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Vol. 1: Summer 2012
He Never Liked Cake (Excerpt)
Story by Janna Leyde Non-Fiction
Photography by Marcus Cooper
He had not been home in precisely 87 daysâ€”almost three months, which amounted to so many weeks that Iâ€™d quit counting. The days of chicken salad sandwiches and chairs that hurt my tailbone were long past. So were the days of watching a familiar reality fade away. These days my mother and I had mastered a perfect illusion of sameness, masking the gap of before and after brain injury. She winterized the boat, made time to throw sticks and tennis balls to Meagan, helped me with math homework. I thought her intelligence and perfectionist approach to things would be the trick to algebra, but we were both stumped, bored and frustrated. She
cooked for us, mowed the grass and kept the garage clean. She went to my volleyball games and chorus concerts, and drove me to Speech tournaments in the wee morning hours on Saturdays. She lectured me about cars, constantly. About riding with my friends, and how to pay attention to who was a good driver, who was responsible. It was as if my dad had been on a long vacation. He could walk in the door and slip right back into our lives. Except my mother kept referring to my father as “handicapped, both mentally and physically.” She had me prepared to babysit my father—meal times, bedtimes and do and don’ts and lists. I was a good babysitter, the kind that gave all the kids on my block secret snacks and extended bedtimes. Maybe he’d be like Harrison Ford in Regarding Henry, a cold, heartless, intelligent man turned childishly kind and less clever. “This looks like it will be pretty good,” my dad had said, bringing the movie home one night for us to watch after work. “I like Harrison Ford and your mom likes Annette Bening.” Henry was shot in the head at a convenience store. Henry had a brain injury and lost his job as high profile, moneymaking lawyer. Henry needed some time to heal in his own home with the help of his wife and only child, a daughter. Henry grew to be a new person, different, but it all worked out for the three of them once Henry was adjusted at home. I would be sharing the bathroom again. My mother had thrown away his bottle of Rolaids. A film of dust had collected on the bottle as it sat untouched on the shelf for months. She replaced the Rolaids with an oblong, transparent blue pillbox that sat on the counter. Open and obvious. Each square was marked with bold letters, kindergarten typeface, for every hour of the day of the week. In each square she arranged his
medications with same precision as she used to place the Christmas tree ornaments back in their storage boxes. I counted them.
ONE cotton-candy-pink oblong pill (Paxil: 20 mg at 8 a.m.), a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI) to calm anxiety and reduce obsessive-compulsive behavior.
THREE square white pills that looked straight out of Brave New World (Buspar: 15 mg, at 8 a.m., 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.) another anti-anxiety, the least drowsy drug of its kind.
ONE round, sand-colored tablet (Desyrel: 50 mg before bed), a Serotonin Antagonist Reuptake Inhibitor (SARI), an anti-depressant.
THREE white Mike & Ikes (Risperdal: 1 mg at 8 a.m., 4 p.m. and 8 p.m.), a super low dose of a heavy little drug used to treat schizophrenia and the mixed manic states of bipolar disorder, a mild horse tranquilizer of sorts that slow down the metabolism in the process.
ONE half white, half sea-green capsule (Klonopin: .25 mg at 8 p.m.) to reduce anxiety and, in his case, to reduce muscle spasms in his sleep.
TWO shiny, fire-engine-red pills (Amantadine: 50 mg at 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.) to reduce the dopamine turnover in his brain. With a Glasgow Coma score so low, he had significantly reduced cognitive functioning, so this drug might be able to help.
ONE mauve oval stamped with AMB (Ambien: 5 mg at bedtime) to sleep at night.
Twelve pills every day. I wondered how he would take them all. Gram Margaret took her pills three at a time. And Gram Mary hid hers around the house in an attempt not to take them. I’m sure that many tasted awful. Would they get stuck in his throat on the way down? He was always thirsty, but he rarely drank water. The Rolling Rocks and Honey Browns in our fridge were replaced with cartons of Ensure. Our cupboards were filled with fibrous carbs and the crispers, with vegetables and fruits. Healthy, simple things. No Doritos. No Oreos. “Are you excited?” I asked the day before he was supposed to come home. “He’s coming home!” “Well, yes.” she said. “But, Janna, you have to understand that he’s going to be very different. He’s not the same at all.” “But he’ll finally be at home. That’s kind of exciting.” “Yes, I know. . .” She didn’t seem excited. She seemed more sad or scared. An emotion I couldn’t place. Maybe she was just tired. “But it’s good that he’s coming home, right?” “He’s going to be very tired, and he’s going to sleep a lot. He’s not going to be the same dad.” “Oh.” “Janna, he’s really not very nice sometimes. It’s one of the stages. I just want you know—he sometimes has a hard time with . . . things.”
“Oh.” *** I didn’t expect balloons and cakes and a living room full of guests with a “Welcome Home, John” banner strung across the beams (though I thought about making one). But I expected something. No one came over. There was nothing welcoming, no hint of a homecoming. On a day like any other, my mother came home after work with my dad. I sat on the back porch with my dog, Meagan, trying to make a blade of grass whistle. We waited to hear the crunch of gravel as the car pulled into the driveway. When I heard it, I stood up, heart thumping, ready to race down to meet them. I couldn’t move. I just stood and watched her pull the car up and park in front of the garage. She got out and came around to unbuckle him and help him lift out of the passenger seat. When I saw him I realized that I didn’t know this man coming to live with us. They walked toward me and Meagan circled them, tail wagging, panting, nudging my mom with her nose. I played out in my mind when the perfect time would be to hug him. When they reached the steps in front of me, I backed out of the way. She stayed patiently beside him as he climbed all three steps, her elbow latched tight around the crook of his arm, like a deadbolt. With each step she gave him a different command. “Careful.” Step one. “Watch yourself.” Step two. “John! You have to slow down.”
Finally, three, where he took a giant gasp and looked at me. We were one foot from each other, and he just stared. “John, say hi to Janna,” she said. “Hi, Dad.” I couldn’t do it. I could barely touch him. A hug was out of the question. I didn’t know who he was. So I gave him a kiss on the cheek. It was half-assed kiss, like in the movies, just brushing his cheekbone with mine as I kissed air, not flesh. I opened the door for them, chewing myself out over the fact that I was too scared to hug my own brain-injured father. It was not his fault. Embarrassing. I might break him, his body stiff and frail, like clay that might crack, under skin that sagged and stretched, desperately trying to hang onto his bones. He was the man in the seventh box of the “Seven Stages of Man” sketch that hung in our basement. An old man hunched over, crippled. I couldn’t hug a man I didn’t know. Meagan greeted him, happy and panting, but he didn’t reach out to pat her head. My mother mouthed “Very tired” to me as I followed them inside, where he walked around our hallway, lost and confused. It was as if he’d never been there before. He wanted to sit, but he didn’t know where. He didn’t know to pull out the chair from under my mother’s desk. We had dinner around our kitchen table, like always. My mother tried to acclimate us both to the change and the new way to spend time together, giving us verbal lists of instructions over simple sandwiches and cut-up cantaloupe. He slumped over, one shoulder dropped awkwardly to the side, and stared at something in his lap. I sat, intently listening, taking mental notes on what was allowed and not allowed with him here, which helped me to block out how sad and scared this homecoming was.
