The Visitors

by Aimee LaBrie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Let me think about it," she says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Depending on what?" her mother prods.

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

Hazel snorts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"It's not so bad."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Like gasoline?"

"Like spoiled milk or something."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Embrace

by Catharine Leggett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Recreational or ritual?” the professor asked. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Other Person

by Nathan Leslie

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

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

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

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

Hipsters should know. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Huh?” the reader says.

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

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

“No.”

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

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

“You wrote that?”

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

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

“I see,” you say.

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

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

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

A Reminder Between Your Eyes

by Eric Maroney

ONE

The Chabadnik would not let Serino alone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Serino then begged the Chasid to drink some water.
             

“I can’t…” the Chasid croaked.
            

“But why? This is water!”
            

“The glass,” the man answered weakly.
            

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

           

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

“Morty, aren’t there any windows?”
         

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

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

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

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

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

“I have to go,” Serino said.
          

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TWO
          

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can’t Chabad in Rome help you?”
            

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Let me bring some back, then…”
             

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

“What sin?”
             

“The sin of failing you.”
            

 “How did you fail me?”
              

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

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

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

Serino went out and spoke to the captain.
           

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

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

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

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

          

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

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

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

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

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

Serino exhaled deeply. He opened the bag.
           

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

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

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

“I’m right handed.”
            

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

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

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

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

Serino, exhaling again, did as he was told.
           

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

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

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

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

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

 “OK Morty, give me the lines already!”
             

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

Serino repeated the words. Then it was suddenly done.
             

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

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

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

Pinch

by Lucian Mattison

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

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

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

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

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

The sun more dangerous than sharks.

“Yo, stop lying.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No. Please, don’t tell her.”

“Oli, I must. It is better for you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Help me cut the salami.”

“Is Mariana not eating?”

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

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

Oli acted as if he didn’t hear.

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

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

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

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

“Can the boat float?” Oli asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m thirsty.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Get up! You need to see something!”

Mariana sat up. He motioned her toward the door.

“Hurry!” he hissed.

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

“Is it not strange to you?” he asked.

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

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

“Who?”

“Your dad.”

“What was he doing?”

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

“How?”

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

“Forget it. You won’t understand.”

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

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

Mariana rubbed her eyes and slipped back into bed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long Hair

by Uche Okonkwo

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

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

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

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

 
 

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

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

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

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

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

 
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
 

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

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

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

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

 
 

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

I kept a straight face throughout the assembly.

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

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

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

The Green Parrot

by Erik Raschke

Menno and Stacey had first run into Jacques and Coraleine at a fetish party. The party had been in a social housing flat in the center of town and the hostess, a fifty-year old swinging veteran, had met them at the door and actually called her unremarkable, rent-subsidized studio her “pied a terre," before handing Menno and Stacy an IKEA bag in which they were to put their clothes. They then had to walk through a living room outfitted with a round fake cheetah-skin heart-shaped bed, wall-to-wall cases of dildos, handcuffs, and butt-plugs, and a sex swing tucked away in what should have been a utility closet. They also passed a middle-aged, vaguely familiar woman, with sharp spiky blonde hair, who was lying on the black marble bar getting fingered hard by a chiseled an plucked half-gay boy-toy, squirting onto the liquor bottles, and bellowing her pleasure in a raspy falsetto.

Once Menno and Stacey were alone in the bathroom, and undressing, Menno jerked his cheek back and forth imitating the sound of the fingered woman’s vagina while Stacey begged him to stop.

“What are we going to do?” she asked.

“Run.”

“Seriously. We can’t stay here.”

“What’s the worst that could happen?”

And right then the bathroom door opened and Jacques and Coraleine fell in, laughing.

“Thank god!” Coraleine announced, looking over Menno and Stacey with a clap of the hands, then closing the door and locking it behind her.

Jacques was tall and slim and pale and soft, but he had the kind of trustworthy smile, often punctuated by a wink that made you want to believe anything he said. Coraleine was petite and brunette with olive skin, not at all the typical buxom milk-maid that was Menno’s type, however Stacey could see that Menno was hooked by the way he stared at Coraleine with a clumsy sneakiness… for Coraleine did indeed have something about her, Stacey recognized, a perky, sexy, playfulness that hinted at something much wilder.

Both Jacques and Coraleine wore, not the expensively garish bits common to lifestyle swingers, but felt hats and tailored shirts. They carried their lingerie and underwear in an antique Spanish leather doctor’s bag, a bag in which they had also stowed silk scarves. They had fine Italian shoes as well, knee-high maroon boots for Coraleine and black loafers with a single silver buckle, for Jacques.

Jacques and Coraleine, like Menno and Stacey, were obviously not religious about physical maintenance, which is not to say that they were not unattractive professionals, but they were the kind of professionals who spent long hours in meetings, under fluorescent lighting, often skipping spin-classes to eat starchy meals with their younger children. They had all the sparkling wearisomeness of parents, the lighter wrinkles of the middle-aged, upper-middle class, who managed the odd trip to a sunny, vaguely cultural destination, who went to bed by nine on Fridays, whose bodies, while fading in firmness, retained at least half of the beauty of their early twenties.

“I’m surprised these people didn’t have a bookshelf,” Jacques smiled. “With all the great literary classics.”

