as he lay propped on his elbow, listening to her talk about her life in New York. There was a huge mirror on the wall at the foot of the bed in which she watched his hand loop over her skin, trying to configure her memories of Greece, the handwriting in the letters and the boy in front of her.

The next days were spent walking the city, fingers entwined, interspersed with sitting in little cafes, where they’d smile into each other’s eyes over the coffee and take time to examine each other’s palms. Like coyness, talk had fallen by the wayside, superfluous, and “I love you” was charged enough to exclude all other discussion. He took photos of her next to Hector Guimard’s cartoonish Metropolitain sign; in front of the Place de la Republique, traffic swirling behind her; at the doorway of the Notre Dame alongside a gaggle of other tourists. She never bothered to ask where they were headed—she just hitched onto his arm and was led through the semi-exotic, baroque terrain.

One afternoon, they went to his parents’ apartment so he could get a change of clothes. It was modest, smaller than she had pictured, with food smells lingering in the kitchen dinette cramped by a round table with its pot of silk flowers. The flurry of nerves she felt after arriving had settled in her belly like flattened, rolled out pancakes. Those streaming emotions now seeped and dribbled as she hovered between the reality of her being in Paris and the way she had imagined it, with neither existence seeming tangible. She envisioned his parents as absurd life-sized cutouts sitting at the table, and turning to him, she asked, “Am I going to meet your family at all?”

“Of course, if you want. We’ll come here Friday night for Shabbat. You know Shabbat?”

“Not really. It’s like the Jewish Sabbath, right?”

His mouth twitched into a smile. “Yes, we light some candles, eat some food. But you know, my parents, they don’t speak English.”

“Oh… okay.” She had expected them to speak English, to be very excited to have someone in the family to practice with, and pictured their mothers chatting on the phone every so often.

Riding the metro back, they noticed a duffel bag that seemed abandoned. Michel asked a few people if it belonged to them but nobody claimed it. “How could someone just forget a big bag like that?” Cornelia wondered aloud. She felt sorry for the dejected bag, imagining that someone had cast it off because it was too cumbersome and they didn’t want it anymore. “It is very strange,” he agreed. When they got off at their stop, he pulled her through the crowd, and as they reached the front of the train, he called out to the driver, pointing to the middle cars of the train where the bag lay.

“What did you say to him?”

“I told him there was a bag left there and that it might be a bomb or something.”

“A bomb?” She shivered even though it was hot inside the metro. He hugged her with one arm and kissed her forehead. “Don’t be scared, cherie,” he whispered. “I won’t,” she said, pausing. “We have to go shopping tomorrow.” There were souvenirs still to buy for her parents and friends. She adored finding the perfect postcard, a caprice of a scene that never looked that way in person, always brighter and more lucid on paper.

On a cloudy morning they arrived at the Eiffel Tower, complacent against the gray sky with its familiar form. In line, they refused the West African vendors’ dinky key chains, and once on the crowded elevator, they stuffed themselves into a corner. They smiled at each other, noses almost touching, at which instant she felt his hand edge down into her pants. The shock on her face made him laugh, and the silent tourists peered at the couple. She admired how direct he was, so unlike her, but sometimes his impulsiveness became aggression that broke the surface on Michel’s finish and made him seem untamable. Snuggled against the biting wind, they circled the platform, stopping at each corner to point out where they had been so far and lingering as Michel recounted his teenage pranks, like the time he and his friends stole a flower delivery truck and rode around the city, throwing the flowers out of the back to people on the sidewalk.

When he carved their names in a rail with a plus in between and encircled by a heart, she giggled and took a photo of it. Michel had used a small switchblade that he explained he’d been carrying with him ever since his cousin had gotten beat up by a crew of Arab boys. He told her about the mosque in his neighborhood being broken into and defaced, and the synagogue school that was burned the following day. Walking away, Cornelia took a last look, mentioning that the Tower looked skeletal and menacing. “This is a city of violence,” he said quietly.

The next day she went to the Louvre alone while he was at school taking an economics exam but was supposed to meet her nearby in the afternoon. With little direction or purpose, she swept through a few art-crammed rooms, and then, as if her will was left out to dry and gather dust, she sat wearily on a bench and stared at the couples passing by, wanting to be back in the folds of Michel’s black leather coat. Within their little universe, time and thought was suspended. When she waited in the line for the Mona Lisa, she watched to see how long people stood in front of the protective cube then once in front of the painting, she imitated the expressions on the faces around her, some awed, some expectant. It was nearly three—she’d make her way slowly to meet Michel at the cafe.

“Cafe au lait,” she said to the woman behind the bar. As she lingered over her coffee, she felt the man next to her staring. One elbow on the bar, he smelled his hands, one then the other. With a wry smile, he asked in a heavy accent if she was waiting for her boyfriend. “Yes,” she replied.