After dinner, he fumbled his way through the house. At least he was walking again. There were no bars, no burly men on either side, no walker. He had little patience for himself, which resulted in plowing through space and catching his stumbles on furniture and walls. I was sure he would break our antique chairs with the weight of his falls. He weighed nothing. Nothing ever broke. He got the hang of walking like a normal person, eventually. A few days later when Ken, his first caregiver, arrived, he was disoriented. He used to work with a man named Ken at New Honda & Nissan City, and that Ken was his subordinate. This Ken was bossing him around. So when this Ken wouldn’t listen to him, he got mean and very aggressive. It wasn’t a question of like or dislike, he simply could not understand the purpose of Ken. “All he does is watch me,” my father said to my mother. “He just watches. I don’t need watched.” We tried to explain how that was Ken’s job, giving him a myriad of reasons, but to my father they made no sense. Reasons only aggravated him. “You’re paying someone to watch me do things.” It was not long before Ken got cut and was replaced by Jana, which my mother incorrectly pronounced as Jane-a (with a long a). An unfairly perplexing situation for him— a Janna with one n. Sounds the same, spelled different. Sounds the same, belonged to someone completely different. Sounds the same, bossing him around. I was also strangely insulted by the fact that his caregiver had the same name as I did. I didn’t know anyone with my name. I liked it that way. But Jana was nice, and she was
good at watching him. He was angry and hostile. But Jana with one n knew how to handle him, how to help him go about his days doing what he needed to do. I didn’t know how he spent his days, didn’t care. I kept mine separate. I couldn’t recognize our relationship. I didn’t know how to act. He was frightening to the bones, even to me. He yelled about everything. He was mean. It was supposed to be a phase. Even the dumb book for kids like me said so. He hit Meagan, too. He whaled on her, right in the face, until she whimpered. It made my stomach flip. He loved that dog. That dog loved him. He wouldn’t take her out or throw the Frisbee or a stick or a ball, but it didn’t stop her from trying. Grabbing her toys and dropping them at his feet like old times, only to be thwacked in the face. And he threw the cat. Off tables, off his lap when she crawled up there, or just because. He was no longer kind. Sometimes he would raise his hand at me in moments of enraged frustration, but nothing came of it. I just yelled back. I learned how to yell at him. Eventually we had to hide car keys from him. All he wanted to do was drive. He wanted to drive away and leave everyone. This was his daily, empty threat. So the keys were no longer allowed to hang on the hook above the phone. As the weeks barreled into the holiday season, I found that it was easy to avoid coming home. Ninth grade in Mercer was a full-time job. I hung out with my friends after school, staying late at their houses. I ate dinner at the Suhries’. I babysat neighbors. I spent weekends at Jackie’s, Vanessa’s, or Sarah’s. I shopped to stock up on SilverTabs and flannel shirts and listened to grunge CDs with Amber and Rebecca. Zac introduced me to a new band, a local band, called The Clarks. The drummer went to our high school. Sarah and I
hung out alone in her house and blasted Clarks Live, Jimmy Buffett, Oasis, Nirvana, The Eagles and Celine Dion while we baked things. I still didn’t smoke cigarettes, didn’t smoke pot, didn’t have a boyfriend. Didn’t drink and didn’t have sex. I still got all A’s and chose responsible drivers. I just didn’t know how to be at home anymore. I had disconnected from my parents, in a way that made me think when this all blew over, I’d come back to them. If I’d thought about it too much, I missed them terribly. I tried to talk to my father about anything, anything he wanted to talk about. We were the talkers, but the conversation was always taxing and pointless, and he’d turned into a selfish, chauvinist, crude man from a bad sitcom. He told lewd jokes to strangers. He bossed my mother around. He told me I was a selfish little brat. He never called me “Peanut” or “Janna Marie.” He never did the dishes. He never offered to help with anything. And he watched a lot of TV. He swore at me. He ran around the house to get away from me. This made as much sense as when Gram Mary used to do the same thing. She would lock me out of the house and holler at me. I had hidden from her, but I confronted my father. And he was always trying to start fires, like it was his thing. Matches, lighters all had to be hidden like car keys. There was no explanation for it. So many times it was frighteningly evident that he had no idea who we were. He didn’t know where he was. He didn’t even know who he was. “Maybe it would have helped if we’d taken pictures,” my mother said one day when were feeding the horses. “Of what?” I said.
“Your father in the hospital, with his face banged up and all the tubes. I had thought about it, but I just didn’t do it.” “I don’t think he’d believe us anyway if we showed them to him.” “You’re probably right.” He had no memory of the accident. He had no memory of the months after or any memory of the months before. In his more lucid moments he constantly contested the extreme care and concern that we had for him. He thought we were making it all up. There were moments of his old self, so few and far between that they were almost a cruel joke. He’d say a familiar phrase or we’d recognize something as simple as the intonation he used on one word. He would sit on the porch steps and scratch Meagan’s ears. He’d hug Mom. He’d make me toast with peanut butter. He’d say Gesundheit after I sneezed. It was like watching a snowed-out TV screen play blips of that movie we’d all been watching. Little blips, signs that it all might come back. Motivation to keep loving him. My mother thought it would be okay to invite Sarah and Jackie over, to re-meet him. Two of my closest friends, and two friends whose mothers knew, and could probably prepare them for, what to expect. When they arrived, we had a short conversation in the driveway with my dad. They were polite and careful not to speak to him like he was baby. I had begged them to just “be normal.” They were. And he was polite, not nasty or lewd. “Who were they?” he asked after they went inside to put their bags in my room. “Dad! That’s Sarah and Jackie,” I said. “You know them.” “I do not know them. Who are they?” “They’re my friends, remember? My best friends. . . ” “No.”
“But you took us skiing all the time and you—” “Janna, stop.” My mother had come outside. “Okay, sorry. Dad, Sarah is the girl with brown hair, and Jackie has blonde hair. They are my best friends. You’ve met them many times before.” “Janna,” my mom said. “I said stop.” “But they’re—” “Can it.” *** “JOHN!!!” she screamed, reaching her hand into the backseat to stop me from keeling forward. “SLOW DOWN!” We hadn’t even made it out of the driveway. My stomach was stuck in my throat. I wanted to barf. The car was a mix of four splashes too many of Old Spice and my mom’s Clinique Elixir. We were going out to eat with Fred and Carolyn. This was exciting, always exciting. This was something we used to do. “DAD! Please just slow down.” The Explorer hurtled toward the ditch, the back wheel lifting as we made the turn out of our driveway at 45 mph. How one gets from 0 to 45 on that limited stretch of limestone, I’ll never know. Crunch. “John! That was Suhries’ mailbox!” I could feel us all flying through the windshield, pictured broken skulls and puddles of blood to clean up. Clug. The truck landed.
