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Putting Clothes on a Skeleton

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PUTTING CLOTHES ON A SKELETON
BY
TRISHA MARIE COWEN
BFA, Emerson College, 2009
THESIS
Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for
the degree of Master of Arts in English
in the Graduate School of
Binghamton University
State University of New York
2010
UMI Number: 1484213
All rights reserved
INFORMATION TO ALL USERS
The quality of this reproduction is dependent upon the quality of the copy submitted.
In the unlikely event that the author did not send a complete manuscript
and there are missing pages, these will be noted. Also, if material had to be removed,
a note will indicate the deletion.
UMI 1484213
Copyright 2011 by ProQuest LLC.
All rights reserved. This edition of the work is protected against
unauthorized copying under Title 17, United States Code.
ProQuest LLC
789 East Eisenhower Parkway
P.O. Box 1346
Ann Arbor, MI 48106-1346
© Copyright by Trisha Marie Cowen 2010
All Rights Reserved
iii
Accepted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for
the degree of Master of Arts in English
in the Graduate School of
Binghamton University
State University of New York
2010
November 10, 2010
Prof. Jaimee Wriston Colbert, Thesis Advisor
Department of English, Binghamton University
Prof. Susan Strehle, Second Reader
Department of English, Binghamton University
iv
Abstract
Putting Clothes on a Skeleton is a short story collection that surveys the lives of
six markedly different individuals: a young Native American girl stuck to the memory of
her dead twin sister, a disabled immigrant about to become a father to a child in America,
an old woman locked in a mental institution that dreams only of escaping, a man who
loses his wife to the War on Terror, a lesbian couple trying to find peace in a nursing
home that would rather split them up than see them together and finally, an African
American teenager that has just lost his older brother to modern day racism . The stories
deal with sickness, loss, and coming to terms with old age. While each story marks a
quiet tragedy, each leaves a promise of renewal.
v
Putting Clothes on a Skeleton
Table of Contents
Putting Clothes on a Skeleton 1
Ready. Set. Go! 39
Jeannie 69
Goliath 92
Rigor Mortis 128
Resurrection 161
1
Putting Clothes on a Skeleton
They couldn’t agree on how to bury her while she lay frozen inside what this
annoying British nurse kept calling the Rainbow Room. It was the more innocent title for
a morgue outfitted with baby cold slabs shaped for children. But what’s innocent about
death? Even Neverland was violent.
It was Mom’s way. Dad’s way. Or, no way. At first, I thought mummification was
the answer. The ancient Egyptians knew how to put on a show for the dead. Preservation
of body and beauty, even in death, meant everything. I thought that fit her. When we
finally buried my sister Saryn, she looked perfect in her miniature mahogany, pink velvet
lined coffin. Perfectly plastic. Almost real. If you inserted batteries in her back, I thought
she might even walk, talk, on her own.
In Saryn’s last photo shoot, she played a miniature Pharaoh’s daughter for a corny
anti-aging cream advertisement for children. Supposedly, the forty dollar vial in the shape
of a two inch scarab could stop the effects of aging early, get right into baby DNA and
stop it cold in its tracks. No wrinkles. No crinkles. No smile lines or crow’s feet. Its
catch-line was “Stay as intact as a mummy. Pristine as a Pharaoh.” Saryn loved the outfit.
It was a white, loose linen tunic that only covered one small shoulder.
What the Egyptians treasured even more than mummification was make-up: thick,
bright, lavish make-up. Artists spent three hours before the shoot applying golden brown
skin paint to make Saryn’s coppery skin shine on camera. A black wig, bright blue eye
2
shadow, dark black eyeliner, and a one and a half foot head dress that was probably never
even used in ancient Egypt followed. To me, the headdress looked more like a box with a
fake snake sticking out of it. Saryn liked her costume because she didn’t have to wear
stockings. The costume completely covered her legs. The photographer liked this fact too
because she didn’t have to delete forty extra shots later of Saryn grabbing her crotch.
First, they did the shoot for magazine ads. Then, they moved on to the television
commercial. It was Saryn’s seventh commercial, but she was anything but a pro. It was
her face that they loved. Being two fourths Native American of the Lakota Sioux tribe
and one half Caucasian of the Beverly Hills tribe, Saryn or Kimimela-as my father called
her- had distinct features. Her skin shone naturally like gold. Her hair a deep black that
looked red in the sun. Nose small and straight. Lips thick and rosy as if she already wore
lipstick. The baby fat on her cheeks made the bone structure in her face soften and cave
in all the right places. Kimimela means little butterfly. The name my father gave me is
Nashota. It means twin. It is not even a real Sioux name.
I was born second. An entire day after Saryn. Dark brown hair, yellow skin, and
random scatterings of freckles that just didn’t make sense. Instead of growing lanky and
tall like a sugary maple tree, I grew out and up like a weeping willow. Needless to say,
we didn’t look like twins. Not even sisters, really. Our eyes were the same, but on my
face they just looked confused, too big, and too dark. Jenna, my baby sister, was also
born beautifully native. Pudgy, huggable, happy, beautiful. The whites called her the
Gerber baby. My father called her Ojinjintka. His rose.
During the commercial, I had to watch Jenna while Saryn smiled and sang “get
mummified!” every five minutes. Mom coaxed her on yelling “that’s right, Sweetie. One
3
more for Mummy. HA! Oh, just a little Egyptian humor. That’s it. Keep it going,
Beautiful.” Dad was never there. He couldn’t be there. In order to feed the five of us, he
worked full time, overtime, all the time, restoring cars for movies set back in the day. He
was really good at it and got to bring Mom, and sometimes Saryn, to a lot of cool movie
premiers, but I always wondered what it would be like if he were home. He told the most
outlandish stories and I always felt the best snuggled deep into his thick, sinewy body.
All Saryn’s money went into her college fund which seemed like the right thing to do, but
more than Saryn worked during her modeling gigs. Mom gave up her job as a high
profile hair stylist and dedicated her existence to Saryn’s beauty and success. Mom, an
extremely smart woman, knew exactly what jobs to take and which ones to walk away
from. She never tried to take advantage of Saryn but, as most moms in this side-line
situation, she lived out her own unaccomplished aspirations in her oldest child.
As the commercial shoot went into its thirteenth take, Saryn’s smile melted into
her fading make-up. They had to give her a bag of M&M’s to get her to stop yawning.
Shortly after, Jenna started crying and cutting her sharp elbows into my ribs, tired of
playing with my hair or the purple teething ring in her chubby hand. Anxiety ate at my
stomach like ants. I couldn’t sit still any longer. Couldn’t watch the stupid commercial
another pathetic time. This teenage girl named Rikki was supposed to watch Jenna and
me during the takes after she readied the lights for the set. She was an unpaid intern and
babysitting was not what she signed on for. Eagerly trying to impress anyone who would
listen, she often wandered trying to perform some heroic act to get herself noticed.
During her regular disappearances, I tried to entertain Jenna, but being only eight at the
time, I wasn’t the best alternative. Soon Jenna’s agitation turned to sobs. Her snot trudged
4
down my shoulder and I had an urge to squeeze her.
“Get the baby out of here!” screamed the camera man.
Mom ran over to us, her light pink heels clicking the whole way, displaying her
obvious annoyance.
“Where’s Rikki?” she said through her teeth.
I shrugged my shoulders and she picked up Jenna. In her rigid arms, Mom rocked
Jenna but she only screamed louder.
“I apologize,” she said to the manager, a small bald man with mouse eyes. “She’s
getting her first teeth.”
“She has to leave. I think we’ve been kind enough thus far to let her stay here.
Please,” he said, clicking his teeth together. “Take. Her. Out.”
“But Saryn…”
“Now.”
Mom flicked her neck sideways, beckoning me to the door.
“Can I stay and watch?” I asked.
“No, outside,” she said.
Twenty minutes and two Sno Cones later, Rikki came running out of the building.
We sat on the corner of a sidewalk in an ally, much too close to a large green dumpster. I
was plastered in red Sno sugar water, Jenna in blue. Rikki’s tight rows of braids and
beads beat against her back, getting louder as she progressed.
“What is it?” Mom asked.
“Now, don’t get too upset,” she said, leaning her long arms against her knees,
breathing fast.
5
“Saryn tripped over some cords from the equipment. The bruises look a lot worse
than the actual fall. But, shooting has to stop for the day.”
“Why? Where is she?” Mom practically threw Jenna into Rikki’s arms and
stormed into the back door of the building. I followed close behind, dribbling a bright red
Sno Cone path through the door. Saryn sat in the director’s chair, with large ice packs
over her head and arms.
“Saryn, are you alright?”
“Yes, Mom,” she said, rocking her legs back and forth as if on a swing. “I didn’t
even cry and the mister manager guy says he’ll even give me a piece of bubblegum when
the doctor comes.”
As Saryn brought the ice pack from her face to show us her injuries, mom gasped.
There wasn’t any blood or cuts, just a huge black and purple bruise from the top of her
left cheek to her forehead. Her left eye, bloodshot and almost swollen shut. Saryn just
smiled.
“They said I get to go on vacation!” Saryn said. “Can we go to Aunt Bea’s?”
My stomach jumped with excitement. Aunt Bea was the best. She didn’t have a
television, but the store near her home had this never-ending supply of gum. That was all
I really remembered about our short visit two years ago. That was the first time I met her.
While I thought about a vacation, the doctor examined Saryn right in the director’s chair
with the Egyptian music playing in the background.
“I leave for a few minutes and this is what happens,” my mother raged to the
mousy manager. His nose was pink, but the color drained from his face. With his large
headphones connected to his temples instead of his ears, he looked a bit like Rudolph the
6
red-nosed reindeer. I giggled. Mom thought I was laughing at her. Her eyes turned into
the hard backs of two tiny black beetles. And then, she slapped me on my left cheek. The
insides of my ears screeched. Dad walked through the door to the studio, battling two
puny security guards at his hips. Dad was tall. Huge, compared with, well, everyone.
“Jane, don’t,” he said, walking over. He stood between me and my mother. The
security guards backed off once Mom shooed them away. My father’s shirt was covered
in red paint, mine in red Sno-cone. I hid behind my father’s leg and peered around his
great trunk to glare at her.
“Don’t hit her,” he yelled. “I’ve had enough.”
I moved out from behind his leg and puffed out my chest like a great owl, but then
I coughed and gagged.
“This isn’t about her,” she said.
I took his hand while my mother recounted Saryn’s accident and the memory of
the slap slipped delicately from his brain.
“I better take Saryn down to my office for a few minutes to take some blood,” the
doctor interrupted. “Just a few routine tests.”
“Tests?” Dad asked.
“Her bruising is pretty bad and it’s spreading. It could be telling us something
else, but probably not.”
“Mom, where’s my bubblegum?” Saryn asked. Her bottom lip protruded. She
really was quite the actress when she wanted to be.
That night, we only spent about thirty minutes at the doctor’s office, but the next
week we spent entire days at the hospital. Dad spent most of the time with Jenna and me
7
in the waiting room while Mom and Saryn were invisible for hours. Whenever I asked
what was wrong my father said, “nothing that can’t be fixed. We live in America, Sweet
Pea.”
“What does that mean?” I would ask.
“It means diseases can be cured. Miracles happen.” Dad sometimes talked like
something straight out of a Hallmark card.
Miracles happen. Miracles happen. Miracles happen. Again and again. That’s
what he said. He also told me that when the white man came to America, they brought
diseases that decimated entire peoples. Tribes turned to ghosts. Ghosts into shadows with
no one there to tell their fables, sing their chants, dance their hopes and express their
desires. The longer I sat in the waiting room, the great white incubator of fear, the more I
started to believe that miracles were only for white people. All Saryn’s gigs came to a
crashing halt. Mom deleted modeling invitations from the answering machine without
listening to them and, eventually, dad had to go back to work.
One weekend, Dad, Jenna and I stopped at the library to check out books before
we went to sit in the waiting room. I picked out a picture book on mummies with a
gruesome picture on the front cover. A guy named Tut something or other. Dad went to
put it back on the shelf, saying it was too old for me, but I pointed to the back. It read:
‘reading level 8 and up’. Dad consented.
The first thing that the Egyptians did when mummifying a person was to anoint
the body with sacred oils. Embalmers removed all the vital organs. All except for the
heart. The brain, hooked and pulled out through the nose, came out next. Then, they
covered the body with salt to suck out all the moisture and left it for forty days and forty
8
nights. They just waited and waited. Like we waited for Saryn to get better.
I didn’t know what was wrong, only that something was. I knew that one day I
would wake up and have to find out the truth. Have to look at it like the Egyptian body
starved of all water. Stare it right in the face. No longer hidden under baby fat or beauty
or skin or make-up. What I was looking for was a skeleton, but that wasn’t something I
could find by studying the Egyptians. They did all they could not to have to ever become
one. Never naked. Never brittle. Always together. Body and soul.
The day the doctor brought Jenna and me into the examination room instead of
Saryn, I thought he was going to begin the dehydration process on me. I watched his
needle intently. It jammed through the air, back and forth, up then down as he talked with
his hands. Mom’s mouth moved, but I heard no words. He took the orange cover off the
needle’s head. Silvery light danced on its edge. Jenna sat next to me on the tall rough, red
table. She held a cushiony picture book. Jenna mumbled words that only made sense to
her, playing with her diaper. Suddenly, the world turned. I couldn’t see their faces.
Everything went blurry. I saw a big hand. The thumb was big and brown. Circles. That’s
how the room moved. Big circles. Was he going to make me into a mummy? My blood
sprayed out into a clear tube. The tube turned purple. Definitely dehydration.
“That wasn’t so bad was it, Corrine?” My mother’s voice soothed.
Doctor Taylor wiped off my arm and placed a large fluorescent pink Band-Aid
over the inside of my elbow. He pulled his glasses down on his nose, wrote something on
the tube and set it on the table. He took out a long white tube with a needle on the end
and sat next to Jenna. My mother moved to hold her still.
“Why does hers look different?” I asked.
9
“She’s a baby. She gets a butterfly.” Doctor Taylor said.
“A butterfly?”
“Her veins are too small to use a real big girl needle.”
Jenna played with the white tube with her pudgy fingers, unsuspecting the
impending bite. She cried, but quickly calmed down when the nurse brought in a bucket
of stickers. Before we left, the doctor took a sample of our inner cheeks with a cotton
swab.
“What are you doing with that? I asked.
“To see if you match,” he said, sealing the sample away.
“Match what?”
“It’s kind of like the game Go Fish,” he said. “You have to find a match or you
have to keep fishing for another one. That’s what we are trying to do for your sister.”
“What will the match do?” I asked.
“Save her,” he said.
“From what?” Now this is the question I really needed answered.
My mother’s face squeezed together and she shook her head at the doctor.
“Save her. That’s all. And I have a great feeling this will be the perfect match,” he
said, holding up my sample.
I smiled and hoped he was right. I decided there and then that waiting at busy
modeling studios was much better than the white waiting room. At least at the studio
there was something to watch. Plus, when Saryn wasn’t sick, she always slept at home.
We shared a room and I always slept better when she was there. We had a ritual that we
carried out every time we had a piece of chewing gum. Gum, of course, was our secret
10
and sacred ingredient to our chants in the darkness of our room. It was an entire month
before Saryn slept at home and we could slip a piece of gum into our room. After mom
shut the light out, I crept to the closet and got out our bulky flashlight that changed colors
in five second intervals and sat crossed legged on her bed. She faced me. Her chewing
mouth was accentuated by the red, then blue, then green lights from the revolving bulbs. I
set the light down in the middle. Now, instead of lighting up her face, a faint light lit up
the entire room. It wasn’t as strong as before, but it filled up more space.
She took the gum from her mouth and put it into mine.
“Seven chews,” she said.
“One, two, three, four, five,” I said, the light turning from red to blue. “Six,
Seven. Now you.”
I shoved the gum into her mouth. The light turned from green to red again before
she put it back through my lips. It was like chewing on plastic. The taste had run dry
hours ago, but that didn’t mean we couldn’t try to suck out more. As I arrived at seven
and reached into my mouth, I rubbed the light pink glob against my cheek like the doctor
had with the swab earlier. I shoved it into her mouth as the light turned green. ‘Now,
things could go back to normal,’ I thought. ‘I’ve cured her. Why didn’t they just try this
before?’ I closed my eyes while Saryn chewed, I prayed that the magical cells stuck to
the gum would make it down her throat and seep through her skeleton. Seven times she
chewed. Seven times I prayed saying my wish over and over as fast as I could in my
head.
This time, Saryn took the gum from her mouth and held it up to the flashlight’s
end. Little teeth marks littered the plastic edges. She smoothed them out with her tiny
11
fingers, making a perfect ball. She handed it to me, cradling it until it landed safely
between two fingers. We both bowed, giggled, moved to the back of the bed, and helped
each other pull the frame from the wall. Behind the mahogany bed frame, a large
cemetery of chewed gum of all colors lined the brown ridges. I stuck the pink piece on. It
completed a circle of pink.
“We need five more purple pieces and two greens to finish those curves,” I said,
whispering. She giggled as we stared at our growing masterpiece. The engraving on the
back of the bed had seven large circles, each growing smaller as you reached the middle.
The outer circle was home to all the pink pieces. The next, purple. Then, green, yellow,
white, orange and black. Our strategy wasn’t random. Black, being a difficult color of
gum to find naturally was the smallest circle. We would have to be lucky to get multiple
pieces and colors of gum to mix them together to make black. We thought that when all
the circles were filled in, all of our wildest dreams would come true.
“How long do you think?” Saryn asked.
“I don’t know. A long time.”
“You’re the smart one!” she exclaimed. “Just guess.”
“A year or even two,” I said.
“We have to hurry. Keep asking people in the waiting room and don’t swallow
any.”
“Remember to ask the nurses. Got it?”
“Got it.”
We heard footsteps, looked at each other and I ran to my bed. I always hated
going back to my bed because, from that distance, I couldn’t smell the faint sugary scent
12
that hovered over Saryn’s bed like a heavy rain cloud. After we filled in Saryn’s bed, we
were going to start on mine. I couldn’t wait to start, but I knew it would be awhile before
it was time. I waited until I heard Saryn’s shallow breathing before I shut off the
flashlight. She was afraid of the dark. Afraid she might get lost in it. Sometimes, when
she wasn’t there I would turn on the flashlight and there would be no one there to shut it
off for me. When I woke up, the batteries would be dead and I’d have to beg my father to
buy more and hope he’d come through in time for Saryn to return home with more gum.
I could hear my parents fighting the night before they loaded us in our old silver
Cadillac that my father called ‘Babe.’ Heading northeast on the highway, with no air
conditioning, and no conversation, Mom and Dad pretended they couldn’t see each other.
An hour into the trip, Dad turned on the radio. First static. Then, Elvis. Mom reached
over from the driver’s side and turned it off. Dad sighed into the silence. The greenish
brown desert spread out for miles. Nothing grew over a foot tall. It was like a land made
for miniature people. A few sparse cacti sprung up amidst the great expanse, making
them look much taller in comparison. I watched the signs with careful curiosity as we
drove. We passed through Nevada and a short stint in Arizona before we stopped to get
gas in Utah. Saryn slept most of the way. She always slept lately, but I was convinced my
cheek cells were curing her as she slept. She went to the hospital much less in the last few
months and she even looked like she gained a few pounds back. I let her sleep even
though I really wanted to wake her up to play a game.
At the gas station, my father picked up Jenna from her car seat and changed her
diaper on the back bumper of the car. I got out and helped him, desiring to stretch out my
13
legs. Jenna giggled and cooed until her exposed skin touched the silver paint that spent
the last six hours cooking in the sun’s light. She screeched and my father held her almost
naked body under his arm. He handed me the dirty diaper and ten dollars.
“Run and buy some ice and popsicles. Hurry.” He looked towards Mom to see if
she was watching.
After finding a garbage can to dispose of Jenna’s diaper, I ran into the convenient
store. Found the popsicles. Picked out five. Then, to the ice freezer. I stood in front of it a
moment, trying to figure out how I was supposed to carry a bag the size of my torso out
of the store, when a tall man in black leather pants and a black leather vest with red fringe
across the chest came and stood by me.
“What do ya need, Little Girl?” he asked, brushing his shoulder length black hair
aside. His voice was coarse, but soothing. My heart started beating with the fear of
‘stranger danger’ but quickly turned to excitement. It kind of felt like what I thought sky
diving would be like.
“Ice,” I said, using more breath than words, trying to sound older, sophisticated.
“Well,” he said. “You done well found it, Little Girl.”
I opened the cooler and grasped onto the top of one bag. Before I dropped it, the
tan, tall man caught it and walked it to the counter. I half-smiled and put the popsicles
atop the ice.
“Need anything else?” he asked, looking at me and then the young cash register
attendant.
I looked below the counter and spotted a pack of gum with black casing and a
white cross-bone picture. He saw what I was looking at and picked one up.
14
“Make that two,” he said to the cashier.
He threw two packs onto the counter, face up.
“One for me and one for the kid. She’s got good taste don’t you think?” he asked
the cashier, smiling a dark smile.
The boy shook his head. He smiled, but his lips didn’t part. The man carried my
bag of ice out to the car. He set the ice down by the back tire. Mom and Dad were
nowhere to be seen, but the front, side door stood open.
“Better eat those popsicles right up, you hear?”
I nodded, staring at his pockmarked face that still looked handsome. Dark eyes
lined with emerald flecks stood out amongst all the black. He started to walk away and
then turned. The back of his vest read ‘Mayhem.’
“Oh,” he said. “And only give pieces of that gum to your enemies.”
“Why?” I asked, startled.
“You’ll see. Fair weather, Little Girl.”
My parents exited the bathroom, with my sisters, just moments after ‘Black
Rider’- the name I appropriately appointed him- drove away on his motorcycle. Fringe
flew from the handle bars, making it look like he had wings. He soared down the empty
highway, flying further and further towards the red rocks along the road lined only with
tall telephone poles. I blinked and when I opened them a great black raven took his place
flying now up, up, into the blue sky.
“Corrine,” my mother said, ripping the ice bag open and placing a cold clump on
Jenna’s tomato-red thigh. “Why did it take you so long?”
I shrugged and handed out the popsicles. As we loaded back into the car, Mom
15
continued to torrent me with complaints and then started on my father. He should have
thought twice before putting Jenna down on the hot car, but it was a simple mistake that
would heal with time. I wondered why she didn’t yell at him for letting me go into the
store by myself. I wondered what would have happened if Black Rider took me captive
and they had to search the desert to find me. Is that a mistake that would heal with time?
Maybe. I smiled as I brushed my hand over the front pocket of my jeans that safely stored
my black pack of gum. I couldn’t wait to tell Saryn. I looked at her sleeping face as Dad
placed her on the seat next to me. He shook her awake and made her eat a green popsicle.
Her lips remained green until we crossed into Wyoming many hours later. By then, it had
been dark for hours. I knew not to ask if we were going to stop, or where we were going.
My mother kept whispering angry directions at my father, even though he seemed to
know the way. She wanted to take the main highways. Dad was more for blue highways.
You know the little roads drawn on maps in blue. Forgotten roads. Roads less traveled.
“Would you please drive faster?” she spat out, louder than she had previously.
Dad looked in the back to see if anyone was awake. Already leaning on the edge
of Jenna’s car seat, I looked asleep like the others.
“Jane,” he said, stronger and more sure of himself than he usually talked to Mom.
“We have to go, Jane. Not for me, for Saryn.”
The tension between my parents that could have split the car into two halves,
eased as my father’s words sunk in.
“I know,” Mom said. “I’m sorry.”
In the light of the stereo, I saw my father reach out his hand and offer it to my
mother. She tapped his hand twice, as if contemplating if she should hold it, and then
16
replaced it in her own lap. In that moment, I hated my mother. They drove on in silence,
churning their own anger. I ground my teeth to fill the void. The screeching noise gave
my ears some relief.
We drove all night. I didn’t wake until we stopped for breakfast at a small hotel
that had “Free Continental Breakfast” labeled on a big sign out front. We parked and
blended in. No one noticed we hadn’t slept there. The breakfast manager that brought out
little plastic cups filled with waffle batter to throw on a cast iron waffle-maker, even gave
us directions to the nearest gas station. Dad left a two dollar tip.
By then, I knew where we were headed. I saw a sign that said ‘South Dakota 200
mi.’ We were going to see Aunt Bea, my father’s mother’s sister. She was the only
person I knew in South Dakota. Aunt Bea lived a trailer park on the Pine Ridge
Reservation. My father had no other relatives, except for Aunt Bea’s daughter that ran off
before we were born and was never heard of again. The rest died at the reservation. He
says it’s the poorest place in the United States. That if you stay there and don’t get out,
you will get sucked back into the earth and evaporate from alcoholism or some other ‘ism
due to malnutrition or disease. Alcohol isn’t even allowed on the rez but that didn’t stop
Grandpa or Uncle Bill from poisoning their livers. Grandma died of pneumonia at 52.
That’s the average lifespan at the rez. My mother’s relatives lived in Florida, and I
thought the way that Grandma looked- her face stiff but wrinkle-less- she would live till
she was a hundred.
Aunt Bea grasped onto my father like a bear to honey. She held his face, studying
it, and then kissed him on the mouth for five seconds. Five whole seconds. Then, she
waved us on to join him. It was the first time she met Jenna. I’m guessing it was the first
17
time she even heard of her. As she traced the lines of Jenna’s dark brows, cradling her
tight, her own brows grew heavy.
“Why?” she began, trying to find words. I thought she was going to scold my
father for not telling her about Jenna, for not talking to her, for disappearing, but she only
turned and said, “She’s beautiful.”
“Isn’t she?” my mother spoke for the first time.
Aunt Bea didn’t look up from Jenna, her emotions hidden in her calm face. Indian
women are great at hiding their emotions.
“Sorry we didn’t let you know before we showed up here uninvited like this,” he
said. “You don’t have a phone and we didn’t have time to write.”
“You are welcome here whenever you wish,” she said.
“We were hoping that you’d be able to watch the girls,” he said, brushing red dust
with his sneakers. “Just until tonight.”
“Do you need a place to stay? I could put some mats out and ask Theresa to
borrow some more blankets.”
“That would be nice, thank you,” he said, much too formal. It felt strange. He still
couldn’t bring his eyes to meet hers.
“We’ll be back later tonight. If you need us,” Dad continued. “We will be on the
rez. We aren’t going far. And if Saryn looks sick or anything, come and get us. We will
be in town.”
“What’s going on?” Aunt Bea asked, glaring at my mother standing two feet
behind my father. “Tell me the truth, why are you here?”
“Please, Bea,” he said. “We’ll explain later. We have a meeting in an hour and we
18
can’t be late.”
Dad handed her five dollars, told her to buy us a treat, and drove off towards the
center of the rez. We hadn’t been to the rez since I was five and a half. And, even then,
Mom didn’t go. Just Dad. She didn’t like us to go there. Just like she didn’t want Dad to
plait our hair. She didn’t want us to look Indian. Braids, to her, were stereotypes.
“Aunt Bea,” Saryn said. “I have to go to the bathroom.”
Aunt Bea brought us to meet Theresa, a short, feeble old woman compared to
Bea’s strong, big, lanky bones. Theresa had short, bobbed hair, while Aunt Bea had long
silvery black hair that fell to her lower back. She brought us to Theresa’s light blue trailer
to go to the bathroom explaining that she didn’t have one that we would know how to
use.
“Why don’t we go to the store?” Aunt Bea smiled a lovely toothless smile that
made her look a bit mad. “I haven’t been there in months. It will be good to see Wendy.”
It took us twenty minutes to walk to the general store. Saryn did well. The
afternoon sun beat down, but the autumn wind wiped the sweat off as we walked. She
only complained about her feet hurting twice. The second time, Aunt Bea picked her up
in her large, man-like arms right beside Jenna and didn’t set her down till we reached the
door. On the way, we passed many run-down trailers much like Aunt Bea’s. More of the
siding from the trailers was cradled in grass than clung to the outer walls. The broken
down cars parts spewed over dry lawns looked like a box of spilled crayons from far
away. The parts came in too many colors. The puzzle pieces could never come together
again. They were puzzles that never fit together in the first place.
A young woman giving a skinny baby a bath in a yellow tub, amidst an empty
19
pasture, waved and smiled. The baby screeched with excitement every time his mother
dowsed him with water. I imagined that the water was cold. But, her hands must have
been warm. Behind the woman in the distance, I could see a group of tents set up and
people sleeping in cars.
I tugged on Aunt Bea’s long hunter green t-shirt.
“Why are they sleeping in there?” I asked.
“They don’t have beds, Doll.”
At the time, I didn’t really understand what Aunt Bea meant. I just felt sorry they
didn’t have a safe place to store their gum. When we arrived at the small store, all three
parking spaces were taken out front. One car parked in front of the dilapidated gas pump
that read 2.67 pgal on the screen; I remember thinking that it looked like my sister’s toy
register. The white paint encompassing the store looked as though it melted in the heat of
the summer and then hardened as the frigid September winds whisked by and froze it in
place. The grungy green sign nailed to the top plank of the building read ‘General Store.’
The orange letters were peeling off and a large picture of a porcupine smiled back at us.
The building wasn’t larger than a tool shed, but the merchandise was packed tightly on
the shelves. Not a corner was unutilized. The next store on the rez was far off and they
were way overpriced. The closest store off the rez was in Nebraska and, for many, this
trip could only be afforded once a year. Plus, leaving the rez meant driving into uncharted
territory, into ambivalence. That’s how ghosts were made.
“Hold hands, please,” Aunt Bea yelled behind us, smiling at Wendy, the store
keeper, through the small window.
My sisters and I watched as she walked next door into the post office. I stood in
20
between Saryn and Jenna. I grasped onto their hands. Saryn’s hand felt sweaty, but cold,
and Jenna’s felt slimy. I quickly let go of Jenna’s hand. A string of baby goo still
connected us. I brushed my hand, then hers, on my brown corduroys and finally grabbed
her hand once more. We bounced up the broken slate steps. Saryn and I had to pull Jenna
up them, her diaper drooping after her. We scampered directly towards the candy counter.
