The Stuff Between the Stars

Sandra Nickel

Enjoy a 10% excerpt of Sandra Nickel‘s forthcoming picture book, The Stuff Between the Stars (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2019). “The Stuff Between the Stars” won Category First Place for Children’s Books in the 2017 Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Writing.

* * *

As a baby grew inside Vera, she began answering a question that had left a bright trail through her mind. Was it possible that galaxies rotated around a center in the universe like the Big Dipper circled the North Star? She plotted galaxies on a globe and carefully measured how they moved. Just before her son was born, Vera discovered that her idea might just be right.

Vera drove through a snowstorm, thick as the Milky Way, to share her ideas at a gathering of America’s most important senior astronomers. The men were all clustered together like the bright bulge of a galaxy. They all seemed to know each other.

She stood before them and told them about the movement of galaxies. One by one they stood up. They said her ideas were outlandish. They said her ideas were ridiculous.

Vera felt like the smallest, slowest star on the edge of their galaxy. She asked herself, “Will I ever really be an astronomer?”

Photo of Vera Rubin. PC: Carnegie Institution

Check out this interview with author Sandra Nickel, Abrams Books executive editor Maggie Lehrman, and literary agent Victoria Wells Arms on the legacy of Vera Rubin, women in science, and the process of writing a nonfiction children’s book. 

The Carrying Beam

S.M. Mack

1925, Northwestern Nepal

 

When my half-brothers died, Mother would not let anyone touch their little bodies. She wrapped them in a blanket her own mother made and carried them to the small pyre we’d built above the village. The summer rains had not yet arrived, so even in the gathering dusk the world remained brown and dry. Houses the color of road dust slouched, and without the wide green leaves of young trees and overgrown shrubs our mountain home appeared more monochrome than even in the bleakness of winter.

The lama, who lived at the far edge of the village, had a much shorter walk to the pyre. Our mistress requested his presence on our behalf, so he left his warm home to chant the proper words over their bodies.  

“I like to think,” he said as the kindling hissed and curled, “that those who depart so soon must be more likely than the rest of us to escape the next cycle of rebirth.”  

“Thank you, jowo,” I said, and bowed.  

Mother’s lip curled.  

We stood outside the ring of light and warmth and listened to the lama’s voice as he performed. I wished Mother’s husband Tsering home from the annual trading route, or that we could wait for his return to do this. I wished our mistress had come, and brought her husbands and children, to mourn with us. I wished Mother would put her arm around me.  

The wind sprinted up the mountainside and shrieked its way through the village below us. It pulled at my unadorned braids and tore Mother’s shawl from her shoulders. She hardly seemed to notice when it blew away, but shouted when I ran to retrieve it.  

“You are disrespectful,” she hissed when I returned.  “Loveless, ungrateful child.” The lama paused, and in the absence of his baritone the silence rang.  

“It will grow colder before spring returns again. You need this,” I said, and shook the shawl in her face. She smacked my fist down and slapped me with an open palm.  

The lama broke in, frowning. “This is not seemly,” he said.  “You must control yourselves.” Mother’s head snapped around, and for a moment I thought she would strike him as well.  

Her face smoothed, though. “Of course, jowo,” she said, bending at the waist with loose shoulders. I stared until the lama cleared his throat, then startled as the world snapped back into place. I jerked, Mother’s shawl still in my hand, and brought my palms together. My braid slipped past my ear. 

During the darkest part of the night, long after the lama finished his duty and left us, Mother and I turned our backs on the dying pyre and followed the path back into the village.  

As we passed the mistress’ trongchen, the great house where she and her family slept, the wind picked up again. It stung my cheeks and I squinted against the chill.  

Mother stopped to stare up at the trongchen. “Listen to the thatching, Dorje,” she said, her eyes hard. “Her house-beam may be strong enough to carry a witch down the mountain, but the rest of it is weak.”  

“Do not say such things,” I said without heat, and took her cold hand. Her fingers wrapped around mine. I tugged until she moved again, then led her away from the front of the house.  

In our small hut behind the trongchen, I lit a mostly-burned candle and gathered every blanket we owned, then crawled onto my mother’s pallet as if I was no older than my dead brothers.  

“You shouldn’t,” she said as I settled. “I haven’t been cleansed of the death-taint yet.”  

“Too late,” I said, and curled up against her warmth.  

When the candle guttered and the room grew dark, Mother’s breaths began to hitch. I pressed my face into the meat below her shoulder and wished for something to say.  

Her husband, Tsering, might have brought more comfort, but he and the oldest of our mistress’ three husbands had left weeks before, almost the moment the weather permitted. Yaks carried the knotted carpets, tea, and knitted clothing they would exchange for rice, linens, and metal accoutrements.  

Tsering would have no idea his sons were dead until he returned. Letters rarely reached the men who left the village, as their routes varied from year to year. Tsering and our owner could be as far away as China by now.  

I closed my eyes against Mother’s sorrow and let her sleeve soak up the leaking from my eyes. “I am sorry,” I said, over and over, though I did not know why. A gulf yawned within my chest, between my ribs and spine.  

“Our mistress did this,” she said into my tear-stained hair.  

My forehead mussed the damp fabric at her shoulder as I shook my head. “No, Mother.”  

“I know she did,” Mother said. “Why else would she let them die so easily?”  

I wrapped my arms around her and rocked her as she had me and my brothers. I said, over and over again: Our mistress did not harm my brothers. Our mistress had no witchcraft in her blood.  

“They needed medicine and did not receive it. There is no witchcraft inside her,” I insisted.  

“It is still her fault,” Mother said. Her voice cracked.  

Privately, I agreed. Mother’s chest rose and fell with harsh breaths, but she relented enough to pull me close.  

~

I endeavored to keep my mother and mistress apart for as long as possible. Mother would not quickly forgive me for leaving her to care for our mistress’ children, but it was better than the discord she would sow here. 

My mistress met my eyes through her handheld mirror. She sat on a generous pile of cushions, warming her feet in a slant of morning sunshine while I arranged her hair for the day. “I provided my condolences, did I not?” she said.

“Yes, jozhon, you did.” I dropped my eyes to my fingers intertwined in her thick, black hair. Though we would both work the field today, watering, pulling weeds, and killing pests, the fineness of her hair and clothes would mark her as my owner. “We are both grateful for your kindness.” 

She smiled, but her eyes narrowed. Mother had a similar expression, one she donned when she took pleasure in causing unhappiness. “Grateful,” my mistress said. “Really?”  

“Of course.” I resisted pulling her braid too tightly. 

“You don’t think me cruel?” she said. “If we’d had the money I might have saved them.”  

I could feel her watch me in her mirror. My hands moved faster, though not so quickly I would lose the strands of my work. “Cruel?  No, jozhon.  Of course not.”  

My brothers battled their rashes and fever long enough to grow quiet, pale, and weak. When their fevers spiked, one after the other, our mistress decreed the necessary medicines extravagant. Mother tried to petition the lama for mercy, but our mistress ordered her locked inside our hut. The shackles, though open, still sat piled in a corner.  

My mistress’ voice lost its silky edge, and the shift startled me into sneaking a glance through my lashes. She caught my gaze and held it through her hand mirror. “Samten was not in her right mind,” she said. 

I swallowed and looked down. It would not do to keep Mother from this task only to botch it myself. I could never be anything more than a good daughter and a good slave, so I sought to balance both. It occupied my days, kept the peace, and was certainly more than Mother had managed.  

“We trust that you knew what you were doing,” I said. 

~

Mother began to whisper prayers with her eyes fixed on the trongchen’s central house-beam. She was careful not to be overheard, but I saw her lips move as she served the meals.  

I caught and pulled her away from the second-floor dining area; not downstairs to the barn, but upstairs to a floor full of empty bedrooms.  

“You must not,” I said, low and fierce, with my fingers still on her wrist. “They will think you are casting spells. They will call you a witch.”  

Mother smoothed a stray lock of hair behind my ear. “Don’t worry,” she said. “No one will catch me at it.”      

I could not fully hide my exasperation. “I did. Anyone else could have also seen.”  

Her expression grew placid, and something within me shifted like an anxious bird. “You’re different,” she said. “Observant, and outside of the rest. Like myself.”  

A dark forehead and small pair of eyes appeared at the top of the stairs: Chodak, our mistress’ youngest son. My stomach swooped.  

“You are not going to try to bring them back, are you?” I said, unease making me tactless. I should not have mentioned my brothers. “Because you cannot. They are gone.”  

Mother’s humanity slipped as her lips pulled back into a snarl. Her teeth sharpened and her skin sagged as if aging fifty years in a moment. Her eyebrows thickened, her nose warped as if it had been horribly broken, and when she raised a hand, wicked talons glinted in the poor light.  

Terror closed my throat. I stepped back, unable to breathe.  “Mother–”  

Then she blinked, or I blinked, and she was my mother again.  

“I know the dead are gone,” Mother said.  

Goosebumps crawled down my arms. I nodded, eyes still wide. She turned toward the stairs in time to hear small feet patter downward.  

“What is it?” I said when she paused, straining through stagnant air.  

Her shoulders rose in a deep inhale. “Nothing, Dorje,” she said. “Come, now. Our jowo and jozhon will need us.”  

~

When Mother was young, she sought to rise above her birth, perhaps even to free herself from slavery. Our mistress’ eldest husband had already favored her several times, and she hoped my birth would cement her position. He could have freed her, but in the end he did not, and Mother hates them all for it. 

Our mistress may have had husbands to spare, but they did the sharing, not she. 

I may not acknowledge anyone but Tsering as my father, but he is a good man, and Mother loves him, in her way. He is our laughter in the dark and our warmth through each winter. He grounds and softens my mother, and he is the only kind of man I may hope for: one who loves me despite my mother and all that she is.  

~

I kept a close watch over Chodak. Our mistress could take care of herself, but he was only four years of age–old enough to fear witches, though perhaps not old enough to recognize one.  Everyone else knew what to look for, and to be on the lookout for it.  

Witches dismembered their husbands, tortured children, and chained their daughters to the house-beams they used to fly. They learned their cruelty from their mothers, who had chained them to their own house-beams in order to whet the daughter’s appetite for cruelty. They destroyed entire villages with their darkness.  

While the mistress’ two eldest boys spent their days watching over the cattle, I limited Mother’s interactions with the younger children as much as possible. I sent her to attend our mistress and insisted on caring for the children myself.  

So long as she refrained from harming anyone, I could justify keeping her secret. 

I began to dream of waking in the middle of the night to an empty hut with no center house-beam. The house should have fallen. I should have died.  

Only witchcraft can keep a home upright without its center beam. By removing it a witch proves her power over those closest to her–her husband, her children, her mistress and masters.  

The first few times I dreamed of waking in an empty home I remained too sleep-fuddled to do anything but sit up and look around. Only on the third night a dzomo, one of the yak-cattle hybrids stabled in the trongchen’s ground floor, called loudly enough to her calf that I took notice. 

Though my eyes were already open, it felt like waking. My skin felt as if I had gone walking without it and it now hung loose on all my bones.  

I looked up. The central house-beam remained missing. The hut remained empty. 

I swallowed and threw myself back down, pulling the blanket almost to my ears and squeezing my eyes shut as I willed myself to dreamlessness. 

~

Early the next afternoon the summer rains drove all who could be spared inside. I herded our mistress’ two youngest boys, the ones not yet old enough to watch over the grazing animals, into one of the second-floor storerooms to continue work on some of the half-finished rugs that Tsering and our master would trade next year. “Do you have your blocks?” I said.  

“I’ll get them,” said Palden, who bolted down the hallway.  He was Chodak’s elder by only a year. Chodak hovered by the door and kept his attention on me and his sister, who I carried in a sling on my back.  

I settled myself before the loom with my back to the wall.  Their sister would grow fussy soon enough with the view, but for now she continued to nap.  

Palden returned with an armful of toys. He dropped them with a clatter, and I looked at him sharply. “Do not wake your sister.”  

He kneeled beside his toys and looked at me from the corner of his eye. “I won’t,” he said, then swiveled around on his knees to face me directly. “If you can do magic, why did your brothers die? Did you want them to?”  

Adrenaline surged with a cold jolt. “What?” I said, though I couldn’t help but glance, rabbit-quick, at Chodak. He looked at the floor the moment I turned my head.  

“Do witches need medicine when they get sick?” Palden said.  “Can you ride on a house-beam?”

He thought I was the witch. The molten thought pooled into my gut and I stared at him, unable to move.

“No,” I said, more harshly than I intended. “No, I cannot do magic, but magic would not have saved them. Witchcraft is evil, do you understand? It is depravity and wickedness and every unkind thought the world has ever had.” I found myself on my feet in front of the loom, breathing harshly. The baby strapped to my back woke and began to fuss.  

Palden’s shoulders met his ears. He stared wide-eyed at the floor and shook his head, but I could not stop. “Am I a monster who has simply taken a liking to you?” I said. “Is that what you have decided, that I cursed my brothers to die but would not do the same to you?”  

Chodak cowered. He scooted backward along the floor and bumped into the doorframe. The baby began to wail.  

A wild, wordless sound escaped me, and I used my fingernails to tear at the knots holding her to me. When the sling came loose too quickly, it slipped and she shrieked.  

I grimaced and dropped to my knees. I pulled her around to my front and lay her on the floorboards with shaking hands. “Hush,” I said, my voice thick.  

She hiccuped and continued to scream. Her face turned pink with exertion.  

An ache formed in my chest, no larger than my fist and beating steadily against my sternum. I inhaled what was meant to be a calming breath, but it hitched on the exhale. I leaned over beside the baby, dropped to my elbows and lowered my face to kiss her cheek. “I am sorry,” I said, my voice hardly more than a breath.  

It took a long time for the darkness in my chest to fade.  When the baby finally fell back into an exhausted sleep, I left her alone. I kneeled beside the boys’ block tower and kept my hands loose in my lap. No fists, no rubbing my empty chest.  Both Chodak and Palden averted their eyes.  

“I apologize to you both,” I said. “I should not have yelled.”  

“I’m sorry we asked,” Chodak said. Palden looked up with big, earnest eyes and nodded.  

“It’s all right,” I said. “But let’s not mention this to your mother or fathers, yes?”  

They nodded, still searching to please.  

The unnatural quiet persisted when I returned to the loom.  This was how witchcraft spread, I reflected as it clacked and the rug grew by increments. It had nothing to do with chains or house-beams. Witchcraft bloomed through anger, from mother to daughter. Rage beyond control.    

~

At sunset after Mother and I cleaned the dinner dishes from the table, I caught her by the elbow. She let me tow her to the garden just outside the ground floor entrance, and gave only a small sigh when I released her ungently. “Dorje,” she began, and I made a wordless, frustrated noise as heat flared in my chest.  

“You must stop,” I said. “Whatever it is you have been doing at night, whatever spells you have woven, it must all cease. I woke up last night. I saw you gone. And today with the children–” I cut myself off too late and tried to distract her by continuing on another track. “You are poisoning me.”  

Mother’s gaze sharpened. “What about the children?” she said. “The daughter born since my sons died, or our mistress’ own little boys?”  

I shook my head, though I could not pinpoint what I meant to deny. I should have said nothing. “Do not hurt them.”  

She smiled without warmth and said, “I won’t.”  

I squeezed my eyes shut and pressed my fists to my forehead.  “Mother.”  

Her eyebrows rose as if my disbelief disappointed her. “I will not hurt them, Dorje.”  

I dropped my hands. “Swear it,” I said, feeling as though my bones might snap. “Swear that you will let me fetch the lama to exorcise the evil within you.” Perhaps he would consent to exorcise me as well. It was for the good of the village, after all.  

Mother’s expression flattened and her canines lengthened.  Dark brown fur began to sprout all across her face and neck.  “For as long as you stand between us,” she said with a growl, “I swear I will not harm our mistress’ children.”  

I stood my ground, though could not help shuddering.  Mother snarled, the same noise a cornered fox makes. “Does that satisfy you, daughter?”  

“Yes,” I said, breathless.  

She turned away with a huff. When I did not follow, she paused and turned back to look at me. The fur had disappeared; she looked like my mother again. “Are you coming?” she said.  

I nodded. I did not hurry after her, but I went.  

~

When I woke again in the middle of the night, I realized this time I had almost expected it.  

From where she crouched at the foot of my pallet, Mother grinned and gestured for me to sit up. “Dress yourself, quickly.  The night won’t last forever.” Her darkness had already exposed itself. This time she bore tusks that jutted from her mouth and her skin was corpse gray. Her slitted pupils glittered in the light of our lone candle.  

With my eyes on my lap, I pushed myself to sitting. She leaned over me with her arms outstretched like a hawk over her meal. I inhaled and lifted my head, thinking she meant to embrace me.  

Too late, I heard the metal click. The cold iron closed around my neck, and two more bands encircled my wrists. I cried out and lurched to my knees. Mother danced back; an iron chain dangled between us. “What are you doing?” I said.  

The chains formed a rough triangle between my wrists and neck. Another length branched off from the shackle around my neck to Mother’s hand.  

She straightened, smiling. “I’ve already put the village to sleep. We’re going on a trip.”  

She turned away and tugged on my chains as I had on her elbow earlier in the day. I stumbled to my feet, tripped over my blanket, and let myself fall to the floor.  

Mother spared me no more than a moment before she yanked on my leash. My arms jerked forward and I choked. Involuntary tears stung my eyes as I arched my neck to breathe. “Mother–”  

A flat weight whacked against my arm just above my outstretched wrist, though it took several heartbeats before the heat registered through my sleeve. Fabric sizzled, then pain seeped through. I shrieked and jerked away, opened my eyes to see Mother standing over me with an iron spatula, hot enough to glow red.  

“I am going to show you why you need not stand between those children and me,” she said. “You will learn to enjoy this, Dorje. You will see they are no better than their parents.”  

She jerked on my chains again and I scrabbled to my feet.  I hunched over my burned arm, my shoulder braced against the doorframe, and tried to say a prayer. Nothing came.  

The roof of our home shuddered. “No,” Mother said to herself, and the earthquake stopped. She laughed. “Not ours tonight.”  

She led me around our home to the trongchen. The top floor, where the house-beam would be taken from, held nothing but bedrooms for our mistress, her husbands, and their children.  

The trongchen shuddered as our home had, and the central house-beam dropped like a leaf from the nearest window.  Witchcraft kept the home standing in the absence of proper support, just as it would heat my mother’s spatula and give her strength beyond her normal abilities. Mother turned to me, grinning, and the beam followed her movements like a dog.  

“Get on,” she said, and swung one leg over the wooden beam.  

A small sound escaped my chest. She didn’t look so monstrous from the back.  

“Dorje,” she said, a warning in her voice.  

I gritted my teeth and obeyed. The wooden corners cut into my thighs, and splinters threatened when I braced my palms on the space between my mother and myself. My chains rattled horribly.  

“Hold on to me,” Mother said, and I scooted forward until I could wrap my arms around her waist.  

She still smelled like herself, like sweat and garden dirt and very faintly of stolen perfume. I closed my eyes and rested my forehead at the base of her neck. Except for the pulsing burn on my arm, I could almost pretend this was only another night.  That I was dreaming.  

Mother croaked, and the house-beam leaped forward. The rushing wind pulled my sleep-braids back so hard it felt like someone sat behind me, tugging on them.  

We descended from our mountain and traveled for a long time. The wind died but the air remained sharp, and while the air cooled my burned skin, the chill spread until my shoulders vibrated with shivers. My arms grew fatigued and my fingers numb with cold. I hated letting my feet dangle into the nothingness below but had nowhere to brace them.  

When I felt the motion of the house-beam slow, I cracked an eyelid open and peeked over my mother’s shoulders.  

A city spread out below us. When I gasped at the size of it, Mother laughed and patted the iron cuff on my wrist. She said something stolen by the wind.  

My stomach swooped as we descended. Gravel crunched as Mother’s heels skidded against the dirt, and we halted with a jolt. Mother moved to alight and I had to release her, though I did not wish to.  

I dismounted and landed with a jolt to both knees that left me stumbling, legs tingling as blood swept downward. Mother righted me with a snap of the leash and led me through the front door of the nearest trongchen–it may have already been unlocked, or she may have used a spell. I don’t know.  

The street stood in shadow as the stars held their peace behind the impossible buildings. The doorway stood almost wide enough for a cart to pass through–significantly larger than our mistress’ trongchen, though more visibly shabby.  

Inside, Mother drew the spatula from the inside of her coat, and I did my best not to flinch away. It did not glow; she must have cooled it before storing it so close to her own skin.  Or perhaps burns did not hurt her anymore.  

“Do you know where we are?” she said. I shook my head. The mountains ringing the city were unfamiliar, but then, I had never seen any mountains but ours.  

“This is where your half-siblings live,” Mother said. “The ones who do not own you. Your sire comes to visit their mother each year as he drags my husband and the rest of his goods behind him, and he holidays while the rest of us toil in the dirt and dzomo shit.”  

I exhaled slowly, frozen on a single realization: Tsering was near, even if he would not be permitted to sleep too near the family who lived here. Mother had taken me to the one person who might persuade her to see reason. Not only that, but Tsering cared for her. He would keep her secret.  

“Do you see?” she said, and gestured with her spatula at the dark home before us. “Your sire is not above acknowledging his bastards. It is only because you are mine that he will not look at you. It is because our jozhon does not wish him to.”  Her voice edged toward a snarl.  

I groped for something intelligent to say. A response. “I don’t need him,” I said, and hated how stupefied I sounded.  

“Of course you need him,” she cried. Her hands, still clutching the spatula and my leash, rose to press against her temples. “He will give you away when our mistress’ last brat is married off. Their daughter will become your mistress and it will never end. You will marry a slave whose brothers are partitioned to other houses for other women. Your children, if any live, will live in the shadow of that brat’s own children.”  

“If we were jozhon, I would be gone when I married, too,” I said. “We have Tsering. We don’t need anyone else.”  

She bared her teeth. “You’re not listening,” she said, and spun to stalk away upstairs. The leash grew taut and I stumbled after her.  

Her spatula began to glow. “Mother, no,” I said in a loud whisper, and reached out to tug on her sleeve. “Please. Let’s go home.” She snapped at me to be silent.  

“If my daughter will emerge having felt my wrath, do you think I would let anyone else off so lightly?” she said. She raised the red-hot spatula as if to strike me again and I recoiled. The leash brought me up short.  

She lowered her arm and stared at me, her corpse-gray skin silver in the moonlight. I recognized only bits and pieces of her: the shape of her nose, the wrinkles at the corner of her eyes, the thickness of her braids.  

She said, “If you join me in this, you’ll never have to see me do witchcraft again. I’ll stop baiting you.”  

I ceased breathing for a long moment. I wanted to agree, to blindly reach out and accept her terms, but something within me hard and immoveable as our mountain, warned that Mother’s proposal would come with a catch.  

“Mother,” I said, but had nothing to follow it with. She only arched an eyebrow and flipped her spatula to offer me the handle. Haltingly, I shook my head.  

Then the sick stench of burning meat sizzled, and I snatched it from her before I knew what I had done. Mother smiled and showed me her palm–unblemished. An illusion.  

“Are you ready?” she said. She still held my leash wrapped around her other hand.  

I tightened my grip on the spatula and blinked against tears. “This isn’t fair,” I said, and brought her weapon out in front of me. The chains dripping from my wrists rattled against each other.  

Mother tipped her head back and laughed, and I bared my blunt teeth at her. “Take me home,” I said, my voice rising past the hushed tone I’d been using. It did not matter if I woke everyone in the house we trespassed in, or if I woke the entire city.

Mother’s smile spoke of hunger and primal satisfaction.  “You are mine,” she said. “You are mine and we’re going to prove it to everyone tonight.”

My jaw ached. “I will not help you torture children,” I said. “I would not even torture our master for you.”  

Mother could not smell half-truths, so she snarled a terrible wild sound. My shoulders tightened. I raised her spatula with both hands, and she raised my leash–triumphant from the start.  

I glared at her. “Wake up,” I yelled, lifting my chin to send my voice down the hallway. “Help, wake up. Tsering!”  

A thump sounded from the far end of the house. A woman’s muffled voice, and a man’s.  

Mother’s face contorted. She howled and rushed forward. I threw myself to the side to get out of her way, but she ignored me except to tighten her grip on the leash and to drag me along behind her. I tripped and stumbled down the stairs after her–the spatula fell somewhere, and I spared half a moment to hope it would not set the house afire–and when I fell outside the trongchen’s entrance, the iron collar dug into my neck so tightly that I gagged and grabbed blindly at the leash.  

Mother swung a leg over the house-beam. “Get on,” she said, her voice guttural and sharp, merciless and so full of fury, and then she kicked her foot against the ground.  

The house-beam rose, and I screamed, a short, high sound as my lungs used all the air within. I lurched from my knees to my feet, arms outstretched, and one hand caught the house-beam.  Splinters pinched as my other palm landed and held fast. I hauled myself up, my leash blessedly loose.  

~

As we neared the outskirts of our village, Mother leaned back until her lips found my ear. Over the sound of the wind she said, “You’ve disappointed me tonight, but we’ll have other chances for you to make this right.” 

I sagged, weary beyond reckoning and too heartsore to think of tears. “Please don’t do this,” I said. “No one saw us. No one has to know what you’ve become.” 

Mother didn’t bother to answer. She leaned forward again and placed both palms upon the wood, one in front of the other, and murmured to the house-beam. Her witchcraft would not wane until the sun rose—soon, but not yet. 

I sat up, careful to keep my balance without looking down.  When the sun rose, the spell that kept our mistress and her husbands, and in fact the entire village, asleep and unaware of Mother’s activities would end. The village would wake and emerge from their homes. When that happened—

Witchcraft was hereditary. If I revealed Mother’s sins, I implicated myself. I had the talent and the personality to follow her in this; if I was not stopped I might yet lose control. If not tomorrow, then perhaps someday. 

Or perhaps not.  

Mother glanced over her shoulder as I took hold of my dangling leash and tucked it away. “Try to tell me it doesn’t call to you, Dorje,” she said. “This is the only power we’ll see in this life.”  

“That may be so,” I said, knowing it was. I placed my hands on her back and shoved her from the house-beam. 

Mother screamed. I made myself watch as she fell. Her clothing fluttered, her hair streamed upward. She twisted her shoulders around and reached out to me, her face an unfamiliar mask of panic, as if I could take it back and rescue her.  

When she hit the ground far below, the front of the house-beam tilted and began to slide downward. My hair streamed behind me as it began to plummet earthward.  

Death may have been the honorable choice, to throw myself from the house-beam after her, but something cold and implacable within my chest refused. If I lived, I might come to regret it, but I could not fail to try.  

As the house-beam gathered speed, I hunched forward to place my palms against the wood. I closed my eyes, pressed my hands down, and willed the carrying beam to fly.  

Fire Illness

Scott Alumbaugh

Yong Soo saw fire everywhere. In the building that burned and collapsed onto her dead husband’s body. In nightmare visions of L.A.’s Koreatown in the wake of the Rodney King verdicts a year earlier. Inside herself. Fire was gutting her from the inside out and she couldn’t do anything about it. So one afternoon she lay in bed and swallowed sleeping pills one by one hoping they could put out the flames.

She didn’t know how many to take. Too many, she might just vomit them all out. If she took too few, she would end up in the hospital. Everyone would watch her more closely from then on. She would become even more of a burden than she was now.

She decided to take one for every person she inconvenienced, every life to which her continued life brought only worry, pity, charity. She would take each pill as an offering, hoping to atone for the trouble she brought to everyone who knew her. For the burden she had become. She decided that would be the right number of pills to quench the fire and to release her from everyone’s debt.

 

What put Yong Soo over the edge, what brought her to this afternoon, swallowing pills and hoping to die, was a meeting she had been to that morning. The meeting was at the Center for Asian American Rights, a legal services clinic. She met with lawyers who wanted to help her sue the insurance company that denied her claim for her business and building, both destroyed during the riots when a man named Dobson murdered her husband.

The Center was housed in donated offices above a Korean Methodist church in a ragged pocket of downtown. When Yong Soo arrived, she found a young Asian woman sitting behind a scratched desk, stuffing envelopes. The receptionist took Yong Soo’s name, directed her to a patch of remnant carpet with a cloth couch and mismatched love seat  next to a low, square table, and asked her to wait.

Yong Soo sank into the coarse fabric of the spongy sofa. All around the office, stacks of pamphlets covered every flat surface. Information on voting rights, child inoculations, women’s shelters, and a monthly schedule of workshops in Korean,  Vietnamese, Chinese, Spanish, Tagalog, and English. Bookcases with sagging shelves under hardbound books lined the walls. An office door lay ajar, giving her a glimpse of a small room with a pebbled wire-glass window high up the wall that offered no view; only white, opaque light broken into sections by the dark shadows of the security bars outside.

The clinic’s modesty relieved Yong Soo. The thought of meeting a lawyer made her nervous, even though her friend Tanya would be in the room. She waited, her eyes resting on  her beige comfort shoes and sheer anklets poking out of her khakis, wishing she’d had time to change into nicer clothes.

~

The first pill she took was for her mother-in-law, who thirty years earlier, started the fire that was burning her alive. The old woman accused her of tricking her husband into marriage, told her she would never be the wife he deserved. After Yong Soo gave birth to a second daughter, her mother-in-law told her she should kill herself so her husband could marry a woman who would give him a son.

The only gift the old woman ever gave Yong Soo was this ember of hate, which she shoved down her throat and stoked with slights and venom for months and years. Even while they still lived in Korea, Yong Soo wanted to stop the burning, spit out the hate. But she was a good wife. She swallowed her humiliation to keep the family peace, held it down and showed only the placid face of passive obedience, filial respect, while shame and inexpressible anger smoldered inside.

She swallowed the pill for her mother-in-law as she had swallowed her anger toward the old woman, and silently cursed her in a manner she could never express aloud, bitter that maybe the old woman was right. That maybe if she had been a better wife her husband would still be alive.

 

The next pill she took was for Man Chul. She took it to apologize for not being a better wife, not doing more to save him. She took it hoping he would now be able to find peace.

He died nearly a year earlier, in April 1992, during Saigu, the April 29 Incident. What newspapers called the Rodney King riots. A week of looting and burning in Los Angeles that left more than fifty people dead. He died on the first full day of rioting, killed in their Koreatown shoe store.

Man Chul had been a professor of modern history in Korea. He moved Yong Soo and their daughters to Los Angeles in the mid-70s, worried that if he stayed his political views would land him in jail. He convinced Yong Soo America would give their children more opportunities than they could ever have in Korea. A better education, better career. They would be recognized for their achievements and hard work, not their regional background and personal connections. They wouldn’t be persecuted for their political views. Man Chul told her they would find freedom in Mi Gook, America, the Beautiful Country.

But just as Yong Soo wasn’t good enough for her mother-in-law, neither was she good enough for America. People couldn’t understand her English. They talked too fast, raised their voice to her as if she were a stubborn child, as if saying something louder would make its meaning penetrate her thick Asian skull. She had studied English at Ewha Womans University, but could never learn to speak it well enough to be understood.

She had planned to stay home and raise her young daughters as she had in Korea, but her husband couldn’t earn enough to support them. The closest he came to teaching at a university was getting hired as a janitor at Loyola Law School. Through a woman she met at church, Yong Soo found a job at a garment shop doing piecework. A couple of years later, she and her husband opened their own garment shop, starting with six workers and rented machines in a warehouse space downtown. Four years later they were still living in a two-room apartment in Koreatown, barely getting by.

This was not the Beautiful Country her husband had promised. But just as Yong Soo didn’t express her anger at her mother-in-law, she didn’t vent her frustration with America, wouldn’t do anything to disturb the family peace. She never complained to her husband or to her daughters about the anxiety she felt, the pains in her chest that   made it hard to breathe. This was their new life. She would make it work.

After all, her husband never complained. Man Chul was as worn out and frustrated as she was trying to build a life in America, but he didn’t blame her for his troubles. He didn’t hit her, like she heard other men did. He didn’t drink or escape to a second wife. He was a gentle man. Maybe too gentle. Man Chul believed too much in the dream of the Beautiful Country. In the end, his belief got him killed.

 

~

 

“Mrs. Bak?”

Yong Soo looked up to see a Korean woman in her late twenties wearing costume pearls over a sleeveless blue dress. The woman held out her hand. Yong Soo stood.

“I’m Elaine Park, the coordinating pro bono attorney here at CAAR.”

Yong Soo bowed and said, “Insa haseyo.”

“I don’t really speak Korean,” Elaine said.

“Oh, I’m sorry. I’m very happy to meet you. Is Tanya here?”

“Yes,” Elaine said, “and so is John.” She led Yong Soo down a short corridor, then paused at a closed door with her hand on the knob. Yong Soo smelled burnt coffee and kimchi from behind the door, and thought Elaine had led her to the wrong room.

“I apologize for the accommodations,” Elaine said. “We have to meet in the break area because our executive director is using the conference room.”

Yong Soo heard Tanya’s voice from inside, saying, “You need to go easy,” then a man’s impatient voice saying, “I understand.” She didn’t want to walk in on a fight, but before she could say anything, Elaine pushed into the room. Yong Soo stood behind her, holding her breath. But then she saw Tanya, who stood and smiled and said, “Anyoung haseyo.” Yong Soo felt so relieved she rushed in to give her a hug.

This is the attorney I told you about,” Tanya said in Korean. “He works for a large private firm, but he’s going to help you for free.”

She turned to the American lawyer who rose, banging into the low table and spilling tea.

“John,” Tanya said, “this is my friend, Yong Soo.”

“Good afternoon,” he said.

He reminded her of her son-in-law. Tall, with sandy hair and dark blue eyes. Yong Soo felt it was disrespectful for Elaine to make him hold the meeting in such a tiny room. She bowed and said, “Aigo, kamsa hamnida. Jal bootak deurimnida.”

He paused, as if unsure how to respond.

“Thank you for helping me, Mr. . . .” Yong Soo looked to Tanya to help with his name.

“Laughlin,” Tanya said.

“Please call me ‘John,'” the lawyer said.

Yong Soo glanced at Tanya, who gave a slight nod back. “Yes. Thank you, John.”

May I offer you some tea?” Tanya asked.

Water, please.

Tanya indicated a chair, but Yong Soo hesitated before sitting. Everyone was so well dressed: John, in his business suit, Elaine in her elegant dress, Tanya in a dark brown suit, her hair tied in a chignon held in place by a chopstick.

They made Yong Soo feel shabby: worn beyond her years, wrinkled from work and worry, too thin for her age. She became aware of the greying curls of her permed hair, the bags under her eyes from poor sleep. She wore no jewelry or makeup, nothing to hide behind, just an old white sweater buttoned over her pale-green blouse. Now she knew why they were meeting in the kitchen: they were embarrassed to be seen with her. She pulled her sweater closer around her with one hand as she sat.

 

~

 

Yong Soo swallowed a pill for Tanya. She didn’t know how she could have managed this past year without her help. And Tanya did so much to help her cope with her loss so she could move on with her life.

She was twenty-seven, the same age as Yong Soo’s eldest daughter, and shared the same immigrant upbringing: a latch-key childhood, teen years spent as unpaid labor at the family business-Yong Soo’s daughters at their shoe store, Tanya at her father’s convenience store nearby. And like Yong Soo’s daughters, Tanya had lost a parent to violence. Her mother was killed during a store robbery ten years earlier. Yong Soo was certain that’s why Tanya had spent hours and days helping her since Saigu, taking time away from work to drive and translate for her in all of the meetings with the police and the government relief agencies.

One of the meetings Tanya arranged for her was with a Korean psychiatrist who offered free help to victims of Saigu. It was just a month after her husband’s death and she was reluctant, hardened and resolute from years of keeping her suffering inside. But facing an empty house every night wore on her. There was no longer any peace to keep, no one to protect. No reason to keep her feelings locked down.

The doctor told Yong Soo what she already knew: she suffered from hwa byung, Fire Illness. A condition unique to Koreans, related to han, a sadness all Koreans bear. Her illness didn’t come on suddenly. It had been building for decades, caused by years of suppressing anger, which upset the balance of the five elements in her body, allowing the fire element to rage out of control, causing her to feel the burning sensation, the ball of blocked anger that made it hard for her to breathe, difficult to sleep.

The doctor saw her every week. He encouraged her to release her anger, prescribing pills along with traditional herbs, and urging her to focus on the good she gave others by suffering. His help worked for a time. But as the months wore on, the steady burning would not go away. Yong Soo could not overcome the loss caused by her husband’s death. They were so close to making a good life in America. With both daughters grown, they were able to start to save more money, to see a time in the future when they could afford to sell the store. All of that went up in flames in a single afternoon.

Before, she always knew who was attacking her: her mother-in-law, an angry customer. But this time her attacker had no face. Who could she hold accountable? The man who shot her husband? The police who abandoned Koreatown? The looters who roamed the streets?

With no one to blame, she turned the blame back on herself. As she became more dependent on the charity of others, her ability to smother the Fire Illness under a blanket of pills and herbs and positive thoughts weakened until it disappeared. Until it became easier to sacrifice her life to satisfy the voracious appetite of the fire.

She took another pill, this one for the psychiatrist, the kind man who donated so much of his time trying to help her. She apologized for failing him, and hoped he would use the time her death freed up to help someone who could be cured.

 

~

 

“Ms. Bak,” John said, “thank you for coming downtown to talk to us today. I’ll try not to take up too much of your time. First, let’s make sure I have everything.” He shuffled through sheets of paper as he spoke. “I have a copy of your most recent premium payment to your insurer; the letters Ms. Cho—-” he nodded to his left—-“Tanya, drafted for you seeking payment; the insurer’s rejection letter . . .”

Yong Soo sat with her hands in her lap, eyes fixed on the table in front of her, nodding as Tanya translated. She glanced at John when he spoke, but when his eyes met hers, she dropped them back to the table.

“Do you have any other documents relating to insurance?”

Tanya translated. Yong Soo shook her head. They spoke back and forth in Korean.

That’s all I have. The insurance burned up with all the business papers. We kept everything in a safe in the back of the store.

He’s just double checking,” Tanya said.

I gave you everything.”

Tanya looked at John. “Everything’s in the file I gave you.”

“And you’re sure there’s nothing else at your house?” John asked Yong Soo.

She shook her head. How could there be anything at the house when there was no longer any house? The bank took it away months ago. Tanya knew. Didn’t she tell John? She saw he was waiting for her to answer. “No,” she said in English. “Nothing.”

Her voice shook. She felt ashamed; a smarter person would have everything a lawyer asked for. She glanced at the door, wanting to leave.

Tanya glared at John. “Go easy.”

 

~

 

Yong Soo picked two more pills, one each for Mr. and Mrs. Chung, who owned the basement apartment where she lay. She had lost her home soon after she lost her husband, unable to afford the mortgage. If it weren’t for the Chungs, she might not have any place at all.

She and her husband had borrowed heavily to purchase a suburban house so their daughters could go to good schools. Soon after, they sold their garment business and bought the shoe store in Koreatown from Mr. Chung who’d immigrated five years before them. They couldn’t afford any more debt, but it was an opportunity they couldn’t pass up. Mr. Chung introduced Yong Soo’s husband to an insurance agent who sold them business insurance at a discount. The savings made it possible to afford the store.

After the shoe store burned down, Tanya helped Yong Soo file a claim, but the insurance money never arrived. Without any income, she could only afford payments on the house for three months.

When the bank foreclosed, Mr. Chung insisted on housing her. He offered her the basement apartment he set up for newly arrived immigrants to use until they found a place to live. Yong Soo refused, not wanting to accept his charity. He didn’t ask again. He hired a moving company to bring her things to his house, then brought in an estate broker to sell off what she no longer wanted. She knew he wasn’t offering her charity: he was begging her to help him relieve his shame, to overcome his guilt for misleading his friend.

Yong Soo glanced around. She was glad she’d ended up there. The apartment was small and clean, with a south-facing window high on the wall by the front door through which she could see the steel-blue sky from where she lay on her bed.

She swallowed a pill for Mr. Chung. Then she swallowed another for his wife, nosy Mrs. Chung, who would probably find her body. She felt bad for the shock she would cause her. But there would be no mess, no blood, no twisted corpse to take down from the ceiling. Just a body at rest on top of the bed. She took solace knowing she wouldn’t cause Mrs. Chung any undue work.

 

She took pills for Kyong Sook and Hyun Yee, thinking to herself how lucky she was to have such loving daughters. Thinking how much better their lives would be without having to worry about their needy mother.

Her older daughter called every week and begged her to move in with her family. But she lived in Ojai, a resort town in the mountains. What would Yong Soo do in such a remote place, so far from her Korean friends, her Korean markets, surrounded by people who would have a hard time understanding her poor English, who only knew her daughter as Katie instead of Kyong Sook? It would be like emigrating again, only to a place even more foreign than L.A. She didn’t have the strength to exile herself from the Korean community, to start all over in yet another foreign land.

Besides, Kyong Sook’s husband was white. He had no sense of family beyond his wife and son. He called Yong Soo “ŏmma,” mother, but he would grow tired of her. She would embarrass him in the eyes of his country club friends, be the unwanted mother-in-law, the price he had to pay for marrying an il-chŏm-o-se, a 1.5 generation Korean wife, a burden to his friends, who married American women and sent their parents to retirement homes, didn’t have to bear.

