Engraving Heaven’s Likeness
by Tova Benjamin

First Place, Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

Someone was painting the bochurim. Ever since the Rabbi noticed the first portrait hanging from the artist’s studio, the paintings seemed to multiply, until there were almost as many as the students themselves. Each night after zal ended and the boys went to sleep, the Rabbi walked past the darkened storefront where their familiar faces posed. There he recognized Zalman from shiur aleph, his ears keeping his black hat afloat; there was Yossi with the desperate first strokes of a mustache. The Rabbi noticed the way the artist tinged all their black jackets with blue, turned their faces into a rough collision of lines, painted the eyes soft and almost empty, with thick, lined lashes like girls or baby calves. Behind the window, the Rabbi could see stacks and stacks of canvasses, and, if he squinted his eyes, the shape of teenage boys sloped on each one.

The Rabbi wondered how the artist knew each student’s likeness. He considered that she must have first seen them on their daily route past her storefront window, at the corner of Lunt and California in the West Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago, right between the boys’ dorm and the yeshiva building. Still, the Rabbi wasn’t sure how she captured the boys in such detail. Did she step outside her studio at seven in the morning or twelve in the afternoon, stare at the boys and then imprint their images onto her memory? What would the parents say when they visited and noticed images of their sons, hanging in the street for everyone to see?

The Rabbi knew the artist was a woman. It wasn’t just the heavy lashes she painted—he saw her himself, standing at the window one morning and arranging a new portrait for display. She was middle-aged and chubby with curly hair that appeared frizzier in the display lighting. Her clothes were dark and oversized, and when she lifted her arms to hang one of her newest portraits, a stretch-marked patch of stomach fell out, causing the Rabbi to turn in embarrassment and walk away.

*

As far as the Rabbi knew, the artist had never come into contact with his students. He had never seen her visit the yeshiva, and she had no way of knowing where the dorms were located. The students had a strict schedule: studying lasted from early in the morning until long after sunset, and breaks between learning were rarely spent away from the yeshiva’s property. During lunch, the bochurim ate at the yeshiva or the dorms, and during breaks they played basketball in the parking lot behind the school. In the evenings they walked to the park under the supervision of the dorm counselor, and curfew was at 9PM sharp. Besides, the artist’s studio closed at five each day. The only time the boys were permitted to leave the neighborhood was on Friday afternoons, when they went on mivtzoyim, wandering the city’s streets in search of Jews who would lay tefillin. But the Rabbi knew they wouldn’t lay tefillin on a woman. All possibilities exhausted, he continued his walking past the portraits in perpetual unease, seeing the pictures without seeing them entirely.

*

“Baila Rochel,” the Rabbi finally said to his wife one evening, as they sat down for dinner, just the two of them, over meatloaf and soup. All eight of their children already had children of their own, and suppertime was a delayed honeymoon—they hadn’t been alone since the ten months after their marriage. “Do you think it’s illegal to paint someone without their permission?”

Baila Rochel held her spoon mid-air as if asking him to elaborate.

“I mean, say you walk past a store front, for instance, and see a painting of someone you recognize, someone who didn’t give the artist permission to paint them.”

Baila Rochel resumed her eating. “Are you talking about the studio on Lunt and California?”

“Yes,” the Rabbi said, relieved he no longer had to explain.

“I drove past it the other day, it’s very strange.”

“Have you looked closely at the paintings? If you look, you’ll see that she captured the bochurim exactly, their faces…It’s like she has the whole yeshiva in her studio.”

“What do you make of it? You think she’s Jewish?”

The Rabbi pushed his bowl up the table. “I’ve never seen her before.”

Baila Rochel stood up and collected her husband’s bowl, pouring his leftover soup into hers.

“Well, I think it’s scary,” she declared, and then stacked the bowls together, as if to say that she’d made up her mind and was done with the conversation.

The Rabbi pondered this assessment for a moment while Baila Rochel walked into the kitchen and filled the house with the familiar sound of rushing water.

“What do you think?” he shouted. “Should I at least talk to her?”

But Baila Rochel didn’t seem to hear, or at least she pretended not to, leaving the Rabbi to conclude that it was better not to make a fuss.

*

After speaking with Baila Rochel, the Rabbi kept his eyes from stopping at the portraits as he walked past them, ignoring the bochurim behind the stranger’s glass window. It was already spring when the portraits began to appear, almost exactly a year after his youngest son’s wedding. They all thought Mendel would never get married. But he did, the Rabbi reminded himself, he finally did get married. Of course, Mendel’s wife developed certain suspicions and read some messages in Mendel’s phone, messages between Mendel and a non-Jewish man. Mendel did not confirm or deny a relationship between him and the other man, yet their daughter-in-law seemed convinced regardless, and wanted a divorce. But Mendel didn’t confirm, and the Rabbi’s thoughts returned to this small comfort, that she could easily be reading too much into the situation. Mendel and his wife had only been married for a year, but she was already six months pregnant, with Mendel on a half salary at the cheder. If they did divorce, she would take the Rabbi’s grandchild.  

The painted boys in the window seemed to ask him about these troubles, though their real-life counterparts were undoubtedly unaware of Mendel’s secret. The Rabbi heard their voices during his own rounds past the storefront window between the yeshiva and the dorm.

Maybe they won’t get divorced, the line drawings whispered. She is pregnant after all.

The Rabbi continued walking past, thinking over which sections of the Talmud he might drill the students on. The portraits remained suspended this way for some time, present in the Rabbi’s periphery, until he received a call from one of the boys’ mothers, asking if it would be possible for her son, Shmuel Shapiro, to take art lessons. The Rabbi was so surprised by the suggestion he almost wasn’t sure he heard her right.

“What do you mean?” the Rabbi tried to keep polite. Mrs. Shapiro and her husband were ba’alay teshuvah from Richmond, Virginia, who only recently became Lubavitchers. Unlike most ba’alay teshuvah who came from completely secular backgrounds, the Shapiros were modern orthodox before they turned ultra-orthodox, a transition that wasn’t too drastic for their son, Shmuel. That was the only reason the Rabbi accepted Shmuel into the yeshiva – usually he would recommend Morristown, or other, more suitable environments. But Shmuel had a good head for Gemara, and a gentle disposition. He seemed genuinely enthusiastic about joining the yeshiva, and the Rabbi got the sense that it was his choice, and not his parents’. Besides, Shmuel was one of two children and his father made a lot of money, enough to pay full tuition, making Shmuel a bit too valuable for the yeshiva to lose.

“Well, Sam has been saying that he feels like he needs a bit of an outlet,” Mrs. Shapiro explained.

The use of Shmuel’s English name made the Rabbi cringe.

“That’s why we give the boys a break every day after lunch,” the Rabbi said, keeping an even tone. “For the bochurim to channel their energy outside of class.”

“Yes, yes, he told me about that,” Shmuel’s mother replied. “But you know, Sam isn’t much of a sports guy, he really doesn’t like to play basketball. And he’s always been so creative, we think it’d be nice for him to continue it there at the yeshiva.”

“We’ve never really had a student take art lessons before.” The Rabbi felt uncomfortable. They didn’t teach math, science, or history—the idea of art lessons was absurd.

“Besides,” he added, “there really isn’t time in the schedule.”

“Oh, I know the boys are so busy,” Mrs. Shapiro said, unbothered by the Rabbi’s hesitance, or perhaps unaware, “but Sam told me about this lovely lady around the corner who offers art lessons for a very reasonable price. Couldn’t he go during the basketball time?”

“Shmuel has been going into the art studio?”

Mrs. Shapiro said something in response, but the Rabbi didn’t hear. He stared at the calendar in his office and tried to remember when paintings of his students began to appear, whether he’d ever noticed a student inside the woman’s studio.

“Let me think about it,” the Rabbi said, and then he hung up the phone. He brushed a couple of long, dark beard hairs off his jacket and absentmindedly lifted a pen off his desk, clicking it with his thumb. The Rabbi wondered why it never occurred to him before. The woman was able to capture the boy’s faces because she had met them. The bochurim were posing for her.

The Rabbi sat on his secret knowledge through spring as though it were information with the potential to damage him and not just his students. He considered asking the boys about it, and then thought the better of it. He hoped he were wrong, and none of the boys ever noticed the artist, in which case it wouldn’t be right to bring her and her paintings to the yeshiva’s attention.  He developed a habit of walking two blocks out of the way so as to avoid the studio entirely, curving around Lunt Street and walking towards the yeshiva through the alley as if the portraits could disappear by his very will. Stranger things had happened throughout history after all.

One Shabbos in late April, the Rabbi and Baila Rochel were invited to a meal hosted by the Rifkins, the couple that ran the girls’ elementary school. The two of them walked to the Rifkin house in distracted silence after shul. The weather was pleasant: cold enough for black suit jackets to be comfortable and not oppressive, but not so cold as to require extra layers.

Rabbi Rifkin and his wife had invited no other guests. The meal was small and intimate; the four of them leisurely enjoying their aging process; anxieties of rearing young children already far behind them. Baila Rochel thrived in her new role as grandmother, and the Rabbi felt he and his wife were closer than ever, even one of the same mind. When Mrs. Rifkin asked about Mendel, the Rabbi and Baila Rochel answered that Mendel was good, boruch hashem, neither one looking to the other before replying. Rabbi and Mrs. Rifkin murmured their assent, gently remembering how hard it was for Mendel to find someone. They all agreed Mendel’s wife was very special. The Rabbi asked about the Rifkin children, and the laughter came easy again, just how the Rabbi preferred. Once kiddush was made and the salads were eaten, Mrs. Rifkin began to discuss a recent issue they were struggling with at the girl’s school: the use of Yiddish in the classrooms.

“It’s a problem,” Mrs. Rifkin explained. “Many of the parents have started calling me to complain about the Yiddish-only policy.”

The Rabbi listened sympathetically. He, his wife, and the Rifkins were part of another class of Lubavitchers: children of old, prestigious families, unlike the other members of their young Chicago community, most of whom returned to religiosity in their twenties, or even later, possessing little knowledge of Judaism. These fresh adherents struggled with reading Hebrew, and Yiddish was a second language twice removed, patched together from too many other languages and insider references for any newcomer to remember.

“They should be happy their children are learning Yiddish,” Baila Rochel said. “If they don’t learn it in cheder, where else? Their parents don’t speak it to them.”

“That’s the problem,” Mrs. Rifkin told her. “The parents feel like they can’t help their children with the homework because they don’t understand the language.”

The Rabbi didn’t see how this was a problem. “The Rebbe spoke in Yiddish because he thought Yiddish was important. The parents should see that as well.”

Mrs. Rifkin struggled to articulate herself. “I agree that it’s important, but I don’t know…many of the students do poorly in Yiddish, but have no problem in English classes. It’s frustrating for them, and it’s frustrating for the parents. They worry their children aren’t properly learning either language.”

“That’s because the parents still have goyish values,” Rabbi Rifkin said, responding to his wife, but addressing the other Rabbi.

The Rabbi agreed. “A lot of them don’t understand the essence of what Judaism is.” He remembered the conversation he had with Shmuel’s mother. “You know I actually had a parent call me up and ask if her son could take art classes? Never, in all my years of teaching, has anyone ever asked me if their son could take art classes. No one would have even considered such a thing when I was in yeshiva.”

Rabbi Rifkin leaned back in his chair and pushed his plate away, prompting his wife and the other rebbetzin to stand up and clear the table.

“It was just a different time,” he mused.

“I suppose,” the Rabbi said, and then he paused. The two Rabbis shared an anxious silence as the dishes steadily disappeared from the table. Rabbi Rifkin hummed a nigun and the Rabbi tugged at his beard, letting the uncertainty linger between him and his old friend. He joined along with Rabbi Rifkin’s nigun, singing the wordless tune loudly, the emotive familiarity buried in the song’s dips and rises. As he sang the familiar melody, etched into the muscle memory of his jaw so that it rushed out without premeditation, the Rabbi considered the fate of their next generation. The two Rabbis banged their fists on the emptied table and sang out the painful questions they had no answers for. Why did the Rebbe abandon them twenty years before and never return? Why had their leader tasked them with searching out new followers—Jews with no religious background or understanding—who threatened to dissolve the fabric of the community once they joined? They harbored the superstitious fear, one incapable of verbalization, that the world they so zealously guarded would end with their generation. But most of all, they feared the approaching extinction was their own doing. They feared the outreach they had devoted themselves to meant looking outwards instead of inwards; so that for each young man or woman coaxed into the tiny neighborhood of their lives, another son or daughter found an opening and slipped out.

“Do you want tea?” Mrs. Rifkin asked the Rabbi. Not waiting for his reply, she brought out a tray, balancing a teapot and little painted teacups.

*

Once the wives settled back into their seats, the conversation about the elementary school resumed. “Something very strange happened to me the other day,” Mrs. Rifkin told the others.

“A woman named Lisa came to the cheder and told me she was an artist, and that she wanted to paint the girls. She was wondering if she could take pictures of them. I told her no, of course, and then asked her why she’d been painting the bochurim.” At this, Mrs. Rifkin looked to the Rabbi, who looked down at his teacup and began to stir.

“This is the woman on Lunt and California?” Baila Rochel asked, even though everyone knew which artist Mrs. Rifkin was talking about.

“Yeah, you know, the one who has the big portraits of the boys hanging in the studio window.” Mrs. Rifkin stretched her hands as she said “big,” as if to emphasize her innocence in the face of artistic practices.  

“It’s creepy,” Rabbi Rifkin weighed in. “And besides, she’s not a very good artist. The paintings don’t look anything like the bochurim. I think she’s trying to make it abstract.”

“Really?” the Rabbi interrupted his friend. “You don’t think the pictures don’t look like them? For me, I can recognize the face of every student.”

