Issue 12.4

Three Poems – Spring 2019

By August West

*

Arms rise: tongues

in dark

 

voice night

rooms, song broke

 

from ground

so quick, what

 

we said of fear—

your hands, each

 

bone, soft

warm counting.

 

 

 

 

*

as he handed me a drink, he began to hum a song
and all the boys there at the bar began to sing along
—Lowell George

 

 

…I feed sparrows and

I feed hawks

 

 

in mist dark

bloom

azalea, spin

 

vine, almost

not quite

sideways, that

 

concrete

 

*

paint, tar, no soap:

clouds know—

 

drums first, click

the roof

 

of your mouth—dance

blue water

 

*

end stage :first day

of school

 

got you crying

—a drop of

 

morphine for

your tongue, swallow

 

air, see you there

 

*

…tan pants blue

jacket white shirt

 

little blue, mother

shopped for you

 

*

in advance, can’t

tell which

 

you get—scrub

the cellar late

 

night, bitter

stalk discarded

 

animal fat, red pepper

we eat.

 

 

 

 

*

Spoon don’t

know what

mouth, bee

say where

the flower at

 

ghosts: too

damn many

Don’t snuff

that wick!

want smoke

 

a crush of

marigold

tomato stalk

rain sweet

the shell

 

and bone

dog bring

big medicine

Oh, Mary

there’s a baby

 

on the stone.

 

___

Nothing, beyond folklore, is known about August West.

 

Twelve Selected Poems – Spring 2019

By Simon Perchik

*

Lost and you watch the sun worsen

already falling as the nights

too weak to warm your shadow

 

though you read only in the afternoon

crouched under this kitchen table

with nothing on it that could sag

 

and without a sound weigh too much

let you open the mail, return to life

the window left in this small room

 

–you can tell from the stamp

it’s easy to fear

–so frail is its darkness

 

only your hands can be seen

holding your forehead, pushing it back in

to remember where you live.

 

 

 

 

*

By yourself though the sun

still needs more water –all that land

dried for just one afternoon

 

sent back alone and every morning now

you let the coffee try, boil

the way this table is spreading out

 

become the dirt for what’s in store

ready made as that small mouthful

that swallows you whole

 

to look for thirst inside a cup

side by side this one kept full

as if it was at home.

 

 

 

 

*

And though this pillow is enough

you still come by at night

safe from sand and salt

 

–with both elbows on the bed

your clothes in a heap

–what you can’t say

 

is soaking in sea grass

and her clothes too

no longer moving, piled close

 

for encouragement, lift your head

–on a dark bed, stroking an empty dress

Mickie, Mickie, Mickie

 

as far as it can reach

with her hand over your mouth

one sleeve at a time.

 

 

 

 

*

You no longer dig for shadows

as if this hillside depends on you

for water –what you hear

 

is trapped between two suns

one circling the other till nothing’s left

but the afternoon and beneath

 

letting its pieces fall off –you dead

are always listening for the gesture

the lowering that sweeps in

 

those pebbles mourners leave

as words, overflowing, certain

now is the time –it’s not the time

 

this dirt is afraid to open

become a rain again, be a sky

let it speak by throwing the Earth

 

and over your shoulder, eyes closed

though there is no grass

and your arms a Weber, Miller, Marie.

 

 

 

 

*

Even as silence you dead

favor knots, brought here

the way each grave is tightened

 

counts on constant gathering

and the arm over arm

that hold the skies together

 

as if some nesting bird

would fly out from this hillside

and leave behind its wings

 

spread-eagle, letting go

those small rocks mourners bring

for your shoulders –you want rope

 

not for its name but the weight

still taking shape inside, kept empty

and all around you the lowering.

 

 

 

 

*

Wobbling on rocks and salt

scented with little goodbyes

–you’re drowning in wood

 

–don’t fool yourself, this door

can’t save you now, it’s filled

with corners still into the turn

 

already seawater and on the way down

a warm face though talk won’t come

is hiding in back your mouth

 

naked, afraid your lips will move

as the silence the dead adore

without leaving the room.