Her younger daughter, Hyun Yee, was still single, living in San Francisco. She offered to move back to L.A., to live with Yong Soo, help her get back on her feet. But how could Yong Soo do that to her? Ask her to leave the life she was building for herself? Isn’t that why her husband uprooted the family and brought them to America in the first place? What sense would all the deprivation they had suffered, the long hours of work, the hardships . . . what sense would any of it make if she took that opportunity away?

 

~

 

John took a sip of tea and nodded, then cleared his throat and continued.

“Ms. Bak, your case seems straightforward to me. You and your husband owned a retail business and the building that housed it. Both were covered by insurance. During the riots last year, your merchandise was stolen and your building was destroyed.”

Not stolen,” Yong Soo said to Tanya.

Excuse me?” Tanya said.

The shoes weren’t stolen. We gave most of them away. The rest burned in the fire.”

Tanya wrinkled her brow. John glanced back and forth between them.

“Tanya,” Elaine said, “could you please translate for John and me?”

Tanya held her hand up as to fend off Elaine’s interruption. “Just a second.”

Elaine bristled, stiffening in her chair and staring at Tanya. But she held still.

You gave them away?” Tanya said in Korean.

Yong Soo nodded. “My husband stood out front and invited people in. He told them to take what they wanted, but to leave some for the others.”

Why?” Tanya asked.

When we got to the store that morning,” Yong Soo said, “a lot of buildings were already on fire. If our store burned down, it would take months to get it rebuilt. We couldn’t afford to be out of work that long. My husband was certain that if we gave everything away and kept the looters happy, they would leave the building alone. After Saigu, the insurance would pay for the shoes and we’d still be able to work. Looters were everywhere in Koreatown, but they weren’t angry. Most were poor Mexicans who lived nearby. They saw people on TV stealing things while the police just watched. They didn’t want to make trouble; only get what they could for free.

 

The day before Yong Soo’s husband was killed, a jury had acquitted four police officers in the videotaped beating of Rodney King. By nightfall, crowds were rioting in South Central L.A., just a couple of miles from the Baks’ store. Yong Soo and her husband listened to news reports of police retreating from hostile crowds, fire crews leaving buildings to burn because rioters were shooting at them. Like many other merchants in Koreatown, they closed the store early and planned not to open at all the next day.

But in the morning, Radio Korea reported that rioters were working their way north into Koreatown, looting and burning as they went. The announcers alerted shop owners that the police had abandoned the area, told them they had the right to defend their stores under the Second Amendment, encouraged them to arm themselves and defend their stores or risk losing everything.

A little after ten, Man Chul went to the kitchen and started packing lunches like he did every day before they went to work. Yong Soo fought the urge to stand and help him, staying in her chair and twisting around instead to study his face and his reactions to each news update. He moved without looking up, preparing packages of food with practiced efficiency.  

Yeobo,” she said at last. “Where are you going?”

He didn’t reply.

“It’s not safe,” she said. “We don’t even own a gun.”

“We don’t need one,” he said. “We’ll open the store and give everything away.”

“Why?”

“If we aren’t there, they’ll destroy the building.”

“Our lives are more important.”

“No one wants to hurt us. They just want to get what they can for free.”

“But still . . .”

He turned to face her.

“If we give away the shoes, insurance will cover the cost and we’ll be back in business in weeks. But all of our money is tied up in the building. If it’s destroyed, we’ll be out of work for months until insurance pays to get it rebuilt. We can’t afford to have the business closed that long.”

Yong Soo wanted to argue, but her husband was right. For all their years of hard work, they carried so much debt they were never more than a step ahead of losing everything.

“Do you really think we’ll be safe?” she asked.

“Why would anyone hurt us if we give them everything they want?”

She wanted to trust her husband’s judgment, but should she? Despite her fear, she couldn’t let him face the looters alone. She went to the kitchen to help him pack.

By early afternoon, when rioting crowds had worked their way up to the Bak’s store, they were ready. Man Chul stood in the doorway, welcoming looters inside. He smiled and bowed and told people to take what they wanted, asked them to please take only what they could use, to leave some for the others.

His plan seemed to work. Looters ravaged the store: shoes and boxes and packaging covered the floor; displays lay stripped and broken; torn sports posters dangled from the walls. Even after looters had taken most of the merchandise, people still ran in from the street, jostling the crowd inside. They rifled through boxes, rummaged through discarded piles, all the time shouting, their excited voices drowning out the sirens and helicopters outside. But Man Chul’s plan seemed to work. The people were happy. He and Yong Soo and their building were safe — until three gunmen chased everyone out.

 

“Tanya,” Elaine said, tapping a pen on the table, “please tell us what Mrs. Bak is saying.”

“She’s explaining how most of the shoes weren’t stolen.”

“Okay,” Elaine said. “So we’ve established that the merchandise was destroyed. Can we move on?”

Tanya said to Yong Soo, “We’ll have to talk about what happened to the shoes later.” She turned to John. “You can continue.”

He picked up the insurance rejection letter and frowned.

“The biggest hurdle to collecting on your claim is going to be this ‘Riot Exclusion’ the insurer cites in its rejection letter. The business was burned in a riot. We’ll have to get around this exclusion somehow.”

“It wasn’t a riot,” Elaine said. “It was an uprising.”

John looked at her with a blank expression.

“A riot is spontaneous,” Elaine said. “An uprising is a political expression. African-Americans targeted Korean-owned businesses. It was a coordinated response.”

“It was civil unrest,” Tanya said. “African-Americans weren’t the only people who rose up, and Korean businesses weren’t the only ones attacked. Antagonism between Koreans and Blacks was just the story the media spun. There were looters of all races in Koreatown, and African-Americans lost businesses too.”

“Riot, uprising, civil unrest,” John said. “The point is moot. It doesn’t matter what you call it. The insurer will argue those are distinctions without a difference.”

“It was arson,” Tanya said to John. She pointed at the papers in front of him. “Arson isn’t excluded under the policy.”

“Again,” John said, raising his voice, “arson committed in furtherance of a riot or,” he motioned toward Elaine, “an uprising. Either way they’ve got an exclusion.”

“No,” Tanya said, “you don’t understand.” She stared at John, her eyes burning with rage. “The fire had nothing to do with the civil unrest. A gangbanger named Dobson came into the store with a couple of bodyguards and chased the looters out, then demanded protection money. Yong Soo’s husband didn’t understand. He offered them free shoes. They got angry and shot him, then burned the store down to cover up their crime.”

Yong Soo blinked back tears. John looked back and forth between her and Tanya.

“How do you know?” he asked.

Tanya reached into Yong Soo’s lap and took her hand.

“Yong Soo was hiding in back,” Tanya said. “She saw everything.”

 

~

 

The first gunshot sounded like a bomb exploding inside the store. Looters screamed and fell to the floor. Yong Soo ducked into the storeroom and cowered under the counter until the panic died down to murmurs and sobs. She crawled out to peer around the doorway as her husband rushed in from the sidewalk waving his hands over his head.

“No trouble!” he shouted. “Take what you want. Everything is free today.”

Boom! Another shot went off, this time near the cash register. More cries rang out. A black man brandishing a chrome-barreled pistol stepped from the crowd and jumped up on the counter. He wore a ribbed tank top, chains, sagging jeans with a blue bandana hanging from the back pocket. Yong Soo knew what that meant. Gang colors. Crips.

The gangbanger swept his gun over the crowd. “Store’s closed,” he said in a low voice. “Everybody out.”

A few people near the entrance rose to a crouch, keeping their eyes on the gunman as they sidled toward the door, moving faster as they scrambled outside. After the first few left unharmed, the rest rushed out, clutching and dropping shoe boxes, bags of socks, t-shirts, grabbing for anything they could hold as they went. Yong Soo’s mouth dropped open. How could they be so worried about free shoes when their lives were at stake?

Two other Crips stood guard over the entrance, weapons drawn. The gangster waving the gun stepped off the counter and looked her husband up and down.

“Man Chul Bak,” he said. He spoke slowly, as if testing the foreign words. “Mind if I call you Manny?”

“Daniel,” Man Chul said. “Please, call me ‘Dan’.” He smiled and held out his hand. “May I ask your name?”

“You can call me Mr. Dobson,” the gunman said. He ignored Man Chul’s outstretched hand and glanced around the store instead. “Nice place you got here, Manny. Could use a little cleaning up.”

Dobson’s eyes settled on Man Chul and scanned him from head to toe. He let out a short laugh.

“How a dumb motherfucker like you get to own your own place?” he said.

“Not dumb,” Man Chul said. “I was a professor in Korea. Top university.”

“Yeah? You so smart, why you running this little shitbox shoe store?”

“I don’t speak English well. It’s very hard to get work.”

“So you left Korea to sell shoes?”

“To get away from the government. Very repressive. People are treated bad there. Like you here in America.”

Dobson pointed the gun back and forth between them. “So you and me, we the same, huh? Oppressed brothers?”

“Yes, you and me.”

“Let me tell you something, you dumb motherfucker. We ain’t nothin’ the same.”

“Not dumb,” Man Chul said, “I told you. If we are in Korea, maybe you would be my student. Maybe assistant.”

“What, do your laundry?” Dobson asked.

“No,” Man Chul said. “Research assistant.”

Dobson smiled and waved away the thought with his gun. “Nevermind, it was a joke. I do your laundry in Korea, instead of you doing mine here.”

Man Chul nodded and smiled back. “No. That’s Chinese. Chinese laundry, like in the old Westerns. John Wayne.”

Dobson pressed the gun against Man Chul’s temple. “You callin’ me stupid?”

Man Chul held his arms up and shook his head. “No. I don’t want trouble. You want money? Rob me? I don’t have money today. Take some shoes. Everything is free.”

“I don’t need new shoes.”

“Wait. I’ll get you some nice ones. What size? Ten?”

Dobson hesitated, then glanced at his feet. “Ten and a half,” he said. “D.”

“D,” Man Chul repeated. “Wait here. Let me pick out some shoes for you.” He hurried toward the storeroom in back.

“You’d better not be packing a gun in them shoe boxes,” Dobson yelled after him.

Man Chul turned and held up his hands. “No gun!” he said. “No trouble! Just wait one minute.”

Dobson clicked his tongue as Man Chul hurried away. “Yo, Dirt!” he called out, “go watch that motherfucker.”

 

Man Chul shooed Yong Soo into the bathroom and told her to lock the door. She sat in the dark and pounded her thighs, angry with herself for letting him talk her into opening that morning. Once the the storeroom went quiet, she snuck back to the doorway to keep an eye on her husband.

He motioned to Dobson to sit down.

“What am I going to do with those little boy shoes?” Dobson said.

“Air Jordan,” Man Chul said. “My most popular brand with blacks.” He pointed at Dobson’s shoes. “British Knights. Pretty good shoe.”

“Yeah, they BKs,” Dobson said. “Blood killers, like me.”

“I think you’ll like these better,” Man Chul said.

Dobson grinned. “You have no idea what I’m talking about, do you?” He clicked his tongue. “Man, you Koreans are something else. Put a gun to your head and you still trying to hawk a pair of shoes.”

Man Chul motioned again. “Sit down. Relax.” He opened the box and started lacing.

Dobson sat, still holding the gun. When he looked up, both his guards were staring at him.

“What the fuck you looking at?” he yelled. “Mind the door.”

Man Chul knelt before Dobson, cradling the heel of his foot to unlace his shoe. Yong Soo watched Dobson looking down on her husband’s balding head, and felt for a moment as if she were in his place, close enough to smell her husband’s hair, to see the grey-black strands whorling away from the circle of bare skin, the sprinkles of dandruff. Dobson shifted. She saw his expression change from laughing at her husband to something blank, and then something cold. He sniffed, then grimaced, and in one swift motion brought the handgun back and swiped the heavy metal barrel hard across Man Chul’s face.

She jumped and let a squeak escape before clapping her hand over her mouth.

“Get the fuck off me!” Dobson yelled. He relaced his shoe and stood, brushing his hands down his front as if soiled. He pressed the gun against Man Chul’s chest. “You need to pay me now, or something bad’s gonna happen.”

Man Chul rocked on his knees, holding his bloody cheek. “No money,” he said. “No trouble. Take the shoes.”

“Motherfucker!” Dobson said, and raised the gun to cock him again.

Yong Soo took a step forward to help her husband, then hesitated. What could she do against three armed men? She winced, anticipating the blow.

Man Chul reached into his back pocket. “Here’s my wallet. Take it.” He pointed to the counter. “There’s the cash register. Open. No money. Go in back, look at my safe. All open. No money! If you don’t want shoes, give them to your friends.”

“They ain’t my friends,” Dobson said. “Yo, Dirt!” he called out without taking his eyes off Man Chul. “You see a safe when you went back of the store?”

“Yeah.”

“Motherfucker, was there anything in it?”

“Nothin’,” Dirt said. “Papers. No money, if that’s what you mean.”

Dobson closed his eyes and took a breath. He took another, then opened his eyes and smiled.

“All right,” he said in a soothing voice. He grabbed Man Chul’s elbow and helped him up. “Alright, Manny. Listen up. I’ll be back when this shit is over, and you owe me for protecting your store.”

“No money,” Man Chul said.

“I know,” Dobson said. “After. When you charging people for shoes again. I’ll come back. You pay me then for keeping your store safe, or you die. Ain’t no third way. Got it?”

“Come back later. Yes. I understand.” Man Chul bowed. “Thank you.”

Dobson tucked his gun into the back of his pants, shook his head, and eased toward the front of the store. Yong Soo followed him with her eyes as he spoke to Dirt, then stood in the doorway, facing the smoky, trash-strewn street.

The danger was over. They would leave now. She turned away from the storeroom door.

BAM! A gunshot went off. She jumped, then bit her fist to stifle a cry. Man Chul lay sprawled on a pile of boxes, blood oozing from the back of his head. Dirt was strutting toward the front of the store with a shoebox under his arm.

“What the fuck?” Dobson said.

“He got the point now,” Dirt said.

“How’m I supposed to shake down a dead Korean?”

“But you said . . .”

“Hit the motherfucker,” Dobson said. “Scare him. Not kill him.” He grabbed the shoebox and threw it back into the store.

“Hey!” Dirt said.

Dobson pointed at Man Chul’s body. “One more slip, you end up just like him.”  He clicked his tongue and glanced around the store with a look of regret. “If I can’t have this bitch, nobody can. Torch the motherfucker. Stay here and shoot anybody tries to put out the fire.

 

Yong Soo scurried back to the bathroom and crouched on the toilet, cradling her shaky knees with trembling arms and holding one hand over her mouth to quiet the squeaks and cries she couldn’t suppress.

She stayed hidden until smoke came in under the door. She tried to search through the smoke for Man Chul’s body, but the fire was too hot. She escaped through the rear entrance to the back alley, wandering through crowds of roaming looters until she found refuge at a Korean market protected by armed men posted on the roof. The owner had one of the guards drive her to a hospital in Pasadena, away from the riots, where she was treated for smoke inhalation and first-degree burns.

She wasn’t able to get back to Koreatown for two days. By then, nothing was left of their building but charred concrete walls, piles of twisted metal and smoky gray ash. She clawed through the debris looking for some sign of her husband. All she came away with were scraped knees and soot-covered hands.

The police never found Man Chul’s body. Yong Soo told them he had been shot before the building burned down. But there was no weapon. No remains. In the absence of any proof, LAPD listed Man Chul Bak as a missing person, just one of more than a hundred reported during the riots. The police even suggested her husband might have started the fire himself, used the cover of the riots to start a new life, maybe even return to Korea. They asked Yong Soo if she was fabricating his death to collect on his life insurance. Asked her if she knew she could go to jail for insurance fraud.

Weeks later, she went back to watch a city crew clear the lot. When the bulldozer bumped against the charred wall of the store to knock it down, she felt a heavy thump inside, as if the machine were tearing down something inside her.

Yong Soo’s life was like their store: gutted by fire, empty behind the facade. But the fire that consumed her husband’s body died when it ran out of fuel. So long as Yong Soo was alive, the fire inside her had an inexhaustible supply of sadness and shame. It would never die so long as she lived. As she watched the walls of the store come down, she wondered how long that might be.

 

~

 

Yong Soo picked up her napkin and wiped her eyes. Tanya’s lower lip quivered. Elaine was dead silent. John leaned his elbow on the table and stroked his chin while he stared at Tanya.

“I’m sorry, Ms. Bak. I didn’t know.”

Yong Soo nodded.

John straightened the papers in front of him. “I think we could all use a breather. Why don’t we take a short break.”

“Fine with me,” Elaine said. “I need to check in with our E.D.”

“Great,” he said. “Ten minutes?”

Yong Soo followed Elaine out and asked where she could find a bathroom. When she returned, she heard John and Tanya arguing behind the door. She walked in without knocking. Tanya turned to face her. John was leaning forward with his fists planted on the table. His face was red, and veins stood out on his forehead. He straightened and cleared his throat.

“I’m very sorry to cause you so much trouble,” Yong Soo said to him.

He smiled at her. “You’re not. It’s okay. This is what I do.” He looked at Tanya. “See if you can get Elaine back in here, will you?”

~

The rest of the meeting was even more painful for Yong Soo. John asked questions, but she didn’t know anything; her husband had taken care of it all. She couldn’t tell him how much they paid for their business, what loans were outstanding, anything about their insurance agent beyond the information on the premium form.

With each answer she was unable to give, John’s expression grew more troubled. He tapped his foot more often, shuffled papers while he rubbed his chin and flexed his jaw. She could see in his eyes how every unanswered question made his work harder. Work Tanya had told him he would do for free.

As her embarrassment grew, she became listless, barely able to respond. She hoped he didn’t think she was ungrateful.

She wanted to explain herself to him, but didn’t know how. He wouldn’t understand. She was sure he’d never heard of Han, that he couldn’t know anything about Hwa Byung. To him, her behavior probably just seemed like depression caused by the loss of her husband.

But it was so much more than that.

She wanted to explain how the unresolvable sadness of Han smolders deep inside Koreans, how it comes from being raised in a repressive society, from missing relatives who live north of a military line dividing their country, from decades of Japanese occupation, how Han goes back to the invasions of the Mongols, the Manchus, a thousand years of death and destruction caused by each wave of marauding armies that have ravaged their land.  

She wanted to explain how sometimes the burning ember of Han flares into Hwa Byung, Fire Illness, and how the fire grows, consuming everything, until there is nothing left but the hollow shell of the person who no longer has a reason to live. It can start with something small-like being told by your mother-in-law you’re not fit to marry her son-and that small thing grows through a lifetime of trying to prove your worth without showing your anger, through years of hard work and long hours away from your growing children, the hostility of customers, humiliations from people who don’t understand you, who yell at you to learn the language even though you work too hard and too many hours to have time, from being told you should go home when you’ve immigrated, and this place, this America, is your only home. From losing your life and your future in one afternoon.

Yong Soo knew John wanted to help her get the money she was owed, help her regain some dignity, show she and her husband weren’t just ignorant foreigners who could be cheated at will.

But to what purpose?

So she could build a new store? Face the same long hours alone? The humiliations, the robberies, the anxiety of knowing she could be murdered any day like so many other Korean-Americans who go through life armed and fearful behind the counters of their stores? John was offering her as much of her old life as she could purchase with the insurance money, and as she saw that promise being held out to her, all she could think of was how little she wanted any part of it.

Her purpose in this life was done. She’d worked side-by-side with her husband, kept peace with her in-laws, raised two dutiful daughters, gave them the promise of America far beyond anything she would ever enjoy. This was the time of the new Koreans, the ones who thought more like Tanya and Elaine, like her daughters. Those who had more of the American future ahead of them than the Korean past.

John can’t understand any of this. Yong Soo can’t begin to explain it to him. He is the fair-haired picture of what Koreans are taught all Americans look like, born of a nation of conquerors, a people who kill anyone and push aside anything that stands in their way. To an American like him, Koreans are melodramatic. Han is absurd.

So instead of trying to explain, Yong Soo grew sullen, gazing downward to avoid meeting John’s eyes, sipping water and concentrating instead on calming the fire in her chest.

 

When the meeting was finally over, John stood and bowed to Yong Soo. This stranger who had offered to help her for free. That was what pushed her over the edge: knowing she was so destitute she had to rely on the generosity of a complete stranger; that she was so empty there was nothing left of her to help.

~

She reached for the nightstand to get a sleeping pill to take for John. The sky through the window had turned orange-red. Something about that bothered her, but what? Was it so late already? As she groped for the bottle, her ears filled with a sound like spilling rice. She glanced over and saw pills scattered on the nightstand, bouncing off the wooden floor. She took a second to focus, then used all her concentration to pick a pill off the stand and bring it to her mouth. She swallowed it with the last sip of water in the glass and lay back, wondering whether she should take any more. She would need to refill her glass, and the sink was so far away. She worried about crushing the pills on the floor and making more of a mess for Mrs. Chung to clean up.

Her head pounded. She cradled it in her hands and closed her eyes, but the pounding continued. She felt her body lifting off the bed, floating around the room, searching for the source of the noise as if she were playing hide and seek with her baby daughters. The room went quiet. She hovered silently, waiting . . . She heard pounding again and opened her eyes. The sound wasn’t in her head. It was coming from the door.

She heard a small voice, and her heart started pounding in her chest. It was Mrs. Chung, inviting her upstairs to dinner. Yong Soo saw the deepening red sky through the window, and only then realized she had forgotten to close the curtain. Mrs. Chung would get curious when there was no answer. She would peek in and see her on the bed, see the pills spilled all over. She’d panic and call an ambulance.

Yong Soo swung her feet to the floor. She needed to close the curtain before Mrs. Chung interfered. She waited until the room settled down, then when the dizziness passed, slid into her slippers and pushed herself up. She paused with a hand on the bed to steady herself, then took one step toward the window before losing all strength in her legs and collapsing into a pile on the floor.

As she lay among the pills, she glanced sideways and saw the window darkened by a shadow. She heard fingernails clicking on the glass, the high-pitched squeal of Mrs. Chung’s panicked screams. She wished Mrs. Chung weren’t so nosy. She prayed to be left alone to die. To be released from this life. To be allowed, at last, to put the fire out.

A Roundabout Way

Patricia Jacaban Miranda

When you want to unload a problem, hire a hobgoblin. Under the table is best.

That’s what Mark says at recess after we beat the fourth graders to the roundabout and call dibs. We grab opposite handlebars and start running. The roundabout’s so old and rusty, it takes awhile to get it going, especially when the ground’s muddy. It’s been raining a lot lately. So much that Mom keeps saying, “When it rains, it pours.” She’s always saying stupid stuff like that around Foster. They laugh like it’s actually funny.

Mark and I jump onto the roundabout. Holding onto a bar, I look at the sky. I’m moving fast, round and round, and I pretend I’m a moth in a jar. Don’t ask me why I think stuff like that. I just do. That’s what I’m thinking. That I’m a moth in a jar.

Mark asks, “So how come you’re not doing soccer league? Coach says we could really use you back as goalie.”

I blink hard like there’s something in my eye. Suddenly I’m thinking of Dad and me on the soccer field. How the hours just flew by—neither of us even knowing it. After a while, I say, “I can’t get to the games. Mom and Foster have counseling on Saturdays. They say they wanna start off right. It’s pretty stupid.”

“How long they been married?”

“I dunno. Ten months, maybe.” In two days, it’ll be a year.

“Do you guys get along?”

“Who?”

“You and Foster.”

I open my eyes. Mark’s head is thrown back. He’s grinning at the sky.

“You and Foster,” he said again. “Do you get along?”

“I dunno. He’s nice enough. More of a jerk, though. Doesn’t like me talking about Dad.”

While the roundabout slows down, we try to balance in the center. We sorta push at each other, too, and that feels good ’cause I’m bigger than Mark.

And that’s when he says it. That he’d found an old book about what to do with problems. Recess ends in five minutes, but that’s all we need, Mark and me, to decide that Foster qualifies as a problem.

~

By the time I get home, my shoulders can hardly take the weight anymore. All I have to do is get upstairs, but Foster calls from the kitchen.

“Ben, is that you?” His tired face appears at the door. “Why are you late? Was today Robotics?”

That’s one of his problems: Foster’s always asking questions, always butting in. Last week, I heard him tell Mom, Let me try with Ben. Give yourself a break.

Sometimes, I really hate him.

“Yeah, we had Robotics.” I run upstairs before he can ask anything else. In my room, I let my backpack hit the floor with a thump. The book inside is called Advanced Logomantics: Rituals and Incantations. It’s moldy from being in Mark’s basement for ages. His parents don’t know where it came from.

I turn to page 303, where the chapter title, “Purgative Procedures,” has been crossed out and replaced with spidery handwriting: “How to get rid of problem people.”

I read the first paragraph for the tenth time:

When the expulsion of an individual is needed to restore community harmony, a hobgoblin can be hired. Payment requires a tidbit and a trinket. However, conjurers should specify contract terms, for hobgoblins are notoriously unpredictable.

About a hundred bullet points called “caveats” follow, but I skip to the end where the handwriting gives instructions I can understand: “Wait for a new moon.”

I have two days. And I have a lot to get ready.

~

I’m down in the basement, and my stomach feels funny, like it does when I’m on the roundabout. Maybe it’s ’cause I’m wearing my underwear inside-out and backwards—for good luck. I’m glad no one can see what else I’m wearing: a black T-shirt and a pillowcase I’ve magic-markered black. It’s supposed to be a black robe.

With my flashlight, I double-check the diagram. Everything seems right. I’ve laid alternating black and white stones in a big circle under the pool table. In the center are the mouse in a lidded shoebox and my old Transformer Bot (with its head missing, but the instructions didn’t say the trinket had to be in great shape). Foster’s wedding picture is taped to the candle, but I made sure to cut me and Mom out of it first. There’s a weird hole in Foster’s chest where my head would have been. Maybe the goblin won’t notice.

Somewhere upstairs, a floorboard creaks, and I peer out to check the spiral staircase in the corner. Mom gushed about the spiral staircase when she’d first told me about Foster. The stairs connect the “lower level” (what Foster calls the basement) to the kitchen pantry, and for days, Mom made a big deal about playing video games and grabbing snacks all I wanted. Just to annoy her, I didn’t check out the basement for a whole month after we moved in.

I wait, listening for more sounds, but the house has gone quiet. It’s hot under the pool table, and I’m sweating. I look down at my clothes. White streaks show where I was sloppy with the magic marker. The patterns remind me of the moth I drew, that time we were at the hospital for Mom’s arm cast. Dad was staring tight-lipped at the floor, so I knew to keep quiet. I found a pen and drew a black-and-white moth on the back of a magazine. I drew it over and over until it was finally time to leave.

I’ve got my flashlight trained on the figure in the ring of stones. It took me two trips to the art room to steal enough clay to make it: a thickish, humanlike creature about two feet high. Following the instructions, I’d pulled some of my hair out and squashed the strands onto its head. I made a paper-towel toga for it, too, ’cause I didn’t like seeing its bare body. I messed up a little, though. One leg is longer than the other, so it’s standing lopsided.

Now it’s time for me to light the candle. I take a deep breath and unfold the paper with the incantation on it. The words are in a language I don’t know, and it takes a long time to finish reading. My eyes sorta start watering ’cause my voice sounds crazy and ugly, like I’m saying things backwards.

Then the candle flickers out, and the room gets cold. I set my flashlight down to relight the candle, but my hands start shaking pretty bad. In the beam of the flashlight, the legs of the clay figure rise up into darkness. I keep having to wipe my eyes to see. Finally, I light a match, and the wick flares to life. That’s when it happens.

Its legs bend.

I gasp and snatch up the flashlight. Again, the legs bend, one hip dipping lower ’cause the knees aren’t even. One hand lifts and gestures toward Foster’s picture.

It’s asking me a question.

Before I know what I’m doing, I nod my head.

The hand swings toward me, palm up, and I cringe. I know what it wants, but I can barely breathe, much less move. The thing must be able to hear ’cause it tips its head at a scrabbling sound below it. In one move, it hinges at the hip and lifts the lid off the shoebox. It scoops up the mouse and brings the struggling creature to its faceless head. A gaping hole appears, and the mouse is gone.

When the thing straightens, it’s right next to my Transformer Bot. The two are nearly the same height, except the robot has no head. That’s ’cause one night, Dad came home with that smell on his breath and tripped over it. In a rage, he’d ripped off the Bot’s cheap plastic head. That night, he broke a lot of other things, too.

In the quivering circle of my flashlight, the thing puts its arms around the Bot and rests its head on the empty space between its shoulders.

I’ll admit it. I’m full-out sobbing now. I wish I hadn’t called it. I wish I hadn’t made it. It’s monstrous, embracing the gift my father had given me.

Slowly, the thing swivels its head in my direction.

And then I really can’t breathe. ‘Cause I see that nose, crooked at the bridge, from when our neighbor on Deming Street had punched it. And I see that mouth, twisted in a sneer, spitting out words that sting worse than wasps. And I see those eyes, that always went cold just before he’d go after—

The hobgoblin rips Foster’s picture off the candle and races away. The movement is so sudden it extinguishes the flame and swings the flashlight’s beam toward the corner of the room. For a hopeful moment, I think it’s actually leaving.

Then I see it’s heading for the spiral staircase. I can’t tear my eyes from its stumping gait, its mad glee. Instead of using the stair treads, the thing grabs the iron railing and swings itself upward, hand over hand. It looks back at me with my father’s eyes and winks.

Swing and wink, swing and wink.

Only when it heaves itself through the opening in the ceiling does my brain start working again. I lurch up and bang my head hard on the underside of the pool table. It hurts like a monkey-mother, but I crawl out, toward the staircase. It seems a million miles away.

When I finally reach the bottom step, my head’s throbbing. The staircase winds upward in a tight spiral, and the darkness presses down on me. I left the flashlight under the pool table, but I don’t have time to go back for it. I crawl up the first few steps, gripping the stair treads tight and bracing my shoulder against the center pole. I feel dizzy and sick. My father’s face swims before me. He’d looked at me that time, three years ago. He’d looked at me and said, “Get over here.” But I didn’t want to, and he knew it. I cried when his hand clenched into a fist.

Foster had found me crying on their wedding day. He’d put his arm around me and said, “It’s okay. I understand.” Shut up, I’d yelled, shut up. I threw off his arm, but I don’t remember what he said after. I’ve thought about it a bunch of times, but I just don’t remember.

Above me, the pantry is glowing green. I’m suddenly afraid to know what the thing’s doing. I read that hobgoblins like to crush and mangle. They especially like problems that can be crushed and mangled. And I’d sent the hobgoblin after a problem.

I peer cautiously over the edge of the stair opening. To my right is the threshold to the kitchen. To my left is the hobgoblin, crouching over something, its back toward me. Strewn about the floor are cereal boxes, flour bags, spice jars, and marinara bottles—their contents dumped into random piles of goop. In the green light, the place looks radioactive. Mom’s going to kill me.

As though reading my mind, the hobgoblin turns and stares, sly-like, at me. It’s holding a dagger with nasty toothed edges. It’s the source of the green light.

Raising its other hand, the hobgoblin flickers a piece of paper at me. He slashes it with the blade and lets the pieces flutter down. It’s Foster’s picture.

I should be scared out of my mind, and I am, ’cause I’m trembling all over. But I’m also mad—crazy mad. The kind of mad that takes me up the last two stairs to block the way to the kitchen.

The thing with my father’s face giggles, and that’s when I know. It’s either him or me. A hobgoblin, once hired, can’t be unhired. But I don’t have a weapon. I’m the stupidest person in the world, and I’m going to die that way.

The hobgoblin studies me with bright, catty eyes. I step back and almost lose my footing on something long and thin. Right away, I know it’s the broom we keep in the pantry. It must have gotten knocked over when the thing was ransacking the place. Warily, I reach down and take up the broom. It’s well made, with a hefty wood handle. Foster says it beats the dickens out of cheap plastic ones. He often hums while he sweeps.

The hobgoblin stops giggling. He stares hard at me, then dodges to the left, dipping a bit because of his gimpy leg. He’s trying to get past me.

But I’m not a star soccer goalie for no reason. I know it’s a juke. Just as he switches directions, I bring the broomstick down on his arm, as hard as I can. He shrieks, and the dagger clatters to the floor. We both dive for it.

Even when hurt, hobgoblins are fierce, ’cause they’re part stone and part fire. And they fight dirty. The hobgoblin kicks me viciously, catching me in the ribs and taking my breath away. If it weren’t for the broom, which lay across its path, it would have gotten to the dagger, and that would’ve been the end of me.

Strangely, the hobgoblin is afraid of the broom. He scurries around the handle, which gives me the chance to lunge for the dagger. My hand closes on the hilt just as the hobgoblin throws a punch across my temple. My head busts open in pain. But I have the dagger and somehow, too, the broomstick. Holding both, I stagger to my feet.

The dagger feels alive in my hand. Tiny electric shocks run up my arm and into my chest. The dagger’s twitching, restless. In the cast of its ghoulish light, I see him again. My dad. That look in his eyes that was love, but also a lie. I hold tight to the broomstick, leaning on it like a staff.

“Why’d you hurt us?” The voice doesn’t sound like me. Because I’ve never ever asked that question before.

He doesn’t answer. For a moment, he looks lost—terribly, desperately lost.

When he turns and runs for the door, the dagger, as though tracking him, shoots from my hand and into his back. I cry out, like the wound is mine, too. And then a powerful ache wells up from deep inside me and washes me down, down to a place where all is silent and blue and still.

~

It takes me awhile to figure out what I’m seeing: a pair of long, bent legs in faded blue pajamas. My eyes are puffy, and I’m lying on the pantry floor. The heaps of foodstuff are gone, but I can still see traces of swept flour and strange rust-colored streaks. I start up, looking for the hobgoblin.

“Hey, it’s okay. I’m here.” Foster leans over and grasps my shoulder.

My eyes dart about. “Where is it?”

“Where’s what? You mean the mess?” Foster slides next to me, smiles in his tired way, rubs the back of his neck. “Yeah, that sure was something. I just finished cleaning up.”

“Where’s Mom?”

“Upstairs, getting ready to take you to the hospital. Want me to call her?”

“No.” I sit up, my head pounding. “Why’s she wanna do that?”

“Well, for one, you don’t look so good. You’ve got a black eye. Did you know that? And a bunch of bruises. And we haven’t been able to wake you, even though you’ve been talking in your sleep.”

I look around the pantry, slow ’cause it really hurts to move my head. Not one sign of the hobgoblin.

My stepfather hesitates, then holds something up. “You were clutching this.”

I stare. It’s the wedding picture of Foster, Mom, and me. It’s crumpled up bad, but it’s whole, like it’d never been cut or slashed.

“Wanna tell me what happened here?” he says.

I don’t . . . can’t speak. His voice is so sad and gentle that I can’t seem to find my own.

Then he says it. The thing he said at the wedding that I couldn’t remember. He says it as Mom’s footsteps sound on the stairs.

“Things get better, Ben. In a roundabout way, things do get better.”

 

How Prostitution Saved My Life

Emma

The Paradise

 

On a Saturday morning in the fall of 1981, I was eating breakfast and reading a letter from my surprisingly patient landlord when Stella, barefoot and wiping sleep from her eyes, dropped into her chair. She poured cereal into a bowl and, perusing a glossy catalog addressed to the prior tenant, said solemnly, “I’ll take the bra and panty set.” Stella was 9 and wore undershirts.

I frowned, feigning offense. “You can’t get both. It’s only one thing a page.”

“It’s a set, Mom,” she explained, making a delicate smudge with her finger around the disputed items. “It only counts as one thing.”

The phone rang and I lifted the receiver. I recognized the voice on the other end of the line and dragged the phone into the hall. A minute later, the receiver clattered as I returned it to its cradle. My arm had turned to water. Stella shot me a questioning glance. Casually, I tucked a curl behind my ear and asked if she’d mind spending the day at Nicole’s. “But it’s Saturday.” I was quiet—what could I say? “Yeah, okay.” She scowled.

I telephoned Maren, the mother of Stella’s best friend. Maren was a nurse at San Francisco General and, like me, a mom who’d left her husband and moved to the city. We often took turns watching each other’s child and had similar parenting concerns—one of our first conversations had been about whether Barbie dolls gave our girls the wrong idea about women’s bodies. When I asked if Stella could spend the day at their house, Maren said they’d be happy to have her.

While Stella dressed, I stared at myself in the bathroom mirror. How had I—raised in a comfortable Minneapolis neighborhood by a father who bought a new car every two years and a mother who prided herself on not working outside the home—become engaged in such a depraved venture? Never especially adventurous, I’d married and had a child young instead of striking out on my own for a career. What I was doing now was my wildest move ever, and it was one that could wipe me out or make me.  

Even then I wondered about my motives. I remembered hearing that hookers had daddy issues, and I thought about my father standing me on his shoes and dancing 5-year-old me around the kitchen. When I was 10 or 11, I’d put on shows for him, imitating my mother’s tight-lipped jerks and physical clumsiness, characteristics that were exaggerated when she was angry, which was often. My father laughed at my antics, but when things got hot, he’d urge me to stop and not rile her up.

He and I had remained close until one night in my sophomore year when my parents came home and found me making out on the living room couch with Vince Green. Things between my father and me were never the same after that and, a year later, he accepted a job offer in Texas and explained that a clean break would be best for everyone. My mom later learned that a woman my dad worked with had followed him and they got married when my parents’ divorce became final. I didn’t see him after that. But was that a reason to become a hooker?

Staring into the mirror, the decision I’d made less than a week before now felt alien, as though I’d had no part in its making. I tried to recall the sense of possibility I’d enjoyed when I’d gotten up the nerve to call the parlor and to plunge myself into this wild enterprise, but all my bravado was eclipsed by dread.

I pulled the bristles through my stubborn curls, and shook my head until my dark hair billowed. How was I supposed to look? How would the other women look? I steadied my hands against the sink and recorded what I saw: a big-boned woman who’d been through a long rough patch and it showed. I pinched my cheeks to make them rosy, imagined that they made me look cheerful and hoped that might be enough. Sitting on the edge of the tub, I soaped my legs and ran a razor up them. Marco, my soon-to-be ex-husband, had liked me natural, so it’d been a long time since I’d shaved.

My heart raced thinking about Marco and what he’d think of what I was about to do. I’d been madly in love with him, enough that when I’d gotten pregnant unexpectedly and he asked me to marry him, for the sake of our child, I was delighted. He was the One for me. But he’d been consistently unfaithful and consistently lied about it. A year ago, after years of tears and arguments and pleading, I’d finally left him.  But even then, we’d gotten back together a few times—until I found out about some new girl. Six weeks ago, I’d moved to San Francisco to get my degree from San Francisco State and to finally be free of him.  

I’d promised to arrive within the hour, so I hurriedly changed into my best skirt and blouse and ran the brush through Stella’s hair. I found my purse on the drain board next to a half-eaten bowl of cereal. Spooning a bite into my mouth, the words last meal came to mind, but I dismissed the thought as melodramatic. Though my heart was pounding and my mouth was dry, I couldn’t afford to listen to the fearful voices. I shoved them aside as I slung my purse over my shoulder and the front door clicked decisively behind us. Outside Maren’s apartment, Stella offered her cool, pale cheek for a parting kiss and we waved goodbye with exaggerated mournfulness. I pulled open the door of our ’74 Olds, revved the engine and headed up a boulevard with a grassy median planted with a procession of grand palms. Cresting the nearly perpendicular hill, I might have been skirting the edge of the world and, a moment later, the shimmering city floated up.

The Powell Street cable car’s bell clanged as it passed limousine-lined Union Square, where befurred women shopped at I. Magnin’s and Saks. I turned onto O’Farrell, the main drag of the grimy Tenderloin District, whose bars and massage parlors were convenient for the businessmen booked at the downtown hotels.

I parked in front of a sign flashing GIRLS! GIRLS! GIRLS! and walked down the street past a single-room occupancy hotel, a pawnshop and a laundromat where an old couple played cards. The neighborhood’s sleepy, nobody’s-home look was disturbed only by a bar, in front of which loitered a pack of sharply-dressed guys and a couple of tall street-hookers, who’d apparently been up all night. I yielded the sidewalk to the swaggering bunch, hoping to pass without notice, but one guy cupped his crotch, clicked his tongue and shouted, “Baby, mama!” I clutched my purse to my chest and hurriedly searched for my destination. Next door to Terminal Liquors and under a flickering sign, I found it: PARADISE MASSAGE.

At the top of a steep, tiled stairwell, I knocked on a solidly-made door. A tall, fine-boned Asian woman named Kim let me in. She wore a bright-white jumpsuit with an oversized zipper and her long hair was drawn up in a braid laced with red and gold ribbons. The colors matched a pair of startlingly high-heeled shoes. I immediately felt small and poorly dressed. My pink camisole blouse, sweetly sexy when I’d put it on, was obviously dowdy, as was my black wool skirt and worn-down shoes. When I get some money, I silently vowed, I’m getting new clothes. “What a beautiful outfit,” I exclaimed.

“You like?” Kim smoothed down an imaginary wrinkle on her pant leg and dropped her eyes, though they immediately shot back up as she appraised me with unconcealed interest. “You have big,” she declared, lightly grazing my bosom with her hand. “Men like big.”