“That’s the thing,” Mrs. Rifkin continued. “She’s painting them from photographs, that’s what the woman told me. Did you know that?” she asked the Rabbi, turning to address him directly. “Apparently during their Friday rounds, one of the boys went into her studio and asked if her husband was Jewish. She said, yes, my husband is Jewish. So, they asked if he would put on tefillin. She said only if they would pose for a painting. The boys said no, of course, but they let her husband photograph them instead. Now every week, a different pair of boys goes into her studio for her husband to take pictures of them, and in exchange he puts on tefillin.”

Upon finishing her story, Mrs. Rifkin looked around the table, but none of the other three ventured a response.

“Well…” Baila Rochel finally said. “At least her husband is doing a mitzvah, right?”

“You think that’s what the Rebbe would have wanted?” Rabbi Rifkin said, and the Rabbi startled at the sharp tone in his friend’s voice. Baila Rochel said nothing.

“Who knows what the Rebbe would have wanted,” the Rabbi added softly. He knew his friend did not expect an answer from anyone.

That evening the Rabbi went to shul for mincha, and when Shabbos ended, he walked home along California Avenue instead of his usual route, following the street to the woman’s studio on Lunt. Once he turned off Devon, the streets were empty, besides for occasional cars and other Jews making their way home from shul. California was the border street that separated houses from apartments, the Jewish community from the rest of Rogers Park, and to the Rabbi it felt like venturing down a long strip of the city’s seams, masquerading as concrete. They had only moved to that neighborhood thirty years ago, in 1979, fifteen years before the Rebbe abandoned them on earth. And since then, a few families had grown to hundreds of families, one shul to numerous shuls fanned beyond the original streets. The Rabbi resigned himself to the transience of their lives, and arrived at the darkened storefront where the portraits of his students hung. He looked around at the empty street and took a step forward to examine the paintings up close, his upper half bent towards the studio window.

In some ways, he noted, she painted them all the same. Each boy was shaped with angular shoulders and extra bony hands, as if the fingers on yeshiva boys’ hands bent in five places instead of three. But the shoulders and hands were where the similarities ended. The faces reflected the individual students he knew so well, students from around the world that he himself painstakingly selected from a pile of applications. Students he lectured at each morning as they stretched and yawned and picked at the white plastic tablecloths covering the yeshiva’s folding tables.

And yet, staring at the boys in the clean space of a portrait felt like encountering them for the first time. The Rabbi noticed, to his surprise, how young they all were; that their limbs seemed to float in their black hats and jackets, those signifiers of membership they wore so awkwardly and proudly. None of the boys tucked in their shirts, which gave them a haphazard appearance when studied individually, though this quirk appeared organized and neat when they sat before him as a collective in the school building. They all buttoned up the same way, keeping the top button undone so the collars flapped around their throats and the eager protrusions of their necks leaped from their dress shirts.

Taking in each painting, the Rabbi noticed a detail he had entirely missed all those months he walked past the portraits. In the corner of each one, the boys had signed their names in both Hebrew and English as if to approvingly say, Yes, this is me. The Rabbi’s eyes traveled from portrait to portrait and took in all the names scrawled in the corners of the paintings, evidence of something he could not place just yet. Yossi Feldman, Chaim Kornberg, Yitzchak Bogomilsky, Zalman Rapaport. He mouthed each bochur’s name and wondered how this woman’s project had managed to develop so innocuously, completely within his purview.

The Rabbi abruptly pulled himself away, moving faster than he had before. He resolved to email the teachers that evening. He would instruct them, he decided, to forbid the students from visiting the studio on Friday or any other day for that matter. Finally, he would personally visit the studio and ask the woman to take the paintings down.

As he neared his own block, the Rabbi removed his hands from his pockets and slowed his moving feet. He thought of the leaping necks and open eyes. It occurred to him that his bochurim were so unaware of themselves, the way they gingerly posed beneath the artist’s brush, their interior lives never coming into contact with the world’s perception of them.

He thought once again–the thousandth time since the news was relayed to him–of the troubles he was having with Mendel. The Rabbi couldn’t shake from his mind an image of Mendel as a young boy, so similar to those propped up in the window, yet different—drastically different. Mendel was already too conscious of his limbs at that age, and they met the clothing he wore with ease, took up natural residence in the four-cornered frame Mendel carried with him wherever he went, forcing everyone to encounter him as an individual, despite his black pants and greying button down. Mendel possessed a vanity that none of the other boys seemed to know they were capable of discovering—a oneness of body and spirit—and it disturbed the Rabbi to recognize this harmony in his own son. But these boys, these bochurim, they didn’t have to know about the four corners a body could carry around the world with it. The Rabbi wanted his yeshiva boys to live like they didn’t ever imprint themselves on another person’s mind, and it wasn’t right for the artist to take that away from them.

*

At home the Rabbi drafted an email to the other teachers at the yeshiva, and then read the daily portions before shutting off the lights in the various corners of his home. He passed his sleeping wife on the way to the bathroom, and brushed his teeth in the dark, his hands finding the toothpaste and toothbrush automatically. After rinsing out his mouth, the Rabbi paused and then turned on the bathroom light, examining the reflection before him in the mirror. He searched his features for remnants of continuity, something of the past that could be buried in his face. Under his eyes, the veins shone over dark circles, and the hairs of his beard crept so far up his cheeks that the space between his beard and his baggy eyes was almost negligible. The Rabbi tried to wriggle out of his own body and watch the face as though it were not his face at all, but he wasn’t sure how. All he saw was the skin he had breathed and sweated in for so many years, the functional collection of arteries and muscles, and the millions and millions of pores.

The Rabbi shut off the bathroom light and carried himself into bed. His wife turned over to adjust the blankets, and when he saw that she was still awake, he whispered,

“Did you speak to Mendel tonight?”

“No,” she whispered back. “He didn’t call.”

“I’ve decided to stop the boys from visiting that woman’s studio.”

“That’s good,” Baila Rochel said. “They shouldn’t visit.”

“No,” the Rabbi agreed. “They shouldn’t.” Then the two of them fell quiet, each breathing the blanket up and down in their separate beds.

“Baila Rochel?” The Rabbi finally said.

“Yes?”

“Do you ever think about your body?”

“Do I ever think about my body?

“Yes.”

“What do you mean?”      

The Rabbi thought into the silence again. “I mean, if you ever think about how the world sees you, what you look like to them?” It wasn’t what he meant to ask, but it was close.

“All the time,” Baila Rochel replied. “But I don’t really have to think about it, because I already know. Do you notice how people talk to us differently? Like we’re not one of them? Sometimes I’ll be at the grocery store and I’ll hear how the person behind the counter changes their voice when it’s my turn. Everyone becomes politer, more reserved, but kinder too, as if I’m a child.”

The Rabbi hesitated and collected his thoughts again. “I guess I mean what you think about your body, what you see when you imagine yourself.”

“Well, let me think.”

The Rabbi waited.

“I guess I just imagine me,” Baila Rochel said after a while. “My shaytl and my face, and maybe that I look older.”

She paused, and then continued talking, in that slow, absorbed way people talk when thinking about something for the first time.

“It’s always a surprise to think about how much older I look. Whenever I imagine myself, the first thing I see is me before all the children, myself at twenty, but really, I’ve spent more time with my body as a mother, myself after all the pregnancies.” She sat up and looked at him in the thinning dark.

“Why do you ask? Is this about the paintings?”

“I don’t know,” the Rabbi sighed. “I’m really not sure.”

In the morning, Shmuel’s mother called the Rabbi again, reminding him of the unpleasant task he was to take care of that day. Though she seemed to have forgotten about the art classes, at least for the time being, and was calling about an online math program for her son.

“I understand that the yeshiva doesn’t have time for secular subjects,” Mrs. Shapiro said, “but Sam is thinking of going to college someday. He’d like to be an engineer. Maybe he could skip some Gemara in the afternoon and take a math class online.”

“I see, I see,” the Rabbi murmured in response. He wanted to tell her that the Rebbe didn’t support college, or at least only supported college in special cases, and surely not before marriage. But because Mrs. Shapiro was so new he wasn’t sure whether it would be right to tell her. Maybe he could tell the boy one on one. They could speak in his office and the Rabbi would give Shmuel some letters from the Rebbe on college. The Rabbi already knew what the boy would say. He would protest that the Rebbe went to college, the Sorbonne no less, and ask how it could be that the Rebbe went to college and he, Shmuel, shouldn’t be allowed to go. The Rabbi sighed.

“I understand your concerns, Mrs. Shapiro. Let me schedule a meeting with Shmuel and see where he is holding in Gemara. You understand he is a little behind the other students. I will see where he is holding, and try to understand from him what he’s looking for.”

 “Ok, thank you Rabbi,” Mrs. Shapiro said, and she hung up the phone.

*

The Rabbi put on a light jacket and left the house. He headed towards the art studio on Lunt and California, letting his eyes search for another reflection in the storefront windows. Not just the image that existed in his own mind, but the reflection others might see: his black hat, his long beard, the rolling belly, and his dark colored shoes, walking with stiff purpose.  

Inside the studio, the Rabbi dizzied at the colorful paintings overwhelming the small room, paintings papered from floor to ceiling with piles more around the studio. Most of the paintings on the walls were of women, older women, detailed in the same bony, angular way the artist had made the bochurim, except bursting with earthy reds and greens with almost no blue. In the bright, bizarrely colored room, the bochurim stood out like a mistake, the only canvasses lacking in deep color.

“Hello?” the Rabbi called out cautiously, stepping slowly into the packed space.

“Yes, I’m coming! One moment!” A voice shouted from the back room. The Rabbi almost turned around and left. Swallowing the impulse, he placed his hands in his pant pockets instead, and rocked his weight between his heels and his toes, glancing from one painting to the next, and skipping his glance over the ones depicting nudes.        

From the back of the room came the squeak of a faucet, and then the woman herself. She wiped her hands on her long tunic and pushed back her frizzy hair with a breathless gesture.

“Hello,” she said, sounding surprised but not unpleasantly so. “I would offer you my handshake but I know you guys don’t do that.”

The Rabbi smiled politely. “I see you’ve met my students.”

“Oh!” the woman said, her eyes brightening. “So you’re in charge of the school?”

“Yes, I’m the principal.”

“Maybe they told me about you. They’re such sweet boys, you know. When I first saw them walking down the street, I couldn’t tell the difference between them.”

She laughed at herself, and then quickly added, “I don’t mean that in an offensive way.” She held out her hand as if to reassure him, before letting it fall to her side again.

“Just that, well, they all dress the same, and it’s almost impossible to tell any difference from afar. But when I started painting them, I couldn’t understand how I ever mixed them up in the first place! They all seem so different to me now, even in the way they wear their hats or button their shirts, there’s such personality within the uniform. Do you notice that, too?”

The Rabbi had never considered the bochurim to be indistinguishable from one another, or at least not in the way she described.

“Oh!” she said abruptly, jumping up and turning to her back room. “I should show you.”

The artist disappeared into the back and came out again, carrying out a large painted canvas. When the Rabbi saw the beginning etches of his Rebbe, the leader’s likeness taking form in the strokes of paint, he felt something like shock, or maybe anger.

“The boys kept bringing me this man’s photo and asking me to paint him,” the artist explained, chuckling a little. “Do you know who he is?” She didn’t wait for a response. “I told them I would only paint him if they brought me a photo of him smiling. ‘He’s always frowning!’ I said. ‘Why are you always bringing me angry photos?’ But then they brought me this very nice picture of him smiling, so I started painting that one.”

The Rebbe was indeed smiling as he took shape on the big, white square. His eyes crinkled in the corners, and his cheeks bubbled up underneath them, two crescent moons pushed into a smile by the lively mustache and the upturned mouth. The Rabbi could almost hear the sounds of nigunim, he could see the Rebbe’s fist lifted high above his smile, shaking and pushing through the air with enthusiasm, moving together with the livening rhythm. The Rabbi swallowed and buttoned his jacket, a slight shake in his fingers. It wasn’t the woman’s place to paint the Rebbe and bring him to life. From the portrait, the Rebbe seemed to be smiling at him, telling the Rabbi that it was okay, he knew, he had allowed it to happen. It was all part of a master plan, the Rebbe’s eyes winked from the canvas, but the familiar feeling of the doubt prevented the Rabbi from falling into the Rebbe’s image.

The Rabbi turned away from the painting and made as if to leave.

“Please take down the portraits of my students,” he said near the door, “and do not distribute or sell any of them.”

The artist looked at him curiously, warmth still lingering in her face.

“Why?”

“The parents are upset. The students are minors. You have no permission to paint them. Please remove the portraits or we’ll be forced to take further action.”

The woman’s face flushed; whether she was embarrassed or upset the Rabbi could not tell.

“Ok,” she finally said, after studying the Rabbi’s face for a few stifled minutes, searching for a clear emotion. “I’ll take them down.”

*

The artist made true to her promise, and by the next day, his students’ portraits were already gone. In their place stood canvases full of naked women, shoulders peeking out from reds and purples that barely covered their breasts. During morning class the students did not seem considerably changed. They sat and yawned and slouched as they usually did, and a few even asked questions. There was no indication that anything had shifted, that they had ceased to exist outside the world of their own minds. The relative calm that followed the tense events of the previous month gave the Rabbi a mournful relief. He allowed himself to settle into the calm, until a student knocked on his door, bearing the smiling painting of the Rebbe from the day before.

“Sorry to bother you,” the student said. It was Shmuel. He held the painting carefully, like it was holy or still wet. “The woman down the street gave this to me,” Shmuel stretched the painting towards the Rabbi, who didn’t make any motion to accept it. “Have you seen her paintings of everyone? She stopped by today with a crate full of them and gave us each a picture. She said to give this one to you.”

“Thank you, Shmuel.” The Rabbi gestured to a corner on the floor. “You can just put it there. I’ll figure out what to do with it.”

Shmuel put down the picture. The Rabbi leaned back in his chair and folded his hands over his stomach. He returned his attention to Shmuel.

“I received a call from your mother yesterday.”

Shmuel nodded. “She told me about it.”

“Come see me tomorrow and we’ll speak some more. In the meantime, I think you should read the Rebbe’s letters on college. Ask the other boys, they’ll show you where to find them.”

