Stories

The Talon’s Grip

by Townsend Walker

 

prawled on the path, her pale skin, cherried lips, and ebony curls pressed against the green mossy stone. A lilac evening dress draped on her. I stared at the corpse. Turned, and saw the husband, seated nearby. A dark haired fellow, clothed in a silk dressing gown and velvet Albert slippers, appearing to enjoy the patter of rain, the scent of mown grass, and the blush of rose petals in early morning, only occasionally glancing at his wife’s body.

“Sir.” I tried to focus the man’s attention. “I am Detective Chief Inspector Turney.”

“Ironic,” Richard Carlyle said, “Irene dead, unable to share this splendid morning.”

An early call from the station had awakened me at home.

I tried again to shake Carlyle from his reverie, “Sir, when did you discover your wife’s body?”

“Oh yes, well I arrived home last evening before she did, woke to find her missing from her bed, searched the house, combed the grounds, then came out here. She rather favored this small garden, you know.”

Carlyle spoke little, perhaps mindful that when one speaks, one often says too much.

“Why hadn’t you come home together?”

“Happened often. Different tolerance for jollity, that sort of thing.”

There were no marks on Irene Carlyle’s face, hands or shoulders. The gown was not ripped or stained. Her face betrayed only an expression of slight surprise. The medical examiner peered closely, said, “Nothing to indicate violence or death by other than natural causes. We’ll know more, early afternoon.”

Carlyle pointed to a slate blue falcon resting on a post at the end of the garden. “Irene’s. Named her Mabel. I find few women are content without an interest, it matters little what—flowers, be they roses or hydrangeas; animals, horses or dogs; or friends, card playing or shopping—as long as pursued avidly. My wife found hers in falcons.”

“Excuse me sir, but your wife is dead, most unexpectedly. She’s lying here in front of you, and you are talking about birds.”

“Yes, the bird business started after she had been up to London one day. At the Wallace, she saw Vernet’s An Algerian Lady Hawking.” He turned toward me. “Have you seen it? Um, perhaps not.” I feigned indifference at the implied slight. “It portrays a woman in a flowing gossamer blouse, astride a magnificent white steed, seated on a crimson saddle, with a bird on the hand. This became Irene’s new self-image.”

There was little point continuing the conversation. Reality had slipped from Carlyle’s grasp. I told my men to trawl the house and grounds for clues. Carlyle requested only that they complete their work in the small garden first. He intended to do some pruning and talk to Mabel about the morning. “Figuratively, you understand, Chief Inspector.”

“I’ll be leaving one of my men here Mr. Carlyle, to keep an eye on things and see evidence is not disturbed.”

*      *     *     *     *

I returned to Pembroke Hall a little past one. In the house white flowers replaced the multi-hued ones there this morning. Carlyle was sitting at a small table nibbling on cheese and slices of cold beef. A bottle of claret caught the light, perhaps a glass left.

“Sorry to disturb your lunch, but I thought you would be interested in the medical examiner’s preliminary findings.”

“I was reminiscing about the times Irene and I vacationed in Morocco and India. That lovely hotel with the tiled arcade in Marrakesh, the chalk white inn above the caravan route at Ouarzazate, the palace in Jaipur with peacocks performing at breakfast and a subterranean blue and gold mosaic lined pool. One misses those things. Since the bird arrived a year ago, those adventures have been curtailed. Haven’t been anywhere.”

“Your wife died of asphyxiation. Most likely, someone smothered her. The examiner found some bluish discoloration around her mouth and nose, something we didn’t observe in this morning’s light. Also, congestion in the nose and sinus–typical in these cases.”

“So she stopped breathing.”

“Was stopped from breathing, sir.”

Carlyle nodded.

“And it seems she had consumed a considerable quantity of alcohol.”

“Not unusual.”

“May I ask about the relationship between you and your late wife?”

“We lived together.”

“Is that all?”

“What more can one say?”

I stared out the window and saw a deer crossing the lawn. This chap seemed two biscuits short of a tin. “Tell me, Mr. Carlyle who would want your wife dead?”

“I haven’t the faintest idea. None whatsoever.” Carlyle paused. “I don’t suppose that affair in London could have come back to haunt her. You remember, some ten years ago, the financier Sir George Bagot, Defense Secretary Thomson, and the showgirls. She was Irene Scarletti then.”

I did recall the scandal about government funds finding their way through a sham insurance company for a military project outside of Cairo. “We’ll look into it, but after this time, I’m sure most of the actors have moved on.”

I made to leave, put my hand in my pocket for the keys and came on some papers. “Oh, by the way, my people found these papers crumpled in the bookcase. Something from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Do you know anything about it?”

Carlyle turned, leaned forward, glanced at the paper, then shrugged. “Only that Irene was quite keen. I’ve never seen it.”

*      *      *     *     *

Carlyle’s preoccupation with the falcon was bizarrely out of place. I rang up a Mr. Elliott, a falconer of local repute. According to him, Irene Carlyle had devoted hours to Mabel: manning (acculturating to humans, becoming accustomed to the falconer, learning to associate food with the glove). Then training to hunt: the jesses and creances. Finally, she bought a telemetry transmitter for free flight hunting.

“She was uncommonly proud of that bird. When Mabel killed her first pigeon, her mistress had a taxidermist mount one of the prey’s wings. All that was left.” The disapproving curl of the lip was audible over the phone.

Elliott had been present at a recent meeting of the local chapter of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds when Mrs. Carlyle walked in. The plight of the northern harrier was being discussed. The impending loss of its habitat in Scotland to building speculators aroused the birding contingent.

“The lady pledged some millions of pounds against the purchase of land for a sanctuary. As if the sum were a pittance.” Days after the meeting, Elliott was still unable to recount the event without stumbling over his words.

Mrs. Carlyle, on the other hand, was promptly promised (“though not guaranteed,” Elliott noted) a presentation to the Queen and an O.B.E. for her generosity. Her Majesty is patron of the RSPB. After hanging up I put Sergeant Oliver Sellman, one of my brighter lads, up from Cambridge, on the trail of the Carlyle’s finances.

Next morning, I came back to the Hall with more questions. Could Carlyle prove he came directly home? Never left his bed until morning?

No, he could not corroborate his movements. He recited events as they occurred: he and his wife went to the ball. Sipped champagne. Danced. Dined on pheasant. Played cards (he, whist, she, bridge). Heavy stakes at the bridge table required she stay longer and so he left and went home to bed.

“The Moncrieff’s, I believe it was Sara, or perhaps Hugh, I’m not sure who, volunteered to bring her home.”

“Did you sleep soundly?” I asked, wondering how natural the reply might be.

“I did. I’d been riding earlier in the day with some younger fellows and they rather extended me.” Carlyle sat back in his chair, thinking I’d be satisfied with the reply.

“Their names, please.”

“What? You doubt me?” Carlyle sat up, as if on horseback.

“In cases like this, we need to verify everything. Speaking of which, as your wife seems to have been suffocated, we’ll be sending the cushions and pillows in the sitting room and library to the laboratory in London to examine them for fingerprints and fluids.”

“Why London?”

“Very special equipment. Quite new. The materials are placed in a vacuum chamber, gold is heated up and spread like a film over the fabric. Then zinc is heated. It attaches to the gold where there are no fingerprint residues. The fingerprints are revealed as the fabric. Somewhat like a photo negative.”

*     *     *     *     *

Sellman stumbled into my office, a jumble of chairs, filing cabinets, and chalk boards, all dominated by my large wooden desk piled high with folders and papers. The walls were covered with some of my water colors of the Lake District. I’m a keen hiker and amateur painter. Not poor, I’ll admit. A few ribbons at local shows.

“I persuaded Mrs. Carlyle’s solicitor to share with me the principal terms of her will.”

“Good show, Oliver.”

“A small annuity to Mabel. Jewelry to her sister. The flat on Eaton Place, number 31 (three units in addition to one under the stairs) and five million pounds in Treasury bonds were left to her husband. And, the contents of a safe deposit box and numbered account in a Swiss bank to a woman in Bologna.”

“Someone connected to the Thomson affair, I presume,” the Inspector mused.

“And I know you’re not interested and it’s probably not relevant,” Sellman rushed on, “But I found out that number 31 has a bit of a history. Alan Lerner wrote the lyrics for My Fair Lady in the maisonette on top and Jeremy Thorpe, the Liberal leader, kept the under stairs flat as a chamber close for his liaisons with other men.”

“No, not relevant, but an interesting sidelight, if one is fond of the West End, or politics.”

“Yes sir.”

“The amount on the RSPB pledge form would have left Carlyle a poor man,” I reckon. “I wonder if he could have held on to Pembroke Hall.”

“I suppose he was aware of the pledge.”

“Elliott, the falconer, was there when the pledge was made. He was under the distinct impression that it was a spur of the moment thing on her part.”

“So it would appear that since, or because of, the death of his wife, Mr. Carlyle is without a financial care.”

“It would.”

*     *     *     *     *

As I walked up the path to the Moncrieff’s manor, the scene of Mrs. Carlyle’s last party, I heard shouts and cries from inside. I rapped on the door, wasn’t heard over the barking man and bawling woman, rapped again, finally pushed the door, found it unlocked, and hesitantly stepped into the foyer. Sara and Hugh stood at opposite ends of the space framed by tall wooden arches, open mouthed, red faced, whirling their arms, hurling invectives at one another. As they caught sight of me, they quieted.

“Perhaps I should come back at another time?”

“Please, do come in.” Mrs. Moncrieff swept her welcoming arms towards a nearby room. “You’re here about our dear Irene, I’m sure.”

Sara Moncrieff was a tall willowy woman, chestnut hair, and freckled, more and more apparently as the angry red drained down to her neck and chest. I noticed her arms, the prominent musculature of a horsewoman. We went into the library where we sat another around a low mahogany table.

“Something to drink, Chief Inspector?” Moncrieff offered heartedly, as if to a long lost friend.

“Water will be fine.”

“A sherry,” she said.

Moncrieff returned balancing a tray with my water, his wife’s sherry, and a tumbler of whiskey. He offered a sharp contrast to his wife: short, stocky, bright blue eyes, and broken-blood-vessel ruddy cheeks.

“Before we talk of the night of Irene Carlyle’s murder, what do you know about them?”

Sara Moncrieff started. “I heard Richard found her somewhere on the Cote d’Azur, lying low after the scandal in London. You know the one I’m talking about?”

I nodded.

“It was the perfect match—she was pretty, vivacious and had a bundle, apparently a payoff. He was landed gentry in a quiet spot of the country, sophisticated, with a manor going . . .” she paused.

Her husband barged in, “Say it, dammit woman, Pembroke Hall was going to ruins.  The disgrace of the county.”

This confirmed what Carlyle told me and what I’d picked up from an internet search and talking to others in the village about Pembroke.

“The night of your ball, Mr. Carlyle said one of you offered to drive his wife back to Pembroke. He had left earlier.”

“You have it turned around, Chief Inspector,” Moncrieff said, “She left first. Richard wanted to stay on.”

“I see. But, which of you drove her?”

“Was it you Hugh darling?” with an emphasis on ‘darling’ that suggested the contrary.

“Don’t you remember, it was you, old girl?” he snapped.

“Why it was. I remember now. I had to help poor Irene up the stairs and ended up setting her down in a chair in the library. I simply couldn’t carry her further.”

“Did you see anyone?” I asked. “She was found in the garden.”

“I know, poor thing. No one, but then I’d drunk a bit more than usual.”

“Than what, darling?” he interjected.

“Than usual. So you see Chief Inspector, a thing or two may have escaped me.”

“Or many things,” Moncrieff added.

“Darling,” she insisted, “we have a guest.”

I stood up and walked about, to create a different mood. “So it appears you were the last to see her alive.”

“Oh dear, I hope I said something nice to her.” Sara Moncrieff twisted her hands as if perhaps she hadn’t.

“I’m sure you did,” her husband said. “You are always considerate and sweet tempered to the wives of your male friends.”

“Especially in these times,” she said.

“These times?”

I lost the thread of the conversation.

Moncrieff leaned forward, face flushed a second time from having consumed a tumbler of whiskey. “Our Irene had become quite batty these recent months.  First the falcon, then the affectation with all those gauzy dresses. She’d become one of those bloody 70s hippies, back to nature, communing with birds, money the root of evil sort of thing, except when it came to that damn falcon.”

“Poor Richard was beside himself,” Mrs. Moncrieff added. “The money to run Pembroke was hers, and though she put a million or so into it when she arrived, it forever needs repairs.”

“Ah yes, poor Richard, who must be at every function we hold, so extraordinarily handsome, such a conversationalist, life of the party, according to my Sara, who knows him intimately.”

She got up from her chair and walked to the end of the room. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“I’m not sure it is relevant to the Chief Inspector’s enquiry,” he said.

“What do you mean, Mr. Moncrieff?” I asked.

She offered, “What Hugh means is that he thinks Richard and I are having an affair.”

“And you’re not.” I said.

“The very idea!” she shot back, outraged by her husband’s insinuation, but not exactly denying it.

Moncrieff lowered his lids over his eyes, slumped in the chair, and mumbled.

“If there is nothing more, I’ll be leaving,” I said. “Please let me know should you decide to leave the county for any reason.

“Let me walk you out to your car, Chief Inspector.”

At the car, Moncrieff proffered, “Something you should know about Richard’s property deals. He’s a clever sort, especially at cards. He’ll be in the middle of recounting the most wickedly funny and salacious story, seemingly paying no attention to the game, and then turns five winning tricks in a go. But from what I’ve heard, he’s been terribly unsuccessful freeing himself from his dependence on Irene’s money. Never a detail man. He never says anything, but his type always resent relying on others.”

“His type?

“The land poor upper classes at middle age.”

*     *     *     *     *

I went over to Pembroke in the evening, finding only one of the servants about, a young maid named Mary, a rosy cheeked, fair complexioned lass. Carlyle explained that his wife was most keen on having staff live in the village, not at the Hall, but last night he’d been uncomfortable in the large house and proposed someone might stay a week or two while he became accustomed to the quiet.

“Everyone begged off the duty, except young Mary here.”

I’d seen Mary around town and overheard my young constables chatting about her. Last summer she’d blossomed. Noticeably. And her spending went more to lipstick and eye liner than larger blouses. When Mary brought us whiskey and sodas, Carlyle’s languid eyes, and her mincing step suggested there may have been more to Mary’s duties than answering the door and cleaning.

“One more thing before I go. The night of the party, the Moncrieff’s seem to think that your wife left first.”

“Curious. I looked around and someone that told me she was caught up in a game of bridge.”

“I don’t suppose you’d remember who told you?”

Carlyle cocked his head in a “no.”

I walked toward the door, and as a last minute thought, asked, “Tell me, what were the relations between Mr. Moncrieff and your wife? Anything more than good neighbors?”

“I rather had suspicions of something going on between them.”

“And you and Mrs. Moncrieff?”

“Really, Chief Inspector. You’ve been watching too much Downton Abbey.”

Mary showed me to the door. As she opened it, I asked her, “We understand from the RSPB that they sent a letter by Royal Mail Sameday to Mrs. Carlyle the morning she died. Did you see the letter in the post?”

“Well, the Mister was there beside me when the post arrived and took it, actually he more like grabbed it from me hand, said he’d deliver it to the Missus.” She reached for my hand, “Sir, about . . .” And then Carlyle called her from the library. “Later,” she said, in an urgent whisper.

*     *     *     *     *

The next afternoon, when I walked into the station, Sergeant Sellman was there typing up reports. “Oliver, grab a cup of tea, one for me and let’s see where we are.”

“So, who wanted her dead?”

“Her husband, so her money didn’t go to the birds.” Sellman knew me better than to add literally. “Add to that the RSPB pledge form he claimed he knew nothing about, despite having grabbed it from Mary.”

Sellman looked back at his notes. “Then there’s Sara Moncrieff, a rival for Carlyle’s affections who might have wanted her out of the way.”

“And/or might have wanted retribution for the alleged affair between her husband and Mrs. Moncrieff,” I thought. “Or, welcomed an opportunity to switch husbands and enjoy Mrs. Carlyle’s money. Hugh Moncrieff is a bully, in addition to being borderline alcoholic.”

Sellman looked up at the ceiling and shook his head, “You know, sir, I don’t understand these people, their affairs.”

“Simple, my boy. Life can be quiet in the country.  When we lot want a bit of fun, we go down to the pub for a pint or two. That lot, they go up to the bedroom for a shag.”

“Both of them had an opportunity to smother her. Didn’t take much, given her condition. But we haven’t found the cushion or pillow that was used. Those we sent up to London for testing came back with only the servants’ prints on them.”

“Oliver, talk to Mary. Find out if she found anything amiss the next morning during her cleaning rounds.”

“My pleasure, sir.”

“Not so fast. If you’ve noticed, and it’s hard to believe you haven’t, this young girl is aching to get out of the village. From my experience, there are two ways, the right way and the wrong way. She appears bent on the latter.”

*     *     *     *     *

Sellman later reported that he found Mary at the chemist’s. “May I ask you some questions about your former mistress?”

“It’ll cost ya a tea and scone.”

They went to Bea’s Tea Room. I know the place, cozy with lace curtains, butter yellow walls and floral print chair covers. Mary said the day Mrs. Carlyle died, as every day, she counted the pillows on the chairs in the main salon and found one missing.

“She was quite particular, was the lady, didn’t trust a soul. Thought everybody was out to pinch something from her. Such a habit counting I had, even though she were a gonner, I did it anyway.”

“And did you find it?” Sellman said he nearly leaped across the table with hope.

Justified, when Mary said, “It was days later, stuffed into the linen closet, of all places. So put it back where it belonged, didn’t I. Now the others were brought back.”

Sellman bribed Mary with another scone and she took him back to Pembroke to recover the pillow.

*      *     *     *     *

After the tests on the new-found pillow were in, Sellman and I drove out to Carlyle’s house at day end. No one answered our knock. We opened the door and went through the house into the garden. Carlyle was stretched out on the chaise with a drink, Mabel on his arm. The setting sun ignited the yellow roses climbing the east wall. The remains of a cold plate and bottle of wine were on the table. A man at his ease. We watched him savor his last minutes of freedom. As the sun fell behind the wall, a murmuration of starlings traced wide circles in the evening sky.

Mabel sounded “kak, kak, kak.”