I followed Kim down a hall toward a ringing phone and into a large, light-filled room where a transistor radio blared in competition with a console TV. The air smelled of hairspray and nail polish. Kim introduced me to a white woman, Beth, who was collapsed in a beanbag chair and rummaging in her purse. Without glancing up, Beth asked where I’d been working and I answered, “I haven’t really. . . See, I’m not even sure if. . .”

An Asian woman, Lili, lounged on a sofa peeling a grapefruit. She threw her head back. “You scared!” she exclaimed, wagging a finger and snorting. “My first time, I was 14-year-old, my uncle took me on bus, got me job as hostess at bar in Saigon. I was farm girl! I no speak English! The first week, customer raped me, cut me with knife, stole my money!” The peel she was working fell away in a delicate ribbon and she laughed. Whatever I might have said in reply to her terrible story went out of me like a match in the wind of her inexplicable cheer.

In the manner of a tour guide, Kim tipped her palms up to indicate the high-ceilinged room with two walls of windows, one overlooking the street, the other overseeing a patchwork of tarred roofs.

“Oh, yes, it’s wonderful.” Bravado made my voice shrill. “What a big television!”

I followed Kim down the long hall, past a sauna and the men’s and women’s bathrooms, to the laundry room. I’d arrived expecting questions about my age and experience, but it occurred to me that I might already have been hired—thanks doubtless to my white skin and big breasts. I had a few questions of my own, however, and ventured, “Do you really think they’ll pay me?”

Instead of responding, Kim explained fine points of the laundry, which I was surprised to learn was part of my duties. We moved down the hall past several open doors with the numbers one through five on them. Each small room was furnished with an unpainted bedside chest, a ladder-backed chair, and a narrow massage table draped with a white sheet and two thin towels. Leaning toward me confidentially, Kim whispered that they needed a new girl because Beth was a junkie. Kim pantomimed a syringe poking my arm. “That’s too bad,” I said lamely and then tried again, this time asking how much I should charge. Kim simply tossed her head, threw her ribboned braid forward and caressed it.

I was in the living room looking for a place to sit when Kim jabbed a pencil in my direction and hissed, “Laundry, laundry!” I was surprised to be singled out for chores so soon after arriving, but frankly I felt more comfortable tackling the wash than attempting further conversation. Plus I didn’t get the impression that the competition for Miss Congeniality was particularly intense, so I wanted to show that I was eager and willing. I piled sheets into the washer and returned with a load fresh from the dryer, which I let tumble onto a glass-topped coffee table already strewn with fashion magazines. As I folded, Lili leaned toward me and asked in a low voice if I had a license. “You go to school, get license. Otherwise, if police come, you go jail.” Between her rapid broken English and unlikely assertion, I wasn’t sure that I understood, but Lili winked and promised to help me. I smiled, but was mystified. Wasn’t I in a house of prostitution? And wasn’t that illegal? So how could there be a school or a license for it?

Beth, the white girl in the beanbag chair, scratched her neck and said, “I used to make good money, but I’m seriously hurting. The thing is, a new girl just means less for the rest of us.” She shot a grudging look at Kim, who was deep into Vogue. As Beth continued, her junkie whine picked up momentum and, by the end, she was hissing that maybe some people didn’t care, but she knew when there was trouble.  She could smell it and I was it! Alarmed by Beth’s menacing tone, I wondered if she’d overheard Kim’s comment about me replacing her. I adopted an innocent look and eventually Beth’s head lolled back. The room went quiet and I resumed folding.

Lili slipped a grapefruit section into her mouth and announced jovially that she’d had two tourists who’d given her big tips, and another customer, who was a regular and a cheapskate. Sensing an opening, I slid across the couch and asked Lili how much we were supposed to charge. She turned her back. Another one who wouldn’t answer a simple question!

Beth, who’d appeared to be dozing, suddenly became agitated. “What are you, a cop or something? Damon, he says to watch out for people who want to know everything.” Looking up, Kim eyed Beth and admonished her that I was a nice girl with a big smile and, if she didn’t like it, she could leave.

And then the doorbell rang. Lili gulped the remainder of her fruit and rose to answer it. Moments later she returned, leading a tall, shuffling man in a business suit, and called out, “Customer choice.” Kim didn’t look up from her magazine while Beth drew a languorous hand up her calf and cooed, “Hey man.” I placed a towel over my lap. Without looking up from the carpet, the man pointed toward Beth, who crawled up and out of the beanbag chair. “You live in San Francisco?” she inquired in a surprisingly pert voice, as the two strolled arm-in-arm out of the room.

~

In the following hour, the women took turns answering the door while I felt myself being drawn down, sinking, a sensation that, along with the headache (and the sprung sofa cushions?), made me feel like I was drowning. Close to mortifying tears, I silently crafted a speech in which I explained that I was so sorry, but I’d made a terrible mistake and had to go home. Then the doorbell rang and when Kim answered it, I overheard her say something about “a white girl.” When she returned, she slipped two 10’s into the desk drawer and said that the man was a regular and I should go see him in room 2. My panic must have been obvious because she moved toward me and murmured encouragingly that I should just rub him all over and that if I was nice to him, he’d be nice to me. She lifted my arm to prod me off the sofa and pressed a condom into my hand. With a gentle push, she propelled me in the direction of the hall.

I walked, burdened with the sure knowledge that I was a 29-year-old, overweight, plain-faced woman. I entered the dimly-lit little room, where a man was lying face down on a wooden massage table, naked except for a towel draped over his buttocks. Gasping for a full breath, my voice quavered, “Would you like a massage?”

Using lotion from a bedside bottle, I rubbed his shoulders. “You must get sick of men’s bodies,” he said. I stammered, summoning myself to explain the situation, but then thought better of it. He might not want an amateur. He said that he wanted to have sex and turned his head enough that I saw that he was a pink-cheeked Asian. Things were moving along, but what about the money? He said he could pay 50 and I said that I thought I was supposed to get more. He said he only had 60. He was sorry, but it was all he had. When he reached for his trousers and fumbled through the pockets, a wave of relief poured over me—he was as inept and uncertain as me. I took a lungful of air and he undid my bra and felt my breasts from behind. I turned and we kissed and touched each other. For the first time since getting Kim’s call that morning, I was in familiar territory. Sex was one thing at the parlor that I was at least familiar with and knew how to do.

I wish you were my wife,” he whispered fervidly.

It was the last thing I expected him to say and it made something shift in me. No longer preoccupied by my inadequacies, I felt suddenly capable, even generous and full of largesse. I handed him the foil-wrapped rubber Kim had pressed into my hand and we knelt and leaned back. He had a hard time finding the right place, so I guided him inside.  

Afterward, after we waved goodbye, I flung a clean sheet over the massage table, rearranged bottles on the side table and rubbed lotion up my arms. The apricot smell reminded me, fondly already, of my customer, and that got me wondering when I’d last had sex. It had been an afternoon, maybe four months before, when Marco and I’d had a fight but ended up in bed. After I’d essentially ended things with Marco, I had a hard time staying away and, even now, I worried that I’d end up going back to him. Marco had said that he’d take me back. Not that it would be easy, he’d explained, but he was “open to it.” That phrase contained within it the warning that I needed to be open too. Open to his rules, which meant accepting his affairs with other women. Well, I’d put significant distance between us now! He’d never forgive this!

~

Grinning, I threw myself into the beanbag chair that Beth, now curled on the sofa, had vacated. Lili, crouched by a hot plate, cracked an egg and asked how my customer had been. I told them about the 60 dollars, hoping the amount wasn’t shameful. Lili stirred the egg into a steaming broth that swam with tiny silver fish. She said that I’d done all right, but that I should charge much more. A lot of guys like cheap girls, she said, casting a disparaging glance toward Beth, who made a face showing that she didn’t like the smell of Lili’s food.

Beth was suddenly full of advice too, purring, “Say, Oh you want to have a good time? He’ll think, you know, you’ll make love. But then do him with your hand, like this.” She gestured like a bartender shaking a drink. Beth tapped out a Salem, lit up and, looking at me, said, “You’ll do okay. You got a good body.” I said that I wished that I was slim like her. Exhaling, Beth placed a hand on her ribs, feeling them up and down.

Lili moved into an overstuffed chair, leveled her gaze at me and said, “When a guy want to make love, say it’s 200.” I frowned, wondering if those were real prices or if she was just boasting when Lili shot back, “Later he call you whore, tramp. Maybe you go to jail, ruin everything in your life. And you can’t ask 200 dollar? You got be smart. You got to know what you worth.” After a brief pause for emphasis, she continued: “And make him say, I’m not a cop. Cops supposed to tell the truth, but they tricky.”

Before long Lili and Beth were with customers while beauteous Kim finished off a plate of barbeque brought by a besotted customer. I marveled at the flood of advice I’d just received, in contrast to how tight-lipped everyone had been earlier. Clearly seeing a customer was passing a test, and I was no longer a questionable outsider. Not to say that I was one of them. I was white, a college student, a native English speaker and not a junkie, so I was different from them. Or so I told myself. Anyway, I’d passed a hurdle and felt welcomed.

When the doorbell rang, Kim told me to answer it and I was heartened to see a slightly-built, round-faced man, prosperous in a gray linen suit. I sent him to take a shower and took the 20 dollar upfront money to Kim. When I turned to go, she raised a slim hand and told me to wait. “Show him who’s boss. You tame tiger, you wait him long enough,” she said.  I laughed, giddy at being so colorfully instructed.

Kim gave me a long look and asked how old I was. “Twenty-six,” I lied. Kim said it was best if I told customers that I was 20. I asked Kim if she lied about her age, and she smiled demurely and said that she lied about everything. Feeling warm toward her, I ventured softly, “I don’t know what I’m doing. Like, how do I ask for the money?”

Kim spoke in a whisper, though we were alone. “Say you’re a country girl who’s come to the city to help your sister. They feel sorry for you and be generous.” I nodded, but was dubious that anyone but lovely Kim could get away with such a preposterous line.

Back in the little room, my customer was undressed and lying face down on the massage table. When he asked if he could get sex, my head was swimming with the advice I’d received that afternoon. I was about to say that I was a country girl when the guy said he wanted a hand job and could pay 50. Later, as he dressed, he asked, “You know why I come here?” I shook my head. “My wife and I got nothing in common. She reads romances, see, and I read pornography.”

~

After Kim and I agreed on a weekly schedule, I was ready to go home. As I reached out to embrace and thank her for giving me a chance, Kim stiffened, but allowed herself to be briefly enfolded. She smelled like roses. As I closed the door, she was straightening out a wrinkle in her white jumpsuit.

Driving home, I probed my motives for going to work at a massage parlor. I wondered, was I insane? Things hadn’t been easy with my family growing up, or with Marco, who I was divorcing, but still I didn’t think I wasn’t crazier than anybody else.

I wondered where was the remorse, the self-reproach? What I’d done was universally considered wrong, but my immediate and pressing need for money won out easily over moral precepts. If I had lax ethics, I hoped only that might work for me. Maybe I could stand things that other people couldn’t. And if so, lucky me! I’d use whatever I had to get an advantage in the world.

What about danger though? Might one of those guys harm me? Lili had been raped and knifed—but that was in Saigon, not downtown San Francisco. I didn’t have the impression that the women I’d met that day were afraid of the men who, from what little I’d seen, seemed nice enough, even deferential.

I glanced at my purse, thick with cash. If I could earn enough money, I wouldn’t have to return, defeated, to Marco. Money was tuition for life in the city and I congratulated myself on the discovery of a means for making it. I’d made my decision, though it was hard to identify myself with the word that went with it: prostitute was beyond the realm of any self-definition I’d ever imagined.

I felt celebratory, but kept my swelling spirits in check as I approached Stella and Nicole, who sat cross-legged on the stoop in front of Maren’s apartment. Kneeing aside Nicole’s golden retriever, I made a place for myself on the uneven steps and watched Stella snatch three jacks with each bounce of the small red ball. “Foursies,” she announced, tossing the tiny ball a foot in the air. I exclaimed at her skill and asked how their day had been. Stella smiled mischievously and pulled a lint-laden Tootsie Roll Pop from her pants pocket. She offered a lick to the dog, who lapped it greedily, and then popped the candy into her own mouth and murmured, “Yum!”

Nicole called Stella a lunatic. Stella patted the dog’s head and said cheerfully that the dog’s mouth was cleaner than ours. Amidst their snorting guffaws, Maren’s voice, calling the girls inside, came through the metal screen door behind us.

Maren’s apartment was decorated floor to ceiling in shades of yellow. A butter-colored sofa was piled with creamy pillows in front of an apricot-hued rag rug. I leaned against a saffron-colored club chair as Maren pushed a lock of blond hair off her lovely face and looked at me expectantly. Clearly she wanted to talk as we often did, enjoying long conversations in which we discussed our children or joked and commiserated about the long odds of finding an unattached heterosexual man in San Francisco.

I was brimming with what I’d done that day and bursting to tell the story, but never considered doing so. Maren was kindhearted and open-minded, but I didn’t think she’d approve of illegal depravity on the part of the mother of her child’s good friend. Desperate to be out of there, I thanked her for taking care of Stella and promised to be in touch.  

Outside, I proposed Chinese food and Stella said she was starved. Our neighborhood was a hillside village of small businesses, low-rise apartment buildings, and single-family houses. We walked past a Sufi bookstore and a hardware store to the Pagoda, where a blonde in a kimono showed us to our booth. Stella poured tea from a ceramic pot and we ordered sweet and sour pork and Happy Family. We used chopsticks, even though they slowed us down.

Throughout dinner Stella lobbied me, as she’d done since we’d left Marco in Chico and arrived in the city six weeks before, to let her adopt a pet. “It doesn’t even have to be a dog,” she said, attempting negotiation. I nodded noncommittally, even though I thought a pet was a good idea. She exhaled soberly and leveled her eyes at me. And then, lucky me, the cookies arrived on a dragon-decorated tray. Stella’s fortune promised that she’d achieve her dreams and mine foretold that I’d travel on business and pleasure. While Stella attempted to balance a chopstick on her index finger, I paid for supper with one of the pink-cheeked Asian’s 20s. Within the civil confines of the booth, fulfilling the roles of mother and restaurant patron, the very existence of the Paradise massage parlor seemed farfetched. I put an extra five on the little dragon tray. The tip was an investment: an offering to the gods, a payoff. I’d crossed over, stepped into unknown, forbidden territory, the rewards of which were obvious, the dangers less so. Night fell as we walked home and the globed street lamps began to glow.

At bedtime, Stella and I took turns reading aloud alternating pages from Treasure Island.  When it was my turn, Stella was quiet and, with her slim arms folded across her chest, her gaze remained concentrated on a drawing of a three-masted ship. I asked if she was okay and she glanced at me warily and said she missed Daddy. Tears pooled in her eyes. I murmured that I knew it was hard. Neither of us said anything after that. Like every parent, I wanted my child to be happy and healthy, to thrive and grow, but there was something else, too. Stella’s well-being was a verdict on my life. When she was happy it felt like a blessing, and likewise her distress seemed like an indictment of me and of my choices. I’d been the one who’d insisted on leaving our home in Chico. It was because of me that Stella had to adjust to a new school and city, and life away from her father. Because it was her nature, she was usually sunny and bright, but seeing her unhappy, I knew that the consequences of my decisions came down hardest on her.

After a while, I kissed her head, went into the kitchen and sat at the table, where I wrote a check and letter to the landlord, imploring him for a little more time and promising that there’d be more on the way soon. I picked up my coffee mug and, in a habitual gesture, rubbed the soft spot on my finger where my wedding ring used to be. I thought back to the first time I’d met Marco when he was teaching a music appreciation class to freshmen at Chico State, where I’d gone to school to get away from the Midwest deep freeze.  Like every other girl in the class, I was smitten with the teacher, his brown eyes and leonine mane of shoulder-length hair. My seatmate, who liked him too, whispered, “Can you believe it? Doesn’t he look just like James Dean?”  

The following year, my father died of a heart attack and, after that, there was no more money for school. I was at a loss, in shock and grief, but I didn’t want to go back to Minneapolis, so I got a job at a Chico grocery store. And then, one day, when I was stocking the deli case, I saw the music teacher, leonine-maned Marco, putting wine into a cart.  Feeling bold, I inquired teasingly, “Going to a party?”  He looked me straight on and asked, “Do I know you?” I explained that I’d taken his class, and then he asked, “You want to come?”

After the party, Marco invited me back to his place, where he had a lot of records and art made by people he knew. He talked about interesting things: food, movies, music, politics. I’d thought that we’d have a one night stand, but for months after we spent hours on a mattress on the floor, covered by a Mexican blanket, talking, listening to music, having sex and smoking pot. We hiked in the Sierra foothills and he knew about plants and geology. Marco cooked delicious food, foreign dishes like moussaka that I’d never tasted before, and taught me about music and books, orgasms and garlic. I was a goner, completely in his thrall.

And full of all those memories of falling in love with Marco, I buckled. I understood in a moment that what I’d done that day was terrible, irrevocable and unforgivable. How could I ever return to him after what I’d done?  I must never tell him! How stupid I’d been to come here, to cut myself adrift without a clue about the direction I was headed or where I might end up. Perhaps I’d lost my mind. I certainly couldn’t trust my judgment. How could I have been so stupid? No one must ever know.  It would be a secret forever, revealed not even on my death bed.

Eventually I went to bed and, lying there, my mind then turned to other thoughts, more recent, of grievances, of being hurt and humiliated by Marco, of being lied to again and again. And then I thought about the day I’d just had and about the parlor.  I’m different than I was this morning. I’m ready to be part of something. Whatever awaits, I’ll give myself over to it. Be smart, Emma, be smart.

 

I Receive an Ultimatum and an Offer of Help,

Am Witness to Violence and Consider My Options.

 

For almost a month, I’d been attending school three days a week and working two at the parlor when I arrived one morning to find Beth pacing, complaining that her bones hurt and saying that she needed a fix. She took a hard glance at Kim, who was using a pumice stone to remove stray hairs from her underarm. When Beth picked up the phone, Kim cast her a frank, disapproving look. “I’m not doing nothing,” Beth said, feigning an innocent laugh. Into the phone, she said, “It’s me, where you at?” When Beth put down the phone, Lili asked if that was her husband on the phone and Beth said, “Yeah, and he’s bringing me steak and fries.” Lili said why don’t you go out yourself, and Beth said that Damon would bring her anything she needed, adding proudly that he’d kill her if she left the parlor. Lili stuck a fork inside a jar and took a bite of something green.

Kim motioned me over and explained that the parlor owner, Yoko, said I had to get my license by the end of next week. Since Lili had mentioned it my first day, I’d discovered that parlor masseuses were, incredibly, licensed by the San Francisco Police Department. And getting a license required enrolling at a legitimate massage school (which cost three hundred dollars) and registering, with my full name and identification, with the city police. I didn’t want to do any of that, but without my job at the parlor my life in San Francisco was over. I said I’d take care of it.

I was still fretting about what to do about the license when I agreed to take a customer nobody else wanted: a small, smiley Asian named Billy, who washed dishes at a Chinese restaurant and paid me sixty dollars in small, greasy bills. He wanted to hold my hands behind my back and asked me to say things like, “No, no, I beg you, don’t make me” and “I’m a virgin, please no.” Despite his dominant fantasies, Billy didn’t frighten me because he was so slightly built that I could have taken him, if necessary, and moreover, he spoke such poor English that I knew he wasn’t a cop—the second of the twin threats. Billy turned out to be extraordinarily accommodating and even jerked himself off—to spare me the trouble, he said. Before escorting him to the door, he gave me an extra twenty and asked what days I worked because he wanted to come back and see me.

In the living room Kim was talking to a slim man, about thirty, who sat legs apart, one hand balled into a fist. The guy gave me an obvious once-over as Kim complained to him about Beth’s drug habit and stoned-out behavior. I figured he was Damon, Beth’s husband or pimp or whatever. He licked his fingers and smoothed his hair as he assured Kim that he’d straighten Beth out. Then she walked in, smiling and glassy-eyed. Inching herself close, she touched Damon’s arm and called him “Honey.” Without a glance at her, Damon stood and walked toward the door. Beth followed, pleading for him to take her with him. Damon hissed that she should get to work and Beth let out a sickening giggle and slumped into a chair. Turning to me, she said that she’d seen me giving Damon the eye.

“What?” I said.

“I saw that look,” Beth said.

“No!”

“You trying to make time with him?” she demanded. I shook my head. “Are you?” She grabbed my arm.

“Let go her,” Kim said evenly.

After a long silence, Beth pointed at her chest and said to the room at large, “You think I’m nothing, but I’m not happy. Anybody says they’re happy doing this shit, they’re lying. But what can I do?” The place seemed momentarily suffocating, as though all of Beth’s misery had sucked the air out of the room. Kim picked up a magazine and I sat quietly, wishing that Beth and her problems would disappear. I had my own problem—the damned massage license— to figure out.

~

That afternoon I did a guy who, though seventy years old and nothing special, got me sexually aroused. The fantasy dissolved as quickly as it had come over me, but I was left with a measure of affection toward him for having stirred something in me. I watched him dress, admired the pale softness of his body and, as I let him out the front door, let him kiss me on the cheek.  

I settled into one of the big chairs and was intending to pump Lili for advice about the massage license when she said, “You like that ol’ man.” I thought, What? How could she know? She couldn’t!  She dropped her jaw and sucked her cheeks, imitating someone decrepit, then leveled her eyes on me and said that I let the men kiss me lot. Lili had radar for detecting everyone’s weaknesses and blunders. I said that I’d felt sorry for him and Lili responded with a “Phht.” In Lili’s world, everybody had one characteristic and hopeless stupidity was mine. Maybe she was right, but she was no genius either. A week before, I’d found her sitting at the desk, turning over a bunch of stacked coins. She’d explained, as though stating a law of nature, “Head to tail, turn bad luck good.”

I’d asked, “You believe that juju?” And she said that we all need luck to survive and I’d find out soon enough that she was right.

Beth, suddenly wakened, lurched forward but, stumbling on a high heel, fell back. A moment later, as if the earlier events had never happened, she extended her slim arm to display a gold bracelet and bragged about how Damon said that nothing was too good for her and that working girls should live like queens. Lili looked up from a plate of barbecued ribs and asked sharply what Damon did for a living. Beth shifted in the low-spread chair and said that she’d told Lili before, that Damon was a businessman who worked real hard and spoiled her. Lili’s face indicated disbelief.

~

Later that afternoon, Lili got a client and then Kim came back, looking tired. Hoping to keep the mood light and forestall any wild accusations from Beth, I asked Kim who’d given her the bouquet of flowers that morning. Instead of answering, she said in a clipped tone that Beth and I should go clean the sauna. Out of Kim’s view, Beth stubbed her cigarette out on the threadbare carpet. Alarmed, I stood and headed toward the hall. As I left the room, I heard Beth ask, “What’s her name?”

“Emma. Her name’s Emma,” Kim said, sounding like the exasperated mother of a small child.

I was scrubbing tile and grousing to myself about how unfair it was that I was the only one who ever did any work when Lili strolled in, drumming her red nails on the tiled wall. She said that she could get me a license for a hundred dollars and I wouldn’t have to go to school or register with the police. I said that that would be great and fished out some bills, which Lili stuffed into the toe of her shoe. When I thanked her effusively, her expression, typically brash and sure of herself, lit up with a tentative, proud smile as she explained that it was her husband who’d get it for me and that he could get other things, like airline tickets, too.  

It was approaching five o’clock and the end of my shift. When I went to the living room to gather my stuff, Kim shot me a keep-quiet look and Lili looked oddly impassive. I wondered if somebody had done something wrong, and hoped it wasn’t me. Abruptly I heard a thud from the hall and saw Damon twisting Beth’s arm behind her back. Beth looked beseechingly toward Kim and let out a wail. I put my fist in my mouth and Kim stepped forward and demanded that they leave, now! Damon brushed past us, spinning Beth around and pushing her backward out the front door. Kim bolted the door while Lili and I ran to the front window and watched Damon shove Beth into a double-parked Monte Carlo. Moments later, the car peeled out, passing within inches of pedestrians who leapt to get out of its way.

It occurred to me that, as a native-born American and the most educated of our group, I should advise them about our criminal justice system. I explained that we needed to call the police. Lili let out a whoop and a derive laugh. She said that Beth was a drug addict with a pimp and deserved whatever she got. Then, changing tack unconvincingly, she said that Beth needed to be with her family and friends.

I said that we should send police to Beth’s house. To my own ears, the plan sounded unlikely, but we had to do something.  Kim said that Beth had problems and, if we called the police, it would only make more trouble for her. Leaning close, Kim smiled confidentially and asked if I knew of any other girls who wanted jobs, especially American girls with big breasts who weren’t junkies. I nodded noncommittally. At that moment, I decided that I wasn’t coming back. No way was I working at a place where a woman got beat up and nobody did anything about it. I glanced around for Lili, thinking to retrieve the hundred dollars I’d given her for the license, but she’d suddenly disappeared, which made me wonder if I shouldn’t get out of there, too.

Riding home on the J-Church, I replayed the day’s events against the buzz of trolley wires. The assault had been like a scene from a movie, and not a feature in which I’d ever imagined myself playing a part. And though I hadn’t planned it, my role wasn’t innocent. It was no coincidence that Kim was recruiting non-junkie, big-breasted white girls like me just minutes after Beth was hauled off. I wished that I knew where Beth lived but, even if I did, what could I do? Was I willing to go find her and face Damon? Was I willing to offer Beth safe refuge? The answers were no.

I had a hard time getting to sleep that night thinking about what I should do, which was call the police, and what I was willing to do, which was nothing. I thanked god I didn’t know where Beth lived. When I closed my eyes, I felt as though I was spinning and falling and, when I finally slept, I dreamed that Beth was grabbing at me and calling for help. Some hours later, I awoke overcome with panic. Looking around the dim room, everything looked shattered, fragmented by shadows. The corners of the room did not appear to meet.

I’d crossed some awful threshold, beyond normal life and into something sickening. Is this me? I thought. I pictured Beth’s frightened face and felt ashamed of what I’d witnessed that day. It was all part of what I’d become. Is this my life? I sat up and peered into the dresser mirror. “You’re a prostitute,” I whispered accusingly. The word evoked an image of something subhuman, monstrous. What I’d mistaken for a viable means to stay on in San Francisco was in fact something irrevocable and unforgivable. How could I ever go back to Marco or to my former life? How stupid I’d been to come here, to cut myself adrift without a clue about the direction I was headed or where I might end up. Perhaps I’d lost my mind. I certainly couldn’t trust my judgment. I was stupid! No one must ever know. It seemed as if one minute I was a normal person and the next I was something else entirely. A criminal. A what? That word again, with the queer, foreign sound. Glancing in the mirror, I didn’t look like one, my hair sticking out at odd angles, childlike, my torso ensnared by the pale sheet I’d battled in troubled sleep.  

I turned my eyes away from the mirror and remembered with relief that I’d already decided to quit. I’ll never tell! I’m the same person I was before and no one will ever know. I imagined the territory ahead, where there was light, order and common ground. I pictured Marco and me in our old house, a sun-drenched bungalow, me in the kitchen and him in his study, books piled around. I imagined Stella with her friends, playing in the overgrown backyard.

I savored the scene, but eventually I had another realization. Leaving the parlor meant returning home, in defeat and for good. My new life and any possibilities it might offer would be lost. I pictured Marco’s smile when he heard that I was returning. He’d be happy, but he wouldn’t make it easy. I’d have to pay for having left and for taking Stella with me. I remembered one of our arguments over his infidelities and how he’d smiled and said softly that he could tell by my tears how much I loved him.   

I imagined calling Kim and telling her that I wouldn’t be back. I pictured her telling the others. Lili would gnaw a piece of barbecue and gloat, “More for us.” I pictured Beth, drowsy in her chair, mumbling, “Who’s Emma?”  Kim, who took nothing personally, would telephone the owner, Yoko, who I hadn’t met and who’d be the only one disappointed, losing her big-breasted white girl. I thought of the insignificance of the impression I’d made, of my short, unimportant passage in the city. Really, I told myself, I can always quit. If I work a bit longer, I can save enough to get us through a few more months at least. And anyway, it was Beth’s pimp husband, not a customer, who caused trouble, and my situation had nothing to do with hers. The attack had been horrifying, but wouldn’t the parlor be more wholesome without Beth’s doped-up presence? I snuck a final look at myself in the mirror and hazarded a smile.  

The following morning I opened my eyes, a shipwreck survivor surveying her surroundings. I smoothed the coverlet on my bed and warily eyed my milk-blue dresser. The eggshell pastels of morning illuminated the wall opposite the windows. Columns of dust played in the sunlight. The hum of bustling street life one floor below penetrated the window’s thin glass. Horns, voices and the screech of truck gears sang out. The tumult of the previous day and night was over. Maybe there was somewhere else I could work, somewhere better than the down-market Paradise. I’d check out the possibilities, look at other parlors, see what opportunities there might be.

~

That Saturday Stella and I went to a neighborhood garage sale, where she picked out a Nancy Drew mystery and I found a treasure: an architectural detail—a wooden angel with a three-foot wingspan and a serene smile. The guy selling stuff said he’d found her in the rubble of a demolished building. At home, I hung my prize on a big nail on the wall over my dresser so that I could see her as I lay in bed and, inspired by her ecclesiastical appearance, lit candles underneath her as though I were a Catholic. I needed help and promised, in return, to exercise whatever virtues I could: thrift, caution, modesty. I’d lay low and turn my homework in on time. If my good fortune at finding a way to stay on in the city would only continue, I promised never to flaunt it or take it for granted. Like Lili with her juju coins, I’d cultivate luck.

The Morning after the Hometown Diner Burned Down

Mike Alberti

The summer we were fourteen, Nick McFadden and I found an abandoned camper in the mudflats along the Watonwan River, about a mile outside of town. It was one of those boxy aluminum trailers, painted white with a bright green stripe on the side, and it was a wreck. The paint was chipping and the undercarriage was rotted with rust and the inside was saturated with a sour, moldy smell that clung to your clothes and hair. The front end of the camper rested squarely in the mud, which made it look as though it had nosedived out of the sky and landed there by the river. But it had a booth-style table, a foldout bed, and a working propane stove, and Nick and I took bleach and rags from my house and spent a long afternoon scrubbing it out, and when we were done it was still a wreck, but clean enough for our purposes.

What were our purposes? Passing time, mostly. Playing cards, swimming, fishing for carp, throwing rocks into an old coffee can, smoking cigarettes stolen from our mothers’ purses. Nick had an old, out of tune guitar that he sometimes strummed.

Daydreaming. We felt too old to lose ourselves in some make-believe game as we might have a year or two earlier, but we channeled that imaginary impulse into fantasies involving older girls and plans for our escape. We sat at the table and dreamt up elaborate scenarios in which the camper figured prominently. It didn’t matter that it was stuck in the mud, or that we had no car to tow it: we were going to leave our little town behind, sleep in truck stops and parking lots, drive down to Chicago, or all the way to California. We would work in peach orchards like in The Grapes of Wrath, dig potatoes from roadside fields, pick up beautiful hippie hitchhikers who would paint our faces and give us new names. On the back of the trailer, in faded green letters, was the word “Oasis.”

Nick was the source of most of these schemes. He’d moved to Madelia the previous summer, and before that he’d lived in other places ⎯ Arizona, Idaho, Detroit ⎯ that sounded exotic to my ears. This gave him a certain authority, a worldliness. He kept his hair a little longer than my mother would allow. He provided most of the cigarettes. He loved Neil Young and Jimi Hendrix, and sang their songs loudly while strumming his guitar, unembarrassed by his cracking voice.

Nick got ahold of a Rand McNally atlas and he would spread it open on the table and trace routes with a pencil while I lay back on the bed and smoked and listened.

“We haven’t even talked about Alaska,” he said. “We could make Anchorage in a week, easy, but we might want to spend some time in Canada on the way.”

“Saskatchewan,” I said.

“The Yukon,” Nick said. “The Northwest Territories.”

I’d never been more than a day’s drive from Madelia. My youth had been quiet and solitary. I was a scrawny, timid kid who preferred books to sports. My parents did not farm; my father worked for the real estate office. I kept to myself, watchful, like I was protecting a secret.

That was before Nick arrived. The first week of school, soon after he moved to town, Nick and I were matched as reading partners. I’d already done all of the reading over the summer, and I recounted the plot of Huckleberry Finn while he sat half-listening, cleaning his nails. We had different classes in the afternoon, and I didn’t see him again until after school, when he appeared out of nowhere as I was walking home and fell into step with me, wheeling his bike. He must have been waiting for me in the parking lot.

“Hey,” he said casually, flipping his shaggy hair. “So, what’s there to do in this podunk town?”

I was surprised, but also pleased. It felt like I’d been chosen.

Of course, there wasn’t anything to do in that podunk town. Over the next weeks, we fell into a routine, wandering the streets after school.  I showed him the library, Flander’s Park, the picnic tables outside the One-Stop Market where boys too young to drive congregated on weekend nights to watch the street traffic. We sat in the bleachers and watched football practice, cheerleading try-outs. Nick took it all in contemptuously: the farm-boys driving their tractors down Main Street, the old men sitting all afternoon outside Oak Barrel. He seemed genuinely perplexed at the twist of fate that had landed him in our town.

And as the year went on, I began to see Madelia through Nick’s eyes. I’d always understood that our town was boring and slow, but I’d accepted this as a fact of life. What else could I do? That year, though, Nick’s scorn awakened something inside me: a vision of myself, someplace else. In the trailer, while Nick planned our escape, I think I knew deep down that it was a game, just make-believe. But at the same time, as I listened to him say Memphis, New Orleans, San Francisco, Cape Cod, the names took on a new meaning. The weight of possibility.

Saskatchewan. The Yukon. The Northwest Territories. That summer, I would have followed him anywhere.

~

Nick needed those daydreams. His family had moved to Madelia because his father had taken over the Hometown Diner, a restaurant on 7th Street that had been struggling even before the recession and which now threatened to go under at any time. But it wasn’t only that times were tough. The place just carried an atmosphere of failure. Anyone could see it: in the chipped paint on the facade, the stained yellow linoleum, the dead flowers in vases on the tables. Or, more intangibly, in the sad tilt of the “Open for Business” sign and in the way that the afternoon light canted in through the dirty front windows, dense and watery and polluted with dust.

More than anything though, the doomed quality emanated from Nick’s father. He exuded failure, gave it off like fumes. His name was Nick too, but people just called him McFadden. He and Nick looked alike, with the same dark hair, strong nose, and heavy, brooding brow. On Nick, these features were counterbalanced with a quick, broad smile, but on his father they were combined with a slouch, a thick neck and a mean, squint-eyed glare. At the restaurant he cooked on an open range behind the counter, hunched, sweating, mumbling under his breath, a cigarette burning down in the ashtray next to him, and he seemed the very picture of frustration and disappointment.

He drank. This was known but not talked about. He drank and he was bad with money. Nick’s father had taken over the diner from his wife’s uncle when he died, and he’d borrowed a lot of money to do it. I knew this not from Nick but from my own father, who was generally reticent about other people’s affairs, but who’d said more than once in my hearing that it was a shame how Nick’s father was running that place into the ground.

And there were the occasional outbursts that occurred at the restaurant, directed towards Nick’s mother ⎯ a tall, red-haired woman who ran the register and delivered food ⎯ or towards a customer who’d crossed some arbitrary line by asking for a steak to be cooked a little longer or reminding Nick’s father that he’d ordered his eggs over-easy, not scrambled. I’d heard about these eruptions before, but that spring I saw one myself.

One evening I’d stopped by the restaurant to meet Nick, who sometimes worked washing dishes and bussing tables during the dinner rush. We were going to ride down to the high school to watch a basketball game, but Nick had a pile of dishes that he needed to finish, so I sat down at one of the tables to wait.

It was around seven-thirty and the place was nearly empty, just two solitary men eating at the counter. Baseball season had just started and there was a Twins game on the little portable radio beside the cash register. Nick’s mother brought me a Coke and smiled and said that Nick would be done in a few minutes. She was always a friendly woman, with a quick smile and a bright laugh. I thought she was beautiful, too, and I remember noticing her beauty again in that moment. Her hair, a few strands of which had come undone, caught the light and seemed to glow.

I thanked her and she resumed chatting amiably with one of the customers, a young man in a brown suit who wasn’t from Madelia. Maybe a salesman passing through. Nick’s father was sitting at a small table in the far corner of the restaurant, logging the day’s receipts in a notebook, and I could see Nick with his arms sunk to the elbows in the big sink behind the counter. For a moment it seemed to me that the doomed climate of the place had been lifted, or put on hold. There was a buoyancy in the air, a feeling of optimism and satisfaction, of a hard day’s work well-done and ending.

Then the salesman said something that I couldn’t hear and Nick’s mother laughed loudly with her head thrown back and her hand on her chest. Her laughter rang through the restaurant and faded away, and in the quiet afterwards there was some new feeling, a stiffness, a tense anticipation. I didn’t understand it, but I could feel it; my mouth went dry. A moment later Nick’s father rose from the table and crossed the room with quick, decisive strides. He picked up the man’s glass and threw the water in his face.

“What in the hell?” The salesman stood up quickly from his stool and wiped his face with his napkin. “Are you crazy?” he yelled. “What’s the matter with you?”

“You better get your ass out of here,” Nick’s father said. His voice was raised but he wasn’t shouting, which somehow made him seem even more menacing. “This is a nice town, and we don’t need your kind around here.”

“My kind ⎯ ” the salesman said, confused.

“You’re the kind who comes into a nice family restaurant and tries to pick up a man’s wife, maybe leaves a hotel room number on the napkin. You’re about as low as a snail.”

Now he was jabbing his finger at the man’s chest. His face was red, livid, horrible; a vein bulged from his forehead. “You’re lower than a damn snail!” he yelled. “I’ll wipe you off my shoe.”

“Jesus, man. You’re nuts.” The man looked around for a moment, then shook his head and took out his wallet.

“We don’t need your damn snail money in here,” Nick’s father said. “Just get your ass out on the street where you belong.”

“You’re nuts,” the man said again. He turned and walked hurriedly past me out of the restaurant. While the little bell above the door was still jingling, Nick’s mother picked the salesman’s coffee mug up off the counter and threw it hard on the floor. The sounds cracked through the room. I flinched, brought my hands up to cover my face, and when I dropped them again I saw her storm silently out from behind the counter and through the swinging double doors that led back to the kitchen.

For a moment, the diner was full of heavy stillness. Nick’s father seemed suddenly deflated. His eyes looked down blankly at the counter. The other customer ⎯ Mr. Perkins, who worked at the bank ⎯ stood up silently, threw a bill down on the counter, and turned to walk out. As he passed me, he said, “Come on, kid,” and nodded towards the door.

I got to my feet but paused and looked back at Nick. He was stone-faced, glaring at his father. There was no fear in that look, or pity. It was hate, clear and sharp as glass, and when, a moment later, he looked back to me, that hate was still there, pointed at me like a gun. But a beat later it softened, and in its place was something else, something I recognized immediately: shame.

I turned and walked out the door. Outside, in the warm twilight, the street was still and quiet. I didn’t know what to do, whether I should leave or stick around, but it seemed wrong to just abandon Nick there. I crossed the street and leaned against the front of the pharmacy to wait. I’d never seen anything like that before, but I knew something about shame.

My mother sometimes went through periods of depression, during which she stopped looking after things. When it wasn’t a bad episode, this only meant that my father would pick up dinner on his way home from work or cook spaghetti or hamburgers for us. Sometimes it was worse than that, though. Sometimes she would not eat, would barely move from the living room sofa for a week or more, and the whole room would take on her musky smell. Sometimes she looked at me through hazy eyes, and I wasn’t sure if she recognized me at all.

One afternoon, she’d asked me from where she lay on the sofa with the shades drawn to bring her the telephone, and I’d watched her call my father at the real estate office. “You better come home,” she said in a voice that was formal and matter-of-fact but also full of meaning, desperation, a lurking threat. “Hurry,” she said and hung up and looked at me, her hair undone and her eyes flat and her lips slightly parted. I felt a strange terror ⎯she might do something awful, unspeakable ⎯but also, at the same time, a deep, saturating shame. I wanted to flee, to burst out of that dark, airless room into the outside world and breathe.

Nick burst out of the diner and without looking around, he stormed down the sidewalk. I pulled in line with him on my bike and dismounted. We walked for a few minutes in silence. I was waiting for him to speak first. We turned the corner of 4th Avenue towards the high school and he stopped for a moment and lit a cigarette.

“Fuck him,” he said dismissively. “Fuck him and fuck this whole town. This whole damn town is sinking, and I’ll be cracked if I’ll go down with the ship.”

He passed me the cigarette and I took a drag. It felt like we were sharing something, that we were allies, co-conspirators. As we walked down to the school, I could feel the whole dark world swell around the edges of our town. I could hear it there, humming.

“Just a matter of time,” Nick said. “This place is going down.”

And it seemed to me, too, that some disaster was impending, crouched and waiting in the dark.