Menno nodded. “It was next to the display case with the leather paddles.”

“Here’s what we’re going to do,” Coraleine whispered, drawing them all into a conspiratorial huddle and pointing at Jacques. “My husband’s bank card doesn’t work so he can’t pay for parking. That’s the story.” Her finger then drifted toward Stacey’s husband. “What’s your name?”

“Menno.”

“Menno, you’re going to go out and pay for my husband, Jacques, using your bank card, but you’re not going to return for at least ten minutes.”

“Please don’t leave us here,” Stacey grimaced.

“After ten minutes you buzz and say that the car has been towed, but since your bank card doesn’t work we all need to go with you to get the car.”

And thankfully, the plan worked. They all got out in one piece and, because none of them had really driven, they rode their bikes to Jacques and Coraleine’s house. Jacques and Coraleine shared a similar, dark sense of humor to that of Menno and Stacey and as they pedaled through the city, the night still young, they laughed loudly about what might have been at the party and about Robin Hood and the many other unsavory characters they had come across in the last few years as swingers.

***

Jacques and Coraleine lived right off the biggest park in the city and while Coraleine and Menno chatted on the couch, Jacques lead Stacey around, explaining how they had driven sixty or seventy metal poles into the sandy ground to strengthen the foundation. Jacques was too smooth and thin for a “Jacques,” a name she connected with Caribbean pirates and beefy Frenchmen, but he had strong hands and broad gestures that excited and captivated so that, when he spoke, Stacey found herself reaching out and touching him and laughing at the slightest of jokes.

Jacques told Stacey he created IT infrastructures, but quickly steered away from the self-importance of so many middle-management engineers and showed her his photography collection. He wasn’t an Andres Serrano or Robert Mapplethorpe, but he was brave enough to get that awkwardly intimate angle that eludes so many amateur photographers. There was the woman in the alleyway urinating while her boyfriend checked his cellphone. The shot, without being obscene, was at the same level as the woman’s puddle of urine, giving the boyfriend’s indifference a heightened significance. There was another photo of a line of swingers waiting to get into a club, their anxious expressions and skimpy clothing flittering somewhere between erotic and defeated.

They had been locking eyes consistently so when Jacques finished showing Stacey his collection, he leaned down and kissed her, and while she had been expecting it for some time, the quickness in which he moved surprised her. He had nice lips, but his tongue flopped about in her mouth without any sense of direction or control. Jacques held her tightly, confidently, his palm against the flat of her back, and she could relax in his arms.

Although Stacey wasn’t into women, she had learned early on that the best way to get these things started off was by going down on another man’s wife so, when they returned to the living room couch, Stacey squeezed between Coraleine and Menno and began kissing Coraleine and was pleasantly surprised by how much she enjoyed Jacque’s wife’s body and how much better a kisser she was than her husband. In these situations, as in the cases where the husband would have a particularly small penis, Stacey wondered about the dynamics of a relationship, how each party had rationalized the deficiency of the other.

Like synchronized swimmers, the women quickly swapped places and were on the other side of the couch and going down on the other woman’s husband. Eventually, the men went down on the women and, almost simultaneously, the condoms were unfurled.

Stacey knew that Menno liked to listen to her with other men so she made more noise than usual, but every so often she’d sneak a peak at her husband going at Coraleine with an unmistakable intensity, and this, for the most part, made her happy, for she knew that if Menno left satisfied tonight, the next few weeks he would be more affectionate and even romantic.

***

The second time the four of them met, they all snorted a bit of coke and the conversation steered toward fantasies. Jacques said that, if high enough, he sometimes liked to suck men off. He had even swallowed once. This surprised Stacey and even turned her off a little for she liked her men dominant and vaguely macho.

Menno admitted that he was a bit of a cuckold, not the kind that likes to be tied up and humiliated, but more the guy peeking around the corner. He told them that he and Stacey had never really tried true cuckolding simply because Stacey was into swinging as a shared experience and she just couldn’t wrap her mind around the fact that cuckolding was indeed a shared experience, mainly because it involved her, entirely alone, with a man other than Menno.

Coraleine, quite embarrassedly, said she had rape fantasies, awful, terrible rape fantasies where several men beat her and hit her until she was almost unconscious. She said that she had even joined an online group that shared real rape videos, mostly from Russia and Africa, via torrents. Stacey admired Coraleine’s honesty, but was secretly aghast. Even though Stacey herself had spent a few days last fall watching online beheadings in Syria on YouTube and most women she knew had rape fantasies, it felt as if Coraleine was breaking some female code by watching and thus silently condoning, actual rape videos.

When it came Stacey’s turn, she felt, as with her American fashion-sense, boring and uninspiring. She told them that she regularly fantasized about double-penetration, but had never tried it because she had been terrified by the practicalities.

Coraleine immediately jumped in and told her that double-penetration was amazing, as long as the rhythm was good. Although it wasn’t Stacey’s intention to try double-penetration on this particular night, minutes later she found herself in bed with Menno and Jacques while Coraleine directed from the corner of the room. It was, perhaps, one of the first times since they started swinging, that she had gone along with sexual experimentation out of peer-pressure and this made her tense and quiet although everyone was a bit too high to recognize her apprehension.