“What?” my dad said, annoyed. “I’m the one driving. I am driving.” It was all he had wanted to do for months and months—drive a car. Drive and go back to work. Drive and go back to work. A broken record. This was his big night. Tonight was a test. My mother would let him drive the three minutes it took to get from our house to the Gallos’. “John! You have to pay attention,” she said, putting her hand over his on the wheel. “You cannot just go like that. You need to slow down, and you need to pay attention. Janna’s with us, remember?” He had no idea how not to accelerate and brake at the same time. And, turns out, no depth perception. He was majorly failing. “I know what I’m doing,” he said, slamming on the brakes. Once off Delaware Trail, he never broke 20 mph. He could’ve gone at least 35, but driving extra slow would show us who was in charge. He was. I counted the seconds until we pulled into the Gallos’ driveway. My father was livid at having been told what to do. As soon as we parked the car, I hopped out and ran in through their garage into the house. I didn’t say hello, didn’t wait for my parents and shoved Baxter, their giant slobbery yellow lab, out of the way, racing to the bathroom. I closed the door and stood in the dark with a flickering decorative candle, waiting for my heart to stop beating against the skin of my chest. I heard my parents come in, heard Fred ask where I was, if I was coming. Heard my mother say I was probably in the bathroom. I sat down on the toilet seat and closed my eyes, breathing in the spiced cookie candle. I heard my father telling Fred a joke about a stripper while they poured drinks in the kitchen. I pictured my dad, face stretched thin, shoulder humped over, wearing a
maroon sweater that fit him like a sack. He was laughing his new laugh about the tits in the punchline of this joke that he had told Fred the last three times they were together. I pictured my mom taking a healthy sip of the white zin that Carolyn poured for her from a box on the dining room table. “Can I have a sip?” I said, asking my mother as I emerged from the bathroom. “You won’t like it, hon,” Carolyn said. “Can I just try?” “Sure,” my mother said, handing me her glass. “It needs an ice cube.” I walked over to the freezer, stuck my hand under the dispenser and pushed “cubed ice.” The Suhries had one, and Jackie and the Gallos. Why couldn’t we? I plunked two cubes in and walked back to the dining room. I took a sip. It tasted like what I imagined tinfoil would taste like. I made a face and handed it back to her. I went into the living room to search for the bowl of Hersey’s Kisses. I picked out three blue and three gold ones and stood eating them one after the other while I stared at the Gallos’ collection of ’80s and ’90s movies. I’d watched them all at least six times. I pulled out Romancing the Stone, and wondered if Cartagena could really be as steamy and romantic as Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner made it look. Or if it was possible to wheel a schooner down Fifth Avenue in New York City. “Janna Marie, mangia, mangia...” Fred yelled from the kitchen. “Let asa go eeetza.” *** He couldn’t express emotions, whether he felt them or not. “Flat affect,” my mother had explained. Some people with brain injuries suffered it as result of the depression from
the change in their lives, and other people suffered it because of where they got hit on the head. My father was the latter. He was supremely apathetic in any given situation, unless it was laughing at a dirty joke he was telling or becoming enraged about not being able to drive. Meagan was getting old and having a hard time, yet he hardly took notice and had no patience for her. He made an inappropriate comment about one of my friends. He made Mom cry, made me cry, made Aunt Biz cry. It didn’t matter. Flat affect. The only thing he could fake was his stupid smile and fraudulent laugh. “Dad?” “Janna.” “What are you doing?” He’d picked me up at school from Speech practice. It was December, a whiteout blizzard on a Monday night. He was no sweet and kind Regarding Henry, but he could at least pick me up from school. The whole way in from town we drove through whiteness, slipping and sliding through turns. His driving was appropriate, but the weather was not. When we got to the boat ramp, he pulled over into the empty parking lot, the headlights illuminating the naked unblemished snow on the frozen lake. It made me think of the fresh ice-skate tracks we used to make together—his smooth clean lines on hockey skates and my craggy pattern of stumbles falls on figure skates. “Dad, why are we stopped?” He shifted the Explorer into Park and opened his door. He unbuckled his seatbelt, got out (leaving the door open), and walked around to open my door. “Because you’re driving.”
“Dad! No! I can’t!” “Then I guess we’re just going to sit here.” “I can’t, Dad. No. It’s snowing.” “Well, I’m not going to drive.” I started to cry. I told him I’d tell Mom, told him that I was too young, told him it was dangerous. He told me the only way we were getting home was if I drove us there. “But it’s snowing. I can’t see.” “You can see. I can see.” “No, Dad. I can’t.” “You can.” It was cold, and snow was building up on the running boards of the open doors to our Explorer. I kicked it away and got out, walked around, feeling the snow land on my eyelashes and melt my mascara. I stared at the driver’s seat and the foreign lights of the dashboard stared back at me. “Well, get in.” I got in. He talked me through it. Short, clipped, unemotional steps of where to put my feet and hands. How to turn on four-wheel drive and how to work the wipers. Where the brakes were and what would happen if I went too fast. Then he said nothing. We sat there for five minutes while I sobbed into the steering wheel. “Dad, why are you doing this?” “Are we just going to sit here while you cry?” I wiped the tears and mascara off my face with my scratchy wool scarf. The window had fogged up, so I wiped my scarf on the window. I looked at the window, helplessly, and
then at him. He punched the defrost button. I pushed and pulled at the gas pedal with my foot, feeling for it as if it were hidden in an abyss. I was too short. The car tugged and jerked out of the parking lot. When I tried to turn onto Latonka Drive, the tires just spun. I hoped they would spin until they found raw, un-iced road, but we just started inching to one side, slipping. “Dad!” The tail end of the truck was out of my control, and I could see headlights on the stretch of country road behind us, soon to catch up with us. “Dad, please! I can’t do this.” “Take your foot off the pedal.” I did and the spinning stopped. He punched the four-wheel drive button. “Hit the gas.” I hit it and we eked forward. I couldn’t see. I drove blind, into a tunnel of white flurries for what seemed like an hour, never popping the needle above 10 mph. I couldn’t see where the road ended. My father just sat there. Silent, with no words of encouragement. “Why are you crying?” “Why did you make me do this?” “You have to learn to drive.” I sobbed, wiping snot off on the mitten that was sitting in my lap. “Why are you crying?” “Why can’t you understand, Dad? This is so scary.” “No it’s not. Stop crying.” “But you won’t help me.”
“You don’t need help. You are doing it.” By the time I pulled into the driveway, my forearms hurt from squeezing the wheel. Salt and snot had dried all over my face and my clothes were soaked with sweat. I looked at him and he looked at the garage, reached up and pushed the red button attached the visor above me. The door creaked open. I looked at him. He looked at the wheel and then at the open garage. “No.” I said. “Then we’ll just leave it outside,” he said, starting to open the door. “No!” I said, leaning over him to swat his hand away. I crawled forward in the Explorer, making myself dizzy as I turned my head from side to side to make sure I didn’t hack off a mirror in the process. I turned off the ignition, opened the door and breathed a full sigh of cold winter garage air into my lungs. I handed him the keys. I ran into the house and straight into the bathroom to wash my face off, the sweat, tears and the entire experience. When had I started this relationship with bathroom escapes? “Janna, John? Where have you been?” my mom asked, padding into the hallway in a pair of her puffy slippers. “Dad taught me how to drive,” I said through the bathroom door, over the running water. I never even went to the bathroom. I would just sit, or run water or look in the mirror. “John, what?” “I taught Janna how to drive.”
“John, she’s not old enough.” “She is now.” “You can’t do these things.” “It was a blizzard, too,” I yelled from the bathroom. Sitting on the closed toilet seat, feeling steam fill the air from the hot water running in the sink, I began to calm down. I even felt a little proud of my feat. “John, you can’t do that.” “She’s fine. She had to learn sometime. She done good.” Done good. There it was, the slight mockery on the English language. I heard it. One of those tiny moments, hidden in a phrase, a taste of who he used to be, a blip. I knew she heard it, too.
