Whatever You Can Spare

by Thomas Kearnes

I never stand outside the store for long. At least, it never seems long after the first kind stranger presses a five or a wad of singles into my hand. The sky is fat with rainclouds. So far, though, no rain. I pray for enough time. It is the least the Lord owes me.

Tyson flicks his gaze, and I catch his eyes in the rearview mirror—the same pale, unsettling green I see every day while brushing my teeth. Tyson’s eyes, just like his father’s. Whenever my grandson takes me to the store, I try to imagine Leon looking back at me, needing his mother, but I could never kid myself. It’s Tyson, my only grandbaby, and he needs things.

“Did you remember the sign?” Tyson asks Adele. She rides beside him.

“Jesus, you expect me to take care of everything?”

“That was your sole responsibility.”

Adele leans over the seat, the bump in her belly hard and proud below her small breasts, and rummages through the clothes and fast-food wrappers heaped beside me. “Mema, where’d you put the damn sign?”

“Honey, it’s in the trunk,” I say, my voice trembling. It wouldn’t do any good if they flew off the handle and turned around. It hasn’t been nearly long enough. “That’s what you asked me to do, wasn’t it?”

“No, I told you to—”

“Baby,” Tyson cut in, “what does it matter?”

Adele sinks back into her seat. “She got the old, pathetic part down, don’t she?” She lights a cigarette and blows out a quivering cloud.

Actually, neither of them asked me to put the sign back there. On purpose, I left it in the hall. My stunt won me a string of profanities from Adele and silent disappointment from my grandson, his neck tense and stringy. I needed an excuse to check the iron one last time. I always forget whether I’ve left it on. I also checked to make sure neither had moved my bulging tortoise-skin suitcase from inside the car’s trunk. I can’t afford any mistakes. That house is my universe—Tyson, Adele and me.

“Don’t talk that way to Mema,” Tyson says. “You show her respect.”

“I’ll show her respect when we get the damn money.”

Tyson shoots Adele a warning glare. The store, it was her idea when she came to live with us. She thought I was asleep. Baby, she whispered, we just need enough for gas. I promise she won’t mind. You know she loves you. She’ll make money real quick. Listening, I felt the true measurement of old age: helplessness.

It’s our exit. My withered hand clenches the armrest as we enter the feeder road. The large, impervious Wal-Mart squats behind a sprawling parking lot. People hurry and stop, conceding to those faster. Sunlight glints off the cars puttering through the lot. I glance into the sky, and notice the clouds darkening. I pray to the Almighty that the rain wait just a little while. I need more time. We crawl through the lot.

The vendor hawking homemade crosses is gone today, Adele announces. Better yet, no police cruisers lurking at the far corners of the lot. “You’ll get thirty bucks in no time, Mema,” she says, her voice airy like cotton candy.

Tyson drives solemnly toward the handicap spaces. Dark curly hair from his mullet tumbles down his neck. He worries that he and Adele might attract attention, parked in a space meant for cripples but never leaving the car.

“We’ll keep an eye on you, Mema,” he told me the first time I asked the world for its pocket change and compassion. Tears falling down my face and Adele refusing me a tissue because I’d make more money unkempt, Tyson assured me that Adele would never make money as fast. “If she could, I’d force her ass out in a second,” he said. I pretended to believe him.

I rush from the backseat when Tyson parks. Of course, he has the keys, but I brought a spare that I keep underneath the Kleenex box in my room. I unlock the trunk as silently as I can. When Adele hops out, hand over her belly as if a cantaloupe swelled beneath her blouse, I say feebly that she shouldn’t trouble herself, a girl in her condition. I’d get the sign myself.

“You wouldn’t have to if you’d listened to me the first time,” she says.

“Honey, this is so hard on me. I just want—”

She rolls her eyes and slaps the hood. “You didn’t live eighty years by being a big baby.”

“Adele,” Tyson calls. “What have I told you about respect.”

“I have to pee,” she answers.

“Be quick about it.” Tyson lights an unfiltered cigarette. Leon couldn’t get enough of those, said it was like fireworks tumbling down his throat. Sometimes late at night, while Tyson and Adele sleep, I sneak one myself. “I don’t want Mema out too long in this damp cold.”

“Hello? Pregnant woman here!’

He shakes his head, turning his back on her. He smiles, and I see my late husband’s smile and Leon’s smile and the smiles of all the boys yet to be born. I smile back and promise I’ll do my best. He embraces me and apologizes for this happening. He truly believes he has no choice. “We’re not budgeted for a second tank of gas,” he says.  “Adele thinks the car runs on magic beans.”

His compassionate reverie stops cold. “Mema, what are you doing? Don’t let anyone see that here!” His voice is harsh and scratchy, urging me to hide it. “Adele’s coming back.”

I peek at the large-lettered word—it’s the closest thing to gospel in our house. It reads HOMELESS. My face falls. Tyson awkwardly glances about the lot, eyes so bleary that he surely can’t see much. Carefully, he takes the sign from me.

“Don’t do the whole dog-and-pony show, Mema. Not today.”

“Your father would be so proud of you,” I say.

Tyson tosses the HOMELESS sign in the backseat. I think about my suitcase snug in the trunk, my whole life condensed down to a single bag. I didn’t like all this tomfoolery, but every family has secrets, secrets in every house, festering in every room. I have another secret: last night I tucked almost two hundred dollars inside my brassier before packing it. I learned early that Tyson and Adele didn’t pay close attention to how much I made each time I begged.

A minivan passes the entrance, revealing Adele in its wake. She sips a large Coke and tosses back her two-toned kinky hair as if the whole world’s watching. She’s too many weeks along to wear shorts that tight, and those flip-flops don’t give her any arch support. In the beginning, I encouraged her to act more appropriately, like a young lady, but it became clear that the house on 1249 Windfall Avenue, my house, belongs to me in name only. I’m always close but forever ignored. Adele treats it like her home and treats me like a sideshow attraction that knows how to iron and wash clothes. She insists on plug-in air fresheners in every outlet. The home I shared fifty-seven years with my late husband smells like the mall.

“They serving soda pop in the ladies’ room?” Tyson sneers. Adele shoots her bad finger high and proud. I look forward to my job—I suppose you could call begging a job—starting if it means escaping Tyson and Adele’s latest spat.

Over the months, I learned things. First, stand in front of the entrance, not the exit. Most shoppers leave the store as broke as any beggar. Never count on church groups, they’re full of misers. They might offer you a meal or a night at a shelter but never cash. Also, don’t beg at night. Most importantly, be sweet and fragile like snow; no one gives to jackasses. Finally, I learned no encounter will thrill and shame you as fiercely as the first.

I was terrified but not about getting caught. Even before Tyson assured me it wouldn’t happen, I knew no one complains about little old ladies asking for change. They’d pity me, they’d protect me—here, ma’am, take everything I have. We hadn’t made a sign yet, that came later. I’d simply walk up with my hand out. It sounds so simple, no wonder it’s a crime.

Foolishly, we first went begging at night. It was sticky and still, a typical July evening. I wore a paisley blouse and slacks. Again, we didn’t know any better.

After I left Tyson and Adele in the car, I wandered along the storefront, avoiding the smokers inside a verandah at the Gardening department, afraid they knew. I can’t recall my own encounters with beggars in the city. To me, those dirty and desperate people seem vaguely menacing, reminders that God may forsake anyone at any time.  I understand why most, including myself, avoid them. Having no idea how to approach, I inched toward somebody but backed away the moment he noticed.

I heard Tyson’s voice in my head: You gotta do this, Mema, or Adele’s cell phone gets shut off. Finally, I saw a stout middle-aged woman with large breasts and a pained expression. Her oversized T-shirt read, This Lady Don’t Need Luck. I thought a miserable person would be more giving than a happy one. During these months, I’ve been proven right more often than not. The woman, though, lurched forward as if I was a copperhead hidden in tall grass. Unable to comprehend her disgust (I had a home, a car, a family—I was just like her!), I dumbly kept after her into the parking lot.

I didn’t see the SUV until the driver blared his horn. I staggered, crudely dancing, not recognizing the sound or whether it was meant for me. The vehicle whipped around, followed by others, their drivers impatient, honking like I was a stray dog. I called out for Tyson, I even called out for Adele—no one came. I stopped drifting when an olive green Honda pulled up beside me.

“You poor woman, do you know where you are?”

He was a nice-looking man, a clean man, a type of man that Leon will never become. His pinstriped suit was the color of blueberries, and his tie was a rich, deep red. He didn’t seem to be wearing his clothes so much as they wore him.

“Are you here with someone?” he asked.

“Please, sir,” I said. “Whatever you can spare.”

He frowned a bit and his eyes grew soft. “Do you have a home?”

My mouth open, I twisted my neck and pretended to look at the asphalt. I hadn’t thought that far ahead. Tyson never said there’d be questions.

“Here, ma’am,” he said, some bills folded crisply between two fingers. In the movies, it’s the way men offer strippers money. “There’s a cheap motel less than a mile down the road. Just be sure to lock the door.”

I can’t recall what went through my mind after the man spoke. Desperation is a tongue easy to learn. As I fanned the bills in my hand, two twenties and a five, my breath caught and I felt Grace had dropped upon me from the sky followed by the welcome numbness I always associate with eating too much chocolate. I kept staring at the money.

“Ma’am? Do you need a ride?”

I was startled but didn’t look up. Whatever it was we did, I thought it was over. I don’t think I remembered to thank him. With just one donation, I was more than halfway toward covering Adele’s debt. I still wonder if that clean man in the blueberry suit remembers me.

I’m doing well enough. Hopefully, Adele hasn’t figured out I’m not being vigilant like those other times when I knew the faster I reached the total, the sooner I’d be home. A little girl with long, loose pigtails and a red floppy hat offers me a cherry sucker. Embarrassed, her mother jams a few dollars into my hand. Two Army enlistees ask what I’ll do for fifty bucks then zip inside before I blush. Another child, a boy, stops his parents, their cart full of fertilizer, and asks them why I look sad. I manage to get through.

The older man tearing off his tan overcoat, however, has something more extravagant in mind for me. “My beautiful siren,” he says, whipping the overcoat around my shoulders like a cape, “I will not let you stand in this horrible weather and beg like a dog.” His name is Ferdinand and his skin is a deep bronze, darker in his face’s folds. Starchy gray hairs sprout from his temples like weeds. He speaks like I’m a dishwasher being showcased on a game show. He’s what my late sister would call a fancy man, a confirmed bachelor.

“Sir, you’re too kind. I can’t take this.”

He pulls the lapels together, wrapping me tight. Over his shoulder, I spy Tyson and Adele kissing deep while parked in the handicap slot. I remember when watching young people kiss made me smile.

Ferdinand slaps his meaty hands against my cheeks. “Madame, I will cook you a meal. I have several bedrooms to your liking. When I come to this country, they tell me this time of year is for family. Madame, I will be your family.”

I’m trying to step back from his embrace, but he is strong and determined. Other customers might be watching. Should I call for help? I can’t afford to make a scene. If I don’t return with Tyson and Adele to the house, it’ll ruin everything. Finally, I yank myself free and he halts, stunned at my ingratitude. I’ve made things worse.

“Sir, thank you so much for the coat. You’re very kind, but I can’t go with you.”

Instead of arguing like I expected, his eyebrows jump and he abruptly flits into the lot. I turn to see what spooked him and nearly collide with a potbellied man wearing a Wal-Mart smock and nametag. He’s barely thirty, but his hair and mustache are trimmed with such precision, I wonder how proudly he told his wife (his kind always has a wife) about making management.

“Ma’am, unless you need medical assistance, I need you to come with me.” His hand is raised, cupped. Will he grab my arm if I resist? I follow, risking one last glance at the car before we enter the store. They’re still kissing. Every time, Tyson promises to watch over me. Every time, when I look at their car, I hope I’ll find those green eyes that have watched me grow old, watched from one man’s face, then another and finally another.

He hustles me through the front, along the line of storefronts most Wal-Marts host: nail salon, hairdresser, optometrist and more. When we pass the bank, I notice a homemade poster with shaky lettering stuck above a large cardboard box. The sign reads, Help Our Employees Who Can’t Afford Thanksgiving. That makes no sense to me. If you have a job, you can afford food. That’s why people work, after all. If Tyson could break his bad luck, we’d be eating better than Hamburger Helper every night.

“Sir,” I ask, “why not just pay your people enough so they can eat?”

He whips open a narrow door. “Please, ma’am, I have other responsibilities waiting.”

A tight staircase lifts from the floor.

His office could be anyone’s office. Even the personal touches tell me nothing. Ferdinand’s coat carries his whole history, it seems, embedded in the wool. The photo of the homely woman and sole-eyed son on his desk could be anyone’s wife and child. I pull the coat around me. There’s no heat. I don’t see windows, either. No wonder I always feel sad after shopping here.

He insists I call him Jimmy. He never tells me his last name or official title. No one’s calling the police, he assures me, switching to that damn patronizing tone everyone uses when you reach your expiration date. They’re concerned about me. Employees remember me, they have me on videotape. A few of the customers threatened to call some agency. I’m panicking like a trapeze acrobat reaching out to find no waiting bar. I wonder once again whether I left the iron on.

“You didn’t drive here, did you, Missus…?”

“Call me Mema. I love the sound of that name.”

Jimmy chuckles and I feel sick. “Do you have any identification?”

“No… I don’t drive anymore so who knows where it is? Maybe I left it—”

“At home? You live close to here?”

I blink, my eyelids sticking. I’m not used to rooms without windows. It tickles me that, despite my slip, this manager is so concerned about my welfare but his workers are starving and surrounded by food. I clear my throat. Do they know about Tyson? Are he and Adele on tape acting like horny ferrets while dignity slips from my bones?

“Sir,” I say, bracing myself to stand. Jimmy rushes to assist me but I won’t have it. “I’m afraid there’s been a mistake. You know, my own family has passed on.”

“Even your children?”

“All part of God’s plan, I suppose.”

“What about those other times we’ve seen you?”

“Young man, I can’t answer why this person or that person saw one thing or another.” As I inch toward the door, Jimmy makes no move to stop me. “I hope you don’t make a habit of hassling little old ladies…”

Jimmy’s eyes snap wide and he gulps. “Not at all, ma’am. Should I help you out?”

“You should give your workers some sandwiches. Thank you for your concern.”

“Ma’am!” he cries, rushing toward me, his fist jammed in his pocket, rummaging. He offers me a hundred dollar bill, wadded up in his open hand. I must truly seem out to pasture for such generosity. If you pretend you’re helpless long enough, you forget that it’s an act, and even when you try to explain yourself, prove your worth, it doesn’t matter. People would rather throw a couple of bucks at you and be done with it. If no one needs help, the whole world falls out of balance. Victims are essential. Without them, there’d be no heroes.

I take the cash and smile, call him Jimmy. I wish him a happy Thanksgiving. He reaches above my head and pops open the door. It sticks to the frame; there’s a soft crack. “Ma’am,” he says. I don’t bother to look back. “Please don’t return to this Wal-Mart. Next time, we will call the authorities.” I hesitate on the steps. All he sees are my slumped shoulders, ruined shoes and the wispy home perm Adele insisted she’d been doing since junior high.

In a brisk wind, I hustle across the lot to the car. Tyson shoves off Adele and wipes his hand across his mouth.

“Where the hell have you been, Gladys?” she snaps, maneuvering a breast back into her brassiere. It’s so rare I hear my Christian name, I’ve begun to think of Gladys as a wholly different woman, one who would never do what I’ve done.

“Sweetheart, I’ve told you. Call me Mema.”

“We have to get home, Mema,” Tyson said. “I bowl tonight. Gotta get my shoes.”

I gingerly open the back door and slide in. The HOMELESS sign glares up at me. We back out and leave the lot. I should thank Tyson for letting me leave the sign, Adele snarls. He takes care of your scrawny ass, she says. She whips around and bends over the seat, staring blankly at me like I have something she needs and I’m stupid for not knowing it.

“Babe,” Tyson says, “we’ll handle it at home.”

I ask how long we’ve been gone. Tyson says maybe an hour, but Adele thinks it’s been longer. I gaze into the sky. It never did manage to rain. God is gracious, God is good. Cruising down the interstate, Tyson and Adele squabble about which flavor of Hamburger Helper we’ll eat. I’m expected to cook, of course, and I’m not invited to bowl. Adele mutters that if I have any ideas, I should spit them out. I sigh, rest my head against the window and tell her to surprise me.

Adele notices the smoke after our first left into the neighborhood. We’re still four blocks from Windfall Lane. Alarmed, Tyson wonders whether it’s a house fire. Adele isn’t worried, there’s not enough smoke. The rising clouds thicken, however, the closer we come to home.

“Holy shit, baby, I think it’s our street!” Adele screams for him to hurry.

“Mema, stay back there! Don’t get out of the car!” We’re still moving.

“Don’t worry about me. I’m fine.”

My elation bubbles like champagne as we speed down Windfall, and my dear grandson and his tramp fiancée confront total disaster. The house at 1249 Windfall, the house in which I’ve spent over sixty years of my life, is burning.

I knew I’d left the iron on. I left it on and face-down atop a pile of newspapers.

It seems so long ago, but Tyson was already in high school when Leon burned his wife to death inside their home. He waited till Tyson was away. I wonder if my grandson has ever accorded that fact its true weight. He called me from the back of that honky-tonk where he met the woman he later killed. He’d caught her after she lost her balance dancing on a pool table. He said he needed me to take his boy. Tyson needs you now, Mama, he said. Of course, I promised I’d do whatever I could for as long as I could. It was easier to say yes back then because my husband hadn’t departed. Just don’t get overwhelmed, he said. You promise me, Mama? You promise you’ll look after yourself? I heard sirens in the background. I told him to stop with the nonsense. Leon knows my family is my universe.

Tyson jumps the curve and bolts from the car. One crew is already fighting the fire, water spraying while the men shout instructions to each another. Tyson tries to pull one aside but they shrug him off as casually as they might their own kids. My grandson pushes his palms against his temples, teeth gritted. It’s like he’s watching the moments before a terrible wreck, the doomed vehicles charging toward one another. He’s forgotten about Adele and me.

“Why is our house burning, Mema?” Adele whimpers. “This isn’t supposed to happen.”

She’s left the car but remains on the curb, absently rubbing her belly and gazing dumbstruck at all she believed was hers turning black and crisp. I’m surprised she isn’t crying. I’m standing only a few feet beside her and while she keeps addressing me, she won’t look at me; the fire’s allure is too powerful. She babbles and jerks her head from side to side. She keeps saying my name, but I can’t follow what she means.

I know something that might help.

I slip off my tan overcoat from the fancy man and wrap it around Adele’s delicate shoulders. She pulls it around herself without noticing it. I tell her she might catch cold standing out here wearing next to nothing. She nods and then I reach into the backseat and grab the HOMELESS sign. I hand it to her. I don’t want to, I truly don’t, but she might need it now and I certainly have no use for it. She takes the sign like someone passed her popcorn at a movie.

“Check the pocket,” I tell her. “There’s something for you and Tyson.”

Adele does nothing, her lips moving but no sound coming out. Finally, I dip into the coat pocket myself and pull out the hundred. I tell her there’s a cheap motel by the interstate, but she’d best lock the door. It’s not a great neighborhood.