~

As it happened, the disaster struck in late July, at the end of a long heat wave. Nick and I were down at the mud flats, which, in the absence of rain had turned into hard, crusty dirt. It was too hot to stay inside the trailer so we set up in a shady spot by the riverbank. The water was low and brown with silt, but periodically we would each rise from the bank, wade out into the river, and lie down in the shallows to cool off. Otherwise, we watched the water flow slowly past. The day was passing with the same liquid slowness. We didn’t talk much. Nick seemed a little withdrawn, but that wasn’t unusual: he had his moods. I didn’t ask him about it. I figured I had my moods, too, and left him alone.

We were playing Blackjack, throwing the cards down on a flat rock in the shade. Suddenly, Nick rose to his feet, shaded his eyes, and peered off over the trees.

“Jack,” he said. “Look.”

I rose too and squinted through my glasses. Smoke. Unmistakable, a grey column that rose above the trees and pierced the clear blue of the western sky.

It only took us ten minutes to get to town, but we smelled the smoke even earlier, a sharp, chemical smell. The streets were nearly empty, and we rode through them wordlessly. We slowed as we got closer ⎯ the smoke hurling up into the air above the buildings ⎯ trying to prolong the moments before we’d be confronted with what seemed inevitable. I knew it was the diner. It felt preordained, as if that fate had been locked in on that night in the spring when I’d witnessed Nick’s father’s outburst. I think Nick felt it, too, and neither of us spoke as we approached 7th Street, too afraid to articulate what we already knew.

We heard the crowd before we turned the corner. The whole town was packed together on the narrow street. The smell was stronger now, and I could hear the fire ⎯ a huge whooshing sound, like fast-moving water, punctuated by the occasional crack and spit ⎯ but we couldn’t see it yet through all the people.

Nick turned and looked at me for a moment, and I held his gaze, waiting to see what he would do. Then he dropped his bike on the asphalt and rushed forward into the crowd.

I followed him, pushing through the mass of bodies. I saw people I knew ⎯ Mrs. Schraeder, who taught fourth grade; Mr. Lewiston from the grocery store; a group of older girls from the high school; Pastor Paul from church ⎯ all huddled together there, sweating in the heat, craning their necks to see. I made my way through them, searching for Nick, but when I got to the front of the crowd, I stopped too.

Most of the diner’s roof had already collapsed and the flames rose several feet above where it had been. The two front windows were broken and the fire curved up out of them, like upturned palms. The walls were black, charred, and the smoke was tremendous, swirling furiously up into the sky. Only fifty feet away, I could feel the heat of the fire on my face like a horrible breath. I stood and watched for what felt like a long time, and for a while I wasn’t thinking about Nick at all; I was hypnotized, transfixed by the power of the fire, its indifference to us, its ravenous hunger.

The police had blocked off the street with yellow tape for a few dozen yards in either direction. In that space our town’s two volunteer firemen were standing, each holding a long hose aimed at the buildings on either side of the diner, trying to protect them. It was clear ⎯ to me, to everyone ⎯ that the diner itself was beyond saving.

“Did you ever see a thing like that?” said a voice next to me.

I looked up. It was Craig Dawson, who worked for the farmer’s union. He whistled and shook his head. “Lordy, ain’t it something?”

“What happened?” I asked.

“Grease fire, they’re saying. They called up to Mankato for help, but I don’t see much use in it now. That place is gone.”

“Grease fire,” I repeated. I was a little stunned, not thinking straight.

“That’s what they’re saying.” Craig leaned in towards me and lowered his voice. “Miracle no one was hurt. They pulled him out of there right before the whole place went up.”

“Who?” I asked.

Who?” He frowned. “Who do you think, kid? McFadden!”

The name brought me reeling back to myself.

“Where is he?” I asked frantically. “Is he dead?”

Craig’s frown deepened. “Dead? No, he’s not dead. He’s right over there.”

He pointed to where Nick’s father sat, in front of the pharmacy, on the other side of the yellow police tape. Someone had brought him a chair. He slouched in it, his head hanging. He wasn’t even looking at the fire. His white shirt had big, grey stains across the chest, and his face was smudged with soot or smoke or ash.

Then I saw Nick, standing on the sidewalk at the corner of the crowd. He wasn’t watching the fire, either; he was watching his father. The look was the same, though. He stared at his father in the same way that you’d watch any doomed, self-consuming thing. Nick was surrounded by people, but separate; he looked totally, hopelessly alone.

I weaved through the crowd until I stood next to him. He kept his eyes on his father, but he must have known I was there. “Look at him,” he said. “Dead to the world.”

He was right. I saw now that his father was stupendously drunk. I’m not sure I’d seen that type of drunkenness before, but somehow I recognized it immediately: the slight sway of his body, the sightless, squinted eyes. On the ground between his legs I noticed a clear glass bottle, and at almost the same instant that I saw it, he picked it up, lifted it to his face, and took a long drink with his head thrown back. When he was finished, he lowered the bottle and turned his head slowly in our direction. It was such a slow, idle movement that he reminded me of a large animal, a cow or a buffalo. He looked almost surprised to see us all there, as though he hadn’t realized that a crowd had gathered.

Around us now tiny white flakes of ash were falling, roused from the smoldering wreckage by the firemen’s hoses. They fell like snow, settling onto our hair, our shoulders, our shoes. A flake landed on Nick’s eyelashes; he raised his hand absentmindedly and brushed it away.

Then he was moving, ducking underneath the police tape, taking short, quick steps towards his father, who seemed oblivious. For a moment I thought Nick might hit him, but instead he grabbed the bottle from his father’s hand and, in one smooth motion, he turned and threw it towards the fire. It rose in a high arc, spinning ⎯ the glass glinting in the sun, vodka spilling as it turned in the air ⎯ and landed unspectacularly in the burning remains of the diner. A fireman turned and yelled, but by then Nick had started yelling too.

“Look what you did! You drunk! Look! Look!”

He was facing his father but pointing behind him at the fire. He took a step forward and stuck his finger in his father’s face.

“This is your fault! You worthless drunk! You shit! It’s your fault!”

I was shocked. It was as if Nick had transformed from the boy I knew into someone else altogether. He had shed childhood like a skin. There was something familiar about the evenness of Nick’s voice as he shouted, the way he was standing and jabbing his finger. It reminded me of the night his father had yelled at the salesman in the diner. I was dumbstruck, full of fear and awe.

His father, meanwhile, sat there with the same confused expression on his face; he was beyond anger now. He frowned up into Nick’s face like he couldn’t remember who he was.

“It’s your fault!” Nick yelled again, more softly now. “Look what you did!” And I heard the quiver in his voice, the break, and I knew that he was on the verge of crying, and he was restored again to the Nick I knew.

At that moment, two men from the crowd stepped forward. They moved to take hold of Nick, but before they reached him, he turned away from his father and stormed back towards the crowd. He passed by me without looking up, but I knew to follow him, again.

I caught up with Nick where we’d left our bicycles lying in the street. He picked his up and straddled it. I wanted to say something to him, to console him. I wanted to let him know that I’d do anything, whatever he wanted. “Nick,” I said, but stopped there, waiting for him speak.

He looked at me. His eyes were red and I could see the tear stains on his face, but he wasn’t crying now.

“We’ve got to go,” he said calmly. “Tonight. We’ve got to get out of here.”

“Okay,” I said.

“I have some money, a little. We’ll need some other stuff, though. Some food and stuff. Blankets. Can you take care of that?”

His voice was flat, soothing, like he was talking to a dog, or a much younger child.

“Blankets. Okay, yeah.”

“Good,” he said, nodding. “Good. Then meet me at the river. You’ll get the stuff and meet me there later, tonight?”

“Okay,” I said again. “Tonight.”

He smiled slightly, a wry, world-weary half-smile. I was so relieved to see it that I almost started crying myself. I loved him, painfully. Then he rode off down the street, and I stood watching him until he was around the corner and out of sight.

~

There was nowhere for me to go but home. I rode slowly through town, into the wide, shady streets of my neighborhood. Through the trees that lined my street I saw that the sky was growing dark; a bank of dark clouds was rolling in. It was as though the smoke from the fire had risen into the sky and been transfigured there into a heavy grey carpet. The air was dense with the smell of rain.

I walked into the kitchen. My father was standing at the counter, chopping onions.

“See the fire?” he said without looking at me.

“Yeah,” I said, warily. I was afraid to talk about it, afraid that I’d somehow give away our plan.

“It’s a miracle no one was hurt.”

I wanted to go up to my room, but I sensed there was something else he wanted to say. My father was a good, honest man, who liked nothing more than to spend Sunday afternoons smoking his pipe and playing chess with himself. He was quiet and humble, and I don’t think I ever heard him raise his voice. So when he wanted to say something, I paid attention.

After a moment, he stopped chopping and turned to face me. “Seen Nick?”

“Yeah,” I said. “He was down there.”

“He okay?”

I shrugged. “I guess.”

My father nodded, frowning. “Listen,” he said. “I looked up the file on the restaurant at work.”

My father worked for the real estate company, and usually his job couldn’t have been less interesting to me. But now I was listening intently.

“Okay,” I said. “And?”

“Well, Nick’s father didn’t have any insurance on that place.”

“So?” I said, not understanding what he was getting at. “What does that mean?”

He looked down at the floor and sighed. “It means he’s ruined.”

The tone of his voice and the way he averted his eyes made me nervous. I didn’t really understand what it meant to be “ruined.” The idea was nebulous to me. In Mankato I’d seen people begging for money, and I knew people in our town who were poor, but those associations seemed distant. Now though, as the word hung in the air, it had a strange new gravity. It made everything feel terrifyingly real. If they were ruined, then nothing was stopping Nick from running away, and what had been a hazy fantasy solidified with a new, crushing weight. I stood in the kitchen looking at my father—his rumpled pants and receding hair-line, his kind, open face⎯ with the smell of dinner in the air, remembering the promise I’d made, and I was scared to leave it all behind.

After a moment, he turned back to cooking.

“Go in and see your mother,” he said. “Dinner in fifteen minutes.”

I went into the living room, where my mother was lying on the sofa. The blinds were drawn and the room was dim. That room was always dim, always musty and close. It seemed like the thick cushions and heavy drapes had absorbed all the light and the air.

When I walked in, she opened her eyes and smiled.

“Jack,” she said softly. “Come here.”

She sat up, slowly, sleepily. Her loose, untidy dark hair fell across her face and she pushed it back behind her ears. This was not a bad episode, I knew. She would say later that she’d just had a headache. I walked over and sat down next to her and she put her arms around me. She smelled like mint tea and stale sweat. Sometimes, when she was like that, she just wanted to hold me.

For a few minutes, she stroked my hair, put her face into my neck and breathed. I sat stiffly and let her, but as it went on, I felt that I was being smothered. I hated that room, that musty smell. I wanted to break away, to run back outside into the light. I wanted to grab her shoulders and shake her, scream at her, tell her to get up off the couch, to make dinner, to put the radio on and dance lightly around the kitchen while she cooked, like she did on her best days. Instead, I let her hold me, and turned my mind back to the trailer where Nick was waiting, and I started to make a list of all the things we would need.

~

That night, after my parents were in bed, I stole out of my room and packed. Besides my clothes and some extra things for Nick, which I put in my school backpack, I filled a duffel bag with sheets and blankets, flashlights, matches, two mugs and two sets of silverware, a pot and a frying pan, a loaf of bread, a stick of butter, some ham and cheese from the refrigerator, and several cans of beans. I took a can of coffee, too. We didn’t drink coffee yet, but it seemed like we might want to start. When it was all packed, I took one last look around my kitchen, which seemed strangely normal, undisturbed. Then I went out the door and got on my bike and, with the duffel positioned awkwardly across the handlebars, I rode off to meet Nick.

It was an unusually dark night. The clouds blocked the moon. After I got out of town, I had to wait a few moments for my eyes to adjust. I couldn’t even see the road. The air was still charged with threatening rain, and the wind had picked up. Riding out to the river on the county highway, I could hear the corn thrashing in the fields.

As I approached the turnoff to the mudflats, I saw a fluttering light through the trees, and as I got closer I saw that Nick had made a fire there in the dirt and was sitting next to it on a log. When he saw me, he stood up and rushed to help me with the bags.

“Oof,” he groaned theatrically as he hoisted the duffel. “I don’t think we’re going to need all these encyclopedias.”

I laughed. I was relieved to find him cheerful, eager; I’d been vaguely worried that he might have changed his mind. We brought the bags into the trailer and, using the flashlight to see, we did an inventory of what I’d brought. Nick was impressed. “Good,” he said. “We can get by on this for a week, I think, maybe two.”

He took the bread, ham, and cheese from the bag and made himself a sandwich on the narrow counter beside the stove; he’d been out there all night, I realized, without eating dinner. On the table I saw the atlas spread open, and with the flashlight I sat down to look.

“I think I’ve got it all figured out,” Nick said, chewing. “We’ll need to find a place to stay as soon as possible, and I think our best shot is to look for work on a farm, where they might have a bunkhouse or a barn we can sleep in. I think we should head west, back through town. We’ll have to hitchhike. Someone’ll pick us up on Highway 60. Here.” He pointed.  “I think we should head over towards Sioux Falls. We need to get some money together. I’ve got twenty bucks, but it’ll go fast.”

“Where’d you get twenty bucks?” I asked him. I’d never had that much money.

“My mom gave it to me,” he said quickly.

Just then, there was a violent roll of thunder. We hushed as the echoes reverberated, and then I heard the sound of raindrops on the roof.

It was a real summer storm, the rain the farmers had been waiting for all month. The noise of the rain on the metal roof of the trailer was loud enough that we had to raise our voices.

“Shit,” Nick said. “We’ll have to wait it out.”

He unfolded the bed from the back wall of the trailer and covered it with the sheets and blankets I’d brought. “We can leave early in the morning. I’m going to get some sleep.”

I went on studying the map in the flashlight’s yellow beam. Sioux Falls, South Dakota. On the map, it looked very close ⎯ about a hundred miles away ⎯ but the name was so strange and foreign it might as well have been a thousand. I was beginning to feel tense and nervous, and I wanted Nick to stay awake and keep planning in his easy, assured voice.

“Nick,” I said softly. Perhaps too softly to be heard over the rain, or perhaps he was already asleep.

I didn’t feel tired, but I went over to the bed and lay down next to him. I closed my eyes and listened to the sound of the rain. After a while, I began to hear Nick’s breathing next to me. It was even and rhythmic, soft and slow, and I took from it what comfort I could.

~

The rain stopped close to dawn, and the silence woke me up with a start. I sat up in bed and blinked, trying to remember where I was. It was still dark, but gradually I made out the shapes in the trailer. Nick was still asleep, curled up facing the wall.

I put on my shoes and went outside. Everything was very still and quiet. The rain had left a wet, earthy smell in the air, and I could hear the humming of insects in the trees and the faint sound of the newly-swollen river. The ground was deep mud, and I stood on a half-submerged railroad tie that Nick and I had put outside the camper door. The clouds had cleared and the moon had already set. I could see the stars and, in the east, the pale band of morning. I stood there for a while, remembering. It was like a light switched on in my head, and the events of the previous day swarmed back to me.

Woken too by the silence, perhaps, Nick came out and stood beside me. He blinked and rubbed the sleep from his face. I watched him in the feeble new light, waiting for him to call it all off, but he spit into the mud and said, “Ready to go?”

I nodded. I had promised, after all. We went back in and gathered our things.

As we were leaving, we stopped and looked back at the trailer.

“Goodbye, Oasis,” Nick said.

“Goodbye,” I said, and we rode away towards town.

Around us, the world was appearing, the trees and fields, all of it rain-freshened. Everything seemed different than it had the night before ⎯ more solid, more real ⎯ and I think Nick felt it too. Neither of us said anything as we rode.

The sun was nearly up when we entered town. At the intersection of 2nd Avenue and 3rd Street, we paused. To get to the highway, we would need to go left; turning right would lead us into town. I waited for him to choose.

“I want to see it,” Nick said. “One last time.” I nodded, and we turned right, just as we’d done the day before.

We rode through the empty town to 7th Street, where we turned and stopped in front of the burned wreckage of the diner. There wasn’t much left: most of the front wall had collapsed, along with the roof. Further back, a few beams were still standing, and there was a foot or so of charred debris on the ground. I could see the shape of the counter and the grill behind it, now fully black. There was a line of yellow police tape strung between the adjacent buildings.

“Ruined,” I murmured without thinking. The word left my mouth and floated off into the gathering light.

Nick let out a long sigh, like some world-weary traveler. “He kept a cash box under the counter,” he said. “It was metal. Could have survived.” I looked at him, not quite understanding. “Could be a couple hundred bucks in there.”

I looked again at the rubble, frowning; the idea that anything had survived seemed ludicrous to me. But Nick set the duffel bag down on the ground and dropped his bike there and, ducking under the police tape, he walked into the ruins through the space where the door had been. I paused for a moment, but then, as always, I followed him.

I wondered if the debris would be hot, but it wasn’t; the rain must have cooled it off. Charred and waterlogged, it crumbled under my feet. It still held the smell of fire, like doused coals. Most of it was indistinguishable, just black and grey mush, but as I waded through I began to make out definite, recognizable shapes: a hand-crank for a window, the base of a lamp, one of the vases that had sat on the tables. It was amazing: the day before this soft, shapeless mass of rubble had been wood and plaster, tables and chairs. Now, nothing. Gone.

Nick was ahead of me, on the other side of where the counter had been, kicking around in the rubble.

“It’s got to be here somewhere,” he said.

I made my way to him and began kicking around too. My shoes and the cuffs of my jeans had turned black with soot. Nick knelt down and began combing through the debris with his hands, and I joined him. The way I remember it, we dug through the mess for a long time, searching. Beneath the wet top layer of ash, the rubble still held the warmth of the fire. We dug and dug, ruining our clothes, and our search took on a kind of desperation. We were looking for the money, but I think it was more important that we find something, anything that we could save.

Of course it was hopeless. The fire had been too powerful. The mess was too big.

But we did find it.

I did. Just as we were about to give up, I kicked aside a large, solid chunk of burned wood and something underneath it caught the light, flashed sharply like a mirror.

“Nick,” I said, standing back, not quite ready to believe. “Look.”

Together we looked down at the smudged metal box lying there among the ashes.

Nick bent down and picked up the box. He held it for a moment, the early light reflecting off the metal into his face.

It seemed impossible, but there it was.

“Open it,” I said.

He did, slowly. It wasn’t locked and offered no resistance. Inside, I saw a few rolls of change and four neat, clipped stacks of ones, fives, tens, and twenties.

“Holy shit,” I said.

In retrospect, it probably wasn’t all that much money ⎯ maybe a couple hundred dollars ⎯ but it was certainly more cash than I’d ever seen in one place. Looking at it, I felt a strange mixture of disappointment and relief, exhilaration and fear. I think that in the back of my mind, I’d been counting on the inevitable failure of our escape plan. We would be gone for a couple of days, I figured, before we got scared or hungry and came home, or before we were picked up hitchhiking by a state trooper. Now though, anything seemed possible.

Nick reached into the open box and pulled out something else, something small that caught the light. He held it up in front of his eyes, and I saw that it was a ring, a gold band with a small, square diamond. I frowned at it, confused. When I looked back at Nick, I saw that slow tears were running down his cheeks.

“Nick,” I sputtered. I didn’t understand what was wrong, but I wanted to comfort him, to hold him. Perhaps sensing that I might touch him, he shook his head, put the ring back in the box, closed the lid, and wiped his eyes on his sleeve.

“I’ve got to go home now, Jack,” he said, and without waiting for me to say anything, he turned and began trudging back through the debris to our bikes. I stood there for a moment, confused, and then I followed him. On the sidewalk, he picked up his bike and threw his leg over it, the cash box wedged under his arm. “I can’t leave him,” he said. “I’m all he’s got left now.”

“What do you mean?”

“She left,” he said.

“What?”

“She left,” he said again. “She left him.”

“Who did?”

“My mom. She left us. A few days ago. She went to stay with my aunt in Sioux Falls.”

Sioux Falls. I thought for a moment, trying to understand. Through everything, through the fire and the scene in the street between Nick and his father, through the night spent next to him in the trailer and the morning spent rooting around in the debris, I hadn’t thought about his mother at all, hadn’t wondered where she was for a minute. Now, though, something clicked into place, and a lock sprung open in my mind. I thought about Nick’s father, sitting drunk in the chair the day before, with his life burning down in front of him. The twenty dollars Nick said she’d given him. The ring in the cash box. It all made sense.

Except for one thing. “Why didn’t she take you with her?” I asked.

“She wanted to,” he said. “I said no.”

“No? How come?”

He shrugged, shook his head. He wasn’t crying anymore, and seemed to think seriously about the question.

“I don’t know,” he said after a moment. “I just couldn’t leave him behind.”

We were silent for a moment as I wrestled with this new information. We weren’t going to Sioux Falls. We weren’t leaving at all. In my chest I felt a clear and unmistakable relief.

“I’ll see you around,” Nick said. Then he turned and rode off down the street towards home, where his father would be waiting for him, alone.

As I found out later, my father had been right: they were ruined, bankrupt. They left town not long after; certainly they were gone by the end of the summer. I must have seen Nick again after that morning, but I don’t remember it. They might have joined his mother in Sioux Falls, but I don’t know for sure. The last clear memory I have of him is that morning, watching him ride off with the cash box under his arm, the only thing he could salvage.

When he was out of sight, I slung the duffel bag over my handlebars and rode towards home. The early light was warm and soft; it coated everything it touched. I went slowly through town, past the high school and the post office, the library and the One-Stop Market. I felt as though I’d spent a long time away from home and was coming back from a long trip. I noticed things I’d never seen before: how crisp and clean the flag outside the American Legion was, the way the rain-washed metal sign outside Max’s Hardware gleamed in the early light.

I was relieved, like I’d woken from a disturbing dream, but I felt vaguely hurt, as well, slighted that Nick had chosen to stay, chosen his father over me. I’m not sure that he ever really planned to leave at all. But I’d been ready. I would’ve followed Nick wherever he wanted to go, and as I rode through town, my hurt dissolved into shame. I’d been ready to leave it all behind. I would’ve left her behind. As I approached home, that shame hardened into resolve, into a promise I made to myself.

By the time I got home, my father had already left for work and the driveway was empty. In the kitchen, I took off my dirty shoes and dropped the bags on the floor. I went into the living room, where my mother was sleeping on the sofa. I stood there for a moment, just watching her sleep, the slow rise and fall of her breath. I felt the ache of love in my throat. She must have sensed me there, because her eyes fluttered and slowly opened.

“Jack?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Good morning, baby.”

The room was dim and stuffy, as usual. In a quick burst of movement, I crossed to the windows and threw open the drapes. The morning light blazed into the room, burned through the shadows and the close, musty air.

“Good morning, Mom,” I said. “How are you feeling today?”

The Magic Telescope

Eileen O’Connor

All mothers watch their children through magic telescopes. That’s what Mom said, and I believed her. How else would she know when I didn’t want to match socks, or rub her feet, or sort the bills on the dining room table and stack them in neat piles according to date?

Mom had good days and bad days. On her good days, Dad took care of me and baby Lucy while Mom shut herself in the bedroom with a beer and a paperback mystery. She used the magic telescope to keep an eye on us.

“Your father can’t be trusted to know what’s good for six-year-old girls,” she reminded me.

I knew the rules. Although there would always be new ones and some old ones could change, the most important rules were in place. There was what I should do: rub Mom’s feet, polish the living room furniture without being asked, tell Mom if Dad lets me watch television shows on another channel besides PBS, thank her for being my mother. What I shouldn’t do: make noise, make faces, talk unless asked to, watch television shows on any other channel besides PBS even if Dad says it’s okay. What I should think about: something nice to do for Mom, how to make dying for my sins worth Jesus’ while. What I should not think about: eating a piece of Mom’s special chocolate, what’s inside my vagina.

On Mom’s bad days, she couldn’t leave me and Dad alone. She stormed out of the bedroom and told me to stop bothering my father. “Can’t you see he’s trying to take care of the baby? Why are you hanging all over him, a big girl like you?”

“Why don’t you run across the street and say hello to Jennifer?” Dad would tell me while keeping his eyes on baby Lucy’s pink-cheeked face. Jennifer was a tall blond nurse who wore a pink uniform with white Reebok sneakers. I thought she was as pretty as a Barbie doll, and twice as nice. She let me try on her lip-gloss, the exact same shade of pink as her uniform. She did my hair in French braids. She took me to Friendly’s for ice cream.

Every time I went to Jennifer’s, I left a trail of shouts behind me. “Don’t make me look bad,” Mom screamed at Dad. “It’s obvious Bridget prefers you to me.”

“Who in the hell but the baby is here to see?”

From the front steps I would hear Mom slam the bedroom door, then Dad’s voice prodding me down the driveway. “Go ahead now, there’s a good girl.” I would look back to see him at the door, bouncing Lucy in his arms. “I’ll come get you in a while.”

When Dad arrived later with Lucy in the stroller, he never seemed to be in a rush to get home. Jennifer would make Dad a cup of tea and open a box of Fig Newtons, then lead us into the big white living room with a plant in each window. We would stay an hour or two longer, Dad and Jennifer sitting on the big blue couch with its many colored cushions, talking about the new babies Jennifer cared for at the hospital, while I held Lucy in my lap in front of the television and watched whatever channel I wanted.

But one Thursday evening in second grade, I came home early from Jennifer’s. Mom sat at the kitchen table smoking. Donahue, her favorite show, was on the small television on the counter. A cube steak thawed beside it.

“How come you’re home before your father went to fetch you?”

“Jennifer had to go to work.”

“She must have been fixing herself up by the time you got there.”

“Yes.” I kept my eyes on the checkerboard linoleum, started counting the stray Cheerios beneath the table, and held my breath for Mom’s next question. The chocolate pudding cup I had eaten at Jennifer’s slithered in my belly. I prayed Mom wouldn’t ask what stage of getting ready Jennifer had been in. Mom hated the nakedness that came with showering and dressing. She had made me wash myself since I was four years old.

“So what did you do?” The snake in my stomach tensed, tightened and coiled.

Mom could see everything through her magic telescope. There was no use lying to her. I could, however, choose my words carefully, maybe change how Mom felt about what she had seen. “I sang her ‘Love Me Do,’ like I do for Dad, outside the bathroom door.”

Dad was a bartender in one of Boston’s five-star hotels, and I liked nothing more than to accompany him in the ritual of donning his tuxedo on Friday and Saturday evenings. I especially loved to help him fix the bowtie on his penguin suit. Mom made sure the bathroom door was firmly closed between me and Dad when I sang to him as he showered. It was only after he had his pants and undershirt on that I was allowed to watch him shave, comb gel through the tangled brown curls that were just the same as mine, brush his teeth, button his shirt and polish his shiny black shoes.

Mom blew smoke toward the yellow light suspended from the ceiling. “Run along, then.”

~

Three years later, after Dad had left for his Saturday evening shift, Mom told me and Lucy that we wouldn’t wake on Sunday morning to find him, as we usually did, sleeping on the couch in the den downstairs. He had left us to be with Jennifer. He would not be coming home. And he couldn’t see me and Lucy, because Mom had taken Dad to court and come back with something called a restraining order.

“Your Dad is abusive. He exposed you to bad things. The judge made this no-visitation rule to protect you.”

Lucy wrapped her arms around my waist, buried her face in my stomach, and began to sob noiselessly.

“But, Dad isn’t bad,” I said. “What did he do?”

“Someday you’ll understand, Bridget, and you’ll thank me. You both will.”

Every night that week, I looked out my bedroom window at Dad’s blue station wagon parked in Jennifer’s driveway across the street, waiting to catch a glimpse of him. On one such night, Mom came and sat on my bed.

“Remember how you sang the Beatles for Jennifer when she got ready for work?”

It took a moment to understand. “You mean when I was seven?”

“You saw her in a bath towel, right?”

“I think so. Or maybe it was her bathrobe.”

“I didn’t tell you then, because you were too young. That’s called sexual abuse.”

I knew what sex was. I was ten years old and read everything I could get my hands on. Sex was the mysterious thrill I had gawked at in movies like Dirty Dancing at a friend’s sleepover party. Sex was the sin I wasn’t supposed to commit until I was married.

I shook my head. “I don’t think…”

“Now is the time to cry it out, Bridget,” Mom cut me off. “Don’t keep it inside.” Don’t. The weight of Mom’s warning pressed heavy on my chest.

Every night after that, Mom came into my bedroom to tell me what had happened, because she said I was too traumatized to remember. But I remembered, because I hung on to every memory of Dad. Still, Mom’s words burrowed into me and blossomed. Soon, I was crying every night as if on cue.

Mom said I needed therapy. That meant visiting Pam, our retired neighbor who had been an addiction counselor at Boston City Hospital. On Saturday mornings, I sat with Pam and Mom at the kitchen table as they drank coffee and talked about Dad, “The alcoholic womanizer who got off on Bridget being abused.” I watched Lucy play Connect Four by herself on the floor and ate stacks of butter cookies from a tin. Before we left, Pam always asked me how I felt about my father.“Bad?” I would glance at Mom. “Sad, mad.” Mom and Pam never seemed to think it was strange that my list of feelings rhymed. My cheeks would tingle as I watched Pam fill out a form and hand it to Mom. Then Mom put the form in the thick manila envelope she carried in her purse.

I felt guilty. I couldn’t completely believe Mom, and yet the lie about Jennifer felt almost real. I tried to be like the Virgin Mary. When Gabriel came to her and said she was going to bear God’s child, she kept all her questions in her heart. She didn’t let doubts rise to her head, or even worse, burst from her mouth. The only trouble was, on top of all my other sins of thought and deed, I had sinned against both Mom and Jennifer, and Mary had never sinned at all. Her heart was clean and big, a spacious room where doubts wouldn’t grow beneath the pressure of being guarded under lock and key. Whereas my heart was a teeming jail cell. I was sure Saint Anne had never needed to use her magic telescope to keep track of her daughter.

One Saturday morning after therapy, Mom announced that Pam was going to take care of Lucy for a few hours while we went home. “Your father is there waiting for us,” she explained. “He’s coming to get his things. It’s a good time for you to tell him how Jennifer sexually abused you.”

When we came around the corner and our house came into sight, Dad was tossing big black trash bags into the station wagon at the end of the driveway. I wondered why he would go through all that trouble to pack the car when he was only moving across the street.

“Go ahead,” Mom prodded. She lit a cigarette and glared at Dad over my head.

Dad stood in front of me. Mom was beside me. I looked about for an escape. At the edge of our yard, a neighbor pretended not to watch us while his dog peed on a snowbank.

“Tell him.” Mom’s voice was a pointy icicle poking at the soft spot at the base of my throat. The fear of being pierced pushed the words up.

“Jennifer sexually abused me,” I whispered. The tingle that had begun in my cheeks at Pam’s house began to burn.

“I don’t believe you.” A bright December sun lit Dad’s face, making his eyes strangely pale. They had never seemed so high up and distant from me. He shook his head.

“What the hell are you doing, Karen?” Dad began to yell at Mom. I ran inside the house and into the broom closet. I began to pray. First, I prayed that Mom wouldn’t hear my prayer. Then, I prayed that Dad would find a way for me and Lucy to live with him. I prayed Dad still wanted me.

“He wants to be with that woman more than us,” Mom explained when she found me in the closet. “That’s why he won’t believe you. He’s leaving with Jennifer to drive across the country. He said he would call when he got to California.”

Now I understood why he had packed the bags in the station wagon. But I didn’t understand why he hadn’t said goodbye. Why he hadn’t asked me and Lucy to come with him.

~

“You’ll understand when you’re older,” I told Lucy, “why it’s better to look down your throat in the sheet fort. Now open up and say ah.”

My five-year-old sister obeyed, opening her chapped lips wide.

“Not that much.” I aimed the miniature flashlight that I had found in Dad’s tackle box toward the back of her throat. “Perfect. Hold it right there.”

I was looking for a miracle. For the past two years, since Dad had headed out west and Mom didn’t let us take his calls, Lucy had suffered from chronic tonsillitis. Mom was convinced that a faith healer named Father McBride would cure her.

Lucy pushed the flashlight away. “Did my tonsils shrink?”

“A little,” I lied and switched off the flashlight. “Let’s watch Fraulein Maria.”

The day after Dad left for California, I had made a fort from a calico, king-sized sheet that Dad used on the couch in the den where he slept during the last year he lived with us. Mom called the den “your father’s room” and refused to enter. When the days were damp, I could still smell Dad’s Old Spice after shave when I pressed the cotton to my face.

A part of Dad was in the sheet, which protected me and Lucy from Mom’s magic telescope. I had tested my theory thoroughly before I let Lucy enter the fort: I had stuck up one middle finger, and then the other, then waved the two middle fingers in the air. I had wondered if Saint Joseph and Mary had sex. I had reached down my underwear and touched my vagina. I had thought about how I hated it when Mom picked her nose in the line at the grocery store where everyone could see, and how I was ashamed to point her out at the school Christmas pageant when a classmate asked, “Which one is your mom?”

“Hurry up. I want to watch the movie.” Lucy’s voice was raspy, and even in the dim light I could see the dark smudges under her light green eyes, as if one of her kindergarten classmates had smeared her with grey finger paint.

I pressed play on the VCR. From the cave-like opening of our fort, we could see the TV. Lucy and I stretched side by side on our stomachs with our knees bent and my feet skimming the droopy middle of the sheet. We each had a pillow to cushion our bent elbows. Our hands rested beneath our chins. When we could escape chores, when I had finished my homework, we slipped downstairs to the den and started where we left off. For the past two years, we’d watched The Sound of Music on a continual loop.

Lucy poked me in the ribs. “Tell me now.”

“Shhh. Tell you what?”

“Why you can only look at my throat when we’re here.”

“Quiet. It’s almost time for ‘Sixteen Going on Seventeen.’ There’s no reason. I was kidding.”

“Were not.” Lucy settled in closer “Tell me.”

“Remember doubting Thomas who wanted to stick his finger in Jesus’ side?”

“Ick, yes.”

“Checking your tonsils means I doubt Father McBride can heal you. Then God will take longer to shrink your tonsils because I don’t have faith. And Mom will get mad. But she can’t see me check your tonsils here.”

Lucy sat up and gripped my wrist, her fingers popsicle-sticky. “Why not?”

“She can’t see inside the fort with her magic telescope. I tested it out. This is our sanctuary.”

“What do you mean?”

“You know, like church, when sinners are protected by the priest. Remember Dad told us about the hunchback Quasimodo who saves Esmeralda by running into the cathedral and yelling ‘sanctuary?’ I’ve been reading Dad’s book down here after you fall asleep.”

“I don’t fall asleep.” Lucy shook her head and pulled at the hangnail on her right thumb.

“Don’t pick at it. You’ll make it worse.”

“All you do is read.” Lucy curled her body into mine.

“All you do is fart. Get back on your own side.” I pinched her butt and she shrieked and slapped at me. She pretended to be mad, all the while waiting for me to pinch her again.

Lucy had always craved my attention; she wrapped it about her slight frame like the frayed, yellowing blanket that always hung from her wiry hand and tangled around her ankles. Sometimes Lucy doused the soiled rectangle of pilling felt with Mom’s Jean Naté After Bath Splash. She sprinkled it on her unwashed socks and underwear, too.

On days before doctor’s appointments, Mom took us to Caldor and let us pick something from the sale section to wear to the doctor’s office. Then the outfit disappeared into the pile of dirty clothes on the floor in the laundry room. I knew we would take a trip to Caldor soon. When I shone the flashlight down Lucy’s throat, I saw the yellow coating on her tonsils. The half- healed blisters from her last bout of strep were blooming. In a day or two, her ears would ache and her forehead would throb. A day more and she would be shivering with fever and vomiting. It happened like that every time Lucy got sick. Then Mom would call to make an emergency appointment.

“But didn’t God see you look down my throat?” Lucy whispered. “Even if Mom can’t see through the sheet, God still can. Can’t he?”

I pretended not to hear her.

~

Doctor Matthews’ receptionist beamed at us when we walked through the door. “What pretty little ladies you have, Mrs. Duggan.”

“I do what I can, with this one too chubby and this one so thin,” Mom sighed. “Poor Lucy can barely swallow, so it seems Bridget’s decided to eat for the two of them.”

I looked at the floor. Lucy was wearing two different shoes.

“Oh, it’s not that bad. A little baby fat now means less wrinkles when you’re our age. Isn’t that so, Bridget?” The receptionist flashed me a smile. “And how’s work treating you, Mrs. Duggan?”

“It’s always busy at the bank. I’m the drive-through teller now, and the line never ends.”

“It’s hard being a single mom,” the receptionist shook her head. “Believe me, I know. I barely handle it. I’d go crazy if my little one was sick all the time.”

Mom patted Lucy on the head. Lucy squirmed and I adjusted her blanket so that it wouldn’t fall from her shoulders. She leaned her head against my hip.

“At least you have your big girl helping you.”

“Bridget’s my smarty.” Mom forgot herself and smiled. She usually was careful not to. She hated how dark her cigarette-stained teeth appeared against her pale face. “All A’s. Already reading Victor Hugo. Though not in French, yet.”

Like Mom, hefty, white-haired Doctor Matthews almost never smiled. Sometimes it seemed he tried, but the smile got stuck midway, as if his brittle lips lacked the muscles to turn upwards at the ends. For a year, Doctor Matthews had been saying that Lucy’s tonsils should be removed. Penicillin didn’t help her. But Mom said our visits to church would, if we truly believed. I feared that my doubts, which came up unexpected and shameful like burps when I ate too quickly, were slowing Lucy’s miracle.

After he examined Lucy and wrote another prescription for penicillin, Mom asked Doctor Matthews to take a look at me because I was getting too fat.

“Sexual abuse,” Mom said. “Her father won’t believe his own child. She eats the pain.”

I kept my eyes down. Ashamed to be dressed only in a sheet. Ashamed of the freckled skin that bulged over the strap when he took my blood pressure. Afraid the knot in my stomach might fray and let me split open.

“Is she still seeing a therapist?” Doctor Matthews asked as he tapped my back and listened to me breathe.

“Of course.” Mom pulled the manila envelope with the forms Pam had signed from her purse and handed it to Doctor Matthews. Then she pushed me out the door.

“That doctor’s a fool.” Mom sucked a menthol cigarette as she pulled out of the parking lot. “Wants a damn tonsillectomy. Let some strangers hack into my child. She’s too weak to go under.” Mom swerved to miss a squirrel darting across the street. Lucy dozed in the backseat.

“Do you know what they do in a tonsillectomy, Bridget?”

Mom and I had this conversation each time we took Lucy to see Doctor Matthews.

“They cut out the tonsils and put them on a plate.” Mom nearly spat the words. In the bright midday light, I saw little flecks of saliva rocket from her mouth and hit the windshield.

I thought of the martyr whose feast day Lucy was born on. Could Lucy really die from the operation? Or would she die of hunger first if the miracle didn’t happen soon? Lucy could only eat yogurt and popsicles when her throat was this inflamed, and Doctor Matthews said she had lost four pounds in the three weeks since he had last examined her.

Mom spied my thoughts and said, “Saint Lucy died for Christ only after many tortures. If only our Lucy had some of your strength. We should have named her for the saint of fire, instead of you. But your father insisted. Always did anything to please his witch of a mother. She hated her name and he hated her, and yet he passed Bridget on to his first-born anyway.”

I pressed my cheek against the cool window, closed my eyes and squeezed them tight. I tried to forget all the thoughts that were in my head. But squeezing my face so hard only seemed to make the knot in my stomach tighten. It was an unbearable ache but I knew a quick fix.

“Can we stop for a steak and cheese and frappe on the way home?” I asked.

Lucy and I were allowed to take our subs downstairs to the den. There, in the center of the wood-paneled room and shelves stacked with Dad’s books, waited our sheet fort. The television was positioned a few feet from its entrance. We sat in our sanctuary and watched The Sound of Music. I ate, while Lucy broke pieces from her meatball sandwich. Her tongue rolled them from side to side in her mouth, letting them disintegrate so that she could swallow. When she pushed her plate away and snuggled up to me, I didn’t shove her away like I sometimes did. Together, we mouthed the lines we knew by heart.

“I’m Gretel, and I have a sore finger.” On the screen, Fraulein Maria bent down and kissed the youngest child’s bandaged pinky.

“What a baby,” Lucy tried to roll her eyes, but instead made a big circle with her head. Then she stuck her thumb, scabbed where she had torn the hangnail off, under my nose. “Gretel gets so much attention for nothing.”

“I warned you about picking at it. Don’t think I’m going to kiss that nasty thing.”

Lucy grinned. “You’re meaner than the Baroness who wants to marry Captain Von Trapp.”

When The Sound of Music ended, I read aloud beneath the glow of the flashlight. It only took two paragraphs of The Hunchback of Notre Dame for Lucy to begin to snore. I shone the light on her swelling chest, a delicate cage where her lungs struggled for the small amounts of air that arrived from her blocked windpipe. I kept on reading in a whisper, “You would have imagined her at one moment a maniac, at another a queen.”

I read the line over and over, and thought of Mom at the doctor’s office. She hadn’t seemed a queen to Doctor Matthews and the receptionist, but she hadn’t seemed a maniac either. Mom had seemed just what she wanted to seem: a mother. In her concern for Lucy’s tonsils, for my trauma, there was no sign of the crazed woman suddenly screaming incoherently about how mean her father had been or how our father had left her. In the doctor’s office, she did not seem like a woman who would slam the kitchen cabinets until Lucy and I got down on our knees on the linoleum and begged her to stop. When we pleaded, entreating her with “I love you,” she would stop shrieking about fathers and yell at us for crying on the floor.