Carlyle loosened Mabel’s jesses and flung the bird into the sky. She climbed slowly, high above the starlings, wheeled, then dove and struck.

___

Townsend Walker draws inspiration from cemeteries, foreign places, violence and strong women. A novella in noir, La Ronde, was published by Truth Serum Press in June 2015. Some seventy-five short stories have been published in literary journals and included in ten anthologies. He has received two nominations for the PEN/O.Henry Award; first place in the SLO NightWriters contest, second place in Our Stories contest. Four stories were performed at the New Short Fiction Series in Hollywood. He is currently writing a screenplay based on La Ronde and a novel based on original collage works of Beverly Mills. His website is www.townsendwalker.com

Everyone Must Do Great Things

by Eric Rasmussen

 

e could all tell, right away on the first day of Hjalmar’s freshman year, that he would grow up to be either president, or a super villain genius. In the teachers’ lounge at lunch we compared notes on the new kids, and Hjalmar received the most analysis. We speculated about his full suit, with vest, and his strange, almost British speech pattern. In World History he shared that he had taught himself Italian over the summer. In Calculus II, surrounded by seniors, he discussed how he intended to test out of the class at semester and start taking math courses at the university.

In Health, I got the story of his name. During the first time through the attendance list, most of the kids told me what they wanted to be called, “Josh” instead of “Joshua,” that sort of thing. When I got to Hjalmar’s name, I chuckled.

“Hjalmar Vilgot Lindblad,” I said. “Not much you can do with that, is there?”

“It’s Hjalmar Vilgot Lindblad, the fourth,” he said. “My great-grandfather was an admiral in the Swedish Royal Navy.”

“Cool,” I said. “So, Vilgy then? H-Blad?” A few students laughed. “Hjalvil?”

“Hjalmar will suffice,” he said, face flat, like he was choosing what type of potato he wanted with dinner. “Thank you.”

Four years later Hjalmar stopped in my room one day after school and sat in the same desk he did as a freshman, with his back impossibly straight, the knot in his tie impeccable, his feet crossed at the ankle and his hands folded on the writing surface. But this time he wore an expression I had never seen from him before. He was confused. “I assume they did not do it on purpose.” He paused and stared up at the ceiling while his Rhodes Scholar brain ran through all the possible explanations for the insult. “But I am unable to imagine a situation in which it could have been an accident.”

I leaned on my podium, sighed and shook my head. “I don’t know, man. I’m lost, too. I hope it wasn’t on purpose, but, you never know.” I smoothed my own tie, which was wrinkled and threadbare and covered in old yogurt stains.  “Most people are jerks. Maybe they were trying to get back at you.”

“For what?”

“You’re going to be a wildly rich uber-genius, and most of them are going to struggle to get through community college.”

“Everyone has always been quite nice to me.”

“Graduation’s just around the corner. Maybe it just occurred to them.”

The yearbook lay open on the desk between us, and under his picture and his ridiculous name was the offense we were trying analyze. H-blad had submitted an appropriately brainy and intellectual quotation, which would stand out amongst his classmates’ nuggets of wisdom courtesy of Dr. Seuss and Harry Potter. “Face the facts of being what you are, for that is what changes what you are,” by Soren Kirkegaard, translated from the original Dutch. Instead, what they printed, in all caps, was a little less profound. “MONEY, CASH, HOES – WHAT!” by the Kirkegaard of modern hip-hop, Jay-Z.

If Hjalmar felt offended, or embarrassed, or upset, I couldn’t tell. He looked lost. He could handle the sorts of high-level calculus problems that most of us mortals would never understand, but this problem stumped him, and not knowing the answer was a strange feeling for him.

“Do you know how it happened?” I asked.

“I spoke with Mrs. Gerhart, and she showed me the printed proofs with the correct quotation.” Hjalmar shifted in the desk. It was too small for him. It was too small for all of them. “That means someone must have altered the digital file after the final edits were entered.”

“Aren’t there thirty kids in the yearbook class? That’s a lot of suspects.”

“Students were locked out of the folder as soon as the revisions took place. Only staff members had access to it after that point.”

“Yikes.” Warm May afternoons always made my classroom too hot. I loosened my tie, wiped my forehead, and unstuck the shirt clinging to my back. “So a student must have used a teacher’s computer then.”

“That is the conclusion I came to. And there is nothing to be done. Almost two-thousand copies were printed.”

“I’m really sorry.”

“It is fine.”

High school stood for so many different things to so many different students. For some it’s the best four years of their lives, for others it’s the worst. A couple of them meet their future spouses in the brick hallways, and everyone finds a lifelong enemy or two. A lot of kids count graduation as a huge accomplishment. Not Hjalmar. For him, high school was a nuisance, a hoop, and maybe the other people in the school hated him for it.

I sat down in the desk next to him. “There’s something you should think about.”

“What’s that, Mr. Brunner?”

“How you want to get back at them. How you want to make them pay.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Hjalmar stopped back later that week, and he did everything I suggested, without question or objection. It’s what made so many people love him, and it’s what made so many people hate him.

“The first thing you need to do,” I told him, “is to show them that this little stunt didn’t harm you at all. You need to prove that you found it just as funny as they did.” Hjalmar sat in the desk in the front of my room and took notes, with perfect penmanship, perfect order, perfect lines. When I paused he looked up from his leather portfolio and hundred-dollar pen to smile, but not in a demeaning or conspiratorial way. The turn of his lip and his eye contact were simply courteous, a small act to let me know that he heard what I had to say and respected the communication. He used the same look freshmen year in Health class when I stood at the front of the room and explained the effects of illegal drugs, or the food pyramid. At first it made me nervous. Later I found myself preparing more for Hjalmar’s class period, practicing my lectures in my head over breakfast and on my drive to school. Not much after that I grew to hate Hjalmar’s stark, unflinching attention.

“I have a few ideas,” I said.

“Should we be talking about this?” asked Hjalmar. “Should you be worried about your job?”

I laughed. It was a mad scientist laugh, much louder than I meant. “No,” I said. “Absolutely not. No one pays attention to what I do. My job is totally safe.”

“I understand,” said Hjalmar. “I would love to hear your ideas, Mr. Brunner. Thank you.”

On the Tuesday after Memorial Day, six days before the end of the school year, Hjalmar finished his lunch of carrot sticks and a peanut butter sandwich, wiped out his plastic containers, and repacked them in his spotless insulated lunch bag.

“Excuse me,” he said to the people he ate lunch with, his chess club and Academic Decathlon teammates. Maybe they were friends, or maybe they all just served as resume window-dressing for each other. “I have a task to complete, so I shall speak with you all later.”

Hjalmar disposed of his empty milk carton and his napkin in the garbage can as he left the cafeteria. He nodded at the assistant principal who leaned against the wall. “Good afternoon, Mr. King,” he said.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Lindblad,” said Mr. King. “Good to see you.”

“You as well.” Hjalmar walked down the wide hallway to the main office. He straightened his tie and ran his hand through his hair before opening the heavy door.

“Hjalmar!” said one of the attendance ladies. No one in the school liked Hjalmar more than the attendance ladies. He brought them homemade fudge at Christmas and scented candles for Secretary’s Day.

Hjalmar placed his hand on the counter and looked the attendance lady in the eye. “Did your granddaughter’s ear infection clear up?”

“Yes it did, thanks for asking,” she said. She moved her computer keyboard to the side of her workspace and leaned towards Hjalmar. “And I have to say, I am absolutely flattered you invited me to your graduation party. I never get invitations to those things.”

“I would be honored if you could attend.”

“Of course I’ll be there. Can I bring anything? Your poor mother is going to be swamped trying to feed everyone.”

“That is very kind. But we will be fine.”

“You sure? I can put together a seven-layer salad.”

Hjalmar rested his hand on the attendance lady’s. “You have already done more than enough for me over the years. Please let me say thank you with the party.”

“Of course.” She straightened in her chair and shivered her shoulders.

“The reason for my visit,” he said, “is that Mr. Brunner believes he forgot some papers in the PA room. May I go in and check?”

“Absolutely.” The attendance lady handed Hjalmar the key on the long chain that hung next to her station.

“Thank you,” Hjalmar said. “Have a fantastic day.”

“You too, dear.”

Hjalmar passed the attendance desk and entered the short hallway back to the administrators’ offices. He unlocked the door to the room where the ancient announcement equipment sat stacked in the corner. He flipped every tiny knob that corresponded to every room’s speaker to “On.” From his Italian leather shoulder bag he removed an unlabeled compact disc and placed it in the old CD player they used for the school fight song and the pre-recorded messages from the superintendent. He pressed the gummy play button, then switched on the microphone. Silent as his smart kid math class during test time, he rested the microphone on the table in front of CD player speakers, grabbed his bag, and left the small room. On his way out, he mashed a ball of firm modeling clay into the lock on the door.

“Thank you very much,” he said with a nod as he handed the key back to the attendance lady and left the office with plenty of time to walk to his sixth hour class.

It was a brilliant plan. Thirty-five minutes of silence preceded the song, more than long enough to cause all the morons in the office to doubt Hjalmar’s guilt. They would figure out he was the last person in the room, but they would never believe that he would mastermind such a prank. Someone else must have snuck into the PA room. Some other hooligan must have found a way.

Halfway through sixth hour, while all the students slumped in their desks and fought to stay awake during the lectures and movies and small-group activities, while all the teachers stood at the fronts of their rooms and talked as if what they had to say mattered, as if whatever of value they had to offer the world hadn’t been co-opted years ago by Youtube, the song exploded into the school at full panic volume. Mr. Jay-Z sang about fucking all the haters, his good friend DMX joined in to discuss his willingness to shed blood for his niggaz, and the whole building awoke into a beautiful chaotic dance. The students smiled and straightened up and bounced in their desks. The teachers ran to their phones to alert administration to the crisis, or they ran to find something to cover the loudspeaker, or they ran back and forth across the fronts of their rooms, unsure of what to do but convinced they had to do something.

Down in administration, Mr. King burst out of his office. “Give the me the god-damned key,” he shouted at the attendance ladies, who rushed to bring it to him. He attempted to unlock the door, but the clay made that impossible.

“Someone jammed the lock,” he said.

“What should I do?” said the attendance lady.

“Hell if I know,” he said. “Get a paperclip so we can pick it out.”

They failed to unlock the door before the song ended. The whole time Hjalmar sat in his AP Chemistry class and continued to take notes. I didn’t have a sixth hour class, so no one got to see the look on my face.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

“Next, you have to make them all suffer a little,” I said, and this caused Hjalmar to look up from his portfolio.

“But I am certain this was the fault of only a few students,” said Hjalmar.

“A few students acting on behalf of your whole class.” I shook my head like this news was as painful for me to say as it was for him to hear. “This is super awkward, but you’re on a different level than all of them. Even if only a couple of them are responsible for switching the quotation, I guarantee every single one of them laughed when they saw it. They all thought you deserved it.”

“I am not willing to hurt anyone.”

“Of course,” I said. “No, for sure, we’re not talking anything illegal. It’s not like you need to shoot up the school!” I laughed, Hjalmar did not. “But you have to do something.”

Years before they hired me, the principal made a deal with the senior class. If they agreed to no senior pranks, no skip days, no big attendance or behavior problems, then the school would host an amazing all-night graduation party. And that party was incredible. Fully catered with live music from bands the kids actually listened to. Everyone who attended got a prize, hundred-dollar gift cards, electronics, all the way up to the grand prize, which was a car, a full, real, working used car, donated by one of the auto dealers out by the highway. The whole community came together to put on this unbelievable send-off for the graduates, and all they had to do was not make any trouble.

“You need to let them know that no matter how jealous they are, they can’t get away with treating people like they treated you.”

Thursday afternoon, four days before the last day of school, Hjalmar drove his spotless Range Rover two towns over to buy chickens. The farmer normally charged fifteen dollars apiece for the birds, but the old man was so impressed with Hjalmar’s polite demeanor and genuine interest in the intricacies of the corn-planting season that he sold the four hens and a rooster for only forty bucks. Hjalmar put the birds in an old dog kennel in the back of his truck and returned home.

At 2:45 in the morning, Hjalmar’s alarm went off. He dressed all in black. He drove to the school and parked back behind the auto shop, where the overhang above the service door was just low enough to climb on with the assistance of a stepladder. Before scurrying up to the roof, he tied one end of a rope to the top of the dog kennel, and clipped the other end to one of his belt loops. He pulled the kennel up slowly so he didn’t upset the birds. They clucked softly when the swinging of the cage found too big an arc, but Hjalmar’s world of lines and vectors, of forces and acceleration helped him calm the movement before each pull upward.

The center of school featured a courtyard that used to hold picnic tables, until the custodians got sick of picking lunch garbage out of the grass. One summer they landscaped the green space into a Zen garden, and locked the doors. Getting the chickens in the courtyard was easy. Hjalmar tossed them from the roof and they floated to the ground in a flurry of feathers and nearly vestigial wings. Hanging the sign in the garden where everyone would see it was quite a bit harder.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

No one noticed until first hour had nearly ended. Birds flew into the courtyard all the time, and the sign was so well done that it looked like it belonged there, like it had been there the whole time. But as soon as one student noticed the chickens pecking through the bushes, all the students in all the rooms that surrounded the yard rushed to the windows like a flock. That was when they all saw the sign, pleasant and inoffensive but more than clear enough to implicate the trespassers. “Good morning, Harrison High. Thanks for the ‘eggcellent’ four years! Love, the Seniors.”

The real show started in the middle of second hour, when both assistant principals, two maintenance guys, and the ag science teacher tried to catch the birds. They chased the animals, bent at the waist with arms out like toddlers chasing stray balls. One of the maintenance guys fell whenever he tried to turn a sharp corner, his fingers inches away from one of the bird’s necks. Some of the teachers in the surrounding rooms fought for their students’ attention, but they lost. For nearly an hour, all of second and well into third period, the spectators picked their favorites, man or beast, and cheered or booed at the close calls. The strictest disciplinarian teachers shut their shades, but there was nothing they could do to block out the noise of the crowd.

I didn’t have a courtyard room, so I gave my second hour class a worksheet and excused myself to the Spanish room to watch. Hjalmar had English second hour in a different part of the building, so he didn’t get to enjoy the show either. In person, at least. Dozens of videos of the circus made it online by lunchtime. But Hjalmar was back in his desk at the front of my room at the end of the day to hear the principal come on the loudspeaker.

“I hate to do this, but we have a tradition here at Harrison, and that’s something we need to take seriously. Due to the incident in the courtyard this morning, the senior post-graduation party has been cancelled. I repeat, the senior post-graduation party…”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

“And most important, you have to show them that you’re not ashamed. You know who you are and you’re proud and you’re never going to let them bring you down.”

Hjalmar leaned back to think, and he came up with the exact right answer, like I knew he would.

“I could use my valedictory speech at graduation to deliver that message.”

“That’s a fantastic idea. Hjalvil for the win!” I leaned over to give him a high-five, and he hit my hand so hard it reverberated through my shoulder. Hjalmar apparently didn’t give many high-fives. “You need to let them know that you are the only one in that whole fucking auditorium who is going places. You are the only one who will succeed.” I wanted to take his pen and just write it for him. “Right? You need to let them know that whatever big plans and dreams they have aren’t going to come true. Yours will. Theirs won’t.”

“What if I title the speech ‘Everyone Must Do Great Things’? And then discuss how most of them will fall short?”

“That’s a great idea,” I said. “A really great idea.”

The graduation ceremony took place on Wednesday evening. The whole ridiculous pageant looked like it did every year. Pictures on the lawn, hollow thank-you hugs and handshakes for all the teachers. Girls in wobbly high heels and boys in too-tight ties. Mothers dabbing their eyes and younger siblings asking when they could leave. At 6:00, the crowd found their seats in the musty auditorium. The band played, the principal talked. Before the mind-numbing procession of diploma handouts, Hjalmar stood up from his seat amongst his classmates and walked to the stage. The crowd clapped for him, not long, not loud, but respectful. A more deserving valedictorian had never walked across that stage, and probably never would.

He stood tall and smiled. He didn’t bring any notes with him, because a person like Hjalmar doesn’t need notes. When his classmates were little kids imagining themselves hitting homeruns and winning beauty pageants, Hjalmar had been picturing this speech. He cleared his throat and began.

“In a few minutes, we will all graduate, and we will all embark on our journeys into this world. Some of us will travel far, others will settle closer to home. As we begin the incredible work it takes to build our lives, I would like to share something I have learned during my four years here at Harrison High, and especially over the past few weeks. Maybe happiness is not found in a resume full of accomplishments, in a long list of titles. Maybe happiness is something we find in people and in connections. Perhaps this is contrary to what we have been told, but my advice to all of us is this: Not everyone must do great things. Our greatness will be measured by the people we affect.”

I didn’t hear the rest of the speech.

The principal made all us teachers stand outside the auditorium after the ceremony in a big receiving line, and I found a place at the end. Hjalmar came out last. He shook my hand and gave me his politician smile.

“What happened in there?” I asked, lowering my voice so the English teacher standing next to us couldn’t hear. “That’s not what we talked about at all.”

“I wanted to let you know, Mr. Brunner,” Hjalmar said, still holding my hand tight, “that I used Mrs. Gerhart’s computer to determine who last accessed the yearbook file to change the quotation. I understand what happened.”

“Oh yeah?”

“The computer in your classroom was used to make the change. You made the change.” Hjalmar didn’t look confused any more. “Why did you do it?”

“Whoa. I didn’t do anything.” It was so fucking hot out, I wanted to loosen my tie, but I couldn’t. Hjalmar wouldn’t let go of my hand. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Most people are jerks, maybe? Is that why?”

I held eye contact with him, forcing myself to return his gaze. “You’ve got this all wrong.”

“I do not get things wrong, Mr. Brunner. I have known the whole time.”

Across the yard in front of the school, the graduates gathered into a group to throw their hats into the air, while all the parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles made a big circle around them to take pictures. “Three… two… one!” shouted one of the students, and the mortarboards went up and everyone laughed like they had all done something so special. They laughed like they had accomplished anything at all. Hjalmar was the only one not in the group, but he was used to that.

“Does anyone else know?” I asked

“No,” said Hjalmar.

“What happens now?”

“That depends on who comes forward to confess to the chicken prank, and the song. That depends on whether or not we get our party.”

