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.

A Day at the Races

by A. Scanlan O'Hearn

When Jimmy said they’d spend a day at the races, Jaycee thought of the expression, It’s a dog’s life, and then, what the fuck is that about? Any dog she ever knew was layin’ in the dirt in a hole-strewn back yard on a short leash next to an empty bowl.  But Jimmy really did mean a day at the races, not like they’d stand trackside or sit in the grandstand looking down on the horses. Definitely not the clubhouse.  He meant the OTB.   You’re my goddamn lucky rabbit’s foot, he said leading her by the arm to put down for the first trifecta, then forgot she was there and left Jaycee to wander off. She might have been the only female in the place, everyone either old or male or both standing around faces bent over racing forms, or staring at screens then running to windows before the bell to win or lose again. Jimmy’d find her when he needed her, so she made her way to the ‘cafetorium.’  At least they had beer.

From her table, Jaycee scanned the crowd, mostly they were looking at her.  She knew she still looked good and tried to stay fit, keep her hair fashionably cut, wore jeans and heels when she was goin’ out. That’s the way Jimmy liked it, too. If I wanted a mother fuckin’ mother, I’da stayed home, he told her.  You don’t got kids, do ya?  When she said yeah, but long gone, that satisfied him. They’d been living together for a year.

A young woman at a corner table caught Jaycee’s eye. A bit pretty, alone.  The girl was scanning the crowd too.  Jaycee tried to picture her man, maybe an older guy who’d treat her right for the day, maybe another Jimmy who needed luck.  Maybe the girl really was alone, too, just here for the beer. The girl continued to look around, then oddly landed her gaze on Jaycee and smiled. Uh oh, one of those. Then Jaycee knew she wasn’t. The girl was on her way over. Jaycee put her head down, pretending to rummage through her bag.  When she looked up the girl was at her table, a real shit eatin’ grin on her face. Like she was stoned, or just coming off somethin’.

 Jaycee wanted to get up and walk away. She wanted to call Dean, the one person she could call at any time and he’d answer. She’d raised him after all. But the girl’s face made Jaycee stick. 

‘Can I show you somethin’?’

‘I’m sorry?’ The girl was prettier than Jaycee first thought, but tired, pale, her eyes heavy, like she just woke up in a car outside. Probably did.

‘There’s somethin’ I need to show you,’ and the girl put her hand on Jaycee’s arm, reaching and then resting it there heavy. They stayed like that a second. Again, Jaycee wanted to leave.

‘It’s this way,’ and with that the girl was looking over her shoulder to be sure Jaycee followed.  Jaycee sat a second.  She wanted to call Dean, reached into her bag. The girl was back.

‘Please.’

Everything told her not to. She’d been that girl, had run that game herself. 

‘This better be good,’ and Jaycee got up from her seat, slung the plastic cup of beer back. 

By the time she had downed it the girl was out the cafetorium door and into the crowd under the monitors, now denser than before, people running from bet to bet as the chances at winning grew smaller and smaller.  Jaycee couldn’t see Jimmy anywhere, but they all blended together, now a few more women, too, all eyes on the screens above their heads.  Jaycee spotted the girl twenty or so feet ahead, looking again over her shoulder to be sure Jaycee was behind her.  She thought for a minute she’d duck out.  It wasn’t too hot and she could wait by the car, although it might be a couple of hours, but the girl kept moving forward, and Jaycee followed.  Jaycee fished around in her bag for the phone.  She’d call Dean.  He’d talk her out of it, or through it.

Ma, what’s the matter? I’m workin’

Dean?

Yeah, Ma, this isn’t a great time, can I call-

Dean, I’m about to get into somethin’

Ma, I can’t talk.  I’ll give you a call later.

Dean, you know when you’re headed for somethin’ you shouldn’t?

Ma, really, I gotta go.

The girl entered the ladies room and Jaycee followed.  Son of a bitch.  He had no time for her.  She couldn’t blame him, though, twenty-five, carefree.  Living the good life, the one she gave him and lost herself. The girl was right inside the door when Jaycee swung it open. Then she was standing firmly rooted right in front of the stalls, her arms nearly wrapped around herself twice.

‘What’re you sellin’?’