“Ok,” Shmuel said, and he turned to go.

As he watched Shmuel walk away, the Rabbi was interrupted by another memory of his son Mendel at that age, the way Mendel’s shoulders sliced through the air like Shmuel’s. For a second, the Rabbi thought he saw Shmuel’s shoulders blur and then subsequently sharpen, turning angular and rough like those of the portrait that used to hang in the studio window. The Rabbi blinked, and Shmuel’s back straightened out again, the lines became clear and the colors more realistic.   

The Rabbi studied the portrait on his office floor. There, among the Rebbe’s features, the Rabbi saw his own. It wasn’t just the beard they shared, or the shadow of a hat brim. He saw, even in the first sketchings of the deceased man’s image, the sum of his life. Everything he had tried to be, every word or thought he shaped for the past fifty years. There was his father in the Rebbe’s eyes. There was his mother in the crinkles at the eye’s corners. His wedding day, the first day of his job, his children’s faces, his son Mendel underneath the chuppah. All of it rested in the curve of the Rebbe’s smile.

The Rabbi was hit with a disturbing awareness. His leader, his Rebbe, the man smiling from the painting, had become unfamiliar to him. Taking care not to smudge the paint, the Rabbi lifted the canvas and carefully placed it in his office closet. He cleared out any objects in its way and gently positioned the portrait upright so that nothing would crush it.

 

Cover Image: O’Keeffe, Georgia. “A Storm.” 1922. Pastel on paper. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Pornographer Downstairs
by Jax Peters Lowell

Runner Up, Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

Olivia was folding napkins when his voice snaked up through the floor.

Would you rather wear the hood or sit on the dildo?

That was a question Henry had never asked.  

She wasn’t trying to listen but the laundry room was directly above his studio. Sound traveled freely between the building’s hundred-year-old beams, the price they’d paid for industrial charm. She pressed down on the damp cloth with the flat of her hand. Which would she choose? Sitting on a dildo sounded painful. Then again, the hood could be claustrophobic.

The professors upstairs said the pornographer gave the place its edge. “It’s frisson dangereux,” as Alfonso put it, working out the cork in the bottle of Veuve Clicquot they’d brought to welcome Henry and Olivia to the handsome limestone on Broome Street. “This was a cigar factory during Prohibition,” Wolfgang explained. “One rang the second-floor bell, put money in a basket lowered down from the office and voilà! Bootleg whiskey. We think of Vinnie and Candy as the building living up to its past sins.” Olivia imagined this was a story the professors told green freshmen from Paducah and Sioux Falls.

In time, Olivia and Henry would be among the guests watching tango dancers glide across Wolfgang and Alfonso’s pickled floors as college students in black trousers served poached salmon to soft-spoken men who adored the opera. They’d hit the neighbor lottery.  

Upstairs, that is.

Downstairs, a gagging cloud of patchouli seeped up between the boards. The deeply insinuating bass of Barry White added an illicit growl to the proceedings, producing in Olivia a strange nostalgia for heavy lidded boys in studded jeans, for delicious necking in the dim corners of long gone dance palaces.

The pornographer’s wife had hair the red metal flake of a ’57 Buick. The day their furniture arrived, she slouched against her front door as if to invite comparison with the bare-breasted woman sucking toes in the photograph over the peephole. “I’m Candy Palumbo,” she said. “You must be the new people.”  

Henry tried not to gape.

Olivia extended her hand. “We’re the Greys. Olivia and Henry. Our kids are at college now and we thought we’d come back to the city while our bladders are still able to make it through a two-act play.”

Ignoring Olivia, Candy tilted a hip and shot Henry a lascivious look. “Vinnie and I are sensualists. What do you do?”

He went blank.

“He does a bit of everything,” Olivia said. “Buying, selling and restoring antiques, some design work.” This was shorthand for nothing, really. In his Barrow Street shop, he moved things around, kept busy basically. She wasn’t going to tell a stranger he’d been trying to remember what he did for years. Or that he didn’t respond well to provocation. Since the surgery, answering for him, especially when he felt pressure, was automatic. She couldn’t be bothered with those who thought this was overbearing. “I write,” she added, despite an obvious lack of interest. “Some fiction and the odd magazine article.”  

Candy was attractive in a slutty sort of way, pants too tight, sweater cut low, breasts too perky to be authentic. Fine lines and a fading slash behind her ears said she was no baby. All the same, she appeared to have held up well under the X-rated circumstances. Her head bobbed slightly as she spoke; she drew a finger over her gums. The word cocaine formed in a remote corner of Olivia’s brain.  

Henry gave the movers a sharp look as they hoisted their Balinese Buddha past the salacious front door and into the padded elevator. With a practiced Stamford smile, Olivia said, “You and Vinnie must come up for a drink when we’re settled.”

What in the world would she serve a professional sensualist—absinthe?

 

*

 

The cartons were emptied and the detritus of their years in Connecticut was divided and shipped to their grown children, Ada and Jack. Brain surgery may have short-circuited Henry’s memory and seriously downsized his business, but it had not dimmed his eye for design. For the first time in their cluttered lives, Olivia and Henry had room to breathe. Buoyed by being downtown again, they arranged old friends around their long refectory table, set in a pool of light from massive cast iron windows—a reward of sorts for having run the toe-sucking gauntlet.

“Interesting picture in the lobby,” Anna said, passing a platter of grilled figs. “I can’t imagine why anyone would put a thing like that on their front door.”

Henry refilled Anna’s wine glass and pretended to sound blasé. “It’s hard to see her face with that foot in her mouth, but that’s Candy Palumbo, our downstairs neighbor.”

“When we came in tonight, we saw a kid coming out of that apartment,” said Anna’s husband Earl, a sculptor working with found objects. “She couldn’t be more than fourteen.”

“That’s the daughter, Cookie,” Olivia said. “There’s a younger brother, too.”

Magda gave a short laugh as she passed the focaccia.  

“Cookie? Candy? Are they all named for desserts?”

Anna winced. “At that age, I couldn’t bear the thought of my parents having sex, much less coming home from school every day through a door with a picture of my naked mother on it.”

“Isn’t that how we all got here in the first place?” Olivia said. “Through the door of a naked woman?”

At this, Magda’s husband, Hector, a moody psychiatrist with relationship issues, leaned into the conversation. “The symbolism is primitive, but the analogy apt.” Hector was a bit of a jerk, if you asked Olivia, but no one did, so she smiled sweetly and passed the frisée.

A spot of cadmium yellow clung to Anna’s sleeve from her own day’s painting and Earl absently rubbed it, a tender gesture that stirred a prickle of envy. In the time before, work was a secret she and Henry held close.

Earl would not be put off.

“Seriously, Olivia, do you approve of doing that in front of kids?”

“I’m sure they stop working when the children come home.” She realized how defensive she sounded, but they were her neighbors after all, regardless of what they did for a living.

Magda chuckled. “I can see them now. Scrambling to put away their whips and chains before school lets out. Interesting role reversal, don’t you think?”

“Not easy to rebel when your parents perform sex acts in the living room,” Hector added.

“Analysis aside,” Luke said, glowering at Hector. “I think it’s disgusting.”

Henry had been listening quietly to the discussion and now he gave his guests a bemused smile. They were used to his silences and rushed speech, the altered cadences of a mucked-up brain. “People like that…not my cup of tea… give…give the city its edge. I like rubbing elbows with all that. I missed… missed it in Connecticut with its cocktail parties and church Sundays.” He swept an arm over their island of candlelight and food. “I like…like…the mess of this…being shocked, shocked into my opinions.”

As if surprised by the suddenness of his views, Henry sat back abruptly and offered the decanter, a solicitous host once more. The conversation moved on to other topics, but not before Olivia realized, not altogether happily, that he hadn’t appreciated the quiet life she gave him; a life she never wanted for herself.

In truth, Olivia didn’t know what to think of the Palumbos. The kids seemed well adjusted enough. They took out the garbage, walked the dog, and ran a hose over their parents’ Subaru with its license plate, Sex Toy. If damage was being done, she couldn’t see it. Censorship was far more dangerous. Never mind that she found that sort of thing distasteful, she would defend their right to make what they said was art, but Mapplethorpe aside, wasn’t really.

Every morning, a pasty-faced assistant, sun glinting off the silver stud in her nose, rang the buzzer marked Studio. Was she in charge of getting the models drunk enough to do the things they did for the camera? A mountain of empty wine and tequila bottles in the recycling bin seemed to confirm this. Or maybe Vinnie needed the liquor to loosen him up as he zoomed in on a penis, alert and looking for fame.

Said member belonged to an ordinary man with hair the color of weak tea, who chained his bicycle to the No Parking sign out front. Olivia knew this because she had peeked at one of Vinnie’s books on a remainder table. Amazing how average a porn king can look in the flesh. Palumbo, too, was a nondescript man. On the short side with watery blue eyes and a mop of dirty brown hair framing a face unworthy of a second glance on the subway. It was easy to imagine an Italian mother in Queens cutting ravioli dough with a whiskey glass and wondering where she went wrong.

“We’re erotic artists,” he declared one day as they gathered their mail. She resisted the urge to ask how this was different from being a professional sensualist.

In the lobby, signing for a package one morning, Olivia found Vinnie and his son slipping shrink-wrapped books into Fedex pouches. The boy, in baggy sweats, bit his lip as he concentrated on the task. How a ten-year-old, whipsawed by nascent hormones, was able to negotiate the sexually charged atmosphere of that household was hard to fathom.

His father cuffed him on the shoulder. “Sunny, say hello to Mrs. Grey.”

The kid mumbled something unintelligible, avoiding eye contact.  

“That’s Sunny with a U,” Vinnie said, giving him a playful punch. “It’s short for Sunday.”

Olivia had zero interest in knowing why the Palumbos would name a child after a day of the week. Judging from the way Sunny winced and hunkered down on the steps, he didn’t either. His eyes were the same vapid blue as his father’s. Hard to tell if their flatness was studied cool or the evidence of a dull mind. She wondered if his inability to meet her gaze had something to do with the anatomical horrors Alfonso and Wolfgang described hanging in his parents’ apartment.

On the cover of each book, a man wore stiletto heels, a cloche, and nothing else.  His legs were shapely, albeit a touch furry for her taste. The effect of seeing multiple images of her neighbor under his transparent wrapping was that of mild seasickness.

“How clever of you to shrink-wrap these,” she said. “To keep minors from browsing, I presume?”

Oblivious to the barb, Vinnie tapped one of the books.  

“You know what they say…”

“Actually, I don’t.”

“Safe sex!”

Did he realize a child was present; that his child was present?

 

*

 

In February, Olivia was standing at the window, stretching the kinks out of her neck, when she spotted Cookie Palumbo leaning against a parked car crying. In her pink parka, arms hugging a skinny chest, she looked more like a little girl than the tough teenager she and Henry saw darting in and out of the building. Letting in a blast of arctic air, Olivia opened the window and called down to her.

“Are you okay?”

Red-faced and puffy, Cookie squinted up.

“No.”

Olivia had to shout over the blare of traffic.

“In that case, come up. You’ll freeze to death out there.”  

 

*

 

Absurd daytime disruptions had become a fact of life. Arguments over “party favors” and lighting problems associated with tumescence leaked into the Greys’ apartment. One night, a disturbing conversation insinuated itself over the sound machine they’d installed in the bedroom.

“I’m going commando,” Vinnie announced over Henry’s snores and the gentle lapping of Caribbean waves.  

Olivia pictured camouflage face paint, grenades slung from a belt, night goggles, a knife tucked into a boot.

“Isn’t it a little cold for that?” Candy asked, the acid in her tone evident a full floor away.

“It feels sexier, more spontaneous,” Vinnie told his wife. “I like not having to remember where I left my briefs.”

Had she expected fidelity in a pornographer? Had Henry ever gone out without his underpants?

“You can stick your spontaneity and your underwear up your ass for all I care,” Candy yelled.

“You’re just jealous because I’m into my work,” Vinnie shot back.

“You’re a little too goddamn into your work. And if you touch that girl again, I’ll break your face. You got that, commando man?”

Was he referring to the naked girl draped over the handrail on the back staircase when Olivia put out the garbage that afternoon? “Too cold on the roof,” said an unapologetic Vinnie, leaving Olivia to ponder the definition of common areas in their condo agreement. Perhaps Candy was mad at him for warming up this Valkyrie who’d rung her bell by mistake and whispered “Vinnoooshska” in a husky Slavic voice.

It wasn’t until Olivia invited a tearful Cookie Palumbo upstairs that she allowed herself to consider the word girl.

 

*

 

Cookie stood at the door in tight, low-slung jeans and a tiny T-shirt. Slutty like her mother, Olivia was ashamed of thinking. She poured the girl a cup of cocoa, put a few gingersnaps on a plate, and took the stool opposite. Nudging the plate closer to her young guest: “What could be so bad that you’d be out in the cold crying yourself silly?”

“My parents are going to hell.”

“Why is that?”

“Because they won’t embrace Jesus, who forgives all sins, including fornication.”

“Well, they don’t really fornicate, do they? Aren’t they just pretending for the camera?”

“Taking pictures of fornication is the same thing.”

“Don’t actors pretend to do things not in their nature for the sake of their art?”

“There’s a picture of my mother in the living room licking a big leather dildo. You call that pretending?”

“Not my idea of hygienic,” Olivia said, aiming for levity.

A girly pink phone shimmied on the counter. Cookie ignored it.

“Try saying no to a boy with that on the wall. Gross.”

It was gross and Olivia had no business making light of it. If she and Henry could hear the gory details of the Palumbo’s private lives in their own bedroom, God knows what that poor kid had seen and heard.

“I’m sorry, sweetie. Your parents’ work must be difficult to live with.” She resisted the impulse to add, “especially at your age.”

