Rick Edelstein was born and ill-bred on the streets of the Bronx. His initial writing was stage plays off-Broadway in NYC. When he moved to the golden marshmallow (Hollywood) he cut his teeth writing and directing multi-TV episodes of “Starsky & Hutch,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “Chicago,” “Alfred Hitchcock,” et al. He also wrote screenplays, including one with Richard Pryor, “The M’Butu Affair” and a book for a London musical, “Fernando’s Folly.” His latest evolution has been prose with many published short stories and novellas, including, “Bodega,” “Manchester Arms,” “America Speaks,” “Women Go on,” “This is Only Dangerous,” “Aggressive Ignorance,” “Buy the Noise,” and “The Morning After the Night.” He writes every day as he is imbued with the Judeo-Christian ethic, “A man has to earn his day.” Writing atones.
Where are you? Hello! Make like we’re together.
Oh, I’m sorry, I was tripping.
What’s going on, he’s afraid to ask?
Sometimes you rave on about some issue...you go non-linear on me and roll out a non-sequitur expecting me to understand making me feel like the proverbial alien without papers.
You want to hear what I was thinking?
Do I have a choice?
You going to leave me hanging?
It doesn’t matter.
What doesn’t matter?
Whether something is true or not.
You’re in the middle of a treatise but I didn’t read the foot-notes. Of course truth matters.
No, what matters is what we do with it.
What matters is me finishing lunch without angst, thangst.
I just saw an incredible doc about the Viet Nam war. 60,000 American kids killed and who knows how many Viet Namese.
Yeah, I read about that war...ugly. But then again, you know any wars that ain’t?
Based on a lie.
How do you figure?
They said, you know the infamous American they...that we were attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin evoking our military response.
A total lie. Gulf of Tonkin incident is a figment of the military complex’s imagination. Never happened. Get my point?
It doesn’t matter if something is true or not. What matters is what we do with the information.
I think you should switch from documentaries to some real and true stuff like Chainsaw Massacre.
Why are you discounting what I’m saying?
Hey, baby, lighten up, I’m just trying to enjoy my hamburger ‘n fries and you are creating some kind of philosophical downer about the veracity or rather lack of veracity of...
These fries suck.
Haven’t had my period in six weeks. Tested. Pregnant.
Are you serious? How’d you get pregnant?
The sperm fertilizes the egg and...
I thought you were using birth control. That’s what you said the first time we did it what eight months ago.
A year and six weeks.
I read an article, online researched too, over-usage of birth control has adverse side-effects on a woman’s body in the long run so I stopped. It’s always the woman who has to pay. Why don’t they invent a procedure where men have to take responsibility for birth control?
They did. It’s called condoms, which I hate, it feels like a tire on my dick, or if a man doesn’t want children he can get a vasectomy. You sure you’re pregnant?
Jesus you’d think you could have mentioned it way back when you quit the pill, I mean...Jesus, I am not into...I mean yeah we’ve been going together for okay eight nine months now...
A year and six weeks.
We’re not even engaged.
Engaged? Who indulges in that absurd ritual anymore? We’ve been a you ‘n me for over a year now.
Yeah but...god I hate limp French fries.
Stop eating them and tell me what you want to do, damnit.
Lower your voice unless you want the waitress to know about the life and times of...
Voice lowered, your honor. What, she whispered as she asked redundantly, what do you want to do?
Do? Hey, I am not most definitely not ready to be a father, to be a husband, to settle down and get a mortgage barely able to make the payments, I am not N-O-T ready for all that shit. And by the way not so incidentally I am not the one who eighty-sixed on birth control pills without telling her partner.
Is that what we are, partners?
Just a figure of speech.
What are we, partners, lovers, what?
I am freaking out on this side of the table so we better make plans to...
You’re not getting my point.
I lost it a few fries ago. Focus boys and girls, focus! What the fuck are you, I mean we, I’ll drive you to the clinic or wherever because I am mos def unready for...
It’s not the information, it’s what you do with it.
I’m clinging to the edge by the hair of my teeth as she continues to rap on about...
What, are you grading me?
You’re still not getting my point!
Your point? Your, my, our point is we, you got to get an abortion, no question about it. I’ll drive you, pick you up after the procedure, and don’t worry I’ll pay for it.
An abortion if I was pregnant.
How much does it cost? Let’s check a local hospital, we can scan it online and...
You were always a lousy listener. I said if I was pregnant.
If? What the fuck...you’re messing with me again? Are you pregnant or not?
You see, look what you did with the information which, by the way, was not true. No I am not pregnant and you are proving my point.
You sure know how to fuck up a lunch. Come on, seriously, JesusfuckingChrist, tell me again, and I want the truth not some philosophical mental gymnastics.
I am not pregnant.
Damn, you put me through a ringer thinking that...
Proving my point.
Which is fucking pointless! Give it up, don’t work a theory at my expense. Jesus, baby...
Okay okay, yeah, and what about birth control?
That’s true, I am not taking the pill.
With that information, talking about what I do with it, hey I surrendered at first scent of your delicious pussy, you sure you’re just messing with me, absolutely not pregnant?
Just proving a point.
Dull the sucker next time you want to mess up a lunch. Not using birth control? That sure fucks up a wet dream. I will probably not get an erection in fear of well you know.
Can you expand your view past my pussy and your dick.
Are you finished with your root beer, I’m dying of thirst over here?
Look, honey child, I am being serious now. I want to have a real conversation which means real listening and yes, you can finish my root beer.
Ugh, it’s flat. Don’t make a face, it’s not attractive.
You must be kidding.
Duh...yes I am...you can’t grimace your face to less than beautiful with that great bone structure. She’s making that face again. Okay honey baby child, I is listening.
You is, is you?
Reality time, folks, get down to it. What is your point because I am, am shit, I have lost it on the last sip?
My point is that what we, you, me, elected officials including our president, generals, priests, rabbis, imams, do things based more on lies than truth.
Okay, yeah, but why didn’t you say all that shit out front rather than put me through the I’m-pregnant-my-period’s-late shit? You sure know how to fuck up a man’s lunch.
Okay okay okay...forgive me baby.
Done deal, forgiven, finished with your cole slaw?
Be my guest. So what do you think?
It tastes a little tart. Tart...I never use that word. They used to call hookers tarts, the English did anyhow. I hate those white-on-white stiff collar movies with those uppity accents.
I’m not talking about tarts or cole slaw. God you are so self-involved ignoring what I say which says something about our relationship.
Our relationship? Relationship...I despise that word.
I have been in too many quote relationships that had suffocating rules ‘n regulations condemning all possibilities of enduring past their due-date of expiration.
Do we have to get into this?
No. Yes. Like what kind of rules pushed your buttons?
Like what? Oh you forgot to leave the toilet seat down. Oh I asked you to pick up milk and you brought home a six pack. Oh you want to watch that game, what is it with men fixated on games where they put something in a hole. Oh, I have a better game, how about Game of Thrones. Oh, if I don’t feel like sex you’re going to make me wrong. Lots of ohs, shit like that.
It hasn’t happened with us but if it does, is that closure for us?
Closure? My boss used that word regarding a deal that went bad. We need closure, he said. What are you talking about, closure?
If I don’t feel like sex...hasn’t happened yet which by the way our sex life is great plus.
Mutual. Soda’s getting warm.
But if some night you know, you reach out and I don’t feel like having sex, will you take it personally or just understand that...
Of course I’ll take it personally. A woman saying no to a man whose his dick is hard when he reaches out...hearing a no at that special vulnerable moment for a man is like an ax in his forehead. Of course it’s personal. I mean, if too many no’s come down the pike when I reach out...the man doth reaches out if you get my point.
I can’t believe this. If a woman, if I, this woman just wants to cuddle but not make love...
Make love...prehistoric. For men it isn’t about making love, it’s about sex, it’s about sucking ‘n fucking, make-love is for Hallmark valentine’s day cards not about visceral, primitive, juicy sex.
Love scares you does it? That’s a loud shrug. In all this time you know you never said I love you. You realize that. Not once in over a year. Not even after a great orgasm, never said the word love.
Oh God, love...it’s such an exploited over used word that it’s lost its meaning. I love this movie, I love this game, I love this meal, I love my dog, I love my cat, I love a good bowel movement, I love staying in bed late on Sundays, I love your pussy, I love a great rib-eye steak. Love means what anymore?
Love means love when it comes from the heart but you can’t deal with that, can you?
What is this? What’s going on? First you do me with a false pregnancy number, then about wars and honchos doing stuff based on lies which I’m still trying to digest and now...what are we talking about anyway? I need some blueberry pie with ice cream. You?
I feel like an open wound.
Are you messing with me again? Open wound? Put a Band-Aid on that sucker and let’s finish lunch with some pie and ice cream and maybe catch a movie, one with a lot of action and graphic sex. Okay?
Just because you don’t want to deal with something, your anathema to relationships, does not mean that the issue doesn’t remain to be dealt with, she said ending a sentence with a preposition.
Sometimes when you rap I feel like I’m one of your students who didn’t read the last chapter of our assignment. What the fuck are you talking about now?
I was watching the news, Afghanistan, the city is wiped out, destroyed, and there were three kids, raggedy and dirty, playing with a huge stick and a worn tire, laughing, having fun, rolling a torn tire on a road broken from bombs...kids make toys, laughing, screaming in joy in the middle of man-made mayhem. The kids kept moving that war-torn tire with a splintered stick in the face of mendacity. Kids endure beyond adult insanity.
Way back when I read James Joyce...read it with great difficulty until I got his stream-of-consciousness style and I think you, baby, in real life, today in Manny’s diner you are a free-forming stream-of-consciousness rapper making this literal one plus one man feel like you’re talking Chinese to a cow because, baby, I have no idea what’s going on but...
What do you want to do?
About what he said on the other side of your moon?
You and me. We makes an us.
Me, I want to call the waitress and get a blueberry pie and ice cream and then...
We’ve been what, a couple, a me ‘n you, a what matters for over a year now.
I’m not sure where you’re going with this but if it’s what I think...
You still keep your own apartment even though most nights you sleep over.
My apartment is bigger and nicer than yours. I mean the one time I slept over those garbage trucks grinding gears outside your window made me wake up as if I was in the middle of a war being attacked by the enemy.
Don’t forget the raggedy kids playing with a torn up tire.
Sometimes I think your heart is made out of titanium, you can get so insensitive mean-spirited and I wonder why I am...
Hey, time out. Don’t go to a dangerous place that is not calling. Come on, baby, I sleep at your place half the time. Problem solved.
Why don’t you ever suggest or even think about moving in with me and yes committing to, oh I dare not say that word...a relationship, how about just totally committing to a you and me, period.
We are already you and me’ing...I’m not playing outside and neither are you... and I’m used to my apartment, my bed, my pillow...
You sleep over about fifty percent of the time, so you’re not all that attached. Besides, look at the rent money you’d save...although I’d expect you can split my rent.
Moving in? Together?
Yes, together. That scares you?
I mean why all this now? Are you doing a number on me again?
I’m a good cook, you like my...
I love your pasta, your lentil soup, I even love your crazy careening mind, to a degree that is because today you’re inching too close to the crevice for comfort, and yes I love your body, your willingness to do whatever get in any position, I love most everything about you, just the way things are, just the way we are.
What exactly are you saying?
If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
It may not be broken but it’s creaking, a little rusty, needs more attention to be paid.
What, he asked afraid of the answer, is creaking rusty needs attention?
Nothing can stay the same. It’s a matter of grow or go. What are you doing?
Calling the waitress.
In the middle of my, our...
Can I help you sir?
Yeah, you have blue berry pie?
Fresh, made this morning.
Roll it with a huge scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Do you want me to warm it up?
No. You want some dessert?
Okay, that’ll do it.
Coming right up.
She can lose some weight, look at her waddle. You can taste some of mine. Blueberry pie and vanilla ice cream is like an answered prayer.
I thought you were an atheist?
Come on, baby, lighten up. You and I are perfect as we are.
Can I use your water, mine’s empty?
Of course. What are those pills for?
They soften the edge.
Whatever that means. All this time I never saw you take any pills. What are they for?
I went to the doctor last week, she said I have high blood pressure and I’m breaking out in tiny hives. She prescribed these, I took one this morning and now...well, they sort of thicken things.
Soften the edge, sicken things, your metaphors are showing, doctor.
Not sicken, thicken...a kind of fog between me and the whatevers that threaten my balance.
Your balance? Dizzy or...
Emotional balance. Like now, today, me wanting us to be closer, committed, living together and who knows maybe even get married, have children, yes I know that frightens you, I know now that you are out to lunch...
We’re having lunch.
Now’s not the time to be a smart ass. I’m too susceptible to...what I was saying is that I am aware you are out to lunch on the whole me-you-us deal so these pills thicken, thank you. Water’s cold.
Here you go, blueberry pie and vanilla ice cream. Two spoons in case you want to share.
Thanks, that’s perfect.
You’re welcome I’m sure.
Here baby, scoop up a taste. I promise you’ll be so grateful for granting you such pleasure, said this atheist, you’ll thank God.
Is there a antonym for amen? It is good. Ahhh...these pills are fast acting or maybe I’m just tripping.
You’ve been tripping from the get-go.
You know America’s becoming like the wild west. Draw! Thirty people were shot last weekend in Chicago.
Talk about a non-sequitur.
I may get a gun.
You most definitely do not need a gun, not with your short circuits, I mean if you had a gun now you just might want to off me just because I’m not ready to move and...
Walmart advertised sewn-in extensions describing the color as nigger-brown.
You’re making that shit up.
No, they apologized profusely, took the ad down but they’re still selling that nigger-brown piece.
Can you stop saying that. I hate, deplore, freak out over that word and you know it.
Like you do with marriage, babies, living together. Words that push your buttons, do they!
The ice cream is melting beyond redemption.
Before we met, long before, after I broke up with Michael, you remember I told you about that son of a bitch bastard he was so short but acted like he was six ten, never a sign of remorse for his behavior, just regret that he was caught. You remember I told you?
Yeah and do we have to go into that now?
I took a spin class and pedaled so fast on a stationary bike as if I was rolling on his pock marked face which I hated that my legs gave out. For two days I couldn’t walk. My piss turned brown.
Just what a man wants to hear while scooping some blueberry pie.
It turned out I had a life threatening condition, rhabdomyolysis.
Caused by extensive exercise. It took me two weeks to recover.
And you’re fine now, right? And don’t worry about me, just me and you, baby, worry-not.
Well, honey, I don’t know if it’s the pill or just time to be woke...but...no, not but...and, the word is and... because it’s a continuum, right?
You’re losing me. Again. She’s tripping, folks.