Story by Chris Castle Fiction
Photography by Marcus Cooper
Bobby walked out of the house and down the road. Some of the birds were singing and some were not. He wondered why they didn’t sing, the starlings, the blackbirds and thought they might be unhappy. The idea of sad birds almost clouded his eyes but after ma, he had made a Bobby-promise not to make any more tears pop out of his eyes. They were cruel, hateful things, smudging everything, making buildings look like butter and the flowers like ruined photographs. No, no more tears for Bobby, even if his heart trembled and shook like the tracks when a train approached. Ma had always told him to stand behind the yellow lines when they’d gone on a trip and he’d always listened. Would he ever go on another trip now, without ma? He shook his head no, but in his heart, in that secret place where he
made his dreams and sometimes fell in love with the pretty girl from the local shop that sold his pop, he wondered. The door slammed shut and Bobby pulled the door knocker three times to make sure it was shut. Times were hard and that made thieves popular, ma’s friend, Mr. Epson, had said and ma had nodded in agreement. Bobby tried to imagine what a popular robber would look like, if his swag bag sparkled, if his eye mask was fashioned from gold, but his brain couldn’t quite put the picture together. Instead, the pictures shook in his head and vibrated, like ma’s old fashioned kettle that whistled when it came to the boil, and the image in his head came out jumbled. Bobby scratched his head in frustration; he hated it when his ideas and his mind didn’t link up and tumbled out like fractured jigsaw puzzle pieces. Over the year’s mean people had called him all the names under the sun. When he was little, ma chased the bad people away and his heart swelled. But then, with time, ma grew little and he got big and sometimes, he knew, in the back of his broken mind, that he should have been the one to chase the meanies away and not ma. He had tried once or twice to shush the boys and girls, who said cruel words that made their lips curl and twist with spite and made them look like ugly goblins. But he said things backwards and blushed when he should have blustered and it always seemed to fall back to ma to defend him, as if he were the weak dragon and she was the wily queen. She always patted his hand and told him it didn’t matter and he wanted to believe her but something in him ached and made Bobby think she might have been telling ‘a white lie’ to save him from pain and embarrassment. It made him sad, so sad he almost screamed but then ma would tell him something, a fact-no two birdsong are alike; in that way they are like fingerprints for human beings-or say
something that made such sense it made her seem like the wisest woman in the world. His favourite was, in times that she would call, ‘hot-headed situations’-‘Bobby, you know who says stupid things? Stupid people.’ As he walked up the small garden path, Bobby saw the flowers in the garden were starting to wilt. Ma, over the years, had written down instructions for him to water the flowers and take care of the plants and he knew the day was coming when he’d have to take charge and start looking after her favourite things. It wasn’t that he was lazy; no, Bobby was never lazy, and he had made sure of that. When he was a baby boy what he lacked in smarts he made up in sweat-his favourite teacher, Mr Collins had said, but something else. If he started to take care of the flowers, it was finally admitting that ma was gone. He knew she was gone, he knew it, but, sometimes he let himself be fooled that she was just in hospital; that she was just standing by a taxi rank and waiting to come home. He told himself at night that the creak in the floorboards was her getting up to make tea; that the noise from the radio he left on all night was ma gently talking in her sleep. If she was gone, then he was alone and being alone scared Bobby more than name calling and thunder storms and snakes put together. People were not meant to live in this world alone, he thought and couldn’t remember if that was what his ma had said or if that was an original thought straight out of his own brain box. He opened the front gate-it squeaked and he had to drip-drop oil onto it soon, before it scared all the cats out of the neighbourhood and took a deep breath. In all the time he and ma had walked to the local shop to buy his favourite pop, Bobby had never thought about how far it actually was to get there. On sunny days it seemed as if they were there in a flash.
On rainy days, he splashed in puddles and held the umbrella tightly to ma’s side to stop her from getting a chill and felt useful, like a prince in a tale defending his family-and the time still raced away. Once, there had been snow and that morning felt as if it had lasted forever, feeling the crunch-crunch of the snow, pitching a small snowball onto a wall. Some nights, as he waited to sleep, Bobby remembered that morning and a smile would creep onto his face and send him to sleep better than any bed time story. But now, on his own, he suddenly realised how long the street seemed, how wide and scary and gloomy it suddenly seemed. The buildings loomed over him like monsters and Bobby felt his hands begin to shake. This didn’t make sense. It wasn’t cold, so why did his hands shake? Things like this only happened when people threw bad words at him, or when memories from long ago, when Pa was still living in the corners of their life. Fear, his brain whispered, remembering the word and feeling the horrible sharp taste of each letter on his lips. He closed his eyes and started to turn away, his fingers back on the gate, his heart steadying. No, another part of his mind said clearly. It was his voice but there was ma’s strength in it, making it clear and whole. He forced himself to turn and face the street. He took a breath so gigantic that he wondered how there was any air left in the street. He looked around, searching for something that could help him. In times of stress, think of what you love the best. That had been what Doctor Morrow had told him once, after Bobby had smashed up a classroom full of chairs. He hadn’t known quite why he had done it, although a part of him did but wouldn’t tell. It was anger, anger and rage at being the way he was, too big for his body and too small in mind. Anger and fear sat inside him like two hateful twins and sometimes they came out and upset the applecart. These were the times
when Bobby went to pay a visit to Doc Morrow and he spoke to Bobby in a voice so calm and even, it sounded like honey in the air. Bobby sometimes wished Doc could marry ma and sometimes he saw the way the two looked at each other and thought they did too. But a gold wedding ring sat on his finger like a shield, deflecting the love from ma’s eyes and keeping them apart. Think, think, think… Bobby looked at a wall that was covered with graffiti. Football tags and people’s names and rude walls and parts of the body that Bobby recognised but did not understand, not really, and…and birds. In amongst all the bad pictures that ma had always tried to shield him from but never quite succeeded, there were a pair of birds flying inside the wall. They were thin looking things, all wings and no body, no shape, but to Bobby they looked like the prettiest pair of birds in the world. He kept his eyes on their wings, on their half-formed beaks and managed to edge further down the road to get a closer look. Nothing else mattered, not the looming buildings, not the dirty kerbs, just the pair of young, single coloured birds in flight. From far away, he heard the shuffle of his own feet moving, but everything else was tied to the birds. Finally, he was at the wall. Luckily, the birds, which he had decided were rooks, sat in the centre of the wall, within reach. Bobby was six feet and two inches and had no trouble pushing up to touch them. For a long time, he laughed at being as tall as six pairs of feet and this had made ma laugh too, but she had made him concentrate on facts like that, too, because they were important. He knew his multiplication table, how much a pound weighed and understood shapes and sizes. Bobby had been taken out of school: he wasn’t kicked out but he was never invited
back in, either. It felt, to Bobby, as if he’d just…fallen out one day and no-one ever asked him back. Ma had taught him plenty of things. There’s what you learn in school, she said and what you need to know in life. So, sure, Bobby didn’t know Pythagoras from Paris but he did know things. He knew how to fix a leaky bath, how much change came from a note and how to wire a plug in near darkness. And birds. ‘Ornithology,’ people called it, but bird-watching was what it was. Why did Bobby love it? No-one knew, not even ma. If he was ever asked, not that anyone would, he would tell them about a day; an ordinary day, not bad not one of the good, but a day with a clear sky that revealed a flock of seagulls that made it the best. Why didn’t everyone bird watch? It was free: everyone had the sky; everyone knew where to look for birds-straight up in the sky! People all over the world could hear them, see them, and follow them. If he met a man from Timbuktu, they would have that in common, at least. Ma had once bought him a book with pictures and details and everything you needed to know about birds. It had cost her a lot of money, he knew that, and he hugged her so fiercely he thought they both might have popped right then and there. And if they had…that would have been okay. That birthday, the day of the bird book, had been the happiest day of his life. Ma had cooked his favourite meal and the two of them had washed the dishes together, the radio played in the background. The day had been dry and they’d walked around the park with their coats over their arms and no-one had said anything mean, as if they knew it was his birthday and deserved a day of peace. At night she had slipped the book over the table to him and he had opened it and then there had been the hug. He had
gone to bed that night with an idea that his heart was a balloon and heavy with all the love he felt that day. One of those tears ran down the side of his face but it was this one time it was a thing of joy. The next day, when he woke, the tail of it had dried down the side of his cheek, leaving a scar of happiness, like a silver blade, across his skin. Bobby put his fingertips against the wall and touched the wingtips of the birds. The brick was crumbly and uneven and felt almost like rough plumage. He smiled, imagining a bird with feathers flecked with stone: what a strange, fantastic creature it would be! He drew back his hand, surprised to find it clean and dry and stared hard at the wall. For a second, everything around it was gone and only the birds sat in the centre of the stone. It was like a dream but with his eyes wide open, and Bobby wondered if this was something like a small miracle. A smile, the first since ma had gone, began to creep onto the corners of his mouth. A car raced by, beeping its horn, bringing him back and wiping it from his face. The car raced on, a fat, spoiled face craning out and screaming something back at him, making all the dirty graffiti come back to the wall and buried the birds. Bobby walked on. The local shop came into sight and Bobby saw just how many people seemed to pass through the small high street every day. There were plenty of folks that his ma had known but without her by his side, they fell back into being strangers. The boys and girls were out of school and moved so quickly, it was like they were already moving on before theyâ€™d even started. Bobby remembered not to follow the school kids too closely. Once, after a man had done a terrible thing, people had tried to say it was Bobby. Letters had come through the door and once, paint had splashed against the window of maâ€™s house. The poor girlâ€™s father told the police what he had done after going to church and everything went back to normal,
but ma didn’t speak to certain people after that day and she made Bobby remember them. He thought of those folks as the paint-splashers and gave them a wide birth whenever they appeared on the street. Bobby had asked ma why the father had done what he did. Ma opened her mouth to speak but then closed it. Instead, she just gripped his hand and held it tightly. Somehow, he knew what it was she was trying to tell him, even without speaking. He wondered sometimes, if she had ‘telepathy,’ and tried to decide if it was something he would want or not. Sometimes he wondered what babies were thinking while they sat in their prams and he had the idea that to find out would be something like the most special feeling on earth. But then he saw adults, how creased their foreheads were, how ugly their eyes burned and he felt scared at even knowing the first thing about them. It was one of those things, like beauty and Elvis Presley, his ma would describe as, ‘both a blessing and a curse.’ Bobby walked up to the shop and drew in another gigantic suck of fresh air. Without ma by his side, his left arm actually felt weightless. If he looked away from the shop door, he wouldn’t have been surprised to see his left arm drift away into the air like a balloon. When he looked at the reflection in the glass door, for a moment he did; it was a pretty sight, the fingers still, the elbow crooked like a wing. Bobby almost smiled at the pretend sight of it, and then shook his head and stiffened. It was one of those times when he had to, ‘not have his head in the clouds’ but ‘keep his feet firmly on the ground’-ma. He blinked once and then plunged forward, using his floating left hand to grip the door handle; he tensed, making sure it was solid and not at risk of drifting away and then turned the door and stepped forward.