 

 

 

 

*

It was a brook, had names

though these bottom stones

are still draining, passing you by

 

before letting go the silence

that stays after each hand opens

–you dead are always reaching out

 

–end over end unfolding your arms

the way each star ends its life alone

in the darkness it needs to move closer

 

become the light in every stone

as the morning that never turns back

keeps falling without any mourners.

 

 

 

 

*

It’s grass growing on the mirror

and every Spring more smoke

blacking your teeth –the dress

 

looks like hers, tossed off

piece by favorite piece and death

not yet shoulders and hips

 

–without a fuss she is touching you

though you are moving closer

as the lips that wait inside

 

and smoldering –it’s half a mirror

hardly enough for its kisses to fall out

look at each other and the afternoons.

 

 

 

 

*

You lace one shoe with thread, the other

as if this wooden spool could be held

spin end over end and hold you

 

by the hand, let you feel her body

no longer moving as the careless tug

in all directions at once –you learn

 

to limp, to hear dirt struggle

and the step by step as if it could escape

not yet leaching in your hands.

 

 

 

 

*

You gargle the way each morning

trusts the soft rustle from a dress

becoming dirt, set out on foot

 

looking for her in shadows

that no longer move though the sink

is covered with something weak

 

making believe it’s learned where

your fingers are holding the bottle

in a place not even it will remember

 

how empty your mouth is, lost

day after day spitting into the Earth

that still opens when you whisper to it.

 

 

 

 

*

You water her grave with words

–they never dried, were written

at night, sure this stone

 

would rot inside the note

though you don’t fold your arms

–what spills has eddies, swells

 

shorelines reaching into the Earth

no longer certain –this stone

doesn’t recognize itself

 

is growing roots, sags

becomes a sea, the bottom

holds on, unable to stand

 

or come closer, cover her

without seeing your fingers

or what it’s like.

 

 

 

 

*

Hiding on this tiny rock

its light is falling arm over arm

brought down as hammer blows

 

and mountains clinging to the sun

the way mourners will gather

and aim for your forehead

 

–it’s not right for you dead

to lower your eyes once they’re empty

–they have so much darkness

 

are still looking for tears

and all around you the Earth

splitting open a single afternoon

 

up close –you are touching seawater

without anything left inside

to take the salt from your mouth.

___

Simon Perchik is an attorney whose poems have appeared in Partisan Review, Forge, Poetry, Osiris, The New Yorker and elsewhere. His most recent collection is The Osiris Poems published by boxofchalk 2017. For more information including free e-books and his essay “Magic, Illusion and Other Realities” please visit his website at www.simonperchik.com.

To view one of his interviews please follow this link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MSK774rtfx8

 

Culling Keepsakes

By Mark Belair

“it is complete but never finished”
W.S. Merwin, The Same River

 

writing

 

a photograph

 

A faded

magazine photograph

 

of an old man

in a torn coat

 

wrapped in a blanket

on a sheetless

 

rooming house bed

staring out

 

with Samuel Beckett eyes

was the first thing—

 

culling keepsakes at sixty-four—

I discarded.

 

Back when I cut it out,

I saw him

 

as an end-of-life

incarnation

 

of my blank, solitary, start-of-life

self.

 

I kept

that stark photograph

 

 

for forty-six years

as an icon

 

of the cost

of not changing, of not

 

writing my way out of blankness

or of

 

writing deeper into it

with bogus-Beckett eyes.

 

I had my own eyes.

 

And had to silver a page

with words

 

that would mirror them

to me.

 

writings

 

I put down text—

personal essays, screenplays, a novel—

 

that functioned, in retrospect,

as the fired up

 

bricks of my meandering

path.

 

Each brick, each time, in time,

extracted from exposure

 

and stored; bricks

now rattling around

 

a dump truck

on their way to be pulverized.

