Signs and Wonders

by Niyi Ademoroti

With God Evangelical Ministries—WIGEM for short—was founded six years ago. It has a membership of over three hundred and sixty people, fondly referred to as Flock of Previously Lost Souls by the emphatic and charismatic founder and senior pastor, Evangelist Olulana. Evangelist Olulana, formerly Mr. Sholana (when he was still in the world and under the tutelage and shackles of Satan), sees God every night. This is why, to him and he alone, WIGEM is short for With God Every Midnight.

It was God who instructed him to change his name, the very first night they met, to Olulana, which translates to God has paved the way, from Sholana, which just means Osho, one of the very many Yoruba indigenous gods, paved the way. God showed Himself to Evangelist Olulana and instructed him on that same night, like he now so often does, to walk the length of Alaafia Street, Onitolotolo. He told him he would find a land specially allocated to him and his flock. God told him He would deliver freedom to His people through him, just like He did through Moses. And just like God promised, right at the end of the said street was a little expanse of land that was the abode of a collective of mechanics, but after a little fire accident that claimed two lives, several cars, and a couple of skin cells, now laid fallow. He whooped. This was it. 

It was also God who told him, this time on a stormy night that had his curtains floating and dancing like wraiths, three years later, to move from that half plot on Alaafia Street to the large one at Òbá Animashaun Road where big cars driven by big men often drove past. Evangelist Olulana was also sure it was God, but he must have been wrong, who commanded they acquire the land right beside theirs for their youth and children's church. Evangelist Olulana mounted the pulpit on that Sunday, dressed in his uniform white blazer, white shirt, white trousers and his favourite cream shoe that had its ridge pointing toward the heavens. Louis Vuitton padded bible and silk handkerchief in his left hand, a microphone plated a bright gold only he was allowed to use lying in his right. His black face tightened in an ugly frown as he shuffled the silky white handkerchief from his left palm to his right and wiped the wet creases on his forehead with it. He sighed. “God spoke to me last night,” he said. The church remained silent. He screamed, stomping his right foot on the tiled altar: "God spoke to me last night!" Cries of hallelujah filled the room as the muscled drummer banged on the drum and the tall cute guy with a hunched back danced his fingers on a few keys on the keyboard. Satisfied, he continued, saying God had appeared to him in a dream, walking in a snowy white robe, barefooted, on the fence guarding the church that had shards of glass sticking out its top (which was there to deter thieves), but remaining unharmed even though the shards dug into His foot. God held on to Evangelist Olulana's hand, who was walking on the cemented ground (with shod feet), which meant God had really long hands. God then swept his right hand toward the piece of land beside the church that belonged to the Celestial Church of Christ, telling the Evangelist it was theirs for the taking. Evangelist Olulana continued that the Celestial Church of Christ were obviously pagans and glorified idolaters, whose reckless dancing and lousy vernacular praises God was sick of, and He was ready to disgrace them and give unto With God Evangelical Ministries their piece of land. After seven days of fasting and intense prayer, which included a prayer ring which worked like a relay race but for prayers, where every member of the church had to pick an allotted time where they would come to the church premises to pray at the selected time, alone, the ownership of the land did not change hands. After seven more days of fasting and prayer, then fourteen more of fasting, vigils, and even more intense praying, and still the ownership of the land refused to change hands, Evangelist Olulana walked onto the pulpit, undeterred and in-control like, to announce that it must have been the devil in his dream; after all God would not walk on a fence, barefooted, like a common thief, eliciting nods and almost-silent hmms from the congregation. 

It was for these reasons the church had no reason to doubt it, the day Evangelist Olulana announced that he had once again heard from God (the church remembering to scream and shout and dance). This time, the instruction was for them all, the entire congregation, to offer up animal sacrifices to God. That day began like any other Sunday: the choir had sang; love offering, seed faith offering, building offering, peace offering, and special collective offering had been collected; the evangelist had preached about the dangers of sin and the promise of prosperity for those who were obedient and gave regularly to God; then just before the Grace was said and after the announcements had been announced by the cauliflower eared youth minister, Evangelist Olulana screamed a thundering "Yes!" then raced to the pulpit, the congregation jubilant at the prospect of another promising prophecy. He danced a bit, right leg awkwardly shuffling behind left leg, before announcing that God told him the world had become exactly like Sodom and Gomorrah, that the church needed to go back to Abrahamic times, so He—God—required every member of With God Evangelical Ministries to save mankind and come to church the next Sunday with a live animal that would be burnt on a sacrificial altar which would be built specifically for that purpose. It was not compulsory, but it was necessary for the salvation of their souls and the souls of their loved ones, Evangelist Olulana added, papules gathered at the corners of his lips. 

Sister Mary, formerly Fashogba, which she thought probably meant Ifa, the god of her hometown, was guarding her home, now Olashogba, which means she has handed unto God her safety, whose hallelujah was one of the loudest, has been a devout member of With God Evangelical Ministries for the past four years. Sister Mary was introduced to Evangelist Olulana and With God Evangelical Ministries after her only daughter, to whom she was the sole provider, fell seriously ill. Sister Mary visited several hospitals, always cradling her little girl in her arms, where she always got the same diagnosis – malaria, and the same drug prescriptions with injections. But nothing changed. The girl stayed ill. She continued losing a lot of weight. A co-worker whose love of gossip was a flaming coal and never an ember, to whom she complained of her tribulations, recounted tales of the wonders Evangelist Olulana often performed, and advised Sister Mary to go with her to church the next day, a Wednesday.  

As Sister Mary crossed the threshold to With God Evangelical Ministries where the gate would have stood but instead stayed vacant, then still at the very end of Alaafia Street, she felt the power of God wash over her, resulting in goose bumps enveloping her entire body. She just knew her daughter's miracle had come and even asked her daughter who was seated on folded arms, front rested on her mother's chest, if she could feel it too. The child nodded, then laid her head on her mother's shoulder. As Evangelist Olulana made his way to the pulpit that day, Sister Mary found herself in tears but did not know why. She reasoned it must be the power of God in the man of God. Just before the end of service, Sister Mary's co-worker who was named Sola but called something that would probably be spelt Soley in the office, grabbed her by the arm and, as if in a sprint, dragged her to Evangelist Olulana's office a floor above the church auditorium. They were the second in line to see the man of God in a hallway outside his office door, where a pregnant woman with an abnormally large belly the size of two watermelons was seated on one of twelve metal chairs grouped in threes. As Sister Mary sat, the chair frigid against her buttocks which was wrapped in a threadbare skirt and a pair of black panties she had been wearing for more than a year; she rested the sickly child on her chest. Soley sat by her right and began making small talk with the pregnant woman seated by her left who she referred to as Mummy Twins. As they discussed, Sister Mary, who was seated between the two of them and was now forced to rest her back on the even colder metal back rest, realised that the woman had been pregnant for eleven months.

After the Grace was recited and seven hallelujahs were shouted, people began to troop in upstairs, and some had to stand because the twelve chairs available in the tiny hallway that served as the waiting room were not sufficient for everyone to sit. A small raucous began to grow steadily, and Sister Mary, pulling herself forward and stretching her neck to see, learnt it was because a woman had insisted her child sit on a chair while an old woman on crutches was left standing. Sister Mary's daughter began to cry although she seemed much too old for such puerility, and the room, which was stuffy and fraught with a variety of odours that combined to make one largely unpleasant one, grew silent, making Sister Mary wonder why this was so, then follow people's gaze toward the entrance. As she saw Evangelist Olulana's contrasting black face on white suit step into the waiting room, she immediately understood the reason for the silence and felt that same feeling of the power of God washing over her again. As the evangelist strode toward his office and past her, ignoring the greetings and salutes emanating from wonderstruck mouths, she felt wetness on her face again and mumbled something she thought but wasn't sure sounded like hallelujah. After about twenty minutes of more waiting consisting of a lot of chattering, a couple of frustration-induced insults, one fainting spell, and a teenage boy whose mother, seated three seats away, refused to permit to use the toilet so he would not miss his turn with the pastor, a mousy looking man with white hair perched at both sides of his head and a bald spot separating them from the front to the back like Moses' staff and the red sea came out of the office in what would have been a swaggered way were he a little more big-bodied but ended up looking somewhat handicapped. He announced that the Evangelist would see just seven people that evening, adding that the first person on the line should quickly go in, his chapped lips shooting out at every syllable. A quiet murmur which eventually grew into a loud argument began, with some people begging to overtake others seeing as their case and reason for seeking the pastor was obviously a lot worse than some of the people that made up the first seven, with all, of course, refusing to leave. Sister Mary's daughter began crying again and Sister Mary and Soley tried cuddling her, wrists and bones bumping into each other, and singing to her traditional songs in their native language which later changed to gospel songs because they both felt traditional songs were not appropriate in a church building. 

A little over minutes later, the office door heaved and a clothed stomach first, then the rest of the body which belonged to the pregnant woman emerged. She wore a strange facial expression – not smiling, not frowning, but not blank either. Sister Mary stood to go in next, sighing and lifting her baby with her, and Soley also stood, which made Sister Mary's bent elbow almost collide with Soley's ribs. The room that was Evangelist Olulana's office felt as cold as how Sister Mary imagined winter would feel, which made her pull her child who had now quieted down against herself. She wanted to smile but tears just poured down her face. When the mousy man asked them all to sit, his breathe an evidence of the cons of chewing raw garlic, she stared for about four seconds trying to process what she had just heard but actually not being able to think at all before she came to and sat. Evangelist Olulana's voice sounded different—less powerful—In person compared to when he used the microphone, but that didn't stop goose bumps from washing over Sister Mary's skin, again, as he spoke. He told them, speaking a little too loudly, that they were there because of the sick child, adding a no at the end of his statement as if it was a question, but continued without letting them answer, that God had showed it to him in a dream that they would be here, making Soley mumble a low toned hallelujah. When he asked Sister Mary where her child's father was and she answered that the father never wanted the child and that she had the child before she got married, Evangelist Olulana screamed: "Ehnhen!" hitting his balled fists against the wooden desk, making his MacBook, his Louis Vuitton cased bible, and a little framed picture of him, his very light skinned wife and light skinned children–two girls–which were arranged neatly across the desk, and Sister Mary jump a little. The child began crying again. They all went silent as Sister Mary tried to quiet her child by pulling at her cheeks playfully and asking and telling her she was a good girl in a singsong voice. Evangelist Olulana continued that the child was sick because it was a product of sin. He also said all of Sister Mary's troubles were as a result of that sin, asking that could she not see that her life had become nothing since she became a mother. The tears that had stopped flowing from Sister Mary's eyes began again, this time with her making small whimpering sounds, which made Soley who was sat by her right put her left palm on Sister Mary's back and make circular motions on the back while whispering something that was intended to be sorry but came out sounding like sor. Evangelist Olulana told her her miracle had come but only if she was ready to give everything in her life to God, resulting in her saying yes like seven times without thinking. They prayed together holding hands, and after that Evangelist Olulana laid his arms on the sick girl's head who stayed surprisingly quiet as he shook rigorously while praying fervently. That night, Sister Mary gathered and disposed all of the drugs she got from all the hospital visits away into the bin at the corridor by her door, and by the next morning, the child was up before her, running around the corridor of their house with other children from different families from adjoining rooms, while Sister Mary prayed, kneeling and giving thanks to the God of Evangelist Olulana. 

The clerical office where Sister Mary worked had not paid salaries in four months. Feeding herself and her child was already an issue, so she could not see how she could afford to buy a cow or a ram or even a small goat. But Sister Mary believed, praying for a miracle. Monday night came but not with money, still, Sister Mary stayed believing, praying. Tuesday night came and although Sister Mary's pockets and wallet and purse and every other place she could have stored money stayed empty, her faith did not waver. Wednesday was spent on her knees praying to the God of Evangelist Olulana for a miracle, and so was Thursday with Friday including a few hours of prostrating. She fasted all through Saturday, asking her daughter who could only fast until three to fast until six. Saturday midnight was the first time Sister Mary saw God in a dream. He was dressed in all white just like Evangelist Olulana described but had large bulging muscles the Evangelist must have forgotten to mention. He wore a bounteous white beard that made Him look like the men who wore Father Christmas costumes every Christmas season but His was not as long although it was quite long. He also had a full head of white hair that flowed well past His shoulders, and He was, of course, a white man like the portraits often suggested. Well, not man, white male God. God stood over her while she laid on the bed and told her He had noticed her suffering and was ready to bless her bountifully. Sister Mary did not know what "bountifully" meant but figured it must mean something good since it was God. God told her, bending toward her that she could see how incredibly smooth his face looked, almost like a doll's, and how he would have borne a striking resemblance to Evangelist Olulana if only he was black, and laying the awning of His hand against her forehead, that all she had to do was, going silent after the "was" then pointing to her child who was lying beside her, arms wide apart as if crucified. Sister Mary, looking puzzled with her mouth partly open, looked to her child's sleeping face, then back to God who had disappeared. She jolted awake, startling her child who sat up, mumbled gibberish, then laid back into sleep.  

It was Sunday morning and Sister Mary understood what God commanded her. 

It was a colourful day at With God Evangelical Ministries as everyone was dressed in beautiful and bright brocades. The church reeked of meat and the air was abuzz with excitement and houseflies. Service went as it always did with the choir singing melodious songs, love offering then seed faith offering then building offering then peace offering and special collective offering were collected, before Evangelist Olulana sauntered to the stage, preached for a few minutes about giving and givers never lacking, then instructed the congregation to walk outside where the ushers were waiting to line them up in an orderly fashion to escort them and their live animal to the special altar where they would be slaughtered then burnt.

One by one everyone made their way, and Sister Mary who sat somewhere close but not too close to the door was one of the first fifty on the line.  

The Evangelist who sat a few meters from the altar on a swivel chair under an umbrella held up by the same mousy man who had been in his office the day Sister Mary brought her daughter for her miracle, announced that families who did not come with an animal because they could not afford one could now buy chickens being sold outside by the church gate, and those who did not have any money could buy the chickens on credit with a promise to pay in instalments in not more than four Sundays. Slowly but steadily, the line moved with a snail’s speed, the sweet smell of burnt offering wafting all over the church compound and to the heavens. The sun shone brightly mirroring God's delight as Sister Mary stood on the line in a dancing motion moving from foot to foot while holding her daughter by the hand, waiting for her turn.  

Just over one hour later and finally her turn, Sister Mary walked toward the altar mumbling prayers underneath her breathe and holding on to her child who was now suckling on her thumb. The child remained oblivious to her mother's intentions as the entire church looked on wondering what this plain dressed and looking sister without an animal was doing walking forward. She did not understand why after she and her mother reached the altar, her mother pulled her toward her, left arm beneath her neck and the right behind gangly knees. She was too confused to thrash as her mother raised and laid her like sardine on bread across the stone altar blackened with ash and burnt blood. "Ah!" cried onlookers, as a wild murmur erupted, spreading its limbs across the crowd. The butcher who had a dagger in his left hand because he was a southpaw just looked back and forth with his bulging eyes housed inside his sweat drenched bloated face darting between the child who was now wailing and had her palms against her nose to shield herself from the stench of blood, and Sister Mary who was also crying and looking to the butcher, making strange and incomprehensible hand signals which was supposed to indicate for him to carry on, and Evangelist Olulana on his swivel chair that had been shifted a few more meters away to avoid the splatter of blood, who had his mouth partly open just like Sister Mary in her dream with God, with a housefly hovering dangerously close to it. 