I peered through the glass encasement at the saccharine portrait. I swished a gob of
bubbly spit around in my mouth; suddenly, it tasted like sweet nectar. The candy sparkled
back at me like dazzling jewels. The colors painted a rainbow. The pinks, purples, and
reds jumbled together, making it hard to differentiate one kind from another. The bottom
shelf imprisoned the seventy-five cent wonders: Zagnut bars, Nik-L-Nip wax bottles in
all five colors, and Atomic Fireballs. The second shelf was designated for everything that
cost fifty-cents: blue and red Pixy Stix, Necco Wafers and Lemonheads. On the top shelf
everything was twenty-five cents: Mary Jane’s, Bottle Caps, and Teaberry Gum. In glass
containers, bubblegum in all shapes and forms, sat waiting for us.
I watched Jenna looking through the glass. Her cheeks puffed out like a squirrel.
Her lips pushed forward like she was going to kiss the glass. She placed both hands on
the clear counter, hypnotized, and jabbed her face forwards as if the glass was not there.
Her puffy face bounced off, leaving a film of spit on the clean cool glass. She rubbed her
face, but no one went to caress her so she didn’t cry. Saryn stood in between Jenna and
me, breathing heavily but not moving. Saryn’s new hair cut made her dark locks poof
outward. Her hair inched over her eyes but I didn’t have to guess which item she was
most interested in.
“You girls look excited” Wendy said, climbing behind the candy counter.
21
Jenna blew bubbles with her spit, her lips buzzing excitedly.
“What can I get, ya?” Wendy asked.
The bell to the door rang as Aunt Bea walked in.
“Girls,” she said. “Have you picked anything out?”
“Yes!” we cried in unison, jumping up and down and bumping into one another.
“Bubblegum! Bubblegum!” Saryn and I chanted. Jenna joined in, mimicking us,
while clapping her pudgy hands together.
“No, girls.” Aunt Bea grimaced, the wrinkles on her face jiggled back and forth as
she shook her head.
“Please, Aunt Beatrice. Dad lets us have it,” I said.
“I just gotta have it,” Saryn shrieked, rising her hands above her head. Her voice
sounded like a Christmas elf. “I just can’t stand it.”
Wendy leaned over the counter, laughing and then hacking a wet cough.
“What?” Saryn exclaimed, throwing both arms out into the air.
“How can you deny those faces?” Wendy asked.
Saryn and I took that as a cue and pulled our bottom lips out dramatically and
furrowed our brows. Jenna tapped on the glass as if performing a magical spell to make
the glass disappear.
“Alright,” Aunt Bea said. “You each get two pieces and that’s it.”
Wendy brought the glass jar around the counter. The jar overflowed with
individually wrapped Dubble Bubble gum. The wrappers were all the same: yellow and
blue, but it was still important to pick out the right piece. One just might be a bit smaller
than the other. Aunt Bea handed Jenna two tootsie rolls instead, pretending they were
22
gum. She took them, looking satisfied. Aunt Bea paid Wendy thirty cents and picked up
Jenna. Saryn and I skipped out the door.
“Wopila tanka,” she said to Wendy.
Wendy nodded.
“Thank you,” we cried, already out the door. The door bell rang loudly,
overpowering any response from Wendy. Aunt Bea ran out the door after us with Jenna
bouncing on her hip.
“Don’t swallow that gum girls,” my Aunt yelled.
“Why?” Saryn asked.
“If you swallow it, it will make your insides stick together.”
“Really?” I asked. “It will get stuck?”
“Really!”
“Okay, so it’s kind of like when Dad makes me eat the crust on my toast so my
hair will get curly?”
“A little.” She smiled again. There was more missing to the smile than teeth. Her
smile was sad. “Don’t touch that gum until we’re home.”
Aunt Beatrice looked directly at Saryn. Her attention was lost in the presence of
the gum. Her pointer and thumb clutched the two blue ends of her bubblegum wrapper.
Her fingers frozen, her mind contemplating un-wrapping it.
“Saryn!” Aunt Beatrice scolded.
Saryn instantaneously slid the gum back into her pocket. The last time we
chewed gum with Aunt Bea, Saryn choked on a piece. Aunt Bea removed it with one
whop to her diaphragm, but I guessed, even though we were older now, she didn’t want
23
to take a chance.
“Sorry,” Saryn said. We continued walking until we got to the corner. We had to
wait for Aunt Bea to catch up to cross the street. As Aunt Bea and Jenna approached,
watery brown remnants of Jenna’s tootsie rolls oozed from the corners of her mouth and
began to drip down the back of Aunt Bea’s shirt. Jenna hummed from Aunt Bea’s
shoulder. Every time Aunt Bea took another step, Jenna’s hum was stressed. Saryn and I
knew the baby could get away with eating her candy. We didn’t dare touch ours but we
walked much quicker than usual.
“Okay, girls,” Aunt Bea said. “Look left, then right, then left again.”
There wasn’t a car for miles, but we did as we were told. As my right foot
stomped over the barely visible yellow line in the middle of the street, I could see a bunch
of geese by a small stream. The geese swayed, their tail feathers brushing the air. Saryn
saw them too. She ran across the now dirt street, chasing them and throwing her arms into
the air, creating her own wings. Her giggling spooked them and they took flight in
unison, honking incessantly, their wings pulsating against gravity. Saryn followed after
them, as if she were going to join them. When she reached the edge of Aunt Bea’s yard,
she stopped and turned around.
“Hey, Corrine?” she asked, the skin on her forehead bubbling.
“Yeah?”
“Do you think that I could fly someday?”
“Dad says we can do anything we want, so yeah, probably. I mean in an airplane,
sure.”
“No, I mean just fly. Me.” She pointed to herself.
24
“I don’t know. Maybe it’s something that we learn how to do when we’re older.
But I’ve never really seen anyone fly.”
“Well, I’ll be the first then.”
As soon as I reached the brown edges of the grassy lawn, catching up to Saryn,
we broke into a run. Finally, we reached the door and went in. The wood stove burned
strong, the fumes flickering in our nostrils. I took a piece of the gum from the pocket of
my corduroys.
“Open it. Open it,” Saryn screeched.
“No wait,” I said. “Not yet.”
We ran through the tight hallway and into the cluttered living room. The living
room walls were decorated with thousands of glass figurines on shelves much too big for
the room.
“Here,” I said, holding out a dark blue sheet that we were supposed to form into
beds. “Take one end. Let’s put it over the table.”
We draped both sides over the tall table and dove beneath it. Aunt Bea showed us
how to make a proper indoor tent once. We remembered.
Jenna and Aunt Beatrice enter the room. The rocking chair in the corner squealed as Aunt
Beatrice sat down and rocked Jenna. I peeked out from under our fort. Jenna’s eyes
bounced open and closed, fighting Aunt Beatrice’s lulling Lakota lullaby I only now
understand. She began by humming and then began with the words.
“Cante waste hoksila ake istimba, hanhepi kin waste,” she sang. As soon as she
started to sing, Jenna cried.
“Oh, baby girl,” she said. “You don’t know my words. Let us sing something
25
more familiar.”
“My Bonnie lies over the ocean, my Bonnie lies over the sea,” she sang, quiet at
first. The song flowed from her mouth, the muffled ripples reaching us beneath our
enclosure. We were careful not to listen to closely, for fear of falling into dreamland
ourselves. “My Bonnie lies over the ocean, so bring back my Bonnie to me, to me.”
“Can I eat it yet?” Saryn whispered, staring at the wrapper trying to unwrap it
with her eyes.
“Ready, set, go!” I said.
We took a piece in both hands and untwisted the blue sides. I took my right hand
and placed my pointer finger on the crown and pulled off the yellow middle. At the same
time, we threw the pink piece of gum into our mouths. Saliva secreted rapidly around the
hard block, making it easier to cut up with our back teeth. Sweetness burst through the
crevices between our teeth and caressed our tongues. Saryn opened her jaw wide, making
a rhythmic smacking noise.
“I can blow a bubble,” I said.
“No you can’t,” Saryn said. “Let me see.”
I puffed up my cheeks and brushed my long hair out of the way, preparing for a
deep breath. I made a loud gasping noise as I pulled all the air in from the fort inside of
me. Then, I blew out as hard as I could. The slobbery piece of gum flew from my mouth
onto the tapestry carpet.
“Eww,” Saryn cried, laughing.
“That was just a bad one,” I said. “Let me try again. Is my gum over there?”
Saryn felt around her feet, blindly, patting the floor as if it were a dog.
26
“Here it is.” She held up a pink gob, molded in the form of my teeth.
I reached out for my gum. It stuck to her fingers and to mine as we both pulled
away. The gum’s grip let go of my hand and catapulted back at Saryn. One end of the
gum stuck to her hair, the other end still in her hand.
“Bring back, bring back, bring back my Bonnie to me, to me,” I heard Aunt Bea
still singing.
“Okay.” Saryn breathed, deeply. “But get it out.”
I detached the string of gum from her hand and pulled on my gum. It wouldn’t
budge. The gum attached to the right side of her hair, near her forehead.
“Is it coming out, Corrine?”
“Uh, yeah. I’ll be right back.” I let the string of gum go from my hand and snuck
out from under the sheet. I looked over at the rocking chair.
“Last night as I lay on my pillow,” my Aunt sang, her eyes closed. Jenna clung to
her shoulder, breathing heavily. “Last night as I lay on my bed. Last night as I lay on my
pillow. I dreamed that my Bonnie was dead.”
I ran out and found Auntie’s crafting kit and opened the mauve flowery cover. I
found the scissors at the bottom between silky brown material and a bag of plastic eyes
with black things in the middle that bounced around. I took the scissors in my hand,
remembering to hold the silver sharp part towards the ground and to walk back to the
fort. I tiptoed by Aunt Bea. She sang quieter now.
“Oh blow ye wind over the ocean,” she sang, in a wet whisper. “Oh blow ye
winds over the sea. Oh blow ye winds over the ocean. And bring back my Bonnie to me.”
I heard a knock in the distance and then footsteps. My father and mother walked
27
out of the obscurity of the entrance hall. Shadows frolicked on the walls behind her from
the wood stove. Mom walked in slowly, her black heels clicking softly, stamping out the
sudden silence. She bent down in front of Aunt Bea and took a sleeping Jenna from her.
I jumped into the fort. Saryn’s eyes, surrounded by those long dark lashes, looked like
caves that only knights would dare travel into. I cut the sticky piece out and held up the
tiny pieces of hair. She looked upset.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“I swallowed my gum, Corrine,” she whispered. “Do you really think that my
insides will stick together?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“Do you think it will be there forever?”
“Probably.”
“Wow.” She yawned. “Forever.”
I could hear Mom’s heels strutting towards us, but I didn’t move. The sound
echoed like she was taking an extra step in the middle of the clicks. She leaned her head
into the tent and held out her arms. Saryn ran to her. The first thing she noticed was the
tuft missing from Saryn’s hair. It wasn’t big, but noticeable.
“Go to the car, girls,” she said, brushing her fingers against the newly shorn
edges. She glared at Aunt Bea and moved from the tent towards the door. She put the
baby on her hip and once we were strapped securely in our respective seats in the
Cadillac, we erupted out of the reservation. She didn’t wait for Dad and he didn’t move to
get in. I got up on my knees and turned to look out the back window. He waved and blew
me a kiss. I pretended to catch it. He tried to smile, but the weight on his cheeks settled
28
on the edges of his lips. When I couldn’t see him anymore, I turned around and looked
forward.
Mom reached out her arm and switched on the radio. She turned the dials until the
static sizzled into the strum of a single guitar and a young man’s western twang. The final
notes of the song were cut short with an interruption. The male DJ’s voice was young and
smooth with a strong Lakota accent.
“We have a brand new announcement that concerns a little girl suffering from a
life threatening disease. On Thursday morning from ten to five in the gymnasium of the
Red Cloud High school, a bone marrow drive will be held to help find a match for one of
our sisters. It’s easy and painless; come and provide your support. The drive will be
followed by a Red Cloud Crusader basketball game against St. Thomas More Cavaliers.
Pilamayelo!” he said.
The notice cut into a pre-recorded female voice singing, “This is KILI RADIO
90.1 FM. Voice of the Lakota.”
Mom slammed her fist against the dash, attempting to shut off the radio. She
struck the knob two more times before silencing it. The rolling green and brown hills
spread out for miles. The dead brown patches scorched by the summer sun stood out
amongst the green tall mounds of living grass. A single windmill stood atop a hill. I could
see a roof on the other side of the knoll but nothing more. A few miles later, the stretches
of tall grassland turned yellow as the golden sun stretched its rays over the ground. For
ten minutes, no one spoke until Saryn pointed out the window.
“Look!” she yelled. “Buffalo.”
Twenty or so full grown buffalo stood scattered across a fairly large stretch of
29
land. Another small herd of buffalo grazed in the corner of the pasture near a wire and
wood fence five feet from the road.
“Stop, Mom,” she said. “Please stop.”
Mom pulled over on the opposite side of the road from the buffalo. Near the fence
there stood a large orange sign that read “Lakota Bison Caretakers Cooperative: Adopt-aBuffalo Campaign. Help two herds battle extinction: the Lakota and the buffalo.”
“Mom, what’s extinction?” Saryn asked, reading the sign.
“It’s when a group of something disappears,” she said.
“Just for awhile?” She looked confused and clicked the handle to open the door.
“I mean, someone finds them again, right?”
“No, not unless you can see ghosts.” Mom laughed at her own wit, but didn’t
smile. “Don’t get out of the car, Saryn. We have to find a hotel to stay for the night. Let’s
get out of here.”
As we drove away, Saryn stared at the closest buffalo. A large hump hovered on
its back like a hill on the horizon. Wild hair grew long across its face and across the high
forehead. Two horns stuck out from the temples. It looked up from the grass, regal and
proud, and looked towards our car. Both Saryn and I got on our knees to look out the
back window as the car traveled away. As the distance increased, the buffalo transformed
into a tiny speck. The last lick of sun tasted the earth and ate the herd whole as we
trekked out of what Mom called ‘the mouth of darkness.’
It took Saryn five years and three months to become extinct. The bone marrow
drive at the rez saved two other Indian kids with leukemia: one from Seattle, the other
30
from Kansas City. We picked Dad up at the airport ten days after the drive. In order to
save Saryn, she needed a match: one that they could not find from the average database
filled with very little native juices. He traveled to four other reservations to hold drives.
Finally, many years after the first one, a man named Tory Red Bull, a twenty seven year
old lawyer turned out to be a match. He was from New York City. Red Bull heard about
an Oneida Indian Nation girl’s struggle on the news and turned up a match for Saryn
instead. Before the surgery, Saryn and I held a special bubblegum ceremony for
superstition’s sake, even though both our bubblegum beds were filled in and we no
longer rested our faith in silly flashlight fueled powwows.
Her body rejected him. Completely and entirely, like poison. It was her last
chance. When, and if, they found another, it would be too late. After her body went
through the graft-versus-host failure, there was nothing left to do. Just wait. We went to
see her all of the forty days after the surgery. On the day I forgot to carry my unopened
Black Rider gum pack in my pocket, she died. All I could think about were mummies
when I saw her unmoving body. Saryn didn’t look the same. Her head bald, her face
yellow. Her arms bruised. Needles still stuck into her when we saw her the last time. A
British nurse came and wheeled her away towards the Rainbow Room. When Jenna
asked if the Rainbow Room was a candy store, Dad and Mom had to explain to their six
year old that the Rainbow Room was for dead people. They didn’t candy-coat it either,
like I expected them too. For once, they told the truth. Later, whenever I saw a real
rainbow over the reservation I felt lied to, cheated. I didn’t see any hope in the murky
lines of reds, and violets, and yellows. I saw our bubblegum cemetery that never worked.
I saw the indigo rainclouds that preceded the colors. I saw Saryn’s face locked in the
31
clouds nearby, trying to get out, looking for her pot of gold that just wasn’t there. From
then on, I told the world that my favorite color was black.
Mom and Dad made Jenna and me get on the school bus as usual for weeks while
Saryn’s body just sat at the morgue. They couldn’t agree on how to bury her. It was
Mom’s way. Dad’s way. Or, no way. They pretended she wasn’t dead. While they fought,
I thought the memory of her would disappear altogether. As each purple dawn turned to
dusk, and each orange dusk turned to dawn, I pondered how to merge the colors together
without creating an impenetrable brown. I cut class and spent most days in the library
researching ways people bury their loved ones. When it comes to burial of the dead,
everyone has their type of candy. Cremation. A quick soft, sweet cream toffee that melts
in your mouth till your tongue tastes only ashes. A bubblegum burial where the body
looks sweet, only at first, till the taste slides and decomposes into nothingness. And then
there’s mummification which matches most conveniently with Wonka’s fictional
Everlasting Gobstoppers. The taste, the body, always changing forms and flavors as it
trudges on through history. That’s what’s fictional about mummification. The body is
pretty much intact, but it never looks like the live person. Mummies, no matter how
skilled the embalmer, always look scary and star in monster movies.
In a region in Sulawesi, an Indonesian island, they keep their dead relative in the
home for a week. She eats with them. She sleeps with them. Oversees the table and
listens as they ask permission for her farewell. Mom would never allow that. Plus, we
almost never ate dinner at the table like other families. We ate in the living room, in front
of the newspaper or television. Mom said it was because we were special. That other kids
32
would be jealous if they knew. Sometimes, I dreamed of being normal.
Every seven years the people of Madagascar are reunited with their ancestors in
the Famadihana ceremony. Families come together. Hundreds of people play drums,
flutes, small guitars, wood harmonicas. To the rhythm of the music, the people dig. Find
their shrouded loved one. Pull the sacred body out and a hundred happy hands lift the
bones to the sky. Dancing to the beat. Celebrating. Shouting fertility spells at the silent
jumping shrouds. When everyone has had a chance to touch, a few close curious family
members peek into the shroud. Peek. Smile. Peek. Giggle. Unwrap. Celebrate. Sing.
Happy. Happy. Sadly, wrap. Up the bones in a clean white shroud. The old one will be
taken back to the house to be placed on the bed of the youngest couple. Regeneration.
Some kids steal pieces of hair for luck. Superstition. Again, Mom would never have gone
for this. She hated when Saryn lost her two front baby teeth and they had to put in fake
ones to keep shooting. She never got to look like a kid so Mom would certainly never let
her look like a skeleton. When people walked by my mother without make-up on, she
yelled “Get me my Mylanta!” Then she popped out an anti-acid and while she chewed,
she leaned over and said to all three of us, even Jenna, who, at the time, had no idea what
was going on, “Going bare bone means you don’t have anyone that cares about you.
Never forget your vanity or the world will forget you.”
So my research continued.
The Lilliputians, small as they were, had big ideas about burial. They buried their
dead upside down, believing that the flat earth would upturn itself after thousands of
years and at their rebirth, they would be ahead of the game, standing erect and at
attention. If I mentioned this burial to Mom, she would have thought I was crazy.
33
I finally got up the courage to bring my research up to my parents two weeks after Saryn
passed. I didn’t realize it but it was my last great effort to save their marriage. I went
downstairs an hour after they sent me to bed. I couldn’t tell they were fighting until I
stepped into the kitchen. The television was on loud. I had to move close to hear them.
From the corner of the kitchen door, I saw my mother throw a half empty wine glass at
my father’s face. He jumped and it hit his chest. Tiny shards of glass scurried across the
wood floor, getting caught in the cracks.
“She’s decomposing already, you red bastard,” she screamed, black tears on her
cheeks. She wiped her left, white sleeve over her eyes, scattering bright blue eye shadow
into her brows. She looked like a clown. My father didn’t say anything. He didn’t even
look at the fermented grape juice as it trickled down the front of him.
“I can’t stand you, Jane,” he said, in a calm voice. “I thought you were someone
else, could be something else when I married you, but you’re not.”
“Who did you think I was? A fucking powwow PTA mom?” She laughed,
studying his composed face. “Oh, you’re unbelievable.”
“Fine,” he said, only moving his mouth. His emotions were impossible to read.
“Fine what?” she spat. “Have some balls, Harry.”
“You can bury her the way you want. Dressed how you want, but not here. Not
surrounded by these people.” He looked right into her eyes, daring her. “She will go to
Pine Ridge and when it’s over, I’m staying.”
She looked over at the wood framed mantelpiece above the fireplace where our
baby photos hung amidst the bricks.
“Fine,” she whispered.
34
And then I heard Saryn’s voice. A higher pitched distorted version. But, her
voice. The sound was coming from the television. Saryn was dressed as an Egyptian.
“Get mummified,” she said, holding the scarab vial of cream level aside her cheek. She
looked even more beautiful on television. They rarely played that commercial anymore.
Only late at night in between infomercials. Dad had tears on his cheeks. Mom grabbed
the entire wine bottle from the bookshelf and flung it at the television. Glass broke and
splattered, mixing with the wine. Saryn’s face disappeared on the screen, although the
television didn’t break. It went right on talking about how if you call now you can get fast
cash for gold. Everything except the television was silent. Eerily silent.
“Turn your unwanted jewelry, gold, silver into cold hard cash now! Send in old
wedding rings, bracelets, necklaces. Just call toll free!”
Dad looked down at his hand, slipped off his ring, and placed it on the
mantelpiece.
“Why did you marry me in the first place?” she cried. “Because it was the right
thing to do after you got me pregnant? Because it was the manly thing to do? Are you
happy? Tell me. Are you happy?”
He looked at her and then at the floor.
“You’re a coward,” she said. “Nothing will change that. Go back and hide at the
rez with all the good old boys and drink yourself numb.”
As he walked away, I accidentally dropped my notebook. I stepped back, hoping
they hadn’t heard.
“Corrine,” my father said, turning. His face was red and wet.
I stepped forward, picking up the notebook. I held it close to my stomach,
35
hugging it as if it was a bear.
“Dad?” I asked. “Are you okay?”
He didn’t say anything.
“Mom?”
“Everything’s just fine,” she said, smiling a fake, angry smile. Her eyes squinted
and her voice tightened. “Just fine.”
She looked at my father, tightening her fists.
“Ahh,” she cried. “Good riddance.”
I turned and walked, then ran, upstairs. On the way, I threw my notebook of
research into the garbage. The cardboard cover sank into a pile of rancid egg salad.
A black hearse drove Saryn’s body to Pine Ridge. The trip took two days this
time. We stopped at a hotel instead of driving straight through. Mom, Dad, Jenna, and I
rode in the car right behind Saryn. It was the last time we were all in a car together. On
the ride to the rez, Jenna thought we were in a parade. She waved her hand out the
window at the sparse traffic and tugged at the air when tractor trailers drove by. She
shrieked when she got them to honk.
Over one hundred people climbed to the top of a large yellow-green prairie hill to
attend Saryn’s burial. The more feather staffs and bright weave blankets and small bead
trinkets and clay carvings inlayed with candles the people brought, the angrier Mom
grew. An important man in a headdress, beating a drum, walked in front of the others and
placed a yellow, red, and green blanket over the casket. Of course, this didn’t make Mom
happy. The colors clashed with the pink velvet within the casket. I knew what she was
36
thinking but, since the casket was closed for good, it only mattered to her. She could still
see Saryn in her purple frilly pageant dress that she never wore before today and that only
fit because she grew very little during her illness. My mother walked forward in her
black, mini-skirt lined with lace, took off the blanket and put it on the ground by the
already dug grave. A group of black crows hovered in the distance, like vultures.
My father moved to pick it up, but the man in the headdress said, “Let it be.”
I felt poison running through my veins. I imagined the curious crows coming over
and pecking her eyes out.
“Mom,” I said, grasping her hand. “Do you want a piece?”
I held out a piece of gum from Black Rider. It was my first experiment. She
swatted my hand away.
“Don’t be rude,” she said.
Fifteen minutes later, as two singers sang a sad song in Lakota with a five person
band accompanying them, Mom started tapping her black shoes against the grass. She
twirled her hair between her fingers, in impatience, and finally reached her hand out. I
smiled and put a piece in her hand. She took it, quickly un-wrapped it and placed it in her
mouth. I heard her chewing loudly over the music. My dad tapped me and held his hand
out. I sighed and handed him a piece. When an English, Christian song began on the
same pipes and the same flutes and the same guitar as the Lakota song, Mom was drawn
to tears. Her lips pulled over her teeth as she drew a white handkerchief to her face. My
eyes bulged. Her teeth were stained black. I looked at my father. His teeth were too.
Quickly, I took out the package. I took a piece for myself and handed it to the people next
to me. Saryn would have thought it was hysterical. If she were there, in person, it would
37
have been something she would have done.
A group of teenage boys noticed the results first. They stifled laughs, but the
ceremony went on. My father finally noticed my teeth. He furrowed his brows. I smiled
and pointed to my mother’s teeth. His teary face beamed. Mom never knew. No one at
the reception told her and, of course, she didn’t notice anyone else.
After the funeral, Dad brought me to Wounded Knee, a place I learned much more about
when I attended the reservation high school, probably, one of the only schools in America
that covered it. We sat in the tall grass. I wanted to get mixed up in the long strands. I
needed them touching me.
“Do you know what happened here?” he asked, after a long time.
I looked over at the metal fence and the big brick entranceway, a cross at the very
top. I shook my head.
“Many innocent Lakota people were murdered here. Babies, mothers, fathers.”
“Why? Were they trying to make us extinct?”
Dad looked out, over the hill.
“I don’t know,” he said. “They wanted our land. They buried everyone together.
A mass grave.”
“Dad,” I asked, envisioning their bodies, holding other bodies beneath the earth
and then thinking of Saryn. “Why do people put clothes on dead people? I hated that
stupid dress Mom put on Saryn. She wouldn’t have liked it.”
“The clothes are for the undead.”
“Then why did she get to choose?”
He took a deep breath.
38
“Corrine,” he said, finally. “I’m staying here and I want you to stay with me.
Would you like that?”
He turned to me and smiled nervously, his teeth still slightly blackened. I shook
my head up and down. He pulled on the pocket of my jeans and drew me close. As he put
his large arm around me, grass tickled my cheeks.
Dad and I stayed on the reservation, while Mom took Jenna back to California. In
a postcard, written in kindergarten scratch, we learned that Jenna won her first beauty
pageant the next spring. A few months later, Jenna wrote that she was sick of pageants
and decided she was going to become the next Mia Hamm. Mom sent us a picture of
Jenna in her green soccer uniform, clutching a small miniature pink and white checkered
ball. On the back of the photo, Mom wrote, “We miss you.” I sometimes wondered what
it would have been like if I moved back to California with them. What Mom would be
like without Dad, what we would all be like without Saryn? Our family separated like
three sections of a puzzle. Our edges, torn and changed so much so that they could never
slip back together. The re-joining would have been forced and fragile. It took me years to
acknowledge that the pieces were better scattered.
Whenever I chew bubblegum, even now, I imagine Saryn in her miniature coffin,
like a baby Barbie in her box, with that gum still in her stomach. With every chew the
taste and my picture of her fades. My memory is that bubblegum, all sugary yet
evanescent. I chew it until the rubbery substance won’t let me chew it anymore. I try to
draw out more taste until that bubblegum has only a faint flavor of sweetness.
39
Ready. Set. Go!
I didn’t want this baby. Moira knew I didn’t want it. Not then. Not ever. She told
me she didn’t want one either. I thought it was something that we both agreed upon
beforehand. We weren’t one of those couples that made a quick decision to get married
and then learned later we had differing ideas about our future. We had had the big talks,
the important talks. On our fifth date in a ritzy Italian restaurant in Boston’s North End, I
asked, “So, how do you feel about kids?” She responded, “They make me vomit.” That
was when I asked her to marry me. Not literally. But, you know, that ‘will-you-marryme’ statement that really means ‘you might be the perfect female specimen for me.’ Ten
months later, we really did get married. It was my idea. I loved her and she seemed to
really dig me and everything really was perfect until one night one month ago when
Moira came home and spilled the news. Supposedly, it was an accident: antibiotics plus
birth control gone wild. My first thought was how much an abortion would cost because I
thought we’d already discussed this. But, she didn’t give me a chance to ask because she
spit out my worst nightmare.
“Vassili,” she said, using my name for emphasis. She never used my whole name.
Ever. “It’s too late.”
She moved pieces of rare steak around on her plate. A trail of blood followed the
movement of the fork.
“Too late for what?” I knew what she meant, but had to hear her say it.
“For an abortion. I’m eighteen weeks pregnant.”
40
I did the math. Looked at her stomach. Then, to her purple puffy face. Her
stomach was a flat as a frying pan.
“You’ve got to be kidding. You’re anorexic for Christ’s sake.”
“Not for long.”
“Being anorexic or being skinny?”
She glared at me. Those black eyes bubbling with sparks.
“We can fly to the UK. They will do it.”
“No. We won’t.”
She looked down at her hands. They were crossed perfectly on her lap. She never
sat like this. Never. She looked like a prissy little princess waiting for her entourage to
arrive to take her away in a magical carriage drawn by elephants, decorated with exotic
birds. This wasn’t my wife. Invasion of the Body Snatchers 101: test this pod bitch for
emotions.
“I will yank it out myself,” I said, my face turning red. I grabbed a fork in my fist
and stabbed the steak. The fork dropped on the table and slipped onto the floor.
“Please, Vassili,” she said, chewing her meat. There she went again with the
whole name thing. I imagined the blood in her mouth, swishing around on her tongue,
and gagged.
She shuffled through her briefcase by the table and shoved a transparent dark
sheet of thin plastic across the table. I lifted it up. It said ‘Baby Federov” in the bottom
left hand corner in green pen. I held it up to the light. I was expecting to see a tadpole, a
mutant alien with a tail, an oval head with eyes on the side like a snake. However, in the
center of the sonogram image, I found a shadowy shape with ears and finger-tips. I could
41
only see one foot, but I could count five toes. And it had a nose. Probably Moira’s, pointy
but short, a miniature obtuse triangle.
I looked at her stomach again. There was no way a baby this big was in there. No
way.
“So, where are you hiding it?” I asked.
She rubbed her stomach. “The sonogram’s from today.”
“Did you tell the doctor about me, about my problem?”
“No, not yet.”
“And you don’t know if it’s a girl yet, right?”
“No.”
“You haven’t known long then,” I said. This wasn’t a question. Last month she
went out with her co-workers to celebrate her second raise in the span of six months. Her
sticky-handed boss, Jim Grinaldi- the son of James Grinaldi, owner of the firm, was all
over her as we watched a Red Sox game on one of twenty different screens in Gillian’s, a
club only a block from the ballpark. You could hear the fans cheering a millisecond
before the television seconded the jubilee.