 

My path of text

set, finally, with small stone

 

poems I noticed

and dug up

 

from the hardscrabble

ground.

 

notebooks

 

Not diaries, but notes

I kept as I came of age.

 

Not thoughts of the day, but

thoughts to metabolize.

 

I made no ceremony

of their dispossession.

 

Cut me

and I bleed them.

 

drumming

 

gear

 

Of music, a supreme art, I made

a humble trade that required tools:

 

if you want to gig as a drummer,

you need gear.

 

But with my trade course run, the gear

now ties up scarce apartment space

 

and all I need to keep are a small set,

some cymbals, and a few pair of sticks.

 

 

And even the set, in time, will go,

though not the handful of sticks

 

that somehow rim-shot-survived; sticks

dented as my grandfather’s, whose sticks—

 

handed down to me by my dad—

formed me as a boy: I could

 

hold what my long-departed grandfather

held in the way only musicians playing

 

old instruments can, the past and present

collaborating in our hands.

 

The future

of my grandfather and me

 

to be entrusted

to a bag of our blended sticks

 

that will keep

what we kept

 

alone and together:

some time.

 

drum parts

 

With their performance use past, the need to

keep my annotated drum parts is past, too.

 

The printed parts are publicly available;

the markings in a code only I can use.

 

Unlike recordings, live performances—

the bulk of my career—soon become

 

history, polish up to the fading story

of one sonic movement through time;

 

one that leaves no evidence

but for relics

 

like the parts interred and decomposing

in my storage closet.

 

The hope I cling to—as I fill

bag after bag for recycling—

 

the wishful one

that when it counted, when

 

the demands

of each musical passage

 

were presented—

above all, the demand

 

to make its spirit

unforgettable

 

even when I knew

its body

 

(the night, the place, the players)

would be forgotten—

 

I did

my part.

 

transitioning

 

calendars

 

I keep them for reference—

my old calendars and address books—

 

though I never open their storage box

but to place another one in.

 

So I keep them, I guess, for sentiment;

keep them because

 

all the gone days

of my adult life

 

have a little square

in the calendars

 

and all the gone people

have a number

 

I once used

to reach them.

 

Keep them to

free me

 

from keeping

within me

 

a vanishing

past

 

of growing

weight.

 

a log

 

It was a life log

I kept

 

of dates and facts,

notes

 

heralding

the beginning

 

of promising

things

 

whose end

dates

 

went

unrecorded

 

because

their promise

 

drifted

off,

 

while middles

of things

 

appeared

without the context

 

of a start

and finish,

 

and some

endings

 

earned

notation

 

but their starts

and middles

 

stayed

unmarked

 

because

unremarkable at the time—

 

entries

of hard dates

 

soft on truth,

a log

 

that failed

to tell my life stories

 

though telling the story

of how I lived.

 

paintings

 

It was summer, we were newlyweds, and

stoked by this plunge into adulthood (we

 

were both twenty-one) I stood painting

in the yard outside our first apartment.

 

My wife came out and stood behind me.

“What do you think?” I casually asked.

 

After a gracious pause, she chirped,

“Think of all the things you can do!”

 

I laughed, and that was that: easel, paints,

brushes—all donated or thrown away.

 

But the paintings—though inept—

I kept.

 

Not as art, but as symbols of the start of

what turned out to be a lifetime’s search

 

for the mode of rewarding work

most mine.

 

Now those paintings

are gone.

 

Because after an ever-embarking, faith-and-doubt-dancing,

curlicue quest

 

I finally

took my wife’s advice

 

and did—

as best I could—

 

what

I could.

 

cursive

 

As if having been

crunched, stretched, then twisted

 

beyond recognition—

therefore impenetrable

 

to others, and, after

twenty seconds or so,

 

to me—

my handwriting, creeping

 

into its later life,

seemed well past keeping.