While Tyson sinks to his knees and sobs, I open the trunk and haul out my suitcase. The force of its weight nearly topples me. Carrying your whole life in one bag isn’t easy—every life is heavy but you can’t leave it behind. I hobble a bit as I begin down the sidewalk, away from Adele and Tyson, away from what used to be my home. It’s chilly, the wind penetrating to my bones. I think about that luxurious tan overcoat but shake loose the notion. Adele needs it more than me.

When my husband first drove me out to that house, decades and decades ago, he wouldn’t tell me which house was ours. I had to guess. He laughed and laughed when I guessed wrong. Can’t you find your own way home, he’d say and laugh. I never guessed 1249 Windfall Avenue. I guessed the one to the left and the one to the right, but not that one. I loved watching those green eyes twinkle as he teased.

I don’t know if he’d understand why I did what I did. He’s not here to ask.

I’m getting tired. This block is longer than it seems from inside the car. I need to rest but I refuse to sit on that filthy curb. Maybe that nice lady pruning her roses will give me a glass of water. Her house looks so pretty. You can tell a good deal about a woman by how well she keeps her home.

Fan Belts

by Leonard Kress

The summer my fiancée Kylie and I finished up with grad school, I was lucky enough to secure a teaching position beginning in the fall. Kylie seemed happy enough to follow me to the bluffs of northwest Wisconsin, preparing our wedding, making a home, and carving out time to complete the novel she’d recently begun. We had two months to kill before moving.  Our lease was iron-clad and the landlord told us in no uncertain terms that we could say goodbye to our sizable security deposit if we tried to break it. Besides, we weren’t in rush—we had friends in town, favorite cafes and restaurants, a good bookstore, and the natural sluggishness nurtured by three years of torpid graduate seminars. 

It was too late in the summer to get the usual university jobs, but everyone told us to try a temp service. Manpower was hiring and Kylie and I went to the office to fill out applications and take the required tests. Even though this was a college town and untold numbers of grads and grad students had signed up for temp work, Kylie scored the highest ever on the alphabetizing test. So high, the office manager quipped, “If I wasn’t standing over you the whole time watching, I’d think you’re a cheater. Instead I’m sending a note to corporate because it makes me look good.” Actually, Kylie told me later, he was attempting to look down her blouse the whole time, and when that approach failed, moved back to his desk and tried looking up her skirt. As high as Kylie scored, though, I took things to another level. My vocabulary and reading comprehension were perfect—something he claimed never happened in the long illustrious history of Manpower, Inc. Needless to say, we were hired on the spot and because he thought we were a “cute couple,” he shifted things around, rearranged schedules, re-assessed work details, and assigned us to the same job. We were to report the to a warehouse that stored a completely uninventoried, decades-old supply of automobile fan belts. As he explained, it was a simple case of one corp taking over another and not knowing what they got for their money. 

The warehouse was an old Chevron Gas Station that had been gutted and fitted with floor-to-ceiling shelving. The old sign, visible from the interstate, was still standing though unlit. The shelves were stuffed with packaged fan belts in total disarray. It was our job to enter data into two computers placed on back-to-back desks in the center of the room. To get to them we had to wade through hundreds of unmarked, unpackaged belts entangled and looping in and out of each other. First we found a shovel out back and cleared a path; even so, it was rare that one of us didn’t arrive at our workstation with a black fan belt or two looped around an ankle. This was to be—for six weeks left of our summer break—our very own snake-filled pit, not quite harmless and not quite daunting. Every day we’d sprint through the front door, Kylie in front and slip into our seats, the backs of our chairs touching when one of us squirmed or made a small adjustment.

The work was mindless. Our strategy was to proceed at a slow enough pace to keep us from ever having to handle actual fan belts. There was enough data—new codes and inventory numbers, price adjustments, mailing list updates and culling, forms to re-format–to keep us busy for weeks. To pass the time, I suggested we play books on tape. That way we could feel we hadn’t totally abandoned our grad school sensibilities, and we could catch up on some reading we’d always wanted to do. I suggested Dickens or Balzac or even George Elliot. Kylie thought we’d do better with something lighter, and I was willing to follow her lead—I was always the serious one, the nerdy one, head buried in a book who knew all the answers in high school quiz bowl. I was eager to shed that image, especially in front of Kylie, who’d been a high school cheerleader and who still kept up with the top-forty. It was a sad fact that our lives resembled many of those popular hits she listened to, where the smart guy gets the hot chick and agonizes over his undeserved luck.  I desperately wanted to change the equation. Kylie wanted something like Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers or Danielle Steele’s Kaleidoscope, but I surprised both of us by suggesting Anne Rice.  Kylie liked the idea and we went to the library and checked out Interview with the Vampire, complete on twelve cassette tapes. This was a strange choice for me, since the only vampire novel I’d ever read was Bram Stoker’s Dracula, in high school at the urging of a friend and maybe this had something to do with the fact that I’d recently gotten a postcard announcing her engagement. More likely, though, it was the word interview that attracted my attention—having gone through a whole round of interviews during my job search. And, I thought, more popular literature might in some way ameliorate my anomalous engagement to Kylie!

It took a few days to get acclimated to the work and to be certain that our boss, a manager several years younger, would be on the road and wouldn’t drop by unexpectedly. I know he made Kylie nervous at the beginning, when it seemed as though he was hanging around her desk, leaning over it, explaining the ins-and-outs of the fan belt business. And he had gone too far when he grabbed one of the unwrapped belts, held it out in front of his chest and stretched it apart, his arms straining. 

“Hah,” said Kylie, before realizing it was the worst comment she could have made, “just like those bust-developers my junior high girlfriends had.”

“Yeah,” he said, “I’m pretty sure you didn’t need one..”

I wanted to grab the belt and flog him—but I just seethed in silence. I was used to the kind of attention that Kylie got from most males. She always claimed she played no part in the flirtation and I partly believed her.  In her defense, her behavior was mostly unconscious, and habitual and the moment she realized her role, she quickly shut it down.

At first I was bored by the brusque voice on the tape reading Interview with the Vampire. I told Kylie that I was either going to turn it off, buy silencing headphones, or destroy the tape. “Just give it some time,” she insisted.  I did and soon, against my will, began to follow the story. I became engrossed in the tale of Louis, the young plantation owner from New Orleans. And the vampire Lestat, who turns him into a vampire so they could become immortal companions. Feeding off humans.

It was shortly after Louis kills Lestat, burning him inside his home—after romps in Eastern Europe and Paris—both Kylie and I lost interest. And even though it remained playing, barely audible, our afternoons turned into enticingly strange question and answer sessions, our own interviews. It was mostly Kylie who shot the questions over her shoulder, neither of us halting our attention to the computer monitors in front of us. To me it seemed as though her questions came out of nowhere, random and unrelated.

“Did you have lots of guy friends in high school? What were they like?  Were they jocks or nerds (like you, just kidding, haha) or frat boy types?” 

At first I tried to brush off the questions, preferring to think they were just meaningless attempts to make conversation to counteract the boredom of the job. But Kylie demanded answers and part of me was pleased that she expressed interest. I told her that at first I thought they were mostly nerds (like me, haha) but that the more I thought about it, I realized it was the frat boys, the student congress reps, the guys who dressed from the Gap with good hair and good haircuts, and the athletes who didn’t seem to sweat or grunt, like quarterbacks, basketball guards, the middle-weight wrestlers. Guys who would have played lacrosse if my high school had it. Kylie’s interrogation continued. What did I like about them, what qualities…..short or tall, short hair or long hair, blond or dark-haired, smart or smart-ass, hairy or hairless? We could see a picture emerging, and I found myself admiring the kind of friend I imagined having, even though no one close to that composite ever befriended me or even existed. She asked about showers after gym class and about stories I heard in the locker room—whether I thought any of the guys fooled around with each other, even if only pretending. I recalled one time to her, when an especially trim guy with well-defined abs removed his own towel and tucked his penis in between his legs and strutted around flamboyantly, pretending to admire the other guys’ penises. I observed this from afar, hiding behind an open locker door. 

“Speaking of those guys,” she asked, almost in a whisper leaning, as if her voice was actually blushing, “which did you prefer—the circumcised or uncircumcised? I’ve always been a bit weirded-out by uncircumcised ones.” 

I couldn’t answer, mostly because I never framed such a question. In fact I had only seen an uncircumcised penis a few times and all of them belonged to this group of Ukrainian guys who hung out together and spoke in their own language when they weren’t in class. “Ummmm,” I muttered, hoping that she’d drop this line of questioning which was clearly unnerving me.

Kylie, however, continued, raising her voice as if to press me into answering, ‘Well, then how about this–big or medium-sized?” She seemed fascinated by this silly adolescent play but she kept probing—“thick or thin?” Did anyone ever have an erection? Did I ever have an erection in the showers? In spite of myself I was becoming more and more intrigued.

“Well, maybe just once,” I admitted, so timidly Kylie had to goad me into continuing.  

“You can’t hold back now,” she said. “You’ve piqued my curiosity to the point where it absolutely must be satisfied.”

“I’m not completely sure about it,” I continued, hemming and hawing—at this point, less about revealing and more because I was really unsure whether it actually happened the way I was now recalling it. “It was a long time ago.”

“So,” she insisted. I don’t think I would forget something like that. “I think that would be something that stuck with me—so don’t let your memory go limp on me.”

“OK,” I said, “I think it was after a game of shirts and skins basketball and I was thrilled to have been one of the shirts this time. And there was this one fat kid who had the misfortune of being one of the skins and spent the whole game with his arms folded trying to hide the fact that he had breasts that jiggled when he ran. He was standing all the way in the shower, almost huddled in the corner with his back to everyone, when some kid—probably some jock—rolled up a wet towel and began slapping it against his back.  The jock was pretending to be a fencer.”

“Ah,” Kylie sighed, “demonstrating his thrust and his parry.”

“Well, I don’t know about that,” I said—clearly embellishing my story because Kylie seemed so intrigued, “but the guy doing the slapping became more aggressive, trying to whip the towel at the fat guy’s front. And I remember that the fat guy had this teeny-tiny penis, almost nothing there, and what was there seemed to be buried in a fold of fat.”

“And the jock’s cock?” she said, “Did you notice that?

“Yes, I did,” I said.  “It was really erect and it was bright red.”

Kylie let out a quick gasp. “Oh,” she said, turning back to her computer screen and growing silent. I was pleased that we never got to the point of discussing the state of my arousal, even though I really don’t think I was. Then again, I could have been.

As the days went on, Kylie demanded to know–since she was about to marry me–everything. I was flattered, and soon I was telling her about my obsession with the Sears catalogue when I was still in elementary school. How I placed bookmarks in the pages that showed men demonstrating power tools like arc welders and standing, uniformed, beside stacked drawers of ratchet kits. And how I would sneak down into the basement to gaze at the men, never shirtless, modeling jockey shorts. I was perplexed by Kylie’s interest in this part of my past, and even more baffled that she wanted to hear all about the pile of slick muscle-building magazines behind my father’s workbench.  I think I only looked at them a few times, so disturbed by the sight of greased bodies and cartoon biceps with their creepy worm-like veins. At first I thought she might have been interested in the men themselves—so different from bookish, introverted, geekish me. I thought they were more like the males she encountered in her small-town Indiana high school. Wrestlers and football players and their uncles with slicked back hair and denim jackets and cigarettes. And the closest to someone like me was probably some clarinet or euphonium band member who sat next to her in the alphabetically arranged classroom, and who harbored a serious crush on her all four years of high school. Who lived for the once-a-year lab-partner project, where he could have her all to himself for forty-five minutes, just him and the dangerously hot beaker and flaring Bunsen burner.

It wasn’t that Kylie never spoke about her old boyfriends, who numbered in the dozens or even hundreds, I conjectured, but that I really didn’t want to hear about them. I didn’t want to have to compete with them in her memory because I knew that I would never be able to match their prowess, both athletic and sexual. I could never be as charming and persuasive and incorrigible, never an object of desire, of her desire. Of course, over the two years we’d been together she had often referred to, obliquely, some of her most significant experiences.  In my mind, though, they all run together, merge into non-stop looping film trailer beginning with her, age thirteen, almost pinned to her living room carpet by a wrestler, him almost inside her, interrupted when his brother came to fetch him. And continuing with an older guy zooming in on his Harley to take her out to the lagoon, and an uncle who broke in when she was babysitting her younger sister on the pretext of fixing a lock that he had broken, and a football player in the pup tent in his family farm’s meadow, and the van with shag carpeting and another van with an air mattress, and the mayor of her small town, drunkenly serenading her and wishing her a happy birthday at a 4th-of-July picnic. All before she graduated high school! That’s as far as I would let her go, though I do remember, that the part of her telling that most intrigued me had nothing to do with her, naked, willing or unwilling, responding or not, but with the guys and how they looked and what they might have been thinking and feeling. The glazed look in their eyes as they seemed to be getting what they had worked so hard to get—the feel of her breast, the clamminess of her thigh, the cushiony texture of her lips upon them. 

“I’m glad I learned these things about you,” she said, as I was repacking the vampire tapes to return to the library. “I had my suspicions, but they were pretty vague.”

“Suspicions?” I responded. “What do you mean by that?” I immediately felt as though something profound and disturbing about me had been uncovered and revealed. But I wasn’t even sure what that secret was. Kylie gave me broad smile, almost flirtatious, even though she rarely if ever, flirted with me. Even when we first started seeing each together, the looks she gave me were decidedly bland and unprovocative—so much so that I suspected she was merely bored and between boyfriends. I never considered that she might have been recently dumped or even desperate for attention. I was too pleased and giddy that she wanted to spend time with me. So at first I viewed her energetic smile as some sort of validation, speculation that she had, at long last, begun to see me as an object of desire. An object of her desire.

“I wonder if you’ve ever considered exploring these things,” Kylie said.

“What things?” I asked, though I already knew what she was driving at, and even as I was asking the question, I had a hollow feeling in my gut. I knew I had revealed too much and that I wouldn’t be able to take any of it back. I felt myself getting flushed and warm as if the room was heating up incrementally, and like a frog in a pot of water getting hotter and hotter, that would not leap out, even as it boiled. By the time she answered my question, I was sweating profusely and I felt a certain eagerness take hold of me, a giddiness.

“All those things we’ve been discussing. All those desires. Un-acted upon desires. All those unanswered questions. All that unresolved gender stuff,” she said, turning back to her computer screen. I didn’t say anything, I couldn’t say anything. “I think it’s something we should both consider,” she said, “don’t you?  I mean if we’re going to get married, it’s all going to come out anyway, sooner or later.”

Off Island

by David Ackley

There were only six passengers aboard the small ferry when it came about from the island dock and began to beat thickly through the cold grey November swells toward the main. Waiting at the landing, the four who lived on the island year-round had exchanged greetings, two old women and a burly man in cap and wool plaid jacket using each other’s first names—Edna, Coretta, Rodney –but calling the fourth, a woman in her thirties, “missus.” The three were lifelong islanders, she a newcomer, Cleo Lansman, dressed in a vaguely English manner in Shetland sweater, waterproof jacket and slacks, who’d moved to the island the previous May with her adolescent daughter.

But when the boat pulled away, the four, and the two off-islanders who’d waited off from the others, spread through the cabin warmed by the big Halliburton diesel. The island fell behind, a dark mound in the mist. Cleo and the two older women faced each other from benches along the starboard and port sides while the others chose spots among the double row of benches faced forward like church pews; they could see through a half-door the pilot’s broad back and a bit of dash, gauges and lights, and quarters of the wheel, rocking in the pilot’s hands. It was the slow season and soon this mid-day ferry would be shut down leaving only morning and evening runs, primarily for the kids who attended high school on the main. “Weather Permitting” warned the schedule, indicating less willingness than the island lobstermen to front gale, rough seas, blizzard, or killer fog. “Pickled in brine,” the islanders joked, “tough as a fuckin’ boot.”

The two old women were clad alike in faded print dresses with hems that fell below orange slickers like the ones their husbands wore on their boats—or had worn, in the case of the widowed Edna Bingham, who also wore Harold’s black rubber boots. Her companion was a few years younger than her cousin, smaller and less imposing, and was helping Edna to her appointment with a rheumatologist in Devonsport.

In a middle pew, a young man with a nylon briefcase shuffled through the papers inside, his complexion suggesting he might soon need to remove to  the narrow deck cabin-side, wind or no. Taking note, Edna nudged Coretta and tipped her head his way. There was a woman, in jeans and parka with a small pack beside her on the bench, from which she presently took an apple; an offseason day-tripper, of no interest to the others. In the back, from the moment he sat, Rodney had begun to doze, swaying forward and back to the rise and fall of the bow, more at home than in his own bed back on the island.

The island was a few miles off the mainland, and the blunt little ferry beating against the tide made slow progress. Cleo took a paperback from her coat pocket, opening it to a marked page, and Coretta attacked a purple swatch and yarn from her handbag with her quick knitting needles, her eyes darting here and there as she worked, though never falling on her deft, independent fingers.

After a few minutes, Edna Bingham began to speak, at first in brief murmurs to her companion, then louder, so as to benefit all the other passengers.

“Been on that island all my life, that’s the fact of it. Won’t be long I’ll be up to the graveyard with Harold, my husband that was, lookin’ down on God’s house and the boatyard.” Coretta nodded and glanced toward her cousin, with a musical hum, brief and supportive, that Edna drew from her now and then, like a chorus. Edna coughed. “About all I know’s that island. Some might call that plain ignorance.” She barked a laugh–possibly at her own expense.

It was hard to tell where she was looking, with her fleshy features folded among mounds and ripples, her eyes all but buried, with only an occasional blue glint like water through trees. Her head was tipped slightly toward the deck though she would lift it regularly to look through the glass next to Cleo, monitoring the blow in the way of those who take their living at the pleasure of the sea. “I ‘spose it’s better to know one thing pretty well than a pittance about half the clutter goes on these days.”

She paused, foraging in her coat pocket for a pack of Camels, from which she tapped one, circled the cabin with a challenging look, and lit it with a paper match. “Course they’s plenty as thinks they knows the island.” Coretta gave her little hum and her needles clicked audibly.

Cleo pressed her book a little harder into her lap: a copy of Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa which she’d picked up, amused by the thought it might cast refracted light on the tribe she’d found herself, mystified, living among.

“We was even studied up by the university, some mucky-muck professor, come after us with all these questions, then wrote us up. All about kin and such, who was married to who. Who’s goin’ to stay in such a place ‘cept them was born to it? I says to him. Who they going to marry but someone else raised there? They’s families go back two hundred year and more on that island, all twined together like squid in a bucket.”

Cleo’s own family, smaller and of briefer duration, had been sundered by a savage divorce; the friends all went to Douglas, leaving her only Melissa, fourteen then, whom she’d wanted to distance from all that mess and had brought somewhat kicking and screaming to the sanctuary of the island, where Cleo could paint and hide and Melissa would adjust, as kids do. As, in fact, she had–in so short a time it seemed to surprise her too.

Coretta leaned toward Edna, murmured a few words and Edna barked again. “Goddam right… Coretta can give her whole genealogy by heart, name every one of them five generations back… Kin and kind is what a island is. And how it gets on under the hard life we chose….Not that I got anything against a newcomer. Hell, their money’s good as anybody’s.” She laughed her hard laugh again. “Don’t hurt if they know what they’re gettin’ into. You hate for someone to be thinking they can wall off a piece and call it their own island. Hiring on carpenters and masons from off island when we got men right here could use the work.”