The situation with North Korea gives us choices between bad, really bad, worse and much worse.
Is that a metaphor in some deranged way about what you think our situation is or...?
Methinks kind sir that what you want and what I need are like two ships in the night going in opposite directions.
Your metaphors are over-flowing but then again I never met a phor I didn’t like. Come on, I’ll get the check and we can see a movie that makes us laugh and...
No more we, no more us...I gave already.
What are you saying, where are you going?
Come on, don’t do this. The pills have had an adverse effect obviously so let’s just...
Let go of my arm or I’ll stab your eye with this fork.
Jesus fucking Christ, you’re losing it.
I have to go now and do not try and stop me, do not call, disappear me from your life as I am done with you. Us no longer exists.
I see the lady is leaving. Do you want the check now?
Maya Alexandri is the author of the novel, The Celebration Husband (TSL Publications 2015). Her short fiction has appeared, or is forthcoming, in The Stockholm Review of Literature, Fabula Argentea, The Light Ekphrastic, Boston Accent Lit, Adelaide, Cacti Fur, Gone Lawn, Thrice Fiction, Loud Zoo, and The Mulberry Fork Review. In addition, she is one of the founding organizers of the Amplified Cactus inter-disciplinary arts-event series in Baltimore, Maryland. She has lived in China, India, and Kenya, and has worked as a lawyer, UN consultant, blues-rock singer, and EMT. She is a medical student at Hofstra Northwell School of Medicine. For more information, see www.mayaalexandri.com.
Filial Piety, or This Be the Story
The Snake’s egg was large, and its occupant proved, upon hatching, to be a human baby. The Snake was surprised to see the fleshy creature. Surprises, in the Snake’s experience, were occasions for fear.
The Baby was surprised to be alive. Although the Baby had no experience of prior surprises, she had intrinsic knowledge of mortality: the process just begun was not going to end well. Plus, she was hungry. The Baby began to cry.
The Baby’s crying was unbearable to the Snake. Roiled by the vibrations, the Snake convulsed. She hastened into her nest of rocks and wound her muscles into the most impenetrable shape she could make. For maximum muffling, she wrapped her tail around her head like a turban.
Hungry still, and now uncomfortable – burned by exposure to the sun and wind, raw from rolling in dust and over rock – the Baby cried louder and longer. The Snake suffered. The Baby suffered. After a time, the Baby fell asleep.
When the Baby lay quiet, the Snake slid forth. With tongue and eye, the Snake appraised. The Snake sensed not danger. With tail, the Snake prodded. Discovering that the Baby was warm, the Snake curled around, then atop, the Baby. Soaking in the heat, the Snake rode the gentle wave of inhales and exhales traversing the Baby’s abdomen.
The Snake made a decision. She pushed first with her snout, and then with the spade of her diamond head. She angled, positioned, situated and squeezed, until she succeeded in balancing the Baby on her topside. She conveyed the Baby to her nest of rocks. The Baby was too large to fit within the nest, so the Snake dropped her on top and nestled beneath the Baby. How warm the Snake was!
When the Baby woke, she was alone. Pain of various sorts assailed her. Her back had been scratched and pierced by the rocks of the Snake’s nest. Her stomach was empty. She was dehydrated and weathered. She was lonely; existential anguish came easily to the Baby.
She cried. She also tried screaming, howling, yelling, gasping, blubbering, and tearful mucus release – all, admittedly, variations on a theme. She’s a baby; her repertoire is limited.
Her eyes closed, her mouth open to expel the terror that her body, tiny as it was, could hold, the Baby was interrupted by the sensation of liquid spilling over her mouth, under her lips and across her gums, surrounding her tongue and pouring down her throat. Dense and salty, full-bodied and metallic, the liquid drew the Baby’s manifold sufferings from her like an antidote. The Baby opened her eyes in astonishment.
Above the Baby’s mouth, the Snake dangled a stoat, gashed and dripping blood. The Baby lapped the blood and, clapping her hands in it, licked her fingers.
The Snake had restrained herself from swallowing the stoat whole upon capture. She had persevered to the Baby, across ground tremorred with the Baby’s cries. Now that the Baby’s anguish had subsided, the Snake’s breathing slowed. When her muscles began to tire from holding the stoat aloft, the Snake ventured onto the Baby’s stomach in order to steady the stoat more comfortably.
How warm the Snake was, curled on the Baby’s belly and basking in the sunlight!
And yet the process begun was not going to end well.
Surprises, in the Snake’s experience, were occasions for fear; and the Baby was so very surprising. The Snake was surprised at the Baby’s appetite. Whoever heard of eating every day, multiple times a day? How frightening this endless hunger! How exhausting this insatiable demand!
The Snake was surprised at the Baby’s process of expelling waste. How detrimental it was to the nest of rocks! How repellent to encounter the waste of another!
The Snake was surprised at the Baby’s poor communication skills. The Baby tasted not the air with her tongue, emitted no discernible pheromones, and failed to hiss. To the exclusion of all other approved methods of communicating, the Baby insisted on creating sonic tsunamis.
Despite instincts sharpened on fear and intolerant of delay, the Snake attempted to teach, to model the survival behaviours. But the Baby hissed not in imitation of the Snake. The Baby released not pheromones in emulation of the Snake’s example. And the Baby watched not as the Snake lapped the chemical currents of the air. More terrifyingly, the Snake gathered – through heroic examination during open-mouthed screaming fits – that the Baby’s tongue lacked division into left and right prongs. The Baby was defective, a useless progeny.
The terror of hopelessness oppressed the Snake like a skin that refused to shed. The Baby would ruin the Snake. The Baby would rob the Snake of the beauty she enjoyed as a creature perched at the pinnacle of accord between purpose and function. Fatal exhaustion would result from the hunting schedule necessary to feed the Baby. The environmental pollutants of the Baby’s waste and vibratory upheaval would provoke seizures and rapid decline. Even a brain as limited as the Snake’s is expansive in its capacity to catastrophize: the tendency helps identify threats. The Baby was a threat. The Snake bit. When the Baby next cried, the Snake restrained herself not. Ground and air and rock unhinged and swung with the Baby’s ululation. The Snake cowered not in this boiling cauldron, struggled not with the conflict between escaping the environmental riot and protecting her young, but reared and lunged and plunged fangs into pudgy limbs. The escalation from crying to shattering screams reached not the Snake’s sentience. The Snake bit with abandon and pulsed with relief. Biting liberated the Snake: she was born to bite threats.
The Baby flailed and thrashed. She writhed and curled. She contorted and spasmed. Continuously she screamed. She screamed to the exclusion of breathing. She choked on mucus and coughed blood, inhaled dust, drank tears. Still she screamed. Having scrambled from the nest, she screamed. After the Snake desisted, she screamed; even after the Snake withdrew, first to the nest, and then to locations unknown, the Baby screamed.
She screamed because her body burned and swelled. Puffiness and pressure occluded her eyes and collapsed her nasal passages. Edema deprived her extremities of their shape and utility. Her throat narrowed to a hard straw through which swallowing was excruciating. The sensation of weight constrained her chest and oppressed her lungs. The bloody punctures covering her body crusted and oozed. The Baby screamed until her wordless consciousness ebbed, and she lay insensible.
When the Baby awoke, she was surprised. That a being had capacity for so much pain was unexpected. Her head and neck were searing and rigid. A survey of the remainder of her body suggested that if she inhaled a fraction more than a catch breath, she would explode into shards. The poison stiffened and immobilized, bloated even the interstices, and alienated the Baby from any sensation of undulation. The Baby felt not the confidence of blood flow, the comfort of her pulse, or the calming power of her regular breath.
By and by, her eyes moved side to side, and between the slits of her inflamed lids, she glimpsed the Snake, sunning herself on her nest of rocks. The Snake had returned from whereabouts unknown to find the Baby pleasantly quiet and situated at an ideal remove from the nest. With darting tongue and surreptitious glance, the Snake continually confirmed the Baby’s presence, but otherwise revealed not any concern she might have.
Swaddled in the rigor of her injuries, the Baby gave satisfaction to the Snake. The Baby cried not; moved not; ate not. Nor did she evacuate waste. She encroached no space, and posed no threat. Having chastened the Baby thus, the Snake drew from the Baby’s proximity much succor.
The Snake nonetheless encountered a new experience that was displeasing: emptiness. The Snake’s emotional range had not previously stretched beyond the polarities of terror and calm, with quick stops at irritation, lust, surprise, hunger, and comfort in between. Nothing within this range seemed adequate to the present situation.
The Baby’s good behaviour and near-distance seemed precipitants of soothing; and yet some aspect still gave cause for alarm. Perhaps the Baby’s inability to shed her skin was troubling? Lacking capacity both for moral reasoning and empathizing, the Snake could not recognize, analyze, parse or placate the agitating sensations that assailed, and eventually overwhelmed, her. In consequence, the Snake felt vacant, empty from cause not hunger.
Instinct having provided no guidance for this instance, the Snake opted to sun herself on her nest of rocks and look in the direction away from the Baby. To be sure, she tasted the Baby’s presence in regular laps of the air. But face the Baby, she did not.
After the elapse of more time, the Baby died not, but coped. Owing to mysteries of genetics, the immune system, and other dimensions of human perseverance, the Baby proved resilient against the lethal dose of snake poison. Her edema drained, her sinuses reopened, and her breathing resumed its easy automation. Pain retreated from its immediacy and intensity. The poison remained, but seeped into the remote centres of her organs and nervous system, and curled up for an uneasy hibernation.
Eventually, the Baby sat up. Near starved, she dared not complain. Smeared and unclean, limp with dehydration, she made no motion towards water. Instead, she hung her head and sat in the dirt. She looked not at the Snake. The Snake looked not at her.
When the sun was high, the Baby raised herself and toddled away.
Now the Snake swiveled her diamond head to watch her daughter go. The vacuum within the Snake filled with fear, emptied, refilled, emptied, until the Snake pulsed with fear. Her tongue flicked rapidly, and her eyes focused and refocused on the Baby’s wobbly departure. Otherwise, the Snake moved not.
The Baby bumped, fell, stumbled, crawled, and persisted her way down rocky terrain into woodland. Enveloped in shade, she tasted in the air the rich flavors of soil, leaf, fern, fungus, decay, and flowering. Finding an animal path clear of most brambles and obstructions, she followed it to a river. At the river, she washed and drank. She pried mollusks from the riverbed, broke them open with rocks, and nourished herself with her first independent sustenance.
She waded through the shallows of the river until dark. Fish tickled and nipped, watery grasses encircled her ankles. She stepped carefully and curiously, made cautious – and, at times, overjoyed – by the glut of sensations. She slept by the river and, in the morning, resumed her splashy progress along the periphery of the river. In this way, she progressed until she came to a road.
Here, the Baby witnessed for the first time traffic. Sheep and pigs driven to market collided with platoons of warriors on the march. Caravans of merchants and their beasts of burden raised dust around the many hurrying on foot, the lawyers, artisans, keepers of the peace, philosophers, shamans, and servants. Dignitaries in their carriages peered from windows with pinched frowns and furrowed glances.
Having ventured from the environs of the river upon such a bustling composition, the Baby was surprised. Delight and inquisitiveness welled up at her recognition of fellow humans. Yearning came to the Baby.
As the Baby watched the scene, tumblers bounded through the crowd, followed by a tremendous character on stilts. The Baby wished to study his loping motion, but a monkey menacing a dwarf distracted and arrested her attention, and then the Baby swooped upwards, lifted by a strongman, who plucked her from the highway gutter and deposited her amongst the clowns. A circus always needs a baby.
And so the Baby acquired an education. She learned to feed and water elephants, and to grow and shave a beard. Her head within the lion’s mouth she feared not. Flipping off a seesaw she mastered. She walked, ran, skipped, and danced across the tightrope, and then rode a bicycle across it. She juggled clubs, cajoled dogs through hoops, compressed herself into a space insufficient for a kitten, and expanded her presence to command a tentful of drunkards. She charmed snakes.
More a baby need not learn, and when the circus came to a city of wondrous beauty, the Baby stayed to dwell among its denizens. The Baby had known from her circus mates kindnesses and tutelage, guidance and discipline, nourishment and reciprocity, and so she was sad to leave them. Yet she felt confident in her choice. Throughout her education, the Snake’s poison, not quite dormant where it pooled in the Baby’s recesses, continued to corrode and corrupt, and so the Baby felt not at home among her companions. The Baby felt both unappreciated and impossible to appreciate, unprotected and unprotectable, unloved and unlovable. The situation was not going to end well.
In the city of wondrous beauty, the Baby assimilated. She sought gainful employment. She endeavoured to live a life both blameless and dignified. She was kind to stray cats, and gave whatever pennies she found to those poorer. She articulated gratitude for her luck. She swept the communal yard, and cooked her own simple and nutritious meals. She walked the cobblestone alleys of the city of wondrous beauty and appreciated the architecture and the sunsets. She observed the colors of the fruit at the market, the sound of fish leaping in the canals and the glitter of sunlight on their scales; the stench of the gutters and the perfume of the flowering creepers came and went both; the clamour of parades and drunken brawls, the display of power at the seat of government, the pressure and discord of crowds, all these she witnessed.
But the Snake’s poison continued to fester, to sap from life its savour, to skew the Baby’s experience of the world. The Baby suffered, but complained not, not of being poisoned, not of loneliness, not of pain, not of exile, not of being people-less; and when tears came, she withdrew so as not to upset her neighbors. The Baby withered respectably and without inconveniencing others.
The time came when, in the midst of the city of wondrous beauty, the Baby drooped like a seeding sunflower. Her heavy head slumped against the floor, her body broken with the season’s work. Proximity to the city’s wondrous beauty had not transmuted the Baby’s burden of suffering into an experience of transcendence; and, anyway, babies cannot live on beauty alone.
“Seek you, go, the Poison Drainer,” advised the passing knife grinder. “The Poison Drainer to you now,” agreed the affable vegetable seller. “Oi, Poison Drainer, nigh!” shouted the gardener between transplants of rose bushes. “There’s even a Poison Drainer on the fucking boat,” said the sailor. Busybodies are so abounding with recommendations.
The Baby was skeptical. She had been educated in a circus, after all; she had seen her share of carnies. A Poison Drainer was no better than a guru, a cult leader, a baba, a spiritualist, a fraud. And she hadn’t asked. And what was her suffering to these busybodies?
So the Baby lay decrepit and declined further. The stray cats she had fed gathered at her door for their next meal. Apathy closed the Baby’s eyes. “Meow, meow, meow, Poison Drainer,” said a cat. The Baby opened her eyes in surprise. A large cat sat tall amongst the furry assembly, her orange tail wrapped over her front paws.
