BRYANT Literary Review
VOL 24, 2023
EDITOR: Tom Roach
POETRY EDITOR: Eric Paul
FICTION/CREATIVE NONFICTION EDITOR: Tom Roach
STUDENT FICTION EDITORS: Grace O’Donnell, Megan Polun
STUDENT POETRY EDITORS: Daniel Mann, Madalyn Richardson
MANAGING EDITORS: Rebecca Marcus, Adrianna Minacapilli
DESIGN & LAYOUT: Rebecca Chandler, firstname.lastname@example.org
COVER ART: Alex Fluegel
MISSION STATEMENT: The Bryant Literary Review is an international journal of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction housed in the Department of History, Literature, and the Arts at Bryant University in Smithfield, RI. Since our first issue in 2000, we have published original and thought-provoking creative work from a wide array of established and emerging authors. We see our purpose to be the cultivation of an active and growing connection between the Bryant University campus community and the larger literary culture.
SUBMISSION GUIDELINES: Authors can submit their poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction work here: https://bryantliteraryreview.submittable.com/submit. Limit one submission per author: one fiction or creative nonfiction piece and up to three poems. Fiction and creative nonfiction pieces should not exceed 5,000 words (give or take). We do not accept previously published work. Our reading period is September 1 to December 1.
Copyright reverts to author upon publication. For samples of previously published work see https://digitalcommons.bryant.edu/blr/. Any questions can be directed to Professor Tom Roach at email@example.com.
Visit our website at https://digitalcommons.bryant.edu/blr/ © 2023 Bryant Literary Review
BRYANT Literary Review
VOL 24, 2023
4 BRYANT LITERARY REVIEW Table of Contents EDITORS’ NOTE 6 Exuvia Andie Tursi ............................................................................................................................... ................................... 7 Ash Spring Heather Lang-Cassera ............................................................................................................................... . 17 Dream No. 1538 David Konitzer 18 Scattering David Konitzer 19 Waking to an Ocean on Fire Heather Lang-Cassera 20 Bell’s Vireo Heather Lang-Cassera............................................................................................................................... . 21 Attics Mark Brazaitis ............................................................................................................................... .............................. 22 Clinical Christopher Stewart 30 Hunger of Kites Daniel Edward Moore 31 Cousin J. Pamela Wax 32 We Must Not Disturb The Peace Nicole Cifani Lehmann-Haupt ............................................................. 33 Seasonal Economy Zachary Lipez ............................................................................................................................... .... 36 Waterproof Elizabeth Taryn Mason 39 A Mid-September Late Afternoon at Trident Korkut Onaran 40 Heart Of A Monster Gabriella King 41 The Past Is Everything Fran Schumer ............................................................................................................................ 55 Thieving Janet Banks 56 Sometimes, Always, Never Kharan Badri 57 Youth In Asia E.H. Jacobs 58
TABLE OF CONTENTS 5 River Ran Rosalynde Vas Dias 70 Shallows Rosalynde Vas Dias 71 Gin Rummies E.M. Schorb ............................................................................................................................... .................. 72 Postcards from the Stage Michael Cannistraci ......................................................................................................... 75 Tarantula Season Eric DePriester 78 The Man Steps into the Weightless Rain Reid Bateh 79 The Man Steps into the Weightless Rain Reid Bateh 80 The Man Steps into the Weightless Rain Reid Bateh ............................................................................................. 81 Return to the Country of the Crime Dan Grossman ............................................................................................. 82 AUTHOR BIOS 97
“Reading is an exercise in empathy; an exercise in walking in someone else’s shoes for a while.”
– Malorie Blackman
Thank you for taking the time to read the 24th edition of the Bryant Literary Review. As Student Editors, we have enjoyed reading fiction and creative nonfiction from around the world. The stories featured in this year’s BLR provide windows into the experiences of people, both fictional and real, navigating unique challenges and finding ways to survive.
Engaging with these stories is a form of connecting with people and understanding different perspectives. The world has been changing dramatically over the past few years and we have shared collective struggles. While many prominent voices seek to divide us, we believe it is most important, especially now, to empathize with others. Reading these stories is a practice in that essential skill of empathy as readers confront subject matter that deals with our connectedness as humans.
We would like to take a moment to express our gratitude to those who submitted their work, as our publication would not be possible without this year’s group of talented writers. We would like to thank Professor Thomas Roach who has been one of our biggest supporters throughout our college careers. His energy and passion will continue to motivate and inspire us after we say goodbye to Bryant University. In addition, we send thanks to Poetry Editor Eric Paul and Student Poetry Editors Daniel Mann and Madalyn Richardson. They too have committed significant time and effort to this edition, and we have enjoyed working alongside them. This year’s BLR is the last edition the four Student Editors will work on because we will graduate in May 2023. We sincerely appreciate that you, the reader, are taking the time to engage with the stories and poems we have chosen to share. We hope that reading this selection is, for you, the “exercise in empathy” that it was for us.
Megan Polun, Student Fiction Editor, Bryant University ‘23
Grace O’Donnell, Student Fiction Editor, Bryant University ‘23
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The tip of Izzy’s toe grazed the drop-off as she waded toward the deep end of the pool. Cold water flooded her shoulders, soothing sunburn as it licked its way up the sides of her neck. She dipped underwater, muting the hum of insects and the voices of the unwelcome men.
When she surfaced, the smell of grilled meat made her stomach twist with hunger. One of the men stood over the grill at the far side of the patio. He was a recent college graduate who, like the others, had started gathering by the pool in the early evenings, much to the girls’ dismay.
The entire pool area was in decay, but for Izzy and her friend Annabelle, it was the highlight of the rundown apartment complex where Annabelle lived with her mother. Everything within the chain-link fence—the pool and its surrounding patio, the aging furniture, the concrete planters filled with cigarette butts and dirt—was theirs alone until these men had moved in halfway through the summer.
“Marco!” Annabelle’s voice called out.
Izzy plunged back into the peacefulness, cool and weightless. She lingered until she needed air.
Izzy watched her friend through chlorine-stung eyes. Annabelle was all reaching arms and wiggling fingers, eyes shut tight and a smile so big that her braces glinted in the late afternoon sunlight.
“Marcooooooo!” Annabelle called again. “Hello? Are we playing?”
Izzy swam underwater, surfacing inches from Annabelle’s face. She looked down at her friend’s bathing suit and observed the unappealing way it clung to her flat chest. The suit was brown-yellow, the color of an overripe banana, and most definitely one of her mother’s thrift-store finds.
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The girls had spent the summer convincing themselves that they would be more popular when high school started, but now that it was only a week away, the prospect seemed more hopeless than ever.
“Polo,” Izzy whispered.
Annabelle opened her eyes and laughed. She splashed Izzy playfully, punishment for ruining the game. Izzy used both hands to push a wave toward her friend’s face.
“Hey!” Annabelle said. She grabbed Izzy around the waist and tried to lift her up to dunk her but Izzy was stronger. She locked Annabelle’s elbows behind her, restraining her as she tried to pull her down. They squealed as they wrestled, their slippery bodies twirling and splashing.
Izzy noticed briefly that they had the attention of the men while Annabelle remained oblivious, as always.
“Annabelle!” Izzy saw Mrs. Hammond charging toward the patio.
“Anna, I want you outta the pool right now.”
“Aw, why?” whined Annabelle.
Mrs. Hammond shot a disgusted look toward the table on the far side of the patio.
“Because I said so,” she said. “Now.”
As Annabelle made her way to the side of the pool and hoisted herself out, Izzy floated on her back with ears submerged. Dragonflies crisscrossed the hazy sky. She did not want to go home. There were hours of daylight left.
Izzy took her time, facing the card table as she kicked backward toward the ladder with an air of indifference. She was aware of the man in the blue bathing suit, the one who always manned the grill, watching her as she climbed out, the rust gripping her wrinkled fingers.
Goosebumps rose on Izzy’s arms when she followed Annabelle and her mother into the apartment. While Izzy’s house was sweltering, the air-conditioning in the apartment was on full-blast. On the floor an ancient houseplant in a huge ceramic pot looked like it hadn’t been moved since before Annabelle was born. Mrs. Hammond, heavy herself, matched her furniture. All of it was unmovable, too large for the tiny two-bedroom apartment, and
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made of the same dark wood. She cooked heavy too, Izzy thought. She could smell lasagna baking in the oven. She knew how Mrs. Hammond made it, with homemade tomato sauce and bits of sausage and ground beef. Her mouth watered.
“Come with me into the kitchen, Annabelle,” said Mrs. Hammond. “Izzy, go on into Annabelle’s room and get yourself changed to go home.”
“Can’t she stay?” asked Annabelle.
“Not tonight,” said Mrs. Hammond.
Annabelle gave Izzy a sympathetic look but was unwilling to argue the point.
“It’s okay, my parents want me home for dinner,” Izzy lied.
Mrs. Hammond sucked her lips into her mouth.
Izzy slunk into Annabelle’s bedroom. Her mother had given her the larger of the two. Izzy thought about the tiny room she had to share with her sister, Denise, and Baby Ruby. She couldn’t help coveting Annabelle’s full-sized bed and the space that was all her own. It annoyed her that Annabelle didn’t seem to appreciate it, barely bothering to close the door.
Izzy couldn’t remember the last time she had this much privacy. She peeled off her wet bathing suit and pulled on a warm pair of underwear, a pleasant contrast. She stepped in front of the full-length mirror.
She was still slim overall but definitely more round than last summer. Hints of breasts were just beginning to show. If only she had enough money to buy a padded bra to wear on the first day of school. She thought about her crush, a boy named Ricky she hoped would be in her homeroom, as she finished getting dressed. Annabelle would see him every day in advanced math, but she didn’t care anything about boys. She had deemed them unnecessary, Izzy suspected, after a lifetime of fatherlessness.
Mrs. Hammond’s voice was faint in the next room. “You should be ashamed of yourself, putting on a show for those men.”
“But we were just playing in the pool,” Annabelle protested.
Izzy crept to the door, straining to listen.
“Well, I know that you weren’t the one trying to get their attention,” said Mrs. Hammond.
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“If she’s hellbent on winding up like her sister, then so be it, but you have too much potential. I’m not gonna let that happen to you.”
Izzy dressed quickly.
“Thank you for having me,” she said as she hurried out, her face burning.
“I’ll call you later,” Annabelle said.
Izzy slung her swim bag over her shoulder and went back to the patio, squinting at the card-playing men who were the cause of the trouble. Her gaze fell on the one in the blue swim trunks who seemed to be the leader of the group. He locked eyes with her as she mounted her bike, giving her a smile and nod that she did not return.
At home Izzy peered into the refrigerator as her sister, Denise, walked into the kitchen.
“Close that, Izzy, you’re letting all the cold air out,” Denise said.
“Well, I’m starving,” said Izzy. “Where are Mom and Dad?”
“How should I know?” snapped Denise. “I’m only responsible for one other person in this house. If you’re hungry, make yourself something.”
It was as pleasant an interaction as Izzy could expect from Denise, who had been miserable since the day she discovered she was pregnant. Her mood had only gotten worse since Ruby had been born six months ago. The name suited her; she was an angry, redfaced baby who rarely slept more than an hour at a stretch.
Izzy pulled two hot dogs from a slimy plastic bag and microwaved them on a paper towel. She fished an end piece from a half-stale loaf of bread and hunted for the ketchup. She ate the meal while thinking about the lasagna at Annabelle’s house.
Later that night she pulled the phone into the hall closet where her family stored their winter clothes. It was Izzy’s sanctuary, the only place in the house she could have a private conversation. Inhaling the smell of leather and mothballs, she dialed the number her fingers knew by muscle memory.
“What was your mom’s problem?” Izzy asked when Annabelle answered the phone. “She understands that my sister and I are actually two different people, right?”
“She’s just overprotective,” Annabelle said. “She thinks those guys who hang out at the pool are creeps.”
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* * *
Izzy thought of the way the man in the blue shorts smiled at her.
“Well, we were there first. Why should we have to leave just because they might be perverts?”
“I think she’s just nervous about school starting next week.”
“Why? She isn’t the one who has to go,” Izzy said, moving her father’s coat sleeve out of her face. “Oh, speaking of school, did you get your schedule changed yet?”
Annabelle didn’t respond.
“Hello?” Izzy asked, jiggling the cord. “Are you there?”
“Yeah, I’m here,” Annabelle said. “Listen, my mom said that she isn’t going to call the school to try to get it changed. Sorry.”
“But we won’t be in the same lunch period!”
“I know. But she thinks that if I switch to sixth period lunch, my blood sugar will get too low and I’ll pass out.”
“But you don’t even have diabetes!”
“She isn’t going to change her mind, Izzy.”
“It’s because she hates me,” Izzy said. “She wants you to make new friends and stop hanging out with me.”
“She doesn’t hate you, but listen—she does have a point. It will be easier to make new friends if we aren’t together at lunch.”
Izzy’s head spun. “How?”
“Well, there are eight people to a table,” Annabelle continued, “so if we sit at the same one, we’ll only meet six new people, but if we sit at different ones, you’ll meet seven people and I’ll meet seven, so that’s fourteen potential friends.”
“You think it’s gonna work like math but it’s not that simple…” She stopped talking to prevent herself from crying. She felt a pang that brought her back to last summer, when Annabelle had been taken to visit her grandmother for three whole weeks. Those long, lonely days had stretched themselves out so painfully that Izzy had taken to calling Annabelle’s number just to imagine the cat starting and scurrying through the maze of plants in the apartment. She felt completely left behind, and now Anna was abandoning her before school had even started.
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“Izzy, listen—” Annabelle started to say, but Izzy held down the button on the receiver. She curled herself into a ball and cried among the snow boots on the closet floor.
Ruby stirred as Izzy tiptoed into the bedroom. She held her breath as she pulled the door closed behind her. Denise was snoring on the bottom bunk. Izzy had one foot on the ladder to her bed when Ruby began crying.
Denise’s body stiffened. “Goddamnit, Izzy,” she groaned as Ruby’s cries intensified. “It’s bad enough I don’t have anyone to help me with this fucking baby, but now I have you waking her up as soon as I finally get her to sleep!” She popped out of bed and shook the side of the crib.
“Shhh!” she commanded, raking her fingers violently through her hair. “SHUT UP!”
The terrified baby screamed on.
“I’ll take her,” Izzy said. “You sleep. I woke her up.”
Denise flopped down on the bed while Izzy lifted the baby from her crib. It was true that her sister didn’t get much help. Her parents constantly lectured Denise about being responsible for her own mistakes. After all, nobody had helped them when Denise was a baby or when Izzy’s arrival had surprised them later in life.
Ruby’s screams rattled Izzy’s eardrums as she walked her up and down the hallway. Izzy wished she would stop wailing, but she herself had been crying just minutes before this. She stepped out onto the front porch, and the change of scenery seemed to disrupt Ruby’s senses. Izzy bounced her gently and paced on the porch until her arms ached and the baby’s breaths were slow and even. She kissed her fuzzy head.
“Don’t worry, Ruby,” she whispered to her niece. “I love you. I want you here.”
“So where were you yesterday?” Annabelle asked two days later. They lay side by side on the weather-beaten loungers. “I went to your house, and Denise said you weren’t home.”
“I was out.”
Izzy’s legs still ached from the long bike ride to the nicer part of town where she knew Ricky lived.
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“With another friend, okay? Why do you care?”
“I have other friends, Annabelle. I have a life outside of you, you know.”
Just then the man in the blue shorts jumped up from the card table as if he had been bitten on the leg.
“Did you see that?” he yelled to his friends. “I just caught this thing in mid-air!” He held up something that was pinned between his thumb and forefinger.
“What is it?” his friends asked.
“A dragonfly, look!”
Izzy listened as the other two men congratulated the one who had captured the insect. She wondered what he would do with it and hoped that he would let it go.
“Dude, I dare somebody to eat this thing,” she heard him say.
If she wasn’t so upset with Annabelle, she would have looked at her and rolled her eyes. These grown men were no different from the boys at school, always insulting and challenging each other to do stupid things.
“Hey, buddy,” the man addressed his chubby companion. “Come on, I’ll give you a hundred bucks.”
“Yeah, right,” the friend responded. “You don’t even have a hundred bucks.”
“You wanna bet?” With his free hand the man with the dragonfly fished his wallet from the back pocket of his trunks and tossed it onto the poolside table.
“I just got paid,” the man said. “I got a hundred-dollar bill in there for you. So you gonna do it?”
“No way,” said the other. “I wouldn’t eat that thing for a million bucks.”
Izzy stood. “I’ll do it,” she said. Annabelle’s mouth hung open in shock and the image delighted Izzy.
“Come on over here,” said the man who held the dragonfly. He held it out.
“You’re gonna eat this?” he asked.
“Sure,” she said, feigning confidence, “but I wanna see the money first.”
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The man looked impressed. “Show her,” he said to his friends. The third man took the wallet off the table and extracted a bill. He had a pointed face that made Izzy think of a rat.
“Give it to her,” said the dragonfly’s owner.
Izzy took it. The bill was stiff from the mint, sharp enough to give her a paper cut. Its dull green contrasted nicely with her chipped orange nail polish. Her head filled with possibilities: Denise’s green shirt for the first day of the school and the padded bra to fill it out.
“Hold on, hold on.” The chubbiest of the men came closer. “I don’t know if I like this. What if it makes her sick? Is that thing even safe to eat?”
Izzy felt solidarity with him. There was one in every group, and she could tell from the exchange she had just observed that he was one the others picked on.
“It’s not poisonous,” Annabelle said in a small voice.