Across from her Cleo’s head moved slightly, though she didn’t look up from her book.

“Not that it’s any business of mine. I’m not one to put my nose in other people’s business, no matter what some might say.”

She paused, puffing on the cigarette hanging from the corner of her mouth, its ash growing dangerously longer, until she tipped the ash into her hand and ground it and the butt under her rubber boot. For a time her head sank lower toward her ample chest, as if she had lost interest in her own conversation. There was a sense of relief; her voice intimidated with its roughness and confidence.

The wind’s wail had grown steadier, and there was a slight yaw to the boat, as it fell off to one side of a rising wave now and again.

The young man rose from his seat, said, “Guess I’ll step out for a breath,” and opened the cabin door which blew in hard against his grasp. Feeling the gust, the pilot turned, then shrugged and went back to his wheel. The passenger went out, yanking the door shut behind him.

“‘Spose we ought tell him ‘bout not puking to windward,” Edna said, reviving. She was leaning forward, speaking again loudly but with a confidential air as if what she conveyed was not for all. Her legs were spread and her right arm rested across her thick right thigh. “He’ll have to figure it out his self. And course some never does. Always gazing the other way, painting their pictures of the sunset and such.”

Cleo raised her head, smiling a gentle, placating smile at no-one in particular and lowered her gaze to her book again. The smile meant to soften the atmosphere on the boat. It said, I know I’m different, I know they don’t like me. But it’s all right. It’s their island. I have no claim. I just want to live on a small piece and look at it, the sky, the sea.

“All the same,” the old woman resumed a bit later. “It’s nice when a new child comes, gives ours someone fresh to know. I like to see them waiting on the ferry for school, playing and fooling around. Not naming any names they’s one girl, cute little brown-haired thing, goes to the tenth grade with Bobby Colter and his cousin Dennis.” With an inner start, Cleo recognized Melissa, recast as a stranger in the old woman’s description of her. Coretta smiled and nodded, her needles unceasing.

“Me and Harold wasn’t lucky in that way. Don’t know whose fault it was. God’s will, I ‘spose. But, way it is on an island, sometimes it feels like they’re all mine anyway. Come Halloween they’re at my door in their costumes and I give them as much candy as they can carry off. I get to know them, watching from my window every day…I see them growing up, the boys and girls apart, then after a while starting to take notice of one ‘nother.” 

The young man came back inside and re-took his seat. The wind had begun to abate, and the swells were lower, less abrupt from crest to trough; they were coming under the modulating influence of the great continent.

“They’re good kids, island kids, good as any off-islander as claims to look down on them. You take my nephew Ralph Taylor’s son, Peter, in his senior year already, been hauling’ traps on Ralph’s boat since he was twelve. Plays the high school basketball. Big strapping, good-looking boy. I seen the Pittman girls get into it over him, Peter standing by, laughing his ass off. But the boy’s got his head turned now, ain’t for me to say who. Whoever she be, she ain’t got a worry with a serious boy like that. Not one to run away, he ain’t, even if they’re wishin’ he’d a tied a knot in it.”

She paused again, sensitive to the boat’s lunge as it turned from the channel and the fast, outrunning tide into the easier waters of the inner harbor.

“And they’s other things I see,” she presently resumed, “like how a girl’s coloring will sometimes change. I ‘spose cause it never happened to me I’m always watching for the signs. Like when she starts to favor certain clothes, wearing a sweatshirt, or a big coat even on the warm days. I ain’t usually  wrong.  I ‘spose someone else mightn’t notice, thinking she’s just dressing like the others do, to fit in — even someone close…if the girl didn’t want them to know …”

She’d shifted slightly to the right, her eyes on the woman reading her book. Coretta mirrored the look, her needles stilled, and even big, laconic Rodney, who rarely attended to the talk of women, had wakened to watch Cleo from under the bill of his cap. “I guess that’s why some people comes to an island, so they can pick and choose, closing their eyes to whatever ain’t so elegant.”

Cleo’s head was still bowed, but she gave the impression she was no longer reading the words, that the page had gone blank on her.

“Course there’s one telltale as never fails. You won’t see a woman do it much ‘cept them that’s carrying. Can’t help it I ‘spose — always folding their arms tight across their bellies — wanting all the time to be feeling what’s growing inside…Can’t miss that, ‘specially if you carried one of your own, can you, Missus?”

Missus. Misses. Missed…

They felt the engine begin to throttle back.

 “Coming into the main,” she said. “Time to go see some young knowall thinks he knows from books what it’s like to get old with the arthritis.”

Very carefully, Cleo had closed her book and put it back in her coat pocket, her head raised, looking straight at the old woman but seeming not to see her, as if someone else stood between them. Her fine hands were twisted together in her lap. She was seated by the door to the deck on the starboard side, and, when, one by one, the other passengers moved past her to debark, none but the old woman was able to refrain from glancing at her as they went by, her face taut and pale, gazing straight ahead, her lips silently forming words they were just as glad not to hear.

She stays until they’ve all gone ashore, then leaves the ferry for a picnic bench by the landing. The harbor is calm out to a band of turbulence along the channel, as if something is swimming just under the surface. A pair of gulls kite to the water and settle without a splash. How easily they change state. She hasn’t found it so.

The old woman’s words have the blunt force of a mugging, reducing Cleo’s feelings to a numb prickle, her thoughts only to reclaim her daughter and get away, quick and far.

She’ll wait until the kids come down to the landing, waylay Melissa with cheerful lies about a mother-daughter night in town, shopping, maybe a movie, a sleepover in this neat bed and breakfast she knows: It’ll be fun! They’ll watch Melissa’s friends pull away on the boat, in their rough play pretending to shove each other overboard, the tall boy a little apart on the deck, looking back at them. Melissa waving goodbye until they’re out of sight. In Cleo’s vision, the tall boy, Peter, doesn’t return the wave, sensing that they won’t be coming back. When the boat has passed from view, she’ll tell Melissa that she knows and that it’s okay.

She’s the mother. She’s fought this battle before and won against an enemy fiercer than any tribe of throwbacks dying out on a pile of rock. Try a desperate, scheming ex-husband with pots of money and a school of Great Whites for lawyers. There will be time to decide, time to grow up. If there’s to be a child, they can bring her up together—two mothers quite enough, no villages need apply, thank you very much—loving over her watchfully until… but no use to plan that far, which is like trying to look beyond the point where the harbor ends to the invisible sea beyond, the island out there somewhere in the mist. For now it will be enough that the boat leaves and that they’re behind on the shore.

In that invisible beyond there will be objections, arguments, recriminations, self and otherwise. Love might be offered in counter-claim, oh all sorts of things will try to pull her child from her arms. So was first roused the fear, choking and irrational, walking along the sidewalk in the crowded city, the air cold and filled with dread, that in the next moment some stranger might come from the crowd, tear her baby from her arms and disappear. How tight she’d clasp her, eyes on each passing face. Through all the years of Melissa’s growing up, her fear awoke with each threat, real or imagined. For herself risk could be taken in stride, at times welcomed. But the fear could own her, and she, a free woman, didn’t like it. To be yanked bolt upright from exhausted sleep, senses vivid as a hunter’s, at what? A held breath, a stitch in the silence.  It was hyper-alert, clamoring at hints, intimations, nothings: the slack manner and glazed look of a babysitter; the sudden churn of the plump little legs toward the curb; the airy, too-precocious “Oh, he’s harmless,” for a sullen, knowing friend; the junior high cheerleader who let slip the phrase “blow job;” the older boy with a fast car, resplendent to the fear’s hound nose with tequila, vomit, weed. Most of all a constant, anxious whine, warning of the soi-disant father grooming his pubescent daughter, like the call girls he patronized, opening his wallet to every teasing caress, happy to pay for what he chose to call love. During the warfare of the divorce proceedings it grew, taking almost all the breathing room.

It crowded her from the inside.

And then they’d moved to the island, she woke one morning and it was gone. She could breathe and reclaim herself. The island coiled around them.

Occasionally, in a seascape, she’d paint a few stripes of white for a lobster boat, adding dabs of orange for the slickered lobsterman. They must have loved that. To be “picturesque?” To have all the grind and struggle stilled in a few dabs of orange? No wonder they hated her. She’d seen only the serenity, the verities of sea, rock and sky and the enduring islanders who seemed to partake of them, and looked away from whatever wasn’t that; the charge is just, even from the vile mouth of an ignorant old woman in black rubber boots.

It pants at the edge of awareness, feeling for a way back in. Her attention drifts away, allowing it closer. She recalls reading of an island overrun by a predatory species, where the mothers lie awake at night, machetes at hand, watching over the children, at risk even asleep in their beds under the teeming rafters. She’d sought to separate herself from her fear and leave it whimpering on the shore when she went away. She wonders if she should have held it close, her very child.

The Visitors

by Aimee LaBrie

At the age of thirty-five, Hazel finds herself living with her elderly mother in a retirement community called On Top of the World. The front of the subdivision has the name written in a golden scroll over a sun-faded globe, as if to suggest, "Here are all of the places you'll never go."

In the beginning, Hazel told herself the arrangement was only temporary. Her mother had a painful knee replacement, and now walks as if one foot is on the curb and the other in the gutter. She is doing what any good daughter would—–taking a leave of absence from her paralegal job in Philadelphia and moving down to Tampa until her mother can maneuver the grocery cart at the Publix on her own. But two weeks have turned into four, and one month into two, and in the meantime, she received a polite letter from work stating that if she doesn’t return within another week, they will be moving in a different direction (away from her).

There are moments when she and her mother are sitting down in front of Maury Povich at 4 PM with their dinner on TV trays in front of them, and  Hazel wonders if maybe she hasn't fallen a bit too far from the norm. She focuses instead on the good she's doing for her mother, recalling lines from a book she read in high school, “It is a far, far better thing that I do…” She can't remember the title, but vaguely recalls that the speaker was then decapitated.

Not that death is on her mind, but it’s hard not to think about it, living in a place where the old people drop dead at an alarming rate. The main sound effect of the community is the wail of the ambulance siren. First, Mr. Baker popped off from a coronary, then Mrs. Enzmann was found prone in her front yard with the garden hose watering her petunias, and just last week Mr. Markett, whose long suffering wife has seen him degenerate from Alzheimer’s, jumped into the shallow end of community pool. Her mother, on the other hand, seems to have a new zeal for life. One of the youngest residents at age 67, she has started going back to church again, urging Hazel to join her.

“Mother, I'm an atheist,” she has reminded her, as they sit in the living room, shoving stuffed animals into clear plastic bags. The creatures are the fruits of her mother’s crochet club; six or seven of the residents who get together to make toys for the burn victims at the Shriner's Hospital. It makes them all feel noble, as if they're really doing something good. For Hazel, it's difficult to give the stuffed animals up. She's still getting the hang of crocheting and so it takes her week to finish a stuffed dog, and, by then, she's grown fond of it and doesn't want to relinquish the toy to some stranger with burns over 75 percent of her body, who probably is suffering too much to truly appreciate it anyway.

“Oh, dear, honey, I forgot to tell you,” her mother says as they are tying up the tops of the plastic bags. “The Auttersons are coming to dinner tonight with their son. What’s his name? Could he be named Lesley?” She taps vaguely at her forehead.

“I don’t know, mother!” That’s a lie, because Hazel knows exactly who Les is. Mrs. Autterson talks about her son often, gesturing at the giant photo of him she keeps on the mantelpiece, one of those cheesy corporate photos in black and white. But he does have a nice profile, despite a slightly weak chin and slicked back hair, giving him a furtive animal look, as if he might be a biter. And she certainly noticed when he came to stay with his parents. She has, in fact, taken to riding her mother's bicycle around the subdivision. It's a ridiculous contraption, three-wheels and a wicker basket between the handlebars, looks like a giant tricycle, but it's the only way she can think of running into him, short of offering to deliver a homemade pie to the Autterson's front door.

“Well, anyway, I thought it might be nice for you to be around someone your own age,” her mother says.

“I guess I don’t have anything better to do with my time!” Hazel stomps out of the room to her bathroom, slamming the door like a teen. She stares at herself in the mirror, appraising. She looks pale and puffy, the result, no doubt of gorging on left-over Easter peeps and Mountain Dew.

Hazel is no spring chicken, that's for sure, but she’s still got an okay figure and good teeth courtesy of dear old mom and the orthodontist. She imagines how her mother might describe her if she turned up missing: "Oh, let's see. Dishwater colored hair, about shoulder-length. I think at one point, she referred to it as a bob. Brownish eyes. Slightly upturned nose." Or how the morgue workers might discuss her, should her body be found on the side of the road, like a fallen deer. She imagines them standing over her, two men in white coats, while she lies naked under a sheet on a metal table.  Would one of them note the delicate turn of her ankle before slicing her open from stem to stern?

She is losing some fundamental adult quality—this ability to reflect and evaluate a situation. She's like a child again. But if she left, her mother would be bereft! Who would take her to Eckerd’s to refill her arthritis prescription? Who would help her exercise her poor distressed knee, a knee that will now have a jagged scar across it forever? “Well, there goes my swimsuit modeling career,” her mother had joked.

Who would sit with her at night and help her puzzle out the questions on Jeopardy? “What is desperation, Alex?”

Everything around the house is broken or on the verge of breaking. The light bulb on the front porch needs replacing, and the ceiling fans are making these strange whirring sounds when turned above medium speed—sounds that make Hazel think that one of the blades is going to whir off unexpectedly, causing certain decapitation of her or her mother. The toilet leaks, the bathtub spigot won't stop dripping, and the dryer now has taken to getting their clothes only half-hardheartedly dry, chugging along and then coughing out the clothes still damp and wilted.

Since Hazel’s hiding out, they can't call the community super, Gerald, to fix anything, because that might raise suspicion of Hazel's still being there. She has taken to wearing certain minor disguises when she runs errands, a blue kerchief paired with large Jackie-O sunglasses, a straw hat and blonde wig on other days. So far, no one has approached her mother about it, but Hazel knows her days are numbered.

Every time she brings up the idea of leaving, her mother nods, says she understands. "Of course, you have things…" They both stare into the air as if wondering what things she might have to return to.  A dead end paralegal job? A dying cactus? But Hazel does have things, she has food spoiling in the fridge and acquaintances who sometimes still forward her videos of cats misbehaving. It seems that every time Hazel makes a feint toward an exit, her mother suffers another minor mishap—a dropped water glass, a misplaced checkbook, a full blown crying jag behind the thin door of her bedroom. Until finally, Hazel relents. One more week, one more week.

But just yesterday her boss, Mark Becker, called to remind her that her leave of absence ends in one week. She has been gone so long that the picture she has of him in her mind has gone fuzzy. Dark, foxy hair and a moustache. Red suspenders She'd had a from-afar crush on him for years, but he was unhappily though dedicatedly married. She has ten unheard messages on her voice mail.

"How you doing?" asks Mark Becker, Esquire. She pictures him idly snapping his red suspenders. He has a mustache. It makes him look like a villain in an old time movie. She would like him to tie her to train tracks.

"I'm on top of the world!" she says, winding the phone cord around her arm like a bracelet.

"We'd like you back. I need some help on the Vitullos." The Vitullos’ file is bloated with evidence, a divorce that's been simmering for twenty years. Every time they get close to an agreement, one of them unearths new evidence of blame–old love letters, blurry photos, a past due electric bill.

"Let me think about it," she says.

“Do you miss work?” Her mother wants to know after she hangs up. Does she? Does she miss the days of photocopying discovery for divorce cases? Of making chatter with the other paralegals over gritty coffee? Does she miss riding home on the subway in the dark, surrounded by strangers?  As she aged in Chicago, she felt herself slowly shrinking into the world of the unseen-by-men. At least here, she gets noticed by the arthritic Mr. Baker and Mr. Johnson. In the city, she has become something of a ghost.

Each morning, Hazel helps her mother with leg exercises, moving her knee up and down and around and then counter clockwise. Her mother grimaces, but she's a trooper—she's never been much of a complainer, never really been much of a talker at all. Hazel also takes her mother to the community pool, a calm place filled with elderly women doing the breaststroke sedately across the length of the pool, their hair tucked up in bright plastic bathing caps. They're like an elderly troop of Esther Williamses. Many still have distinct traces of beauty on their lined faces, and their arms are tan and strong. Many of them are widows, having had to learn how to survive on their own without the assistance of their husbands, who seemed not to have the same will to live.

When Hazel's father died five years ago, she remembers hearing her mother call for her from behind the bathroom door on the day of his funeral, using her newly-frail voice. Hazel went into the bathroom and found her mother sitting on the closed lid of the toilet, her face made up with too much rouge, her best black dress on, with a pair of panty hose crumpled in her hands.

“I need your help with these,” her mother said. She waved the panty hose.

Hazel realized that this was one of the intimacies of their marriage; this weekly Sunday ritual with her father kneeling before her mother to put on her panty hose before church. It struck her that from that moment on, he never would do so again. She pushed that thought down as best she could and bent down in front of her mother to help her with one limp foot after another. Her mother thanked her, and patted her on her arm. “You are a dear,” she said, her voice cracking. It was one of the few times in her life that she could remember her mother using such a tender word.

As soon as she could, Hazel went singing out the door, promising to return soon, promising to fulfill her daughterly duties at a later date. And now, here she is, years later, forced to make good on that promise. How much time is enough?

She leaves her mother at the library and goes to the tanning parlor. She situates herself on the tanning bed at Tans R Us in her mother's bra and underwear. It's not that she doesn't have her own a bra and underwear; it's that damn old dryer that leaves her clothes damp and smelling like mildew. She and her mother are nearly the same size, though Hazel would never think of wearing a bra like this one in real life—it's hefty, manila-colored, offering full gal coverage. Hazel remembers a time not too, too far off, when she had her own bras, pretty ones, with rosettes in the center and she wore them knowing that a man might see her naked.

The tanning bed looks like a space-age coffin with lights underneath it to illuminate the body. She lies down on the bed with her eyes shut and the warm heat thrums through her. The blond woman out front asked her how much color she wanted, and she joked, “Turn it up to skin cancer level.” The girl didn’t laugh. She just blew a giant purple bubble with her wad of gum and handed Hazel her receipt. Now, in the booth with the manufactured heat hitting her from all sides, she wiggles a little, finding it hard not to think about sex—not like she can even remember the last time she had sex.

That's not 100% true. She does remember. In fact, it's a preoccupying thought, one that comes unbidden to her at odd moments. As she pokes at a package of chicken breast in the grocery store, for instance, or when she’s brushing her teeth with the electric toothbrush, or when the old dryer starts to clunk across the floor.

George Alfonso was the last one, a married lawyer who practiced litigation and liked to joke that he would sue her if she ever told his wife about the affair. She still has nightmares about him, though in her dreams, he's changed into a doctor who always calls to deliver bad news. "I hate to tell you this, but that leg has got to come off from the knee down," he'll say in the dream. Or, "A mastectomy can be a liberating thing for some women."  In real life, he saved his own bad news for just after they've had vigorous and unsatisfying sex in her studio apartment. He had one hairy leg draped over hers when he announced it was the last time he'd be seeing her.  “Why did you come over here? Why did we just have sex?” she asked, sitting up.

“I wanted you to have something good to remember me by,” he explained, patting her arm. 

The next day, she called his wife and described his penis in exacting detail, how it curved up at the end like a question mark, and the mole on his back in the shape of Canada. The wife demanded to know her name.