“What am I, a monster? Stop making me feel like a monster!”

“No, Mom, you’re the best mother ever!” Lucy and I were a chorus.

The slamming, yelling and begging would continue until Lucy choked on her sobs and began coughing uncontrollably. When Mom’s screams lit my nerves on fire, the blood raced from my heart and the water emptied from my mouth; all the liquid in my body rushed to put the flames out, and yet I never completely withered. That is how someone might die when burning at the stake outside a cathedral in medieval Paris, I learned that night as I read The Hunchback.

~

“Are the backseat doors locked, Lucy? Bridget, reach back there and make sure. And double check your door, too.”

Mom always hated the drive we took through Boston’s poorest neighborhoods to attend the Mass given by Father McBride on Wednesday nights in Roxbury. But tonight, two days after the appointment with Doctor Matthews, Mom seemed particularly tense. I had overheard her talking with Pam on the phone before we left the house, and sensed that the doctor had given Mom some sort of deadline to schedule Lucy for surgery. As we scurried from the parking lot into the church, I heard Mom mumbling, “This time. Let it be this time.”

Inside, the streetlights shone through the stained-glass windows, so that the pastel frescoes – Jesus multiplying the loaves and the fishes, Saint Michael the archangel dressed in blue and gold, his spear poised to pierce the snake – were on the verge of slipping into shadows. Tall white candles flickered over creaky wooden pews filled with sick parishioners. I counted the crutches – wooden ones, metal walkers, a leopard-print cane – displayed around the altar, to see if there were more than last week. They had belonged to people who’d been healed.

Lucy was fast asleep by the time it was her turn to be blessed by Father McBride. Her head tipped backwards, a loud snore rising from her open mouth.

“Everybody has a cross,” Mom said, carrying Lucy in her arms. She looked like a statue of the pietà when she knelt at the altar and bowed her head before the priest. That is, if Jesus had been a five-year-old girl. I tried to swallow my sacrilege, but it stuck in the back of my throat. My head felt hot, and I hoped Mom was too preoccupied to notice me.

I tried to focus on Father McBride. He had bright blue eyes, and kindness shone from his round, freckled face. Mom whispered many words in a rush, and he replied with a few. The priest was painfully shy, and always quick to get down to the business of praying. The soft incantations he murmured over Lucy were weighted with a heavy accent, like that of the Red Sox announcer on the sports radio Dad used to listen to in the car.

Father McBride began to pray, “Saint Blaise, Christians down the centuries have asked your intercession for their throat ailments, and you have proven your closeness to Jesus by the long list of miracles attributed to your name…”

He’s done Saint Blaise so many times, I couldn’t stop myself from thinking. Why doesn’t he try something different? Why not pray to Lucy’s saint?

Father McBride crossed the long white candles over Lucy’s throat. They were supposed to form a crucifix, but tonight looked like two long knives. I felt dizzy, and my armpits were moist. For the first time, I could smell my perspiration. It reminded me of Mom’s sweaters.

When the knives became scalpels cutting into Lucy’s skin, I looked away from my sister and to the altar. There, on the gold Eucharist plate, were two crimson tonsils, beating like miniature hearts. I shut my eyes, counted to ten, then slowly opened them. The two gelatinous blobs were still there, but now they were eyes. Pale green eyes like Lucy’s, staring at me.

Lucy’s eyes blinked on the gold plate. I began to sway, unsteady on my feet.

“Bridget, go sit down,” Mom hissed. She had freed a hand from under Lucy and placed it on my forehead. “You’re as pale as a ghost and burning up.”

I glanced again at the gold plate. It was empty. I looked to Lucy’s throat, once again crossed by two white candles.

~

“Lucy gets a miracle for her birthday,” Mom said. She had decided that if the operation were performed on the day Lucy turned six, she would be stronger and more likely to survive than when she was only four or five.

Mom had ordered pink and purple balloons to greet Lucy when she was wheeled back from the surgery into her hospital room. She tied them to the bars on the side of the bed, to the armchairs in each corner of the room, and to the heart monitor. The nurse untied them from the monitor and Mom frowned at her. “I’m a single mother, you know.”

“Well now, that’s just fine,” the thick-hipped nurse said as she walked out of the room. “Just ring if you need me.” Her accent was soft and round in my ears.

“Those Jamaicans are all lazy,” Mom muttered.

“How do you know she’s Jamaican?” I asked. “Because of how she talks?”

“Because she’s brown and lazy,” Mom said. “Now hush.”

Lucy was wheeled in asleep. Her dull brown hair was pulled back from her face and in the light that streamed through the window, I could see the peach fuzz on her sunken cheeks.

Mom sat in a chair, and I stood by the bed to wait for Lucy to wake. I pictured her tonsils, like two engorged fruit snacks on a plate.

The nurse returned. “I’m just going to check her vitals.” Mom nodded, then lowered her head and rested her chin on her chest.

I had packed Lucy’s hospital bag for her, and stuffed the calico sheet beneath her felt blanket and the new pajamas, socks and underwear Mom had let me pick out at Caldor.

I glanced at Mom, her chin still on her chest. I pulled the sheet from the bag and whispered to the nurse, “Can I cover my sister with this?”

“Don’t see why not. Is it her favorite?”

“It’s both of our favorites.”

Mom stirred in the chair. “Bridget, what is that?”

“Nothing.” I gripped a corner of the sheet between my fingers.

She glared daggers, but that’s all she could do with the nurse watching her.

It was then that I saw my silent words float across the room. And I let my thoughts write themselves in wild cursive, like vines growing rapidly to reach Mom’s face and wrap around her mind. Don’t you know what I’m doing? Can’t you see what I’m thinking? There is no miracle. Lucy could have been healed so long ago.

I lifted a finger from the sheet, and then another. Then I let go of the fabric altogether. I put my hands to my stomach and shouted in my head. You can’t hear me. You’ve never known what I’m thinking, never seen what I do.

Baker’s Dozen

Saffron Marchant

13

The masked embryologist stands at a hatch door in a room beside the operating theater. The window blinds are pulled closed against the bright spring day and the sounds of Hong Kong—taxi horns and bus engines and vast drills boring into ground-rock—are neutered by two panes of glass. I’m anesthetized, naked from the waist down, my legs pulled apart and tied into stirrups. My left arm is stretched out straight and taped to a plinth. I have a breathing tube in my throat and an IV in my arm that is looped to a hanging bag full of saline. I have been hormonally amended, my ovaries leavened by synthetic hormones to grow more eggs within tiny, plump sacs. A wide bore needle is pushed through my vaginal wall and into these follicles by my gynecologist, Dr. Chan, in full scrubs, from his frilled cotton cap down to his rubber boots, sits on a wheeled stool within the gape of my legs. Fingers on the needle, eyes on an ultrasound screen, he’s looking for eggs to lure out of my body with the gentlest of suctions. Eggs far smaller than the dot of an i.

Dr. Chan withdraws his needle and stands up, the stool rolls away from the backs of his legs. He shouts something in Cantonese. The embryologist readies his hands, smooth in white latex gloves. Dr. Chan walks with a squeaking tread towards the hatch and passes through it the vial containing my follicular fluid. The embryologist disappears into his room, where he tips the fluid into a petri dish, applies his eye to a microscope and counts the eggs. ‘Yat, yih,’ he cries. ‘Sam, sei.’ He counts the rest silently and pulls down his facemask, lets it hang loose against his chin. He walks back to the hatch and calls into the surgery. ‘Sap sam,’ he says. Then, for my anesthetized, non-Chinese speaking benefit, he calls it out in English.

‘Thirteen.’

 

12

I come to in the ward. There’s a green blanket tucked tight under my chin, floral-print curtains around my bed are pulled closed, boxing me in. The woman hemmed into the bed within the cloth cubicle beside mine is vomiting and crying, post-anesthesia. She’s soothed over by a nurse. We are the ‘Infertility Patients.’ We are not sick, but we are in hospital. We have had surgery but we have not been cut.  Here for different and varied reasons, we are each linked by some failing or quirk of the body: polyps or fibroids or tumors; cysts or scars or adhesions; slow sperm or age or, as for my husband and me, ‘unexplained.’ For all of us to get here, lying in these beds, we have pretended and lied, bartered and bargained, lost hope. Eventually, we have each given up on Mother Nature—with her old wives’ tales of full and half and slithered moons, of the perils of tight trousers and nylon underpants—and we have come instead to cold, unemotive science.

Here, there are egg harvests, retrievals and transfers; sperm is a ‘deposit.’ Here, that flare of fertilization, of life, begins not in the gloom of the womb

but in a spot-lit dish, witnessed not by God but by a masked embryologist.

Tim walks into the ward, I listen to his voice: ‘My wife is here?’ The staccato response of the nurses, the sound of his feet. He’s been in a room that is familiar to me only in my imagination, with a lock on the door, a wipe-down, faux-leather sofa, boxes of Kleenex and tubes of hand cream. A scattering of pornography on the coffee table. Tim steps through a gap in the floral curtains. ‘Feel okay?’ he asks, touching my feet through the blanket.

Infertility has hoisted a shortness upon my husband and I; we talk in truncated sentences. Adverbs and adjectives and verbs sometimes, have all become a waste of time. Like sex.

‘Did you?’ I say.

‘Yes,’ Tim says, sitting down in the visitor chair. He pushes his glasses up his nose. ‘Horny Babysitters.’

Sperm successfully delivered.  Good. Title of pornographic magazine, if I believe him. Also good. I would not have accepted stage fight. Soft, limp, flaccid, that will not do. It—dick, cock, prick—must be hard, bone, stiff. I realize in some closed-off, distant recess of my mind that this thought process is not normal. But what is normal? Fertility treatment has taken Tim and I far, far from the world of candle-lit procreation. Here, on the IVF ward, there are beds and leg restraints, probes encased in condoms and smeared with KY Jelly. Take your knickers off, open your legs, go to sleep. Wank, spunk, jizz. Dirty magazines, dirty movies. There’s an approximate erotica in IVF, involving a lot of other people. She’s nude beneath a backless gown and penetrated by a latexed finger. In the small, windowless room he sees only one other, a woman dressed as a nurse. He knows that she wants him to touch himself.

Maybe this month, porn will bring us a baby. I try to smile at Tim, who’s blowing his nose on his cotton handkerchief. Tim would make a great dad. The thought is upon me before I’ve had a chance to squash it. It’s dangerous for me to story-tell a possible future; hope does not help hormones. The days when I do think about babies—fat wrists and wobbly tummies, gummed, milky smiles—are the days when I can’t get out of bed. My life has split into two, neat as a trouser seam. There’s the ‘possible’ half of the menstrual month that triggers a trilling, excitable mindscape and a puritanical abstinence from alcohol, caffeine, second-hand cigarette smoke. Life is bleak but gluttonous during the ‘crushed’ half of the month: listeria-oozing blue cheese, lightly sautéed scallops, goblets of red wine.  

Tim and I have kept this a secret, this thing about us.  Marriage has not brought a baby, but a sequence of procedures.

First came love.

Then came marriage.

And then came the creation of zygotes in petri dishes.

Infertility within a partnership must be like alcoholism or drug addiction. Both force secrets, hidden facts. The same denial of reality. The ‘we are fine, we are fabulous’ façade that is publicly insisted upon masks the late-night door slamming, the rage, the sorrow. Next morning’s bafflement. Different, though, is the response to outcomes. Recovery from addiction requires vigilance, a never-forgetting, but a baby born from infertility procedures might never know its provenance. The doors of truth can slam shut on infertility and never be prised open; the success of the treatment never celebrated but kept secret, like shame.

It’s only on the IVF ward, that there’s no denying the truth. All of us in the beds here are somehow broken.

I find it rather relaxing. It’s the only place in my life where I’m not pretending To Be Fine.  

 

11

The floral curtains are yanked apart and there, at the foot of my bed, buckled back into his business suit, stands Dr. Chan. He attends the women in the hospitals on Hong Kong Island in the mornings, those who have just given birth. He runs his pregnancy and infertility clinic in Central from ten to two. After two p.m. he performs the IVF procedures here in The Sanatorium Hospital in Happy Valley. Frequently, he is called to a woman in labor. You would think his schedule would fall apart given the unpredictable nature of harvested eggs and at-term babies, but Dr. Chan is an acrobat, spinning through the air on the point of a needle.

‘You feel well enough to read?’ he asks me.

I’m reading an Anne Enright novel, the one she won the Man Booker Prize for, with the Irish Catholic family of twelve siblings, just like my mum’s. ‘I’m okay,’ I say, but what I mean is: How many eggs? How many eggs? How many eggs? I look at Dr. Chan and think, twelve? He puts his hand on my leg.

‘Thirteen eggs. That’s about right for your age.’ He looks at Tim. ‘Thanks for the deposit. It’s in the embryologist’s hands now.’

Dr. Chan doesn’t thank me for my eggs. Instead, he goes to the woman in the bed beside mine. I listen for his voice, muffled inside the curtains.

She got twenty-two.

Numbers are auspicious for the Chinese, they matter. Here, two is a very lucky number, two twos doubly so. Unlucky four, because it sounds like the word for death, is a floor that is often skipped in buildings, flats with four bedrooms are rare. But thirteen? My maternal grandmother reared twelve children in rural Ireland, but she had thirteen babies if you count the stillborn buried in the field at the back of the farmyard.

I whisper to Tim: ‘Thirteen does not seem like a good number.’

‘Stop thinking like that,’ he says.

I lie back against the pillow. Thirteen: a baker’s dozen. An extra loaf baked in case one goes wrong.

Thirteen witches in a coven; thirteen guests at the Last Supper.

Friday the thirteenth.

Thirteen letters in a name brings the devil’s luck. Theodore Bundy, Charles Manson, Jack the Ripper.

Thirteen is an all round unlucky number.

Except here, where it’s an auspicious number. Lucky.

 

10

Once I’ve gone to the bathroom, I’m discharged. Tim holds my elbow as we cross the Hospital concourse, like I’m an old lady, unsteady on my feet. It’s March, the start of the rainy season, humid and misty. The air is Irish to look at, but hot and deadly on the hair. The smell of damp concrete rising from the sidewalks is the same as London’s rain-wet streets, which reminds me of my mother, but it’s still too early to call home and tell her how the egg retrieval went. We moved to Asia two years ago, left behind my job, my friends, my family, but I’m not sure I will ever stop thinking in terms of prime ministers, pound sterling and Greenwich Mean Time.

A red taxicab glides to a halt and an exhausted-looking mother climbs out, toting her tiny baby in a complicated, portable car-seat. I cannot look at the pair of them, focus instead on clambering into the taxi. When I sit down I can feel through the cotton of my skirt the indent of the baby’s car-seat, and I can’t help it, I think: why does that woman get to have a baby and not me?

I’m a midwife’s daughter, does that fact not offer some advantage? I grew up amidst the paraphernalia of late-stage pregnancy and childbirth: boxes of latex gloves and blood-test results strewn across the back seat of my mother’s car. I used to play with the little doll she used for her pre-natal classes, with a soft canvas body and hard, plastic extremities. From a young age, I knew that babies were screamed into life by their mothers, heard all about the exhaustion, the putting of the butter in the laundry basket and the nappies in the fridge. If the phone rang in the middle of the night when I was a child, it did not signal a sick relative, but a baby’s imminence: Come now, come quickly. ‘Say a prayer for the baby,’ my mother would say, as she stepped from the house into the darkness, birth-bag in hand. I knew too that, before heart rate monitors and ultrasound scans, childbirth was the thing most likely to kill a woman. Breech baby, cord around the neck, blood loss, septic shock, all of this is what a hospitalized birth is designed to discover. Death still strolls through the maternity wards, hands in pockets, whistling and relaxed. Death is fast there, unexpected. Gone in a heartbeat, poor darling. All the times when Mum drove back from the hospital, parked outside the house and sat in her car for a long, long time.

Is that why there’s no baby?

 

The stories that we tell ourselves. In a future, not too far away, doors will defeat her. She will stand outside them, with the baby in his hooded pram and not know how to get to the other side of that door, into the shopping mall on the western fringes of Hong Kong Island, with the tiny Starbucks and single ATM. The brass door handle, the heavy glass, the pram and the baby, the scar in her belly still hidden behind a wide plaster.

‘I used to be on top of all of this,’ she will say to her mother, the retired midwife, who stands beside her.

Her mother will hold the door open and mother and pram and grandmother will glide through into the wall of icy, recycled air. The fuss about the air-conditioning upon newborn skin. Is the cap over his ears? Is he cold? Always inside the daughter-mother that thrum, that hiccup of the heart: is he breathing? Is he okay? The grandmother-midwife has seen this first-time-mother-anxiety a thousand times before. But this is her first grandchild. She’s slipped a prayer card beneath the mattress of the pram. The daughter doesn’t know it, but her baby sleeps upon the words: Lord Jesus, I trust in you.

 

9

March, 2008. The afternoon of the egg retrieval. Nurse Kelly calls from Dr. Chan’s office, with an update from the embryologist. ‘Twelve eggs fertilized,’ she says.  

‘Not thirteen?’ I say.

‘Twelve is a good number.’

‘Twelve is auspicious, you mean?’ I say.

‘No, twelve is very good for aged thirty-six,’ says Nurse Kelly. ‘You are lucky.’

We get luckier. The cells multiply.

Day two.

Day three.

Day four.

All of the embryos make it to day five and are given a new name: ‘blastocysts.’ In the scan that Dr. Chan gives me, they look like tiny cabbages.

‘We’ll see if they all make it to tomorrow and if they do, we’ll freeze nine and transfer three tomorrow afternoon,’ he says. There’s a plastic pelvis on the desk between us, with a pop-out, malleable red ball for the uterus.

‘This is all good news, right?’ I say. My eyes are glued to the wall behind Dr. Chan, papered with thank-you cards and photographs of nature-defying newborns and their awe-struck parents.

‘A lot will depend on the egg quality,’ he says.

I snatch my eyes away from the thank you cards.

 

Eggs. It was the most basic question that was asked of me, back in London, at the beginning.

‘Do you ovulate, Saffron?’

I was sitting in my general doctor’s office, holding up my hair so she could inspect the eczema patches on the back of my neck. On the wall was a faded poster, of a tufty-headed baby, tucked under its mother’s chin, with the slogan Breast is Best.

‘How would I know if I do?’ I’d asked.

‘Vaginal mucus,’ my doctor had said. ‘Yoghurty, sometimes lumpy. But when it’s clear and in strings—’ the doctor had snapped her fingers apart, a scissoring gesture between thumb and forefinger—‘then you are ovulating.’ 

   I had only been dimly aware of the mucus, and had no idea what it meant. Pregnancy, that had so long been an item scrawled on a checklist between ‘write a novel’ and ‘start Pilates,’ was now neatly printed at the top of the list, followed by a tentative question mark.

‘Listen, you haven’t been trying for a baby that long,’ said the doctor. ‘Nothing to worry about there. But I can’t prescribe a steroid emollient for your neck if you might be pregnant.’ She gestured to my Blackberry, which I clutched to my chest in a white-knuckled fist. ‘Work very stressful?’

‘Boris is my closest companion,’ I said.  

The doctor frowned. ‘You’ve given it a name?’ She wrote this down in my notes.

My job as a finance lawyer had recently changed. I was now assigned complex deals that I couldn’t make head nor tail of, a world apart from the bond transactions that I always worked on, deals that financed roads or railways in Tunisia or Morocco or Turkey. I’d been told that my promotion to partner hinged upon my spreading my wings and abandoning the vanilla and the safe for the cutting edge and risky. I couldn’t tell if I was dim or just that my attention had dimmed—biological clock trumped career ambitions—but I couldn’t get excited about innovations and insane timetables, any more than I could figure out how these transactions worked. When I started my training contract in 1997, women lawyers had only within the last ten years been permitted to wear trousers to the office. Women were still expected to work like men, men whose family life was dominated by the law firm and abandoned to their wives.

What happened if you were the wife?  The fast-burgeoning sense of pointlessness was borne out by the eczema.

Borne. Those ‘b’ words got in to everything.

Barren, belly, baby, bump.

Blackberry.

Bastards.

Burn-out.

As the rattle from my handbag of failed pregnancy tests grew louder, we moved from general doctor to specialist and the questions grew more complex and the tests more rigorous. Instead of urine to test for ovulation, they needed blood to test for rising estrogen levels. A cold hand pressed against my abdomen was replaced by an internal examination, and then with an ultrasound. My ovaries flickered in the television static of the ultrasound screen. Egg reserve confirmed. Ovulation imminent. ‘See how that follicle is bigger than the others?’ the fertility doctor had said. I stared at the ultrasound.

What the fuck was a follicle?

 

8

The Sanatorium Hospital, Happy Valley. The day of the embryo transfer. Tim and I hand over our Hong Kong ID cards, our British passports and—because the archaic system in Hong Kong requires IVF patients to be married—our wedding certificate. A nurse slides the consent forms towards Tim.

‘What will we do with any surplus embryos?’ he reads.

‘Surplus?’ I parrot. ‘If we have the embryos, why would we stop?’

‘We’re not having twelve children, Saffron.’

‘Why would you go through this,’ I point at my stomach, ‘and stop at one?’

‘Do we need to discuss how many children we’re having?’

‘It’s an absurd question to put to a couple who can’t get pregnant.’

‘Choice number one,’ says Tim. ‘We can give the remainder to another infertile couple.’

No, I think automatically. Mine, mine, mine. I can’t imagine myself post- Happy Ending, my story neatly arced, able to give away possible babies. I see that the nurse is listening so I say: ‘I guess that’s the morally correct thing to do.’ The nurse walks away from the front desk.  ‘Absolutely not,’ I whisper to Tim.  ‘In a hypothetically absurd situation, where we go from having no children to potentially too many.’

Tim nods his head vigorously. ‘We can’t have some kid turning up in twenty years time, calling us Mum and Dad and demanding that we pay for its University education.’

He ticks the box to give our remaining embryos to science.

 

I put on the surgery uniform: disposable knickers, a checked gown that is open at the back, white knee-length socks and plastic slippers. My essential information is typed onto a waterproof label that is clipped around my wrist.

‘Please drink lots of water.  Your bladder must be full so that Dr. Chan can see the womb on the ultrasound,’ says the nurse.

We wait on the IVF Ward. Tim sits beside my bed. His thumbs move across the buttons on his Blackberry. He looks up at me: ‘What?’ I ask him to re-fill my water bottle. He leaves the Blackberry on my table, skew-whiff, like a taunt from my  law firm. I think about smashing it on the floor or chucking it in the bin or hiding it in the bedclothes but I decide not to. We’re a single-income family now and Tim needs to work to pay for the treatment.

The operating theatre nurses march into the IVF ward, surround my bed and bark questions from behind their facemasks.

‘Is this you, Saffron Gretta Marchant?’

‘What is your date of birth?’

‘What is your Hong Kong I.D. number?’

One of them places a portable step beside my bed, which I stand upon as another firmly grips my elbow.

I peer at the label that wraps my wrist. ‘How many embryos do we have?’ I ask. My bladder is so full that my stomach is a hard, uncomfortable dome. ‘I think I may have drunk too much water.’ I am ignored.

‘Is this your birth date?’

‘How many embryos do we have?’ I ask again.

Tim and I are escorted through several doors until we are in an office at the center of which is a computer. Dr. Chan is sitting at the desk wearing scrubs, his feet tucked into rubber boots. ‘Here is your embryo, Saffron and Tim.’

There is one brain-textured circle on the computer screen. ‘Did the others all die?’ I say, shrinking within my cotton gown.

‘No you have, let me see,’ Dr, Chan rustles through his notes,  ‘twelve embryos. We’ll put three in—’

‘Not four?’ I say. I want unlucky number four; I don’t care about auspiciousness.

Dr. Chan laughs. ‘No, we won’t put you through that. Too high a chance of multiples! We don’t want you going through a reduction procedure. We’ll put three in and freeze the remaining nine.’

My mind snags on the notion of a ‘reduction procedure’—the abortion of the smallest multiple—but then I finally hear the message that all twelve embryos survived. My elastic mood bounces skywards. ‘I have a really good feeling about this, Dr. Chan.’ Tim and the doctor exchange glances.

‘One step at a time, Saffron,’ says Dr. Chan. ‘Let’s do the transfer and then let’s see if we can get to implantation.’

‘Tim’s coming in with me?’ I ask. The blue in Tim’s tie matches his eyes.

‘He’s not scrubbed up.’ Dr. Chan shakes his head. ‘This will only take a few minutes. You won’t be able to see much on the ultrasound anyway.’

The nurses file in, shouting more questions about my wristband. Tim kisses me as my head is squashed into a cotton cap.  

Three blastocysts are loaded into a catheter and put back inside me. I watch them on the ultrasound screen. They sail into my womb like tiny, oar-less rowing boats.  

 

7

Twelve long days of waiting. The hormones. Whore moans. The false-gamete one to make more eggs grow, the false-pregnancy one to make the eggs pop out from their follicles, and now the false-progesterone to make any pregnancy stick. I feel so sick. My chest aches, I have a headache. The hormones are cruel, they mimic early pregnancy: sensitive breasts, tears on the bus, a slouched, fat gut. I look pregnant,  three months gone. In Central, I get so cross that I want to bite the office-workers slow-walking in their impassable packs; punch the mini-bus-goading taxi driver; push the smug pregnant woman down the escalator. I attend an Anne Enright lecture at Hong Kong University. She is witty, charming, clever. I bite her too.

 

6

Day 12. The day of the pregnancy blood test. An unsmiling nurse wraps a latex strap around my bicep and tells me to make a fist.

‘Will this hurt?’ I ask her, to break the silence. I am in a giggling, amped-up mood.

‘Yes,’ she says, and jams in the needle.

I walk back into our apartment on the western tip of Hong Kong Island, built into the sky on land reclaimed from the sea. The bruise sits beneath the small, circular plaster in the crook of my arm. I pull out some rosary beads and light candles, a small request for help from my mother’s god. There are many gods here in Hong Kong: of the sea and the kitchen, monkey gods, earth gods, gods of mercy and affluence, happiness, justice, long life. Incense purifies the air on street corners and rice and fruit and tubs of fire are offered outside the temples. Joss sticks burn on the ground in small red shrines for the ancestors and at annual festivals great feasts are eaten at gravesides so that the whole family—the dead and the living—can dine together. Cars or microwaves or cigarette boxes made out of paper are burnt so that the deceased can enjoy them in the afterlife.  

I have a new god.

My old God was wrathful. He punished me for my sins, He made me barren. Now I believe in the god of the embryo, of the welcoming womb, the Gonal F god. I believe in Dr. Chan and in the alchemy of feng shui, or wind and water, the correct orientation of domestic items to bring the best of luck. In my home, I use pot plants to ward off the barren god, the period god, the god of the miscarriage and the cold uterus. I move the mirror out of our bedroom because it’s bad feng shui for glass to reflect a marital bed.

The afternoon. I sit on the sofa and wait for the phone call from Dr. Chan’s clinic.

My body, like a maiden who will not yield, keeps its secrets, and tells me nothing. No cramps. No twinges. But I do know this: if I am pregnant I will have got to the other side. I will have mounted the hump of infertility and in nine months I will be in the state of Happy Ending. Just an ordinary mother toting an ordinary newborn. I will be frazzled and un-showered and borderline catatonic, with baby phlegm on my coat, like the women who used to ring our doorbell, looking for my mum their midwife. I resolve that I will never forget any of this; never pretend to another woman that my babies just popped out.

I try not to have the story erupt within me: the ‘I first knew I was pregnant with you when—’

But I can’t help it, the hormones that make me soft. I story-tell my Happy Ending.

A bald-headed baby with bright blue eyes eatseast his lunch in a high chair in his home in a Hong Kong skyscraper. Chubby fists slam onto the plastic tray. Bam! The baby startles at an arc of peas. His mother walks in from the kitchen proffering a bowl of home-made organic sweet potato puree softened with freshly-squeezed orange juice, pips and pith sieved. In her other hand is a spoon she just plucked out of a saucepan of fast-boiling water. Her fingertips thrum. She presses the spoon against the inside of her wrist, testing it for heat. It’s still too hot. Behind the baby, the view of the South China Sea has been wiped out by a bank of fog.

This is what I wanted, the mother will realize with a jolt. Never-forget-ever-forget-never, she sings to her baby, scooping up his strings of drool. He grins at her. There’s a slither of white in the pink of his gum.

Your first tooth, she will shriek, and then broadcast it on Facebook.

 

I startle at the ringing phone. ‘You’re not pregnant.’ Nurse Kelly says. ‘Your blood is bad, there’s no HGC.’

HGC: Human chorionic gonadotropin. This synthetic hormone is the one they use to trigger ovulation in IVF. The real hormone shows a pregnancy.

‘Your period should come now. If it doesn’t by next week, you need to come for more blood tests.’  

‘Because if it does not come I might be pregnant?’ I say, clawing for hope.

‘No.  It means that the baby is in the tubes.  Ectopic.’

‘But I could still be pregnant—’

‘There is no way that you can be pregnant because your blood is so bad,’ Nurse Kelly repeats. ‘I’m sorry. IVF often doesn’t work first time. The body doesn’t know what to do.’

I call Tim and tell him.

‘Shit,’ he says softly. I listen to him breathe. I shouldn’t have called him at work, he is surrounded by people. ‘I really thought this might be it.’

I nod. Tears slide down my face and neck.

My mother and sister send texts of commiseration and positivity. You’ll get there! Nine embryos left! Then my dad calls from his cushion shop in London. Dad never calls me; he leaves it up to Mum. He’s had a fall outside a customer’s factory and broken his glasses. He has cuts on his face. I ask him to repeat the name of the customer: Dad has unwittingly been making cushions for an up-market Knightsbridge sex shop. I spend an hour on the phone with my sister, describing to her the types of products available on the sex shop’s web site. The bestsellers are jade cock rings, brass anal plugs and long, tasseled whips.

I laugh hard.   

How far we have all come from candle-lit procreation.

 

5

April. May. June. Cysts bloom on my ovaries like flowers, a side product of the hormonal hyper-stimulation. Dr. Chan prescribes rest cycles. The embryologist’s office sends a bill for our embryos’ space in their deep freeze. I lurk on the Internet, glued to the infertility chat rooms, but not contributing, a cyber ghost. In that rain-lashed July, we try for a second time a frozen embryo transplant. That night, instead of the bed rest prescribed by Dr. Chan, I try to trick my body. This is business as usual, I tell it, and go to my life-writing class. I write a tentative first line: ‘I have never knowingly been pregnant.’

The fizz of tears in my nose. I get up and go to the bathroom, run cold water across over my wrists. All this God-playing, all this science. They noodle around with a woman’s ovaries, pumping ink into tubes as thin as a human hair, or fill the tummy with gas and send a telescope in through a cut in the belly button to look at the uterus, the ovaries, the curled fallopians. In IVF they put women into a chemical menopause to ‘silence’ the body in preparation for a baby, the way a farmer leaves a field fallow. They make you barren to get a baby. Nobody knows the risks of any of this, not really. Am I making myself sick?  Sicker?

None of it—the body-trickery, the faux-indifference, the embryo transplants, the life-writing—works.

There are six embryos left.

 

August, 2008. The third embryo transfer. Due to some linguistic confusion as to the timing of Dr. Chan’s arrival at the Hospital, I don’t drink enough water. My bladder is not full enough for him to perform the procedure.  I lie back in the stirrups as the doctor and nurses rattle away at each other in urgent, angry-sounding Cantonese.

Dr. Chan puts a hand on one of my splayed knees. ‘Listen, let’s not waste these embryos, I’ll put a catheter into your urethra and we’ll fill the bladder with saline water. It might hurt.’

It really hurts. ‘Can you relax, Saffron?’ calls out Dr. Chan. My legs are shaking, tears slide across my cheeks into the whorls of my ears.

I try to unclench.

I will myself to let go.

Afterwards, I call my mother. ‘That’s terrible, darling, but it’s a good sign you had it done today. It’s your uncle Gerard’s birthday. Your grandmother had a terrible time of it, giving birth to Gerard, her worst labor, she always said. So she named him after St Gerard of Majella. He’s the patron saint of childbirth.’

Three frozen embryos remain. The embryologist’s clinic sends us another bill for the freezer space.

 

4

London, September, 2008. With three embryos inside me, I’m in the state of pregnant-until-proven-otherwise. Tim’s here in London on a business trip; I’m a trailing wife. I stand in the windowless, white-tiled bathroom of a serviced apartment close to the River Thames and my old law firm. Whir of an extractor fan. Strong smell of pizza from the Dominos downstairs. A lone coil of long, black hair in the sink. Not mine. Not Tim’s. Pregnancy test stick, with its sodden absorbent tip and portentous, plastic ‘result’ window, balanced on the side of the bath.

The mirror above the sink is smudged with the circular smear of a cleaning cloth. In the reflection is the kitchen counter upon which sits a slice of oozing blue cheese, a bottle of wine, a box of tampons. I look at myself, through the smear: my big-featured, barren face with its soft, malleable chin. My edges have blurred.

I am the goose that cannot lay a golden egg.

I am a voodoo doll, punctured by needles.  

I am a Virgin Mary, awaiting her miracle of conception.

I am so not going to be pregnant.

I pad out of the bathroom back to the news on the television, lodged within its Armageddon loop. The BBC has a new fright logo: ‘Financial Crisis,’ with the first ‘I’ in crisis expressed as a down-arrow. Lehman Brothers is in ‘crunch-talks’ with Bank of America, like Woolworths buying Harrods. Depression. Recession. Global apocalypse. Decimation. Devastation. Annihilation. Images of bankers leaving Lehman’s New York office toting pot plants and cardboard boxes. The same images of bank-workers at Lehman’s London office. The news anchors talk of ‘cutting edge’ and ‘innovative’ and ‘unraveling’ and ‘high risk.’ They talk of the same structured finance transactions that I left behind at my law firm when I got sick.

I switch off the television. If the banks collapse, what will become of all of us? Riots and traffic jams? I pad into the bathroom. If I hadn’t quit my job, I would be in the thick of this, trying to explain to my bosses how to unravel a mess I could not describe—

In the window of the pregnancy test, is a thin blue horizontal line, crossing the vertical.

Pregnant.

False-positive-false-positive-false-positive.

The trigger shot they give to women to induce ovulation prior to egg retrieval is the same as a pregnancy hormone. But I didn’t have a trigger shot; I had a blood test to confirm ovulation.

My hands shake as I open another test, the metallic packet sharp against my teeth.  The line on this one is thinner, vaguer, as if the possibility of a pregnancy is already fading.

By the time Tim walks into the serviced apartment, the lines are like ghosts in the plastic windows. He frowns at the crosses as though suspecting a hysterical positive pregnancy result.  

‘The lines were stronger when I first did the tests,’ I tell him.  

He stares at me skeptically. ‘Let’s not get excited here.  Didn’t Dr. Chan say not to do the urine pregnancy tests? Let’s go for a walk and then Wagamamas.’   

Tim is almost as obsessed with the Japanese-lite food at Wagamamas as I am with getting pregnant. We walk along the South Bank. The tide is out and the riverbanks are muddy. Chucked into a mud-bank is a lever arch file with ‘Lehman’s Graduate Scheme 2008,’ written on the cover.

‘Everyone at work is panicking,’ says Tim, who is in banking IT.  ‘It feels like it could all go tits up.’

‘Do you think I’m pregnant?’ I say.

Tim puts an arm across my shoulder.  ‘Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.’

Strings of tiny lights come on along the River, ropes of yellow twinkle in the dusk. I allow myself a spasm of hope. I count the months on my fingers and grin at Tim: ‘April’s child is full of grace.’

‘That’s Sunday’s child, you idiot.’

 

3

The next morning, I am up early and buy several brands of pregnancy tests and four liters of water. Each test is positive. I keep going, chugging down the water and squeezing it out. Six, seven, eight, nine.

Eventually I stop and lie on the bed surrounded by positive pregnancy tests. For the first time in my life, I am knowingly pregnant. Even though this could be a false reading, the false-hormones have magicked this result into being, the fact of the positive result is the objective to all of this needling. I allow myself to story-tell. A late May baby, born into a barefoot birthday, celebrated in the garden with friends and family who are tipsy on white wine and wear sunglasses in all of the photos.  

Then I get off the bed, thrust all the pregnancy tests into my handbag and get on a train to see my mum and dad, on the wintry outskirts of London.

Lunch, a restaurant packed, elbow to elbow, with grey-helmeted old-age pensioners and the occasional carrot-brandishing toddler tottering in and out. At least fifty per cent of the room is unsteady on its feet. My parents, though, are sprightly. Mum orders a Chablis; Dad a pint of Stella Artois and they both peer at all my pregnancy tests, popped on the table beside the salt and pepper grinders.

‘Is that hygienic?’ says my father, catching the curled lips at the neighboring table. The elderly couple beside us don’t even pretend not to listen in.

‘You couldn’t be pregnant with all three embryos, could you?’ says Mum. ‘The veins I got with you singleton babies. If you have triplets your legs are going to explode with varicose veins. It will be trousers for you for the rest of your life, young lady.’

‘What will you call it?’ says Dad, slicing himself a slab of butter and laying it on his bread roll like cheese. ‘Any names in mind?’

‘Jesus, Johnny, we’re getting way ahead of ourselves,’ says Mum, who has unleashed her frank-talking, inner midwife. ‘This is probably a false positive after all the hormones she took.’

The woman at the table beside us puts down her soup-spoon.

My father, famed for Getting Things Wrong, takes a swig of lager and points his finger at me. ‘If you’d been born a girl, we’d have called you Harvey.’

‘I was born a girl, Dad,’ I say, to the couple at the next table.

 

My London fertility clinic is closed over the weekend. I can’t wait until Monday to know for sure, so I call a clinic on Harley Street who tell me to come along within the hour. An Australian nurse takes my blood. She asks me to make the familiar fist and we chat about my life in Hong Kong. Then we meet Tim’s brother at a pub. He doesn’t know we are mid-IVF; he doesn’t even know we are trying for a baby. He thinks Tim and I ‘Prefer It, Just Us.’ The secrets we keep, the lies we tell. If I am pregnant, I think, spearing a fork with oily rocket and cucumber, I will speak loud my secrets.

But only if I am pregnant, of course.

Throughout lunch I keep checking my watch, waiting until 2:00 p.m. when I can call for the results. I have never felt so neutral in my life; I am in such a low gear I can feel my hair growing. At two p.m., I cite the bathroom, squeeze Tim’s shoulder and push through the lunchtime throng to the street. Over the phone I hear the sound of rustled papers.  I’m-not-pregnant-I’m-not-pregnant-I’m-not-pregnant—

The nurse comes back on the line. ‘Hello, Miss Hong Kong? Let me be the first to congratulate you!’

 

2

Seven weeks pregnant. I have shooting pains down my upper thighs. I foolishly consult Doctor Google on my lap-top, read ‘miscarriage imminent’ and prepare for the worst. My Dad calls. He never calls. ‘Bad news, love’ he says. My mum’s sister, Chrissy, the eldest of the six sisters, has died in her sleep.

Tim comes back from the office to check on me. ‘I’m so sorry, sweetheart.’

‘I’m pregnant and she died.’   

  ‘This is the weirdest day ever,’ says Tim. ‘Merrills is gone. Lehmans.

If AIG goes the world will go tits up.’

It’s a surge, a force, a demand for attention. So what, that the world is unraveling. Forget the fire sale of Merrill Lynch and the narrowly avoided billion-dollar bankruptcy of AIG. Ignore the pale faces of Paulson and Bernanke, begging Congress for funds, predicting a collapse of the global financial systems.

The bile surfaces in my throat. I race to the bathroom and spew.

 

‘Just throw up darling, get it all out, vomit, vomit, vomit,’ says my mother, beside me on the back seat of Dad’s Honda. ‘Look, I’ve brought you some grapes. It always helps if you have something sweet to throw up.’ She’s also bought a large framed photograph of my aunt Chrissy, whose funeral is tomorrow.  

Mum grabs a wad of tissues from the box on her lap and begins to cry again. ‘I just can’t believe she’s gone.’

I pitch my head forward and retch. My mother leans across her seat. ‘Look at that gorgeous pregnant bile,’ she says peering still closer into my bowl. ‘Yellow, frothy, a touch of grease. You don’t need to have an ultrasound, you’re definitely pregnant!’

‘I know I’m pregnant, Mum. I’ve done thirteen pregnancy tests.’

‘How does anyone have enough urine for so many tests?’ says Mum. ‘You know, I’ll put calla lilies on Chrissy’s coffin, she’d like that.’

I vomit again.  

Mum says, ‘Isn’t it strange.  Chrissy dies and you get pregnant after all this time.’

Dad erupts from the driver’s seat. ‘To our left, Saffron, is the Loughton Reservoir. It got bombed in the War—’

‘Jesus Christ, Johnny, shut up!’ says Mum. ‘She’s back here puking her lungs up.’

In the car park outside the clinic my mother prizes the plastic bowl from my hands. ‘You can’t walk around with a bucket of vomit,’ she says and throws the bile into a tall shrub, where it hangs in glossy yellow strings.