The Geology of Judy Sedgwick

by L. S. Bassen

Stranger than fiction was the newly discovered truth that there was more water under the Earth than in all the oceans on its surface. When the GOP shut down the United States government on October 1, 2013, Judith Sedgwick was one of the DOJ lawyers furloughed in NYC.  Like other personnel labeled non-excepted, Judith was then forbidden access to DOJ files and office. She had spent the first week and a half at home, opening arcane online links whose words italicized in her mind. She remembered 9/11 when she had also been forced to stay away from work. Those dozen years earlier, the bank building where she had been an executive was gouged, then shrouded in black drapery. Contaminants and corruption caused its final demolition to wait a decade. Since 2001, Judith had changed course in more ways than after her divorce in 1981 when her ex had taken their five-year-old daughter Sarah — Siv — first to the City in London and then home to Norway.

In 2001, Siv was twenty-five, and Judith rejected finance. After law school, she joined the DOJ. She had moved from Manhattan to a Brooklyn waterfront condo. On this early October morning in the middle of the second week of her forced furlough, Judith was again Googling the shutdown date. The week before, she had found the title of an old paperback she took out of the library because October the First Is Too Late was not available as an e-book. The time travel science fiction adventure by Fred Hoyle was a Professor Hoyle's time travel science fiction adventure, a more modern relative of The Time Machine by H.G. Wells. Solar beams play havoc with terrestrial time: England is in the '60's, but WWI is still raging in western Europe, Greece is in the golden age of Pericles, while the United States is some thousands of years in the future; and Russia and Asia are reduced to a glass-like plain, fused by the burnt-out sun of a far distant future.

In 2013 Brooklyn, Judith's thirty-seven year old daughter Siv awakened in the second bedroom. She had a notable career as a film and TV actress in Norway and Germany, arriving in New York in July to begin a role in a popular TV series set in a prison. Judith could hear Siv stealthily opening and shutting closet, bedroom, and bathroom doors.

"I'm not stealing anything," her daughter called. "Although that would be in character. I'm just trying not to irritate you."

Moments later, dressed for a quick exit, Siv entered the modern living space. No makeup, natural blond hair cut short in spikes, thin and tall like her father. Judith's white cat curled around Siv's ankle, purred, and slip-slided away like the Paul Simon song.

"Was I talking out loud again?" Judith said.

"Even louder. The US government can't stay closed forever. The House already voted your retro pay."

"Will they repay the also-furloughed poison ivy-eating goats at The Gateway National Recreation Area?"

"The what? Where?"

 "In Sandy Hook, New Jersey. Aren't you eating any breakfast?"

"No matter how early a call I've got, Mother, you're always up. Do you ever rest?"

"Do we only speak in questions?"

"As in Macbeth?"

 "Do I remind you of Lady Macbeth?" Judith asked.

 "Aren't you Achilles? Isn't the GOP-Agamemnon keeping you from your beloved Briseis-fraud case? Why not take your fury out for a walk today? Go to town?" Siv waved, no kiss, and the door closed.

Giving the double entendre its due, Judith repeated, "Go to town?"

***

Earbuds in place, Judith walked across the Brooklyn Bridge listening to Billie Holiday's “Autumn in New York.” Like the sunshine on the river below, the lyrics glittered on the melody's surface. Lower Manhattan's heights and depths always reminded her of the Grand Canyon. A memory of a vacation tryst bobbed up like the raft Judith had shared with a man whose name she forgot, but she remembered the song was by Vladimir Dukelsky, aka Vernon Duke, born this October week in Russia in 1903, the same year as her father, a Massachusetts Sedgwick.

There was a street in Boston named for her family. Her Great-something-grandfather Theodore had been the lawyer representing the original Rosa Parks of civil rights, Mumbet Freeman, whose 1781 court case ended slavery in Massachusetts. Taking the last steps on the epic Brooklyn Bridge, Judith noted the sparingly voiced A diminished to the G minor 7th   in the musical bridge of Vernon Duke's song. His noble Russian family had fled the Revolution to Constantinople and arrived in New York where Gershwin got him to go lowbrow. The lyric invited her to feel I'm home, and Judith stepped onto Manhattan.

October in New York was decorated for Halloween in the orange and black of Siv's hit TV series. Judith walked with impatient urban gait, frowning at people who glared right back. She passed City Hall and neared the yoga studio on Warren Street. Judith switched from Billie Holiday to the recommended Paul Horn playlist. How was she supposed to be in the moment when she couldn't help trying to identify the instruments? The flutes, drums, and echo of ghostly New Age monks and nuns were arguments against the yoga instructor's call for alternate consciousness.      

Moreover, Judith craved her DOJ office like an addict. The reiki music couldn't compete with the case she'd been working on. While it wasn't the biggest recent award wrested from Wall Street vices, it was nearing a billion-dollar-plus settlement. For a second Wednesday, she entered the strange building, avoided the claustrophobic elevator, and stomped the stairs to the third floor studio. Already unrolling their mats were the middle-aged male twins the instructor had nicknamed for drums, Bayan and Dayan. The yoga regulars' clubbiness infuriated Judith. The government of the people by the people had shut down the government for the people. On this perfect autumn morning, what on Earth forced such healthy people to idleness instead of work?

At a wall of cubbies, she tucked away sneakers and clothes but moved earbuds and iPhone to her tote bag. Judith seethed at greetings that imitated the instructor's, "Ready to shake your asanas?!" She wished they'd all perish from the earth, but she unrolled her mat and put her tote in its corner. As she stretched, Judith avoided eye contact. A woman tapped her shoulder, pointing to the tote and cubbies. Judith scowled and turned her back on a lady-who-lunched.  

Tom (no surnames) began class by turning on a disk player. He was a retired NYC cop, tall, trim, and balding. A synthesizer's deliberate tempo underlay acoustic guitar and flutes. Major keys resolved to major chords accompanied by singing bowls and Tibetan bells. Songs had a ten or fifteen minute cycle and repetitive minor variations. The group assumed the first asana, mountain pose, and Tom began a lulling patter that punctuated each position.

"Be still as the mountain. Cease samsara. Stop creating worlds and then moving into them. The worlds we create keep caving in and killing us. Buddha asked, 'Which do you think is greater: the water in the oceans or the tears you've shed?' The samsara's parameters of spacetime are not the pre-existing context in which we wander. They are the result of our wandering."

Spacetime? Judith grimaced at Tom's pretensions as much as at her own in attempting urdvah danurasana. Totally ignorant of geography and yoga in early childhood, Judith had assumed the 'wheel pose' was her own exuberant invention. Through her forties, she had arched into the backbend to show off strength and flexibility. Now the pose broke the law of possibility. Judith was the oldest one in the room.

Tom called for balasana. All faces and bodies tucked to the floor in 'child pose' that looked to Judith like Muslim prostration. She stiffened at submission, but her muscles sighed with relief.  

Over the prone forms, Tom intoned, "Breathe in Prana, the life force, travel on your yoga. Yoga is a journey to unite with the Universe, which belongs to you…where you belong…you are not alien…YOU are the Universe…"

Forehead pressed to the mat, Judith breathed, "Fails prima facie."

Class was winding down. Tom directed them to turn on their backs and inhale more Prana. Minutes of respiration were followed by ritual familiar from the previous lesson, concluding with prayer hands and the communal expression of "Namaste."   

Once outdoors, Judith translated for the bodies crowding the sidewalk at lunchtime, "'The Spirit within me salutes the Spirit in you.' As if." Her sunglasses shielded against the hard sun high above the tall buildings. Go to town, Siv had advised. Judith's psychiatrist once suggested that ceaseless motion was her drug of choice. It was too early to go home. Rather than return to Brooklyn, she walked uptown. It was only October, and she had miles to go before any woodsy snowy evening. It was a good thing that Judith obeyed the Don't Walk sign on Duane Street. A truck turned illegally right into the crosswalk. Brakes, horns, and curses screamed. Judith joined the shouting several beats later. 

"We are not the Universe! We don't belong! The matter we're made of is no more than four percent of  EVERYTHING!"

The light changed, and the crowd moved quickly away from the near disaster and likely lunatic. Only since Siv's summer arrival had Judith become aware that she talked aloud to herself. At the dark end of every long day at the DOJ office, she had delighted in the sound of silence. She stopped at another curb. In memory, Judith could hear the Simon & Garfunkel melody and lyric. Silence was more than her old friend; it was her true spouse. The song recalled a walk uptown beside her college roommate.

Pidge did a comic Einstein impression, 'Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.'

"I say identity is the illusion."

Still accented, Pidge teased, "So serious…ly, arguing with Einstein?"

Judith had nicknamed Paloma ('pigeon') Shapiro at their first meeting in their freshman dorm room.

"I'm awed," Pidge had said. "You're the Sedgwick who won Brom & Bett v. John Ashley, Esq.? The topic of my application essay and, I'm sure, the reason I got accepted!"

"That was my father's Great-something-grandpa Theodore. My mother is Jewish. An alumna like her mother before her and countless Sedgwick females."

"Legacies. My mother's a black Puerto Rican."

Pidge's inheritance also included a rent-controlled condo on the upper West Side. Maybe Pidge still shared it with the obnoxious woman who sat on another Named Chair at Columbia. They'd been together for decades, experts in archeological languages. Pearl Feria's name echoed FIRREA, the fraud-punishing law in Judith's billion dollar-plus case. Judith kept walking north. She scrolled her iPhone for Uber. Go to town.

***

The landphone rang. Paloma could hardly believe the name on Caller I.D.

From the kitchen, Pearl heard half the conversation.

 "You'll never believe it," Paloma said. "That was Judy Sedgwick."

"Your roommate who looked like Colleen Dewhurst?"

"Colleen Dewhurst died. Judy is at Zabar's picking up lunch for us."

"Is there time to escape? You haven't seen her in millennia."

"'At least before we rescued the pooch. Pearl, the things she and I confided in each other! Her mother's miscarriage before Judy was born. Her older, Nobel sister, epileptic and psychotic. Judy had to be ignored. Her mother's family owned the business, the money her father married into. He stayed home from work once for two months. They didn't call it a breakdown. They didn't call it depression. Judy chain-smoked cigarettes and picked skin off her heels until they bled."

"You breathed in a lot of secondhand smoke. Early memories are so deep," Pearl said, "they get stratified. Continents separate, collide, and behold, the Himalayas."

The buzzer sounded. Pidge opened the door, and Judith crossed the threshold carrying two bulging bags of aromatic food. Pearl led the way to the kitchen.

"Judy, you're blond!" Pidge said.

Judith touched her hair, then Pidge's. "Your Jewfro went white? Pearl, what pact did you make with hair dye – or the devil?"

"Shoshone roots. We don't go gray as early as you white eyes. But I still look like Olive Oyl."

Pidge and Pearl took plates and glasses and cutlery out of cabinets and drawers.

Judith focused on the delicatessen. "I got seedless rye and plain bagels. Either of you had diverticulitis? How I miss pistachios. Do you like halvah?"

"We like everything," Pidge said.

"Why are you here, coming out of nowhere?" Pearl said.

"I was just wandering. Surprised to find you home."

"Alive, you mean," Pearl said.

"I would've gone up to St. John the Divine. Or the Cloisters. Are you two retired?"

"Still at the university. Just not on Wednesdays. Give Judy the tour. The rest of all this, I'll put out," Pearl said.

"You always did," Judith said.

Pidge tugged Judith's sleeve and showed her the office behind the kitchen. She led her old classmate through a book-lined living room. October sunshine filled the windows and cast a wide spotlight across a worn Persian rug and dark sofa. Upon plump cushions a mixed breed spaniel slept.

"He was unwanted fifteen years ago," Pidge said. "He looked like Lady and the Tramp's puppy, if Lady had been a King Charles, not a cocker spaniel."

"My white cat is Balinese-if-you-please, with eyes bluer than mine," Judith said.

They walked down a hallway to a bathroom and two open bedroom doors.      

"Everything changed," Judith said. "This must be Pearl's room – it was your daughter –"

"—Marta's."

"Yes, Marta – for your mother –?"

"– died over a decade ago. Marta is thirty-four, with four-year-old twins, in Silicon Valley. I've seen your Siv on TV. Doesn't she favor Anders?"

Judith stumbled and gasped. Pidge caught her, and almost as fast, Judith disengaged.

"I just lost my breath."

"Take a deep one now."

"No. It just struck me. For only five years… I was a mother… thirty-two years ago… hardly even then, with nannies, daycare, all the money, and… all the men. When he took custody, Anders made the only first move in his entire life."

"Let's get some food into you," Pidge said, leading the way to the dining table. "You always had just a cigarette for breakfast."

"Now I just have coffee, and I am not-excepted."

"What does that mean?"

The three women sat down, and Judith explained the GOP shutdown of the United States government, "Since October the first…"

"…is too late," Pidge said. "That's the title of a wonderful sci fi novel by Fred Hoyle."

Judith paled again.

 "Not-excepted, how curious," Pidge said. "We know four sentences that if you went back 15,000 years and spoke them to hunter-gatherers in Asia in any one of hundreds of modern languages, they'd understand you because all of the nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs in the sentences are words that have descended unchanged from a language that died out as the glaciers receded at the end of the last Ice Age. You, hear me! Give this fire to that old man. Pull the black worm off the bark and give it to the mother. And no spitting in the ashes! Those few words mean the same thing and sound almost the same, as they did then."

"How… bizarre."

"Well, it put some color back into your cheeks," Pidge said.

Judith thanked Pearl for a glass of seltzer, "You had a son."

"Issa," Pearl smiled, "whose name means wolf. He's 32 and a new father."

"Siv is thirty-seven and alone. 'Not lonely.' Methinks she protests too much," Judith said.

Pearl heaped plates with food. "She sounds just like you. As a mother, you were a fraud."       

Judith didn't blink. "Did you know that Satan means accuser?"

"From the Hebrew sin-tet-nun," Pearl said.

"Didn't we honestly want their fathers once?"

"Maybe twice. We were honest whore-moans."

Pidge shook her head. Then the three women ate silently.

Finally, Judith turned to Pidge, "That first day we met, I was Boston suburb, and you were New York City."

"I was brown and you were the only white who'd ever heard of Brom & Bett v. Ashley."  

Pearl bit into a pickle that audibly snapped.   

Judith said, "I guess Vassar thought you'd become the lawyer."

"When we were sophomores," Pidge said, "one night you got up from your desk and said you wouldn't move without a reason."

Flourishing the pickle, Pearl said, "At U Montana I'd have called that sophomoronic. This furlough, Judy? Why not just retire? You're more than old and rich enough."

"I like exposing Wall Street fraud and recovering billions of dollars," Judith said.

"Who gets the money?" Pearl asked. "The people who were defrauded?" 

 "It varies depending on the nature of the recovery. Fines and forfeiture can go to Treasury, restitution to victims. It depends on the details of the judgment. What keeps you two working?" Judith said.

Pearl clapped her hands. "We may not wind up Nobel laureates like your sister, but wait, I'll show you!" Pearl rushed to the office behind the kitchen.

"Well, that lit a fire under her," Judith said, "and look at you."

"We are unearthing a lost world," Pidge breathed, "a Rosetta Stone for the Minoans!"

Pearl returned wearing curator gloves, a small object in the palm of one hand.

"Careful," Pidge said. "That's a copy. It was unearthed only last year. In secure conditions, we work on the original from the Faroe Islands."

Judith looked at the Cycladic object shaped like the palace throne in Knossos. "I've been to Crete and Santorini, but where are the Faroe Islands?"      

"Northwest of the Orkneys, north of Scotland. 3600 years ago, long before the compass, the Minoans used 'sunstones' for navigation…" Pidge ran out of breath.

Pearl took over. "Below Yellowstone where my family all work is the world's most massive active volcano. The last time it erupted was 640,000 years ago. I grew up discovering fossils so I only hope to become one. But you've always avoided reading the strata on the wall! Now the dentata in our mouths can't bite into a thick steak or a juicy youth," Pearl waved the Minoan artifact in Judith's face, "it's naked truth that's really sexy!" Pearl touched her forehead and sizzled "Yessssss!"

"You've sniffed too many Yellowstone vents," Judith said.

"They're called fumaroles."