‘Huh?’  The girl looked at Jaycee like she’d never seen her; her face had gone sheet white and Jaycee noticed for the first time her clothes were dirty, her hair around her neck matted and sweaty.  The girl started to shake and Jaycee knew she had a drug addict on her hands.  The girl didn’t move, stood stuck with her feet planted on the tile floor.

‘It’s there.’

‘Listen, honey, I don’t want it whatever it is’ and Jaycee reached into her purse.  She’d give her a twenty and get out.  She shouldn’t have come, but it was something about the girl, the way she reminded Jaycee of being young, although Jaycee suddenly wondered if being young had been all that great.

‘Just look at it, that’s all,’ and the girl, her feet still unmoving, her body in a gesture so pathetic, the way she reached, Jaycee thought she’d fall over. 

‘There, in the last sink, ‘ and Jaycee looked down the wall past the stalls to where a bank of sinks ran under some dim lights, the bulbs above mostly dark.  Jaycee could make something out in the last sink.  Was the girl trying to sell her clothes?  It was a dark mass of something and then Jaycee thought for a minute it was moving.  She moved closer to look without getting too close, suddenly afraid of something biting her.  She’d known of people selling exotic pets.  The girl could have brought her boyfriend’s cobra, for Christ’s sake.

Brown and crumpled paper towels filled the sink and now Jaycee knew something in there was moving.  She could make out what looked like the arm of something, dark and wet. No, she wasn’t interested in any reptiles, thank you. The thing let out a cry and Jaycee jumped.   A cat?  Whatever it was it was in distress, the cry a half choking sound, it reminded Jaycee of something.  And then it hit her. It was a baby, the fuckin’ thing was covered in blood, just about dried.  It was dark, maybe black, as Jaycee looked closer, she could see its arms and legs entangled in the towels, its mouth sucking on a wadded up corner, the thing struggling to survive.

‘Are you fuckin’ kiddin’ me?’ she turned to the girl.  But the girl was gone.

Even if It’s Only Me

by Lance Dyzak

Carolyn read somewhere that in the ‘90s mothers were dropping their babies into public toilets. Tiny corpses discovered by the janitors and covered in wet toilet paper, the umbilical cord still attached. And she reassured herself with this knowledge – Steven could have had it worse.

She laid the suitcase at the end of the bed. The hard-covered American Tourister that her father had given her when she went away for college. She remembered the old excitement of snapping open the catches. The hinges yawned as she unfolded it, and the smell of it was musty, like a vacant motel room. Carolyn ran her fingers over the satin lining and felt the current of her adrenaline like an electricity. She’d sent Steven out to ride his bike and told him not to come back for an hour so that she could concentrate. All morning she’d been clumsy with anticipation. When she’d pulled the suitcase away from the closet door, she banged the wooden jamb so hard that it chipped the paint. For the first time it seemed possible. This was step one. Step one was required before you could get to step two. Step one meant that she was on her way. Step one was part of the process.

The sun poured in through the bushes in front of her bedroom window and left their pattern on the wall. The bedroom was spotless; everything dusted and cleaned, the bed sheets pulled taught against the mattress and tucked into the corners. The bedcover, with its pattern of country flowers, was flat against the sheets like a canvas. There were no distractions.

She might have run around the world. Instead, she went to Steven’s room.

Just the essentials, enough to get him through. She went to his dresser at the far wall. All of his winter clothes were in the bottom drawers. She tugged the lowest one open and took out two of his sweaters and a long-sleeved thermal tee-shirt. She gathered them into her arms and went back down the hallway. It would have been more efficient to bring the suitcase into Steven’s room, but it felt better to do it this way; in steps. Every round-trip with another load of essentials was one more step. She went from the lowest drawer to the highest: two pairs of jeans, a hooded sweatshirt, three undershirts, three pairs of underwear, three pairs of socks. She went to his closet: two buttoned-down dress shirts, one pair of dress pants, his dress shoes, his winter coat, a stocking cap, a pair of gloves. She went into the hallway bathroom: his toothbrush, toothpaste, a comb, a container of shampoo. Slowly the suitcase filled. It was so big, and everything he had seemed small in it. She didn’t notice Steven behind her.