Cookie sipped her cocoa. Olivia’s thoughts wandered to Ada at fourteen; innocent one day, budding sexpot the next, as prickly and unpredictable as climate change. Eager to trumpet some adolescent triumph, she strode into Olivia and Henry’s bedroom and caught them in the act. Naked and in a position no parents should be, they’d grabbed for the covers as poor Ada dove for the door. At breakfast, Ada ate her eggs in silence. His face an incendiary shade of red, Henry pointed out the necessity of knocking on doors. Olivia rattled on about boundaries and adult relationships.

“No big deal,” Ada had said, but anyone with eyes could see that it was.

Cookie nibbled at the edges of a gingersnap. “I should run away. But if I do, who’ll save them?”

“Maybe they’ll save themselves,” Olivia offered.

The poor thing was too young to know that all the love in the world couldn’t save someone who didn’t want to be saved.

“Duh. My father handcuffs his models to the refrigerator and my mother lets him pee on her. Do you think they’re going to heaven?”

The kid had a point.

 

*

 

“You’ll never guess who was here this afternoon.”

Henry put down his magazine. “I guess you’re going to tell me.”

“Cookie Palumbo.”

“The pornographer’s kid?”

“One and the same. It seems her parents are going to hell. Alfonso wasn’t kidding. There really are pornographic family pictures in that apartment.

Henry chuckled.

“Well, Dorothy…I guess we’re not…not in Kansas anymore.”

“You think that’s funny?”

“C’mon, you know how dramatic teenagers can be.”

It had occurred to her that Cookie might be making it up to get attention; something Hector would call ‘adolescent individuation.’ Ada had certainly demonized them at one point, so had her brother Jack. Still, the evidence on the front door was unassailable.

“Maybe so, but what kind of mother lets a fourteen-year-old tattoo Baby Doll on her bum?”

“After she showed you her bum, did you show her yours?”

“Her pants were practically falling off! Then she bent down to pick up her gingersnap.”

“Cookie dropped her cookie?”

“Can’t you ever be serious?”

“I am being serious,” Henry said. “This isn’t…isn’t Stanford. It’s…it’s Bohemia…ground zero for weirdness. Isn’t that why we came back?”

 

*

 

Most days, Cookie arrived at four and stayed until suppertime. She talked of being a missionary in India and in a parallel universe, dreamed of dancing on Broadway, bragging her father knew someone who could get her an audition at Julliard. Always, the conversation came back to her parents’ one-way ticket to hell.

Olivia was rolling out a pie crust when Cookie opened her backpack and slapped several torn photographs of her naked mother onto the counter, creating a kaleidoscope of skin and curls of dough. She held up a sliver of her mother’s nipple. “A kid was selling these. He said they go through our garbage.”

Olivia swept them away.

“They’re only body parts, sweetie. Real love is in here.”

This was worse than useless, but she didn’t know what else to say.

 

*

 

In March, Cookie refused to go to school. All day, she stood on the front stoop or leaned against a parked car. On his third pass, a cop in a cruiser slowed down and told her to move along. Defiant, she told him she had a right to be in front of her own house.

Minutes later, Vinnie took the steps three at a time, his mouth a thin, ugly line. “I’m giving you one minute to get in here.”

The barest tremble in her shoulders betrayed her fear.

He loomed over her, fists clenched.

Watching from above, Olivia was about to call the police when Vinnie backed off and slunk into the house. Cookie, silent and unblinking, did not follow him inside.

Candy appeared, shivering in a thin blouse and mini skirt.

“How could you do this?”

“How could you?”

She slapped her daughter hard. A patch of crimson bloomed on Cookie’s cheek, but still she wouldn’t come in.

Olivia watched with a mixture of admiration and fear. Sooner or later, she had to stop playing it safe. It was another frigid day. She heated a mug of chicken noodle soup, brought it downstairs, and handed it to her young friend.

“Even Gandhi kept up his strength.”

A few hours later, Henry pulled up in a taxi just as Vinnie was giving Cookie a violent shaking. “If you don’t get into this house right now, you’ll be sorry you were born.”  

Henry bounded out of the cab.

“Let go of her!”  

Vinnie spun around and pushed him away.  

“You want to keep out of this.”

Henry did not back down.

Vinnie’s face was inches from his.

“And you want to keep…keep your hands off that kid.”

Neither man moved. Nothing short of a punch would end this.

Vinnie, perhaps thinking twice about adding assault to his long list of sins, stalked back into the building and slammed the door.

Upstairs, Henry shrugged off his jacket, tossed it on a chair, and paced. Adrenalin and electricity came off him in waves. “Did you see that…that cretin? He wanted to hit me.” He stopped outside the laundry room to listen for any threats from below, fingers fluttering up to the pearly scar on his left temple. After the surgery, a sleepy resident swabbed the incision and told Henry, “When this baby heals, you’re going to be one hard-headed mother.”

“Would have served him right if he broke his hand,” Henry said, still pacing. “Forget what I said about…not getting involved. He’s going to hurt…hurt that child.”  

Olivia waited for him to settle and drew him close. This was the man she preferred, not the one who needed to be shocked into his opinions.

The next day, Candy confronted Olivia in the lobby.

“This is your doing.”

Olivia tipped her head in the direction of the pornographic front door.  

“I would say it’s yours.”

“You need to mind your own business,” Candy growled.

“How do you suggest I do that when yours is so prominently displayed? Doesn’t it matter that your daughter is humiliated by what you do?”  

“You think it’s that simple, don’t you?

“I’m afraid I do.”

It was that simple. Choices have consequences. Even in Bohemia.

Candy edged uncomfortably close. “Vinnie knows people,” she said. “People who enjoy their work.”

Two days later, Cookie gave up and went back to school, and Vinnie was back to photographing naked Slovenians on the back stairs. Her after-school visits with Olivia resumed with no explanation or regard for the difficulties of the adults. Olivia no longer wondered how children were beaten, starved, and sexually abused in plain sight. It wasn’t in her to say touched or fondled. “Has your father ever hurt you?”

“He’s got my mother and his whore models for that.”

“What made you go back to school? Did they threaten you?”

“I prayed about it and decided to forgive them. That’s what Jesus would have done.”

“You are an amazing girl, Cookie Palumbo. Do know that?”

“I suppose,” she said, breaking into a rare smile.

 

*

 

In April, Olivia and Magda met for lunch. Fortified with omelets and two glasses of Pinot, they set out for the galleries below Canal to examine apocalyptic Barbie dolls, dead rats in a handbag, and a series of all-black paintings on an equally inky wall. Wonky from the wine, Magda struck a pose in front of a murky canvas. In her standard black uniform, she was nothing but red lipstick and green eyes in the gloom.  Olivia sneaked a photo to post. A few doors down, an exhibition of nudes offered welcome realism. There were bodies bathing, reclining, standing; an entire naked family sat on a tractor. Blood or gasoline leaked darkly onto the pavement.

“How refreshing,” Magda declared. “Art we can recognize.”

Taking a slow turn in the gallery, Olivia was drawn to a lean male nude with upraised arms. Next to it, a large silver gelatin print entitled Nest Egg seemed out of place in the roomful of paintings. At first glance, the central black and white image seemed like a nest. But upon closer inspection, flattened moons of buttocks framed, to put it as delicately as possible, an anal orifice photoshopped into an ovate shape. What appeared to be straw and twigs surrounding the egg was pubic hair.

Magda squinted at it through fuchsia trifocals. “It’s clever in a sordid way.”

“What kind of sick mind dreams up something like this?” Olivia asked.

Turning to the artist’s statement, two words stopped her cold. Vincent Palumbo.

She looked closer. Dark slashes, barely visible, two ll’s and part of an o were all that survived the cropping. And suddenly there was Cookie bending to pick up her ginger snap, her girlish and slightly flat bottom peeking out from low cut pants, Baby Doll tattooed on her creamy, unblemished skin. How long did she have to bend over while he made her humiliation complete? Was this how they would pay for Julliard? Olivia needed to sit down.

“My God, Magda, that’s Cookie!”

 

*

 

It was tempting to make a scene, but she thought better of it. She would call Henry and they would go to the police together. How would they make it clear to people who cataloged sins against children in more obvious ways than this, that they needed to get over to the corner of Broome and West Broadway immediately? Harder still was her own culpability. How could she have listened to Cookie and not intervened? She steadied herself and waited for Henry to arrive. He studied the image for a long time, a muscle in his cheek betraying the depth of his disgust.

“This will get ugly,” Magda warned before disappearing into a cab. “Are you sure you want to get involved?”  

“I think we already are,” Olivia told her.

At the First Precinct, a detective took down their story at a desk redolent of a half-eaten Danish.   

Olivia braced herself for Cookie’s wrath. She would make her understand.

“How could you,” she would accuse.

“How could I not?” Olivia would say.

But there would be no time to explain. In New York State, any hint, rumor, suggestion, suspicion, whiff, whisper, innuendo, insinuation, or intimation of abuse— sexual, physical or otherwise—required the instant removal of minor children from the home. Teachers, social workers, police officers, and judges, considered legal surrogates, faced prosecution if they did not act swiftly. The system no longer needed the Greys. There was no going back.

“My wife is Cookie’s friend,” Henry told the detective.

“I don’t want her to be frightened,” Olivia said.

“We’ll do our best,” the detective promised, escorting them out.

Early the next morning, two uniformed officers and a social worker pressed the Palumbo’s doorbell with its damning photograph and presented Candy, more asleep than awake, with a court order. At first, the gravity of the situation did not register. She held the paper limply as if refusing a package. Respectful, but firm in tone, a woman from Child Welfare insisted she be given access to the children.  

Candy roared to life, howling and clawing.  

One of the cops pinned her arms behind her.

Cookie and Sunny came to the door.   

“Leave my mother alone,” screamed the boy, punching at the officer.

Cookie’s eyes were peeled back to the whites.

Bags packed hastily, coats thrown over their pajamas, the children were bundled into a police cruiser.  

Blind with fury, bathrobe billowing out behind her, Candy ran into the street after the squad car. A taxi swerved and slammed on its brakes. She went down hard. Sprawled on the pavement, robe open and twisted to one side, her blood red hair stood straight up on her head. Oblivious to the nasty gash on her leg, she raged and cursed the receding cruiser, keening piteously. Collapsing into herself, Candy leaned forward to catch a ragged breath and reached for an ankle, most likely sprained in the fall; a motion that caused her pajama bottom to slide down. The words Baby Doll snaked across the rise of an exposed buttock.

Olivia felt her chest constrict. What had she done?

 

*

 

It happened quickly after that. Men in jeans, windbreakers, and IDs dangling from cords, carried out books, computers, thumb drives, and family albums. They removed large framed black and white photographs, each one lewder than the next. As they were hoisted into a waiting van, Olivia felt a mother’s need to cover them up. Vinnie Palumbo was led away in cuffs. A plainclothes cop, putting a none-too-gentle hand on Vinnie’s head, ducked him into the back of an unmarked car. Just before the door slammed, Vinnie found Olivia and Henry in the knot of onlookers and leveled a look of such malevolence they would remember it for the rest of their lives.  

They never saw Candy or the children again.

Candy had said Vinnie knew people, people who “enjoyed their work.” For a long time, they glanced over their shoulders, especially when strolling back from Anna and Earl’s on a warm night, or from some little bistro on the Bowery. “Be aware of your surroundings,” Henry would warn whenever she went out alone.

Rumors flew. Alfonso heard that Candy divorced Vinnie after his sentencing and married a New Jersey wise guy. Another theory put her in Belleview after a meth overdose. Either way, Olivia lived with the harm she’d done. She consoled herself with the notion that even if the model for that grotesque photograph had been Candy, and not Cookie, a childhood like that is never without its cost. Olivia was a mother herself; she did not expect to be thanked.  

In time, a notice of a sheriff’s sale appeared on the padlocked studio downstairs. Henry suggested they bid on it and rent it out to people less unsavory. Chastened by a new understanding of how close against the city’s cheek malevolence could live, Olivia agreed.

 

*

 

There are newlyweds downstairs now—Ava, a clothing designer, and Kareem, a classical guitarist. Arpeggios and glissandos slither up through the wide plank floors, sounds that soothe, rather than disturb. Some days, Olivia is tempted to shout “Bravo!” at an especially spirited riff, but resists the impulse. She’s learned distance can be neighborly. She never deliberately listens, but when she hears the occasional Where’s my blue shirt? or Must we invite your parents?, it’s a relief knowing it’s nothing more than the push and shove of a marriage settling in. Banal and blameless.

She’ll never speak of what she’s seen. What has she seen? She doesn’t know herself. But those nights she can’t sleep, with only Henry’s gentle snoring and the creak and settle of the building to break the silence, there is always Cookie, her skinny arms on the kitchen counter. Part child, part oracle, furious, and forgiving.

Selective
by Phebe TenBroeck Miner

Honorable Mention, Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

I dream that I speak.

Tuesday night: our house has been plucked from Trafalgar Street and moved downtown, so that a river of polyester skirt suits and slouching backpacks shuffle past me instead of lonely Mr. Sherborn and his ancient Great Dane. I stand at our steps and hand out scraps of speech: scribbled notes to Mum; printouts of comments left on YouTube videos and Reddit threads; bundles of text messages, somehow tangible; ripped-out pages of my Ready to Learn! workbooks. I read them out loud as I thrust them at the swarm, broken sentences strung together:

much like the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, which Jefferson
and Romy at 3 today, I’ll just take the RTS back
but the eyeshadow is honestly so creative that i dont think you even need a bold lip. Like its a stronger aesthetic to just accent one part of your face at a time otherwise

Nobody is looking at me. In desperation, I beg people to take my words from me. Hear me, I scream hollowly. Zip me back up. Dream-Milo knows she’s making noise, but the words feel like nothing as they leak out of my throat. No substance, no vibrations. Ooooh, bop bop, good vibrations … such a sweeeeet sensation, my disoriented brain sings to me in the final seconds, and I wake up thinking of Brian Wilson and Marky Mark.

After these dreams, I sit up, take a sip of room-temperature water, swallow, and open my mouth wide. I push out air at different frequencies. I click my tongue, chatter my teeth, lap wetly at my cracked lips. Anything to make noise.