“A French boy?”

“Yes,” she answered icily.

“You should not trust a French boy.”

Cornelia turned away. He was almost an hour late. Worried, she wondered if it was a mistake to come here trying to make it all real. She felt the absence of her fantasies, the pretty lies and their great companionship, but she knew him now at least, knew the way he slurped a few spoonfuls of coffee when it was too hot and how his body always shuddered twice right before he drifted to sleep. What she couldn’t get a grasp on was a clear vision of the couple, the two of them together, like their smiling faces were blurred in the photo. She wanted him to have the same ideas of the future, for them to start planning it and making promises; not like a ring and a date but a shared acknowledgment that they were going to be together. Suddenly, ”I love you” didn’t appease.

It was four o’clock by the time Michel arrived. “I’m so sorry,” he sighed. He looked spent, but she was already worked up. The vise clamping down on her feelings had twisted away over the afternoon, and she needed more from him, not just to be led and held and told she was loved, but a gesture that would move her, make her believe it would all work out, remind her of why she had come. Words tumbled out of her mouth. “What happened? I’ve been waiting for an hour and this jerk was bothering me. I’ve been alone all day and you don’t even give a shit. And I’m leaving in a few days. Do you even care about that? Or maybe you’re relieved to have me go home.”

“What? I do care but I had to talk to my professor about the exam and it took so long. It’s not my fault.”

“I don’t know if you really do care. I come all the way here, and I have to spend the whole day alone waiting for you. I can’t even get in touch with you.”

“My love, I adore you and I don’t want you to be alone. Who bothered you? I will talk to him.”

It was something. “He’s gone now. Don’t worry about it.” She kissed his cheek.

“Baby, I’m sorry. Let’s go. We must get to my parents’ before it’s dark.”

Michel let her in through the front door and called out, “Hallo, bonjour!” She could hear the TV before they entered the living room where his older sister and teenage brother were seated on the couch, absorbed in the news program. Both managed to get up and greet her with a stiff ”How do you do?” An elderly man in a cardigan sat in an armchair close to the television. “Bonjour, Pepe,” Michel said, at which his grandfather glanced at him quickly and muttered something.

Then a woman with black, graying hair and wide hips bustled out of the kitchen. “Coucou Michel! Et son amie, bonjour!” She grabbed his head and kissed him on both cheeks. Smiling, they turned to Cornelia. “My mother,” Michel said. The woman kissed her soundly. “Bonjour,” Cornelia managed. His mother chattered on, motioning for them to sit down, and went back to the kitchen. At first, Cornelia tried to be attentive to Michel’s conversation in French with his siblings, nodding and looking at the person talking, but after awhile she gave up and stared at the TV. Minutes later, a man came into the living room carrying a few bottles of wine. “Salut,” he said, putting the wine on the table. “Papa. Mon amie, Cornelia,” Michel said as he stood up. “Hello,” his father said and gave Cornelia a perfunctory kiss.

The sun had just gone down. His mother called them over to a long table spread with candles, wine and covered bread baskets. Standing on one side of the table that they crowded around, hushed, she lit the candles then waved her hands over them. Between the candlelight and the low voice she chanted in, the scene was as if from some sepia-colored photo. When the food was brought from the kitchen, Michel joked to her, “The Jewish-ness is over for the night. You can relax.” She frowned at him. “I’m fine. It was beautiful.” She couldn’t explain the immobility she felt, the catch in her throat, and how she held it all—the present and the future—so gingerly. And how if she squeezed too hard or not enough, the tiny sparrow in her hands would be crushed or fly away.

The metro was crowded as they got on the train to head back to the apartment. Two stops later, a guy began shouting drunkenly at a girl. Michel and some other men admonished him, and the guy replied with an obscenity that Cornelia didn’t catch, but when the retort hit Michel, he shot towards the guy like a coiled snake, knocking her purse from her lap. Its contents spilled onto the floor, makeup, money, cigarettes and postcards scattering. The doors opened at the Monceau stop, and the two boys were on the platform, Michel smashing his fist into the guy’s face. The entire car was yelling but she was helpless to understand. Silent with panic and confusion, she tried to scoop the stuff back into her purse without losing sight of Michel. As the doors began to close, he hopped back on. The drunk, his nose pouring blood, pounded on the shut doors.

“Are you okay? What just happened?” she whispered to him.

“I’m fine. This fucking guy was saying shit to that girl. Really bad shit.”

“But why…”

“I hate to hear a man talk to a woman like that. What if it was my sister or mother? Or if it were you, my woman? I couldn’t have anyone talk to you like that.” Michel sat beside her with a grunt and rubbed his eyes.

“You would fight for me?” she asked.