“You’re acting weird,” he said. The noise made her jump.

“Jesus kid, you scared me,” she said, and tried to smile. “What did you say?”

“Why are you acting weird?”

Carolyn went for her bathroom.

“I’m not acting weird,” she said, over her shoulder. “I thought I told you not to come back—”

“It’s been like two hours. How long will we be gone?” He stood in the doorway, thumbs hooked into the front belt loops of his jeans.

“I told you, I don’t know yet.”

She’d told him the week prior that they were going away on a long trip to see some friends. It was such a simple thing to tell him then, this shapeless thing that they were going to do together. But when he’d walked in just now she was unguarded and lightheaded from the idea of it. She didn’t trust what she might say to him. Everything rang in a high pitch. She knew he’d want more details, had prepared for more details, but now she pushed the details away. Carolyn shut the door right in his face. He knew which lines not to cross. The floor tiles were cool on her bare feet.

“What about school?” His voice reduced, dribbled in through the cracks. His feet little dark spots at the bottom, flitting in and out of the grim light beyond the door.

“We’ll worry about all that later.” The shower walls were lined with ceramic tiles just like the floor, all blues and grays. “This is summer vacation,” she said, speaking to the tiles. “School isn’t going anywhere.” She waited in the bathroom until she heard him leave. Then Carolyn went out and closed the suitcase, snapping everything shut. It wasn’t like him to interrupt. She saw that he was spooked, and that she needed to be careful.

He came out of his room a few hours later. Carolyn made turkey sandwiches and served them with corn chips and cherry Pepsi. They sat at the kitchen island under the dull glow of the pendant lamp. Steven ate slowly, taking small bites as Carolyn studied him. He was fidgeting with the digital watch that she’d given him for his birthday, breathing through his mouth like he did whenever he was concentrating. The questions from that morning had all dried up. The watch didn’t keep great time and he was always adjusting it. She listened to his breathing and the little electronic chirps. She cleared the dishes (the little bites up to the edge of the crusts), and Steven wiped down the table.

That night they watched a rerun of All in the Family on the Me-TV channel. The one where Edith asks Archie how he wants his bowling shoes laced and Archie tells her what’s the difference? Steven went to bed without being told, something that Carolyn had instilled early on. All the lights were off in the living room; there was just the flickering and the steady murmur from the television. Carolyn watched as he slid down from the recliner and disappeared into the hallway. Carolyn turned off the television a short time later. As she passed Steven’s room, she could hear him moving around on his mattress.

She was glad that she’d decided to put fresh sheets on her bed. It was satisfying to feel them fold away neatly as she turned them down. They were cool on her feet just like the bathroom tiles, and she loved the way they made her feel enveloped, neatly folded. But Carolyn’s mind wouldn’t slow down enough for sleep. She’d taken a pill, but her thoughts still somehow slogged through and ping-ponged around in her skull.

She and Marc on a day trip to Door County. They’d taken the ferry out to Rock Island and hiked around the lighthouse. Early October and the temperature just above freezing, but warmed by the sun inside of their ski jackets. Marc with his beard grown out for the deer season. Inside the little tavern with the worn leather and the ancient dark timber.

 Hey… he’d said, after she finally told him. Hey, hey, hey… Just kept saying it over and over again, like a lullaby. Kept wiping his beard with his thumbs. The tears leaking out as if she were cracked open. Keeping it is the right thing to do he’d said. I love you he’d said. I’ll be a father for you he’d said. We can still get through school. You can still have a career. This will all work out.

The bizarre way Steven had seemed to her as a baby. Sexless in the beginning. The nose and the ears too big for the face. The skin dry. The strange way it would slough off around the scalp. An old man, shrunken and useless.

It. That’s how she’d referred to him during those first days. There were two times she’d said it out loud. The doctor presenting him like a waiter with a bottle of wine. Why is it so red? Her limbs distended and obscene against the whiteness of the recovery room. Marc reading off baby names. I don’t give a shit, Marc. Call it whatever you want. The nurse excusing herself and the click of her shoes. She had to train herself to call him by his name. It became a taboo word, like fuck or cunt. But it’d taken months before she could cleanse the word entirely from the way she thought about him – Steven.