Izzy cringed and hoped that Annabelle wouldn’t do or say anything embarrassing.
“Green or brown, chow down,” said Annabelle. She shrugged and gave what Izzy recognized as the official Girl Scout sign and salute. The men’s laughter was loud and deep. Izzy knew that the sound of it would draw Mrs. Hammond to the window of her apartment.
Already the sinking sun had turned the sky purple and cast the pine trees into silhouette. She reached for the bug.
“Ah, ah, ah,” said the man as he shook his head. “Not so fast. For a hundred dollars I get to put it in your mouth.”
Izzy placed the money back on the table. She saw the other two men glance at each other. An unspoken agreement passed between them.
She turned her attention back to the one in charge, her eyes tracing the dark line of hair that led down into his bathing suit.
“Let me see it,” she said.
The man held the dragonfly out for her inspection. Ugly words from biology class leapt to her mind—thorax, hindwing, exuvia. The insect buzzed its wings, but even trapped between the man’s fingers, it seemed not to panic. The helmet-like eyes communicated no
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interest in its mortality. On the whole it was repulsive, but as she looked at it more closely, she could see the beauty in its individual parts. There was the deep-green metallic paint that decorated its back, and the wings—delicate and iridescent. It was nearing the end of its lifecycle anyway, she told herself. Somewhere in the world people probably ate them fried in coconut oil.
“You ready?” the man asked.
The dusk was in its last gasps. The bats had emerged from their hideaways, and they flapped erratically against the pink sky.
“I’m ready,” she said.
Izzy sat in one of the hard plastic chairs at the card table and closed her eyes. She felt the man’s rough thumb on her chin. She let him guide her mouth open. She was surprised by the heat of his skin and embarrassed by the way her tongue sought out his salty fingers. But then they were gone, replaced only by the frantic beating of wings within the cave of her mouth. She tried unsuccessfully to swallow, but the bristles on the insect’s legs caught in the back of her throat. She had no choice but to chew. She crunched into its body as a bitter taste coated her mouth. She picked up a half-drunk can of beer and took a big gulp, trying to get the bug parts to float. She swallowed.
She resisted the urge to shudder. Adrenaline flooded as she smiled at him. As casually as she could, she tilted her head back and downed the remainder of the beer while the other men hooted and cheered. She didn’t care for the taste of beer, but this sip, untainted by the insect, was sweeter than the first. In triumph she put the can back on the table and looked back at the apartment to make sure that Mrs. Hammond had seen. Sure enough, she was there in the window.
The man picked up the hundred-dollar bill. Izzy stood and put out her palm. The man hesitated. Izzy felt her panic rising. Although he had gotten what he wanted, she could sense his anger and humiliation.
The chubby one stepped forward.
“Give it to her, man,” he said. “She earned it.”
Mrs. Hammond had arrived and Annabelle moved toward her.
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Izzy plucked the bill from the man’s hand.
She said nothing as she walked over to their chairs and calmly pulled on her clothes. She unlocked her bike and wheeled it toward the gate, forcing Mrs. Hammond to step out of the way. She turned once to look back at Annabelle. She was standing next to her mother, a mix of shock and confusion on her face.
Izzy mounted her bike and turned it in the opposite direction of home. Euphoria lifted her past the discomfort of the ride. Blisters were forming on her sockless feet that had been forced into dry sneakers, and wetness from her bathing suit was soaking into her shorts. She let go of the handlebars and rested her hands on her pumping thighs, the hundreddollar bill secure in her left pocket. She didn’t mind the chill in the air that signaled the end of summer. The first day of school was next week. She was ready. n
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We bundle memories like galaxy, hoping that if we name them, gravity will become nothing more than a label. Pushing cloud-ward, palms open, the stable door closes with a metallic click, bright like what runs through our veins, curved and so light that tomorrow’s permanence will breed for us atmosphere. Here, and now, is one more breath-like bloom of sun veiled in our upturned encore of mesa-laced mistakes. Concerned, even heart-red sandstone blushes our cheeks, your hand tracing your collarbone, these peeks, these clearings, these basins. Your feet, arched, sing of joy, of grief, of friction, parched.
Dream No. 1538
Carlos stops. The sign requires such a sharp, sudden disruption, at the very least a pause, a cautionary pause. Carlos scours the dry, clay intersection, sees no evidence of comings or goings, of rolling wheels or even ragged claws: just the road forward, dusty, long and red,
lit by the top of the Sun, harsh but still cool. Cool till it licks into the dry soil, till wings drip and fall, drip and fall till noon, at least. Lunchtime, time for the consumption of it all. Carlos has a wide-brimmed hat, dark, cheap glasses. He is ready; he hears, he believes, the Sun laugh a yellow laugh.
Carlos thinks the sky is “mottled”. It is not. His glasses are smudged. The sky is blue like the Lord’s cords, and it has signs and clues and strong suggestions to go straight ahead on the red road, beneath the yellow sun, through the wingless air into the deep well he cannot see but knows is there. Empty.
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I do not know about this. You. Burned and boneground to bits, bits, bits, then –what? A Baggie tied and slipped routinely into this unsealed blackscrolled tribute you preferred?
It’s beautiful, of course. You had good taste. I do not want your ashes. I’d rather a funeral and forget. I do not want to explain what you became.
And what would I do with you? I do not have a mantel. Should I wait for a windy day? And the crows would say no. This will not do –this scattering of what? I do not know.
Waking to an Ocean on Fire
where morning’s first light graces a cheekbone like an aerial perch for every song we have unsung, follows constellations urgent as blooms of delicate wildflowers, meadows made of never-ending shadows, temperate belongings, absent coasts— we witness our collective breath as wings pinned to maps by gravity, by longing, by quickened stars, here where affection has been hidden in the voiceless whispers found in the ferocity of coordinates
stark and untamed
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The creosote bloom like staccato thought clouds, and they ask us if, now, we are caught between spring and summer beneath the light of the only sun we can know. When might we become breathless or merely voiceless or needing of more than our want. Say yes to the choral-throated canyons, quiet only in expectation. Disquiet arches like sunrise behind Keystone Thrust, moonrise, by always city-lights, hushed. Gathering water at the root, like warm hands map the birdcage of the heart, the storm waits beyond the wash, where olive-gray wings chatter, and this chamber of sandstone sings.
Among the few books Alfredas’ father brought with him to the Lankauskases’ attic after the Nazis invaded Lithuania in July of 1941 was The Impatient Horse, about a thoroughbred whose dream is to win the Race for the Roses and its prize of the world’s largest bouquet. Unable to stand the anticipation, the horse breaks out of his stall the evening before the race and spends all night galloping around the track. By the next morning, he is exhausted. In the Race for the Roses, he finishes dead last.
In the dim, low-ceilinged attic, Al’s father told his sons, Tomas, who was ten, and Alfredas, who was six, that they should abide by the moral of the book. If they acted on their impatience to be outside, they would lose the biggest prize in their possession. The boys didn’t need to ask what the prize was. They knew about the Nazis’ deadly cruelty.
Seventy-nine years later, in his son’s and daughter-in-law’s attic outside Cleveland, Al felt the same claustrophobia and restlessness, although his accommodations were far better. He had a bed, a computer, a coffeemaker, and a full bath. As in Vilnius, he depended on the kindness of the house’s occupants. Three times a day, his son or daughter-in-law delivered his meals to the top of the stairs, announcing their arrival so he could step into the farthest corner of the attic, safe from what might be on their breaths.
On rare occasions, his grandson, who was thirteen and had what his parents called anger issues—he had twice been suspended from his middle school—appeared at the bottom of the stairs. Sometimes hello was the only word grandson and grandfather exchanged. With his curly black hair and thin, handsome face, the boy looked like Al’s brother did at his age. This might have been their only similarity. Tomas was imaginative, joyful, even-tempered, and kind. He loved words: speaking them, reading them, writing them. Al had dyslexia, although he would be diagnosed only later in his life. Recognizing his disability, however, Tomas read to him every afternoon, his voice sometimes like a cat’s purr, sometimes like gentle thunder. Al would have listened to his brother read from a medical dictionary.
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Some of the books were in Swedish, his father’s native language. His father had planned to take the family to Sweden before the Nazis invaded Lithuania, but he’d stalled, perhaps because he didn’t think the Germans would prove any worse than the Soviets or because he didn’t want to abandon the bookstore he owned, which, even more than his wife, was the love of his life. The Lankauskases had been regular customers. Josef Lankauskas was a professor of philosophy at Vilnius University; Regina, his wife, was a poet.
In the 280-square-foot attic, its toilet shielded only by a red curtain, his brother often recited funny rhymes he’d invented. He even wrote plays that he and Al performed for their parents, in pantomimes and whispers. One day after Al cried because he missed his friends, Tomas withdrew to a corner of the attic with several sheets of paper and a pencil. A few minutes later, he showed Al what he’d drawn: portraits of four of Al’s friends. “Talk to them,” he said. After Al said hello to his friend Vincent, Vincent, as voiced by Tomas, replied. Al spoke to all four of his friends, and each, thanks to Tomas, told him where they were and what they were doing, although two of them, Al learned later, were already dead.
One evening in May, after reading the latest on the virus—fifteen children in New York who’d been infected showed symptoms similar to toxic shock syndrome—Al heard his grandson speaking in his bedroom below. At first, he thought the boy was talking on his phone, but when he heard another boy’s voice, he realized his grandson had a guest. Although the state was easing restrictions after more than a monthlong stay-at-home order, Al found it unsettling that his son and daughter-in-law would permit company in the house.
Al remembered a time in the attic in Vilnius when the Lankauskases’s son, Vladas, who was fifteen and as gentle as his parents, had a friend over. Al heard them talking in Vladas’s bedroom below. The friend said, “Supposedly there isn’t a Jew left in Lithuania, but I bet some are hiding.” There was a pause before the friend said, “If you were hiding Jews, where would you hide them?” Al’s father, mother, and brother were listening with Al now. Two words—“the attic”—and they would all be dead. “I wouldn’t hide any filthy Jews,” Vladas said. Al’s terrified family had never been so happy to hear a slur.
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After breakfast in the attic in Vilnius, Al studied math and writing with their mother while Tomas studied history and science with their father. After two hours, the boys switched teachers. In the afternoons, Tomas read to Al or otherwise entertained him. In the half an hour before dark, their father read to them from the Torah. They spoke in whispers except when the Lankauskases had guests, when they didn’t speak at all.
When Soviet troops stormed Vilnius, ousting the Nazis in late January of 1945, Al and Tomas celebrated like the horse in the children’s book, running around the block until they were wheezing with fatigue. Their parents tried to find their Jewish friends, but not a single one was left. Al’s father’s bookstore had been ransacked. Even if it had remained untouched, his father knew the Soviets wouldn’t let him run it the way he would want to.
Three weeks after they left the Lankauskases’ attic, they moved to Sweden. Four months after this, his father died of a heart attack. In March of 1947, Al, his brother, and his mother emigrated to Cleveland, where his mother’s brother lived. They rented a house on Penfield Avenue, in a neighborhood populated by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Al and Tomas did what they could to help their mother: they delivered The Plain Dealer; they sold peanuts at Cleveland Stadium; they washed cars at East 105th Street Ford. Tomas worked his way through Ohio State, where he was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, The Lantern. After graduating, he became a newspaper reporter at the Chicago Tribune. In the early 1960s, he joined CBS and was one of the first television correspondents to cover the Vietnam War.
After high school, Al found work as a car salesman at Freedom Ford on Lorain Avenue on Cleveland’s West Side. At age thirty-seven, with financial help from his uncle, he bought a fifty percent share in the dealership. Freedom Ford was located across the street from a Mercedes dealership. Al vowed to outsell his German competition. He promoted his business not only with advertisements on radio and in the Plain Dealer and Cleveland Press, but with holiday celebrations, petting zoos, and raffles. He called his customers three times a year to see how they—and their cars—were doing. He worked long hours. Idleness made him tense. At age forty-five, he bought the business outright.
When he was forty-six, he married a twenty-three-year-old dental hygienist named
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Shona. She playfully called him “my machine” because of his relentless work ethic. Eventually “my machine” became a complaint: He couldn’t unwind, unbend, untether himself from his work. “To sit still,” he told her, “is to wait for death.” She didn’t—she couldn’t—understand him. She’d been born in the U.S., after the war. She died, of ovarian cancer, when their son was a senior in high school.
In the attic of his son’s house, Al tried to adhere to a routine. He gave over his mornings to the Internet, watching news clips about the virus. When would the pandemic be over? He was searching for an answer no one could provide. The indeterminate end date to something awful was familiar.
In the hours after dinner, before he fell asleep, he listened to audio books, especially histories of the Second World War and novels by Elie Wiesel and Bernard Malamud. The closer the reader’s voice resembled his brother’s, the more Al enjoyed listening. He’d listened to Philip Roth’s Everyman three times, both because he found the protagonist’s conversation with the gravedigger near the end of the book comforting and because the elderly actor who read the novel sounded the way he was sure his brother would have if he’d lived beyond age fifty-two. His brother, like their father, had died of a heart attack. Sometimes Al couldn’t believe he’d survived for more than three decades in a world without Tomas. ***
“It’s dinnertime,” said his grandson from the bottom of the attic stairs. It was an evening in early July. Al hadn’t seen the boy in a couple of weeks.
“Where are your parents?” Al said after his grandson reached the landing, a tray in his hands. The boy had never delivered his dinner.
“Dad took Mom to the urgent care.”
The boy placed the dinner tray on the carpet. “To get tested.”
“So she’s ill?”
“She’s just paranoid.”
Al’s daughter-in-law worked as a nurse at Bluebird Pediatrics, which had stayed open
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during the crisis but sent all patients with symptoms of Covid-19 to the hospital. “Doesn’t Bluebird offer tests to its employees?” Al asked.
“They must have ran out.”
Run out, Al almost said. But the boy’s expression, which might have been malevolent or might only have been bored, stopped him. He imagined him donning a similar face before one of his fights at school. What a luxury, Al thought, to exorcise one’s anger in fistfights and playground brawls and receive, as a consequence, only a suspension. In the Lankauskases’s attic, Al couldn’t even pound his head against a wall for fear of the sound betraying them all.
“Are you worried about getting the virus?” Al asked his grandson.
“With me, Mom says, it wouldn’t matter so much. I’m young.” His expression softened. “But we have to be careful because you’re old and have cancer.”
Al was in remission from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but if he caught the virus, his weakened immune system would certainly collapse. Whenever he left the house, which he did for solitary walks around the neighborhood a few days a week, he wore a mask, goggles, and plastic gloves. He might as well have been in a spacesuit, walking on the moon.
“Did I ever tell you that you look like my brother?” Al asked his grandson.
“I guess you could say he was my hero,” Because he doubted his grandson would be impressed with hosannas to a great uncle he’d never met, he changed tact: “One night, when we were living in the attic in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania…I’ve told you about this time, haven’t I?”
“We weren’t supposed to leave the attic. Ever. To leave would be to risk our lives.”
“You could have gone to a concentration camp.”
“We could sometimes hear the trains—and soldiers’ boots in the street—and, at sunrise or dusk, gunshots. One night…” He paused. He hadn’t told this story before—not to his wife, not to his son. He’d buried the memory. It had been so unlike his brother to do what he did, so careless, so stupid. It was late July or early August of 1944. There were
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rumors of the Nazis’ impending defeat, but there’d been rumors of liberation for months. It was after midnight when Tomas woke him up from where he slept on a rug under one of the attic’s eaves: “Come on. We’re going outside.” Even after sitting up, Al was sleepy and disoriented. “How?” he asked. Tomas told him that when Vladas had delivered their dinner, which lately had consisted primarily of potatoes, he’d forgotten to push the bookshelf back to cover the door to the attic.
“How do you know?” Al asked.
“I have good ears,” Tomas said. “I’ve listened every time.”
They crept down the attic stairs, pausing on each step to ascertain if their parents had heard them. Eventually, they reached the door, opened it, and stepped onto a landing. Tomas listened; Al heard only the beating of his heart. They continued down another staircase, quiet as thieves, until they reached a foyer in front of a large door with a rectangular window above it. Tomas told him to wait. Al protested in whispers, but his brother insisted. Tomas disappeared down a hallway. His absence passed in excruciating seconds. Al thought he heard, from everywhere, sounds of his approaching capture.
Eventually, Tomas returned, holding an opened bottle and a loaf of bread. Al wanted to head back upstairs, but Tomas wouldn’t hear of it. They left the house by the front door and walked up the quiet street to a park, where they sat in the grass in front of a sundial and shared the dark rye bread. After their years of deprivation, it tasted as tender and delicious as cake. Tomas drank from the bottle, and when he next spoke, his breath smelled like beer. When he offered Al a sip, Al didn’t hesitate to drink. It could have been poison and he would have drunk it cheerfully. He never refused what his brother offered.
After Tomas finished the beer and tossed the bottle aside, they lay on the grass and stared at the stars. Minutes passed. “We’ll never be free again,” his brother said. “I miss so much about the world.” Al didn’t share this part of the story with his grandson: his brother cried.
“What happened when you got back to the attic?” his grandson asked.
“We went to bed, like what we’d done was nothing but a dream.” He and Tomas never talked about their night in the park, as if even to mention it might be to invite what they
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were lucky to have escaped.
“I had beer once,” his grandson said.
Al resisted an impulse to show disappointed surprise. “Well”? he said evenly.
“I was like you. I didn’t think it tasted good.”
The boy smiled, and Al did the same.
This was the extent of their exchange. His grandson said goodbye and returned downstairs. Al was hopeful about their interaction, thinking the boy might have been entertained enough to return. He imagined them exchanging little stories of their lives. There was so much, Al realized, he’d told no one—or no one who wasn’t now dead.