 

But through trial and (mostly)

error,

 

it ended up remediable

by assuming the look

 

of later life itself: smaller,

but more legible.

 

 

attire

 

Dumped into a donation

bin: bags

 

of barely worn clothes

but for a stash of blandness—

 

t-shirts and jeans—

that makes me disappear.

 

These I keep.

 

Best not to be of note

if a poet

 

who wants to note

and make note.

 

the cardboard box

 

The cardboard box—its contents (if memory serves)

random as a memory bank—has been shut for years.

 

This box of keepsakes—from my childhood

and beyond—collected by my mother.

 

This inherited box whose flip top, since her death,

has been impossible for me to open.

 

I know it holds a red-checkered cowboy shirt and some

grammar school report cards; I don’t recall what else.

 

Mementos that, if self-chosen, I could edit with ease.

But these were my mother’s selections.

 

Yet with all my other keepsake culling done—a chore I don’t want,

some future day, to impose upon others—the time has clearly come.

 

So I take the box down from the high shelf

in the storage closet and open the top to see

 

memorabilia from my music career, artifacts closest to when she died:

concert programs, tour itineraries, posters, other random souvenirs.

 

Then come clippings from earlier years: yellowed newspaper or magazine

articles, photographs, advertisements, reviews.

 

Plus a newspaper with its banner headline reporting Richard Nixon’s

resignation, news right up there, at the time, with a man on the moon.

 

Next my youth and childhood appear: graduation diplomas, those unimpressive

report cards; then Confirmation, First Communion, and Baptismal certificates.

 

And a posting, in the local paper, announcing that I—and many others—

had been discharged from the hospital that day; I’d had my appendix out.

 

Small town life.

My mother even saved a hospital menu with my name penciled on it.

 

Then comes the list of boys, in her handwriting, who made up the two teams

that played baseball at my ninth birthday party—Yanks and Pirates—and

 

every name stops me: Dicky Sody, Freddy Machuga, Linny Carey, Bruce Echigary,

Eddie MacDonald, Joey Greco, Kevin Sullivan, David Keepin, Phil Nibeolo, James Hayes.

 

And each boy’s bright face returns; and even their taut bodies since we boxed, wrestled,

and played sports most every day.

 

Getting toward the bottom, another list appears, this of my kindergarten roster.

No name rings a bell.

 

But the first crayon drawing I brought home, so marked by my mother, is

here: a bold, colorful flower captioned in scrawling, childish letters with:

 

“FOR THE BEST MOMMY IN THE WORLD.”

Then a shock.

 

I don’t remember dropping this in when I got the box, but slipped down

to beside my red-checkered cowboy shirt—indeed it is there—appears

 

my mother’s smiling face

above her obituary.

 

And my tears burst forth, tears boxed up for years,

tears for this woman whose overwhelming presence

 

dominated my early life and kept me

bonded to her up to this difficult day.

 

Then next to that, on the cowboy shirt, sits

something I had forgotten about, something

 

she placed, perhaps, as a way to reach out

on this inevitable day of keepsake culling:

 

the toy handcuffs—dulled from use—

I’d attach—after mock-arresting her—

 

to each

our wrist.

 

a continent

 

It feels as if I’ve landed, for the first time, in Paris—the sky cloudy,

the cafes inviting, the language not strange, but not one I’m fluent in.

 

The past

an ocean away.

 

Feels as if I’ve arrived to

find myself drawn to

 

cobblestone streets, old churches, weathered bridges, mossy monuments.

The newer brilliancies I hardly see; they hardly see me.

 

Feels as if I’ve alighted as a foreign tourist in this country

of my own later years, disoriented, yet pressed to use this

 

scant time with its wealth of hours

to learn the local ways

 

and to reflect upon—

so dream-keep—

 

my homeland continent,

one that seemed

 

unspectacularly—

even subtly—

 

to break off and—

with no passage

 

back to it—

drift away.