Outside her door she heard the sharp snap of the hallway light switch, and a cold anxiety passed through her. It meant Steven had had another nightmare. He began calling for her, as he always did. His voice, tinny and stranded in the hallway, normally irritated her during these episodes, and she would yell to him from under her bed sheets to go back to sleep. But tonight was unlike those nights. A few empty seconds passed. Carolyn took a deep breath and held it against the weight of the silence. Then she heard the soft thud of him backing up against her door and the hiss of his body sliding down the length of it. She rose slowly and crossed over the room toward him. When she opened the door she could feel his weight pushing it inward, as if the hinges were spring-loaded. He rolled back slightly – crouched into a ball with his arms slung over his knees – and lolled his head up toward her. He was wearing the footed pajamas again.

“I thought I told you to put those in the Goodwill box,” she said. “You’re twelve years old now.” He was picking the lint balls off of the sleeves.

“It was the guy with the big head again. He was standing in the doorway.” The big-headed guy was a frequent visitor. Carolyn looked down the hall toward Steven’s bedroom and knelt down beside him.

“Look at your door,” she said. “Is he there now?”

“No,” he said, into the crook between his knees. She nudged him on the shoulder. “C’mon then. Back to your room.”

“Can you tuck me in?”

Carolyn stood over him and ran her hands through her hair, holding it in a heavy, wiry ball above her forehead.

“Yeah, I can do that,” she said, and started down the hallway toward his room. She turned back toward him at the doorway. Steven was trailing timidly behind, using one hand to trace the length of the wall with his fingertips. “C’mon kid, I’m tired.”

She opened his closet door and yanked on the pull chain for the light. The metal grommet leapt up and rattled against the bulb. She pushed the door forward with the tips of her fingers and let it swing slowly open to let the light pour out. She’d forgotten that his closet was now mostly empty and the sight of it caught her for a moment.

“Hey mom…”

“Hmm? Yeah?” She looked back over her shoulder. Steven walked to his bed along the far wall and went back in stiffly under the covers.

“What’s it like in Nebraska?”

She didn’t mean to laugh, but it was so absurd. She’d never really thought about it. “I just—” she started. His expression shifted and she knew that he was puzzled by her reaction. He’d assumed she’d deliver something a bit more standard. Rolling hills? Omaha?

She made a gesture toward the closet door. “Look, he’s not in here either.” Steven rolled toward the wall, which gave Carolyn an odd sense of relief. “There’s nothing to be afraid of, it was just a dream.”

“I’m not afraid,” he said.

“Then why are you bothering me?” She stepped past him. “We’ve got a big day tomorrow so you should get some sleep.”

“Hey mom…” Carolyn paused at the doorway. “I mean I’m afraid at first, and then it goes away. It’s like I’m still dreaming when I first wake up.”

“Yeah, I know.” She sighed and rubbed her eyes. “I have nightmares, too, kiddo. You just get used to it, Steven. It’s part of growing up.”

Carolyn left his door open a few inches, just enough to let the light from the hallway fall over his face. He wasn’t a bad kid, just so goddamned needy. And she was so sick with it; too sick most of the time to give anything away anymore. The pill was making her feel groggy and swollen; she could feel her pulse in her lips. Sleep wasn’t an option, so she went into the spare bedroom and sat behind the small, laminated computer desk to wake up her laptop. There was the light from the screen.

She’d mapped the route over a month ago. But back then it was just a whim, like when she would pretend to sign up for classes at the UW-Extension. It was roughly seven hundred miles from the house in Marinette, on the thumb of Lake Michigan, to Douglas County, just over the Nebraska border. She studied the screen without blinking, and read the estimated time and distance, over and over. Ten hours, twenty-seven minutes. They could drive straight through and be there the same day. The route looked tedious, a diagonal slice through the Fox Valley (Kaukauna, Winnebago) along Hwy 151 toward the Mississippi River (Mineral Point, Platteville), crossing over it at Dubuque, and then through the entire length of Iowa.