Days passed, and his grandson didn’t return. His daughter-in-law had tested positive for Covid. With reason to be extra cautious, his son made lightning-quick visits to the attic with Al’s meals.
Al would be patient. There was, anyway, no other choice.
One night, as Al listened to Band of Brothers, its narrator a retired news anchor, his voice a Midwestern lullaby, he wondered if he would die before he could resume the life he’d known. Even with the state opening up again, desperate to resuscitate its faltering economy, he wouldn’t safely be able to do everyday things—go to the grocery store, eat dinner with his family, watch an Indians’ game in what, decades after its construction, he still considered a new stadium—until a vaccine had been invented.
He remembered his brother on the night they’d escaped their confinement. It had been Tomas’s only surrender to hopelessness, and it had allowed Al the unprecedented role of comforter. As gently as he could, he touched his brother’s face. His tears were warm and, in their rarity, almost magical, starlit emblems not of his brother’s weakness but of the depth of his feelings. They made Al love him even more.
During Al’s move from his house to his son’s attic, his son had placed most of his belongings, including a trunk of his photo albums, in a storage facility outside of Rocky River. Al didn’t need the photos; he could picture his brother perfectly, at all stages of his life, although when he picked up a pencil and a sheet of paper, he had no illusion of being
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able to draw what he saw in his mind. Even so, when he pressed the pencil point against the paper, he felt an unexpected happiness. He didn’t erase once, not because his dark lines and gray shadings were perfect but because to do so would be to delay a joyful reunion.
When he’d finished, he was surprised. If he didn’t share his brother’s talent for portraiture, he wasn’t entirely devoid of talent. Here was Tomas again, as he’d been in another attic—his mentor, his confidante, his best friend. Al taped the portrait to the wall in front of his desk. He had so much to tell him. n
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1. Bindweed chokes the daylilies in the side garden. We tear it from the ground in clumps. Its power lies not in its permanence, but its persistence. Each morning, new strands creep the mulch rows like a wound that refuses to heal. Diligence is all we have.
2. I grew for seven years before it came for me again. Seven years. Cycling through medications with the seasons like a pharmaceutical fall color tour. I measured the space between them through a blossoming dripline. The outer branches grew stronger.
3. An errant neuron claws awake in the subsoil, thirsting for serotonin pooled in the cranial creek beds after the dams were built. It’s over in the space of a dry season. Seven years of cautious agronomy abandoned to a riviera of silt.
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Hunger of Kites
DANIEL EDWARD MOORE
Back when legs were easels and your heart a palette the size of a quarter, no one could spend till after the paint on the canvas dried and every color wanted your brush to use them to make something pretty, trauma had a mama, I was doing her hair. As she looked up at me from that big blue cone astronaut’s wives found sexy, there were so many husbands in gravity’s hands, those bad ass boys of float and feel. I hoped they could read the sign that hung above the cemetery’s open mouth where dental work wasn’t included. When Mama smiled the face of death lit her up inside, as stars above the ground’s latest wound became flowers for failure’s brief introduction, where children grieved pink cotton candy consumed by the hunger of kites.
We all knew she kept the Angel of Death on speed-dial for a faceto-face over chamomile tea laced with pills she’d squirreled away.
A stone-deaf woman in her 90’s, she had important things to think about in her vaulted hush. She’d been around the block, was nothing if not pragmatic: I’vehadmuch,Idon’tneedmore. Her men had all emptied the linty pockets of her heart: her husband, her firstborn, my brother, both her brothers, and Hurricane Harvey—all in short order. She interrogated the dirt and the blood
and the likelihood of diapers to come. She enlisted a ministering angel, a friend, to ferry her across the border with no fuss, no mess, leaving us—a cadre of admirers— golden nuggets and salty tissues from her pockets, and a hush in which to ponder important and messy things.
BRYANT LITERARY REVIEW
We Must Not Disturb The Peace
NICOLE CIFANI LEHMANN-HAUPT
We never should’ve listened. But how can you ignore the new neighbors? We weren’t raised to be rude. So later, when they questioned our decisions, we said that building a backyard pool was outrageous. It would disturb the peace, were our words. They were a young family, new to the neighborhood. They drove an imported SUV; the wife was a former supermodel. We learned they had purchased the largest lot in our development, and the one next to that, and, in a few years, the one next to that.
We had to give them credit—they were good at being persistent. Every Friday we discovered a new gift on our doorstep—cookies, craft beer, gift cards to Outback Steakhouse—and we felt their request. We’re getting this permit whether you like it or not was what they hinted when we engaged in small talk on Sunday after mass. We spent evenings at home repeating our reasons to each other, as though we were reinforcing them to ourselves.
It will be too loud. It will make our neighborhood unpleasant. It will drive our property values down. The noise will scare the animals—the birds, the ducks, the deer—ruining the tranquility we treasure. Besides, we were here first, we thought.
In retrospect, maybe we should have agreed to the construction in order to be amenable people. Their children reminded us of our grandchildren. We did not mind the bribes, and we appreciated the attention. We imagined sharing beers with the young couple, perhaps relaxing around a bonfire, or starting up a weekly game of poker. It was not our desire to be known as the tart neighborhood oldies. Maybe, in retrospect, we would have reconnected to our younger days.
But soon it will be winter, we reasoned. Who uses a pool for more than three to four months of the year anyway? And so we turned to our other neighbors—our longtime allies who should’ve talked some sense into us—but they, too, were in agreement. Our coffee group discussions turned to us making heads and tails of things: homeowner’s rights,
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property values, gauzy economics. We felt a new unease in our regular conversations, and our eyes flared with worry.
So, we unanimously rejected the application. Our partners baked goodies for the family as a peace offering—thumbprint cookies, jelly rolls, and gluten-free bread, because one of us read this was popular. We left a basket on the front porch. We knew it was not what they wanted, we said to each other, but we wanted to let them know that we care. Then, all we could do was wait. When the new neighbors drove by the next day, they smiled brightly and waved. We felt relieved. No harm no foul, we said to ourselves, pleased.
We talked nonstop in those early weeks about our success. We couldn’t help it. We brought up local political intrigues, red-handed municipality players, and the best unpopular stocks to line our portfolios with, as if using our brains for the very first time. We gave passionate speeches in our backyards. We formed the town’s first accountability action committee. Mainly, we bragged about how we kept the peace in our small sliver of heartland. We admitted that we were tired of seeing the town change without us, the longest term residents (and the highest taxpayers) not consulted ever, not once.
Please, the developers said the following month, when they wanted to put a shopping mall in our backyard. Ha! we said, as we told them we had already mobilized against it. The monstrous mega mall cannot go in. It cannot disturb the peace, we said. And so it didn’t. Each week, our agenda grew. Now we could finally check those obnoxious, deafening leaf blowers. Let’s limit air traffic to Monday and Friday! Trash pickup? Why not once every other week? A camera on every corner! No, FIVE! The clock tower should NOT be fixed, we said, since the broken arm dangling from the elbow was a relic. Opinions poured from our mouths like gasoline when we suggested that squeaky vehicle brakes be fined, that shrubs be trimmed into octagonal shapes in accordance to the Euclidean synthesis (all obvious shapes need proof), the bridge into town be painted yellow and blue like Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night, that we ration chemical-based food, petroleum-based underwear, and for god’s sake we must perform background checks on applicants to the public garden so they don’t paint little affirmations on the rocks like last time.
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The folks at city hall did not understand. Please, they said. It was as if they were the adults admonishing a group of children (us) to behave. We tried to tell the mayor why we felt unsafe. We tried to explain the benefits of having at least some restrictions in place— like more speed bumps, for example. That’s all we wanted, speed bumps. It’s for the good of the city. Why was everyone in such a hurry all the time, we demanded to know. We remembered when our town was quiet, quaint, and charming. We need you to understand.
The mayor said she understood and then went back to work. But when she continued on with her meetings, how could we be sure she’d listened? How could we know for certain we’d be safe?
We knew we had to keep going. We printed flyers listing the consequences of building commercial facilities, and went door to door asking neighbors to sign on the dotted line. We wheat-pasted posters onto office buildings after dusk. We purchased ads in the papers and on the radio stations. The next time, when we went to city hall our group took over a quarter of the folding chairs in the wood-paneled conference room. We even brought our own pastries (homemade). The time after that, we doubled in size. It was then, finally, that city council blinked in the realization of our existence. Of our power. We made them make promises (after all, they worked for us), but these promises went unfulfilled. We couldn’t tolerate this hypocrisy. So, we worked harder. We found ways around them. We cancelled the satellite connections. The cable lines. We hired contractors to remove the unsightly wiring that dangled from the streets like rusted costume jewelry. We clogged access to the interstate and major arteries with our beater cars and lawn rubbish. We shot fireworks into the sky during peak air traffic times. We made a commitment to remove the town from the grid completely.
The city did not respond well to this. They sent the pigs who pounded on our doors and windows; they tucked phony cease-and-desist letters written by lightweight thug accountants beneath our doormats. We informed them in so many words that we would not cooperate.
One morning, the radio news reported a nearby brush fire. It was started by druggedout campers the night before, the announcer suggested. But the fire was over ten miles
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away—not our problem. We decided to put it out of our minds. Just another thing, we said. Besides, we had recently brought in a tribe of goats to chew away the brush, we said. We’d taken steps.
In the evening, we learned that the fire was moving quickly, getting closer. We could smell the char and see the dusty ash fall from the rupturing sky. We need the fire trucks, city hall said, but they can’t get through. We need to clear the roads.
Absolutely not, we said.
You can’t do this, they said.
Watch us, we said. Besides, the winds will blow the fire someplace else. It was now as though they were the children, and we were the adults.
Please don’t do this, they said.
Did we understand how easy it would be to open up the road? We did. But why would we make our private town public by exposing our roads?
Looking back, it was as though if we believed emphatically enough it simply wouldn’t happen. As if we prayed harder, the fire would simply fade. Perhaps the fire would agree that, yes—it would be better to travel in a different direction. Then it would go engulf some other town, one less sensible and wholesome, one less righteous and as good as ours. As if catastrophe as a concept happened in other, lesser, towns. The real problem was our belief that we were exempt from it all. We believed that by isolating ourselves, we would become unexposed to the grotesque and perhaps stochastic elements of the real world.
If only there was a massive swimming pool we could jump in to save ourselves.
Instead, we stood on the side of the interstate watching everything we knew burn to the ground. We looked at each other with the realization that we could start over. And then we smiled. That is, we smiled until the fire leapt across the four lanes, swept into our development, and burned our beautiful homes down one by one. One week later, at the cemetery, a lone visitor arrived. She placed a sign near our tombstones. They Kept The Peace, it said. R.I.P. n
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Western Mass turnpike, anti-dramatic; Wichita’s lineman as a toll collector
Farmer’s markets so local They’re practically soil.
Between Stockbridge and Great Barrington, It’s always road-running somewhere; happy hours in Boston, redundant like bussing riots in Boston. But out here, we make like leaves, we don’t stay.
Dueling traditions of opioid pipefitting, and fall foliage
Coastal skincare, we move to the city to stay young, And die young, people of all age in their sleep
The paper mills make junior varsity pipe dreamers of us all In the woods, Benny and The Jets spill out Like hooligans packing stadiums, till pop
A druidic pimple under full mooned sun.
It’s poison ivy and steak-ums, for breakfast, lunch, and It’s border fare for the rest of us,if we pray On a Sunday, a blue law might save Dreaming of the desert or concrete
You could almost believe that half-mad from starvation
Coyote might finally get his wires right Beep beep, roadrunner, foothill trailblazer
No bobcats, no hackysack, Dogstar denialism, taxation for rations, No beep beep, no beep beep, no left turns on red
continued on the next page
Cemetery Road, anachronistic like an actual child, ATVs push pencil lead, hard indention, of empty wells, townie theme songs, practically paper ripping. And why not?
Nobody’s been buried here
Since before the first chick voted.
The bullfrogs keep crying, warning of a wet-lipped draught
The former singer of Staind lives two towns over, spitting
Distance from Pittsfield’s King Kone, insisting He’s country, god’s own country woodchuck, As if the abandoned Berkshire mall, tethered to nature by only a Target, Might flower and vine, up the limestone cliff wall, Reclamation and drift, primordial
Like a YMCA swimming pool.
In the field behind the converted farmhouse, Makeshift shooting ranges try out camouflage Dressed as aluminum versions of inverted anthills.
A tree falling, the narc, gives the gun range away.
Acme’s anvil, the country’s feedback, the grave’s bougie tourist trap, Every baby leaf turns to mean eventually, exact change, on the nose. Make marijuana legal, see how that goes.
Ass to ass, grass to grass, a wire singing from need to want, Tollbooth blowing against the wind; rot is drawn to rot.
38 BRYANT LITERARY REVIEW
ELIZABETH TARYN MASON
I wish that I could cry with the force of a washing machine, with a torrent of water, my insides thundering against my frame. I wish that I could let grief spray out of me, frustration hammer until my body shakes unbalanced like the washer rocking away in the laundry room. I don’t like to cry for an audience, so I try to hold it in. I will go silent rather than let my voice break, turn my full attention to some other task. I rage the dishes clean, make the bed sharply: throw pillows to the ground while I cram blankets into place. Dumping the recycling into the bin feels like slamming a door and there will always be the laundry, the satisfied plonk— the clothes toppled into the washer—the small crash of the empty basket hitting the floor. The people who know me best know I have a hot temper. I try not to let sadness morph into fury, fear become a tantrum. I try. I try to be the mom who cries in the bathroom in that space I’ve worked so hard to make mine after sharing every room with someone else for years. But who am I kidding? I am not waterproof. I cry at all the sad parts in movies, all the heavy moments on television. Even when I practice reading a story, poem, essay that chokes me up in my office before class, I still fall apart in the classroom every single time. I cry when I’m sad, weary, when I am overtired and overwhelmed. I cry when I’m touched and proud and when I am terrified of what comes next and life keeps handing me so many opportunities for tears. I’m always apologizing for them. I am always trying to cover them up, always hoping to be brave for someone else. I want to go full toddler, full body to the floor. I want to demand attention. Knock against the wall a little bit. I pinch the bridge of my nose, press tissues to my eyes. People notice when I’m about to cry. They notice when I grow quiet.
A Mid-September Late Afternoon at Trident
The sun approaches the mountaintops. There is lightness in the air.
Disguised as young lips the fresh breeze explores the exposed shoulders and long necks.
Bare legs, free and abounding, like high-mountain waterfalls, walk the sidewalks.
The western light whispers on the faces words of September—there are so many gazes in so many colors flirting with an endless possibility of adjectives;
all compacted in this very moment.
of which I scribble as days go by like seconds into the western horizon.
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Heart Of A Monster
Francis is led to a large space with bars and a lock and the same yellow-brown walls and floor as his cell. Francis himself couldn’t have picked a better color for making one feel as bad as he wants his victim to feel. There’s a guard posted outside this therapy room, on the other side of the bars, a table, and two prison-issue chairs in the room itself. The shrink shakes Francis’ hand.
“I’m so glad you want to have therapy, Francis.”
The joy in the shrink’s face is palpable, intense, overpowering, whether the shrink knows it or not. Like a girl who’s just been asked to the prom by the captain of the football team.
“Where would you like to begin?” the shrink says.
“I don’t know,” says Francis, in a dreamy, thoughtful tone that he’s seen patients use in therapy movies. Then inspiration strikes. If this doesn’t mesmerize and galvanize the shrink, nothing will.
“I hate myself the way I am. I hurt people for the fun of it, and I don’t want to be doing it, but I can’t help it.”
Does the shrink fall for it? Francis checks the shrink’s face face. Yes, he may be smart, he may be good, but he’s also starving for…what, Francis doesn’t know, but who cares. The shrink is hungry enough that his being smart won’t matter. He’s going to fall hard. Oh, boy!
“And I almost got killed,” Francis continues, “because I was torturing another inmate, Logan, emotionally. I told him that I’d killed his dog, the dog he’s training to be a service dog. That dog means everything to him; I can tell. When I said it, I saw his face go ashen and tears come to his eyes. He couldn’t help himself. You can’t cry here, you know, ever. And seeing those tears, I felt really glad, really great.”
“Yeah, I can tell,” says the shrink. “There’s joy in your face just describing it.”
“Yeah,” says Francis, dreamily.
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“So why stop doing it if it feels so wonderful?”
“Well, there’s the obvious,” said Francis. “If I keep doing it, I’ll get killed. I’ve already been attacked once. But I think there’s a reason to stop doing it that’s even deeper than that, Doc.”
Deeper than that. He’ll love that, Francis thinks.
And he does, leaning closer to Francis, eyes alight with incipient joy and hope.
“It feels great,” says Francis, “but not all the time. Sometimes when I’m in the middle of doing it, it’s—I don’t know how to say it— something comes over me.”
“Is it a feeling that comes over you?”
“No!” says Francis emphatically.
“Do you get an image when that something comes over you?”
The shrink’s voice is kind. Not in a phony way. Francis isn’t used to kindness, and it rattles him, slightly.
And he does see an image. He sees darkness, the color black. Blackness like death. A shroud encompassing him. He is feeling the image. Francis doesn’t feel, not even in pretend-genuine therapy!
“I don’t see any fucking image. Fuck off!”
The shrink does a double take. Mild shock and alarm cross his face. Francis remembers himself. Not yet. Don’t attack yet. You’re supposed to really give yourself to this therapy. Let the shrink into your psyche.