___

Mark Belair’s poems have appeared in numerous journals, including Alabama Literary Review, Atlanta Review, The Cincinnati Review, Harvard Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Poetry East and The South Carolina Review. His latest collection is Watching Ourselves (Unsolicited Press, 2017). Previous collections include Breathing Room (Aldrich Press, 2015); Night Watch (Finishing Line Press, 2013); While We’re Waiting (Aldrich Press, 2013); and Walk With Me (Parallel Press of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, 2012). He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize multiple times. Please visit www.markbelair.com

Gift of God

By Ron Singer

At thirty-four, I’ve hit the jackpot, a five-figure advance for my first book! “Five?” you sneer. Hey, I’m not a serial writer of serial-killer thrillers. Nor am I about to quit my day job as a Special Ed. teacher. And who knows? This job could become the basis for Book #2. But, as my own H.S. Latin teacher would quip, “That’s putting Descartes before Horace.”

Not only was the amount of the advance inadequate – 10K – the terms were sobering. As my agent put it in a text (translated):

 

Hey, Bob.

Good news (fairly), a 10K advance from Carnivore, one of the 27 publishers I pitched your book to. Remember them? The small outfit in Omaha? “No Fat, No Gristle. Just Books!”

Before you run out and spend the money, however, you should read the fine print (contract attached). The gist is that, after Carnivore covers costs, including the 10K, you get 15% of sales. As I said when I took the book on, “This could sell, in which case you could make some real money.” But, if I were you, I wouldn’t count those chickens yet!

 

I took her advice, even to the point of not spending $100 to replace my worn-out shoes. To give you an idea of the kind of person I am, these are the shoes worn by many restaurant and hospital workers, people who, like me, are on their feet all day. I believe the most common epithet for them (the shoes) is “sensible.”

As for the book, the title says it all: GO TO THE HEAD OF THE CLASS, A SLACKER’S PROGRESS. “Oh no, not another memoir!” Let me try to disarm that gibe by quoting from the Preface:

 

This is a story of unmerited redemption. As a sixteen-year-old, to cite one among many mortifying experiences, I was escorted, falling down drunk, from the premises of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. My ejection was caused by having glugged the entire contents of a pint bottle of bourbon while simultaneously contemplating the Rembrandt masterpiece, “Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer.”…

 

Nowadays, cold sober, I am a Language Arts teacher in a four-person team at a middle school in the south Bronx. In addition to their special learning needs, my thirty-two wards labor under handicaps that include second-language interference, and the psychological burdens inflicted by our current political leader’s relentless attack on the foreign born (which almost all of my students are)…

 

How, you ask, did I get from Point A to Point B? This is not the story of a heartwarming conversion experience. None of my friends died, none emerged from our youthful excesses as hopeless wrecks. Nor did I get religion, or dry out in Alcoholics Anonymous. No, my own reform was triggered by a sequence of events much less predictable and yet, in its own way, at least as dramatic as any of the above…

 

In the weeks after receiving my agent’s text, although I only shared the good news with a few of my closest friends, it seemed as if the whole world knew. For instance, a few days after returning the signed contract (and not buying the shoes), I got a note from the Managing Agent of my building, informing me that they would not be reimbursing me for a leak in my apartment which I had had fixed. To quote his pithy explanation, “To qualify for re-imbursement, you would need to have employed a licensed plumber, which you did not. Therefore…” That’s what I get for trying to save my fellow shareholders a few dollars! Doesn’t the M.A. know what “co-op” means?