Judith turned from Pearl. "Pidge, we knew everything about each other. Siv took her middle name in a language I can't speak. She doesn't belong, you're both full of fumes, and I'm out of work."

"Are those real tears?" Pearl said. "You'll go back to your billions, Judy. The Wall Street Journal, no less, said the Banana Republicans are on a suicide mission. Your shutdown isn't the Minoan catastrophe. That really was the first end of the world."

Cradling the stone copy, Pearl exited to the office.

Pidge opened a can of Cel-ray soda and gave half to Judith.

"I don't remember our ending," Judith said.

 "Neither do I. You and Anders made a fortune on Wall Street. I went to grad school in linguistics."

"I remember being sick and refusing to go to the infirmary. You were leaving for a weekend at Amherst? Your hand on my forehead was cool. Your gold charm bracelet jingled and your perfume – I thought you were my mother." 

Pearl returned. Judith surveyed the table, food eaten, beverages drunk, paper napkins used. She stood. The dog moved off the couch like an old man. He limped to Judith, licked her hand, then weakly barked.

"Now he smells my cat," Judith said.

"When shall we three meet again," Pidge said, opening the door.

"In thunder, lightning, or in rain," Pearl went on. "When the hurley burley's done…"

 The door closed before the elevator arrived. The two scholars cleared the table and put things away.       

"You think you'll ever see her again?" Pearl asked.

Paloma sighed. "I won't hold my breath."

***           

Judith kept walking south on Amsterdam Avenue. She turned as the route curved at 72nd Street into Broadway paved atop the aboriginal Lenape trail. Before locating her cab at Columbus Circle, she looked at the renovated façade of the landmark Lollipop building where during college she'd been invited to a champagne breakfast above The Huntington Hartford Museum. Judith recalled stumbling drunkenly through a surreal Dali exhibit as the divorced Mad Men dad flirted with her and his own daughter.

Car horns blasted the memory.  The UberX driver looked younger than Siv. Her low surround-sound music was alien. The rear view mirror reflected an orange sun lowering into darkening bands. Walking across the Brooklyn Bridge – when she went to work — Judith could sustain the illusion of identity. But in the black sedan, she felt like a nameless particle conveyed through indifferent spacetime. She closed her eyes. Breathe in Prana.

Late that night, Siv returned from the day's filming. The TV was on and an open laptop highlighted the white cat snug beside Judith. 

"Hei, Mamma," Siv whispered.

The cat leaped from the couch to the cushioned piano bench, then vaulted to the lid of the shiny black upright. Purring, it resumed a porcelain pose.

Judith blinked and sat up. "I wasn't asleep."

"Of course you weren't." Siv sank onto the couch and looked at the small open screen. "Did you go to town?"

"Do you have another early call for tomorrow morning?"

 "An hour later. I believe that's called 'sleeping in.' I was told it's unlikely for your shutout to go on past a deadline next week. I mentioned the New Jersey goats. Likely no back pay but plenty of poison ivy."

"A shutout means one team can't score any points," Judith said.

"Nobody thinks the GOP is scoring any points."

Judith closed the laptop. "It's late."

Siv turned off the TV. They walked to the bedrooms on opposite sides of the living room. From across the East River, the jeweled lower Manhattan skyline dimly lighted the space between them. Judith paused.

"I did. Go to town. Saw an old roommate. You can't go home again."

Siv halted. "To Norway? Why not?"

"Oh, no, it's just an expression," Judith said. "There's no return trip to the past."

Siv breathed out. "Well, it was done when it was done, wasn't it? I've signed to be in a film with another vintage Vassar alum."

"Wow. You never said."

She yawned. "It's just something else you and I never shared."

"Where will you film?"

"Here. In New York. When I was five, why didn't you fight for me?"

"I couldn't win."

"Did you even want to?" Siv said. "Your career and clitoris won."

"What about yours? Do you want a husband and child? Will you live with me now?"

"Is that an invitation or eviction?"

"Could we live without interrogation?" Judith said.  

"Where would be the justice in that?"

     ***

In another week more than 800,000 furloughed government workers returned to work. The shutdown had taken billions of dollars' liquidity out of the economy. Four hundred miles under, in the Earth's mantle, H2O in a phase neither water, ice, or vapor continued secure inside the molecular structure of a mineral called ringwoodite in oceans three times the size of those above the crust. Plate tectonics cycled the water in and out, and the water affected the partial melting of rock higher up. Geological processes on the Earth's surface, such as earthquakes or erupting volcanoes, were an expression of what was going on invisibly inside the Earth. Scientists had looked for missing deep water for decades.      

Two Down, A Million To Go

by A.N. Block

Friday

“Think that hurt?” Dad asked, but I was rubbing my ear so hard, planning revenge, I could barely hear him. “Start one more fight, smart guy, keep getting in trouble in school and you’ll see.”

“How many times do I have to tell you,” I blurted out, “I did not start. It was___”

Then he smacked me so hard my head turned and eyes went blurry.

“Don’t lie,” he said, pointing, “and don’t talk back. Think I’m a moron? All of a sudden, what’re you, the class clown? Think you’re a tough guy?”

Friday, the one supper the three of us all eat together. Half the neighborhood’s lighting candles and saying prayers; my old man here’s pinching my ear off, giving me a whack. Couldn’t wait for him to start hitting the bottle and nod off so I could go down and see who’s around.

Saturday

By the time me and the guys pull Zeidman off him, Trip’s face is a bloody mess, he’s gasping for air. There’s four of us got Zeidman around the waist by the chain link fence in the corner of Second Street playground, and his arms are pinned but he’s yelling like a wild animal from Ramar of the Jungle, struggling and high stepping till he stomps on Rozzie’s foot.

“Shit!” Rozzie yelled. “Get him down, Sonny!”

So I tried not to hurt him, but I did. We had him pinned till he calmed down.

Lucky for everyone Rozzie’s foot didn’t get broke. He’s our All-Everything prospect, the high scorer. Trip didn’t fare so well.

“It was mostly my fault,” he told me later. “Man, I was just making a comment though, didn’t know he’s so touchy.”

“It’s his family,” I said. “They went through a lot. Before coming over.”

Me and Zeidman we’ve been hanging since second grade, since he moved to Brighton, playing ball and getting in trouble from the time we were eight, we’d kill for each other, but once we hit Lincoln last year things changed. For him and for me. Probably cause we both realized we weren’t going to be that good.

I’m on the squad now strictly for boxing guys out, setting picks for Rozzie and the rest of them. Can’t run with these guys, can’t put the ball in to save myself, not any more. All my best friends, they’re heading to varsity, it’s plain to see. Me?  JV’ll be my last stop. In fact, it’s not definite I even make the team again, all depends on who’s coming in as a freshman. Same with Zeidman. And without the practices, going for Cokes later, who knows what’ll happen? I mean, not hanging with the boys, having someplace to be.

Sunday

An overturned bookshelf, the chotchkies shattered. Hard cover books all over the living room carpet.

“Please,” I kept praying, staring at the mess, “get a divorce already.” I don’t give a shit what people think anymore, I couldn’t take my eyes off it.

Sunday, it’s supposed to be fun day, right? The day with no problems. It actually started out good. It’s me, Benjay, and Rozzie against Gary Ross, Billy Greco and Stevie Elman, our 10 o’clock game. Rozzie’s double teamed, of course, he fed me over his shoulder a couple times and by some miracle, I scored two layups and a few buckets off rebounds. And then this.

Mom sounded so destroyed, on the phone with her new best friend Francey, she must not have heard the front door slam.

I headed straight to the bathroom to clean up, trying to eavesdrop.

“Are you kidding?” she said, loud and clear the second I’m out. “He pursued me. No, I couldn’t find a job anywhere, was fresh out of high school, and Mort’s some salesman when he wants to be. You remember, everyone was down and out, and here’s this grown man after me, making a living, drives his own car. What did I know, it was very flattering. A six footer, you’ve seen him, a real shtarker, but so polite back then, such a sharp dresser, you wouldn’t believe it’s the same person. Us? We had nothing, we’d been on relief since I could remember. I wouldn’t say I was attracted exactly, no. Papa, he should rest in peace, I was the apple of his eye, I think he knew something was a little off, but he would never say a word to contradict my mother, he’d just sit in his chair and read The Forward. Her?” She laughed. “At first, of course, being the smart cookie she is, she said I could do better, she didn’t see what the rush was, but he started bringing flowers, boxes of Barracini chocolate, and he broke down her resistance. ‘So go ahead,’ Mama finally told me, ‘go with him. He’s not Cary Grant? So? You be the good looking one.’ And, after that, it was one two three, he gave me a ring, they shipped him overseas, and that was that. That’s when my nerves first started acting up. But,” and she paused, “I had no idea what I was in for. He came back a changed man.”

I grabbed a clean shirt and headed to the ground floor thinking, holy shit, you believe this? Here’s my own Mom saying no way I’d even exist on Earth if Dad wasn’t such a good bull shitter he won my Grandma over. If! The same Grandma nowadays who turns her head away when he bends to kiss her. If they weren’t so damn poor, if she wasn’t a naive young girl who didn’t know any better. If there wasn’t a war going on. It’s a whole lot of ifs.

In the vestibule I stopped to run my finger over the names in our building’s directory: Abramowitz, Abrams, Adelman, etc. No one splits up, not in this neighborhood. One family out of 72 in all 3250. Maybe two or three tops on our whole block, out of two hundred. It’s unheard of. I asked Grandma about it a while back.

“What are they torturing each other for?”

She just pressed her lips together, shook her head and looked out the window.

Monday

Hands down, worst day of the week! Hurrying down the Avenue under the el, past the fruit stands, pizzerias and hardware stores, I get my hopes up, my heart’s racing, even though I know school, if possible, is no better than home. Maybe they’re tied. Plus, I realize, I split without my notebook or gym bag and I overslept so I’m running a little late again.

“Lester,” my home room teacher, Mrs. Karp says, “you are not functioning properly. Not at all! Tardiness will not be tolerated. Next stop for you, if you don’t mend your ways, the Dean of Boys. Come up and take a zero.”

“I’ll take a zero,” I whispered out the side of my mouth. “Right here!”

Zeidman and the other guys are laughing behind their hands.

“What was that?” this dried up old witch asks, giving me the evil eye as I approach her desk.

My luck, I get the nuttiest whack job teacher in all Lincoln, she makes my parents look like the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and for whatever reason she’s got it in for me to the point if anything happens, even the other side of the room, I’m in her cross hairs.

So she’s giving a lesson, some bullshit about Civil Rights, the legacy of the late great JFK, and she stops mid-sentence, rubs her scabby scaly hands together and stares at me. “Lester Horwitz! Are you chewing gum?”

First of all, I asked her nicely, Mrs. Karp please don’t call me Lester. It’s Sonny! Oh, but Sonny is not an appropriate name for an educational environment, she told me.

So I have to admit, I pound the desk top, get up and open my mouth wide. “I don’t got any gum,” I tell her. I pull my empty pockets out of my pants and everyone cracks up.

“You sit down!” she says. “Unless I ask you to stand. And the rest of you keep quiet, this instance. I’m warning you, Lester. One more disruption and you’re going straight downstairs.”

That’s what I have to contend with in High School, this yenta on my case about chewing some imaginary gum.

My luck’s so bad probably due to my parents, the conflicting directions.

“Let him go down and play, Ruthie,” Dad would say when I was a little kid, back when I didn’t disappoint him so much to the extent he might’ve actually liked me. “Stop babying him, will you? Being around the other boys is more important than doing homework.”

“What?” she’d go. “Are you crazy?”

“Crazy? I didn’t do homework,” he’d say, “and, look at me, I’m making a living.”

That was an argument got repeated many times, but really it was any excuse.

Mom, for example, didn’t ever approve of my choice of friends. They were too wild, according to her, but Dad was like, “Oh, let the kid alone. What do you care?”

She would tell me, over and over, “People will judge you by the company you keep.”

Which, by now, tenth grade, “people,” (meaning adults), have no use for me anyways. They made their mind up long ago I was a trouble maker, and most of them warned their precious kindeleh to stay away from that Horwitz, so when I’m not playing hoops I’m hanging more than ever with the Junior Mafia. Which, for obvious reasons, I could never really be in with. But I do have to walk around twice as tough as all of them. For obvious reasons.

So, yeah, lately I’m getting in trouble like every day. Had to miss practice, cause I didn’t bring my stuff, asked Rozzie to tell the Coach I wasn’t feeling good.

“Oh, I forgot,” Mom said, when I got home. “Some little pisher was ringing the doorbell before, he was all excited. Wanted to talk to you. Barry something. Or Larry?”

“Who?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “He was ten years old. I never saw him before.”

Tuesday

I see Trip in World History. His head still has so many lumps, it’s like a potato, but at least he doesn’t need stitches and to his credit he kept his mouth shut, we all did, so by some miracle Zeidman didn’t get suspended. And Doctor Jay says Trip has to miss only one week of practice.

“You and Mikey shake hands yet?” I asked him.

“Zeidman’s still pissed,” he said.

Couldn’t keep my eyes open till this adorable chick Marcy Eisen, who’s on JV Boosters and in my French class, passed me a note about her party Friday night over by Luna Park.

“Bring Michael too,” she says after the bell rang.

“Zeidman?”

“Yeah. Tell him it’ll be fun, he’ll have a good time.” She winked. “You both will, I promise. So come, all right? Please?”

This is the first pretty girl who invited me to a party since I’m in Lincoln and I got all psyched up, but I don’t know. Luna Park? The projects?

Wednesday

They’re getting along so bad, with overturned bookshelves, screaming their lungs out, by the time Dad gets home late, she doesn’t usually even tell him half the shit she threatened to all day, like she used to. She lets me have it herself before supper, but frankly, today I’m in no mood.

“Let me tell you something, Mister, the only thing your father ever did right was at least he used to punish you for being disrespectful. Now, of course, even he’s given up.”

“Is that right?” I say. “Well, you and him should be locked away in some mental institution. Maybe I should too. Me and Eddie, the whole family. What do you think of that?”

“Don’t you talk to your mother that way!” she yells, trying to slap me, but I block her hand. “And don’t bring up your rotten brother’s name.”

“Love you, Ma,” I say, quiet now, because I do feel bad making her cry, “but leave me alone. I just don’t want to be bothered. By nobody.”

“Nobody?” She stares, wipes the tears away and shakes her head. “My God, don’t they teach proper grammar in Lincoln?”

Thursday

Another shit day, worse even than Wednesday.

This time it’s Mr. Prunella’s turn, my Bio teacher. I called out answers a few times, they happened to be right, but he pointed at me and says, “Horwitz, where do you think you are? Come up to my desk.” Then he goes, “Would you like to take another trip down to the Dean?”

So I’m like, “Where else is there to go? Do I have a choice?”

I didn’t mean it exactly like that, that’s just how it came out, but the whole class broke up.

Then I turned to them, waved and said, “I will return. It’s Mr. Lapidus down there now, and he’s a good guy, he doesn’t keep you all period,” so they all cracked up again.

The verdict: one full week of detention. Another note that my mother has to sign. One more problem and I’m off JV. Officially.

At night I head to the Boardwalk with a bunch of guys from the corner, screwing around, looking at the girls pass by in the short skirts, telling jokes. It’s a mild night, there’s all these old people on the benches singing folk songs, like there always is, so me and the boys head to the Pavillion and, big surprise, the minute we start playing Johnny On The Pony everyone clears out.

“Holy shit!” my buddy Salvi yelled when I started running. “Watch out guys, here comes a full load.”

“This eighth grader in my building,” I tell them, having a few laughs after the game, “he walks like this now, all stooped over from when I landed on his back, he’s so Jewish the kid’s first name is Bernstein,” and they’re all cracking up, slapping fives. Fiore brought a little something and we’re passing it around when who shows up, straight from Mermaid Avenue, but Ralphie the Scumbag. The squeaky voiced punk who sells overpriced firecrackers.