One week later, they got their party. The music from the gym reverberated around the building and pulsed through the walls. I wanted to stop down. Maybe some of them wanted say thanks, since I’m the reason it all worked out, but I was too busy cleaning out my desk.

___

Eric Rasmussen teaches high school English in Western Wisconsin. He is pursuing an MFA from Augsburg College, and his work is featured or upcoming in Sundog LitPithead ChapelBlack Fox LiteraryMulberry Fork ReviewChariton Review, and Volume One Magazine, among others. He serves as Assistant Fiction Editor at The Indianola Review and founded the regional literary journal Barstow & Grand.

Green Eyes

by Barbara Mujica

 

ll you could see was her eyes, green as a fresh pasture, gleaming through the slit of her burka. Sergeant Lindgren tried not to look directly at her. The woman was obviously hostile—perhaps resentful, perhaps frightened, perhaps both. She knit her brow and contracted her eyes into a squint.

“Tell her we’re here to help, Saddiq,” Lindgren told the interpreter.

“She won’t believe you,” he answered. “Last time the Marines were in this village, they kicked in every single door and searched the houses. Maybe they took away her husband or her brother, for all you know.”

Lindgren sighed. “Tell her it’s different now.”

Ever since the surge, the dramatic increase in troops that took effect in 2007, more and more Sunnis had been cooperating with the Americans. As a result, many neighborhoods in Ramadi and nearby villages were calmer than they had been in years. People were beginning to venture out to the markets, children played in the streets, schools were reopening. Still, there were pockets of resistance. Some locals still didn’t trust the foreigners, and the woman with the green eyes was clearly suspicious.

“Tell her I’m female, just like she is,” said Lindgren.

Then, turning toward her, she added, “I’ve brought some supplies. Water, rice, that sort of thing.” She knew that the woman couldn’t understand her, but she wanted her to hear her voice.

The burka-clad woman jerked her head like a skittish colt, then disappeared behind the drab door of her drab house. The whole village was a dull sand-color, which is probably why the Marines, with perverse irony, called it Hollywood.

“This is pointless,” said Saddiq. “We should talk to the elders, but, of course, they won’t deal with you.”

They tried three more houses. Even though Sergeant Lindgren caught sight of shadows behind the curtains, no one answered.

Sunlight fell implacably on the dirt road from the motionless sky. It beat down on the soldiers’ helmets, giving Christine Lindgren an excruciating headache. She wished she had an aspirin and a glass of iced coffee. She wiped the sweat from her temples with her sleeve.

“Isn’t it unusual for an Iraqi to have eyes that color?” she asked Saddiq as they walked toward the truck they’d left at the edge of the village.

“It’s unusual, but not unheard of.”

On the way, they met up with two other Marines. “Any luck?” asked Saddiq.

“None,” said Corporal Wang. “Sergeant Lindgren, if you’d permit me to make a suggestion, I think we should try to meet with the women in groups. Trying to approach them one at a time isn’t working at all.”

“Sonya, you’re welcome to make suggestions, but I don’t know how we could pull it off. We’d have to find a female interpreter, and even if we did, it doesn’t seem like these gals want to have anything to do with us.”

“I think they’re just scared. They still see us as the enemy, even though the men seem to be coming around. Could you mention it to Lieutenant Montez, at least?”

Lieutenant Montez listened to Christine Lindgren’s report with his usual poker face, which is why his response surprised her.

“I’ve been thinking about this a while,” he said finally. “We’re not getting through to these women. We’ve tried talking to them individually. Now let’s try something else.” He paused and swallowed. “What we need is a female representative at the village council meetings. We need to know what’s on the women’s minds. They need to be able to express themselves freely to someone they trust, someone who’s a friend…or a neighbor. Someone who can then tell us what their concerns are.”

Wow, thought Christine, and I thought Sonya’s suggestion was radical!

“With all due respect, Sir,” she said, “there’s never been a woman at one of those meetings. Not in all the thousands of years since the Garden of Eden.”

“The thing is, women make up over half the population, and we have no idea what they’re thinking. I bet I could convince the elders that this constitutes a security risk.”

“Well, if anybody has the wasta to do it, you do, Sir.” She used the Arabic word that means something between “connections” and “clout.”

Montez smiled. “In the meantime, I want you and Saddiq to go back tomorrow. Take Wang with you.”

Christine sighed and looked at the floor. “Yes, Sir,” she said.

Collapsing onto the battered sofa in the next room, Christine tried to shut out the drone of Montez’s voice. Her head still throbbed. She felt as though a bell were clanging inside her brain. Montez was talking to one of his assistants, a sergeant named Pantelis, about medical equipment. Only twenty-four years old and with no hospital management experience, he’d been ordered to revive the local medical facility. Semi-dozing, she caught snippets and phrases: “dinars…     clinic… shambles… surgical tables… unusable… shortage… stethoscopes, syringes, bandages…” And then, a complete sentence: “We’re starting from scratch, Pantelis… We’ll set up a makeshift medical center until we can make the hospital serviceable.”

Christine got up and fetched a bottle of water, then sat down again to sip it. Her mind wandered to her little daughter, Eva, only two years old and already talking in sentences. Christine and her husband had deployed at almost the same time, he to Afghanistan, and she to Iraq. They’d left Eva with Christine’s mother. Thank God for e-mail, thought Christine. At least she could get photos of her baby regularly. Her attention suddenly snapped back to the conversation in the next room. Pantelis was clearly getting on Montez’s nerves.

“Why do we have broads here, Sir?” said the sergeant. “They can’t fight and we’re not allowed to fuck them.”

“They can do all kinds of things that we can’t,” answered Montez drily.

“Like what?”

“Like talk to other women and find out what they’re thinking.”

“But we’re not,” whispered Christine.

Christine Lindgren and Sonya Wang returned to the village they called Hollywood a few more times, but the green-eyed woman remained hidden. They decided to wait until market day, hoping that now that things were calmer, she might dare to go out shopping. It’s true that the stalls were still mostly empty, but after the months of violence, many Iraqis were anxious to get out of the house and visit the souk.

At last, they saw someone trudging down the road, a shopping bag on her arm, a small girl scampering behind. They couldn’t be sure this was the green-eyed woman. She wore the same black burka as nearly every other woman in the village, and she kept her head bowed and her eyes lowered.

“Salaam!” called out Christine, as the woman approached the house. Christine and Sonya bowed.

“Tell her I just want to ask her something,” Christine told Saddiq. “And tell her that Corporal Wang and I are both women!”

Saddiq hurled the words at her just as she disappeared behind her door, dragging the child behind her.

“She’s not going to cooperate,” said Saddiq. “Let’s try somewhere else. There will be plenty of women returning home from the souk.”

The three of them stood there deliberating.

Suddenly, the door opened a crack. The green-eyed woman stared at Christine and Sonya, her gaze wandering from the helmet to the camouflage uniform to the heavy combat boots, and resting first on the gun and then, with an intensity that would have been rude back home in the States, on their breasts.

“They really are women?” she asked Saddiq.

He nodded.

“Tell them to take off their headgear.”

“She wants you to take off your helmets,” he said. “She wants to see your hair.”

Christine knew she was breaking a rule by removing an essential part of her uniform, but decided that compliance with the request was vital  to her mission. She pulled off the helmet to reveal a short, blond bob. Sonya did the same, exposing a tight black chignon at the nape of her neck. The woman stared at the two young Americans, as if trying to figure out how these lovely creatures, with their soft skin, girlish features, and modest hairdos could be soldiers. Her penetrating eyes were as green as the Garden of Eden must have been when its lush vegetation covered the Tigris and Euphrates Valley. Christine smiled, but the woman did not smile back.

“Ask her what her name is,” said Christine.

Saddiq complied. “Her name is Rana,” he said.

“Tell her she has beautiful eyes.”

“That would not be appropriate.”

“Tell her…”

Rana interrupted with some words in Arabic.

“She wants you to come into her house,” said Saddiq. “This is an honor. She is beginning to trust you.”

The women moved toward the door, but Rana held out her hand to indicate that Saddiq should stay outside. Christine shrugged, and she and Sonya followed Rana into the one-room house. A few mats on the floor for eating and sleeping, a shelf for cooking utensils, and a rickety table were the extent of the woman’s possessions. The child they had seen earlier and two older girls who looked to be around ten and twelve years old hovered by the wall.

Rana went over to the table where the shopping bag lay and emptied it out onto the table. A few vegetables—eggplant, okra, courgettes, onions, and tomatoes—as well as small bag of barley constituted the entire contents. She pointed at her purchases and then at the children and lifted her hands in a gesture of despair. An avalanche of words followed. The Marines understood she was frantic over the lack of goods in the market.

Christine stuck her hand in her pocket and whipped out a photograph. “Look,” she said.

The women gaped at the image of the bouncy blond child, her lips parted in a giggle.

“Eva,” said Christine. “My baby.” She pantomimed a mother rocking her child.

The Iraqi woman opened her impossibly green eyes so wide they looked like enormous emeralds. “Eva,” she whispered. She shook her head. She clearly didn’t understand what Christine was doing in Iraq when she had a child back home. She looked at Sonya and raised her eyebrows.

“No,” said Sonya. “No babies. Not yet.”

They signaled for her to follow them outside.

“Tell her that we’ll be back tomorrow with rice,” Christine told Saddiq.

Rana and Saddiq spoke for longer than it would have taken the interpreter to relay the message.

“She says she cannot feed her family with what she can buy at the souk. She has five children—three daughters who stay home with her, and two sons who go to the cobbler’s shop her husband owns with his brother.”

Rana stood staring at the ground, bowed in desperation. Christine took some candy out of her pocket and gave it to the children, who huddled around their mother.

“She wants to know where your baby Eva is,” Saddiq added.

“Tell her that she’s at home in Grand Marais, Minnesota, with her grandma.” Christine felt as though she had a wad of wool stuck in her throat.

The next day, the Marines returned with a large bag of rice. Rana signaled for the women to sit down on a mat, then brought a pot of tea and three cracked cups that had once been pretty. For the first time, she smiled at the two Americans.

Her gaze went from Christine to Sonya and back again. Finally, she pointed to Sonya’s eyes and made a questioning gesture, with upward turned palms.

“Corporal Wang’s family was originally from China,” explained Christine, fully aware that Rana didn’t understand a word she said. “Americans are from all different ethnic backgrounds. Corporal Wang is from San Francisco, where there is a large Chinese population.”

Rana shook her head and smiled. Christine and Sonya both shrugged, as if to say, “That’s just the way it is.”

Christine pointed to their hostess’ green eyes and made the same questioning gesture. Rana laughed and nodded to show she understood. Then she shrugged, as they had done. “That’s just the way it is.”

“We need a female interpreter,” Christine told Lieutenant Montez when she returned to base. “We’re making progress, but we need to be able to speak with Rana.”

“I’m meeting with the elders this afternoon,” said Montez. “It’s a long shot, but I’m going to ask for a woman representative on the council. See if Saddiq can get Rana to meet with other women to find out what they need and to elect a spokesperson.”

“A meeting of women,” said Christine. “That’s just what Sonya Wang suggested.”

A week later, about thirty women from the neighborhood packed into Rana’s tiny house. In their black burkas, screeching and squawking all at once, they reminded the Americans of a flock of blackbirds. In spite of the furious pecking and snapping, by the end of the afternoon, they had chosen an envoy named Marjani and made a list of three wants. Christine and Sonya were present at the gathering, and although they understood no Arabic, they knew from the smile on Rana’s face that it had been a success.

Rana pushed Marjani toward them. The newly elected delegate wore a long, thin abaya over her dress and an asha over her hair, but her face—as beautiful and evocative as a poem—was bare.

“I, Marjani, speak for women,” she said, grinning widely.

“You speak English!” exclaimed Christine and Sonya in unison.

“Little bit.” She shook her head and lifted her hand, pinching her thumb and index finger almost together to show that her English was very limited.

The first council meeting that Marjani attended was something of a shock to the elders’ systems. Montez had used all his wasta to convince the sheiks that their failure to consider the women’s concerns could seriously undermine stabilization efforts.

“We need to integrate the women and get them on our side,” he told them. “Otherwise, they could harbor resentments and work against us.”

“This has never been done!” objected some.

But one old sheik, a heavy-faced man with the eyes of a seer, challenged his brothers. “The young American is right,” he said. “Women can be treacherous, and there’s no way to know what they’ve got in their heads. Give them a voice. It will avoid problems in the long run.” Montez understood enough Arabic to chuckle at the reasoning of the eldest of the elders.

Marjani began to enumerate her neighbors’ requests. The women needed some kind of public transportation, she explained, because they weren’t allowed to drive and had no way to get their children to the doctor or wherever else they had to go. They also wanted a park, since it was now safe for youngsters to play outside. The council members nodded. So far, the women’s wishes sounded reasonable. Montez said the Marines could organize a jitney service from Hollywood to Ramadi without much difficulty. Working with Iraqi engineers and laborers, they could also build a playground with swings and slides and other playground equipment. It was the third of the women’s requests that left the sheiks dumbfounded. Marjani explained that the women wanted to work, to start their own small businesses, selling the products they made or grew. However, that required capital—for thread and yarn, for seeds and tools—that they didn’t have. What the women really needed, Marjani explained, was cash.

The sheiks began to grumble. They were strapped for funds themselves, and they certainly were not going to lend the little money they had to a bunch of women who, in their opinion, should be at home tending their babies. “Women starting businesses! Whoever heard of such a thing?” groused several of the men. Montez remained silent, but when he got back to base, he turned on his computer and looked through his contact list. The year before, he had met a State Department representative who was knowledgeable about the Grameen Bank, which made collateral-free microloans to impoverished people anxious to start businesses. He wasn’t sure how much wasta he had with the U.S. government, but that afternoon he shot off an email to Kelly-Lou Grotsky, explaining the situation in Hollywood, the little village on the outskirts of Ramadi.

To his amazement, she answered almost immediately. She had a colleague named Cynthia Lerner, she said, who was in Baghdad working on the reconstruction effort. Kelly-Lou was sure Cynthia could help. Montez was encouraged, although he knew the government bureaucracy was a lumbering animal, a cross between and elephant and a snail, and that besides help from the State Department, he’d need the approval of the elders.

Montez managed to assemble a fleet of jitneys to work the Hollywood-Ramadi corridor faster than he was able to secure a meeting with Cynthia Lerner. By the time she roared up to the gates of the base three months later in her Army-issued Jeep, the jitneys had been running for several weeks, and the sandlot designated by the elders for the children had been turned into a playground. It was, admittedly, like no playground any American had ever seen before. There was no grass, only sand—one massive sandbox surrounded by all-weather, rustproof jungle gyms, slides, swings, and monkey bars, as well as a playhouse with (and this was quite incredible) an aquarium. The sign on the gate, which the old sheik had made, said, “Lt. Ignacio Montez Playground” in English and Arabic.

Cynthia Lerner climbed out of the jeep and blinked the sand out of her eyes. Her red-blond hair glistened in the sunlight, and if Montez had bothered to think about it, he would have realized that she was pretty. However, Montez would be leaving Ramadi in eight weeks, and Marjani had made it clear that the women were still clamoring for stalls in the souk. His mission was to get them the microloans they needed, and there could be no distractions.

“I’ll be a couple of hours,” she said to the driver in Arabic. “Go have lunch.”

“You speak the language!” exclaimed Montez. He could feel his spirits lifting, but he knew better than to put too much faith in a bureaucrat. He called for Christine and Sonya.

When the two Marines arrived at Rana’s little house with Cynthia later that afternoon, they noticed something unusual. Instead of her usual black burka, Rana was wearing a long, flowing, turquoise dishdasha and a matching headscarf, both exquisitely embroidered with tiny yellow flowers. Her face was bare, and her dazzling green eyes glowed as she jabbered with her neighbors.

Cynthia introduced herself in Arabic. The women stared. Her bare head. Her spectacular ginger-colored hair. Her ruddy, freckled face. And her eyes, as bright and emerald as the Euphrates at sunrise. She smiled at Rana.

“We have the same color eyes,” said Cynthia.

“Yes, we do,” said Rana, beaming. “We are sisters!”

Cynthia listened and took notes. It was the first time any of them had met an Arabic-speaking Western woman or had a real conversation with an American.

“We can do it,” Cynthia told Lieutenant Montez and Christine after she had met several times with the women she now called the Hollywood Stars. “It will take a while, but we can do it! These women are smart, energetic, and ambitious. I want to help them.”

Montez took the news to the elders.

“Yes,” said the old sheik. “Let them have their businesses. It will keep them busy and also bring money to their families.” Montez breathed a sigh of relief.

Two months later, while he and his men were preparing to turn the base over to the next division, word came that Cynthia Lerner had received approval for the microloans.

“Wow,” said Pantelis. “The broads made it happen! I can’t believe it.”

“Told ya,” growled Montez.

*     *     *     *     *

Ignacio Montez—now Captain Montez—sat down at his desk and turned on his computer. California sunlight streamed through the window and fell in patches all around him. The base was a beehive, as new platoons prepared to deploy. Montez poured himself a coffee and opened his e-mails. One caught his eye.

Dear Ignacio,

I hope you’re readjusting to life in the States. No more tiptoeing through the streets, dodging roadside bombs! I wanted you to know that I was back in Hollywood last week and visited Rana at her shop in the souk. She had an unbelievable assortment of kaftans and scarves that she designed, sewed, and embroidered herself, and now that the economy is picking up, she is beginning to sell them. She gave me a lovely purple scarf, which I will send to Christine when I get home. After all, she’s the one who really made this happen. Rana and Marjani send their regards. Whenever I mention your name, they say, “Now there’s a man with wasta!”

Best regards,

Cindy

___

As the mother of a Marine who served two tours in Iraq, Barbara Mujica is particularly interested in issues involving veterans. At Georgetown University, where she is a professor of Spanish literature, she serves as Faculty Adviser of the Student Veterans Association.  Much of her short fiction derives from stories that veterans have told her. “Green Eyes” is based on a true incident.

    In addition to short stories, Mujica has  written several novels. Frida (Overlook Press, 2001) was published in seventeen languages and was a Book-of-the-Month alternate. Sister Teresa (Overlook Press, 2007) was adapted for the stage; the play premiered in Los Angeles in November 2013. Mujica’s  novels, I Am Venus and Lola in Paradise, were winners of the Maryland Writers’ Association novel competition in 2012 and 2016.