‘We can’t just leave it there, Mum.’

‘This is an infertility clinic they have seen everything here.’ She wipes her hands on her skirt. ‘And the sight of some pregnancy vomit might give another woman hope.’

Dr. William sits behind his desk at the Essex Fertility Clinic and beams at my sick bowl. ‘Are they miracle workers over there in Hong Kong? You look terrible!’ He throws back his head and laughs. ‘What a good sign!’

‘Wonderful isn’t, Dr. William?’ says Mother, who sits beside me, representing Tim who’s stuck at the office. ‘But too early to count our chickens,’ she says with authority.

Dr. William looks up from my notes, his smile fading. ‘Your HGC results are very high.’

‘They put three embryos in,’ blurts Mum. ‘Such a risk,’ she adds, which she hasn’t said to me before.

My doctor and my mother-the-midwife stare at each other across the glossy desk. Dr. William says, ‘Let’s see what’s going on in there.’

I get into the stirrups. The blank ultrasound screen cackles into life.

‘Oh my goodness, there! There!’ cries Mum grabbing my hand.

On the screen, for a moment, a flicker, a rapidly blinking eye. ‘Where?’ I say. ‘Where?’

Dr. William looks at my mother. ‘One heartbeat. But there was a second baby,’ says Dr. William. ‘Look, there’s the sac. That’s why the bloods are so high, why she’s so sick too.’

‘Where,’ I say again. ‘Where?’

The screen goes blank, the scan is over. The experts have spoken: one empty sac, one heart beat.

‘Such great news!’ repeats my mother, brushing at her eyes. ‘What happens to the second one, Doctor?’

‘The cervix is sealed shut now. Her body will just absorb it.’ Dr. William turns and pats my knee. ‘Multiples are tricky, Saffron. Nature took the right course.’

I close my eyes against a fresh wave of nausea. I don’t like this, the swiftness of the fact of the second baby. I want the lost twin to be noted, I want it witnessed. The empty sac in the corner of the screen looked like a broken star or a tiny, cloud-edged shadow. As I scramble back into my knickers, I think about my aunt Chrissy, who never woke up, and me, storing vials of baby-inducing hormones in my fridge and sliding needles into the fat of my belly. All those times when the science didn’t work and I couldn’t get out of bed.

In the waiting room, Dad is reading a home furnishing magazine.

‘One baby, Johnny,’ says my mother, pushing her rosary beads back into her coat pocket. ‘What a relief. Triplets! Imagine! She’d have been like the old woman who lived in her shoe.’

‘Due in May,’ I say, which is three seasons away, an impossible, unquantifiable period of time to feel this sick for, longer than real time, like dog years. I re-position my head over my sick bowl and try to see through the nausea and cheer myself up. A heartbeat, for fuck’s sake. A heartbeat! Whatever happens next, whatever nature has in mind, right now, the science worked.

‘We saw it on the scan, Dad,’ I say. ‘It looks just like you.’

Dad, smiles. He gets bigger and taller, broader around the shoulders.  ‘Does it?’ he grins. ‘Does it really?’

My mother rolls her eyes. ‘Oh, for God’s sake, Johnny! She’s seven weeks pregnant. There’s nothing to see.’

 

1

Here is a story that I tell.

In April, 2010 Saffron and Tim host a first birthday party for their little boy in  a plush Hong Kong hotel. She makes the guests sing Happy Birthday twice. There are no embryos left: Saffron-Mummy already has a secret in her belly, the flickering heart of a girl-baby. They have been lucky again.

When Hong Kong succumbs to its leaf-withering summer heat, they announce this second pregnancy at a leaving party (expatriates are always attending leaving parties).   

‘What the fuck’, says one of their friends, gesturing to the boy-child, busy with a fistful full of cars. ‘The first one’s only just started walking.’

A woman with a tough, fake smile adhered to her face and a very familiar set to her jaw, says: ‘You two must be extremely fertile.’

‘We had to have some help,’ Saffron says to the woman who cannot look at her son. ‘Our fertility doctor, Dr. Chan, is a magician.’

 

I do not forget. I yield my secrets.

 

 

Starlings

Kathleen O’Toole

The children swarm outside
the supermarket, arms flailing,
their high-pitched exclamations
surround me, my own arms laden
with groceries. My mind suddenly shifts
to tally one week’s arithmetic of grief:
eighty children among the hundreds killed
in a fine-tuned cone of shrapnel,
three siblings on a Gaza rooftop
before the missile landed, and four
cousins on a beach incinerated
in the time it takes me to close the car door.
Tonight, the trees are full of starlings,
their racket rising into a delicate
tremolo, like in that Bernstein Sonata
for Violin that stretches the strings
almost to breaking.

Remembering Ethel

Jeri Griffith

Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada

Light rain lingers. Whiffs of a distinct and almost palpable freshness mingle with the smell of brackish seawater. Wet weather has cleansed the pavement, washing away dirt and even oil. As we stroll past a pub’s open doorway, the odor of a rag damp with beer resurrects a memory of my father.

When he was a young man and I was a small child, he owned a similar establishment in northern Wisconsin. The juniper smell of gin or the sound of clinking glass can instantly transport me back to that place where songs on the jukebox cost a nickel. Pat’s Tavern was just a hole in the wall, barely wider than a corridor. I remember the linoleum patterned white against maroon, and the way it got scuffed and tracked in winter when the drinkers came in from the snow with mud and sand on their boots. Sometimes, during afternoons when there were few customers, I was allowed to sit on a barstool sipping orange soda.

Saint John is a New Brunswick port city on the Bay of Fundy in the Canadian Maritimes. Industrial, multicultural, and a little chic, it is also somewhat seedy. Though there are signs of former prosperity and respectability, many old buildings have been usurped for alien functions. Heavy wooden doors from another era grace the tattoo artist’s studio down the street, and a former bank has been turned into a bar. Facades are a pastiche of boarded-up windows and very weathered brick walls interspersed with signage and posters advertising last month’s or even last year’s concerts. In this crumbling town, geometry remains a hedge against nature. Everywhere straight lines challenge the slump and slope of elemental wear.

Because I am a painter, the seen world around me is always fodder for composition. Flat surfaces rise to the picture plane I’m creating in my mind. Objects such as chairs and tables offer themselves as sculptures with air and space moving freely around them. As my husband and I walk these streets, I visualize figures in each doorway with their torsos framed by the architecture. Imaginary and ghostly faces stare at me head-on, like portraits formalized by carefully defined rectangles. Perhaps, in some clairvoyant way, I see the dead framed in the spaces where they used to live.

At a restaurant, we’re seated at an exceedingly simple wooden table. I peer out the rain-streaked window at the sharp angle of the precipitous street. Enhanced by yellow electric lights, the brick buildings cut through by narrow alleys yield a scene reminiscent of a detective novel set in the 1940s. I try to imagine a story that would convey this ambience.

But that is a story I will never write.

The stories I know are like certain types of stone. They’re formed far below the surface of earth under conditions of intense heat and great pressure. As the mix slowly cools, the complex crystalline structure of some lovely pink or gray granite comes into being. Mostly, I find that all the stories I have to tell issue from a place where there is no light. Even my own narrative is born in darkness.

Later, back in our rented room, we are sleeping, or rather I am not sleeping. This doesn’t really matter. During these hours of insomnia, I offer myself up to a dimension where I learn by receiving whatever comes to me. During the fluid wee hours of the morning, vivid moments surface from the watery past to haunt and instruct. I lie awake remembering the girl and the young woman I used to be. For whatever reason, likely having to do with Saint John and the memories triggered of my childhood, I recall the white hospital floors radiating light upward…and I know I am remembering Ethel.

When I went to see her for the last time, my grandmother’s appearance shocked me. Although she was sixty-two, the cancer had aged her beyond recognition. Fine gray hair framed her sallow, sunken cheeks. Her attempted smile failed to hide the pain she was experiencing. At that late stage of her illness, any showing of her teeth resembled a grin from a skull.

When a white-uniformed nurse came to help her to the bathroom, we could see her exposed back marked by the knobs of vertebrae curving treacherously above skeletal legs. She was nearly helpless, without modesty and with no modicum of self-determination or control. I found myself picturing the stream of urine or fecal matter issuing from her wasted frame while the attendant held her poised over the toilet like a baby. After she was returned to her bed, we only stayed a short while longer. I never saw her again.

At the time, it seemed as if Ethel was just finding her way home. The cemetery where we buried her body was simply a part of her, and by extension, it was a part of me too. Her husband, Lloyd, the man who was ostensibly my grandfather, worked for the city as caretaker. Upkeep of the cemetery kept him busy. In summer, there was grass to be mowed. In winter, roads needed plowing. And from time to time, graves had to be dug.

Ethel and Lloyd were always the first to know when anyone in the local area died. From her kitchen window, Ethel bore witness to a seemingly unending vista of granite markers. These marched in succession over the nearby hills as a constant reminder that our earthly days are numbered.

My uncle Tim was only three years older than I. We played in the cemetery for hours, hiding behind gravestones and leaping from monuments. The dead didn’t scare us, but we knew to keep our distance when the funeral corteges arrived. I remember seeing the smeared faces through windows of cars crawling along behind the black hearse.

After the memorials, lots of floral arrangements were discarded. Ethel used to save the ribbons for me.

“Maybe you can use them with your dolls,” she would suggest. The long strips of satin were smooth and cool to the touch. Sometimes we ironed them to make them look brand new.

I was too old to want ribbons when Ethel died. And I don’t think Lloyd dug her grave. He was probably too busy drinking and weeping to care whether she got buried or not.

The fact is as a child that intimate knowledge of the cemetery began for me a kind of obsession with death. I was curious about it. I wondered what it would be like to be dead.

~

It seems to me now that Ethel always smoked Marlboro cigarettes. At that time, many smokers preferred unfiltered Camels. Ethel was very fond of smoking. Tobacco was central to her sense of wellbeing. Still, as she inhaled and exhaled, the tars and particulates cooled and collected in her lungs, eventually precipitating her cancer.

The parameters of Ethel’s life seemed to dictate an early death from poor health. Eleven pregnancies, an inadequate diet, and excessive use of alcohol undoubtedly compromised her immune system. Then too, her factory work exposed her to glues and solvents on a daily basis. Inhaling these fumes over a long period of time must have been unsafe. Maybe things could have been different for Ethel, but they were just this way.

From seven to two each weekday, Ethel worked in a factory that manufactured fiberglass fishing rods. Women employed by the small firm assembled and glued the fittings on these high-end pieces of equipment destined for discerning anglers. In northern Wisconsin, fishing was something of a religion, so there was a local as well as a national market for the product. Their task involved a great deal of patience and manual dexterity. Still, although they had to concentrate on the job at hand, the women were able to talk and gossip while they put in their time. Ethel loved this camaraderie with her co-workers. The job provided her with both an income and a social life.

Ethel never learned to drive. At quitting time, either Lloyd or Tim would pick her up. Then, she would come home to scrub floors and watch her soap operas on their fuzzy black-and-white television that barely had a picture.

Nothing in Ethel’s daily routine was anything like a promise fulfilled. She drank a lot, and Lloyd was a drinker too. They mostly drank beer. I would watch Ethel drink two, three, and even four bottles. How did she stay so slim? She didn’t eat much. The beer and the nicotine kept her going.

Squashed cigarette packages and half-empty matchbooks were always strewn across the square Formica tabletop in their kitchen. A relic from some burned down diner, the table was never completely level—or maybe that was the floor. In the living room, warped boards bowed up in front of the oil burner. Walking over them was like navigating a sea swell, and sitting down on the frayed couch in front of the window was like sinking alongside the Titanic.

I’m not sure Ethel ever expected anything to change or get better for her. I don’t think she thought of anything as having gone wrong. For most of the year, laundry hung limply on the glassed-in but unheated front porch. Blue work shirts of Lloyd’s swayed silently next to her own torn underwear. In winter, wet trousers froze stiff and had to be stretched out over a makeshift rack next to the oil burner to finish drying. In summer, Ethel could hang the clean clothing outside, and then it seemed almost cheerful. The hard-won whiteness of mended sheets related with massive cumulus clouds that swept across those blue skies like seaborne ships.

In the midst of her less-than-fortuitous circumstances, Ethel seemed to harbor some unfathomable optimism. She had good-looking, slender legs. Sometimes, while walking down the street with Lloyd, she would reach for his hand and their fingers would intertwine. She colored her hair to hide the gray, and sewed a leopard-skin coat for herself out of fake, plush fur. During my childhood, I never saw her get angry or look sad.

“Let’s get those puppies out from the round house,” she would say. Then we’d carry the whole stinking, squirming, blinking mass out to shit on the mown grass underneath the clothesline while the mother dog—Queenie or whichever bitch it was at the time—stood by looking nervous and exhausted.

Ethel’s dogs always got hit on the road in front of the house, but it didn’t matter. There were plenty of dogs to be had. Strays came all the time, and she took them in, tossing them table scraps and feeding them on crusts of white bread soaked in partly sour milk. They must have had fleas, but what could she do about that? Lloyd pulled the fat ticks from them, first sorting the bloated insects from their fur, then touching these with hot tip of an extinguished match because that made the tick’s head withdraw.

By the time I knew them, Lloyd had a steady job, and, in spite of his ongoing drinking problem, they had a roof over their heads. The house consisted of four rooms—a kitchen, a living room, and two bedrooms, one for Lloyd and Ethel and one for the kids. The kitchen faucet provided the only running water. Until the late 1960s, their bathroom was a privy located at the end of the drive.

Ethel’s refrigerator usually contained the following items: a carton of milk, white bread, Oscar Mayer bologna, and a jar of that pimento cheese spread Lloyd liked. If they weren’t drinking beer, instant coffee was their mainstay. Her dishes were chipped and mismatched. Mugs and ashtrays sported advertisements for local businesses. Salvaged jelly jars were used as glasses.

In the living room, sequined plaster cats and huge stuffed animals won at the carnival were used as decoration. I coveted these and imagined myself tossing wooden rings over the Coke bottles to walk away with a big white teddy bear or a shiny rhinestone tiara. In summer, when the carnival came to town, hawkers on the midway would always convince me to part with my quarters to try for a prize, but I never won anything.

Later, I began to hope for a boyfriend with a good arm for knocking down the kewpie dolls with a softball pitch. That never came to me either. My dates bought cotton candy to share, and we went on a few rides. Then came the exploratory kisses in the shadows near the fairground. Sometimes they hoped for more. At one time, Ethel too must have had an ardent, would-be lover. But I never made her choice. I never gave in before I was ready.

~

Ethel had her first child out of wedlock at eighteen. Who knows where or how my father was conceived? Maybe in the back seat of a car or in some hunter’s shack out in the woods. Perhaps under the influence of some bootleg hooch.

I don’t know what Ethel’s experience was, but here’s how I think it might have been:

At first the baby swam freely inside Ethel’s belly and his presence didn’t matter so much. She didn’t know she was about to give birth to my father. In the beginning, she may have believed that she could contain the baby there inside her. Maybe she thought that if she waited quietly, she would bleed this unknown being out of her. When the boy partially responsible for that unborn creature asked for her hand in marriage, Ethel refused him.

Why? That’s a question no one has ever been able to answer, not even her sister who was with her at the time. He was a good boy from a well-respected family. Somewhere, I have his name written on a piece of paper. My husband has even researched him on the Internet. The young man was a solid citizen with a family business and a potentially good income. Perhaps he’d been in love with Ethel, because he didn’t actually marry until he was in his 50s. Why didn’t Ethel accept him? Was there an issue of date rape? Maybe she was already in love with Lloyd, but I’m not sure she had even met him yet.

No, I think it possible that Ethel was involved in magical thinking.

There is no baby, she may have thought. The baby will not come.

But then it did come. The year was 1928. There must have been a stigma attached to Ethel’s status. She had the dubious distinction of being an unwed mother. In that world of small-town snobbery and moral indignation, any dream she harbored for respectability would have been gone.

A few years after the birth of my father, Ethel married Lloyd and went on to have ten more children, two of whom did not survive infancy. Later, the family suffered further losses. One son died while serving a stint in the army. Cause of death was listed as suffocation while sleeping. Was it really a drug overdose or alcohol poisoning? If Ethel knew the truth, she never said. Another son landed in prison. Later, he escaped from a minimum-security work project for prisoners and became a fugitive.

Meanwhile, her oldest daughter desperately tried to feed and clothe a large family with little help from a husband who was mostly away doing time. Sometimes, on a rare visit to their house, I would open the refrigerator and only find a single carton of milk inside. I remember how the kids’ feet were crusted with sores from running barefoot.

Ethel’s youngest daughter married just out of high school. While her husband Frankie did his army time in Vietnam, Penny lived at home. Hoping and praying that Frankie would survive the war, she worked to save money for the appliances they’d need to start their married life. A few weeks after his discharge, they finally set out to pick up their new refrigerator. Faulty brakes on the borrowed truck caused an accident. Penny was killed instantly at a railroad crossing as the oncoming train crushed the passenger side of the hapless vehicle. Though critically injured and hospitalized, Frankie survived. But he wasn’t able to attend the memorial for his young wife.

At Penny’s funeral, Lloyd grew more and more hysterical. He tried to take the body from the casket. He fell on the floor weeping, and had to be helped away and medicated. They buried her near the house so that Ethel could see the grave from her kitchen window.

Tim soon left home to marry his high school sweetheart. After training to be a plumber, he bought a nice house and settled himself nearby. But Ethel seemed to begin breaking down. She missed Penny so much. They had been as much like sisters as like mother and daughter.

Suddenly and finally Ethel was sad. The sorrow over Penny never really left her eyes. The cancer that started in her lungs spread to her liver and other organs. She lasted about nine months on chemotherapy. Lloyd couldn’t take being left alone. A year or so later, he blew out his brains with a pistol.

~

The day before Ethel’s funeral, we decided to run the river that flowed through that town in northern Wisconsin. It’s different now, but at that time, the Flambeau Flowage meandered through undeveloped tracts of evergreen forest. Periodically, its smooth, dark surface gave way to short stretches of whitewater. Like all wild and untamed streams, the Flambeau demanded attention and even obedience. It was all too easy to capsize.

In anticipation of each rapid, my father would lift the boat’s motor up out of the water. We’d aim for the deepest channel and hope for the best as we swayed and bobbed on the strong current that roared between threatening rocks. Cold spray lashed over the gunnels, but we managed to stay afloat through all the rough stretches.

Once, when we were momentarily hung up, I looked down to spot a cooler and some other gear wedged on the riverbed below us. It was ominous. The lost possessions of that previous expedition seemed to be a warning. But we pushed ourselves off the perch and floated free. Passing the tall pines that lined the banks, we rode that surface of glassy, blue-black clarity toward the end of the ride and our waiting car.

The next day, we put Ethel in the ground.

~

I do not forget her or that place where she’s buried. It’s still easy for me to relive the way it felt to run my fingertips over the hewn granite grave markers. I recall sunlight on the green grass—so much green—and then dissolution—a kind of letting go into non-being, a shattering of the moment. I’d close my eyes and wait for the world to compose itself once again. I can also reinvent the odors of raw alcohol and cigarette smoke on the breath and in clothing. I remember sinking my fingers into some dog’s fur as if holding on for dear life.

In death, the mutual body spreads like a thin film of oil on water with each successive color imprisoned in an iridescent band. Perhaps in life, we learn almost nothing. When we think we have an answer, it gradually slips away. Ethel must have felt this when she kissed each of her baby’s heads.

~

Now in Saint John, I awaken with a headache that causes my vision to waver. The world, viewed through this pain, does not seem to be organized into any coherent whole. I see patterns and energy, but the concepts don’t follow these.  Finding solace in concrete objects, I locate myself on this bed, here in Canada, at a place where we have come to rest. I take some medication that will help. It has stopped raining during the night.

The doorway from this room to the next leads to a window that frames a view of the land jutting out into the sea. What is there beyond the trajectory of cliffs? Only water, fluid and deep.

Gazing from our window overlooking the port, I see that the white cruise ship moored there yesterday has vanished during the night. If we had been watching, we might have seen it go. From a distance, there would have been no sound, just the slow departure of an ocean creature moving toward some other berth or home.

Perhaps as a result of the waning headache, I’m acutely aware of light and color. Juice goblets form a composition beside our folded white napkins at breakfast, and I feel curiously distanced from the conversations going on around me. After muffins, eggs, and coffee, we rise to return to our room. I start down the hallway, feeling somewhat disoriented.

We are here, but where is this?

In deep time, the continents shift. My insignificant mass slowly shifts with them. High windows in the reception area yawn with a ghostly yellow radiance. When we return to our room, my husband turns on the television and, somewhat absently, begins watching a show being delivered in Inuit. The program is obviously about hunting because a man is pointing to some kind of animal scat in the snow. Hearing this foreign tongue makes us both feel that we have truly entered another country, a place where we understand little or nothing and where the meanings we’ve gathered simply don’t apply. Such things can happen. Somehow, though unintelligible to us, this documentary suits our mood.

Later, as we stroll through the streets of Saint John in sun, I find that I want the sensation of churches anchored with angularity against the blue sky. Narrow streets and alleys fall sharply, showing us the way to the sea. From the dock, we gaze toward the indistinct horizon. Tomorrow we will continue our journey. Most momentary details of vision or experience will be lost as we drive on.

For now, the nights will be short-lived and transitory, and dawn will illuminate my meandering discourse with the darkness.  For me, this is a season of acceptance and assemblage. Periodically, I begin to have news of my own upcoming demise. Though I hope to have many more years on this blue planet, the idea of my death no longer seems incomprehensible to me. Still, my current task is simply to be here on this sun-drenched arc of land overlooking the Bay of Fundy. For some time yet, the light will always come, and I’ll still remember Ethel.

I think of Ethel most often at dusk. Ethel was not educated enough to know that the night sky harbors galaxies, pulsars, quasars, and black holes. She couldn’t have guessed about the radiant energy generated millions of years ago that finally reaches us from burned out stars which are no longer there. On clear nights, the encrypted and elemental messages of those distant beacons bear down on me, and I struggle with their undecipherable meanings. At the edges of sleep, when I reach out for Ethel, she comes. As I move towards my own oblivion, my grandmother helps me to enter the darkness without fear.

Animals Saved Me

Richard Gilbert

1994, Indiana

My aged Labrador Retriever is dying, and I’ve come into the garage this Saturday morning to check on her. Tess has been declining for some time—I can admit that now. She’s been sleeping more and moving stiffly. When she quit eating and took to bed, I couldn’t deny her aging any longer because, undeniably, her time itself had come. She’s not even whimpering, but animals don’t dwell: they deal. And so, intentionally or in effect, they hide their pain. Anyway, I can’t let her slowly starve or die of dehydration. It’s on my shoulders to call an end to Tess’s suffering, and I have. Our veterinarian will euthanize Tess on Monday.

Tess retreated a few days ago to her thick cushion out here in our quiet attached garage; her nest is beneath the wooden stairs into the house. “Hey, Tess,” I say, squatting to pet her. She raises her head an inch from her green canvas pillow, and tries to thrust her snout forward; her tail stirs but doesn’t thump. Flies lift from her rusty black coat. Flies have found her—though it’s still spring, barely May, not even June, and cool. Our vet thinks she has extensive, advanced cancer. She’s thirteen years and four months old, a good age for a Lab. But too early, of course, for me.

I hear a car crunching up our gravel driveway, and I raise the garage door to see my wife’s coworker Rebecca approaching in her soccer-mom van. She parks in the driveway and waves, and we walk together to our front door. Halfway up the gentle paved incline, she stops and says, “Oh! How’s Tess doing? Kathy said she’s sick.”

“Not good. She’s not even drinking now. She’s staying in the garage.” I gesture to the open bay.

“Is she going to be okay?”

“No. I mean, she’s dying, Beck. Tess is an old dog. Old for a big dog, anyway.” A sound stops me—Tess barking from the garage. Hearing my voice, she’s barking. She’s calling me even though I just left her—maybe because I said her name—and it’s a gut punch. She hears me and needs me.

“It’s okay, Tess! I’m right here.”

“So what are you going to do? Have her put down?” Rebecca’s tone and the intent way she’s peering at me make me uneasy. She’s searching my eyes, her own eyes bright and intense, her head tilted solicitously to one side, her expression pert and greedy as a monkey’s. Her avid curiosity feels unseemly.

“Yes. Monday. I want to spend some time with her today and tomorrow. Then that last trip to the vet’s—”

“I may have to do that with Glad,” Rebecca says, referring to her family’s Rottweiler.

Glad? What’s wrong with her?” I picture Glad: thick, doggy, strong as an ox—if not in the prime of her life, not far past its midpoint. She seems gentle with Rebecca’s three young children, and beloved by her oldest, Melissa. I’d never liked the looks of Rottweilers, probably influenced by their fierce roles in movies, but she’s like a big nonchalant hound and won me over.

“Yeah, she’s getting impatient with the kids. She could bite someone.”

“I guess you know your dog. But I’m surprised.”

“Anyway,” she continues, glancing across our flowerbed, the late daffodil varieties still blooming, “we need a smaller dog. Missy and I have been studying breeds. We really like the Cavalier King Charles spaniel.”

Rebecca once mentioned her childhood obsession with dogs and how she’d memorized every breed. I also recall her saying she’d had to euthanize their previous dog, just before they got Glad six or seven years ago; how she’d carefully researched a replacement, or maybe said she’d always wanted a Rottweiler, a breed on her childhood list. Something about her story had sounded odd then. Now I know.

I’ve loved an array of animals since boyhood and aspire to become a farmer—I keep laying hens, supply eggs to an organic store, raise and butcher broiler chickens, and sell some of the meat to neighbors; I’m trying to act professionally in my new realm, not overly sentimental even about pets. But I love dogs, and dogs, like horses, are essentially sacred animals in our culture. Dogs are also possessions, though: short of inflicting outrageous public cruelty on them, owners hold their lives in their hands. I know some animal rights activists might view me as equally callous, since they consider animal agriculture mass murder and liken pets to slaves. My contrary sense stems partly from humans’ coevolution with dogs, cats, chickens, and livestock. But it’s not history or logic that tells me in my bones they’re wrong—it’s love.

I hand off Rebecca to Kathy and walk down the sidewalk in the mild sunshine and into the dim garage where Tess waits. We’ve had a good run together, and sometime this weekend I plan to tell her so. I’ll thank her. The span of Tess’s life, I’m surprised to see, has taken me from late youth into early middle age. I recall what Mom said last Thanksgiving, watching Tess jerk herself across the family room: “Tess has gotten old. She doesn’t have much time.”

“Oh, she’s okay,” I’d said. “She has arthritis in her shoulders from playing Frisbee. I probably need to get her on an anti-inflammatory.”

Mom didn’t argue—she saw what I couldn’t see. As on one of her previous visits when she’d told me, “You’ll never put your heart into another place like you have this one,” and I’d just looked at her. I wonder now if she sensed that the passion Kathy and I were expressing in and around our home, in an outpouring of projects and purchases, carried a seed of restlessness.

~

I’ll learn, in the decades ahead, it will be easy enough to remember my happiest days: the six years we’ll live here in the white colonial-style faux farmhouse Kathy and I built on eight-and-a-half acres just over a mile from the cute downtown square of Bloomington, Indiana. A fortuitous alignment of hard work and lucky timing has taken us far. Not just materially but emotionally.

Our two kids, Claire and Tom, need me. I’m busy at the publishing house where I work, and I write a popular gardening column for the local newspaper, where once I’d been a star reporter. Kathy is ascending at Indiana University, already promoted from professor to department chair. The kids attend a new elementary school built on our road. I take them camping on our land, and we fish and swim in our own pond, an acre of blue water behind our dream house. (Tess, already eight years old when we moved here, in 1989, swims too, snorting with effort as she circles us as we wade, tread water, or glide in a canoe, and the kids laugh as I yell, “Look at that big old black water rat!”) Kathy and I have busy weeks and we race around, working and running errands; we discuss squeezing in a vacation; we’ve lost ourselves in our busy lives. In landscaping that echoes our starter house, I’ve placed a pin oak in front of our manse, to shade it from the western sun. A windbreak of pines we planted as seedlings now stands twelve feet tall in rows across our homestead’s western and northern borders, a green embrace.

We’d owned the land for several years before building, and we’d planted and planned. We had the pond dug. One day soon after our house was finished, I ordered Tess to sit before my orange tractor outside the garage and I took a photo, which I tucked into a thickening album labeled “The Farm.” Now every summer I grow a patch of vegetables, and, all around us, flowers. During our first summers here, two moments—of grace? consciousness?—sink into my soul. Holding Tom in a wooden rocking chair, I sing him bedtime lullabies, his warm heft in blue footie jammies soft against my chest, and I gaze out his window at the neighbor’s two horses grazing in the long Indiana dusk. Another night, on my way to my own bed, I step into Claire’s room beside her sleeping form and am riveted by the sight of the pond glowing in her double windows: lit silver by a full moon, the crescent of water shimmers as bursts of light flash across its luminescent surface.

Mom’s visits can turn tense, since she yearns to discipline Claire, our oldest child, whom she views as needing to be taken down a notch. A sore point with me, since I feel she was destructively harsh to me as a boy; her strategy of breaking her children, through whippings and shaming, seems at best superfluous when insecurity is already the human lot. Once, shortly after she’d arrived here from her home in Florida, I found her staring at Claire, who was prattling before her on a couch—Mom looked, with her coldly fixed green eyes and still pose, like a snake about to strike a clueless mouse—and I intervened with some distraction. In another decade, I’ll overhear Mom begin to analyze her mother with one of her siblings. How, when they were growing up in backwater Atoka, Oklahoma, during the Depression, she showed affection only to one of her ten children, the first, a cherished son. How she treated the others indifferently. And probably, based on how Mom raised me, disapprovingly. My clearest memory of Grandmother is of her examining me with her dark eyes as I sulked.

Our harmonics still clash—Mom gets huffy, I get prickly—but we possess affinities, too. I’m the only one of her four children who shares her affection for books and chickens. And a few years ago, as we drove in Bloomington, she bestowed a surprising blessing. “You’re a good father,” she told me. “All you boys are. You didn’t have a good example. Your Daddy wasn’t—he didn’t take the time. But you’re good fathers.” Mom, so tough, actually marveled.

Because I’m happy, her sketchy performance as a grandmother rolls off my back. I see now, so many years later, that my happiness is why I didn’t become angry at her in that incident with Claire. (Mom saw my happiness then, of course.) In another life, when I was unhappy but didn’t know that, either, Mom gave me Tess. When she remarked on Tess’s decline, I wonder if she remembered that bright spring day, thirteen years before. I wonder at my blindness—Tess was on her last legs. Mom had handed me a cue to see and affirm that simple truth. We might have lingered, and I might’ve told her all that Tess had meant to me. Except Tess’s story wasn’t over yet, not to me; I couldn’t even imagine it would end. When Mom comes, once or twice a year, it’s celebratory, and maybe I don’t want reality to intervene.

Cooking is how Mom expresses love. This phase of life and of my relationship with her becomes crystallized in one memory. I’m with her and my little family around our antique oak table, where we’d eaten her standing rib roast, Yorkshire pudding, asparagus, garlic mashed potatoes. On this mild evening, overlooking our pond from our bay-windowed breakfast nook, Tess gnawing a bone nearby on the family room rug, our bellies full after Mom’s feast, we’re playing cards and laughing.

~

That Monday I drove to our veterinarian’s, looking blankly at trees, lawns, strip malls. Our vet walked out to the parking lot and I opened the rear door of our Mazda van. Tess lay in the luggage compartment where I’d placed her on a blanket. Her muzzle was white; her black coat was dull; her expression, always kind, was weary. The vet gave her a shot in a foreleg and the light fled her brown eyes. She went so fast.

I buried her on the far side of the pond in a grove of river birch, and planted a clump of daffodils in the raw dirt. Later, standing there, Claire, age eight, cries and Tom, five, looks pained. “Let’s make a cross,” I say, and we do. I assemble it in the basement, and there we paint it in rainbow colors: aqua sky, green trees, yellow flowers. I wonder about our Methodist church’s position on using this sacred symbol to honor a dog, and decide I don’t care. I must do something for the kids, from whom I hid Tess’s death and burial, thinking those would be too wrenching. (A mistake, in retrospect—Claire, as an adult, feels I cheated her out of a chance to say goodbye, which makes me realize I’d probably been trying to shield myself from her emotion.) Our graveside commemoration feels necessary, even profound, in honoring our feelings of gratitude and loss. As long as we live here, which I don’t know will be for only two more years, this colorful cross, screwed together from scrap boards, marks Tess’s grave.

With her death, for the first time in years I think of our first days together. I see myself as a young reporter in Florida, a skinny guy with hair like Elvis, cuddling his new puppy and beaming. When she’d run to me to give and receive love, Tess didn’t know to stop—I’d squat and call her, and get knocked on my butt, laughing, with Tess suddenly in my arms, licking my chin. Sometimes, at bedtime, I’d forget to put Tess in her crate before turning out the light and climbing into my own bed, and in the sudden darkness, the black puppy was like an iron cannonball streaking invisibly at my shins, coming hard and fast and low across my bedroom floor.

I regret my last photograph of her, in our family room here. Aiming the camera at Tom, I caught only her hindquarters in the background, accidentally, as she moved unnoticed out of the frame. As our children grew, Tess had moved to my periphery. She’d stood front and center with me for but a few years, finally shuffling to the edge of a stage grown larger than I’d dreamed possible. Increasingly, she’d lived more in Claire and Tom’s world than in mine. Their gentle panting overweight buddy. Seventy-two pounds of love. She was their first animal friend, and their first incomprehensible loss. My own stunned realization at Tess’s graveside: how fast not just canine but human lives pass. I’ll struggle to remember that insight, but what I know forever is that when you encounter an aged dog, you regard a walking vestige of someone’s former life. You see an old dream. Explaining to others the nature of that dream, let alone grasping it yourself, isn’t simple. I had a dog and then she died. There’s the basic plot, which lacks explanatory power. Knowing anything worthwhile about that event sequence takes knowing the meaning of “I” and “had” and “then.”

A dog’s death, like a human’s, throws you into the past’s jumbled narratives. Into considering a story’s beginning, middle, and end. You flash through phases, arriving at last where you stand. I was a young 26 when Tess entered my life, changing it; I was 39, a different man in different shoes, when she exited. Standing there beside Claire and Tom at Tess’s grave, I felt chastened and soberly aware, stilled for an instant in the onrush of time.

 

1983, Indiana

Kathy and I bought our first house, a tidy limestone ranch, 1,100 square feet, in an old development beside Bloomington’s bypass at the point where you could see, across the way, the football stadium. We’d briefly rented a log cabin on the edge of town, but this house felt permanent. A widow who’d built it with her husband had lived there alone once he passed, and then she’d died. Dusty spirea shrubs stood in a row along its back wall; the house’s picture window framed a lofty pin oak out front; hoary spinach-colored junipers sprawled along the blacktopped driveway.

Almost an acre of lawn sloped to the road, and I’d walk out past the oak with Tess, her tail raised and thrashing, and hurl a blue Frisbee toward a quince bush on our lot’s far corner. Tess ran flat-out away from me and caught the disk over her shoulder in a flying leap, like a wide receiver snagging a Hail Mary pass downfield. Somehow we’d worked out our timing. With the Frisbee captured in a decisive snap, she’d let her momentum carry her into an easy circling lope, her head nodding like a horse’s as she returned.

Every afternoon I drove my tan Mazda pickup an hour north to my job, on the night copy desk of the Indianapolis Star. A red and white Igloo lunch bucket jiggled on the seat beside me. I was learning the names of northern trees and shrubs. Weekends were for projects. Kathy and I rented a machine and blew shredded newspaper insulation into the house’s cramped attic. We rolled milky white paint onto its dry plaster walls—the bitter smell of latex paint still brings me back to that low ranch on Saville Street. The weather was clear and arid that August, autumnal; the baked clay soil cracked an inch wide in spots. Our first cat, Natalie, a gray tabby runaway who had adopted us, hunted the chipmunks that overran the yard. Inside, under the widow’s thick green wall-to-wall carpeting and its crumbling red waffled backing, we found hardwood floors; we staggered under the heavy rolls of carpet and padding, aiming for the bed of my truck. Everything was new each timeless sun-struck hour. Lingering in bed on a weekend, we felt the morning’s cool breath die in the hot blue windless afternoon.

If I want to see the face of young love, I have only to review photographs of us then. In almost every one, we’re embracing and grinning, or kissing. In our wedding picture that fall, taken by a friend of Kathy’s, we kneel in lush ryegrass I’d planted in the garden plot behind our house to enrich the soil. I’m between my wife and my dog, one arm around Kathy’s waist, over her red sweater, and the other draped over Tess’s glossy black shoulders. We’re smiling, and Tess, in this odd situation—summoned into the garden, told to sit with us facing a stranger—appears meek, abashed, lovable.

With Tess, we’d felt instantly like a family. I liked Kathy having her own relationship with Tess. It pleased me to see her kind interactions with my dog; though more reserved than I was, with my Frisbee, my commands, my jokey exhortations, Kathy had also become Tess’s master. In her brisk maternal way, it felt as if Kathy had adopted my child from a previous marriage. Which, in a sense, she had.

~

How well humans remember beginnings and endings. We can bookend an era easily, but middles blur, not shiny new, not dramatically or at least unmistakably over. I was 28 and Tess was two when we moved with Kathy to Bloomington. It felt as if my life had at last begun. Driving a U-Haul into that busy, prosperous town, I recall thinking The spinning threads of my being can wrap and hold fast here. That grandiose metaphor turned out to be true. But I struggled and failed to grasp the chasm between then and now—an eye blink before, I’d been a footloose journalist in Georgia and Florida, jumping to a bigger newspaper every year.

What I couldn’t see in this glorious new start, on an otherwise forgotten day in June 1983, was that Tess and I had entered our Middle Period. Which quickly became subsumed in a succession of momentous firsts with Kathy. When we bought the faded house on Saville Street, my only asset to contribute to its purchase was my name. Tess had already made her contribution, as my companion in courting this tall brunette with the big smile. Kathy took it from there. It being me. She took me from there. And if that sounds passive, I had gambled my future on her. Instead of returning to my good job on the Orlando Sentinel, after a fellowship year at Ohio State University where we’d met, here I stood beside her, with Tess. I’d followed her first to Carbondale, Illinois, where I’d worked for eight months on a little newspaper and bought my little truck, and then on to Bloomington. And though we hadn’t yet married, and I was broke, Kathy expressed her faith in me by having me co-sign our deed. I’m awed by this now, though it seemed only natural, if magnanimous, then. A sense of my humility lingers, part of my larger wonder that we’d become a couple. In my recollection, I left this unspoken. Maybe the past burns away such connective tissue from memory, like a dream that starts without preamble. But if I could go back in time, I’d order my younger self to take Kathy by the hands, look into her brown eyes, and pour out his love. She’d plucked me from oblivion. Maybe I knew then, as now, I’d end up bawling. I had written her letters and poems. Anyway, I possess photographic evidence of my devotion: all those hugs and kisses.

When I’d taken Kathy home from Carbondale to meet my parents for the first time, I’d gotten embarrassed in front of my mother by my constant displays of affection toward Kathy. I wasn’t just holding her hand—if my arm wasn’t gripping her waist, I was squeezing her shoulder or rubbing her back. “I can’t stop touching her,” I actually said to Mom in a shy mumble. “I know,” she said. “I’m afraid you’re going to grab me by mistake.” The story I prefer to tell about that historic visit involves Dad dragging out his prep-school yearbooks to show Kathy, and Mom sitting her down at the breakfast table to inquire about her family. Such major endorsements—they’d basically ignored, as politely as possible, previous women. During Mom’s friendly grilling of Kathy, I could see she identified with Kathy’s large, hard-working family, prominent in their farm town. Mom sat leaning forward and smiling, her compact frame and frosted blonde hairdo contrasting with Kathy’s height and loose brown hair. With Kathy nervous in the spotlight, I kept handing her bits of Mom’s famous oven toast, bread coated with butter and crisped to an explosive crunch. For years I joked that I’d fed Kathy eight pieces during her interrogation, until my exaggeration became our remembered truth.

Maybe astonishment at one’s unremarkable past is a facet of adulthood best left unremarked. Yet it does seem remarkable to me that the following year, now over thirty summers gone, we drove my subcompact pickup truck to Florida from Indiana to see my parents again. Visiting them, apparently, was what we’d do each summer. (No need to board Tess this time: she came with us, in the bed of my truck, under an aluminum topper.) Kathy’s parents had died young, and while I had no sense mine would ever pass away, I craved their knowing Kathy. I wanted to share our romance, I suppose, and to receive their blessing. Besides, though we had little free time, we had even less money, and visiting was cheap. So we left our limestone ranch on its rise and headed south. Upon reaching Georgia, we took back roads through the state’s western side, which eventually brought us to my favorite uncle’s home. After our overnight there, as we departed on the last leg of our trip, a drive of eight hours, my aunt handed us a dozen sandwiches, mostly meatloaf. Another endorsement of Kathy—an effusive one, though perishable.

As we followed our scenic route, we shared our bounty with Tess, handing her sandwiches, moist with mayonnaise and fragrant with onion, through the matching pair of sliding-glass windows in the truck’s cab and its topper.