So this schmuck barges right into our circle, he ignores everyone else, walks up to Salvi, elbows him in the gut so he doubles over, then sticks his thumb at me and goes, “Hey! What do you hang around with this for? This useless piece of shit. Didn’t I tell you?”

Without thinking I rear back and punch him on the side of his ugly face so he falls over and almost blanks out.

“Holy shit!” Salvi yells. “What the fuck? He’s just kidding you. Ralphie, you okay, kid?”

The prick is still down, he’s rubbing his jaw, he’s like, “This faggit’s dead, all you guys are dead, just wait, every motherfucker here’s,” but it sounds so blurry and dazed, you almost couldn’t make out what he’s saying.

“Speak up,” I say, “fuck face. Who’s dead? Come on, asshole. You want some more?”

“What’d you say?”

“What did I say?" I turn to Salvi. “All of a sudden this prick don’t understand English. You moron, I said you can kiss my ass. Come on, do something.” And I take a step towards him.

Ralphie scrambles halfways to his feet, still rubbing the jaw, hunched over like Igor in Son of Frankenstein and he starts to slink away. “Wait,” he mumbles. “You guys’ll see, I got each of your faces. Memorized.”

“Holy shit,” Salvi goes again, rubbing his stomach. “Sonny! No way this is cool. Let’s get out of here, I’ve got to go make a phone call. You know who his cousin is, right?”

“I don’t care who he is. Who is he?”

Great, so now on top of everything at home and in school being messed up, I got Vinny Breschia from The Bayshore Victors after me.

Friday

I’m so rattled I messed up the World History quiz then ended up cutting French, last period. Me and Zeidman go to Luigi’s for pizza. I could be wrong but it seems like people are staring at me. Inside the building and out.

“Can’t believe school started just two weeks ago,” I said. “I’m already bored of education.”

“Yeah, I’m hip,” he said. “Two down, a million to go. So what’s this big problem I heard you got?”

I explain the situation, how it all went down, Zeidman nods and says, don’t worry about it, he knows a guy who knows a guy.

“Yeah, so? That’s what Salvi said. Everyone knows a guy who knows a guy,” I told him. “Don’t think I’m scared. I just don’t want to mess with this Breschia, from what I heard he got sent to a 600 school for pulling a knife on a teacher once.”

“Cool it, all right? I’m talking about my brother, Richie. You know he’s tight with Sammy Chacon and that crew now, right?”

Richie’s three years older than us, he’s starting to get in with some characters involved in certain things I don’t even want to know about, but I do know they’re activities that if you get caught you could wind up in jail. Which, on top of all the misery they went through, the bad luck they had, would tear his parents Esther and Izzy apart.

“So, you want to come to this party tonight at Marcy Eisen’s? In Luna Park? Come on.”

He gives me a look. “Nice piece,” he says. “What am I going to do though, drink some Pepsi and play Spin the Bottle? Dance the Twist? That’s more your speed. But do yourself a favor, buddy, don’t go anywhere till I tell you I got this straightened out. Lay low, will you? Besides, we got practice tonight, don’t we?”

Saturday

I took his advice for once. Didn’t go, didn’t hear squat.

At home it was all quiet on the Eastern Front. Some kind of truce.

Hung around the block till early afternoon, then went bowling with Benjay and Buzzy and, I don’t know, something about the sound of the ball hitting the pins calmed me down a little. When I left, Mom said, we’re eating at 5 sharp, make sure you’re home. Her and Dad are actually going out somewhere. Together! So I took a little run, down to Manhattan Beach and back, and when I rounded the corner the clock on the bank said it’s only ten to five, so instead of going straight upstairs I hung out in front of the building, shooting the shit with Junior, the super’s son.

All of a sudden, this like fourth grader from the next building, Little Larry, this cute kid, he comes running over to me, all out of breath, almost in tears, “Hey, Sonny,” he says, rubbing his eyes, “could you help us?”

“Slow down, Larry, what’s the problem?”

“Come with me,” he says, motioning with his arm. “The backyard. There’s some kids bothering Smiley.”

I hear this and bolted down the ramp through the cellar, out back, no questions asked. Smiley’s my pal, he’s the best.

There’s at least ten groups of boys and girls in the block long alleyway behind our apartment house, all ages, playing skelly, playing Chinese, tossing a football and just hanging out, causing a commotion.

“Where is he?”

“America,” Little Larry says, pointing towards the brick wall at the end of the alley with the country’s name painted on it.

Two punks I don’t recognize, not from our block, have Smiley’s cap and they’re playing Saloojee, tossing it back and forth, while he’s trying to run, a big smile on his face, trying to catch it each time it gets passed.

“Woooh,” one of them says, waving the hat right after he caught it, shaking it at Smiley like he’s a toreador, “this retard can’t even hear us, look Butchie, he’s got a hearing aid.”

I bounded over and tackled this motherfucker around the waist, made him drop the hat, so Smiley came over and snatched it, still smiling, and the other kid’s mouth shot open.

“Go over by Little Larry,” I told Smiley, real loud. “Go ahead now.”

Larry had his arms wide open and they hugged each other. Poor kid couldn’t even talk, all he could do is grunt, but how good he is, he has a constant smile on his face.

So I have this one kid by the neck, I’m dragging him forward, motioning for the other one who’s cowering against the wall in the corner. He’s looking around but has nowhere to run.

“Come over here,” I said, “I’m not going to hurt you.”

The kid I’ve got meanwhile starts whimpering, so I let him go. They’re both like big twelve-year-old tough guys, garrison belts and all.

“He was laughing, Mister,” the kid who was walking slowly towards me said. “He was having fun, it was just a game.”

“You shut your mouth now and listen,” I said, pointing at him. Meanwhile a whole crowd of other kids from our block and 7th Street starts to gather around to see what’s going on.

“Kick their ass, Sonny,” someone yelled out at me. “Teach them a lesson.”

“What are your names?” I asked them.

“I’m Irwin,” the kid I’d tackled told me. “And that’s Butchie.”

“All right let me explain something to you, Irwin and Butchie. Taking advantage of someone like Smiley, making fun of them, is something you could go to hell for. Did you know that?”

They looked at each other, a little spooked.

“You don’t want to go to hell, do you?”

Now Irwin started crying and Butchie stood there with his arms folded looking around, trying to act tough but fighting back tears too. Because now they’re surrounded, there must be thirty-five kids all behind me, jeering.

“Quiet down, everyone,” I said.

“We don’t want to go to hell, Mister,” this Butchie said. “We didn’t mean anything by it.”

“First of all, stop calling me Mister,” I said. “I’m only fourteen. Just big for my age. So where you two from?”

“Twelfth Street,” Irwin said, sniffling, wiping his nose on his sleeve. “Near 225.”

“Oh, that explains it,” I said. I reached out my hand to shake both of theirs. “All right, go back to Twelfth Street and don’t come around here starting trouble no more or you and me are going to have a problem. And don’t ever pick on someone who can’t fight back again. You promise?”

“Okay,” they both said together, raising their palms.

“We promise,” Butchie said. “Can we go?” 

“One more thing,” I told them. “Go over and shake Smiley’s hand and say you’re sorry.”

Smiley had a bigger grin than usual watching this.

“Shake their hand,” I said to him, real loud.

And he did, and everyone cheered and that was that, they left and everything went back to normal in the backyard.

Except just then I heard my mother calling down from the fourth floor window. “Sonny, where are you, it’s supper time, are you down there?”

“Be right up,” I called. I could see her head leaning out the window.

“I’m calling on you, it’s a half hour!”

“Okay, Ma, I’ll be right up. Five minutes.”

“Now!” she screamed, slamming the window.

“You okay, pal?” I asked Smiley.

His eyes opened wide, he nodded. Very enthusiastic.

“All right, Larry, I’m going to walk Smiley up to his house. You did a good job. Here, take this.” I reached in my pocket and gave him a quarter.

He took the coin, but his mouth flew open.

“Jeez, Sonny, what’s this for?”

“Doing a good job, like I said. If anyone bothers Smiley ever, you come get me, no questions asked. You know my apartment, right?”

“These same two were bothering him Monday, they stoled his money, I think. I rang your bell but your mother didn’t know where you were.”

“All right, Larry, very good, just keep your eye open.”

So I took Smiley upstairs, I told him in the elevator those kids won’t ever bother him again, he nodded, and I rang the bell.

“Hi, Mrs. Orenstein.”

She was in a house dress, with dark glasses, holding a lit cigarette. There was some weird music playing. Jazz.

“Oh, Sonny,” she said. Her voice was hoarse and deep as a man’s. “I haven’t seen you in ages, you’re getting so big. Want a glass of water?”

“No, thank you, Mrs. Orenstein, I just wanted to make sure Smiley, I mean Harold, got home okay.”

“Oh, you can stay for two minutes and have a glass of water, can’t you? Look at you, how big you are. Come in, tell me what you’ve been up to. How your family is. You have a girlfriend now?”

Long story short, two minutes turned into fifteen. Or twenty.

The minute I opened our door, Dad’s standing with his arms folded, like Mr. Clean.

“Hi,” I said. “Sorry I’m late.”

He just nodded, his mouth tight, sizing me up and blocking my path. His eyes weren’t bloodshot though, so I don’t think he’d had a drink yet, although who knows?

Upstream at Ikea

by Lori Ann Bloomfield

Darren had never imagined Stephanie Lawson beyond the weather report. Okay, he might have pictured her in a bikini on a beach when she read the vacation forecast, but he’d certainly never imagined her house.  Until now he’d never thought of Stephanie Lawson as a real person: as someone who bought groceries, took her cat to the vet, or did laundry.  But here she was, sitting on a blue sofa at Ikea on a Saturday morning.  It was like finding a fifty-dollar bill in your own backyard. 

Stephanie Lawson was Darren’s favourite weather reporter on the weather channel.  Except for her clumsiness she was Hollywood’s idea of what royalty looked like.  Darren loved the way she lurched towards the weather maps or stumbled on things he couldn’t see.  Whenever she faltered she’d glance down to get her bearings and the top of her golden head would fill Darren’s screen.  It made his stomach flutter, like he was a teenager again.

Darren watched as she rose from the blue sofa.  Stephanie was wearing tall black boots that were incredibly sexy.  Darren had never seen her feet before.  She walked to a red sofa and sat down, stiff and upright, her brow furrowed.  Seeing Stephanie at Ikea made Darren wonder how much she got paid.  Maybe people on air didn’t make as much money as he’d assumed.  While Darren was considering the paychecks of weather reporters, Thomas whimpered in his stroller. 

Darren glanced down at his son and saw that his brow was furrowed even more than Stephanie Lawson’s.  Thomas was on the verge of crying.  Darren immediately began thinking calm, Zen-like thoughts and sending them telepathically to Thomas.  Usually he thought of a unicorn in a forest but that didn’t feel right today.  Instead he imagined a big blue moon spinning gently though space. 

The only good thing about Thomas whimpering was it got Jess to stop staring at the fake Ikea room she’d been looking at for ten years.  But now she turned her new laser-like focus on the baby.  Since giving birth, concentration beamed from her forehead with enough force to cut steel.   Both things unnerved Darren.  The fake rooms at Ikea made him feel creepy, like he was spying on strangers, and he simply couldn’t get used to Jess’ newfound concentration.  She used to be someone who watched three television programs at once, who never finished a book and who left the vacuum in the middle of the room. 

Jess stared at Thomas for less time than it took to blink, then announced, “He needs to be changed.”

Weirdly, Thomas’ brow immediately smoothed and he stopped threatening to erupt into a hiccupping volcano of baby cries. Darren wanted to believe it was because of his big blue moon but he knew it was Jess.  It was like she and Thomas could read each other’s minds.  This also unnerved Darren.  He hoped he never met anyone who could read his mind. 

Jess scanned the retail horizon.  She looked fierce and determined.  Darren imagined her in tall boots like Stephanie Lawson’s, braced on the prow of a ship as a female pirate.

“Bathrooms are that way,” she said, her voice certain.

Darren wanted to say, “Aye-aye,” but didn’t dare.  He just followed Jess as she wheeled the stroller through the crowd. 

When he glanced back for one last look at Stephanie Lawson, she was gone.  Without her the red and blue sofas had lost their glamour, but Darren quickly took a picture of them anyway.

Jess found the bathrooms beside the cafeteria.  “Wait here,” she commanded Darren.  Then she swung the door to the ladies’ room wide open and pushed the stroller inside.  Darren turned away in embarrassment.  He was always afraid of being accused of peeping in the ladies’ bathroom.  Mostly because he always wanted to peep inside the ladies’ bathroom.  Just knowing this about himself made him feel guilty. 

Darren walked to the entrance of the cafeteria.  He liked cafeterias but never saw them anymore.  His grandma used to take him to one when he was a boy.  Just the two of them.  It was their special treat.  For dessert she always got Darren a bowl of red Jello with a fancy dollop of whipped cream on top.  Darren remembered how great it felt to put the Jello on his brown plastic tray and roll it down the steel rods to the cashier.  He wondered if Ikea sold bowls of red Jello.  He could get one for Thomas. Did they eat Jello in Sweden?  It didn’t matter.  Jess wouldn’t let Thomas eat something with so many artificial ingredients anyway.  Kids nowadays weren’t as lucky as Darren had been.  Darren was glad he’d grown up in a time of nonchalance and ignorance.

As he looked around the crowded room he spotted Stephanie Lawson sitting at a table by the window.  She was with two men.  If it had been surprising to see Stephanie on a sofa in Ikea, it was shocking to see her in the Ikea cafeteria.  Stephanie Lawson should only eat in restaurants with cloth napkins.  This was like seeing James Bond in a bowling alley. 

Thankfully she only had a white coffee mug in front of her.  Darren wasn’t sure if he could continue his fantasies if he’d seen her wolfing down a plate of meatballs, even if they were foreign.  Okay, you caught him.  It wasn’t strictly true that Darren had never imagined Stephanie Lawson beyond the weather report.  Darren hadn’t wanted to admit that when Jess and Thomas were around.  He’d just mentioned the bikini on a beach.  But Darren had imagined Stephanie’s home.  It was gorgeous, like her, and in his fantasies they lived there together.  That’s all you need to know.  This is why Darren is glad no one can read his thoughts.

Both the men sat opposite Stephanie.  Darren wondered if they worked at the weather network but he didn’t recognize them.  As he watched, an old woman with a tight grey perm stopped at the table.  A fan of Stephanie’s, no doubt.  The blonde man spoke to her, his smile sharp and confident.  He looked like Stephanie.  Darren guessed he was her brother.  This didn’t make Darren like him though.  Darren distrusted all confident people.  Stephanie was most likely at Ikea because of him, Darren decided.  Even across the cafeteria Darren could tell he was spoiled.  He probably got the most presents at Christmas and was their mother’s favourite, just like Darren’s brother. 

Then, in a scene that had no doubt been looping endlessly since their childhood, the brother stood up and stormed away.  It was clear to Darren, the father of a toddler, that he was having a tantrum.  On his way out the cafeteria he passed so close Darren could smell his cologne.  It was metallic and sweet.  It smelled like Jess, actually.  But Darren had to admit Stephanie’s brother got all the grace and coordination.  He’d cut across the room like a dancer.

Stephanie looked sad.  The dark-haired man sitting across from her looked bored.  He leaned back in his chair and rubbed his temple, then he held up a set of car keys.  For some reason this made them both laugh.  Darren wondered if the car belonged to Stephanie’s brother, but the brother hadn’t gone down the stairs towards the exit.  Darren looked over his shoulder and could see him striding into the bedroom section.  His coat flared out behind him like Darth Vader’s cape.  Darren had to admit it looked good.  His fingers tugged unconsciously at the bottom of his grey hoodie.

When Darren turned back, Stephanie Lawson, weather goddess, was walking straight towards him.  It felt like a movie, except she wasn’t looking at him but at her own feet.  When Stephanie passed she smelled clean and fresh, the way you’d expect a laundry detergent commercial to smell if you could jump inside the television.