Jim suffered from hirsutism, a disorder that caused hair to grow as thick as a
beard across his body. Hair reached out like vines up his face, crowding his eyes. He
shaved every morning, but by the time his five-o-clock shadow set in, you’d need a hedge
trimmer to find his neck. Jim kept feeding Moira martini’s, while she ordered shots of
Goldschläger on the side. He would slink to the bathroom between innings and she’d
swish the gold flakes around in the tiny clear glass of cinnamon fire. I could feel the
flecks nicking the back of her throat, feeding her blood with a rush of sweet intoxication.
42
She winked at me from the bar and made the waiter send me over the left-over wings
from the celery sticks she ordered, a habit that annoyed me at first but grew on me. It
angered her that you couldn’t get celery without wings.
That night she sent with wings over with a note. It read:
V,
You’ll need these when it’s your turn to fly.
~M
P.S. Can you believe this guy?
Come over and hit on me and
see what he does!
I turned the note over:
Moira Massey-Federov, LLB
Divorce Lawyer
Tel: 617-726-0213
Fax: 617-726-0214
Tel: 617-726-0213
Fax: 617-726-0214
It was written on one of her new-age business cards. I call them new-age because
about thirty years ago, no one would have found them funny. There’s a slight vertical
indent down the middle of the white card, right between the dash separating her maiden
and married name, separating the scale into two halves. She would give one side to each
partner, symbolizing that if they chose her they’d have a clean and equal split. A few
other divorce lawyers had similar gimmicky cards, but no one could tear them in half
quite like Moira.
Jim never knew Moira made me attend all of her work outings to ensure her safe
passage home. To make sure Jim’s hands didn’t get stuck. He never suspected the dark
figure in corners, planted in an old wheelchair. One night he actually spoke to me while
he waited in line to use the men’s bathroom.
“Great night,” he said, adjusting his belt.
43
“I guess,” I said. “The sox are playing like shit.”
“You see that chick at the bar?” he said, pointing at Moira.
I nodded.
“Tonight’s the night I make my move.”
I balled my fists in my lap.
“She’s got a pretty fat ring on her finger,” I said, looking at her left hand that was
lifted to her face as she gulped down the rest of her martini.
“Yeah, I hear the guy’s an old chump professor. Nothing to worry about. Well,
what about you? You got a gal?”
I looked at Moira and smiled.
“Yes, I do,” I said, but Jim was already gone.
And so the game went on. I watched Moira move up in her company from that
chair in the dark haze of bars across Boston. She was good at her job, don’t get me
wrong, but she also knew how to get where she was going quicker than any cross-legged
girl from Harvard with a 4.0 GPA. I admired her ability to use her natural resources
without tainting them. I watched her act from tables behind the bar, drinking glass after
glass of water topped with seedy lemons. The sour taste in my mouth would linger.
“I’ve known for less than a month,” she said. “I didn’t get my period.”
“You never get your period,” I said.
She didn’t say anything.
“A month?” I said. I imagined the gold flakes from the alcohol sticking to the
fetus, growing within its skin. Could we remove them when it finally came ashore?
44
She moved two pieces of meat around on her plate. Blood from the meat sat in
puddles across her plate.
“Are you supposed to be eating fucking meat still mooing if you’re pregnant? It’s
disgusting.”
She dropped her fork on the ceramic green plate and sauntered to my side of the
table.
“Oh, Vach’,” she smiled and kissed me on the cheek. “I knew you wouldn’t be
too upset. I’ve got to call Beverly.”
Now, Moira hadn’t always acted like this. Usually, she was emotionless- at least
that’s what she wanted people to think-, she had a mysterious edge about her- her psychic
called it a confused violet and green aura-, and she was independent. I blamed everything
on Beverly. She was Moira’s newest best friend of five months, and my newest worst
enemy. I believed she corrupted my wife into getting pregnant to fulfill some desperate
housewife desire to have kids at the same time as the entire block. Beverly lived two
houses down. Two houses down on Beacon Hill meant two rooms and two brownstone
walls away. The houses were crunched together like boxes of Saltines. I could tell when
Beverly got up to take a piss or feed her daughter, Kennedy, warm milk in the middle of
the night. I could hear when Kennedy talked to her closet to tell the invisible monsters to
stay away. I could tell when our next door neighbor Charley took his dog Bobo, a
purebred Mastiff, out for a walk and when Mrs. Wilson fought with her husband for not
taking his Viagra pill before bed. I called it my happy little Nabisco neighborhood,
cracker stacked atop cracker.
45
It was my idea to move to Beacon Hill. Moira was against the idea. Not because
she was in opposition buying a multi-million dollar house the size of a two tiered
rectangle box, but because she didn’t like the idea of me traveling up and down the hill in
my vintage, non-motorized wheelchair. She made a list of pros and cons and handed it to
me one morning when we lived in Cambridge. Moira had a real talent for making lists.
Being a pessimist, her lists used to be heavier on the negative side than the positive.
Until, the baby. Then, everything was rainbows and butterflies. A born again optimist,
and not just the kind that thinks positively, the kind that makes you want to puke out your
lunch they’re so delusional.
“Look it over,” she said. “But don’t put marks all over it this time.”
On a light green slip of paper, headed ‘Moira Massey-Federov, LLB Divorce
Lawyer’, she wrote:
PROS
Romantic Gas-lit streets
Close to Boston Common
Neighbors with John Kerry
CONS
Hill too tiring for wheelchair
Hill too difficult in snow
Bumpy cobblestone streets
Too dangerous for wheelchair
Parking Sucks- will cost more
than the mortgage
After dumping half a carton of orange juice on her list and letting it dry, I made
my own list on the bottom half of the page and left it on the bar for her to find when she
returned home from work.
PROS
Beautiful streets
Cobblestone walkways
Center of the city
Great bars
Around the block from
Boston Common
Historic Houses
One of the most desirable
neighborhoods in America
Two T stops from MIT
CONS
High price
Parking is lousy
Neighbors with John Kerry
Tourists
46
Hilly: Good for muscle building
and endurance training
When she finally arrived, I almost forgot my adjustments to the list until I heard
her heels hesitate in the kitchen. Moira’s not the kind of woman who hovers around the
kitchen. She’s too afraid of food for that. She won’t even cook. I thought she couldn’t.
Until, the baby.
Her long spidery fingers held the list. She slipped it back onto the bar as I moved
into the room. Her black hair was pulled back in a tight bun. A few strands of straggling
hairs curled at her long ballerina neck. Her posture was still perfect after the twelve hour
day and her grey pin-stripe suit, wrinkle-less.
“You’re impossible,” she said. “Why do you continually ignore your disability?
You didn’t mention it once on your list.”
“It’s all you mention on yours.”
“What if you spin out of control going downhill and plummet onto Charles Street,
or, even worse, Cambridge Street?”
“Let’s hope they see me coming?”
“Vach, this isn’t a joke.”
“No shit, Sherlock.”
“Well,” she paused. She blinked a few times. Blinking to Moira usually meant she
was about to say something she didn’t want to, but thought necessary. “What if it gets
worse?”
“It won’t,” I said, looking down at my knobby hands that should have gone bad
with my lower legs fourteen years ago.
“You can’t control it.”
47
“I can control where I live and I’m living there. End of story. I only have to go to
MIT twice a week to teach. It’s not that bad of a commute.”
I expected her to fight with me. To tell me ‘no.’ To baby me like a toddler asking
for more candy. Not because that was something she usually did-I appreciated that from
her-, but because that’s how most people continue to treat me. Even getting a PhD in
Aerospace Engineering didn’t stop people from talking to me in that patronizing, high
pitched voice you use to talk to infants.
“Fine,” she said her face immobile, impossible to read.
“Fine?” I said, testing the waters.
She smirked. I didn’t know until that second how much Moira actually wanted to
move.
“Fine, really?” I asked.
She shook her head and flipped through her green leather briefcase. She handed
me a small folder. I opened it and looked inside. A single small color photograph of a
quaint brownstone townhouse adjacent to a private small open square lay inside. I read
the small print. It said ‘Louisburg Square.’
“Moira, we can’t afford Louisburg. Mount Vernon, maybe. But not Louisburg.”
“It’s the best street on Beacon Hill.”
“For that price we could buy a yacht and sail the seven seas and buy a house.
Hell, I could buy new parts for my rocket.”
“You wouldn’t do well on a yacht.”
“That’s beside the point.”
48
“Louisa May Alcott lived just a few buildings away. You would be able to just
feel the ghosts of her genius.”
Moira usually doesn’t grovel. It’s beneath her.
“I’m a space guy, not a writer,” I responded.
“Genius is genius.”
“You’re going to have to do better than that.”
“My father will pitch in.”
“Absolutely not.”
“I got a raise. 6.8 percent.”
“6.8? Are you serious? Old Jimmy really does have his nuts in a knot over you.”
“Hey, I worked hard for it.”
I raised my left eyebrow and stared at her, and, finally, she smirked.
“I know isn’t it just juvenile?”
“Done,” I said. “You better start packing your bags now. We are going to need a
truck for your shoes closet.”
She smiled and kissed my cheek. That’s about as much emotion she used to show.
Until, the baby.
Moira moved to walk away and then turned.
“One more thing,” she added. “What did you get on the list this time?”
“I pissed on it.”
She didn’t react. She sniffed it. Hesitated. Then, licked it.
“Nice try,” she said. “I’m guessing we need to buy another carton of orange
juice?”
49
I nodded and she sighed. The lines on her face tightened around her eyes. She
always took my little spilling mistakes as signs for the progression of my disease. I swore
she had a little checklist somewhere marking off my little muscle mishaps, calculating
when the next paralysis would come. Why not make a list of every wrinkle or age marker
until the time of death? I didn’t need a list to tell me what was going to happen. A list
would have made me want to shoot myself. Sadly, if I didn’t hurry up and take action
then, someday I wouldn’t be able to do it on my own. How about that for dark, poetic
humor?
We moved to Beacon Hill two months later. We paid a moving company to do the
dirty work, but they forgot to tell us that we needed to buy moving permits to place on
the street. We were fined and had to wait half a day for another moving truck company-a
company that provided moving permits in the price for their customers- to make room for
us to get by. I gave orders from the sidewalk while the moving people sent up our things.
Moira was at work. I gave my students the day off, and they loved me for it.
She met me on the street around five and carried me over the threshold. For a fulltime anorexic, Moira had superhuman strength. Instead of eating, she spent her semi-free
hours making phone calls from her Blackberry and running fifteen miles on the treadmill
while listening to self-help tapes. A lot of guys think anorexic, over-exercisers are hot
and Moira was. Is. But, she never looked quite proportionate. Her head looked a little big
for her lanky body. Her muscles bulged like a seasoned gymnast, yet it was like there
wasn’t enough stuff to hold the muscles on. She was all muscle and bone, but no juice, no
50
sticky sinew. However, she had gorgeous hair; her straight black locks curled at her
cheeks. She rarely left her hair down, but today was a special day.
She lifted me through the room. I felt her arm muscles shake, but she smiled and
said, “If you get pissed at me for doing this I will call the sexist police and have you
arrested.”
Moira always knew what I was thinking before I said it.
“What bed shall it be?” she asked, looking over rooms and hallways filled with
the cardboard boxes of our lives. “Bedding supplies, kitchen utensils, or office supplies
#3?”
My stomach bubbled like a teenage boy getting his hands on his first Playboy
magazine.
“Bedding supplies would be too normal. Let’s pick something different.”
“Ok, Tiger,” she said, scouring the place.
We kissed atop a box labeled ‘knives and spoons’ and I didn’t have time to
wonder about the location of the spoons because we heard a noise.
“Yoohoo?” someone sang. “Yoohoo? Anyone home?
A blonde woman in a pink terry cloth jumpsuit walked right through the door with
her mini-me standing next to her, hand in hand. When she saw us, she stepped back and
put her empty hand over the young girl’s eyes.
“Just here to welcome you to the block. I wanted to find out if you were vegan,
vegetarian, or Jewish before I brought my famed pork and pepperoni casserole over here
for you to try,” she said, barely taking a breath and never taking her hand from the girl’s
eyes.
51
“None of the above,” I said, sitting up on the box. “Moira loves meat.”
“Let’s here it for carnivores!” She accidentally took her hand off the girl’s eyes to
lift her fist into the air in perfect cheerleader style. She looked at her fist, appalled, and
then moved her hand back over her daughter’s eyes.
Moira gave her a fabulous lawyerly smile and walked towards her.
“Oh, no need to cater to me,” the woman said. “My name’s Beverly and I live two
houses down. Tata for now,” she said, still in a sing-song voice. “Arivaderchi.”
And she was gone. I looked at Moira and we burst into laughter. I motioned her
with my pointer finger to come back. And she came.
It only took a month for Moira to stop laughing at Beverly’s eccentricities and
begin taking her seriously. Her daughter Kennedy ultimately won her over. At six and a
half, Kennedy was the perfect little woman. She had the polished manners of a charm
school teacher, the intelligence and curiosity of an FBI agent, and the cunning wit of a
stock trader.
She was nothing like Beverly. Kennedy always knocked three times before
entering and left her shoes at the door. But on weekends, she played soccer with the boys.
Centerfield. She averaged three goals a game and the boys despised her, but she never
stuck out her tongue or made the referee get out the red card which he stored in his front
pocket even for AYSO games. She just laughed and giggled “Eat my dirt,” and Beverly
would chuckle and say loud enough for the entire bench to hear, “I wonder what’s gotten
into her?”
52
But, it was only on the grassy field and behind closed doors that Kennedy came
alive. Moira and I went to her games throughout the spring and into the summer. She was
adamant to make the school team for the fall. She attended an All Girl’s private school
that started recruiting athletes before the tikes could walk. She wasn’t invited to try-outs
last year. Second Grade would have to be her year and, she thought that if she got her
name in the paper enough, they would have to take her. She already had a Curriculum
Vitae, a college fund, and a folder filled with newspaper cut outs, her name in black and
white highlighted with gold marker.
When Beverly and her husband Grant went to the Caymans for the weekend,
Moira offered to watch Kennedy. We spent most of the second day on the roof cooking
hamburgers and steaks while Kennedy helped me assemble a rocket model to bring in to
my class.
“So, Mr, Federov,” she said. “What do you do, really?”
“Well, besides doing research and my continued applications to NASA. I teach a
class called ‘Aeronautics.’”
“What’s that?”
“Well, I mainly teach them about spacecrafts that leave the Earth’s atmosphere.”
“Like how to moon walk?”
“Kind of.”
“So what is the moon really like? There’s not a man with cheese and all that?”
“Nah, but it’s fun to think about.”
Night had fallen over the city, but the bright lights made it impossible to see stars.
We could only see the moon. Kennedy moved to a beach chair to stare at it.
53
“So, what’s it like to stand there and look down at us? Do we look funny?”
“I don’t know.” I said.
“But you teach about it?”
Somehow this child made me feel like a fraud. Moira sauntered over from the
grill with a thin steak and broccoli stalks.
“He’s going there someday,” Moira said, sitting next to me. Kennedy looked up at
the moon again and yawned.
“We better not stay out here too much longer,” I said.
“Why? I like it,” she said.
“You shouldn’t sit under the moon too long.”
“It can’t give me a sunburn,” Kennedy said. “So why not?”
“It can give you something much worse,” I said, remembering what my mother
told me as I child when I looked up at the moon and the stars, letting their light glitter and
bathe my skin in secret hopes.
“What?” She sat up and looked at me. The city lights behind her made her light
hair glow.
“Do you know what ‘lunacy’ means?”
“Sure, that’s what Mom calls the homeless people when we walk by.”
“They sleep outside under the luna.”
“The moon?”
Kennedy sunk down in the chair and Moira pinched my back.
54
In the waiting room at Moira’s six month check, I fumbled over words in my
head. Her now protruding belly made it hard to think. I had to confront the doctors, get
the necessary tests, convince them to remove the fetus immediately. In the eleven block
journey down Beacon Hill to Massachusetts General Hospital, I waited for Moira to say
something, anything about what could potentially happen to the thing growing inside her.
But, she just went on and on about where she was going to go shopping after we found
out the sex of the baby. I felt sick before we reached Cambridge Street. I stopped in an
ally and threw up my lunch: pickles and broccoli soup. Two pieces of pickle landed on
the bottom edge of my green slacks. I hadn’t leaned over far enough in the chair.
“Morning sickness?” Moira asked, fishing through her purse to find her stash
half-used tissues.
“No. Mourning sickness,” I said, emphasizing the vowels. I watched the green
chunks get stuck between red bricks as the liquid separated, running down the hill ahead
of us.
She chuckled. I could tell she didn’t believe my distress over the alien that had
already doubled in size. She thought that if it was born healthy, I would make a
miraculous recovery. But, she didn’t understand what it meant to be a carrier. What it
meant for it down the road, what it meant for its babies.
I looked over at Moira. Her hand rested on her lower abdomen, while she read a
Parenting magazine article entitled “Going Green: ‘Diapers’ for the 2010’s.”
She pointed to a picture of an Oriental baby on the subway. A woman held the
baby in a standing position on her lap. Its naked bottom was the focal point in the shot.
55
No one else in the picture was looking at the baby. Other passengers stared at the
television in the top corner, or read from newspapers in simplified Chinese characters.
The baby’s naked backside was anything but unordinary.
“See what they do in China?” Moira said. “Babies don’t wear diapers. It will save
the planet.”
“What happens if they need to take a crap?”
She shrugged her shoulders and turned the page. Finally, a nurse called us in and
placed us in room 202. I studied the cartooned diagrams of the female anatomy
decorating the walls. Pictures of fetal stages showed the progression of alien growth.
Moira pointed at one in the middle and forced me to look at it for more than ten seconds.
After twenty-five minutes, a young man named Daaruk Chatterjee knocked on the door,
slapped Moira’s leg with an out-held yellow chart and smiled, and then shook my hand.
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Federov,” he said. “Now it’s Igor Vassili Federov?”
I nodded and cringed. It had been a long time since I heard my entire name.
“At first I thought you were the Igor Vassili Federov. You know, the Russian
track star? But, now I see that…” he said, looking at my chair, at my crooked legs.
“Yeah, I get that a lot,” I said. Moira shot me daggers with her green eyes.
“Stop it, Vach,” she said. “That’s him, but don’t call him Igor. He gets
emotional.”
“Wait,” the doctor said, touching his gelled, jet black hair. “You’re really him?
You won two gold medals in Atlanta, right? I forget which events.”
“The 4x400 meter relay and the 400 meter. That’s pretty good, Doc,” I said.
“Barely anyone follows track anymore.”
56
“I’m a runner myself,” he said. “So I hate to ask, but what happened? Is it genetic,
something we’re going to have to worry about?”
He studied my physiology. I knew he couldn’t see my atrophied muscles beneath
my slacks, my slight scoliosis of my spine drawing closer by the week, the missing
dystrophin protein in my muscles.
“Did you have an accident? All fall during running perhaps?” he asked.
“He has muscular dystrophy,” said Moira.
“You couldn’t have Duchenne’s,” he said, the lines on his forehead gathering in
contemplation. “You wouldn’t have been able to run at all, let alone be the best on the
planet. Is it Distal MD? That would explain the late onset.”
“Becker’s,” I said. “The symptoms started right after the Olympics. I was in leg
braces by 1997.”
Chatterjee nodded. “We’ve got a lot to think about, then,” he said, looking at
Moira’s stomach. “Let’s begin the exam, shall we?”
Moira moved back her shirt and Chatterjee began the sonogram. He squirted her
with something that looked like watery Vaseline and placed a white rod, the shape of a
television remote on her palace-sized mound.
“Becker’s is X-linked recessive,” Chatterjee said. “Quite good news, I think,
seeing that it is the daddy that has the disease. If the mommy had it, this would be much
more serious, for this generation anyway.”
He wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t already know. But, Moira was paying close
attention, her eyes focused on the black and white screen, ears raised at Chatterjee’s
voice. This information was much different coming from him. She took a deep breath.
57
“So, is there a chance the baby could get it?” she asked.
“Of course there’s always a chance. If you have a boy, he will most likely not
inherit the disease, but a daughter will be a carrier. But if Moira happens to be a carrier of
the disease already, both male or female offspring will inherit it. However, that is
extremely rare. I don’t know the statistics, but it is unlikely. You don’t have anyone in
your family that has MD, do you?”
She shook her head.
“There, you see?” he said. “This baby will be as healthy as can be. Probably a
track star in the making.”
Chatterjee stopped moving the white arm and studied the screen.
“Is there something wrong? I asked. “Can you see something?”
“No,” he said. “I’m just trying to see if it’s a girl or a boy.”
“Vach wants a boy,” Moira said. “So you better not tell us if it’s a girl. He’s a
train-wreck already.”
“Well,” he said. “It’s best that it is a boy, but as of right now, I can’t tell if it is or
not.”
“Why is it best?” she asked. “I don’t understand what a carrier is?”
I had explained it to her hundreds of times, but I didn’t interrupt. She needed to
hear this from Chatterjee’s mouth.
“It simply means that she carries the disease on one of her x-chromosomes.”
“But that isn’t so bad, right?” Moria asked. “Because she has two.”
58
“Well, it may not be detrimental to her, exactly, but if it’s a girl, we will have to
check her heart regularly. Some researchers believe that some carriers suffer from heart
problems.”
“And the baby’s children?” I prompted.
“If it’s a girl, her offspring will have a fifty percent chance of getting it. If she has
a girl, she will have a fifty percent chance of being a carrier and if it’s a boy, he will have
a fifty percent chance of getting the disease.”
“Basically, we are cursing our family tree,” I said, from my chair in the corner.
“Either that or we stop the tree from growing at all,” Moira said, never looking
away from the black and white screen.
“Would you like to hear the heart, Mr. Federov?” Chatterjee interrupted.
“No, thank you,” I said.
“Vachel!” she exclaimed, finally looking at me.
I moved towards her fleshy mound. Chatterjee held the end of the stethoscope to
the hill’s crowning knoll, a little higher than the dipping lake of her expanded navel. At
first I heard just one beat. Lub dub, lub dub, lub dub. And then I heard two, the second
much faster than the first. Lub dub, lub dub lub dub lub dub, lub dub, lub dub lub dub lub
dub, lub dub, lub dub lub dub…I closed my eyes. I heard the pattering of feet behind me,
pounding, pounding in my ear. The sound reverberating, echoing. But which was real and
which was the echo? Was it getting closer? The spotty black turf that spread before me
like volcanic rock, absorbed too much of the sound. Technology was twisting things. I
pumped my arms faster, harder, stronger. My heart thrust against my sternum, louder
than the hammering of feet. ‘Be quiet. Be quiet. Turn off your fog horns, your cameras,
59
your silly chants.’ I had to hear. Shh. Was he getting closer? Yes. Yes! And then I saw
his red short, his yellow shirt, his golden shoes. Three strides. Four strides. Five strides
ahead. No. Faster. Faster. Harder. Harder. ‘You are not a loser. You are not a loser. You
will not finish staring at his ass.’
And it burned. But the crowd cheered my name. I listened for the voice of my
father in the crowd, but there were too, too many people.
“Do you hear it?”
“Huh?”
“Do you hear it, Mr. Federov?” Chatterjee asked.
“I’m not sure,” I said.
He removed the stethoscope and put it around his neck.
“Maybe when this baby is born, you could bring your medals, eh? For the
pictures, of course, I’ve never seen a real gold medal in real life,” he said.
“I guess.”
“You can get dressed now,” Chatterjee said. “We will schedule an amniocentesis
if you’d like, but for now everything looks fine.”
Chatterjee opened the door and stopped.
“Are they heavy?” Chatterjee asked, looking at me.
“What?” I asked.
“The medals?”
“Heavier than you’d think.”
60
At sixth months pregnant, Beverly put on a surprise baby shower for Moira in the
ballroom of the Ritz-Carlton on Avery Street. She invited the entire block, even though
we had yet to meet everyone. She explained that in doing so, we would reap the most
benefits in connections and in material supplies necessary for the hippest baby. Moira
hated the whole lavish ordeal, but she endured it. She, or I should say we, received
everything from a Summit 360 Double Jogging stroller which came with a card that
simply said ‘Just in case,’ a navy blue Baby Bjorn carrier, a stack of picture books I had
never read, a pea green Graco SnugRide 35 infant car seat, a breast pump with the $200
tag still left on. The most expensive gift- a $3,000 Corsican Cinderella Crib that looked
like a giant carriage in the shape of a skeletal pumpkin- came from old Jimmy who
arrived twenty minutes before the party ended. He handed me his coat thinking I was the
bell boy, while he made a golden entrance. Jimmy had four gentlemen- supposedly the
coachmen- carry the already assembled delicate crib on fake golden wheels to the center
of the room.
“What if we don’t have a girl?” Moira asked as Jimmy fondled her arm.
“Carriages are for little princes, too,” he said, moving his hand through her hair.
Moira got up from her seat and walked towards me. She winked at me.
“Oh, no,” Jimmy said. “Don’t get up for me.”
“Jimmy, meet my husband, Vach,” she said, watching his face change from a
flushing violet to a deep indigo. Recognition flashed on his face.
I put out my hand, clutching his jacket in the other.
“Nice to meet you… again,” I said, trying not to laugh.
61
“Nice to…er…meet you,” he said, looking down at me. He robotically reached
over for his jacket. “Er…sorry about that.”
“No problem,” I said. “Did you try the food? The caviar is to die for.”
“To die for,” he repeated in monotone. “Yes, I will try some.”
Moira and I watched him fill his plate with cheesecake and cordials and chocolate
truffles. He wiped his balmy forehead with a green silk tie imprinted with hundreds of
shiny black Labradors multiple times before stealing glances over towards us between
bites. Moira’s face was flushed, although she didn’t crack an indulgent smile until later.
We laughed all night recounting Jimmy’s green and purple face after he stuffed an
entire platter of cheesecake down his throat and even harder when Moira posted the
extravagant, yet utterly ridiculous, crib on eBay. She entitled the crib “Cinderella’s
Skeleton” and didn’t supply it with a minimum bid.
“To each their own,” she said.
I held up the package that held the clear breast pumps and took the pieces out of
the black package with two fingers.
“What are we going to do with these?” I asked.
“Well, I’m going to breast feed, of course. And we’ll need that when I go back to
work.”
“But these say they are for breasts.”
“Yes,” she said, catching my smirk.
“You’re an ass,” she said, slapping me with the package. “They will grow in
eventually.”
“I knew there had to be some advantage to this situation.”
62
She threw a box that read ‘The First Year’s Babypro All in One Baby Food
Maker’ and said, “Make yourself useful, Mr. Federov.”
I looked at the picture on the front.
“Don’t we already have a blender?” I asked, putting the box in the floor.
“Not a special one,” she said, putting the box back into my hands. And when she
shut the door to the bathroom, humming, I hid the box behind the couch. I wished she
could see what this baby was. See the sparkplug for what it would inevitably become. A
sparkplug. A ticking time bomb awaiting an atomic blast with a catastrophic aftermath
that followed every single branch, ever little twig of the great tree, going dormant for
awhile and then cropping back up. Hadn’t she ever heard of Chernobyl heart or the
radiation sickness after Hiroshima and Nagasaki? This was what the alien was. A silent
cloud, growing more dangerous. I thought that she better start making a thousand paper
cranes. I knew what it felt like to be the bomb. I knew that after a blinding silence a black
rain would fall with tiny shards of glass.
Moira called me at seven o’clock on an autumn evening to tell me that the baby
was coming. Her water broke on old Jimmy’s office floor. She said he turned red and
dropped the phone two times before successfully calling an ambulance to State Street.
She would arrive at MGH in fifteen minutes. She had already called Dr. Chatterjee to
make sure he was there. I could hear the muted sirens of the ambulance through the
phone. I heard another siren in the distance and wondered if it was the same one. She was
only eight months pregnant. I thought I still had a whole month to go.
63
I rolled myself into the bedroom, put on a clean shirt and opened the bottom
drawer of my bureau. I bent over as far as I could and rummaged through underwear and
paired socks with my right hand. Near the back, I felt the cold heavy metal medallions. I
pulled them out by the thick forest green strap that read “Atlanta 1996” in gold thread. I
brushed my fingers over the gold engraved picture of a Greek woman holding an olive
branch. I always wondered what the small off-center horse drawn chariot was supposed
to symbolize. Now, I just figured they foreshadowed the three horsemen coming down to
judge me, to tear me down.
I strung the medals around my neck, left the house and let my wheelchair slide
down Beacon Hill towards Cambridge Street. Across the street from the hospital, I
watched the ambulances and taxis and different colored cars as they came and went from
the large front entranceway like I had done several times in the past two months. Instead
of crossing the busy four-lane street, I turned left and kept rolling and rolling and rolling
the rubber tires until I found myself atop a skinny cement bridge hanging over Storrow
drive. Cars honked below. I peered over the edge.
“Excuse me,” a young woman with a florescent spandex suit atop a turquoise bike
yelled, still moving forward. I pumped my wheels to the other side of the bridge. There
wasn’t enough room for her to pass. I had to go where she was going, or she would have
to turn back.
The edge of the bridge merged into a wide pavement walkway along the Charles
River. On the other side of the narrow stretch of green water, Cambridge rose from the
light fog through orange and yellow leaves still clinging to their tired branches. That was
the side of knowledge, of MIT, of Harvard, of Lesley, with buildings that really did grow
64
ivy up ancient walls. This side embodied the history, the beating heart. It’s of old red
brick and grey cobblestones, of tea parties atop shallow salt water and green weed, of
shrines for courageous men: the house of Paul Revere where we still go to worship his
famous ride, of Faneuil Hall where quiet whispers of Frederick Douglass’s voice can still
be heard between shop windows and food stands that speak a myriad of languages, of old
cemeteries cutting into busy streets; it is a place where even the dead pioneers reject
being forgotten. It is of Fenway Park, the green monster: heart and soul of the city. It is of
a small trail of red brick and red paint connecting old stone, cracked white cement and
worn black pavement. It is a red trail marking a path of freedom that merges the two sides
of the city, marking the symbolic blood that had to spill for, first, independence from an
outside oppressor and then from slavery of our own.
