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.

Christmas at Norma’s Pizza

by Manek R. Mistry

She knows her staff steals from the register.  Not a lot—surprising, because stoners can’t always manage subtlety—but enough to be noticeable, even though she doesn’t actually balance the till. 

She’s inclined to let it slide, if it doesn’t get worse.  They’re all just kids, and she pays them shit, and besides, what’s she going to do—make them spy on each other?  Set up video cameras? Hire a detective?  She hasn’t talked to Mark about it, but she knows what he’d say: fire them all.  Wouldn’t do any good though; she’d just have to start watching the new ones.

She lights a cigarette and leans back in her chair, blowing smoke into the pizza-tinted air.  Her office—a cramped, windowless firetrap at the back of the restaurant—is messier than usual, filled with Christmas presents waiting to be wrapped.  She could make one of the girls do it, maybe.  Kelly’s neat and organized; she looks like she’d make nice crisp packages.  Have to pay her extra, though, because she wouldn’t get any tips, stuck back here instead of out front.

She regrets buying the big flat-screen for Mark, now that he’s acting like a jerk.  She knows he’s having an affair—with the skinny bitch who does the books at Cartwright’s—but she doesn’t care, so why does he have to take his guilt out on her by being such an asshole?

Ok, maybe she cares a little bit, but it’s not like she hasn’t cheated on him, too, before the kids were born, so she can’t confront him— that would open a whole can of worms.  Maybe she can return the TV; the receipt’s got to be around here somewheres. 

She rests her cigarette on the ashtray— a mess of clay and glaze Petey made in third grade— and shifts papers around on her desk.  Most of them are invoices she hasn’t paid yet— some green, some pink, some white, all different sizes.  Why can’t they make them all the same?  She comes across a letter from her lawyer— have to deal with that, sometime— and the notice from the health department.  After a minute, she gives up looking.  Let him have the damn TV; he won’t be a jackass forever.  The affair will fizzle—like they do—and he’ll get all sweet and affectionate for a while.  That’ll be annoying, too, but then things will go back to normal, and he might as well have a nice TV then.

She retrieves her cigarette, picks up the newspaper, and turns to the puzzle page.  This Sunday morning ritual proves she’s middle-aged: the younger Norma would have ridiculed any of her friends who wasted time on the crossword, or the jumble, but she’s come to like it, and it doesn’t hurt anyone.  This morning, she can’t find a pen, though.  How can there not be a single pen in here?  She shifts the papers around again, hunts through the desk drawers, and checks her purse: nothing. 

Annoyed, she gets up and walks through the kitchen.  It’s all stainless steel, but not one bit of it is shiny like it was when she and Mark bought the place all those years ago.  What the hell had they been thinking?  Still, dumb as they were, it had worked out, and the pressure’s less, now that the kids are grown and the house paid off.  Maybe she can hire someone to come in here and scrub everything so it shines again, just to make it look nice and clean, like it was back then, before the residue of a thousand pizzas had accumulated.

She pushes out through the swinging door and threads her way between close-packed tables—the waitresses have always complained that there are too many—to the corner where the register sits.  The cup where they keep the pens is empty.  Damn it!

Just then, someone knocks on the front door.  Through the tinted glass, she sees big snow boots, a burly parka, and a scraggly snow-covered beard sticking out from inside the puffy hood.  It’s Ugly Beans, a guy who sometimes stops by for large quantities of pot that he deals to the college kids down in Amherst.

She gets her keys out, unlocks the door, and opens it, letting in a swirl of snow.  “Hey,” she says. “Need something?”

He nods, and she lets him in and locks the door behind him.

“Don’t have much on hand,” she says.  “You gotta call ahead.”

He stamps snow off his boots and pulls his hood off, revealing a bleeding lip and a pair of black eyes so fresh they look painted on.

“Holy crap, Beaner!”  She examines him.  “You want some ice for your face?  What happened?”

“Yeah, I know.”  He touches his lip with his fingers.  “Pretty bad, huh?”  His voice is thick; his words difficult to understand.  He holds one arm flat across his body, but she can’t tell through the thick coat if it’s his arm or his gut, or both.

She leads him into the kitchen and turns on the tap.  “Maybe some cold water first.”  She finds a rag under the sink and holds it out.  “Wash some of that blood off.”

“Is it still bleeding?”  He touches his lip again, then takes the cloth.

“You got blood in your beard, too.  What happened?”  She grabs a bowl, walks to the ice machine, and fills it.  “Here.”

He thanks her, takes a handful, and holds it to his eyes.  “Fuck, that hurts.”

He smells rotten, like he’s slept in a tub of rancid meat for a week, and his fingernails are black with grime. “Who was it?” she asks.

“Tiny and them guys.”

“You owe him?”

“He thinks I do.”

She nods. “I guess that’s what matters.  Wanna sit down?”  She guides him out of the kitchen to her office and clears papers off a chair. “I’ve got a story about Tiny. It’s a Christmas story, sort of.”

Ugly Beans tilts his head back, a cube of ice held to each eye with red fingers, the bowl in his lap. He’s undone his coat, but he still pins his left elbow to his ribs, like he’s wearing an invisible sling. “The one about the Santa at the mall?”

“Better.” She sits down at her desk across from him. “Your arm ok?”

“Yeah.” Dark threads of blood dribble from his beard down his neck and disappear into his grubby clothes. “What’s the story?”

“Back when his kids were little he had a Christmas party at his house—he had this big old house he got when his mom died.”  She remembers Tiny’s mom—short skirts, long legs, big boobs.  Rumor was she slept with all the dads in town.  “This guy Jimmy—you know Jimmy?—he got wasted and stepped on some presents under the tree. So Tiny’s all pissed off, and he pulls a knife and pokes Jimmy in the gut.  The cops come, and Jimmy goes to the hospital and gets stitched up and he’s fine.  Then—”

“Tiny go to jail?”

“Yeah,” she says.  “Just a year in county.  It was his first felony assault, I think.”

“First time he got caught, you mean.”

“Probably.  But listen to this: the cops can’t find the knife, so they seal off the house and come back with a warrant, and they go through the whole place, the garage, the yard, everything.  No knife.” 

He shifts in his chair, head still tilted back.

She can see a vein thumping in his neck, like there’s something inside trying to get out, and she wonders what he’s on.  Not just a little weed; something harder, she thinks.  “Turns out he put it in the tree like an ornament, just resting on a branch next to Santa and Rudolph.”

Ugly Beans snorts.  “What an asshole.”

“Yeah,” she agrees.  “Smart, though.  He went to college.”

I went to college.”  He drops the ice cubes back in the bowl.  The area around his eyes has grown darker and puffier. “UCLA.” 

“No shit?”

He nods.  “Engineering.  Anyway. How much you got for me?”