She turned the opposite way of her brother and took the shortcut back to the living room department.  Stephanie was returning to the sofas.  Darren glanced towards the woman’s bathroom but there was no sign of Jess and Thomas.  Unable to resist, he followed Stephanie Lawson upstream at Ikea. 

That was the thing about Ikea, they were really good at funnelling people from the entrance to the exit.  Everyone moved in the same direction at Ikea.  Except for Stephanie and Darren.  Luckily, Stephanie Lawson was tall so it was easy to follow her honey-coloured head through the crowd.  Darren was glad because he had to keep looking away and saying excuse me as he dodged shoppers.  Everywhere Darren looked people clutched free paper measuring tapes and child-sized pencils.  Everyone here knew their home would never look like an Ikea showroom yet they clearly hoped it would.  It was worse than a high school dance, Darren thought, because here everyone was going to be disappointed.

Everyone except Darren. 

There was no way for Darren to be disappointed.  The only hope he’d had was to leave Ikea with less than three things he had to assemble at home.  But he’d discovered Stephanie Lawson on a sofa.  He’d watched her drink coffee.  He’d smelled her, for god’s sake!  For the first time in his life Darren felt like a guy in a beer commercial.

Which was why when Stephanie Lawson arrived back at the living room department and sat down on the most god-awful looking sofa Darren could imagine, he wasn’t disappointed.  He didn’t care if Stephanie Lawson wanted a sofa that looked like it had been designed by a drunken five-year-old.  In an odd way it added to her charm.

So Darren smiled when Stephanie smiled sitting on a sofa so ugly it would scare a cat.  And that is when Stephanie Lawson, weather goddess, looked up and saw Darren.

“What do you think of this sofa?  Tell me honestly,” Stephanie said.

It took Darren a moment to realize she expected an answer.  He had watched her on television so much he’d grown used to their one-sided conversations.

“Well, I, umm…”

Stephanie cocked her head to one side like a spaniel and waited.  This surprised Darren.  Jess always talked over his stilted, fumbled out loud thinking but Stephanie was waiting to hear his opinion.

“Is it comfortable?” Darren finally asked.  “Because that’s the most important thing.”  Darren believed this.  If he was going to bet on a furniture company lasting forever he’d put his money on La-Z-Boy.

Stephanie leaned back.  “Yes, it is comfortable,” she said.  She was still watching Darren, clearly waiting for more.

Darren remembered the paper measuring tapes.  “Is the size okay?  Will it fit in your living room?”

Stephanie’s brow furrowed slightly and she looked down.  Clearly she had not considered this.  Then, in what was the first truly elegant move Darren had seen her perform, she folded her long legs up and lay down, one slim hand tucked beneath a perfect cheek. 

“It’s a bit smaller than the one that used to be there, so it will fit,” she said.

“But it’s comfortable?”

“Yes, it is.  You’re a very practical person,” she said. Then she closed her eyes.

Darren was stunned.  He’d never been told he was practical before.  Only the opposite.  He tried to think of something practical to do next.  Then he spotted the giant, Ikea-sized container of pillows nearby.  He walked over and plucked out a pink one with a picture of a cartoon owl on it and carried it back to Stephanie. 

He stood there awkwardly, trying to figure out how to give it to her, then finally said, “Here.”  When she opened her eyes he handed it to her. 

Stephanie looked surprised but took the pillow. Then her eyes filled with tears.

Darren quickly looked around.  He expected security to tackle him and knock him to the ground for making Stephanie Lawson cry.  But no one was rushing him.  No one was even looking at them.

Stephanie sat up.  She began blinking rapidly and doing that fluttery thing women did with their hands when they were trying not to cry.

“I’m sorry,” Stephanie said.  “I’ve been under a lot of stress lately and today hasn’t been the best day.”

Darren jammed his hands into the pockets of his jeans and looked at his shoes while he waited for her to pull herself together.  When her hands stopped fluttering and instead clutched the pillow to her chest, Darren looked up and said, “You shouldn’t buy a sofa today.  It’d be a mistake.”

“I have to.  I want to.  I’ve got to move on.  Besides, I can’t watch Netflix.”

Jess would have immediately understood the story buried in those four, disjointed sentences, but Darren was mystified so he stuck to his original point. “You’re sad.  If you buy a sofa when you’re sad, every time you look at it you’ll feel bad.  Trust me, I bought a car once when I was in a bad mood and I hated that Toyota.  I understand the Netflix thing, though.”

“But my living room is empty.  My boyfriend moved out and took the sofa.  I just bumped into him actually.  He was with his new… his new partner.  It was awful.  I don’t know why I agreed to have coffee with them.”

The world was often an inexplicable place to Darren but never more so than at that moment because Stephanie-the-weather-goddess Lawson had just told him her boyfriend had left her. And she said she’d just had coffee with him and his new amour.  But Stephanie had just had coffee with two guys.  So if Darren had this right, and he wasn’t completely sure he did, then Stephanie Lawson’s boyfriend had left her for a guy.  It felt like gravity had suddenly reversed.  Darren had to sit down on the sofa beside Stephanie.

Stephanie couldn’t believe she had blurted that out to a stranger.  She hadn’t told any of her friends or family yet that John had left.  And when she did she was going to lie.  She’d say it hadn’t been working for a while, that the breakup was mutual.  She would never tell anyone, ever, that he’d left her for a man.

“John decorated our place.  He was good at that sort of thing,” Stephanie said.  “I don’t even know what I like.  I can’t decide on a sofa.”

“I thought you liked this one.”

“I think I only like it because John hates it.”

They sat in silence. 

“I like this pillow though.  The owl is cute.”  Stephanie smiled at Darren.  “Help me pick out a sofa?”

Darren was about to say no, then decided if this was the task the universe had assigned him, who was he to question it. 

“You could get a sofa that matches the pillow and is comfortable,” Darren said.

“Brilliant!” Stephanie sprang up.  “That’s a great idea.  It is like matching a swatch.”

Darren had no idea what that meant but he was happy to follow her from sofa to sofa and watch as she propped the owl cushion in the corner of each.  Stephanie was making decisions now.  Sofa after sofa was being ruled out. 

Then she dropped the pillow on a dark purple sofa and even Darren could tell they looked good together.  When Stephanie sat down on it Darren actually felt nervous.  Stephanie leaned back and nodded. 

“I found my sofa,” she said.  Then she and Darren beamed at each other like they’d just won a race together.

“You sure?”  Darren asked.  He was sad it was over, but happy to have been the one with her.

“Yes.  This is the one.”  Stephanie patted it then stood up and took a picture of the tag attached to it.  While she was fiddling with her phone she said, “Give me your number.  I’ll text you a photo of the sofa when it’s delivered.”

Suddenly Darren was way beyond a beer commercial.  This was uncharted territory, even for fantasies.  He was being added to Stephanie Lawson’s contacts.  When he recited his number his voice came out high and squeaky but Stephanie tapped it into her phone anyway.

“I’m Stephanie, by the way.”

“Darren.”  He watched as Stephanie Lawson typed his name into her phone. 

When she was done Stephanie turned and lightly hit Darren on the arm with the owl pillow.  Darren could barely breathe. 

“Thanks. Really.”  Stephanie looked embarrassed.  Then she smiled her weather girl smile and walked away. 

Darren watched her go.  Then he sat down on the purple sofa.  It really was comfortable. 

He thought of Stephanie and of her boyfriend and of the man who wasn’t her brother.  He thought of her empty living room and of the purple sofa that would fill that space.  Darren wanted to forget everything she had told him and everything he had seen in the cafeteria.  But he couldn’t.  If Darren thought of Stephanie now he’d see a pretty girl watching Netflix, or heating food in a microwave or driving to work.  Stephanie Lawson had become real and that made her so much less interesting.

He stood up.  It was time to go back and find Jess.  Ikea had gotten even more crowded.  Darren joined the throng of shoppers, but it was easier now.  He was going downstream.  Darren drifted along with the crowd letting himself float on the collective dream that they could escape disappointment.  

Venice

by Chris Bullard

His mom slammed the door of the dishwasher and shouted, “They said we had to evacuate. They’re going to close the road to Melbourne.” His dad bellowed back, “You know they always say that.”

Jess pushed his tugboat over the rag rug in his bedroom and made engine noises. The tug was fighting the waves of a hurricane like the one that was moving up the coast toward the barrier island where his family lived.  

“You’re going to let us drown,” his mom screamed. He heard his dad turn up the sound on the TV.

Earlier in the evening his dad had put up the storm shutters, but he had refused to pack the car. “We don’t even know if it’s going to hit us,” his dad had said. “We’ve got plenty of time.”

“We’re surrounded by water,” his mother had replied. “We’ve got to get out now.”

Jess was used to his parents’ arguments. They were as frequent as afternoon thunderstorms. Nothing ever came of them. So he was surprised when his mother grabbed his arm and steered him downstairs.

As they passed through the living room, his mom announced that she was taking the boy and leaving for the mainland. His dad sighed and turned off the TV. He picked up the suitcases that his mom had left in the kitchen and threw them in the trunk of the car that was waiting in the garage.

The wind was blowing so hard that the car moved sideways as they drove across the causeway to the mainland. Whenever the car veered, his mom gave a loud gasp.

“Don’t worry,” his dad said, “I’ll get us there safe.” His mom shot back, “If we had left two hours ago we’d be safe enough now.”

They stayed in the gym of a high school. Jess spread out on a wrestling mat and read comic books. He could hear his mom’s voice booming over the voices of the women sitting at her table. She was saying that she had to have been crazy to move to an island. Everything she owned was going to wash away.

His dad sat talking with a group of men. The men were playing a card game while slumped in their chairs like football fans waiting out a heavy rain at a stadium.

His mom’s voice spread out over the gym like high waves rolling in from the ocean and whenever her words broke over the table where the men sat, his dad looked at the ceiling and shrugged.

The lights went off at ten.  Other people kept talking, but he turned over and thought about the storm. He wondered if the ocean would rise and wash away the town. He pictured the high school full of water. He saw himself on his wrestling mat floating above his silent parents.

In the morning his dad drove them to the motel where they would stay until the island re-opened. His dad navigated in a roundabout way to avoid flooded streets. Each of the buildings stood in its own small lake.

The air was warm and misty. He tried to breathe through his mouth to see if he could live underwater.

“We’re surrounded.” his dad said. “There’s no way to get out of here without a boat. It’s like we’re living in goddam Venice. I feel like I’m driving a gondola.”

His dad started to sing, “O sole mio.” 

“Don’t be such a martyr.” his mom replied.

Jess asked his dad, “Will everyone have to leave?”

  “Of course not,” his dad said. “They’ll just build everything back. You’ll see, everything will be like it was before.”

His mom gave his dad a long look. “Then the next storm will come through and knock it down again.”         

His dad seemed unconcerned. “That’s just the way it is around here.”

Years later, Jess was standing beside the Bridge of Sighs while his girlfriend took his picture. They had met while they were both in their junior year abroad and had gotten along well until they had made this trip to Venice. They had already had one fight that morning about whether to walk or take the vaporetto.

Tourists streamed by like a crowd of refugees.  

“Venice,” he said, “We’re living in goddam Venice.” She didn’t ask him to explain.

Liling

by Kelly Cherry

During the early years of the Ming Dynasty, one young woman in particular was praised for her beauty. Of course there were other beauties, but wherever Liling went, admirers clapped, as if she were on stage rather than in her own life, or bowed—and sometimes they did both—for they were captivated by her coiffed hair, her straight, small shoulders, her perfect, blushing skin, and her hands—so exquisite, so delicate, able to express everything in the most miniscule gesture. Liling leant on silken pillows embroidered with all the colors of the rainbow.

But she could not walk. At least not very far. Her feet had been bound at birth and now the deformed stubs at the ends of her legs could barely support her. Slaves bore her where she wanted to go, the poles of the litter supported on their shoulders, which in warm weather were oiled to glisten. In that case she would drape silk scarves over her face to prevent the sun from damaging her skin.

The purpose of binding women's feet, as I'm sure you know, was to make them attractive to men. The bound feet grew no longer than three inches. The permanent contortion of the foot excited the men, but why, I cannot say. Then again, with such small feet, the women's bodies swayed, sometimes precariously. The men liked that, found it erotic. It also allowed them to think that the women needed their strong arms. Parents bound their daughters' feet to ensure that they would find husbands with money.

Liling was happy, but, she thought, she would be so much happier if she could walk without always being about to tip over. She longed to explore the city on her own. She wanted to dance, if only for an hour. Her younger brother told her of his adventures in the city. How he ran and jumped and leapt over obstacles. How he climbed stairs and played games with his friends.

One day Little Brother came home wet. His hair was wet, there were drops of water on his hanfu. His feet were wet, his black cotton shoes soaked. "Where have you been, Little Brother?" Her voice was sweet, lulling, as it always was.

"Swimming," said Changming.

Liling knew that people who lived near the shore often swam, but her family were not near the shore. She knew that fishermen fished in the sea. She knew that fish and octopi swam in the sea. But—had Changming gone swimming in the sea?

"I'm learning," her brother said. "At school. At school I am learning to swim."

"At school? I thought you were studying letters and numbers at school."

"I am. But there is also swimming. We swim in the pool at school."

"The pool at school," she repeated, as if it were the most astonishing rhyme in the world. "The pool at school," she said again.

When her mother and father called Liling and Changming to dinner, she made up her mind.

"Papa," she said. "I want to learn to swim."

Her father's eyebrows went up. As if each were a little springbox or a rolled scroll.

"Females do not swim," he said, and his voice was low, as if he didn't want anyone to hear it. Maybe he thought a servant would overhear.

Liling adopted her calmest manner but she did not lower her voice from its natural range.

"I want to. I believe it will be good for me."

"Females have no need to swim," her father countered.

"I am female, Papa, and I have a need to swim."

Her father laid down his chopsticks and propped his chin on his hands. The rice in the centered bowl was still steaming. He brought his teacup to his mouth and sipped. At last he spoke. "What is this need?" he asked. "Have we not provided you with everything you need?"

"No, Papa," she said, not so much stubbornly as assuredly. "You see, my Lotus shoes"—by which she meant her deformed feet—"prevent me from learning about the world. And I am desirous of learning the world."

"Desirous," Papa said. "Perhaps you mistake the world for a husband. You will find a husband."

"Yes, Papa, I know. But first I must learn to swim."

Mama and Little Brother were as still as statues as this conversation continued. They were afraid Papa might stomp out of the room or lash out at Liling for her unconscionable request. Did she think she was above the rules? She was her father's favorite, yes, but he had to conform too. He too was bound—to convention.

"Must?" her father said.

"I am telling you the truth, Papa. You must take my word for it."

"Must and must again."

She said nothing.

"Your need is strong."

She looked straight into his eyes and did not flinch.

"So be it," he said, whereupon Mama, Little Brother, and even Liling relaxed their shoulders and sighed with relief.

The first time she dipped her foot in water she thought the water was like silk that moved of its own volition. It seemed as if a silk scarf were draped over her foot. She sat on the edge of the pool, that one foot—the right foot—dangling in water, and not until she became accustomed to the sensation did she lower her left foot. The water seemed to be cool and warm at the same time. Her brother demonstrated dog paddling, and then her father taught her to float.

She closed her eyes and she was floating on air. When she opened them again, she almost went under, but her father held her up with his strong arms and hands. Changming taught her the breast stroke. After she learned them, she practiced the breast stroke, the backstroke, the butterfly each day. It did not happen overnight, but eventually she had the hang of it. Now she felt as if she were crossing miles, though it was  only the length of the pool. Freedom, she thought. I now know what freedom is.

Her small shoulders strengthened. She thought she might grow wings, because swimming was a kind of flying.