The bell rang and again, that sensation of weightlessness rode over him. Without ma at his side, he immediately veered a little to the side, almost brushing over a tin of beans. He righted himself and walked firmly down the aisle. He scooped the shopping list out of his pocket and again saw his hand was trembling. The paper started to go limp under his fingers, feeling like a dying fish in his palm and for a moment, Bobby thought he might scream or start pulling everything from the shelves until the whole shop, the whole mess, was on the floor and he’d either spend his whole day cleaning up and saying sorry for all the trouble he’d caused or just storm out, like the mean people who said the bad words about him, who sent ‘vile’ letters to ma, who hated him because he was different, who sent ma to heaven when he still wanted her to be on earth, leaning against his left arm and“Bobby?” The voice was quiet but not small and in a second drew him back from the rage that was pouring over him. He looked over and saw Jill, the shop assistant, who smiled at him and looked down to his list. It wasn’t a smile that you gave to someone you loved, but it wasn’t a fake smile either. It was a smile people offered up in the street to a stranger if they were happy that day, or wanting to do good things. “Is that you’re ma’s shopping list?” She said and as she spoke her fingers kept moving until they touched the piece of paper. If they kept travelling forward, our fingers would touch and then I would be in love forever, Bobby thought and let the list slip out of his hand and into her fingers. Her nail polish was pale blue, but had a spidery webbed pattern inside it. It was meant to be a something else, he knew, but to Bobby, all he could see were the curves and ridges of bird’s feathers.
“It’s quiet, so I thought maybe I could help,” she went on. In her other hand, she was already holding a basket-a basket Bobby had forgotten to claim-and dropped the first item into it. The way she moved was graceful and again thoughts of birds filled his mind; the way they soared into the sky and cut through the air. “Thank you…thank you for helping me,” Bobby said, as another can dropped from her fingers. “I forgot the basket…” “You must have a lot on your mind,” she said, looking away from the aisle and right into his eyes. It was the first time a woman had ever looked straight at him and not looked away straight after. Her eyes were blue and matched her nail polish. Was that deliberate? Bobby didn’t know. “My boss would give me hell, but we’re so quiet in this hour, I don’t think he’ll complain.” The basket was almost full now and Bobby wondered where the time had gone. The relief Bobby felt for it to be over was fighting with something else, the feeling that he never wanted this moment to be over. He thought about the morning when it snowed and pushed these few minutes alongside it as his best time. The two of them walked to the counter. He watched the numbers as they appeared on the screen and when it was over he gave her the note, the correct note, and carefully waited for the change. As the coins dropped into his hand, the tip of her nail brushed against his palm. “If you’d like, Bobby,” she said, as he carefully packed the items into two bags; heavy items on the bottom, eggs always last-ma. He looked up and saw her face crease a little, not knowing whether to speak or not. “I could hold onto the list and leave it behind the till, for when you visit each week. How does that sound?”
“That’s good…” Bobby said, feeling his cheeks flush. There’s was something else, something more, that his mind was trying to push out of his mouth and it was almost there. “Kind of you.” “Well, you’re welcome,” she said and smiled a beaming smile that made Bobby take a step back. He was glad he had two heavy bags to carry; otherwise, he may have fallen back far enough to knock over the cake stand behind him. “Goodbye,” she said, still smiling. “Bye,” Bobby said. Bobby adjusted the bags around his fingers until all the weight was settled across his hand. A car blared past, beeping its horn. An ugly young man screamed something over the din of the music. Bobby looked back to the shop and suddenly thought how far away Jill seemed now he was back on the street. The buildings still loomed, grim and casting log shadows. There were good people and there were bad people, Bobby’s mind whispered and he realised that was his own thought, his own decision. There were folks like his ma, Jill and then those cruel people, full of noise and hate. Bobby walked on, the shopping heavy but not a burden. As he came to the graffiti wall, the two birds shone in the heart of the stone. Another thought rolled into his mind, alongside the previous one: so many beautiful things, so many ugly things. He kept his eye on the birds, careful not to bump into anyone as he looked back, until the wall was out of sight. He pushed the gate that squeaked and then studied the flowers, identifying which needed water first of all.
Bobby packed away the shopping, with the radio on, until both plastic bags were empty. He went to the drawer in the kitchen and found ma’s notes. Clutching them, he wandered the rooms until he found the oil can. That task achieved, he next filled a jug of water and left both items by the front door. Last of all, he opened the door and propped it open with his spare coat, the thick one he wore in winter, so the door wouldn’t close while he was busy with his chores. He oiled the gate first; wiping his hands and making sure his nails did not get too dirty. After the first job was done, he hunkered down and poured water into the soil, careful not to flood the roots, ma’s voice a constant in his ear. Never telling him, but just guiding him in the right direction, so the mistakes he made were small and things he could learn from. He crouched on his haunches and thought about the graffiti birds sprayed on the wall. Around town, there was a lot of graffiti; old folks complained about it, which made it more popular with the kids. Bobby looked at his watch and read the time. He had a lot of the day left before it got dark. He could walk around town; searching out more graffiti birds until he found his very own flock. A flock of beautiful birds only he would know about. It was something he had never done before, had never even thought about before, but now…now he could, if he wanted to. It wasn’t raining, the sky was clear and the sense of the shopkeeper Jill’s nail in his palm burned and bloomed in his heart, giving him the strength to do anything. Somewhere inside Bobby, his ma guided his eyes out to the gate and the world outside their home. She was telling him to be careful but she wasn’t stopping him. Bobby looked up from the flowers to the sky. Overhead, a pair of starlings soared.