“I’m sorry, Doc,” Francis says with feigned humility. He can’t bring himself to call the shrink Lyle—too personal and friendly—or Dr. McKenzie—way too respectful. What do you call someone you want to ensnare with respect and gratitude and maybe even love, and ultimately torment? Perhaps “Doc.”
“I’m sorry too,” says Doc. “Maybe I pressed you too hard. It proves my point, though. There’s a cost to making a big change like this. Don’t underestimate the cost of working on something that big, that fundamental to who you are.”
“I’m up for it, Doc,” Francis says in as open-hearted a voice as he can muster. “Don’t you think that’s a good thing to be working on, Doc?”
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“I think it’s a great thing to be working on. I can’t think of a better thing. But tell me. You said that emotionally torturing Logan was one reason the inmate George almost killed you. Was there another reason, you think?”
“My crime. They call me Cunt Stabber.”
“I see,” says Doc. “How do you like it when they call you that?”
“I don’t know. I don’t care. I actually didn’t mean to kill her,” says Francis.
The shrink sits up straight.
Francis has blurted that out without thinking. Why did I do that? Because there is this nagging sense of…failure? On the one hand, murder is a badge of honor here. And Dad would be proud, wouldn’t he? On the other hand, here he is, at Clear Lake Penitentiary. This was never part of the plan. And worse, if the torture had really worked, I wouldn’t have needed to kill her. Francis has a nagging feeling about the crime, and he needs to get it on the table. A confession of sorts.
“What did you mean to do?” the shrink asks.
“Just pretend to be in love with her and then leave her. Abandon her. Love her, then break up with her, and leave her sobbing and utterly destroyed, the very foundations of herself in ruins. I didn’t mean to kill her.”
“Just kill her emotionally.”
“So what went through your mind when you did murder her?”
“Nothing, nothing went through my mind.”
“You didn’t mean to kill her. But maybe she said or did something right before you killed her that set you off and caused you to lose your cool and stab her. What was that, Francis? What did she say or do?”
Francis hasn’t thought about this since he stabbed Jane. He doesn’t want to remember what she said. He wants to black out the words for all time. But he does remember whether he wants to or not. “I feel sorry for you. You must be really wounded inside.” The bitch! How dare she!
“I don’t remember!” he snarls. Deep breath. “That’s enough for now,” adds Francis.
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He takes another breath. Calm, stay calm, you want the shrink to walk away from here on cloud nine.
“You’re right,” says the shrink. “It is enough for now. I pushed you very hard. You pushed yourself hard. But I do have one more thing I’d like to try before our next meeting. A mission of sorts.”
“Something that will help you commit to the task of not torturing others. Or decide that the task isn’t worth it.”
“What’s the mission?” he says with a touch of feigned excitement.
“Your mission is to write with your dominant hand all the reasons to keep on torturing others, and to write with your non-dominant hand all the reasons to stop. Let the two parts of you, the part that wants to torture and the part that wants to stop, argue with one another, have a dialog, and see what you come up with. No one else has to know. How does that sound?”
Weird. This guy is a weirdo.
“I know maybe it sounds a little weird. I see that in your face. Sometimes the weirdest tasks can take you to the farthest places, get you to your goal the fastest. This will help you fight for your goal, if you want it. Do you have any reservations that you want to share?”
“No, I’m good. I’ll try it.”
“Great! Good! Here’s some paper and a pen. Go to it.”
Now? Somehow Francis expected this to be something that he could do before his next session. Or rather, not do before his next session. Give the shrink his first small disappointment, the harbinger of things to come. Now he’s stuck. Or is he? He could write gibberish. “This is total crap!” he writes with his left hand, his dominant hand. He transfers the pen to his right, nondominant hand, and the words write themselves:
“I am tired, and I don’t want to be me anymore.”
Francis stares at the words. Where the hell did they come from? The words are horribly alive. A message from another planet, written in a totally unrecognizable hand. As if a Martian had invaded his head and hand and put pen to paper. They are not his words.
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Wherever they came from, they need to go, now. He takes the pen and begins to black out the alien words.
“Wait!” cries the shrink. “Don’t erase that. That could be the most important thing you wrote.”
Francis ignores the shrink and writes with his left hand, “Torturing is me, and I love it. I won’t give it up for anything.”
With his right hand, he consciously writes, “But I want to change.” The right-handed words are phony. Perfect. He hands his document to Doc.
“Well, that’s a great start,” says the shrink. “Take it with you. You can add to it when you get bored. Instead of watching Orange Is the New Black. Great work today.”
The shrink’s voice brims with happiness. Francis imagines him walking out of the cell and doing cartwheels, dancing a jig, and glowing inside, thinking, He likes me. He really wants to change. I can make it happen. I’m a good therapist. He likes me. He likes me!
“Thanks, Doc. I really appreciate it.”
Francis carelessly-purposely drops the document on the floor. The fun begins.
Francis wastes no time in scheduling another session. Let the shrink wonder about the exquisite contradictions: I want to change. I drop my paper on the floor as a subtle fuck you, but I schedule another appointment. Delicious, delicious! Almost worth going to prison to have this opportunity to victimize someone new, a different breed of person to study and master. To observe him as he wonders and hopes, hopes and crashes. To watch his face rise and fall.
“I don’t know why you invited me back, Francis,” says the shrink. “But I can tell you this: I offer my skill, expertise, discernment, and understanding to the task of helping you be the person you want to become and achieve your goals, if they are real. But if you subvert the process by pretending to embrace goals that you secretly have no intention of meeting, our relationship as client and therapist is over. Finito. How does that strike you?”
What does the shrink expect him to say? I love it? I’ll happily comply? “Go to hell! How
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does that strike you?” That’s what Francis would say if he weren’t so in control.
“What makes you think my goals aren’t real?” Francis says innocently.
“Well, actually, I’m going to assume that they are real until proven otherwise. But since you asked…” Lyle hands Francis the dropped paper.
“Oh, that,” says Francis nonchalantly. “It was an accident.”
Lyle gives Francis the Look. “It wasn’t an accident that you dropped the paper before you left,” he says. “You meant to disrespect that assignment. But maybe it was an accident that you didn’t cross out this sentence completely.” He holds up the paper and points to the crossed-out part of Francis’ writing. Then he reads it out loud: “‘I am tired, and I don’t want to be me anymore.’ That, I suspect, is the real you.”
“I didn’t freaking write that!” blurts out Francis. He is drowning in fury, and fear so strong that he even half knows that it’s fear. He has an image of strangling the shrink. Forget the slow torture.
Lyle registers the fury and fear on Francis’ face and almost calls for a guard. But he is too excited not to go on, and he feels a surge of empathy that he hopes will carry him through and reach Francis somehow.
“You’re right,” Lyle says softly. “You didn’t write that. Or rather, 99.9 percent of you didn’t write that. It came from a very small, miniscule part of you.”
Francis smiles, coming back into the self that he knows and loves. His face is almost relaxed. “Can you tell me more about this ‘part of me’? What do you mean by ‘a part of me’?” he says, pleased that he sounds as earnest as he does.
“Well, I’m sure you’ve been told that you’ve been diagnosed with Antisocial Personality Disorder, a polite way of saying sociopath. What does that mean? To most shrinks it means that you don’t have a conscience, a moral compass, empathy, a heart, or, at best, that you left those things behind a long time ago. To me, it means that a conscience, a moral compass, empathy, a heart still live in you somewhere, and they constitute that tiny part of you that wrote, ‘I don’t want to be me anymore,’ even though the rest of you denies that you ever wrote it.”
Francis glares at Lyle. He can’t help it.
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“Are you angry?” the shrink says softly. “Are you angry because I implied that you don’t have a conscience or moral compass, or are you angry because I suggested that you do and are afraid to acknowledge it?”
That is the question, the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question, and Francis couldn’t begin to answer it if he wanted to, and he emphatically does not want to. Primal fear arises in him and has to be put down. Kill him, kill him. He slowly stands and takes a step toward the shrink.
Lyle steps back, ready to call the guard. But no, shouting for the guard would give Francis too much power, too much satisfaction. He takes out an oval-shaped pager and flashes it pointedly at Francis.
Francis steps back. He bangs his chair pointedly and menacingly at Lyle. Francis doesn’t throw the chair and he doesn’t sit in it, but starts to pace around the room with big steps, swinging his arms, keeping his eyes on Lyle the whole time. This alarms Lyle somehow more than the menacing step or the banging of the chair. Time to leave.
“This session is over,” announces Lyle, making his way to the door.
“Damn right it’s over,” counters Francis. “You’re a fake shrink and a pussy, with the heart of a monster.” Good one! thinks Francis.
Francis registers the hurt on Lyle’s face. Excellent.
“Let me know if you really want to change.” Lyle manages to eke out the words, but there is no fight in them. He is stunned, filled with a paralyzing flash of light and an ache in the chest as if a gunshot or an explosion has gone off. He’s right. I do have the heart of a monster. I am a fake shrink.
The deflation, the shock and pain in his face are palpable and not lost on Francis, who does a quiet celebration. Got him! Good shot, Francis! You’re good. “You pretend to be all gentle and nice,” he adds, “but you don’t have a heart at all. You’re not even good enough to be a monster.”
Lyle takes a deep breath. Wait a minute, he thinks, that’s really over the top, even for a “monster” like me. He takes another breath, summons his invisible circle of support: his daughter Eliza, his best friend Jake, his own wisest voice. You’re a good therapist,
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remember that. Back as his therapist self, it hits him: I’m seeing the master at work. I’m seeing him do what he does best.
“You’re very good, Francis. You do know how to torture people. My hat goes off to you. It must be really hard to give up something you’re so good at and have honed so well.” He pauses for no more than a second. “I think I have given you some things to think about now that you know that I know your dropping the paper wasn’t an accident.”
Lyle is rewarded by a stunned look on Francis’ own face that quickly hardens into an inscrutable mask.
Lyle leaves the session thinking, The guy is a genius. He overdid it with “you’re not good enough to be a monster.” But how did he know that “heart of a monster” are the four words that would really get to me? He doesn’t know about James, yet he knows. With an almost animal instinct. ***
It takes Francis five days to ask for another session with the shrink, but in the end, he does. He could have rested on his laurels, celebrated the fleeting, tortured look on Doc’s face when informed that he had “the heart of a monster.” But there are other forces at work making another session too tempting.
Wanting to meet his “goal” of not torturing others isn’t one of them, of course, but he is bored and—forbidden word, don’t even think it—lonely.
Also, the kindness and nonjudgment that infuriate Francis get to him, too, on a visceral, nonverbal, Mommiemommie level. It is intolerable, unacceptable, this kindness, worth killing someone over, but he yearns for it, without being able, or willing, to admit it.
Maybe he can be my friend and my object of torture, at the same time. ***
“So,” says Lyle. “Are you here because you really do want to change?”
“Nah, I’m here because I like you, Doc.” It is dangerously true, and on some level, Francis knows it.
“Am I the same Doc who has ‘the heart of a monster’?” Lyle smiles.
“I’m sorry,” says Francis.
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“I’m sorry.” Do I believe that? wonders Lyle. Probably not, but it doesn’t matter because Lyle is thrown into another universe in which his older, stronger, fourteen-year-old brother James, who never apologized, did. For once. It was after James broke ten-year-old Lyle’s leg, which, in turn, was after Lyle found a secret message in James’ drawer. Lyle is frozen with the memory of it. The memory is so vital that, momentarily, the man in the jumpsuit sitting before him is both Francis and James, as if Lyle were in one of those dreams where one person can, illogically, be person A and person B.
“Apology accepted,” says Lyle warmly. “So, I’ve been transformed, magically, into a nice guy?”
“How did that happen?”
“I don’t know,” says Francis, and the two, unaccountably, laugh together. ***
“You have to have a goal,” says Lyle. “I can’t keep seeing you if you don’t have a goal. I have a lot of clients who need me and sincerely want therapy. I can’t afford to see you unless you genuinely commit to something.”
“Can’t we just talk?”
My God, this is like being with James. Grudgingly, gradually talking, becoming friends, after years of enmity. He can almost see the two of them, can in hand, by the lake, illicitly guzzling beer.
“We can. We are. But we can’t just shoot the breeze. There has to be something that you want out of it that is also something I can get behind. For instance, finding five more inmates to torture is not a goal I can endorse. But getting to know and strengthening the small part of you that doesn’t want to torture people is a goal I can get behind.”
“I know it’s the last thing on earth you want to do, but we’ve got ninety-nine years in which to do it.” Lyle smiles.
They sit in silence for a while. It’s not a murderous silence, so Lyle allows it.
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“Well, I have a question, Doc. It, it…” It bothers me. But nothing ever bothers Francis, so he settles for reiterating, “It’s a question.”
“What’s your question, Francis? Lay it on me.”
The question is, “Would Dad be proud of me for actually killing somebody, or would he be ashamed of me for letting some stupid girl drive me to it? Was I strong or was I weak?” There’s no way in hell he’s going to put it that way to the shrink.
“Why do I care how I killed her?” he says with a shrug. It’s a shade less risky than the Father question.
“It’s eating you, huh? Want to say more?”
No, Francis does not want to “say more.” He has already said too much. He doesn’t know what he would say anyway. There is a blizzard in front of him, and, figuratively speaking, a sign that says Road Closed. Time to kill the shrink or come out with some other remark that is going to paralyze and torture his soul.
“Do you mind if I take a stab at it?” says Lyle. “You can always say I’m way off base. You want to be proud of the fact that you killed Jane. You’d feel accepted by the other inmates if you did, and you’d be happier with your own handiwork. Am I on track so far?”
Yeah, and there’s no way I’m going to tell you.
Lyle sees a glimmer of relief in Francis’ eyes and takes that as a “yes.”
“You are proud of what you did, in a sense, but something is bothering you. You didn’t plan to kill her; you killed her in a fit of rage, and maybe something she said or did drove you over the edge. If you had planned to kill her, you would feel better about it, stronger, more manly, more in control, even prouder of what you’d done.”
“Yeah, that’s it.” Francis regrets saying this as soon as it is out of his mouth. Damn, he made me tell the truth. But the shrink has a spell on him. He is actually getting the upper hand. He knows me. It is a wonderful-awful feeling to be known like this. Francis doesn’t want to be known. Shit. Still, there’s a small voice inside him that wants it badly. Don’t worry, you’ll torture him even harder later on.
“So, what was it that she said or did that, in an instant, made you kill her, without planning on it? What was it that enraged you so much that you had to kill her?”
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Lyle sees the fury in Francis’ face as Francis advances toward him, his hands encircled around an invisible neck, Lyle’s. He needs a guard’s intervention, for sure. But instead, thanks to some life-saving gut wisdom, he finds himself hollering, in his best parent voice, “Sit down, Francis!”
Francis glares at Lyle but sits.
“You don’t ever have to tell me what she said. But you do have to have a goal that we can agree on and work toward. How about to get out of here sooner, rather than in ninetynine years. That’s your sentence, isn’t it? I could help you escape, give you tips.” Lyle smiles.
What is with this dude! thinks Francis, but he stays seated, hands at his side.
“But seriously,” says Lyle, “strange as it sounds, I believe there’s a reason you stabbed and killed that girl that makes sense to you. Even if it doesn’t make sense to anybody else.
If you know what it was that enraged you, then you can do something about it so that you don’t kill unplanned. You can be in control.”
Francis straightens up, his eyes incredulous. Lyle is a little incredulous himself. Wait a minute, what am I doing?
“Not that it’s a great idea to go around killing people, in prison or elsewhere,” says Lyle. “Absolutely not! But maybe you’ll be happier if you can face what it was that made you so furious and master it, defeat it, rather than letting it win. You’ll be stronger. You’re a brave person, Francis, I know you are. You’ll be happier and more in control if you can face this.”
“Say out loud what your victim said to you and deal with it.”
“All right, all right! She said she felt sorry for me.”
“Oh, man, that must have really gotten to you. No one wants people to feel sorry for them. Ick!”
“She said, ‘You must be really wounded inside.’” He says this mimicking her. “The stupid cunt! She deserved it.”
“Oh, I know, I know, that must have really enraged you. But, hey, let me let you in on a secret: Everybody is wounded inside.”
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“Everybody. It’s part of being human.”
“No. It’s not.”
“Okay, let’s try this. Think of the toughest, meanest, most macho person you can possibly think of. Go ahead, do it now.”
It takes Francis less than a second to think of that person.
“I guarantee you someone or something hurt that person.”
“Yeah, it did.” Francis sees it in a flash. There was a terrible day when seven-year-old Francis caught his father naked. Francis had seen his father naked before, but this time something new caught his eye.
“What’s wrong with your nuts?” he queried.
Dad gave Francis a stricken look, as if Francis had shot him with a crossbow between the eyes or shot him in the heart. The look turned angry. “Nothing, nothing is wrong with me, nothing! Get out of here, get out!”
Francis’ whole body shook. There was something wrong; Francis could see it.
“I was born that way!” Dad called out the door. “With one testicle.” He muttered “testicle” so softly that Francis could hardly hear it. “And if you ever say anything again, I’ll…” He didn’t finish the sentence, but Francis finished it for him in his mind.
“I thought he was going to cut off one of mine, or both. I still have them both, though.” He smiles tightly.
“Me too,” says Lyle.
What? Jesus, what am I doing?! It’s okay for a therapist to disclose things about himself if it can help the client in some way, but this?
“That was not very professional of me.”
“It’s okay, Doc.”
No, it’s not okay.
“We’ll just keep it a secret. Pay me half your salary, and I won’t go blabbing, ‘The shrink has two balls, the shrink has two balls.’”