There were similar laws in other states. Texas called theirs the Baby Moses Law. But the one they passed four months ago in Nebraska was different because they didn’t set an age limit. They called it the Nebraska Safe Haven Law, which for some reason made Carolyn think of a bird’s nest. Thirteen Nebraska babies had been discovered dead and abandoned within a span of ten months. A genuine epidemic. One was unearthed by a dog, wrapped in aluminum foil. So they passed a law. Meredith, one of the girls from Cosmetics, was fanatical about it. She was always yelling about the latest details as she flipped through the newspaper in the break room. Jesus, Carolyn. I mean shit! Did you hear about this guy that dropped off his entire family? It seemed like there was a new story every week. Carolyn would always nod and make an impatient expression, a halfway smile. Another one, Carolyn! Another one! Did you see it?

Carolyn had kept the idea incubated in her mind, quarantined to barracks unpatrolled by her conscience. She had kept the idea and used it in the same way the terminally ill keep a suicide cocktail. For comfort. But then the news stories had kept coming and coming and she knew they would ruin everything. She knew she would have to decide.

#

The morning arrived cloudless and stifling, but the house was surrounded by tall evergreen trees, which kept it cool and dim. She’s meant to get them on the road before noon, but she couldn’t shake the feeling she was forgetting something Steven might need. She kept drilling him for answers. Do you have your extra pair of glasses? Where’s the wallet I gave you? And so they left later that afternoon. When Carolyn finally stepped out the front door and out of the shadows, the shock of the sun temporarily blinded her and she squinted her eyes against it. With the weight of the suitcase, she stumbled from the narrow walk onto the grass. August had been dry – it hadn’t rained in weeks – and so the grass was brown and the blades crunched with each footfall. After a few steps she stopped and slowly widened her eyes as they adjusted. Everything was drained of color. She turned and saw Steven as he struggled with the door, a dark lump against the shade of the house. He had to tug on the knob to force the door shut. The keys jangled as he pried the tumblers of the lock into position. Carolyn winced when the deadbolt finally snapped and wished she’d thought to let him out first – to be relieved of this spectacle. It was just last year that she’d handed him his first key ring with the set for the front door.

He had his backpack slung loose, and the bottom of it hung down below his belt, weighted down by whatever he could fit. She’d told him to bring along his favorite things. As Steven jogged toward her, it jostled up and down on his narrow shoulders. Carolyn opened the rear door of the car, and he heaved it into the backseat. As Carolyn pulled away from the curb, an elderly woman with a watering can flapped her arm at them.

#

On the day the news broke that Nebraska was going to set an age limit there was a related story in the paper about a woman – out of work and a thousand miles from any semblance of her extended family – who took her daughters to the hospital. She told the ER staff that the girls had a strange rash and didn’t know what to do. Then, while the nurse knelt down to look them over, she excused herself to use the bathroom and didn’t return. So simple. So clean. One moment she was a mother. And then she wasn’t anymore.

Meredith had been beside herself. The headline read: Another ‘Safe Haven’, and directly underneath it there was a full color photo of the mother. The reporter had dredged up a mug shot, a DUI judging from her glassy-eyed expression. She looked too young to have children, and Carolyn had wondered absently if either of her daughters were around when the picture was taken. She didn’t look crazy or vengeful, just confused. Maybe a bit naïve. Her eyes averted the camera.

Carolyn imagined this woman holding one of the babies with the same glassy-eyed expression that she wore in her mug shot. She wondered if Meredith considered herself a good mother. Probably. Meredith was just as full of shit as everyone else. Carolyn had never claimed to be a good mother. But she had been a guardian. Keeper and provider. She gave her son food when he was hungry. She cleaned him when he was soiled. When he was cold, she put more clothes on him. But there was an emptiness in the way she did these things, and she derived no pleasure from it. It was as if he were assigned to her.

“Six and eight years old. Can you even imagine it?” Meredith had asked.

“No, Meredith. I can’t imagine.”

“Where do you think they get—”

“The first of September it all ends, Meredith. I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”

#

They were just a few hours from the Nebraska state border when last gasp of sunlight disappeared behind the horizon. There was no moon. Ahead, beyond the pallor of the headlights, there was darkness. Darkness like Carolyn had never seen. It seemed to have a thickness, a heaviness that weighed down on them.

“Where are we?” Steven asked. In the darkness, Carolyn could only see his face, lit by the electric blue lights of the dashboard. He looked frail, corpselike.