Story by Lucille Lang Day Fiction
Photography by Marcus Cooper
Ginger had long legs, jade-green eyes, and hair as red as autumn leaves. These days, at sixty-three, she had to henna her hair, and though it wasnâ€™t as lustrous as it once had been, it was still thick and wavy and reached past her shoulders, a mane she could toss as she danced. The skin now sagged on her upper arms, and her thighs were a bit lumpy, but with sleeves and pants or a long enough skirt, nobody needed to know. She wore size 4, had no stiffness in her joints, and was always raring to go. When the invitation to her friend Cassandraâ€™s sixty-fifth birthday arrived, Ginger tore it open by the mailbox of her small, neat Spanish-style home in Berkeley. There would
be a band and dancing, and the September weather across the bay in San Rafael would be glorious, but Ginger knew she would be going alone. Horace, her husband of twenty years, a retired real estate attorney, hated parties, hated Cassandra, and, most of all, hated to dance. He hadn’t always been such a curmudgeon. In the early years of their marriage, he had been less vigorous in his dislikes and had even danced with Ginger at weddings and on New Year’s Eve each year. Now, though, he didn’t hesitate to bash people and things he disliked with the passion and thoroughness he’d once brought to bear when arguing cases in court. The best thing she could now do for their marriage was to avoid setting him off. Horace was in the living room, lying on the blue leather sofa, reading the paper, when she came in. “Cassandra’s sixty-fifth birthday is a week from Saturday. She’s having a party. Want to go?” She knew very well what the answer would be. “Why would I want to spend any time with that new-age nitwit and her friends?” “You wouldn’t. I’ll go alone.” Arguing would only evoke a long, vehement tirade o n Cassandra’s flaws. When Ginger divorced her first husband, Dudley, who had been less contrary than Horace ultimately turned out to be, she had hoped to meet a man whose feelings and needs would be more aligned with her own. Now she knew that expecting to find the perfect mate was plain stupid. Every last man on the face of the Earth would sometimes be out of sync with her. Horace was intelligent, witty, and perfectly sociable in small groups with friends whom he liked. He was also a magnificent-looking man—six foot four, with a long, angular face crowned by a shock of silver-black hair—and he was deeply in love with Ginger. It would be foolish to make a fuss because he disliked Cassandra. She had met Cassandra fifty years earlier, at a party at Cassandra’s house when they
were teenagers. Ginger got invited to all the parties even back then because she was pretty and liked to dance. Now, she knew better than to mention the band and dancing to Horace. She wanted to go, and she didnâ€™t want either to have him tag along and ruin the event for her or to sit home fuming about the fact that she would be dancing with other men. It seemed odd to her that on this side of life she had to tell half-truths to and withhold information from someone, just as she had with her parents when she was a teenager. She wondered if it was common at this age to be less than completely open with oneâ€™s spouse, and supposed it was, given how different each of us is. *** When she was young, Ginger had many times confused love with the infatuation and desire she felt while dancing. Shaking her hips in front of a handsome boy or man, or slow dancing in his arms, she would start to think he was the love of her life and fantasize about their marriage and the children they would have one day. As in fairy tales, the truth of this love would be revealed by a kiss. Consequently, she had kissed many a man in her day and only figured out much later that even if they were not blatantly using her, what was in their hearts was usually something far different from being her prince. The first time this happened, Ginger was 13, at the same party where she met Cassandra, the older sister of her friend Susie, with whom she had just finished seventh grade at East Avenue Junior High in Livermore. Ginger went with Ronnie, another seventhgrade classmate, who had been pushing to go steady. She wore a sleeveless lavender blouse and tight black skirt, her hair ratted into a red dome. They were the first to arrive, signifying Gingerâ€™s enthusiasm for parties even then.
Susie had on a yellow sundress. Her short hair, too, was ratted on top, her bangs neatly trimmed, her spit curls glued to her cheeks. Like Ginger, she looked older than 13. She welcomed Ginger and Ronnie with two beers. Her parents were nowhere to be seen. The party was outside. Soon the patio filled with girls with high hair and boys whose hair was slicked back on the sides and fell in greasy waves on their foreheads. It had been a hot day, over 100 degrees, but the night was mild, the Milky Way softly shimmering. Ginger and Ronnie danced during several slow songs rising from Susie’s 45-rpm record player. In between, she guzzled one beer after another. Then she started to dance, fast or slow, with other boys. Ronnie watched from a chaise longue, his arms crossed, his face set. At first she felt like she was doing it to tease him. She wanted him to pull her away from the other boys and say he loved her, but he didn't do anything. Doing the twist, she found herself looking deeply into the eyes of a wiry little guy wearing a jacket emblazoned with “Del Valle Tigers,” a Livermore High School club. It was as though she were entering his eyes and their two bodies were fusing and becoming one. When the music stopped, she wasn’t surprised that he leaned forward to kiss her. Ronnie finally did something: he walked away. Cassandra pulled Ginger away from the Tiger, who was ready to kiss her again. This was Ginger’s first encounter with Cassandra, who must have felt protective because Ginger was her little sister’s friend. “Ronnie is really mad,” she said, her dark eyes serious and intense, every hair of her brown bouffant helmet lacquered into place. “He says he's going to break up with you. You'd better tell him you're sorry.” Break up with her? They weren’t even going steady! Cassandra led her to the kitchen,
where Ronnie was sitting on the table, gripping its edges, frowning and swinging his legs. Halfheartedly, Ginger said, “I’m sorry.” Why should she be faithful to him? She wasn’t in love. In a low, deliberate voice, he said, “Don't let it happen again.” She didn't consciously decide to do it again, but she went back to the patio, where another boy from Livermore High asked her to dance. It was a slow song, “Love Me Tender,” and instead of looking over his shoulder, she turned her head to look into his eyes. “I’m glad you stopped dancing with Tony,” he said. “I’ve seen you around and wanted to meet you.” Ginger felt swept away. He was better-looking than either Ronnie or Tony, and he’d been watching her! Could this be love? she wondered as Elvis crooned. Maybe this boy with blond hair, a cleft chin and such warm arms would be her true love. Certainly, there could be nothing wrong with kissing him. Again, Cassandra pulled her away. “Are you crazy?” she asked. “You're going to lose Ronnie. Can't you see that those guys are just using you?” Ginger didn't believe her. She thought they wanted her to be their girlfriend, and that the second guy, whose name she didn’t even know yet, might be in love with her. Ronnie, who saw the second kiss, headed back to the kitchen. Ginger followed him. “Let's talk,” she said. She wanted to explain that she liked him as a friend, but that she couldn’t be his girlfriend. Standing by the refrigerator, he looked at her without recognition. “There's nothing to talk about,” he said angrily. “You’re nothing but a two-bit whore, and we're history.” ***
In high school, although she was still a virgin at graduation, Ginger had developed a reputation for being fast. She supposed now that any girl with such a penchant for dancing and kissing was bound to be misinterpreted. Or maybe just petting was enough to classify you as fast. She loved to be touched, so had relished making out—and a little more—with her boyfriends. Of course, as the years went by she came to realize that Cassandra had been right about the boys at that party in 1959, as well as some others whom she shuddered to think about, and she often wondered how she could have started out so dumb about relations with the opposite sex, because, in general, she wasn’t dumb. She was a good student, especially in English and languages, and was accepted by several colleges in her senior year. She chose the University of California at Los Angeles. It was far enough away from Livermore for her to feel independent from her parents, yet close enough that she could go home as often as she pleased. Dressing for Cassandra’s sixty-fifth birthday, she remembered returning from LA for a holiday party at the house in Livermore where Cassandra then lived with her husband. Cassandra had gone to a community college for two years, married at twenty, and was already expecting, while Ginger was still working toward her degree in art history at UCLA. Ginger’s hair was down now, red and wavy, cascading to her waist. Drinking heavily, she had started flirting with one of Cassandra’s neighbors, who was there with his wife and twomonth-old baby. After slow dancing to “Yesterday” they sat side by side on the sofa, looking into each other’s eyes, which was always Ginger’s downfall. True to form, she started fantasizing that he was her true love. How could she think that? Why hadn’t she yet learned? The man, decent-looking but ordinary, an insurance agent, said, “You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.”