God, he really does sound like James. “No, it’s not worth it. It’s not a shocking enough
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secret. A tenth of my salary, maybe.” He is rewarded by Francis’ smile. “But seriously, your father, even your father, was wounded big time. What if you made your goal to understand, to face, how you were wounded inside so that you don’t want to kill or torture anyone. So that you can get out of here someday way down the road, or at least have a better life in here.”
“I’ll think about it.”
No possible way, adds Francis to himself. ***
Lyle is almost out the door when he hears a soft “Doc?”
He turns around.
“Did you ever kill anyone?”
Lyle freezes. Oh, my God.
“You can tell me.” Christ, the client turned into a shrink.
Lyle’s whole body, from belly to throat, is pulsing with, heaven help him, yearning. He, or at least a part of him, wants to tell Francis, “I killed my brother. I was ten. I stabbed him with a kitchen knife. That, or I did something to him that was even worse than murder; I’m not sure which.”
He longs to do this. He absolutely Can. Not. Do. This. Why the hell does he want to? Draw your boundaries. Remind him that he’s the client; you’re the therapist. Do the right thing. The “right thing to do” is to give him a mini-tutorial about the value and limits of the therapist-client relationship. But that would turn off Francis like crazy. He can just hear Francis saying, “Spare me the shrink bullshit.” Just when he’s doing so well, just when we’re doing so well, breaking down walls. It would slam the door on their relationship, which maybe should end, but Lyle can’t bring himself to end it.
“Really, you can tell me.”
“No,” says Lyle softly. But he hears the hesitation in his own voice and knows that Francis hears it too.
“Aw, come on,” Francis says teasingly.
Lyle considers saying, “Everybody wants to kill somebody somewhere along the line.”
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Then, a stroke of inspiration. “Did you ever love somebody, Francis?”
“Aw, come on,” Lyle wheedles. “Don’t worry, I won’t make you write it down. Think about it. I double dare you.”
“Go to hell.”
“All right, all right, I’ll tell you my secret. If you must know, I was a contract killer before I became a shrink.”
“Go to hell,” Francis says again, but it’s a happier, James-like “go to hell.” n
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The Past Is Everything
Moving is like writing your own obituary for all those years in that house or town or marriage or phase that, thank god, you wriggled out of — all the bad mothering you did the lousy friend you were the bad housekeeper wretched at decorating you let your mother buy the new couch she knew you would never buy anything that good. And now she’s ailing the couch hauled off by Joe Junk your father gone, too. And oh, the pictures mostly tossed because how many minutes of third grade can you cram into the new two-bedroom?
You text a photograph of the turanusors (sic) your son drew he was maybe three to the young woman he just married. She says ‘Save it. Save all of it. Send it to me.”
You’re relieved, spared the question of how to safeguard all these treasures
(you understand why Tutankhamun wanted to be buried with all his junk). But now you’re done. She wants them. It makes leaving so much easier.
You are invisible swinging there on the porch, biding time. Corroded chains whine, mimic tornados’ lashing winds as they head toward town.
Missing car keys found in silverware drawer, T-Bills stuffed in a grocery sack, taxes overdue, first clues you are ravenous, thirsty for memories, a scrambler of faces, familiar names.
You hide in pats and pounds of butter consumed, pork chops, beefsteak drenched in gravy, in cinnamon rolls baked to stave off fears from childhood years of food so scarce.
Heart attacked but did not kill. Your games of confusion torture, break the spirit clean in half until frozen in a chair my father sits for years locked inside his head.
The swing and porch demolished,
family buried long ago. Insured for theft, we never collected a skinny dime for all you stole—no one to blame the doctor explains.
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Sometimes, Always, Never
What if there’s no happily ever after greeting us with open arms and smiles? Maybe there never was a bonafide you & I dotting the stars on our way to forever. It’s a long way down without your wings to carry me back to our bitter reality. Did my promises clip them; of better days starring another me? The man you deserved to hold instead of the mirage lying beside you. If only I were more flesh & blood & less lofty sentiments of idyllic somedays. Smoke and mirrors inundate our home; we lay bare, exiled by unconsummated intimacy. Blow the haze clear with your soft lips, those that’ll never press upon mine again. Distracted by false hope, our future evaporates unceremoniously.
Youth In Asia
When Mr. Shaughnessy, my seventh grade social studies teacher, talked about “euthanasia,” I thought about thousands of Chinese kids who didn’t have enough to eat, crowded on the streets of Peking (that’s what they called it then), walking around with no shoes. I remember seeing a picture of a little kid with a slit in his pants so he could go to the bathroom, right there, in the street. Kate laughed when I asked Mr. Shaughnessy why he was talking about youth in Asia. She said maybe I could try paying attention and maybe not miss so much school.
My embarrassment didn’t diminish the gravitational force I felt pulling me toward Kate, like Ms. Beverly—our science teacher who always wore a long, gold chain that ended up draped around one breast by the end of class—taught us about the moon and the tides. That was one of the days when I was paying attention, because I was amazed that the moon could have such a strong effect from so far away and keep pulling without getting any closer.
Some days I would take a chance and go over Kate’s house where she was almost always doing homework—her mother in the kitchen and her five siblings doing puzzles, running around in their underwear, watching TV, and everyone loud and happy. Kate would clear a space on her floor or on her bed for me to work if I wanted to, and sometimes I did and other times I sat there and looked at her CDs and books while she hummed quietly as she leaned over her math or LA notebook, her jaw-length straight brown hair falling in front of her face and her pencil making incessant scratching sounds. I tried to impress her with whatever I was reading at the time, and she would listen and nod and tell me I might be smart, but I still had to do my homework and show up in class more often; following her around like a puppy was not going to make me succeed in life. Then, she would laugh and shake her head, perhaps to take the sting out of her words.
I hoped that, just once, we would end up with so little space between us that we would
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kiss. I hadn’t quite worked out how I would do that, but I figured that the gravitational force would just take over and, like other natural things in the universe, it would just happen. The boldest declaration of affection that I ever made was the time I blurted out, without any obvious reason, that I would do anything for her; whatever she needed, she just had to ask. After I said that, she smiled and looked back down at her books.
The week before Kate went off to college, her parents threw her a party and, of course, I went, and it was then that I realized what I had known all along: that the gravitational field that had drawn me into her orbit was not going to bring us any closer. I stayed in town, starting what would be a lifetime of low-earning jobs, never quite believing everyone who said I was smart and should go to college. Instead, I walked the path laid out by my father, who declared college a waste of money, a glorified camp for pampered kids afraid of hard work.
In the four years she was in college, I saw her occasionally when she was in town to visit her parents. She would smile and wave, and sometimes she would stop and ask me how I was and say how nice it was to see me. Once, around Christmas time, about three years after she left, I saw her walking into her house with a tall young man, both dressed in sweaters with snowflakes and reindeer.
So, I was surprised when I picked up the phone one Saturday at a late morning hour to hear her voice, soft and measured, unlike the vibrant tone I had associated with Kate. Despite the strange cadence and tone, I knew it was her right away, maybe by the way she said my name. I could tell from the hollow, echoey clatter that she was far away, yet I found myself imagining her standing right there with me, as our younger selves, almost close enough to touch. She asked how I was, with no concession to the fifteen years or the miles that separated us. Then she told me that she was in China, working for a company that made ball-bearings, and asked if I had ever been, which was like asking me if I had ever been to the moon, which she must have known, because she just continued before I got a chance to respond. She said she’d like to see me, that she needed some help and thought of me. Did I remember when I told her I would do anything for her? She chuckled, at least it sounded like a chuckle coming through our tin can of a connection, and mentioned
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something about the things we say when we’re young. She was willing to fly me out there, if I had the time, and I could, of course, stay with her for a few days. I could see this as my “Youth in Asia” trip. I laughed with surprise that she would remember that moment, a moment I had held onto without the embarrassment I had felt at the time. I was between jobs and bored of the hamster wheel I perpetually seemed to be on, with no romantic prospects and not enough in savings for even a weekend at the beach, let alone a trip to China, so I consented and waited for the plane ticket to show up a few days later. I noticed that there was no return flight but figured that Kate would work that out since she couldn’t expect me to stay in China forever. The destination on the ticket was Beijing, so I looked that up and learned that that was what they called Peking now and wondered why the Chinese decided to change the name and why the place down the street still served Peking Duck and Peking Ravioli.
When I arrived at Beijing airport, I was overwhelmed by what looked like thousands of faces and moving bodies, strange, high pitched chatter, shouting, and the hum of unseen machines. The air smelled of grease, sweat and earth. I looked for Kate, imagining her face as through one of those time-lapse photo montages that police sketch artists use to project what a missing person would look like years later. I turned myself in a half-circle until I saw my name written in large, black Sharpie letters on a white sign held by a middleaged Chinese man dressed in black pants and white shirt, with his hair slicked back in a pompadour, Ronald Reagan style.
Kate was waiting outside her apartment building on the outskirts of the city. The years that we had not seen each other were certainly marked on her face, and on the slowness of her gait and the restrained way she kept her arms close to her body. The glimmer of excitement in her eyes when she saw me, however briefly it burned, allayed the unease I had felt in my stomach the entire flight. She apologized for not meeting me in person and said that she had come to hate cars and avoided them whenever possible. She loved looking at pictures of the old China, of about twenty years ago, when cars were scarce and everyone traveled by foot or by bicycle. Kate’s apartment was in a concrete building painted faded green and orange, a now-stale bow toward modernization some time ago. We
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entered a courtyard with a stone fountain, which held several-days-old rainwater, now a muckish gray, surrounded by an overgrowth of weeds and broad-leafed plantings, mostly bromeliads and zebra plants. Kate lived on the third floor, and I was happy enough to climb those stairs after sitting for twenty hours. The apartment walls were white-painted cinder blocks and reminded me of pictures I had seen of college dorm rooms. Kate had done what she could to brighten it up, with colorful rugs, throw pillows and bedspreads, but everything still ended in those walls. I put my things where she showed me and, not knowing what else to say, I picked up what looked like a silver and ivory antique that Kate told me was an ancient pistol, about 300 years old, which was used by traders on the Silk Road to protect themselves from smugglers. She said it still worked and, if I were interested, she could teach me to shoot it. I put it down and picked up another artifact while Kate went into the kitchen to prepare lunch.
We ate at a small, square table, with our heads nearly as close as they used to get sitting on Kate’s bed doing homework. I noticed then the puffiness under her eyes and the way her eyes flitted from side to side rather than holding a steady gaze. She said she had to go to work in the morning, but she would leave me the keys and I was free to explore the area and the market nearby, just to be mindful of where I was going so I could find my way back. She helped me sort through the money I had exchanged at the airport before my departure, so I wouldn’t be too confused if I wanted to buy something. She wrote down her address in Chinese in case I lost my way. I mentioned that she had said that she needed help with something and she said she was glad I had come and that she would tell me about it later; it was complicated, and she was tired. Kate told me that she got off work at four, but she wouldn’t be home until five because she walked everywhere. She mainly asked about my life, about which there wasn’t much to say, but she pressed me with enough questions that we did not get around to talking much about hers, except that ball-bearings were useful but boring. I managed to ask her about the young man she was with the last time I had seen her, and she blushed and a far-away look clouded over her eyes. She said that was a long story that didn’t end well and that was for another day, after I had settled in.
The sun was already high in the sky when I awoke. There was a pot of tea on the stove,
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and the table was set with rolls, cheese and fruit. A dog was barking in the distance, and I heard the squeals of children playing in the courtyard. On the table was a note, in the neat, rounded cursive that I remembered from childhood: “I’m glad you’re here.” I walked to the market. I don’t know what I expected, but, at the sight of scores of people, from the very young to the very old, sitting in front of blankets spread out with fruits and vegetables, some unrecognizable, caged chickens, ducks and rabbits, household goods and carved statues, I stopped and stared, needing to absorb it before venturing in. I remembered that Kate liked omelets, so I bought some eggs, communicating with the merchant through hand gestures and smiles. When she came home, it was still light, and she said that she didn’t mind walking more, so we set out for a nearby park. A breeze had kicked up, and Kate’s loose-fitting brown pants billowed behind her, and she pulled the hood of her navy zippered sweatshirt over her head. The same intense inquisitiveness had remained with her since childhood, but I told her that there was not much else to say about my life besides it being boring and headed nowhere. She said that maybe boring and nowhere weren’t so bad and we both became silent. We sat on a bench in the park, and Kate looked at me and asked, if I could do one good thing in my life, would that one thing make my whole life worthwhile, no matter how boring or how empty of consequence my life might seem? I said that I supposed it would depend on what that thing was.
As I brushed my teeth that evening, Kate tapped me on the shoulder. “Would you like to see the factory where I work? Not that it’s really exciting, but, if you want, you could meet me there after work tomorrow.”
“How far is it?” I asked.
“Not far, if you don’t mind a little walking. It’s in the same direction as the market, just a little further. After that, we could get a late dinner at a local noodle shop close by.”
The night was warm, and I must have kicked off my blankets, as I woke suddenly, uncovered, to the sound of Kate gasping in the next room, like there wasn’t enough air to force into her lungs. I got out of bed and opened Kate’s door without knocking. She was sitting on the side of her bed inhaling deeply. She looked up and smiled and said it was just a bad dream.
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When I awoke the next morning, there was another note on the table telling me that she was excited to see me later and would I pick up two medium-sized melons, of any variety, at the market on the way. She left some paper money and added not to worry about getting change.
Kate was waiting for me outside the factory. I arrived when the sun was low in the sky but generous enough to give us two more hours of light. She smiled, which made me realize that this was the first time she had done so since I had arrived. The factory was a gray, imposing building built by the Soviets in the ‘70s. It was so ugly that you would never want to look at it, and so solid that it could sit there forever. Kate brought me around the back where I saw the ever-familiar cracked concrete and weed assemblage. Scattered around the lot were rotting yellow and green melon rinds, seeds and multi-colored splatter. I noticed Kate watching me take it all in. She said, “I remember you were in Mr. Richardson’s skeet shooting club.” I stared at her blankly. “I used to sneak around the range some days and watch. You were pretty good.” Kate took one of the melons out of my hand and set it on a large, flat rock, a rock which had evidently seen its share of melons. She reached into her shoulder bag and brought out the silver and ivory pistol I had seen when I arrived in her apartment. “Like I said, this still shoots.”
“How do you get ammo for it, though?”
“The Chinese are really into preserving their culture. If something’s antique, you can usually find a craftsman to repair or service it. What it needs is gunpowder and projectiles of a certain size, both of which are available.”
“So, you come here…to shoot?”
Kate shrugged. “Not much else to do, I guess.” She wrapped cellophane around the handle and handed me the gun. “Locked and loaded. Just hold it steady, it’s not as stable as modern weapons.” She pointed to the melon and nodded. I adjusted my stance, and Kate put her hand on my shoulder and said, “A little closer,” as she applied light pressure, and I moved in a few feet. “That’s good,” she said. I fired a round and missed. I steeled myself against the recoil and fired a second round, hitting the melon near the top and shearing off some rind and some seeds.
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“Not bad,” said Kate. “You need some practice.” She set up the second melon, looked at me and smiled a smile that failed to cover up the air of grim seriousness that had taken over her demeanor.
“This one’s a little bigger. It should be easier.” I looked at her and she nodded. My first round went through the center of the melon and the top flew off, scattering red gush several feet in all directions, some of it hitting me in the face and some staining my shirt and pants. “I guess you need to stand a bit further away,” she said.
By the time we walked to dinner, the air had cooled. We passed through the gray rubble around the factory and several squat houses on small lots, with chipped paint, each with a carefully tended flower bed out front. Some streets were paved, and some looked like you would surely pop a tire or bend an axle if you were foolish enough to drive a car over them. Kate walked with her hands in her pockets, not at the brisk pace with freely swinging arms that I remembered. I commented on this, and she asked me if I ever wished that I were young, not young like we are now, but young like when we knew each other. I said that I was never good at being young, but I guess it was no worse than it was now. She said she sort of envied me. I laughed. She said that I had not complicated my life too much. Sure, she knew I had adult responsibilities—work, bills and probably insurance—but most adults felt compelled to complicate things past the point that they could be controlled. I asked her if that was what it had been like for her. Kate sighed, put her hand on my arm, and led me into the restaurant. In the dim lighting, I could make out about five wooden tables covered in yellow cloth. The windows—square holes in the walls—let in the late day air and the chirping of the cicadas as dusk descended. The smell of garlic, ginger and chili oil filled the room. Kate led me to a table, then went up to a woman standing near the entrance and seemed to exchange some pleasantries.
“You know her?” I asked.
“Yeah, she owns the place. I come here fairly often. I don’t really like cooking for myself. She’s one of the few people I talk to, with the little Mandarin I know.”
“You don’t have any friends? Fellow Westerners?”
“Nah. I don’t bother. I don’t want to get into anything with anyone.”
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“What does that mean?”
“Remember what I said about making my life too complicated?” Kate brushed some hair away from her face and put her hand on top of mine. “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you coming. I didn’t know if you would. It’s been so long, and I haven’t been a good friend.”
I shifted in my seat. “Are you sick?” I asked.
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t mean to pry, but, last night, it sounded like you were struggling to breathe.”
Kate looked away. I became aware of other customers in the restaurant, men and women dressed in loose-fitting white button-down shirts, bending like reeds over their bowls, lifting noodles with chopsticks and slurping, without so much as one splatter onto their clothes.
“This is what I wanted to tell you, so all this would make sense,” she said. I started to speak, but she held her hand up to silence me.