“I'm no one,” she said. “No one you would know.”

When he showed up at her apartment that night, banging on the door, she sat at the kitchen table, squinting at the Thursday crossword puzzle, wondering if she had made a mistake by asserting herself. What if he really were a nice person underneath all of that seeming horribleness?

He kept pounding until one of her neighbors came out into the hall and threatened to call the police. He gave one last feeble pound. She stood on the other side of the door. Maybe, if he said one last nice thing, she might let him in. She peered through the peephole, seeing him distorted, his head a giant blur, "I know you're in there," he said, looking up. Then he left, as they always do.

While lying on the tanning bed, Hazel focuses her attention on Les. She imagines taking him into the guest room where she’s now sleeping; the one with the twin bed. Candles, there must be candles somewhere, and then she thinks about what if one of the candles got too close to the duvet and it caught on fire and then whoosh! She and Les would be recipients of knitted woodland animals from the Shriner’s Hospital. Fine, no candles, it's too hot for candles and so she imagines instead a hot tub or a pool, with willow trees overhead. Les begins strolling toward her in black bathing trunks, but then it seems that she’s left out one of her roller skates and he trips on it, lurching forward, cracking his head on the cement lip of the pool, and blood leaks into the water in red ribbons. My God, she can't even have a sexual fantasy without it ending in destruction.

Hazel sits up in the tanning bed, dizzy. She has tremors in her stomach. It’s ridiculous, but she’s nervous about meeting this strange man who will probably turn out to have a cleft palate or a love of NASCAR. 

Hazel heads to her mother's beauty shop. The lady at the counter first asks her if she wants to get her mustache removed. Hazel touches her upper lip. “Oh, yes. Fix the eyebrows too.” In the middle of it, she finds herself worrying when it will fade, or if she will have a reddish upper lip during dinner as if she's just been punched.

When she returns to the library to pick up her mother, she sees her in the new books section. Hazel watches as her mother reaches up on tiptoe to grab at a novel. When she can’t get it, she finds a step stool. Hazel considers intervening, stopping her mother, reminding her of the hurt knee.  Before she can say anything, her mother climbs up on the stool, strong as a mountain goat, to snatch up the latest Nora Roberts novel. 

Hazel ducks behind the nonfiction section. She waits to give her mother time to climb off the stool. Then, she pretends to walk in for the first time. Her mother gives a little start and waves, saying, "Oh, a nice man helped me with the seven day fiction."

Hazel has convinced her mother it’s time to make a big purchase, a new dryer for the tiny laundry room. The current dryer groans when you open it and, as the minutes tick by on the regular dry cycle, and the machine creeps slowly across the floor, as if attempting to escape out the back door, until it unplugs.

At Home Depot, she and her mother are debating the finer points of the Kenmore versus GE when the salesman swoops in.  He is a roundish guy with a pleasant face and a short crew cut. “How can I help you ladies?” he says, with a slight bow. “Tell me what you're looking for and I will find it.” 

She tries to remember how to flirt. She thinks it involves something to do with her hair, her posture. She pushes out her chest. “We’re just looking at upgrading what we have.” She smiles, wondering if she has anything between her teeth. “You know, something that’ll get the job done.”

He nods. She imagines how she must appear to him. Her hair isn’t terrible and she’s wearing a clean shirt. The salesman clasps his hands together.  “Are you and your partner hoping to take something home today, or do you want to do some comparison shopping?”

With a sinking stomach, Hazel understands how he must see them. Her mother, who still buys her clothes in the juniors section at Macy’s, and Hazel, who has taken to wearing her mother's pants with the elastic bands and on occasion, even draping a forlorn cardigan over her shoulders to ward off the freezing cold of the air conditioning—the gap in their ages has shrunk somehow in wardrobe.  A couple.

“We’ll take this one,” she says briskly, pointing at the nearest dryer. “We’ll figure out how to put it in ourselves.”

Her mother mews in protest, but Hazel can’t seem to stop herself. She must make her escape before she suffers further humiliation.

When Hazel gets home, she finds her own clothes, many still tucked away in the suitcase in the guest bedroom. She puts on a blue V-neck top, to show off her cleavage, and a denim skirt, worrying that it might be too matchy-matchy, too obvious, too like the little engine that could. But fuck it, she can't worry about everything. She has also changed into her own bra, the one with the black lace, though it's slightly damp, but a person only lives once.

The Auttersons show up exactly at 5 PM. She can imagine them waiting in the car until just the minute before. It's what all the retired people do. You wait for the next event in your day. The early bird special, bingo at the church, the two-for-one coupons in the Sunday circular, the next free meal at a funeral. Hazel finds that she is waiting too, measuring her days out in the same way with library books and crosswords and the occasional Internet porn search when her mother goes down for a nap. 

In person, Les’ eyes are closer together than she’d thought and his hair is long in the back and crunchy-looking from some kind of gel. She should feel flattered—because he’s trying. He and his khaki shorts are making an effort. He shakes her hand, leaving it wet with sweat. “Sorry,” he says. “I’m a little nervous.” The laugh he gives sounds exactly like he's saying, "Ha Ha Ha."

During dinner, the Auttersons and her mother discuss various people from church who have died or are in the midst of dying. “Oh, that poor Mrs. Crowley!” says Mrs. Autterson.  “The last time I saw her, she looked just as pale as Jesus.”

“Pale as Jesus,” Les snorts. It’s the first time he’s spoken all night. “Was Jesus notoriously pale, or are we confusing him with the Holy Ghost?”

“It's an expression, honey.” His mother says.

“I don't think these were adjectives found in the New Testament. That fatty bit of Pontius Pilot.”

“That beanpole, Joseph,” adds Hazel. Les gives her a twitch of a smile.

“These English majors,” says her mother, passing around the limp little Caesar salad for the third time. She changes the subject to Mr. O'Connor's bladder infection and the conversation patters on, but now Hazel has a bit more of Les' attention and that makes her both self-conscious and satisfied.

Les takes a sip of water. His Adam's apple bobs, and Hazel considers what it might be like to run her tongue up along it. Salty, maybe.

"So, Les, how long are you staying for?" her mother asks during a pause in the conversation.

"A week?" he says. "A week or so, depending."

"Depending on what?" her mother prods.

"Depending on if I don't hang myself in the garage before then."

Hazel snorts.

Mrs. Autterson clucks her tongue. "He just has to say things like that to ruin everyone's good time."

Throughout dinner, it's Mrs. Autterson who makes conversation with Hazel, not Les, who focuses most of his attention at a spot above her head. As Hazel talks about her life, how she's helping out her mother, how she used to work in a law firm, how she's not sure when she's going to go back, she hears how it must sound to Les—how pathetic, to be living with her mother, to have no ambitions, no plan.

“Now, how long have you been here?” asks Mrs. Autterson.

“Decades?” Hazel says, taking a long gulp of wine.

“Why, just a few weeks,” overlaps her mother.

She sees that Les is looking directly at her. Finally, she has gotten his attention.

After dinner, Mr. Autterson suggests they play a couple rounds of Uno. “No, thanks, dad,” Les says. He’s sitting on his hands.

Hazel mother clears her throat. “Why don’t you show Les around the subdivision for a few minutes?”

“Around the subdivision? It would take no more than ten minutes.” 

Mr. Autterson shuffles the deck again in the expert way he has, bellowing, “Come on, looking for the wild card!”

Les follows her into the kitchen.  “Do you really want to see the neighborhood?”  She leans her hip against the sink, unsure of what to do with her hands.  The Auttersons have the same kitchen. With a few variations, the houses are all laid out with the same linoleum, same rails on the bathtubs to prevent slipping. “If I show you the dryer, do you think you might be able to help me put it in?”  Every word she says seems to have some vague sexual innuendo to it. “God, that’s like the worst opening line for a porn movie.”

Something bright comes into his eyes. Oh, yes, finally, they’ve hit on something they may have in common.

They go into the garage and she thinks, maybe now, maybe this will be the moment, maybe they can clear a spot away on the hood of the Volvo and do it there, maybe he will grab her hair and push her against the wall in a forceful yet non-rapist way. Instead, they stand around looking at the bras hanging on the makeshift clothes line. He doesn't make a move toward her and Hazel isn't going to be the first one either; she's learned her lesson the last time she was alone with a man, throwing herself at him while he fended her off with the verbal equivalent of pepper spray by saying, “Oh, I think you're a nice girl and all, but…”

Les leans against her mother’s Volvo. "I've got to get out of here," he says. "Living with my parents is death."

"It's not so bad."

"Have you been to the bank? Have you stood in line behind anyone? It's like we're all on the same death train in a Truffaut film."

Oh, God, he's smarter than her. She loves that about him. He continues, "The cockroaches. I had one land on my face the other day." He looks at her. "You like it here?"

Does she? Yes, she likes things about it. She likes being needed. She should've been a nurse. Is it too late to change professions? Les is still talking–about his parents, about how depressing it is, about how as soon as he gets some money together, he's out of here.

She gestures to the dryer box. "I'd do anything to get this thing installed." 

"Anything?" says Les. He actually licks his lips. He leans in toward her. 

The edge of the dryer box presses into her back.  “Say something nice.” 

“I think…” He searches her face, as if looking for a single good feature. “I think you have beautiful eyebrows.” He brushes his finger across her forehead. He leans in and kisses her. It's a polite kiss, like you might give someone during a rehearsal for a play. He pulls away, wearing a puzzled look. "Do you smell something funny?"

"Like gasoline?"

"Like spoiled milk or something."

That would be her bra, she realizes. The not-quite-dry sexy bra she wore for just this purpose. Or something like it. "I don't smell anything." She pushes him back against the car, then drops to her knees, banging them painfully on the concrete. She looks up at him, and is relieved to see his eyes on her, completely, totally enthralled. "If I do this, will you do something for me?" He nods, his dear Adam's apple bobbing.

As she unzips his khaki Dockers, Mr. Autterson calls out, “Uno!”

It only takes a half an hour to move the old dryer into the garage and replace the new one. After he’s finished, Hazel takes the pineapple upside down cake out of the oven and brings into the dining room. They all look up from their cards. Her mother beams. "Now, aren’t you two a sight for sore cataracts!” she says.

Hazel takes the plates and places them carefully in front of every person, making sure they also have their own napkins and clean forks. She is the hostess with the mostest, the lady you want waiting on your table, that's for sure.

"What did you think of Lester. Lesley?" her mother asks after they leave. "He seems a little dark." 

"I like dark," says Hazel. Her mother says nothing. “Mom, I think I might have to go back soon.” She braces herself–for tears, for begging, for the wringing of hands. Her mother looks back at her with watery blue eyes. “Please don't cry.”

Her mother sneezes. “I'm not crying. I'm allergic to whatever that perfume you’ve doused yourself in. No, go back if you want. I can take care of myself,” she says, grabbing at the edge of the table to haul herself up into a standing position. She wobbles, almost falls. “Whoopsie-daisy!” she says, righting herself. “See? Good as new.”

When her mother goes to bed, Hazel calls the director of the retirement community. He doesn’t answer.  She leaves a message, roughening her voice up to make it sound older. "You should look into the Johnson's house. I believe they have a visitor who has out-stayed her welcome.” She pauses. “And the Auttersons. I think they’re bending the rules too.”

She hangs up the phone, a wash of relief running through her. She will be able to go and it won't be her fault. She can still be a good daughter.

She prepares for bed, imagining how Mark Becker will react when she returns. She tries out different expressions in the bathroom mirror—pursing her lips, widening her eyes—then leans in for a closer look. Her eyebrows do look good. Mark Becker, Esquire, she knows, will not notice. 

In the background, the dryer hums, finally in working order again.

The Embrace

by Catharine Leggett

So many of them Naomi had never met, the people who populated Eric’s life. Each one saying how well she was holding up, especially given the suddenness of his death, as they pressed their warm, moist palms into hers and offered their condolences and encouragement.

I knew him from the Rotary, from Kinsmen. He helped with Christmas hampers. We worked out together at the gym. We curled together. We were golf buddies. We belonged to the same bike club. We were in toastmasters. We were members of the Walk for Prostate committee. We volunteered for the Habitat for Humanity. We met on Thursday nights for pub darts. We were fishing buddies. We worked together. A parade of introductions as they came to say goodbye. 

They spoke of his disposition: considerate, generous, caring, giving, creative, outgoing. An amazing sense of humour, a leader, an innovative thinker, a tireless worker, generous, a community member, full of surprises, so proud of his family. Many said it was a wonder they hadn’t met Naomi until today, and how regrettable under such a sad occasion. Some looked at her as if wondering if she really could be his wife. But here she was, in the flesh, solidly filling in any hazy notions they might have had of her.

Monday, moments after finishing her yoga class and taking her phone off mute and seeing a list of unknown calls filling the screen, the phone rang. Eric had collapsed near the eighth hole. An ambulance was called. 

She ran out of the gym, across the parking lot to the car. At a stoplight, the act of waiting stretched on, magnified by an emergency. Should she run the red light? Should she cry? Bash her fist against the steering wheel? How should a person act? She anticipated the green, concentrated on putting pressure on the gas pedal. She noticed everything – the height of the light stand, the giant X through a no parking sign, a man leaning forward as he walked ‑- and somehow nothing seemed familiar. Time flexed, extended and contracted, all at once.  She didn’t recognize her usual route, though she wasn’t lost.

She thrust away thoughts of how serious Eric’s condition might be, allowing them no time to fully shape. He’d be fine; the heat had gotten to him on the course. He’d suffered a spell, a setback. He’d be fine.

An older man with a fringe of white hair, pink scalp and a fiery complexion, asked, “Was there any indication, that this was coming?”

“None at all,” Naomi said.  In fact, Eric just got the all-clear from the family doctor.

At the hospital, as they were prepping Eric for surgery, a doctor came out to speak to Naomi about what the procedure might entail. Naomi nodded, but she wasn’t hearing; she was thinking how the surgeon seemed to be wrinkle free, except in the neck. She must have had a little nip tuck, maybe she had a friend who did it for free. Surgeons would have surgeon friends, wouldn’t they?

After, when she came out to explain what had gone wrong, something about total blockage, Naomi laughed. This woman, this surgeon, couldn’t possibly know what she was talking about; she was lying or misinformed, or playing some hideous joke on her. That was it, a joke! She could even be an imposter.

A grief counsellor joined Naomi in the waiting room. Her reassuring voice explained how tragic news was processed differently and how grieving was an individual process – there was no right way, no wrong way. Naomi should let her emotions out however they needed to come; she shouldn’t hold back or be embarrassed. She had one hand on Naomi’s back, the other on her arm. Naomi felt confined, trapped by the stranger with a silken voice, and oddly vulnerable dressed in her yoga clothes.

When Naomi brought her yoga outfit home and held it for Eric to see, he eyed it as if it might be a small animal that would escape her hands and run up the curtains. “How does that help you be more flexible?” he asked, as he unloosened his tie, and she repeated what she thought she’d already explained. Some moves had you practically upside down, the stretches so extended you almost fell over. “And for that you need a uniform?” he asked.

“A workout outfit, yes,” she said. He wanted to know the cost, and she shaved a bit off. He never begrudged her money, that wasn’t it, but he had the need to say something, to give some kind of qualifier. What she knew, and he would never say, was that he didn’t want her taking on anything new, taking steps in her own life, because it altered the balance of his. It wasn’t that he wanted her home either, not explicitly; he wanted her how she was, unchanging, something he could rely on. A ballast, he sometimes called her during moments of affection; she was his ballast, and a ballast must stay rooted, must hold firm.

“He was so outgoing,” a woman with smooth blond hair said. “He could always make me laugh.” 

“He had a great sense of humour,” Naomi agreed. How easily he worked up a room, got people going, filled it with his charm and sense of timing. But when it was just the two of them, he became restless, as if being inside his own skin caused him considerable discomfort. As if he was trapped inside himself.

When the children came, she quit her job and stayed home, shutting the door on the world of business, insulating herself in their development and in domesticity. The inconsolable temper tantrums of a two-year-old became preferable to the ego-driven mood swings of her forty-something boss. When the kids were little, Eric came home late, stepping into the mayhem of end-of-the-day crankiness, slipped into his biking costume, and headed for the trails with his buddies. Later, after the kids had gone to bed, they had dinner together, though she usually only picked away at a salad, having eaten earlier with the kids. 

When the kids got older, he became more involved, their mature brains more agreeable to him. Sometimes he subbed for her and took the boys to soccer, football and hockey, or drove Jennifer to figure skating and dance. He even managed to go to some of her recitals.

One-by-one the kids left home, and the house filled slowly with a crushing silence. The sound of the door closing as Eric left for one of his commitments seemed to grow louder, seemed to seal her in more tightly.  

Naomi looked down the reception line at her three adult children as they received guests and condolences, and felt a surge of pride. They were holding up well. Like most kids, after they left home, they’d been busy filling their lives with work, school and their busy social schedules. They thought they knew their dad. They’d think of him often now that he was gone, sort through memories, reshape them into a workable story of how involved he was as a father, see him in a vibrant light. They wouldn’t remember how, more often, he was either at the office or working on one of his many projects. Naomi was the one who could be counted on, with boring predictability. When the time came, her light would not shine as brightly.

After the reception, when they went back to the house, would she tell them then, when they were sifting through the comments about how people remembered their father? Would she tell them and see their looks of disbelief and uncertainty that would challenge everything they ever knew or accepted about him – about themselves?  Would they believe her?

“He gave a very moving and very funny speech at Kinsmen last year,” a man with curly brown hair was saying. “He could have been a stand-up comedian.”

“I’ll never forget the time he showed up at my door with a Christmas hamper,” an older woman with stooped shoulders and a walker said, her voice quaking with age. “I was so grateful.”

Naomi planned activities against the house’s stillness, after the kids left. Every Wednesday she watched Bollywood movies with Carla, her next door neighbour – who Eric called the neighbourhood gossip – and that ignited a desire to take up belly dancing. Together, they signed up for classes at the university, then started their own group and met every Tuesday at Naomi’s, fifteen women who came in their sweat pants, leotards, shorts, sashes, long skirts, and strapped on multi-stranded beads around their hips. When Naomi put on hers, raised her hands above her head, began the slow undulations released by the music, heard the chatter of the beads – water gushing over loose stones in a faraway brook – she flowed out of herself.

The group became accomplished dancers. They received invitations to perform: senior’s residences, schools, the community centre, the library, birthday parties. The Swivelling Hips started to have a reputation.

Naomi spotted two of them down the line, making their way towards her. They’d come for her, since they didn’t know Eric. He only ever paused at the living room door to catch a quick glimpse of their gyrations, then vanished upstairs to change and head back out the door.

Eric fidgeted when people complimented her on her slimness and fitness and she told them it was on account of the belly dancing. “They don’t need to know the details,” he said. Sometimes at the grocery store, someone would step up and say they’d seen her dance with the group at some event. They always said what fun the women looked like they were having. He’d walk away. He didn’t mind her doing it, she didn’t think, but he didn’t want to hear about it.

For a long time, Naomi had trouble sleeping. She’d wake up in the night and feel distressed, with no idea of why. Worry tumbled her thoughts in the darkness, and in the light of day these same thoughts bleached away.

One night, lying awake looking up at the ceiling, she had an idea that put an end to her troubled nights. She would go to India. She would go alone. She didn’t know why she settled on this, but it felt right. She kept the plan to herself, searching the internet for a travel group, and signed on for a three-week tour that would concentrate on the Ganges. At first, the only person she told was Carla. “But why alone?” Carla asked.