Hiss, hiss, the large cat had bared her teeth as she batted the snake’s head. The images played before the Baby, a glimpse within the large cat’s memory. Beige and black diamonds spattered the snake’s length, then blood sprayed from the large cat’s shoulder.
Kinship established thus, the Baby sat up. She had many questions. “What must I do? How fast will it work? Is it expensive?”
The large cat yawned. She licked her nose. She stood stretching, arching, releasing, expectant. The Baby rolled unsteadily to her feet and, holding the wall at first for support, followed the large cat through the field of fur, out her door, across the communal courtyard, down the cobblestone streets, around twists and turns, descending staircases, into tunnels, ascending ramps, until they stopped at a shop front adorned with wrought iron detailing. The shop’s placard bore the words, “poIson dRainEr.”
The Poison Drainer answered no questions and sought no specifics, poison draining being a matter of universal application. Anyone could be drained – even beings hatched from snake eggs – and dwelling on individual particulars tended to promote little more than the ego.
The Poison Drainer was a muscular man, bald, with a handlebar mustache – a plumber of the depths of the psyche – except that he also appeared, to the Baby, during the procedure, as a midget, tousle-haired, and full of jesterish humour. Multi-dimensional he was, and talented, as well. The technique he taught drew her manifold sufferings from her like an antidote.
The Baby shook, and came tears; the Baby was brave, and she persevered; and the poison came out, and it evaporated. Lighter, the Baby felt, and smiling. The poison gone, a miasma lifted: this was going to end better than expected, if weirdly. The Poison Drainer, presenting now as a cherubic oldster, a blind poet, bid the Baby to go in peace.
The Baby left the Poison Drainer’s shop and retraced her steps through the city of wondrous beauty to the road. The road she tramped until she came to the river. She left the road, hopped down the embankment, and skipped through the eddies. At the animal path, she bounded up it, through the woodland, and then ascended the rocky terrain.
The Snake had been sunning herself by her nest of rocks when she tasted on the air currents the chemical signature of her daughter approaching. The information was surprising. Trembling, the Snake feared her daughter’s return. But she deserted not. The Snake had missed the Baby after she had left. By no sign or action could the Snake’s longing be perceived; but, for the duration of the Baby’s absence, gurgling to the surface of the Snake’s sentience had been the alarm that part of her was elsewhere, a notion unfathomable, nonsensical, and persistent.
The Snake faced not her daughter. The Baby observed the Snake ignoring her. Dry skins littered the vicinity of the nest of rocks. The Snake’s scales gleamed gray in the sunlight.
The Baby moved intently, taking large, fast strides and, swooping her hand confidently, she grasped the Snake by the neck, just beneath her diamond-shaped head.
Oh, the Snake was frightened! Now, brandishing her fangs, she faced her daughter, enraged. Immediately, she gagged – on her fury, yes, but mostly on the teething rusk that the Baby pushed into her mouth, sheathing the venomous shards. The Snake tossed her head to the left and thrashed it to the right, but fell not the teething rusk from its impaled post.
The Snake looked questioningly at the Baby. The Baby smiled. The Snake was not encouraged.
The Snake’s eyes were unused to the view from just-above-fist level, and she struggled to comprehend the visual inputs she received. Her tongue found no exit from her mouth into the atmosphere because of the obstacle of the teething rusk, and the only information she tasted related to the ingredients of that biscuit. Of what use to her flour, milk powder, wheat germ, yeast and salt were, she could not say. Her disorientation contributed to her mounting panic.
The Baby breathed deeply. The air, hot with sun-baked dust, bore no imprint of home. The Baby began to walk.
Despite her impairments to perception, the Snake eventually registered the movement away from the nest of rocks, and writhed emphatically. Terrified, she convulsed her head in an effort to spit the teething rusk. She whisked her body in order to flay the Baby.
The Baby stroked the Snake’s head with her free hand, and made soothing “shush-es.” Unable to accept her helplessness or quiet her fear, the Snake after a time hung limp from exhaustion. The Baby walked on.
The woods again, and then the river, this time to a bridge, and across it to a field; through the field, through another field, and another, past haystacks and barns, threading between grazing cows and staring sheep. The regularity of the steps lulled the Snake to sleep dangling in the Baby’s hand. All the venom released during the Snake’s earlier resistance, and later drooling in her sleep, soaked the teething rusk and caused it fall from the Snake’s fangs. The Baby inserted a fresh teething rusk without waking the Snake, and the Baby walked on.
The moon rose, and the Baby lay down on her cloak on the meadow grass. The Snake she cradled in her arms. In the small hours, the Snake awoke and took note of the differences. The nest in which she found herself was fleshy, not rocky. Her jaw ached from being forced open continuously by the teething rusk. Oh, but she was warm!
In the lambent light, the Snake slithered from between the Baby’s arms and traversed the length of her body, surveying, assessing, exploring. At the Baby’s toes, the Snake peered not beyond. She feared departing from contact with the Baby’s body. How would the Snake find her way back to the nest of rocks? And, if she became lost in search of her nest, how would she then find her way back to the Baby? Such a journey would be filled with many dangers and tests of strength and faith. The Snake had appetite for it not. No, the Baby was now the Snake’s home. A captive wild thing, depressed, cabined, yet arousable to instinctual fury with certain provocation, the Snake marked the vivarium of the Baby’s body as her terrain.
And so onward they traveled, a quare pair. The Baby, perpetually walking; the Snake in her fist, perennially muzzled. Wherever possible, the Baby gathered botanicals and hunted small creatures. Some few they passed gave them food, or allowed the Baby piece work. So fearful to observers was the sight of the sleeping Baby with the venomous Snake coiled about her body, though, that none offered board more than a single night.
The Baby complained not. Other options she recognized, and she declined them. Loneliness she felt, and she accepted. She chose not to be separated from the Snake; nor, she understood, had the Snake chosen to be parted from her. All the Baby knew of flickering home materialized when then Snake curled on her sleeping belly and rode the gentle undulations of her inhales and exhales. How warm the Snake was!
Christine Grant is Scottish and has worked as a scientist in North America and Europe. She is currently based in the Highlands and juggles writing with looking after her kids, dog walking and other things. 'One-Way Ticket' will be her first short story publication. She is currently working on the final edit of a novel about a girl from a traditional Highland church whose beliefs are challenged when she moves to London.
Eric took a deep breath of hot, dry air, glad to be off the bus which had jolted him awake during the overnight journey through the desert. He stuffed his ticket into a bin at the bus stop. He wouldn’t need it again; he wasn’t going back.
The box in his rucksack pressed uncomfortably into his back as he headed in what he instinctively felt to be the right direction. His shoes scuffed up dust, tickling his dry throat. He hadn't gone far before a great, rugged gash in the landscape shocked him into stopping. The earth had been ripped open, exposing hidden colours, both delicate and brilliant. Nothing had prepared him for this first view of the Grand Canyon; the best of the photos and film shots were faint images in comparison.
He approached it, slowly, timidly, even reverently and sat down a decent distance from the edge, hugging his knees to his chest. People moved past him, chattering and posing for photos, but he hardly noticed. While he stared at the colours in the canyon wall, orange, red, yellow, brown, patterned like the surface of a shell, the earth seemed to pause in its ceaseless turning.
Eric had wanted to visit the Grand Canyon since he was a small boy when his great-aunt Ethel had brought back four laminated place mats showing the Grand Canyon from different points. Until now, he had concentrated on getting here, on fulfilling this one remaining desire, not on what lay beyond.
A light touch on his arm startled him. “You want to wear a hat,” an old lady said. “The sun’s powerful strong.”
His head was beginning to throb and he was surprised and moved that someone cared what happened to him. He didn’t want to risk collapsing before he had carried out what he intended to do. He pulled a cap from the side pocket of his rucksack and rubbed sun lotion into his freckled arms.
Fear of heights kept him well away from the ragged edge as he followed the path around the rim. He no longer appreciated the beauty as he scanned the landscape, because he was looking for the right spot. It had to be an overhanging ledge. He walked fast, hiking beyond the clusters of tourists near the park entrance, until he saw a thin spar of land thrusting itself out over the canyon like the prow of a ship.
He sat down to rest. His T-shirt was damp with sweat where it had rubbed against his rucksack. Everything he owned was on his back: snacks, toiletries, a few changes of clothes and a box of memories. Most of his wardrobe had gone to a charity shop and his few possessions of any value had been sold to raise money for this trip. Even his beloved computer had been sold second hand for a fraction of what it had cost new. Everything he owned was on his back.
Nobody in England knew or cared that he was in the United States. His father had left when he was small. Eric had a feeling that it might have had something to do with him being a difficult child. He remembered times when he was so swamped by anger and fear that he hit out at anyone or anything nearby.
His mother had been overwhelmed at being left alone with him. He remembered the confusion of turning to her and feeling a tense wall of resistance. It was hard to let her hug him. One time, he overheard her talking to Aunt Ethel, “I’m trying, God knows I’ve tried, but it’s so hard. It’s like he can’t connect with me.”
Eric tried to please his mother. He immersed himself in astronomy books and filled jotters with drawings and notes. On mothers’ day he gave her a star map which he had drawn himself. She thanked him, but afterwards he heard her on the phone to Aunt Ethel, “All these stars, hundreds of them, and lettering so small I can hardly read it. He worked so hard, but it scares me. Other kids don’t do this.”
Aunt Ethel died of a heart attack when he was twelve. He didn’t have a chance to say good-bye. He looked up heart disease in the library, and discussed it endlessly with his mother. “Do you think she got pain in her jaw and arm? Would the pain have been the worst she ever felt? Why didn’t she go to the doctor to get her cholesterol checked?”
Finally his mother yelled at him. “Eric, will you just shut up. She’s dead and nothing will bring her back.”
Two years later cancer spread through his mother’s body like rot. The Macmillan nurse visited, but Eric had to do the shopping and cooking and washing. To take his mind off what was happening, he spent more time on the computer, staying up late to work on programs. He couldn’t concentrate at school and failed his exams.
After his mother’s death, he tried unsuccessfully to get a computing job. He got plenty of interviews and could answer all the technical questions. However, the interviewers usually interrupted him before he had finished.
The same thing happened when he tried to get to know people. He talked in detail about the stars or weather patterns or the logic of computing systems and they found some excuse to walk away while he was still talking.
He reached into his bag for a water bottle out of his bag and his hand brushed against drank a box which was wedged between his clothes. He couldn’t resist taking it out for a quick look. Before opening it, he glanced around to make sure that no-one was watching.
The box contained a thick letter. Underneath were small parcels wrapped in pretty paper and tied with coloured ribbon. He had browsed gift shops looking for the prettiest presents he could afford. She deserved the best.
He met Bronwen when he posted an advert in the supermarket where he worked, offering to repair computers at a very reasonable price. She phoned to describe her computer troubles, her Irish voice wavering on the edge of laughter, “If I didn’t laugh, it would drive me to tears.”
When he came by that Saturday, her face was so bright and kind that he could hardly look at her. He focused on her small, silver earrings and then slid his eyes across to her face remembering that Aunt Ethel had told him to look at people when he talked to them. The smell of baking wafted through Bronwen’s sunny flat. After he had untangled the knots in her software, she gave him a cup of tea and a large slice of fruit loaf which she called brack.
Just before she left, she said, “I’m new to London. What are the best places to visit?”
“I don’t go out a lot,” Eric admitted. “The Science Museum’s well worth a visit. I could take you there. Today, perhaps.” He shuffled his feet and squeezed his hands together behind his back.
“Thanks, but I can’t. Now that the computer’s fixed, I’ll be skyping my folks in Ireland.” She said it nicely as if she really did regret not having time today.
She often dropped by the supermarket to pick up a few things on her way home from work. “How’s the computer?” he asked as he swiped her falafel salad.
“It’s working a treat.” Her face was fresh and pink and her long curly hair swung across her shoulders as she packed her bag.
The next time he saw her, she looked pale and tired. He asked her how she was twice before she answered.
“Sorry,” she said. “My dog died last night. He was old and we knew it was coming, but it still hurts.”
“What kind was it?”
“They’re clever dogs.” There was a long queue at the checkout. Eric wanted to do something to help her feel better but he didn’t know what to say. The next day he passed a shop with little porcelain figures of dogs in the window. He went in and bought a black and white collie and found a card with a cute picture of a dog on it. He wrote a note, “Your smile brightens my day. Sorry to see you sad about your doggie. I hope you feel better soon. Eric.”
The next time she bought food, he slipped the gift into her shopping bag.
A whole week went by without her dropping into the supermarket. He worried that she was still sad about the dog. Perhaps she didn’t feel like eating. He wrote another card. “You are a beautiful person. I miss you when I don’t see you just like you miss your doggie. Please look after yourself. Eric.”
He went to her house early to catch her on her way out to work. The sky was touched with the faintest touch of blue and the ground was glazed with frost. She emerged from her flat in a vivid turquoise scarf. He stepped towards her holding out his gift. She hunched her shoulders and increased her pace to walk past him, her heels clicking on the pavement.
She paused and turned slightly, giving him one precious look. “I appreciate your concern, but I can’t accept your gifts. Keep your money. You shouldn’t be buying things for me.”
She wouldn’t worry about him spending money on her if she knew his feelings. He thought of her when he scanned falafel salad through the checkout for another customer or when he sat down at his computer. Dogs reminded him of her, a turquoise folder, sunshine, flowers, a funny film on TV.
He wrote her cards and letters which he dropped them through her letter box with little gifts. He got up early to catch glimpses of her on her way to work. She walked fast, not looking to either side, and he wasn’t sure if she saw him stamping his feet with the cold beside the delivery van opposite her flat. It didn’t matter. He didn’t need to talk and he wouldn’t want to kiss or hold her any more than he would want to touch his guardian angel.
One day his boss handed him a plastic bag which had been dropped into the shop. Inside he found all his unopened gifts along with a printed note. “Stop watching me. Don’t send anything. This is your last chance before I go to the police.”
He left work making the excuse that he had a fever. At home and poured out his feelings on many sheets of notepaper. If she read this letter, she would finally understand. He bought a cute teddy bear which held a notice saying, ‘I’m sorry’. The next morning he hid behind a parked car and stepped into her path as she left her flat.
“Leave me alone.”
She tried to dodge past him, but he thrust the thick letter and the present towards her. “Just read this letter. That’s all I ask.”
She stood still, no longer trying to run away. Her hands shook and there were dark circles under her eyes, as if it was a long time since she had slept. “You’ve left me no choice. I’m going to the police to get a restraining order.”
He saw past his own neediness and was appalled. He had done this to her.