Words don’t come. It is like scooping at an empty bowl, every time.

 

*

 

The first thing I noticed about Romy Meyer-Katz was her hideous glasses. Cheap plastic magenta frames, perched on her face like a joke. They make her look like an off-brand comic book villain. I spend an hour with Romy every Wednesday, and I still have not gotten over those three dollar glasses, cat-eyed and just a little too small.

I go to Romy’s house so that she can read to me. This is not what Mum hired her to do. She was supposed to cure me with “alternative techniques”—Mum’s way of saying that she couldn’t afford to pay real doctors for weekly failure anymore. Mum came with me to the first session, the time Romy wanted us to play with fine white sand in a black plastic tray.

“What do you want us to do with it?” Mum was uncertain.

“Just play,” said Romy, flashing her perpetual encouraging smile. “It’s a form of tactile therapy. Sometimes the sensory distraction allows sound to flow out.”

Laughter bubbled in my lungs. I’ve been to the beach, I told Romy with my eyebrows.

Mum trailed a manicured pinky in the sand, leaving a curve like a C. When I came back alone the following Wednesday, the sand was nowhere in sight.

It took Romy twenty weeks to run out of “alternative techniques”. She acted like the reading idea was something she had worked hard to come up with, but I knew that it was her way of giving up as much as her kindness and determination would allow. Post-sand, post-hypnosis, post-electrocurrent therapy, I showed up to our appointment one day to find her empty-handed.

“Okay.” Romy exhaled and plastered on a toothy smile that dug creases into the rolls of fat on her neck. “We’re going to take a break from physical stimulation, and work on Emotional Response,” she said, like she was trademarking it. It’s amazing to me how people can capitalize words with just their tone or italicize them with an inflection; how sarcasm happens in the ear, not on the page; how emotion carries itself through sounds and becomes a quaver or a crack. Who teaches you how to do that?

“I want you to take the whiteboard and the marker,” Romy continued, giving me instructions she had given twenty times before, “and if something I say makes you think, start writing. Then, if you want, we can discuss that further. Remember to keep your mouth open as much as you can, and try to hum. Okay, Milo?”

The first few weeks, I hated that directive: Keep your mouth open. I felt awkward and dirty, like a supermarket fish. My gums dried out. I kept forgetting and letting it drift shut, which made Romy admonish me in her unbearably friendly way. Now it’s become second nature; I walk into her house with my jaw loose, even though my chin is saying: Nothing but drool and empty air has come out in almost twenty years, what do you expect is going to happen? Romy ignores my chin. She has decided that sound will slip out of my mouth one day, and that my lips had better not be in the way when it does.

She handed me the whiteboard, and as always, I marveled at her huge fingers, the middle one swollen around a silver band. Even her cuticles were puffy, like her fat was running out of places to spread. Then she reached into her purse and pulled out a library book, opening it without preamble. It had no dust jacket, but I recognized the story within minutes of hearing Romy read.

“—light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul—”

How funny to hear Nabokov in Romy’s frank New England accent, when I had always read him in a non-comic mixture of Alan Rickman and Patrick Warburton.

“—gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.” Romy wasn’t a particularly expressive reader, but she pronounced every word carefully and never took her eyes off the book. A smile played at my open mouth. That first session, I wrote nothing; I listened to the first few chapters of Humbert Humbert’s great pedophilic manifesto with interest, and at four o’clock, I picked up my bag and left.

I didn’t think we would continue with the same book every week, and I was right. The next week Romy read selections from Heidi Murkoff’s What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Some excerpts, explicit in their description of bodily function, were clearly chosen to prod an ‘ugh’ from my unyielding throat; others I couldn’t figure out at all. Romy began by opening to a random page, instead of to the first chapter as she had the previous Wednesday. After a while, however, she halted mid-sentence, flipped to the beginning of the book, and began tonelessly reading out the table of contents. This went on for less than a minute before I marked an impatient ? on the whiteboard. She glanced at me and my trout-mouth offering the question mark up to her aggressively, like it was a gift instead of a query.

“Anything you want to comment on so far, Milo?” No.

She smiled as she continued reading.

The next fifteen weeks were a blur of Toni Morrison, Aphra Behn, and Haruki Murakami. There were Western Civilization textbooks, medical journals, a shockingly flowery love letter that Romy claimed her grandfather had written her grandmother when they were teenagers. Memoirs. Old college research papers. Children’s books.

I made the occasional comment on the whiteboard. One word, sometimes two. I didn’t want to give too much, to let the word progress tease the corner of her mind.

Today, Romy holds a sheaf of printed paper instead of a book, and I remember, for a microsecond, last night’s dream. She explains that it is a piece she found on a blog called “Fat Logic.” Her arms wobble gracelessly as she flips through the paper, searching for the beginning, and dread courses in my marrow.

“I don’t understand why they don’t just lose weight, like have some fucking self-respect,” she reads, her voice even. “The worst part is when whales make some bullshit medical excuse. Like honestly if diet and exercise truly won’t work for some reason, then just kill yourself because no one wants to look at you, ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha.” She reads out the machine-gun fire of the ha’s so tonelessly that it is almost funny.

My mouth is closed. She reads for another minute or two before glancing up and promptly reminding me to open it. Instead, I write: Idiot.

“The writer, right? Not me?”

I nod, my mouth shut tight, unable to believe how widely she’s smiling. Creases appear in her neck again, like folded paper.

 

*

 

I take the RTS to and from my appointments with Romy. If Mum isn’t working, she insists on driving me, and then acts so reluctantly that I hate her by the time we park. There’s a Transit stop at the end of Trafalgar Street and another one two blocks from Romy’s one-story duplex in Pittsford, Rochester’s nicest suburb. The twenty minutes on the bus is easier than ten minutes in a car with Mum’s sighs and drumming fingers. Everyone on the RTS is so bleak and disinterested that no attempts at conversation are ever made. Besides, headphones make an effective wall.

The woman staring at me on the way home today has wild red hair and an enormous mole. It sits right where her eyebrows meet, making them look conjoined. I bet she hated it growing up. I remind myself to ask Google: How expensive is mole-removal surgery? Then I manage to tuck away my morbid curiosity.

I think of Romy and her ugly glasses. I think of her boa constrictor ankles stuffed into those white polyester socks, which always peek out from beneath her hundred-inch-waist dress pants. I think of her non-chin; I look at my sharp one in the bus’s wet, filthy window. That silver ring like twine around her doughy middle finger. Romy, all six hundred pounds of her, who read hate aloud to me today and smiled at it. I find myself cowering away from this strength.

Thoughts of Romy’s fat and Romy’s voice and Romy’s smile carry me to my doorstep and fade as I unlock my house. On Wednesdays, my daily schedule of sleeping and reading and withering gets interrupted by our meetings, and by the time it’s four-thirty and I’m back in my bedroom, I’m drained.

Hello, Christopher, I say with my fingertips. Christopher is my eight-year-old Macbook. When I first got him, I wrote a horrendous and thankfully private poem about how he is my voice, my one true friend, my connection to the outside world. Title: ‘Portal’. We were all thirteen once.

I open the Internet, feeling acute relief in the anticipation of losing myself for a while.

Here’s what I love about Reddit: Everything in the world is in there, but you have to dig for it. Each community is like its own commune or city or neighborhood or pep rally, depending on the attitude of the page. My favorite type of post is the AMA: Ask Me Anything. Everyone from biologists to World War II veterans to supermodels to presidents to cult escapees, beckoning questions. Drowning in someone else’s answers: beautiful.

I am Leah Remini, Ask Me Anything about Scientology

I was Goofy at Walt Disney World for over 20 years! AMA!

I’m Apple Co-founder Steve Wozniak, Ask Me Anything!

Hello Reddit, it’s Sacha Baron Cohen, Ask me anything. Apart from for money.

I open Reddit and go to r/IamA, the biggest AMA community. I do what I always do—browse, trying to convince myself I’m not looking for anything specific.

It isn’t like Mum to buy me expensive gifts. I get the feeling that she doesn’t think I deserve gifts, or that I really deserve anything at all. I got Christopher in the first place because she decided she couldn’t keep working three-day weeks in order to homeschool me the other four days. We sat at the rarely-used dining room table and set up my education apps and websites together, finality in her breath every time she exhaled. You can do it yourself. Finally. When she stood up, she shrugged off thirteen years of weariness like a scarf.

The GED subject tests, which I took two years later, were so easy that they made me feel stupid. I told myself that I would take a year off before enrolling in online college courses. I’ve never felt more hopeful and less scattered than I did then: fifteen, finished with high school, and curious about everything. I fell into a routine of reading books and browsing the internet, peppered with an occasional doctor’s appointment. Six years later, I still haven’t fallen out of it.

I took a health class online my second-to-last year of school, though I already knew the basics of conception from Mum’s explanation of her own pregnancy. I am fatherless in the least traumatic way you can be fatherless. When Mum was thirty-six years old and working for a publishing house in Manhattan, she drove to the South Jersey Fertility Center in Marlton, New Jersey and asked them to artificially inseminate her, please. She was given the option of flipping through a book of donors and choosing one based on height, coloring, education, occupation. She refused to even look. Her only request was a donor with the blood type O+, the same as hers. That way, she said, the baby would have a ninety-four percent chance of matching her; that way, she could donate blood or platelets if her child ever got sick.

I don’t know what Mum expected. I think I know what she wanted: a carbon copy of herself, blond and tall and slate-eyed. An affinity for music and math. Rosacea and early grays. It’s like she thought that if she never saw the donor, she could somehow be my only biological creator. I would match her in her best ways and her worst, and we would be best friends; Leona and her daughter vs. The World.

But I let her down the second I was born. I slipped out in a distressing silence, too small and too swarthy right away; my six percent O- rarity immediately denying Mum her one wish. I grew into pale skin, dark hair, small brown eyes. Ugly teeth. Short and skinny, all bony elbows, and far too quiet.

“You barely cried,” she told me in the car, the only place she could ever talk to me, because she was really talking to the windshield. “You used to whine. You used to make this whining sound. Especially when I played music—God, you hated Chopin.” A wan smile.

She told me this story matter-of-factly when I was eleven, entirely unprompted. On our way to a specialist whose office was a two-hour drive away, Mum explained sex to me, then promptly told me that she didn’t need to have it to become pregnant. She spoke plainly and made lots of room for questions, and I still left the conversation feeling confused about parts of it. I didn’t understand, for example, why she had moved to Rochester. The wistful way Mum spoke about New York City seemed incongruous with her decision to move so far away from it. This was one of the few things that couldn’t be my fault; she had moved, she told me, as soon as she found out she was pregnant. Under the assumption that her daughter would be normal, she moved to a smaller, less expensive city, only to discover years later that our unique psychiatric needs would probably have been better catered to in Manhattan.

What she left unsaid: Her pain when people cooed over me as a toddler, only for me to stare silently at them until their smiles faltered. Has she picked up your accent? asked in innocent delight by friends and co-workers. Mum’s grip on my shoulder tightening.

Mum’s puzzling explanation of sex and conception left me with questions that I shelved at eleven and dusted off at fifteen. I blushed as I typed words in the Google search bar only to immediately delete them. mute girl+sex, I began. Backspace. mute girl having sex. What I really wanted to know was whether it was even possible. Or difficult—mute girl having sex+hard?

I pressed enter. The result was such weird pornography that I couldn’t even guess how I was supposed to enjoy it. This experience effectively scared me away—for a while—but left behind a pungent curiosity that was impossible to ignore. After a few more days of wavering between delving deeper or wiping Christopher’s hard drive out of sheer embarrassment, I decided to search for information more carefully—by using the Wikipedia widget on my browser. Less disturbing, less informative. Soon after that adventure, I discovered Reddit. Sudden love story: A Girl and The Internet.

Mum made an effort (once) to care about what I do when I’m alone in my room. It was after our first session with Romy. On the drive home, she decided to speak to the windshield about Christopher and expected me to listen.

“Milo.” She always starts that way—my name, declarative, like she’s about to begin a speech. “I just want to make sure I’m doing my job when it comes to—I mean—like, you’re not talking to anyone online, are you?” A pause, always; it’s like she never gets used to the fact that I don’t answer. “Not talking, obviously, but—typing? I just ask because I feel like I never really briefed you on the Internet—on Internet safety. You don’t give out our address, or anything, do you? Or your last name?”

I turned my head toward her very slightly, glancing from behind my half-lowered eyelids. This is the best way I can roll my eyes without actually rolling my eyes.

Mum’s gaze never left the road, but her right hand began drumming on the steering wheel, out of time with the Brahms sonata humming softly through the radio, which is how I knew she was irritated. Even if our communication is dysfunctional, it is there: we know each other’s slightest movements, can read a finger’s dance and get offended by half a look.

“I just feel,” she continued, her voice thorny and stretched thin, “that you are very closed off about what you do on that damned computer. Lately it’s ten, twelve hours a day. You know, privacy is a privilege, Milo. You understand that.” I can feel her wanting to add Right? to the end of her sentence.

It’s not that Mum and I have many conversations. But during the ones we do have, I always feel like she’s waiting for an answer. After twenty years, she bothers to wait. Is this kindness or delusion? Forgetfulness? Hope?

Eventually, I told her with a fist clenched on my windowsill to leave Christopher and me alone.

Now, I scroll mindlessly through an AMA with the manager of a Petco. I catch myself with my mouth open and I snap it shut, annoyed that this habit has spilled over from Romy’s hours to my own. Discussion in the comment section has turned to pets, and one long, rambling paragraph catches my eye. It’s a guy, u/prestochange_o, who claims his older sister has been neglecting her pet hermit crabs. She brags about them to her friends, prestochange_o frets, but she won’t give them any attention at home. Its like she likes the idea of them more than the crabs themselves. Please help what should I do I cant buy their food myself because I dont get an allowance anymore.