The night of the women’s shelter auction fundraiser, for which Eric was a key organizer through his company’s sponsorship, she was out with Carla to a fashion show. On the way to the car after the event, she spotted Eric across the street, walking with a tall woman, headed in the opposite direction, miles away from the women’s shelter. They were laughing and talking, stepping briskly, and the woman’s shoulder-length hair blew in the wind. Carla saw him too, but didn’t say anything, as if she knew something Naomi didn’t. Later, Naomi asked him if he went anywhere after the fundraiser and he said no, he hadn’t, and turned off the bedside lamp.

She let it drop. She shifted all her thoughts on the India trip. Eric was surprised when she told him her plan. “India? Really? So far away? By yourself?” Not exactly, but with a travel group of strangers. He started to look at her differently, to pull his head back away from her, wondering perhaps who she was or who she was becoming. And what impact that would have on him. 

Naomi wanted to kick off her shoes; her feet hurt from standing too long. The stories, this oral shrine to Eric, kept a steady flow past her. She looked forward to going home and stretching out on the couch, ordering in some food, taking in the sounds of her children who would disappear back to their lives in a few days, and she would once again face silence.

When she stepped off the plane she felt as if she was drowning in the Indian air. Spice ridden, sweet soured by the smell of decay, effluence, street cooking and flower vendors, shook her awake after the long flight.

The tour took her to several places along the Ganges, but after two and a half weeks, when they returned to the Holy City of Varanasi, she told the Global Trekker guide she would extend her stay. He discouraged her decision, but eventually agreed after she paid him more money for the administrative costs of re-arranging her return trip with another group in six weeks, and for his time. She phoned home and left a message for Eric, then she turned her cell phone off for the rest of her visit. Now she was “out there”, away from him, away from everyone, on her own, suspended in an existence that people could only wonder about and not know about with any kind of certainty.

Naomi found a room in Varanasi with shared cooking facilities in a quiet building close to the Ganges. Every day she went to watch the people worship at the river. The meditative chants of their voices soothed and reassured, though she didn’t understand a word. She met a man, a silver-haired man with bright eyes and an inquisitive intellect, a widower and a professor of religion at the university. He was studying ritual, and came here every day to observe and interview the worshippers who prayed by the river and immerse themselves in the sacred water. She tried to explain ritual where she came from, in Canada, but it sounded more like routine, structures to prevent boredom, treatments against spiritual numbness. He said it sounded busy, perhaps not the most soothing, nothing like what the people gathered at the Ganges sought. They had long discussions about faith, belief, release, ritual, worship, what it meant to feel connected, and about the nature of time and memory. She avoided telling him anything about herself, the life she came from, rerouting his questions about her as quickly as possible. She fell into his voice, listened for its lilt and rhythms, broken often by the sound of laughter. 

One night, awake in the heat and awash in the sounds coming through the window – screech owls, footsteps on the street, the shouts of late-night hawkers – she went to the window. Moonlight showered over the rooftops that descended down to the water. It reminded her of a painting. She slipped light cotton pants on over her nightgown, wrapped a shawl around her shoulders, and followed the narrow stairways to the river, the same route she took every day, though now in darkness it seemed unfamiliar. It surprised her how many worshippers there were at night. Chanting, their hands held before them in prayer, their voices sounded as natural as the drone of crickets or the whoosh of the wind, as they stood with faces down to the water or upturned to the moon. 

She removed her sandals, stepped down the stairs and slipped into the river, careful not to make a splash, surprised by its warmth. A mild stink rose up; she would never dream of wading into such water at home. No one noticed her or picked her out as an interloper, drawn there by nothing more than an interest in what others held sacred. She waded out until she was up to her shoulders, held her breath, and stepped out further until the water was over her head. She stayed there, completely submerged. She opened her eyes and stared into darkness.

Panic seized her, gripped her neck, struck her heart; she wanted to leap to the surface and breathe, but resisted, as if this were some kind of test and rising too soon would leave her permanently damaged. Her eyes bulged with the pressure of holding her breath and she thought she might pass out. Through the murkiness, a ball of light floated towards her and stopped just before her. Inside its glow she saw her house. The walls of the house fell away and she peered into her kitchen, where everyone was seated around the table, talking, laughing. All of them, much younger.  Calmness came over her; she could stay this way forever, suspended in time with this vision.

Her lungs were about to give. She pushed up to the water’s surface and choked in the air. At the river’s bank, as she started to the steps leading out, a hand came down and gripped hers and a melodic voice said, “Let me help you.”

“Recreational or ritual?” the professor asked. 

Naomi stared at him as he stood bathed in the blue moonlight. “I’ve no idea.”

The professor smiled, and gave a little laugh. He asked for no further explanation. He escorted her home, assisting her up the narrow stairs. She invited him in. Without saying another word, she led him to her bed. They held each other until morning came.

In the weeks that followed, he asked her to stay in Varanasi. She told him she was married and he said he knew. “Nevertheless,” he said. “I shall still miss you. I will miss our daily conversations. You have put me in touch with my life and my late wife, I believe.” He held his hand affectionately over his heart. “Our conversations remind me of the ones I had with her. She was a very clever woman.”

Tiredness, stifling heat inside the funeral home, and the ongoing stories about Eric made her long for this to be over, and yet, as she peered down the line she saw there were still about twenty more to pass, mostly middle-aged men and a tall woman with shoulder-length hair she thought she should know, but couldn’t place. Before she had time to think of where it might have been she’d seen her before, a fellow member of The Swivelling Hips stepped up and gave her a mighty hug.   

When she got back from India, Eric met her at the airport with flowers. He brought her home, poured her wine, made her toast and jam and tucked her into bed. He’d taken the night off from one of his activities, but the next night he was gone again, and Carla came over to hear about her trip.

After a couple glasses of wine, Carla said she had something to tell her, and she wasn’t sure if she should, but the information had kept her awake at night. “Here goes,” she said, taking a sip before proceeding. After Naomi left for India, the woman they’d seen on the street with Eric, the night of the fashion show, came to Naomi’s house. Several times her car stayed in the driveway overnight. 

Naomi had been far away in India, his ballast gone, having what she could call her own affair, though there was nothing more than the embrace. They’d clung together as an act of remembrance, a human monument of longing, desire, cherishing what each of them once had. She knew then, throughout that night, locked in the professor’s arms, that she’d been as much a part of letting go, of drifting, as Eric had. Forever passive, comfortable with her resentments, her need to be present but remain in the shadows. In India she knew she must find her way out.

Naomi told Eric he had to cut back on his activities, stay at home, get to know her again, because she was someone worth knowing. She surprised him, but he went along with her, and she suspected he knew that she knew about the tall woman. With Carla as their neighbour, he should have guessed as much, should have been more discreet. They went out together on dates, he deflected phone calls. They were in the process of rebuilding and he was putting his whole heart into it. Naomi knew he’d ended it, wondered if it might have ended before she came back from India, but she never asked.

Before her stood the last person in line, the tall woman with the shoulder-length hair. She hesitated before extending her hand out, but Naomi would not take it. Naomi held her gaze on the woman’s which seemed full of shame and sadness, and when she went to speak Naomi said, “No.” She reached out with both hands and drew the woman towards her, held her. She would not tell the children, not ever.  

The Other Person

by Nathan Leslie

You write the story in the second person.  It’s your go-to point of view now.  You like its edge, its resonance of irony even if your story lacks said irony (it adds irony).  You makes anything possible.  You is the new me.

By writing the story in the second person you can avoid concerning yourself with psychological dimensions; you can avoid over-thinking.  You makes every sentence glow, you think.  It makes the reader the story.  It’s direct engagement.  It’s intense.  Immediacy.

It’s like a camera down the gullet.  It’s like being inside someone.  It’s like sex, without the emotional messiness.

Your story is about an anonymous man (or woman perhaps—though most yous are men) who walks through the urban blight, looking for a child named Cass.  You had just heard Bread on the Classics station, and hadn’t really thought about Mama Cass for years.  Cass?  Why not Cass.  You like the allusion. 

Hipsters should know. 

Fiction should educate.  The urban blight is somewhat inspired by the city in which you live, though a far more post-apocalyptic version thereof.  Instead of Starbucks and little pastry shops and Thai restaurants with orchids on every table you write about the desiccated skeletons of once productive textile factories, crack vials, and prostitutes with scabs on their faces.  You’ve never seen desiccated textile factories, crack vials or prostitutes (scabs or no scab-free), but you use your imagination.  If you don’t know, you will.  Zombies, there’s always zombies.  Second person zombies.

You wonder, Why the post-apocalyptic mélange?  In a more or less peaceful age you notice more horrific violence, more dripping pipes and sunless urban canyons.  Yet from whence does this come?  You know the recession hasn’t helped, but aren’t zombies an overreaction?  Are you really living in an urban wasteland?  There’s a Whole Foods on every other corner.  Shit’s nice.

Once, just once, you’d like to meet a reader.  This would help clarify your purpose.  And not a reader-who-is-also-a-writer hawking his latest “fabulist” novella at AWP (“It’s like 19Q4, only shorter, and less, you know, Japanese”)—a real reader.  One who just reads, doesn’t write.  Even more ideal would be catching a reader in the middle of reading one of your stories, midstream so to speak.  You’d love to ask the reader if he/she felt as if she/he was the protagonist.  You’d love to know if she/he was walking through the rat infested heroin streets whilst searching for Cass.  And if he/she felt as if he/she could place him/herself in the story, did you feel invested in it?  Did you feel the intensity of the you?  Did you meld with the story?  Did the fourth wall come crumbling down?

You keep your eyes peeled.  You’ve published in several small magazines, but you never see people out and about in society reading the Orange Toad Belly Review (circulation 250).  Even if you positioned yourself on the campus of Southwestern Central Missouri State Community College (South Bend Campus), you doubt you would see people walking around reading the Orange Toad Belly Review.  They’re in a box somewhere in some professor’s office.  Behind some other boxes of other shit he’s been meaning to get to.

But then.  You’re on the Metro people watching through the reflection in the window.  Through the reflection you see a young woman scrolling on her I-Pad.  She clicks on several literary pages, then—amazingly— clicks on the Orange Toad Belly Review.  You watch her scanning the page, then she clicks on your story. 

Ten seconds is a long time, you think.  For ten seconds your story, “Gristle and Bone” lingers on her screen.  It does more than linger.  It pulses.  It, like, throbs on her screen.  She’s reading it.  You aren’t breathing.  You are watching her read.  A real person, reading.

You hold your breath.  For the first time your life you feel as if you are really and truly an author.  You feel as if you have a voice and someone wants to hear it.  You feel as if you could be the author you’ve always wanted to be—an amalgam of Pynchon and Vonnegut with a dash of Rushdie and Marquez and a dusting of Barthelme.  You feel important.

She utters a quick little snort.  Then she clicks away.  She clicks to Facebook.

“Wait, wait, wait,” you say, startled by the intensity of your reaction.  You turn your head.

“Huh?” the reader says.

“Just…why did you click away from that last piece?”

“Are you, like, spying on what I’m looking at?”

“No.”

“Yes, you are.  It’s, you know, really none of your business.”

“Ordinarily, I’d agree but I wrote that.”

“You wrote that?”

“Yeah.  So I was wondering.  Why did you click away?” 

She says she doesn’t know.  It just didn’t appeal to her.  It was too negative.  Too caustic.  It didn’t have the human dimension she’s looking for in a story.  It was missing something.  Plus the whole “you” thing is weird, isn’t it?  It feels forced.  Am I supposed to be that person, or something?  I’m not.  I’m me.  She snorted.  Snorted.

“I see,” you say.

“Sorry,” she says, and lowers her head back to her I-Pad.  “Gotta be honest.”

You wander down the streets of your pleasant urban reality.  The craft shops seemed to have tripled in the past three years.  You pass three grocery stores in three blocks.  Now there’s a tea shop.  More bagel shoppes than you can count.  Aren’t those little art galleries precious?  You can’t help but peek inside one or two crystal shops.  Or is that you?  You’re not sure anymore.

You plop down on your “reclaimed” vintage sofa you bought for $1,687 at Dukents, the new furniture boutique down on 12th Street.  It probably cost $100 to make back in 1979, or whatever.  Now it’s “vintage.”  Perhaps you should invest in furniture, you think.  You close your eyes and breathe and listen to your breathing.  It’s good to be alive, you think.  One day you will write something good.  You know you will.  You’ll keep trying.  Your ten seconds will be elongated.  You will become loved.  We all should, shouldn’t we?  Isn’t that what this is all about?

A Reminder Between Your Eyes

by Eric Maroney

ONE

The Chabadnik would not let Serino alone.

When Serino woke up in the morning and walked down to the café for his coffee and brioche, there he was in his dirty black jacket and scuffed and dented hat.  He walked a few paces behind Serino like a bashful bride. The Chabadnik followed stooped and pale, his brown tangled beard and side locks no more than buds sprouting from his cherubic face.   But when Serino sat down to eat, the young man gave up all pretense of space, and sat close beside him.
      

“You can’t eat that, Jake,” the Chabadnik scolded.  He removed his hat.  The Palermo heat was cruel.  His kippah was ragged, gray and moist. “It’s treyf!”
           

“Morty,” Serino answered slowly, trying to muster his patience and be kind to Morty for once.  It was something about the deep blue tint of the water and the greater black shadow of Mount Pellegrino that gave Serino hope that life was getting better.  His opposite conclusion, reached just yesterday, was a dim memory.  “We’ve been down this road before. I’m not Jewish. You’re barking up the wrong tree.”
          

“Even though it is coffee, milk and bakery dough, you have no idea who has handled them and how.  What if the board was used, God forbid, to chop up pork? You know these Sicilians have pastries filled with pork?  Then you would be committing a grave sin.”
           

“What is your suggestion, then?  I don’t eat in Palermo?  This isn’t Crown Heights, Morty. Where do I get kosher coffee?”
            

“I told you, down at the Chabad House.”
             

Serino stared at the man’s willful face.  He was younger than Serino and not healthy.  The hot, humid climate of Palermo trapped him in a physiological dead end; the air rubbed his body against the grain of its natural inclinations. He snorted into a handkerchief.  Serino could not tell if it was a cough or a sneeze.

“You’re sick, Morty,” Serino explained. “You should be in bed.  You shouldn’t be walking around in this heat.  The pavement is buckling it’s so hot.”
             

“What can I do?” the young man asked, raising a weary hand. “I have work to do.”
             

 “How did you get such a crappy assignment?” Serino asked, lowering his coffee. “Jewish outreach in Palermo? A Jew hasn’t lived here since 1495.”
            

“There are people here who are descended from Jews,” the Chasid answered, squinting stiffly at Serino. “They still have the spark of Jewish souls in them.  If I can bring them back, it is a mitzvah for me.  But there will be far greater rewards for the people of Israel, and the universe itself.”
            

“How do you know who is a Jew? Everyone here is a Matteo or Luca or Paulo.”
            

“Last names,” the man sniffled into his handkerchief and pulled out a small book. “Like your name. Look, according to this book, Serino is a Sephardic name. The Jews were forced to flee from Spain, and some came to Italy. Over the course of the years, your ancestors lost their Judaism, or they were forced to become Christians.”
            

“How do you know that?  From that Chabad book?  Where is the source?  My ancestors are 100 percent Sicilian, whatever that means.  If Serino is a Spanish name, it’s because some Spaniard fled here to escape a debt, or because he murdered a man.”
             

Serino then begged the Chasid to drink some water.
             

“I can’t…” the Chasid croaked.
            

“But why? This is water!”
            

“The glass,” the man answered weakly.
            

“Oh, for shit sake, take me back to your Chabad House. I don’t want to be part of a death investigation. In Sicily they take weeks, and I haven’t the money to stay here much longer.”

           

The Chabad House was in a dilapidated building near the port. Serino and Morty had to walk past the Cuba and the Zisa, monuments to Palermo’s Muslim past, down a steep hill, and around a lane strewn with trash.  A small tattered sign on the door read “Chabad House” in Hebrew, English and Italian. Morty pushed open the door. The room was so dim that Serino could not see.  Morty switched on the lights, but there was a sudden short. So for a moment the cluttered room was illuminated by an ailing, yellow light, then it was plunged once again in to sickly darkness.
         

“Morty, aren’t there any windows?”
         

“They don’t open,” he said, sitting heavily on something. “And the landlady won’t open them.  She hates Jews.”
         

“She probably doesn’t. She’s never met a Jew. You just don’t speak any Italian. She has no idea what you are talking about.”
          

“I do my best,” the man panted. “I have a phrase book…”
          

 Serino opened the door. A great wave of heat and a blinding white light stabbed the darkness.  He walked over to a sink, found a glass, and handed it to the young Chasid.
         

 “Ah, thank you, thank you. A real mensch, a good guy, I knew it.”
          

“I have to go,” Serino said.
          

“No, please don’t leave me Jake, I beg you.”
          

“I have to. Stop begging me. I’m not your mother.”
          

“No, but you’re a Jew. Jews need to help Jews. Especially in a land like this…”
           

“Listen, Morty. I was raised a Catholic. I was baptized. I used to kneel before the cross. I went to Confession. I’m serious. I don’t feel Jewish.”
          

“You can’t leave me,” Morty pleaded.  I’ll die a terrible death alone.”
          

“You won’t,” Serino scolded. “You’re being a baby. Drink the water. You’re dehydrated. You’re sloughing your skin like a snake.”
          

The Chasidnik gulped down the water. The Chasid was seated on a little cot.  Morty fell backward with his eyes clamped tightly closed.
           

Serino placed a hand on his forehead. He was burning with a fever. He placed two fingers on his neck.  His heartbeat was fast and irregular, and then it was gone.
          

“Crap!" Serino hissed, and rushed out the door, down the street, and up toward his flat where the office of Doctor Busso was on the ground floor. When they returned to the Chabad House, Morty Gruss was gone.

TWO
          

“You need to pay 10,000 lire for entrance,” the man spoke in dialect. Serino had difficulty.
            

“What did you say? 1,000? That’s cheap. Here you go…”
            

“No, you imbecile, 10,000!” the man spat. Over his bristly black and white stubbly beard, his eyes bulged from the sockets like two raw eggs.  He guarded the entrance to the church like an ogre.
           

“Screw it, then,” Serino tossed the bill at the man. “Keep your Rococo mess and your 1,000 lire.”
              

The man muttered something, and stooped to pick up the bill. Serino recognized he was not being thrifty with his diminishing funds, but he wouldn’t take the scorn of these Sicilians just because his ancestors had the good sense to leave. They listened to his polished Italian; they gazed at his threadbare clothes and reached all sorts of conclusions about the kind of American he was; that it was true, in part, only made Serino angrier.
            

“You see, that is how the goyim treat a Jew!”
             

 Serino turned around. Morty Gruss was standing behind him. He looked slightly less pale than the last time, but no less unhealthy.  In fact, in the intense glare of the piazza, with his sooty shirt and pants, Serino thought he resembled a black hole: light swirled around him and did not escape.
            

“What the hell, Morty?” Serino took a step toward the Chasid. “What happened to you last week? I left you unconscious, and then when I came back with a doctor, you were gone.  Did you know I had to pay his fee just because his feet left his door?”
           

“I’m sorry,” the Chasid answered, abashed. “I can call the office in Rome and get you a refund, if you kept a receipt.”
            