     Barbara Mujica’s other published books include Teresa de Avila, Lettered Woman (Vanderbilt University Press, 2008), Women Writers of Early Modern Spain: Sophia’s Daughters (Yale University Press, 2004), Shakespeare and the Spanish Comedia (ed.) (Bucknell University Press, 2013), and A New Anthology of Early Modern Spanish Theater: Play and Playtext (Yale University Press, 2014).

Fish Fry

By Robert Roman

Time out, idiots!” Father Morgan the Organ yelled from the doorway of the Triple Deuce and lit a cigarette.

You never knew who might come out of that place because it didn’t have any windows in its brick walls. Me and Jaggerbush practiced our Kung Fu Fighting on the square of grass out front. Thick green hedges surrounded the grass like boxing-ring ropes. People driving by on Perrysville Avenue blew their horns and yelled, “Break his face!” and “Knee him in the balls!”

We took off our Pro-Keds and tube socks and put on winter gloves. We tried not to punch each other in the face with all our might, but sometimes you couldn’t help it. My little brother always connected a lot because his skinny arms and legs were way longer than mine even though I was a whole year older than him. But if I got close to him, I could knock him on his butt with a body shot to one of those pointy ribs of his, since I was the super-strongest sixth-grader on the North Side of Pittsburgh. That’s if he didn’t cheat and bite my neck in the clinch.

“I said, time out, damn it!” Father Morgan the Organ blew two blasts of smoke out of his flat, dented nose like a fire-breathing dragon.

Jaggerbush kept swinging at me until I told him to step on the brakes.

“Here’s the situation,” Morgan the Organ said. “You boys are going to work at the Fish Fry tomorrow night.”

They used to only do the Fish Fry on Fridays during Lent, but ever since Ronald Reagan became President this year, Father Morgan said it was good for people to fast every Friday. Even though he wasn’t any older than Dad, he was the Pastor at Saint Augie’s, so what he said went.

“What’s the bounty?” Jaggerbush said.

“Your reward will be in Heaven.”

“Sister Kelly’s always telling us we’re headed in the other direction, you know, H-E-L-L,” I said.

“True, there’s little hope for your brother,” Father Morgan sucked his cigarette like he was trying to slurp up the bottom of an Eat-N-Park milkshake. I looked across our green fighting ring at Jaggerbush. He wasn’t even listening, he was too busy throwing roundhouse kicks at the heads of the bushes. Ten years old and already doomed to Hell. It didn’t seem fair.

“But you might have an outside shot, Ringer. After a long layover in Purgatory, of course.”

“We’re sticking together,” I said. I didn’t want to go to Hell or Purgatory or Limbo or any other of these damn places if I died in a nuclear war with the Russians. But I wasn’t about to leave Jaggerbush behind to fight off all those devils and demons and dead commies all by himself.

“Sister Kelly seems to believe the two of you are impervious to negative consequences, so let’s see how a little more carrot and less stick works.”

“I hate carrots,” Jaggerbush said.

“I’m not talking about real carrots, maniac. You know what I’m trying to say, Ringer?”

“Does it have something to do with the horses at the racetrack?”

He stuck his cigarette back in his mouth. The tip burned red-hot like a little bitty sun threatening to go super nova.

“I’ll make you a deal. If you work the Fish Fry, without incident, then I’ll allow you to retrieve one item from that hope chest of Sister Kelly’s, the one where she keeps all the illegal objects she’s confiscated from you over the years.”

Wow, she had my glow-in-the-dark yo-yo, boomerang, Han Solo action figure, invisible ink pen, mini parachute, die cast metal flying saucer, Green Lantern power ring, loaded dice, stickers, football cards, comic books, and a whole mess of other stuff. I really wanted that yo-yo back. But Jaggerbush would never go for it. He never, ever, ever cut deals with adults. Ever.

“You got yourself a deal,” Jaggerbush said from across our green boxing ring.

“What?” I stared at him.

“As long as we get to pick what we want from Sister Kelly’s booty,” Jaggerbush said, throwing a spinning donkey kick at the hedges.

“Fine,” Father Morgan said. “But, Jaggerbush has to work in the kitchen. We don’t want a repeat of that God damn fiasco last Easter.”

They were the ones dumb enough to make Jaggerbush work as a busboy. They should’ve known better. A table full of hefty ladies were pigging out like the end of the world was coming and ordered Jaggerbush to bring them more dinner rolls. He told them to join Weight Watchers. You ever notice fat ladies can scream really loud? Especially when they want to be fed.

“You can count on us,” Jaggerbush said.

Morgan the Organ flicked his cigarette over our heads. It flew more than ten yards and landed all the way in Perrysville Avenue.

“Don’t forget to wash your filthy mitts before you show up to work. And use your jab more, and quit kicking each other like a couple of Asiatics,” he pushed open the Triple Deuce’s red door and went back inside.

I never saw Jaggerbush agree with anyone without a fight. There must have been something inside Sister Kelly’s secret box that he really wanted.

“Ding Ding,” I said, and we put our dukes back up.

“Hi-yaa!” Jaggerbush yelled, and jumped with both feet out in front of him to dropkick me. I sidestepped him, and he landed so deep in the hedges that he got stuck. He tried to wiggle out, but the thick branches wouldn’t let him go. I punched him once in the gut just for good measure, then I yanked him out and rung the bell and we went back at it.

***

After lunch, the teachers herded us all over to church because it was some kind of holy day. Sometimes it seemed like they just made up these holy days when they got fed up with teaching. I mean, how many God damn saints were there?

Jaggerbush stood in Saint Augie’s vestibule with his thick brown hair sticking up and pointing in a million different directions. He stared up at the two big blackboards on wheels parked against the back wall. They each had a giant football-poll grid drawn on them in yellow chalk. Last week’s Steelers game was on one, the winner’s names were circled in red chalk. The other blackboard had a grid for this week’s game. The dads paid the ushers and picked a block and wrote their names inside. Every Sunday after twelve o’clock mass, Father Morgan the Organ added the numbers along the top and one side of the grid just in time for the coin toss at the beginning of the game. If your numbers matched the score at the end of one of the quarters, you won. There were two polls because you couldn’t collect your winnings until the Sunday after the game. Father Morgan said it had something to do with teaching patience. Kids weren’t allowed to play, but Dad always asked Jaggerbush which block to pick. Jaggerbush didn’t know the difference between football and long division, but Dad won more than anybody.

“Jaggerbush!” Sister Kelly said. “Get away from those blackboards and get your rear-end in a pew and pray to God for forgiveness.”

Mass kicked off with that rumbling sound of everyone standing up at the same time. Father Morgan the Organ and three altar boys marched down the center aisle in their long white dresses while everybody sang. Fantastic Freddie led the pack, carrying the tall skinny golden cross, the one the lead altar boy held out in front of himself like a first-down marker. They always walked so damn slow, like they were heading to the principal’s office or something.

Jaggerbush stood alongside the aisle a few rows ahead of me with the rest of the fifth-graders. He knelt down, but he wasn’t genuflecting. That boy was always retying his Pro-Keds no matter how many times he triple-knotted them.

“Ahhhhhh!” Fantastic Freddie screamed, and did a belly flopper right on his big blubbery stomach. His golden cross sailed at the altar like a gladiator spear.

Somebody yelled, “Fumble!”

Ca-Clang!

The cross bounced off the marble steps in front of the altar. The little statue of Jesus popped off and ricocheted under the front-row pews. The first-graders sitting there jumped up on top of their pews and screamed like Jesus was a mouse.

I don’t know when Jaggerbush tied that tripwire across the center aisle, but it was one of his best booby traps in the history of the universe.

Sister Kelly snatched him by his skinny arm and dragged him toward the back of the church. She had a hard time because Jaggerbush let his feet drag like some of the men who got hauled out of the Triple Deuce for falling asleep at the bar. Jaggerbush yelled, “How do you expect me to get inside this Heaven joint if you keep kicking me out of church?”

***

They held the Fish Fry in the school cafeteria in the church basement. Watching all those grown-ups sitting at the same tables where we ate lunch every day and stuffing their faces like an army of Godzillas eating Tokyo was weird.

My job was to bus tables. It was easy since there wasn’t much to carry except empty plates and silverware. The hungry hungry hippos hogged down more fried fish and French Fries and coleslaw than I could eat in a week, and according to Mom, I could eat you out of house and home. This fasting-on-Fridays thing didn’t make any sense to me. It didn’t look like there was a whole lot of sacrificing going on.

I lugged my square plastic tub of dirty dishes into the kitchen. It was like the engine room of a deep-space battle cruiser with all the steam blowing and oil sizzling and water gushing out of faucets and pots and pans clanging on the stove. It stunk worse than the fish market down on the Strip District where the guy behind the counter always gave me and Jaggerbush free smelts while he whispered to Dad.

When it came to church stuff, Fantastic Freddie was the biggest brown-noser in the galaxy, so he had the funnest job. He got to help cook the fish. If only the adults knew about all the stuff he light-fingered out of the church and how he went around performing illegal sacraments. One time, last winter when we were playing football, I sacked Antonio and made him spit up blood. I didn’t even hit him that hard, but the snow looked like cherry Italian Ice when he was done spitting-up all over it. Fantastic Freddie whipped out a vial of holy oil he swiped from the sacristy and read him last rites. But it was a big fat waste of time since Antonio didn’t die.

Fantastic Freddie stood on a stepladder in front of the silver deep fryer. He pulled frozen slabs of breaded fish out of a cardboard box with a pair of long steel tongs.

He asked each fish, “Do you accept Jesus Christ as your lord and savior?” and then held it to his ear like he was trying to hear what it was saying.

“No? Then into the boiling oil with you, heathen!” he dropped it into the deep fryer.

Antonio wore a tall white chef’s hat that made his Afro stick out around the bottom of it like a clown haircut. He stirred a giant bowl of coleslaw with the biggest wooden spoon I’d even seen. I wouldn’t want to be paddled with that thing.

“Hey Ringer,” Antonio said. “What’s wrong with your brother?”

I walked into the dishwashing room in the back of the kitchen. It was dark and damp and stunk like a wet dumpster. Jaggerbush was standing on a plastic milk crate talking to himself in cartoon voices while he scrubbed a dish in the big steel sink with a sponge made out of chain-mail armor. Nothing was on fire, nothing was broken, the room wasn’t flooded, the backdoor was closed. The clean white dishes looked like pillars in ancient Rome they were piled up in such nice neat stacks.

“You feeling okay?” I said.

“Yeah, this is fun.”

“Fun?”

Mom would’ve fainted if she saw Jaggerbush washing and drying all those dishes. She had to scream her head off just to get him to wash his face. Maybe he was planning on pulling a Sampson move and knocking down all the dishes once he was finished.

For the rest of the night, Jaggerbush worked like he was mining for gold. He took out the garbage, put all the silverware back in the drawers, and swept and mopped the floor. He did everything he was told. One of the cafeteria ladies even called him “a good little worker.” I couldn’t figure it out. Maybe he got replaced by an alien life-form. Or maybe I finally punched him in the head too hard and gave him brain damage like Mom was always warning me about. Or was Father Morgan the Organ right about his carrot stick prophecy?

After the Fish Fry was over, the cafeteria ladies must have given us a good report.

“It appears that you two malcontents aren’t completely incorrigible after all,” Father Morgan said. “I’ll tell Sister Kelly to give you your just deserts tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow’s Saturday,” I said.

“Monday then.”

“We’ll come tomorrow,” Jaggerbush said.

“I don’t blame you,” Morgan the Organ said. “You put in the work, and you deserve what’s coming to you.”

“Yeah, Sister Kelly can be forgetful,” I said.

“She can, can’t she? Tomorrow then, boys.”

Me and Jaggerbush caught up with Antonio outside. It was getting dark. Antonio was still wearing his chef’s hat. He was eating handfuls of after-dinner mints out of a brown paper bag.

“Wait here,” Jaggerbush opened the back door to the cafeteria’s kitchen. A little hunk of cardboard fell from between the doorknob and doorframe. He must’ve propped it open when he took the trash out.

“You can’t break into a church,” Antonio said with his mouth full of mushy sugar

“It’s not like anybody lives here,” Jaggerbush said.

“God does,” Antonio said.

“Then he should buy a watchdog,” Jaggerbush said, and ducked inside.

Antonio had ants in his pants the whole time Jaggerbush was gone. I had to threaten to gag him with his chef hat just to shut him up. He could be such a baby sometimes.

Jaggerbush came out slapping his Toughskins leaving yellow handprints on his thighs. He stuck both his powdery hands inside Antonio’s brown paper bag and mashed a bunch of after-dinner mints into his mouth with one hand and filled his pocket with the other.

“Don’t be greedy,” Antonio said.

“Shut up, unless you want busted on.”

“For what?”

“For being an accomplice.”

“That’s crazy. You’d get yourself in trouble, too.”

“I’m never not in trouble,” Jaggerbush said, and stuck his hand back inside Antonio’s bag of mints.

***

We followed Sister Kelly. Our footsteps echoed all the way down the hall. The school was quiet, creepy quiet, like we weren’t supposed to be there, and it smelled like ammonia.

“I want you two to know, I am against this entire enterprise,” Sister Kelly said. “How in God’s holy name am I supposed to maintain any sense of order as principal of this school if that man keeps undermining my authority? And on a Saturday, no less.”

“Why don’t you start a mutiny and take over the school yourself?” I said. “We can help you make him walk the plank.”

“Don’t tempt me.”

“Is it because what’s-his-face likes Morgan the Organ better than you?” Jaggerbush said.

“What’s-his-who?” Sister Kelly said.

“The long-haired guy with the beard who does the magic tricks.”

“He means Jesus, Sister,” I said.

“Don’t be ridiculous! The Son of God doesn’t play favorites. Or perform magic tricks!”

“Then how come Dad is always praying that the traitor Tony Dorsett breaks both his knees when he’s running the ball?” I said.

“Holy Mother, give me strength.” Her round glasses started to get foggy.

We followed her down the stone steps into the school basement. Her big ring of keys jangled like a witch doctor charm.

“Where’re you taking us?” I said.

“The book room.”

It took her a while to find the right key, but she finally got the door open. Inside, there were rows and rows of metal shelves so tall I couldn’t reach the top if I jumped as high as I could. It was like an A&P for schoolbooks, but dark and dusty and without shopping carts.

“Why are these new books buried down here in this dungeon?” I said.

“They’re out of date.”

“They look brand new. What’re you going to do with them?”

“None of your business. Let’s get this miscarriage of justice over with.”

“We didn’t do anything wrong,” Jaggerbush said. “You should be proud of us.”

She took a bunch of deep breaths like she was about to dive into the deep end of a pool.

“Let’s just select your thirty pieces of silver and put an end to this.”

She hunched over her giant footlocker and spun the dial on the combination lock. It was so big, me and Jaggerbush could both fit inside at the same time. He knelt down beside her and retied his Pro-Keds. The lock popped, and the lid squeaked open.

It looked like the back of Santa’s sleigh. It was full of squirt guns, Mattel basketball games, X-Ray glasses, rocks, every kind of Nerf ball, a wedding veil, Star Trek Phasers, radios, hats, a lady’s black high-heeled shoe. Jaggerbush dug around in the treasure chest. He pulled out a half-eaten pack of grape Bubble Yum.

“After all that work, all that self-control, you’re choosing a pack of old gum?” She shook her head.

“I want to blow some bubbles.”

“Give it here!” she said. “What’s hidden inside?”

She tore the pack open and took it apart like he was trying to smuggle top-secrets to the Russians. She handed the pieces of unwrapped gum back to him. He shoved them into his pocket.

“You’ve made your choice. Don’t dare let me catch you chewing any of it on school property.”

I pointed at a bookshelf. “Can I have one of these out-of-date books with Saint George and the Dragon on the cover, instead?”

“Absolutely not. A deal’s a deal, even a deal with the Devil.”

I couldn’t find my glow-in-the-dark yo-yo in the trunk, so I grabbed my silver Matchbox car with the demon face on the roof and the flames on the doors that Sister Kelly stole from me four years ago back in the second grade.

“Can you two see your way out without vandalizing anything?”

“Yes, Sister,” I said.

We walked down the hall kicking our feet so the bottom of our Pro-Keds skimmed across the stone floor and made loud skid noises. Jaggerbush shoved a piece of Bubble Yum in his mouth and handed me a piece.

“It’s kind of stale,” I said.

“Left 13, right 42, left 23.”

“Are you talking in secret code again?”

“It’s the combination to her lock.”

“How do we get into the book room without a key?”

“There’s other ways to open doors.”

***

We snuck out of Sunday Mass right after communion and met Ding Dong outside so we could pitch pennies against the church steps.

“Jaggerbush! You have to throw real coins. Nobody wants your bottle caps,” Ding Dong said.

Jaggerbush dug in his pocket and threw something shiny and silver that dinged against the steps.

“Bolts don’t count either!” Ding Dong said.

All of a sudden, you could hear men screaming and hollering so loud inside that you would’ve thought the statues were bleeding or something. Saint Augie’s wooden fortress doors burst open. Men were shoving each other and pulling their jackets over each other’s heads like they were in a bench-clearing hockey fight. They were cursing something fierce.

A few of them fell down the steps and landed on our pennies. Father Morgan the Organ stood in the doorway. He swung Fantastic Freddie’s big cross back and forth like a Samurai warrior. The men scattered.

“You!” he yelled at Jaggerbush, his flat face was redder than cherry juice.

“I should at least get my choice of weapon,” Jaggerbush said, flipping a piece of yellow chalk in the air with his thumb and catching it like a coin.

Morgan the Organ shoved the cross into Ding Dong’s chest like he wanted him to hold it and walked toward Jaggerbush real slow.

“You better run,” Ding Dong said.

Jaggerbush didn’t budge. Morgan the Organ snatched the piece of chalk out of the air and laid his hands on my brother’s shoulders.

“Please, please explain to me what on Earth you could possibly get out of pulling a stunt like this?”

“Nothing,” Jaggerbush said. “I told you, I hate carrots.”

He blew a giant purple bubble until it exploded with a crack and splattered all over his face. He just left it there, staring at Morgan the Organ over the grape glob covering his nose like a bandito mask.

“I warned you. That child can’t be reasoned with,” Sister Kelly yelled from the church doorway.

Morgan the Organ gave her a look that would send you running. Then he looked at me and said, “Do me a favor, son. Take your brother home before I murder him.”