“Ten ounces, maybe. If that.” She opens a drawer, finds her scale, and sets it on the mess of papers.  Then, bending over in her chair, she reaches into the low cupboard behind her and takes out the locked metal box that holds her stash. When she turns back to face him, he’s looming over her with what looks at first like a machete. The blade is long and rusty with one bright sharp edge gleaming silver in the dim light.  His coat is unzipped, and his b.o.— rancid meat—is stronger and more oppressive than before.

“I’m sorry,” he says.

“What the hell?”  She stares at him, more annoyed than afraid, her box of pot resting on her lap.  It’s not a machete, she realizes; it’s a lawnmower blade, with duct tape wrapped around one end to make a handle.  “Seriously? This is what you want to do?”

“I’m sorry,” he says again.  The tip of the lawnmower blade dips toward the floor, and he jerks it back up again.

“You’re a dick,” she says.

“I know. I’m really, really sorry.”  His hands are shaking, and he grips his makeshift weapon so tightly that his red fingers turn yellow-white.

“I could prob’ly get that away from you.” She’s got a baseball bat, but it’s behind the stack of unwrapped presents.  There’s also a revolver in the bottom drawer, missing its firing pin; now she wishes she’d got around to fixing it.

He waves the lawnmower blade at her face. “Don’t try. I don’t wanna hurt you.”

She puts the box on the desk. “Get out of here.”

“Open it,” he says.

“You open it, asshole.” She throws her keys at him. He has to bend over to pick them up, but she doesn’t bother making a move.  She’s pissed, but she feels sorry for him too, she realizes as she watches him fumble to unlock the box.  Stinky, smelly, beat-up loser.

“Where’s the cash?” he asks.

“In my hairy cunt.”  She bites the word out, so the ‘T’ stays in the air between them.

“Come on, Norma.” He holds the weapon up, but he’s still focused on the box. Finally he gets it open. “I need that cash.”

She glares at him and folds her arms.

He scoops ziplock bags of weed out of the box and shoves them into the pockets of his parka. The blade flops sideways and hits her on the cheek, and she jerks back, lifting her fingers to the spot, eyes stinging with the sudden pain. “Ow!”

“Sorry!”  He jams the last baggie in his pocket. “God, Norma, I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to…”

“Asshole,” she mutters.  Her cheek is numb and wet with blood, and her right eye is tearing up. “Fuck!”

“I swear I didn’t mean to…  Just give me the cash, and I’ll get out of here.”

She finds her purse, pulls out a roll of bills wrapped in rubber bands, and throws it at him.

He catches it, crams it in his jeans pocket, and backs toward the hall.  Lowering the fake machete, he hesitates in the doorway.  “You still got that monster bong here? Wanna smoke a bowl with me before I go?”

“No, I don’t want to smoke a fucking bowl with you,” she hisses.  “What the fuck’s wrong with you?  Are you retarded?”

He zips the lawnmower blade under his coat and pins it to his side with his elbow “I’ll pay you back,” he says.  “No hard feelings.”

“Fuck you,” she growls.  “Get out of here.”

He looks as though he’s about to say something, but then he turns without speaking and walks away.  She closes her eyes, and feels sweat prickling her skin. Ten ounces, plus—how much cash?—at least four hundred. He shoulda taken the flat-screen TV; it’s worth more. Harder to carry, though.

She hears a noise, opens her eyes, and sees him standing in the doorway again. “What?”

“I can’t get out,” he says sheepishly. 

“Jesus Christ!” She grabs her keys off the desk, pushes past him, and marches through the kitchen into the dining room. “Give me the cash back and I’ll open the door.”

“Norma, I can’t.” He unzips his coat, reaching inside for the lawnmower blade.

“Aw, fuck, don’t bother.” She unlocks the door, holds it open for him, and smacks the back of his head as he walks through into bright snowy daylight.

When he turns, his whole face is an apology, overlaid with blood and bruises. “Norma…”

“Yeah, yeah,” she says. “Whatever.”

They stand there for a few seconds, looking at each other as snow covers his balding head.  “Merry Christmas,” he says finally.

“Get the fuck out of here.” She wishes she had something to throw at him.

He looks at her for another few seconds, then lifts his hood, turns, and trudges away through the snow, his oversized boots leaving fat footprints in the dirty white drifts.

She closes the door, locks it, and watches him cross the street, then walks down the smelly dark hallway to the bathroom.  She flips the light switch, turns on the faucet, and examines her cheek.  He nicked the skin, and there’s a red spot already darkening into a bruise. “Shit.” She rests her hands on the sink, shaking.  Without any warning, she starts to cry; tears stream down her face, and soon she’s sobbing, wishing she could go home and expect to find Mark there. She’d curl up with him on the couch, and tell him about Ugly Beans and his ghetto sword, and he’d hold her and give her a kiss, or storm out to find the bastard and beat the crap out of him for her.

But she can’t do that, because he’s probably off with the skinny bookkeeper, so instead she washes and dries her face and returns to the office. She pulls the flat-screen out of its box, carefully separating it from the Styrofoam packing, then finds her bat behind the stack of other presents, and takes a deep breath.  The shock of each blow travels up past her elbows as she hammers it again and again, clobbering the screen until every millimeter of glass is cracked. Then, sweating and panting, she repacks the TV, safeguarding it with the Styrofoam, and closes the box.  I’ll get Kelly to wrap it, she thinks, and I’ll put it under the tree.  Mark will love it.  I can’t wait to see his face.

Long Hair

by Uche Okonkwo

My parents cut my hair the day after I got my admission letter into Model Secondary School.

First, mother used her fabric scissors. She parted my hair into four sections and took them one at a time. Then father used his clippers, to make the cut smooth and neat. Mother nodded when it was done. She held me by the chin, turned my face this way and that. ‘Hair is a distraction,’ she said. ‘There will be plenty of time for it when you finish school.’

My head felt hot and swollen, but light at the same time. Naked. My parents were waiting for my ‘thank you’ so I said it, even though my throat was tight.

After packing my fallen hair into the bin I went to my room and looked in the mirror and cried. Then I asked myself what I was crying for. I have hair like mother’s; hair that never grows long even if you rub all the Virgin Hair Fertilizer in the world in it. It used to make me sad that my hair didn’t grow. But now I know that long hair can be a bad thing. If you don’t believe me, ask Jennifer.

 
 

Jennifer got transferred into our school when I was in Junior Secondary Two. They placed her in my class. Everyone kept saying how fine she was. I didn’t think she was that fine; but she was yellow and she had very long relaxer-straightened hair that reached the middle of her back. I used to stare at her a lot when she wasn’t looking.

When Jennifer first joined our school everybody asked her all the time, ‘Jennifer, are you mixed?’ ‘Jennifer, is your mother from London or America?’ Jennifer liked it when the other girls asked her these questions; you could tell she was the proud type. She would laugh and say yes to everything: Yes, I am mixed. Yes, I was born in London. Yes, my mother is related to the Queen. But we all knew she was joking. We had seen her parents – they were both fair but they were not white.