I am an immigrant to this country, but these things I know. It was for this city that
I won the gold medals, not the humble town where I was born, a fact that created brick
walls out of ocean and the ghosting of a family. It was this city that gave me a chance to
fly once more, even if it was only in models of spaceships and dreams of the uneven
surface of the moon, and hopes of weightlessness achieved through the absence of
gravity.
I soared down the smooth path along the river. Runners were out, some slow but
determined. Some old but graceful, some young and sprite, some dizzy and unbalanced.
Bikers and rollerblades rushed by the rest, hurrying to dinner or an overnight shift at the
end of the long path. I reached the crown of a hill. I could see the bridge to Cambridge
growing larger and larger.
65
On the grassy park an older man with a full head of red hair chased his grandson,
a miniature version of himself. Red hair, yellow eyes and freckles galore. The boy
stopped at the edge of the gray cement and looked back towards the old man.
“Say when,” the boy yelled. “Say when!”
“Ready. Set. Go!” the man chanted.
The boy took off in front of me, his short, skinny arms paddling against thick air.
I let go of the stoppers on my chair and closed my eyes. The wheels turned quicker and
quicker as the chair charged down the hill. The wind cutting into my face felt brilliant. I
could hear the boy’s heavy steps in front of me. He wasn’t a runner. No. Pick up your
feet boy. Run like a bird runs. Make your feet invisible!
I passed the boy on his right, taking the outside. The pavement smoothed out. I
began to pump my wheels, faster and faster. I could hear the boy’s weighty breath in my
ear and I chugged and chugged. My lungs burned. I closed my eyes again, chuckling and
felt my left wheel cut into a dip in the path. And then the wheels hit tiny stones and I
went bump, bump, bump until I smashed face first into a freezing wall of ice. And then I
felt the wetness setting in and the sharp rocks jutting into my skin.
I was no longer in my chair. I opened my eyes and found myself in a murky haze.
A hand pulled on my right arm. It was the old man. He pulled my chair upright and
moved it to shore.
“Are you hurt?”
I shook my head and he pulled my top half out of the river.
“Do you need help, getting into the chair?”
66
The boy with red hair stood ankle deep in the water. His chest was jutting up and
down.
“No, I got it,” I said, coughing out slime and pollution and what I thought could
only be gills of fish. They watched as I walked hand over hand towards my chair. The
man held it steady as I climbed the silver instrument to place myself in the plastic blue
seat.
“Hey, Mister,” the boy said. “Are those real medals?”
“Yes,” I said.
He reached out and touched the surface with one finger.
“Would you like one?”
I lifted one golden weight of my chest and handed it to the boy.
“We can’t accept that,” the old man said.
“It’s for the boy.”
“It’s not real is it?”
“Let it be what he thinks it is.”
“Should I call you a taxi?” the man asked.
“No, thank you.”
I saw Kennedy first. Her legs swung beneath a chair in the waiting room like a
teeter-totter. Her little green dress with a pink silk ribbon swung with her. As her knees
swung backwards, I could see bruises on her shins and caps. Since she made the school
team, she sported the purple spots like her mother wore pearl necklaces. I smiled at her.
She waved and pointed to a room with an open door.
67
When Moira saw me, she frowned. A miniature baby with a thick tuft of black
hair was swaddled in two arms. It was wrapped in a light green cloth. Two hungry eyes
were open, mouth in the shape of a Cheerio.
“I didn’t think you were coming,” she said.
“I’m just a little late.”
“You missed everything. But thanks to you, I got to see the whole thing. Such a
miracle. Oh, how I’d love to have another. She has your eyes, don’t you think?” Beverly
prattled, talking in a high-pitched shrill, turning to the baby. “So, so sky blue.”
“Don’t all babies have blue eyes?” I said.
Beverly pinched her face together towards me and then tickled the baby’s hand
with all five fingers.
“She,” I said. “She?”
“It’s not a boy, but I’m not sorry Vach. Look at her,” Moira said, smiling. The
dark craters under her eyes were only light caves where they used to be caverns. “I told
you everything would be fine.”
“For now,” I said, examining her legs and her arms knowing I was searching for
something that wasn’t there. She couldn’t get the disease, just give it.
“Bev, can you get me some water?” Moira asked.
“Sure,” she said. “Be right back.”
“Vach,” Moira whispered, after Beverly left the room to find Kennedy. “Why are
you all wet? You look like a hooligan.”
“Well,” I stuttered. “I was so excited to see the alien that I took a shower with my
clothes on.”
68
“That’s a load of crap and don’t think that I don’t know it.”
“So you didn’t opt for drugs, I see?”
“All naturaaal,” she said. “Not that you’d know.”
Chatterjee sauntered into the room.
“Mr. Feverov,” he began. “So lovely to see you.”
He stared at my chest.
“You’ve brought a medal, I see,” he said, gazing at them with greedy eyes.
“It’s for, you know, the pictures.”
I took my medal off and put it around my baby’s neck, transferring the weight.
69
Jeannie
Don’t look at their keys. It makes you look suspicious. You don’t want to look
suspicious, Sweet Cheeks. Especially, not now. They call this your vulnerable stage. You
will progress through combative and then catatonic until you learn not to swallow the
blue pills they give you. After you’ve been here awhile longer, they’ll begin to trust you,
but only a little, never completely. The more days and months and weeks and decades
you build up pretending, the closer you will be to getting out of this place. That’s the
stage I’m at, and I’ve been here awhile. My ticket out of here has been accruing interest
since the forties. Oh, don’t look at me like that. I’m old, but I still got it. See? Your face
will crinkle, crankle just like mine, in time. Quicker if you stay in here. So anyways,
don’t look at their keys. You’ll end up in the brain fryer and after you get zapped a few
times, you won’t be able to decipher your ass from a hole in the ground. You understand?
Let’s go find a safe place, so I can tell you more. I know you’re tired, but it’s
better you know someone sooner than later. There are cliques in this place, just like the
outside. And I can tell by your eyes, you aren’t of the bad variety. Your cheeks are a little
pale. You better let me sweeten them up. I think we are far enough off now. If we go too
far, they will suspect.
I grant wishes. That’s what I do. But, I’m stuck and no one will wish me out. I’ve
wished it myself, but I’m all output, no input and these people are greedy. They just take,
take, take. And I must follow orders like a toy soldier. I’m done following commands.
70
Especially, from this over-sized child that keeps interrupting me whenever he pleases. It’s
just that this job isn’t something I signed up for, if you know what I mean. It just
happened, I guess.
Well, enough about me, Dearie. What about you? Oh, you don’t have to be afraid
of me. You look a little green now, maybe you should sit down. There. There. That’s
better. Green really isn’t your color. You know, we can be friends. I know you’ve just
arrived and all, but I’ll help you get along, help you get where you are going.
I told you not to bother me here. Go away. I’m not taking wishes at the present.
Oh, not you, Sweet Cheeks. Don’t listen to him. He’s just that new customer I
was talking about. He hasn’t learned the proper procedure yet, and he keeps popping in
when he wants. Where was I? Yes, yes. I have to get out of here. Not here, exactly. Out
of my bottle. Except the evil ones won’t let me.
There are other ways of getting what I want. Except I don’t know what they are.
Yet. The time will come. They’ll see. We can’t all lose. I may be old, but I can pull a
sword out of a stone. You look a little weak now, but with a little time and my help,
you’ll perk right up like a dry little seed after it’s been watered. But do try to remember
that I won’t be here long. You can come with me, if you wish. However, I’d rather you
ask than wish it. It will make me feel more like a friend than a business deal. Plus, you
may not want to go where I’m going, and you don’t look ready quite yet. We’ll see.
71
No, I do not offer an insurance policy. This is not the time or the place. Please,
make an appointment. We have some important things to discuss before you make your
first wish.
Here. If you come over here in the corner I will tell you more. Yes, over here. The
problem is- and I better whisper this-someone is always watching me. Watching my
moves. Always asking where I’m going and where I’ve been, foretelling my plans for
freedom, waiting for his chance to rub, rub, rub on my bottle and wish, wish, wish. I will
have to listen and count to three, then go back behind the locked door until someone else
comes knocking. The evil ones will watch you too.
There are others here, just like you and me. Other special people with powers. I
eat lunch and dinner with them, and have powwows where we sit in circles and the evil
ones try to make us talk. But we won’t tell our secrets. Nope. They’ve tried. We know
what happens to the ones that talk. They disappear. The evil ones say if we talk we can go
home, but they lie. Anyhow, I don’t wish to go home. There’s somewhere else I’d rather
be. And I can’t wait to see what that place looks like. Everyone I know is there already.
Everyone that matters.
Behind the locked door, the room almost looks normal. I have a television,
dresser and a desk with paper and books, but no matter how many times I ask, they won’t
bring me any writing utensils. The only thing I like about my bottle is the orange carpeted
floors and the pinkish, peach curtains. I usually pull them shut, even though in the
morning I like to feel the sun on my face. I don’t like the steel bars. You either? Yes, it’s
disconcerting.
72
When they put the lights out at night, I can’t go to sleep. I can hear doors opening
and closing outside. Keys jingle and jangle. The sound reminds me of the horse drawn
sleigh my grandfather drove me around in when I was young. I close my eyes and see
snow. Oh, how I loved the snow. You’ve never seen any! How could that be?
It’s a desert outside here. I can see the camel colored sand and the dunes that rise
like little humps. Nothing grows here besides a few tall gray buildings and one black road
that leads to the city center. We are on the outskirts. Just a hidden crevice. Sometimes
cars drop off other special people that have been caught. And some people come in
themselves. They have been tricked and will regret it later. I will warn the others just like
I am you and, sometimes, they will listen. You are being very good. Most times, the
others ignore me. One lady stabbed me with a plastic fork after I told her. There was still
a carrot connected to the top of the fork. The bottom half stuck into the skin near my
wrist. See? Four little holes.
The truth usually hurts.
Please help me. No, not you! Why do you keep coming here? Don’t you see the
‘closed’ sign? I’m looking for someone to let me out and I can see you only want to make
wishes for yourself. I’m ready for my wish to come true. One for me, two for you?
Sweet Cheeks, don’t look at me like that. Don’t look at me like that. You’re
talking nonsense. Mmm, mmm, mmm. I don’t hear you. Mmm, mmm, mmm. Don’t
pinch me. You can’t hurt me. If you don’t believe me, just go away. Daa, daa, daa. I can’t
hear you.
73
No, I don’t want to hear you right now either. Don’t look at me like that. I told
you not to come when people are around.
I knew you’d be back. You’re sorry? Yes, I thought you’d be. It’s okay. I forgive
you. It’s a desert in here without me. If you really want me to prove myself, I will but it’s
always the same story. You get what you want and I’m stuck here while you wave
goodbye and say ‘ta ta for now’ but you really mean forever. But, if you just wish
yourself out of this place without really thinking about it, they’ll catch you again. I don’t
do life time guarantees, remember. You’ll do something out of the ordinary. You’ll talk
to your cat with too much enthusiasm. You’ll skip across the street instead of walk.
You’ll turn around and see that someone’s following you everywhere and because you
know, they’ll catch you.
Shh. Here someone comes. Shove over. Pretend you don’t know me.
No!
Sweet Cheeks! You’re never going to believe this, but there’s another person just
like me out there, except she wears a disguise. Can you believe it! I know because I saw
her on television today. I was in my room and after I had finished my last book- remind
me later to ask one of the evil ones for more books from the library- I flipped through a
few stations. I usually don’t watch the television. It makes my eyes ache. Anyway, I
stopped on TV LAND, and I heard someone call my name. My name! And then I looked.
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She was wearing such strange clothes, like something straight out of The Arabian Nights.
It was red in the areas of a two piece bathing suit with pink flowing fabric around her legs
and her face. Probably silk. No. Not quite that soft and shiny. What is it called? I hate it
when I can’t remember.
And she talked like someone from a Shakespearian play using ‘thou’ and ‘art’ all
the time, and she was young. Really young. She can take my place if she likes; it seems
she has stronger powers than me. She can perform wishes for herself and the inside of her
bottle is much more lavish. She has a purple couch around the interior circumference, a
large mirror- it seems to me she may be a little vain- and bright fluorescent pillows
scattered about.
There was a knock at my door right in the middle of the program. I heard the keys
grind in the lock. I flipped off the television right as the other Jeannie yelled, “Yes,
Master.” The head honcho man walked in. He wore a long white coat with blue stitching
in the pocket that read, “Joseph Stern, MD.” You better watch out for him. He seems
nice, but it’s all a trick.
Anyways, do you think he heard? What if he knows! He asked a lot of questions.
It seems he does know too much. Not enough to start making wishes, but enough. He
may know my plan. My wish. He asked me if I ever had feelings of taking my own life.
“No,” I said, a little shaky but I’m always shaky. Other evil ones have asked me
many questions of this sort, but not as overtly.
“Do you have anything you’d like to talk about?”
“No, why?” I said. I may have been a little too defensive.
75
“We are not making progress, Jeannie,” he said, glancing towards the television.
My heart jumped.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” I said. “Please, come back another time.”
And I went in and shut the door. There’s no lock on the bathroom doors. All the
locks are on the outside like buttons or zippers on a jacket, only the arms that have access
aren’t yours.
The evil one doesn’t storm in, like I expect him to. He goes away.
I’m waiting for him to come back. I’m always waiting. It’s what I do better than
granting wishes. My bottle is like a waiting room, continually in limbo. It’s liminal,
vulnerable, an in-between. I like to think this. I’m just at a stop before I get to the place I
am going. But, I’ve been here a long time. The girl on television’s bottle was purple with
hand painted gold and pale blue spirals and swirls, arches and dots. I wonder what the
outside of mine looks like.
Oh, you are so kind. I think it probably looks pretty, too.
You again. Yippie skippy. Okay, but before we start, I am going to tell you what I
want and why I want it. Then, you can wish away. No, it won’t take long. You need to win
the jackpot by five pm on Friday? Well, you better go buy the ticket today then. No, the
ticket isn’t free! Jeez, who do you think I am?
Would you like to play a game of Monopoly? I know where we can go. You’ve
never played? No wonder they caught you. Goodness gracious. The others are very good
at board games and puzzles. Some that can’t even talk win without even opening their
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eyes. They just reach out and like magic you owe them your weekly ration of cigarettes
and your new bottle of lavender shampoo. So, be careful. Looks can be deceiving.
Okay, here’s what the board looks like. Meet Rich Uncle Pennybags. His top hat
is a little crooked, but I think he put it on that way. You don’t want to embarrass him, so I
wouldn’t say anything; he has a lot of sway here.
What color would you like to be? I’m usually yellow, but if you want it, I guess I
wouldn’t mind too much. The object is to become the wealthiest player. I will be the
banker, since it’s your first time. Now, roll the dice. Oh, dag nabbit: income tax. You
have to pay me. Well, not me, the bank.
No, you didn’t do anything wrong. It’s just bad luck is all. Did I mention this is a
game of chance? Well, your strategies matter, but if you step on all the wrong stones, you
will be racing to catch up. I’ll be easy on you, not to worry. Look! Here’s how it works. I
landed on Baltic Avenue. I’m going to buy it for two hundred, so I give this money to the
banker and he gives me a Title Deed. Then, when you land on it, you have to pay rent to
me.
Wow! You are unlucky. You have to spend time in jail. Don’t worry. If I roll the
dice quickly, you won’t have to wait there long.
Go away. Can’t you see I’m in the middle of something? No, I don’t care that
your mother needs a new toaster and Aunt Ginny is getting arrested because a skunk bit
her unimmunized Chihuahua! You shouldn’t own an animal if you can’t up keep the little
squeak.
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I don’t know how this happened. I can’t get us out of this and the evil ones will
make us go back to our beds any minute. We can’t leave this unfinished. How many
times have we passed go? Four hundred? No, that can’t be. It’s a stalemate and the
money in the bank is gone. I guess it could be four hundred.
Plus, I think you’re cheating. If you don’t stop reading my mind, I… well, you are
looking at me strangely. Your purple eyes look blue and gray in this light and I can’t
seem to think about anything else. Wait! Do you have two different colored eyes? That’s
it! Is that how you do it? Oh, I love being able to figure the special things out.
For example, do you see that man over there? Yes, the Herman Munster lookalike. You don’t know Herman Munster? You really are young, Sweet Cheeks. Anyways,
he can see the future. Sometimes he just yells out and sometimes he mumbles it under his
breath. That’s how I know that eventually the world is going to end. No don’t worry. We
still have a few more years. Two at least.
And her, over there, in the corner. The one that’s rocking by the nurse’s station.
She can talk to the dead. Yes, she’s drooling a bit, but remember what I said about looks.
It’s her way of dealing with the evil ones. She knows she has something that they want,
that even some of the others want. Me included. But, she acts so well that other people
are afraid of her. That the evil ones stop sensing her power, stop asking her questions
because they forget she has answers.
Oh no. Here they come. Don’t make eye contact. It makes them uneasy.
“It’s time to go to bed, Ladies.”
“We don’t want to go,” I say.
“Pack up your game.”
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“We aren’t finished.”
“Come on, hurry up.”
“No.”
“Would you like me to go get Dr. Stern?”
“We. Aren’t. Finished!”
“Oh, Ladies, don’t be a bother.”
Do you see how she avoids our eyes? Why don’t you try and look at her now.
Yes, there you go.
Hold it. Hold it. All right.
I can’t believe it. She wrecked everything! Now, we’ll be stuck with that real
estate forever. I am sick of going in circles, but now I have an itch that I can’t scratch.
Oh, don’t worry. We will talk in the morning. Remember what I said.
Yes, I already told you: I’m ready. Ready to see Mama, Papa, Bobby, Suzie, Nora,
Billie, baby Ryan. Think about them when you come to your last wish. Hurry up. Make
your wishes. And don’t pick something stupid, like turning into a prince. I’ve seen it all
before. The king never dies, the real princess turns out to be your half-sister, and the
pants they make you wear are really too tight for your own good. Remember, the wishes
don’t come with stipulations.
I’m going to break out today. I’m going to leave the bottle and go to the outside.
Maybe there, someone will wish my wish. I won’t tell you my plan, but I will inform you
of my destination: a waiting mortuary in a hospital outside here. I’ve heard stories of
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them. You’ve heard them too, I bet. But you may need a little reminder. It’s not
something we like to think about, but today I’m thinking about it, to get the ball rolling of
sorts. I’m sure, in these days, they won’t hook bells to my toes or strings with chimes on
my fingers.
This generation is repressed. They don’t highlight the fear of being buried alive
like they used to. Now, the bodies- mostly dead and possibly partly alive- wait in silence.
I wish not to awaken it. I want to slip under a white cotton shroud until he slides me into
the cold chamber and they put an official tag on my toe and my body in a bag.
I’m glad you’re listening. Maybe you have more potential than I thought. Oh, I
wonder if baby Ryan’s face will still have the scars from the fire, or if God has wiped
them clean. Will I be able to talk to him? Or, will he coo and hum and sing the silly song
of babies? Maybe the language there is universal.
Attempt number one failed. The evil ones are more developed than I had first
anticipated. Please, don’t be alarmed. We can spend another night together. Are you up
for some Yahtzee?
Tomorrow, I will try again. This time I’m going to do it right.
My twin Nora. Logic says we should have died the same day. Common sense tells
me the world is cruel. You want to know what she looked like? Oh, she was quite pretty.
Blonde ringlets that fell to her mid-back and dark black eyes riddled with mystery. She
had a tiny nose though. She always hated that.
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I am here. It really is cold. A young man with green eyes like bugs and smooth
olive skin finds me clinging to the icy table, my hands shaking ever so slightly. Why
couldn’t I just sit still! As old as I am, I thought it would take him longer to figure out I
was actually alive, surrounded by all the other lucky corpses. He jumps back a little.
Takes an extra look to make sure I am not a ghost, because I very well could be. He sighs
and takes a step closer, never taking his eyes off my hands. I expect him to yell, to
demand that I leave. Instead, he reaches out, slow at first, a smooth dark hand and places
it over mine.
“How old are you?” he asks.
“Older than God.”
“You’re funny.” He doesn’t laugh.
I glare at him, my last attempt to make him think I am a ghost, a zombie even. He
turns my hand over.
“It’s just, your hands.”
“It’s a curse,” I say.
“They look so young.”
“You don’t want to know why I’m here?”
“I’m guessing you’re going to tell me.”
“I’m trying to die and you’re in my way.”
I look down at my hand. He doesn’t let go. I feel uncomfortable.
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Goodness gumdrops. Don’t scare me like that. You followed me here? Please be
quiet. I’m in the middle of something else. Jeez, you have a knack for bad timing.
I’m not going anywhere. It took me an entire day to convince Robbie, one of the
evil ones, that I was sick enough to go to the hospital. One hundred years without even a
cold, bump, or bruise in my chart. Robbie already had his three wishes, so he didn’t have
a problem letting me go; I sat still for him, allowed him take my temperature while he
went to get me some water. I let the red bulb expand under the lamp before popping it
back into my mouth. Just a little deception. And most importantly, and the reason he will
forever be indebted to me: I gave him advice that led to his marriage of three years. A job
well done.
I told him I felt like I was going to die. A little wishful thinking can’t hurt.
At the hospital, it took me five hours and two minutes while constantly pushing
my little red emergency button to get the floor monitor to tell me where the damn morgue
was located. It took me four minutes of explaining to the bug-eyed morgue attendant that
I must see my dead husband one more time because we had a fight before. Got a quick
chuckle that Buggy believed me but then again, what’s the point in fighting with an old
coot like me?
“It doesn’t look like you’re dead yet, Darlin’. Let me help you to your room.”
“Unless you got a one way pass to Jesus, I’m not going anywhere. And don’t call
me Darlin’, do I look like your baby?”
“What is your name?”
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“Why don’t you read it on my gravestone after you put me into that fridge of
yours?”
I don’t realize it but he still has a hold of my hand. He traces the veins. The veins
that should have popped with age and drawn maps.
And all he has to do is push. Push. Push me right into that refrigerator. Push me
just like his mama did to get him into this world. I already planned what it would feel
like. My blood would gradually slow. Then my heart. My toes would start to freeze. Even
as a kid, it seemed they’d never get warm anyways. Maybe, they would break off. I
wonder if I could hear them crash onto the surface of the silver coffin. I imagine I could
see my reflection between puffs of frigid air pumped from somewhere inside. The end
would be slow, smooth. I would melt and drift like silk into the air. I imagine my
reflection would look different. After.
I used to think that I’d like to live forever. Stay young in an ever-lasting moment
of youthful vibrancy. Always blossoming. Never blooming. Peter Pan. Now I’m the
Wendy Lady, waiting at my window for Peter. Changed. He never comes for me. The
curtain breathes. Always for someone else.
Need to see my babies Nancy, Georgie, and Vern. Need to apologize for giving
them bad hearts. Need to yell at God for making it skip my generation. For never giving
me answers to any of my wishes.
My hand is warm. I don’t want the morgue man to let go. I start to cry, but there
are no tears. He squeezes my hand tight and then releases. A big man, a little woman, and
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my morgue man lift me onto a white bed with wheels and force me from the room of no
return. Back to my hospital room. The room that I don’t need because I’m convinced I
will never die. Not in a million years.
John who hasn’t seen my nails painted since our wedding. John who hasn’t tasted
my skin in five decades. John who promised he’d let me die first.
Today, at the hospital, beauty parlor students come to paint my nails. They ask me
what color. I say black. They look shocked. They want to paint my nails red or pink.
They turn to their friends and say my old eyes won’t be able to tell. My glasses are thick,
harder to see through. Half-blind, at least. I see sharper than them. They say nothing
about me not being able to hear. They just assume. When Bobbsey Twin number one
turns to whisper angry thoughts to her friend about the cute young nurse who wouldn’t
acknowledge her, I steal the black polish from her beauty bag. She won’t miss it
anyways.
Why am I telling you my life’s story? You are very upfront; why would you ask
such a thing? In my day, you wouldn’t dream of prying. You should shut up and respect
your elders. You are getting something from me and I want something from you. Is it that
hard to comprehend?
Oh, Sweet Cheeks, I hope the evil ones are treating you okay back on ward M.
Keep listening for my updates, hone in on your powers. I know we are very far away, but
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I need to know that after I’m gone, you will survive. The halls here are very different at
night. Everyone else is sleeping. Even the night nurse. But, it is very noisy. A bright red
light keeps blinking and beeping on the other side of the room and the light outside the
door reminds me of another night and I am scared. I’m staring into the light. I just can’t
help it. I don’t want to. Please make it go away. The light is bright, bright, bright… I was
wearing a long silk baby blue nightie. And I was cold. We had just come back from a
sleigh ride. My mother tucked me in and said she would turn up the kerosene lantern in
the hall and kissed me goodnight.
“Sweet dreams,” she said, and she kissed me on the forehead.
“Love you,” I said.
“Love you more, Sweet Cheeks,” she said, rubbing my face until it turned red.
She rolled her eyes and left with my father. Baby Ryan slept in the next room.
Yes, this was a long time ago. I fell asleep and didn’t wake up. Not until Nora shook me
and I saw the door. Black smoke rippled from the tiny crack at the bottom.
I jumped from bed and slipped on my loafers. We went to the door.
“Should we open it?”
“I think not,” said Nora. She was the smart one, so I went to the window and pried
open the bottom and peeked out. The rest of them were there, screaming and crying and
telling us to stay where we were.
It was too far to jump, too far to fall.
Nora grabbed onto my hand and brought me to the closet. The entire room was
filled with smoke, a big gray cloud of angry ash.
“Put this on,” she said. It was my navy blue pea coat.
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“And put up the hood.”
Then, she led me back to the door.
“They won’t make it in time,” she said. “We have to try.”
I nodded and she turned the golden knob. The smoke slapped our faces. The room
was red. I don’t remember seeing flames, just that the walls looked like the end of a redhot cooking prong.
We ran down the stairs, but the rooms were melting, melting, until I couldn’t see
anymore. I remember the burning gulp I took of the air. I felt the boiling of my lungs. I
remember someone crying, but it wasn’t Nora and it couldn’t have been me.
Nora dragged me out by my left arm. Baby Ryan vanished into the ash and the
smoke, like a disappearing act.
“Where’s Ryan?” my mother asked. “Where’s Ryan? Where’s Ryan!”
She repeated this incantation for months and when I gripped her hand tight and
smiled and pulled the covers up to her chin, I would say, “I love you.”
“Where’s Ryan?” She’d ask, but it wasn’t a question, it was desperation.
I wish…
There must be another line of attack. Keep tuning in. I don’t really want to talk
today, so you might want to find someone else’s mind to read. I recommend pumping the
white coats for all they’ve got. Anyways, they have me on some sort of medicine. They
pumped it into my IV after they caught me poking around in the storage closet and when
I yanked the stupid tube out and sent the clear liquid a-spraying, they gave me a shot.
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Don’t ask me where, because I don’t want to tell you. I got a shot there before and it’s all
coming back. Oh, Sweet Cheeks, it was John that sent me to ward M! I’m sorry I lied to
you. But, it was only a half-lie. I really did tell Dr. Stern that I could grant wishes by
accident and that these people follow me, demanding that I do what they want. That was
ever so long ago and I didn’t know then what I know now.
He drove five hours through the desert to get to ward M. He told me we were
going to see Vern’s first college baseball game. He was a shortstop, you know. I had just
got done explaining to John that I didn’t want to leave the house and he started getting
out big words like agoraphobic and empty nest syndrome and xenophobia or something
or other and I didn’t have to know what they meant to know they didn’t fit me. I tried and
tried to tell him that I couldn’t leave because then these people- seekers or somethingwould come for wishes and they wouldn’t leave me alone until I did what they wanted.
Plus, he didn’t have a degree in anything besides memorizing the dictionary. He was a
car mechanic. A pretty damn good one too, but that’s beside the point.
Dr. Stern was new then. He had a smooth, pale face with red eyes like a mouse.
He gave me a shot, you know, back there, and I didn’t see John again for a week. A
week. And then a month and then three months and then he died and I was trapped.
Georgie and Vern and, even Nancy from New York came through the desert. And, one by
one, they stopped. Nancy from New York had a boy. He had black hair and braces on his
teeth. I have the picture in my pocket. I know you can’t see it, but he’s a pretty boy. He
has Baby Ryan’s eyes. So, so green. I wonder what he looks like. Do you think I would
recognize him, now? Do you think Nancy told him? About me?
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I wish, I wish, I wish. Rub my bottle. Unlock the hatch. See through the smoke
and the glitter and sequins and don’t be selfish. Two for you and one for me.
Don’t make promises you can’t keep.
I haven’t given up hope. I’ve been floating around the halls, trying to find another
way. The hospital doesn’t have any special people, like us which is good, I guess. They
don’t suspect my plan. The evil ones aren’t the slippery shadows they were there.
I am thinking my thoughts very loud, like you recommended, with the hope that
they will reach you. Are you getting enough food to eat, Sweet Cheeks? If you don’t eat
we will meet sooner than later and I don’t think that’s such a good idea. Are your scars
healing up okay? I’m convinced we made the right decision. You will get out eventually.
You’ll see. Just follow my advice and stay mum. They destroy those who talk. If the evil
ones don’t get to you first, the others will.
Oh, and if you don’t hear from me again, don’t be alarmed. I don’t know if your
power will continue to work when I’m up there or not. We’ll see. Let me know if there’s
someone up there I should contact for you. You are making me excited! I can almost
imagine that I’m there with all of them.
One wish granted. Are you happy with the outcome? We never are completely
satisfied with these things. You have your second wish ready already? These things
should take time…
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All the pills I swallowed were just oversized calcium tablets. How did I pick the
one water soluble pill in the place! I don’t give a hoot about strong bones now. This
really puts a hitch in my giddy-up. I took them from Mrs. Robin’s tray. She was asleep in
a bed across from mine. Her tooth-less mouth was open. A big old baby, that’s what. I
thought her pills would be something hazardous. She leaves the ward three times a day to
smoke marijuana cigarettes in a ventilated lounge for AIDS patients.
I guess they don’t leave the good stuff just lying around. I will watch the pattern
better, however I hope I can find another way. She seems so sick and I’d hate to steal
something she actually needs.
I tried to tell her who I was and that I could make her better. I told her all she had
to do was make a wish and her blood would sift and shift and bubble until all the bad
cells boiled over and out. She rolled over to her side.