Since Jacques’ cock was thinner and a bit shorter than Menno’s, he would be behind her. Jacques squirted ample lube onto his penis and around her asshole. He had long nails, especially for a man, but when she told him to be gentler, he slid two then three fingers inside and it felt about right. Then she sat on Menno, rubbed him with her pussy until he got hard, placed him inside her. A few minutes later, Jacque fumbled into her ass…

The double-penetration had been intense, the coke simultaneously dulling and increasing the sensitivity, the men never really finding a proper rhythm, most likely because she kept telling them to either hurry up or slow down while she waited for her body to adapt. Also, most of the time she simply felt like she had to take a shit, but it had been quite an experience, an experience that once she knew what to expect, would most likely try again.

Later, Menno and Jacques double-penetrated Coraleine while Stacey watched this tiny woman easily take these two men. Since Menno and Jacques were on coke, neither were able to cum and having used so much lubrication, when Jacques pulled out of Coraleine, a flood of brown liquid came out over the duvet. They spent the next twenty minutes cleaning up and laughing about the accident, but after that, the mood was over.

***

The third and fourth times that they met, Coraleine and Menno remained on the couch while Jacques and Stacy moved to the bed. They had all found a way with each other’s bodies that was not necessarily better than with their spouses, but was somehow exciting and different. Stacey learned how to kiss Jacques so that his tongue wouldn’t bother her too much and, also, a way to meet his thrusts with her own thrusts so that he’d strike a spot that felt deep and satisfying in a way that was different from Menno. In fact, she even had an orgasm with Jacques that was unlike any orgasm she had had with Menno, a soft, spinning moment that left her stomach in knots.

The best part about this swap was that she could never fall in love with Jacques. He was smart and read enough, but in the end, when she asked him about politics or traveling, his lack of curiosity surfaced so, for example, when she said she had always dreamed of visiting India his immediate response was, “Too dirty for me.”

Menno had said the same thing about Coraleine. She had been talking to him at one point about chakras and meditation and Menno had tried several times to change the subject, but she was persistent. Eventually, he lied and said he had to use the bathroom, and when he returned she had fallen asleep.

***

The fifth time they met was months later, in the middle of the summer. Stacey had been suffering, as of late, from a low, dull personal crises. The kids were becoming more and more independent and now that she was almost forty, she would probably not be having any more children.

Also, Stacey had graduated from a state college and always worked for big companies, often spurring offers from smaller businesses with more potential for growth. Lately, her company had been expanding internationally and she had been inordinately busy, but had still been weighed down by the idea that she might have to be a real estate appraiser for the rest of her life. It wasn’t that she didn’t like her job, but, in the end, the challenge was limited and the fact remained that she was too old to make a decent career change.

With all this real-life responsibilities and concerns weighing her down, the need for a certain amount of escapism surfaced and the potential of a night with Jacques and Coraleine occupied her fantasies. She would find herself at work thinking about double-penetration or Menno and Coraleine in a variety of positions and she’d have to go to the bathroom to masturbate.

The night they agreed to meet, Coraleine and Jacques kids were in Sweden, at a summer camp, so they had the house to themselves. Menno and Stacey’s kids were away as well, at Menno’s parents, so when they met, eating dinner on Jacques and Coraleine’s terrace, someone suggested taking ecstasy. When Jacques and Coraleine quickly and enthusiastically agreed, the quiet romance of the dinner was overshadowed by a sexually-charged angst.

After dinner, Menno called a dealer and when the ecstasy arrived, everyone started with only a half while Jacques went for a whole. After only an hour, Jacques popped another and then another so that while Coraleine began to suck on Menno and then Menno took her from behind in the kitchen, Jacques was too high to get hard even though Stacey was deep-throating him, something he loved.

At some point, Jacques stumbled into his bathroom for Viagra, but when he couldn’t find it, came back out, limp and loose and apologetic. Stacey told him not to worry and together they went downstairs and while Jacques watched from a corner love seat, Stacey joined Coraleine and Menno in a threesome.

In one of the hottest moments in their swinging experiences, Menno was fucking Stacey without a condom, while Coraleine sat on Menno’s face. When Menno pulled out and came all over Stacey’s belly, Coraleine leaned down and licked it up.

Afterward, while Menno and Coraleine were taking a shower together, Stacey and Jacques, at Jacques suggestion, split another pill. He was wobbly and dazed and almost falling asleep all the while pressing his nose into her neck and groping her breasts as if they were footballs. Looking at the near empty bag on the table, Stacey figured Jacques’ ecstasy intake was somewhere around five in total.

The shower was quiet and she was feeling sad that Coraleine and Menno had decided to continue on without her. But she worked through the feeling, comforting herself with the fact that Menno and Coraleine were happy together and, at the end of the night, it would be Stacey and Menno who would go home and be together, both content in their own ways.

Jacques was mumbling into her ear, “You’re so fucking beautiful,” but the way he said it made her so sad because it wasn’t sincere and they were high, too high, and, really, she guessed she just wanted him to say it when they were sober as well.

“No more ecstasy for you mister,” she said rubbing her hand over his chest.

Then, eyes closed, he whispered confidentially, “She loves him.”

“Loves who?” Stacey asked, even though she already knew the answer.