“I have this dream, every night. Not the exact same dream, but pretty close. I’m somewhere—a car, under water, a small room, a basement—and the air, the air is gone, sucked out, and I can’t…I can’t breathe. I look around, but there’s no way out. I struggle...I try to inhale huge gobs of air, I suck and suck in, but my lungs won’t expand. My heart starts racing. That’s when I wake up, soaked, confused, not knowing where I am.”
Kate looked at me and held her gaze for the first time since I had arrived. She squeezed my hand tighter. “There’s more,” she said, and released my hand and leaned back in her chair as the owner brought over two warm bottles of cola. I took a sip while Kate ran her finger over the rim of the bottle. Then she reached over and touched my hand again.
“That young man, Seth,” she said. “We were in love. A great guy. He made me think all things were possible. I married him. A year later I was pregnant and had Michael.” Kate paused and covered her mouth. Her head turned like she was looking for something or someone in the room. She cleared her throat. “One day, one of Seth’s days to bring Michael to day care—he was three—before going to the hospital, to work, I was rushing to get to the mall to run an errand before heading off to work myself. I was in the car when
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Seth came rushing out. He said there was an emergency and they needed all medical staff on board immediately. He said that I would have to take Michael and bring him to day care after the mall, on my way to work. He quickly put Michael’s car seat in the back of my car and strapped Michael in. It all happened so fast. It was a hot day, early August, so hot I put the air conditioning in the car on full blast.”
The cicadas were quiet now, and a mild breeze made the lanterns hanging from the ceiling sway slowly, keeping rhythm with the diners’ delicate hand motions as they lowered their chopsticks and brought them up to their mouths. Kate lowered her head.
“I was thinking of all that I had to do—at the mall and at work that day. I forgot…I forgot that Michael was in the car…I forgot until I heard my car described over the PA system in the mall…the third time they announced it. Then…then I realized…oh God… oh God. I dropped my packages and ran out to the lot. The ambulance, the EMTs were all there. They had smashed the car window. Broken glass was all over. And I saw…I saw Michael on a stretcher…limp, pale. The EMTs looked at me. They asked me for my ID as they took Michael…took Michael to the hospital. They took me in another car but, by the time I got there…Michael…didn’t make it.”
Kate’s lips were trembling. She was choking, gasping. Her cheeks were wet with tears and mucus. “I couldn’t…I couldn’t call Seth. How do you tell someone you just killed their baby?” She was swallowing air, huge gulps of air, as her throat constricted and her words expelled themselves in sharp bursts. Kate’s shoulders shook and she squeezed my hand hard, as if trying to anchor herself to something that would pull her out of wherever she was. She bit her lower lip, trying to regain control.
“I…I,” Kate breathed in suddenly, “couldn’t stay. What do you do in that case? Everyone tried to act supportive, but how could they be? I got tired of sitting around with everyone watching me grieve, blaming me or pretending not to. So, I came here.”
Kate released my hand and scratched the side of her face. “You were always a good friend. I wasn’t deserving of your friendship. I knew how you felt about me.” Kate’s eyes met mine, then she looked away. “I’m sorry, I’m so, so sorry. You see, it would have been simple, too simple to wrap my brain around.” I wanted to tell her that we could make a new
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start. Together. But I knew that the idea was as hopeless as it was selfish.
“But that’s…that’s why I called you.” Kate paused and looked at the bowls of soup, which I hadn’t noticed being served, getting cold next to us.
“I…I have opium,” she said, looking past me, into the past or the future, I could not tell.
“Isn’t that illegal?”
Kate nodded. “The authorities are more concerned about their own people. They tend to leave foreigners alone. Anyway, I was doing it occasionally, and then it got to be a regular habit. It made me feel better, until it didn’t. No matter how much I did, it didn’t take away my anguish. Is that how I want to live? The same despair, every minute of every day, just at tolerable levels? Last month, I decided to do it, to take a lot, to go off and not come back. The problem is, I did come back. I must have developed a tolerance for it. So, this time…this time…I want to make sure I don’t come back.”
My mouth must have dropped open because Kate suddenly looked worried.
“You don’t have to try to talk me out of it. I just want you to help me. I knew you’d be merciful.” Kate smiled again, but it was the smile of catching something that once was, for a moment, something that had escaped and couldn’t be owned again. I had a rushing feeling in my head, like I had boarded a bus that was barreling down a highway, barreling to nowhere, a bus I couldn’t command but one I couldn’t get off of either.
“Please don’t fret. I’m at peace. It’s what I want…no, it’s what I need.”
“So, you want me…you want me to be with you, to…?”
“Hopefully, that will be all, and that will be so much. But—and here’s the hard part, the part I’d ask only of you—I want you to be there in case I do come out of it, in case I survive the massive dose I’m going to take tomorrow. I want you to make sure I don’t survive.”
“Tomorrow? I don’t know…I don’t think…Jesus, what are you asking?”
“I’ve bought your return ticket. I didn’t arrange it immediately because I didn’t know…I didn’t know, after meeting you, again, if I would just go ahead with it or if…or if I…you… needed more time. But…now…now I’m sure. Your flight leaves tomorrow night. A driver will pick you up outside. I’ll leave you the ticket, and a note with all the times. Tomorrow morning I’ll get up, take a shower, have breakfast with you. Maybe you can make me an
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omelet; I’d like that. I’ll take the opium. I’ll fall asleep. My breath will slow. If all goes as it should, I’ll stop breathing within a few hours, before it’s time for you to leave.”
“How can you just talk ab—”
“Please, let me finish. There’s just a little more. If I start coming to, or if I’m still breathing a half hour before you leave…the gun…the antique…I loaded it with one bullet. That time of day, there’s no one around. Just use it…on me…like the melons. Keep the cellophane on the handle so my fingerprints will be the only ones on it and just drop it on the floor next to me. You’ll be gone before anyone discovers me.”
For a long time, we didn’t say anything. Kate couldn’t bring herself to look at me, nor I at her. I stood and walked back and forth across the restaurant, rubbing my scalp, with my teeth aching from clenching them so tightly. I sat back down. “How can you ask this of me? I…I can’t do this. Not to you…not to anybody!”
I must have been talking too loudly because Kate quickly looked around and put her hand on top of mine. “All those feelings you had for me, the promise that you would do anything…this makes it all real, doesn’t it?”
“That was just something I said…I was a kid…in love with…” and my voice trailed off as I looked back up at Kate.
“And I am asking you this out of love. I am going to do this anyway and, if I survive it, I may suffer permanent damage to my brain and my body. Ending it will be the most merciful thing. I understand if you can’t do this. Still, you came, and that means the world to me.”
“I can help you, Kate. Come back with me and we’ll get you help. You have so much to live for. Please!” Kate shook her head and seemed to look at the wall behind me, but her eyes were focused inward at whatever images were being projected on the inside of her skull. I could have kept trying to talk her out of it, but I knew then that my words would have only been squandered to put a salve on my helplessness.
“I have to do this,” said Kate, now looking straight at me.
“I just don’t know if I can,” I replied.
The next morning was overcast; the world outside silent. The apartment had that
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musty smell that bleeds through damp concrete—some combination of household chemicals and wet socks. The only sound was the sizzle of the frying pan as I cooked Kate an omelet. I watched her eat as the scent of fried eggs competed with the damp concrete, and she smiled in appreciation but didn’t say much. With the knot that was in my stomach, I didn’t much care for food and, although I tried to talk, I could tell from experience that Kate was in command and that any plea to reconsider would gently, but firmly, be deflected. Kate washed her dishes and disappeared into the bathroom. She came out, handed me the gun, hugged me really hard, and told me whatever I decided was ok and that, if I was looking for one good thing that I had done in my life, it was being here for her. Then she laid down on her couch and drifted off to wherever the opium took her.
I didn’t understand the meaning of “euthanasia” until years after I had finished high school. I hadn’t really thought about it until I heard a news story about some guy helping really sick people end their lives. I guess the association with Kate, rather than any real hunger for knowledge, led me to read up on it. From what I remember, I don’t think anyone had in mind firing a gun at close range at a friend as she comes out of an opium fog. So, I’m watching a woman who might have seen me as a friend she could trust, or just as someone she could use. But, I don’t feel betrayed or angry. Just an overwhelming sadness— for Kate, for me, for what never was and probably never could be. My life has been like a river flowing nowhere. And this moment is when Kate’s and my rivers converge. Maybe for good, maybe only to part again. I realize that I am a poor substitute for what she once had and what she once looked forward to in her life, but I did tell her that I would do anything for her, and what she needs now is someone to keep her alive. So, if she trusts me or if she’s used me, it doesn’t really matter, because this is my chance to do one good thing in my life, as Kate put it. When we left the restaurant yesterday, I told Kate to wait while I went back and thanked the owner. She spoke passable English, and I was able to get her to tell me how to contact the hospital emergency room on the pretense that I worry, and it would give me peace of mind just in case anything happened.
I hear the sirens getting closer. I just hope they’re in time. n
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ROSALYNDE VAS DIAS
The clear river went bulleting.
You were above
it you were gasping you struggled to breath, no, you did not breath, you flexed from his hand, he held you, like a loved thing, like a thing he could club dead or let go. You tossed in your body
the river ran rich with oxygen and riverrounded rocks,
slick, under that and your mouth almost cried, your body almost beat itself tired and he held you above it, away
from it, your whole life, as he regarded you and you poured away, farther and farther away and if you could catch one breath, you could fetch yourself back.
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ROSALYNDE VAS DIAS
We fought in the shallows and it is so true we fought in love, as if this combat was love, as if such a struggle was tender— as if opposition was.
I am not sorry I never see your green body— my body learned and doesn’t miss any brutal lesson.
To find a friend one must close one eye. To keep him—two.
for Rodney Formon
Friday nights, a fry-cook, arms scarred by sizzling fat, Rodney bangs on my door. We like to drink together, shoot the breeze, and laugh. Drunk enough, we sing! It’s karaoke with CDs scattered on the table, improvisational shandygaffs and combinations you can’t enjoy with your relations.
It’s good to have a drinking buddy. I’ve used up two already— one who fell down a flight of stairs and one, who was much older, who died of his warrior life. But now I’ve got Rodney, who is very different from the others. The other two were quite and somewhat intellectual, and where the one continued on the next page
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could talk history or science, art, music, or just about any subject in just about any language and come back, being polyglot, and polymath, even polymorphic, after hooch; the other was a man of action, a war hero with many medals tucked away in drawers locked by indifference, but still would tell of weapons, arms and the man, and such with fervor—my Heraclitus— and also with disgust, with fatalism, believing nothing changes in man’s fighting nature, disposed to think the worst; but enthusiastic over chess, which he played in earnest as if he were at war again.
But Rodney is another sort: He knows I write but will not read a word I write, nor much else either, but likes the Internet so much he slides crabwise in thought, toward what depth of cyberspace I often cannot fathom until zing I see it for myself, or am I drunk?
I see with Rodney that the other two, complimented first my young and then my middle-aged delusions of a deeper self-knowledge continued on the next page
than available to most. Yes, Rodney shows me to myself, or shows me to my youthful ghosts, as ego-fed, but did and does this unintentionally, whose wonderful indifference makes me shrink like a cock in the cold, and chug my drink.
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Postcards from the Stage
After a watching my performance in a high school play, my father tells me I should give up acting, that I can’t act my way out of a paper bag. Two weeks later, at age sixteen, I get my first professional theatre job. My father and mother never see me act again.
SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA, 1973
SANTA MARIA, CALIFORNIA, 1980 I am dancing in the line chorus of Mame, and my boot gets caught on the stage. I take the whole line of dancers down with me like dominoes, with the exception of one small dancer at the end of the line. She weighs 100 pounds soaking wet and pulls the line back up, like Weebles who wobbled. The audience bursts into applause. I stop dancing after that and focus on acting.
SAN LUIS OBISPO, CALIFORNIA, 1981 The theatre gives free tickets to the show to the local farmers and migrant workers. To show their gratitude they bring us baskets of fruit. I eat a strawberry as large as my hand.
ODESSA, TEXAS, 1982 A group of five of us go to a diner after finishing a show in El Paso. The diner is filled with oil riggers. They stare at us. One of my friends starts singing a show tune and dancing. An oil rigger walks up to us, looks at me and says, “I think you and your faggot friends should leave if you know what’s good for you.” A waitress with a beehive hairdo looks at me sadly and says, “I would do as he says, honey.” We leave the diner.
TUCSON, ARIZONA, 1981 I am driving with two cast members of My Fair Lady when our car breaks down in the desert at night. A pickup truck, with a dead and bleeding deer strapped to the front end, pulls up. Two guys in camouflage suits drinking beer step out, look us over and say, “You boys in trouble? You need a ride?” We cram in the truck, and they offer us some beer. When we tell them we’re singers, they start singing campfire songs and we join in, all the way back to our motel.
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HYANNIS, MASSACHUSETTS, 1985 I am cast in a Marx Brothers musical. We are halfway through rehearsals when we are told the producer ran off with all the money and we have to go home. Since no one is paid, the people in town donate cash so we can get bus tickets.
SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA, 1998 My brother is off his medications and manic. He shows up to one of my performances and begins shouting during the play. The police come and arrest him. No one knows who he is, and I am too ashamed to tell them he’s my brother.
NEW YORK, NEW YORK, 1987 I call my mother to tell her that I have been cast in my first television role. She listens in silence, then tells me that they are remodeling their kitchen.
PORTLAND, MAINE 1984 I leave a cast party to get some air and walk around the block. I meet a cat the size of Labrador retriever. The cat is affectionate and rubs against my leg purring. I look for an owner but can’t find one. I go back to the party and tell everyone about the cat. They tell me I smoke too much weed.
PRINCETON, NEW JERSEY, 2000 I am performing A Midsummer Night’s Dream outdoors and it begins to rain. The director tells the audience we will stop the play and refund the tickets. The audience does not want to leave, and we go on with the play in the rain. Later, fireflies come out in droves and light up the stage.
BAYONNE, NEW JERSEY, 1996 I exaggerate my horseback riding skills on my resume and am cast as a cowboy in a Miller Lite commercial. The white stallion I am riding takes off, with me clutching the side of the horse in terror. The director and crew nickname me Roy Rogers. We are losing the light, so they tell me just to take the horse by the reins and walk him through the shot. For the next week, I am bowlegged and in pain. I take horseback riding off my resume.
FORT ORD MILITARY BASE, CALIFORNIA, 1978 I am performing in a USO tour of The Fantasticks in room filled with 300 soldiers. Just as I finish the last note of my song, one of the soldiers farts loudly. It gets the best laugh in the show.
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NEW YORK, NEW YORK, 2001 In mid-November, after 9/11, the Off-Broadway theatre company I belong to does a free musical show on Reade Street, a few blocks from the World Trade Center. The audience is filled with young mothers, children, firemen, restaurant workers. We get a standing ovation every night, and people wait outside to thank us for bringing them together.
ENCINO, CALIFORNIA, 1981 I am dressed as Count Dracula at a large gas station/minimart opening. While I’m giving out candy to children in their cars, two masked men go into the mini mart and rob the cashier. The police question me to see if might be an accomplice.
JERSEY CITY, NEW JERSEY, 1987 To make extra money, I play Father Christmas at a shopping mall. While I’m walking through the mall, a man exposes himself to me. The police question me as to why someone would expose himself to Father Christmas. I tell them he was feeling the holiday spirit.
DENVER, COLORADO, 1983 I am rehearsing a fight scene from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. I am working out the moves with another actor. Just as we step back, a 30-pound curtain weight comes crashing down, missing us by inches. The weight penetrates into the wooden floor of the stage two inches. A second earlier and a little closer, it would have put an end to our fight scene and our lives.
NEW YORK, NEW YORK, 1999 I am working on the set of a soap opera. A group of us go to lunch, asking an older actor, Abe, if he wants to join us. Abe declines, says he wants to stay in the dressing room and read. We return after lunch, and I start talking to Abe, who is sitting in front of the makeup mirror. After a while I realize he’s dead. Later, I speak to his widow, who tells me that he secured his pension for her with that last job.
NEW YORK, NEW YORK, 1986 I am a dancing clown in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. As we come to Columbus Circle, the center is filled with disabled and blind children in wheelchairs. Our group of dancing clowns goes up to them, dancing, saying hello and shaking their hands. Their heads and bodies are bent and twisted in their wheelchairs, but their faces are filled with joy and happiness at watching us dance. To this day, I think of those faces filled with light and my heart breaks. n
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I waited two months for tarantula season, but the road will never flood with hairs and legs and eyes; there is no biblical event, no grand natural gesture, just a higher than normal number of arachnids, making their way mannerly and mostly alone.
I’m disjointed, uneven, constantly inconsistent, a swirling emotional mess without you.
You needed time and I needed anything to believe in, and then I heard those magical words: tarantula season,
sometime in October-it was everything.
We’re a week in and you’re with him and I can’t reach out and you won’t and I just need a small flood of spiders to bring me back to life.
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The Man Steps into the Weightless Rain
He’s forgotten his umbrella. Droplets collect on his eyebrows and drip down the creases between them. He checks his watch. Couple of minutes past nine. A pigeon ruffles its feathers above. The man misses the snow. Standing still and looking up into it. Imagining himself at the center of a cascading galaxy. Ancient light tumbled down around him in a boundless circle. Or himself, flying upward through it toward a distant black hole. Toward infinite stillness. He wonders if light travels forever in space. Or does it shine outside of our timeline? He thinks about his past attempts at writing small moments into equine flight. Eyes closed, he sees a woman with curly black hair form from a pink and red blur. She’s just caught one of her pumps on a crack in the sidewalk and the heel has broken. It is night. The crack is hidden like a trap. She’s laughing with her friends, ankle buckling beneath her. Her eyes are green and joyful. She hovers outside the Movie Haus, not yet aware that she is falling. Not aware she’s being watched. The man steps out of the stop and into the weightless rain. The sky is black, nearly moonless. The perfect backdrop for falling stars.