“Go away,” she said.
“But I can help!”
She pressed her red button and a nurse came running, running, because she’s
dying and they hate to see her like this. All she had to say was ‘I wish’ and it would be
over. I’m losing patience. She makes it impossible to sleep and they never turn the lights
off here. Not all the way. And now that I think of it, I don’t like that there’s no locks on
the doors or bars on the windows. It’s not that I’m afraid of going out. No. I can take care
of myself. I’m afraid of who might come in when I’m not watching.
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No. I don’t care what size coffin you pick. Stop stalling. Or, are you having
second thoughts? Please! Stop being selfish. You promised me you would, you spineless
toad. What? You need a little time? I’ve seen this before, you know.
Oh, I wish. I wish. I wish.
I hear someone yelling. I turn my head around, but I can’t see anyone. Sweet
Cheeks, are you there? Are you tuning in still? I reach out towards my bedside stand and
pinch my hearing aid between two fingers. When it finally turns on and stops whistling at
me, I hear the noise again. Except, it isn’t yelling. At first it sounds like someone is
wheezing.
“Jeannie?”
I sit up. I feel fine. I always feel fine. It’s a curse.
I see it now. A bee bats at the silver window screen. He’s stuck. On the inside. He
circles the perimeter, trying to find the hole that he entered through. Trying to get out.
The boy visiting Mrs. Robin walks towards him, a paper outstretched. Luckily for the
bee, the boy was never good at baseball. I can tell by his off kilter stance. Vern could hit
the ball out of the park. This kid won’t get to first base if he punts.
“Don’t,” I say.
“You want me to let it live?”
“No, I want you to help it get where it’s going.”
The boy does as he’s told and lifts up the bottom of the screen just wide enough
for the bee to scurry out. As the boy brings the screen back into its place, the edge scraps
against the bee’s back. The bee plunges itself into the boy’s hand. After one quick stab,
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the bee circles the air three times, and falls to the ground. I can’t hear him hit but I don’t
have to.
Just go away. You’re sorry! Now! You’ve got to be kidding me. Shove it up your
old wazoo. No, I’m not the orphan Annie. Why are you making jokes? This isn’t funny.
Don’t smirk either. It makes your face look like Popeye after he popped in his pipe,
mouth hidden by nose. No, I don’t think you look familiar. Why would I? All the evil ones
wear white coats.
No, Mrs. Robin. I won’t stop yelling. I’m speaking to a customer. He’s right here
you blind old coot. Don’t throw carrots at me! Who do you think you are?
You’ve had your three wishes. You can’t wish to un-wish one to wish another.
Please stop. No, I will not tell you that I forgive you. Go to confession. Do I look like a
priest? Stop groveling and don’t send anyone else in. I’m taking my hearing aids out. No
more wishes. No more false truths, broken promises.
Your mouth is moving. Hah! It worked. I’m taking my glasses off.
Hah! You are ghost and I am solid. You are disappearing. Did a light turn off?
Your world is cellophane and water without color. It’s happening. It’s really happening!
Don’t prick me. I want to remember this. Stop. They say I should see a bright light
soon. There it is!
Wait. Where did it go? Come back. Don’t leave me.
Closer. Just a little closer. Yes! Grab on tight. Don’t let go.
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I wake up. The air is cold and it is dark. I try to move my arms, my legs. How
could this be? Nothing moves. The bottle is more cramped than I remember. How did I
get back here? Why aren’t you listening? Sweet Cheeks, did you tell? I told you not to
tell. Why? Why! I could have given you everything you ever wanted if you just wished.
But then you’d have to have believed me! Trust, sanity, freedom, even happiness if you
wished it and by those huge gashes in you wrists, you better bet your bottom dollar you
needed that. That’s what people should wish for, you know. Not castles or jewels or
everlasting youth sucked from a purple sorcerer’s stone. That’s all nice and well until the
people around you start to disappear and you’re left. Alone with whispering wisps of
memories carried by the wind that sift and shift through your mind.
You’re too young to understand, Sweet Cheeks. So I will forgive, but I can’t
forget. And finally, I am tired. So, so tired. This was my last burst, my last thrust of
energy.
And I was almost there.
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Goliath
I first saw her at the community pool. I was alone, except for my dog, Ajax. He
was only a half grown puppy then: a real chick magnet. I jogged by the pool every day,
but never stopped. Now, looking back, it was all Ajax’s fault. I had had him for a week
by then. He still hadn’t taken a shit since I got him. He had stage-fright. The ground
smelled too strange, and the world around him was a distraction. He chased squirrels with
his eyes and hid behind my leg when female dogs pranced by. Anxiety wound his
intestines so tight he couldn’t concentrate. Relax. Let go. The big moment came. Finally.
We were behind a hedge on a hill when he stopped, squatted, legs stammering.
I was careful not to look at him so as not to interrupt. I don’t know how dogs react
to getting an enema, but I didn’t want to find out.
And that’s when I saw her. She entered the pool, unafraid. She wasn’t timid. She
just jumped in, cannonball style. No fears about messing up the hair or smearing the
make-up. I watched her from the crest in the hill while she swam lap after lap through the
crystal blue water. Her deep red bathing suit made it easy to follow her as she
maneuvered through groups of teenagers and children in life jackets.
Ajax shat two times before she got out of the pool. Two steaming piles. It took
two plastic bags and a strong stomach to clean it up. By then, she was walking along the
edge of the pool. Ajax and I walked closer.
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The water made her long brown hair look black and weighted down all the waves.
She had a fine, oval face and strong dark v-shaped brows. Her body was athletic. Not
skinny, but strong and toned. Her breasts weren’t small, but they weren’t large either. Just
perfect. Her eyes were what made me move closer. Even from a distance, they seemed to
sparkle like light off of moving water. However, I couldn’t see what color.
I pulled Ajax along, walking entranced towards the pool. Meanwhile, she climbed
to the top of the high dive. She walked to the edge of the diving board and looked over
the edge. She hesitated. Placing her hands on the edge of the diving board, she lifted her
body above her head. A perfect handstand. She held it for what felt like a minute and then
let herself fall. Like a pebble hitting water, there was barely a splash while tiny ripples
reached out in circles until each curve lapped the cement edge. A few kids clapped, but
she probably couldn’t hear. Her head didn’t resurface until she reached the shallow end.
My stomach felt invaded with fire ants until she took a breath. I found myself following
her to an orange and green striped sun chair.
“What do you want?” she asked, looking up at me. Her dark, long lashes were
heavy with water beads. She brushed a long piece of hair behind her ear. Her skin was a
deep olive.
“Green,” I said, surprisingly aloud.
“What?”
“Your eyes.”
“Yeah?” Her brows lifted. I must have looked like an idiot, looking down at my
hands, playing with Ajax’s leash like it was my life-line.
“Sorry, I just didn’t…”
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“Expect a half black girl to have green eyes?”
“Uh…no, that’s not what…”
“Just tell me what you want.”
I didn’t have an answer. To spare myself more embarrassment, I turned to walk
away. Instead of following me, Ajax sat and cocked his head at the woman. I almost fell
over when I pulled the loose bit of leash taut.
“Come on,” I said to him.
“Hey,” she said, her voice moving up an octave. It sounded like bells. “What kind
of dog is that?”
I turned.
“A Japanese Mastiff. His name is Ajax.”
“Ajax? After the Greek hero or the cleaning product?”
“Which do you think?”
She rolled her eyes and started to turn around.
“Hey,” I said, re-thinking my strategy. “Let me start over. What’s your name?”
“Sheba.”
I put out my hand for her to shake but she simply looked at it while she massaged
a hunter green towel over her skin. The cotton fabric moved from her arms to her legs.
After she was dry, she dropped the towel into her bag and unzipped a small pocket within
it. She popped a plain gold ring on her finger.
“You’re married?”
“Yeah, my ring slips off while I’m swimming. I’ve already lost three.”
“Oh,” I said, trying to mask my disappointment. “Who’s the lucky guy?”
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“General Nathan Hittite. He has been in Afghanistan 5 months. It’s his second
tour.”
“Any kids?”
“No,” she said. Her right eyebrow rose on her forehead, studying me. “You look
disappointed.”
“I like kids.”
“Are you a perv or something?”
“No, why?”
“Only married women, nannies, kids, and your occasional freak spend time at the
community pool. Demographically, you only fit into the last.”
“Oh, I like women. Grown women.” I chuckled.
“You shouldn’t need to re-affirm your masculinity unless you feel you have
something to hide or, you have an exceptionally small penis.”
“What are you? A shrink?”
She tensed her forehead and took a deep breath- her first sign of weakness.
“A psychiatrist,” she said, turning red. “Well, what the hell are you, a dog
walker?”
“A physical therapist. For war injuries. Rehab. This is army country. So, do you
live on Fort Knox?”
“I’m at the community pool, aren’t I?” The left side of her lips lifted towards her
cheek, her left eye brow raised. She picked up her bag, swung it over her shoulder, and
walked away from me.
“Hey,” I yelled. “Where are you going?”
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She didn’t turn. She simply rose her right hand up and swatted the air. I watched
her hips rock back and forth as she exited the pool area.
I knew I would see her again, so I didn’t worry. Demographically, the base held
almost two times more males than females. Women were easy to spot, but almost
impossible to pin down. Single women could have any guy they wanted and not have to
worry about the girl next door.
I saw her again a few months later at an indoor climb wall event set up for
spouses of soldiers. I spotted her name on the list at the KnoxMWR community center.
KnoxMWR stands for Fort Knox family morale, welfare, and recreation. I signed up for
anything involved in the free recreation category and I knew with that body, Sheba had to
turn up at one of the gigs. I know I should have stopped myself. She was married, even if
he practically lived in a different world. But, I just couldn’t stop thinking of her green,
green eyes. When I was with her, I could feel Sarah and almost believe that I was okay.
I went to three events before I ran into her. One cove canoe trip that made me feel
extremely claustrophobic, an extreme water skiing excursion where I lost my swim shorts
and had to return to the boat stark naked in front of three middle-aged women and a
dorky guide that kept repeating ‘you’re doing it wrong’ like a broken record, and then out
of desperation I attended a Zumba dance class where I was the only guy. The teacher
made me stand in the middle and, finally, in the back after I ‘proved to be a distraction.’
But, there she was. In full climbing gear, no make-up, her wavy hair out of
control in the summer southern heat and she still looked hot. She had her own blue
padded hip harness that demonstrated her experience- not one of the unpadded, un-
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adjustable contraptions they gave me at the door. The harness held my balls like a vice
grip. Even without tightening it, I started to sweat. I’m a typical jock. Basketball,
baseball, and football appeal to me. Sports that replace balls with heinous heights, tight
spaces, and ropes are not my cup of tea.
I was playing with the strange metal clips hooked to the harness, wondering
what they were for, when I came to the front of the line. Sheba stared at me.
“How the hell did you get in here?” she asked. All the other participants looked at
me. Most of them were female, including the instructor, Stacey Ann, a red-headed
woman as skinny as a prepubescent bean pole. After pulling my gear much too tightly
around my private parts, she hooked Sheba up to the left side of the wall and me up to the
right. She gave her okay and we started to climb. Immediately, Sheba took the lead
making me feel like I was in a race.
“I got in just like you did,” I said, taking my first step up. Should I tell them I
don’t know what I’m doing?
“Wait,” she said, stopping and looking at me. “Are you stalking me?”
“No,” I said, trying not to look guilty. “Why?”
“This is for soldier’s spouses only.”
“I know.”
“So?”
“So…”
“You’re an army husband?”
“I was.”
“Divorce?” She looked smug. Her speed increased up the course.
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“Iraq. Sniper. Day 22 of her first tour.”
Her speed decreased but she didn’t falter as most people did when I told them.
“Kids?”
“One. He’s five and a half.”
“Jesus. How did the kid take it?”
“Doni was only two. Now, he calls his Puerto Rican nanny, Mamacita.”
“Does that bother you?” She used her therapist voice again.
I tried to take advantage of her decrease in speed to catch up to her, but like
swimming, she excelled in rock climbing. I had little experience in either.
“I really wouldn’t find it a problem” I said. “But since Doni’s nanny is a thirty-six
year old male that enjoys singing lullabies and cleaning up baby poo, and mamacita
actually means ‘hot babe’ instead of any motherly reference, I guess you could say I’m
worried.”
“Hmm,” she said, reaching the top of the wall. “You surprise me.”
“Why?” I spat, trying to breathe and climb at the same time. I was still about five
feet from the top.
“You hired a male nanny.”
“After all I just told you, that’s what stands out?”
She smiled and pushed herself off the wall. For a second, I forgot she was
connected with a harness and rope and my stomach twisted. I reached for a peg, while
following her fall with my eyes. I missed the peg and slipped off the wall. She landed by
my side on her feet. I landed on my back. It felt worse than a misshapen belly flop, which
I am also good at.
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From the floor, I looked up at her. She brushed off her hands and laughed at me as
she moved to the back of the line.
I didn’t get to talk to her for the rest of the day, but the event wasn’t a complete
lost cause. The instructor invited us all to another event: an overnight rock climbing and
camping trip to Kentucky’s famous Red Rock Gorge. Now, I wasn’t the best rock
climber, but I was a boy scout back in the day. I could pitch a tent in two minutes and
make fire from flint in thirty seconds.
I saw her sign up from the door of the men’s locker room. As soon as she left, I
signed my name on the sheet right after hers. Stacey Anne took the sign-up sheet from
me and smiled.
“How did you like the climb today?” she said, her voice higher pitch than it
seemed all day.
“Great,” I said.
“First time?” She held the clip board of names tight around her flat chest.
“Second. Did it look it?”
“Beginner all the way,” she giggled. Her long, crimped red hair, partly held back
in a ponytail, fell in front of her face.
“Damn,” I said. “Well, do you think I’ll make Torrent Falls at the gorge?”
She shrugged her shoulders.
“I could give you some extra help,” she said.
I looked at her, I mean really looked at her, for the first time. She was young.
Maybe twenty-two. Her skin was so white it almost looked blue and she stood at about
five foot eleven. Flesh pulled so tight over her bones, it appeared as if her skin would tear
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when she moved. For a climb instructor, she had little muscle. There were no curves or
bends in her body. She was all straight lines. But, her eyes were a bright blue and she just
radiated smiles. A glass is half full kind of girl. Whereas, Sheba was a solid ‘glass is half
empty.’ Sheba had lived. Stacey Anne was still a babe lying in a manger.
“Yeah, maybe,” I said, back peddling towards the door.
“It’s not your fault, you know,” she said, rolling her right ankle in circles.
“What’s not?” I stopped before walking out.
“That you’re…you know…not so great at climbing.”
“Oh.”
“It’s one of the only sports that girls are naturally better at than boys.”
“I’m not a boy,” I said, disgruntled at her stab at my lack of talent.
She blushed and I felt guilty.
“Alright,” I said. “Extra lessons might save me from falling to my untimely
death.”
“Yeah,” she said. “Here, Thursday night?”
I met Stacey Anne seven times before the overnight trip. Five and a half times for
lessons, one and a half times for coffee and pastries. And did Stacey Anne ever like
sugar! She took five bags in her coffee and one atop her already iced cinnamon bun.
However, she didn’t handle her sugar well. Doni held his better. She acted like a drunken
sorority girl in minutes. Giggling and carrying on. She made me feel important. Like a
hero even. Everything I said was funny.
“So am I doing better?” I asked the night before the trip.
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“I wouldn’t forget your helmet,” she said, sipping the edge of her empty coffee
cup.
“What equipment should I bring? How about the rope? Do I need a 9 millimeter
or 10 a millimeter?” I asked.
“The 10 you have will be fine.” She sucked on her cup again.
“Do we need different carabiners or the same ones we use indoors? And how
different will Torrent be?”
I didn’t realize it, but after all the practice, I really was getting nervous. I had to
impress Sheba and the indoor climbs weren’t a quarter of the height and Stacey Anne
already informed me that most people fall a few times.
“Well,” she said, holding her cup a few inches from her mouth. “The texture of
the holds will be different and…oh what am I saying? I lied to you. Torrent falls is via
ferrata.”
She slammed her coffee cup on the table and an old man at the table next to us
flinched and stared. Luckily, her coffee cup was already empty. Stacey Anne looked like
she just spilled some grave secret, but I had no idea what.
“What the hell is that?”
“It’s a fixed climb. The cable and the stemples and all that jazz are already
jammed into the cliffs and boulders. It’s a pre-set cable system. You have to use all their
equipment.”
“And?”
“It means no experience is necessary. I mean, you can still fall. Pretty far actually,
but you don’t really have to know anything about climbing to go up.”
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“You mean I won’t suck?”
“Probably not.”
“This is great!” I said.
“Great?”
“Of course, now I won’t look like an idiot to...”
“To?”
“Oh, nobody.”
“But I lied to you.”
“I don’t care. So it’s really not that hard?”
“They allow ten-year-olds to go up.”
I hugged her from across the skinny table. Mid-hug, she reached for her bulky
Adidas bag full of clunky equipment and different sized ropes. The metal in the bag met
metal. It sounded like an old carnival ride starting up.
“I better go,” she said.
“Hey, Stacey,” I said, putting a ten dollar bill on the table for the waitress. “So
why did you lie?”
She shrugged her shoulders.
“Isn’t it obvious?” she said. The weight in the bag looked like it should take her
down, but she stood up straight and looked me in the eyes.
I cocked my head to the right, waiting for her to say something.
“Men!” she said, stomped her foot like my four-year-old and ran out the door.
I looked at the table next to mine and found the old man still staring.
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“You’re an idiot,” he croaked, shaking his head. He sounded like a toad with lung
cancer.
I ordered another cup of coffee instead of leaving and placed five packets of sugar
into my cup. The old man kept shaking his head. Back and forth. Back and forth. I forced
myself not to look at him, but I saw the movement out of my peripherals. I sipped the
coffee but it burned the top of my mouth. I set the cup back down and poured packet after
packet into the cup until the brown liquid escaped over the side. I stirred and stirred,
spattering more liquid on the table. The sugar wouldn’t dissolve. It looked like mud. Dirt
and water. Water with dirt. I took another sip and another sip, until all the sugar and
caffeine and grains spun together in my throat. Sweet anger ran rampant in my veins and
I thought of my dead wife, shot twice in the head and left in the desert where there was
no dirt or water or sugar or coffee. Just blood and sand and flesh. The holy trinity. I
wasn’t allowed to see her body. Not seeing Sarah’s body was worse than whatever they
sent back in that flag covered coffin.
I didn’t tuck Doni into bed that night. I knew Ajax was in there with him on the
bed, hopefully closer to the bottom so his one hundred and seventy pounds of dog flesh
didn’t suffocate Doni. I stood with my hand on his closed door and stared at the uneven
circles in the wood
I walked away. I could feel his disappointment.
“You’re a bad Daddy,” he said, in the morning, with his tiny finger pointed and
his mother’s sea green eyes searing. Ajax shook his head in conjunction with Doni’s
finger.
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Tucking him in was Doni’s number one rule of the household. Almost mystically,
he knew when I didn’t and when I did. And, I usually did.
“I’m sorry, Little Man,” I said. “Forgive me?”
I held up a box of Lucky Charms and smiled like a car salesman- yes, I was
bribing my kid to like me.
He pouted and blinked twice. His long, light yellow lashes made everything more
dramatic.
“Please?” I poured a bowl, picked out a few marshmallows and popped them into
my mouth. “Mmm, this is good.”
He shook his head. Smart kid. I needed a bigger bribe.
“Ice cream?” I said to the little lawyer.
“For breakfast?” He raised his right invisibly blonde eyebrow. He was a towhead.
Could pass for albino if it weren’t for his eyes. He looked just like his mother. All
recessive. No dominant.
I looked in the freezer. Just some frostbitten curly fries, the orange pushpops Doni
always left after he devoured all the reds and greens, and two bags of Sarah’s edamame. I
didn’t touch the stuff but couldn’t bring myself to throw it out.
“Lunch? I can tell Emilio to pick some up,” I said.
“You can do better,” he said, crossing his arms. I swear Emilio must have let him
watch too much television.
We did this a lot. I was losing. I had to get out the big guns.
“Fine,” I said. “You can start piano lessons. But don’t blame me when becoming
Mozart isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”
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Doni sent his short arms into the air and did a little dance. His hips were just too
smooth. His effeminate nature scared me.
Ever since I walked in on Emilio and Doni watching Amadeus, Doni was
relentless about piano lessons. When I walked in after work, Emilio had a handkerchief to
his nose on the couch, sitting with his legs crossed, probably hiding a massive boner. My
son was jumping up and down singing opera alongside a woman on television that was
wearing a white wig that stood taller than Doni and a mole on her cheek larger than his
tiny head. I knew the actress’s mole was painted on, but Doni’s excitement couldn’t be
disguised or taken off.
I immediately shut off the television.
“What are you watching?” I asked, as if they were watching porn.
“Mozart, Daddy!” Doni said. He might have had a baby boner too. I couldn’t
bring myself to look. They weren’t men; they were excited peacocks. When did my kid
turn into a fop?
“It’s PG,” Emilio said, picking up the case and pointing to the back. “Plus you
said you didn’t care what we watched and you know we hate cartoons.”
“We? When did you two become a ‘we’?” I asked, tearing the case from Emilio.
“When I said that, I meant I don’t care if he hears a few swear words or catches a glimpse
of female tits. But not opera. Doni is going to play football.”
“But he likes it!”
Doni was still jumping up and down on the couch.
“Doni, stop doing that,” I yelled.
He hesitated and then continued.
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“Doni sit,” Emilio said.
Doni sat.
He crossed his arms over his chest and said, “I’m going to be Mozart.”
He didn’t say I want to be like Mozart. He said he was going to be Mozart. How
did my kid lose his identity? And when did I lose control? I sat on the red checkered
couch next to him and picked up a checkered pillow and placed it on my lap.
“This couch looks like a fucking tablecloth,” I yelled, standing. “A fucking
summer picnic tablecloth you take to parks.”
Emilio’s eyes were large. Doni held his hands over his ears, self-censoring my
language.
“Doesn’t it?”
No one moved.
“Well, doesn’t it?” I yelled, louder.
Emilio shook his head.
“That’s what I told Sarah, but she had to have it,” I mocked her voice. The voice I
had not heard in years. “Even though she only sat on it twice and I’m still paying it off on
my credit card. Still getting the bill once a month.”
Emilio crossed his legs, his hands in his lap.
“Get rid of it,” I said.
“What?”
“I don’t want to see it anymore.”
“I’m the nanny!” Emilio squeaked.
“Just do something with it!”
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I stormed out and locked myself in the bathroom. Why? I don’t know. My kid
wanted to be Wolfgang Amadeus fucking Mozart and I could barely bring myself to go to
work in the morning. Talking to those scarred, still scared bastards every day. Making
their limbs bend and stretch, but not buckle under pressure. To make them walk. Stand
and leave new men. But, I only patched the physical. Why did Doni want to make music?
Something you could hear but never see or hold onto? A football was solid, something he
could carry, catch, and throw. Something we could share and do together. Music linked
him to his mother, a link I so desperately yearned for myself.
I did a web search on Mozart a few hours later. The first thing that popped up,
besides a list of his works, was that he was believed to be a womanizer. One article from
a journal called Music and Letters termed him a “beast and an angel, a genius and a
misfit.” Doni as a misfit? Yes. He played with his shoelaces on the playground, sneaking
glances at the other kids. Genius? Potentially. Angel? Depended on the use of the word.
Beast? Never. Doni a womanizer? Maybe when Hell froze over. I imagined Doni thought
of women like spiders. Once he couldn’t kill a spider in the bathtub and when he came
running naked out into the hall with soap suds crowding his eyeballs, Emilio wrapped
him in a towel and helped him find a piece of paper to push the eight-legged wonder onto
it and out the door, intact. Spiders were to be feared and idolized, never crushed.
Doni hugged my left leg seventeen times after I told him he could attend piano
lessons. Seventeen ‘I love you, Daddy,’ hug, ‘I Love you, Daddy,’ hug. Ajax barked in
that low threatening tone he recently acquired to replace his soprano puppy yipping. I
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welcomed the change, but his size scared me in comparison with Doni’s delicate features.
Plus, Ajax hated when we hugged. He was jealous. No one could touch Doni, not even
me.
I waited through all seventeen hugs. Then, he stopped and looked up at me. Ajax
looked ready to pounce.
“Will you come to my first concert?” he asked, motioning Ajax to sit.
“Sure, Little Man.”
“I better get going,” he said.
“Why?”
“Mozart started when he was three. I’m behind.”
“You’ll be fine.” I patted his head and he swatted me. I picked up my bag of
camping and climbing gear and swung the heavy bag over my shoulder.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“To climb a big rock,” I said.
“Why don’t you just pick it up and throw it?” he asked.
“It’s a real big one,” I said.
“Can I go?”
“When you’re older.”
“How old?”
“Ten.”
He sighed.
“That’s too late,” he said as serious as serious can be.
“Why is that?”
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“I’ll be a concert pianist and composer by then.” He held up his hands. “I’ll need
to protect these. No playing with rocks.”
“I’ll remember to get them insured,” I said, laughing. I kissed his head and
walked to the door.
“Bye, Little Man,” I said.
He waved and ran to Emilio. I looked back for a second. I felt a strange pang in
my chest like I couldn’t breathe. I missed when Doni wouldn’t let me go anywhere
without sobbing and carrying on like I was his air and food, and his very existence
depended on me staying. I saw the ghost of his tiny body sitting in front of my car, trying
to grind his fingernails in the pavement so Emilio couldn’t move him and I couldn’t drive
away. I hoped that Doni’s fingers would stick to the black and white keys better than to
pavement, better than to me.
When we finally reached Torrent Falls, Stacey Anne led us off the bus toward the
cabin. After getting geared up, she told us to pick partners. Being inches behind Sheba
already-yes, I was following her- I thought she would turn around, see me, and feel
obligated to ask.
She turned around alright and said, “You again?”
“Do you…” I began. Why did I keep having these elementary boy meets girl
moments?
“No.” She looked right at me with those green, emerald sequins that radiated heat
like neon lights, lasers, in the darkness of the city at night.
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And she walked away. I did what any guy would do after he’d been turned down;
I went and found Stacey Anne, made up with her, and told her she had to be my partner.
And thanks to her inexperience, she believed I was sincere. Sort of.
We walked out with our gear to get our first look at the climb. The wall was a vast
horseshoe-shaped cove. It looked like an ancient outdoor amphitheater. There were flat
places in the rock, but there were also large crevices all along the edges. Short trees filled
the space before the wall like an audience waiting for a show. You couldn’t see the via
ferrata equipment until you were right up close. As Stacey Anne took her first steps up,
tugging me to follow her, I looked down at my hands. They were shaking ever so
slightly. My heart pounded.
Above me, Sheba was already ascending at a high speed. She and Henrietta were
racing. Since this was my first time, I had to do the bunny course to ensure my ability to
follow safety rules. Rules. I liked rules. They made me feel safe.
It took me twenty minutes get off the easy course. Stacey Anne looked peeved.
She stared up and over at Sheba and Henrietta until they disappeared around the
curvature of the brown rock. My pulse slowed and I could breathe easier. I realized I
wasn’t nervous to climb a mountain. No. I was nervous to climb Sheba. She was as
complicated as each tiny curvature, each break in the rock. Tiny mysteries in dark places.
Fossils imbedded beneath layers and layers of stone covering sorrow and slippery secrets.
But, once you reached the zenith, just like Torrent Falls, you had to return to rock bottom.
Start over. A new quest. A new fossil to uncover to decipher truth from only indents of
skeletons.
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“You can go without me,” I said to Stacey Anne, her tiny ass in my face. “No one
will notice.”
“Just hurry up,” she said, not looking back.
“It’s not like you’re my belayer. My life isn’t literally in your hands.”
“You’re lucky your crotch is hooked to a cable.”
“Jeez, pre-menstrual much?” I said, between my teeth.
She turned and glared. No, she hadn’t forgiven me for blatantly ignoring her
undeveloped, over-zealous flirting tactics.
The iron foot and hand rungs that had been pre-drilled into the cliff burned my
hands. If you looked straight up and blinked, the metal steps looked like the stairway to
heaven. Blue, cloudy sky bobbing above eternal stairs up and around the canyon. The sun
warmed my back and I began to daydream. I was at one of the most beautiful places that I
had ever seen and I, intermittently, forgot where I was. I followed close behind Stacey
Anne. She didn’t talk. I didn’t talk. I just followed her rhythm, her steps.
When the sun reached its full height, Stacey Anne slowed and squeezed into a
thick curvature of a cliff and sat. I could hear talking. When I lifted my head over the
rigid cliff, I saw Henrietta and Sheba. They sat close to Stacey Anne while they ate thin
sandwiches on wheat bread.
“Hello Ladies,” I said, sitting down in the only empty space beside Stacey Anne.
From this height, I could see around the entire canyon. The trees looked small and the
pool gathering from the waterfall looked inviting.
No one responded. They chewed and admired the view that can only be stamped
with the cliché label of ‘breathtaking.’ I don’t know if it was the view, or Sheba, that
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literally took my breath away, but I started to cough. Stacey Anne slapped my back and
almost sent me over the edge.
“You want an apple?” Stacey Anne asked me. Was she attempting to make up?
Or, was this some twisted Snow Whitian trap?
“No thanks,” I said. “I’m not hungry.”
“I’ll have it,” Sheba said.
Stacey Anne tossed it to her. She caught it and they laughed, knowing that if she
hadn’t, it would have been mountain meat at the bottom of the cliff. Sheba took little
bites on the red skin. The juice sprayed. Sweet drops landed on my arm. I licked it off.
Sheba smiled. Not a happy smile. A close-lipped smile. A hungry smile. Her green eyes
burned. I should have turned to stone, but she looked away. Henrietta elbowed her,
whispered something and they started climbing again.
Stacey Anne climbed with speed and agility. I had to run on the metal rings to
keep up. My hands were calloused and bleeding. She had fingerless gloves I envied more
than her climbing ability.
“This is sections six,” she said, smiling for the first time.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“It’s the expert course.” She batted her eyes and said sweetly, “good luck.”
I took four more steps and I saw it. A tightrope reached out like the river Styx.