“No I didn’t keep a receipt! Who do you think I am?  Some traveling salesman that keeps receipts? I was trying to help you, and you pull some sort of a stunt!”
            

“I’m, I’m sorry,” he stuttered. “I really am. I looked for you, to explain, but you changed your room.”
             

“Goddamn right I did. I needed a cheaper place because I’m paying medical bills for people who vanish! Come on Morty. Stop with these dumb games.”
             

“They’re not games. Jake,” he whispered. “And please don’t take HaShem’s name in vain.”
              

“I’ll take any name in vain that I want to! Don’t preach to me. I told you, I’ve prayed to a bloody Jesus nailed to a cross.  It is all crap, but it’s no more crap than your Jewish bilge.  So do me a favor Morty.  Stay away from me.  Stop following me around Palermo. This is my trip. I may not be able to come back here ever again. I’ll sit behind a desk in Manhattan for forty-five years like everyone else, and hopefully, I’ll retire before I croak. You have to understand that for years and years I hated being Sicilian — the crassness, the loudness, the ignorance. Now I have a chance to make it right — to see the real Sicily — to figure out what I am and where I came from and where I am going…”
           

 “You never felt at home, Jake, because you’re a Jew. The souls of your Jewish ancestors, forced to convert against their will, are crying out to you to return.”
            

“Listen, I’ve had it with you! You are ruining this trip. Do you hear me? You are following me around, with your New York accent and mincing steps, making a nuisance of yourself.  I just want to be left alone, do you hear me? Leave me be!”
             

“I can’t,” Morty whimpered. “I’m charged with returning you to Judaism.”
             

“You simple bastard,” Serino spat as he turned and walked briskly down to the piazza. Soon he began to run, and Morty followed him, his pace surprisingly swift for a sick man. Serino knew that carabinieri were positioned outside the Pension Bureau. He ran to them, and in his best, florid Italian, he began to create a story about the foreigner who was following him. Serino wove a roll call of crimes on the spot.
             

The carabinieri asked Serino to wait.  Then they ran to Morty, who stopped on seeing goyish police rushing him.  They placed cuffs on the Chasid, and when the three turned around, Serino was gone.

THREE
“I’m sorry, I really am.” Serino was sitting on a wooden stool.  Two days after he ran from Morty, Serino made some inquiries and was surprised to find the Chasid still in custody.  Morty, behind the bars, was looked green and gray in nauseating shades. They had taken his shoe laces, belt, and tallit katan.
           

“The worst is I can’t pray. They won’t get my tefillin.”
            

“I can try,” Serino answered. “I can speak to the captain.”
            

“Thanks Jake, but it’s no good. I didn’t realize that my papers weren’t in proper order.  In Rome, the Chabad people said I was ready to go. But they screwed up the visa.  I’m here illegally.”
            

“Can’t Chabad in Rome help you?”
            

“They’re trying, but it’s taking time. Things move slowly down here.”
            

“At least let me get your stuff,” he said. “What does it look like?”
             

“You don’t know what tefillin look like?” Morty asked.
              

“Don’t be difficult, Morty,” Serino answered, shaking his head. “I’m trying to help you.”
              

So the Chasid explained. Serino asked if he had eaten or drank.
             

“Of course not,” the Chasid scoffed. “This prison isn’t kosher!”
             

“Let me bring some back, then…”
             

“No,” Morty interrupted. “I’m fasting for my sin.”
              

“What sin?”
             

“The sin of failing you.”
            

 “How did you fail me?”
              

“Because I could not reach you,” Morty explained. “I was charged to expose your hidden Jewish soul, and I failed. That is why I am here. HaShem sent me to this place just to turn you back to Judaism and I failed. I accept the punishment with joy.”
           

“God didn’t send you here, Morty,” Serino answered. “I did.  This is my fault for playing games. This isn’t America. You aren’t innocent here until proven guilty. They let you stew in jail in Italy and they don’t know habeas corpus from orecchiette. You don’t want to get mixed up in the Italian legal system. Let me get you out of here. Give me names and numbers to call.  And in the meantime, at least let me bring back your stuff and food and water.”
           

“No thank you,” the Chasid answered firmly. “Just the tefillin. I won’t eat or drink. They’re in a bag on my bed.  Bring them back, if they let you.”
           

Serino went out and spoke to the captain.
           

“Captain, he needs the things to pray. He has an obligation to God.”
           

“What kind of things?” the Captain asked. Serino didn’t know what a tefillin was with precision, but when he said a box with leather straps, the captain shook his head.
            

“No, no,” the Captain answered emphatically. “The man is suicidal. He won’t eat or drink. If he kills himself, I will be held responsible. He is an American national.”
            

Serino tried to explain, as best he could, why the Chasid would not eat and drink. Serino gave his assurances that he would give the object with the boxes and the straps to the Chasid, and then take them back.  He would return with them when the Chasid needed them. The Captain gave his grudging permission.

          

 Serino stood in front of the Chasid with the bag. He tried to give it to him through the bars.
              

“I don’t want it,” the Chasid said flatly.
            

“What the hell do you mean, you don’t want it? I had to negotiate with Il Duce out there for an hour to get you this stuff.  You have to take it. Stop with your games, Morty!”
            

“This is not a game.  This is life or death. Please open the bag, Jacob,” the Chasid asked.
            

“Morty, stop screwing with me!”
            “Jake, you said you wanted to help me. This will help me. Please open the bag.”
            

Serino exhaled deeply. He opened the bag.
           

“Take out the tefillin, please. Are you right handed, Jacob?”
           

“What difference does that make, Morty?” Serino cried.
           

“Please Jake. You said you’d help me.  Just help.”
            

“I’m right handed.”
            

The Chasid told him to roll the box with the loop up his bare left arm, halfway between the shoulder and the elbow and across from the heart.
           

“Now repeat this: Blessed are You, HaShem our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us to put on tefillin.”
            

So Serino repeated. The Chasid then showed him how to bind the rest of the strap seven times around the left arm and once around the palm, leaving the rest to dangle.
          

 “Now take out the other box.  See how it has looped strap? Put it on your head so the box is in the middle just between your eyes.”
            

Serino, exhaling again, did as he was told.
           

“Now back to your hand. Wrap the rest of the strap three times around your middle finger: once around the base, then once just above the first joint, then one more time around the base. You've got some strap left over, so wrap it around your palm and tuck in the tail end.”
            

“Ok.  It’s on, are we done now?”
           

“Just one more part. And you have to promise me Jacob, you must say it with meaning. You don’t have to say it in Hebrew, because you won’t understand, but you must mean what you say. Particularly when you say the HaShem, Blessed Be His Name, is One.”
           

“Fine, Morty. But if I do this, will we be done? Will we be squared away? Your sin is gone and my debt to you is wiped clean and you’ll eat and drink?”
             

“I suppose so,” the Chasid answered. “But I think when you are done with the Shema, you’ll feel differently about things.”
            

 “OK Morty, give me the lines already!”
             

“Hear, O Israel, HaShem is our God, HaShem is One. Blessed be the name of the glory of His kingdom forever and ever. You shall love HaShem your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might. And these words which I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them thoroughly to your children, and you shall speak of them when you sit in your house and when you walk on the road, when you lie down and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign upon your arm, and they shall be for a reminder between your eyes.  And you shall write them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates.”
              

Serino repeated the words. Then it was suddenly done.
             

“I don’t feel different at all,” Serino explained. The Chasid smiled.
              

“Jake,” the Chasid said and beamed. You’ve performed a mitzvah. You put on tefillin. You lifted a fallen spark. You’ve helped heal the world.” Then the little Chasid started to cry.
               

When Serino emerged from the jail, the blinding light of the noon day Palermo sun momentarily stunned him, and he didn’t know quite where he was standing or what he was doing, or why he was here in the first place, and he had to guess which way to walk.

Pinch

by Lucian Mattison

Oli dove head first into the surf one last time before returning to Yohan. The salt water stung his eyes. He just wanted his mother to come back and explain to him, again, how it was possible that she could love a man like Yohan.

“Oli,” Yohan began, “I’m glad you went to the sea because you were sleeping for too long. You shouldn’t fall asleep on the beach, the sun is dangerous.”

The sun is dangerous. This was exactly why he hated Yohan, for saying stupid things like this. He’d spent the entire day in the sun, all three days of this vacation. He played with other children, even Mariana—Yohan’s daughter—under the sun. Everybody was in the sun and Yohan seemed to think this was dangerous.

Olivier dug his toes into the coarse beach sand and fired back, “Is the sun more dangerous than a shark?”

Yohan laughed, “Yes. I think so. Sharks, they kill much less people everyday than the sun.”

The sun more dangerous than sharks.

“Yo, stop lying.”

“I’m not lying, Oli. Why would I lie about this?”

Of course he wasn’t lying. Of course the sun was more dangerous than a shark. He hated Yohan, his ability to mispronounce Algiers while saying racist things, how his stomach ballooned outward, how his stupid wrinkly genitals always sagged at eye-level.

“Oli, I know why you went into the sea. You made pee-pee on yourself again.”

Olivier felt his legs where the urine had been. He had, in fact, urinated all over his thighs just minutes ago.

“You need to stop doing that Oli. You’re too old. Mariana is two years younger than you are and she hasn’t made pee pee on herself for many years now. You will make your mother crazy.”

Yohan was making Olivier crazy; this was precisely why Oli had fallen asleep. Again, he had the recurring dream of being back home in Rennes, the public swimming pool, the whole nudist colony transported with him. Luckily, he had awoken on the beach covered in his own urine, but his parents had not yet returned from the yoga class further down shore to see it happen. He ran to clean himself off.

Back under the beach umbrella, Yohan was still grilling him about his accident. A paperback, “The New You: Reawakening the Soul, dangled in his fingers. Yohan recrossed his legs, mashing his balls and penis together between them right in front of Oli. His mother had told him that Yohan and his wife, Peggy, were in love, but they were so full of love, just like his maman and papa, that they liked to share it with more people. The whole reason they seemed to go to this private beach in Nice was so that Yohan could share his enormous, hooked love with his parents—except they could do it outside, on this beach, in the apart-hotel room just a few meters from where they were, at another couple’s house, or on the balcony, late at night after they had sent Olivier and Yohan’s daughter, Mariana, to bed.

Yohan rubbed the bottom of his front teeth with his tongue as he looked at Oli.

“What do I tell your mother? Do you think she wants to hear this?”

“No. Please, don’t tell her.”

“Oli, I must. It is better for you.”

Oli grabbed his body board and hugged the board’s image of a white shark flush against his front. He shot back a look at Yohan, but couldn’t think of anything horrible enough to say, so instead just opted for a singular and emphatic “YOU.”

Yohan drew back with surprise. The thin gold-link chain caught awkwardly in the tuft of his black chest hair. He winced and fingered the gold links. Oli ran back toward the ocean.

The sun was setting and by the time Olivier had tired himself out on the body board, he could make out his parents returning from the other side of beach stretch, Peggy in tow. Their naked bodies wavered in the humidity, blending into one jiggling, tan blob.

Olivier had always wondered why they liked to be naked all the time. Sure, he liked to be naked when he took a bath or was in his own house, but he also liked to act like normal people. The beach colony was like a school for grown ups, where instead of a uniform, they didn’t wear anything, and instead of doing class work, reading, and sports, they went to classes about writing stories, spirituality, or yoga—all in the nude, everybody.

At least Yohan lived over in Paris, far away from Rennes, so Olivier didn’t have to see him on a regular basis. Oli couldn’t even imagine Yohan dressed like a normal person. Yohan couldn’t get away with saying stupid things while dressed like a normal person.

Yohan set out the bread, cheese, and salami from the cooler onto a wooden cutting board.

“Help me cut the salami.”

“Is Mariana not eating?”

“No, she’s working on her model boat. I left her something at home already.”

Yohan winked at Oli, “You want me to go get her?”

Oli acted as if he didn’t hear.

Yohan handled the cured sausage and knife in one giant paw and passed it to Olivier along with a cutting board. Oli cut a straight line down the middle of the salami and peeled the dry film away. He chopped.

“Be careful, with a salami like yours, you don’t want to slice the wrong one,” Yohan said, as he erupted with more porcine laughter. Yohan laughed at all his own jokes. Oli wondered if Yohan just walked around making jokes about other people’s private parts and laughed alone like a crazy person. He cut the salami into half-centimeter wheels, arranging them in four columns of six pieces, and quickly ate the remaining three that were extra.

Mariana appeared in Oli’s peripheral vision. She exited the beachfront apartment, closing the sliding glass door behind her. Mariana had stayed in the hotel room because she wanted to keep working on the model boat. Everyone had praised her for using cloth from a broken kite for the sails instead of the fabric provided by the model company. He didn’t know why anyone cared about this, but his parents seemed to think it was very clever. She claimed so it could “move faster,” but he knew she had no idea. She was a bony girl, thin black hair, straight down to her waist, the top of her head level with Oli’s shoulder. She was younger and Oli’s mother always forced him to play with her, although she never seemed interested in anything Oli wanted to do. For example, when he suggested building a shark tank instead of working on the boat, she said that his idea was stupid because sharks didn’t live in small spaces. Obviously, she didn’t know anything because they had gone to the aquarium together in Paris and they watched sharks swim many circles inside the ring shaped tank. She even said they looked “bored.” Oli knew it was common knowledge that aggressive animals like sharks couldn’t get bored.

Mariana kissed her father on the cheek and sat down next to Oli.

“Can the boat float?” Oli asked.

“Of course it can, Oli. My angel can make anything float,” Yohan answered, smiling at his daughter.

Oli wondered if Yohan knew just how stupid that comment was, but decided not to say anything. He offered Mariana a slice of the salami.

“Oli, watch yourself, you try to give Nana more salami and you’ll have to deal with me,” Yohan warned with a chortle.

Oli shied away with the plate, annoyed at his embarrassment after hearing this joke for the third time this trip. Nana leaned over, took a slice, some bread and soft cheese, and chomped on a sandwich.

Yohan rose up to greet his wife and Oli’s parents, who were sweating profusely from the walk under the sun. Oli rose to kiss his maman and papa on the cheek, but was impeded by Yohan’s large backside. It boasted a mélange of matted hair, sweat, and sand creeping close to his anus. Always eye-level.

Yohan began to tell maman and papa about how Oli peed on himself. In an attempt to distract Mariana from what was going on, Oli motioned for her attention. She watched as Oli knelt by her, picked up a Salami slice between two fingers, and displayed it like a magician’s coin. He did the same with a piece of soft cheese in his left hand. Mariana was mesmerized.

Oli crept behind Yohan, who had leaned over to fetch a beer for Oli’s papa from the cooler. Using his thumb as the thrust, Oli jammed the bit of salami and soft cheese halfway into Yohan’s anus.

Olivier was not given dinner that night. The hours after the incident were loud and confusing. Papa had been yelling at him quite a bit, asking many strange things about him and his friends at school. Oli did not answer any of it. Maman had concluded he had “acted out” in a strange fashion, and that was that. Yohan adopted a routine of looking over at him at regular intervals throughout the discussion, shaking his head like a robotic pig. What had upset Oli most of all was that Mariana hadn’t defended him. She told his parents that he had acted “crazy” just before he “attacked” Yohan. They kept using that word like he was some kind of wild animal. When he and Nana were finally sent to bed, she had stashed away some raisins and half of a cookie for him. Oli took them, but did not eat them in front of her.

He had fallen asleep for an hour or so, cookie in his hand, again dreaming about the public pool in Rennes. His mind was filled with the leftover images burned into his head like a camera flash: women’s breasts bobbed in the wake of paddling feet, kids his age scrambled out at the perimeters, grizzly, dark haired men stewed in the turgid bubble of Jacuzzis. Between deep breaths, he remembered ducking underwater and swimming between and around the bottom halves of people, their legs like stipes of a kelp forest, hairs the undulant fronds. He slipped within inches of vaginas, sagging vulva, shriveled penises almost retracting into the crotches of overweight men. This time his dream had made him follow a procession of the commune’s children, his friends Antwan, Mariana, and the ugly Sofie, up stairs leading to the opening of a slide in the shape of a tremendous penis.

The slide’s shaft fell ten meters down into another diamond shaped pool. The children shot out of the slide’s tip like short bursts of urine. At the top of the stairs, kids disappeared into a dark opening. Climbing atop an enormous pair of testicles, he had grabbed at coarse black hairs to steady and pull himself up on the slick skin surface. At the top, Antwan jumped, leading with his prominent nose, face first into the opening, a porcine squeal disappearing after him. Mariana and the ugly Sofie went hand-in-hand, their legs pressed together like four wet sausages, hair sliding after them, a dirty blond-black braid. Olivier stepped up to the slide, the rush of falling water pulsing through his veins. He put one foot in, sat down, and pushed off. He fell into nothingness, his throat too shocked to scream. He thought he had wet himself again, but to his relief woke in dry pajamas.

He could hear his parents, Peggy and Yohan, all chatting and laughing in the apart-hotel living room. It sounded like they had gotten over his incident that they had made seem like the end of the world just an hour earlier. He imagined they were drinking beer and pastis. Their muffled eruptions grew louder and more frequent. Nana was asleep in the twin bed across the room. Oli didn’t understand how she could sleep through the racket their parents were making.

The clock on the bedroom bureau displayed 12:22 AM. Oli could hear murmurs, the faint smell of something burning, and the late night noises now coming from beyond his room. He was still angry with Mariana for her betrayal at dinner, and even more so, for sleeping soundly. He got out of bed, stepped over the unfinished wooden boat by her bedside, and stood over her. He raised his thumb and forefinger in front of her sleeping features, miming a pinch on her lips, eyes, nose, a double pinch with both his hands to her neck. She slept peacefully.

At the window, he watched the ocean, the moon hanging like a glowing bone over the surf. He wondered if Nana’s miniature boat could actually float in something so violent like the ocean. A bottle broke beyond the bedroom door. His mother shrieked. Yohan’s enormous laugh burst through the walls.

Oli turned his gaze toward Mariana’s small outline. It rose and fell like the swell of a wave. How could she sleep through this? She must be deaf? Oli tiptoed toward her and contemplated what he should do to disturb her: yell in her ear, kick the bed frame, double pinch her sides, or clap in front of her face. Mariana stirred, her eyes flickering open and closed. She focused on Oli’s moonlit silhouette.

“What are you doing?” She murmured, half asleep.

Oli, having not made up his mind yet about how to disturb her, turned to dart away, and stubbed his toe on the foot of the bed in the process. He leapt toward his own corner, trying to stifle his pain.

“Go back to sleep!” he hissed, tears building in his eyes. He hobbled quickly to the bedroom door in order to get out of sight.

“I’m thirsty.”

He turned the doorknob with measured delicacy and tiptoed into the hallway, his mind engrossed by the pain in his foot, before lifting his gaze toward the kitchen door.

About twenty feet in front of him, Oli’s moonlit mother was bent over the kitchen sink, both her hands gripping the edges of the metal basin. Her breasts swung like pendants as Yohan furiously pumped into her from behind. Oli had never seen them loving each other this way before. He could not help but watch, as a runnel of sweat streaked down Yohan’s wrinkled lower back fat. His hands gripped her waist, crotch hammering into maman, their bodies a broken metronome. He grabbed at her breasts as if handling fistfuls of cured ham. His forefingers and thumbs tweaked both of her nipples and she let out a short gasp. Double pinch.