***

On the taxi ride home, Stacey was leaning into Menno and watching the lights stream by while the driver hummed along to a tinkling, bubbling Farsi tune. They were caught in divergent thoughts while eagerly anticipating their king-size, brushed cotton duvet.

“I don’t think we should see them again,” Menno said after awhile.

Stacey turned, raised her eyebrows and in the dim taxi light saw how his forehead looked seemed exceedingly large, curved like some exotic Asian fruit. His hair was thinning as well, individual strands illuminated as if to prove the point. They had once travelled to Vietnam and Cambodia and had had many late night taxi rides and she had relied on him through that trip, this big, cumbersome man, and she had thought about his forehead then and how it also gave the hint of menace and how comforting that was, to have in a man, whose physical attributes suggested, only suggested, that he could become violent if necessary.

“It just feels like its time to move on,” he clarified. “The shower. Cora told me she loved me. She said she was really in love with me. I think it was just the ecstasy, but still. I didn’t like it.”

There was a distance in Menno’s eyes that she couldn’t somehow bridge, a faraway gaze that worried Stacey. Most of their swinging experiences, both good and bad, had enlightened and encouraged their relationship with each other. But now, Menno seemed farther away than ever and so she tried to bridge it with a kiss and a, “What’s not to love?” and even thought she felt very little about this revelation of Coraleine’s affections, no jealousy or anger, more just the thin rattle of sadness that accompanies a family, a family other than your own in dissolution, she did briefly wondered what Jacques and Coraleine were talking about now, if they were talking about anything at all.

***

Since the kids were away, Stacey and Menno had the Sunday to sit on the couch and do nothing except suffer through the haziness that accompanied the bumpy, hilly, jittery ride of an ecstasy hangover. While Stacey made coffee, she was forced to listen to him on the toilet again. Her head was swollen and bloated and she wasn’t even sure she wanted coffee and was swearing she was too old to do ecstasy and that’s precisely when, finished in the bathroom, hands still wet from washing, Menno came up and wrapped his arms around her and rubbed his penis on her exposed waist, and kissed her head and made a face like “let’s go have sex” even though she wasn’t even sure she could hold down the orange juice she had just finished.

“It’s been so long since we haven’t had the kids,” he pleaded.

Sex was indeed the last thing she wanted, but he was right. They rarely had mornings like this. So they got into bed and, lying on her side, turning her back to him, smelling his morning breath and old alcohol and the bite of peanut butter he had just snacked on, she tried to get into the mood. But Menno could barely get hard and she wasn’t excited, so he spit in his hand and rubbed it on his penis and pushed and prodded to get his half-limp cock inside her while, at the same time, she had to try and make sure she didn’t vomit.

Eventually, he did get it in, but because she wasn’t wet, part of her lips were rubbing painfully against her clitoris, so she wetted herself with her own spit which only marginally helped. It wasn’t until she could feel him really swelling inside of her that she herself began to enjoy the sex, but by then it was too late. He had come.

Afterward, Stacey took a shower while Menno made a huge, greasy breakfast, more geared to his needs than hers and afterward they sat at the table in silence, both fingering the edges of magazines, wishing they could read, but feeling somehow obliged to sit across from one another and try and make conversation.

Feeling too nauseous to be snarky, she watched as he smeared the last of the butter on his toast without even considering to ask her if she wanted any. In retaliation, she finished off the orange juice without asking him, but couldn’t even enjoy the juice because she was so filled with self-loathing at how she was resorting to this kind of petty, tit-for-tat nastiness.

Menno was always riding the tail end of a trend so that he perpetually came off as someone trying to catch up, at least stylistically, and lately he had been trying to grow a beard, but was unsuccessfully catching up with last year’s style. In addition, Stacey had told him that she thought beards were not only unsexy, but unhygienic as well and that his facial hair was thin and patchy so it would most likely take months before it would resemble anything full and formed. But her husband had pushed ahead with the project and now, as he ate, pieces of runny egg stuck in the hairy, uneven nest bulging off of what was otherwise a nicely proportioned chin. She would make a comment and he would grumpily wipe away about half of mess, but always leaving patches of oil or a few stubborn crumbs.

Outside, it was raining hard and the leaves in the trees were shaking with each drop. A green parrot, one of the many that had come to infest the city, landed upon a branch and braved the rain. Stacey had the urge to feed the parrot some of her butterless toast, but had once been reprimanded by an elderly ornithologist. She had been with her kids, feeding stale French bread to the city park geese at the park and he came up to her and told her that most birds couldn’t digest bread. He added that bread, especially white bread, made them feel full when they were actually starving. When the frail ornithologist accused her children of  “perpetuating genocide,” Stacey sheepishly bid good-bye and walked away and went home. She loved feeding birds bread, loved feeling that she was somehow giving back, nurturing, but when Stacey Googled what the ornithologist had said and found that most of it was indeed true.

Now, once they were through with breakfast, Menno left his dishes on the table and sat on the couch and tried to cover up a particularly loud fart by coughing. His shirt was riding over his stomach, which wasn’t terrible, but with each beer and each year, his hairy belly was becoming unsightly. Menno had his feet on one end of the couch, his house slippers on top of the couch pillows. While Stacey wasn’t a germ-freak, he did occasionally go outside in those slippers so they did come into immediate contact with litter and dog-poop and now they were flat on top of the same pillows which she liked to press her face against when she took naps.