Losing his job to was nothing to the pain of knowing that he had hurt her. The image of her exhausted face stayed with him day and night. He couldn’t stop loving her, couldn’t live without seeing her, couldn’t stop himself from pouring out his heart to her on paper, but she couldn’t bear to see him. With awful clarity, he saw that there was only one solution.
The pastel-coloured parcels looked pale and silly under the deep blue desert sky. They didn’t seem to belong here beside the bright colours of the rocks. He fingered the thick letter in which he called her his angel and begged forgiveness for what he had done. He would leave it where the police would find it. They would send it on and she would finally realise that she had meant everything to him.
He was glad of his hat as he made his way back along the rim of the canyon. The sun was now high in the sky. A girl in sports clothes loped past him like a shy gazelle. He drank his last dribble of water. He had a few dollars left, enough to buy more water and a last present for her.
Postcards and native American goods made of wood and beads and feathers hung in rows outside the shop. The miniature leather moccasin he picked up smelt like something dead and rotting. He put it back and picked up a bottle of water from the fridge inside. Among the rows of souvenirs, he spotted a mouse mat with a view of the Grand Canyon at sunset. It seemed appropriate. His final present would remind her of the way they had first met.
He gazed through the window to the deep orange and ochre and red colours on the far side of the canyon. The garish photo was pitifully inadequate. Even if Bronwen wanted this gift, he could not share this moment with her.
The mouse mat reminded him of Aunt Ethel. She had taken the time to play with him and listen to him. Her large handbag always contained snap cards and packs of toffee. He decided to buy the gift for himself.
The lady behind the cash desk was talking on the phone. He placed the mouse mat on the desk and cleared his throat to get her attention. Even though she lowered her voice and took a step back he caught a bit of her conversation.
“I don’t want to hear your excuses. When can you fix it? Wednesday next week. How do you expect me to run this place without a computer?”
She glanced over her shoulder and Eric remembered Aunt Ethel’s voice, “Don’t crowd people out, Eric. Sometimes they need a bit of space.”
He took a few steps back and stood behind a rack of postcards until the lady at the desk put the phone down with a sigh.
He approached the cash desk. “I wasn’t listening on purpose, but I couldn’t help overhearing. I fix computers. It’s what I’m good at. I could maybe fix yours.”
Her face was surprisingly young-looking considering her white bobbed hair. “You’ve come here all the way from England, and you tell me that you have nothing better to do but fix my computer.”
“Right now I don’t,” Eric said. “It’s too hot to go outside.”
She laughed, even though he hadn’t meant it as a joke, and he spent the rest of the afternoon at a desk beside the counter, sipping coke and getting her computer back in order. In the anguish of the last few months, he had forgotten the pleasure of becoming totally absorbed in a problem. When he finished, she offered him a roll of notes.
“I don't need anything.” He held his hands up in protest.
“Get yourself a nice dinner.” Her eyes flickered over him. “You look like you need it. I’ve got a big delivery due in this week and I might need some help. Drop by in the morning and we'll talk.”
Eric left the shop with money in his pocket and the knowledge that someone expected him to have a tomorrow.
He ordered steak and chips in a restaurant with large, comfortable seats.
The waitress’s eyes were large and owl-like behind her big glasses. “You want steak and potato chips?”
“Yes, potato pieces dipped in oil and deep fried.”
“Do you mean French fries?”
Eric clapped his hand to his forehead. “I forgot it’s a different language here.” She laughed and he found himself laughing too.
He returned to the park after finishing his meal. He hiked past couples lingering hand in hand, enjoying the sunset until he reached the lip of land he had picked out earlier. The sinking sun turned the canyon into a bowl of pink and red and gold.. He sat down, took out his nail scissors and cut the letters he had written to Bronwen into tiny pieces. They filled the box like confetti.
After the brightest stars appeared, a faint glow remained in the sky, like the dying embers of a fire. The moon had not yet risen and the dark of the land and the darkness of the abyss were almost indistinguishable. Both pulled him. He was like an electronic signal approaching a logic gate, unsure whether the result would be TRUE or FALSE, ON or OFF, ONE or ZERO.
Clutching the box, he slithered forward on his stomach, feeling the dust with his free hand until he reached over the edge, grasping air. He took a deep breath and pushed. He held his breath, waiting between darkness and silence. A faint sound rang out. It could have been the box hitting the bottom of the gorge, or the clatter of a night animal.
He breathed out. Relief tingled through his limbs. He had got through the gate and the answer was LIFE, TRUE, ON, ONE.
He turned carefully around and groped his way back, heart beating hard, until he felt a slight incline and the leathery leaves of a plant. Curling up, he fell into a sleep so deep it was almost unconsciousness. When he awoke, the first light showed him that he lay only a few feet away from the edge. He carefully shuffled back, sick at the thought that he could have slipped off in his sleep, and never lived through this moment. From a safe spot, he watched the canyon reflect rose-pink shades and smoky greys back to the pale dawn sky.
His rucksack felt much lighter as he walked back to the town.
Lisa Clark's work has appeared in various publications including Best Modern Voices, v 2, The Alligator, The Gnu, Scarlet Leaf Review, Strange Fictions, and BlazeVOX. She's winner of the Glass Woman Prize for fiction and the Mia Pia Forte Prize for creative non-fiction. Bulgaria has been her home for over eighteen years. She's currently working on a YA novel about Virtual Reality.
WHEN WE DREAM
We remember the sounds of our first day. They began as rustlings and grew to whispers then to rumblings, louder and louder until we couldn’t shake them from our ears, our brains, our veins, tissues, or bones.
We shuffled inside the warehouse slowly that morning, a mother, sister, or friend murmuring into our ears, taking us by the elbow, leaning into us, touching our arms, cradling us in a comfort we didn’t yet know we’d need. They’d told us their stories, of course, but as recent girls teetering on the brink of womanhood, we thought we could make something better of the job than they had. That we, by the very fact of our youth, could better withstand its hardships. Who knew? Perhaps we would succeed where others had failed. Perhaps the man would take notice and soon we would be in charge. Then we could change things.
A few of us—Ghita, Panu, Julissa, Chun, and Emy—were mere girls: ten or eleven years old when they started. They approached their first day with wide eyes, elbows pressed into their sides. Ghita, the youngest of all by months, wiped clammy palms against her dress. Her mother tried to squelch the guilt chomping at her gut. All of us knew she had no choice.
We suppose that, if we’d known then what we know now, they would have had to drag us in with thrashing heads and flailing arms. Screaming. Ghita would have shrieked loudest of all.
Instead, we innocently accepted instructions: “Just watch what I do.” “The best thing you can do is bow your head and work.” “If the man comes close, don’t look at him. Don’t meet his eyes.” We latched onto their words and sucked them in like goat kids at their mother’s teats.
Inside the building, one man’s voice grew, ordering, “You! Over here! This will be your spot.”
To another, he barked, “Show her what’s expected.”
Soon one, then two machines hummed and chattered together, followed by fifteen, thirty then more and more, clattering, birring away. In minutes, hundreds of machines joined in, roaring their various rhythms and sometimes punctuating the clamor with abrasive pops, wheezes, hisses, and chugs.
Above that, voices pierced the air.
The man’s shouts rose higher still, like miserable lyrics to an unsung melody.
Ghita shrunk like a pill bug when the man cursed her for moving too slow. We tried not look.
By the end of the day, the sounds had sapped us of strength. We had energy for little more than relieving our hunger and thirst before collapsing into sleep. Then the noises became part of the tales our brains spun for us that night.
When we dream, the noises still sound: the scrape of our wooden stools; the buzzing of machines that sliced through five-inch piles of fabric; the thwump of trimmed pieces at our stations; the whoosh of grinding and spraying; hissing steam.
And the voice. Demanding: “Work! Harder, faster, better. You there! Be more careful; we can’t afford mistakes.”
Threatening: “There are ten others who would love your job; you’ll get no sympathy here. If you’re late, sick, or too long in the toilet, if you have bad breath or stop to scratch an itch, I’ll find out.”
We’re from India, Honduras, China, Bangladesh, and beyond. Ghita is from Morocco. We’re mostly in our twenties and thirties. A rare few are above forty. Men kidnaped some of us to work in lands we’ll never return home from.
We sew, cut, package, label, and fold. Ghita dyes. Her hands are raw and rough.
Together, we turn never-ending piles of fabric into never-ending piles of clothes.
Most of us are female, easy to threaten and force. Easy to use and abuse.
We wonder if anyone knows about us.
At the beginning, when we still had energy to care, we thought about the clothes we make for beautiful men and women with skin of white. Skin clean and fresh and sweet-smelling.
Not like ours.
Where do those people go in these clothes? Are they rich like the actors and models on billboards and covers of glossy magazines? Do they smile at life?
We wonder how it would feel to smile at life.
We have forgotten how to smile.
When we dream, we cannot escape the man’s voice, rumbling, roaring, making us quake.
Sometimes it shrills like a drill, penetrating our skulls, invading the dark folds inside.
His brown and blemished face looms before us.
We wish that, at least in our dreams, we could free ourselves from him. That someone would rise up as our savior.
We sandblast denim, spray chemicals onto fabrics, press pleats into skirts. Our eyes and fingers grow weary attaching buttons and beads and jewels. We sew in zippers, finish hemlines, stitch buttonholes, and attach ribbons. We know how to make yokes, ruffles, boleros, cowls, sweetheart necklines, frog closures, maillots, shelf bras, and a hundred different styles from petite to XL.
Will our work will be appreciated or will buyers discard the labor of our hands after one or two uses? Will they show up in secondhand clothes shops in places like Kenya, Bulgaria, and Cambodia, where poor people try to convince their neighbors that they sit at the edge of fashion circles? Or will our creations become industrial rags? Or be shredded? A few of us have heard whispers that the very poor wear our clothes until they are dirty, then burn them for heat.
When we dream, we see ourselves in beautiful clothes, gem-studded. Our husbands or lovers or friends or parents beam at us. Ghita spins to show off for a boy she sometimes sees on the street. He has eyes the color of midnight and a smile that makes her heart skip.
All of them ooh and aah at us. We bow shyly, unaccustomed to praise.
When we lift our eyes again, he appears. He never gazes at us in admiration.
Our work often stretches to ten or twelve hours a day, and sometimes (when we are behind and must catch up) for eighteen hours a day, seven days a week.
Some of us faint from exhaustion. Ghita’s mother has fainted eight times.
When we dream, we are sometimes asleep at our machines, but then he comes, screaming, scolding, threatening. If we don’t wake up, if we don’t work, he’ll fire us. We know he can do this; he’s done it to our friends. But we are so tired. Our eyelids cannot stay open another minute.
When we wake, we fear it was not only a dream. But then, those around us begin to move, acting as though this day is like any other, like a nightmare that will not end at sunrise.
Twelve-year-old Ghita and her mother look long at each other before sighing and trudging out the door. They have no words to bolster the other for the day.
We daily inhale air contaminated from sandblasting, hand sanding, and chemical spraying. Gray particles cover our faces, hands, and necks until, by the end of the day, only our eyes are visible. Sickness sneaks up on us. Many suffer from one, two, or more of these: coughing, eczema, heart disease, wheezing, sickened lungs, bladder cancer, infertility, fever, chills, chest tightness, and asthma.
Sometimes, the man demands from us twenty ladies’ shirts an hour. Day by day we perform nearly 37,000 repetitive motions between toilet breaks in order to meet our quotas. Hour by hour, our arms and hands moan and scream and keen.
Our pay is never enough. Hunger chomps at many, like Ghita’s mother, who sometimes refuses to eat. Instead, she gives her portion to her two daughters.
We can’t withstand these conditions for long. After four years, the man needs to hire replacements.
When Ghita is thirteen, her mother falls on the work floor. Others think she’s fainted, like before. When the man yells at her, she doesn’t rise. She never rises again.
We wonder what she has—what we have—done to deserve this life.
When we dream, his image looms before us. His clothes are shabby at the edges; he’s always tired and angry. Those of us in Honduras and India and China think he drinks too much beer (this we presume from his stomach, which is large and strains his belt). In Morocco and Bangladesh, he finds other ways to grow a gut.
From time to time, someone comes to interview him, asking him about us and our treatment. He smiles and nods and assures them that we are treated fairly.
How can he lie so easily? Does he fear nothing? No one? Does he not fear the One who can destroy?
In our heads, we number his transgressions:
When we dream, we see him dragged into court. He’s kicking and screaming, declaring his innocence. We wordlessly watch on, small smiles on our faces.
We live in different places. Some of us return to homes or apartments with families to tend to. We try to push aside the thought that we must rise again after a few brief hours of slumber to another day like today.
Ghita and Marwa, are not so lucky. They share a cramped dorm room with four girls.
Others live in corrugated sheet-metal lean-tos without plumbing, clean water, or decent places to wash. They have no husbands or children and can only fantasize about having a family.
One day blends into the next so that no day seems different.
Until one day. On that day, when Ghita is fifteen, Marwa stumbles from the warehouse behind everyone else. Blood is trickling down her legs and her face is filled with the same misery hundreds of millions of other women through the ages have borne.
In four months, Marwa is fired. Five months later, she dies giving birth to a bastard baby.
A year after that, Ghita convinces every woman in her factory to protest. On the day they take to the street instead of going to work, angry men yell at and even beat the women. Some are jailed. Ghita is hammered down, her face turned to mangled meat. The newspaper crew that interviewed her captures her final moments.
When we dream, we see him jerk to a halt, slap his right hand across his chest and grip his left arm as though trying to yank away the heart attack.
He is unsuccessful.
We see him crumple onto the floor.
We see his eyes beg us for help. His eyes are hurting, pathetic, fearful.
Soon, he stills.
We fall onto to our knees and thank the heavens.
When we dream like this, we’re free.
When we wake the next day, we do so with an odd hope. Today, in countries we don’t even know the names of, other women—and even men—are reading the news story about Ghita and gasping at her pulverized face. Horror is piercing their hearts. Outrage is commanding them to act. To help us.
It would only take a few.
When we dream, we dare to hope that change will come soon.
Joshua Stillman is a creative writing student in Orlando, Florida. In his free time, he likes to play video games. You can check his twitter @jstillman6583
“Dusty, we need to close him up! There’s nothing we can do!” shouted Aubry.
“Damn! He’ll die at this rate!” Dusty replied, trying not to throw his tools down in frustration. “Sorry but I can’t do this right now!” Dusty added as he rushed out of the room before he made a fatal mistake.
“Dusty, do we have any patients today?”, Aubry asked. She held several folders in her arms and one of them had a different color and said confidential on it.
“Well, I believe we only have that one patient. I can’t find his chart though, have you seen it? It says confidential on it.”, Dusty replied.