I pulled Jaggerbush across the street by his wrist. The men picked themselves up off the church steps and straightened out their jackets while Ding Dong snatched all our pennies off the ground. Some apologized and shook hands, but some still looked like they wanted to roughhouse some more. Father Morgan promised them a refund and walked back inside the church with his head down.

“What did you do?” Ding Dong said.

“Follow me,” Jaggerbush said.

The three of us doubled back to the cafeteria’s kitchen door. The hunk of cardboard was still in place. We followed Jaggerbush inside. He led us through the dark cafeteria and up the steps to the church vestibule. It was empty and the big wooden doors were closed. Jaggerbush pulled another piece of yellow chalk out of his pocket and pointed it at the blackboard with last week’s football poll on it, and said, “And the winners are…”

The names inside the winning squares were circled in red chalk, Zulu Warrior, Pontius Pilate, Hong Kong Phooey, and The Bee Gees.

 

 

——————–

Robert Roman grew up in Pittsburgh, PA, where he sold newspapers to cars from a concrete island. He worked as a mail carrier, busboy, bartender, and laborer while earning a degree in English Literature from the University of Pittsburgh. He taught at a juvenile detention facility, Baltimore City, and Howard County Public Schools. He studied writing at Johns Hopkins and UCLA. He lives in L.A., where he writes fiction and America’s favorite Hangman puzzles.

A Story from Another Spring

By Megan Paske

Samantha woke up early. Matthew was already at work; she knew he left at 6:00am sharp, every day, in his ties and buttoned-down shirts. Sharp, always sharp. He said the ties gave him more authority over his unruly students. She often wondered if it made any difference, but never questioned it. She loved the look of him leaving the house: buttoned-up and flawless. Sam wanted to remember Matthew that way, every moment of her life with him.

But this morning she smiled through her confused sleep, fading quickly into a quixotic awareness. Today she was not alone. She was with her Grandmother. ‘Grandma Bunny.’ Bernice—her given name. Everyone called her ‘Bunny.’ Sam knew it; felt it in the haziness that transformed her unquiet mind from her dreams to dawn.

“Good morning Sam. We have work to do today.”

Bunny wiggled Samantha’s fingers and toes until she settled down into her mind.

Let’s get up now.”

Sam’s head slowly raised the rest of her petite, yet substantial, form from the bed. The sheets lie in a smothered pile somewhere between now and her subconscious mind’s last night’s wrestling match. Sam looked down at her hands. They began to smooth out and lengthen into slender, delicate hands. Not Sam’s. Sam’s own hands were short, stubby: fingernails kept short from years of being classically trained on instrument upon instrument.

Her new hands were long and sleek; the nails curved elegantly beyond the tips of her fingers, polished neatly with a clear veneer. Flawless, strong. Typist’s hands. Hands that held cigarettes with elegance and mystique.

I was always complimented on my hands, love. The men that ogled other women’s chests and asses. They took my hands in theirs and gave them gentle kisses.”

Samantha delighted in her transformation. She swung her own well-defined, muscular running legs over the edge of the bed. They swung freely for a moment and she studied them closely; looking down as they shifted. She watched as her legs stretched out into the gangly, flawless dancer legs Bunny pranced upon in the pictures she remembered as a child. Black and white, eighteen-year-old Grandma Bunny. On point shoes and holding her skirt up like a frozen fairy, preserved in time on a 3×3 Polaroid. Pirouettes, pas de bourrées, arabesques. Sam hesitated, then carefully poked at her new, knobby-knees. Legs too skinny for the shorts she wore. Shorts that now belonged to someone else.

“Time to get out of bed now.”

Sam twirled—on her new legs, with her new hands—in the emerging sunlight of the bedroom’s slightly cracked windows. Effortlessly, she floated with a wide grin to the kitchen. Matthew had made coffee before he left; the pot was still on. The slightly burning coffee temporarily assaulted Sam’s nose back into her own mind as she entered the hallway.

“Grab our smokes, and a cup of coffee darlin’. Black. Time to plan the day ahead. Lots to do. Make good use of all the morning energy.”

She began to hum as she went about her task. She made a stop first in the bathroom. She had to see, had to know for sure, she was who she knew she was. Sam flipped the switched and waited while her eyes adjusted to the fluorescent scorch coming from the tidy vanity’s smudge-free mirror. Samantha always kept the bathrooms pristine.

She studied her face. She stared back into her Grandmother’s reflection. The skin she remembered touching when she was only four, right before Grandma Bunny passed away suddenly and without a warning. When Sam was a young girl Grandma Bunny’s face had been thin and pock-marked. 58-year-old skin. The age Grandma Bunny was in Sam’s own memories.

Your mother now is seven years older than I ever was; ever would be. You’ll be me now dear. Finish what I left behind.”

Sam observed as the skin in the mirror reflected back not the Grandma Bunny in her memory. She stared into a soft, dewy complexion. A hint of dimples—almost imperceptible even through her broad grin—emerged. Sam delighted in her new glow. Sam’s thick, wavy blond hair, flowing down to the middle of her back, gradually darkened and retreated its way back up to her shoulders. She watched as it folded into a brunette bob, curled under at the end, and framed her new face. Her own button nose and blue eyes melted away to muddy brown eyes peering out through cat-eye glasses perched on an elfin nose. Her cheekbones tightened and her earlobes now donned tiny diamond studs, though Sam’s own ears were unpierced.

Sam’s hand touched the mirror, leaving a handprint over the image of what should have been her once round, olive face. Staring back at her was a lily white specter of Grandma Bunny as she was at Sam’s age—twenty-eight and doe-eyed—and all smiles and dimples and seduction. Her transformation was almost complete.

“I’m here now. Let’s keep going.”

After a quick shower, they re-entered her bedroom and began shuffling through Samantha’s wardrobe. The towel on their head held in dampened bobbed curls, a few escaping and leaving cool drips on their shoulders.

None of this will do.”

Sam’s heart sank. There were no clothes for Bunny here.

What are we going to wear? How can we fit into any of this?”

Too short, too round, too full in the bust. Then they found what they needed. What they were looking for.

Bunny carefully chose a bright yellow sundress, speckled in rusty orange flowers: the one dress Sam had kept since high school, when she was a willowy teenager. The shirred bodice had long since become too tight for Sam’s own curves, but fit Bunny comfortably. The cool fabric whisked at her spindly legs. Bunny twirled again in front of a full length mirror, delighting in the reunion with her youth. She didn’t know how long it would last; she’d have to make the most of it. Bunny grabbed a pair of Samantha’s sandals—a bit too loose, but they would have to do.

Bunny approached the mirror in the bedroom. One last inspection of herself.

“Yes, I’m all here now. Don’t worry love, I’ll be ok. You just rest. You and I will be just fine.”

Bunny slinked down the hall, graceful and hauntingly as a mourning dove’s song at dawn. She knew Sam hid the cigarettes in the drawer next to the refrigerator. She hadn’t had a smoke in months, years. Her hands shook in anticipation. First she grabbed a coffee mug from the rack next to the slowly charring coffee burner. Its aroma had morphed into an acrid stench of burnt grounds and coffee pot sludge. No matter—the only way she took her cigarettes were with coffee and the only way she took her coffee was with cigarettes.

Bunny had to shuffle around the drawer until she found the unopened, “emergency pack” in the back, behind an assortment of miss-matched cupboard knobs, grill lighters, unsent greeting cards, and a broken wind chime—intended on being pieced and glued back together.

All she needed were the cigarettes.

“Got ‘em.”

Bunny deftly unwrapped the plastic and packed the cigarettes. They were Parliaments: not her first choice, but they’d have to do for now. She’d pick up a pack of her Pall Mall’s during her afternoon walk down the block to the corner market. She had a lot to get done tonight before Harold arrived back from work. Before Sam’s husband came home from school. And before Sam returned. With her coffee mug in one hand, and the cigarettes in the other, she rifled again through the drawer, pulling out a crumpled pack of matches. Only a few left; she made note to pick up a lighter as well.

Carrying her loot, she struggled to nudge open the back porch door with her toe and elbowed through the rest.

Door’s hard to open this morning. I’ll have to have Harold take a look at it when he gets home.

The small space she created between the door and the jam made just enough room for Bunny’s slender figure to slide through. She was dismayed at how hard it was to negotiate the conservative space. Once out (after a momentary panic of getting stuck, and spilling part of her coffee onto the pavement of the back porch) she glanced down at her slender form.

Have I put on weight?

Little else thought to her momentary lapse in spatial judgement, she turned and faced the east morning sun, still rising lazily above a horizon of trees and farmers’ fields beyond the backyard. Bunny became disoriented. Her neighbors’ backyards were replaced with what appeared to be a cornfield. She shut her eyes briefly and opened them again to the familiar views she was accustomed to: the neighbors’ untended flower gardens that Harold always complained about, the unkempt, rusty swing sets, the wire fence at the back of their lot line. Harold wouldn’t spring for the wooden fencing, but he hated the neighborhood kids filing through the backyard on their way home from school. He insisted on erecting the fencing early on in their marriage. Before their first child arrived.

Bunny’s children were now at school, and she had the remainder of the day to complete her daily tasks. For now, she’d enjoy her peace and quiet, her smokes and coffee. She plunked herself down on the back stoop. Samantha’s slab of concrete was in actuality much larger than the few steps and sidewalk that led to Bunny’s backyard, but Bunny took little notice. As she sipped at the bitter coffee, and puffed absently at her cigarette, her mind wandered.

What shall I do first? The cleaning, or the laundry?

Harry was due home at 5:30 and dinner would need to be on the table. Bunny glanced down at her right wrist. Bunny, left handed, always wore the same dainty gold and silver watch around her right wrist. It was missing.

Where is it? Oh heavens tell me I didn’t lose it, Harry will have my head!

Bunny quickly mashed out her cigarette, noticing her ashtray had also vanished. She threw the butt in the trash bin next to her garage, getting her bare feet damp from the morning dew. She glanced down expecting grass, only to realize she was still standing on the concrete slab of Sam and Matthew’s back porch. Her cigarette butt now rolling away towards the edge.

Confused again, she spun around toward the back door. Her stoop had been replaced by a modern sliding glass patio door. Bunny looked about, helplessly, trying to get her bearings, when Sam looked down.

Samantha realized she was wearing the sundress she had kept from high school.

“What the hell is going on?”

Sam muttered, audibly to herself. Her cat Penelope peered at her through the sliding door. Penelope hedonistically stretched out her paws upon the screen and exposed her snow white belly, softly mewing, and begging to be let out.

Where did you come from honey?

Bunny, startled, opened the back porch and the cat skittered out, wrapping herself between her feet. Bunny stooped over to pat her on the head, and felt an uncomfortable tug at the straps of her dress; one of them began to slowly tear.

Well that won’t do – I’ll have to mend that before Harry gets home. I must have shrunk this the last time I did the wash. I knew that new dryer was a mistake.

Bunny shooed the cat away. Penelope, confused, milled about the back porch for a few minutes.

“Scat, go home kitty. You’re probably missing your breakfast!!”

 Bunny scolded the orange and white swirled tabby, no bigger than seven pounds, declawed, and completely unaccustomed to the outdoors. Penelope found a bush by the side of the back porch and burrowed in, content to stay curled up there until the door re-opened.

Bunny re-entered the house, expecting the usual swish and clack of the old wooden screen door swinging shut behind her. Instead, the sliding door stood ajar until she pulled it shut. She slid out an unfamiliar kitchen chair, and sat down with her coffee.

Suddenly, she was starving—her head spun and she couldn’t get her bearings. Bunny was habituated to skipping breakfast. She never developed an appetite until closer to dinner, then she suppressed it with a couple more cigarettes and a few bottles of beer before Harry came home and the family sat down for their formal meal. Even then, Bunny barely ate. It was her way of controlling her figure—Harry made a habit of pointing out anytime Bunny did manage to gain a pound or two. He’d chide her.

“My, aren’t we tipping the scales lately? Getting into the baking chocolate again? Too much fudge?”

Why am I so hungry? All I can think about is toast and peanut butter. I don’t even like peanut butter.

Bunny ignored her hunger pangs and went on with her day. She needed to start the cleaning, but nothing was in place. She couldn’t find the mop or broom or washer and dryer. There wasn’t even a clothesline in the backyard, which had transformed again into a foreign landscape. Her home had become a maze and she was suddenly frightened—as though she had entered the wrong house. She set about each chore deliberately, not following through on any, nor with any cohesion on setting on to the next.

Every few minutes or so, another hem or seam would tear from her dress. She rummaged around once more in the junk drawer until she found them. She tacked a few safety pins to the straps of her dress, holding them in place for the moment. She’d bother with mending it later.

Right now she had to clean the floors, and iron and fold the laundry.

Samantha glanced up at the clock on the microwave. Noon.

The house permeated an overwhelming, almost nauseating, amount of pine cleaner, though Matthew and Samantha’s house had barely any hard flooring. Most of the house, except for the kitchen and bathrooms, was wall-to-wall carpeting. She hesitantly stepped into the family room; someone had saturated the rugs with floor cleaner. She thought she noticed pieces of furniture out of place, but was distracted by discomfort. She looked down at her torn dress, the straps digging in to her shoulders and the slight sensation of pin pricks with every few movements.

She was starving and sweating.

Amidst her bewilderment she madly craved a cigarette. Sam rooted around for the spare pack she kept in the junk drawer.

Where the hell are they?

She glanced around the kitchen. Her cigarettes lay opened—one visibly missing—with a pack of matches in the middle of the table. She remembered putting a full, unwrapped pack in the drawer some months back, when she hadn’t been smoking. Maybe she had snuck one in the meantime—she couldn’t remember. She couldn’t remember putting them out on the table. She couldn’t even remember what she had been doing all morning.

Then she noticed something odd in the corner of the kitchen, an ironing board was out—is that the toaster? Sam almost never used the ironing board; Matthew liked to iron his own clothes. He certainly wouldn’t have left a toaster upside down on top of a pile of his signature buttoned-downs. There were burn marks from the top of the toaster on a few of his lighter colored shirts. Bread crumbs littered the rest of the shirts and ironing board cover. Sam unplugged the toaster, wanting to avoid any future burns, or worse, a fire. She left the pile of shirts and crumbs, too stupefied to decide what to do about the mess.

She couldn’t make senses of it: missing moments of her morning that had culminated to noon, and with no explanation on how she got there. She had a vague memory of similar incidents occurring in the past, but with her lucidity at work—for the moment—she decided not to deal with any of it. She grabbed her purse and the pack of cigarettes and swept open the door to the garage. She threw on a jacket to cover up her bare shoulders and too-small dress that she still couldn’t remember when or why she put on. She entered the garage, leaving the pine cleaner and ironing board behind her. She needed a distraction—maybe a run to the local coffee house would calm her down.

She made it as far as the corner of the street before Bunny panicked. Bunny made several failed attempts before she was able to turn the car around, to get back down the street towards where she thought was her house.

What am I doing? Where do I think I am going? I don’t even have my license!

Thankfully Sam had left the garage door open. Bunny scraped up on the curb and managed to get within a few feet of the garage. She contemplated entering it.

Sam came to, with her head on the steering wheel and the car alarm going off. She instinctively grabbed at her keychain (still in the running ignition), turned off the car and hit the alarm button to silence the cadent screeching of the horn. Sam’s emotions stopped. Her awareness of her current situation suddenly became clouded by an overwhelming paralysis. She fled to the house, opened the door, dropped her jacket, and began shedding the dress that was too small and had already torn in many areas exposing Sam’s torso and lower back.

She realized Penelope was gone. Usually, she greeted her at the back entrance. Sam called and called, her dress half off and dangling about her waist. The bra she was wearing was put on inside out, but she barely noticed. She started to panic.

“Pen!! Penny!”

She slid open the sliding glass porch door, Penelope, crouched in a bush, was invisible to Sam, but Sam had a good idea where she might be hiding. This had happened before, but at that moment Sam was only cognizant of the current situation; barely cognizant of it at all. Sam carefully made her way to the bushes. It had rained recently, and the ground was full of mud and wet grass clippings. They caked onto her feet and clung to what was left of the dress’ hem line. The thorns of the barberries scratched at Sam’s bare torso as she lifted the frightened cat out of her hiding place.

Penelope, too, was covered head to toe in mud. Sam didn’t care. She clasped her close to her breast, now all but fully-exposed. Two houses down a neighbor mowed the lawn, as Sam saw him turn the mower in her direction, she scurried with Pen as fast as she could to get back in the house without him witnessing.

Exhausted, she took Penelope into the bedroom with her. She shed the last of the dress, leaving it in a heap next to the bed. She and Pen laid on the fresh sheets Bunny had replaced earlier that morning, covering them with mud and grass, but that was the least of Sam’s worries. And the least of the damage she had done today, she was sure of it.

She remembered only moments, flashes. She knew down in her core, her mind had betrayed her again. That she had been deceived by its ghosts and false memories. She had allowed ‘Bunny’ to consume her right mind and now Samantha, not ‘Bunny,’ would have to pay the price.

She tried to make reality go away by falling asleep, but the overwhelming stench of the floor pine cleaner became too much too bear. Sleep wouldn’t come. She dreaded Matthew’s return. She knew what was coming.

***

When Matthew started to pull into the garage, the light had been left on. He immediately noticed that Sam’s car had been parked askew with the front driver’s door left wide open. There was to be no way he would get his car, though compact, into what remained of his ‘spot.’ Sam did silly things like this somedays, so it gave him no immediate concern. He was preoccupied with the boys on his team. They were gunning for spots at the State track meet in all of the distance races he coached, and he knew he could get them there. Still buzzing from a great practice, Matthew left his car in the driveway so he could fix the angle of Sam’s and squeeze himself in.

He half skipped to the mailbox. Sam always left the mail in the box for him. He had an odd fixation with getting it, even though it was always mostly junk. Still, Sam was endeared by Matthew’s cute, yet somehow childish antics—the mail being one of many. So every day, she left it for him. Matthew could count on that.

Upon returning to Sam’s car with a wad of useless ads, a few bills and his weekly subscription to “The Economist,” Matthew noticed something else about the strange parking arrangement in the garage.

Oh no.