~

Two years later, in May 1986, we drove home from the hospital with our newborn daughter. We got Claire inside just ahead of a violent thunderstorm. My five-foot-two mother, commanding our tiny kitchen, whipped up a late breakfast. Amid the aroma of buttermilk biscuits, Mom stirred spicy sausage gravy with a wooden spoon; our lunch of pinto beans with smoked ham hocks was already simmering. Tess stood below, hoping for spills.

Having left the Indianapolis Star’s night copy desk for more regular hours as a reporter in Bloomington, that winter I had time to hunt grouse with Tess. Cradling a heavy shotgun, I slogged through rough terrain for hour after hour, walking until my feet and hips burned, watching Tess quarter. During two hunting seasons, the only grouse we ever saw flushed out of range because I didn’t trust Tess’s nose—it had been too long since we’d chased birds. Head down, her snout buried in weeds, she sniffed frantically and her tense body ponged, her tail blurring in a furious lateral arc. She was making game! She was almost atop a bird! That became clear as a grouse rocketed away at 70 miles an hour, borne upon its own startling noise, the sound of a giant shuffling his deck of stiff cards.

I’d trained Tess to hunt, when she was a pup in Florida, by triggering and encouraging her instincts. First, I’d thrown training bumpers, tubes of white plastic, encouraging her to fetch, and later I tucked live homing pigeons in the grass to teach her to find birds. I taught her to swim in the brackish Indian River a block from where I was living, and started throwing her bumper into the water. I’d make her sit beside me as it splashed down, and then I’d thrust out a rigid hand and yell “Back!” The code in her DNA for hunting and retrieving exploded—how thrilling to see Tess hit the water in flying leaps after our plastic prey.

Four years before that grouse—ancient history—I’d shot a pheasant cock over Tess at my professor’s farm in Michigan; I’d packed him in ice and driven to Carbondale to cook him for Kathy. Even then, with my outdoorsy dream manifest, I suspected I’d rather raise and tend birds than thrash through freezing bogs trying to kill them. But there was the appeal of a working dog as a special sort of friend, a sentiment perhaps stemming from my most basic affinity, for animals themselves. This love dawned with my memory, on a farm in Georgia, and continued after my family moved to Florida. There I stood one night, at age nine, weeping and pleading for a dog before Dad. And after his assent, Mom found us one, a sullen beagle named Dolly, who refused to obey or learn tricks and who wouldn’t even lick me. Atop the dressers in my bedroom stood bubbling aquariums full of fish or pressed into silent service as terrariums for snakes I’d caught. “You’re really tuned in to animals,” Kathy once remarked, when I was raising a batch of ducklings for our pond. “You see what’s going on with them, what they need.”

“Animals,” she added, “were how you related to your parents. They were your bond. Animals saved you.” She referred to the affection Dad and I shared for his cattle in Georgia; to my blue parakeet Hattie, surely a gift from Mom, chattering in our farmhouse kitchen; to his and my laughter in Florida, years later, when Dolly’s grudging pleasure over getting belly rubs embarrassed her; to my adolescence when he got me some ducks. And how, after I hatched their eggs in an incubator in my bedroom, Mom taught me to supplement their mash with hard-boiled egg and bits of dry oatmeal.

Good memories, the usual, and then something earlier surfaced. Once, a flock of birds flew into the big windows of the Grants discount store in our Space Coast boomtown, Satellite Beach. They were sparrows or finches, dusky olive-brown with a slash of clear yellow on their upper breasts. Anyway that’s how I picture them, the scads of slight birds dotting the green concrete sidewalk. Maybe a storm had blown them in from the sea, just across Highway A1A from the store, and they’d veered into the lighted glass. Many were stunned, not dead. Mom saw that, darted into Grants, and bought a birdcage. We stuffed woozy birds inside, and took them home as pets. Soon we turned them loose, as they never settled down and, in our greed, we’d collected too many, but the incident amuses me. So earthy, so Mom. In front of Grants, a store selling parakeets and canaries, free birds!

~

Kathy delivered Tom on a blue and gold October morning in 1988. By then, photos of Claire often included Tess, who stood patiently as Claire stuck hats on her head or wrestled dresses over her hindquarters. A year after Tom’s arrival, we began building our dream house on the remnant of a forty-acre farm. Our little limestone ranch sold surprisingly fast, and the new owners wanted immediate possession. Kathy found a rental on the other side of the university, a board-and-batten cracker box with a fringe of brick façade below its picture window. Our temporary neighborhood was thick with other houses hard-used by generations of graduate students.

As we moved in, our nearest neighbors, two guys who had added onto their own modest house and heavily landscaped their yard, stared and turned away. Another messy family with bratty kids and a crazy dog, I imagined them thinking. Later, I saw one of them standing at the curb in front of our trash and recyclables, hands on hips, furiously shaking his head—apparently I’d placed our refuse on the wrong side of our driveway, too close to their property line. They favored Labradors themselves and owned two yellow males, the chunky show type. “Is she spayed?” one of them demanded over the fence about Tess. Their dogs were neutered, so the issue wasn’t relevant, just a judgment about our trashy dog and, by extension, our low-rent lives. They hustled their dogs inside whenever Tess entered our backyard.

Having a dog exposes you in the way having a child does. Or having a mate. Or relatives. Or anyone, really. You want your beloved to escape wobbles like the ones that shaped your own trajectory. You try to teach a pup or a kid; to support your partner; to get along with family members. But your bond makes you see others’ judgments about this entity orbiting you so closely. Vulnerability can hit with a pang. That’s just the fine print you hadn’t noticed about love.

In storage with most of our possessions was a painting of Tess, which today hangs on a walnut-paneled wall of our TV room in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio. My older sister, Meg, commissioned the portrait from an artist and got Kathy to sneak some of my photographs. So many years later, I look up at Tess looking out, wearing her red nylon adolescent collar, her eyes alert and calmly concerned, her ears cocked to hear my wish. Under her painted gaze, I prepare to weatherproof her leash, a strap of brown leather, now 35 years old, with shallow scars and thin cracks in its dark surface. Only half an inch wide and a quarter-inch thick, its edges tapered and beveled round, the leash feels good to hold. I squeeze it lying limp and velvety in my palm. That first winter in Carbondale with Kathy, I pored over a small glossy catalog, debating lengths, widths, colors. I picked this six-footer made from a single piece of cowhide; instead of using steel pins to secure loops for a human hand at one end and for the collar snap at the other, its maker cut slits and cinched it back on itself and, above the snap, formed neat braids. I selected a matching leather collar, to replace the red one Tess had outgrown, and although the collar is long gone, her leash has served three successor dogs. Along its length I massage Montana Pitch Blend, a mellow amber goop of pine resin, mink oil, and beeswax, working extra into the slits and braids, which are stiffening. These strong, handsome links appear simple, yet defy my understanding—I’d never get it back together if I pulled apart its tight connections.

A few nights after treating Tess’s leash, I dreamed pit bulldogs circled me while I was out walking her. We were back in Indiana. But then Tess was gone, and alone on a muddy unpaved road, I struggled toward our white house, which in the distance appeared smaller, shaped differently, not quite in the same place. No pond glimmered behind it. I stood trembling on the dark wet road, unsure how to make my way home.

 

1981, Florida

“What about your choice of a retrieving breed? You didn’t ask me when you picked your wife. If you’re satisfied with that choice, you ought to be able to pick out a dog. If you didn’t do well in that choice, you should have learned something.”—Richard Wolters, Water Dog

 

You’re in an early, short, mistaken marriage. So is your wife. Not that you fight. Instead, you’re like two passive kids, equally burdened and blocked, who can’t help each other. Yet it surprises you that she can ignore such an adorable puppy that you, her husband, adore. You think a loving wife should embrace your dog and, ideally, also cut your hair. You don’t wonder if you’d embrace her cat, if she had one, which, thank God, she doesn’t. Does she?

Soon it’s time for you to leave for your fellowship year at Ohio State. You aren’t sure what your wife will do, but she comes too. You hadn’t imagined the challenge of renting a decent apartment near campus with a dog. You were a newspaper reporter, gainfully employed, but you’ve become a student with a dog. You visit squalid apartments and duplexes in scary neighborhoods. In a student ghetto, you find a decent two-bedroom, the end unit in a tired 1920s townhouse, its sooty bricks sucking light from the somber Yankee sky. Look, there’s a place on the corner to sell your blood plasma. You pay extra rent each month for Tess, and keep the place spotless.

Your wife leaves, returning once for a quick uncontested divorce in a downtown courtroom. Before ice narrows the Olentangy River, a few blocks from your apartment, you take Tess every afternoon to swim and fetch her Frisbee. The winter is long for a Florida boy, but you’re cozy, reading inside with Tess lying nearby on the stiff gray carpet. You aren’t just a broke divorced graduate student, his thick hair starting to thin, living in a threadbare apartment: you’re a guy with a great young dog who loves and needs you. Once, she growls at you when you take away her juicy steak bone, and you throw her down and yell into her face—teaching her humans have rights. Once, you playfully blow air at her with your new hair dryer, and when you’re at school she chews it apart—teaching you dogs have rights too.

In spring, you want to date a woman who is lecturing in your department while she writes her doctoral dissertation for the University of Michigan. You teach different sections of the same class, and trade handouts and ideas. But asking out Kathy scares you witless. You’re bad. She’s the first good woman, as you think of it, you haven’t run from—going all the way back to high school—though you won’t connect those dots for years. Having Tess, heedless of human shame, helps. Kathy pets her, though intimidated at first by her size—she’s a big dog, in Kathy’s eyes—and by Tess’s intense focus. After the first time you leave them alone together, Kathy admits her fear: “Sometimes Tess looks like she wants to eat me.”

“No,” you reply. “That’s love.”

Kathy plans to return to Ann Arbor before relocating, somewhere, for her first job as a professor; you plan to camp in your history professor’s farmhouse, south of Ann Arbor, and write freelance articles. And really, it’ll turn out, to see where Kathy goes. Meantime you’ll hunt pheasants with Tess, write a letter to Orvis asking to attend their wingshooting school for free so you can write about it (No thanks, comes the reply), read your professor’s old New Yorkers, and think about Kathy. She’ll accept a job, in southern Illinois. On the way to Carbondale, she’ll visit you at the farm and you’ll wander alfalfa fields together and watch Tess try to catch voles. You’ll laugh at Tess’s frantic, comically fruitless pursuit of the puny rodents. And you’ll laugh at her again that night when, smelling the bread Kathy bakes, she drools. Tess, at once goofy and comely, will seem to you the earthly embodiment of your deepening celestial love.

But first, to get you out of Columbus, your friend Bailey sells you a white Chevy Bel Air, a 1969 muscle car, and you cram its wide, gas-hungry body with your possessions. As you prepare to drive to Michigan, leaving your sedan idling at the curb, Tess prancing on its front seat, you walk into your landlord’s office. “Thank you for your tenancy,” he says. He promises to mail your damage deposit after he inspects. But he keeps the money, because he’s sleazy and because he can. That $300 constitutes most of your net worth; its loss stings far worse than your divorce—already hard to recall. In time, though, it will be as if he gave you a gift by stealing your nest egg because you’ll never forget the exact sum, which, like anyone’s remembered past, accrues interest.

~

I saw the film Tess in the Cineplex on Merritt Island, Florida, probably alone, late in the winter of 1981. That sense of flying solo strikes me today, as I was newly married, as does my naming a puppy after a young woman destroyed by male lust. While there’s precedent for men naming boats and horses and the like after women they find desirable, I recall feeling embarrassed when I told Mom, who’d just given me the puppy, where I got her name. To Mom’s credit, she merely nodded.

A year before, I’d given Mom and Dad a puppy. I hadn’t learned you should never surprise someone with an animal. I knew that in theory—a college girlfriend having once impulsively gotten me a puppy I made her return—but I hadn’t yet learned it. Or I believed in exceptions to the rule that you shouldn’t gift someone with an animal they hadn’t even asked for. Especially a puppy, whose housebreaking and socializing take time and effort, aside from any formal training. Yet I did it, did what my girlfriend had done to me. In 1980, newly returned to my home county in Florida from a newspaper in Georgia—back really because I was eager to share in Dad and Mom’s creation of their retirement home and nursery business—I enlisted the help of my siblings in purchasing for them a costly registered chocolate Labrador puppy from an unusually handsome field strain. Shortly afterward, Mom backed her car out of the garage and fatally squashed the pup as it ran up behind her.

But that’s not when I learned giving them a puppy had been a mistake. I learned that in spring 1981, just after my twenty-sixth birthday, when Mom gave me Tess. Awful timing. As a reporter, I put in long days. I’d applied for a year-long fellowship for journalists—way up north, at Ohio State—which the previous year I’d won but declined, and how would I go with a puppy if I got it again? I didn’t even know what I’d do with my wife if I got it. But Mom saw how desperately I wanted a Labrador—obviously why I’d given her and Dad one. So she made my dream come true by contacting a courtly family friend, George Moreland, who owned a quail-hunting plantation in southern Georgia near our old farm. She must’ve told him she needed help getting me a Lab from working stock. He drove Tess to their nursery in West Melbourne, and she called me that April morning. I drove down there fast from Cocoa Village. I recall how black the puppy looked on the emerald grass, and my and everyone’s joy.

Mister George raised pointers, not retrievers, although at big events he used Labs for fetching dead quail. I imagine a buddy owned, or helped him locate, Tess’s litter. Overwhelmed with getting a puppy, I asked no questions and got no information about the little female’s origins. No kennel name, no purebred’s registration papers, no date of birth. I started training her from books, a library with three books by Richard Wolters, who, breaking with tradition, advocated that their training start early in puppyhood. My yard was minuscule, so I walked her down to a park along the river. Our hazard there was fried chicken—bony scraps thrown into the grass by picnickers—and I had to run and take them from Tess. After four months, she was fetching trussed pigeons, unhappy but unharmed, from where I’d hidden them around Mom and Dad’s acreage. Finally, when Tess was barely five months old, I mailed in our entry fee for a field trial near Tallahassee. Such events reflect waterfowl hunters’ need for dogs that can mark fallen birds and retrieve them over long distances, while obeying hand signals if necessary, even while swimming, to find multiple birds or birds moved by currents. I had no idea how Tess would fare, never having seen another working retriever outside of my books, and I got worried. What most people want from a dog, I realized, was what I’d always enjoyed, a lovable couch slug.

What I was doing with Tess was different. Much harder, more absorbing, and electrifying when Tess took me with her on her jubilant retrieves. Together we were having new experiences, growing. “You needed to love something without constraint or fear,” my sister recalled when I asked her, years later, what she’d been trying to memorialize by giving me the painting of Tess. “No matter where you went or what you did with your life,” Meg added, “Tess didn’t demand explanations or make any real or veiled critique.” Meg’s carefully chosen words felt compassionate toward me but ripe with implication, themselves a veiled critique. I thought of our mother, who, when we were growing up, gave piercing looks and stinging whippings, spoke insults that stuck. You’re bad. Or at least that was my experience as her moody middle child, her difficult one, the kid who resisted her. Then, in late middle age and into old age, Mom stopped trying to dominate us and even started kissing us. She’d changed herself into someone much more loving. This wasn’t my mother of memory—unless, provoked, when she returned. After Kathy and I moved our family from Bloomington, amidst the initial wreckage of our new life in Ohio, I must’ve sounded too plaintive on the phone one evening. “You’re needy,” Mom said—a contemptuous slap. You’re bad. If I’m honest, my tone was pleading, for sympathy over what we’d done to ourselves. Years later, a therapist said, responding to this story, “People have needs.”

What is love? Acceptance, friendship’s bedrock—the degree of acceptance sets the depth of the relationship—also seems an essential element in love’s molten core. Acceptance affirms and encourages, and I crave it, the deeper the better. Dogs, of course, offer it totally. And part of that is they forgive your shortcomings. It’s not lack of awareness—they remember how you’ve hurt them accidentally in a stumble, and know if you’re the type who lashes out. All the same, offering their endless affection, they bestow bottomless acceptance. You’re good.

~

Stepping up Tess’s training underscored my inadequacies as an outdoorsman. I’d never even shot at a duck, let alone possessed the accessories of waterfowling’s ancient craft—the camouflage-netted green boat, the hardwood duck calls, the corded decoys, the long-barreled shotguns—but maybe I’d have to become a hunter—for Tess. Or maybe field trials would become our substitute for actual hunting. Imagine, then, Tess on her first retrieve before the field trial’s watching gallery, gathered at the edge of a cow pasture. Tess dashed out and grabbed the bumper. She spun and returned, her ears flying. Halfway to me, she stopped. Lowered her head. Dropped the bumper. Tucked a shoulder and flipped onto her back. And began rolling ecstatically atop the first manure patty she’d ever smelled. Laughter all around. Even I laughed—what could I do?—but my face burned. I’d warned Tess off Kentucky Fried Chicken, not cow flops.

“Your first retriever?” someone asked.

Many of the field trial Labs grew huge, the muscular males often exceeding 100 pounds—rangy, powerful dogs built to traverse North America’s big landscapes. They towered over Tess, one of the few puppies run that day, but I didn’t mind that she was little, growing toward an adult weight of maybe sixty pounds. It bugged me, however, that Tess wasn’t as pretty as the other dogs. I noticed her black coat’s brown cast, her sharp face. I imagined this was the price of being bred by quail-crazy Georgians more focused on their elite setters and pointers.

Tess did better that day retrieving from a big pond. She hit the water hard and swam fast toward the bumper. She went straight out, grabbed it, and paddled back. “She’s a game little thing,” an older man said. She was—Tess was game. Whatever else she was or wasn’t, from her unknown lineage in backwoods Georgia to my inept training in suburban Florida, I took those words as truth. Some people were criticizing trial dogs for having such high energy and strong prey drive that they lacked an “off switch”—too hyper and hard-headed. Tess seemed okay—my love for her prevented my fretting much on that score—though she’d whip around excitedly, examining faces for clues a fetch session was in the offing. Even inside, she ran instead of ambled; trained not to jump on people, she’d ram them when enthused. “Purebred dogs are hyper like that,” David Bailey, my friend and coworker at the Cocoa newspaper, observed one evening about Tess. She’s not, I almost cried. She’s a field trial dog! I felt a lonely, confusing distress, especially since a cruel consensus had apparently formed: my wife gasped out in response, leaning forward while shaking her head and waving her hands in helpless mirth, “She’s dumb.”

Later, preparing to leave together for my fellowship in Ohio, my wife and I were also clearly breaking up. “Maybe we should have a baby,” she said. In a confused last-ditch way, she’d been trying harder to connect. “God no,” I said. “That’d be a disaster.” I’d married her only because she’d wanted to, the first woman who had wanted me permanently. I didn’t ask myself whether I wanted her forever. Or, honestly, at all. Looking back, I never knew her. A middle child too, she didn’t speak of her childhood either—except to mention that, as an infant, she’d stared silently for so long at her parents they’d had a doctor examine her. Her parents had come to our house shortly before our wedding, traveling from Texas to meet me and my parents. Her father, a corporate executive with a beet-red face from high blood pressure, told me that a reporter from the Wall Street Journal had showed up to cover a colleague’s retirement unshaven and wearing a tee shirt. I could hear Tess breathing hard against the door of our bedroom, where I’d sequestered her, and I thought, At least they covered his damn retirement. Her mother said almost nothing but—wordlessly staring herself—seemed both distant and overbearing. “She’s a real bitch,” Mom said later, giving me a piercing look. After they left, my wife told me they’d vetoed our notion of getting married outdoors at my parents’ nursery.

I have no photographs of that long-ago wife, but I possess one she probably took of me and Tess at the field trial, sitting beside each other on the pond’s bank, waiting our turn. Just before I sent her on her scored water retrieve, we’re intently focused. She’s on my left and sitting staunchly. Just in case, I’m holding her red collar. Her chest juts forward and her entire bowed body radiates energy. So does mine. We look out as one, our heads thrust toward the water, thick as thieves, tight as ticks, a team. Buddies. Partners.

~

Before she died, Mom let it slip that my first wife used to filch cash from Dad’s wallet. When she told me, my father long dead, I felt shame for what she and Dad had discovered—shame compounded by my assumption Mom had informed my sister back then. She hadn’t, Meg told me. Thankfully I’d usually gone to their nursery just with Tess. I’d trained her to find birds there with homing pigeons I’d borrowed from their neighbor, my friend Joe.

Mom loved Joe too, and Dad was jealous of our relationship with him. One evening before I left for Ohio, Dad frowned when I defended Joe’s dog he’d accused of chasing his ducks. Joe also kept ducks and chickens, so I considered it unlikely his dog killed poultry. I’ve since revised my opinion, having learned how situational a dog’s behavior can be. Anyway, Dad’s dismissive response addressed something else. Apparently repeating a saying, which I’d never heard but instantly got—and just as instantly resented—he said, apropos of my defense of my friend’s dog, “Love me, love my dog.”

Isn’t that really the issue here? Isn’t it always? Isn’t any story, told long enough, about love or a cry for love? Kathy was right, animals saved me. They gave beauty, emotional comfort, and a bridge into human relationships long before I realized the depth of my shame or blamed it on Mom. Before I realized that she’d been repeating her own mother’s example. Before I factored in my distant father’s effect on both of us. Before I’d made some of Mom’s mistakes as a parent myself, and added my own. Before I’d learned that I cannot separate my insecurity from my intrinsic nature. So lately, when I recall their silence, when I grieve what now seems my loneliness within that lonely family around the TV—surely not as forlorn as in my memory, but  awfully quiet—I try to see that my parents were doing the best they could amidst their own suffering. “They talk about ‘dysfunctional’ families,” Mom once protested, out of the blue, during the go-big 1980s. “Every family is dysfunctional.” Which goes too far, unless Mom meant that no one gets exactly what she needs. But it’s true we existed in the broad flood plain between Happy Hills and Raging River. You hiked out early, if you had sense.

At the late start of my expedition, Mom gave me a dog. Tess, the best birthday gift a mother ever gave her son, was love.

Being of Islands

Ezra Baeli-Wang

it was always the kitchen things
that seemed to separate me

from the continent
of promise, the shores
my great-grandmother
alighted on sturdily, stepping
off the dock into a dusty city, nothing
like her Palermo.  The continent
of promise, the thousand blinking
lights my father could not help
counting, flying silently through  
a sky that no longer smelled
of mango trees.  I remember

the boy my father told me
he was, sprinting with classmates
through crowded Taipei streets
to shout, panting, at the vans
full of American tourists,
“Hi! Hello! Blah Blah Blah!”
never knowing if they understood.

How would I have seen him?
This round-faced child, cheeks
flushed with exertion, dark eyes
shining amid the noise and neon,
the smell of drying meats, the tents
crowding the curb selling soybean
cakes and flyswatters, hurling tattered
American greetings at us:
air-conditioned and wide-eyed, Nikons
swinging from our necks. How could he

know, years later, he would return
with one of them—a woman, small
and loud, with a sturdiness in her eyes
that stepped everywhere
before she did, searching humid
alleyways and rooftops dotted
with potted plants—for what?
She seemed to collide

with every passing body
in the hungry din of the night
markets, shouting “没事!”
(no problem) instead
of “对不起!” (excuse me),
and he followed her,

the abrasive pitch of her
misused Chinese, through
the lights and the smoke
until they reached a dim corner
where an old woman sold dumplings
and small tumblers of tea
from the back of her cart.  They
sat on bright plastic stools

cupping the chipped porcelain
with quiet hands, watching
her fold crescents around morsels
of green onion and garlic and pork
in the dark.  And here he was home
again—a boy with scabs on his elbows
screaming “Hi!” at the passing outlines
of faces behind tinted windows.  She,
on his island, found laughter and tea
and a mind like her eyes, always searching

 

and ready for a voice to reach back
in a tongue not his own, that understood
nonetheless, the hurtling warmth
of a word—that a word is an isthmus
always unfinished, in need of another.
And when nothing but the bitter black
vinegar lingered, they looked out at the night
that had fallen around them like petals or snow,
smiling in the silence

they owned.  Years later, in the bright
mid-afternoon, I watched my father knead
dough before his powdered hands rounded
bits of ground pork and green onions
into teardrops he tucked away
beneath thin folds pressed tight
with wet fingers.  In the mornings,

he’d boil jujubes and dried dragon fruit
in a big pot that never left
the front burner of the stove: ladling
the steaming broth into a mug, he’d sit
at the head of the empty table sipping
slowly between bites of 皮蛋, black
duck eggs preserved in clay
and quicklime and I saw the silence
and it was not his.  She had left
and though the cabinet above the counter
where he stacked his books still held her

 

tea in multicolored boxes and tins, she
had taken the laughter and the silence, both.
And when the dumplings he had shaped
with wet fingers went to school with me
in a black Velcro lunchbox emblazoned
red with a dragon, I carried that silence
that was not his, too.  I unfolded its
potpourri corners in my lap, cradled
its edges against the lunchmeat-filled
mouths spitting questions about pets
and my chopsticks, until it unfurled

itself like a serpent.  Remembering
the weight of its fangs, it rose
like a cloud.  My Nagasaki.  
If my father’s father
could have looked from the deck
of his carrier, floating in the port
of Keelung, to see the ash
and dust blossoming over the ruins
of his occupiers’ city, would he think
of my father, his son?


              Could he know the bright blinking lies
of a shore, the silence of a kitchen,
empty in sun?

Do Not Go Gently

Mindy McGinnis

Someone’s shit is under my fingernails and I don’t know whose.

There are more than a few options. The nursing home went cheap on us and bought crap gloves. The way I’ve been chewing my nails ever since Rowdy was born, the ragged edges push right through the fingertips. Makes me think of that damn broken condom every time.

Of course it could be Rowdy’s shit, which is what I’d rather. I like that better than the last idea, which is that it’s my own shit, jammed up under that nail. Because just like the nursing home, the school is cheap as hell and you’ve got to spin the roll at least five times if you don’t want to touch your own cooch – or worse.

I look at the brown froth churned up by the ferry, enjoying the slow movement of the boat that’s taking me to work, a place across the river in Kentucky that’ll take a CNA who doesn’t have a high school diploma yet. I couldn’t get a job in Ohio, though without a car the only place I could really apply was the county home, where the HR guy spotted the name scrawled across the top of my application and his eyebrows shot up. I wondered if he had a kid that I went to school with, and knew the joke about me.

Taylor Havers – everybody’s had her.

It’s an old joke, one I’ve been hearing since seventh grade when I got too cozy with a freshman in the backseat of his rusted out Toyota. Not that cozy is a good word to use there, since it hurt like hell and I cried the whole time. But he said sweet things, and his hands were warm, and it had been so long since I’d been touched nice.

I’m no whore. But when you do it young everyone thinks you don’t stop, like your vag is rolling downhill, gaining speed and knocking down boys like bowling pins. Really it wouldn’t have mattered even if I wanted to keep on rolling, ‘cause the guy caught so much shit from his friends for banging a seventh grader he never talked to me again. Everybody else that came sniffing around didn’t even start out with saying sweet things or have warm hands. They just heard it was easy pickings, and were there to reap.

But it doesn’t matter that I told all them no, sometimes having to scream it so that they’d get the idea. People just remember that I said yes that once, and then another time I said it twice in one night because I’d had too much to drink and needed someone to want me, not even caring who. And that night got me Rowdy, and a big question mark hanging over his last name. I gave him mine. Because that’s what he is.

Mine.

I scrape a clean nail under the dirty one and flick what comes loose into the river, adding to whatever-all is cooking in that mess. I’m so tired these days it’s more than possible I didn’t wash my hands after I went to the bathroom before leaving school straight for work, my breasts resting hot and heavy against the roll of fat that I don’t think is ever gonna go away.

The ferry lets out a blast that I’ve gotten used to, long and low, my cue to step out of the daydream and be a nurse now. But I see Rowdy’s little face same as if he were right in front of me, and I think about how he hasn’t heard that joke about me yet, and never will if I can get together enough money to get us out of here. That’s why I get out of bed early and go to it late, wake up to being a mom and then a high school senior and then a nurse, and then go home to be a mom again.

Like I ever stop being one.

I clean my hands good at work, scrubbing under the nails and washing clear up to my elbows. Massey is the RN on duty for my shift and she’ll tear me a new one if she thinks I’m anything less than sanitized. I pull my hair up into a ponytail and drop my lanyard over my head, the plastic ID swinging as I make my way to the nurse’s station.

On the card it says my name and job. CNA – Certified Nurse’s Assistant, which sounds a lot more glamorous than Resident Ass Wiper. I look happy in my picture though, if you can get past the third-trimester puffiness of my face. I’m smiling and I might be swollen as hell but I’ve got the pregnancy glow working for me. There’s a little hint of hope around the eyes, too. Like maybe I thought since I got certified and got a job before Rowdy came everything was going to be okay.

Things are not okay, not by a long shot. I make eleven bucks an hour and spend twelve getting over on the ferry every day. But a job at Twilight Hills is better than a job nowhere at all, and eleven bucks every hour is more than I had sixty minutes earlier, so whatever. I’m here.

“You look tired, kid,” Charlene says as I slip behind the desk. She’s at her computer, rearranging pictures of her grandkids since a new one is on the way and she’s got to clear a spot.

When I started a month ago I didn’t know if calling me kid was supposed to make me feel stupid or cared for. Since all her scrubs are covered in puppies or kittens I figure it’s the second one, so I let her.

“I am tired, old lady,” I say, and she barks out a laugh.

“How’s your little one?”

“Haven’t seen him since I left the house,” I sigh, torn up about the place deep inside of me that is part glad about that, part devastated.

“It’s good of your mom to keep him the way she does,” Charlene says, using the hem of her scrubs to wipe a smudge off a picture frame. “But that’s what grandmas do.”

I only shrug. Where I live, what grandmas do is bitch about being one before forty and repeat things about laying in the bed you made. But I can’t say it’s not good of her to keep Rowdy, because it is. He’s always clean, fed, and happy when I get home so I can’t badmouth my mom on that.

It’s what isn’t done that bothers me. If I look right now there’s probably three or four pics of Rowdy on my phone, the crack in the screen putting a black scar right across his whole face. Sure, she’ll send me stuff through the day, let me know my baby is okay. What’s not there is a word from her, any kind of indication that she cares for him – or me.

I tried to tell her so, once. I’d heard about lying in the bed I’d made for the hundredth time, Rowdy crying in the background after I got home exhausted. I said maybe if I felt some love once in a while I wouldn’t have gone chasing after it in the first place. That got me a smack across the face, which kinda proved my point.

But Mom can’t raise me no different than she was raised herself. I met my Grandma Dorris the one time and that was all I needed. So all I can do is learn, and do better. I end up pulling out my phone and showing it to Charlene, her making the right noises and saying the right words about my Rowdy, the ones my own mom can’t quite get out. I’m slipping it back into my pocket when Massey comes barreling at me.

The hallways are wide enough here so that wheelchairs can go two-by-two, Noah style. Even with all that space I swear Massey fills it, her voice coming before her.

“Phone away,” she yells at me, like I’m a dog raising my leg on the counter.

“Christ, Barbara,” Charlene says. “She’s looking at pictures of her baby.”

“Phone away,” Massey repeats, jaw set hard.

There’s not much I can do since the phone is already gone, so I raise my hands up, feeling stupid as shit but desperate to show her they’re empty. I can’t lose this job, and opening my mouth won’t let anything nice out.

The double doors at the end of the hall swing open automatically, slow and easy, and the mixed smell of the dining room hits me. It’s spaghetti night, which means there’ll be a lot of tomato-sauce stained chins to wipe, and oregano scented diapers on the menu for tomorrow. My patients file past the station, some of them on their feet, a few pushed by nurses in their chairs. Carmichael raises a hand in greeting – one of the few residents that don’t care about me being a mom without a ring on my finger. His wife, Judy, gives her wheelchair an extra spin to get in between us, mean-mugging me the whole time, like I’m making a play for her man.

Still, I’ll take a bitch face over whatever Jarold has to toss at me tonight. Last week he told me he likes girls with a little meat on their bones and pinched my ass so hard I had a bruise. Tiffany laughed when I told her. Said Jarold makes her happy she’s flat as a board on both ends.

“Hey there, Miss Angelina,” Charlene coos at everybody’s favorite, a hundred-plus-year-old-woman I could fit in my pocket. “How’s your day?”

“Shitty,” she says, her voice just as strong as her grip as she brakes, leaving a tire burn on the clean linoleum. “They said orange Jell-O tonight and it was lime. What kind of establishment has kitchen staff that don’t know their colors?”

“I’m sure it was an oversight,” Massey says, positioning herself behind Miss Angelina’s chair to get her moving again. But the old lady’s got the brakes on and isn’t going anywhere.

“Don’t oversight me, missy.” Angelina turns in her chair, loose skin around her chin jangling with anger. “When Jell-O is the best part of your day, you’ll understand.”

“We’ll all get there eventually,” Massey says, and my stomach kinda drops and I feel my mouth pulling down on the corners.

Lately a stiff breeze is all it takes to make me cry, let alone the thought of getting old, eating my dinner at four-thirty and hoping I can stay awake ‘til the end of Wheel of Fortune.

“I’ll take you to your room,” I say to Angelina, slipping out from behind the station. “I don’t mind,” I add to Massey, so she thinks I’m doing her a favor rather than trying to get her to leave the old lady alone.

And people think bullies are only on the playground.

Angelina makes one of her noises – a haughty little hmmph low in her throat. It does everything she wants it to, puts Massey down while making Angelina seem above it all. I could learn a thing or two from the old lady. Angelina’s hmmph is a lot classier than my go-to fuck you. She holds her head high as I wheel her down the hall, passing under a flickering fluorescent that maintenance hasn’t gotten to yet.

Once we’re in her room I have to help her use the toilet – something I thought I’d never get used to. But four weeks in I’ve got no problem pulling up a fresh diaper onto an adult who leans on me while I’m doing it, her skin paper smooth against mine where our arms touch.

It’s weird because she feels so much like Rowdy, but her skin is a map of the hurts life has done to her. Broken veins in her legs spiral dark blue against pale skin, and the sag of her belly where her children left their marks. Rowdy’s only got the one spot on him, a blush of red at the base of his neck where he got caught up inside of me and scraped a bit on the way out. One of the maternity nurses at the hospital told me that’s called an angel’s kiss, the last bit of heaven they get before they’re tossed into the world.

“No bath tonight, I don’t think,” Angelina says as I help her to the bed.

“Are you sure?” I glance at her chart. She’s not exactly due for one but the color of the Jell-O wasn’t the only thing she struggled with at dinner tonight. There’s a healthy glob of mashed potatoes smeared across her forearm. She notices it at the same time I do, and her mouth thins out like she’s angry or about to cry.

“I’ll get it,” I say, wetting a washcloth in the corner bathroom. I wipe her off, giving a few swipes here and there for good measure.

“Thank you child,” she says, her eyelids drooping even though the sun is still throwing light at us through the blinds, making her whole room glow a dusky red.

“Anything else you need?” I ask, but she’s already gone, her head tilted to the side. Everybody always says sleeping like a baby to say they went down deep, but I spend my days with both and I’m here to say that old people know more about dropping off in a second than any baby. Thing is they spring back awake just as fast, ready for another round of nothing more than checkers and mashed peas.

Tiffany walks past, knocking her bony knuckles against Angelina’s open door to get my attention. “Can you make sure Agnes gets her meds after Jeopardy? She’s all cranked off at Judy about something and wouldn’t take them for me.”

“Yeah, sure,” I say, clipping Angelina’s chart to the end of her bed.

“Thanks,” Tiffany says, hovering a second longer than she needs to. “Jarold give you any trouble today?”

I roll my eyes. “No. Maybe I’m getting too fat even for him.”

“Awwww,” Tiffany says, but she doesn’t tell me I’m being silly or even that I look great, and I’m glad. I don’t look great, but it’s got nothing to do with my belly. My face is saggy, and when I glance in Angelina’s mirror all I can see is two dark circles staring back at me. Out in the hall I hear the bell go off at the nurse’s station, followed by a yell from Emmett’s room.

“I’ll get it,” Tiffany says. “He’s all pissy because he has to go to the clinic for a colonoscopy tomorrow.”

“Don’t you mean shitty?” I ask and she giggles, putting her hand over her mouth as she backs out into the hallway. I hear her voice, high and friendly again, as she says, “Hey there Emmett, what do you need from me?”

I get a hitch in my chest, tears wanting to run somewhere but I got to keep ‘em tight trapped in my throat or risk getting Massey pissed at me for upsetting patients. Hearing Tiffany switch from dead-on-her-feet to how-can-I-help-you? and make it sound like she actually wants to has got me remembering last night when Rowdy was screaming at three in the morning. I banged my hip on the crib and all he got from me was breathless goddammit and a whiff of pit stench when I picked him up because I keep him cleaner than I do myself.

Or maybe it’s what she said that got to me more than how she said it – what do you need from me? I don’t know if anybody’s ever asked me that once in my life. Couple years ago I woulda said a new phone or a pair of shoes, but now if somebody asked I’d say five minutes. Five minutes in a chair alone with my feet up.

But that’s all wishful thinking, ‘cause nobody’s going to ask. Angelina’s breathing is easy, the light rasp of it filling the room as I turn off the lights, leaving her to the dying rays of the sun.

~

I take a hard pull of the last breath of fresh air I’m likely to get for a while before I open our front door. My face is pinched red and tight from the coolness of the night biting at me on the ferry, my feet complaining from being on them most of the night and then dragging my ass back home. But I’m outside, and everything is fresh here in the early morning hours, not heavy with the smell of sick like at work, or rank with smoke like what I’m about to walk into.

I try real hard not to let my keys jangle, but my hip hits the door as I’m coming in and it bounces back at me, my lanyard still hanging from the knob. Everything’s ringing like Santa’s sleigh and I know Mom’s gonna be pissed at me before I’ve even put a foot inside. Rowdy’s cry reaches me first though, cutting through the paper-thin walls and doubled by the baby monitor on the end table.

“He was asleep,” Mom says, rising up from the couch for a cigarette.

Her anger is like that, hiding in her tone and not coming right out to fight. That way she can shrug and say she didn’t mean anything by it.

I don’t even take off my shoes, I go right for Rowdy’s room. It’s a corner of the house that probably was supposed to be something like a pantry or maybe even a closet but it sure as hell wasn’t meant to be no nursery. His crib takes up the whole wall and one leg of his changing table hangs out over into the hallway, so that I have to slide past it to get in his room. My stomach brushes against the spindles and for once I couldn’t care less about holding my breath to see if I can suck it in enough to get by.

I’m so tired I might just keep holding my breath until I go over, right there in Rowdy’s room.

I don’t realize I’m half-considering it until there’s a burn in my throat and I take a gasp, matching Rowdy’s once he knows I’m there. I don’t know if it’s smell or hearing or what, but that boy can tell if it’s me or if it’s his grandma. And when it’s me he knows just what to do.

His pealing scream dies out with a little whimper, like he knows that I’m going to come to him anyway so everything’s okay now, even if I haven’t done it just yet. There’s so much trust and love inside of him I’m ashamed of what I was thinking a second ago, not breathing ‘til I crashed down, probably shaking the whole house and scaring the living daylights out of my baby.

My baby.

The words still throw me, like when I haven’t had a boyfriend for a bit and then I do again, so I get to say that word–boyfriend, which always taste like candy at first, before they go all bitter and sour in my mouth. But baby never comes out sounding nasty like in Mom’s voice, or even the one checkout lady down at the dollar store who always says “your baby” like I should be ashamed of him nestled up against me in his sling when I make a run for diapers.

No, my baby always feels different when I say it. It used to come out shocked and confused, then all doomed like Rowdy was a brick wall already in sight, and me with no brakes. But then he came, all covered in my blood and there was sweat running down my face and my hair in such a knot from me thrashing it had to all be cut off, and the nurse handed this screaming armful of flesh to me and laid him against my skin and she said, “Taylor, here’s your baby.”

“My baby,” I repeat, sliding my hands down into the blankets and around Rowdy’s body, loving how his tiny little butt fits into my hand, how one of my palms against his shoulder blades holds him right in place and then he’s against me, nuzzling for food and making little noises that he saves special for his momma.

I drop into the rocking chair that I can’t rock because the rails will scrape against the wall, but Rowdy never seems to mind. He gets to work eating and I feel all the tightness flow out of me. Right now I don’t care that I’m in the smallest room in the world, with a wall pressing against the back of my skull and my knees hitting his crib. I don’t need a big room because it’s just me and Rowdy in it.

And I think I could stay here, and be good.

~

“Taylor! Wake up, you’re late.”

It’s not my name that cuts down into sleep and gets me moving, but the word late. I jerk awake in the rocking chair, Rowdy protesting with a bawl that sets my nerves on edge before I’ve even rubbed the crusted sleep out of my eyes.

“Christ, Taylor,” Mom says from the hallway. “You fall asleep with him in the chair?”

“Guess so,” I say, looking down at my baby boy, who looks as confused as me. I put him in his crib and he wails as I leave, sliding out the door and past Mom who follows me to the bathroom.

“You can’t be doing that,” she says as I splash water on my face. “This girl I went to school with smothered her baby one time. Kid slid down in between her arm and the chair and died while she was dreaming.”