“Ah yes here it is. Richard Anderson is the only one we operate on today. It says he has dilated cardiomyopathy.”, she said handing him Richard’s chart. She continued, “Word around the office is that we’ll be getting some top-secret package today!”
“I heard that too, I can’t wait to see what it is!”, Dusty responded.
The intercom sounded its alarm and said in a robotic voice, “Dr. Dusty and Dr. Aubry, please report to the operating room. I repeat please report to the operating room.”
“I guess it’s time for surgery!”, Dusty said as they ran to the operating room.
Shortly after, they arrived in the almost empty room. In there only one patient, Richard Anderson, and they were administering the anesthesia to him. They scrubbed their hands and suited up for surgery. They were already used to the beach and alcohol smells present.
The nurse that was assigned to help them said, “Richard Anderson, suffering from an unknown disease. He was admitted a few days ago… May 27, 2028, with symptoms of dyspnea, tachypnea, and complaining of chest pains.” She was setting their tray of tools out and added, “We’ve received a special package and it’s made to be used on him.”
The two doctors turned to each other and smiled. “What’s the procedure?”, Aubry asked as she put her gloves on.
The nurse replied, “We’ll be doing a lobectomy on Mr. Anderson. Since we don’t know of this disease, extreme caution is necessary. This will be more of a research than an operation.”
The doctors nodded and began grabbing their tools.
“Beginning the operation!” Dusty said as he began by grabbing some antibiotic gel and rubbing it over Anderson’s chest. In that time, he turned around and Aubry took over.
“Beginning the initial incision!” Aubry said as she used the scalpel to open Anderson’s chest open. She glanced at the heart and it looked healthy for a man of his age. “Dusty? Look at this…”
Dusty looked like he saw a ghost. “Wh-what the fuck?!” he said eyes wide open, “the fluid—it’s changing colors!”
The nurse stepped in and tried to calm them “Doctors please calm down.”
They calmed down and examined the gelatinous fluid. “There’s a core?” Aubry asked and Dusty nodded as if this couldn’t get any weirder. “Ok, hand me the laser!” Aubry said. She grabbed it from the nurse and fired a continuous beam at the core.
“Nothing? Damn.” Dusty said. He grabbed the scalpel and attempted to cut it out. Nothing happened and he growled.
The nurse smiled and set the newly arrived box on another table. “We’ve received the package! It’s full of syringes and vials. Grab some and inject some of the blue vial.” Aubry did as told and the fluid turned blue. “Now try the pink!” Dusty injected the pink and it changed to pink. “Damn! Try the yellow.” Aubry injected it but this medicine caused the fluid to go haywire and started changing colors rapidly. “The white is a neutralizer—” Dusty immediately injected it with the white and it calmed down. “Ok, it looks weak snag some tissue! We’ll send it to the lab! There’s nothing else we can do…” said the defeated nurse. Dusty nodded and used the scalpel to remove part of the core. He placed it on the tray and started twitching. Dusty reddened up and became furious at the situation. He seized the drain and it didn’t do anything to the fluid. After that he tried to use the syringes with the colorful medicine and it caused the fluid to go crazy.
“Stop that, Dusty! We need to close him up! There’s nothing we can do!” shouted Aubry.
“Damn! He’ll die at this rate!” Dusty replied, trying not to throw his tools down in frustration. “Sorry but I can’t do this right now!” Dusty added as he rushed out of the room before he made a fatal mistake.
Vincent Barry’s affection for creative writing is rooted in the theatre. More years ago than he prefers to remember, his one-act plays caught the attention of the late Arthur Ballet at the University of Minnesota’s Office for Advanced Drama Research and Wynn Handman at New York’s The American Place Theatre. Some productions followed, as well as a residency at The Edward Albee Foundation on Long Island. Meanwhile, Barry was teaching philosophy at Bakersfield College in California and authoring textbooks. Now retired from teaching, and living in Santa Barbara with his wife and daughter, Barry has returned to his first love, fiction. His stories have appeared in numerous publications in the U.S. and abroad.
For the Child’s Sake
One day out of the blue a girl who called herself Lily Dale heard a distant word as if from the eponymous magnet for mediums just south of Buffalo. The word read like a telegram:
DEAR YOU STOP IN TOUCH WITH GHOST OF HEART’S DESIRE STOP MORE TO
At first the flour loving flapper with bobbed hair and bound chest didn’t know what to make of the message, but then again few knew what to make of anything after the great disillusionment of the Great War.
Still, when not listening to jazz and frequenting blind pigs in short skirts and high heels, Lily Dale did dream dreams of her “heart’s desire.” And, if pressed, the unmanacled sheba, in sequins and lace and hemline to the knee, would admit unblushingly that, yes, she did believe in ghosts, of war—immaterial souls who had been lost in horror and futility, heroism and glory—, not because table rapping and speaking in tongues were all the rage, which they were, but because—well, she just had to, for the child’s sake, which, of course, wasn’t at all like a flapper--having to do anything. But what else could she do but make an exception, the charity girl with popping black eyes and red cupid’s bow mouth— for the child’s sake, what else could she do but to listen and dream?
So, you could say, I suppose, the word she got, a summons really, made little sense to Lily Dale, save for “heart,” “desire,” “ghost,” and “war.” They, to be sure, made a cruel kind of sense, which she spurned in juice joints and gin mills, in cloche and shift dress, doing drunken jigs till the sun came up.
Though she tried to silence it, the nagging message continued to hum in her head like an indocile earworm.
Then came the disclosure:
DEAR YOU STOP HEART’S DESIRE STOP HORN-MAD ABOUT DEATH STOP
His own death, it meant, met taking an eight millimeter bullet that pierced the chest wall and entered the heart. But for that single report of the Mauser in the brooding gloom, all was quiet when the unflurried youth fell—eyes fast shut, stiff before he hit the ground.
Lily Dale, for her part, sometimes mused whether her heart’s desire considered, as he fell, life not much to lose, as had he when his country said, “Son, there’s work to be done,” and gave him a gun, and marched him away to the roll of a drum and the siren call of whatever may come.
But it wasn’t any of that, any of the how he met his death that was vexing the spirit. It was the when.
THE SECRETARY OF WAR DESIRES ME TO EXPRESS HIS DEEP REGRET THAT
YOUR HUSBAND PRIVATE HECTOR DALE WAS KILLED IN ACTION ON
ELEVEN NOVEMBER IN FRANCE STOP LETTER FOLLOWS STOP WITSELL
ACTING THE ADJUTANT GENERAL
Being cut down on the eleventh day of eleventh month, nineteen hundred and eighteen—That, the spirit felt, was unfair, dying on the day of the peace.
“‘Husband,’” the normally unflappable flapper said with a shaking voice, her throat tensing in an aching spasm. Then, after an absorptive pause, she slipped a pale green potion of the Last Word in her garter, which was the color of her favorite bucket hat, sepia. And as she did so she said of Hector Dale, softly and affectionately, “My police dog with a flask who left me knocked me up without so much as a handcuff.”
Then she heard of trying to reason with him, Hector’s spirit, as if, she thought, bearing now “the tearful smile of Andromache,” you can reason with a ghost.
“Told him,” whispered truly, “though it might be ugly and senseless, the timing and all, it wasn’t a question of fairness but destiny. And destiny has nothing to do with fairness.”
At that her breath failed her and her lips twitched. Then, with the bite of her red-lashed eyes lengthening and her throat choking, the fanciful flapper pulled up with a frightful clarity from god only knows where:
“Destiny is no moralist, she’s an ironist with a wicked wit. Take up her droll and detached view and you’ll rest in peace, otherwise this dun and sinister world.…”
And she clung to that, as if to a lifeline.
It’s unclear whether that aforesaid leechdom ever cured the shade. But Lily Dale it succored and braced.
And that was that for a long while, so long, in fact, that Lily Dale forgot she’d ever received distant communication.
Then of a sudden there sprang upon her a message, hook-delivered.
Cold with terror, and now with Betty Grable pincurls and grey tuxedo blouse, Lily Dale knew, with her padded shoulders and “v” belted waist, she knew, the erstwhile flapper did, how it would begin, “DEAR YOU,” and she knew, too, how she must respond: as she had a lifetime ago, from within, for the sake of the child, now a young man with a hand gone missing in some forest afar they called the Ardennes.
Priscila Santa Rosa has written four novels in English and Portuguese and left her home country of Brazil to study creative writing in Orlando, FL. When not writing, she enjoys going to the movies and playing with her cat. You can follow her on Twitter at @priscilassr.
They had found Diana. After years of hiding, of changing identities, and hopping from city to city, they had finally found her. She thought she had been careful. No friends. No lovers. No attachments. But the box was proof she had been careless. So careless she hadn’t checked the windows before opening the door and had forgotten to take her gun out the moment the doorbell rang.
It was a simple wooden square, no bigger than a shoe box. She took it to the kitchen, placed on the table, and, with her arms crossed, stared at it for a long time. She had spent a long time running away from this exact moment, but now that it had arrived, Diana felt adrenaline running through her veins. A part of her wanted closure.
With a steady hand, she lifted the lid to find a cell phone. The second she picked the phone, it rang. Jaw tight, she strode toward the kitchen windows to yank the curtains close. She could picture the rifle scopes searching for a better angle.
Her house was already surrounded. Fine, let them come.
The phone kept ringing as she opened the cabinet below the sink and reached for the cold, hard grip of her hidden Glock pistol, along with an ammo box.
Armed, she finally answered the call, placing it on speaker.
“Diana. We need to talk.”
His voice was the same, soft and sweet as honey. Without even realizing at first, Diana leaned closer to the phone. Of course, the agency would use him as bait. Too much history.
She swallowed her emotions back into the depths of her throat before saying, “So talk.”
“They want you back. This is your last chance.”
“I don’t care what they want, Marcus.” Just saying his name was painful, but she kept going, “I’m done killing people.”
Hie sighed loudly. “You have three minutes before they storm the house and kill you.”
“Three minutes? They are getting rusty.” She grabbed the ammo box. Glancing back and forth between the windows and her fingers, Diana loaded her gun. For the sake of closure, she decided to ask something she never would otherwise, “Why did you take this job, Marcus? To make sure I was dead? Is that it? Or are you just being the good soldier as usual? Did nothing change for you? All these years and nothing changed?”
Silence. As the seconds dragged on, she paused her work. Marcus always had the perfect answer for everything. Against her training and every instinct she picked up after years on the job, her heart raced.
Finally, Marcus spoke, “I love you.”
She had heard her partner lie a thousand times in a thousand different ways. He wasn’t lying now, but why? To distract her. To stall for time until the strike team arrived. Yet, it made no difference. She had waited for those words most of her life.
Diana took a deep breath, then released a sigh. “You should’ve said that years ago.”
Another pause before he asked, “Do you love me?”
The vengeful part of her wanted to lie, to spit the vilest accusations and insults at the man who had betrayed her. They had been partners in everything until she asked him to choose between her or the agency. Country above anything else had been his answer.
“I love you, Marcus. You can say that at my funeral if that makes you feel better.”
He laughed. How that sound had made her heartbeat speed up once. She missed those days when it had been just the two of them against the world. Back when the world made sense.
In a surprisingly teasing tone, he said, “I’ve been waiting for you to say that since the Belgian job.”
She narrowed her eyes at his words. Of all their missions, that one was the least romantic they ever had. In fact, it had been particularly gruesome to investigate explosion sites for months. They had been searching for a vicious separatist with a talent for hiding bombs in the most ordinary of objects. Diana’s gaze fell on the wooden box.
“Still there, Diana?”
Where were the hurried footsteps crushing the grass on her backyard? Why couldn’t she hear the fabric of uniforms grating against the bushes as the agency’s goons approached? Why were they keeping their distance?
Diana reached for the box. A quick inspection revealed a false bottom, and below it, the bomb. Big enough to take out most of the house, but not enough to destroy the rest of the neighborhood. She had been right: Marcus’ mission had been to distract her, but not for when the strike team arrived. The true goal was to give her no chance to fight back. The agency could use a gas leak to explain the explosion, and nobody would know the truth. But they had chosen the wrong bait.
“See you on the other side. Goodbye, Marcus,” she whispered as her finger pressed the red circle.
In one minute, the bomb would give her all the closure she had wanted earlier. Good thing she only needed thirty seconds to escape.
Diana rushed to the basement door and ran down the stairs. She made a sharp left and used the momentum to slide and open a hatch, quickly falling into it. Water splashed under her feet once she landed on the ground. Using the phone to light her way, she followed the sewer system as the ceiling shook above her.
They met at their favorite bar. He ordered a glass of whiskey, neat. She drank a vodka martini.
“Did they follow you?” she asked.
“No. They trust me. After all, I just killed the woman I love.” He lifted his glass with a wide grin. “Rest in peace, Diana. You’re finally dead.”
“And free.” She smiled as they toasted to their new life.
Jenifer Rowe grew up in northern Wisconsin, about an hour’s drive from her grandparents’ small dairy farm. She holds a degree in biology from the University of California – Berkeley. These days she devotes her time to writing stories, riding horses, and teaching English as a Second Language. She is a board member of the California Writers Club – Sacramento Branch, which has supported and encouraged writers for 109 years. She lives in El Dorado Hills, California with her partner and their two dogs.
ONE LAST TIME
Mama left the house to her, and left me as her caretaker. She had it all worked out, and I never even thought to complain, nor would I. They always did fawn over her, Ma and Pap both. “Oh, that Astrid, ain’t she pretty, and no one so good at the games. Why, poor Jean is just plain lucky to be her sister,” they said, and I reckoned I was.
I still remember the day she was born, in the back bedroom with the windows all closed up against the heat. Aunt Hilda was there to help, and she sent me off to the kitchen. Ma had been crying out, but then she stopped and it got real quiet. I was watching a fly crawl toward my hand on the kitchen table, and I hoped to smite it when it got close enough, just like the Hand of God they talked about at Sunday school. But you had to be real quiet and still in order to catch a fly, so when the baby cried out and made me jump, it flew away. I was peeved, but only for a minute. I ran to the bedroom door, asking could I come in and see the baby, but Aunt Hilda jerked up my arm and pulled me away. “You need to mind yourself from now on,” she hissed at me.
After that Ma was puny all the time and took lots of naps. Pap said, “She’ll get over it,” but she just stayed that way forever, it seemed. Some days she was almost her old self, but other times she stayed in bed with the shades drawn. I learned how to cook by running back and forth from Ma’s bedroom to the stove, following her directions one step at a time until the meal was done. As the eldest, I was in charge.