Stacey went into the bathroom to brush her teeth and discovered that Menno hadn’t put the cap back on so the toothpaste. The toothpaste collected at the end was now glued to the sink top and to make matters worse, there was a thick black beard hair stuck in the excess blue goo collected around the opening. Stacey silently and patiently spent the next five minutes washing off the toothpaste and the hair. When she discovered that her own toothbrush was wet, she called out, barely concealing her annoyance, to ask if Menno had used it. When he shouted back that since he couldn’t find his he had indeed used hers, Stacey looked down it was in the trash, where it often fell, simply because he was too lazy to put his toothbrush in the toothbrush holder, and of course there it was, and when she explained this to him again, for the five hundredth time, he shouted back, “Why are you so grumpy this morning? Didn’t you have a good time last night?”

When she was leaving the bathroom, she tripped over a pile of clothes and the hook from his belt-buckle dug into the bottom of her foot and she let out a scream. Menno didn’t budge from the couch, but looked over at her and asked dazedly if she was all right and she said yes, although she really wasn’t. And she hated herself when tears came to her eyes, because she wasn’t and had never been the kind of girl who cried over these things.

They hadn’t watched the last season of Downton Abbey yet, so Stacey suggested they sit on the couch and get caught up. Menno was trying to convince her to go have sex again, but he still hadn’t showered and she didn’t want to tell him to shower, because if he did then he would immediately expect sex and her stomach was still wobbly. But as they watched the first episode of the first season of Downton Abbey, Menno kept sticking his hands up her shirt or down her pants, as if the sum of her person were her tits and pussy. She wasn’t responding so, at some point, he removed his pants and began licking her and while it didn’t feel good it also didn’t feel bad and it did give her the opportunity to continue watching Downton Abbey. After awhile, he asked, “Don’t you like it?” which annoyed her to no end because, what he was actually saying was that he was expecting her to make moaning sounds, which she didn’t mind, but in this particular case, moaning would only make it harder to hear the Crawley women.

Toward the end of Downton Abbey, just when the season opener was coming to a climax, Menno tried to fuck her. Grudgingly, she told him he would have to do all the work, which he did, but he was sweating so hard that her pajamas were getting soaked and his body hairs were sticking to her body and she knew she would have to shower all over again. It’s not that the sex didn’t feel good, but her headache was coming back and the ecstasy was still making her stomach queasy and he was just fucking her as if she wasn’t even there so that when he came it felt as if he had masturbated inside of her.

***

When Menno came across Lance’s profile, he suggested they meet for drinks. They had done a few threesomes before. Stacey had never been very attracted to the men, but had done it for Menno, who would love to play out his cuckold fantasies even though Stacey usually asked him to join in at some point.

There had been one man however, a Dutch soldier and Menno had invited him over and he told them about some of his Special Operations missions he had done in Afghanistan. He was not highly educated, but he had a quiet, traveled wisdom about him that she found attractive. Unfortunately, what had always been hard about living in Europe, was how many men were uncircumcised and this soldier was only not uncircumcised, but he had a thin, smooth penis that felt weird in her mouth, almost like a peeled winter carrot, so even though it was, in theory, nice having Menno behind her, and a man in her mouth, she wanted the night to end just as it was beginning.

When the soldier left however, Menno seemed angry and said aloud,

“You could have tried a little harder.”

He looked at her with a hard annoyance, an expression she had never seen before, one full of swallowed disgust and bitterness. When she asked him what he meant, he replied, “The guy drives an hour to be here and you only have sex with him once? We could have made a night of it.”

Stacey found herself lashing back and telling Menno that this was about her and her feelings and that she was indeed tired. That she had a long day at work tomorrow. That she had done this for him. She had wanted a nice night out, she said, to be gently coerced into bed, but had agreed to just have a guy over and have a straight threesome, pushing past her own needs for Menno. She was amazed at how hard it was for him to understand this.

Menno started yelling at her about being uncommunicative and cold and how he felt like there was so much going on in her head that she didn’t share and how hard it was to be with someone who didn’t talk, someone who the minute he came, wiped herself with tissues.

There was a new intensity to this fight that they had never experienced before, a certain pitch that was almost violent. They had both been in relationships where hate crept in like a filthy stray cat and became fat and full and ever-present, but they had married with the belief that their relationship was different, that they had both learned and grown from their past loves so that when hatred did come knocking, they would know how to turn it away. And perhaps they did. Perhaps they had turned hatred away, but that was also why maybe now, here, at this very moment, their rage exploded like shotgun pellet, each pellet being a minor offense that, alone, only wounded, but if they struck their target collectively, the result was lethal.

***

That night, nothing was ever concluded nor solved and they both just felt as if they were misunderstood and they fell asleep with their backs to each other and within minutes he began snoring so loudly that she had to put in earplugs.

While she was lying there, on the edge of sleep, she saw Menno’s phone light up. It was almost midnight, mid-week, and he was getting a message from Coraleine.

Stacey got out of bed and went around to Menno’s side and typed in his code and opened the message.

“Sweet dreams,” it read.

Stacey began to scroll through all the other messages. There was almost a message everyday from Coraleine, messages ranging from, “Meet me now?” to “You’re so quiet,” to naked selfies, taken in front of the bathroom mirror. The strange thing though was that Menno hadn’t responded to a single message from Coraleine. Not a single one.