All the girls liked Jennifer but I used to look at her with side-eye; her type of hair needed an explanation. Nigerian girls don’t have this kind of long hair just like that and for no reason. We pay for her type of hair at the market, and then we pay more at the salon so they can fix it in for us with thread or glue. Then we wear the hair for six weeks so that the money we spent on it doesn’t feel wasted. And when it starts to itch we beat on our heads like drums, because everyone knows your fingers can’t reach your scalp when you’re wearing a weave.

It used to pain me the way Jennifer walked about the whole school as if it was her father’s land. Everyone knew her, even the teachers. If a teacher sent you to go and call Jennifer and you said which of the Jennifers they would say the long hair Jennifer. Or the oyinbo Jennifer. Every time I heard this I wanted to pinch their lips the way my mother does when I say something stupid. I wanted to remind them that Jennifer is not ‘oyinbo’; she’s not even as yellow as me. It’s like everyone forgot that they used to call me oyinbo, before Jennifer came with her hair.

Now they all kept saying Jennifer come, let us touch your hair, and with a sigh and a frown she would let them. She would keep the fake frown on her face as they played with her hair. They would say Jennifer you are so lucky; we wish we had hair like yours. Then Jennifer would sigh again and complain about how much shampoo and conditioner she had to buy to take care of her long hair. And the relaxer! Did they know she had to buy two big-size containers every time she needed to relax her hair? Don’t envy me, she would say, stroking her hair in a way that said the opposite.

 
 

Jennifer’s problems started when one girl had a dream. Everyone called this girl Vision, because she saw the future when she dreamt. One time she dreamt that there was heavy rain and the principal’s house collapsed, killing him and his family. She said it would happen in three weeks. Many months passed yet the principal’s house stayed standing, and nobody died. One other time she dreamt that a snake bit a student and she died. And truly, about two weeks after, some senior girls were cutting the tall elephant grass in the school’s field and they found a big snake. Vision said it was only by the mercy of God that the caretaker had been nearby to kill the snake, or else someone would have died that day. After this, everybody forgot about the principal’s house and every other bad thing Vision had said that did not happen. 

So Vision had this dream. She saw a very beautiful water demon, the type that village people call Mammy Water, sitting with all her pretty girl servants. (All Mammy Water girls are fine; everybody knows this.)  The Mammy Water was saying how she had sent an ‘agent’ to our school to make trouble. Vision had a very sweet mouth, and she knew how to tell stories. So when she started talking like this you believed her, even if you remembered that the principal was still alive and well in the house that should have killed him.

The same day that Vision told her dream, it spread throughout the whole school. After that, when any little thing happened everyone blamed the Mammy Water’s agent. It was the Mammy Water’s agent that went about the whole school stealing provisions and bath water and pooing in the wrong places. And sometimes the agent would stand outside the dorm at night dressed in black, frightening the girls who would later swear on their grandmothers’ graves that they had seen the thing with their own eyes.

Then Vision had another dream and announced that the agent was on a mission of death and anyone could be the target. We all had to be careful, she said, and sleep with one eye open because the person you call your best friend, your bunk mate, your classmate, that could be the agent, and you could be the one she was sent to kill so you won’t fulfil your destiny. Everybody grew even more afraid. Students stopped walking alone after dark. People were bedwetting more, and they blamed it on the agent. And it was true in a way; was it not fear of the agent that made girls lie on their beds and pee with their eyes wide open instead of going out to the convenience after dark? I know because it happened to me once – but that story is by the way.

Even though the school was upside down with this agent matter, Jennifer just went about as if nothing bothered her. Like she wasn’t one of us. So I whispered to my bunk mate Dumebi and told her that Jennifer’s habit of talking and laughing in her sleep was strange, that maybe she was talking to her fellow Mammy Water girls. I wasn’t doing anything bad; I only said what I was thinking. It’s not my fault that Dumebi carried the matter on her head and started asking the other girls what they thought. They were not sure if Mammy Water girls talked to each other in their sleep, they said, but it sounded right when they thought about it. Plus, someone added, all Mammy Water girls were pretty, with light skin and long hair like in Nollywood movies. Like Jennifer.

By evening the entire dorm was bubbling. Girls were whispering and pointing fingers and looking at each other in code. The agent was Jennifer and there was proof: one, her long hair; two, her fair skin and fine face; three, she spoke to her Mammy Water friends every night; four, she was such a deep sleeper that it took a whole day to wake her up, meaning her spirit travelled whenever she slept. One of the girls said that even Jennifer’s name was a sign, when you added everything else: Jennifer rhymed with Lucifer, and Lucifer was the father of all evil.

I didn’t feel sorry for Jennifer. She was busy pretending not to notice that the girls were not talking to her anymore, that nobody called her to admire her hair, or asked her to walk with them to the shops, or begged for cubes of sugar. Even her friends started finding ways to avoid her, to show everybody that no, they really weren’t that close. But Jennifer kept acting normal. I whispered to Dumebi that this was what a proper Mammy Water girl would do. Act normal while everyone ran mad. 

The next day, during evening prayers, the chapel prefect asked us to pray for protection from evil, and someone kept mentioning Jennifer’s name in their prayer. I did not see what happened next because I was busy with my own prayers, but I heard later that Jennifer jumped on the girl and that was how the fight started. We formed a circle around them as Jennifer held the girl’s body to the ground and plastered her face with slaps. Jennifer was screaming shut up shut up, and the girl was crying Jesus Jesus and trying to hit Jennifer’s face. But Jennifer was an expert. The way she lifted her neck and face up out of reach while using her knees and one hand to pin the girl down, you would know she had fought many times before. It took three prefects and the matron to separate Jennifer from her victim.

The girls whispered evidence number five amongst themselves: Jennifer was too strong for a normal girl. She had to be the agent.

It was only after they pulled Jennifer off that I noticed the other girl was Dumebi. Her face was packed with sand and swollen like a watermelon and I felt bad for wanting to laugh.

The matron dragged Jennifer and Dumebi to her house, and they did not return to the dorm until long after lights out. I know because I waited. I asked Dumebi what happened, but she just turned her back to me and covered herself with her wrapper. As if it was me who asked her to go and fight Jennifer. I turned my back too and went to sleep.

The next day Jennifer and Dumebi were sent to work with the kitchen staff as punishment. When they came into the room at the end of the day, everyone went quiet like they were expecting something to happen. But Jennifer went to her corner and Dumebi went to hers, and slowly the others went back to their business.

 
 

Dumebi kept acting funny the rest of the week. She seemed angry and wouldn’t speak to anyone. I think she was expecting us to thank her for fighting Jennifer, even though she had lost. In a way, Jennifer had lost also, because everyone was more afraid of her now. But what Dumebi did next surprised even me.