Astrid grew up more athletic than I ever was, and she always brought the ribbons she won at school straight in to show Mama, proud as she could be. Such a fuss our Ma made over those ribbons! “Reminds me of my own school days,” she’d say. My papers never caused so much stir, no matter how good the grade. Pap seemed pleased with my exams, but he didn’t say much. He didn’t like to even appear as though he disagreed with Ma.
Of course, we each had our own friends in those early days. Never mind that it seemed Astrid was invited to every party; I was happier to stay home and help with things. I like to feel that I was appreciated for my contributions. Pap certainly seemed to be grateful for my efforts. He had all he could do in the fields, what with how hard it was to keep hired men on. He came in through the woodshed door at the end of each day looking like Adam molded from clay, with just his eyes showing white out of the dust that coated him.
So I kept to myself a lot, though one boy did catch my eye at last. Oh! Frankie Sorenson. I was top grade in my class, but he was right behind me, anyone could see how clever he was. Not slow and stumbling like the rest of the farm boys. We were always the last two standing in the history face-offs. I was sure he admired me for my talent, though he never said so.
Astrid was taken with horses, it was all she talked about. She got a job mucking out the stables at that fancy Greenwald place every day after school. They didn’t pay her much, but they allowed her to ride her favorite horse Cyclone. She would practice jumping with him every chance she got. She should have been home helping with our own animals, is what I thought, not leaving it all for poor Pap. But he never complained, not once.
Life went on well enough until the serious dry years came, when no matter how hard a person worked, it seemed nothing would grow and the cows wouldn’t give. Pap couldn’t keep a man on board, and so we girls had to help in the fields. By that time, Astrid and I had had all the schooling we were going to get. We still had hopes of finding husbands, though, and so did not like working in the hot sun all day, which browned our skin and roughened our hands. Astrid would duck inside whenever she could get away with it, claiming that Ma needed her. That’s how it came to be that I was the only one out in the fields with Pap that day he collapsed. I can’t see how Ma always blamed me, saying I didn’t do enough to help him. He was gone by the time I got to him.
Anyway, after that Ma seemed to grow worse, not coming out of her room at all some days. One day she wouldn’t even sit up, and she just waved away whatever food or drink we brought her. Only Astrid could get her to open her eyes and smile a bit. When I came to her with a damp cloth for her forehead, she just turned her head and sighed. That was surely a bad time, but I took care of her as best I could from then on.
On the day that Astrid fell, she’d been outside showing off, just like she always did when there was a young man around. I was busy sponging Ma when I heard my sister tell Frankie Sorenson (yes, he and none other), “Watch me, Frankie, I’m gonna jump the fence.” I glanced out the bedroom window to catch sight of him, as it had been so long. Well, he looked at her so admiring it made me want to spit. Off she took astride our mare Nella, rounding the paddock twice before coming up on the fence. The horse didn’t clear it, of course, I could have told her that old nag didn’t have the legs for it. But she didn’t ask me, and she wouldn’t have listened anyways. Not to me, no sir.
The house was filled up for a while afterwards, with Dr. Torvald coming and going, and all the church ladies bringing every kind of covered dishes. To this day the smell of cooked cabbage makes me sick. When the doctor said Astrid wouldn’t walk again, Ma let out a scream like a rabbit caught in a snare. I was the one had to shoot the horse.
I tried to be understanding, but my sister brought it on herself, and I feel bad saying so, but there it is. I took care of the both of them until Ma finally died. We’d rented out the fields and sold the cows soon after Pap died, and Ma had some money in a trust from her father, so the little bit that we had coming in did for us.
And so it’s just been Astrid and me for such a long time. Each morning I get her up, see to her washing and dressing, and sit her comfortably in her wheelchair. I push her to the breakfast table in silence (for whatever is there to say, after so many days the same?) and watch as her face falls at the sight of the stewed prunes and oatmeal I have laid out for her yet again. “Oh Jean,” she said yesterday, “wouldn’t it be nice for us to share an apple strudel some morning?” I didn’t even answer. I have enough to do day in and day out, I don‘t need to add baking to the list.
So this morning she looks at me and asks, “Can we go into town to play bingo at the church tonight?” Well, you know, I would love to get out some myself, and at first that strikes me as a fine idea. Then after I think on it for a while, I see that it wouldn’t be so smart to stir her blood up like that. Why, she might get overexcited, and then I’d just have my hands full putting her to bed again. It wouldn’t be good for her, anyone can see that. And of course, I owe it to Mama to do what is right for my sister. I’m the one she left to be in charge.
When I explain to Astrid that an evening of bingo simply is not possible, she stares straight at me with a queer expression. I don‘t know what to make of that look, I surely do not. Don’t I always wish the best for her? Haven’t I spent my whole adult life doing everything only for her? I wheel her to the front window in the morning; I wheel her to the back porch when the afternoon sun is too strong. I cover her lap with a robe when the evening chill sets in. What more could she want of me?
Well, today she tells me. “Take me upstairs,” she says, “and set me in my chair there.”
“Astrid,” says I, “you’re asking me to carry you in my arms up a full flight of stairs.” She just nods once with her mouth set in a tight line. I think it is rather much of her to ask, but I have never denied my sister anything, you can just ask anyone. So I settle her on the divan and up I go with the chair first, awkward as it is, and then I come back and gather her in my arms as softly and carefully as holding ripe peaches.
“Jean,” she says, “I haven’t been upstairs since I was fifteen years old.” I trudge up the stairs with her, and at the top I settle her in her wheelchair and turn to go. I swear that’s how it all happened. As God is my witness, I never thought what she would do next.
“Damn that woman, where’s the milk?” Norman slammed the refrigerator door in disgust, rattling the bottles inside. His robe flapped around his bare calves like flags in a breeze. “Can’t leave a man in peace,” he muttered. “Always sticking her nose in my business.”
Norman didn’t like his cleaning lady one bit. She was querulous and bossy, and her stern face matched her personality. Her name was Esther Something-or-other, no family he’d ever heard of before, and she came around every Tuesday morning at the insistence of his daughters. Norman figured he was just fine without her, but his stubborn daughters maintained that he needed some help around the house since Marie had passed on. Though he didn’t see why – so what if he let the milk spoil once in a while? True, he couldn’t read the expiration date too well any more, but was that going to kill him? And he could still handle a broom for himself, thank you very much.
His daughter Ginny had asked him why he minded a weekly cleaning so much, but the thing Norman hated most about Esther was how she put on airs. She was a constant, painful reminder of his advancing age. “I am not just your cleaning lady, I am also your caretaker,” she told him with a tight smile. Oh, boy. Just what exactly did that mean? Did she have the right to rummage through his dresser drawers, re-hang the wrinkled shirts in his closet, throw out what she thought had become dated in his refrigerator? He bristled at the thought.
So here it was, Wednesday morning and no milk, all because of her taking liberties with his household. Now he’d have to drink his coffee black while he read the morning paper. He tied his bathrobe tightly around him and opened the front door to a sight that caused him to draw in his breath.
The world greeted him with the glistening aftermath of an ice storm that had silently coated his world with beautiful hazards while he slept undisturbed. Every twig on every bare tree was transformed. The crystalline landscape sent him back instantly to an early spring day in college when classes had closed because of just such a storm. He’d spent the day in the student union at the bottom of Bascom Hill, shooting pool with his buddies and flirting with the girl at the coffee counter. Marie. She had laughed charmingly when he lied that he was the most popular man on campus. She captured him with her curly black hair and snapping eyes, and he felt like a special holiday had been declared just for them.
After that icy day, he began to call on Marie regularly. She was studying literature, which Norman thought was a waste of time, though he didn’t say so. For him, facts were what mattered. Engineering was a good solid field where a man could accomplish something. He had no use for philosophy or religion or make-believe stories. But he liked pretty girls, especially the ones who paid attention to him. And he was a gentleman, or so he declared himself. His father had told him often enough that if a man once loses his honor, he’ll never get it back. He treated Marie like she was royalty, then and always.
Smiling at the memory, he climbed back up the front steps with the paper tucked under his arm, looking forward to reading it with the aid of a magnifying glass. He was unaware of the piece of ice that clung to the bottom of his bedroom slipper, nestled secretly under his heel. As he shut the door behind him and turned to make his way to the kitchen, his foot went out beneath him and he landed in a peculiarly bent posture on the hardwood floor. He heard a loud crack. Well, aren’t you the clumsy fool, he thought as he tried to sit up. He grunted as he strained, but he could only raise his head a little off the floor.
He looked over to where the telephone sat on a desk ten feet away. Okay, he’d crawl to the phone and call for help. Simple enough. Trouble was, he couldn’t flip over. At that moment, the phone began to ring. Lying on his side, Norman drew his legs up as close to his waist as he could and tried to turn over onto his stomach with his knees under him. Nothing happened. He set his jaw and tried to push with his arms to right himself. The phone rang on. Norman lay flapping as uselessly as a trout reeled into a boat. When the phone finally stopped ringing, he relaxed his arms, sighing with a mixture of relief and frustration.
His daughters had worried about just such a thing. What if you fall, they’d asked. Who’s going to check on you? For sure it wouldn’t be either of them, living on opposite coasts with husbands, careers and children to occupy their time. It took a whole day for either of them to get here. Not what he and Marie had anticipated – the family had been close back when they were growing up, with Sunday dinners at the grandparents’ and weekend camping trips. It was still a puzzle to him how those girls could prefer to live so far away. They claimed that Wisconsin was too “provincial,” whatever the hell that was supposed to mean. Boring, was what he figured they were really saying.
Norman, you have got to get up, he told himself with clenched fists. If he didn’t get himself out of this scrape, they’d send him off to assisted-living. He had fought tooth and nail not to be packed off with all those fossils and their walkers. He couldn’t stand bingo, and he’d die of boredom. Then they’d all be sorry, for sure. Give him a Friday night at the Silver Lake Tavern instead, eating fish and drinking beer and hobnobbing with whoever came in the door. He still had his driver’s license, after all - thanks in no small part to his good buddy Dr. Bob, who’d told the sheriff that old Norm could see well enough behind the wheel.
He lay on the floor, trying to think what he ought to do. As the morning wore on, he was conscious of being thirsty, and yet he peed himself twice. The pain had grown in magnitude like a piano crescendo, causing him to vomit what little his pre-breakfast stomach held, and by now it was fully in charge. The pain was a predator gnawing at him with sharp teeth until finally he passed out. He partially regained consciousness from time to time, thinking once that he saw Marie tsk-tsk-ing about the mess on the floor. She had always taken such good care of things, never a hair out of place. He felt apologetic and tried to say so, but it was too hard and he lost the will.
She had been brighter than he was, though he would never have admitted it. Nor would she have claimed it, as good as she was about keeping the peace between them. Lately he’d been thinking how much she really was capable of doing. She’d raised their daughters with little help from him, sewing their clothes when times were tight, feeding them from the vegetable garden whose harvest she canned, even making the quilts on their beds with scraps from worn-out school dresses. And always she wrote – in secret, she thought, but he knew. She probably feared that he would laugh at her, so she kept her stories tucked away in the back of her closet. It was only after she was gone that he dared to read some of them.
The morning that Marie couldn’t remember how to make the coffee had been the beginning of the end. He knew it in that moment. She’d begun to cry when she realized the enormity of it, and as he folded her into his arms, he felt that his knees might buckle if he didn’t hold onto her. The idea of losing this bright, capable woman bit by bit, while she still stood before him, was an injustice that made him scream inwardly with rage. He had stayed alive all this time since, expressly so he could see her to the end. And he did.
Marie slowly faded from view. Had she been there? Norman didn’t know for sure. He was motionless, rooted to the spot and suspended in time, as day slowly turned to dusk. Dying now wouldn’t be so bad, he thought. He was no longer feeling too much pain, and it wouldn’t be hard to just drift off. He didn’t have much to go on for anymore without Marie, he knew that well. Just more loneliness and frailty, nothing really worth fighting for.
The putrid pool that he lay in reached his senses at least once upon regaining consciousness. “My God, do I stink,” he thought. During one such resurrection, he remembered the First Responder bracelet that he wore. Yet another indignity foisted on him by his worrying daughters. Part of him hated to do it, but he really did not want to be found dead in a puddle of piss and vomit, and so he pressed the button that sent a silent alert off to whoever watched for such things. Then he slipped away again into blessed unconsciousness.
When he swam out of his fog one last time, he saw Esther’s sober face peering down at him. She began issuing directives to the paramedics, who scraped him up off the floor and onto a gurney. He felt a wave of resentment tinged with approval that as soon as she had sent him on his way, she’d turn to cleaning the place up. Soon it would be as tidy as a motel room, and just about as welcoming. He could almost smell the disinfectant.
Adel's stories are inspired by events she has witnessed and people she's encountered. With vivid descriptions, Adel captures the complex and often contradicting inner worlds of her characters. While lives become intimately entangled, individuals remain distinct, and defenselessly alone. Traveling well beyond the surface and into their depths, Adel reveals the surging pulse hidden within ordinary lives. Intense, multidimensional relationships pull and provoke the most delicate areas of humanity, giving us a refreshing taste of life's true flavors.
Night at the Hyatt
“You were different.” Sheila said it with sensuous pleasure.
Andy thought for a moment. “Did you like it?”
“Yes.” She smiled, remembering the way she’d felt just a few minutes ago.
“Good. I liked it too.” He closed his eyes.
He didn’t answer right away. “It’s Valentine’s.”
“Oh?” She leaned on one hand and began playing with his hair. Soon she turned around. Their naked thighs touched. She liked the feeling. She lay on her back, satisfied, looking up at the ceiling, feeling warm and cozy.
“You want to take a shower? We’re cutting things very close.” Short brown hair growing high onto his clean forehead, the well-proportioned, muscular lines of his cheeks and nose gave his face an open and attractive look. Presently, however, it was clouded by the anxiety he’d experienced over the last few days.
“It’s still early.” She stretched her long, lean body, like a Siamese cat. He watched her quietly.
“What?” She raised herself on an elbow to better see the green digits on the clock. “Four thirty!” Sheila quickly got up. Before disappearing behind the closed bathroom door, she gave another quick, happy look at her Valentine’s presents peeking through the torn gold wrapping paper on the bureau: lacy lingerie and a big oval bottle of Obsession. In her early forties, she still looked very attractive and was in excellent physical shape. When her thick, fair hair was drawn back in a tight bun, the gray eyes under her high brow looked big; their gaze was pointed, penetrating, seductive. He called her a mermaid enigma: her perfectly shaped legs made her look even slimmer and taller.
Andy wanted a cigarette. Three sharp, vertical furrows cut deeply into the skin between his eyebrows. This was the first serious urge he’d had in the six months since he quit smoking. He was thinking about last Friday. He allowed his thoughts to stray to the Hyatt’s lobby, the restaurant. He remembered every minute detail: flowers in the corner, simple dinner, the elevator’s flight.