“Thank you.” She smiled, thrilled by his desire and her own sense of power. She could make things happen, turn a chance encounter into love! “Can I kiss you?” Unfortunately, she said yes. He put his arms around her, and their lips met for a long, passionate moment. Then Cassandra grabbed him by the arm, whisked him away, and delivered him to his wife. He never even returned to Ginger to say good-bye, and she knew she’d been a fool. Why did she get infatuated so easily? It was still a mystery to her, explicable at best as a side effect of selfish genes using her as a pawn in a battle for their own survival. Ginger left that long-ago party with Dudley, another high school friend and a real dud of a man. In less than five years, they would be married. As Dudley drove her to her parents’ home, he said, “Cassandra’s sister advised me to stay away from you. She said you were that kind of woman. You always had been and always would be.” “Susie doesn’t know what kind of woman I am. Did she have any criticism of the man?” She was a dreamer, not a whore, but people, even some who had known her for years, couldn’t seem to tell the difference. *** Ginger wore a pale blue and lavender skirt from India to Cassandra’s party. Hundreds of round, metallic little mirrors were stitched to it, so that it shimmered and sparkled when she moved. She also wore silver sandals and a lavender cotton-knit shirt that showed off her perfectly rounded breasts, which had not yet started sagging like her arms and thighs.
Horace said, “You look beautiful,” and blew her a kiss as she left the house. The party was a late afternoon affair, outdoors, like the one where Ginger had met Cassandra. The house was modern and upscale, with a large yard and pool. Cassandra was on the plump side now, with short, stylish gray hair. She had been married to Glenn, a retired auto mechanic, for 45 years. Of their three children, only Tania, the youngest and unmarried, was present. Susie, now a born-again Christian living in Alabama, had been estranged from her family for a long time and wasn’t coming. Cassandra greeted Ginger with a long hug. “You make me sick,” she teased. “Why don’t you ever gain weight?” The guests, wrinkly and graying, stood around the edges of the patio—sipping cabernet and pinot gris, eating hors d’oeuvres, and tapping their feet—while the band, also wrinkly and graying, played rock ’n’ roll songs from the fifties and sixties. Ginger felt antsy. Had they reached the age where no one wanted to dance anymore? Were they all like Horace? She turned to the man standing next to her. He was of average height and had thinning brown hair and a full face. She’d always been attracted to men with better-defined cheekbones and jawlines, but this didn’t matter anymore. She wasn’t looking for a mate, only someone to dance with. “How do you know Cassandra?” she asked. “I met Glenn at a bar where we both go occasionally for a beer. How about you?” “I met her at a party fifty years ago.” As she spoke, Ginger jiggled, shook her head, and tapped her foot in time to the music. “Fifty years ago! You don’t look like you were born fifty years ago.”
“I was,” Ginger said with a small laugh. “I’m sixty-three.” “Jesus, what happened to her?” He pointed at Cassandra. “She looks old enough to be your mother.” Ginger liked this man who didn’t make her feel like a has-been. In the next few minutes she learned that he taught art at Indian Valley College, that his own paintings had been shown at many museums and galleries, and that one of his favorite artists was Frida Kahlo. Ginger could hardly believe it. She had earned her M.A. in art history at San Francisco State, writing her thesis on animal imagery in the paintings of Frida Kahlo. When he said, “Her art rejects social repression and reclaims the self,” Ginger practically swooned. Art and artists touched her very soul. She had once hoped to be an artist herself and tried her hand at painting with less than enviable results. She now ran a gallery on Fourth Street in Berkeley and was a fairly good potter. He said, “Want to dance?” The song was “I’m Happy Just to Dance with You.” The only couple dancing, Ginger and Larry did the swing: holding both hands, they rocked together. Then they pulled back, let go of one hand and kicked. When she twirled beneath his arm, her skirt glittered and flashed. Everyone was watching them. Ginger was in her element. She thought of the seahorses she and Horace had seen recently at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. There was a video of them dancing that she’d watched over and over again. They bowed to each other and touched snouts. Then they swayed together— first both facing to the right, then turning to face to the left—perfectly synchronized. Next they intertwined their tails and spun gracefully before rising toward the surface in a burst of shining bubbles, as though they were dancing in a sea
of champagne. The males got pregnant and had the babies, she recalled. Ah, those lucky seahorse ladies! When the music ended, Larry said, “Again?” Ginger nodded. It was a slow song, “In the Still of the Night,” and several other couples ventured out onto the patio to join them. Ginger and Larry danced and danced, long into the evening. They twisted and shimmied to “Twist and Shout,” jitterbugged to “At the Hop,” waved their arms and moved their hips freestyle to “We Can Work It Out,” and held each other close, barely moving to “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You.” Ginger had been here before, and she knew something beyond any doubt: if she weren’t sixty-three and married, she would want to kiss him. She would be infatuated and fantasizing about being in love with him. She could recall that feeling and knew it was still there, nestled within her, waiting to be summoned. The last time she’d let it out at a party was at the home of a professor when she was in graduate school. She wasn’t one of his students, but she knew who he was, a scholar of Dutch and Flemish Renaissance art. It was a New Year’s Eve party, and he and his wife had invited the art history faculty and a number of graduate students to their mansion in Pacific Heights. She hadn’t known that professors could be rich. When she saw the size of the foyer, she wondered why anyone with so much money would want to teach at State. She was wearing a headband, beaded moccasins, and her very best purple bell-bottoms. Well before midnight the host, lubricated by champagne, asked her to dance to “Go Away Little Girl.” Afterward he took her by the hand and led her to the library, where he cornered her for a passionate kiss. Could this be love? she wondered, just as she had at thirteen. She imagined him getting divorced and marrying her. She pictured sleeping with
him under an original Bruegel, having children with him, and going with him to Europe on art history expeditions in the summer. When the kiss ended and she looked up, she found herself staring, with embarrassment, into the stern eyes of a female professor with whom she had studied twentieth-century American art. “Can I call you?” he whispered. She said yes, then fled back to the crowded living room. He called her and courted her, taking her to many romantic lunches at restaurants overlooking the bay or the sea, but she came to her senses. She knew he would never leave his wife, a physician at UCSF and the mother of his four children. She liked and admired him, but she knew he just wanted her for a fling, so she always declined to go to a hotel or away for the weekend. The following year she finished her thesis and left that fog-socked campus, and the year after that she married Dudley. Dudley, a CPA, made excellent money. He’d been a good provider for their two children, a boy and a girl, but he was more excited about tax returns than about art. Most people couldn’t even bear to do one tax return a year, but Dudley did 1,000. Why had she married him? Well, he liked to dance and that was certainly a plus. Also, an excellent cook, he wooed her with waffles or eggs Benedict on Sunday morning, grilled salmon or fettuccini and shrimp on Friday night. He never used a cookbook, but created his own recipes, variations on dishes he’d liked at restaurants or had at someone else’s house. Occasionally he asked a restaurant chef a question about ingredients, but usually he knew without asking, “basil with a hint of bay” or “cumin and a touch of dill,” and could copy a recipe or create a variation the way musical geniuses, having heard a piece once, could play it by ear.