Of course, that note may just have been a coincidence, but other communications were more obviously the fruits of my sudden access to fortune. These included offers from sharks who prey on lottery and lawsuit winners; appeals in a newly fawning tone from charities and political orgs; letters from people I could not remember ever having known, calling in favors I could not remember ever having incurred; heartbreaking solicitations from long-lost friends and relatives; threatening notices from collection agencies; offers from banks and credit-card providers that were too good to refuse; and semi-literate solicitations from fictitious entities in the poor world, to the effect that I would be guaranteed a windfall, simply by remitting the sum of …

Worst of all, I received a dire appeal from the brother of one of my own students. This came in the form of a long, handwritten letter, sent by snail mail to my school address. Anticipating that the letter’s many errors might make me sound like a racist, I silently correct them:

 

Dear Mr. “Bob” Shepard,

I believe you are the teacher of my brother, Raimundo Suarez. I am Emiliano, age seventeen. The reason I am writing this letter is that my parents don’t know English, and Ray would be too embarrassed. Yes, this is a letter requesting monetary assistance. Please don’t throw it away, it is very important to us, even a life-and-death matter!

Could you find it in your kind heart (as Raimundo has told us you have) to grant to my family a loan of a certain sum? This sum is $500.00, which I know is a lot of money, but which we will work very hard to re-pay you.

The money will be used to engage the services of a lawyer to fight the deportation proceedings that the government has begun against Raimundo! The notice they sent us says that the reason (as far as I can understand it) is that he was not born not in this country, but in the Dominican Republic (“D.R.”), and that my parents have lived here for a long time without doing what is necessary to make the family’s status legal. I did not really understand the details of this letter, but it also said something about the difference between what they referred to as the “DACA” and something called “The Dream Act.”

The lawyer, whom we met through our cousin, Jaime Sosa, himself a U.S. citizen, said we could beat the deportation, but the cost would be $500, the sum already mentioned. This lawyer also said the money must be delivered in cash to his office, which is 74-11 82nd Street, Jackson Heights, Queens.

If you can find it in your heart to advance this sum to us, we will be forever grateful. Please reply asap, because Ray is due in court in less than one month’s time. If you can bring the $500, I will meet you in front of the lawyer’s office, at a time convenient for you, possibly in the evening. His office is very close to a stop on the #7 subway train.

Bless you, sir, even for reading this lengthy letter! I hope to receive your reply a.s.a.p.

Your faithful student’s brother,

Emiliano Z. Suarez

 

One reason I found the letter touching is that Raimundo is one of my favorite students. A good-natured thirteen year-old, he typically responds to a question by throwing his cowlick back off his eyes, licking his pencil, and producing, in tentative, broken English, what is usually a correct answer. He calls me “Sir.”

The letter also evoked an episode from my own past. Fifteen years ago, when I was a nineteen year-old sophomore at a small, second-tier liberal arts school in New England, I engineered what may have been the most outrageous of the many pranks for which I was notorious. It involved moving the grand piano of a prestigious fraternity – they had not invited me to join – onto the lawn behind their building, via large French doors, and then filling the piano with chicken manure, purchased at a local farm-supply store.

This was obviously not a solo prank. Also involved in lugging the piano and manure bags onto the lawn, at 3 a.m. Friday morning of Homecoming Weekend, were five other students, including a combined Pre-Med/Liberal Arts major from Nigeria named Jeremiah Ogochukwu. “Ogochukwu” means “Gift of God” in Igbo, Jerry’s first language.

Despite our inebriated state, we had to do this job silently, neither stumbling nor laughing. Even so, the long and short of it was that we were caught. A presumably insomniac professor, out walking his pooch, spotted us and called Security. After we had been apprehended and separately interrogated, punishment was meted out.

To quote the Assistant Dean of Students, himself a recent graduate of the College, “Since none of you clowns is smart enough to cough up the name of the joker whose brilliant idea this was, you’re all getting the same punishment.” This was suspension, without a pro-rated tuition refund, for the remaining semester-and-a-half of the school year. Not to mention that we had to pay the costs of having the piano cleaned and fumigated.

That was fine with me and, I imagine, with my four American fellow-slackers. But it was not fine with poor Jerry Ogochukwu, who, soon after the suspensions took effect, lost his student visa and was deported. As he said when we were shamefacedly seeing him off at Logan Airport, in Boston, “At least, now, I get to enjoy my mother’s pounded yam again.”