Late one night, when we were all asleep, Dumebi crept to Jennifer’s bed with a pair of scissors and started cutting off her hair. She had gone about halfway when Jennifer woke up screaming, waking the whole room. Somebody turned on the lights and we all stared from the safety of our beds with our mouths wide open. Dumebi was standing bent over Jennifer’s bed, holding the scissors in her right hand and a fistful of hair in her left. Clumps of dark hair lay scattered across Jennifer’s pillow and on the floor.

Jennifer had sat up in her lower bunk bed and was feeling the bare half of her head with shaky fingers. She looked like a confused child, and for one second I remembered the way I had felt when I first saw myself in the mirror with my new short hair. But then Jennifer flew from her bed, screaming like the demon she was, and attacked Dumebi. Everyone started to shout, a mix of anticipation and fear, as Jennifer pushed Dumebi to the floor and sat on her stomach. She grabbed handfuls of Dumebi’s hair, but it was not long enough for her to get a good grip so she started slapping and punching. But this time Dumebi was lucky, or maybe she had learned from the first fight. She managed to reach up and scratch Jennifer across her left eye. Jennifer stopped hitting and touched the scratch. Then she stared at the red stain on her finger like she’d never seen the colour of her own blood.

Seeing her chance at freedom Dumebi shoved Jennifer, who fell to the side, right next to the spot where the scissors had landed when it flew from Dumebi’s hand moments ago. Dumebi started to crawl away as Jennifer reached for the scissors, but before Dumebi could get far Jennifer sprang at her and stabbed with the sharp end into the back of Dumebi’s thigh. Blood, so dark it looked black, flowed from the wound and down Dumebi’s thigh. Dumebi stayed on her hands and knees and cried for her mummy; and Jennifer just cried. She let the scissors fall to the floor and began wiping her hands over and over on her night dress.

 
 

They sent Jennifer and Dumebi home on an indefinite suspension, after the principal paraded them before the whole school on the morning assembly. He called them ‘bad eggs’. Dumebi had a bandage wrapped around her thigh and a prefect had to help her up to the podium. Jennifer wore what was left of her hair swept to the side, to cover the bare half, but the breeze kept blowing it around. They both had their eyes fixed on a spot above our heads as they stood in front of us. The principal did not say anything about Vision or her dreams. He said there was no guarantee that Jennifer would be allowed back into the school; there would be a disciplinary panel to decide.

I kept a straight face throughout the assembly.

Dumebi never came back; her parents withdrew her from our school. I heard they also hired policemen to threaten the principal and he had to beg them not to have him arrested.

Jennifer returned, many weeks later. By then her hair was cut short like mine and Vision had had new dreams.

And Jennifer looked fine now. Pretty and normal. Like a proper Nigerian girl.

Mourning in Miami

by Marlene Olin

They sat shoulder to shoulder in the synagogue. The rabbi rocked on his heels, chanting the ancient prayers.  Behind him, a wooden cabinet housed the sacred scrolls. In front of him sat the casket. Flanking it on the right and the left were horseshoe-shaped wreaths woven with hydrangeas. Martha liked blue hydrangeas. These were white. Anyone who truly knew her would have known that she liked blue.       

Sunlight streamed through the stained glass windows.  A stream of dust motes followed. And there in the last row, behind the out-of-town cousins, hidden by the creditors waiting to be paid, out of sight of the caregivers hoping to be acknowledged in Martha's will, sat the three mourners. 

Though there was extra room in the pew, their elbows almost touched.  They were strangers. Their eyes faced forward. Their feet were heavily planted on the floor.  Rapt, they listened breathlessly. The rabbi was young, thin, boyish. Swallowed by an enormous prayer shawl, he struggled to find the right words.

"Martha Blatburg lived a long life.  A very long life."

She had outlived her few remaining friends.  Her husband Isaac, may he rest in peace, had barely tolerated her temper. Her children had been alienated by her verbal abuse. Those who knew her well, who drove her to doctor's appointments and cooked her food, who bathed her like a baby and rubbed lotion on her back, took care of her because they were paid to. Kindness, they knew, was a cultivated habit. Like saying please and thank you. Like taking your dirty shoes off by the door.

"When she was a child," said the Rabbi, "Martha developed rheumatic fever. No one, least of all Martha, thought she was going to live quite this long."

The three mourners shifted in their seats. The one closest to the aisle fished a handkerchief from his pocket. Manny Behar was an accountant. He had filed tax returns for Martha and her deceased husband for the last fifty years.  He was used to attending funerals. Six months earlier, his wife Rose had passed on. It was a blessing really. A day after her eightieth birthday, she went to sleep and never woke up. 

Rose was an early riser. Usually Manny opened his eyes to an empty depression in the bed. A pot of decaf would be percolating in the kitchen. The newspaper would be laid on the table. But that morning she lay flat on her back with her mouth gaping like a fish. Her lips had already grayed. Her hands had begun to turn cold. And he knew at that moment that something inside him had died, too. Like a clogged artery, a part of him ceased to function.  And now, months later, he sat in the synagogue once more.  He let the cadence of the singsong words, the liquid Hebrew melodies wash over him.  He saw his wife’s face on their wedding day. He remembered the softness of her skin.  And a pain as real and as malignant as a tumor returned.

Next to him sat Harvey Saperstein. Harvey was young enough to be Manny's son. His father had been Isaac Blatburg's business partner for close to thirty years.  Vague memories shifted in and out of Harvey's head.  A raucous laugh. The scent of cigarette smoke. A woman wearing a fox stole. He didn't know which memories were real and which were simply the Polaroid pictures tucked inside his father's desk or covering his mother's mirror.  Martha and Isaac, Isaac and Martha. Clowning with his parent's. Vacationing with his parents. Drinking with his parents. Now all four were dead.

"A gift," said the rabbi. "She was given a gift."

As hard as he tried, Harvey couldn't remember a single conversation he had with the Blatburgs. Nor could he remember his parents' speaking of them fondly. Their relationship seemed to be based on need, on business, on getting the job done.

Shirley, call Martha on the phone, would you?  Shirley, find some room in the calendar for the Blatburgs.

Harvey's father lived to work. There was never time for baseball practice, for award ceremonies, for driving him to college on that very first day.

Schmoozing, he called it. His father needed to do some schmoozing. 

And when he wasn't schmoozing, Harvey's father was at the office. When he wasn't at the office, he was at the track. A man's got to follow his instincts, his father would tell them. A man's got to follow his gut to get ahead.

"You know what's wrong with the world?" his father would bellow. "It's filled with small people. Small people who think small and act small." Then he'd take a nicotine-stained finger and poke him in the ribs.