Even though he hadn’t said anything to her, which was in a way dishonest, his unresponsiveness to Coraleine was a quiet loyalty all in itself.

***

Two months later, they went to a party in a warehouse at the edge of town that was once abandoned, but now was being slowly surrounded by high-rise condos and would be most likely converted, in a matter of months, into a trendy club made to resemble the abandoned warehouse that it once was. The party was a PVC, leather, trance underground event. Stacey never understood how “underground” and “event” went to together and S&M’ers weren’t exactly their kind of people, they were still a better crowd and had better music than most lifestyle swingers.

Menno was wearing what he always wore to fetish parties, black leather pants and motorcycle boots and no shirt. Each time they went to these things, his belly was a little bigger and the wrinkles around his eyes deeper and his hair a little less thick and every time Stacey wondered where the sexiness still lay in her husband, was it in the hints of graceful aging or the macho physicality or was it something else. It surely wasn’t the sexy arrogance of the aimless and insecure twenty-five year old she had once known, nor was it the thirty-something arrogance which was little more than obfuscated rage manifesting itself in an array of disinterested expressions. Menno’s arrogance, the arrogance of late, was some strange, emaciated arrogance, a man still wavering somewhere between hope and success, a man denying his own desperation through apathetic glances and condescending critique.

Menno had brought along a few pills and they had taken two on the taxi ride over and, once inside, just as they were starting to peak, they ran into Coraleine. Stacey was high and beginning that fake affection so nauseating to people not on ecstasy, but she was also feeling standoffish and, in the light of the texts, apprehensive of Coraleine.

Coraleine had lost some of her flash and charm, Stacey thought, and her gestures and expressions now had a languorous and bruised-like quality of the shell-shocked divorcée. Since the flash was gone, they might easily have walked right by her without notice. In fact, they had only seen her now, because she had called out to them.

As they were talking, a tall, lanky man who was not unattractive, but was not necessarily attractive either, just more non-descript, a guy Stacey thought she could fuck, if it came down to it, came over and wrapped his arm around Coraleine who was wearing a neon blue PVC nurses outfit while he was wearing a black leather Viking skirt and Doc Maartens. They were completely mismatched suggesting that this date was perhaps haphazard. The man introduced himself as Lodewijk and then almost immediately asked everyone if they wanted a drink before going off to the bar.

“So how are you guys?” Coraleine asked, more to Menno than Stacey. There was a tension in her voice that Stacey had never heard before, a tension that made her voice sound more like one of the green parrots that nested in the tree outside their window. Coraleine informed them that she and Jacques had tickets, but that Jacques had the flue so she had called Lodewijk, their single friend.

Menno caught up Coraleine with how they had been busy, emphasizing busy, and Stacey didn’t follow the conversation, because she spent most of her time observing, not what was being said, but more or less observing how Menno and Coraleine spoke to one another, waiting for a secret that would be revealed in a light touch to the arm or a knowing wink that punctuated a particularly trivial sentence. But as they talked, Menno maintained a stubborn disengagement that made Stacey proud, although she wondered if it was all, perhaps, an act.

When they started discussing Menno’s work and he began explaining the ups and downs, Stacey looked around and studied the evening’s prospects. Most of the men at the party were middle-aged and overcompensating in the gym or tanning, but not a single one of them looked as if he might have an interesting thought in his brain. Not only that, but being European, most of the guys had opted for the softer side of the fetish spectrum, wearing either leather thongs or vinyl skirts, outfits that made them look more feminine than domineering, which made Stacey think, what was the point.

However, there was one man standing near a pillar, watching the DJ that caught her eye. He was tall and rough and unshaven with the kind of short curly brown hair that one might see on a roman emperor. He was wearing leather pants woven together at the legs with a tasseled leather cut-off shirt, the kind of outfit that on most men might have looked old-fashioned, but on this guy had all the appeal of Jim Morrison.

At some point, the man caught Stacey looking and held her eye and smiled and she smiled back and then felt a blush come across her face. She had long learned that flirting at fetish parties made her giddier than say, at a bar, because at fetish parties flirtations almost always lead to sex. On the other had, these parties only lasted a few hours and the coupling started early and in earnest, so too much coyness could also leave you empty-handed. 

Stacey was feeling high now and her body was warm and she knew that she was getting extremely wet, which is something that always happened when she was on ecstasy, so the more this guy looked at her, the easier it was to flirt. Besides, part of her wanted to be far away from Coraleine and Menno’s conversation because, in a way, she wasn’t sure if there were secrets and she was the “clueless” wife.

Lodewijk returned with drinks and Menno and Coraleine made empty promises to find one another later, which came as a bit of relief, for Stacey wasn’t that excited about having to do anything with Lodewijk. Thankfully, as Coraleine and Lodewijk walked away, the man standing next to the pillar approached and said hello. It was a ballsy move, she thought, seeing how it was only she and Menno

“I’m going to get a drink,” Menno said with a wink.

The man who looked a bit like Jim Morrison was called Ben and he was Italian, but had actually lived in America briefly, so he wasn’t immediately spouting the stupid opinions that so many Europeans believe they are entitled only because they watch American movies and read about America in the papers.