There were three ropes. One for your feet and one for each hand to guide you. Stacey
Anne walked foot over foot, foot over foot, until she reached the other side. Did I
mention she didn’t hold on to the guide ropes?
“What are you a circus freak, too?” I yelled to the other side.
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I stepped onto the rope. It yielded under my weight. I grasped onto the guide
ropes with my hands and she giggled. Her giggles bounced off rigid edges of the cliffs. It
echoed in my ears like sirens. Sirens.
I closed my eyes and imagined my son and his little baby fingers playing the C
scale. I hummed it as I took steps closer to Stacey Anne. She giggled more, waiting for
me to fall. To be caught by the cable, to be caught by the rigid rope of embarrassment.
When I jumped onto the cliff and off the tightrope, I hugged Stacey Anne. She
leaned in and kissed me. I could hear the waterfall in the distance. I took a step back. Her
red hair blew wild in the wind in a loose ponytail.
“What?” she said. Her blue eyes looked black.
“I don’t…”
She put her hand up to stop me. I didn’t push it.
Stacey Anne carried her rage across the rock like Achilles. We reached the path
behind the waterfall. This should have been romantic. She felt it too. The water kissed the
rocks at the bottom, morphing their shapes, breaking them into particles, into sand.
Making many from one. The mother of all rocks.
“You used me,” Stacey Anne said, finally breaking the sound of crashing water
with her words.
“I’m sorry,” I said. Her eyes narrowed as she tensed her fists, her arms.
She pushed me into the waterfall. The water hitting my face felt like a cold
shower. My arms reached behind me trying, hoping to hit solid ground. They caught
nothing.
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I thought nothing. I thought everything. I thought I’d see Sarah. Her ghost. A
face. A memory. But, instead I saw Sheba. That day from the pool. Her dive. Her splash.
The cable caught me. My body jerked as the cable tightened and I bobbed, turned
myself and caught my legs on the wall. Pure adrenaline took the place of blood. At first, I
thought I was a victim of attempted murder. But, Stacey Anne knew the cable would
catch me. She knew she’d have to live with the results of me living. The waterfall slapped
my face over and over. Like water over a rock, I thought if I stood there any longer
waiting for something to happen, I would degrade, turn smooth, and eventually, spilt.
When I got to the bottom of Torrent, I was soaked. Some people laughed. None of
them knew why I had fallen. They thought I slipped on my own. Many people did. The
owners of the place gathered around me, accessing my health. They ran at me like lions.
And then, I fainted, and when I opened my eyes ten seconds later, Sheba was
cradling my head in her lap.
“You should’ve eaten that apple,” Sheba said.
“Huh?” I felt like a lampooned whale killed only for my blubber to make fire. I
was the discarded carcass. This was a dream. This was a dream. Did I really just faint like
an eighteenth century broad with nothing better to do?
“You didn’t eat enough before you climbed,” Henrietta said, standing behind
Sheba.
I closed my eyes. She smelled so good: like gingerbread with vanilla icing and
honey. And a hint of chlorine. How did she get down the cliff so fast? Was I out that
long?
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Sheba slapped my cheek. When she came into focus the women were laughing. I
was the climbing clown. You might as well have painted my face red and blue and
shipped me to a carnival. Then, I wouldn’t have gotten myself into this mess. I am better
as a clown.
When we finally reached our campsite, I was ready to crash. I had bruises on my
hips from the harness and my hands were calloused and bleeding. The last thing that I
wanted to do was pitch a tent.
Most of the others had rented cabins. They went off to their respective sites along
the lake while I sat in the dirt, pulling out piece after piece of my tent that could fit five
people and that looked like an orange spaceship. I brought it to show off. I should have
brought my one person camo tent. Hell, I would have been happy just in a sleeping bag.
The tent fell over five times before night fell. The moon was full and the stars
looked like fireworks all over the sky. My sixth try did it. Well, almost. I was smashing
in the last post when I realized someone was swimming in the lake. I heard a loud splash.
Even from a distance, I knew it was Sheba. She swam lap after lap, creating her own
circle, and finally walked to shore. I forgot all about my post.
I could see she was naked when she stepped onto the sand. She wrapped her body
into a towel that was hanging from a branch. She walked straight toward me like she
knew I was watching.
“Get that tent up yet?” she asked.
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“Almost,” I said, immediately smashing in the last post and letting go. The tent
sagged toward one side, but it didn’t fall in. I smiled a crooked smile. She was so naked
under that towel.
“Can I take a look?” she asked.
I nodded and she strutted inside.
“It’s pretty cool with the lights inside. It looks like a huge Jack O’ Lantern from
the lake.”
“Funny,” I said, sarcastically.
“You’re still mad at me,” she said. This wasn’t a question. She knew. She could
read people. She went to school for it.
“Why are you here?” I was mad at her, even wearing a blue towel.
“I know you want me.”
“We…we…can’t do this…you’re…” I stammered and took a step backwards and
tripped over an aluminum water bottle.
She took a step forward and smiled.
I stuttered something or other. There I was again, acting like a school kid. I don’t
remember what I said because at that moment she dropped her towel and walked towards
the corner of the tent. Towards me. Her nipples were brown and hard, probably from the
cold lake water. Sheba had a look in her green eyes like she was determined to cure me,
save me. It was her job to save people from shadows of themselves.
She walked over to the lantern and turned the key-like knob. It took a minute for
the gas to dissipate and the light to disappear. She wasn’t shy; she just didn’t want
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anyone else to see sin through an orange lining. But, a solution of multiple particles that
has been watered down still exists even when dissolved. Some eyes see even in the dark.
It didn’t surprise me when she told me she was pregnant. Our encounters were
never planned, but they were frequent. She thought she couldn’t ever get pregnant. Her
bad case of endometriosis turned out to be not so bad.
She told me in the women’s locker room of the community center after a heated
tennis match that I won due to her inability to keep the yellow ball in bounds. I lost all
four balls I brought with me that day. The women’s locker room was vacant. We stood in
a shower stall with the water running, echoing off the vacant white tiled walls.
“He will be back in less than a month,” she said through her teeth. “And I don’t
think crying the fucking Virgin Mary will fly.”
She looked like a rabid canine. Spit flying, lips pulled back over teeth.
“Divorce him and marry me. These things happen all the time.”
“You’re deluded.”
“Marry me.”
“I don’t love you.”
“That baby proves you do.”
“No, it proves that I made a mistake and your sperm can swim as well as I do.”
“You’re hormonal, Sheba. Let me be here for you. I will go to the store and buy
your pregnant cravings. Ice cream, pickles, sardines, whatever!”
“I am not some imitation suburban fairytale, David.”
“What?” I was yelling now. “You don’t want an abortion, do you?”
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“Committing adultery and murder is not my idea of summer fun.”
“Well, I don’t want one either.”
“I don’t care what you want, so that’s beside the point.”
“I can rub Shea butter on your stomach.”
She took a deep breath.
“Go home.” It was the calmness of her voice that scared me.
“You don’t really mean that.”
“Go. Home,” she said, turning the water off. We could hear two girls chatting in
the distance.
I stepped towards her and put my arms on her shoulders. Her body stiffened. I
dropped my hands to my side, grabbed my towel and threw it over one shoulder, my bag
in the other.
I walked out of the women’s locker room with my balls bouncing. Two girls,
around fourteen, were changing near the door. They looked up, mouths and eyes wide. I
walked a little faster and slammed open the door. They giggled. Even to teenagers, I was
a clown.
That night I dreamed that General Nathan Hittite died in theater. I was the only
spectator of the battle, like a specter, like the trees at the gorge over the amphitheater of
rock. General Hittite died in sand. Lots and lots of sand. Two men with brown scarves
over their faces and head, held his face to the ground. Their eyes yellow but luminescent
like a cat in the dark. One man held his ears, while sitting on his shoulders. The other
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pushed the back of his head into the dirt. Hittite coughed. The men pushed, pulled, kicked
harder. Hittite died, silt and sand and rock swimming in his lungs.
They only found his head. Sand was caked in the holes where his eyes shoud have
been. His mouth wide open, facing the cloudless sky. I knew his last word was probably
her name. But, she couldn’t hear him over land and sea and desert. A voice-less ghost
even before dead.
I woke up feeling hot and hungry. Sweat stuck sheets to my skin. I walked
downstairs into the kitchen, dropped a bagel into the toaster, popped five green tablets of
Advil and massaged my temples, elbows resting on the marble countertop. I heard a
rustling of feet upstairs. Doni was up. Jesus, what was I going to do with him today?
I waited for him to come downstairs, for the loud stampede of elephants that can
only yield Doni skipping through the door. But instead of Doni, I heard music. Piano
Concerto No. 20.
Sarah. I saw Sarah in her study upstairs cradling her cello between her knees with
sensual passion. The cello was the body she made love to. The wooden frame weaved in
and out to her rhythm and knew her thoughts before she thought them.
The concerto began in the dark key of D minor. Sarah didn’t practice with backup music, even though the concerto was an orchestra piece lead by a piano. She played
with her eyes closed. Her face relaxed as if soaring through an alternate dimension along
the rise and fall of the notes gathering momentum. Flaxen hair flicked across her face as
the notes grew more staccato and the pianissimo climbed to forte. Her arm danced with
the bow to the ripple of a calm seaside maturing, wave upon wave, to a great storm as the
rhythm quickened and the sweat fell in fierce balls.
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And then she would rest, while the piano played in her head like a fever. She
would echo the fever aloud on the thick stings and then rest, waiting to hear how to
respond. It was like a game of telepathic telephone.
This was before Doni was born. She didn’t live long enough for Doni to fill in her
rests.
She was most beautiful when she played. I always wished I could go where she
went when she closed her eyes. I always asked what she saw on the other side, what she
saw when she played.
“You’ll never know,” she teased.
“I’ll never know,” I thought. I closed my eyes and tried to see. I opened.
And then I saw Doni. He sat, legs too short to reach the floor, on the black piano
bench I bought used off eBay with an off-pitch piano to match. Ajax sat straighter than an
Emperor penguin to the right of the piano, watching Doni as his fingers massaged the
keys like a trained masseuse on black and ivory skin. His racecar stereo player
accompanied him atop the piano’s back. Out of the big, black wheels of the car came a
flute and violins and bassoons and oboes and horns and trumpets with mutes stuck in the
ends to make their bite more subtle. Doni was the piano. Piano Concerto No. 20. His
mother’s favorite. Emilio and I nurtured him, but he was all Sarah by nature. She played
this for him in the womb. I bet, he was already listening, answering her call to join.
No music lined the great wooden expanse of the piano’s chest. His eyes were
closed. Doni could go there too.
And then reached the rondo. Doni’s hands were furious spiders. The racecar
skidded to a stop. All the instruments halted. Doni filled the silence. Rippling. Rippling.
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Rippling up to the sky. He stopped, breathed hard, and the racecar finished the
arrangement in the jovial key of D- Major.
Ajax growled and Doni noticed me at the door the instant the racecar clicked off.
The end of the tape.
“Get out!” he shouted. His face red, he ran to the door and tried to shut it on me.
“Doni, that was great. Your mother…” I began.
“Go!” He was crying.
I hated when his little body shook like that. With one hand I held the door open.
His back skidded against the wall and he sat down.
“It was supposed to be a surprise,” he whispered.
“You’re a prodigy,” I said.
“Yes,” he said. My little immodest man.
“You couldn’t have learned Mozart in a few months,” I said, kneeling down by
him. “Or, could you?”
Sarah started her lessons at age 4. I thought it took all those years to play like she
did but maybe she was some toddler genius as well. She was first chair cellist in the U.S.
Army Orchestra for a year and a half when the size of the orchestra started shrinking.
First, the French horn went to war. Then, the violin. The bassoonist traded in his
instrument for an M16 assault rifle and the timpanist traded her mallets for M84 stun
grenades. And then they called Sergeant Sarah to take her place in the menagerie of
instruments with the hope that they could come together and make music. That’s what we
were trying to do over there right? Make some harmony. A melodic attempt at peace?
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“I started lessons when I was almost four. Emilio took me and then you saw us
watching that movie and so I thought if I asked you for lessons, maybe I could get a real
piano and then I wanted to surprise you at the concert.” He finally stopped to breathe.
“Are you mad?”
“Emilio took you? Why didn’t you tell me and who paid for the lessons?”
“Emilio and then the teacher because I’m really good.”
“Your mother played the cello. She was good too.”
“I know.”
“You do?”
“Yes. I remember.”
“You can’t…”
“Yes.”
Doni walked over to the piano bench and took out a pile of sheet music. In
between the sheets dotted with notes, a language, a world that I cannot understand, he
pulled out a picture of Sarah sitting upright and smiling, cradling her cello like she did
Doni when he was a baby.
“I hear her,” he said. “Well, I think I do.”
I hugged him. He was the first to pull back.
“I have to practice,” he said in a solemn voice and tone too old for a six-year old.
“I need to learn a new piece thanks to you.”
He shut the door and didn’t start playing for a few minutes. Then, he climbed his
scales in haste, probably warming his fingers to conquer another thorny giant. C-Major.
C-Sharp. D- Major. D- Sharp to E- Major. And he scaled on.
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Doni could climb mountains.
Two weeks later, two high ranking soldiers showed up at Sheba’s house. I was
about to pull into her driveway to convince her, yet again, that she should leave her
husband. I slowed to a stop and parked on the side of the road in a tow zone. The soldiers
took off their black berets before knocking.
They were wearing Class A’s: blue dress coats and trousers, four gold buttons
down the front of the jacket and a black, shiny jump boots. A chaplain followed. That
only meant one thing.
She answered and started crying before they said anything. They didn’t have to
say a word. I knew and she knew exactly what they had to say. She held her stomach with
her right hand. They disappeared through the door and I drove away. Backed up. Rubber
burning. Not because I was too weak to handle the situation, to comfort her, but because I
thought it was my fault. Last week, I wanted the guy dead. Now that he was dead, I
wasn’t sure. Sheba would change, like I had. That was all I knew.
I drove and drove thinking about when I was on the wrong side of the door. I
answered the door with baby Doni in my arms. I had a red ‘kiss the cook’ apron tied
around my neck, and browned sugar caked into the corners of my lips. Doni pointed to
the female soldier’s Class A’s and said, “Mama.” She didn’t even have the same hair
color as Sarah.
Five days later, Emilio moved in upstairs.
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I couldn’t go see Sheba. What could I say? ‘I killed your husband; sorry about
that but now we can live happily ever after? No. I drove home and put on my hunting
gear. I pulled by bow and arrow out of the basement and dusted off the camouflage edge.
It was deer season in Kentucky but I hadn’t renewed my license in years. I could care less
about rules and regulations anymore. Rules and regulations made Sarah go to war.
Trudged out behind my property, I looked into the woods, knowing they went on for
miles. All state land. *I waited exactly forty minutes before a tawny tall animal appeared
through the trees.
The adrenaline rushed. I had never hit the target from this far with a bow and
arrow. But, I wasn’t thinking about the animal’s death. If it was going to be quick or
slow, or how long I’d have to travel to find where it fell. I just wanted to shoot. To kill.
Maybe even suffer. I pulled the string back with my right arm, aimed, and let go. I heard
the arrow submerge skin with a shallow pelting noise. A thud and a whimper very unlike
a deer.
I was excited. Usually, I’d have to track the deer for hours, following spots of
blood on newly fallen autumn yellow and orange leaves. I ran closer and stopped. The
blood flooded to my face.
Ajax’s back leg shook, shaking the crooked arrow stuck in his mid-section
through the air. He cried like a human, whimpering then quiet. His dark eyes didn’t look
at me with fear. He thought I was here to help him. A single trickle of blood was leaving
the wound at a constant speed, gathering in a throne of moss.
I knelt down and brushed his silky fur that perpetually felt wet. He set his large
head- much too big to be mistaken for a deer- on my lap.
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Ajax wasn’t the right name for him. It’s funny how we give our pets names.
Sometimes random, sometimes based on how they look, or if we’re lazy we fall back on
Barkley, Rufus, or Schnauzer. Ajax was a warrior, but he didn’t fall on his own sword.
He fell upon my sorrow. My arrow.
Tears marred the dirt on my face. What was I going to tell Doni? Ajax was his
best friend. Doni didn’t have a lot of friends. Ajax’s breathing became shallow. He
sounded like a stuck pig trying to breathe out of snot filled pink soiled snout. The
wrinkles on the sides of his mouth straightened and he looked me right in the eye.
I set his head down on a bed of leaves and searched for something. I didn’t know
what at the time but when I saw the large piece of shale two times the size of my waist I
picked it up and brought it to Ajax’s side, behind his head so he couldn’t see the rock. I
kissed his cheek and smashed the rock over his head. It only took three hits before Ajax’s
eyes drifted to another place.
I buried him in that exact place and let Doni put up over a hundred ‘Lost Dog’
signs all over Fort Knox. I saw Ajax’s head wherever I went. On lampposts and
telephone poles and shop entranceways.
During the next few weeks, we received six phone calls stating that someone
knew the location of Ajax. Each time, Doni loaded into the car with hope plastered to his
cheeks like sparkles. He almost made me believe that Ajax was out there, that we would
find him, and things could go back to the way they were. We always returned more
empty and lost than we had left.
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When the phone rang for the seventh time, I decided, even before picking it up,
that I couldn’t tell Doni. Hope had its limits. I picked up the phone, making sure that
Doni was out of ear-shot, and didn’t let the caller speak.
“Ajax is dead,” I said. “You must have seen someone else.”
“Excuse me?” the voice said. “Is this David?”
“Yes, this is he,” I said.
“We found your business card in a woman’s jacket this afternoon, and we need
you to come down and identify her.”
“Is…is she dead?”
“No, uh,” the voice said. “She was in a one car accident.”
“But you said identify her, why does she need to be identified?”
“She claims she can’t remember, Sir,” he said. “She’s at Knox General. Say your
name at the front desk and someone will escort you up.”
“We Three Kings” played on an overhead stereo as I walked down the sterile hall
of the third floor at Knox General. It was a warm early winter evening. All it did was
rain. I preferred the snow, the intricate puzzles that they held in tiny little labyrinths. Each
frozen within its own miniature Pandora’s box, where only the keenest eye or the most
curious soul could find a key. The mystery, the beauty was all melted out of the rain.
They were each like little invisible treasure maps; no matter how hard you tried, no sense
could be found.
“In here, Sir,” the policeman said. “Try not to wake her. Last time, they had to put
her down with sedatives.”
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I walked over to the woman and pulled a chair to the edge of her bed. I traced her
lips with my finger and then took her dark hair in my hands and breathed in deep. Honey
and jasmine and chlorine. As soon as I put down the locks, particles of tar and medicine
entered my nasal cavity. I moved my hand to her cheek and her eyelids fluttered open.
Green orbs opened wide, studying my face. She thrust her arm out and threw my arm
away from her. She sat up in bed, bringing her legs to her chest. The bandages around her
head loosened and fell over her eyes.
“Don’t touch me!” she cried. “Don’t touch me!”
“Sheba, Honey, it’s me.”
“I don’t know you!” she screamed. “Don’t touch me.”
“Sheba,” I said. “It’s okay. It’s me, David.”
It’s me, David.
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Rigor Mortis
Saturday
The first time Camille caught Viv and Stella in bed together, she dropped Mrs.
Tipton’s bedpan. Mrs. Tipton, their catatonic neighbor from room 102, was younger than
either woman, but much closer to death. She scared most people in the home and
reminded them that whatever they had, it could get worse. The remnants from Mrs.
Tipton’s plastic bed pan leaked green and yellow, tracing a line between Stella’s empty
bed and the tiny twin on wheels that they both occupied. The women watched as the
liquid part reached out like growing fingers and slipped quickly into dark corners. It
smelled like fresh mustard and a tray of over-used cat litter. Stella rolled her body
towards the malodorous line to move back to her own bed but Viv grasped onto her
shoulder, as Camille went to grab help.
“What happened?” Viv asked.
“Camille caught us and dropped Tippy’s bedpan.”
Stella tried to move again.
“Don’t,” Viv squeeked. “Don’t move.”
“But, Viv!”
“You could break your hip if you slip on god knows what the feeding tube
pumped into Mrs. Tipton’s gut yesterday.”
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“It smells like she got the cooked carrots and that mystery meat smoothie from
last night.”
“Nah, I’m sure she gets an even worse breed of food.”
Stella turned towards her. Viv’s gray eyes sparkled with mischief as she leaned
forward to kiss Stella’s forehead. Viv missed and kissed the air. Stella helped her find her
cheek. At the same time, Camille came back into the room with another girl. Camille’s
red locks were secured in two long, disheveled braids. Her short nails, painted a chipped
orange, clashed with her hair. Viv and Stella liked Camille, despite her reputation. She
was known for heisting thousands of pills from the med counter without Nurse Stacey
seeing. It couldn’t be proven, but she was arrested on charges. Until her court date, they
couldn’t stop her from working. Her father owned the entire establishment and, even
though she was just a teenage girl, she acted like she owned the place.
Camille carried a mop while Kit, a new nursing aid, clung tightly to a large bottle
of green disinfectant. They stopped at the door and looked first at the mess they were sent
to clean up and then at the occupied bed. Kit took a step backwards. Camille spoke, never
taking her eye from the couple.
“I don’t know if you two went to college and lived in a dorm, but I think in these
types of situations, ample warning could have been warranted by a simple sock on the
door knob.” Camille smirked and then her face settled back into a comfortable frown.
“Well, go on, Kit. Help me clean this shit up.”
Kit looked at her, her gray eyes popping.
“God, this is like teaching a toddler how to piss in a toilet. Spray some of that
stuff on the floor and then I will mop it up. Got it?”
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“It is shit? Like literally?”
“Like totally,” she mocked. “And if you want to be a nurse, you’ll see more stuff
than this.”
Kit put her hand over her nose and looked angrily up at Camille.
“Why are you here anyways?” Kit asked. “You don’t act like the caring,
personable type.”
“I’m not.”
Kit moved closer to the mess. She sprayed. Jumped back. Sprayed. Put her hand
over her nose. Camille followed behind Kit with the mop, popping two tiny ear-bud
headphones into her ears. She hummed and danced to the thumping music. The beat from
the headphones made Stella’s hearing aids buzz like bees.
Camille scrubbed harder and Kit looked on, studying the floor.
“So, uh,” Kit began. “You said we’d have to clean up other stuff. What do you
mean by stuff?
“Well, when people die, they piss the bed. Sometimes, they even shit.”
“Do you really expect me to believe that?”
“Dying is a dirty job; especially, when you’re on shit detail.”
“That’s not what I signed up for.”
“It’s better than babysitting the mental patients on the top floor of Stergis.”
“Stergis?”
“That creepy factory building at the end of the block.”
“There’s crazies up there?”
“Only on the top two floors. The rest is still vacant.”
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“Well, I wouldn’t buy property there.”
“No kidding, Einstein.”
Camille had been going to Stergis more frequently lately. Not to work, but peer
into her mother’s room. Her mother had Huntington’s disease and her father, the owner
of the Stergis Psyiatric Facility and Nursing Home, rather liked to believe she was dead.
She had to work at the nursing home as punishment for multiple poor choices she made at
school. No pay. All summer. Every weekend during school. And then, after she stole ten
dollar sunglasses from a stand in Boston Common, the court seconded her father’s ruling.
“So, what’s it like up there?” Kit asked.
“You ever see the movie The Snake Pit?”
“No.”
“I figured. Well, go rent it. That’s what lives on the top floor of Stergis.”
“I always wondered why the top floor had bars on the windows.”
“Yeah, ‘cause they’re afraid all the nurses workin’ up there will jump.”
Kit made the sign of the trinity. Head, heart, shoulder to shoulder.
Camille shook her head.
Sunday
Charles Canterbury was a little late for his visit with Viv. He came like
clockwork to read for her every Sunday. St. Peter’s Catholic Church sent over many
volunteers, but none as dedicated as Charles. He was a thirty-year-old librarian from the
John F. Kennedy library and museum. He read long passages from the Holy Bible and
then from a book of Viv’s choice that she would request a week in advance. Viv, a real
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estate agent in her prime, never had time for books until she was blind and had her own
library full of pages she planned to read in her retirement.
What she liked about Charles was that he did voices. Cartoon voices, old lady
voices, voices with accents and voices from the past. He could even impersonate
Ebenezer Scrooge with passionate eloquence. That was what they were reading: A
Christmas Carol, even though it was months away from the holidays. It was the voices
that helped her ignore his other idiosyncrasies.
Charles sat down between Stella and Viv in a hard chair he dragged along the tile
floor. It made that fingernail meets chalkboard noise and Viv cringed. It didn’t bother
Stella. He stopped between their beds and tilted the chair towards Viv. Even though they
were both always there, since Viv’s name was on his list, he ignored Stella. He adjusted
his fine, black-framed glasses half-way down his nose. Two hardcover black copies of
the books sat on his lap. He kept putting one atop the other as if trying to decide which to
read first. Dust flew out as he shuffled them like cards. The smell of must, that old book
smell, relaxed Viv.
This was strange for him. He always began with the Bible.
“Good morning, Miss Vivian,” he said, his voice a soothing tenor. “How are you
feeling today?”
“Hi Charles,” Viv said. “Stell’ and I are getting along.”
He nodded a few times and hesitated awkwardly over the books.
“Where were we in Dickens?” he asked, separating each word as if they were
their own sentence. “I seem to be missing the page.”
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“Scrooge just saw the Ghost of Christmas Past,” Viv said. “He has just shown
Scrooge his ex-fiancé happy with another man.”
“Yes,” Stella said. “I do believe he regrets never protesting Belle’s decision.”
Stella was a psychologist at heart, although she never went to school past the age
of 12.
“Ah, yes,” he said, flipping pages.
“But shouldn’t you read from the Bible first, like always?” Stella liked routine
and whenever Charles paused she knew what was coming.
Charles fidgeted in the chair, his tall frame leaning over tiny words on delicate
pages.
“I just have a small excerpt I’d like to read,” he said. “We can discuss it
afterwards if you like. Let me see here.”
He flipped a few pages and read a few sentences from the first chapter of Roman.
Viv toned out, thinking about Scrooge. Stella tried to listen but Charles never gave much
of an introduction to his passages. Plus, she knew why he was here. To try and quell the
demonic homosexual possession he secretly believed they were under, and mold them
into good Christians like old play dough. He read the passages and then moved on,
thinking he just delivered a little nugget of divinity. Maybe, they would change
subconsciously. It left him feeling good about himself. It left the ladies something to talk
about. They used him for the fiction to follow. It was as simple as that.
As Charles read, Camille walked in to deliver breakfast: trays of strawberry JellO, pureed potato, and oatmeal. While he read, Camille propped them up in bed and
wheeled their trays around so they could reach.
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“For this cause God gave them up onto vile affections: for even their women did
change the natural use into that which is against nature. And likewise also the men,
leaving the natural use of the women, burned in their lust one toward another: men with
men working that which is unseemly.” Charles coughed.
“Natural use of women?” Camille interrupted. “What are you reading, Kilroy?”
“My name is Charles,” he said, stuttering on the ‘s’. He held up the leather-bound
copy so she could read ‘Holy Bible’ on the front. He held it high with his bushy black
eyebrows pursed. He thought he won the argument.
“That’s not what I asked, C-c-char-lie,” Camille mocked.
“Natural use ith,” Charles began. “Ith. Is. Is s-s-sex.”
“Let me get this straight, God says women are born to have sex and that’s it?”
“Sex with men.”
“I figured that’s what this was,” she said. “Get out, you tool. I condemn you to
fifty Hail Mary’s and skip the Our Father’s.”
He moved his chair back and looked at Viv and then even Stella. Viv couldn’t see
his plea for help and Stella didn’t care. She just shrugged her shoulders.
“God is always watching,” he said. “I am here to heal them. Save them from their
sins.”
“Come off it. Oh, and by the way,” Camille began. Charles turned beneath the
doorframe. “If you come off your high horse and call yourself Charlie, you won’t stutter
as much.”
She waved, smiling. If Charles had a tail it would have been between his legs.
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“Thank God,” Camille said, standing by Stella. “I had enough of his Vagina
bashing.”
“What did you do that for?” Viv asked, moving her head to where she thought
Camille stood.
“Do what?” Camille’s black lipstick moved out of the lines as she fidgeted her
lips. “He was giving you a blatant sermon on anti-lesbianism. Come on!”
“We know,” Stella said.
“You knew?” Camille’s voice raised, unbelieving.
“Of course,” Viv said. “He does it every week. But he reads whatever we want
after.”
“For hours!” Stella said. “Now, we need a reader.”
“That does voices.”
“Oh, no,” Camille said. “I don’t read.”
“As in you can’t or you don’t?” Viv asked.
“Don’t.”
“You will every Sunday at 9am.” Viv opened her gray, glazed over eyes. She
looked like a zombie to Camille.
“Hell no, sorry chickas no can do,” Camille said.
“I’ll pay,” Stella said.
“How much?”
“Forty dollars a time.”
“I get to bring the reading.”
Monday
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Camille left school late. The city bus took its pretty little time bringing her back
into the city. She hated Boston Pubic. Her father could afford a private school but she’d
already been kicked out of four. Camille only continued to attend because what she hated
more than public buses and public school and school lunches were stupid people. She
didn’t want to hate herself anymore than she already did.
Even though night had fallen, it was artificially bright from the shops lights. She
lurked in dark corners, trying not to be seen. She walked around the North End three
times before she found Lenny sitting in front of Mike’s Pastry shop shaking a can of
pennies. The line of people to get into the shop reached out to the end of the block.
Tourists. Loud, drunk, happy, tourists.
“You’re late,” he said, cleaning the dirt from his nails. Stark white hair hung to
his hips. Locks were starting to dreadlock naturally. He smelled like seafood and salt
water.
“You been fishing?” she asked, sitting down next to him.
“No,” he croaked, clearing his throat. “Why?”
“No reason. So, you got the stuff?”
Lenny handed her three packs of cigarettes and a small bag. Camille looked in.
She peered down the street and then fished in her pocket for the money. She put a wad
into his tip cup, smiled and stood up to leave. Lenny reached in and pocketed the cash as
a young woman wearing a black formal dress stopped in front of the curb. A long string
of white pearls flashed in the city lights. Lenny followed the pearls with his big black
eyes.