The Man Steps into the Weightless Rain
He’s tall and hunched with broad shoulders. He’s a hall of mirrors pointing into each other. It’s 9:02 pm. A pigeon peers down at him from the streetlight and then pecks at the red bracelet on its leg. Snow slush crunches under his boots and he remembers––standing in the street as a child, looking up at a woman rocking her swaddled daughter out of a fifth-story window. The blanket unfurled into a pink flag, flapping in her hands. He saw the baby land on the snow slush. Saw the mother land on top. Things continue to fall until you learn to catch them, he thinks, scanning the sky for tails. Until you dream of TV horses, legs curled beneath them like dead spiders. On his eyelids, he watches a cascade of women. Feels them as rain on his cheeks. And he sees the mother falling with them, like a stray meteor. Her baby, almost in her arms, waking from a nap.
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The Man Steps into the Weightless Rain
It feels like stepping onto a pier. Cool sea spray descending. Soft. Slow. His head cascades with falling things. As a boy, he saw a horse running in slow motion on TV. Saw how Eadweard Muybridge had captured a gallop in a series of stills. He learned that any moment could be endlessly divided. Every moment has the potential for infinity. When he slept, he dreamed of hovering horses. Legs curled up beneath them like pinned bugs. He learned to keep them in flight. Now, he practices on microscopic scenes: ankles to keep buckled, women to catch before their faces find shock, meteors to slow to a crawl. He collects these moments to split and split again toward stillness. The man looks at his watch. Little hand on the nine. Big hand on the two. Seconds hand, stopped. A shaky woman hobbles down the sidewalk in white tennis shoes. Away from the stop and the pigeon on the lamppost. Her hand, running along the wall. He closes his eyes. A pink flag flutters.
Return to the Country of the Crime
On her first evening as the Peace Corps nutritionist for the market town of Gabi Mai Wuyhalla, Niger, the dispensary chief Hamza Dogo accompanied Sheryl on a stroll by the riverbank. He didn’t give her a choice. When she told him she was going for a walk, he said that it was dangerous for a woman to walk alone after nightfall and he insisted on coming along. It was especially dangerous along the dry riverbed where the evil jinn wandered, he said. Sheryl had just eaten a meal of chicken and couscous with Hamza in his compound, together with the infirmary’s physician assistant Musa Sani.
“We’re glad you’ve come to serve as nutritionist,” Hamza exclaimed in his impeccable French as they walked south along the riverbank. He was wearing thick bottle glasses and a white turban, the tail of which flowed down over the shoulder of his olive-green suit jacket.
“I’m glad to be here,” Sheryl replied.
“You are aware of our lack of amenities in Gabi.”
“Of course,” Sheryl said.
“I’m glad you understand. You will, of course, provide the infirmary each week with a 700 milliliter can of Nescafé.”
Sheryl didn’t say anything immediately in response. She knew there would be moments like this, and she wanted to “choose her reaction,” this being the coinage of Michael Boigny, the Peace Corps training site director. She inhaled deeply and looked out straight ahead, at the dry riverbed that curved south and disappeared into the dusk. The first stars had just come out: she could see the Southern Cross. She could also see the trees on the other side of the riverbank in silhouette. She was glad to have Hamza Dogo accompanying her on this walk, despite his all too forward request, which, if she assented to it, would result in a substantial drain on her Peace Corps stipend. She forced a smile and said, “There’s nothing written in my Peace Corps service description saying that I’m required to provide Nescafé to the dispensary.”
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“You don’t understand. It’s important for dispensary staff to keep awake during the afternoon consultations and we are eager for your assistance in this matter.”
“We can talk about this tomorrow, can’t we?”
“I’d rather talk about it now.”
Sheryl reached into her handbag, pulled out a pack of Marlboros and offered him one. He accepted: she struck a match, lit the cigarette and he, in turn, lit her cigarette with his.
Mercifully, Hamza didn’t bring up his request for Nescafé again as they continued to walk along the riverbed. Hamza instead laid out Sheryl’s responsibilities at the dispensary and described the improvements that he would like to see there. He mentioned the names of people Sheryl needed to know, including that of Adulsalaam Mustafa, the chef de poste. Sheryl raised the issue of security in the village and Hamza said he had been thinking about the same thing himself. He said that, in general, there was little crime in the village and that people were good about watching out for one another, but that she should remember that the Nigerian border was 40 kilometers to the south and that it was impossible to keep track of all the people moving through Gabi, especially on market days. He suggested to her that she might want to get a watchdog. By this time, it was dark except for starlight and the glow of their cigarettes. Hamza suggested that they turn back towards the village and that is what they did.
In Sheryl’s flat-roofed mud brick house there was a foyer and two small rooms; she had set up one as a kitchen, one as a bedroom. The foyer walls, radiating with the day’s heat, glowed with the flickering light of the kerosene lantern hanging by a bungee cord from an overhead crossbeam. Windows in the east and north walls of the bedroom provided circulation and made sleeping there tolerable. She left the lantern burning as she untied her hair, peeled off her wraparound skirt, and lay down on her foam mattress with a paperback copy of an Albert Camus story collection in the original French. By flashlight, she managed to finish the first story entitled “La femme adultère” before falling asleep.
She wasn’t surprised by the dream. It was the same one she had been having every night for the past week. A woman in a pressed navy-blue suit skirt, her psychologist, was
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standing a foot away as a young man raped her. The woman was taking notes on a legal pad, under the glow of fluorescent lights.
Sheryl woke up curled up in the fetal position with her right hand between her legs, drenched in sweat, sobbing, and shaking uncontrollably.
Five months previously Sheryl had been raped at the Peace Corps training site in Hamdallaye, Niger. It had happened on a night when the majority of her classmates were on tour, visiting their future posts in the southwestern part of the country. She had been sleeping outside under a mosquito net, as were three of her male classmates. They were outside because the temperature inside the dormitory was hovering around forty degrees Celsius. After the knife-wielding rapist finished, he walked off into the night casually, as if he had nothing to fear. None of her classmates, in bed meters away, had been woken up by the rape (at least that’s what they’d said afterwards). She now had to explain what had just happened to her. She had gone directly to the residence of Michael Boigny, the Peace Corps training director, who subsequently notified the local authorities and the Peace Corps country director.
She had no choice but to leave country. Peace Corps administration arranged a medevac to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in Washington D.C. She remained in the capital, residing in a Holiday Inn, for a month’s worth of psychological counseling and medical tests. In the middle of all this testing she was granted a month’s leave time, which she spent at her parents’ home in Boston. Telling her parents what had happened to her was agonizing and it only got worse from that point on. They thought she was nuts to want to return to Niger, and their repeated attempts to get her to stay made her time there unbearable. Her father had a particularly hard time digesting the news. Archibald Johnson was a principal engineer on the uber-complex Boston underground highway project known as The Big Dig. He was conservative in both disposition and politics. He was what her daughter referred to glibly as a “reactionary type-A” and, as such, he was not one to digest the news lightly. Sheryl had spent as much of her leave time as possible avoiding her father, spending time in cafés reading—she read a tremendous amount during this time—
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devouring the works of Marguerite Duras both in the original French and in translation. Duras’ protagonists often flip-flopped between angst and nostalgia with their burdensome memories of adolescent love and Sheryl didn’t find it hard to identify with them. Reading in French was also a way of maintaining her language skills, preparing herself for her imminent (at least she liked to think of it that way) return to Africa. Focusing on the Duras ouvre was an activity by which she could crowd out her anxieties during daylight hours. But they all came back to her each night back to her parents’ house. One evening as she walked into the kitchen for a glass of orange juice she overheard a conversation between her father and mother in the living room, which was adjacent to the kitchen in their splitlevel condo not far from Boston Common.
“How will Father McPherson feel about her being raped?”
“Stop it, Archy. You’re acting like it was her fault.”
“She was the one who decided to go into the Peace Corps, against our advice. And she still wants to go back there. What kind of woman runs back towards her attacker?”
“I don’t think Sheryl views it that way. She’s trying to get on with her life. Though I disagree with her decision I can’t help admiring our daughter for it. Archy, Sheryl is a strong young woman. You should be proud of that.”
Sheryl had tiptoed back upstairs without her juice. She hadn’t had the energy to confront her parents. That her father had mentioned the Catholic Church surprised her: it did seem more than slightly hypocritical because he attended mass twice a year at best. Sheryl herself had fallen away from the church during high school. Her father was aware that she had had a succession of boyfriends in college; she had let it be known to him indirectly (by talking with her mother) that she wasn’t eligible for a white wedding. It occurred to her that the news of her rape could help her father come to terms albeit in an apocalyptic way with the fact that she had long ago dispensed with her virginity. This couldn’t have been much of a silver lining for him, to say the least.
After this interlude with family, she felt some relief upon her return to the excruciating group therapy sessions at Walter Reed. She realized early on that, if she was
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going to make it back to Niger, she would have to get with the program while at the same time refrain from revealing any information that could prevent her return.
Dr. Donna Rosetti was the therapy session leader. A tall brunette in her early forties, Dr. Rosetti kept a poker-faced expression during sessions and was armed with an intense gaze that gave Sheryl an indication of how seriously she took her job. At the same time, a strong Brooklyn accent colored her clinical observations to the extent that Sheryl occasionally had to bite down on her bottom lip to prevent herself from laughing during the sessions.
Sheryl wrote down the timeline of the rape as she was asked and discussed this timeline together with a group of women who had also been sexually assaulted. Most were in the military, stationed at army and navy bases in the US and abroad. In most cases, they knew their assailants. Only one other woman was a Peace Corps volunteer. She was a petite blonde, in her early twenties, with a slight lisp. She had been gang raped at her island post in Micronesia. Because she knew the men who perpetrated the act, and because they hadn’t been arrested, she wanted to complete her service in a South American country. The situation was so bad on her island that she would under no circumstances be allowed back there even if she had wanted to return. Complicating matters, the Peace Corps country director had taken the side of the local authorities who had denied that rape had taken place. They even claimed that she had invited men over to her house for a gangbang, one in which she had been a consenting partner. In one of the sessions, she blurted out, “my island raped me.”
Sheryl considered herself fortunate that she hadn’t known her attacker. There was, on the other hand, considerable uncertainty about her case. There was substantial doubt about the guilt of the man who’d been caught, at least in the mind of the training director. Thus there existed the very real possibility that the perp might still be running around the country free to rape other women. A rape analysis hadn’t been conducted (as there were few, if any, rape kits available in-country) and she had taken a shower immediately afterwards. But Sheryl was not so concerned with bringing justice to the rapist—a remote
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prospect at best. She was more concerned about preventing injustice. That is, she would have considered a Peace Corps refusal to send her back to Niger to be another form of rape. While Sheryl remained relentlessly optimistic about her own chances of returning to service as a volunteer, she suspected that the Micronesia volunteer wasn’t going to South America anytime soon.
In addition to writing down their stories, the rape victims were encouraged to “have a dialogue with their traumatized selves,” to bring forth their buried responses to their own assaults. “Feelings of guilt are normal responses in rape cases, but you must realize that this is a culturally-conditioned response,” Dr. Rosetti explained. Indeed, Sheryl often played the rape over in her mind asking herself how she could have prevented the assault from happening. She felt guilty that she had not resisted more than she did. When she brought these issues up in the group sessions Dr. Rosetti told her that, yes indeed, she was guilty. Guilty of “hindsight bias.” But that was not the only trap to which rape victims could fall victim. She also told Sheryl that she was also guilty of “all or nothing thinking,” “the Catch-22 syndrome,” among other psychological self-deceptions. The stories that Sheryl and the other rape victims wrote down, and the correlating self-dialogues were examined in and outside of group therapy for these pitfalls. But what most obsessed and upset Sheryl were the dreams that brought her both mental trauma and sexual excitement. She refused to discuss these dreams during therapy. It was a well of darkness too deep within her to bring out into the light for fear that Dr. Rosetti would hold her back. Not that her shrink didn’t try to draw the water from this well; she talked reassuringly about how it was a normal reaction for women to climax during rape, lubricate when thinking of their attackers afterwards, and even fantasize about the attack repeatedly. Sheryl didn’t fall for the bait and kept her emotions in check throughout these sessions. It may be normal, she thought, but did Peace Corps want women who experienced such reactions heading back to their country of service? These psychological probes weren’t the only potential barriers to her heading back. There were also potential medical problems that could ground her for good. Her biggest fear was that the attacker might have infected her with HIV but there were also other sexually transmitted diseases that she was tested for. They didn’t find anything—initially. But HIV couldn’t be tested for right away. It was about a month
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before Sheryl knew the results of her comprehensive tests, which were all negative. She had already had her pregnancy test and that too had been negative. But even after all the results were in, Dr. Rosetti encouraged her not to go back in-country immediately, saying that she could always go back a year into the future. “If I want to go now I should go now. Why should I be punished for being raped?” Sheryl asked her. She was wearing on that day a gray suit skirt that Sheryl thought less than flattering. “You’re not being punished,” she replied. “Then why are you trying to prevent me from getting on with my life?” Sheryl asked. “We just want what’s best for you,” she replied.
This wasn’t just her mantra. It was also the mantra of her parents, her older sister (a divorce attorney based in Providence, Rhode Island) and her closest friends. Sheryl, trying to maintain her serenity, said, “You must understand I will appeal if you prevent me from going back.” The psychologist replied, “I figured as much. However, I don’t think you’ve been totally forthcoming with me.”
Eventually she was allowed to return to Niger. Despite many tense moments with her, Sheryl didn’t think that Dr. Rosetti was all that bad of a shrink. (She was the one who had turned Sheryl onto Marguerite Duras.) But Rosetti wasn’t universally respected within the realm of Peace Corps administration. In fact, what Sheryl learned about Rosetti through the grapevine at Walter Reed disturbed her. Not because she was considered a bad shrink, but because Rosetti had started her own pilot counseling program—the one that Sheryl had participated in—that she hoped would serve as a model for future Peace Corps counseling programs. Sheryl had also heard that Rosetti was thought to be a wacko by most of her colleagues who universally assumed Peace Corps rape victims invited their own assaults. Rosetti never had assumed anything like that about Sheryl or with any of the other women in the group discussions that she led. For that she was grateful. ***
Sheryl headed outside behind her mud-brick house, under the new moon sky, carrying her lantern in one hand and towel in another. She took her shower. Afterwards, she made herself tea, and sat down on a straw mat on her cement porch. Her mind wandered.
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The last man she had been with before leaving for Africa was a Quebecois assistant professor of Economics at Boston University by the name of Reginald Depuy. They had met at Mass General when he presented with appendicitis, and she was the on-duty triage nurse. She had been impressed with his humor during a painful ordeal and she liked his intellect and the way he parted his thinning blond hair. Reginald was an advocate of the neo-liberal school of globalization: he believed that the lowering of trade barriers between nation-states would usher in an era of unprecedented prosperity. For a few months their relationship seemed like an era of unprecedented prosperity, but then real life started to set in. The pressure on Reginald to find a tenure track position at Harvard created fissures in his exterior. He constantly talked about the “McDonaldization” of Quebec City, his birthplace, which, one could argue, was brought about by the globalization that he so cherished. His reflexive disdain for the U.S. had charmed her at the outset, but it began to annoy her. One night she found herself going home with a surgeon in her unit. She told Reginald about it, in a spasm of guilt, hoping to salvage their relationship. His response all but guaranteed that this would not happen. “You fucking cunt, all you think about is fucking,” he said.
Sheryl assumed the lotus position and tried to inhale and exhale in a controlled manner—one of the useful things she had learned at Walter Reed. This was the first step in controlling her thoughts. She stayed outside, concentrated on her breathing, letting the mosquitos have their way with her. The village was quiet save for the sound of cicadas. For a while it seemed to her as if these mindfulness techniques were working but then after about half an hour her mind started to wander again. It occurred to her then that it wasn’t safe to be outside. But then, how safe was it anywhere? Just before midnight, she went to bed. She did not dream and woke up to the sound of roosters crowing half an hour before dawn. ***
The next day, market day, was Sheryl’s first day on the job. She spent the morning with Musa and Hamza in the gray cement-block dispensary that had no ventilation save the occasional breeze that fluttered through the high windows. Sheryl weighed her first
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babies, eleven in total, all of them mildly to moderately malnourished, and wrote down the information in her logbook, then on yellow cards their mothers carried around with them. The mothers were mostly a cheerful lot. They sat patiently on the bench under the concrete awning, talking to one another while breastfeeding. They had carried their infants to the infirmary on their backs in thin sheets of fabric tied around their waists, fabric that in many cases was cut from the same cloth as the wraparound skirts and shawls the women were wearing. One was a young pregnant woman named Talatu. She was in her third trimester. She had brought her son Tanko to be weighed and for polio inoculations, that were to be administered by Hamza and Musa. The infant was emaciated, but this was nothing unusual, the effect of chronic malnutrition and diarrhea-induced dehydration. Talatu seemed to be the most relaxed of the bunch. She asked Sheryl if she had a husband. Sheryl said she didn’t have one, not yet at any rate.
“Well,” Talatu said, laughing. “We must find you one.” Sheryl took an instant liking to Talatu, who lived in Gidan Hatsi, where Adam Goldstein, her nearest volunteer neighbor, was posted. Sheryl extended an open invitation to Talatu to visit her house.