Ben had thick eyebrows and wide, moist lips, and ridiculously perfect Mediterranean green eyes. He played basketball and talked about Lebron James and Kobe Bryant, not in a boring, statistical way, but in an eager, infectious way, and although she didn’t much care for basketball, the familiar chat of American sports made him all the more alluring.

Ben was sincere and kind, but not too kind and poked fun at the tight t-shirt she had on saying it was something that a Hooters waitresses might wear and he said it with such a nice smile that she almost immediately found herself wondering what it would be like to have sex with him.

They talked for a good thirty minutes, before Menno returned with a drink just for Stacey. The gesture was clear, yet Ben didn’t back away and Stacey couldn’t tell if she found it brave or creepy. And as they sipped their drinks, Ben tried to include Menno in the conversation, but Menno was distant and clammy and Stacey could see from his wide pupils, high as well. Menno seemed to be constantly looking about and Stacey wondered if perhaps he was looking for Coraleine or if he missed her or if he was jealous that she might be having sex with that Lodewijk or even worse, having sex with multiple men and really enjoying herself, forgetting Menno almost entirely.

Stacey had never felt so far away from Menno, in all their marriage, and yet so intertwined. There was something simultaneously liberating and disheartening about this moment, where she knew instinctively that they would always be together, that the cores of their being, not their personalities or their quirks or the hobbies, but something far more fundamental and mundane, something as unglamorous, yet as vital as toes or nails… this core or cores were one and the same and could exist apart from each other even though there would always be a frozen hollowness if they were to be permanently separated.

Even though their marriage had lost that spark, the aftertaste of what had once been intimacy, but was now little more than warm and gooey contempt, meant that they could attempt what the lifestyle swingers a “hard swap” meaning she could perhaps go off with Ben and Menno could go off with Coraleine and they could reconvene at the end of the party and pick up where they had left off, the bills, the car repairs, the endless packing of school lunches… Stacey and Menno could return to their domestic drudgery, as it were, enlivened by the spark of lust that had come with the exploration of an unfamiliar body.

Ben was trying his hardest to keep the nice vibe going and Stacey almost felt bad for him because neither she nor Menno could really hear him over the music. Not only that, but she was mostly concerned about Menno and wondered why he seemed to not be enjoying himself. These parties were, after all, more for him than her and if he didn’t enjoy himself, then the following week he would mope and be almost hostile during their lovemaking.

“What do you feel like doing?” Stacey found herself asking her husband, trying to draw him back.

The question didn’t include Ben and she could see Ben hesitating whether to walk away or to stay, so she touched his arm and held his wrist, but kept her eyes on Menno and, of course, Menno caught the gesture and smiled slyly.

“Shall the three of us go upstairs to a dark room?”

And there it was, the suggestion of sexuality had been cast and Stacey began to worry that maybe she wasn’t even sure she was ready for a threesome, especially after what had happened with the soldier, yet, on the other hand, if a hard swap had been suggested, she wasn’t sure of that as well, even though it was what she, in the end, really wanted. Stacey began to wonder if her hesitation would either dissipate in the dark rooms upstairs or manifest itself into a cold obstacle that she would have to push her mind to get over, this mental hurdle-jumping being something that happened at least half the time during sexual their experimentation.

“We could have another drink too?” she said.

“We could,” Menno replied, his usual expression of disinterest returning and shadowing his face.

“What do you think?”

“You know what I think.”

Menno was sensitive to situations, even though half the time he strolled right over them, which in its own colorful way was more destructive than ignorance, and was precisely the kind of behavior that made him attractive years ago, but now only created angst. With his suggestion being shot down, he looked about with an expression bordering on disgust, an expression designed to make his dissenters uncomfortable and guilt-ridden.

And of course, there was poor Ben, she thought. Caught like a Ping-Pong ball, knocked about court of this strange couple’s dissonance. How Stacey just wanted to be swept away by the moment, to be dominated by these two men, separately or individually, it did not matter anymore, but, instead, with a husband like Menno, the moment had been reduced to managing away every last bit of spontaneity. Ben was sincere to a fault and the only thing that kept his sincerity attractive was the way he smiled which was something between a devilish smirk and a Tom Selleck smile. She thanked god that he was quiet now, chivalrously wading through their conjugal muck.

“You guys take your time,” Menno said, his eye catching something. “I’ll find you in a bit.”

Then he leaned forward and whispered in Stacey’s ear, “We can try this…”

The fact that he was making reference to his cuckoldry made her feel hot, hotter than the ecstasy at its peak, and she felt herself suck in a big gasp of air. But the hotness wasn’t sexual, but a fear of failure for she did not want to disappoint Menno. However, disappointment was almost assured since the expectations had been so high for so long.

Menno gave her a kiss and nodded at Ben and walked away, a little unevenly, and the conversation between her and Ben evaporated into nothing, had no meaning, because it was, from this moment on, nothing more than anxious filler. So they ascended the stairs, Ben holding her hand, and she looked over his body, his wide, tattooless, waxed back, and his somewhat flat, but acceptable ass, and began to wonder what the rest of his body was like, if he would have a big enough cock or if he could effectively move beyond charming and dominate her in a way that was suitable.