“We’re almost to Des Moines.” Her voice was monotone. She looked at the clock. It was almost ten. “I thought we could make it there, but then the sun went down and it sapped everything out of me. I have to stop for a bit. Just for a bit. We’ll pull over so I can sleep.”

There were no other cars on the road, but out of habit, Carolyn flipped the turn signal anyway. The amber light flashed against the pavement as she veered the car over to the shoulder. The tires whined against the pattern of the rumble strip, and then whispered over the gravel shoulder as she brought it to a stop. The night had grown cold – cold enough that she’d switched off the AC and had the heater running.

In the trunk there was an old woolen blanket that she kept for emergencies. She took it and climbed back in behind the wheel. Steven was slumped back against the window. Carolyn reclined her seat as far back as it would go, and she hit the automatic locks.

“I just need like twenty minutes of sleep,” she said. “Christ, it’s too quiet.” She turned the keys forward in the ignition, and the dashboard sparked back to life. “Why don’t you try to find something on the radio.”

He began to play with the dial, but there was only static. It pulsed over the speakers in waves.

“There’s no signal,” he said.

“Just keep trying,” she said, and spread the blanket over her. Steven shifted in his seat and paused with his fingers on the knob.

“Mom?” His voice was just above a whisper, and there was no depth to it.

“What…” She had begun to nod off. The words were muffled under the blanket.

“Why don’t you have a suitcase?”

#

Her sleep was shallow, just below the barrier of consciousness. In her dreams Carolyn was back in her own bed, burrowed under the weight of the comforter with the country flowers. She thought she was alone, but then a small voice from across the room disturbed her. Somehow she knew that it was Marc. He kept asking to borrow the car, a test to see if she were awake. But she pretended to be asleep. When she peeked at him she saw that Marc was a boy, maybe thirteen years old. He was reaching into her sock drawer where she kept the jar of spare change. She became angry, saying, “If you touch that jar, I will kill you.” He paused, caught for a moment, and then turned suddenly toward her. His eyes were full of tears, and there was a curious look of surprise, as if he’d not realized she was there.

“I missed my mother,” he said, the words weighted with sadness. “I miss…”

He came over to the bed then and crawled in with her. But when she felt him – his embrace, his hot tears against her neck – she was not his mother. She sobbed along with him. There was a feeling of admitting, of blissful release. “I know… I know… I know…”

When Carolyn woke, it was cold inside of the car. She could feel it at the tip of her nose and her fingers. The wool fibers of the blanket were damp from her breathing. For a moment she lay still and felt her heart beat against her chest. There was a crackling sound coming from the radio, and behind the static a man’s voice sputtered. She pawed for the edge of the blanket and peeled it away from her face. The pale light of the dashboard reflected on the window. She could see the reversed numbers of the clock. It was after midnight.

“Shit.” Her throat was raw from breathing in the cold air. “Why didn’t you wake me up?” She turned toward the passenger’s seat, but Steven had moved into the back while she slept. Half-dazed, she was momentarily unable to process his absence.

In the back of the car, his form was barely visible in the darkness. He had the hood of his sweatshirt pulled over his head, and his hands were jammed into the front pocket. She leaned in closer, squinting her eyes, which allowed her to see the slow rise and fall of his torso as he breathed. Carolyn gripped the top of the driver’s seat and collapsed over the headrest. She was looking out of the backdoor window, but with the light from the dashboard the window became a mirror. She studied the small, metallic levers on the armrest, the slim cylinder of the door lock, flared out at the top so you could pull it up and push it back down. So simple. Just two options. It was pushed down.

“Steven, wake up.”

“I’m not asleep,” he said. “I have to go to the bathroom.”

“I do, too. C’mon, we’ll go out by the bushes.”

Caroline put the high beams on. They illuminated the terrain just beyond the edge of the gravel. There were no bushes. There was only the long grass in the ditch along shoulder and then the endless fields. She took the blanket and went out to the trunk. She watched Steven walking gingerly away from her, toward where the corn started. He slipped beyond the reach of the headlights, and then she couldn’t see him anymore.