 "Martha," said the rabbi, "was a woman of strong opinions. A woman who didn't hesitate to make her feelings known."

"You know what your problem is?" said his father. His breath was boozy. The pointed finger shook as he spoke. "You think you're special. That's what your problem is."

The problem with dying, Harvey realized, was that death shut doors. When there's life, there's hope. Hope that people will change. Hope that people will learn to love. Death is a thief. It robs you of possibilities. It silences apologies. It deprives you of your dreams. 

Harvey's shoulders jerked up and down. Sobs wracked his body. Snot ran down his nose.

“We stand before God humbled,” said the rabbi. "Devoid of pride and cleansed of shame."

Suddenly Harvey's clothes felt too big. He fingered his face expecting to find blooms of acne.  He was back in junior high, walking the hollow corridors, shrinking from whispers and taunts.   Then wafting from the air-conditioning ducts, he heard his father's voice once more.  It felt so near and real that Harvey looked up.  And there he was. A ghost in a leisure suit, sucking on a Lucky Strike, blowing a ring of smoke in his direction.

"Get a grip, for God's sake. And stop crying! You're embarrassing yourself and you're embarrassing me. You're an embarrassment to the whole fucking world."

Next to Harvey sat Lillian Wilmer.   Powdered cheeks. Rivulets of running mascara.  Like a mime, her mouth stayed shut. Only her hands moved. They were busy hands.  Her fingers ran up and down the pages of the prayer book. She hiked her pantyhose.  She organized her purse. Lillian was constitutionally unable to sit still.

Her house was across the street from the Blatbergs’. She and her husband had poured every penny of their savings into their home. "The neighborhood is worth it," she told her husband. "They're the best public schools in town."  How they slaved to pay the mortgage, to keep the cars in the driveway polished to a shine, to wash their windows, to mow the huge lawn.  "This house," she told her husband, "is an investment. An investment in the future. Our children's future. Our future."

"This house," said her husband, "will suck us dry."

The minute the children left for college, Lillian's husband left too. Now she was sixty-years-old and alone, her life as forsaken as an empty cupboard. Martha always had the nicest hydrangeas on the block. How Lillian envied those hydrangeas.

"Let us bow our heads in prayer," said the rabbi, "as we remember Martha and those loved ones no longer with us."

Silence filled the great room. The thermostat was set on high and above their heads a pendant lit with holy light swung. The scent of suits left too long in the closet hovered.  And from the back row, the three mourners out-cried them all.

When the rabbi finished, when all the words were emptied and every empty word was shared, he slowly worked his way down the center aisle.  He shook every hand. He kissed every cheek. But when he reached the final pew, he paused.  Standing on the pulpit, the rabbi had witnessed their great grief.  And he realized that even old ladies who cheat at canasta and berate the help have redeeming qualities.  God, in his infinite wisdom, accepts all into his fold.

He gripped Manny by the shoulder. “With time, the pain of your loss will heal,” said the rabbi.

“I filled out her W-2s,” said the accountant.

The rabbi glanced at Harvey.

“To me she was a snapshot,” said the business partner’s son. “A snapshot sitting on a shelf.”

Then the rabbi reached across the two men and grabbed Lillian’s wrist.

“Her hydrangeas,” said her neighbor, “were the color of the sky.”

Long after the sanctuary cleared, the three of them remained.  One grieved his past, the other his present, while a woman feared for her future. They sobbed and they wept, listening for that still small voice, hoping that one day they too would be offered redemption. 

Secret Valley Birds

by Dave Petraglia

“The hill will break your neck, Claire Roux,” Mssr. Fabre would say.

Aside the road the last apples clung to thinning canopies, dark ghosts sapped by the season’s first frosts. The air was a crisp sigh of moist, upturned earth drafting the sweet taint of dewy leaves, moldering stalks and wood smoke. Beyond, the morning fog cut the mountains off at the waist. Soon the skies would clear and admit a day bright and dry.

The bike between her legs chattered in protest as she dropped into the pull of the treacherous hill, her hands firm on the grips and her skirt gathered back to front with the real Franc Mssr. Fabre had given her, pre-war, weighty, no shoddy aluminum Vichy marker.

For all the danger, the speed was a seduction, the tires’ wobble a thrill in the struggle to steady the handlebars. Otherwise, it would be 10 minutes’ walk down to the valley, dodging ruts gauzed with thin ice, the rimy mud crusting her soles.

Not this day. At the bottom of the hill, having surely squeezed the last from her brakes, Claire chattered off onto a side path to a gate fronting a trim stone cottage set comfortably back from the road among the trees. She walked her bike around the house and parked it inside the shed there.

It should be that Mssr. Fabre answers the door to the house, his moon-face calm and warm, his eyes moist. He should wear his signature bowtie on a crisply pressed shirt, his one indulgence for her visits. And she should press another for him, as he took his customary nap, to wear on her next visit and hang in his closet before she should leave.

Claire’s mission of mercy this day should be the delivery of the medicine he was unable to retrieve from town on his own. Along with a few staples and the occasional letter or card or cheering missive from Fr. Albert at St. Astier, their church, through which she volunteered for this work of visiting the cloistered and forgotten.

It should be that the home would be warm and light, thick with rugs and shadowed windows, the scents of the fall nosegays the two had clipped and bundled together, the ticking of two large clocks.

Now should be the time they sit and sip their tea, the light should grow warm and bright in the room and the old man smile now and again recalling old, treasured confidences.

Then should there come from high up in the house, the soft tinkle of a tinny bell.

And Mssr. Fabre should lead them in a short prayer.

This should be time for her to go upstairs to the attic to retrieve the message that had just arrived by the efforts of ‘Papi’, lord of the loft, Mssr. Fabre's prized proud Bloody Red and Blue Eye. She should return with the capsule from the pigeon’s leg, and hand it to Mssr. Fabre. As was their custom, he should open the little canister, remove the paper folded inside and, without reading it, should hand it to Claire.

“S'il vous plaît, PO” he should say, in deference to the honor ‘Premier Ordre’ conferred by General de Gaulle himself, from exile, on her third anniversary of distinguished service to the Maquis, ‘fighters of the bush’.

This is the way things should be, the way they were on all those other days but no more. Claire let herself into the cottage with a key from under a pot on the back porch.

The house was cold and musty and empty of its larger furnishings.

This day, for appearances, she brought a small tin of fresh puree from chestnuts she’d collected in town, two biscuits, and enough pipe tobacco for two bowls. Mssr. Fabre’s eyes would have misted at the sight. On the road here, Claire could use them to buy a favor if needed. One hoped.