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“William,” the woman said, tipping back and forth on her black high heels. He
hooked his arm into hers to hold her up. “Give the man a quarter.”
She giggled. The white space around the blue in her eyes was bloodshot, her face
red as a Christmas bulb. Her date handed Lenny the change from his the pocket of his
Khakis. 44 cents. Lenny nodded his head. The girl’s eyes met Camille’s for the first time.
“Hey,” she said, her voice slurred. “What are you doing with this guy?”
“Leave them alone,” the man said. His face beaded with sweat. “Let’s go.”
“No,” she said. “Maybe, the kid’s in trouble.”
Camille stood up and met the petite woman face on. Camille, almost as tall as the
woman, felt her knuckles tighten at her waist.
“Do I look like I’m in trouble?”
“Calm down, you freak.”
Camille pulled on the woman’s pearls. The tiny white bulbs spread across the
street. Lenny dove to retrieve a few treasured orbs. Most trickled down the street into
storm drains.
The woman’s face sobered. She stopped giggling, reached up a large red purse,
and missed Camille’s face by three inches. She lost her balance and landed on her knees
and when she looked up, Camille was gone.
Her father met her at the door.
“What have you been doing?” He still had his stethoscope around his neck. He
smelled like hand soap and alcohol swabs. He must have arrived home minutes before
her.
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“Eating, drinking, and fornicating.” She dropped her jacket at the door. He
followed her into the kitchen where she dumped milk and cornflakes into a bowl and sat
down. He threw an opened envelope at her across the table like a Frisbee.
“Your court date is in a week. You might want to get a hair cut and remove that
god-awful nail polish. You shouldn’t wear that to work anyways. You’ll give the patients
staff infections.”
“I stole five thousand tablets of Vicadin and Xanax from the med counter and you
are worried about me giving Mrs.-I’m-gonna-be-dead-in-a-week-anyway a fucking staff
infection?”
“I just don’t understand you, Camille. You are almost done with your community
service and you bet your ass you will get more than that for this sentence.”
“I’m a lost cause, Daddy-o,” she sighed, mid-chew. “Get used to it.”
“Your mother would be ashamed.”
“My mother’s practically dead. I don’t think she cares much.”
“She’s watching you wreck our lives.”
“I doubt that, Bob,” she said. “You’re a man of science. You know there’s
nothing out there besides planets and space junk and black holes. Cut the religious hocus
pocus to get me to be a good little Jane.”
“Jesus Christ, Camille.”
“Don’t say His name in vain. You’ll go to hell,” Camille said, mocking him in a
deep breathy voice. She drained the milk from her bowl before she ran up the stairs,
slammed the door for effect, and turned up Metallica until it shook the house.
Tuesday
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Mrs. Stacey entered Stella and Viv’s room at six o’clock that night. She was the
facility’s Nurse Ratchet. She played her part perfectly. She wore a tall pink nurse cap
from the eighties and scrubs with bunnies. When she swayed, it looked like they hopped.
And Mrs. Stacey swayed a lot. She was at least three hundred pounds. Some bunnies got
stuck in the folds.
She handed them their morning medication in a paper cup and said, “We’re going
to have to separate you two into different rooms. Stella will be placed in room 360 before
the week’s over.”
“She won’t go,” Viv said.
“Other patients are complaining.”
“What, do they think I’m going to do, jump their bones?” Viv exclaimed, and
chuckled.
“There will be no bone jumping,” Mrs. Stacey said, aghast, her forehead
bunching.
“Bring me my loafers,” Viv said. “I’d like to go on a walk. Outside. And I don’t
give a rat’s tail if you say it’s too windy.”
“It is.”
“Fiddle-sticks.”
Viv felt for the edge of the bed and lifted her legs. Stella inched out of bed like a
caterpillar and got Viv her loafers. Mrs. Stacey watched and walked out of the room.
“I’ll sue you for discrimination you fat bitch,” Stella squeaked.
Viv laughed. “I thought I heard her leave?”
“She did.”
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Viv laughed again. Stella put on Viv’s loafers for her after Viv missed her foot
twice, and helped her to the door. They shuffled down the hall together. It took them
twenty seven minutes to reach the small bench at the street’s end.
“We can sue her,” Stella said.
“We’d be dead before they moved our rooms back.”
A squirrel crossed the street, trying to avoid a car tire. Stella breathed again when
it reached the sidewalk.
“Do you remember when you first kissed me?” Viv asked.
Viv remembered the day well. They first kissed when Viv was fifteen and Stella
was thirteen in a hayfield behind Stella’s house. The dare came after Stella dared Viv to
run naked in front of a farmer on his John Deere. Viv wanted revenge, but something
changed after Stella’s chicken peck on her cheek. Viv wouldn’t let anyone pick on her
out of fashion clothing or the bruises on her face she wore to school after her daddy drank
too much.
“When I kissed you? You kissed me first,” Stella said.
“No I dared you. There’s a difference. Well,” Viv said, biting her nails. “Do you
want to play?”
“Now?” Stella still played the innocent coquette.
“Well, we don’t have all the time in the world.”
“I guess.”
“I’ll go first,” Viv said.
“Well, what’ll it be?” Stella asked.
“Truth.”
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“Hmm, okay. Just tell me something I don’t know.”
Viv paused.
“The sex is better,” she said, reaching for Stella’s hand.
“What?” Stella moved her hand so Viv would have trouble finding it.
“The sex is better. Obviously not as frequent, but better.”
“Better? We’re two old biddy’s. One of us is going to die of a heart attack or a
lack of oxygen.”
“I mean after I went blind. It just feels different that’s all.”
“You sound like a teenager.”
“Who says sex is for teenagers?”
“I guess I’ll have to try it with my eyes closed next time.”
“No. It won’t work. You will close your eyes but you will see the black behind
your eyelids. If you’re a blind, the black turns into things.”
“Gag,” Stella said, turning and hitting Viv in the shoulder with her cane.
“You go, then,” Viv said. “Truth or dare?”
“Truth.”
“Figures.”
“What?”
“You know in all the times we’ve played this game, you’ve only chosen ‘dare’
once and it was because you already knew what I was going to dare you.”
“Fine. Tell me something I don’t know,” Viv said.
“I hated the little bobble head dolls you gave me,” Stella spat, not having to think.
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Viv thought of their living room in the country house they lived in before the
home. Animal bobble heads and doll bobble heads and political bobble heads and
baseball bobbles nodded next to an authentic vintage set of the three stooges. The last one
she bought her was of Princess Diana. They sold the entire set for four thousand dollars
to help Oscar Jr. get out of debt. He returned three months later with the same problems.
It took everything for Stella to tell him to deal with it on his own.
Before they sold them, Viv fingered the heads trying to remember them all by
feel. She thought Stella did the same with her eyes.
“You hated them?” Viv asked.
“They were always staring at me, nodding like they knew something I didn’t,”
Stella said, shivering.
“Why didn’t you say something?”
“I figured you needed to collect them for yourself.”
“Myself?”
“Sure. You started collecting them after you lost your sight. They were like a
hundred little eyes.”
“Oh,” she said. “I never thought of that.”
“Viv?” Stella said. “You aren’t going to let them move me, are you?”
“We’ll figure something out,” Viv said.
Stella leaned on Viv’s shoulder and dozed until an orderly came to bring them
inside.
Wednesday
“Viv, we’re kind of lucky, you know. Our men died young. That made it easier.”
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Stella always tried to look at the positive side of things.
“I guess.” Viv said, putting a pillow behind her back, making room for Stella to
join her on the bed.
“Guess?”
“I waited for you for twenty years. And you cried for three months and three
weeks after Milton Bradley died and you only stopped because I purposely slammed your
hand in a door. I gave you something to cry about and you shut up faster than a Jack in
the Box.”
“Don’t call him Milton Bradley.”
“Why? All that Ken doll was good for was playing games.”
“I know. But he’s still the father of my children.”
“Stell’, he died of a heart attack after having sex with another woman.”
Stella was quiet. She knew it was true. She saw the woman with the purple silk
lingerie leaning over the body of Oscar P. Bradley the third, her husband of twenty seven
years. Oscar’s olive Italian skin looked unseasonably white in the summer sun and
against the white sheets of the gurney as EMT’s no older than twenty shocked his heart
with dilapidated defibrillator pads. The black paint on the machine was chipped, the
white pads stained yellow. Oscar’s body jumped upward with every spurt of electricity,
his curly salt and pepper hair scurried back and forth over his face.
Stella ran from the sidewalk to her front driveway where the ambulance stood
screaming, spraying blinding lights like strobes. She pushed the woman in the purple silk
away from her husband. One strap of the woman’s shirt fell away from her body
revealing a perfectly round chocolate breast. The woman didn’t replace the material. She
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let Stella stare. Stella’s breasts hadn’t looked that good since before 1949 when she gave
birth to Oscar Jr. That was a long time ago. Oscar Jr. had just left for college last fall.
Stella looked at Oscar and wondered who the biggest loser was. Him or her?
Oscar’s purple lips were pursed into a mischievous smile. The right corner pulled slightly
upward revealing a deep dimple. Stella knew that grin would still be there after rigor
mortis set in and that haunted her.
An EMT approached her and told her Oscar was dead.
“I know,” she said, sitting on the stone sidewalk’s edge.
“Would you like a ride to the hospital, Ma’am?” The young man smiled. It was a
pretty smile. One that, a long time ago, she wouldn’t have denied.
“No, thank you.”
The man touched her shoulder. She closed her eyes and thought of Vivian. When
she opened them, the woman in purple stood in front of her.
“You don’t owe me anything,” Stella said. “Go home.”
The woman looked at Stella’s house and then sat down beside her on the ledge.
Her breast was back where it belonged. Stella didn’t feel as angry.
“Just answer me one question,” Stella said, taking a deep breath. “Why here?
Why in my own home?”
“I asked him the same thing,” she said. Her voice had a cool Southern drawl. To
Stella’s ears, it tasted like iced tea and sugar.
“What did he say?”
“He said, ‘because he could.’”
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Stella looked at her, noticing for the first time the woman’s bright brown, tearfilled eyes and full lips. She had a small nose, but it fit her delicate features. Her make-up
was light. She wasn’t overdone.
“You’re a pretty girl,” Stella said. “Find a man as different from my husband as
you can get.”
The girl turned to leave.
“Wait a minute.”
Stella dug through her purse to find the bank envelope she just retrieved.
“Take this,” Stella said, handing her the white crisp envelope.
“He already paid me,” the woman said.
Stella smiled. She hadn’t thought of that.
“Take it anyways.”
“For what? For killin’ him?”
“No, for setting me free.”
The woman looked down at the road. Stella could see the heat rising from the
pavement.
“I need a nap,” Stella said, turning to Viv.
“Not yet. Not until you spill one more. I’m guessing you choose ‘truth’?”
“Yes, if I must.”
“My question is ‘would you have left Oscar?’ And be honest.”
“Yes. Maybe not for you, but for me.”
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Stella looked down at her red sweater as if mesmerized by it. In the middle of the
red cotton fabric sat three robins. A mother and two babies, their mouths wide open,
sucking in air. She took a deep breath and tried to focus on the mother bird while she
spoke.
“On the day Oscar died, I was going to leave him. I went to the bank that day after
breakfast. I made ham and eggs sunny-side up. His favorite. He told me he was going
golfing with some friends until dinner. He watched me leave and kissed me goodbye. I
retrieved all of my savings and went home. I felt that everyone was watching me. Funny,
isn’t it? My own conscious worked as Oscar’s personal surveillance system. But with the
money in my purse, I felt stronger. More free. All that was left of my plans was to pack
my belongings. All my children were in college. I had no reason to stay and couldn’t
pretend I didn’t see how Oscar lived. With Oscar alive, I needed the money to escape.
With Oscar gone, I didn’t need anything.”
“But you mourned for so long.”
“Not for him. I know this sounds selfish, but it was for me. I never got to run, to
show myself that I was capable of escaping him.”
Viv squeezed Stella’s hand.
“It’s okay Stell’. We can stop the game for today.”
“No,” Stella said, wiping her eyes on Viv’s turquoise shirt sleeve. “We’re not
even yet. Which will it be?”
“Truth, then,” Viv said. Her heart jumped. She could guess the question coming
and still didn’t know how she’d answer.
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“How did Ralph die? You never told me and I was too wrapped up in my own
problems at the time to push you.”
“Ralph died last year. Brain cancer.”
“Last year?” Stella squeaked. She thought he died the same year as Oscar. She
thought God had finally had some mercy on their situation and put them together in the
end. She didn’t think their lifestyle was a choice. She thought it was fate.
Thursday
A small choir from a nearby high school came to sing for the nursing home
residents in the evening. Stella and Viv napped most of the day, prepping for it. They
liked music. The group consisted of four boys and four girls in black and red outfits. The
boys wore red ties; the girls had black sleeveless dresses with a red crinoline layer that
stuck out beneath the black. Something that the old folks would think was a bit risqué.
Something to give them to talk about. Aids helped the residents into the cafeteria where
the small stage was already set. Stella and Viv sat in chairs with their canes balancing
against the backs. Women in wheelchairs lined the back of the room. The men sat up
close, ogling the young girls. They wheeled Mrs. Tipton in last. She was still in her bed
on wheels, her arms still connected to machines with clear, green and pink tubes.
Her eyes were closed. They always were.
The choir did simplistic swing dances- the jitterbug, the Charleston- as they sang
upbeat songs of an era gone by. They sang “The Lullaby of Broadway,” “It Don’t Mean a
Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing,” and “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie.” Many residents clapped
along, some hummed off-pitch but happy half-melodies. Everyone knew the music,
whether they had Alzheimer’s or were comatose or were just a little senile. The songs
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weren’t just classics; they were songs from their childhoods, their adulthood: the
highpoints. The fuzzy nest beginning to clog up the synaptic gaps connecting neurons due
to age melted off for a moment as the rhythms paved new paths leading back to a specific
place, a specific time when they first heard the song.
And when they slowed it down, the atmosphere of the room changed. They
started with the song “Somewhere” from the musical West Side Story. Stella frowned as
the boy sang the first notes without accompaniment. The piano joined in and then a girl.
Oscar Jr. was eight years old when she first heard the song on the radio. He was running
around making airplane noises, his arms outstretched, as she taught Clara how to tie her
shoes in the living room. Clara had just tied her first successful knot when Stella saw
Oscar pull up in a taxi outside the window. Through the tinted back panes of the cab, she
watched him kiss a long-haired figure in the seat next to him and get out with a cocky
smile on his face.
She stood with one of Clara’s shoes in her hand as he came through the door. He
kissed her on the cheek, sat down in his chair and pulled out the newspaper. He never
noticed the shoe in her hand, or the tears growing in her eyes, or the anger building in her
shoulders. She told Clara to go clean up for dinner and sat in a chair by the window and
wondered what Viv was doing out there somewhere and wondered if there really was a
time and place for everyone or just for disembodied voices on the radio.
The group began the “Moon River” next. Stella patted Viv’s knee to make sure
she was listening. Viv swung her cane in Stella’s direction.
“Do you remember?” Stella asked.
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“Of course,” Viv said, and she did. It was Stella’s forty-fifth birthday. It was 1972
and Viv was treating her to ice cream in the park. She had just emerged from her storm
cloud from Oscar’s death, just settling back into Viv. They ordered ice cream from a
vendor: Viv had pistachio, Stella chose chocolate.
A thirty year old woman was playing a free concert in the park. She was
fashioned in the Audrey Hepburn style: short bangs, dark hair pulled back to a well
sculpted pile. Big black piercing eyebrows and three branches of pearls around her neck.
White tight pants and a black sleeveless shirt. Stella was wearing tight jeans with a slight
bell along the ankle and a baggy floral shirt. Her hair had a sprinkling of gray along her
part. Viv’s black hair was already turning white. The woman started the song “Moon
River,” strumming slowly on her guitar with pink and green flower power sticker along
the edge.
“Dance with me,” Stella said.
“I don’t dance.”
Stella knew that wasn’t true. Viv took ballet lessons until she got married. She
gave Viv ‘the look:’ eyebrows edged inward, disappointment evident.
“It’s my birthday,” Stella said.
“No one else is dancing,” Viv squirmed on the park bench. Stella stood up and
pulled on her arm. Viv shoved her last bit of cone into her mouth and followed Stella to
an open grassy section a few feet from the singer’s stage. Stella put her arms on Viv’s
shoulders and started to rock back and forth. Viv’s moved her hands to Stella’s waist. She
closed her eyes and listened. The singer’s voice was untrained, an unpolluted soprano. No
vibrato.
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“We’re after the same rainbow’s end,” She sang the words as if whispering. “My
huckleberry friend. Moon river and me.”
When the song ended, Viv opened her eyes. People were staring at them. She
could see; she would have her eyesight for five more years and then she would wake up
after the accident and struggle to find her alarm clock as it beeped into the morning.
One man pointed at them. Viv let go of Stella’s waist and looked at the short,
balding man in the face. Stella stuck out her tongue at a gawking elderly lady walking her
primped poodle with pink bows. Lately, with Viv, her actions had regressed. She was in
her mid-life’s crisis and dealt with it by acting more like a teenager. Ever since that day,
“Moon River” was their song.
Stella didn’t pay attention to the final songs. She didn’t want to leave the solid
memory of that day that the familiar notes allowed her to access. When the music stopped
altogether, the memory disappeared like a painting dropped in a puddle. When she tried
to re-access it again, she only pulled out outlines and smudges and blank spaces. She
knew the story, but she wanted three dimensions, two at least.
After the singers left, Stella and Viv waited for everyone else to file out before
them. Viv hated crowds. Mrs. Tipton was dribbling yellow spittle down her chin and
moaning when they wheeled her out. Another woman with mauve hair was yodeling the
same song she yodeled everyday. A man in a wheelchair was sleeping, his head at an
angle and his mouth wide open. A fly buzzed around his face, nearing his mouth.
“I don’t want to get that old,” Stella said, pointing to the man. Sometimes, she
forgot Viv was blind. “I can’t tell if he’s sleeping or dead.”
“What does he look like?”
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“His mouth is a breeding ground for fly larva and if he does wake up he won’t be
able to move his neck.”
“You are that old,” Viv teased.
“Are we going to play today?” Stella asked.
“Sure, it’s your turn to ask,” Viv said. “I pick truth. I don’t trust you not to make
me hit some vulnerable old man.”
“You shouldn’t,” Stella said, pausing. She had her question ready. But there was a
difference between knowing it and saying it allowed, knowing an answer would follow.
“Do you blame me,” Stella began, her voice tense. “For going blind?”
Viv’s memory flashed to the skating pond. It was Clara’s twenty-fifth birthday.
She came home to visit Stella to go skating out back. She was a figure skater. Not a
professional. It was something she did for fun. Viv hated ice skating. She couldn’t stay on
her feet on slippery surfaces which Stella thought was funny because on solid ground she
was graceful, anything but clumsy. Stella coaxed her to go. She wanted Clara to get to
know her better and because she loved Stella she went. She forced her feet into a pair of
Clara’s old skates and crawled across the edge near decaying pussy willows and swamp
grass.
The ice was wet. Spring winds were blowing in early, but the lake seemed solid
enough. Stella floated over the ice to help Viv to her feet. Viv wobbled, her knobby knees
knocking together. She was at least four inches taller than Stella, her long legs jiggled
like fresh Jell-O. Stella laughed at her and said, “We’re getting too old for these kinds of
things.”
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“Doesn’t seem to stop you,” Viv said, her arms outstretched, trying to keep
balance. Clara zipped back and forth doing jumps and spins. Viv ended up sitting down
in the middle of the pond watching Stella circle her in style. Then Stella’s hands got cold
and turned pink.
“I’m going inside to get a different pair of mittens,” Stella said, removing her
skates. “You two want some hot chocolate?”
“Sure,” Clara said, still twirling.
As soon as Stella reached the house, Clara skated over to Viv.
“My mother seems happy,” Clara said. She didn’t smile much. She had this
morose, sedateness around her at all times. “You love her?”
“Of course,” Viv said.
“Well, ok then,” Clara skated towards the far edge of the pond and performed a
beautiful Y-spin. Her left leg lifted high into the air, her arm held her leg in place over
her head by the blade of her skate and she spun until the skate, still connected to the ice,
hit a jagged, uneven spot and she toppled over. Without thinking, Viv got to her feet to go
to Clara and with three swings of her feet back and forth like a pendulum, her arms flung
out to the side, she fell, landing on the back of her head.
Viv refused to see a doctor, even though Clara estimated she blacked out for at
least two minutes. Clara had a small bruise on her knee from her fall, but nothing else.
She hadn’t needed Viv’s help. Stella found Clara leaning over Viv. She dropped the hot
chocolate into the snow and ran across the ice in her untied boots. It took both Clara and
Stella to get Viv inside. Viv listened while Clara and Stella played pinochle and then
rummy because Stella was better at that. When Viv started to doze, they’d pinch her toes
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to keep her awake. But around four in the morning, Stella drifted off on the card table and
Clara snuck out to claim the empty couch.
When Viv’s alarm clock went off, Stella knocked over the card table. The cards
flew into the air and danced to the floor like feathers in slow motion. Or, at least that’s
how Stella remembered it. Viv’s left hand slapped her bedside table over and over, trying
to find the ‘off’ button on the screaming alarm. Stella went over and slapped it off and
asked Viv “what the hell is wrong with you?”
“I can’t see!” I can’t see!” Viv cried.
And there was nothing anyone could do. Clara came less and less, and Stella went
back into her depression for another six months.
“I used to blame you,” Viv said. “At the same time, I knew it was irrational.”
Stella needed to hear her say this.
“But, it’s not your fault,” Viv said. “Stop dwelling on it. Plus, I’m glad I can’t see
this place. It smells like shit.”
Stella coughed when she meant to laugh. “That’s true,” she said and hesitated.
“Viv,” Stella began. “It’s strange. I look around this place and so many people act
like they can’t tell their ass from a hole in the ground.”
“Hah! It’s because we aren’t senile yet,” Viv pointed out.
“Why can we still remember?” Stella asked, her voice serious.
“I don’t know, Stell,” Viv said. “I don’t know.”
Friday
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Camille climbed to the top floor of Stergis after swallowing four Vicadins in the
girl’s bathroom and running eighteen blocks so she wouldn’t have to ride the bus. It was
twelve o’ clock. She couldn’t stay at school any longer that day. It was Senior Night at
school, a night where parents give their child a rose before the big soccer game against
Somerville High.
She needed to see her mother.
Instead of taking the empty elevator, she stormed the stairs. Already sweaty and
numb, she took three stairs at once. As she reached the top flight, she slowed. The extra
large top floor windows overlooking the Charles River were marred with bars. She
peered into room 1517 before entering.
A woman with long grayish brown hair sat cross-legged on the messy white
sheets. Her un-brushed hair reached the small of her back and kinky short tufts stood out
like half shucked corn husks. She wore a baggy gray sweat suit and a tight ivory bib
around her neck with brown and orange stains. Her core rocked, while her arms ticked,
moving sporadically like a broken robot. The television played and the woman reacted to
the booms and crashes and explosions.
Her father and Camille talked about Candice as if she were dead. That’s what Bob
told her in Kindergarten: that her mother was dead. Her father hired enough people to
oversee the mental hospital, found enough patients to fill two floors and left her there. He
never did rounds at Stergis. Camille found out that Candice was alive when she searched
her own name in the computer system at work a year ago when her father made her
volunteer. Her name didn’t pop up, but Candice Kelley did. The name of her mother. It
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was the computer system that told her it was Huntington’s, a disease that Camille could
probably look forward to.
Camille visited Candice periodically from a distance. Today, Candice spotted
Camille at the door. Candice moaned something unintelligible and got up from bed.
Camille’s heart jumped.
“’ush desht air,” Candice said, opening her mouth as wide as she could.
“I don’t know what you’re saying.” Camille was scared.
Candice leaned over and thrust her arm out towards a brush.
“Oh,” Camille said. “Brush your hair?”
Candice didn’t answer. She was back on the bed, sitting upright, her legs
outstretched. Camille approached her like a scared, but hungry child. She detangled a few
knots with her fingers and then lifted the brush up to her mother’s head. The bristles
wouldn’t go through. She pushed harder, holding the hair near her scalp so it wouldn’t
hurt. Finally, the knot loosened and she was able to pull the brush through one strand.
“Mama,” she whispered, breathing in lavender and grease from her mother’s hair.
Candice suddenly turned and grabbed onto the brush. She threw the brush at a
window in the corner and it bounced back towards Camille. Candice shouted parts of
words, noises, moans and Camille ran down all fifteen flights of stairs.
Nurse Stacey came to get Stella’s things at six. The aids had already emptied her
dresser and closet. There wasn’t anything left to move except her afghan and her pictures
stilled tacked to her brown bulletin board. Nurse Stacey came to oversee the move. Today
she was suffocating smiling elephants printed in the folds of her scrubs. An aid brought in
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a wheelchair and Stella said that she could walk. She swung her cane in the air to get her
point across.
Before she walked out the door, she looked back at Viv.
“You better come get me, you old bag,” Stella said.
Viv told her to “get lost.”
Kit took her time removing Stella’s photographs from the board. She looked at
each of them before putting them into the cardboard box. She looked up to see Camille
running by the door.
“Camille,” yelled Kit. “Wait a minute.”
Camille stopped and entered.
“What do you want?” she asked.
“I watched that movie you told me to rent,” she said. “Did you know it was in
black and white?”
“No shit,” Camille said.
“It was totally psychedelic,” she said. “That husband tried so hard to get that
woman out of the institution.”
“No way,” Viv interrupted. “He was a loser.”
“She was a lost cause,” Camille said. “Who gives a shit?”
Kit got called out of the room by Mrs. Stacey. Camille lingered.
“What’s it like to get old?” Camille asked.
“It sucks,” Viv said. “But it’s better than not getting to grow old, I guess.”
Camille turned to leave.
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“Hey, Kid,” Viv said. “Aren’t you the girl who stole all those pills?”
“Yeah, that’s me.”
“I have a proposition for you,” Viv said.
Saturday
It was ten-thirty. All the lights in the hall were on. They never shut off. Bleeps
and beeps and chirps of monitors that scrutinize the amount of life left made it impossible
for the few residents without hearing problems to go to sleep. Viv was one of them.
Before feeling her way out of the room, she found the paper bag hidden under her pillow
and held it firmly beneath her armpit.
She left her loafers behind.
A night nurse found her roaming. She heard the approaching steps. Her heart
pounded, hoping it wasn’t someone she knew.
“Where are you headed?” A voice said.
Viv moved her head in the woman’s direction.
“Are you lost, Ma’am?”
Viv nodded and the woman interlocked arms with her.
“What room are you from?”
“306.”
“Well, you’re a long way off, Honey,” she said, leading her to an elevator going
up.
The nurse weaved back and forth what seemed like a dark labyrinth. Viv still
counted the turns out of habit. Five left, two right and then one left.
“306, Ma’am. Want me to help you in bed?”
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“No, thank you,” Viv said.
Viv shuffled her feet along the floor, careful not to run into anything but the
rooms were all set up the same. She reached out towards the bed and felt for Stella’s toes.
“Viv!” Stella exclaimed. “How did you get here?”
“I conned a night nurse into believing that this was my room.”
Stella giggled, flirtatious and excited as always.
Stella held out her arms and helped Viv squeeze in. Viv had always been skinny
as a pole. Her current weight was ninety three pounds. Stella rounded out with age where
Viv shrunk. They both lost precious inches.
“Well, Stell,” Viv said and stopped.
“Well Viv?”
“I don’t know,” said Viv. “I thought this would be easier.”
“You have another question for the game?” Stella asked.
“Not a question.”
“A dare?”
“Yes, but before you choose it, you need to be sure. You said you knew what I
was going to dare you before I asked you to kiss me and that’s why you chose it, right?”
“Yes.”
Viv took the bag out from under her arm and handed a small plastic bag to Stella.
Stella felt the weight in her hands. She squeezed it, feeling the contents of the bag
separate like tiny beads and she knew what Viv meant.
“Dare,” Stella said. She was never more sure of anything in her life.
Sunday
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The second time Camille caught Viv and Stella in bed together, she walked up to
their motionless bodies with a paperback copy of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and
waited until she could hear the typical labored breathing that wafted over the nursing
home beds and hovered like the Grim Reaper. The chirping of birds outside the window
corrupted the silence in the room.
She peered out the small high window in the corner. City lights besmirched the
perfect darkness as far as she could see. She opened the window and let in sounds from
the street. Cars honked and heaved forward. Buildings bellowed, taking in breath and
emitting it all at once. She took courage in the fact that the commotion of life lingered
close. She returned to the two peaceful women. Their yellow hands, strewn with dark
protruding veins, were connected like the complicated connections and channels of a
human heart. Stella’s right hand locked in Viv’s right and Viv’s left clung to Stella’s left.
Their arms crossed in the middle as strong as the pink muscle wall that separated the two
heart halves.
Camille reached down. A finger grazed against hands. Camille flinched at the
frigid feel of the skin, moved away, and then made contact again. This time, she brought
two fingers over Stella’s wrist to find her radial pulse. Finding a light thump, she moved
to Viv. After finding the steady drumbeat beneath her skin, Camille took a deep breath
and started her search for the paper bag she had given Viv the night before.
She fingered the bed sheets and snuck her hand under their pillow. She found the
crumpled bag in between their chests and pulled it out. She looked up at the door before
opening the bag. Within the paper, Camille pulled out a plastic zip-lock bag lined with
white powder. They had swallowed every last Vicadin. Camille couldn’t believe it.
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“Guess you guys weren’t messin’ around,” she said, chuckling. “Those meds
could put a small elephant to sleep for 48 hours. Bet you’re feelin’ real good. Real good.”
She looked over at Stella and Viv. Both had their eyes closed, firmly linked in
another world. She wondered if they dreamed together, wondered if the linked hands
connected their subconscious in a way that in waking they couldn’t understand, or even
remember.
Camille shoved the paper bag underneath her scrubs and into the space between
her breasts in her sports bra. She walked to the door and stopped. She couldn’t leave yet.
She wanted to see their faces when they woke up, when they realized they hadn’t yet
made it to that other place.