“I’ll be ready soon. Are you going to take a shower?” Sheila was drying her hair in front of the mirror.
He took a shower, shaved, and got dressed. He was thinking about his trip to Washington. He didn’t think about the conference; in his head, he was going over and over the night at the Hyatt, before he flew home.
“Ready?” He looked at Sheila’s high heels and thought of the restaurant’s busy parking lot. It would be difficult for her to walk in the snow. “I’ll drop you off first and then park.”
“Sure.” The set of wall-to-wall mirrors reflected her eye-catching image in prospective, from large to small, like a Russian nesting doll. She observed herself one last time and, satisfied, went downstairs, stepping soundlessly on the high, soft carpet. Andy turned off the light; the mirror gave a momentary spark before it went dark.
Back in December, Andy had reserved their favorite booth at the Pomegranate. It was always crowded there on Valentine’s Day. This time, too, they waited for menus for a long time. Elegant in her deep red velvet dress, Sheila sat straight, yet her body was relaxed. A keen, confident smile played on her beautiful face.
“Where are you?”
He felt a pang in his heart, as if he suddenly feared she’d read his mind. His well-controlled facial expression didn’t change, though, when he asked, “What do you mean?”
She was cool, her gaze inviting. “You’re a bit quiet, my darling.”
His thoughts were vague and obscure. What was the matter with him? He was forty-four years old and happily married. He was always happy with Sheila. They were served 1928 Krug.
“Am I?” He found her hand and kissed it. He noticed her freshly done nails and the ring with a carat blue sapphire: her birthday present from him. “I want to drink to my beautiful wife.” He raised his glass.
“I still remember your new, aggressive approach.” Whatever liner she’d used today made her almond eyes look even bigger.
For no apparent reason, he, from whose lips words always flowed so easily, became tongue-tied. What? Again, he thought of the Hyatt. What a cozy little place it was, with the French restaurant in the lobby, across from the escalator. With her back to the exit, Candy sank deeply into the soft leather cushions. Andy remembered how all at once a strange feeling had come over him. He must’ve been curious, he concluded.
Candy and Andy had been colleagues for a few years now. She was from DC. Every now and then they would meet at company events. Andy couldn’t say why he was so self-conscious of how much their names rhymed. When people chuckled and pointed out the obvious, they found no appreciation for their professed, as they thought, discovery. Before long, Candy began introducing herself by her middle name; it didn’t go unnoticed by him. Lately, they’d been working on the same project and met via teleconference almost every week. He saw her image on a seventy-five-inch screen and so did she. In the beginning it was a slog, a royal waste of time he could never recover during his busy day.
Soon, however, things had changed; he began looking forward to these meetings. They worked off each other’s humor and business ideas. Candy was the first to join the conference and the last to log off. She always seemed small in her chair, a tad too conservatively dressed. He liked her work ethic, could always rely on her being ready for the meeting. Never too harsh, she tactfully delivered her points. He appreciated her thinking process, though he couldn’t agree with most of her proposals; couldn’t afford them, rather. They were clever, unique, but required long-term strategies he wasn’t prepared even to consider. She chose the proactive approach, leaving him to deal with putting out the daily fires and, therefore, siding with the pragmatic flank far more often than he preferred.
Since last summer he’d contemplated attending the international trade show, a prestigious annual event in DC. However, he didn’t want to miss four days in the office; after all, February was the shortest month of the year. But when he found out Candy would be going, he made up his mind to go too. If he’d been asked whether he ever thought of her outside the work environment, he could deny it with a clear conscience. And yet it would have been a lie. Maybe I’m simply curious about her, he suggested to himself over and over again. But deep down, he knew he couldn’t free himself from thinking of her so easily. As a matter of fact, he was thinking of her all the time.
“I want to try it again tonight. You think you could duplicate your . . .” Sheila moistened her glossy, well-drawn lips, “aggressiveness?” She picked up her thin, half-filled flute; he saw the bubbles trying to escape from the glass, rushing up to the surface.
“Of course.” He felt her long, sexy leg pressing his under the tablecloth.
“Madam.” A young waiter brought the appetizers. Andy looked at his big, well-decorated plate with a small crab cake placed in the middle of it. “Bon appétit.”
When the waiter left, Sheila looked around the room, cramped with a loud, well-to-do crowd. “I’m happy you were able to get a booth. I love this place.”
“I love this place.” Candy pointed at a small candle on the table.
“I don’t mean to rush you, but I drafted a response to your proposal. I have it up in my room. I thought we could look at it tonight.”
She didn’t answer.
“What do you think? Are you done with your salad?”
Still she didn’t answer but moved her plate away, indicating that dinner was over. She reached for her purse. “May I . . .”
“You may not. You had a salad and a glass of water. I believe I can afford to cover both.”
“Thank you, Andy.” Suddenly, she’d become demure.
“My pleasure. Shall we?”
It was still early and they had plenty of time to get prepared for tomorrow. She followed his lead. In the hallway, they didn’t meet anyone they knew. The elevator stopped, its ring tone a musical note fa—fifteenth floor. His room, relatively spacious and pedantically clean, had a small corner balcony. He turned on the desk lamp, plugged in his computer. She stood in the middle of the room. Neither one had said a word since they’d walked in.
“Would you like to pull up a chair? We can look at the slides together.” He wanted to help her and accidentally touched her hand. She didn’t retreat. His fingers touched her shoulder. He felt how she trembled. He could have sworn she didn’t breathe. He knelt and kissed her on the lips. She responded tenderly, unpretentiously. Was he still only curious? Yes! He was on an exploration expedition. He submerged his hand in her red hair; it was short and nothing like Sheila’s: luscious, long, full, silky. He thought he should’ve been disappointed, but he found this boyishness surprisingly endearing. He was so much stronger; an urgent desire to protect this delightful creature shook him to his core.
He put her on his bed. She was still fully dressed. And so was he. She covered her face with her hands. Unlike Sheila’s, her nails hadn’t been done professionally; she probably did them herself. Her hands were small and soft. She wouldn’t be able to lift more than ten pounds, he thought to himself. She would break her fingers. He took her cold hands in his. He wanted to warm them up. He lightly touched her stomach. The quiet sound she uttered made the blood rush to his head. She was on the bed, in front of him, so ready, waiting for him with a childlike expression. Like a box of chocolates—he was free to choose any with fillings to his liking.
“Andy, please,” she begged.
“Andy, please pass the salt.” Sheila stretched out her hand.
With immense strength, he pulled himself out of the Hyatt room.
“Your cheeks are red. Is it from the champagne or are you excited?” Sheila was in a playful mood.
“Candy, are you asking me to go on or to stop?”
“Please!” Candy carefully pushed her hand through the opening in his sleeve. He felt her fingers, how they caressed his arm, moved in sync with his muscles. He wanted to embrace her tightly, make her feel safe. She closed her eyes and bit her lip. He pulled down her leggings. Her silky skin was naturally tanned, so smooth, like cream. Suddenly, he wasn’t ready for this adventure; for one, he had no protection on him, and he was sure she didn’t either. It would be ridiculous to leave her here and run downstairs to a hotel shop. Idiot! He should’ve thought about that earlier. But he hadn’t. It all had happened so suddenly. He would have to improvise as they moved along. Maybe they wouldn’t move along. What was he doing standing here? How had he gotten himself in this situation with a woman he knew nothing about? What did he want of her? Was he in his right mind to be comparing this plain girl to his cosmopolitan, refined Sheila?
Unable to find the answers and amazed by his growing thirst, he, half-mechanically and half-curiously, unbuttoned her green shirt. Easy, no need to rush now. In awestruck surprise, he met with her lovely curves, her satiny skin, her youth; she was magnetic, sweet, so inviting. And yet he was constantly comparing. Sheila was so far superior to her. No doubt! Yet the smell of fresh soap mixed with the airy floral perfume Candy wore was intoxicating. Andy wanted to have her. Now! His fingers hurt her. She shrank and looked at him with surprise. He saw a few small wrinkles deepen her forehead.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
“You didn’t,” she lied. She was gracious, somehow dependable.
She became even more flexible, trustworthy; she seemed to indulge in following every movement of his, holding nothing back. She was unbelievably honest and responded sincerely, gratefully, without hiding her feelings. He was surprised. He was going strong and she silently asked for more. She allowed. As if she had been waiting for this moment forever. She was grateful for everything he was willing to share with her. She was giving him more than she received. More than he’d hoped for.
Andy glanced at Sheila’s steak and then stared at the mussels in front of him. They were hot, steaming. Some of them were wide open, showing their internal nacreous colors. Their delicious, delicate tongue-shaped organs were pink from the light tomato sauce. Andy loved the taste of this fleshy anchor; he would catch the juicy meat with his lips, pull it from the shell, savor it inside his mouth and, after satisfying his sophisticated taste buds, slowly swallow, together with a mouthful of exquisite wine.
“You’re salivating, honey. Start your dish; I’m almost done with mine.” Sheila openly stared at him, her elbow leaning on the table, her arm nicely curved in support of her chin. He saw how much she enjoyed watching him being unusually mellow, less controlling, almost absentminded, something he was rarely guilty of.
Andy took a spoon and pulled a few shells apart. Soaked in thick sauce, like half-opened lips, the mussels were waiting patiently for him to taste them. The pearly hinged halves had a thin, aromatic red film over them; the best way to have this dish was to start by carefully dabbing the valves with soft, warm dough. He found a pit on the ventral surface; this was where a viscous secretion exuded to form elastic threads.
Sheila saw something new in his face. This entire evening she was guessing without much success. But she didn’t mind. “I love you.” She smiled and lowered her gaze intimately.
“I love you,” Candy said earnestly.
“What did you say?”
“I love you.” Her eyes were closed.
Slowly, he was coming out of a trance. “Don’t say those words ever again. I have a beautiful wife I love.”
“I’m sorry. It was totally inappropriate.” She raised herself from the pillow and sat straight up in bed, as if he’d splashed ice water over her face. She took a deep breath. “It’s pretty late. Let me go so both of us can get some rest before tomorrow.”
She went to the bathroom. She was trying to be quiet, but he could hear she was in a hurry. In a few minutes she was completely ready.
“OK, then. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
She was about to leave when he said, “Candy. I want to have a word with you. Just for a minute.”
She didn’t answer but stood by the door in her light black coat, the hood down, her gloves on. She was wearing high heels and he thought it would be difficult walking like that in the snow.
“How far are you going? Would you like me to call a taxi?”
“Very kind of you, thank you. I’ll call for Uber. It’ll be faster.”
“Look, I didn’t mean to be so harsh. I can’t get into a relationship, especially not with someone from work. It was a mistake on my part.”
“It was my mistake. I’m sorry.”
“I love my wife; I’m a very happy man. I couldn’t ask for more. God spoiled me.”
“That’s a very sincere confession.” She smiled. “Believe me, I understand! I’m sorry. It will never happen again, I promise.”
It was dark in the room. Light was coming from the hallway where she stood. She wouldn’t be able to see him with his back to the balcony, but he saw the lit hallway and the woman standing by the door. Her cheerful voice filled him with pain. She was smiling, but he suspected she wanted to cry. He couldn’t read her well; oddly, she looked apologetic.
“ OK, then. I’ll see you tomorrow at the conference.”
“Yes. Good night.” She froze for a brief moment, as if she wanted to say something else. But she didn’t.
He had a sleepless night. He wanted to take a Tylenol for his intolerable headache, but the hotel shop was closed. In the morning, he was afraid of seeing her. She was late for the first session and then he was told she was ill and wouldn’t be coming in at all. He felt relieved. It would be awkward seeing her now. He couldn’t concentrate the entire day. He messed up his presentation and was happy to skip the last part of the conference to leave for the airport. There, he changed his flight and went home earlier than planned. The next day was Valentine’s.
He saw Candy’s image on the way home from the restaurant. His palms were sweaty, acutely aware of the rapid, tremor-like sensation coming in waves when he thought of Candy; he hadn’t been prepared for it. But he would be; he wouldn’t allow it in the future. But how much he wanted her now! Oh, how much!
“I’ll change into my new lingerie and be back in a moment. Don’t fall asleep.” He took off his tie, his cuff links. Suddenly, he was angry at Candy for messing up his Valentine’s Day. He loved this holiday; he’d been looking forward to spending it with Sheila. And now he hadn’t enjoyed it at all.
His wife came out of the bathroom in the new set he’d given her that morning. She wore Obsession. She had a stunning figure. She was sure of herself. He put her on their bed. She looked at him and then touched his legs and he closed his eyes. He’d never done it in the past. Now he did because he was afraid of himself. He imagined different hands touching him, ever so delicately, so lovingly. He wanted to hear her voice. He wanted to hop on a plane and go to Washington. Gosh! Why was it so painful? Sheila accepted his advances with pleasure. He was aggressive again, but with another woman. He touched Sheila but saw Candy’s big brown eyes. At the very end, he vaguely remembered how the waiter at the table behind Candy had opened a thick-walled bottle of champagne. Andy had watched him holding the neck and carefully removing the wire protector. She was startled when the pressure, built inside the bottle with punt[rlg1] , made the cork pop. A strong stream of semisweet, foamy liquid filled two thin, tall glasses. He was done.
Sheila was long asleep, but not Andy. He was lying in bed next to her with his eyes wide open. On Monday, he thought, he would call Candy. He’d been rude. He must apologize. He would fix everything. Now he felt better. He was thinking about her and smiling. He closed his eyes. Yes, he would call her on Monday. He heard her voice, so pleasant, sexy. When he scolded her, her eyes went dark with utter embarrassment and disappointment. He’d hurt her twice in the same night. She hadn’t blamed him, hadn’t said a word but simply walked away, disappeared. If only she was next to him now, he would . . . He fell asleep thinking of what he would do with her if she were lying in bed next to him.
Jim Meirose's work has appeared in numerous magazines and journals, including Calliope, Offbeat/Quirky (Journal of Exp. Fiction pub,), Permafrost, North Atlantic Review, Blueline, Witness, and Xavier Review, and has been nominated for several awards. Published books include: Understanding Franklin Thompson (Experimental novel - JEF pubs (Recent - deal being finalized)), Inferno (E-Chapbook - Underground Voices), Mount Everest and Eli the Rat (Literary Novels - Montag Press). Visit www.jimmeirose.com to know more.
Some Dream Washed Up onna Opium-Bed
In opium smoke, they sat, chatting.
You know, said Simon, smoke flowing from his mouth and nose along with the words. For some reason, I got this idea that the number five is very, very, important.