Sam’s right side, passenger mirror was hanging by wires, as though she had misjudged the side of the garage and struck the mirror, tried to back out, then tried to get back in, and ripped off the mirror in the process. She wound up overcompensating and turning too far left and into Matthew’s ‘side’ of the garage. Upon further inspection, she had also managed to swipe the side of the garage with sundry garden tools, scraping the exterior of her black hatchback.

She had completed her parking attempt by uplifting all of the garbage and recycling cans so they and their contents were strewn about the garage floor. She had finally come to rest, square on top of an old bar stool that had been used to prop up a radio and had sat directly to the left of the garbage cans. The radio was destroyed. The car’s carriage seemed to be stuck on the legs of the stool that was now nearly cracked in half.

Matthew knew he would have to deal with all of the disorder later, but he needed to tend to Samantha first. He cast aside the mail, grabbed his bags out from his car, and quickly shut the garage door. The neighbors did not need any more of a show than they probably had gotten that day.

It was 6:30 pm. The house was quiet; an overwhelming smell of pine cleaner clung in the air. Matthew had to open two or three windows and turn on a ceiling fan to keep himself from gagging. He inspected the living room. The furniture had been rearranged, but in a way that was nonsensical, as though the house had been uprooted by a Wizard-of-Oz-tornado and spun in circles before being plunked back down in the same spot.

Follow the Yellow Brick Road.

Matthew’s mind raced.

The TV leaned catawampus against the wall, imperceptibly, yet dangerously sliding all the way down; it had already begun to leave a track mark from the top corner, digging into the wall’s soft plaster. The kitchen chairs stopped Matthew in his tracks. In an eerie arrangement, all four were placed on top of the couch and loveseat—facing each other like stiff, awkward guests. Each uninvited and just as leery of the others’ attendance.

Matthew dropped his school bags and running gear from practice. He assessed what he could from the front entrance, dreading the damage control to come. He quickly made his way to the kitchen, not yet calling out to Sam. He half observed, from the corner of his eye, the mess of his burnt, stained shirts atop the ironing board and under the kitchen toaster. He opened the cupboard they used as a medicine cabinet. He grabbed the full bottle of risperidone.

Patient: Samantha K Westfield. Filled: 03/13/2015.

It was May 25th.

He blamed himself. He had been spending so much time working at school, prepping for his masters exam, and getting his boys ready for State, he had not noticed Sam was skipping her meds.

When did her behavior change?

He took the full bottle into the bedroom, carefully stepping around the piles of clothes that led from the typically spotless bathroom and hallway into their master bedroom. Every aspect of their normally immaculately clean house was uprooted and in disarray. Matthew inspected the chaos on the bedroom floor. He recognized a dress Sam had obsessively kept from high school, though it was far gone from fitting her. The straps were torn, stuck full of safety pins, some open and rusted; the rest of the dress was covered in mud.

Sam lie naked and still, curled up in the pile of sheets that had been changed since that same morning. She faced him. Her eyes, never blinking, remained fixated on an invisible (but not to Sam) spot on the floor. Her bare shoulders and torso revealed small prickles of blood from having clumsily “mended” the dress, and others from having recovered Penelope from the barberries in the backyard.

“Sweetie, what have you been doing all day?”

Matthew tried not to sound patronizing, but in situations like this he did not know how to avoid it. No matter what he said, Sam’s reaction remained the same blank stare at the ground with its hypnotic grasp on her. It was as though she were a little kid and he had caught her with her hands full of cookie dough. Matthew did not know if Sam was aware of the mess—the destruction—she had caused that day. He did not want her to know; did not want to have to be the one to explain it to her.

Sam’s breaks had always been non-violent, but creepy, delusional, and psychotic. The last time it happened she had spent a two weeks in a psychiatric ward, convinced she was her late Aunt Katie, and that they had her confused with someone else. Her Aunt Katie had died more than two decades before in a car accident at the age of twenty-five.

Sam was convinced the accident was no accident—that Aunt Katie had intended on killing herself. Sam only met Aunt Katie months before she died. Still, the “memories” of Katie’s life haunted Sam, and even when Sam was stable, she spent hours chronicling every last detail of what she imagined Katie’s life to be in journals. Sam became convinced Katie had been channeling her former and current thoughts through her—because no one else in the family believed in her. In Katie. In Sam.

Matthew always—in “situations” such as this—had to check his judgement. His wife was not her illness; his wife was not a child. She was a young, beautiful, brilliant writer, musician, chef—all careers she couldn’t remain in due to her illness. She tried many other avenues only to discover walking out on jobs held her highest success rate.

Sam took up a new purpose over the course of the past few years, and many years since her last psychotic break. She was the “housewife.” She cleaned, cooked, and organized everything in the house: what they’d eat, where they’d go, who they’d go out with—though, they didn’t have many friends. She worked in the morning on the house, laundry, kitchen, vacuuming. She ran and did yoga in the later morning and afternoon. She attended her appointments (so many appointments) and she cooked dinners for Matthew and her on the nights when he was home.

But she was lonely. She was lonely all of the time, even when Matthew was around. Sometime in the early spring, Sam had made up her mind to stop taking her pills. Once again. Just an “experiment.” She was not—in her mind’s eye—at risk for hurting herself or anyone else.

So she just stopped. Just like that. Filled the prescription on March 13th, 2015 and never refilled it. Never so much as popped one pill. Her follow up appointment with her shrink wasn’t until June.

“Sammy-lyn? Was is Aunt Katie this time?”

“No. Grandma Bunny.”

She answered, weeping silently and clinging to Penelope, covered in mud, but audibly purring. Matthew put the prescription bottle on the table beside the bed. Sam stared blankly at the pills, then looked up. Tears pouring down her flushed cheeks, as though she were running a fever. He sat next to her on the bed and stroked her long blond hair. It was disheveled and knotted. He grabbed a brush and began to slowly smooth it out.

“You know we need to go now.”

Fully lucid now, she acknowledged Matthew’s command.

“I know.”

 

 

——————–

Megan Paske studied Journalism at UW Madison and was published in various newspapers as a columnist. Since then, her fiction has been featured in literary publications, including Forge and Riding Light Review.  She is currently working on a memoir of her life with Bipolar Disorder. She uses her creativity as an outlet and as advocacy for mental illness and its place within the creative arts. She lives with her husband in Neenah, Wisconsin.

Serendipity

By MH Lee

After the utter darkness of the night before, the blue dawn was almost a shock to him, as if he hadn’t expected daylight to ever come again. The bus had been late coming out of Tucson, over an hour. Serendipity. Because of the delay Bobby had seen the first bright fingers of morning in the parking lot of the El Paso bus station. He had entered the station in the same blinding pitch he had been riding through all night, but just as they reloaded onto the charter, he glimpsed the beginnings. The steely light began to give definition to his surroundings. He noticed palm trees all around the edges of the lot. He had forgotten that they would grow in Texas—or else he had never known. He hadn’t really been concerned with trees in his past.

As the bus pulled away down Santa Fe Avenue, past the Scottish Rite Temple, Bobby realized that there were lots of things he had never noticed before, like the way the buildings here looked different than they did in Oklahoma or Missouri or California.

Something about the buildings here seemed open and clean. Maybe it was the contrast to the view beyond. The driver had said that Mexico lay only half a mile or so outside their windows. All that separated him in El Paso from strangers in another country was water. In some places that water was hardly more than a trickle, but in others the river was a rushing gulf, hungrily claiming the bodies of some desperate souls who tried to cross it.

Here in El Paso the river seemed like nothing, like a winding cattle road or a split-rail fence or just a line drawn in the dust, marking the end of one man’s place.

Bobby tried to focus on the houses of those other people as they sped past the city. Was that really Mexico? Was he seeing some foreign land? The place looked so barren, dusty and rocky. The houses were so close together that the clusters looked like tenement apartments with houses piled one on top of another. He wondered how those people could breathe so close together, packed in like prisoners. He had never had enough space, not in the hills, not in the desert, not in the faceless cities where no one knew his name. It had taken Bobby his entire life to figure out that his claustrophobia wasn’t caused by other people or their nearness to him. He just carried it around with him, like other people carried fears of flying or memories of their husband’s death. Some things just walked around inside a person whether they wanted to use them or not. Bobby figured that maybe he was so afraid of what might happen if people were close to him that he tortured anyone who made the mistake of asking him the time of day. What if they knew him inside? What if they could see his thoughts and his fears? What if they realized that he was nothing, an orphan, a beggar, an old lost man? Where would he ever be able to go if he lost that power to protect himself?

Bobby tried to stretch his aching back. He was getting too old and brittle to travel like this. Mid-fifties might as well be mid-eighties as tired as he felt. Running from himself was exhausting work. He was ready to retire. That was why he had accepted Francine Mathison’s offer when it came. There was Serendipity again, trying to catch him now that he was slowing down. He had only been out of prison for eight or nine months this time when the investigator she had hired came to his door.

The man had been strange, quiet and almost rude, like he was already late for the appointment of his life. Bobby had sneered when the man explained who had sent him.

“Statute of limitations, man,” he had said as he snapped the screen shut in the strange man’s face. The man looked tired. He hadn’t shaved in a while.

“Mr. Dowty,” he had said quickly before Bobby slammed the inner door, “Mrs. Mathison doesn’t wish to prosecute you for anything. She merely had me find you to extend this invitation.”

The odd, thin man had reached into his cheap, gray suit pocket then and extracted a small, purplish envelope bearing the name Robert J. Dowty. Something about seeing that name made Bobby feel nervous, as if Robert J. Dowty was another person he had met a few times but never really knew. Bobby wanted to take the envelope just to see what was inside. Maybe there was something about his mother. Maybe she was sick or dying. The old Mathison lady had been her best friend, after all. He needed to open that envelope—but something in his mind told him that it might explode if he touched it or vanish into a puff of smoke—or that someone might come rushing toward him yelling, “Thief!” So he had stood without moving, staring through the screen at the man whose ears were much too large for his head.

“For your convenience Mrs. Mathison has provided a round-trip bus ticket to the event and complete instructions,” the hook-nosed man said matter-of-factly, proffering those articles with his other hand.

“What’s she want with me?” Bobby asked bluntly. He squinted at the man as if he could somehow read the answer in the lines of his face.

“I’m sure I don’t know. If you want to find out, I suggest that you ask Mrs. Mathison.”

Then, for several moments, both men had stood motionless, waiting each other out. Bobby finally decided he was tired of looking at the gangly little man and opened the screen to take the items.

The scrawny investigator had merely dusted off his hands as if the whole affair had been dirty business and, with an abrupt turn, headed toward his rental car. “Good afternoon, Mr. Dowty,” he had said over his shoulder. When his car backed out, Bobby imagined that the man had driven just out of sight and then stopped to laugh and sneer at his face still frozen in the doorway of his trailer house.

That had always been the problem with Bobby. He couldn’t just accept things as they came. Everything was a question, an ordeal, a battle to come out on top. He wondered what kind of people they were who could just be happy with their lives. What made those people tick differently than he? Who were those men who lived in brightly colored, cheery little Mexican houses, one on top of another? And why did he have the impression that those poor people across the river were so much freer than he, just as poor on his side?

Bobby thought of a book he had read from the prison library, some old diary written by a girl who had died in World War II because she was Jewish. Bobby hadn’t planned to read that book. He had picked it up by mistake, but once he had started reading, he had wanted to know what happened. He had felt weird reading some girl’s private thoughts from so long ago. Of course he hadn’t read the whole book. Some parts were boring so he had skipped around a lot, and he had been really disgusted when the book just ended—without any answers like regular books. He figured maybe that was because a person was never really finished like a story that’s made up. Just to be sure he had asked Mrs. Mumphrey, the prison librarian, if part of the pages at the end of that book were missing. She had seemed surprised that Bobby would have chosen to read such a book, but after only one double-take, she had explained what had happened, why the book had ended. The little girl had been taken to a prison, only unlike him, she hadn’t committed any crimes. She was just from a religion that Germans didn’t like much. Bobby had been a little sad to find out that the girl had died in her prison, that she had never grown up to leave home or drink beer or have a boyfriend with a swell truck.

Mrs. Mumphrey had suggested other books Bobby might want to read about the girl and her war. He hadn’t checked any of them out, but for some reason he couldn’t help thinking about that girl. He had gone back to the library on a Friday, when Mrs. Mumphrey was off, to flip through the other books, looking for signs of the girl. He hadn’t wanted Mrs. Mumphrey to know he was too interested. He was content to let her think that he wanted no more knowledge added to his brain than what was provided with her “Words for the Week” board on the library wall. Every week there were two new words that everyone could learn if they wanted to have a better vocabulary when they got back to the real world. Most of the words didn’t interest Bobby, but one day Bobby had seen a word that kept his attention for a solid minute: Serendipity. The word looked so impressive up there on the board, long and beautiful. Serendipity. The definition had read, “An assumed talent for making discoveries by accident.” That had been the moment that Bobby discovered his real purpose in life. He had a knack for finding out things when he wasn’t even trying. The girl in the war prison was one of those things. After that Bobby had set about his task of finding books with a new vigor. He even started to feel almost proud of his newfound talent.

One book had pictures of other people like the girl who had died horribly. They had ended with their bodies piled up like the weary Mexican houses. Another book had told about a fence where free people snuck away to talk to their friends through raggedy holes. Sometimes they took them food or blankets or hopeful news about their families.

Seeing the river in El Paso reminded Bobby of that fence, where hope was nearly all that survived on both sides. He wondered if his life would have been different, if he would have hope, if he had been born in one of those tumbled-up houses in Mexico.

Bobby looked around him at the other riders on the bus, wondering, for maybe the first time in his life, what other people wanted from their lives. You could see where they came from: mothers with their children, young guys in college t-shirts, old people with their sun visors and fanny packs. The harder thing was to figure where they were going. Was anyone looking at him and knowing that he was riding through the desert dawn straight into his past?

He glanced to his right, where a middle-aged couple dozed together on one pillow propped between them. They were covered with a gigantic blanket, and the woman’s mouth hung wide open. In front of them sat two teenagers. The girl was rubbing at a kink in her neck as she carelessly threw her empty chip bag on the floor. Her boyfriend stared out the window. He was wearing earphones that were turned up so loud that Bobby could make out the beat of the songs from his own seat.

The woman directly in front of Bobby had a small baby all bundled up and another child that she kept yelling at in Spanish. Bobby didn’t speak any Spanish, but he could understand the tone of her voice clearly enough. They had gotten on the bus at the El Paso stop, and Bobby had noticed that their carry-on luggage had been dripping wet. Bobby thought again of the Rio Grande and turned away to look across at the windows on the other side of the bus.

Most of the people were like him. They had been on since Tucson or longer, and although they never asked each other’s names, they seemed to have formed some sort of alliance. They were the riders. When the bus driver swerved wildly in the night, they discussed amongst themselves the dangers. They prompted a volunteer to ask for an extra coffee stop. When the air conditioner wasn’t cool enough, they complained to each other and swapped stories of their hottest summers, of heat stroke and sunburns and cool mountain streams. When a baby cried, they recalled other tears, other babies, other nights on long, winding roads. But it wasn’t just the conversation—something about the people around him made Bobby feel like part of a community. The feeling fit awkwardly but he thought he could learn to like it. Maybe he could stay on that bus forever, living on the outskirts of life. It would be easier than going home.

He had dreaded this trip since the day he left, knowing that eventually almost everyone returns to where they came from. Sometimes people waited until they were old and dying before they went to make amends or see things one last time. Sometimes they got there by chance because of a random choice they made one day. Bobby couldn’t be certain but he was pretty sure that no matter how long they waited, they were all as scared as he was.

Bobby rummaged in his old, worn duffel until he found the book, the dog-eared Bible that the prison chaplain had given him on the day he was released from prison. The chaplain had talked to him a lot through the years, and though Bobby couldn’t say why, he had listened intently on more than one occasion. On the morning of Bobby’s last day inside, the chaplain had brought the old, used Bible to Bobby and had marked a page for him in the book of Luke. Bobby had read the highlighted passage dozens of times since that day, and as he traced it now with his finger, he felt the truth of blame deep in his bones.

“…And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living. And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want…”

The story went on to tell about how the son had realized his sins and had gone home to ask to be a servant, but when he got there his father kissed him and made a big party to celebrate, which really ticked off the older son, who had stayed home and been good all those years. Bobby could understand the part about the riotous living. He had certainly wasted more substance than most people could expect to gain in a lifetime. He even understood the brother. There he was, taking up all the slack for his brother, but as soon as he came home, everyone acted like he was a rock star or something. The part that Bobby couldn’t quite see—the part his conscience didn’t really believe—was the part about the father and his open arms. Even if his father hadn’t been bitter to start with, wouldn’t all those years of his son’s being wasteful have done the trick? Maybe long ago in Bible times, people were more forgiving of their children, or maybe some people loved their sons so much that it didn’t matter what they’d done. They’d always welcome them back.

Even though Bobby knew his story wouldn’t end that way, even though he already felt the cold certainty of being turned away, he couldn’t help but press onward. Serendipity and Francine Mathison had given him an opportunity to go home again. He had nothing to lose and probably nothing to gain, but he felt a wriggling queasiness in the pit of his stomach. He hadn’t felt that particular sensation in a very long time, but he thought perhaps it might be hope.

He ran his fingers over the twentieth verse one last time before he closed the Bible. He wasn’t really reading the verses anymore. He knew the entire passage by heart, and even after the book was zipped back safely inside his bag, he replayed the words carefully over and over in his mind.

“…And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him…

 

 

——————–

Melissa Heath-Lee is a Foster Care and Adoption Recruiter for the State of Oklahoma, where she lives with her husband Peery. She’s been writing for nearly 40 years while also pursuing careers in the arts, education, and vacuum cleaner sales. Her short stories, flash fiction and poetry have been published in journals such as The Quotable and Green Eggs and Hamlet, and her plays have been produced in Texas and Oklahoma.

The Silencers

By Vic Cavalli

Mike Armaiolo considered himself a premium machinist, but when Louis Capice came into his business and stealthily requested a silencer for his 500 Nitro Express, he felt challenged and slightly vulnerable.  It was awkward trying to disguise it.  The 500 Nitro is a loud, formidable rifle, and when Louis motioned Mike’s ear closer and whispered the order, he said, “Of course,” but he wasn’t sure of himself.  From a practical point of view, silencer diagrams from prison came to his mind.  He had done time with a gun genius nicknamed The Deadlifter who had sketched exploded diagrams of esoteric firearm devices, all of them illegal.  Mike’s memory raced through this library and got a few good hits, but he still wrestled with how the diagrams could be adapted to a double-barrel design like the 500’s.