Claire stood before the gaping cold fireplace staring vacantly at the mantle as she ate the contents of the tin then licked the spoon clean. Before her was the familiar grainy photo of a young Mssr. Fabre and his then-new bride Claudette, and Claire had to admit, having endured Mssr. Fabre’s routine decrees of her resemblance to his late wife, that the likeness was notable. The same brunette sheen, in bangs, the sharp arch of the brows, clear eyes, the smallish keen chin. The young Mssr. Fabre draped his hand gently around the slim waist of her chiffony monochrome caftan, the sheer of its fabric obvious even in this aged photograph and eclipsed only by the radiance of their wide young, hopeful smiles. They were at the entrance to an inn in Morocco, beneath a sign ‘Hotel La Vallee Des Oiseaux’: ’Valley of the Birds Hotel’.

And then, as happens, she not so much came to like him in the grandest and deepest sense as much she felt the things that she disliked simply fell away, the gaudier of the embroidery unraveled, until all she could see was the kindness and grace in ‘Old Bird’, his code name, assigned by the Maquis.

That, she wondered may be just how love happens, after all. All the time.

Not all residents of the house were gone. In time she could hear the little bell tinkling upstairs. In the attic, a few remaining members of Mssr. Fabre’s decimated flock habituated the open, messy pens of the pigeon loft. There she found the venerable Papi, reliably making the journey still, when called upon.

"Hello, little man," Claire broke a few pieces of the biscuit she'd brought, and fed Papi from her palm. No surprise that he was calm under her arm. They'd been tested enough.

"Five days since my last bath, Papi, and you harbor no ill. Or you're none the wiser."

She deciphered the note: a vehicle would leave by noon. Claire guessed it had been the latest arrival in the town square, that one high, rickety troop carrier on the Wehrmacht’s worn synthetic Bunas, overinflated, with worn treads ripe for a blowout. They would overload with so many mere boys, pink-faced, eager gangsters, and drive fast as the Germans were now on the move, autumn advancing with them, and there would be little resources or time to investigate accidents.

A chill traced Claire’s spine. She looked out the attic window, to the bottom of the hill nearby, the lane patterned with the scarlet and brown and yellow leaves from Mssr. Fabre's untended orchard turned left and disappeared up the valley, for some, this day perhaps, to eternity, adding the red of their pedigrees to the foliage-splattered roadbed.

Claire could feel her heartbeat in her ears. The attic’s silence consoled her. She wanted to stay there and not go downstairs and through the house and out to the shed and her bicycle and not be the one to haunt houses empty but for memories and old lovely photographs and find herself eating a friend's puree as predictably as the sharp coppery, melancholic charms of autumn were to yield to the cold, dark advance of yearend, as surely as the occupants of an oncoming troop carrier would obey forward motion and gravity as obediently as she’d once tipped Mssr. Fabre’s wheelbarrow its weight of melons.

She rarely thought of the danger, of being captured and the interrogation and even the possibility that she would surrender some information she couldn't help. Capture would be the result of poor planning or a lapse of caution, and against those she could guard. Or, it would be the result of betrayal and against that there was no defense. And she knew that if she weren't planted in her footsteps just now, that would be a treason of her own and the only victim of that deception would be her own humanity.

"There are moments that make saints or heroes of us all," Mssr. Fabre would say, "and some people and moments that are none of these."

She went down the stairs.

The air was chilly in the sunless lee of the house. The vines on the trellis alongside the shed had grown unruly that summer. The grapes would have done better to lapse with Mssr. Fabre as their fruit had fallen expired, staining the patio to the delight of no one, but the for the pigeons, she saw, who clucked and pecked at the bounty. Life goes on with or without pruning.

Claire picked her way around the frosty rot, and closed the door to the shed behind her.

Time was short. Inside, her breath hung in the air before her. She removed the grips from the handlebars of her bike and with a small hooked piece of wire, carefully fished tightly-wrapped cloth tubes from each side. Inside each were stacked three 9mm pistol rounds. The bullets were round-nosed and dark, frangible rounds that would disintegrate on impact, a new mix of Bakelite, tungsten and titanium. Hopes were high that these would penetrate the larger truck tires and leave no recognizable remnants of a bullet behind, marking impact as no more than an untimely blowout.

It had worked before, the previous designs effective against smaller vehicles. Two towns distant this summer, the exploit had cost the Reich a staff car and the three officers in it.

Claire had more cargo, a piece made up as a hand-pump clipped to her bike’s frame. It was the barrel of the 9mm British Welrod, a silenced pistol that another Maquis would fit to a magazine and grip, and with the ammunition she'd brought, fire from the brush alongside the road at the bottom of the hill into the tire of the oncoming truck, at very close range. It was to replace the barrel usually kept at Mssr. Fabre's disguised as the base of a table lamp but having gone missing with the furniture.

Claire wrapped the barrel and the ammunition in a rag and placed them in an urn under the potting bench. She checked both ways from the shed door, and left pushing her bike. Beyond the old orchard, she rode the footpath that led across the fields of the valley, through a rustling natural topiary of golden grasses, dried shoulder-high tussocks and crusty seedpods, to the low shoulder of hills beyond and a road that would take her back to town from a safer direction.

On the road, she came upon two nuns walking, the Srs. Marie-Thérèse and Clémence from St. Astier, the shawls they’d added to their habits loosed with the warming sun. Claire hailed her approach with her bell, the tinny peal recalling Mssr. Fabre’s loft, the birds, obligations and regret and old photographs.

And his advice to her about her job at the bakery in town, “Don’t eat too well". Or others may think you a collaborator.

She thought of nuns on foot and the Reich seizing civilian bicycles more and more each day and wondered what kind of foolishness it was to treasure the hope she had for a long, slow soak in a quiet tub.

In the distance planes in formation droned towards the front.

Then directly overhead, a Bloody Red and Blue Eye, its little wings pumping in fits and starts, rocketing his shimmering bullet-body through the bright sky on some new mission.

Claire’s legs pumped gamely to keep up, Mssr. Fabre's firmly knotted Franc keeping her skirts safely gathered.

A secret force of nature as sure as the seasons, she thought this bird in this valley.

“Papi,” Claire said, “Mssr. Papi”.