Did Liling drown? Her family may have thought so, but no, she did not drown. She swam the Yangzi. She swam the Nile. She swam the Mississippi and the St. Lawrence. She swam the Panama Canal and the English Channel. The Volga. The Dnieper. The Rhine. The Baltic Sea and the Vistula and the Seine. The Po and the Tiber. The Zambezi. She swam so far and so much that in time she forgot the names of some of the places she'd visited.

She skipped the Amazon. She had no wish to be nibbled to death by piranhas.

She never returned. She did not want a husband. She wanted to see the world.

Her parents missed her. Papa scolded himself for letting her learn to swim. Mama scolded Papa for letting Liling learn to swim. Little Brother would inherit all their earthly riches, which he would have gladly given up if only Liling came back. He missed his sister! Indeed, he missed her so much that he never again wanted to swim, not even in a pool. He thought it was his fault that she had gone away, and he'd been so proud of his big sister, her beauty, her intelligence. Her power, because he had felt that. Her power. Her strength.

Dallas of My Dreams

by Arthur Davis

I moved south on Broadway, sucking down gulps of cold, dank air and stumbled into a crowd of tourists, their arms stretched taut around packages cloaked in brightly colored Christmas wrapping.

I hated the holidays in New York City. The days were filled with a harsh gray, windswept emptiness and the nights, long and unremittingly cold, and everybody pretending to be happy.

I gripped the small, hand-carved pocketknife in my pocket, flicking the blade open and closed. A thread of honking, swerving cars and taxis snaked their way across 51st Street.

The light changed. People bumped up behind me jostling me forward.

Open and closed.

Another two blocks south and I turned west toward Eight Avenue. The street was quiet, the night opaque with beckoning neon lights that blinked like illuminated cancers. I moved along without turning to the left or right where erotic distractions beckoned.

It’s 1974. Nixon refused to hand over tapes subpoenaed by the Watergate Committee.  Gold hit $160 an ounce. Patricia Hearst, daughter of the publishing magnate, was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army.

And I was still alone.

Two men were arguing on the corner of 49th Street and Eighth Avenue. I recognized the taller one in the frayed bomber jacket as Davy Collins, a large black man I had seen frequenting the neighborhood bars. The other man waved his fist under Davy's rolled, gray-bearded chin.

Several streetwalkers cursed the snow and, like me, probably made mind bets on the outcome of the conflict. For the briefest moment, time and temptation were suspended. Then, suddenly, Davy backed away. Streetlights changed from blood red to Limerick green. Car horns blared. The New York night spun, tumbled, and snaked on towards the oncoming abyss of midnight.

The clock over Sobel's pharmacy on 49th Street and Eighth Avenue read ten fifty-five. I had five minutes to get to the Gaiety Burlesque on 47th Street and Ninth Avenue. I chanced the light and jumped into the traffic. Cars skidded to avoid me.

I rounded the corner on 47th and Ninth Avenue and dug for the fifteen-dollar admission fee. I threw two crumbled bills at the cheerless cashier and rushed up the two flights without waiting for my ticket. The scent of urine and excitement strained my ascent. By the time I got to the top of the second floor landing, my lungs were heaving wildly.

“You're drunk.”

“Fuck off,” I shot back, rushing past Kenny Fields, a regular at the Gaiety who was fishing for a cigarette in his pocket.

Two men came out from behind the curtains that shielded the unused orchestra pit and bracketed the narrow dance runway that split the hundred or so seats caged in darkness. Both men were tall, heavyset and wore black leather jackets and black pants.

I once heard the Gaiety was owned by someone connected to one of the New Jersey organized crime families. It bothered me that the two men moved about as if they didn't care what anybody thought of them. It bothered me that they could be so confident.

I removed my coat and set it neatly on my lap so it wouldn’t fall on the floor, a swamp of filth, flotsam, and abandoned dreams.

The late show was supposed to begin at eleven. Only I had no idea when Dallas might appear, and I could not afford to miss her last performance. I had worked up my courage all day to get to this one relevant moment. It was as if I was deciding whether or not to go to my class reunion because of my frail financial condition, the state of my withering wardrobe, or plague of anxieties.

Kenny had made himself comfortable on the other side of the runway directly across from where I was sitting. It bothered me that I might have to take in the sumptuous beauty of this woman in the same blink as that nervous piece of vermin.

The last time I saw Dallas was 13 years ago. She had performed in a benefit for a local children's hospital where my wife was the funding manager. It was a daring concept. A stripper, if even in a slightly less rousing routine, as part of a vaudeville review to raise money for the clinic. It was masterful. Brilliant. My wife's idea worked to perfection.

If I had not spotted the Gaiety's advertisement in the newspaper this morning announcing Dallas’ last performance of the week, I would have missed a rare opportunity to renew my vows to her clinging appeal.

You might be right to judge me harshly. One cannot make a life out of such farfetched fantasies. Except that the dissolution of my marriage had nothing and everything to do with Dallas. By the time that night came, we were well into the eighth year of an already dissipated relationship. We had long ago lost whatever bond we had brought to the altar of optimism. What was left between us could only be measured by circumstance and defined by inertia.

At five after eleven, a voice rose over the public address system.

“Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming to the Gaiety for one of the stage's preeminent dancers—one of the most successful exotic dancers of our time. This lady has captivated audiences in London, Paris, Rome, and Madrid as well as in every one of the most famous dance halls in the states. Ladies and gentlemen, without further ado, I give you Dallas, in her fabulous dance of the red flames.”

The audience barely stirred with anticipation.

The taped drum roll played out its long, tantalizing introduction until a hand snaked out from behind the black curtain. Two yellow lights focused on the taunting, sinuous movement of a long red satin glove that went clear up the arm as fingers suggestively stroked the curtain. The hand curled and caressed. Then a long, sinuous leg hooked itself around the curtain.

When she stepped out from behind the curtain, Dallas was wearing the familiar cascade of bright red feathers. The filmy facade enveloped her body from red stilettos to hair. All you saw out from behind the fan of feathers was her legs and face and, as one after another feathers slowly dropped away to the beat of the music.

Most of the twenty-or-so men in the audience were in their forties and fifties. A handful were considerably older. I counted five women. Dallas was first on the evening's line-up, which meant that the other eight performers were younger, more beautiful and more talented.

She moved about the runway weaving small, precise figure eights with her fans until all her feathers were scattered along the runway. Then she began to peel off her gloves, then the halter covering her nearly sheer red bra revealing the opulence of her breasts.

It was immediately apparent that Dallas, while still quite striking, was no longer young, not in the conventional, theatrical sense. She, like every other athlete, had seen her prime pass without being able to stop its cruel march. Her skin was not as tight, her breasts not as high, her face not as smooth, and her eyes slightly, if noticeably, swollen with the strain of trying to please others. Since my wife told me she was twenty-six when I first saw her and she had been dancing since she was a teenager even back then, twenty years had passed.  

I couldn't imagine a woman being more beautiful even if she was no longer the youthful temptress of my dreams. The woman had been my constant and trusted companion once or twice a week for many years. And now she was again flesh and bone and beauty and accessibility. We had grown into maturity together, even if we were separated by space and time and reality.

Open and close. Open and close. Open and close.

A particularly scrawny customer in his early fifties wearing a maroon beret tilted over to one side of his head—a beret for Christ's sake—stood up at the edge of the runway and waved a twenty-dollar bill in his hand.

Dallas danced closer and squatted down in front of him and, with her back towards me, the flare of her hips and butt-cheeks accentuated by resting them on the heels of her shoes, greeted him with the full breadth of her cleavage.

Dallas pulled off the guy’s beret, waved him a kiss, and jumped up beaming joyously to the applause of the crowd. She wiggled and danced, teased and taunted. Her garter, bra, and G-string transformed into an apron of greenbacks. She slowly removed the money and dropped them on her red-sequined skirt that was lying at the back of the runway. She spun around on the brass pole, though more with coy seductiveness than acrobatic flamboyance.

She slowly unclipped her bra then ripped it off in one exaggerated movement, swung it around her head and tantalizingly dragged it up and down between her buttocks. She thrilled. She dazzled. She promised the men what they knew was impossible.

A torrent of five and ten dollar bills rained down on the stage. The more they showered her with money, the more intimate she became. I was on my feet too though not merely with appreciation. I suddenly resented their adulation, the demonstration of unrestrained desire and, worse, their familiarity.

Open and close. Open and close. Open.

Her breasts were still large and firm. Her nipples, pink and generous. Her legs and buttocks were even more fit and athletic than I recalled. Her belly was flat and firm.

Kenny Fields cursed, and reached for her over the runway, quickly bringing one of the security guards to his side and me to my feet. As Kenny was ushered to the back of the theater I slumped back into my seat and instantly felt a searing pain cut across the front of my thigh.

A tiny red outline on my pants quickly grew into a three-inch slit like the tongue of a serpent. The tips of my fingers and toes grew numb. My arms and legs tingled with confusion. My head swam in fright and fear. The music faded. Dallas moved as though she were overtaken by a powerful solution of drugs and despair. Her arms swayed in slow motion. Her eyes were embedded in a dull, smoky haze of regret.

I wanted to reach out and put a hundred dollar bill I didn’t have into Dallas' G-string. I wanted to know why she had grown old. Instead, I staggered, tripped and fell.  I remembered the edge of the runway rushing up and crashing into the side of my face.

Night turned into a deeper, more bitter and unrepentant darkness. I heard noise, a thunder of unfriendly voices. The music had turned into a muddy murmur.

I looked into the eyes of humanity and felt the resolute kick of every heartbeat in the world except mine. I saw my ex-wife's distrusting grin, my grown son's practiced frown, my mother's visage of regret, my father's scowl of knowing disapproval until my right leg became detached and floated, end-over-end, some distance away.

“Are you all right,” a woman's voice asked, hovering overhead in a flame of a garish amber glow.

“He’s okay,” the man standing next to her said.

“He could have hurt himself,” she insisted.

“The asshole could have cut his dick off.”

“He's kind of cute.”

“He's kind of stupid to be carrying an open pocketknife in his pants.”

“Maybe he found it in the street?”

“Maybe he's a serial killer hunting for his next victim in a burlesque house?”

“Okay, Tony. I think that's enough.”

“Suit yourself sweetheart, but when Joey gets back, he's going to be pissed.”

I saw her push the man towards the door. “Yes, well, Joey doesn't like anything. That's what makes him such a special human being,” she said and slammed the door behind him.

She came over to me and adjusted something cold clinging to the side of my face. I wanted to reach down and see if I had cut off my leg, then I realized that the woman hovering over me really was the Dallas of my dreams.

“What happened?”

“Your finale upstaged my finale.”

“I'm sorry.”

“Don't be. I was glad to be done with it.”

In the glare of the dressing room, her body looked different. There were soft lines under her jaw and around her waist. The faint shadow of an inch long scar that disappeared in her hairline was clearly visible. “Why?”

“Because I'm tired. That's why,” she said and got up and tightened the drawstring of her robe.

“Where are you going?”

“Back to my dressing room.”

“I thought this was your dressing room.”

“You must be worse off than I thought,” she said shaking her head. “Look around. Do you see anything that would indicate this place was a woman's dressing room, or the office of the prick who owns this shit-evil, godforsaken dump?”

I noticed the desk and battered file cabinet in the opposite corner. I examined my leg. A makeshift bandage had been applied. The wound hurt like hell, though not as much as the side of my head. I needed a doctor, but that could wait.

“It's only a flesh wound, a long and nasty bleeder of a flesh wound. You were lucky. I mean, really lucky.”

“Please don't go.”

“Why?”

“Because I've been waiting for thirteen years to see you again.”

She stopped at the door. “Thirteen is an unlucky number.”

“Please, for a minute. Please?”

She tightened her robe, took another moment. “The minute I hear Joey's voice, I'm out of here,” she threatened.

“The minute you hear Joey's voice,” I said not knowing who he was, “we're both out of here.”

She sat down, lit a cigarette, and inhaled slowly. Dallas was wearing a heavy red and orange robe with large, colorful red Chinese dragons embroidered on the front and back.

“What's all this business about thirteen years?”

“It's going to sound stupid.”

“That's okay. It usually does.”

“What do you mean, usually?”

“Guys do stupid things.”

“So do women.” This was just a guess on my part.

“Except that men do stupider things to see naked women than women do to see naked men. Take my word for it.”

“We're not a very evolved species.”

“No shit.”

“I saw you thirteen years ago in a fundraiser for a neighborhood outreach clinic in New Jersey. I was with my wife then. I never saw such a beautiful woman in my life. I mean you, not her. When you stepped out on stage, my blood stopped running. I thought I had been hit by a truck,” I said managing to get myself into a sitting position. “My head actually feels like it was hit by a truck.”

“I saw you coming towards me out of the corner of my eye. I saw you trip. If a couple of guy’s hadn't caught you, you would have cracked your skull open.”

“What a jackass.”

“Like you said, not very evolved.”

“Yes, well, some of us are even less advanced than others.”

“What do you do when you’re not fantasizing?”

“I’m a biology teacher. A high school biology teacher. Or at least I used to be.”

“I loved biology in school.”

“Unfortunately you're in the minority.”

“So, finish your story.”

“There's not much to finish. I saw the advertisement. I wanted to see you again.”

“What did you tell your wife?”

“Several years back I told her it was over a long time ago.”

“I told my second husband the same thing.”

I wiggled my toes somewhere at the far end of right leg. I was suddenly ashamed. I was sitting here with a woman who had shadowed my life for more than a decade. That had to count for something. Something in my life had to count for something.

“You really saw me dance that long ago?”

“You were amazing.”

“Youth,” she said patting down the robe as though it added forty pounds to her figure. “Youth and great genes.”

“You're still very beautiful.”

“I'm not the dancer I once was.”

“Is that why you didn't dance last?”

“I didn't dance last because I'm at least ten years older than any of the other girls here.”

“Then why did they advertise your appearance at the Gaiety?”

“They didn't advertise anything. I did. I was lucky to get this gig. They told me that if I didn't draw I was finished. I've heard nothing else for the last six months from Los Angeles to New York. And I'm tired of dancing in the second rate dumps where the owner thinks your ass is his property.”

“I'm glad you did.”

“It was a silly thing to do. I really can't afford it. I just wanted to prove something to myself.”

“From what I saw of the audience, you already did.”

“Sometimes I'm not even sure of that anymore,” she said, getting up. “You'd better get your banged up body out of here before Joey gets back.”

“You didn’t call the police?”

“You have a superficial cut that looks worse than it is, and Joey has no love for the cops.”

“Right.”

I staggered to my feet. When I began to wobble, Dallas came over and put my arm around the back of her neck. I could smell her perfume. “I think I can walk.”

“I think you should see a doctor.”

I stopped her. “I don't want to go.” I knew this was probably the wrong thing to say, but I had to say it.

“Well, you can't stay here.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“You look pathetic.”

“Pathetic is my strong suit.”

“Why did you leave your wife?”

“She didn't love me and I didn't love her. We were dying with each other.”

“If I had stayed with my ex, I would have looked worse than you by now.”

“He hit you?”

“Let's get you downstairs. The fresh air will do the both of us some good.”

“I don’t want to go and never see you again. I can't do that,” I declared, a little too aggressively. “And, please, don't be frightened.”

“Of a man who comes into the theater with an open knife in his pocket? Now why would you think I'm frightened?”

“I was flicking it open and closed. Nervous habit. I should have left it home.”

Dallas glanced around the room, then walked over to Joey's desk and pressed down what remained of her cigarette into the overflowing ashtray. “Meet me in front of the theater in an hour. It'll take me at least that long to change and clean up and explain what happened to Joey.”

“I'll be the one with the roses in my hand.”

“You'll be the one with blood-covered pants, the nasty red welt on your head, and looking like shit.”

She walked me to a spiral stairway in the rear of the theater and, with more help than I thought I needed, got me down to the street. She gave me a strange glance before slamming the battered metal door to the alley shut.