Louis remained at his ear for a few seconds after his order, as if he was listening for the snap of a twig and readying himself to fire.  Then his head slowly moved away from Mike and he looked at him squarely to speak honestly.

“They are hunting me, Mike,” he whispered.  “I know it sounds insane, but they are all coming back.”

His face was taut and his eyes looked around to confirm what they already knew, that they were alone in the machine shop.

“At first the scenes came back in flickers; I was alone in the bush, listening and barely moving.”

Mike had been building guns for Louis for over twenty years, and he considered him a good customer and to an extent a friend, but now he was confiding in him as if they were close.  Louis looked around again, clearly nervous, and confessed.

“Not in dreams, Mike.  In the dark while I’m lying in bed trying to rest. I’m actually seeing them. All of those sons of bitches!”

“Who?”

“First, the guides walked away like silvery, poor quality chalk drawings whose edges became sharper, crisper, then smeared and blurry and then pure black and gone.”

“What the fuck,” Mike whispered back, thinking to himself how surreal Louis’ artistic language seemed.

“Then I was alone in the bush, in absolute darkness, with distant roars and cackles and nearby twigs dryly cracking.  And then the thin white pencil outline of my first lion’s profile emerged and then he turned to me and the lines thickened and became luminous and he roared full out, I swear, exactly as he did the moment before I blew the bastard away with my 500 Nitro, and then I shit a bit in the bed and jumped up in a full sweat and turned on the lights and there was fuck all in the empty room!”

“Fuck me,” Mike whispered.

Louis was deadly serious.  He looked around and then flinched when he saw a woman’s figure approaching the front door and then heard the bell ring as she entered. She was obviously out of place in a machine shop but seemed to know why she was there.  She was wearing a conservative faint pink dress and a string of small white pearls, and her auburn hair was braided near the temples and pulled back into a delicate crown.  She was wearing red lip stick and she obviously had self-respect.  Her expression was serious.

“Can I help you?” Mike asked her.

“My husband Carl asked me to pick up something you made for him.”

“You are Carl Rimpianto’s wife?”

She nodded, and Mike brought out a small box from the back room, rang up her bill, and she left with the door ringing.  Her hair lifted slightly in the wind as she walked to the left and away in the sunlight.  Mike looked back at Louis and they quickly regained their previous confessional intimacy.

“You’re not bullshitting me, are you Louis?”

“Mike . . .”

His face said it all.  He looked like a man genuinely concerned about being committed.

“Now, it’s not just that first lion; they all come back as soon as I turn off the lights.”

“They?”

“It’s a fucking herd of lions, rhinos, water buffalos, and hippos, and all of them tangled

together and roaring full blast as if I never silenced them.”

“Fuck me,” Mike whispered.

“I’ve got to kill them again, Mike.  And this time for good.  That’s why I need the silencer for my 500 Nitro.”

“How the fuck is that supposed to work, Louis.  You can’t just start blasting at hallucinations.  Somebody in the real world is going to get killed.  You need to talk to your doctor, not me.”

“They are real. No one will get caught in the cross-fire. You make the silencer and I’ll go camping in a remote location close to the Yukon border.  I’ll kill them all the first night and then return.  It will all be finished with and I will be able to have my life back.”

Mike was silent and in deep thought for at least a full two minutes; then he said, as if breeching a promise of silence, “You should take Carl Rimpianto with you.”

“The guy whose wife was just in here?  Why?”

“Because she just left with the silencer I machined for his 458 Winchester.”

“What the fuck!” Louis said loudly.

“Listening to you is like listening to Carl’s voice being played back to me on a

tape recorder,” Mike whispered.

Louis’ face turned a grave pale grey and he yelled, “Don’t fuck with me, Mike.”

“I swear I’m not, Louis.  Your order today is the seventh silencer ordered this month. The neighbors have been complaining about me setting off fireworks at night in my back yard.  They’ve got no idea that I’ve been testing silencers.”

“What the fuck,” Louis whispered.

“Yeah, what the fuck,” Mike responded in even a lower voice.

And then Mike began filling out Louis’ order form.

 

 

——————–

Vic Cavalli’s fiction, poetry, photography, and visual art have been published in literary journals in Canada, the United States, England, and Australia.  His visual art can be viewed at  vittoriocavalli.com.  His novel The Road to Vermilion Lake, is forthcoming from Harvard Square Editions in July 2017.

The Misfit on the Island of Misfit Toys

By James Valvis

t1

eddy arrived at the Island of Misfit Toys. He was supposed to be a Teddy Bear for a nice little boy or girl, but he had sailed on the wrong ship and ended up here. He was soon surrounded by other toys, many of whom seemed broken and unbalanced.

“We’re all misfits like you,” the first toy said. He was a bus with square wheels.

“Listen, I’m not–”

“Let us introduce ourselves,” an eyeless doll said. “I’m Betty and my eyes are sewn into my chest. Let me lift my dress so you can see.”

Sure enough there were eyes where one might find nipples on a little girl. It disgusted Teddy.

“Some factory worker with a sick mind,” she said, shrugging. “What is your deformity?”

He needed to look away.  “Well… I…”

“Don’t rush him,” said the bus with square wheels. “Let him work up to it. It takes some time to come around to admitting you’re a freak.”

All the misfit toys laughed and agreed.

“Jack, help him out by admitting your condition.”

“I’m a Jackal in the Box,” said a dog on a coiled wire. Blood was painted on his face. He was very frightening. “No kid wants a Jackal in the Box. That’s why I hate kids.”

“You hate kids?” Teddy said.

“We all hate kids,” said a cowboy who was riding a llama. “Kids are the worst. I’d like to round them up and–”

“Hey, they don’t want us,” Betty said. “So we don’t want them.”

“But… but,” Teddy stuttered. “It shouldn’t be too hard to get you round wheels, or get someone to sew your eyes on your face, and there’s probably some disturbed kid out there who might want a Jackal in the Box. And as for the rest of you–”

“You don’t talk like a misfit,” a spotted rhino said.

“No, he doesn’t,” said a gun who shot mustard. “Not at all.”

“I’m not,” Teddy said. “I’m perfectly fine.”

“Nobody here is perfectly fine. That’s why we’re here.”

“Well, I am,” Teddy Bear said. “I’m exactly how I should be. Maybe I have a bit too much fluff in the midsection, but otherwise I’m normal.”

“We hate normal,” the misfits said in unison.

They began to move in on him.

“Wait a minute,” Teddy said. “Wait. Listen.”

“No, you listen,” the bus said. “We’re misfits. We don’t like normal.”

Teddy was still backing up. Behind him was a wall. Toys were to his left, right, and front. “But if everyone’s a misfit, is anyone really a misfit? Isn’t the normal one the misfit?”

“Normality is evil,” Betty said. “That’s the law of our Island! No normal toys!”

“Everyone must fit in!” roared the Jackal in the Box. “Everyone must be different!”

“This isn’t the Island of Normal Toys!” yelled the mustard gun.

“Everyone must be a misfit!” the spotted rhino screamed. “Missing arms! Missing legs! Something! Get him! Make him a misfit! Make him a misfit!”

And so they did.

 

——————–

James Valvis has placed poems or stories in Ploughshares, River Styx, Arts & Letters, Southern Indiana Review, Adirondack Review, Natural Bridge, Rattle, Hot Metal Bridge, The Sun, and many others. His poetry was featured in Verse Daily. His fiction was chosen for Sundress Best of the Net. His work has also been a finalist for the Asimov’s Readers’ Award. A former US Army soldier, he lives near Seattle.

Reviving Ophelia

By Cassie Title

i’ve been hearing lists of names since nursery school. We would sing them with the cantor: Elohei Avraham, Elohei Yitz-hak, v’Elohei Ya-ah-kov. The sanctuary was mahogany pews and wood paneled walls and elegant white candles dripping wax. There were stairs there, special stairs, carpeted in deep blue, the same color as the bimah they held up. There were sandy bricks on the wall behind the bimah, behind the ark and the Torahs and the white curtain that covered them.

There were more lists of names: Elohei Sarah, Elohei Rivkah, Elohei Leah, v’Elohei Ra-hel. We’d sing them with the cantor. There were plaques on the walls, too: hundreds of golden tiles with names that seemed both familiar but not quite modern, like a generation removed, names like Edythe Hershman and Sid Schlossman and Isaac Weisman. We would sing more songs and read more prayers and recite things from memory. We would open our siddurs and press the smooth pages down. If we dropped the siddur, we’d have to kiss it after picking it up. The rabbi wouldn’t say anything, but we knew that God was watching.

Of course, we didn’t know what God was. We knew he had many names: Adonai, Elohim, Lord, Yahweh (which we weren’t allowed to say). We knew he wanted us to read the Torah, and to say blessings, and to drink grape juice from shiny, silver Kiddish cups. We knew he was friends with Rabbi Steinberg. We knew he was involved in some really interesting stories—tales of a magic staff separating water, of a tower that stretched to the sky, of a father about to kill a son, stopped by an angel.

Sometimes, Rabbi Steinberg would take the Torah out of the ark. We’d all have to stand up. He would walk around the room, and we’d reach our siddurs out to the aisle, touch them to the Torah, and kiss the book. Other times, we’d have to stand on our tip toes and chant kadosh, kadosh, kadosh. We knew the words meant holy, but we didn’t know what holy meant.

 

I met Josh on a park bench. It was one of those ferociously cold winter days, yet the sun wouldn’t stop shining. I’m not quite sure why, but I wanted to be out in the frozen air, so I was reading in the sun and squinting. He offered me a pair of cheap sunglasses.

It seemed like something that never actually happens in real life, so I went along with it. When he asked me what I did, I told him that I was a professional slacker. He understood that I was in graduate school.

I think I liked him instantly, which never used to happen. I’m not sure I can really explain it. It used to take me months to like potential suitors. We would go on five dates and I’d do weird things like wait two weeks to call them back or act like their conversational skills weren’t impressing me at all, and then as soon as they would write me off, I’d decide I was madly in love with them.

But Josh was different. It seemed like he talked to me because he genuinely wanted to talk to somebody, not because he was trying to hit on me. He was wearing a collared shirt and slacks with neatly parted gelled hair—all perfectly, disgustingly made up—but his footgear didn’t go with the rest of him. I must’ve liked the way his shoes were scuffed. I’ve never trusted anybody with clean shoes.

He was writing a book about Eskimos. It seemed like a luxurious thing to do. I pictured igloos, ice castles, palaces of hardened snow. And then I saw fairy tale princesses, swans in carriages, silver skates making stitches on ponds—I’m not sure why. It’s not like they had anything to do with Eskimos—I was just picturing some fantastical winter wonderland. When he told me the study was “anthropological in nature,” I thought of names: Inuit, Aleut. I thought of land bridges, animal furs, ice fishing. Of people who crossed the Bering Strait tens of thousands of years ago. Walking over Beringia, and ending up in a different continent. Did they even know they were leaving Asia behind?

I was writing a book about nothing. Eventually, it would have to be about something. It was unclear how much longer I could keep getting funded for my Ph.D. in history. I was interested in monarchial politics, the kings and queens of Europe. How they were pretty much all related, so at one point, all of the wars were really just family disputes on a worldwide scale.

He wanted to see if he could call on me for “my expertise in historical matters.” He said it like he knew it sounded ridiculous. I gave him points for that.

 

Before he died, my grandfather would come to our house every Friday night. We weren’t particularly observant, but we always celebrated Shabbat. I would help my mother bake challah—we’d mix the eggs and the oil, twist and braid the dough, watch the yeast rise, and brush it with egg whites. This was my favorite part—getting to use a paintbrush on food. It felt rebellious—like how I felt the time I snuck into the kitchen to try the yeast mixture while the dough was rising, thinking it would taste like raw cookie dough.

My mother would make roast chicken and carrots and string beans and chicken soup with matzo balls and noodles. We’d have chopped liver, which was creamy and sweet, and red wine for the adults and grape juice for me. I’d chant the blessing when my mother lit the candles, and I’d watch the fire leak light onto the table, orange in its glow.

After dinner, I’d help my mother polish the candlesticks and the fancy silverware we used just for Shabbat. We’d wash the lacy tablecloth we only used on special occasions. We’d have coconut macaroons for dessert, even if it wasn’t Passover. And when I was really young, my mother would sing and my father and I would dance, my feet atop his, spinning around and around until he twirled me up the stairs to my bedroom, and tucked me in before I went to sleep.

 

The second time I saw Josh it was snowing. We ducked into a coffee shop.

We pored over the chalkboard menus. I ordered something embarrassing. He paid.

We talked about caramel macchiatos.

__What are they? He asked.

I told him that they didn’t exist.

He seemed intrigued.

__Starbucks has bastardized the term. A macchiato is an espresso shot with a couple of dollops of foam. The drink that most people associate with a caramel macchiato is really just a caramel latte with vanilla syrup.

__So you have expertise in caffeinated beverages, too.

He said that. I didn’t correct him.

 

While I was in graduate school, going home became strange. Ever since my grandfather died, my family no longer did Shabbat dinner, we rarely went to the synagogue I grew up going to, and when we did, I hardly recognized any of the people or the tunes or the names. I used to love visiting: driving around the suburban streets, counting how many minutes it would take that one traffic light on Lakeview Ave to switch to green, wandering through Millers Park, swinging on the swings, dipping my shoes into the gravel, watching kids cup fresh mud in their small hands.

Now, everything feels even stranger. It’s like looking at your reflection in a mirror after getting a drastic new haircut—it takes a couple minutes to even recognize yourself. Despite the fact you know it’s you, and nothing has really changed, everything seems different, far more different than you could ever have imagined.

 

__Let me make you dinner, Josh said on the phone.

I paused for a minute, maybe two.

__Oh, no. The dreaded two-minute pause.

__What? I said.

__You’re trying to figure a way out of having dinner with me.

__Wow, so insecure.

He laughed.

__What can I bring? I asked.

__Nothing, he said. Just your company.

Later that day, I put on my snow boots and walked to his place. I looked at the trees covered in ice, counting as I passed them by: maple, spruce, elm. I stared at dogs being walked: golden retrievers, beagles, German shepherds. When I got to his apartment, and he opened the door, I found myself making another list: great smile, witty sense of humor, warm, bellowing voice.

__Greetings, I said.

__Salutations, he laughed. Won’t you come in?

I did. He led me to the table, but nothing was on it. I sat down.

__So we’re having an invisible dinner?

__Clever, he said. But not quite.

He poured some wine, handed me a glass. Then I followed him into his living room.

There was a picnic blanket on the floor, topped with candles and fresh cut flowers in mason jars. There was salad and steak and orzo with feta and grape tomatoes. It was all of my favorite things. I couldn’t remember mentioning them to him.

We started eating.

__How’s your dissertation going?

It wasn’t going well. In fact, I was starting to think that it didn’t matter at all anymore.

__Fine, I told him.

__I’d love to read it when you’re done.

__As soon as you show me your Eskimo manuscript.

He laughed.

__I’m afraid to show it to you, with all of your historical and research and writing experience. Besides, you’ll totally hate the part about how ancient aliens came to Alaska and Canada and invaded the native peoples and then their descendants became the Inuit and the Aleuts.

__Oh, okay, I smirked.

__See, this is exactly what I was afraid of. You laughing at my belief in ancient aliens. A guy can’t show his crazy this early in a relationship.

__Oh, so this is a relationship?

__I sure hope so. He laughed. Then he got up to go to the kitchen, where he stayed for five minutes.

__Josh?

No answer. I heard a machine.

__Have you been taken? Are they here?

He came back in.

__Funny, he said. He handed me a mug.

__What’s this?

__Oh, the ancient aliens came and made some caramel macchiatos. I thought you might like one.

I said nothing, and just grinned.

 

Before Josh, there was Ryan and Aaron and Jeb, all musicians: guitarist and bassist and saxophonist.

I had a habit for dating inappropriate men. Men who were too young, too old, too unemployed. Too into alcohol, cocaine, heroin. Too Morman, too Jewish, not Jewish enough.

They were baristas and college drop outs, exotic pet trainers and moving men—but if you were to ask any of them, their “true calling was music.” Josh worked at an app company. He seemed somewhat successful. He didn’t make me feel embarrassed walking down the street with him, even when he took my hand, switched our glasses (we had the same prescription, oddly enough) and insisted on waltzing through the sidewalk. Then he’d walk me to my door—not to my building entrance, but to my actual apartment door—without ever expecting to come inside. He’d kiss me slowly, slide his fingers through my hair, and then he’d tip his imaginary hat to me before leaving. Granted, he only did this a handful of times, because we only went out a handful of times. And then the last time, he simply said “he was falling for me,” and would see me tomorrow.

 

Growing up, I had a new name every day. My parents couldn’t keep track, so they’d keep a list on the refrigerator. Lily, Chloe, Olivia, Roxanne, Layla, then back to Ophelia, which is actually my name.

I couldn’t understand how I had to commit to just one thing, one name, one identity. I wasn’t sure why I had to choose, why it was so important, why it mattered at all.

I don’t remember settling on Ophelia, but I must have finally accepted the name I was given.

 

My mother has developed an obsession with Ancestry.com. It started as a hobby, something to pass her newly retired time with. Now, there are lists of potential relatives all over her computer screen. There’s a photo of the house my grandfather lived in as a toddler in Queens, the church my great grandmother was baptized in in Irvington, New Jersey. This brought up questions: my great grandmother was baptized? We knew one leg of the family was non-practicing Irish Catholic, but to be baptized? It seemed like a serious lapse in familial knowledge.

Then there are the passenger records of ships from Galicia docking in New York with names like Clara and Haskell and John. In school, my friends’ families came from places like India and Romania and Switzerland. Everyone in my family was fourth generation Newark, New Jersey. We had to go back a fifth generation for any sort of cultural identity, which always turned out to be Galicia, a place that no longer exists.

There is a myth in my family, that my father’s grandfather was a British pirate. I may have been the one who started it: his name was John and he was from England and I was in sixth grade reading Treasure Island, so I convinced myself that he was Long John Silver. I eventually realized this wasn’t the case, but I still thought I had “this much” British in me. So, I started speaking in an awful English accent for a full month. Nobody—not my mother or my father or the very grandfather whose father I bestowed the pirate identity onto—had the heart to correct me. It turned out that the British side was really from Galicia, too.