Yohan, lifted his huge, right paw up into the air and slapped maman’s bottom with such force that Oli let out a gasp in time with his mother’s, and immediately cupped his mouth with his right hand.

Yohan’s head cocked a small fraction. He slowed his pace for just a second, but then continued with his vigorous thrusting. Oli wasn’t sure if Yohan had heard him, but he couldn’t bring himself to move or pull his gaze away. Yohan started to pump more furiously, making hideous noises, loud boastful moans, almost as if he knew he were being watched. Oli’s blood froze when Yohan looked directly at him for a good second, without the slightest pause in his rhythm. Oli thought he saw a hint of a smile on Yohan’s face as he turned his head back toward maman and leaned deeply into her. She made a noise like she was being hurt.

Yohan jerked his crotch back, as if he had burned himself inside of maman, his banana-like penis curved toward the ceiling. He held it directly over Oli’s mother’s back. Yohan seemed to be peeing on her in short bursts. Oli snapped back into his mind, slipped into his room, and shut the door behind him.

Oli felt a tremendous urge to pee and entered the bathroom connected to his and Mariana’s room. He pinched the tip of his penis, so as not to go too quickly as he lowered his pajama pants, and managed to squirt only a small bit onto his leg, the rest dripping down into the water. The toilet bowl swirled with the light cloud. Oli thought of the moon painting the ocean surface. He flushed and washed his hands. It felt strange to him now, scrubbing his fingers together, the same ones he had used to humiliate Yohan.

Hands still wet, he tiptoed toward Mariana and shook her awake.

“Get up! You need to see something!”

Mariana sat up. He motioned her toward the door.

“Hurry!” he hissed.

Mariana got up and poked her head out of the bedroom door for a second. She looked back at Oli in confusion.

“Is it not strange to you?” he asked.

She shook her head. Oli poked his head out into the hallway from behind her.

“They’re gone,” he whispered over her shoulder.

“Who?”

“Your dad.”

“What was he doing?”

“Acting strange, like always, but this time much more.”

“How?”

Oli paused. Mariana would think he was lying if he told her that Yohan was having an accident on his mother. He had no idea what to say. He couldn’t stop thinking about the way Yohan had looked at him. He felt as if this was some kind of additional punishment being dealt his way.

“Forget it. You won’t understand.”

Oli stepped back from the door, head buzzing. He sat in the sag of his mattress. His whole body felt charged. He recalled the textbook images he used to calm himself: caravan of pilot fish tethered to a whale shark, remoras plastered just below a white tip’s mouth, two nurse sharks joined at the clasper swimming a vertical helix toward the surface. He pointed toward the sails and frame of the unfinished sailboat by Mariana’s bedside.

“Nana, you are making the boat all wrong.”

Mariana rubbed her eyes and slipped back into bed.

Oli continued, “It has no place for people to sleep. What good is that?”

Mariana’s silence made him more anxious. He needed to busy his shaking hands. He got up and opened the top center drawer of the bedroom’s bureau. He felt around inside the darkness of the drawer, rustling small papers, rolling ballpoint pens, and other small objects.

“Oli, stop!” Mariana shot in his direction, “go to sleep.”

He fished out an old letter opener with a dull blade and approached Mariana’s bed. He saw her pupils swell almost to the size of coins. He picked up the boat frame.

“What type of boat is this? Where does it go?”

Mariana hesitated before answering, “I don’t know. It’s just a boat. Why does it have go anywhere?”

Oli wove the letter opener through the strings and frame holding the mainsail, jibs, and topsails in place. He imagined it was Yohan’s ribcage. He jerked his arm and with great effort pulled through it, ripping it out of any discernible shape. He presented the tangled mess to her.

“If a boat doesn’t go anywhere, then this is also a boat.”

He dropped it on the floor and returned to his bed. He put the letter opener inside his pillowcase and rolled over to face the wall. He could hear her sobbing and was confused by how much relief Mariana’s whimpering was giving him. His stomach and throat were tightly knotted, but his chest felt like it had been cracked wide open, like he could suddenly breathe underwater.

Cindy Silk

by Ed Meek

"Excuse me, Cindy, but these people tell me their food isn’t hot,” Angelo said.

Cindy stared at the new Maitre D puzzled.

"Not hot?"  Cindy put her hands on her hips. "It's not supposed to be hot.  Tell them that."

 "Where do I get these people?"  she said to no one in particular.  She put her hands on her temples and massaged them.  Her throat was so dry she could barely swallow.  She looked up and the Maitre D' was still standing there.  She reached out and grabbed him by the ear.  "Did you hear me?"  She twisted his ear.  "Go," she said pushing his head away as she released him.

 Angelo stumbled backwards, rubbing his ear, incredulous. 

Cindy turned around, went back upstairs and found David, "I'm going to take a break. Keep an eye on things. Keep everyone moving." 

Two hours later, rush over, most of the guests gone, Cindy was talking to Chad, her best-looking waiter.  With his thick black hair, square jaw and blue eyes, Chad looked like he could be giving tennis lessons at the country club. Usually she enjoyed talking to him because it gave her the opportunity to stare at him, but now he was irritating her. He stood there, drinking her cognac, at her invitation, telling her that he liked the cheaper one, the Delamain, better than the Vesper, when anyone who knew anything about cognac knew that the Vesper was fabulous.  In fact, someone had stolen a bottle of the Vesper which retailed for over a hundred dollars and Cindy thought it might have been Chad.  She briefly entertained the notion that he might be right about the Delamain. Then she regained her senses. "No, no," she cut him off, "you don't understand, Chad.  It’s the quality of the oak that gives the Vesper that woody flavor–what the French call 'raison' from the aging."

"But the Delamain has a nice, fiery quality."  Chad said.

"Fiery?" Cindy didn't know why she wasted her time listening to these people.  Maybe it wasn’t Chad who’d taken the Vesper since he liked the Delamain better.  She had owned this restaurant with Meyer for ten years and the waiters were always stealing from her.  Here she was actually giving a waiter free cognac, and he didn’t even know what was good.  Enough was enough.  She slammed her empty glass down.  "Why don’t you punch out, Chad."  She managed a wooden smile. Half the time the waiters forgot to punch out on the time clock. She had told them that she wasn’t going to pay them if they didn’t punch out yet they still forgot.

She checked her watch–ten o'clock.  She had to get out–the restaurant was driving her mad!  Meyer wouldn't be done for an hour or two.  She could change and go out before he finished in the kitchen.  Little Noelle would be asleep.  She would have June, the cashier, look in on the kid and baby-sit until she got back.  Cindy pictured June’s cute face–she would have been attractive if she weren’t fifty pounds overweight.  Still, she liked June because June did whatever she was told to do.

David, the manager, stopped her on the stairs.  He asked her, in that whining, nasal voice of his, if she were leaving.

Cindy looked at his long oval face with his drooping bottom lip and nodded.

"I also wanted to ask whether that California wine came in." David smiled weakly.

"David, why do you have to bother me, day and night with these details?  You can't do these things yourself?  And why is Chad still working here?  The busy season is over, right?  We no longer need him. Besides, I think he was the one who took the cognac."  Cindy drew her hand across her throat.  "Get rid of him."  Suddenly she remembered that she wasn’t sure whether Chad was or wasn’t the one stealing the cognac.  So why was she telling David to fire him?  Ugh, there was just too much on her mind. 

"Whatever you say, Cindy," David looked at his new Gucci shoes–there was smudge on them. He frowned.

"No,” Cindy said, “I didn’t get that wine in. Wait a minute," Cindy stopped on the stairs, "I did get it in."  She clenched her hands and stomped up the stairs.  "Come on," she said. “Follow me.”

David followed her up the winding stairs of the Georgian townhouse that Cindy and Meyer had bought five years before and turned into one of the best restaurants in the city.  Prior to that they had been in a smaller restaurant around the corner where David had been a waiter.  When they moved, she had made David manager of the new place.  After Cindy had her child, David had assumed more responsibility.  Cindy didn't really like to work so much anymore.  Neither did Meyer for that matter.  These days Meyer spent only one or two nights a week in the restaurant.  The rest of the time he was working on other projects.  Most nights, Meyer let the Sous-Chef, Nick, run things.  Meyer had opened a gourmet store on Tremont Street; he had a concession at Tanglewood for music festivals and concerts, and he had a cafe opening in the fall at the Four Seasons hotel.

Cindy and Meyer have done very well, David was thinking, as he followed Cindy up the stairs. For an Israeli with a Liberal Arts degree from Dartmouth and no formal training as a Chef, Meyer had done incredibly well, and for a girl from Revere with a high school degree and one year of community college, Cindy had done quite well too. All David had to do to keep his job was to jump when Cindy said jump.  David already had bought a three-family house in Dorchester and a Condo in Boston; he planned to get out of the restaurant business in five years.  Until then, he would eat humble pie when he had to.

With a grunt, Cindy picked up and handed David a case of Cabernet Sauvignon which had been sitting just outside the door to her apartment. David was walking back down the stairs to the restaurant, struggling with the case of wine, when he heard something crash in the kitchen.  He hesitated at the bottom of the second floor.  The restaurant was on two floors and the kitchen was on the second.  David heard a rasping voice screaming in the kitchen.  It was Meyer.  David put the case down on the stairs and peeked in the kitchen.  Meyer had his broad back to the kitchen door so David sneaked in and hid over by the bread, near the walk-in cooler, to see what was going on.

     "What do you call this shit?"  Meyer was yelling at one of the young cooks.  "Look at this. Look at it. I should rub your face in it. You can't do the simplest Goddamn thing.  We go over this day after day."  Meyer walked over to where the young cook stood at the stove and grabbed the frying pan off the floor.  He put it back on the stove and tossed a handful of julienne vegetables into it.  He opened the broiler above the stove and put a filet of veal in.  "Damn-it," he said.

Chad came walking up the service stairs toward David with a tray full of dirty dishes on his shoulder.  He was carrying the tray with one hand, and with the other hand, he was eating a tenderloin of lamb that a guest had apparently failed to finish.

"That's it," David said putting his hands on his hips. "That's the very last straw, Chad."

"Oh, come on, David–everybody eats." Chad took another bite. 

"It's against the rules." David said. "This isn’t the first time.  Besides, she knows you've been stealing cognac.  Just get your things and leave."

Up in the apartment, Cindy laid two lines of cocaine on the glass table in front of the television. "So you're addicted," she said to herself, "so what?" Some people were addicted to coffee, some to booze.  She liked cocaine. She had managed to stop for the last month of the pregnancy.  Besides, she had been eating healthy and going to the aerobic classes.  Her weight was down and she looked good.  She was a nervous wreck, but what could she do?

She had MTV on with the sound off.  J. Lo was selling her perfume. After Cindy did the lines she felt better.  Much better.  It was part of the business, wasn't it?  Meyer did it, the waiters, cooks, everybody.  Jim, her current flame, would have some tonight.  Jim always had good stuff, the bastard.  She laughed. Speaking of bastards, she should check on the kid.  No, he must be all right or there would have been some noise.  Cindy and Meyer weren't married.  Cindy didn't care either way.  She would have preferred being married, sure, but not being married was fine.  She didn't trust Meyer anyway.  As if you could trust anyone.  She lit up a cigarette, sat down and watched the MTV announcer sticking out her tongue and lewdly licking her lips. Cindy stuck her tongue out back at her.

Chad changed his clothes in the bathroom upstairs on the second floor.  It wasn't David who fired me, he thought, it was Cindy.  He took a bottle of Delamain out of his locker and put it in his backpack. He liked the Delamain better than the Vesper.

 "Well boys," Chad said as he walked past the waiters on his way out, "I've been fired."  He stood in the doorway.

“You’ll be back,” one of the waiters said.

Chad smiled.                                 

"There's a call for you," the cashier, June, said to him when he got downstairs.

Chad squeezed into June’s cubbyhole.  She handed Chad the phone.

 "Chad, hey, this is Jim.  Wondering if I can hook up with you tonight."

 "Sure," Chad said, "I'll see you at Division. In fact, I can be there in ten minutes."  Chad handed June the phone. "June," he said, "it's been a pleasure."

As he walked out the door of the restaurant Chad was smiling, shaking his head, thinking about Jim and Cindy.

Division was a short distance from the restaurant.  Chad nodded at the doorman and walked past a dozen people in line in front of the club.  The doorman was new, but he waved Chad in because one of the owners had introduced Chad to him the night before.  Chad squeezed into a space near the corner of the semi-circular bar.  The bartender put a gin and tonic in front of him. "This is on Jim," the bartender said.

Cindy looked through her closet.  She felt as if she were looking through the clothes of a much bigger woman.  She pushed the hangers around and knocked a couple of dresses on the floor.  "I have plenty to choose from now, ma," she said aloud.  She settled on a jumpsuit, but when she got it on and stood in front of the mirror she could see that it was too long.  She stood, frozen for a moment, in front of the mirror.  She always bought clothes too big.  She must have been a bigger person in a former life. She rolled the cuffs up and put on a pair of heels.  Her throat still hurt.  She went into the kitchen and got a bottle of bourbon out of the cabinet and took a swig.

Downstairs, Meyer was in a good mood because it was busy and he had just sent out the entrees for a party of fifteen.  "Oh, I'll tell you something pal," he said to Nick, "I haven't given it to Cindy in a while, but tonight I'm going to stick it right up in there."  He grabbed his crotch and growled.  "I'm going all the way up in there."

Nick, was laughing.  "No. No," Nick said.  "You can't.  She's too small–your wife.

 "Oh yeah," Meyer said, "I'm going to split her in half tonight."

Nick was holding his stomach and bending over he was laughing so hard.

"Well," Meyer said.  "Maybe you're right.  Maybe I'll give it to the cashier instead."

Meyer left Nick laughing in the kitchen and walked down into the dining room.  He leaned over a table, hands clasped behind his back.  "How is the food?" he asked, "you like it?"

"Fantastic," the woman said.

"Wonderful," said the man.

"You know I just won an award for culinary excellence," Meyer said, "but I think they picked the wrong guy by mistake." He was smiling.

"You deserve it, really," the man said.

Meyer laughed and moved on to the next table.

Cindy looked out the window. It was quiet on the street.  All she had to do was get down the stairs and out.  She picked up the phone, dialed the cashier and asked June to check in on the kid every once and a while.  Cindy thought about checking in on Noelle. Maybe later. She hurried down the stairs, slipped outside and walked quickly to the corner of Boylston.  She surveyed the long line in front of the bar.

Chad downed his gin and tonic while he scanned the crowd.  He caught Jim's eye, and started pushing his way across the room.  He edged along the pink walls.  All the bars were pink and gray and green.  Chad was surprised that he didn’t feel as if he had been fired. He felt as if he had been let go, released. He could always find another job. Meanwhile, they were playing the new song by Offspring, one of his favorite groups. Chad edged into the Men's room where Jim was waiting. "What 's up?" Chad said.

 Jim had to hunch in the Men's room, he was so tall.  He reminded Chad of David Bowie.  Jim acknowledged the resemblance, but insisted he was better-looking.  He had on one of those long, white, flimsy, cotton coats popularized by Bowie in a video he’d done with Mick Jagger. The one that practically screamed they’d slept together. "Got anything good?" Jim asked.

"Hot date?" Chad smiled, leaning back against the wall with his hands in his pockets. "Cindy?"

"Keep it quiet," Jim said.

 "Oh, everybody knows about it." Chad lit a cigarette. "Yeah," he said, I've got something.  Let me just talk to someone and I'll be back to you in about," he looked at his antique gold watch, "twenty minutes."

"OK," Jim said.  He walked out of the Men's Room to the table he kept reserved.  There was a bucket of champagne beside the table and on the table a vase with blood-red roses.

When Cindy got to the door, a doorman she didn't recognize stopped her.  He looked about twelve years old.  He had a flat top and a diamond stud in one ear.

"Sorry," the doorman said, "you have to wait on line like everyone else."

"You don't understand," Cindy said. "I own the restaurant around the corner.  I'm meeting…” She didn’t want to say who. “I'm meeting someone here and he's waiting for me inside.  No way I'm going to wait on line, I mean in line."  Cindy clenched her fists. She hated the expression on line. Why did people say that? Did they think they were being original or something?  "I don't know who you people think you are," she said.   She stamped her foot.  "Who do you think you're dealing with?  Do you want to keep this job?"  She realized she was shouting, but she could barely contain herself.  She wanted to rip his little flat top head off.  "Do you like working here in Boston?  I'll have you black-listed.  I'll make it impossible for you to get work anywhere."  She was having difficulty breathing.  She felt as if there were something stuck in her throat.

The manager appeared at the door to see what the commotion was. "Cindy," he said, "Come on in.  Sorry about that.  The kid is new."

"Get rid of him," Cindy said, drawing her finger across her throat.  She walked past the manager into the bar.  She glanced around the room and spotted the empty table with the roses on it.  She needled her way through the crowd.

Chad, who was leaning against the wall, watched Cindy as she sat down.  He had just spent five minutes crushing up tabs of Ex-Lax and baby laxative. Chad put his drink down on the bar and edged his way over to the hall that led to the Men's Room.  He found Jim leaning on the cigarette machine.  Chad handed him a small, folded packet of paper.

"A hundred?" Jim asked.

Chad nodded and Jim handed Chad a single bill.  Jim took the packet and squeezed through the crowd to the reserved table where Cindy was waiting.  “Hey,” he said and kissed her on the cheek.  Jim had one of these little mechanisms–drug paraphernalia that make it possible to do cocaine right at the table–just put it to your nose and discreetly snort.  He loaded it and handed it to Cindy who took a couple of hits and then sipped the champagne—Crystal—Jim's favorite.  She preferred the dryer Dom Perignon, but she was willing to give in once and a while.  You had to, just to keep them.  She knew she could find someone else if she had to, but why bother?  Meyer either didn't know or didn't care about her flings.  There wasn't anything he could do about it anyway—they weren't married.  Cindy wondered if it would make any difference if they were.

“What do you think of the coke?” Jim asked.

“Good I guess. I can’t really tell, I’m so wound up. I need to relax.”

“Let’s go upstairs,” Jim said.

Jim kept an apartment above the bar.  They went up after they had finished the champagne.  They attempted sex but Jim said he was having trouble concentrating. He couldn’t seem to get it hard.  Cindy finally gave up on him, got up and got dressed.  She checked her watch.  It was just after two.  She'd get home a little early.

She tried to be quiet on the stairs to her apartment just in case Meyer was already asleep.  He was always asleep by the time she got home but then she didn't usually get home before four or five.

There wasn't anyone in the living room although the television was still on.  Cindy thought she could hear someone exercising.  Could Meyer be playing with the kid this late?  Well, maybe the kid had woken up.   Cindy walked down the hall to the bedroom.  The door was half open and Meyer was banging the cashier June.  Meyer was on top–the only position he knew.  June had her eyes closed.  Sweat streaked Meyer’s broad back.  He was grunting.  Cindy hesitated at the door.  She could burst in and kill them both with her bare hands.  She took off one of her shoes and held it up.  She could bury her heel in Meyer's fat head.  She saw herself hitting him repeatedly until he lay dead while June screamed hysterically.  Just then June turned her head and looked at Cindy.       

Cindy took her other her heel off, put them in one hand and with her other hand brought her finger to her lips and made a “shhh” face. She backed away and quietly tip-toed down the stairs. At the bottom of the stairs she put her shoes back on.