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Resurrection
The sky was a slippery shade of vermillion and tangerine when they lifted Josiah
from the irrigation channel. Jaden watched from behind a thick patch of ripened grapes.
Night was beginning to seep across the vast rows of the plantation like a gathering of
ghosts. Jaden’s bones shook within his ivory leotard while wet shadows clung to the air,
making it difficult for him to see. As he moved closer, branches reached out like fingers
on a hand getting stuck in the tiny holes of his black tights. The plants didn’t want him to
see. He was old enough to know that.
A loud sound came from behind. He jumped and turned to see Grandpa Joe laying
face-down in the irrigation system, his arms swinging in robotic circles. Jaden’s father
had told both of them to remain in the car. Grandpa Joe looked like he was trying to swim
in water that was no more than an inch. He kicked his creaking legs and his arms moved
like a bird learning to fly. His joints needed to be oiled. Jaden had watched The Wizard of
Oz enough to know that if he left him there and it started to rain, Grandpa would turn into
a solid Tin Man, a soul within an immobile host. But, it wasn’t raining. Not yet.
Jaden ran forward until he reached the row of grapes closest to the channel. He
could hear his father’s labored breathing. His mother was silent. Only a tiny sliver of the
sun’s rays remained. The last orange light reached out and kissed Josiah’s face like a
spotlight, as two policemen lifted him upright. The men held his arms out, like a
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scarecrow. He looked like Christ. His shoulder-length cornrows were intact, but as the
last crumbs of light filtered across his face, Jaden could see nothing but skeleton. What
bothered him the most were the dark caves that now replaced Josiah’s eyes.
His mother screamed, breaking the silence. His father and mother bent down to
their knees. His father put his hands together. Jaden couldn’t help but step forward
towards Josiah. The policemen told them to step back, that there was nothing that could
be done.
“Why don’t they put him down?” Jaden mumbled, pinching himself in the
shoulder. “Ouch.”
‘Wake up, wake up!’ he thought. ‘This must be a nightmare.’
“Get down on your knees,” his mother said, her mouth-open wide.
“Jaden, now.” His father stared at him.
He studied them and then Josiah. It began to rain, light silky drops as the
policemen brought him to shore, putting his body carefully on the ground. Jaden could
hear them yelling at him to stop, but he ran to his other half, his big brother. He looked
down at Josiah’s face, or where he thought his face should be. Brownish purple skin was
pulled taut over skeleton. What looked like enlarged veins cut across his body; either
way, whatever was under there had long gone dry. Lying there, unhinged from any
branch or vine, Josiah looked like a raisin.
It was Jaden’s day. They were all there to see him. His heart beat fast as he
peeked out from behind a red velvet curtain on-stage. His father pushed Grandpa Joe in a
wheelchair to the front row. Grandpa Joe didn’t need the chair; it was just easier than
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letting him fall on the way in. The wheelchair was his mother’s idea. She didn’t let him
leave the house unless his seat was glued to the chair. Jaden watched his mother read the
program. Her finger grazed down the lines of names on the page and stopped. Jaden
hoped she stopped at his name.
When the music began and the curtain opened, Jaden knew to close his eyes. The
soft, slow notes of the piano tickled his cheeks and filtered through his bones. He
carefully adjusted his body into a slow arabesque. Low gasps from the crowd resounded
and bubbles in his stomach fluttered. The music quickened, tapping his skin in a constant
rhythm. Plie, plie, pointe, pointe, pointe, plie, plie, pointe, pointe. Suddenly, he felt brave.
He thought of the beautiful girls in the class above him, the strong men that lifted them in
the air and helped them to fly. How they looked as they twirled two feet in thin air. How
they flew. How free they were! He forgot the other girls and boys dancing around him
and he jumped, pointing his right leg out and twisting it around his body. He almost made
it.
“No,” a woman called out. Jaden knew it was his mother.
He opened his eyes from the floor of the stage. Jaden’s mother stood next to a
police officer. The auditorium’s eyes converged to the commotion off-stage. The
policeman whispered into her ear, with a heavy hand on her shoulder. His father sat with
his head in his hands. Grandpa Joe’s face pointed towards the stage as if still trying to see
the dancing. His two milky orbs were the only eyes still on Jaden. For the first time,
Jaden was glad that Grandpa Joe couldn’t see. Finally, his teacher turned the music off
and Jaden felt a strange desperation for the music to continue. Why couldn’t they keep
dancing, dancing as if this didn’t happen? The teacher’s long fingers grazed his face and
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Jaden felt the touch turn to anger within him as she told him to go join his family offstage. Her hand was cold.
They all knew what they were going to have to face when they got out of the car.
His brother had been missing too long to be whole.
“I’m sorry, Jay,” Grandpa Joe said. “They should have waited until the concert
was over to barge in like that.”
Jaden didn’t answer. He knew his parents had told the police that no matter what
the time, or hour, or situation, if they found out anything about Josiah, they were to be
contacted immediately. It was only a rumor, but two children playing on the outskirts of
their plantation thought they found a body. The police said they could ride in the back of
the squad car, but Jaden’s father refused. The last time they’d seen Officer Tridale, he
had returned Jaden home from school early. His teacher warned him about making
continued references to his brother. She said he made the class uncomfortable, and since
it had been almost a year now, he should think about something a little more chipper. She
recommended writing about animals, adventure, or automobiles: anything but Josiah.
Jaden was warned twice during a writing exercise in his eighth grade English
class, but he didn’t care. He thought they should have to hear. He knew that some of their
older brothers had something to do with it. He knew that at least two of them knew.
Really knew. It wasn’t something they said or did; it was how they looked at him without
blinking. Jaden asked to go to the bathroom after being scolded about his first exercise in
diction. After picking up his bag, knowing it wasn’t safe to leave in the classroom, he
slunk out the door.
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He chose the stall furthest to the end and sat on the floor with the door locked
until he figured there was only ten minutes or so left of English. As he lifted his body
from the floor, he slipped on soapy water and his hand grazed the white lips of the toilet.
Jaden pulled his hands back and inspected how much yellow dribble was left on the seat.
He picked up his backpack, careful to pull the strap only with his arm and moved towards
the sink. He lathered on the pearl-colored soap and shuffled his hands together. Little
specks of silver got caught in the grooves of his hands before he turned the water on and
struggled to wash it all away.
Then, he looked up. He saw his brother with a tight white noose tied around his
neck. Jaden flinched and stepped back. Once he took the step away, the image broke. It
was Jaden’s own reflection standing next to a white noose drawn on the glass in thick
shaving cream. He drew water in the sink and threw handful after handful at the glass
until the cream began to melt in long lines towards the floor. Gravity and water and anger
gathered in a white puddle on the tiled floor, getting caught in the cracks.
Miss Fern stopped talking and followed Jaden with her eyes as he walked back to
his seat. As soon as he sat down, she began again.
“Jaden, as you have missed almost everyone’s exercise on alliteration, why don’t
you read yours?” Miss Fern said in the fake, high pitched voice she always talked in.
Jaden thought she should have been a kindergarten teacher.
He flipped to the right spot in his notebook and stared at the page.
“Well, come on,” she said.
“No thank you, Ma’am,” he said.
“Did you do your homework?”
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He shook his head up and down.
“Then go on.” She swept a long blonde lock of hair behind her ear and smiled.
Her teeth were too straight and her light blue cashmere sweater looked too soft.
“America…” Jaden began.
“Wait,” she said. “Stand up. Don’t hover over your notebook.”
Jaden’s chair screeched on the ivory floor. He left two long, gray skid marks on
the cheap tile.
“America,” he said again and cleared his throat. “Home of the free. Land of the
brave. A flag with fifty stars flew flippantly as they killed Josiah, the red, white, and blue
beckoning him, beating him, to the other side. I don’t really know how it happened, just
that there was a flag,” read Jaden. He looked up at his class. A girl doodled little hearts
and stars in her notebook, while Paul Orson examined a scab on his elbow.
Miss Fern cleared her throat.
“Very good, Jaden,” she said. “You used alliteration very well here, but I’d like
you to try this same assignment again with a different topic.”
“Why?” he asked. He didn’t want to do it over. He spent an hour looking up
words for the assignment in his Aunt Gerdy’s beat-up dictionary that was so old the
words ‘racist’ and ‘racism’ did not appear, but ‘nigger’ fell in its appropriate place right
after ‘niggard.’ The definition of ‘nigger’ didn’t say ‘slang’ or ‘derogatory,’ it just said
‘See under Negro.’ According to Webster, Negro meant ‘a black man; esp., one of a race
having protruding lips and woolly hair, inhabiting a portion of tropical Africa.’
“I’d like you to expand your horizons. Let your mind take you to different
places,” she said, smiling.
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He pulled out his chair to sit back down.
“Bitch,” he said, his face masked in his notebook. The class laughed and Miss
Fern’s face lost color. They all waited for her to scold, yell, explode. She looked down at
her lesson plan and that same blonde lock fell in front of her green eyes.
“Go to the office,” she whispered, hiding her face in her papers.
“What?” Jaden asked. This wasn’t the type of reprimand he expected. He thought
she would take him into the corner like she had done many times before while the other
kids peered over their textbooks trying to discern what she could possibly be saying to
him.
“Go to the office.” She didn’t say it much louder, but everyone knew what she
said. Jaden gathered his book and his paper binder and as he walked out the class, Miss
Fern called on the doodling girl to read her alliteration exercise in that same fake voice.
As he walked down the empty hall towards the office, he heard her voice getting further
and further away; from a distance, it sounded like she had inhaled helium.
Jaden stared out the window and tried to count the telephone poles as they sped
by. He wished someone would say something. Anything. When he reached fifty-six
poles, he fell too far behind and had to stop. Other thoughts seeped in and sped faster
than the car. Those thoughts. The ones he tried not to think. Jaden saw how it happened
hundreds of times in his nightmares. Sometimes they drowned Josiah. Other times, they
hung him. Most times, they just cut his throat and left him face down in a ditch as cold
mud mixed with warm blood. But in every dream, a new, brightly illuminated flag
appeared overlooking the violence as peaceful as an angel. An angel. That was how
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Jaden’s mama remembered Josiah. Even though Josiah and Jaden shared almost the same
square face, the same rigid cheekbones and the light mushroom colored eyes while he
was alive, Josiah’s was stuck static in her brain while Jaden’s face popped with puberty,
marring the soft innocence of youth.
Josiah disappeared on the first day of grape harvest one year ago. They found
nothing but a toy noose fastened over the entrance to their wine cellar with white tacks.
Nooses were something that had been appearing at school in playgrounds, auditoriums,
and classrooms like phantoms of another time. But, the wine cellar was different. It was
the first time the image had seeped from the youthful confines of the schoolyard where
empty threats never left the game of pirates, cowboys and Indians, or cops and robbers.
The school was a place of performing, acting, but not being. Now, the noose had broken
out into something else, penetrating the town, living beneath real houses and lurking
under the crop. The dark basement room, one hundred feet from their house, held their
entire stock of vintage wines, some matured and some mid-stage, needing time before
they would reach their optimal phase. The cellar also fit cramped rows of oak barrels.
They didn’t find hair or fingerprints or ripped jeans or even the St. Isidore medallion he
always wore around his neck. Josiah just went to check a southern field and never came
back. It used to be the happiest day of the year on the family vineyard. Josiah was fifteen,
the age Jaden was about to turn.
The boys, born less than a year apart, couldn’t be more different. Their Aunt
Gerdy liked to say that they were born from the same pod, but the pod grew in two
separate directions: one towards the sun and the other towards the earth. Josiah was a bit
of a rebel; he didn’t like doing what others thought he should and he liked attention, the
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spotlight. Jaden was book smart, a bit unsociable, but not unfriendly. Josiah played
baseball, Jaden did ballet. Josiah wanted to be like his daddy and Jaden idolized Bill
‘Bojangles’ Robinson, a tap dancer of the roaring thirties and dreamed of Julliard. Jaden
didn’t hate the wine business, but he didn’t have a passion for it either. Josiah loved
harvest, the first sips of wine his father slipped him after getting the year’s wages into
hundreds of large oak barrels, the wine cellar where he hid three bottles of wine harvested
the year he was born that he said he was going to get rich on if he could hold out long
enough, and the vineyard where there were too many hiding spots for hide-and-go-seek.
They both knew that Josiah would inherit the humble winery Grandpa Joe started
in Monticello, Virginia fifty years ago, far before the United States sanctioned the land as
American Viticulture Area, but long after Thomas Jefferson paid an Italian winemaker to
give the Virginia land a go. Grandpa Joe started the vineyard in the 1950’s after
inheriting a quarter of an acre of land from Stephen P. Graydon, a wealthy winery owner
he worked for since the age of five when Graydon took him in after his parents died in a
train accident. The rest of the vineyard, all fifty-eight and a half acres of it, went to
Graydon’s daughter Sophia. Ten years after the death of Graydon, the vineyard was
decimated by fires from a dry summer. A single vine caught and the rest were swallowed.
Sophia sold the empty vineyard in pieces and made her coveted million. She hated
grapes, wine, the color purple, hot weather, and didn’t want to re-plant. She flew to New
York and Grandpa Joe never heard from her again. The new landowners surrounding
Grandpa Joe didn’t start out well. They tried out many types of grapes, but, new to the
business and too prideful to ask for advice, many failed and sold Grandpa Joe parcels of
land silently and removed themselves back to the north to whet their pallet at another
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proposition. If they had asked, Grandpa Joe would have told them to plant Cabernet
Franc, a blue-black grape that thrived on the Virginia clay soil. Typical of the American
dream, Grandpa Joe’s success started with a quarter of an acre and a few hundred plants,
and grew to three acres, seven acres, and finally to thirteen.
Still, at thirteen acres, the vineyard wasn’t a huge money-making venture, but it
kept Jaden’s family, including two pairs of aunts and uncles, afloat. They all lived under
one roof and worked the land together. His aunts never had children. It was always just
Josiah and Jaden.
The car rolled by field after field of ripe grape vines in straight lines, held upright
by wooden stakes and wire. Their foundation was solid, although the profound weight of
the seasoned outgrowths was taking their toll. Jaden’s moist breath misted on the inside
of the window, fogging his view. He had to keep wiping the condensation away with his
hand to see the red, then black, and even some yellow rows of heavy packs of ripe fruit.
Some vines leaned to one side or the other, depending on the wire to remain erect. The
circular packs were at a tender age. If they weren’t harvested soon, they would burst in
the sun, dry up and fall to their death.
Jaden rubbed his eyes. He thought he saw a bear between two rows of white
grapes. He turned in his seat at looked back towards the road. It was only Mr. Tate’s
black Lab, Sandy. Jaden took a deep breath and wiped more moisture off the window. He
hadn’t been sleeping well. The night before last he spent almost the entire night flapping
around in bed. Shadows slithered against the floral wallpaper like the tongues of snakes,
slipping across and stealing away in corners. And then he saw a small form rise on the
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wall like a large hand puppet in the limelight. It was a miniature man on a cross, his head
slumped forward. Hair long and scraggly.
And then it was gone. He heard the wheels of a car squealing away outside his
window and the light rushing in, from their headlights, disappeared. He stumbled to his
light switch and flicked it on. On his shelf opposite the wall, sat a small figurine of the
scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz. Josiah collected all the little figurines when they were
kids. He even made Jaden dress up as the Cowardly Lion so he could go as the Scarecrow
for Halloween. Under Josiah’s instruction, his friend, Luke Orson, forced his mother to
make him a Tin Man costume that ended up looking more like a spaceship which made
for very interesting pictures. Every mother or father that answered the door asked, “So,
where’s Dorothy?”
“Well, we dissected her, of course,” Josiah said. “Where do you think we got our
heart, brain, and courage?”
Most parents smiled and placed candy into their bags. But one woman next door
to the Jefferson winery got offended and slammed the door in their faces. A moment later
she stuck her arm out the door and dropped three Mary Janes on the porch.
“Don’t graffiti my house!” she said.
They looked at each other. They were four or five years shy of taking part in the
pumpkin-smashing, toilet paper toting, shaving cream spraying, after-party haunting of
Halloween. But, it made them feel grown up, like men.
“Three more pieces and we’ll spare your lawn,” Josiah said, in a deep tone. “Big
pieces.”
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She stuck out her hand again through a tiny crack in the door and dropped three
Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups on the white porch. The miniature men slapped hands and
skipped to the next house. They stood up straighter when the owner of the Jefferson
winery opened the door.
Jaden looked down at the floor and noticed a green shape. It was their old
Emerald City night light formed out of painted plastic made to look like stained glass. He
blew on the light and stuck the prongs into an outlet to the left of the window frame.
After shutting off the light and returning to bed, he watched the green glow hover over
his bed like a cloud. He looked down at his hands. They were tinted green. It reminded
him of the Wicked Witch. After holding them up, he quickly shuffled them under the bed
sheets.
Jaden rolled over in bed and instinctively put his hand over his eyes. The light
from the window was blinding. As his pupils adjusted to daylight, his eyes focused on the
empty bed below the window. The light exposed a thin layer of dust blanketing the quilt
his mama made out of Josiah’s soiled and tattered baby clothes. He sighed and got
dressed and looked back at the empty bed until he found himself standing in front of it.
Hesitantly, he reached down and put his hand atop the quilt. He held it there, as if making
a mold like both brothers made in pre-school. As he lifted his hands, dust stuck to his
silky palm. His handprint stared back, as if waving. Looking towards the wall, he noticed
the four molded plaster of paris handprints hanging on a faded baby blue ribbon from two
rusty nails a foot apart. The mold came easily off the wall. He held the tiny handprints
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next to the dust outlined hand on the bed. The hands were almost half the size of the
ghosted print. Josiah’s would never grow this big. Even though Jaden was just a little
younger than Josiah’s perpetual oldest age, Jaden was bigger. At least two inches taller
and three inches wider in diameter.
Two rooms down, he heard his parent’s alarm clock cockadoodling an artificial
cry. He heard a crash and ran to their door after putting the mold a bit crookedly onto the
wall. His father stood staring at the smashed clock pieces with most of a white sheet
draped around his mid-section like a toga. His mama sat up in bed so fast the rest of the
covers fell from her body, leaving her backside bare. Gentle lumps of fat jiggled as she
tugged the blanket back over her skin and looked up to see Jaden standing in the
doorway. A feeling of dread rose from Jaden’s esophagus into the throat, the carbonated
regurgitation tasted of acid.
“Jaden,” James said. “Get the hell out of here.”
He looked back at the broken black pieces and conglomeration of red and blue
wire, and knew its destruction was a long time coming. His mama, Amy, loved the
antique trinket from the seventies. She treasured its longevity and cherished its reliability.
It always crowed and coaxed her from bed. However, his father found it tacky and outdated. He hated all things old: things of the past, memories of the past. No matter how
faded or static-ridden the alarm rooster recording became, it always tore his father from
his sleep.
Downstairs, Grandpa Joe was already awake, cooking what he thought were eggs
while humming to the rhythm of his stirs. Jaden’s Aunt Gerdy was already cooking up
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another batch in their second kitchen minus pieces of shell and whatever other ingredient
Grandpa Joe tried to experiment with today. Only time could tell.
Within ten minutes time, Amy, James, two aunts and their husbands, Grandpa Joe
and Jaden were sitting around the table. As usual, there were eight people and nine place
settings. Grandpa Joe brought three large bowls of his egg mixture to the table. Every day
it seemed like it took him longer to bring the bowls. His aging made it easier for Aunt
Gerdy to pull off her egg switching strategy. When Grandpa Joe walked into the kitchen
to retrieve the last bowl, Aunt Gerdy held out the garbage and Jaden’s uncle’s hurtled
Grandpa’s eggs into the garbage. They pretended the lumps were footballs. Sometimes,
they missed. Today, they silently lifted their arms into the air and mouthed ‘field goal’ to
each other. Then, they looked over at the empty plate at the end next to Jaden and averted
their eyes to the floor. Aunt Gerdy always timed it perfectly and winked her round left
eye at them in success. Moments before Grandpa Joe returned, she replaced the empty
bowls with her batches of eggs, leaving only one tainted bowl.
The tainted bowl was passed. Everyone looked in to see if they could guess what
was inside. Jaden was the only one to try Grandpa’s new concoction. After dealing
himself two large scoops, he passed it to the right.
“Jaden,” his mama said.
He looked at her tired face, the hollows under her eyes deepened as if someone
had been digging with ice cream scoops.
“Aren’t you forgetting something?”
He looked over at the empty plate in front of the empty seat and reached for the
bowl of Grandpa’s eggs.
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“Not that bowl, Jaden. He would never eat…” his mama started.
“Shh…” shushed Aunt Gerdy. She enjoyed her little egg switching game, but if
Grandpa Joe ever found out, the fun would be lost and this little betrayal that held them
together would vanish.
Jaden reached for a bowl of Aunt Gerdy’s eggs and dished it onto the empty plate
next to him.
“These eggs are too bland,” Grandpa Joe barked. “By Jesus, I thought I added too
many spices today. I damn near cleared the cupboard. Was nervous they’d taste too
strong. What do you think?”
“Grandpa, did you take your medicine today?” Jaden’s mama asked.
“Medicine? Who said anything about me needing medicine?” Grandpa said. “I’m
as fit as a whistle.”
Jaden leaned to his left and peered into Grandpa Joe’s bowl. His eggs were clean.
He examined his own bowl. The eggs were tinted red and had large green speckles in
them. They reminded him of Christmas. Somehow, Grandpa Joe served himself Aunt
Gerdy’s eggs. Jaden glared at his family and wondered which one of them passed him the
wrong bowl.
After breakfast was over, Jaden’s mama cleared the table. He always hid behind
the banister to the stairs and watched his mother’s face as she slid Josiah’s uneaten
breakfast into the trash. He looked for signs of improvement; he yearned for them. At
first, there were tears, big transparent balls of them. Today, his mother’s ebony eyes
looked like they would melt from the sockets, but no tears. He looked to the floor. Her
reaction never changed. She said two Hail Mary’s, while reaching deep into her pocket
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where Jaden knew her broken rosary chain sat as loose beads shifted between desperate
fingers.
His father ran through the door, interrupting Jaden’s study.
“It’s time, Amy,” he said. “A few rows in the back aren’t ready, but we can take
most of them this week.”
His mother smiled and then frowned. She refused to let herself be happy, not
today. Not even during harvest. It was the eve of the day the family wouldn’t forget. As
of tomorrow, Josiah would have been missing for a year. No one, except Jaden, ever
talked about it, but they all felt it. His name lingered on their tongue. Time trickled on
since the day he got lost amongst the vines. As time kept creeping closer to the
anniversary of his disappearance, the nightmare converged, unearthing the memory,
making it impossible to think about anything else. Jaden could tell. Even the flies flitting
around about the heavy air buzzed his name. They sang ‘Josi’ as the ascended into the air
and ‘ahhh’ as they sank downward. With Josiah on everyone’s mind, they went out to
harvest.
Grandpa Joe rocked on the porch as if he was overseeing the ceremony. He had
been blind for five years: untreated cataracts. He hated doctors, but he said he could still
see the vineyard with rows and rows of purple blossoms, accented by the southern crest
of the tree packed Blue Ridge Mountains. Grandpa Joe always knew the exact moment
when the grapes should be harvested with the exception of one year. He harvested too
early and the family lost a year worth of crops. The wine wouldn’t sell and the grapes
were too sour. Jaden’s father banned him from the vineyard.
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After that, he went a little senile. The doctor called it something special but Jaden
knew it wasn’t that. He missed his blossoms and the fruit that they bore. He missed open
air and squeezed-grapes between his fingers. He missed the dirt and the vines that pricked
his skin and drew blood.
Nowadays, Grandpa Joe didn’t move much from the rocking chair in the living
room after he made breakfast. Sometimes, he would move the chair to the back porch and
rock, rock, rock with the wind. On cool, windy days, he didn’t have to use his feet to
entice the chair into rhythm.
Harvest took all of them, plus a few hired hands to clear the fields before the
grapes went bad or became too sugary to use. They only had a few machines. Most
clearing was done by hand. The wine tasted better that way, at least that was Grandpa
Joe’s theory. He thought that you should touch every single grape with your fingers and
coddle them into the basket without letting any little circle drop off. He said if you treat
them with care, they will take more kindly to being smashed and mixed together like one
blood. If you aren’t careful, the bunches will try to remain separate.
Jaden brought in a pail of grapes to Grandpa Joe even though he knew he wasn’t
supposed to. His father told him to at least finish one row.
“Tell me Jay, are the grapes blushing?” he asked.
“You bet,” Jaden said, analyzing the rubbery sheen of natural wax and yeast
encrusting each tiny orb.
“Here give me one,” he said.
Grandpa Joe took the grape between his thumb and forefinger. First, he brought it
to his nose and then he rubbed the edge, feeling along the smooth skin. Next, he split the
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fruit in two, popping half into his mouth. He let it slid along his tongue, moving it up and
down against his hard palate, twirling it against his taste buds.
“Not too sugary,” he said. “Not too sour. Yes, yes. We did good. The other
wineries, not even the big ones will do this well this year.”
“Grandpa,” Jaden began. “Does it bother you that you can’t see anymore?”
“I can see all I need to see,” Grandpa Joe said, putting the second half of the grape
into his mouth.
“What do you mean, Gramps?”
“Close your eyes.”
Jaden blinked and then opened them. How would Grandpa Joe know?
“Close them!”
He snapped them shut.
“Pretend it’s morning,” he said. His tongue clicked around in his dry mouth,
sticking to the sides of his cheeks. “And the sun has not poked his head over the
mountain, but its rays have just inched their way up into the air. Do you see the clouds?
Do you see how they blanket the grapes, keeping them warm and safe?”
Jaden said yes, but he only saw a bit a fog rising off the creek that separated the
vineyard from the state owned forest.
“Try harder, Damn it,” Grandpa Joe poked him with his cane. Right in the knee.
Jaden closed his eyes tighter. This time he saw a green cloud lifting over the west field.
Up, up, the cloud climbed. At the top of the hill stood the Emerald City, with tall green
grape vines weaving in and out of the giant gems. A yellow path of bricks stretched out
towards the city on the hill. A path of poppies began where the bricks ended. It was silent
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and then he heard flapping, flapping, wings against wind. And a dark shadow fell over
the city.
He breathed in hard and flicked his eyes open. Three crows stood at the end of the
yellow porch. One pecked at another’s foot, while the third cawed repeatedly.
“And they arrive,” Grandpa Joe said.
“Creepy birds,” Jaden said, tossing a loose stone at them.
“They know even better than we do about what is hidden out there,” he said.
“What’s hidden?” Jaden asked.
Grandpa Joe’s eyes met him. “Well, for one thing. I know they switch out my
eggs.”
Jaden gulped.
“But, you eat them.”
“Yes.”
“Well, isn’t that interesting?”
“Are you going to tell them?”
“Of course not. Are you?”
Jaden shook his head. He was starting to think Grandpa Joe wasn’t really blind.
“That’s what I thought.”
“Oh Gramps, my recital’s tonight,” Jaden said, changing the subject intentionally,
but really desiring an answer. “Are you coming?”
“Wouldn’t miss it,” he said. “Jay, would you mind getting me a bottle of 1994
Cabernet Sauvignon from the wine cellar?”
“But isn’t that…”
180
“I think it’s about time we cracked one of Josiah’s bottles open, don’t you?”
It was the first time in a long time that anyone verbalized his brother’s name.
Jaden nodded and headed towards the wine cellar. He usually liked excuses to
hide out down there. It was a world you could get lost in. Entering it made him feel like
he was walking down the twisted labyrinth of a vampire’s cool castle. Even though he
was older now, he still liked to imagine this. The cellar had three doors, an exterior one
that matched the house, a black iron gate with an intricate vine pattern at the bottom of
the winding steps that swung open at the side, and an interior insulated door that helped
keep the room at a steady temperature.
Once crossing the gate, the cellar blossomed into a whole new flower, the petals
opened into a whole different style than their two story stone cottage that had just enough
rooms to fit each branch of the family in tight clumps. The cellar was vast, but it didn’t
look it upon entering. The cellar was separated into four main corridors, where other
much smaller rooms branched off from them. The southern section held the newest wine
in glass bottles squeezed into triangle wooden cupboards without doors. The east section
held rows of oak barrels filled with Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc, while the west
corridors held stacks of oak barrels filled with Petit Verdot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. The
northern corridor was hidden. Only a member of the family or a close friend could find
the tiny gold key to the black door hidden between two broken red bricks. There, the
vintage glass bottles could age in peace, rested into the wall in separate sacred tomb slots.
They called this the holy room. Only one bottle could leave here a year. Not all the
bottles contained wine raised on the land. A few bottles were even older than the
plantation. They have been fermenting in the dark for decades where the flavor could feel
181
safe to swim in circles and jagged lines, where it could feel secure to reveal all its
complexities.
Jaden found the door to the North corridor unlocked. The golden key was crusted
in dried red dirt between the bricks. He pointed his flashlight over the cavern of bottles.
Only one bottle was missing: Josiah’s bottle. A crusty metal necklace was in its place.
Jaden picked it up and brushed off the oval charm with his thumb. He pointed the
spotlight on its face. It was Saint Isidore, the patron saint of farmers. Jaden didn’t have to
look at the inscription on the back to know it was Josiah’s medallion. He reached into the
dark crevice where the medal sat. At first, he didn’t feel anything. Then, he felt what he
knew was there, a small toy noose. This one was much smaller than the one left on the
door the night of Josiah’s disappearance. It was homemade out of white plastic and
string. He sat down against the wall of sleeping cocoons encased in dusty glass and
wondered if he would be next.
The car moved sluggishly over the bumps and bruises along the unpaved road that
led to the back rows of their property. The police car in front of them finally turned on
their lights as they swerved onto the off-road stretch lined with hovering trees. Within the
tight squeeze between hugging maples, the path grew dark. Once turning on the dirt-lined
corridor, where grass could not grow, it was hard to believe the sun had not yet set. Jaden
watched the creek, running alongside the path, merge with the vineyard’s irrigation
system, in the shape of deep man-made grooves that would eventually be sucked up in
small black tubes leading to the plants. Even if Jaden closed his eyes and concentrated, it
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would take many more years for him to see that Josiah’s blood had quenched the thirst of
the vines, diverging through the brown limbs, filling the red fruit with juice.
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