Stacey often found these dark rooms to be awful places for while these parties were fetish parties and strictly for couples only, men pretending to be gay would get past the bouncers and immediately separate then rejoin in packs, dicks in their hands, preying and hunting, or just standing next to a couple copulating, gaping while happily jerking away as if they were at some free peep show. It had also been more than once that Stacey had been enjoying herself, then suddenly felt a third or fourth hand on her ass, then turned around to find some leering pervert.

And now, as she and Ben walked through the dark rooms there were indeed mostly couples, but there were the occasional stray guy, alone and sex-starved, who gaped and gawked. Ben was confident however, and considerate, and guided her past the unpleasantness until they found a seat toward the middle, just beyond a leather sex swing.

He felt around on the vinyl seats to make sure there weren’t any wet spots and when he found one, located a towel to wipe it off. He smiled and sat where the ejaculation had been and, grossed out by the discovery, she was relieved when he asked her to come sit on his lap.

She sat down and they immediately began to kiss. He was a much better kisser than Jacques, but he had the faint taste of sickness on his breath, as if he might be coming down with a cold. She offered him a piece of gum and he laughed and they resumed kissing and she was enjoying it and wondering why he was taking so long to move his hands over her body and when he finally did it felt so good, because she actually wanted him to touch her instead it being the usual thing of immediately touching…

She was the first to move her hand over his penis and she was surprised to find a nice bulge and she unzipped his fly was even more pleasantly surprised to find a nicely shaped, circumcised cock. When she asked him about it, whispering in his ear, he told her that his father was Jewish. Being married to Menno, who was, like so most European men, uncircumcised, she had almost forgotten how nice circumcised penises could be. There wasn’t any of that fleshy foreskin and the oily slipperiness underneath. There was just the head and the fine shape and no hidden surprises.

Ben was putting his hand under her skirt and well and she could feel him gingerly tracing the edge of her panties before inserting a finger inside her. She was extremely wet and his finger slipped easily in and she ordered him to put in another and then another. Soon he was fingering her and sucking on her nipples and she was giving herself entirely over to him and his hands and his lips and she wanted to feel more…

And she had almost entirely forgotten about Menno, almost completely… was thoroughly overwhelmed by the lust and the moment and it had been so long since she had been lost like this… Finally, when she could handle it no more, she whispered for him to get a condom and he began to search around in earnest and right at that break she thought to look for Menno and when she turned to her right, she saw her husband peeking behind one of the dark curtains separating their dark room from a room with the sex swing and she almost giggled because he looked like a child there, spying on the girls bathroom and when Ben came back he followed her eyes and saw Menno there. Breaking the seal of the condom wrapper with his teeth, said,

“You know there’s a cuckold chair right over there in the corner.”

And when he pointed he saw two cups chained to the wall and a leather strap with a red ball on a cushion. The idea of watching Menno being submissive terrified her, for she wondered what would happen if she could never respect him again or forever looked upon him as weak and feminine so that at first she shook her head and watched as Ben slipped the condom out of the wrapper and just as he was about to unroll it on his penis asked,

“You sure?”

Then she took one look at Menno there and recognized the sheer joy in his face over what was about to happen and, in that weird ecstasy haze, found herself nodding. Suddenly Ben was walking over Menno and pointing at the cuckold chair. Menno hesitated at first, but a second later was following Ben.

The music was thumping and room swirling and she felt so very good and confused and excited as she watched Ben strap her husband into the cuckold chair and carefully place the ball in his mouth and tighten the strap behind his head. Menno looked ridiculous yet somehow perfect, bound by the arms and gagged at the mouth, his bangs hanging over his right eye, bangs which he was only growing now, but had been the fashion two years ago when MOD was all the rage…

Here she was, watching the strong, slightly intimidating man whom she had fallen in love with, forced into passivity by a handsome stranger. When Stacey thought back to the many times she had seen the shit stains in Menno’s underwear or how disproportionately incensed he became when a driver refused to let him merge or how he sometimes ate his earwax or chewed off his toenails… What were all those things in comparison to this? To this man held captive and forced to watch, what was technically, her infidelity?

Menno was, she realized, the man who she had fallen in love with many years ago, the same strong and domineering man, the man who built the shed in their back yard or could fix a leaky pipe or hoist her in the air and fuck her hard. He was all this… less and at the same time, more. A man worn down by the demands of his job and the kids and his wife, a man whose outlets for expressing all his machismo had dried up and thus had turned to submission, bondage, a completeness of the ideal that all women secretly wanted, perhaps not sexually, but relationally. Menno was surviving not the demands of the hunt or war or farming, but the demands of the modern age, texts, e-mails, progress reports in the best way he could, with a red rubber gag in his mouth.

When Ben returned to her limp, Stacey sucked him erect again and he rolled on his condom. He tossed her on her back and entered her gently and even though it felt good, so very, very good, she couldn’t help but sneak peeks at Menno there, in the darkness, silently observing with a fiery excitement that she had never seen in him before. 

Mourning in Miami

by Marlene Olin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rabbi glanced at Harvey.

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

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

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

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

Secret Valley Birds

by Dave Petraglia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She went down the stairs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the distance planes in formation droned towards the front.

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

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

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

“Papi,” Claire said, “Mssr. Papi”.

January 8, 2010

by Vincent Poturica

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