I feel a gag threaten in my throat, tasting all dense and slimy since I haven’t had nothing to eat since a handful of animal crackers Charlene snuck me from the kitchen around one in the morning.

“I didn’t mean to,” I say, slipping past Mom again and down the hall to my room, her still hot on my heels and Rowdy yelling for me to come back.

“She didn’t mean to either,” Mom goes on. “Kid’s still dead. It only takes once.”

I’m stripping down right in front of her when she says this, my scrubs stinking of my own drool up top and Rowdy’s leaky diaper down below. I lose it, all the hot of the vomit I feel down in my stomach forcing up words that feel good coming out, just like a real upchuck.

“You think you gotta tell me that, huh?” I scream at her, my belly jiggling over the edge of my underwear with the force of my voice. “You think I don’t fucking know it only takes once?”

Her finger comes up, pointing at me, long and accusing. Thin as hell, which somehow makes me even more pissed. “Don’t you take that tone with me in my house, young lady,” she says.

“Fuck your house,” I yell back, jerking on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt off the floor that hopefully doesn’t smell too bad. She likes to work little jabs into fights, her house, her time, her money spent getting my certification. Only thing she never says is that Rowdy is her grandson. She only lays claim to what she can bitch about.

I’m trying to jam my shirt down into my pants, but it’s a losing battle because this shirt came along way before Rowdy and my tits are like water balloons right now. Mom crosses her arms in the doorway.

“You can’t leave before you feed him,” she says, more quiet than before.

“Fuck,” I say again, my voice like hers, drained out and done now that the fighting is over.

She’s right. I’m late and that’s the way it is and I’ve got to feed Rowdy before I do anything else.

Because I’m the only one who can.

~

On days I catch the bus to school I feel more like a loser than usual. All the other kids my age drive or hitch a ride, but I don’t have a car and my friends lost interest in me somewhere around thirty-two weeks when I had to go on bed rest. So I usually haul my ass to the corner, walk past the kids sitting in the front where Rowdy will be in five years and make my way to the back where I slouch down low in the seat.

The little ones up front usually sing, their voices high and sweet. Towards the middle seats the faces start to slide toward sullen and guarded, and then there’s me in the back, too tired to wear any emotion at all. It’s like the emergency exit is a black hole that sucks away all your happiness, but the littles don’t know that yet. They’ll figure it out about six rows back, I guess.

The bus might be depressing as hell but I’d give anything for it this morning, my swollen feet slapping against the ground as I walk as fast as I can to school. I’m not desperate enough to break into a jog; I did that once and had all sorts of things yelled at me as I went, my boobs bouncing and my belly flopping every which way.

It didn’t used to. I never had a flat stomach or anything, but I could bare a few inches between my shirt and my jeans, and like the whistles and long looks that came with it. But Rowdy ended all that, the shirts and the looks both. Even if I do lose the weight I’m different now my skin all stretched and torn from being a place where someone lived, once.

I feel a stab down in my gut and stop walking for a second, not sure if it’s from walking too fast, or if it’s my conscience taking a cut at me. I love Rowdy, deep down in my gut, I love him. But what Mom said this morning about him maybe dying ‘cause I could suffocate him in the chair made me want to vomit at first because it was horrible, and then I wanted to vomit because—before I could stop it—I felt a tiny breath of relief at the thought.

No more diapers, no more baby shit. No more waking up every three hours to feed an always-hungry mouth. I could let my breasts go dry and they’d go back to normal size. I could sleep. I could dream. I could rest.

I could not be a mom anymore.

It’s an ugly thought, but shiny at the same time.

I jam it down, past all the worry and the hurts and all the other bad things in me and walk to school like I didn’t think about my baby dying and maybe it not being the worst thing in the world. Because it would be, and I know it, and when I see my face reflected back at me in the front doors I tell myself to fuck off.

Office staff at the school must’ve gone through some kind of sensitivity training or something since last year, because they hardly bat an eye at me when I show up late again. That or maybe it’s easier for them to pretend I’m like all the other kids when my belly brushing up against the counter isn’t all tight and full of baby anymore. In any case I get my late slip without too many dirty looks and slide into my seat a few minutes after second period starts.

Government is one of the classes I couldn’t get out of in order to graduate. The online course was already full and the option class at the satellite campus is only offered while I’m over the river at work. So I sit in here and learn about how a bill becomes a law and try to ignore all the side stares whenever public assistance comes up.

After my couple of classes I run home to give mom the milk I pumped at school, and squeeze out a little extra so that I don’t feel like I’ve got cement in my bra by the time I get back from work. Mom’s quiet and careful with me, like she always is after we blow at each other. I keep my mouth shut too. Neither one of us is big on apologizing. We just try to make it better by pretending it didn’t happen. Until it happens again.

Rowdy is asleep and Mom makes a dark noise at me when I slip into his room, but I’ve got the guilt of the morning hanging over my head and I want to see him. He’s deep asleep, mouth open, his tummy going up and down in a rhythm I could watch forever. His arms are above his head, which Charlene told me once means he’s a happy baby. Sometimes, when he’s red in the face and screaming and I’m trying to get my boob free quick enough to hush him up so Mom doesn’t yell at me too, I have to remember the moments like this. Watching him sleep is one of the better things I have so I hold onto it as I close the door softly, leaving him behind again.

My scrubs feel like heaven after the jeans I squeezed into this morning. They’re nice and loose on my hips – maybe even a little looser than last week. So I’m feeling decent when I swipe my monthly pass at the dock, stepping onto the ferry for my few moments of freedom.

It takes five minutes to cross, and I swear my blood pressure goes down every second. From the time I open my eyes in the morning to when I collapse in my bed at night I’ve got something to do, something to worry about, something to drag down me down while my aching feet carry me to whatever duty I’m headed to next. But on the boat, I’m floating: no work, no responsibilities. I don’t even have to walk. It’s someone else’s job to get me where I’m going and nobody is the boss of me here.

Even though my feet hurt I usually don’t sit down. I like to lean over the side, watching the river water bubble up as we head over to Kentucky. Thing about water is that it’s not actually blue. Not here, anyway. River water is brown as shit, and even the kids know better than to color the curly strip on their drawings blue. I remember the hallways when I was in elementary, the bright yellow paint of the cinderblock walls dulled by the pictures our chubby fingers had made. Brown buildings with dead grass in the front lawns, a muddy snake crawling through the middle of every picture, the green and blue crayons in our boxes keeping their sharp points well into the school year.

I’m staring at the dirty froth when the ferry gives its deep bellow, knocking me out of wherever I was and right back into the real world. The one where I gotta go to work. When I get to the home there’s a squad out front, but the lights aren’t going. And an emergency vehicle in no particular hurry in front of Twilight Hills is not a good sign.

I try to ignore the empty stretcher in the hallway, my eyes bouncing off it real quick like they don’t want to look too close. Charlene is at the desk, clicking through a spreadsheet. She glances at me when I come around the counter.

“Emmett passed,” she says, all matter of fact.

“Oh.” I don’t know what else to say. I’ve never even been to a funeral because mom said going to Grandma Dorris’ was half an hour more than we had to give, and everybody else in my life who’s dead split long before they got to the dying part.

Charlene’s fingers stop tapping across her keyboard. “Your first one?”

“Huh?” My brain is slow. Too little sleep the night before and too much activity down the hall has me all distracted as the medics move something draped in a sheet over to the gurney.

“First time around a dead body?” Charlene clarifies.

“Yeah.” The medics are gentle with Emmett, laying him all careful and keeping his arms and legs tucked under the sheet, like there’s a danger he’s going to get cold or something. Even for all that, it feels wrong. There’s a dead person under there, a person who was yelling for Tiffany last night, trying to make it sound like he was all grumpy about something but really he just wanted her attention.

Tiffany was his girl, for sure.

“She come in yet?” I ask Charlene. She knows who I mean without me saying.

“Shift starts in half an hour,” she says, checking her watch. “Won’t go well, I’m afraid. Emmett liked to give her some hell, but I don’t think she minded taking it too much.”

“Nope,” I agree as the gurney slides past us, Emmett leaving the nursing home without anybody saying goodbye, the medics negotiating who is going to get the door, same as if they were carrying groceries.

“You get used to it,” Charlene says as the doors slide shut behind them, the wind pulling the sheet edge out from under Emmett. It whips around as they load him and I get a glimpse of a foot.

I don’t know if I will get used to it, honestly. Seems like there should be something more to moving a body than just actually doing it, same as getting a truck on moving day and having a neighbor help with the sectional. But no, in the end Emmett was like anything else, a weight to be lifted and loaded, and somebody’s job to do it.

But a month ago I couldn’t stand the smell of shit and now I can give a sponge bath all the time looking forward to what I packed in my snack bag, so I guess a person can get used to just about anything.

Massey comes out of Emmett’s room and her eyes lock on me like I done something wrong the second I walked in the door, even though I did that ten minutes early.

“Did Emmett get his meds last night? I can’t read the handwriting of whoever wrote in his chart,” she says.

I take it from her and glance at Tiffany’s writing. “Looks like it,” I tell Massey, relieved that I’m able to say the right thing.

“Alright,” she says. “Send Tiffany in to my office when she gets here. I’ve got to sign off on a pile of paperwork as high as my knee.”

Through the front doors, I see Tiffany’s car pull into the parking lot, her mouth wide open as she sings along with her music, not knowing she’s about to have all the song knocked out of her the second she walks in.

I run my finger along Emmett’s chart. This folder has been touched and turned, written in and on, stacked and reshuffled. Its edges are soft like the down on Rowdy’s head. Emmett had been here a long time, and he’d left with less notice than the mail coming in.

The doors swing open and Tiffany breezes through, spinning her lanyard at her side like a lasso, letting it loop tight around her finger before she unwinds it the other way. She hits the brakes as soon as she sees our faces.

“What? What happened?”

“Tiffany, honey,” Charlene doesn’t have to finish her sentence. Tiffany already spotted the chart in my hand, the typed label, long-yellowed, with Emmett’s name on it.

“We lost him, didn’t we?”

“This afternoon,” Charlene says.

Tiffany nods once, hard, like she’s taking a punch on the chin. “Shit,” she says quietly and ducks into the nurse’s bathroom, a tear already smudging her eyeliner.

We watch the door swing shut behind her, the sound of running water almost covering a half choked cry as she gets whatever she needs out of her system before clocking in.

“You get used to it,” Charlene says again. “But that doesn’t mean it gets easier.”

~

“You okay?”

It’s a dumbass question, but I’m not good with words and don’t know how else to ask Tiffany how she’s doing as we tidy up what used to be Emmett’s room. All his clothes went into a box, the picture of his grandkids resting on top along with a couple of detective novels from the eighties. All it takes is one box, thirty minutes, and two people to make Emmett’s room not his anymore. Tiffany and I have stripped it down, sterilized it, and made it into just another room, waiting for the next person whose stuff we’ll be boxing up a few years down the road.

“I will be,” Tiffany says, her voice still hoarse from the good cry she got out of her system in the bathroom. She’s jerking the sheets off the bed, the last thing in the room that’s still got a little bit of Emmett about it, even if that is only a few gray hairs on the pillow and a shit stain.

“Damn,” Tiffany says, rubbing the end of the sheet between her fingers.

“What?”

“I forgot to knot it,” she says, quiet like and mostly to herself.

“What’s that?”

“You probably don’t know that one yet, do you? If there’s a patient close to passing, tie a knot in the end of their bed sheet and they won’t die on your shift.”

I lean against the wall, resting for a few seconds here where Massey won’t spot me. “Seriously?”

Tiffany shrugs and gives the sheets an expert tug, stripping the bed with one rip. “I’ve been doing this five years, Tay. All I know is, I tie a knot and they don’t die. Not on my watch, anyway.”

“But what if the next shift ties a knot too? And then you come back on and tie it again. Nobody’d ever die.”

She shakes her head and rolls the sheet in her arms. “Doesn’t work that way. Somebody always forgets.”

I don’t want to upset Tiffany any more than she already is, but this kind of stuff has never sat well with me. I was the kid who didn’t worry about the monster under the bed because I could hear a real one yelling at my mom through the wall. But my thoughts must be right on my big stupid face because she just kinda smiles at me like she knows something I don’t know.

“There’s more to this job than what they teach you in the classes,” she says. “I call it off-the-charts stuff.”

I’m so worn out that even the cold hard wall behind my back feels good because it means not all my weight is on my feet. I could talk to Tiffany about stuff I don’t believe in for hours if it means I’m pushing back on something, taking a little pressure off of me.

“Off-the-charts?” I ask, hoping she’ll say more.

“Yeah, you been here long enough. Surely Charlene has gotten after you for saying the Q word, right?”

I know a lot of bad words, but none of them start with Q. The only thing that I can come up with on short notice is queeve, which I’m not sure Charlene would know and I got no business saying to her in the first place. Tiffany sees how blank I am and smiles.

“The Q word,” she repeats, dropping her voice low and whispery. “Quiet. You don’t ever say that the ward is… that. It’s asking for it.”

“Got it,” I nod, and pick up the box from the floor. I spot Emmett’s slippers tucked under his bed, one pushed further than the other. “Missed something,” I tell Tiffany.

I lie on the floor to reach the one, my scrubs popping up over my fat roll so that my belly is against the tiles, their coldness sucking the heat right off me. It takes my breath away and I can’t help but think of Emmett’s foot on the gurney, pale and naked in the cold wind, and how he had no idea when he went to bed last night he wasn’t gonna need these slippers no more.

~

I wanted to ask Tiffany more about off the charts stuff, but Agnes and Judy got into it because Carmichael gave Agnes his cookie at dinner and his wife went off on him same as if Agnes had crawled under the table and undid his fly. Judy went to sulk in the room she shared with Carmichael as Agnes ate the cookie – a little more slowly than necessary, like each bite tasted better than normal because Judy was so hacked off over it.

Carmichael shuffles over to a window table to sit by himself as we prepare med trays, and Tiffany nods toward him, eyes on me. I wave to let her know I see him, taking the paper cup with his name on it over to where he sits.

“Hey there, Carmichael,” I say, keeping my voice light and cheery like we’re supposed to. “Time for your meds.”

His own mixture is a pretty kind of one: light blues and white, a bright red shiny pill like a cherry on top of his medicinal ice cream sundae. He takes them all with a sharp jerk of his neck, dry-swallowing them without a blink. I offer the other cup, cool in my hands with newly poured water, but he waves it away.

“Only talent I got left,” he says. “I can get a mouthful of pills down without a drink. Always impresses the ladies.”

“I don’t think that’s what does it,” I tell him.

It’s funny how once you’re around old people enough you start to see what’s below the wrinkles and the age spots. I don’t need his sepia colored senior picture by his bedside to tell me Carmichael was a good-looking guy once. He still is, really. There might be a broken blood vessel on his temple but his eyes are an ice blue that stop you, and the laugh lines are deep in a way that isn’t a bad thing.

He chuckles now, creasing them more. “You see Judy have her fit, did you?”

“Guess you’re still a prize,” I tell him.

“And she won me a long time ago. Still thinks she’s got to fight over me though.” The smile fades out, his eyes going a little off focus as he stares out the window.

“You okay?” I ask for the second time today, knowing well enough the person I’m saying it to is nowhere near okay.

“Oh well,” Carmichael waves it off like it’s no big deal, but his words fall flat and his eyes are still searching for something that ain’t there. “You get to be my age, kid, and you got to look for things to do, stuff to keep you busy.”

I think about my day, every second scheduled up and thought out ahead of time, none of them but the ones on the ferry meant for me and me alone. “Doesn’t sound so bad,” I tell him, and he snorts.

“Maybe not, but when your wife looks for trouble over dessert to keep her own life interesting it sours the deal a bit. God love the woman, the sound of her voice has been with me for sixty years, and most of the time I like it. But when she’s on a nag the only thing that stops me from hearing about whatever I done wrong this time was setting up to play checkers with Emmett. And now he’s dead.”

It falls out, loud and stiff here in the dining room. Charlene and Tiffany were real careful to use other words – gone and passed – things that made it sound like maybe Emmett was off visiting, seemed to say he still had movement inside him. But it ain’t true and Carmichael is calling it like it is, using the word that covers it all, just like the sheet that went out with the body.

Dead.

He sees me tense up and pats my wrist. “Don’t worry about it, honey,” he says. “You get to the point where we are and you know it’s coming. Some of us are ready, some don’t want to go, but we don’t have a lot of say in the matter, in the end.”

I sip Carmichael’s water, my throat suddenly dry. “Was Emmett ready?”

“I think Emmett would’ve liked a few more days with your pretty friend,” Carmichael says.

“I’m not all that pretty,” Tiffany argues, passing behind us to give Jarold his meds.

“Sweetheart, you got color in your hair and your eyes shine bright. You’re all pretty to us, every last one of you.” Carmichael calls to her as she rouses Jarold from his post-dinner nap. He pats my hand again. “Once you’ve been around awhile you learn there’s only so many types of faces in the world. Doctors like to call it dementia, and I guess that’s one way to look at it.

“But you’ve got a face reminds me of a girl I knew back in school, and I’ll probably call you by her name once or twice. That doesn’t mean I’ve lost my head, or even that I think you’re her. I believe we’re finding our own types of medicine when that happens, and it’s not something you can put in a cup.”

“What was her name?” I ask.

“Becky,” he says, glances over his shoulder like Judy might come wheeling in any second. “She had a nice face, just like yours.”

There’s a tweak of pain in my backside and I yelp, turning to find Jarold behind me with a shit-eating grin. “I like her ass, myself.”

 

One in the morning is a dark time, and cold. I can’t say I like it, but it does keep the other ferry riders jumbled together inside the covered part in the middle of the deck, hunkered low in their coats so that I’ve got most of the space to myself.

It’s a Friday night so pretty much everybody crossing the river this late is either sauced or on the way to getting there. A couple of the guys sneak glances at me but my scrubs are poking out from under my coat so they must get the idea that I’m not the kind of working girl they’re looking for right now.

The nursing home left me tense and I roll my neck as I lean against the side of the ferry, the rumbling of the engine sending a thrum through my knees that feels sorta good. One of the drunks lights up and a cloud of smoke wafts over to me, a reminder that even here in the only time I have alone, nothing is ever mine.

I cough pointedly and he laughs.

I lean out further over the edge, reaching for the fresh air. I can barely see the froth bubbling, brown against the black of water at night. I hear steps behind me and close my eyes, ready to say whatever rude thing it takes to get him to leave me alone in the precious four minutes left to me before we dock.

“You okay?”

The voice is nice, low but sweet, and definitely doesn’t reek like a cigarette. Still, I’m not in a talking mood, and especially not to answer the same question my dumb mouth kept asking all day to people who weren’t.

“Fine,” I say, in a way that shows I don’t want to share it. “Enjoying the quiet.”

“All right,” he answers, and there’s so much surrender in it, it’s like I can hear his hands up in the air right along with his words.

I open my eyes. “Sorry.”

I take a minute to look at him, my tired brain telling me I might not know this guy but I definitely recognize him. It’s the logo on his jacket that makes the leap for me. He works on the ferry, pulling up the ramp behind the last car on and letting it back down for the first one off. I’ve watched him work on my trips, taking more notice of his hands than his face. It’s not a remarkable one, but it’s kind, like Carmichael says mine is. This guy wears glasses and his breath steams against the lenses as he leans beside me.

“Wanted to make sure those guys weren’t bothering you,” he says, nodding back towards the drunks, who are tipping the ashes of their cigarettes into the river, adding dirt to the froth.

“Nothing I can’t handle,” I say, but in a nice way that lets him know I don’t mind him watching out for me.

We study each other for a second, two people that see each other every day but never really looked.

“You ride a lot,” he says. “What takes you over the river?”

“Work.” I pull on the side of my scrubs to illustrate what I do, glad that it’s the sort of job that doesn’t need explaining. At the same time thinking it’s the first conversation I’ve had with a boy since second trimester and I’m wearing the dorkiest thing I own.

“Me too,” he says, pointing to the picture of the ferry embroidered on his fleece.

I start laughing, I don’t know why. Like here we are, a boy and a girl, me pointing at my pants and him at his shirt like that’s the only way we know to talk to each other.

“Fuuuuuck,” I say, drawing it out as long as I feel tired. “It’s been a long day.”

“Tell me,” he says, as the ferry scrapes up against the dock. “I gotta go, but… I guess I’ll see you Monday, right?”

“Yep,” I nod. “Monday.”

And I don’t feel the cold, or think about the dark while I’m walking back home.

God, or whoever, must have decided I’ve had enough today because Mom’s asleep when I walk in the door, stained fingertips resting just short of the ashtray, a burned out butt dead in her hands. She coulda dropped it, right there on the living room carpet. Lord knows there’s enough black rings there to say it’s happened before. But Rowdy wasn’t sleeping in the same house when those burnt spots were made, and my heart jumps straight up into my throat at the sight of Mom like that.

I run down the hall to his room, though I know well enough there’s nothing on fire except my lungs because I’ve never been no athlete, but I get to his room quick as spit. He’s up, hands exploring his own face, quiet in the night.

“Hey there, little man,” I whisper, leaving the light off so we can share a bit of the darkness, keep it for ourselves and not invite others in. He kicks his legs at the sound of my voice and I reach for him, his wet diaper hanging nearly down to his knees. I get him changed, then we settle into our spot in the rocking chair that don’t rock.

I expect him to go right for me, but Mom must have given him a full bottle before she hit her own, because he’s happy just to look. So I look back, amazed at this body that came out of my own, these eyes that I can see myself in as we stare and stare, in awe of each other.

He gets sleepy after a bit, curling into my chest with his fist in his mouth. I lean back, shocked as hell when the rails of the chair bust through the drywall, enough hours of pushing finally making something give, just like the day Rowdy came. I can rock now. Small, jerky movements, but I’m rocking.

I’m rocking my baby.

He gives a little sigh and I feel his body get a touch warmer, like it always does right before he goes off to sleep. I cup Rowdy’s little foot in my own, the thread of life that had left Emmett pulsing strong through my boy. I’m going now, the chair easing us both into a lull not much different from the way the ferry feels under my feet.

Rowdy shifts against me, the top of his head brushing my chin. He’s easing off, and I glance at the clock to see it’s nearly two in the morning. Tiffany says Angelina usually wakes up about now, wanders around in the hallway until somebody puts her back to bed. I think of Angelina, up and walking just as Rowdy goes all the way down into the deepest sleep.

Maybe one day Rowdy will need someone in the night too. Maybe he’ll come to me in a house that doesn’t smell of smoke and maybe I won’t be alone in my bed. I think of the boy from the ferry, and picture him sleeping next to me as Rowdy tiptoes into our room. Maybe I pull him up with us and we lie together in a room with no holes in the wall, our bodies warm and alive and trusting.

I rest my head against my son, breathing in the smell of him.

Maybe.

The Color of Sad

Trista Wilson

I live in the saddest house, on the loneliest dirt road, surrounded by the most pathetic fields you ever saw. It’s a lopsided two-story that looks like the second floor is just itchin’ to become the first. The outside is scarred wood covered with scales of greyish paint that might have once have been sunshine yellow, barn red, citrus orange or sky blue in a past life. The house reminds me of a confused old lady who doesn’t notice that she’s lost her coat and is standing buck naked in the bright sunshine.

The only way to get to the house is down a long winding dirt road. Riding in the bed of my daddy’s beat up Ford truck, I’ve memorized every bump and pothole so I can brace myself and clench my teeth so I don’t bite my tongue. The old dirt and dried out cornstalks are just the color of sad. My eyes are dried out from sad. Once I saw a red bandana on the side of the road and my eyes drank it in like the 7-11 Slurpee I once had when I was four. That was the best thing I ever tasted and I watched that bandana till it turned to a speck. But it didn’t wash the sad away.

Our big old dog Ben’s the first thing I see when we get home. He’s always sleeping in the shade of the one pecan tree in our front yard. I climb up our creaky front steps, pull open the crooked screen door and let my eyes adjust to the colorless gloom inside. The only bright thing in the whole place is hidden in a box in my closet. I try not to open it too much because I’m afraid the dust and darkness will seep in and suck all the bright right out of it. I always sit on my bed to open it. I close my eyes and reach in to feel the silky material. Even when it’s a hundred degrees out, it feels cool under my fingers. I’m careful that my rough hands don’t catch and make a pull in the fabric. Then I take it out and smell it. I only take a little sniff because I’m scared that I’ll sniff up all the sweet and it’ll start to smell like nothing. I open my eyes but keep them squinted so the colors run together in a yellow, red and purplish blue puddle, kind of like when Daddy’s filling the truck with gas and some leaks onto the ground and makes a rainbow. I wrap the scarf around my shoulders. I used to be able to pretend my mom was hugging me but it’s not working very well anymore. I keep trying ‘cause it’s all I’ve got.

I wander out to sit on the porch steps to wait with Ben for Daddy’s truck. He’s gone to pick up my Aunt Louise at the airport. She’s coming to stay with us for the summer ‘cause Daddy says I need some supervision when I’m out of school, and also he says now I’m not a little girl anymore I need some motherin’ and he don’t know how to do it. I’ve only seen Aunt Louise two times in my whole life. I wonder what could possess her to come spend three whole months in this hot, dusty, colorless Texas town.

“I think that’s them,” I tell Ben, who’s of course sleeping.

I stand and brush off my jeans as the truck parks, and a tall, thin woman in a dress pops out calling, “Oh my goodness! Elizabeth, my sweet girl. Look how you’ve grown!” She tries to run over to hug me, but twists her ankle as her heel catches on a bone Ben left lying in the dirt. She hobbles over with a smile and squeezes me tight. Dad climbs out of the other side of the truck and walks around the back to get Aunt Louise’s suitcases. As Aunt Louise lets me go, I see a face peeking out of the windshield. Who the heck is that? I walk to the car and look in. A little brown chestnut of a face is peeking back. “Aunt Louise! I think you forgot something!” I back away as a little boy bounds out of the truck. He is moving so fast that I’m afraid he’s gonna set off a spark that’ll set this whole place on fire.

“Elizabeth, meet Isaiah. Isaiah, this is Elizabeth.”

“Hi, hi, hi, hi,” Isaiah says as he continues to leap around like a little puppy.

“Isaiah is living with me for a bit and I thought he would enjoy getting away to the country for a little while,” explains Aunt Louise.

“Are there snakes here?  I want to catch a snake!”

I put my hands on my hips. “You don’t know the good snakes from the bad. If a bad one bites ya, you’ll be dead quicker ‘an a duck on a Junebug.”

“Elizabeth, don’t scare the kid,” says dad.

“I don’t want our company to die on the first day! I’m just bein’ helpful.”

Dad gives me “The Look.”

As we walk toward the porch steps, I lean down and whisper to Isaiah, “And watch out for Ben ‘cause he hates kids.” Ben, who has moved three whole steps away from the porch and fallen back asleep in the dirt at our feet, opens an eye for a second and goes right back to sleeping. I don’t think Isaiah even hears me, he’s so busy trying to hop up the steps on one foot.

I come downstairs the next morning and hear Aunt Louise humming in the kitchen. Everything looks different but I’m not sure why. Then I realize she’s been busy as a bumblebee. The curtains are open, dust stirs where it’s been happily sitting quiet for a year. Bright purple flowers are in a vase on the kitchen table. Now I remember when all the color went out of this house. It’s when Mom died. I thought I wanted color but now I’m surprised how mad I feel to see some seeping back in. It feels like the world has up and decided to go on without her.

I stomp right back upstairs and bang on Daddy’s bedroom door. “C’mon in.”

“Dad,” I say flinging open the door and flopping face down on his bed. “We don’t need Aunt Louise and Isaiah here. I’ll be good this summer, I promise.”

Daddy sits next to me on the bed. “It’s not about you being good, kid. Macy is off to college and you’re too young to be home alone all summer.” I feel his hand on my back. “You’re alone too much, honey.”

“I like to be alone,” I say my face still squashed into the bed.

“Just give ‘em a chance, okay?” I feel the bed lift as he rises. “I’ve got to get to work. See you at dinner?”

“Mpff.”

I hear Daddy smile even though that’s not a sound.

I lay still, pretending I’m a dead fish. That’s a game my babysitter Macy used to play with me when I was driving her crazy. She would yell, “Dead fish!” and we would both drop to the ground wherever we were and lay still. Whoever could be still the longest was the winner. I always lost though ‘cause I would start laughing and rolling around and yell, “It’s a miracle! The fish has come back to life.”

My stomach is growling so I decide to follow the smell of pancakes downstairs.

“Morning Elizabeth. How are you?” asks Aunt Louise.

“Okay.”

“Pancakes?”

“Yes please.” Aunt Louise calls Isaiah who comes twirling in like a dust devil. I half expect his chair to lift off the ground as he sits on it. The three of us eat blueberry pancakes dripping in syrup. I focus on popping the warm blueberries with my fork, painting my plate with purple juice as Isaiah babbles on about something. I finally notice that Aunt Louise is saying my name. I look up.

“I was thinking you could take Isaiah and show him around a bit today.”

“There’s not much to see,” I say, thinking I’d much rather hide in my room and read a book.

“Pleeeeaaase Lizbeth!” says Isaiah standing on his chair.

“Fine,” I say.

Isaiah jumps down and I put my hands out to ward off his sticky fingers.

“I’ll clean up,” says Aunt Louise.

Isaiah and I walk down the front steps. “C’mon Ben,” I say.

We walk side by side down the middle of the road. There aren’t any cars this early. Well there usually aren’t many cars ever. “Where we goin’ Lizbeth?”

“Do you want to see where my daddy works? It’s a ranch ‘bout a mile down the road.”

“Are there animals?”

“Some horses and cows.”

“Cool!”

The sun is growing hotter and I feel the dirt sticking to my sweaty cheeks. “What’s that?” asks Isaiah, looking ahead into the pasture to the right of the road.

“That’s Jones the bull. Dad says he’s a mean son a bitch. But I’m not allowed to say that so don’t tell, okay?”

“Okay.”

We walk over to the fence and climb up, looking at Jones who’s standing across the pasture under a tree.

“Why is he mean?” asks Isaiah.

“Maybe he’s just lonely. I can be a mean son a bitch sometimes too. Maybe we can RE-habilitate him. I learned that word in school. Means we can make him nice.”

“How do we do it?

“I think he has to learn to trust us. So we’ll come every day and sit here and talk to him and tell him he’s a good bull.”

We both look at Jones. He’s dark brown with big horns. He looks over at us and then looks away swatting flies with his tail like he doesn’t have time for such foolin’ around.

Isaiah looks like he’s wilting a little. “Want to go put our feet in the creek?” I ask him. Ben’s ears perk up. He knows that word. We say goodbye to Jones and walk across the road to a path through the dried-out cornfield. We reach the water and Isaiah copies me as I take off my shoes. I walk in the slowly moving water up to my knees and Isaiah follows almost up to his waist. Ben lays right down in the shallow part and takes a drink. Little fish swim around our legs and Isaiah giggles. I reach down and cup some water, pouring it on my head and letting it drip down my face. Isaiah splashes me and I try to look mad but he’s laughing so hard he falls down into the water and I have to save him.

We sit on the bank and can almost see the water evaporating off us. “Maybe don’t tell Aunt Louise we went in the water. She seems like the type to worry about drowning and stuff.”

“Okay.”

“Ready to head back?”

We stand and Ben pulls himself out of the water. We crunch back through the stalks and scuff off down the road.

“I love it here!” Isaiah yells, twirling around.

“How come you’re livin’ with Aunt Louise?” I ask him.

“My daddy’s in jail. Mommy had to leave too.”

“Oh.” I look at him. “My mom’s gone too.”

Isaiah all of a sudden hugs me like he’s a sticker burr clinging to my pants. By the time we get home the sun has sucked all the water off of us. We collapse on the steps and Ben takes up his spot under the tree. “Hey there. Did you have fun?” Aunt Louise comes out and sits with us, handing us each a glass bottle of Coke. It tastes so good: bubbly, sweet and cold.

“It was great!” says Isaiah. “We met the son a bitch Jones and got all wet in the creek.”

“Isaiah!” I say sneaking a look at Aunt Louise to see if she’s mad. But she just smiles. The three of us sit on the porch for a while as a tiny breeze tries hard to be bigger than it is.

The next morning, Aunt Louise has packed a picnic lunch for me and Isaiah. “I thought you two might want to go out on an adventure again today. What do you think?”

“I think YES!” says Isaiah, hopping on one foot and then the other. His arms are spread like wings and I figure I better get him outside before he takes off.

“I guess,” I say.

“But be safe,” Aunt Louise says giving me a look.

I pick up the bag with our sandwiches, apples and soda. “Let’s go, y’all,” I say to Isaiah and Ben. We retrace our path from yesterday, Isaiah popping down the road like a corn kernel in a hot pot. “What do you think Jones would like, Isaiah?”

“What do Joneses like to eat?” asks Isaiah.

“Hay.”

“Let’s feed him hay.”

When we get to the fence, I set our lunch down and lead Isaiah around to the right of the fence where there’s a field. We walk out to one of the giant rolled bales and each try to grab a handful of the prickly grass. We have to pull so hard we fall over when some finally comes out. Then we walk to the fence and hold out hay to Jones who’s off in the distance living his life, full of flicking his tail and looking grumpy. “Hey Jones, we’re here to RE-billy-tay you!” calls Isaiah. Jones doesn’t seem to care. We stay up on the fence holding out our offerings until my stomach starts to growl.

“Let’s eat,” I say.

We jump down, and I grab our lunch and go join Ben in a sliver of shade under a scraggly tree. Isaiah and I eat our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and toss the crusts to Ben. We sip our Cokes, which are warm but still sweet and bubbly. “Mom used to buy me Cokes at the store under our apartment,” says Isaiah.

“You must really miss her,” I say. “I miss my mom too.”

Isaiah looks at me and smiles a little bit. “My mom smelled good.”

“Mine let me sleep with her if I was scared.”

“Mine too!”

“My mom made really good cinnamon toast when I was sick.”

“My mom read me Goodnight Moon a million gazillion times.”

“My mom sang me silly songs about our day.”

That brings on another sticker bur hug from Isaiah and I fall backwards onto the ground. “Okay, okay. Let’s try to feed Jones hay again before we go.”

We pack up our stuff and climb the fence holding out hay to Jones who has moved a little closer. We wait but Jones stays where he is. “Well, we’ll see you tomorrow Jones,” I say.

“Yup! See you tomorrow Jones! We’re going to RE-billy-tay you!”

Isaiah and I keep up our campaign over the next few weeks. We get into a routine of Jones, picnic, wading in the creek and back home for dinner. I even teach Isaiah to play dead fish and it’s pretty funny when we both flop down on the ground. I actually win because Isaiah is even more squirmy than me.

I wake up one morning to the sound of rain thundering down on the roof. It doesn’t rain a lot here but when it does, it really and truly does. I decide to read one of my summer books I’m supposed to read for school. Aunt Louise tries to keep Isaiah busy inside but finally lets him go run outside in the rain. He comes in dripping and Aunt Louise sends him upstairs to change into dry clothes while she makes lunch. I’m still curled up reading in the living room when Aunt Louise calls for us to come eat. I sit at the kitchen table and pick up a potato chip. “C’mon, Isaiah!” calls Aunt Louise sitting down across the table. “Isaiah!”

“I’ll get him,” I say and run upstairs. I peek in his room but he’s not there. My door is open a little bit so I go there next. Isaiah is standing on my bed holding mom’s scarf. I can see he’s gotten it wet and muddy as he waves it like a flag. “Isaiah! No!” I scream and jump toward him trying to snatch the scarf away. I knock into him and he falls off the bed onto the floor. I hear him start to cry. I grab the scarf where it landed on the bed. “Don’t ever touch my stuff! Don’t come in my room!” Aunt Louise comes running into the room.

“What’s going on?” She hears Isaiah crying and goes to scoop him up. She wipes he tears and after she makes sure he’s okay sends him downstairs. “I’ll be right there.”

I sit on the bed clutching the scarf and the tears that will never fall, finally do. Aunt Louise sits next to me quietly. “It’s my mom’s. It’s all I have. He ruined it! It’s all muddy.” Aunt Louise takes my hand softly. I cry. And cry. Probably enough tears to make the corn grow again.

“It’s been so hard for you. I’m sorry I haven’t been here more for you and your dad. I’m really glad to be here now.” She puts one arm around me and with the other hand wipes my hot cheeks and tucks my wild brown hair behind my ears. I lean into her shoulder.

“I’m glad you’re here now too.”

“We’ll clean your scarf, kiddo. It’ll be okay.”

“I didn’t mean to push Isaiah.”

“I know,” says Aunt Louise.

After some more sniffles I say, “I’ll go tell him I’m sorry.”

As I reach the bottom of the stairs, I notice it’s way too quiet. I look in all the rooms. “Aunt Louise! He’s not here.” Aunt Louise and I take one more look to make sure he’s not hiding. Then we go out on the front porch and call into the rain. “I’ll go find him.”

“I’m going to call your dad,” says Aunt Louise.

I run into the rain and down the road, until I reach Jones’ pasture. Daddy’s truck pulls in just as I get to the gate panting and trying to catch my breath. Daddy gets out and we both freeze as we see little Isaiah and giant Jones standing, facing each other, only about ten yards apart from each other. Everything slows. Even the raindrops seem to be falling in slow motion.

Daddy says, “Stay here, Elizabeth!” He runs along the fence away from us. I watch as Jones tosses his head, staring at Isaiah. Daddy jumps over the fence yelling and waving his arms. It’s hard to hear him through the noise of the rain. Jones lowers his head and Isaiah starts to jump from one foot to the other. Daddy is getting closer and trying to get Jones’ attention but the bull is still focused on Isaiah.

“Dead fish! Isaiah, dead fish!” I yell as loud as I can. I see Isaiah’s head turn. He didn’t notice us before. He drops to the ground just as Daddy reaches them and smacks Jones on the flank, turning to run, yelling and waving his arms, away from Isaiah. Jones wheels around and chases Daddy who barely gets to the fence and leaps over seconds before the big bull reaches him. Jones tosses his horns and kicks his back legs before turning to run away down the pasture, having had enough of us. As soon as he’s far enough away, Daddy jumps back over the fence and runs to scoop up Isaiah. He brings him to where I’m clutching the gate and climbs over. Once we’re all safe I hug Isaiah and Daddy is hugging both of us. Isaiah is sobbing and shaking and Daddy leads us to the truck. We all climb in the front and I put my arm around Isaiah while Daddy checks to see if he’s hurt. “I’m so sorry, Isaiah. I’m so sorry I yelled at you.”

“I think he’s okay,” says Daddy letting out a big breath. We’re all soaking wet and muddy and I notice Daddy’s hands are shaking on the wheel as he drives us home. Aunt Louise runs down from the porch and flings the truck door open.

“Are you okay? Is he okay?” Aunt Louise asks.

“He’s scared but okay,” says Daddy.

I climb out and Aunt Louise picks up Isaiah and carries him into the house. We go into the living room and Daddy goes to grab some towels. Aunt Louise bundles Isaiah up and sits snuggling him on the couch. Daddy and I dry off and sit together in a big chair across from the couch.

“Isaiah, why did you run away?” asks Dad.

“I wanted to RE-billy-tay Jones for Lizbeth.”

“That was so dangerous, Isaiah!” says Aunt Louise. “You could have really gotten hurt.”

“I’m sorry,” says Isaiah.

“I’m sorry too, Isaiah,” I say.

“Lizbeth, I think Jones really is just a mean son a bitch,” says Isaiah.

Daddy’s and Aunt Louise’s eyes get big and I start to laugh. “I think you’re right.”

Before we know it, summer is almost over and it’s time for Isaiah and Aunt Louise to go back to New York. Me and Daddy help pack up the truck as Isaiah makes a dust storm in the yard. Aunt Louise gives me a long hug. “We’ll be back next summer, but I think you and your daddy should come visit us in New York for Christmas too. What do you think?”

“I think yes,” I say hugging her back tight.

Isaiah gives me his signature sticker hug. “Bye Lizbeth. I’ll miss you.”

“Hold on a second,” I say running inside. I run back out to Isaiah and pulling my hands out from behind my back, show him the scarf. I wrap around his shoulders. “This is for you. It’s a hug scarf.”

Isaiah wraps the scarf around himself even tighter, covering his mouth and taking a deep sniff. The scarf’s almost as big as him. He gives me a side bump hug since his hands are busy holdin’ the scarf tight. I see the grin lighting up his eyes. I bend down to his ear and whisper. “Hey, I hear there’s a mountain lion that’s been seen ‘round here lately. Maybe next summer we’ll try to RE-habilitate him.”

“Okay!” answers Isaiah, hopping in the truck.

As they drive off, I sit on a porch step and Ben flops in the dirt. He puts his chin on my foot, which means he’s feelin’ sad to see Isaiah go. “It’s okay Ben. It’ll be Christmas before you know it.” I look to where the truck has gotten as small as a dot. The scarf must have spilled some color on its way because I notice that the world doesn’t look so empty and sad anymore. And it feels okay, because I know Mom is lovin’ me through all those colors. I feel green grass kissin’ me on the cheek, blue sky tickling my toes and purple and orange flowers wrapping their arms tight around me like they’ll never let go. Ben must feel it too because he stands, shakes and scratches behind his ear, before going back to sleep, and that much activity pretty much means Ben’s ‘bout bustin’ with joy.