Really? said Parkie, taking the pipe from Simon. His drooping red eyes said, The number five? Why should that pop into your mind? Having asked the question, he brought the pipe to his lips, strongly but slowly inhaled, and as the smoke flowed down, smooth and hot, he watched Simon say, For one thing, there are five letters in my first name. I think it’s very important to think over why your name has the number of letters it has. It’s like there’s some message there that everybody goes through life and to their grave missing.
Huh, said Parkie, having removed the pipe and holding it out in the smoke cloud between them, for Simon to take. There’s six in my first name. Does that make six important and significant for me, too?
The pipe in his mouth and the smoke going down enveloped Simon, and words simmered in his lungs as the smoke did its work, and after the smoke had done its work, the pipe popped from his mouth and the exhalation came full of smoke twisting around more words said in a giddy voice as he handed the pipe back over.
—yes, it probably is, but sorry, I can’t think of anything but five right now. There’s five arms on a starfish you know. Ever seen a starfish, Parkie? I had a starfish, it was all dried out and dead, it was like something you’d put out in the table as kind of a knick-knack. When I looked at it while I still had it, it ought to have gave me a hint. About five, you know? I--
It’s not gave, Simon. The word is given.
What? Huh? Here, take the pipe—gave, given, what’s the difference?
Given is correct because it has five letters. You talk about five being so important, but then because of the opium, I bet, you stumble over a word that should have five letters when said properly, and peel a whole letter off the thing and drop it on the floor.
As Parkie took his hit of opium, Simon nodded, saying deeply, I—gee. I should have known better. I—I should have said it right. My God why didn’t I say it right? Give me the pipe—back here, give it.
As Parkie handed back the pipe, he said, Yeah, you should have known better. How do you think that poor word feels, just torn up like that—torn up just as bad as your finger would feel if somebody thoughtlessly peeled off the fingernail? Words do have feelings, you know.
Simon said nothing as the pipe was in his mouth, and he was drawing on the pipe mightily, so Parkie went on to say into the silence, Words are things, you know. Things. But you can’t hold a word in your hand. Why is that? Most other things, you can hold in your hand. Like the damned starfish that tried to give you a clue that you ignored—you felt that in your hand. But you can’t hold a word in your hand. They just get born, heard, and die into nothing in all the smoke around us. You know what I mean, man, you know what I mean--
The pipe went to Parkie’s snow white hand and with the pipe toward Parkie came words from Simon all confused and twisted saying, No, that’s not right. Words don’t die. Words come in people and make people do things; like, like--
Like the word became flesh?
The word became flesh and dwelt among us? How about that? It just flowed from the word and made a whole sentence one word came from the last and it ended up a sentence. But, the question becomes--
Let me guess. Is a sentence any more real than a word? Is that the next question?
The pipe got set on the small round table between them as Parkie answered, Yes, maybe, but damn it. Damn! This stuff is too damned strong! It’s making me crazy. Let’s go get some air. You know? I need some air—I feel damned crazy!
Yeah, me too, but wait!
Today is Friday! Fifth day of the work week! That’s important!
This is what five was trying to tell me! Friday is day number five, the day the fucking big Roman bastards march this week’s condemned criminals out to the place where they get executed! Wanna go downtown and watch them go by? Today’s Friday--
Yeah! Sounds good! But is it over? Wait. What time is it, we might be too late--
Is what over? What--
The march, the last parade of the criminals. Are we too late? What time do they do that? Get up, get up. Leave the pipe, it’ll go out by itself. I need air. Let’s go downtown and see if we can catch the tail end of the parade. See? See? Word became flesh! The word five became a nice sunny walk downtown, to watch a parade. Word became flesh! On Friday, to boot! Last day of the work week! Come, let’s go become flesh, Simon.
Right! It all adds up! We should go there—let’s hurry!
They pulled on their shoes and popped in breath mints and hurried out, Simon pausing to uphale the last wisps of smoke from the ancient huge ashtray, and out the door they went. A parade! Nothing beats a loud crazy parade! Everybody loves a parade; especially when you’re going to see some people on their way to experience pain and suffering and death. Simon, and to a lesser extent, Parkie, was afflicted with this need to see them. New ones each week. These Romans are killers. They rushed down the lane and there was not a living soul to be found. The reached the main road to town, still no one. Everybody must be at the parade. Everybody always went to the Friday parade. In this ugly place they lived, there wasn’t much else to do. As Simon walked, he began feeling bone dry thirsty. They walked on a dusty road with the heat come up in waves from the dirty blacktop. Why is it, that places that are hot like this never have cold drinks handy? Why are there not any people dashing out to give Simon and Parkie little bitty cups of tepid water like they do along the course of your average garden-variety girls club 5K race for the fucking cure, or whatever she calls herself this week? And, in river towns, they stock no fish hooks. It’s a fact, and a similar thing—as they raced along Simon blew some residual smoke as he pitterpatterraced along behind Parkie and Lord, he wanted to strip and dive into the water under the bridge they were pattering over but when he looked there was no water and no bridge. It always turns out that way when you run too fast; all kinds of things that aren’t there pop up, it’s simply no good to run too fast; it’s just going to lead you to some mosquito infested place where they’re throwing a yard party but never heard of citronella. Simon pumped his arms and pumped. This run was almost as bad as the standing still had been bad when he worked at the fucking diving board factory. Resin, up to the elbows, God—every day layering on this fabric and that fabric dripping with stenchy resin—hell to wash off at the end of the day. The skin would tend to peel off with it, and--
Simon, keep up! Keep up, will you! I see the parade. It’s on the next block. It’s coming, it’s coming it’s coming thrust pump strain your legs and at last they came out into the thronging crowd and pushed between big men, saucily, and there it was; the parade, all flowing.
Simon stopped, eyes bugging. Thank God they had come here. There was the guy he had heard so much about, thank God he had come here. He wanted to see the guy; the holy guy his old pal turned in, ratted out on, finked over to the cops. This holy guy; at least his next door neighbor Fred had told him about the holy guy, and walking there, between the soldiers in their fancy dresses, there he was. Yes it was the holy guy he heard was around, but; the man was now all beaten and broken and soaked in blood, dragging this big wood thing he would die on. And, Simon’s opium flashed him back a while to when he had been smoking with his old pal, way before, when his pal was trying to get Simon to join the Sicarii back in Cyrene.
It’ll be fun, the old pal said into the smoke up between them. You join, they give you a dagger, and you go and find crowds to mix with and attack Romans or Roman sympathizers, blending into the crowd after the deed to escape detection—it’s great fun!
They had laughed and laughed but of course, when the time came to join up Simon finked out on his pal and never went to the signup meeting. His old pal did though; and his old pal never ever spoke to him again, he was so pissed—and Simon never knew if he ever actually stabbed anybody because they never met or smoked or pissed into the bushes again after that, and, oh yes, his pals name was, what? The tip of his tongue spit the name. Right. The old pal’s name was Judas, and the paper said the other day he had turned in the holy guy that was wandering all around doing his thing, hurting nobody, but that right now was carrying that big heavy black wooden thing down the cobbles, going with a couple other thugs with the Romans to where they’d be hung up to dry out to death all naked, in the sun. Simon’s redeyes bugged; funny how everything seems connected somehow. Funny how things come and pull you in and suck the paying attention out of you while you are stopped dead in your tracks. Parkie and Simon buzzed up to the curb, and the rude Roman soldiers passed right in front, their garlic and olive oily stinking greasy faces scanning the crowd; and, this fat one, this gross one, this one with the filthy uniform who never heard of hygiene, locked his eyes on the gawking sky-high Simon’s ice cold face, and pointed crying out loud to the huge gaping Romans trudging all around.
Hey, look here guys! Look—this guy by the road here—look at his God-damned eyes! This is an opium guy! Hey! Hey, look! Two opium guys--
Simon heard nothing, he was watching the skinny holy man stumbling along under the great weight almost collapsing and being helped along by the soldiers to keep moving, he was beat up really bad, blood all over, he was beat up real bad and weak as could be—you could tell it. He’s on his way to nothingness, thought Simon—he’s going down, down, down--
That guy! There! He’s stoned out of his mind! Hey guys, how ‘bout we spoil his trip a little. Hey guy, there you—we are gonna spoil your trip a little here and now--
Simon always secretly fantasized about becoming the fifth horseman, or the fifth truth, which was death and nothingness, when he used to smoke with his old estranged pal Judas, and God, God damned him, he had gone and made all this shit happen--
The Romans converged and pulled at Simon’s sleeve but he was away, lights out, all turned looking inside at the past, and didn’t know.
—yeah something about there really needing to be a fifth horseman of the apocalypse—his pal knew a guy was writing up some big novel draft called Revelation that he couldn’t get published in this life, but he knew would hit it big when the time was right, but not in his lifetime, no never in his lifetime; but there was this flaw, you see. One missing horseman--
You! You stoner! Come, come—we got a job for you! The trip of your life! Like opium, do you? Hey you were with a pal—hey, where’d your big blonde California pal go--
Parkie had melted back into the crowd when he saw the Romans come plucking at Simon’s sleeve; he saw them coming, he got away. He went back to the hut and crashed. Too much he had had. His day was over. But, now, Simon was alone; they pulled him off the curb and a filthy soldierface came so close it actually merged with his and it yelled inside him, it was that close—You! Come out here! Come on out, join the fucking show! exploded in Simon’s head.
Woken up, and yanked off the curb, he stumbled and turned into the Roman, pulling and shouting and stinking of garlic, who said, You want a trip? We’ll show you a trip, we will—come on out in the street, asshole, and join our parade!
It was then Simon saw the window, above, open in the sky, shouting down, shouting down, shouting down; the cry of a woman, way,way, up—opium she was, yes, was. Sure. Opium lady. Totally from the back of his mind came her words, must be so, because windows don’t float in the sky. She whispered to him not to worry or be afraid, because he was really home in bed. This was all the opium. All no more than a dream which will in time, fade. So he decided to relax and flow downstream. The crying of the woman poured down on the throng all dissolving in the shouting of the Romans and the buzz of the crowd lining the road seven deep on both sides, all buzzing buzzing, with the woman crying, My son! Lord! Please help me find my son! Please let me know I really have a son! Please help me know! Help me as you are about to be helped through your suffering! My son’s name is--
Over here! shouted the Roman, pulling Simon up off the bed with a set of huge rough filthy fingers, but somehow, he remained safe lying down as at the same time he was pulled out into the street directly below the old woman’s shouting.
—please let me know I really have a son, or if I am all alone here waiting for someone who will never come--
Simon rolled in the soft silken opium-bed as the Roman shoved him up to the blood-soaked skinny weakening condemned holy man walking the bedfoot, and the Roman pulled out Simon’s hand and ran the palm down the great rough wooden side of the huge beam the weakening holy man was nearly collapsing under. In that one powerful swipe down the woody mass of prickles and splinters and stabbing sharpness Simon’s hand filled with masses of brown splinters covering the whole of his palm. The pain came. The pain was coming so to stop the pain he pulled the bedcovers up higher and shut his bloody eyes tighter as he was shoved by the Romans under the great beam, pushing aside and replacing the holy man who had been carrying it, and he was told by the Roman, Now keep moving! Carry this to the end! He is too weak, and we need to go faster. No more stopping! We need to get there today—so carry the damned thing!
—Lord, lord, that pious man has stepped forward to help you, see? So, now look up at me since your burden has been lifted and help me please, please, in the same way--
I—I don’t think I can do it, Simon choked out from under the covers. I can’t hold this it’s too big and too heavy and--
A Roman whip from nowhere came across Simon’s back, slashing him up under the beam and so he began to obey, yes he better obey, so he walked. He kicked at the bed covers all warm underneath and tucked in tighter to the dream to hang on and be able to obey the Roman, with no pain. Must always obey the Romans, everybody knew—they all have license to kill anyone on the spot if they are disobeyed. Every day it happens in this town. Right out in the open. In front of little kids, and all. He walked, the beam bumping along dragging over the rough cobbles. Eyes shut tight, he followed the sound of dragging he was making happen behind him. The old woman high above prayed and prayed on.
My lord, my lord! Please give me a sign that I do indeed have a son! I need it, I need it. His memory is getting too hazy, almost gone—if he never was than I have spent am spending and will spend all of my life totally alone!
Simon walked. The covers were warm. Head down, he opened his eyes and the cobbles flowed by, that’s all he really needed to see. The cobbles flowing by were everything that was and the bed grew too comfortable and the mists in his mind began to solidify into the words from above and the Roman’s and the people lining the streets, intertwining around him.
—alone, my Lord, I cannot bear a life of loneliness--
—move fast! Faster now! We have to get there someday, you ass--
The bed wrapped all around him, saying from the sides of the road, words; there he is! Yes, it is the one! We have heard of him! Why have they condemned him? Why him? Why?
Why him, my God, he is a good man. No.
The bed. The cobbles.
Why is he condemned—he healed people, he helped people, he asked nothing--
Simon relaxed down easier into the bed of cobbles with the cover pulled up to his chin, as they told him at last what they really thought of him. Really, really—Simon was a good man.
My Lord, my lord and my God, cut through the heart of the good man’s dream. It felt good to know this was just a dream; like when you dream at night totally paralyzed terrified by God know what and it suddenly dawns, yes, this is a dream. The dark room begins to appear around the sleeper. The sleeper’s in a half-dream now. Pain flowed up vibrating the wood, from the rough cobbles. Pain forced up from the rough sheets. The sheets and the cobbles and the half-dream and the walking and—the mud and the blood and the beer--
Music, yes! Let all things turn to music.
Lord help me as he is helping you--
—the mud and the blood and the beer--
Lord—what—where is Parkie? We were sitting here smoking and here has now become this, whatever it is; all of walking and cobbles and whipping and shouting. Where on earth has Parkie gone? I need to smoke. A new dream is coming and I need to do more dreaming-smoke or this terror will become real, and—that will never do! Parkie!
You, shut up! Keep walking!
No, that will never do. So I’ll just roll over in bed here.
—the mud and the blood and the beer--
Keep walking! was the only voice. The slash of the whip, and, Keep walking!
This terror becoming real no will not ever do I’ll just roll over in bed here until sunrise.
Every dream has an end and the ends stop at sunrise.
The sun rose in him, as the wonderful shining dream set beneath the edge of the sweet engulfing but quickly dissolving, opium dreaming bed that drifted toward the end of the road with everything else that was seeking to get there. The sun came up shining over the now-empty street; the whole procession and following throng had moved on. So the window drifting far above went away also, away with the rest of the long night that was over, and, the old alone woman turned moving to the next in the series of windows on her wall, that she had put there to to see through, pray from, and hope into. This sort of thing seems to happen every day.