As it happened, Jerry’s homecoming took place in 2003, six months after Nigeria attempted to resolve its endemic unrest through a Presidential election. As usual, the voting triggered an outbreak of protracted ethnic violence. Whether or not Jerry somehow fell victim, I never learned, because he never replied to my communications, and later, in the Internet era, I was unable to identify anyone on social media who sounded like him.

In other words, by the time I received the plea from Raimundo Suarez’s brother, I had harbored for fifteen years a sharp sense of guilt over the deportation and – who knows, possible death – of another innocent victim. This episode was a turning point in my life (and Chapter Four, in my book).

 

After wasting the weekend pondering Emiliano’s plea, I arranged to have coffee with Sarah Blau, the Social Studies teacher on our team. Sarah is also a volunteer for the National Sanctuary Coalition, an organization that assists immigrants. (Like me, she is in her thirties, but married, with two children. I am still unmarried, and currently without a partner. I explain all this to forestall any idea that the story is about to take a romantic turn.)

After school on Tuesday, when we were settled at a back-corner table of a local café with our coffees at the ready, I thanked Sarah for meeting me and showed her the letter. A furrow crossed her brow.

“Well, Bob,” she said, with a sigh, “this is complicated.” Sarah’s speech is measured, even slow. “First of all, DACA is not the same as The Dream Act. DACA defers deportation of children illegally brought to the U.S. The Dream Act permanently legalizes their status. Both laws are now in limbo, because the current administration is doing its damnedest to thwart them.”

While I fidgeted with my spoon, she scanned the rest of the letter. “Hmm! Very interesting. Assuming you’re willing to pony up, can you really afford the $500?” I told her about my advance, and she congratulated me. “Even so,” she said, her brow furrowing again, “if I were you, I’d be very careful. I mean, I like Raimundo, too. He’s a sweet boy, tries really hard. But, as I’m sure you know, there are lots of clever scams out there.”

I thanked her again and said I would try to follow her advice. When we had finished our coffees, I grabbed the check. As we parted on the sidewalk, she said, “Let me know what you decide to do, Bob. I’m really curious.”

After a restless night and a hard day’s teaching, on Wednesday evening I replied to the letter –in the affirmative. I sent my reply to the return address on the envelope, which I knew was the Suarez residence. In another back-and-forth, also by letter, Emiliano and I agreed to meet at the lawyer’s office, at 8:30 the following Thursday evening. I did not inform Sarah.

 

After climbing down from the subway platform, the first thing I noticed was that the storefront office was shuttered. Then, seemingly out of the shadows, came a tall, slender young man who I assumed was Emiliano. I was surprised by the fact that he wore much flashier and more expensive-looking clothes than any I had ever seen on Ray. A little shamefaced about my act of charity, I did not want to prolong the transaction. So, after we had introduced ourselves, shaken hands, and agreed that the office was obviously closed for the night, at his suggestion I wordlessly handed over an envelope containing five $100 bills. Without counting the money, he thanked me profusely. We shook hands again and walked off in opposite directions.

 

After spending most of the ensuing weekend second-guessing myself, on Monday I ate lunch with Joan Ligori, a mid-level administrator at the school. (Like Sarah, Joan is married. I don’t know whether she has children.)

“Oh, no, Bob!” she said, when I told her what I had done. “Not you, too!” She took a deep breath. “Fasten your seatbelt! Emiliano Suarez is an eighteen year-old serial scam artist who has served time in a juvenile detention facility. I found this out last year after he pulled exactly the same scam on me! Same amount, even! Like you, too, I fell for it because I knew and admired Ray and the rest of his hard-working, law-abiding family. Emiliano turned out to be the glaring exception. (Is ‘black sheep’ still politically correct?)”

“Did you report the scam to the police?”