“Yes, of course. You are my heart. I’m going to spend the rest of my life with you.”

He put his hand on her thigh. Cornelia felt its heat but didn’t notice the streak of blood across his knuckles, nor did she notice that under the seat lay her postcard of the Bastille, which they hadn’t bothered to visit. She was already imagining the fight, a fierce, tumbling wrestle with a tipsy man who would try to dance with her in a club, before the black tunnel turned into the glittering white tile of the next metro station.


“I am currently an editor for AOL CityGuide, an online entertainment publication. As I pursue fiction writing, I also freelance as a music concert reviewer and entertainment writer.” E-mail: valaerm[at]

Orange Line

Casey Walsh

Wilson Jefferies is dead, and he’s riding the Metro, eastbound. He had gotten on the orange line at Metro Center, walking the few blocks from the hotel where he worked. Around Federal Triangle an aneurysm burst in his brain and killed him in a few seconds. He’s sitting next to an old black man in a suit who carries an umbrella even though it’s sunny out. It’s rush hour. No one notices Wilson. No one will notice him for three hours.

Celia gets on at Federal Center SW. She had lunch with her sister and afterwards they went to the National Gallery to look at a Degas show, which Celia didn’t really care about, but she hadn’t wanted to go home. The train is crowded, filled with people talking on cell phones and rustling papers. A toddler is crying and the mom tells it to shut up. Celia has to stand. From across the car, she admires the suit Wilson is wearing. It’s black and he has on a dark blue tie. He’s not bad looking either. She knows him, she realizes. They went to high school together in Severna Park.

Celia starts to smile. Wilson had been pale, short, quiet, and polite. He was in the smart kid classes with her, but didn’t do that well. Everyone ignored him. He mostly hung out with a guy named Chuck Olsen who got expelled sophomore year for setting off firecrackers in the hallway. The whole school had to go sit out on the football field that day because they thought somebody was trying to blow up the school. Celia wished someone would set off firecrackers everyday so they didn’t have to go to class. Everyone got a sunburn.

Wilson’s father was a minister. In ninth grade, his parents complained to the principal about evolution being taught in biology class. Everyone found out and picked on Wilson for it. Only rednecks believed in that kind of stuff.

Celia had been dating a guy named Mike Paulson at the time. About two weeks after they had sex for the first time, he told he wasn’t into to her anymore so he could go out with some bitch on the volleyball team. She hadn’t liked it when they had sex and he had mocked her in a high-pitched voice when she said it hurt.

One day in the hall between classes she saw Mike shoving Wilson. He had dropped his binder on the floor and papers had scattered everywhere. People were ignoring him and Mike, walking around them. Wilson was on his knees when Celia walked over, picking up his papers.

“You stupid little faggot,” Mike was saying to Wilson. He stopped when he saw Celia and smiled. “Hey, Celia” he said.

She looked at him for a second, studying his expression, noticing the tear in the neck of his Redskins T-shirt. Was he kidding, saying hi to her? She jammed her knee into his balls.

“Oh, shit,” Mike moaned, taking a few steps back, cupping his hands over his crotch. “What the fuck. You crazy bitch,” he wheezed.

“Good, I hope the damage is fucking permanent,” she said. “Now get out of here.” He limped off down the hall. “And leave him alone, dickhead,” she yelled after him.

Wilson was standing up now, shaking a little, “Thank you,” he said softly. He had on the dirty jean jacket that he never seemed to take off. Celia thought his jacket was kind of cool, sort of punk looking.

“Sure, whatever,” Celia said, grabbing a handful of papers and gave them to him before walking away.

A few days later in the cafeteria a friend of Celia’s was looking a Wilson eating his lunch alone. “God, that kid is so pitiful,” the friend said.

Celia shrugged. “I don’t know. He’s kind of sweet.” Her friend looked at her like she was crazy and Celia just dropped it.

She’s always wondered what happened to him. And now there aren’t any of her dumb high school friends around and she doesn’t care about whether she looks cool or not, so there’s no reason not to make friends with him. Celia has been married for two years, but she knows that her husband has been messing around with some girl he works with. His sister told Celia all about it. Celia always has fights with him about what laundry detergent to buy and how he stays out late and she has to go to bed alone. She needs to get back at him, and there’s Wilson on the other side of the train. It doesn’t matter if he’s married or not. Maybe they won’t even have sex; he might be gay even. Maybe they’ll just become friends, the kind that buy each other joke gifts for their birthdays and spend way too much time together. It only has to look like she’s doing something to her husband.

She should shove over there right now, through all of these people and start talking to him. But he looks so peaceful sleeping next to the old black man with the umbrella. She smiles in their direction and the old man smiles back. What if Wilson doesn’t even remember her? She’ll look up his name in the phone book and call him.