January 8, 2010

by Vincent Poturica

On the one-year anniversary of Lasantha Wickrematunge’s murder, two weeks before Sri Lanka held its general election and Prageeth Eklinagoda, another journalist, went missing for good, after a long morning of being called a Westerner, a meddler, a bloody pest who couldn’t understand––all designations with which I agreed as I was then a white, male, twenty-four-year-old citizen of the U.S. working as a freelancer––yes, after being called many more names by a minor official at the Ministry of Defense––sudha, Americabe, big nose; I liked big nose––an official I’d asked to comment on whether there was a timeframe for when Tamil refugees in the North would be permitted to leave the teeming government camps and return to their bombed-out homes, now that the civil war was finally over, at least in theory, after thirty-five odd years––The years no one breathed, as my friend Shehan liked to say––after I focused on the minor official’s exceptionally long nose hairs that I imagined belonged to a parasite nesting in his nostrils, gorging on mucus, waving goodbye with skinny black tentacles to a world from which it preferred, sensibly, to hide, after I asked this minor official as, in his words, a Westerner, what I could understand, what traits all people could mutually agree upon as universal and necessary to lead a reasonably joyful life, after the official responded with the surprisingly wise statement, A people must feel safe, A people must feel love, after I told this official he was wise and that, although I couldn’t assure him of his safety, I could assure him of my love, after the official said, But you, Americabe, you do not know me, how can you say you love?, after I responded that it didn’t matter if I knew him or not, I loved him and everyone as best I could, albeit imperfectly, after the official told me I was not only crazy but also stupid, after I told him he was not the first person to say that, after he nodded to the security personnel standing at the door who proceeded to grab each of my arms, the barrel of one of their AK-47 rifles brushing my ear, the cold metal immediately arousing me, spawning a lump in my throat, intensifying my admiration for the guard’s delicate lips and my desire to kiss them, after the guard with the delicate lips asked me if I’d ever met Snoop Dogg as we walked down the long high-ceilinged halls leftover from the days of Britain’s imperial rule, halls charged with the colonial romance and nostalgia of a Kipling novel, after I answered, No, unfortunately, though my Dad grew up in Long Beach, after the guard responded, Oh that is too bad, I like that Snoop Doggy, after the other guard said, Shut up, Sunil, in Sinhala, after we walked from the Ministry to the first security check point wreathed in rusting razor wire, the Indian Ocean shining less than ten yards away, convincing me again of its sublimity, an observation I shared with Sunil who nodded thoughtfully and told me that he’d always dreamed of becoming a fish, or at least a sea horse, or even a stalk of kelp, in the next karmic cycle, so he could spend his next life underwater, far away from people, after I said goodbye to Sunil when the news van arrived––I didn’t recognize the middle-aged driver wearing a WWF t-shirt, but he smiled kindly––after I sat beside Gamini, my friend, who was sketching a picture of a faceless Buddha, after I said, How are you Gamini? and he replied, Oh my friend Tony, it is good to see you, after he held my hand tenderly––it’s customary for Sri Lankan men to hold hands––and asked me how my day was going, after I told him about being thrown out of the Ministry, after he laughed even though it was both funny and not funny, after I also laughed and noticed a shoeless boy from the van window, a boy throwing rocks at passing cars and clapping his hands, which made me happy, something about the purity of rebellion that, however futile or immature, always feels right, after I attempted to articulate this thought to Gamini, who nodded and said, Hmm, maybe so, as he often did when he was thinking, as he had on our recent hike into the Knuckles Mountains with his teenage daughter Mala as we walked along a green path and talked about the violin Gamini had recently been given by his Aunt Ruwanthie, an old, cheap violin, but it was still an instrument that made music if you were patient enough, after Gamini said, I do not know the right way to resist, after we talked about the weather (hot), the Conrad book I was reading (Victory), the Whitman poems I’d lent him, which he mostly liked, a Prageeth Eknaligoda cartoon he’d seen on the Internet that morning showing a giant snake attempting to swallow the egg from which it had just hatched, a snake under a full moon without a caption, after we talked about the election and I asked Gamini who he was voting for, Rajapaska or Fonseka, after Gamini said, I am not voting, I am going to stay home and play my violin, after I said nothing, after we said our goodbyes, after I picked up a jackfruit and pumpkin curry packet from by favorite kadé where the man never said a word but kept his head meticulously shaven and always made a little bow when he handed me the curry neatly folded inside the cream-colored butcher paper, after I bowed, after I thanked God for this food, after I sat down in the dusty storage room that also served as a cafeteria and kitchen, after I listened, licking my fingers sticky with pumpkin and rice, to Nisthar, one of my editors, answer my subeditor Miriam’s claim that he was a coward for not joining her and Nizla and Deepal and the many other journalists at the candlelight vigil to honor Lasantha, the journalist who had been murdered exactly a year ago for his relentless honesty, after Nisthar said, Well, of course, I am a chicken, after Miriam told him she wasn’t impressed, after Nisthar said, I do not ask you to be impressed, after Miriam said, I hope not, after Nisthar said, Do you really want to know what I think?, after Miriam––who, I must add, was quite pretty and always democratic with her sharp tongue; she often handed me back my articles, calling them shit––said, Yes, why don’t you tell us what you think for once?, after Nisthar, who was good-natured but also guarded as many are who have been badly hurt, said, Lasantha … the stubborn romantic bugger … you want to know what I think? after Miriam said, Yes, coward, tell us, after Nisthar said, We worked together at The Bottom Line then at The Nation … he was a lawyer first, you know … he came from a lawyer family … he had a bit of Dutch blood … or maybe Portuguese … the ones with power always do … always a drop of white … me, I am a brown bugger … no white in me … Allah be praised … no offense to our American friend … but Lasantha was a good sort … had the right sort of heart, as they say … he tired of corruption … became a journalist … he thought words might do some good … maybe they did before the windows were broken by bricks … before the presses were bombed to pieces … Lasantha, the bloody joker … he loved his chocolates … he loved his little boys … his wife was bit of a nag, but he loved her too … he used to hide behind doors and scare buggers in the newsroom … BOO … a mad joker … a bloody little kid to think he could have changed a thing … Allah be with him … the sun was shining when they shot him … it usually is … Lasantha … there’s a joker for you … just like me, after Miriam said she didn’t agree, after Nisthar said, That is fine, dear, after Miriam left, after Nisthar told me I needed to write an article about a Red Bull-sponsored motorcyclist from Germany demonstrating stunts at Victoria Park, after I told him about being kicked out of the Ministry, after he laughed, and said, What did you expect?, after I said, Right-o, after he said, Get out of here, you joker, after I said, Right-o, Right-o, Right-o, after Nisthar left and I walked the few blocks to Victoria Park with my hands in my pockets, whistling that perfect Jay Reatard song, It’s So Easy––It’s so easy / When your friends are dead / It’s so much easier / When you don’t even care / All these faces mean nothing to me / All these faces mean nothing to me––Jay Reatard, the Memphis punk who used to live in boxcars and who would die five days later––1/13/2010––of an overdose from alcohol and cocaine, the same blissful combination that took away River Phoenix and my Aunt Rose, after I climbed the thick branches of a nuga tree to get a better view of the motorcyclist––there was a larger crowd than I expected––after I thought about all those times my Aunt Rose had taken me to the beach or to the arcade or to the supermarket when I was small and then left me there to wander while she got high, which I didn’t blame her for, not even a little, this life isn’t easy, I thought, after I opened my notebook while waiting for the motorcycle show to start, after I sketched a picture of Sisyphus, my favorite lost soul, poor Sisyphus, hidden in some cold corner of hell, sentenced to roll his boulder up his forgotten hill even though he still hasn’t reached its apex because the boulder continues to roll back down right before he gets there, and Sisyphus will have to do his best to make it to the top again even though the boulder will continue rolling back down, over and over, forever and ever, after I made sure Sisyphus was smiling at the rock he was chained to, that his eyes were filled with the strange light of recognition, as if he saw that his curse was a door––the only door––by which to exit history’s obscene comedy, after pondering the obvious similarities between Sisyphus’s fate and our own, after laughing at the leafy branches of that nuga tree on which I sat, after watching two teenagers kissing in the shadows below me, after listening to a man––his face was so tired––on a branch beside me whistle a sad song that, like most songs, was probably about some kind of loss, I decided that I would be happy for the rest of my life, no matter what.