Hamza seized every opportunity that morning to tell Sheryl how tired he was without Nescafé to, in his words, “charge my blood.” Finally, she cornered him in the hall and told him in French, “Hamza, please don’t ask me again for Nescafé. I can’t afford it.” His initial response was a hard stare. But then he nodded without a word and continued prepping the batch of polio vaccine, which had been dropped off in the early morning by a driver sent by Médecins Sans Frontierès, and which would be used to vaccinate over a hundred babies at mid-morning. It had been essential for Sheryl to draw lines in her work as an ER nurse, and it was essential now, considering all that had happened to her.
The dispensary closed early on Sheryl’s first day of work because it was market day. She walked directly to the market, not bothering to go home and change her clothes or take a shower. There was nothing to do about the intense heat and the stirred-up dust hanging over Gabi like a fog but accept it.
As it happened, the Babban Iyaka volunteer team project pickup truck was parked near the marketplace, in the lot with the Land Rovers and Peugeot bush taxis, and she saw Abdu Yusi, the project truck driver, knelt over at a Tuareg woman’s concession stand,
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buying a pack of cigarettes. Sheryl thought him a curious character. With his mustache, perpetual smile, and unlit cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, he reminded her somehow of her ticket scalper classmates in high school. He looked like a man who could talk a pearl out of its clam, perpetually on the lookout for an angle. She stopped to talk with him.
“How’s your health?” he asked.“Kina Lahiya?”
“Fine.” Sheryl replied. “Lahia Lo.”
“My wife’s pregnant,” he said, smiling wide at her. His smile conveyed warmth and friendliness, but also an unsubtle probing. Or so it seemed to her.
“Congratulations,” she said.
“You’re doing well?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said. She knew that Abdu Yusi had been at Hamdallaye when she had been raped, working as a handyman, and there was no way he couldn’t have known what had happened to her there. “Excuse me,” she said, feeling suddenly very anxious, knowing that Abdu would be upset by her rudeness, but she was unable to help herself. She turned abruptly into a narrow alleyway between thatch-roofed market booths.
The market was crowded with blue-turbaned Tuaregs leading their camels down the narrow market paths, Fulani herders, and the ubiquitous Hausa buyers and sellers. She walked past the tailors laboring in the shade of their thatched awning.
Under a cloudless and impossibly bright sky the air was hot and dusty, smelling of spices, cooking meat, perfume, sweat, and animal dung. Sheryl soon caught sight of Diana, the Biodiversity volunteer team leader who was bargaining down the price of a length of red, flowered fabric in rapid fire Hausa in the center of the marketplace. The seller was a middle-aged Hausa man dressed in a blue coastal style boubou and white flat-topped cap.
It was hard not to envy Diana a little. She had it so together. When she had paid for the fabric and the seller had wrapped it up for her, Sheryl approached at last, squatting down beside her in front of the seller.
“Long time no see.” Sheryl smiled.
“I thought I might see you here today.” Diana returned the smile. She was dressed in
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what Sheryl thought of as Peace Corps casual: a skirt of flower-print wraparound fabric, T-shirt, and flip-flops. “I wanted to talk to you yesterday but there wasn’t a chance…how was your day in the infirmary?”
“Oh, about what I expected it to be. I think I’m settling in well. Only problem is the dispensary director. He wants me to buy him a weekly supply of Nescafé.”
“That kind of thing is pretty normal.”
As they spoke, a blue-garbed Tuareg rider on camelback steered past them on the narrow market path.
“Diana. Maybe you’d like to come to my house? You’d be my first guest. What do you say?”
“Sure,” Diana said. “Let me just talk to Abdu Yusi.”
They found Abdu Yusi and Abdusalaam Mustafa laying on mats under a grass awning. They were neither smoking nor drinking tea. This puzzled Sheryl until the moment she recalled that the Ramadan fast was still in effect and would be for another two weeks. Abdusalaam had a grin that seemed to project a worldly irony. He had lean facial features and an aquiline nose not unusual among the Fulani ethnic group. As he shook hands with her, he smiled and nodded, and said, in French, “I’m genuinely pleased to see you again.”
“Likewise,” Sheryl said, meeting Abdusalaam’s intense stare with some discomfort. Sheryl had met Abdusalaam on her second day of work at the dispensary. She recalled the dispensary director telling her, on her first night in the village, as they walked along the Goulbi riverbed, that she should meet Abdusalaam. But the next day he’d told her that she needed to be careful with him and that he could not entirely be trusted but didn’t elaborate on the reasons why.
Diana told Abdu Yusi where she was going and then followed Sheryl back on foot to her compound. Sheryl brought out water for Diana and they sat together on her front porch under the flimsy awning of bleached, rotting millet stalks. Diana gave Sheryl a rundown of the Babban Iyaka Biodiversity Team to Sheryl. Diana quickly confirmed Sheryl’s impression of a woman who embodied the adjective judgmental by offering her candid and no doubt hastily formed opinions about the Peace Corps volunteers on her
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team. According to Diana, Adam was a flake, Abbey was desperate for any male attention, and the marriage between Jason and Cynthia was a train wreck. But before Sheryl could comment on Diana’s remarks, or even digest them, she steered the conversation in a predictable direction: “So,” she said, wiping her sweaty forehead with a blue handkerchief, “Let’s talk about you.”
“About me, okay,” Sheryl said. She was a little wary because she knew of Diana’s reputation as a gossip hound. “But there’s not much to talk about. I’m here. I survived my first day at work. I weighed thirty-nine babies today.”
“Sheryl,” Diana said. “I’m not going to beat around the bush. I’m aware of all that you’ve gone through. Lyle sat me down and told me, but only because he thinks it’s important for me to be here if you need anything.”
Sheryl was silent for a moment, considering just how to choose the proper response. “You think it’s important to be available if I need anything.”
“Of course I do.”
“You’re such a self-confident, secure woman,” Sheryl said with a smile that was not really a smile. “I can imagine coming up to you unloading my problems and you saying ‘Deal with it or go home.’”
Diana nodded her head, as if weighing her response. “Well no, you don’t have to worry about that,” she said. “Sheryl, after what you’ve been through, I don’t think I’d be able to deal like you have…”
Sheryl was silent for a moment, considering her response. She then asked, “Does anybody else on your team know about this?”
“They know a woman was raped last summer. But they don’t know who.”
“They’ll find out—it’s inevitable.”
“Well, I can’t guarantee that they won’t find out. But if they do, it won’t be from me. Look, Sheryl. I know what a hard time you had, getting back in-country. Maybe you’re right, the volunteers will put two and two together. But everybody in the bureau, those who know about this, respects your confidentiality. And I really do mean it about being here for you.”
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Sheryl took a deep breath. It was an attempt to stem the tide of anger welling up within her but it didn’t quite work. “You really do mean it about being here,” Sheryl repeated in a sneering monotone.
“Yes,” Diana said.
Sheryl bit down on her lower lip, a nervous habit she’d had since childhood, and then let the lip slide slowly forward. “I’m not an emotional cripple, you know. I can handle myself just fine. You can tell that to Jack, to Lyle and to whoever else you can think of.”
“I’m fine. You can tell everyone you know that I’m fine, okay?”
“We just want what’s best for you.”
“I can’t begin to tell you how much I’ve heard that one. My parents, my psychologist, Peace Corps administration, you…you all say you want what’s best for me but what I need most is time. That’s all. And none of you can help me out with that one. Still, you keep on talking to me as if I’ve lost my mind.”
“Of course you need time,” said Diana, softly, leaning forward in her chair, her eyes projecting concern and even tenderness. “You haven’t lost your mind. But you can’t pretend that this never happened. And I can’t pretend that I never heard about it. What good would that do you?”
“Diana,” Sheryl said. She was angry with Diana for being so forward and blunt but the last thing she wanted was for her to leave. “I didn’t mean…”
That did it. Something snapped within her, despite her intentions, she started to weep. She hid her face in her hands.
Diana stood up, slowly, approached Sheryl, and put a hand on her shoulder.
“You can let down your guard with me, Sheryl.”
“It’s all right. Anyway, I gotta go now. I really do. I wish I could stay longer, but I have an appointment with the préfet in Maradi in an hour. I’ll be back next market day. Why don’t we do lunch then?
“Okay,” Sheryl said, wiping her tears with the back of her hand.
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Just before dawn, Sheryl woke to the sound of roosters crowing. Cup of water in hand, she stepped onto her porch. In the time it took her to swallow a sip of water, the solar disc peaked over the skyline and rose as quickly as a balloon in a windless sky. Something in the speed of the African sunrise irked her. The thing she missed most about home was twilight, that indeterminate time between night and day when it was possible to see clearly yet, at the same time, get lost in the shadows. If you blinked during an African twilight, you’d miss it.
Sheryl wanted to rinse the sleepers out of her eyes but only a little bit of water remained in her large fifty-gallon clay water jar and every one of her round five-gallon water pots lined up in a row along the wall of her yard were also empty. She grabbed a round clay pot and left her compound, walking to the nearest foot pedal pumping station, which was about five hundred meters away from her compound.
The town of Gabi was too large to have a single village square. Instead, there were multiple gathering places in the shade of neem trees wherever the vendors sold their wares. She passed a few of them on her way to the pump but no vendors had even set up shop at this early hour in the morning. Later in the day she might have had difficulty making it to her destination on time. Having to stop and greet, or at least acknowledge the greetings of all these men would be too difficult.
Women and their children crowded the foot-pump wellhead. A teenage girl wearing a tank top and a faded cloth around her waist, with a baby strapped to her back, was riding the pump like a bicycle. A stream of water pulsed through a steel pipe and into the mouth of a clay water pot. Behind her was a line of women, all patiently waiting to fill their pots.
An old blind man seated a short distance away under the shade of a neem tree, collecting five CFA francs or a “dolla” for each pot of water filled. The collected monies would go towards a repair fund that was used to pay the French volunteer agency that serviced the foot pumps.
Sheryl walked towards the blind man. Wearing a white, shin-length gown and matching cap, he sat Indian style on the ground, chewing a cola nut. A walking stick rested in his lap.
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The man put forth his hand, and smiled, revealing scattered, orange-stained teeth. He said, in Hausa, something that sounded to Sheryl like “the white woman who dreams of truthful things,” as Sheryl dropped the coin in his palm. She did a double take, looking at the old, blind man. Did he say what she thought he had said? Her Hausa wasn’t really that good, but there they were, his words and their meanings, already inscribed in her memory.
When the women in the line saw Sheryl, many started to laugh and talk among themselves excitedly. They tried to get her to cut. She wouldn’t. She waited her turn among the gossiping women, savoring their presence, admiring their ability to laugh amidst day-to-day hardships. She only wished that her Hausa comprehension was at another level so she could figure out what they were saying to one another. She had her own gossip running around in her brain but now the unexpected joy of standing in line with the Gabi women helped her put a lid on the well of darkness that had sucked her down so deep as of late. n
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A native of Austin, Texas, KHARAN BADRI’S creative influences are an upbringing steeped in Vedanta philosophy, his cats, Freyja and Helios, and the writings of Rumi, Carlos Castaneda, Osho, and Kahlil Gibran. He composes poetry, self-reflective prose, and irreverent skits on his website https://badwriter.net.
JANET BANKS is a Boston-based writer whose personal essays and poems have been published by Harvard Business Review, Parks & Points, Bluestem Magazine, WBUR’s Cognoscenti, Poetry and Places, The Rumpus, Entropy Magazine, Silver Birch Press, Persimmon Tree, Poetry and Covid, as well as other online sites.
REID BATEH has spent most of his life playing guitar, singing, and writing for a band called Bambara. They have headlined several tours in the US and Europe, done in-studio interviews/performances with the BBC and KEXP. The band’s music was featured in the final season of “Peaky Blinders” and has been played by both Henry Rollins and Iggy Pop on their respective radio shows. Reid currently lives in Brooklyn.
MARK BRAZAITIS is the author of eight books, including winners of the Iowa Short Fiction Award and the Richard Sullivan Prize. His stories, poems, and essays have appeared in The Sun, Ploughshares, Michigan Quarterly Review, Witness, Guernica, Poetry East, Poetry International, and elsewhere. A former Peace Corps volunteer and technical trainer, he directs the West Virginia Writers’ Workshop.
MICHAEL CANNISTRACI’S essays have been published in Entropy Magazine, Ravensperch, Literary Medical Messenger, The Evening Street Review, The Bangalore Review, The Dillydoun Review, Quibble, Stonecrop, Glacial Hills Review, Iris Literary Review and the 34th Parallel. He was finalist in the Pen2Paper Literary Contest and The Good Life Review Literary Contest.
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NICOLE CIFANI LEHMANN-HAUPT has been published in Active Muse Literary Journal and received a Pushcart Prize nomination. She is also published in Mulberry Literary. She earned a bachelor’s degree from The Ohio State University and a master’s degree in visual and media arts from Emerson College.
ERIC D e PRIESTER lives in Los Angeles. His fiction has appeared in The 34th Parallel, Ragazine, and Five on the Fifth, and poetry in On the Rusk and Stereo-Man 3D. His feature film debut “Treason” was released in 2020, and his short film “Composure” premiered at festivals in 2022.
DAN GROSSMAN teaches composition at Marian University in Indianapolis, Indiana and is a former Peace Corps volunteer (Niger 1992-94). He served as managing editor for NUVO, based in Indianapolis. Currently he edits the online blog IndyCorrespondent.org where you can find a link to his book of poems, Mindfucking Roundabouts of Carmel, Indiana.
E.H. JACOBS is a psychologist and writer in Massachusetts. His work has appeared in Best of Choeofpleirn Press, Coneflower Café, Santa Fe Literary Review, Permafrost Magazine, Hawaii Pacific Review, Storgy Magazine, Streetlight Magazine, Aji Magazine, and Smoky Quartz, and is a nominee for the Nina Riggs Poetry Award. He has published two books on parenting.
GABRIELLA KING is a licensed psychotherapist, with a special interest in the treatment of trauma. Her writing has been published in Another Country, Spiraeas, The Unknown Writer, numerous local newspapers and association magazines, and The Washington Post. She lives with her husband and literary muse, Darla, the American Foxhound.
DAVID KONITZER is a retired college English teacher living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He received his M.A. in English from Iowa State University. When not writing, he enjoys reading, playing chess, and wrestling with his adopted cat, London.
HEATHER LANG-CASSERA is a 2022 Nevada Arts Council Literary Arts Fellow; a Clark County, Nevada Poet Laureate Emeritus; a Tolsun Books publisher; a lecturer with Nevada State College; and the author of Gathering Broken Light (Unsolicited Press, 2021), winner of the NYC Big Book Award in Poetry, Social/Political. www.heatherlang.cassera.net
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ZACHARY LIPEZ is a NYC writer. He is, at the time of this writing, an Editor at Large for Creem Magazine. Knock on wood, he will remain at that job. He tended bar for twentyfive years and doesn’t want to go back to it just yet. He also sings in the goth metal band Publicist UK.
ELIZABETH TARYN MASON is an Associate Professor of English at Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati, OH. When she isn’t teaching, grading papers or meeting with students, you can find her cheering at a baseball game, with her nose in a book, or, more often than not, doing the laundry.
DANIEL EDWARD MOORE lives in Washington on Whidbey Island. His work is in Plainsongs, West Trade Review, and forthcoming in I-70 Review, Tar River Poetry Journal, Ponder Review, Sierra Nevada Review, Texas Review Press and South Florida Poetry Journal. His book, Waxing the Dents, is from Brick Road Poetry Press.
KORKUT ONARAN’S The Book of Colors has received the first prize in Cervena Barva Press 2007 Chapbook Contest. His poem, “House,” has received the second prize in 2006 Baltimore Review Poetry Competition. His first book of poetry, The Trident Poems, has been published by World Enough Writers in February 2018.
E.M. SCHORB’S work has appeared in Agenda (UK), The American Scholar, The Carolina Quarterly, The Mississippi Review, The Hudson Review, The Southern Review, Stand (UK), The Massachusetts Review, Sand Literary Journal (DE), The Virginia Quarterly Review, Poetry Salzburg Review (AU), The Yale Review, and Oxford Poetry (UK), among others.
FRAN SCHUMER’S poetry, fiction, and articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Nation, The North American Review, and other publications. She is the winner of a Goodman Loan Grant Award for Fiction, and a Martha’s Vineyard Poetry Fellowship. Her chapbook, Weight, was published by Choeofpleirn Press in 2022.
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CHRISTOPHER STEWART is co-author (with Quraysh Ali Lansana) of The Walmart Republic (Mongrel Empire Press). His work frequently addresses themes around mental illness and recovery. In 2021, he was selected as a featured poet in the Mid-America Arts Alliance’s Forgotten Stories series. He lives in Lincoln, Nebraska.
ANDIE TURSI lives and works in Philadelphia, PA. She holds a BA from Villanova University and two Masters degrees from the University of Pennsylvania. A long-time member of The Rittenhouse Writers Group, her writing has appeared in Apiary, Rock & Sling, and in the anthology The Best Short Stories of Philadelphia 2021.
ROSALYNDE VAS DIAS’ poetry has appeared in Crazyhorse, The Cincinnati Review, West Branch, The Pinch, Laurel Review, The Collagist, The Four Way Review and elsewhere. Her first book, Only Blue Body, won the 2011 Robert Dana Award offered by Anhinga Press. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island.
PAMELA WAX , an ordained rabbi, is the author of Walking the Labyrinth (Main Street Rag, 2022) and the forthcoming chapbook, Starter Mothers (Finishing Line Press). Her poems have garnered a Best of the Net nomination and awards from Crosswinds and elsewhere. She offers online spirituality and poetry workshops from Western Massachusetts.
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