“Well . . . I decided not to. I mean, I could afford the loss, and I didn’t want to hurt the family. I did try to get Emiliano to meet me again, so I could demand a refund. Ha! I left several vaguely threatening messages on the Suarez’s answering machine, but he never called back.”

 

Lunch with Joan took place the day before yesterday. (The school lunch on Mondays is chicken potpie – not bad.) It was time to decide what to do. Should I go to the police? Tell the parents? Ask Raimundo? I imagined a conversation in the classroom during passing time, when the room is normally empty.

“Uh, Ray, I need to ask you something.”

“Sir?” He would look nervous.

“Has your family received a letter lately from the Immigration authorities?”

He would look alarmed. “No, no one has mentioned such a letter. Why do you ask?”

“Has Emiliano mentioned anything about hiring a lawyer?”

The boy’s puzzled expression would be sufficient response. I did wonder if Emiliano’s lie would hold up. If the parents noticed that he had a lot of extra money, I suppose he could tell them he had won the lottery, or something.

After more handwringing, I decided to follow Joan’s example, for the same reason: fear of hurting the family. Sarah had mentioned a case in which an undocumented immigrant had been stopped for a routine traffic check. Since he was using a friend’s license, the police reported the stop to the Immigration authorities, and the poor guy wound up being deported.

No, I would swallow my loss and hope that, at least, it would repair my karma for the deportation I had caused. Come to think of it, maybe Emiliano had read about that episode in the manuscript of my book, which Ray had borrowed after I boasted to his class about the advance.

A few weeks passed. Then, the other day, I received a text from Adebayo Ashiwaju, another Nigerian from College days. ‘Bayo, who had not been a participant in the piano escapade, now lived with his family outside Harrisburg, PA, and worked as Regional Sales Rep for a big-pharm company. His text was a response to the question I had asked him repeatedly over the years, whether he knew what had become of Jerry. Again, I translate:

 

Dear Shepard,

Greetings to you, my friend! Through the Old Boys’ network, I have finally obtained an answer to your question, “What ever became of our erstwhile fellow-student, Jerry Ogochukwu?” I will summarize this interesting story:

It seems that a family rift during the 2003 troubles led to a name change. “Jeremiah Ogochukwu” became “Jeremiah Olubunmi,” which, in my own Yoruba tongue, has a similar meaning to the original: “Gift of God.”

When conditions were finally normalized, Jerry was able to complete his medical studies at the University of Ibadan, in our home country. He has since risen to become Managing Director of a Catholic teaching hospital in Aba, an important city in his own eastern sector. By now, Dr. Jeremiah Olubunmi is what we Nigerians call “An Important Somebody.”

 

After all those years! What a relief! Even so, I’m not sure the good news means I should try to resume contact with Dr. Ogochukwu/Olubunmi. Maybe, he still resents what happened. Or maybe, by now, he has completely forgotten me.

Never mind! The rush of recent events has produced at least a few good results:

 

1. I just ordered the shoes,

 

2. leaving me with $9,400 of my advance,

 

3. plus the idea for a new book, after all – or, at least, a story,

 

4. for which I may soon have additional material, since midterm reports and parent conferences are coming up,

 

5. and, finally, I am about to text Katie Khokhar, an attractive, unmarried colleague (Math & Science), to ask her out.

___

“Gift of God” is one in a series of poems and stories that Ron Singer (www.ronsinger.net) has recently written in response to the current global wave of xenophobia. Singer also volunteers for the New Sanctuary Coalition, a group that helps immigrants. His fiction has previously appeared, e.g., in The Brooklyn Rail, diagram, Evergreen Review, Home Planet News, and Word Riot. (Four Pushcart nominations.) His 11th & 12th books are due from Unsolicited Press. The Promised End (2019) is a story collection; Gravy (2020), a mixture of genres. An earlier book, Uhuru Revisited: Interviews with Pro-Democracy Leaders (Africa World Press/Red Sea Press, 2015) is available in libraries across the world