I crossed Ninth Avenue and went into an all-night drug store and convinced the manager I wasn't drunk. I told him I had fallen on a broken bottle and could use some help. I showed him I had a wallet full of identification.

He let me use the store's bathroom. When I peered into the mirror, I nearly gasped. I couldn't imagine what I would have looked like without the ice pack.

I sat down on the covered toilet bowl and dropped my head into my hands. I was exhausted, tired of everything and what my life had been reduced to. I was embarrassed. Ashamed. I felt like I had been set up with the most beautiful girl in the world and showed up late, unshaven and most of all, unworthy.

I couldn't tell what was worse; the pounding in my head or my wounded leg or the realization of how far I had fallen from the dignity that once was my life. Then I realized what would be worse. Dallas not showing up. “What a fucking jerk you are.”

I got to my feet, washed off my face, combed back my hair, and went out into the drug store and corralled the manager again. “Do you have any idea what I can do to make myself more presentable to my girlfriend?”

He gave me a slow once over. “I can sell you a shirt and …”

“Balloons?”

“I was going to say a bandage for your head and hand.”

The side of my palm was deeply abraded with a cherry-red welt. I must have tried to break my fall with my hand in addition to my head. “I'll take a large bandage for my hand, a blue work shirt, pants—if you have a pair in my size—and a dozen balloons.”

I felt renewed. Reborn. I also felt quite foolish standing on the street with a dozen iridescent gas-filled “Happy Birthday” balloons hovering from a string overhead. The snow continued to fall. It was a beautiful, clear, crisp New York morning. I couldn't get over how alive I felt, even if I had temporarily lost some blood and sight of my life.

I turned the corner and spotted the Gaiety. I had been coming to the place for years. Not regularly, you know, but once every few months off and on for a long, long time. I don't know why, except that it had an appeal to me since I was in college. There was no one special dancer back then or, actually, at any time since. I simply enjoyed the simple stark frankness of what it had to offer regardless of who was undulating away on the walkway.

I had once been a teacher, a good teacher at a pretty good high school in Westchester, a suburb north of the city. Then, sometime after the divorce, what remained of the structure and stability of my life came apart piece by piece until all that remained was anger and bitterness.

The superficial wound on my leg and on the side of my head was nothing compared to the anguish I felt in my heart for how far I had fallen. And really, why the knife? That sickened me most of all.

Exactly an hour had passed. The snow continued to fall, coating even the most blighted sections of Ninth Avenue with a virginal patina of hope. The stage doors were locked. The only signs of life on the street were people straggling out of the clubs and bars along Ninth Avenue.

A slight breeze tugged at the balloons. An hour and fifteen minutes passed. No matter what, I had to get myself to an emergency room.

If Dallas had a dime for every stage door Johnny who came on to her she probably wouldn't have to work another day of her life. After a full hour and a half, I counted off another sixty seconds, as though that would make all the difference, then another sixty seconds, and then moved toward Ninth Avenue.

Cars and taxis swept down the avenue. The city's pulse throbbed on. It was a never-ending cycle in which I played the most minuscule, unimportant role. I was neither a player nor a pawn. I had made myself so much less than I was and what I might have been.

The tug of balloons became intolerable. I could let them go, only I wanted to stay tethered to the dream, if for only a little while longer, or maybe forever if only they would lift me up and carry me away to another land, another place in time.

I unhitched one finger from the knot of strings and two jerked their way into the milky white sky.     

“Were those for me?” Dallas said coming up behind me and grabbing the knot of strings before any more flew away.

“I, ah, really didn't think you would show up.”

“I didn't think I would either,” she said examining the bouquet of balloons.

“What happened?”

“I thought about it. I just didn't want one more disappointment.”

Neither did I. “What made you change your mind?”

“I think it was the expression on your face just before I closed the stage door.”

“I was positive I would never see you again.”

“And yet,” she said, nodding toward the cluster of balloons that danced in the chill breeze.

“Where were you?”

“I left from a side door about an hour ago. I was standing in the all-night deli across the street when you walked up with the balloons. I was so touched I didn't know what to do. I really felt badly that I had lied to you.”

“I didn't know what to do either.”

“Well, you did the right thing.”

“Actually, I didn't do anything right this evening.”

“No. You're wrong. You did what every girl wants her white knight to do. You waited. You showed me you had more faith than I did.”

“I've never been anyone's white knight.”

“I've never had one,” she said, steadying the balloons in her hand. “They’re beautiful. Thank you,” she said, hooking her hand under my arm. “Joey wants me to stay on for another week.”

“Is that good or bad?” I asked.

“I don't know. I was going to ask you.”

We walked up to Ninth Avenue without speaking. And when we did, both of us were happy.

Sunday at the Park

by Jeff Burt

Sunday afternoon’s I sat in the backseat of my father’s car, books read and snacks crushed and Gameboy spent, waiting for the final hour my mother would come to the park and pick me up for the week. Sunday afternoon is the darkest afternoon in week. It’s the afternoon when kids go from divorced Dad to divorced Mom and back again, like being a pawn on a chessboard waiting for the bishop or queen sliding over to whisk you away.

I was not alone.

Three other cars took up their usual spots, three corners of the parking lot far from any other cars, and always the same three corners. The cream Mercedes parked in the shadows under the enormous maple. The Honda Civic parked in the sunshine on the southwest corner closest to the kiddie park. My Dad’s eternally dirty Ford Ranger occupied the northwest corner, closest to getting away, up the ramp and out of the park.

I felt sad for the two kids in the Mercedes who never had their window open, whose father slept and snored and were always the last to leave, their wiry hair pressed against the glass as if in hope it could cut a hole and they could evaporate into the night. They were Americans when I saw them playing in the park, rowdy, physical, mischievous, loud, but transformed into Iraqis when picked up by their Mom, instantly transitioned to quiet, respectful, introverted, and seemingly smaller in body size.

In the first parking spot on the left after coming into the lot, always sitting there before my father and I arrived, were Mr. Hemming and his son Jasper, a Ritalin stupefied creature.

I say creature because when he was on the pill, as we joked, being eleven, he was not only not himself, but also he was not anyone else, not that he was someone else, but that he was not someone. He slouched around, would open books at school and look at the pages but never what was on the pages, half-eat his lunch and didn’t seem to take pleasure even in the pizza from Domino’s, which was light years better than the old school pizza, which matched the taste of the paper plate it was served on, which Jasper proved once by eating the plate.

Although he needed some type of chemical restraint, when he found ways to escape taking the Ritalin, Jasper was truly the poster child for ADD. He could not stop moving, could not stop talking, and could not stop flitting around from thing to thing. He was annoying, pestering, loud-mouthed, but incredibly funny, and not in a good way if you were an adult. He had a penchant for smearing, chalking, spitting, leaving loogies and snotted fingerprints in unexpected places—a teacher’s black coat, the lectern in the multi-purpose room, Darcy Darling’s new tight red skirt, or on the gleaming silver side wall at the entrance to the cafeteria where 1200 kids passed by every day.

One day before Christmas, he asked me if I wanted to sign up for Little League, which I had played unsuccessfully for three years. “Danny, we’ll get on the same team,” he told me, “because I’ll say I have to play with you because you can keep me calmed down,” which was a lie, but it sounded like I could finally have fun playing something with Jasper.

I was a chronic project in Little League—tall for my age, seemingly athletic, could hit a ball a mile if I “ran into it,” could throw hard and everyone wanted me to pitch, but I had a warped delivery no coach could straighten out, and threw high often, and inside often, meaning I often hit opposing batters. I once hit three batters in one inning, which had mothers violently screaming to remove me from the game. I did not want to play any longer; my Dad could have cared less, but my Mom loved baseball, or at least meeting the other moms and talking for two hours in the bleachers or from a lawn chair.

When February came, Jasper and his mom made sure we were drafted to the same team. That’s when life changed. Jasper was responsible, according to his parents, for taking his medicine, and, of course, he would or would not depending on his whim of the moment. He had started to drink coffee, caffeinated coffee, large coffees with lots of sugar, and I at times watched him spin out of control like a planet that loses its orbit and slowly spins into the sun. And I followed, as if a moon trapped in his orbit, looking to crash. We went from sugar-laden coffees to weed that spring. When the grades went down the alphabet, and the marijuana hiding places went to the ceiling, the delinquencies mounted, and the contraband increased, my mom finally yanked me out of school and away from Jasper.

I recovered, but it was painful to be sitting in the same parking lot several spaces apart waiting for our moms to pick us up and not even talk with Jasper.

When I was twelve, my last year of Little League, I met Coach Lou. He made us do stupid things. The first day we had to smell the lime that made the foul lines, and Coach said when he died he wanted to be cremated and mixed with the lime when the lines were drawn around the batter’s box and when the first batter came up he wanted him to scratch out the line and mix it with dirt.

We had to lie with our backs on the wet grass and look up into the spring blue sky and imagine a white baseball floating in an arc across like a bird, and then falling into our glove, like a bird we didn’t want to die, catching it softly in our glove with the free hand coming over the bird to nestle it.

We were not all misfits. We had three studs on the team, two who could pitch, which meant we could be mediocre. The rest of us were losers. Jasper and I, back again as dreaded twin-headed monster, had played for a team that had two wins and twenty-two losses the previous year.

Mike and Snowman were pudgy and could barely run.

Derek could run but he could not hit.

Slim Tim was afraid of the ball at the plate and in the field.

But Coach Lou said that all of us were flawed, and always would be flawed, that he wanted to teach each of us one skill more than we had in our bag of tricks by the end of the year. For some it would hitting. For Mike and Snowman, it would be how to run.

When he took me aside for pitching, I expected the usual loop record: keep the ball down, throw a curve only once to a batter, keep the ball down, keep the ball down, keep the ball down.

But Coach Lou told me I had a unique delivery, one that hid the ball from the batter until it was out of my hand. Sneaky fast. Cool. So he let me throw the pitch high. I just had to throw it fast enough to strike people out. The first time I took the mound in the second game of the year, I expected to be pulled before the inning was over, having hit a kid, walked a couple, and worn out. But this time I heard his voice encouraging me with each pitch, and I struck out the side.

That year I got hit hard a few times, but Coach Lou always let me pitch. I came to enjoy going to the mound, kicking out the dirt in front of the rubber, looking up at the clear spring sky. I learned to love the smell of the rawhide.

Slim Tim learned to catch, and because he was fast, he became our starting centerfielder.

Mike and Snowman learned how to jog. They would never be able to run. And it didn’t matter if they trotted, because they learned how to hit, and because they were the two biggest guys in the league, they hit a few home runs and the fence for doubles quite a few times, or what might have been doubles, since jogging only got them to first base.

Derek never learned how to hit, but he became our backup catcher, and the team mascot, and the team leader in wicked loogies left on the dugout fence. He could a leave a loogie that was longer, stringier, and gooier than Jasper could do on his best day. His best loogie lasted until the following spring, petrified on the wire.

Jasper learned to be a good teammate with the foulest gym bag. At the end of the year, we discovered why it reeked—he had chocolate kisses in a side zipper that had melted many times over during the year. Then, it might have been a dog turd put in as a prank. It became hard to distinguish the smell of furnace blasted chocolate from dog poop.

Our three studs played like studs, and somehow on the last day of the season we won the championship. I don’t think we appreciated it. We weren’t really that kind of team. We had fun together, and I think we spent more time on the lime and the doves in our gloves than the final scores.

Coach Lou used to sit with me at the end of practices and games waiting for my father to pick me up. He knew from some others on the team that I smoked weed and that two of my friends had been kicked out of their homes. Sometimes I would tell him how much I hated my parents, and how much I hated my friends. He kept telling me that I needed to find a good spot inside myself first, not try to look for a good spot with other people.

I had a clue what he meant, but, really, I did not care. He was a Little League coach. He’d had a lucky year. He didn’t have any corner on my soul.

At the end of the year, he drew me aside to give me a book. “A book?” I gasped, ready to refuse it. “Why are you giving me a book?”

“I’m just doing what Ben Franklin taught me,” Coach said. “Ben Franklin had this grand notion that people would volunteer to do good things for a community. The first fire fighters were all volunteers. The first libraries were places people donated books and borrowed them so that more books were available to read. Free assembly. Like Little League. No one bent my arm to coach. I wanted to.

“That’s why I think you should read the book about Ben Franklin. You will never be free of the bitterness between your mother and father, never fully free of your father’s addiction. But you can find good people, do good things.”

He was my coach for one spring, and I hardly saw him after that. I started drinking at home when I was a freshman, and by my junior year had already stolen my mom’s car and been caught DUI. My mom put me in juvenile hall for thirty days to teach me a lesson, and on the first day in the hall I listened to the counselor explain his program in their little study room with chairs made for little boys, and saw in the bookcase “The Life of Ben Franklin” on the shelf. I opened the cover and read, “to Danny from Coach Lou.”

I must have read the book ten times in thirty days. I became a loner. I helped straighten up the counselor’s office every night, and ate dinner alone in the cafeteria. I requested chores to avoid mingling with my fellow inmates, which made my mom and the warden mute with either joy or incomprehension, and maybe both.

When I got out, I took the book with me. Yeah, I stole it.

On my first Sunday out of juvie hall, I went to the park. I left the book on a bench and ran, I ran my ass off, ran until it was dark, laughing, crying, until all those kids pent up in vehicles had been exchanged like unlaundered clothes parent to parent. 

Lock Hard

by P. Kearney Byrne

When Janet is dying, she asks for Eddie. He takes the call in his office. He’s been eating his lunch at his desk; ham and coleslaw sandwiches with a couple of apples from the tree in the back garden. It’s that time of year when people get their accounts in, and he’s been doing eighteen-hour days for the previous three weeks. He’s been up since four a.m..

“No,” he says to Tony, swallowing a mouthful of sandwich. “You were right to call me. I’ll fly over this evening.”

He wraps up his half-eaten lunch and phones his wife. She’s doing day shifts at the hospital but she nips home at lunchtime so she can eat with Pattie, their youngest daughter.

“I’ll get Pattie to book you a flight with Ryanair,” Nuala says. “The rest of us can come over tomorrow morning.”  He’s about to put the phone down when he hears his wife saying something else. “Pattie wants to go with you tonight. She wants to see her Auntie Janet. Is that OK?”

Eddie puts away the files he’s been working on and gets his coat. It’s a mild autumn day so he sets out to walk the three miles from his office in Kennington to his house in Clapham Common. He’s pleased that Pattie wants to come with him. She’s just turned sixteen, and he knows that the days of her wanting to spend time with her father will soon be over. Also she’s his favourite. And she’s the one that he and Nuala fret over. The other two girls are fine, great. Both at college and with their heads screwed on. But Pattie… Pattie is a softie. That’s what Nuala says. Her two older sisters are straightforward and outgoing. Pattie’s always been complicated. Shy. And pudgy. But Nuala says ‘pudgy’ has recently become “seriously overweight.” And it’s true. Even Eddie can see that she’s become stout, her clothes all stretched and tight and uncomfortable looking. Nuala says that Pattie overeats when she’s upset. That makes Eddie worry. Why is she so upset all the time? What’s the problem? Her sisters weren’t always so upset. No, Nuala tells him, but Pattie’s the softie in this family. She’s more easily upset, and when she’s upset, she eats.

On the flight to Dublin, Pattie sits by the window and Eddie has to help her extend the seatbelt to make it go across her thighs. He knows, that as soon as he dozes off, she’ll take her snacks and chocolate bars from her bag and eat them, bit by tiny bit, mouse-like, facing the window, trying to not make even a teeny sound. He wishes he could tell her that it’s all right, that she should enjoy her chocolate and not worry if she’s a bit fat. But he knows that would embarrass her. So, as soon as the plane takes off, he shuts his eyes. A few seconds later, he hears the rustle of paper as Pattie opens her first bar.