At first I find prestochange_o’s concern genuinely endearing, but something about his story gnaws at me. The hermit crabs dont do much and she complains about it, he writes. Why would she get hermit crabs in the first place, she knows its not the coolest pet but at least its something. I read his comment again and then realize dully that his story reminds me of Mum. I’m a hermit crab. My thoughts are punctuated by a bubbling, almost like a giggle. Only there’s no concerned little brother looking out for me.

I can’t manage despair, but I do scrape up some silent laughter.

I shut Christopher’s screen, letting him warm my thighs. After a while, other people’s stories make me feel too small, make my lungs constrict, and my hands shake.

There’s a reason I don’t search mute anymore. There’s a reason I don’t try to collect sentiments of solidarity from Internet strangers, not for this part of my life. I cast out a wary net once and was so nauseated with myself by the end of it that I never tried again. Need help finding resources for trauma-induced mutism? thread titles pleaded, followed by details of the horrific rape or assault or heartbreak that cut her (almost always, her) vocal chords in two. And your excuse is? my subconscious breathed in my ear, and Christopher’s screen seemed to become blurrier with every indirect accusation.

I can open my laptop and leave comments on makeup tutorials; I can summarize someone else’s opinion on British politics; I can scratch out a perforated analysis of the latest Great Millennial Novel and post it to r/books for digital applause. But I cannot lay down the truth: that I have three meals a day and one whole and healthy parent. That I have privacy and clean clothes, a therapist, a library card. That there is no good reason, physical or otherwise, that I can’t speak. And my biggest secret: that I frantically, bitterly want to.

 

*

 

The following Tuesday night I dream that Romy and I stand next to each other against a wall. The red-haired woman from the bus watches us from a shadow cast by her mole, which has become frighteningly huge.

What’s wrong with you? she asks. I know what’s wrong with her, she continues when I don’t answer, her head jerking toward Romy, whose smile is much too wide. But what’s wrong with you? Why are you here? I look down; we are standing in fine white sand.

You can’t tell just by looking at me, I say, before forgetting how to speak again.

At some point on Wednesday morning, I realize that I’ve never seen Romy stand up before. I have no idea how tall she is.

This week, instead of a thin stack of paper, Romy holds a thick book with a speckled navy cover. It looks like a dictionary, but the spine reads American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

No greeting. No reminder to keep my mouth open. Just a smile, the handoff of the whiteboard, and a nod toward the door signaling for me to close it. I wonder if she is trying silence on for size. Maybe she thinks that if she tastes what I taste, she will understand ‘why Milo can’t speak’, even though no one else ever has.

Romy opens the book, and for the first time, I see a bookmark holding a page hostage. “Selective mutism,” she reads, her head very still, “is an anxiety disorder affecting less than one percent of individuals. It is normally diagnosed by a speech-language pathologist, who will often work with the individual’s neurologist and psychiatrist to—”

My spine goes rigid as a knife. Heat washes over me so quickly that it is a moment before I recognize it as rage. It takes seconds for tears to sting the corners of my eyes, and I am surprised at how shallow in me they lived. I don’t want to hear this, I say furiously to Romy. I say it with the clatter of the whiteboard as it falls from my lap to the carpet, with my balled fists, with the slam of her door.

Outside, I gulp damp air. I scream silently, my neck craned, tears leaking sideways into my ears. I never want to hear any of those words again, I tell myself, and fuck her for trying.

I pace around Romy’s perfect Pittsford yard and move from doctor’s office to doctor’s office, year to year, willing exhalation to magick itself into communication. Angiograms, MRIs, oxygen pushed through tubes that run down my useless throat and invade me. Prodding fingers looking for cancer, for inflamed lymph nodes, for blood disorders. Personality tests. IQ tests. Words whispered to my mother while I sit on ugly cloth chairs in the hallway: Schizophrenia. Anxiety. Chronic pain. Concern in these voices, and derision in others: Attention seeking. Psychosomatic. And the worst, finally, because it meant a diagnosis, which meant that they stopped trying: Selective mutism. Selective. As if I selected this.

Deep breaths.

What do I want?

The question is bursting, desperate, but my answer is swift and clean: I want to get better. I blink. I am calming down. I want to feel like I deserve what I have.

Then you have to try.

The stars behind my eyelids fade away as I work to relax each muscle in my face. After a minute, I turn around and face Romy’s house.

She is standing in the doorway, as enormous and welcoming as land from sea. I feel tears close to the surface again, so I chew my lip to keep them under.

“Come on up, Milo.”

When I reach the top of her steps, I notice that we are exactly the same height.

We weave through the house back to her office. I shut the door as if nothing has happened, settling down on the couch and picking up the whiteboard delicately.

Romy waits, uncharacteristically quiet. No smile, just eyes behind those magenta glasses swallowing me whole. I bite my lip harder—a burst of pain and the taste of coins erupt in my mouth, and Romy absently hands me a tissue for the blood.

The marker is slick in my hand. It feels like Romy’s magnet gaze is picking it up and drawing it toward the whiteboard, even though her eyes never leave mine.

In my head, again: I want to get better.

Then you have to give something.

I uncap the marker. Then I look at her blankly, finally asking for help. Zip me back up.

“Begin at the beginning,” Romy says.

Begin at the beginning.

I hate your glasses, I write.

 

Not You. Not Us.
by Davis Enloe

Honorable Mention, Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize

Because Mack was superstitious about even numbers on execution day, he’d set his alarm for 5:59. He rubbed sleep out of his eyes and swung his legs over the mattress. Three decades with the prison and he’d never used a day of sick leave. Still, he thought, now would be a damn good day to start—a good day to harvest sweet potatoes or paint the bathroom Paula had been on him about. Paula propped up on one elbow and asked if he was okay. He told her he hadn’t slept well.

“Might as well get at it,” he said. “No dodging this bullet. Bad word choice.”

“I know what you meant,” she said.

After showering, Mack pulled a clean Utah State Prison uniform from his closet and sat down at the kitchen table to put on his shoes. Tying off her housecoat, Paula walked into the kitchen with a pair of navy blue socks draped across one forearm. She placed the socks on the table, one beside the other, then smoothed them flat. Mack picked one up, looking for the red thread he’d asked her to sew into the toe, because in his mind, a matching pair of socks represented an even number.

“They pass muster?” she said.

“Can’t be too careful,” he said.

“How you feeling about today?”

“It’s hard,” Mack said. “Doesn’t feel real. If weeping Jeremiah himself had prophesied that Gil would someday ask me to be on his firing squad, never would have believed it.”

He closed his eyes, pulled in a deep breath, then took his time letting it out.

“It’s not too late,” Paula said.

“Is for me.” Mack finished tying his shoes, picked up his hat, and stood. “Is it okay if we don’t rehash this thing? I can’t think of any new ways to tell you had it not been for Gil, my name would be inscribed on that wall. I owe him—plain and simple.”

“I’m trying to support you,” Paula said. “But I think it’s fair to point out you’re not the only person this is impacting.”

Mack rested his hands on the edge of the kitchen sink. Sure as hell didn’t feel like support. Felt like she was patting him on the back at the same time she was sticking an ice pick between his ribs. He wanted to throw his hat down, stomp it, shout, For God’s sake, the man pulled me out of a burning helicopter! Good way to make things worse.

In the crepe myrtle outside the window, two cardinals alit. They dropped down to the feeder, but seconds later flitted back to higher branches. His grandmother had been fond of redbirds. What was it she’d always said about them? Something about—

“Are you listening to me?” Paula said.

“Yes, I heard you.”

“What did I say?”

“You asked me if I’d asked Taylor about being an alternate?”

“And?”

“It’s not like he’s making me,” Mack said, sounding more irritated than he intended. “Warden T. understands soldiers. He’s leaving it up to me, and Gil.”

When Mack walked out to his old Ford pick-up, Paula went with him. She took one of his hands and pulled his arm around her waist, drawing herself close to him. They walked without speaking, pea gravel crunching beneath their feet.

After Mack climbed into the truck and closed the door, Paula tapped on the glass with a fingernail. “Peck, peck, peck,” she said.

Mack rolled down his window. “Sorry I sounded so—”

“Defensive?” Paula said.

Mack shrugged.

“I don’t think you’re at a place to hear this,” she said, “but I’m going to say it anyway. I know you love Gil, but he’s on death row, not you. Not us.”

It stung to hear Paula speak that way about Gil, especially knowing he always spoke well of her. “I don’t even know,” Mack said, holding up both hands, “what the hell that means.” He started rolling up his window.

“It means,” Paula said, “Gil Coker had no damn right dragging you—us—into this.”

*

Mack drove with the windows open, letting the late September air cool down his ire. Paula was a good woman, damn good. On the one hand, she was right. On the other hand, she would never understand the bond between combat soldiers. How could she? He’d never thought about it in terms of love, but maybe, by god, he did love the man. What of it? She’d never served a day in the military. Never so much as set one high heel on a military post. The only enemy she’d ever faced was her husband, and Uncle Sammy didn’t give out “V” devices for beating down your husband.

Instead of the interstate, Mack took a shortcut to Sugar House State Park, a hundred acres of grass, trees, pavilions, and walking trails. In 1855, Governor Brigham Young had opened the Utah Territorial Prison on that land. Later, that institution became Sugar House Prison. In the 1950’s, after Sugar House had been razed, the park was built. When Mack pulled into the empty parking lot overlooking the lake, the sun was burning off the last of the morning mist.

He hated it when things weren’t right between him and Paula. Left him feeling exposed as a coyote crossing eight lanes of traffic. Hell, he owed her, too—all the shit he’d put her through after Vietnam—drinking, gambling, reckless driving. After the bullets had stopped whizzing overhead and the horror had raged on, she’d saved his life, much as Gil had. Give the woman a break. She’s probably terrified that being on Gil’s firing squad could tear open old scars, prompt something that could jerk him back into self-destruct mode.

Mack tried to remember what Sugar House had looked like when he’d visited it as a child with his father, a guard at the prison. To a five-year-old, the massive stone walls, catwalks, and corner towers had made the old prison seem like a castle. More important, it was the only memory he had of his father who died in the Korean War.

“Inevitable,” Mack said aloud. Maybe Gil’s execution had always been inevitable. Had Paula thought about that? Doubt it. Maybe a million years ago God had preordained it. Mack tried, but couldn’t remember where Sugar House’s stately entrance had stood in relation to the vast acres of tomatoes, corn, and field peas that had once grown outside the prison walls.

Twenty minutes later at the Utah State Penitentiary in Draper—a complex of low-slung buildings wrapped in fence and razor wire—Mack parked across the lot from his normal spot. Another execution day precaution. As he logged in at the front desk, a relieved-sounding Officer Nance Phillips told him the warden wanted to see him.

“Say why?”

“No, sir,” Phillips set her coffee down and stood to attention. “Said make sure you got the message.”

Mack liked Phillips. She’d come to the prison from the Army where she’d worked in supply as an armorer. Not only did she know weapons, but she also didn’t talk too much. And for damn sure wasn’t intimidated by male guards. Even six months pregnant, she was a firecracker. “Relax, Nance” he said. “You’re not in the Army anymore. It’s safe. Make that baby anxious.”

“Yes, sir,” Phillips said with a laugh, patting her stomach. “Hard habit to break. Sometimes I think I need desensitization training.”

“How long were you in?” Mack said.

“Eight years. Two tours with Dollar Ninety-Seven. I hear you wore the OD.”

“A couple of lives ago,” Mack said. “1st Infantry.”

“Big Red,” she said, as Mack turned to leave. “Some history there. Captain, don’t mean to speak out of turn, but the old man did seem agitated—pissed, really.”

Mack nodded and asked if the 197th was still with the 24th Division out of Fort Stewart. It was, but there was talk about the brigade getting deactivated due to the big troop drawdown after Desert Storm.

“Here if you need me, Captain,” she said

As he walked down the long hall to the warden’s office, Mack thought about Paula, how she’d put up with the shit he’d dragged back from Vietnam—gambling, drinking. But her tolerance had ended when he flipped his ’70 Chevelle tail light to headlight. She’d refused to sit and spectate while his life played out like a postwar movie tragedy. She’d moved out, refused to see Mack until he got help through the VA. That year had been hell with thorns. Isolation. Depression. Sure as hell not going back there.

But Gil Coker had never struggled—at least not in normal self-destructive ways. Instead of wasting his life drinking, he’d spent years building a plumbing business, sponsored an American Legion ball team. Instead of gambling money away, twice a year he held customer cookouts at Sugar House Park. Solid as Mt. Rushmore. Then, without warning, he goes postal on an old sheep farmer who’d stopped to help him change a flat tire? Bullshit.

At the warden’s office, the door was open. Warden T. sat behind his desk, face scrunched up like he’d swallowed a tablespoon of quinine. Taylor had seen combat in both World War II and Korea. The man had moxie and you damn well never had to guess what was on his mind. In forty years as warden, he had seen everything from an ultralight escape to a hit on an inmate via a transistor radio. Last thing blowing through that fellow’s mind had been Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas.”

The two green metal chairs in front of the warden’s desk were empty. Standing next to one of the chairs, in uniform, was Salt Lake County Deputy Sheriff Curtis Kiley—Mack’s brother-in-law. What are you up to this time, you bastard, Mack wanted to say. Instead, he extended his hand to Kiley. The deputy, thumbs hooked over his duty belt, turned away.

“Have a seat, Mack,” the warden said. “Won’t take long.”

Mack sat, but Curtis remained standing. Hell with him. It had been at least two years since Mack had turned him in for beating an inmate getting transported to the prison. It got him busted from lieutenant to deputy first class, but the fact Mack had fought for him to keep his job so he wouldn’t lose retirement benefits had been lost on Kiley.

“You, too, Deputy,” the warden said.

“I’ll stand,” Kiley said. “If it’s all the same.”

“It’s not all the same,” Taylor said. “Nothing is ever all the damn same.”

Kiley stood in place.

“That means,” the warden said, “sit your ass down or get the hell out of my prison.”

The deputy hitched up his belt, muttered something about professional civility, jerked the second chair back and away from Mack, and sat down.