There is another myth in my family, about being Irish on my mother’s side. My grandmother spent years telling us she was Irish. I took to studying Celtic myth, Irish folk songs, Gaelic. But my mother sorted through the archives of huge steamships and censuses and churches and temples and street addresses, and it turned out that the Irish part of the family had actually originated in Galicia, too.

I asked her about this Galicia, which was not to be confused with the one in Spain. She told me it no longer existed. I didn’t understand how a place could physically be there but not, how a place could be called something else. She told me my great great grandparents lived in what is now Poland or Ukraine. But back then it was Galicia. They were Eastern European, Ashkenazi Jews. They spoke Yiddish, not Polish. When they got to America, they settled in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Newark. They married other people from Galicia. They cooked corned beef and cabbage and kreplach and worked as seamstresses and mechanics and food purveyors. They had kids who forgot their language, their cooking, their culture. They were part of a world that forgot their country existed.

 

Josh never saw me tomorrow. On his way back from walking me home, an icicle fell on his head. They say in Russia, 100 people die a year from falling icicles. They can impale you, like a dagger—even in America. I read about it in the local daily newspaper.

It seemed like an impossible thing: death by sharp snow. I knew he had a thing for ice and igloos, so I wondered if his death was poetic, if he would have approved. I didn’t even know him, not really. But I put on a nice black dress and stared at his open casket and thought about giving my condolences to his parents, who I didn’t know and didn’t know me. But I knew that it was all my fault that he was dead, that he never would have walked that way if he hadn’t been walking me home. So I left without talking to anyone and got myself a caramel macchiato, because the drink didn’t exist and Josh didn’t exist and where I came from didn’t exist, so what did any of it matter?

 

My mother used to sing in the choir at temple. She wore these long cream robes and sat with the other members in stiff-backed chairs to the left of the rabbi and cantor’s podiums. I’d sit in the first row, waiting and waiting until her solo. Her voice sounded clear and sweet and she didn’t even need a microphone to project like the others.

Other people would follow her in their siddurs or song sheets, reading from the back to the front, from right to left. It was confusing for me, all these languages I grew up hearing: English and Hebrew and Yiddish, two you read left to right, the other right to left. I started reading my English books from back to front and my Hebrew books from front to back.

For a year in Hebrew school, I stopped reading along in the services. It was easy enough to memorize the prayers and songs, so I did: the Mourner’s Kaddish, the Mi Shebeirach, the V’ahavta. I could say them in Hebrew: Yit’gadal v’yit’kadash sh’mei raba, Mi shebeirach avoteinu m’kor habrachah l’imoteinu, V’ahavta et Adonai eloheha. I could say them in English: You shall love the lord your God with all your mind with all your strength will all your being.

But when my mother sang, I didn’t sing with her. I just watched her gracefully open her mouth, look at the congregation, and let the words, all the words, flow out.

 

I was sitting in the graduate school library, the night before my dissertation draft was supposed to be submitted to my committee. It was dark outside, so I couldn’t see the sky. I just kept staring at the lamps on the desks, made to look like old-time oil lamps, despite the fact that they were clearly electric.

My computer screen was blank. Completely. I tried to remember why I was interested in all the Henrys and czars and princesses. I couldn’t think of anything.

Then I made a list.

Con: Loss of academic integrity and/or career. Sense of doing something very wrong. Not allowing myself to reach my potential.

Pro: It would be written and I would be done. No more incessant stress and pressure. Everyone does it, everything we do or write or think is merely a copy of something else, so what would it matter anyway?

 

When I took the train to my parents’ house after Josh’s funeral, they didn’t know that I’d be staying there for good. They picked me up at the station, all happy and laughing and “great to see you!” I evaded their questions: How long are you staying? Are you seeing anyone special? How’s the dissertation coming along?

A list of these truths would look like this: indefinitely, I might’ve been but he died from an icicle attack, and not so well, mostly because I got kicked out of grad school for plagiarizing.

 

The therapist my parents are making me see has taken quite an interest in my listmaking. We have talked about medicines: Zoloft, Lexapro, Klonopin. We have talked about exercise regimens: adult soccer leagues, master’s swimming programs, yoga. We have talked about Henry VIII’s lesser-known wives: Anne of Cleves, Kathryn Howard, Katherine Parr.

He uses the wives to get me talking history, my dissertation, about “my next step” which is really a veiled way of talking about my “misstep.” He is trying to understand why I plagiarized. I wish him luck, as I am still trying to figure it out.

I think back: there was my parents’ disapproval in my chosen field, their disbelief that it was a worthwhile degree. My advisor saying my funding was running out, that I had to finish this year. There was all the reading I had to do, from left to right, all the time I didn’t have. There was the phone call I got about my grandfather dying, how he slipped in the shower and my mother had to see him, sprawled, on the floor, after the assisted living called to tell her he was gone. There was the funeral, the eulogy, the dirt I shoveled onto his grave. There were these words of mourning, words I’ve memorized since five but still know nothing of their meaning: Yit’gadal v’yit’kadash sh’mei raba. There was the fact that my parents put me on Lexapro at thirteen, because they thought I was too anxious. There was Josh and his Eskimos and blood-covered ice. There were two languages that were supposed to be dead, but resurged; there was a kingdom that was dead but its land still stood under peoples’ feet. There were the Habsburgs and the poor farmers and tailors from Galicia and the Torah stories, the fact that Jacob’s name changed from Ya-ah-kov to Yisrael. There was the fact that, when you really think about it, all of this has happened before and will happen again and so what does any of it matter, really? There was too much to think about, the therapist noticed, so he said I should list it all out and come back next week.

 

A word about my grandfather’s funeral: he was old, ninety-one, so it wasn’t as tragic. He was always giving me fifty dollar bills to hide in my wallet “in case of an emergency.” I called him once a week, sometimes more, and we all had a running gag about keeping him on the phone. The standing record was three minutes, although the rest of my family didn’t believe that I had achieved such a feat. My grandpa just wasn’t good on the phone—he’d rather come over and see you, talk to you in real life.

He used to bring us Portuguese rolls, soft and fluffy and fresh and warm from the bakery’s oven. My father talked about this and his generosity while he eulogized him. Before that, they asked if I wanted to see him. My mother warned me that it would be the last time I looked at him, and I had never seen a real dead body. I didn’t think I wanted to remember him like that, like a mannequin, so I never saw.

We said the Kaddish and my feet hurt from my heels and I couldn’t think about anything but the way my grandfather used to pick me up on his shoulders as a toddler, bounce me up and down and tell me he was sending me to the moon. I wondered if he thought it was funny that I loved it so much, that I told my friends in school I had been to the moon plenty of times, that I was practically an astronaut, that I space traveled in my rec room every Saturday morning.

I still wonder if I should have looked at his body when I had a chance, to see his remains. We closed the casket because thousands of years have taught Jews that open caskets are tacky, disrespectful. I just thought they were weird, but maybe I was wrong. Maybe I needed to see what was left of him, to feel his death was real, to acknowledge that he no longer existed like the place where his grandparents came from, but still, still was there.

 

My mother takes me to see her manicurist, Olga, who she’s been going to since I was three. I remember hiding under her table, stealing the polishes my mother wanted and scooting around on the floor to the other manicurists’ stations, switching the colors. She would paint my nails for fun and for free and I liked the way it looked but hated the way my lacquered nails felt.

Olga hasn’t seen me in years, maybe two, maybe four, but she hugs me tight and hands me bags of Polish chocolate, candies with names like Paluszki and Chalwa and Pawetek. They taste like milk and nougat and cocoa, and I think about how Olga moved here from Poland thirty years ago. She may have even lived where my ancestors lived, where Galicia was and is not anymore.

When we leave, my mother reminds me to write a thank-you note. I ask if I can call instead. She looks at me knowingly, and I think she wants me to be ashamed that I can only write things that are meaningless: lists of couples I know and colleges I’ve visited and particular categories of people—Jewish girls from camp, Jewish girls from high school, names that I made up.

I know she saw my trash can, with at least fourteen crumpled pieces of paper stuck inside. They were crinkled almost beautifully, like weird origami figures that were only halfway made. I know she saw the etches of writing on them, black scribble against an otherwise white background. She probably opened them, saw list upon list of random names.

I know she is furious, concerned about my sanity, trying to understand why someone who was having so much trouble writing that she needed to plagiarize her dissertation can now not stop writing lists of names that do not matter in the slightest.

I see her think about this, and she tells me I don’t have to write a thank-you after all, that I can give Olga a call.

 

In Hamlet, my namesake goes mad and starts singing songs and listing flowers and herbs: rosemary, pansies, rue. She tells people they’re for remembering, thoughts, regret.

There is a book my mother loves, a psychological manual for teen girls, called Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls. It was written after I was born, but my mother always fancied herself a psychologist, so she tells people that’s what she named me after.

It was a pretty tragic name to give someone, I thought, which is what I told my parents in middle school. My father said he liked the way it sounded: Oh-fee-lee-ah. He heard wind chimes and bird calls in the four syllables, musical notes like my mother’s singing voice.

I used to climb a willow tree in our backyard, and my mother found it ironic, considering Ophelia fell off a willow tree into a brook and drowned. There was no water underneath our tree, so it seemed I was safe.

I’d think about what it might mean to drown, to fall into water, to not be able to push your way through, to feel like liquid was that thick. I’d think about the flowers she had given out, the madness she had fallen into, the lucidity of it all. Then I’d wonder what it would feel like to drown from the smell of flowers.

 

I’ve started archiving the horticulture books and historical documents at the town library. I make piles of huge, dusty books and write down their names. They didn’t even ask me to do it—I just started and soon enough they saw and approved and I was doing inventory in the children’s section and the fiction section and for all the biographies, too.

There’s a room in the library, with glass walls and a door and steps and a floor and it looks like a bimah in reverse, with the stairs leading down to the platform instead of up. I used to sit there for hours when they had children’s programs like book clubs or story time or my-parents-work-so-I-have-nowhere-else-to-go-time.

Now I make my lists there, sitting on the floor in this great, wide space of carpet. They’ve offered me a desk but I’ve said no, preferring to feel the plush fabric on my skin. They leave me alone, for the most part. They appreciate the help. They like the lists.

 

My grandfather’s Yahrzeit is tonight, so we go to the synagogue and wait till the end of the service, when the rabbi reads the long list of names. When he says my grandfather’s name, I feel surprised. We’ve been waiting an hour and a half for just this one name, and then he says it, and it’s over, and the mourning, for the night, is done.

It’s a funny thing, the anniversary of a death. We light a candle for twenty-four hours. We say the Kaddish too many times. We wait an hour and a half to hear the one name we came for, then go to the Oneg and eat rugelach and fruit and drink soda and then leave.

My parents go home but I walk around. I pass the baseball field and the park, the middle school and the bus stop, the traffic light I have to wait a whole ten minutes at to even try crossing the street. I peer through cracks in the sidewalk, holes in fences, spaces in air. I am trying to fit it all together: the names and the lists and the deaths and the prayers.

I see lists everywhere: in the shadows of tree branches, the old street signs, the license plates on all the cars. There are deaths everywhere: in America and Israel and even Galicia, a place that technically no longer exists. I keep walking and sorting, speaking in three tongues. I think of my mother’s solo, how when there was an instrumental break in the song, the congregation stood up, one at a time, called on by the rabbi, and recited the names of their sick loved ones. Then I sing it: Mi shebeirach avoteinu m’kor habrachah l’imoteinu, and only later do I realize it’s the prayer for healing.

 

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Cassie Title is an MFA candidate in fiction writing at Emerson College, where she teaches composition in the First-Year Writing Program, creative writing to high school students through EmersonWRITES, and works as a writing consultant in the Writing and Academic Resource Center. She graduated with a BA in English from Tufts University, and has written for Interview magazine.

How to Stay Healthy

By Richard Key

picture yourself thirty years down the road, the victim of poor health choices. There you sit in your bedchamber, pale and greasy, practically unable to move from sore joints, back problems, and generalized weakness. You make the portrait of Dorian Gray look like an ad for the fitness club. Years of excess have caught up with you, and now you’re a wasted heffalump whose only amusement is trying to defeat toenail fungus.

Now imagine a healthy, vibrant you taking charge of your life, making excellent health decisions, maintaining a normal weight, eating wisely, and preaching to all those around you about how, with a little work, they too can be full of vitality and energy well into their golden years. Decades later, after you’ve run off all your friends, you can be proud of the way you stayed the course, and can enjoy your remaining years lonely, but full of health and vigor.

He has little who doesn’t have his health, a wise fortune-cookie scribe once wrote while moonlighting from her real job as a copywriter for Procter & Gamble. In fact, health has been chosen as the official bodily condition of the 2016 Summer Olympics. And the easiest way to stay healthy is to remain young. Young people, naturally, have far less disease than older folks. Unfortunately, the only way to beat aging is to constantly be traveling near the speed of light, which they don’t let you do anymore, even in Texas. So, that leaves the alternative—lie about your age. No, of course I wouldn’t ask you to do that. What that leaves is following several guidelines and recommendations that lead to a healthy lifestyle, and ergo, a healthier life.

The first thing to do is stop inserting Latin words and phrases into your sentences ad nauseam. Latin is a dead language, and no good can come from peppering your speech with morsels of a lingua mortua.

Secondly, never ever sit down. Ever. Sitting, we know now, can knock years off your life. If you never sat down, you could live to be a hundred and fifty. You’re sitting now, aren’t you? I can tell from my writer’s perch that you’re sitting. I sense it. So much for longevity! Now, get off your keister right this minute, and toss out every chair in the house. Just throw them out in the yard. Honestly!

As you already know, your immune system is critical to your health. A finely-tuned immune system can fight off infections and lower one’s chances of getting cancer. A weakened immune system, on the other hand, invites disease. That’s how you get shingles. The chicken pox virus hides deep in your body, waiting patiently for just the right moment to pop out and cause problems. Like that girlfriend with the frizzy brown hair you once dated. She was an emotional wreck and your mom never liked her. You tried several times to break up, and each time she weaseled her way back into your life. Finally you broke up for good, and she moved to Milwaukee to study interior design. Then, fifteen years later, right after your divorce is final, she moves back to your small town where you run into her at Target, ironically. Suddenly, half your face is covered in painful sores.

You must develop good eating habits. Junk food is out. Soft drinks are out. Red meat is out. Cold cuts are out. Sugar is out. Fried stuff is out. Rice contains arsenic, and fish contain mercury, so they’re out. And you can kiss gravy good-bye. Salt is bad for you too, but if you don’t get the iodine in the salt, your thyroid gland will swell up like a tick on a vampire.

The bottom line is, there is very little that you can eat that won’t destroy you eventually. It really comes down to whether you want to starve to death or be slowly poisoned. You must be constantly vigilant as you shop for groceries to avoid all the harmful chemicals, additives, and disease-promoting components that are found in almost everything in the store. So, caveat emptor.

The one loophole here—and you really should take advantage of it while it remains open—is that coffee, nuts, and chocolate have been determined to be good for you. So, for now, force yourself to have some chocolate every now and then, and wash it down with a cup of joe. And eat a handful of almonds while you’re at it. Pointy-toed scientists are working around the clock to find ways to shut this down, so enjoy these foods now before they’re linked to teeth warts or earlobe dysfunction.

Drink plenty of water. Begin your day with two tall glasses of clean, sparkling water to purge your system of impurities that have built up overnight. Then have at least six more glasses of water throughout the day to ward off dehydration. As you slosh around the workplace, you’ll find yourself having to raise your hand during important meetings to go to the little room by the watercooler. That lets you and everybody else know that your kidneys are functioning properly. And after you turn in for the night, you’ll find your dreams filled with panicky situations where you can’t find a real toilet, and you are forced to relieve yourself on the houseplants in the Oval Office, prompting Secret Service agents to announce a “code yellow” and haul you away.

Green tea has been shown to contain disease-fighting substances and is super good for you. Fill your bathtub with it once a day and soak for an hour. And don’t forget to drink a bit of it too. Green tea contains antioxidants. Otherwise, no one would touch the stuff. Actually, some people do like its subtle flavor, which they describe as “even tastier than plain hot water.”

Health food stores are full of nutritional supplements and various herbal remedies: St. John’s Wort, echinacea, ginkgo biloba, fish oil, etc. These are substances that organized medicine doesn’t want you to know about because of their natural ability to correct imbalances in your system and heal many common illnesses and conditions. Conversely, they’re unregulated, potentially harmful nostrums produced by charlatans to milk profits from the udder of misinformation. So take these substances at your own risk…But just remember, they might be exactly what you need…If they don’t kill you first…Which they won’t because they’re harmless…Ha!…Ha yourself!

Develop an exercise program and stick with it. Touch your toes every day—or if you can’t manage that, pay someone else to do it, especially if that fungus is still there. Keep moving, and get one of those gadgets to count your steps if you need to. Ten thousand steps per day is recommended to stay healthy. March around the TV set if you have to. You won’t miss anything. Download John Philip Sousa’s greatest hits into your iPod, and high step around the neighborhood to the Washington Post March carrying a rake like a drum major’s baton. If people think you’re crazy, just remind them that people once thought Charles Manson was crazy too, and look at him.

And, get some sunshine! Vitamin D is necessary for good health, and natural sunlight relieves depression for many people. So, step outside and soak up some rays. Okay, that’s enough sunshine. Go back inside. Are you nuts? Sunshine is full of ultraviolet rays that cause your skin to age prematurely, and can even cause cancer. So, for heaven’s sake, wear dark clothes and a hat if you go out there!

Try to get seven or eight hours of sleep per night. A good night’s sleep is essential to maintaining good bodily function. Sleep allows your brain to process the events of the day, and gives your immune system a chance to refresh itself. If you’re unable to fall asleep right away, it’s okay to use pills. Go to your pharmacy and ask for the strongest placebo they have, and get about a thousand. Now pretend they’re tiny sheep and count them over and over.

So, there you have it, your concise road map to health. No more excuses. Carpe diem!

 

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Richard Key was born in Jacksonville, Florida and currently lives in Dothan, Alabama with his wife. He works as a pathologist by day, but has been writing short stories and essays for about eight years. His work has been published in several literary journals and a few pieces have won awards. This essay is the third in his “How To…” series which seeks to help the reader navigate the choppy sea of modern existence.