Unlike Eddie, Nuala believes in challenging Pattie’s eating. When she finds Snickers wrappers under Pattie’s bed, or empty Minstrels packets in her school bag, she points it out. Pattie, I found all these sweet wrappers under your bed. Pattie, did you buy chocolate on the way home from school? When she’s caught out, Pattie’s dark hair swings down across her face. She bites her fingernails and her bottom lip trembles.

Nuala says they can’t just ignore Pattie’s weight problem and hope it’ll magically go away, and Eddie knows she might have a point. But he feels for Pattie, a tender, bruising kind of ache. Then again, his feelings for Pattie have always been a bit painful. It’s because of the ways that she gets really close to him. That kind of closeness?  It’s a thing that doesn’t happen often for Eddie, not even with Nuala.

Like that time on the trip to Australia when he was knocked unconscious in the sea by a surfer on Bondi Beach. He’d had to be rescued by the lifeguards, dragged ashore, emptied of sand and seawater and given mouth to mouth. When he came to on the beach, the first thing he saw was Pattie’s face, in shadow against that wide blue sky. She was bending over him and he heard her small voice – she was only seven or eight – calm and sure. “We’re all alive, Daddy,” she said, patting his chest with her small, warm hand. “Don’t worry Daddy, we’re all alive.”

Later, Eddie spoke to Nuala about what Pattie had said, but she didn’t seem to understand his point.

“Don’t you think it’s at least odd,” he’d asked her, “ that she said ‘we’re all alive, Daddy,’’ not ‘you’re alive’?” But Nuala didn’t see anything strange in that. She’d put it down to a child’s clumsy use of pro-nouns.

Privately, Eddie thought this was a bit unimaginative of Nuala. He’d always valued his wife’s pragmatism, but he thought this was applying it in a wrong way.

On the other hand, he hadn’t told Nuala the whole story.

When he was out there in the ocean and saw the yellow surfboard hurtling towards him, when he realised – with the surging waters snagging and snatching at him – that he hadn’t a hope, the truth was that he could only think about himself. Not that his wife would be widowed, his children left fatherless. No. It was all about him. Even though he was the one in danger of dying, all he could think about was that he’d lose them! Then the surfboard cracked him on the head and he blacked out.

When he heard Pattie’s words, “Don’t worry, Daddy, we’re all alive,” it was exactly what he’d needed to hear; he hadn’t lost his family. He still believes that, in her child’s way, Pattie had understood what he’d been through and what his worst fears were. And he hadn’t had to explain it to her! That was the important part, because Eddie has known for a long, long time that the most important things in life can never be put into words.

The plane lands with a bump and Eddie jolts awake; he thinks he’s fallen asleep at the wheel of the family car and they’ve crashed…

“It’s OK, Daddy,” Pattie says. She puts her hand on his arm. “It’s just the plane. We’re in Dublin.”

They take a taxi from the airport to St. Vincent’s Hospital. It’s after seven when they get there. On the oncology ward, they’ve put Janet in a private room. Eddie looks through the window and sees her husband, Tony, and their two sons shadowing the bed. He sighs, then knocks softly at the door. Tony comes out and shakes his hand. He seems to want to hug him, but Eddie draws back, and Tony hugs Pattie instead.

“She’s been asking for you all day, Eddie,” he says, closing his eyes and shaking his head. “’Where’s Eddie? Get Eddie for me.’’’

“Well, here I am,” Eddie says. He’s no good at small talk, and already he’s thinking about how quickly they can get away from the hospital and get settled in the hotel in Leopardstown. Pattie’s booked adjoining rooms for them and with a bit of luck – he’s hungry now – the restaurant will still be open. But if it isn’t, they can get a takeaway.

Tony leads them into Janet’s room and Eddie gets a shock when he sees his sister’s hollow face and scanty hair. Her eyes are closed – Janet’s eyes were always her best feature – but he nods to himself when he sees that her eyebrows are still the perfect, snooty, half-circles they’ve always been. Her sons move out of the way, and Eddie sits on the chair alongside the bed.

“Eddie?” Janet says. Her eyes don’t open, but her hand moves along the coverlet towards Eddie’s, and it settles over his, light as a handkerchief, but warm too, for someone so ill. Pattie goes around the other side of the bed and leans in.

“I’m here with Daddy, Auntie Jan,” she says. “It’s Pattie.” Janet gives a slow smile, still without opening her eyes or moving her head. Her lips are the same drab colour as her skin.

“You’re a love,” she says. Pattie’s eyes fill up and she roots in her pocket for a tissue. The eldest son, Sean, hands her a wad from the box on the locker and she dabs soundlessly at her tears.

Tony bends down and whispers into Eddie’s ear that they’ll give him some time alone with Janet. Eddie doesn’t think that’s necessary. As far as he’s concerned, Janet’s on the way out, and really, it’s Tony and her sons that matter to her now, not him and Pattie. But he just nods as Tony and the boys leave the room.

Pattie pulls up another chair on the opposite side of the bed. They sit there for a while, and Eddie starts drifting. Sleep deprivation is giving him mild hallucinations as he looks around the small hospital room. The pale yellow curtains seem an inch or so short for the windows, and he’s trying to work out who let that happen? And why? It’s cruel, like putting a badly finished skirt on a child… Then the television starts to bother him, stuck on a metal arm high up in the corner. Such an ugly thing that, even if you are dying. He begins believing that it’s a monitor in disguise, and that someone, a professor perhaps, or some students, are observing and recording his reactions to Janet dying…

Janet still has his hand, and gradually he notices an increasing pressure on it. He looks down – so does Pattie – and sees a scrawl of sinews standing out on the part of Janet’s arm that’s visible under the sleeve of her nightie. She’s gripping so hard, Eddie wonders if she’s in pain? He’s about to ask Pattie to get a nurse, when Janet’s eyes open wide and fasten onto him.

“Eddie!” she says, and her huge eyes stare right into his…. Eddie blinks hard to wake himself up and he concentrates on her.

“I’m right here, Janet,” he says. He tries to sound blasé, but she looks pretty alarming, and her grip is unmerciful. He’s afraid she’s going to die right there, in front of Pattie. But then she says his name again, “Eddie!” Her voice sounds thirsty, as if she’s in a desert, and her eyes are compelling. He hasn’t been able to look away from her and now he has no choice but to lean towards her.

“Eddie!” He leans further in and when he’s right up close to her, so close he can feel her torrid breath on his face, Janet’s mouth sizzles at him; “You little shit!” it hisses. “You little shit!”

Then the door opens and Tony and the boys come in, Janet’s eyes close, her hand unclamps, and a small thin smile plays about her lips.

Eddie isn’t sure what’s happened, but he can’t look at Pattie.

*

In Ranelagh, Dublin, that house where they were brought up; the long narrow hallway, running straight down to that papery, tacked-on, kitchen out the back, with its smell of cigarette smoke, stewed tea, and frying. It’s where his mother always sat, at the table with the blue oilcloth, the kitchen door wide open so that she could see the front door with its frosted glass panels. She’d freeze, of course, if the doorbell rang, glaring at him and Janet, her hand stretched out at them, the reddened palm up at their faces. Shhhhhh!! All three of them then, like statues. Eddie and Janet terrified to move until the caller had rung the bell a few more times and left. 

His mother, at that table; her cup of tea, her elbows either side of the daily paper. The ashtray, the cigarette in her fingers; that curl of smoke, drifting, drifting… Smoking, reading, drinking tea at that table. Can he remember her any other way? Not really.

And his father, at home in the evening, sitting at the other end of the table, but insisting the kitchen door was shut. “There’s a draught from that front door,” he’d say. “I can feel that draft, shut that door.” He had a chilly nature, that’s what Eddie’s mother said about him. “Your father has a chilly disposition.”

Every evening, at teatime, in the kitchen, their four plates and cups and cutlery crowded onto that small table. Janet and him facing the wall, his parents at either end, their ashtrays beside them. All four of them shut up in that tiny room for hours every evening. And no good reason for it ever given.

The sucking noise his father made smoking his pipe; his ear low to the radio, his thin fingers twiddling the knobs; telling him and Janet to Shhhhh! For God’s sake! Be quiet, can’t you? His mother telling them to go and sit on those wooden boxes when they’d finished their tea. Orange crates, were they? Him and Janet pretending to read their schoolbooks, but slyly kicking each other. What are you two playing at? Stop that fidgeting! Shhhhhh! Janet making faces at him, trying to crush his toes with her heel without moving on her orange crate. Eddie trying to get his other foot in position so he can kick her in the shin to make her stop. What’s the matter with you two? For God’s sake, can’t we get a bit of peace in this house? No! You can not go out and play. You’ve been out all day. Now sit there and be quiet!

And then, inexplicably, after the cantankerous, ritual refusals of the previous two hours, suddenly they’re set free.  OK, yes, you can go to your rooms. But do your homework, do you hear me? You go straight up to your bedrooms and do your homework and no messing around up there.

Janet and him closing the kitchen door behind them. But not going to their bedrooms. Of course not. No. Sneaking up to the Good Room. Up along that narrow hallway, up to the front of the house. In there, into that museum; cold, even in summer. It must have been north facing. Smelling of… damp, probably? And the endless clutter; the mantle piece, those glass cabinets, the coffee tables, all clotted with those little ornaments. Little breakable things; china and glass and Delft.  All breakable and precarious and useless. And you are absolutely not allowed into the Good Room.

Janet and him at the door to the Good Room, already pushing and shoving at each other, panting and squirming. Trying to sneak open the door to the Good Room while struggling against each other. And inside? Fighting. What else!

But it wasn’t just fighting, was it? Or it spilled over, usually. Spilled over so that Janet got him on the floor, bent his arm up behind his back, straining the muscles in his shoulder, his forearm, burning his face on the carpet. She was bigger, of course, three years older and much taller.

Janet locking hard onto him, her legs clamped around him, grinding her hips against him, grunting, and panting, her lower teeth exposed, her eyes shut. The ragged whispering; Submit! Submit!

Sometimes – once or twice – Eddie got the upper hand. Got her on her face on the carpet; Eddie with his sharp boys knees on her spine or between her thin shoulder blades, or with his legs locked around her head, crushing himself into her, rubbing himself on her. Submit! Submit!

Through all that pressing and pulling, neither of them ever – not once! – knocking against the spindly legs of the coffee tables, or the treacherous, rattling, glass fronts of the cabinets. Never making a sound. Their mutual, frenzied, silence; the rapid breathing and the harsh, whispered, Submit!

Then, perhaps later on – a few times at least? – Janet tying him up. With what? Belts from his mother’s dresses, from his father’s trousers maybe? Eddie strapped into the foetal position on the floor, helpless, the belts cutting into him. The rage! And Janet astride his shoulder, his side, his thigh, moving on him, riding into him, and leaning down and hissing at him. That was when it was. The hissing at him. You little shit. You little shit!

What did it mean? Where could she have heard that? More than anything, he wanted to do that to her, to say that to her. He imagined it, in bed at night, getting her on the floor; her helplessness; her rage. Hissing into her ear. Every night, the dry, stabbing, thrill thinking of it, of him saying that to her; No, you little shit! You little shit!

He never got his chance. She was suddenly gone. Into secondary school. Or puberty? Janet ignoring him, as if he didn’t exist. No more fights. No more pushing or writhing or squirming.

Of course, none of it was ideal, certainly not what he’d want for his own kids. But really not worth discussing, as adults. Not with Janet anyway. And not with Nuala either. No. Just too difficult to explain how it was back then, and how it was all, somehow, all right. A form of intimacy even. Contact, rough and ready, but real. There wasn’t anything else on offer. For either of them.

In the taxi on the way to Leopardstown, Pattie and Eddie hardly speak. Pattie sits perfectly still beside him, and Eddie looks out the window. It’s raining, but softly; a nice, shiny, city rain, glinting at them from orange puddles on the black roads.

They check into their rooms in Bewley’s and make their way down to the restaurant.

At the table, when their food has arrived, and when Pattie has finished busying herself getting her plate in front of her and setting up their shared side orders between them on the table, she finally looks at Eddie.  

“Are you OK, Daddy?” she says.

“Why wouldn’t I be?” Eddie says. He helps himself to French fries and broccoli and cuts into his steak. When he’s had a few good mouthfuls, and drunk half his first glass of wine, he manages a smile. “I’m sorry you heard that, by the way,” he says. “It’s a side of Auntie Jan that…” He doesn’t know how to finish the sentence and they eat in silence. Pattie holds her burger in her two hands and chews conscientiously. But, when she’s finished everything on her plate, and all the side dishes are empty, and her knife and fork are lying side by side on her dinner-plate like two little metal people, she takes the linen napkin from her lap, and begins folding it up nicely. She tilts her head to one side, and Eddie can see that she’s thinking about what she’s about to say.

“Auntie Jan can be a real bitch,” she says. She’s still folding and smoothing her napkin on the table, and Eddie pours himself another glass of wine. “But I don’t think she meant to hurt you, Daddy.”

“Is that so?” he says, without much gusto; he really doesn’t want her involved in a conversation about Janet. But Pattie has something to say.

“Yes, Daddy,” she says. “I think Auntie Jan was trying to tell you she loved you.” Eddie looks at his daughter across the table. He knows he wants to say something to her, something about what she means to him, about how she makes him feel and how he appreciates her. He clears his throat.

“Pattie,” he says, “ here’s an idea…” He picks up the dessert menu and he widens his eyes at her across the table. “Just for one evening, why don’t you and I go mad? Let’s order the three biggest puddings on this list, and scoff the lot between us!”

He’d imagined going straight to bed after dinner, trying to catch up on his sleep. But when he’s left Pattie up to their rooms, Eddie goes back down to the bar. It’s a large open area and he sits in a corner and nurses a couple of whiskeys, then a couple more. He isn’t thinking about anything except the spaces in the room, the gaps between the tables and the people sitting at them, the strange disembodied music that floats everywhere. It’s what he likes most about hotel bars, the way the sounds are padded by the soft furnishings and then rise up to the high anonymous ceiling where they can cluster and mingle out of harm’s way.

Later, when he goes to their rooms, Pattie’s light is off and he shuts the door between them. He intends to get into his pyjamas and climb straight into bed, but instead, he sits in the armchair by the window. With the darkness of the room, and his tiredness, it seems to him that the orange lights of the city and the snaking dual carriageway beneath the window are at least as alive, or more alive, than him. Perhaps he nods off there, because it’s after two in the morning when his phone vibrates. It’s Janet’s number and he expects her to hiss into his ear again. But it’s Tony.

“She’s just gone,” he says to Eddie. “You’re the last one she spoke to, Eddie. She slipped away after that. I just wanted to let you know.”

“Thanks, Tony,” Eddie says. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

He sits on in the dark with the phone loose in his hand.

Janet. His mother. His father. Just three ordinary lives, nothing special about them, yet each of them so specific.  

But now, they’re gone. All gone. Everyone he’d lived with as a child is gone; all that shared past and him the only one left alive, carrying it all around inside him.

His head sags onto his chest, and he starts drifting; he’s swimming, struggling in the water, towards an island. He’s dragging himself up onto the beach, lying there, face down in the sand. And he feels so exhausted lying there, so separate from everyone he loves; from Pattie, his two other daughters, from Nuala.

He wakes up a bit and feels a thirst in his throat, but deeper down too; it’s in his blood and the insides of his bones; a thirst to hear Nuala’s voice. He looks at his phone. It’s three thirty in the morning. She’ll be asleep and won’t want to be woken. Then he realises that, since Janet has just died, it will be OK to call Nuala, to let her know that his only sister is dead.

But he starts drifting in and out of sleep again, and in that muddled state, he thinks that he can just call his home in Clapham; that the phone will ring out in the darkness, and Janet will pick up, and she will hiss into his ear that he’s a little shit and that she loves him. Yes, that’s what she’ll tell him; that he’s a little shit and that she loves him. 

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.