She walked up a block to Charlie's, a small bar that stayed open after hours.  She ordered an Absolut vodka on the rocks and sipped it.  She wanted to be mad, but she wasn't mad.  She didn’t really feel as if she had the right to be mad.  She suddenly felt a pain in her stomach.  She barely made it to the Women's Room in time.  It seemed as if everything inside her emptied out.  She had a dull headache too.  That cocaine was not good.  For some reason, as she was sitting there, she thought about Chad.  Maybe she shouldn’t have fired him.  He was a good waiter.  Maybe he hadn’t stolen the cognac.  Maybe it was David.  She did not want to fire David.  She needed someone like David. She thought of waiters she had fired over the years.  She could see their faces but she couldn't remember any of the names.  No way could she fire June.  She needed June to babysit.  Reliable babysitters were worth their weight in gold and June weighed a lot.  Cindy laughed and shook her head.  She stood up and flushed.  She felt dizzy.  She'd have to give up the cocaine.  She couldn’t think straight anymore.  She went out to the end of the bar and called Meyer on her cell.  He said Hello in a sleepy voice.

"I'm going to be a little late," Cindy said.  "I thought I'd give you a call."

"Oh, thanks," Meyer said.  He was breathing heavily.  "When do you think you'll be home?"

Cindy looked at her watch.  She thought about having another drink.  "In about ten minutes," she said. 

"No rush."  Meyer said and hung up.

Cindy sat there, with the phone in her hand.  Her breath came in gasps.  Her throat was so dry she couldn't swallow.  If she could just get one more drink, she'd be all right.  She glanced up and saw her reflection in the mirror behind the bar.  She really did have a small head. She drew her finger across her throat. What if she slit her own throat? Who would care? Jim? Meyer? June? David? Would they cry at her funeral? June would cry. Ma would cry. Tomorrow she’d have David call Chad. She’d unfire him. She liked Chad actually. Jim was the one who had to go. She grabbed one of her ears and twisted it. She laughed at herself in the mirror. “Right ma?” she said.    

One to One

by Jay Merill

Señor José Fuentes sits with a folded smile today.  You cannot read his eyes.  They are not exactly closed not exactly open.  He is squinting and all you can see are the many tiny creases that lead inwards to where the eyes are hiding. It is Seven O Clock in the morning.  Señor Fuentes waits for the daily newspaper to be brought; he is impatient for his morning tea. There is a gleam inside him as he anticipates the smell of the print, the rustle of the paper, the comfort of the gossip he will find in it, the sharp taste of the tea he will wash it down with.  As I shift the bucket to the other side of the bed I sense his hopes.

I wash the floor around all the beds in the ward.  Señor Fuentes is in the bed next to the door.  When I take the bucket out and pour away the washing water into the drain I think of how he lies in his bed waiting for the arrival of small things.  These are what hold his life together now.  I imagine him attached to the world by a thin strip of sticky paper.  If it comes away he is left in pieces. What will happen if the things he waits for do not come?  Will he crumble?   When I return to the ward with the antiseptic spray and a soft cloth I see that there has been a development.  The face of Señor Fuentes is concealed behind his newspaper.  I hear that soft cluck clucking sound he makes with his lips when he is half contented.  When the tea appears there will come from his throat a little rasping croak of a noise.  This is his sound of full happiness.

Now I begin washing the doors of the six bedside cabinets starting with the one to the left of the door and returning last to Señor Fuentes whose bed is on the right.  When I have finished them all I pass out of the ward.  Still his tea has not come.  He is not clucking any more; he is as quiet as possible, listening for the sound of the trolley in the corridor, his longing now acute.  I see the silver gleam of the tea urn coming towards me like an old ship.  The trolley groans with its weight.  The nurse guides the wheels round the doorpost and into the ward, stops by the bed of Señor Fuentes.  I picture the joy he will feel at this moment and I wait at the door for the sound of his delight.  It comes, the strange croaking, more froglike than human if you stop and listen.   I laugh when I hear it and think about the predictability of things, how necessary this is for him, and maybe for all of us.

Soon I move on to the next ward with the antiseptic cleaner and my cloth.  There more patients lie in their beds, some propped on pillows, some concealed in blankets.  I suppose they are all waiting; that everyone in the hospital is waiting.  Some have passed beyond the small saviours of Señor Fuentes.  They are the ones who are only waiting to die.

For two weeks I have worked as a cleaner here at the hospital in Cusco.  There are many patients but Señor Fuentes is the one that I notice.  Even as I clean the floor on the far side of his ward and with my back to where he lies, I can’t help being aware that he is there. When I walk out again through the door I pass close to his bed and glance across quickly. I sense his thoughts.  When his bed has been made, he has had his shower, eaten lunch, they have switched on the tv for him to watch and there are no concerns to trouble him, his forehead is smooth with acceptance. Yet there is not a look of pleasure.  I understand that as all these things have taken place there is now nothing more to look forward to.  He does not cluck his lips or make the croaking sound low in his throat he simply closes his eyes and sleeps. He will sleep on for most of the afternoon.  His snores are a quiet soft purring.

In the evening I work in the paediatric wing and I will not see him again till the morning.  I do not know how he passes the late hours of the day. At eight pm after we have cleaned out the fridges in the kitchen we can leave.  I am staying with two girls of about my age, which is better than sleeping in the courtyard at the back of the hospital as some of the cleaners do.  It is said that it isn’t safe as there are many gangs in the neighbourhood and if they pass by in the night some will rob you as you sleep. Mayssa and Belén are the names of the girls and they live not too far from here.  We walk there together.  When I started working here Mayssa, who is fifteen, and a little older than me, asked me if I’d like to stop with them as they often have someone to stay as a lodger and their mother would not charge me very much.  Mayssa said since their father had left them two years ago, their mother was always in need of a little extra money to help out.  I share a small room with them and also a younger sister but it is not so bad as I have my own mattress next to the window and also it is clean. The three sisters sleep together in the double bed.

When we arrive at their place in the evenings we have some supper, usually Jaucha or tacu tacu or sometimes a dish of hot bean stew.  As the mother bustles about, preparing places at the table for us to sit down I find that I look forward to this meal very much and then I again think of Señor Fuentes and feel a sympathy for the pattern of his daily need.

Sometimes at the hospital I have to go and clean out the rooms where they store the laundry.  Today I must take the piles of bed linen and night clothes out of the cupboards and put fresh paper on the shelves.  It takes some time and I am late arriving at the wards. Señor Fuentes has already received his newspaper and his tea.  The paper is rolled up and lying on one side of the bed, the tea mug is empty. When I pass near him with the cleaning fluids and the buckets I am almost sure that he winks at me. The creased pouches beneath his eyes quiver.  I stop walking and hover near the foot of his bed.  Mother has always said it is rude to stare at anyone so I try to look at him discreetly from the side of my eye. No, there is nothing.  I believe he is sleeping.  I go over and wipe the paint work on the window sills and then I must clean the windows themselves.  They are always coated with a brownish dust even though they are washed every day.  At last I carry out the buckets and cleaning rags.  As I pass Señor Fuentes I see he has the rolled up paper in his hand now as though about to swat a fly.  There are no flies to be seen and I can’t help smiling.  Then, as I watch him I see him lift up his hand as if bearing the burden of a great weight.  I notice how huge his hand is, and how little energy there seems to be in it. After a minute or two I realise he is trying to attract my attention.  Surely he can’t be meaning me.  I look around.  Perhaps he wants to speak to one of the nurses.  Now he is waving the paper in a slow arc to left and right above his head like a man might do if he were drowning.  So I go across to him.                                                                                                                                     

‘Can I be of assistance Señor?’ I ask him in my most careful Spanish.                                                                  

‘What name do you have?’ Señor Fuentes asks me back.                                                                                         

 ‘I am called Chaska, Señor,’ I tell him.                                                                                                              

‘Please would you speak a bit louder,’ he says.  ‘My hearing is not so good.’                                                 

This is the first time a patient has spoken to me and it takes me a little while to feel at ease.                     

‘I am José Fuentes,’ he then tells me.  He lowers the paper now and releases it from his hand.  Then he nods to me and I understand he was just introducing himself.  I nod back and walk on out through the door.

This is the start of a recognition between myself and Señor Fuentes.  Each day when I come into the ward he nods to me and I am watching out for this.  We smile in a polite small way like acquaintances at a social function. And I have noticed that we acknowledge no one else like this.  Also it is unusual as in general we cleaners are apart and do not mix.  The patients in particular, are aloof from us. Now my head is ready to nod as I come through the door into the ward in the mornings and I am never disappointed for Señor Fuentes is always ready too and earnestly looking out for me.  I have come to see that my salutation is a thing of importance to Señor Fuentes; an extra thing he waits each day to receive.  I am honoured and also made nervous by this. My contract at the hospital is for a three- month period only.  Then I must go home to Cajamarca. I am working here for this time so I can save enough to purchase my ticket.  My mother will need me then.  In January Mother is expecting twins.  She has asked for me to come and it is the plan that I will go to her. As I cannot remain here after that time I feel a little sorry.  Señor Fuentes has no idea my stay will be so short and yet I do not wish to discourage his friendliness. I see his eyes anticipating me as I enter the ward in the mornings.  Before the paper, before the tea arrives, his waits to greet me with a wave of his hand.

There is a morning that he calls me over.  It surprises me to hear my own name on his lips although I gave it him myself.  As I go to him I have the strangest feeling. As if he is not really there where I can see him and I am not here where I walk across the floor.  I have this sense of being in another era, or rather in a dimension where all of this we are going through is occurring after all in a different time and place and is not now happening.                                                                                         

‘Good morning Chaska my dear,’ Señor Fuentes says to me.  I wonder if you would do a little something for me today.  Just an errand.’                                                                                                               

‘Yes,’ I agree.                                                                                                                                                                   

He then reaches out for a small packet lying next to him on the bed.  His hand shakes very much today I see.  He then passes this packet to me.  It is only a tissue paper wrapping and I open it easily.  Inside is a small gold crucifix and I see that the link with the chain has broken.                                                                                                                                                 

‘So Chaska would you take this crucifix for me to the menders and ask them to fix the chain where it has come apart.  There is a good place very near the hospital.  Let me show you.’  He has a map and points out a street on it, which I see is only one block away.                                                                               

‘I have a break at mid day and I will take it then,’ I tell him.                                                                          

‘You are a kind girl Chaska,’ Señor Fuentes says.

At the menders they tell me that they can let me have it back tomorrow.  I ask if it will be ready by eight o clock tonight because tomorrow I do not think I can come for it. They agree to this.  The reason is that tomorrow is the day my brother Uchu is to meet me in Cusco and we are spending the whole day together and are going to all the best places in the city, like tourists.  We will have lunch out somewhere not near the hospital. I let Señor Fuentes know about this when I get back and he does not mind.                                                                                                                                                                

‘The next day then,’ he says.  And he is very interested to hear about my brother, what he looks like, what kind of a guy he is, how long a time it is since we saw one another.                                                       

I tell Señor Fuentes of my excitement at seeing Uchu and that I do not know how I will go to sleep tonight.  He smiles in a sad way and I sense that he feels himself old, suddenly aware that he has lost much enthusiasm for the things of life.

I’m up early on the morning I am to meet my brother.  I did not sleep much during the night, as I had expected.  But even so, I could not force myself to stay in bed once I saw the flush of dawn at the window.  I have already been in Cusco for a few weeks but Uchu was not able to come sooner than this.  The first day I arrived I walked round many small hotels and guest houses asking for work and was told that they were looking for cleaners at the local hospital. I went there and they were happy to take me on. So here I am.  Cusco is a large city.  Since Lima I have not been in such built up busy places. I feel all tremorous about meeting Uchu as I have not seen him for quite a while.  Will he be very different?  I know one thing about him, the main thing, I should say.  Uchu is a serious minded guy and I am sure this cannot have changed.  My instinct tells me that I will know him as soon as I see him.  He may look a little altered from before.  He will be older and with much more experience, which also changes one’s appearance I think. But I am confident that even so I will recognise him the minute he appears in this room. The room is the café adjoining the railway station. It is here that I sit and wait for him.  I am far too early.  It is in my character to be always at a meeting place some time before the meeting is to take place.

When Uchu arrives in the doorway it is as if we were never apart.  He is taller and older but I would know him anywhere.  I am happy about this.  As I rush towards him across the floor I see him hesitate.  Perhaps his hesitation is a good thing.  It is what restrains me.  After a second or two he does look pleased to see me. I should not feel anything negative about his moment’s circumspection.  It is in Uchu’s nature to be cautious, I already knew that and must not be at all dismayed therefore.  If he had run to greet me, as I to him, that would have been the remarkable thing, wouldn’t it.  I know I am far more immediate in my senses than my brother and I should not feel hurt.  He is just himself.  After I have given myself a moment’s talking to I feel quite comfortable again and I go across to him, almost as openly as I began.  I take his hand in both of mine and smile into his eyes.                                                                                                                                                                        

‘Do you find me changed?’ he at once wants to know.

‘No,’ I tell him. ‘You are exactly the same careful person, only more handsome.’

‘And you dearest Chaska are more beautiful,’ Uchu says.

We laugh together.  My forgetful laugh and Uchu’s self-reflecting one.                                                                           

‘What would you like to do?’ he asks me.

I had told him by letter that I wished to see certain important places in Cusco so he would be prepared.  I’ve already planned where I would like us to see.   ‘Koricancha,’ I say.  So that is where we go.

Earlier in the year I went to Machu Picchu and since then I’ve developed a taste for visiting archaeological sites.  I am enchanted with Koricancho, which means Temple of the Sun.  We look at the round and perfect wall which still remains.  It is said there was a courtyard of gold and the walls were built of golden plaques.  The thought of such opulence amazes me.  I see that Uchu is looking thoughtful.

‘What is it?’ I ask him.

He does not reply at first then says,  ‘And where, little girl, are the Inca now?’

I say nothing.  He is entitled to his ways of seeing but I myself do not wish to lose my sense of enchantment.

Uchu continues in this thoughtful mood and doesn’t say very much then he suddenly comes out with, ‘Even a room entirely filled with gold will not save you.’ 

And I know he is speaking of Atahualpa the last Inca king who it is said had such a room to offer to Pizarro when the conquistadores came.

We then walk round the church of Santo Domingo mostly in silence. This is Our day together and I find him a little on the miserable side.  I admit this privately to myself.

Coming later to the main square of Cusco, Uchu cheers up a little. We have some snacks. Rocoto relleno, plus one or two other favourites. I have not tasted empanadas more delicious. It seems a long time since I have eaten any of these.  Uchu tells me that he is not himself returning to Cajamarca, not yet at any rate, and I feel surprise as I thought he was planning to go home at last. I ask him if he doesn’t miss being home.  He does not speak for quite a few moments and I am just thinking he intends to say nothing when he suddenly takes me by the hand and looks at my face intently.

‘Little sister,’ he says, and remembering how he used to call me that in the old days we both smile.

‘Everything changes,’ he says.  ‘We can therefore never go back anywhere.’

I say I do not think things change so much as he is telling me but Uchu says that I am sentimental and it is wishful thinking in order to protect my dream.

We walk round the centre of Cusco.  There is the sound of much traffic, the calls of street vendors, the chatter of those passing by.  ‘Let’s go to drink coffee,’ I say and I feel I’d like to talk some more in a place which is quieter. 

‘In a minute,’ Uchu says.

‘It’s just that I want to talk,’ I admit to him.

‘Walking thoughts are not the same thing as sitting thoughts,’ he tells me quickly.  ‘I can speak more truthfully while we’re on the move.’ 

So we walk on and on, moving to a less busy street and finally ending up on the Plaza San Francisco where we stroll along together by the fountains.  The sound of the water pleases me. 

‘Anyway,’ I say to Uchu, ‘Water is very helpful for speaking and I am sure the best thoughts of all will come to us while we are here.’

He agrees then after a pause says how he feels he has to keep moving.  I ask him if he thinks this constant movement is such a good thing.  Uchu says he supposes it would be better to have balance but tells me he just can’t seem to stop. 

‘Why is that?’ I ask him.  My voice must be very serious for he laughs and calls me ‘Little Sister’ again.                                                                                                                                                                               

‘I think it is because I am afraid,’ he confides suddenly, his voice gone quiet, and I squeeze his hand.  For a moment I think he is going to cry but he does not, he just clears his throat and speaks a little bit louder.  ‘It is true.  I am afraid,’ he repeats, his voice now more clear.

I go through this in my mind, then I say to Uchu, ‘Yes, I understand what you are saying and the thing that makes you frightened.’ 

He looks at me with surprise I see, as though he does not expect to hear anyone speak in sympathy, least of all his little sister.                                                                                           

‘Change is the thing that you dread.’

‘Yes, you’re right,’ he agrees then goes on to tell me that he is afraid of getting too attached to anything because it will only let you down.  ‘And the more you pursue it the less you will find what you are looking for. Nothing is lasting. And you’ll find you have suffered in vain because what you seek is nowhere to be found.’

I notice that now his voice has some excitement in it and I realise that though he has this fear he likes to talk of it and is pleased to share these thoughts with someone.

‘That is why I want to keep travelling,’ Uchu says.  ‘To keep on travelling without looking back is the happiest way to be. Believe me, that is the way of least regret.’

I remind him he spoke earlier of having balance and I say I do not think someone would achieve balance if they followed his advice. I become quite angry for a second saying this is the real world where people have real feelings.  I can’t finish and end up by crying. 

Uchu thinks for a minute and then he tells me he will reflect on this.  After a short silence he says he is already sure what I say is right and he well knows that he is in danger of being one sided and rigid in his views. 

I know he has always been intense and has struggled to have greater flexibility and lightness but still, no-one can achieve perfection, not even him.

So I tell him that he shouldn’t be too hard on himself and to keep on with the travelling if that helps him.   

He looks slightly glad to hear what I say and slightly ashamed at the same time.  He squeezes my hand and tells me I am an amazing girl and I cry a little more then and Uchu wipes away my tears with the corner of his tee shirt sleeve.

That evening he comes with me to Mayssa and Belén’s house and their mother makes us a special dish of spicy pork.  We all talk pleasantly afterwards and all are interested to learn of Uchu’s plan to travel north to Huancabamba to visit a curandero

When it is very late Uchu kisses me goodbye and says he enjoyed our talk more than he can say and it has given him fresh things to consider.  I make myself say that I hope he will come to Cajamarca to visit; that he will do this for me if not for himself.  I stand at the door with him and then he goes away into the night.

Next morning we three girls walk to the hospital at 7am to begin our morning work.  I feel the little gold crucifix in the pocket of my overall and am happy to think of how pleased Señor Fuentes will be when I give it to him.  I practically run into the ward with the crucifix in my hand and then I stop.  His bed is empty, stripped even of the blankets.  Also his name plate is absent. The head nurse sees me and comes over and says that Señor Fuentes died early this morning and that he told her he wanted me to have the crucifix.  She asks me if I understand what he meant?  I explain what had happened and show her the crucifix which is hanging down from my hand by its chain.  My hand is trembling, my whole body is shaking.  The ward around me is turning dark.  And then I am sitting in a chair in the corridor, the nurse telling me I had fainted.  She says she is sorry.  She says it is not really a good idea to get too emotionally involved with patients but she understands.  I am still very young.  She admires the crucifix, which is beautiful, delicate.  Then puts it on for me and strokes my arm.