How long had it been since he’d seen the warden this aggravated—six years ago when Pee Wee Sims escaped in a 55-gallon drum marked as old cooking oil?

“Curtis here,” the warden said, putting one foot on the desk edge and kicking back, “wants to educate me on how to run a proper prison.”

“Now hold on,” Kiley said. “I’m here as courtesy.”

“My lily-white ass,” the warden said. “I know why you’re here. Mack is going to perform his damn duty as assigned. End of drama.”

“Law don’t allow it,” Kiley said, sliding to the chair edge. “Mack on that firing squad is illegal.” Kiley banged his fist on the desk. “Immoral.”

“Remarkable,” Taylor said. “Your mouth letting that word escape.” He pointed at the door. “Time to unass the AO.”

Unass the AO. Mack smiled at an expression he’d not heard since Nam.

With Taylor close behind, Kiley stiff-legged it out of the office. Over his shoulder, he said he would take it to the Salt Lake Tribune. All the way to State Street.”

“My career can take the hit,” the warden said. “Can yours?” After closing the door, he opened it again. “I was warden when your mama was wiping mustard shit off your tiny balls.”

At a table behind his desk, the warden poured coffee. “Like that SOB reads the Tribune,” he said. On the wall above him hung a framed piece of yellowed embroidery that read: When we remember we are all mad, the mysteries disappear and life stands explained ~ Mark Twain.

“Boss,” Mack said, taking the cup of coffee offered. “Don’t mean for this thing to cause you grief.”

“Kiley?” the warden said with a hand wave. “That’s not why I needed to see you. Good, though, you got to see Curtis take his best shot. And speaking of shots, the execution is stayed. Governor’s taking the weekend to scrub his conscience clean.”

“Understandable,” Mack said, feeling like he’d also received a stay. “This whole thing has moved like prairie fire.”

“Damn sure has. Almost fast as Gilmore in ’77. That one took six months from crime to casket—or in his case, urn. Looks like Coker will have his time in the Romper Room inside a year.”

Spinning his chair back around to the table, the warden stirred in more creamer, his spoon clinking against the porcelain. Early summer mornings, Mack’s grandmother had sat on her screened back porch, stirring honey into her tea, clinking her spoon. The redbirds had seemed to appear on cue.

“That’s the lesser half of what I wanted to talk to you about,” Taylor said. “When’s the last time you pulled the trigger on one of God’s creatures?”

*

Gil’s breakfast sat untouched on one end of his bunk. On the other end, he sat with his face in his hands.

“Tough morning,” Mack said, thinking Gil looked ten years, not ten months, older. His hair was thinner and he’d lost more weight.

“Had my mind right,” Gil said. “Prepared to go. Now the waiting starts all over again. Waiting for the VC to hit the concertina in dead-dark was easier than this shit.”

“Anything I can do?” Mack said, looking around the cell lined with paperback books; copies of westerns by Louis L’Amour, an assortment of Stephen King novels, and other classics.

Gil pulled a manila envelope from under his pillow. “My will. Hope you don’t mind me not asking beforehand, but I’d like for you to be the executioner—executor.”

Both men laughed nervously.

“You’ve already asked,” Mack said. “I accepted.”

“Executor?”

“Both.”

“Sell everything,” Gil said. “Write a check to Strick’s widow.”

“She still rejecting your letters?”

Mack picked a book up off the floor, A Tale of Two Cities. He fanned absently through the pages, then tossed the book on Gil’s bunk.

Gil nodded. “I understand her thinking, but I need to at least try, right? If she balks on the money, ask if it’s okay to donate it to charity. Maybe that place for vets on Foothill. Where, is your decision, but I want her to know I’m doing the right thing even if she can’t see it now.”

“All you can do,” Mack said, balancing the envelope in his hands the way you might hold an offering plate. Was this what a good man’s life had come to, a manila envelope guarding a few sheets of paper?

“Buried behind the barn are some old coins,” Gil said. “An uncle I never knew left them to me. They’re double sealed in plastic inside an ammo can. A map in your envelope there will show you where to find them. I’d like to think you’ll take them and do something nice for you and Paula. Get the hell out of Utah—some place with blue water. But I understand if you feel they’re tainted, if you’d rather donate them.”

Mack shrugged. “Maybe a homeless shelter. I don’t know. I haven’t judged you, Gil. That’s not to say I’m not still confused about what happened.” He hoped Gil would tell him how the shooting of Strick Cotton had gone down. Had something set off a chain of events? Strick was known for his temper—good-hearted, but cantankerous as a billy goat.

“Remember the day you reported to Fort Riley?” Gil said.

“I remember,” Mack said. Of course he remembered how excited he’d been about his assignment to a post rich in both military and American history: Custer, Patton, Joe Louis. Hell, even Mickey Rooney had passed through Riley. “But you’re changing the subject, again.”

“You were like one of those newborn wobbly-legged wildebeests,” Gil said. “First thing you did was rush through the door at HQ and knock Sergeant Eckerd’s coffee cup out of his hand. He got that cup from Westmoreland, when Westy was light colonel. You broke the man’s cup and spilled hot coffee on him at the same time. Now that was an ass chewing for the history books.”

Mack chuckled. “I knew Eckerd from Platoon Leader’s Course at Upshur. Candidates called him Sergeant Crazy. Every time he stormed into the barracks: ‘On your feet, crazies!’ He would spot a crowd of candidates milling around and bowl through them. ‘Out of my way, crazies!’”

“What ever happened to that old bastard?” Gil said.

“Last word, Crazy was captaining a lobster boat in Maine.”

For a while, Mack had kept up with the platoon. Most had gone back home to Iowa cornfields and Carolina tobacco farms. Woodson last sent a postcard from the North Slope where he worked on the pipeline. After graduating from Puget Sound on the GI Bill, Renton went to work for Boeing designing the SST’s antenna. Simpson resettled in Texas, then drowned saving someone else’s child at a birthday party.

The two chatted, exchanging stories, challenging the other’s memory. It was good to hear Gil reminiscing. Memories were all he had left. Soon, even those would be gone.

“Remember that FTX—the big one before we shipped?” Gil said. “That kid from back east—one talked more shit than a Hong Kong radio?”

“Catha,” Mack said. “And I know what you’re about to say.”

“Always sneaking a smoke, bragging about how good a shot he was.”

Mack tried to remember what Catha had looked like. What had his voice sounded like? Had he been short or tall? Tall, Mack thought. And Gil was right—the kid never stopped jabbering.

“From somewhere in New Jersey,” Mack said.

“We ever figure out,” Gil said, “who dropped that bullsnake into his sleeping bag?”

Mack missed those days before combat, when soldiers were naïve boys checking gig lines and polishing their low quarters for a command inspection, before the bullets zipped overhead like hornets on suicide missions.

Mack shook his head. “Always figured it was Bradley.”

“Sounds like him, always fucking with somebody. Catha kicked like a silverback gorilla though, didn’t he?” Gil said. “Nothing left of that bag but a brass zipper around his neck.”

“Stood there naked,” Mack said. “Breathing like a Russian racehorse, sweating like a November pig. Duck down stuck all over his sweaty face.”

Gil grabbed both his knees as he laughed. “But damn,” he said, “that boy could shoot.”

Laugh, Gil, Mack thought. You’ve only got a few laughs left. Probably count them on one hand, won’t need all your fingers.

“You know he was first in the platoon to get Glad-bagged?” Mack said, remembering then how Catha had been so tall they’d folded his legs to fit him into his body-bag.

“Had to light a damn Marlboro at an OP,” Gil said. “No kicking his way out of that bag.”

Newbill, a guard on suicide watch, walked by and looked into the cell. “Just checking, Captain,” he said, then nodding at Gil. “Guess your ass feels like it’s hanging on a meat hook somewhere between heaven and hell.”

“Something like that,” Gil said.

Newbill asked Mack what was up with Curtis Kiley sticking his nose into prison business. After Mack told him those kinds of things had a way of working themselves out, the guard moved on, muttering something about Kiley needing his ass reassigned to his face.

“This thing has played itself out,” Mack said. “Governor taking a weekend is typical, but there won’t be another delay. It’ll happen on Monday. We’re down to me asking the same question: anything I can do for you?”

Mack studied Gil’s face, creased from months of worry.

“One last thing. If you can’t do it, I’ll understand.”

“I owe you my life.”

“You don’t owe me a damn thing,” Gil said. “And I’m not saying I deserve what I’m about to ask.”

“Let’s have it then,” Mack said.

Gil had the look of a man who had come to a crossroads, but had accepted the difficult path that lay ahead.

“I want to go out of this world at the hands of a man who knew me at my best, a soldier that served with me in combat.”

“You are,” Mack said. “Warden has no problem with me on the firing squad.”

“Here’s the wrinkle,” Gil said. “I want you to make certain, promise me, you’ll fire a live round.”

*

By seven o’clock the next morning, Saturday, Mack was sitting in a tree stand in the wooded hills east of Salt Lake City. He had driven as far as he could along an old mining trail, shoulder-slung his Winchester 88, and hoofed it a half mile deeper into the woods. As a teenager, he’d often camped here, alone, wondering what it would have been like had his father survived Korea and they had camped there together.

As he positioned himself and his rifle on the tree stand, he thought about the promise he’d made himself after Nam—to never kill another living creature. If his father were here, what would he tell him? The warden was right to question him, because when Gil first asked Mack to participate in the firing squad, it had seemed simple. He’d hung his hat on the possibility of getting issued the one blank round. It wasn’t that the idea of shooting a friend ever seemed easy, more pulling a trigger itself was an uncomplicated thing. Now, even that seemed impossible. And who was he fooling? Not only would the blank bullet produce no recoil, it would sound different from a live round. The man who fired the blank would know it as soon as he pulled the trigger. Even if the peculiar sound of the blank was swallowed up by the noise, the other lightweight 30-30 rifles would kick like mules. Still, before Gil had tossed a wrench into the gears, a twenty percent chance of getting the blank round had felt like a back door.

When Mack heard the snort, he didn’t need to look to know a deer was nearby. From the sound of it, a large buck. He rolled the safety off with his thumb, slowed his breathing, and waited. A few seconds later, the buck walked into the clearing. Not as large as Mack had expected, but broad-chested, muscled. Rack, six-pointed and symmetrical. It deserved to live, Mack thought, but like three decades earlier when he’d crouched in a muddy fox hole on

Hill 177 in Southeast Asia, he eased the 30-30 to his shoulder and nestled his cheek onto its stock. And like decades earlier at the Quantico firing ranges with Sergeant Crazy in his ear, like hundreds of times in Vietnam, he inhaled, aligned the rifle’s sights, and followed the line of the deer’s front leg. At the end of his exhale, Mack held his breath until the rifle steadied. The deer collapsed where it stood.

Mack didn’t move. He’d expected it to be harder to pull the trigger, if he could do it at all. But it had been automatic. He’d not hesitated. His hands had not shaken. In fact, it had been easy—too damn easy. Had it been that way when Gil shot Strick Cotton? Had Gil, without thinking, eased the rifle to his shoulder as naturally as Mack had just done? Like the deer, had Strick dropped where he stood?

As Mack cut a couple of saplings to fashion a travois, he thought about the afterlife. He wasn’t a religious man, but couldn’t help but wonder why, if mankind had a soul, every living creature didn’t have a soul. And what was up with soul belief anyway? If there really was a God, and a soul, then what was the big deal about dying? If people lived forever in another dimension, why was everyone so damn scared of dying?

After field dressing the deer, Mack dragged it out of the woods. If humankind was created in the likeness of God, then surely God was disappointed. Because what kind of god felt good about creatures of their own making who went on to produce weapons used to hunt other humans?

At the truck, he lowered the tailgate, heaved the deer into the bed, and headed back to Salt Lake. An hour later, he dropped the deer off at a local abattoir with instructions to donate the processed venison to the homeless shelter.

*

As soon as he pulled in the driveway, Mack knew something was wrong. For starters, Paula was sitting on the front porch. She only did that when she was waiting to talk to him about something important, and usually something bad. Plus, Paula hated the cold and it was damn chilly. Yeah, this was going to be a doozie.

“Someone die?” Mack said.

“Curtis called.”

Mack grimaced. “Lovely conversation, I’m guessing.”

“He says you’re going to lose your job if you participate in Gil’s execution. That he’s got a meeting with someone in the governor’s office Monday morning. He says the warden is violating state law by having you on the squad—you being Gil’s friend.”

Mack sat down on the top step. He hated it when Paula was anxious. It made him feel responsible. Even if she didn’t understand about soldiers, she didn’t deserve getting dragged deeper into this mess.

“He said you would lose your retirement benefits.”

“He’s upset you?” Mack said. “He’s bluffing. We’re not violating law. Varying from normal procedure, maybe, but not law. He’s scaring you to get revenge on me.”

“I know this is important to you,” Paula said, “but our retirement years are important to us. I just wish there—.”

“Want me to tell Gil I won’t do it?” Mack said

Paula sat down on the step beside Mack.

“Not,” she said, “if you can’t get to that place on your own.”

The hell did that mean? What place? A place where Gil no longer mattered? Mack felt as if he were serving a dozen masters: Gil, Paula, God, Warden Taylor, Curtis, and his own damn prickly conscience. What was right and what was wrong, anyway? Consensus? Like the mob ever got anything right. If he wanted to act outside what other people thought was normal, that was on him.

“I don’t think I can,” Mack said, annoyed with Paula, then annoyed with himself for not trying harder to see Paula’s side. “Curtis is a bitter bastard that’s miserable unless he’s in conflict with something.” Why had he said that? Even if true, and it was, what the hell could Paula do about it?

“Isn’t it possible that that’s true,” Paula said, “and Curtis is still right? And I wish you wouldn’t call him that name.”

Jesus. Paula always defended her little brother when everyone else recognized him for the asshole he was. A grown-ass man shouldn’t need protecting. This was hard enough. Hell, Mack didn’t even know how he was going to sneak a bullet into the execution chamber; how the warden would react if Mack was caught with a live round not prison-issue. Maybe he should take a chance on getting issued a weapon with a live round. Gil would never know one way or the other.