“Steven?” But he didn’t respond. Several seconds passed. Then the splashing sound of his urinating. The splashing stopped, and she heard him struggling in the grass coming back toward the car. He reappeared out of the darkness like a ghost.

“Get back in the car and wait for me,” she said. “I still have to go.”

She’d overslept, but there was still time to make it.

When she got back to the car she saw that Steven had returned to the back seat. Carolyn turned the keys in the ignition. She moved the shifter into drive. The car lurched forward. She pulled back onto the highway. The man on the radio kept talking. A student was shot at a high school in Knoxville. The United States won a gold medal in men’s basketball. Hurricane Gustav was pummeling the Gulf Coast. Carolyn switched it off. Steven lay in the back. He had his head on his suitcase.

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.

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.         

For Official Use Only

by Charles Rafferty

Marcus saw the station wagon pull away from the shoulder of Route 25, leaving behind a pile of fresh flowers in the snow. He was on his way to meet Trisha at her apartment. Trisha had separated from her husband, and a mutual friend had introduced them. Though they had met for an afternoon coffee two days before, this was their first real date.

The flowers were part of a roadside memorial. Someone had died there, and they had a lot of friends, a large and Waltons-like family. Marcus could tell this by the variety of bouquets and stuffed animals, the many tire tracks traced into the snow-covered grass.

Marcus made a snap decision. He hooked a left into one of those U-turns they have for cops and firetrucks. He saw the sign for official use only and he ignored it. He accelerated and took another illegal U-turn a mile up the road, and then he was headed back to the memorial, fitting himself into the tracks where the other cars had been.

He was out of the car for less than a minute as the traffic sped by, the drivers probably thinking he was one of the grievers, that he was saying some kind of prayer as he picked out the freshest and most durable of the flowers. And then he was back on the road, with an armload of calla lilies and orange mums. The whole thing was barely a hiccup. He wouldn't even be late.

People give Marcus a funny look when he tells them all this, but he doesn't see anything wrong with it. Those flowers weren't doing David any good out there on the highway, he says. That was his name. Marcus saw it written in red spangles on several of the wire hearts. Apparently David was somebody's husband, and his wife wasn't ready to let him go. Marcus reasoned that the flowers would be destroyed the next day. Another storm was coming, and the plow would surely cover them as it scraped its way towards Bridgeport. David's friends and family had built the memorial too close to the shoulder. Marcus thought it might be on the very spot where David had died. Or perhaps they had lost all foresight in their time of flowers and snow. Either way, Marcus says, he didn't take them all.

When Marcus showed up at Trisha's door, she was surprised. No one had ever brought her flowers. She invited him in for a pre-dinner drink, but it was already clear to Marcus that they'd never make it to their reservation. The flowers had something to do with it.

Marcus liked the look of her as she stretched for a couple of highball glasses on the top shelf, and Trisha liked that he didn't turn away as her shirt rode up, exposing the small of her back. She held each glass up to the light, then ran them under the faucet to get rid of the dust. Their fingers brushed when she handed him the drink, and they ended up undressing each other right there in the kitchen. Marcus kept thinking the husband might walk in through the front door, but from the sound of things, Trisha hadn't considered the possibility. Afterward, they lay in a heap on the cold linoleum, laughing together, a little embarrassed. They decided to have Thai food delivered.

Later, when Trisha fell asleep in the bed, Marcus pulled the newspaper from the basket beside her toilet. He found David's obituary and the write-up in the police blotter. Killed by a drunk was the main message. The drunk was fine, naturally. He sounded like Marcus — the same age, the same penchant for driving when the bar had closed. Marcus came out of the bathroom and made his way to the kitchen through the dark. He proceeded by a series of tiny steps, afraid that he might bump into something. He found the vodka bottle and poured himself a drink. He downed it while standing over the dripping kitchen faucet.

Less than two weeks later, Trisha and Marcus were finished. They had run their course. They had had sex in a variety of locations and positions — a movie theater, a Safeway parking lot, in every room of their two apartments. Trisha found out that he was allergic to shrimp and preferred tragedies to comedies. Marcus found out that she was still in love with her husband and didn't have a washing machine.

They parted ways. Marcus remained the only man who had ever brought her flowers, and a snowplow destroyed the roadside memorial, as Marcus had predicted.