“Remember that time I kicked Mike in the balls?” she’d ask him.

“That was amazing,” Wilson would answer in a dreamy voice. “You were so brave. And hot.”

He hasn’t woken up when the train stops at Deanwood and Celia gets off. She hopes he doesn’t sleep through his stop. Outside in the parking lot the sun is setting and it’s getting cold out. Tomorrow is November first. Celia hates winter and has been dreading its arrival, but tonight she barely feels the cold.


“I am a student living in Maryland. I have never been published before.” E-mail: caseywal[at]

A Collection of Stones

Gavin Tierney

In Nigeria, Islamic law states any unmarried couple who commits a sexual act will be punished by beating. But if the woman is or has been married then her punishment will be death by stoning.

In 2001 a divorced woman in Nigeria was raped by a man in the bush. Later, when pregnancy began to show, the man involved denied everything and the woman was sentenced to death.


It was not the way the sun went down, though it sped away faster than it had ever before, never to return. It was not the rumors, nor the stories.

They were told and would be told. Waiting to be picked and planted, harvested and washed away. It was not the memories. A barrel full. Enough to last a lifetime. And me standing over, stirring. Dipping in my ladle (and the taste was bitter). And though I kept my ladle full, the sweet memories always sank to the bottom.

Maybe it was the memories. A handful of memories. A handful of stones. Only the prettiest for a summer’s day and a five-year-old girl. I would line them up. A parade, all shapes and sizes, all purple and red and white and green. Side by side.

Show me the prettiest, my friend Midari would say.

Pick out the prettiest. I would say to myself. Not the red one, it’s too flat. Not the large gray one, there’s not enough color. Not the yellow one or green one.

Can’t you just pick one? Purple and red. I would hold up the rock. Into the fever of the sun. And the rocks held the sun.

Cold and wet. And holding the sun. Midari and I had found the prettiest ones and we put them outside. Next to the house. All lined up. Purple and red. Cold and wet. Being judged and judging.

And in the mornings I would run outside to look at my cold rocks in a line.

Maybe they didn’t collect the sunlight after all.

Maybe that was a song.

And how we would sing that song again and again. Sitting next to the house in the sunlight. Midari and I facing each other.

Let’s sing our favorite, she would say. Of course we both knew. The one about the sun and the purple rocks you could find in the harvesting fields. Sitting and singing. We soaked up the sun. And sang a different song. One without meaning or color. One that didn’t sparkle when you held it up to the sun.

Together we would sing that song again and again and only once did I ever forget the words.

Or was that in prayer?

Sitting along side my mother, my aunts, and my sisters. All lined up in a row. The candles all purple and red. And mother all dressed in white. She was always the prettiest. Even more than Auntie Suraku, whose hands were always cold. And though I prayed, all the words came out wrong. It was only that once I promise.

You’re destined for trouble. Later my aunt would say. Looking down at me, with her hands as cold as rocks and her songs dull and meaningless. I sat in the corner, alone and destined for trouble, repeating the words. The words I had forgotten and can still remember to this day.

And later, when it was time for bed I lay down and cried to myself.

Or maybe I didn’t cry that night.

Perhaps that was the time I fell down during a race. We stood side by side, Midari and I. And we ran. And I was winning. All the way home we would run. So fast we were only streaks of color. Purple and red. Running too fast to sing, too fast to be judged. Faster than the sun we were. Then I tripped and fell to the cold ground. As Midari ran off, I sat alone and cried. And as I walked home alone. And as the sun was going down. And when I got home. I cried.

Or maybe that was my wedding day.

Or maybe that was the day he left.

Or maybe that was the day I returned home.

Or maybe that was the day I sat beaten and raped in the field.

Or maybe that was the day I was sentenced.

Or maybe that was yesterday.

Or maybe that was today.

And the memories floated to the top. And I scooped them out and sang a song and said a prayer and held a rock in my hand. Purple and red and warm. Like the sun.

Or maybe there was nothing in my hand. And maybe there were only children outside picking up all the rocks. Not the prettiest. Not the warmest. Not the ones all purple and red.

They have to be the size of your hand. I heard one say. The size of your hand.

No, it was not the way the sun went down, and would never go down again. It was not the way I could not remember the words to songs and prayers, and would never remember again. It was not the memories, like rocks vanishing from my hands. Gray and cold.

It was the children. Collecting stones. Beating down on me like the sun.


“I have been writing since the age of eleven and have participated in a handful of post graduate writing classes and workshops at CU Boulder and Lighthouse. My writing has been published in WordRiot, Cross Currents, Icetongue, The Circle, and The Boston Phoenix. I have also been a part of a small writing group that has met weekly for over four years.” E-mail: gpw_tierney[at]