Angle

by Glen Pourciau

I’m looking at my phone in a comfy chair at the mall, more or less unaware of anything around me, when a man sits in the matching chair to my right and starts in on me with his story.  I think nothing of the way he looks or dresses, but he’s intent on making eye contact and that seems intrusive to me.

Forgive me, he begins, do you have a moment?  I’ve just witnessed something.  I travel in my work and I’m away from home and don’t know anyone nearby to talk to.  I could call someone, but I’m not married and not in a relationship and I don’t want to intrude on anyone who could be busy.  And what could they do about this situation since they’re not here?  I see that you’re occupied with your phone and it could be that you have something urgent to tend to.  No?   Then if you don’t mind, here’s what happened.

Without waiting for answers, he keeps talking, but he strikes me as being a little too interested in making me believe his story.  Why tell me his relationship status and why he’s not calling someone he knows?  More explaining than seems natural, something unconvincing about him, more like a person absorbed in his own head than someone who needs to talk about whatever he claims to have seen.  Does he mean to suggest that because I’m present he’ll expect me to take some action, and if action is needed, why hasn’t he taken it?

I stop by malls to stretch my legs, he continues hurriedly, to be around other people, pleasant environment, weather’s not a problem, get some exercise, quick bite in the food court, then on my way. I’m going out to my car and I see a youngish man and woman arguing, not just a discussion but heated and loud, and some people, like me, are standing outside the exit watching them.  The man is demanding that the woman get in the car, but she won’t do it and shouts so that all of us can hear that she’s not going anywhere with him.  I have no idea how long this has been in full uproar, but my car is on the other side of this scene or incident, and I’m not about to walk through it, not knowing what could erupt at any moment.  The man’s frustration with the woman grows and we can’t hear every word they say to each other but all of it is heated and finally the man turns and smashes his fist into a side window.  The window does not break, and the man cries out in agony and shakes his hand as if he’s broken most of his knuckles and then rubs his shoulder and curses and yells:  You see what you do to me!  She’s furious that he blames her for the window punching, and she starts away from him toward the mall, toward us, the watchers.  I take an instinctive step back, as do most of us, but the man runs after her and grabs her arm and pulls her back.  I notice that a few of the watchers are talking to their phones, reporting the incident, I guess, or perhaps telling their friends.  I turn and come back into the mall, unsure what I should do.  I don’t see a security person anywhere and I would think that at least one of the phone users was calling someone to take charge.  Not sure if I sound coherent, I’m still rattled.  I mean, the guy was rough and he could have had a weapon, who knows?  I couldn’t try to stop him without risk to my safety, could I?  I’m not trained to handle this type of crisis.  So what do you think?  Should we go out there?  Maybe we could find a way to help her.  She wasn’t giving in to him, but how long can she protect herself and what will happen to her once he gets her in the car with him?  They’re right out there, he says, and points toward a corridor that leads to covered parking.

I don’t answer, don’t get up, don’t react, don’t know whether to trust this stranger.  I come to the mall about twice a week and I’ve never seen anything like what he’s described. Why has he chosen me to speak to?  Is it because I’m somewhat older than he is and he presumes I have more experience, or does he hope to lure me outside and overpower me because he thinks I’m too old to put up much of a fight?  What would happen if I went to the parking lot with him?  Would he walk me to the car where he’d say he witnessed the scene?  Would someone be there waiting for us, someone working with him? What’s his angle? Does he have one?  Could he be doing this just for fun?

Did you hear what I said? he asks. Don’t you feel any responsibility for what happens to that woman?  Are you saying you don’t care about the danger she could be in? Is that what you’re implying?

His face takes on an expression approaching outrage. Is his growing emotion real? Has he seen something he doesn’t know how to deal with? Is he sincere in wanting my help? I don’t answer his questions, not any of them.

Are you judging me for walking away from them? How can you do that when you sit there in silence, basking in the neutrality of this processed mall atmosphere?  What is it, in your mind, that makes you human? Not the power of speech, apparently.  For God’s sake, answer me. You think I’m sitting here talking to you because I want to be ignored and therefore disrespected?

As he speaks, a woman with a phone that she’s already fingering approaches an empty chair opposite us, but hearing the anger in the talker’s voice, changes her mind and goes on her way. I hesitate to do as she has done, my distrust causing me to wonder what forces could be at work. I fear the talker will follow me if I attempt to walk away from him, that he could have a partner whose eyes are on us and the two of them could converge on me as I get in my car.

Don’t you have anything at all to say? the talker demands to know, but he sees that nothing will come from me. He stares at me with disgust, as if his eyes could tear a response from me, and then stands and heads toward the exit where he says the argument took place. Why should he be indignant, assuming he was sincere and he did come across a violent altercation? Didn’t he flee the scene? If he was looking for help, why didn’t he ask anyone there to help him? I can’t make any sense of his behavior or his sudden anger, so why should I accept what he’s telling me? If I went with him and confirmed too late that his story was part of a con, these questions would be ones I’d later think should have been heeded.

Yet, I’m tempted to follow him at a distance to see if anything might still be going on, to see if I can learn something that will help me understand why he has told me the story. Not that much time has passed and a police car could be in the parking lot and bystanders could be gathered. But I haven’t seen people rushing toward the exit to catch sight of some unfolding drama. If I follow him, would I be letting him maneuver me with his story and accusing insults? Would he be watching for me?  Is that idea ridiculous?

I pocket my phone and look around for anything that seems suspicious. I picture myself walking along the wall of the corridor he’s pointed to until I reach one side of the exit doors. I peek out and see him talking to a man who’s almost a head taller than he is, both of them close to the trunk of a parked car, the conversation animated, the man appearing to be known to him.

The longer I sit, the more I feel like a target. I get up and take a walk around the mall, vigilant, wondering how much he could know about who I am.  I see nothing that arouses my concern, but as I start to relax I imagine a man smashing his fist into a car window, his bones giving way on impact, the woman possibly seeing her reflection in the glass.

I’m not parked near where we were sitting and not in a covered lot. Eventually I walk into the open air.