After the two sat a while, Paula placed her hand on his shoulder. “Dinner will be ready in fifteen minutes.”

*

The next morning, after a Sunday breakfast where Mack had made a special effort to be nice, he headed to the prison to visit with Gil. Paula had said little at breakfast and the tension between them had felt like an electric fence waiting to be touched. He should not have called Curtis a bastard, at least not in front of Paula. He’d wanted to say he was sorry, but feared an apology would only introduce more tension, cause another spat. He suspected Paula felt the same way, that both of them had decided to leave the matter alone.

*

Gil Coker sat with his hands clasped between his knees. “It’s not that I want to die,” he said. “Scares the hell out of me. But it’s what I deserve—for what I did. I’m not trying to make a statement. I’m not a hero poster boy for death penalty folks. Just trying to do the right thing.”

“You were the best platoon sergeant a butterbar lieutenant could have asked for,” Mack said. “The best, period. You never once faltered under fire. I saw you, in the worst conditions, take care of boys too scared to piss in the jungle, but something’s not right. Something that, if you remembered it, would cast this whole thing in a different light.”

“Maybe there was a gunshot?” Gil said.

“What do you mean?”

“This can never leave this cell. I need you to respect that.”

“If that’s the way you want it,” Mack said, but still hoping he was about to hear something that might justify the warden requesting another stay.

“Every once in a while, I think I remember I heard a gunshot.”

“You think you remember? Your gunshot?”

“No, I don’t remember shooting Strick. I may have heard a gunshot, from a hunter in the hills—off the road, but close. I’m not saying I did, but maybe. Something—that gunshot in the woods I may not have heard—caused me to crouch. I was in a foxhole in the jungle outside Tra Noung. You following me?”

Mack nodded. He was following Gil, but wasn’t sure he wanted to. Not back to Vietnam, not back to that suffocating jungle.

“Things smelled of wet canvas, gun oil, rotted leaves, and that nasty sucking mud. Insects, biting, stinging. The birds had disappeared. The canopy was thick with shafts of light here and there. There were sounds, movement through the undergrowth. A centipede, one of those red-headed foot-long ones with orange legs, crawled over my arm. Seconds later, artillery shells—not light-ass 105’s, but eight-inch 200-lb bastards sounding like Superman flying over. But no impacts—no explosions. I think when I realized no artillery was exploding, I came back to Utah, to the present. Does that make sense?”

“I’m with you,” Mack said. As he listened to Gil, he felt the press of the jungle. A wave of anxiety came on, as if he’d been transported back in time and set down in a firefight, into an immobilizing gut-churning fear of not knowing if you were going to be alive three seconds later.

“You ever experienced anything like that?” Gil said.

“No, not exactly,” Mack said. “For me, it’s a weight I can never set down. Sometimes, I feel like a dumb animal pulling a plow through red clay. Loud noises make me jump like hell, cause me to get jittery, irritable. Then I’m hell to be around until I talk to Paula about it.”

“I never did,” Gil said. “Not before this. But once I realized where I really was, I crawled out of the drainage ditch. Whole thing lasted less than thirty seconds. Strick was lying behind my truck beside the flat tire we’d pulled off. He had a bad chest wound, the kind in Nam no one ever survived. Mack, I don’t even remember getting my rifle off the back seat, but there I stood with it tucked against my shoulder. And there he was bleeding in the grass. Dead, and I don’t remember shooting him.”

“You never told the police or your attorney?” Mack said. “This could get you another stay. Give us time to put together an appeal.”

“No. I don’t want another stay. I don’t want to appeal. I want you to listen. First, I’m not sure it happened. Even now it seems like I’m making it up as I go along—like I’m inventing a cover for what I did over there. But more important, an excuse for things I allowed to happen in country, in the name of keeping soldiers safe. Those things have to be atoned for.”

Mack wanted to say he didn’t understand what the hell Gil was talking about, but he knew exactly the weight of the pain—the pain of the weight. “You did your job,” Mack said, knowing that wasn’t what Gil needed to hear. “You rendered to Caesar. That’s what was asked of you, like everybody else.” What Gil needed was absolution, but not from Mack, a soldier who’d wrestled the same horrors. Where was a god when you needed one?

“It’s not that simple anymore,” Gil said, wrapping his arms around his stomach as if it was hurting him. “You think it’s possible,” he said, “to be sorry for one set of reasons, and for another set, be proud of the same things you’re sorry for?”

“I truly don’t know,” Mack said, not sure what Gil meant. “What do you think?”

Gil bent over his knees and started to rock.

“Used to think it,” Gil said. “Now, I think I was telling myself what I needed to hear on the inside to tolerate living with me on the outside, with things I did.”

Gil started rocking harder, arms tighter around his stomach like something terrible was eating its way out of him.

“I’m afraid to die for what I did,” Gil said. “Maybe there really is a God. A God that says we should have known better, that says there’s no excuse for killing boy-soldiers in a foreign country we had no business in, no justification for dropping mortar rounds on villages we knew damn well were full of women and children.” Gil was crying now. “I just don’t want to answer for eternity for things I did in Vietnam. That’s all hell is, Mack—facing the pain you’ve inflicted on innocent people.”

Fucking governments, Mack thought. Good at convincing young men to die for causes. Every damn war cemetery in the world was filled with headstones of children. Boys eager to have their souls stamped with the words honor and valor. Gil had been the best of the best and here he sat, tearing his own soul apart. Having nothing else to offer, Mack slid closer on the bunk and wrapped his arm around Gil’s shoulder.

*

Eighteen hours later, Mack stood with four other prison guards outside the weapons vault in the prison’s supply room. Earlier that morning, he’d apologized to Paula for calling Curtis a bastard and then compromised by agreeing he would not try to slip a live round into his rifle. Hell, maybe he would not even pull the trigger.

With practiced precision, Nance Phillips issued weapons to the execution squad.

“These weapons are loaded with a live round, one each,” she said. “Once you’ve fired your weapon, Do Not—I say again. Do Not—eject the round. I will collect the brass when I receipt the weapon back from you. I’ll escort you to the Romper Room. I’ll be outside during the execution. I’ll walk you back to the supply room for weapon turn-in. Any questions?”

The group of five glanced at one another and shook their heads. Someone asked who would give the signal to fire. “Just like you practiced,” Phillips told them. “Nothing is changed.” The warden would give a preparatory command of ‘Ready;’ then an execution command of ‘Fire.’ “Good to go?”

The group said they were.

“Jenkins. Sign here,” Phillips said, shoving a clipboard with a hand-receipt at a guard. “I get my weapon back, you’ll get your hand-receipt back. For some baffling reason, you’re able to leave this prison with my weapon, you’ll owe me for one 30-30 Winchester.” She repeated the hand-receipt process for the other three guards until she came to Mack. “You know the drill, Captain,” she said. “One signature, one weapon.”

Mack signed the hand-receipt and handed her back the clipboard.

“God, I think I’m going . . .” Officer Phillips said, and then collapsed against Mack. As he struggled to hold her up, she grabbed him by the forearm and slipped a round of ammunition into his hand. “From Warden T,” she whispered. Then, “Sorry, Captain. Time to time, dizzy spell catches me.”

The other guards hurried to help, but quickly as she had swooned, she was upright.

“I’m fine, guys. Really. Hands off. Let’s get to the chamber.”

“Jesus, Phillips,” one of the guards said. “Scare the hell out of us, why don’t you.”

The guards shouldered their weapons and walked single file to the execution chamber. When Phillips loudly reminded the guards to not eject their round after firing, Mack chambered the live round into his rifle. The closer they came to the execution chamber, the quieter the squad became. By the time they arrived at the door, the group was silent. Warden Taylor was waiting in the hall.

“Any regrets, say it now. After this door,” the warden knocked on the door leading into the execution chamber, “no one leaves until after the deceased’s body has been removed. Phillips will tell you when. Second thoughts?”

There were none. The warden opened the chamber door and motioned the squad inside.

The room smelled like crayons, reminding Mack of why the guards called it the Romper Room. The smell reminded Mack of the grease pencils they’d used in Vietnam to trace on plastic map covers. On one side of the concrete execution chamber was a large wooden chair bolted to the floor. Thick leather straps hung from each arm and from the front legs. Stacked in a U-shape around the chair were stacks of sand bags to absorb the bullets. The squad entered a smaller room across the chamber. Inside, there were five eye-level firing ports that opened into the execution chamber. The ports were big enough to poke a barrel through and aim, but too small to see much else.

“Barrels through the ports, keep your safeties on until the ready command,” Warden Taylor said, and then closed the door.

The small room was hot and stuffy. Someone passed gas and someone called them a nasty ass. Mack told them to knock it off. With the door closed, the only light was what filtered in through the firing ports. Mack unslung his rifle. He knew the M16 military round travelled at 3100 feet per second. He figured the heavier, blunter 30-30 bullet would travel slower, say 2500 feet per second. The firing squad members shuffled their feet and spoke in hushed voices. A minute later, the warden announced, “Soldier walking.”

By Mack’s calculation, the bullet would cross the 20-foot execution chamber in less than 1/125thth of a second. To measure how long it took to blink, Mack blinked several times. Seemed less than half a second—maybe slow as a quarter second. Much faster than the human eye can blink, lumps of lead would soon tear five holes through Gil’s heart. Seconds later, if not sooner, he’d be dead.

Through his firing port, Mack could see Gil’s waist as he shuffled across the chamber. He wanted to speak to him, to say he was forgiven, remind him that he loved him, but it was too late—wrong place, wrong time, wrong fucking century. Besides, who was he to forgive anybody? Soon, Gil would pass from this earth, taking with him his memories, hopes, disappointments, successes, failures.

The escort guards strapped Gil into the chair. Gil thanked them for treating him well while he had been incarcerated. “Welcome,” one of them said.

Was Strick’s widow there to witness? If it would help her heal, Mack hoped she was, but then he hoped she wasn’t, that she would not put herself through the ordeal of watching a man shot to death even if the state had ordained the killing. Gil had hurt a lot of people by killing Strick Cotton: his widow Maddy, their children, grandchildren, friends—all of them would live the rest of their lives with holes torn in their hearts by the bullet Gil had fired.

The warden asked Gil if he wanted to say anything and Gil said he did. Mack imagined Gil looking through the glass window into the viewing section, straining to see into a semi-dark room full of shadows.

“I don’t ask Mrs. Cotton and Strick’s family to forgive me,” Gil said, his voice quivering. “Too much to ask. I am sorry to my core, but I know being sorry is an insult to the life I took . . . and that’s why I’m here.” The warden asked him if he was done. “And to the soldiers I served with,” Gil said. “If I’ve let you down, I’m sorry for that, too. That’s all, Warden. Send me.”

The warden kicked the door, then opened it a few inches. Light fell across the grim faces of the men inside. They pulled their rifles to their cheeks. “Safeties,” someone said, and the five guards placed their thumbs on their weapons’ safety switch.

Through his firing port, Mack sighted his weapon on the three-inch circle of white paper pinned to Gil’s chest. He thought of the story Gil had once shared in Vietnam of him gathering hay with his father on their cattle ranch in Wyoming. He’d told of the vast acres of tall green grass, clear-running streams, and air so clean it hurt to breathe it. His father had sounded like the kind of father Mack had never known. A war had taken Mack’s father and now a different kind of war was taking another father’s son. Maybe it was best Gil’s parents had already passed.

“Forgive me,” Mack whispered, sending his request out to Gil, to Gil’s father, to his own father, to God, to anyone or any entity in this or any other universe that cared.

“Ready,” the warden said. Five safety levers clicked off.

*

Through the window, Mack watched several birds, wrens, he thought, flitting around the vehicles hauling luggage to the plane. A second later, they were gone. In the seat beside him, Paula opened a travel guide to Vietnam and unfolded a map of Hanoi.

“You think Maddy Cotton,” she said, “will ever forgive Gil?”

Mack didn’t answer. It had finally come to him what his grandmother used to say about birds, that her loved ones came back as redbirds. He smiled at the thought. Hell, maybe good people like Grandmother got to come back as cardinals, but what about bad people, or good people who’ve done bad things—like Gil. No self-respecting god would recycle a murderer. But maybe Gil wasn’t a murderer and the whole damn thing had been a casualty of war.

“Did you hear what I said?” Paula said.

“Of course,” Mack said, struggling to remember.

“About Maddy ever forgiving Gil?” she said, elbowing him in the side.

“I was just about to say that it didn’t seem like it when she tore up Gil’s check.”

And what about Strick Cotton? Mack thought. It didn’t seem right that both the murdered and murderer would be given the same second chance. He wondered how Warden T. was enjoying the retirement forced upon him by Kiley’s complaints to the Tribune. One head to please the masses, the damn governor had demanded for failure to follow procedure, for letting a friend shoot a friend. At nearly 80-years-old, Taylor had volunteered to retire—as long as Mack was left alone. A soldier’s soldier. Finally got your revenge, didn’t you, Curtis. Bastard.

Mack glanced at Paula to make sure she had not somehow heard his thought.

The wrens were back. They landed on top of the luggage hauler beneath Mack’s window. What did he know about God, or God’s will, or, for that matter, any damn thing. If God wanted to send Gil back, hell, as a damn yard chicken, so be it. But in his next life, don’t ask him to wage war. War: the gift that never stops giving.

“Is someone from the orphanage going to meet us at the airport?” Paula said, tracing the map with her finger until she came to the orphanage.

When Mack didn’t answer, Paula gently elbowed him in the side.

Yes,” Mack said, protecting his side with his arm. “I heard you—and a representative from the US Embassy.”

“This money is going to mean a lot to those kids,” Paula said, folding the map and tucking it back inside the travel guide.

Cover Image: Goya y Lucientes, Francisco de. “The 3rd of May 1808 in Madrid or “The Executions.” 1814. Oil on canvas. Museo Nacional Del Prado.