Dancing and cooking aside, until she married Horace, Ginger had thought she and Dudley were the most mismatched couple in the world. He disagreed with her on many things. If she wanted white tile in the bathroom, he wanted black. If she wanted chocolate cake, he wanted white. If she wanted a red car, he wanted blue. These differences were not trivial to him. Once, he got angry at her for buying Lady Lee cranberry juice instead of Ocean Spray. When she said she liked Lady Lee just as well, he turned red in the face and screamed, “I don’t give a damn what you like. I’m telling you what I like!” The mystery now was that Horace had deeper, more personal disagreements with her than Dudley, but she did not think she and Horace were incompatible. If he didn’t like one of her new ceramic creations, Horace might say, “You have no aesthetic sense whatsoever.” Friends of hers he didn’t like were “new-age nitwits” or “Nazis with lipstick.” And he was always criticizing her clothes. She liked bright colors, ethnic prints, and chunky jewelry from India, Africa, and Tibet. Once, when she put on her blue Senegalese caftan dress, he said, “My God, you’re not wearing that tonight are you? This isn’t Halloween!” He liked simple, understated garments in white, black, beige, and gray, and loved her best in a plain sheath with one of the tasteful, elegant pieces of jewelry he’d given her. This was okay: she loved his gifts and enjoyed pleasing him, but she had to wear her Moroccan wedding dress sometimes too! Ginger told herself Horace didn’t really mean it when he was so disagreeable, that it was only how he felt at the moment. In general, life with him was good: they walked together in the Berkeley hills, where fence lizards basked on rocks and yellow star thistle bloomed by the trails, went to movies and plays, traveled, and talked about the novels they both avidly
consumed. Also, their bodies fit together perfectly when they snuggled in bed at night and in the morning. *** Between songs, Larry told Ginger that he was fifty-two and had never been married. “Why not?” she wanted to know. “Never met the right woman, I guess.” He paused. “Do you have a clone?” She shook her head. “A sister?” She shook her head again. “Well, I guess I’ll have to stay single then.” They both laughed. Ginger could have danced all night, but the band stopped playing, and she told Larry she wanted to visit with Cassandra before leaving. He said, “Yes, of course, you must.” Standing by the pool, Cassandra and Ginger looked across the yard, to where Larry was now talking to a blonde who looked like she must have been one of Tania’s friends. “You sure seemed to get along with him,” Cassandra said. “He’s a nice man. Don’t know why he isn’t married. He sure isn’t shy or gay or anything.” “Maybe he never met the right woman.” ***
When Ginger interrupted him to say good-bye, Larry was still talking to the blonde. “I’ll walk you to your car,” he said, and her heart leapt. Down girl, she thought. Leaning on her red Toyota, she said, “It was fun dancing with you.” He looked at her expectantly. If she had been younger and unmarried, she would have kissed him. If she had been sixty-three and unhappily married, she would have kissed him. Any move of encouragement from her now would bring their lips together, although she knew this was too soon to be love. She’d come a long way. Yet, under different circumstances, she would have said, “Let’s go somewhere and keep dancing.” But she didn’t want to betray poor, dear Horace who didn’t like to dance. Larry said, “I hope to see you again.” “Yes, of course.” She opened her purse and handed him her card. “Thanks. You can reach me at the college.” And that was it. She drove home feeling that she’d handled the situation with dignity, acted her age, and done nothing to undermine her marriage. *** The next day she received an email: “Had a wonderful time last night. I’ve never met anyone like you, a beautiful potter who loves to dance! We must meet again.” She wrote back: “I had a great time too. I felt like a teenager.” Although she didn’t want to set a date or do anything that could lead her down a path to trouble, she wanted to see him again too. After thinking about it, she added, “I’ll invite you to our next opening.”
She did invite him, but he didn’t come. She also invited him to the opening after that, the one after that, and the one after that, but although he said a couple of times that he would come, he never did. She had looked at his Web site many times and liked his work, in which figures of men and women were embedded in a chaos of colors, swirls, and abstract shapes. When she sent him an email offering him a show sometime, he wrote back, “Fantastic. Thanks so much! I’ll be in touch.” But she didn’t hear from him again. She thought maybe he wasn’t interested in being just her friend, and that his better judgment was telling him to keep the hell away from a married woman. Then again, maybe he had another girlfriend. She would have lived happily without ever seeing him again, but something terrible happened to Horace several months after Cassandra’s party: he lost all interest in sex, claiming his blood pressure medication had lowered his libido. Ginger suggested therapy, but he said, “A: this is a physical issue. B: therapy is a waste of money. I know more about psychology than a dozen therapists combined.” She also suggested on several occasions that they massage each other with no preconceptions about where it might lead. Horace always said, “Yeah, let’s do that, but not tonight.” After more than a year without sex, Ginger started fantasizing about it all the time: with friends’ husbands, artists whose work she showed, checkers at the grocery store, and yes, of course, Larry. She hadn’t signed on to be a nun! Larry entered her thoughts more and more often. She knew that if she got to know him, there would undoubtedly be incompatibilities, just as she had encountered with Dudley, Horace, and other men with whom she’d had real involvements. Reality could never live up to the ecstatic fantasies she’d had each time she kissed a stranger. She did not expect Larry to be her true love, nor did she
expect to leave Horace, but she had to see Larry again, to find out what, if anything, existed between them. On a clear, January afternoon at her desk at the gallery, under a painting of a barebreasted woman reclining on a sofa in blue jeans, a modern-day odalisque, she clicked on “new message” and started typing. “Dear Larry, It’s been altogether too long. Can you meet me for dinner on Thursday? There’s a fusion place I like near the gallery: O Chamé. The gallery closes at 6:00. I’ll wait here for you. We can talk about a show.” The answer came back in less than an hour: “Sounds good! See you then.” *** She wore black pants, a long-sleeved black and fuchsia shirt, and dangling fuchsia earrings designed by a friend. There was no need to lie to Horace as she left for work on Thursday. She said, “I won’t be home for dinner. I’m meeting with an artist whose work I want to show.” “Have fun. Hope it works out.” So do I, she thought. So do I. All afternoon she wondered what would happen. What had she done? Nothing wrong yet. Would she do anything wrong? She didn’t know, but she felt very alive, open to all of the possibilities the universe had to offer. Would he stand her up? Be all business? Would she become all business once he walked through the door? She had no answers. It was just before six, and she had just shut down her computer, when he appeared in the doorway. He smiled, a bouquet of wild irises in his left hand.
Photography by Stephen Mead
Story by Emelie Fritzell Cooper Fiction
Photography by Marcus
Stefan didnâ€™t think it would make any difference, seeing his mother dead. She had been ill for almost a whole year and everyone knew this day would come. But suddenly, everything had been switched off to mute inside his head. It was a deafening silence. The kind of silence people always find terrifying; it happens when the aircraft takes off or descends from the sky to land; we blow the pressure out to get rid of this temporary discomfort and be able to hear again. It is rather simple. We all know.
His mother had been alive only two hours prior to Stefan collecting her things from the
reception desk. She had been able to speak and had frequently reminded him to stay good. This was something she had always told him and his brothers and something which had never made much sense to anyone in the family except to her. It was understood, nonetheless, this was something she needed to get off her chest. Like a tickling sensation at the tip of her tongue; she would always say it during goodbyes.
It had been his turn to sit with her today. They had made up something of a schedule for who was to sit by their mother’s side on certain days during the week. He hadn’t made this schedule of course; it had been made by his older brother Martin. He believed in schedules and putting together tables - it was Martin’s thing. Anyhow, Stefan was allotted Tuesdays. Who would have known, back when they were kids, that Mommy would die on a Tuesday afternoon, in late March? Would it have made any difference, whatsoever, had they known about it then? Perhaps there would be a slight displeasure in glancing over at the calendar on Tuesdays, had one accidentally done so, and a change of subject in case someone happened to mention this day during dinner, when she was there.
Stefan was given a box, the same size as a regular shoebox, in which the nurse had put a couple of things; her notebook (the one with horses on it, too girly for a woman her age), lipstick (seemingly unnecessary but it was Mom after all), a pair of outworn flip flops (this seemed almost offending to Stefan to be collecting from them, why not just throw the junk away and give him the essential things?), a watch (gold) and her glasses. These were her belongings at the hospice. He took it with him, carried the box under his arm and went to the park. He searched the greenery and found an empty bench, sat down and lit a cigarette.
He thought of his brothers and how he would have to be the one to let them know she was gone. He thought of Martin; how he would happily deal with all the funeral arrangements, throwing himself into the task without any apparent sign of grief.
Everything made sense, somehow; his mother passing away, his brothers absent while he walked up to the reception desk to collect her shoebox worth of things. It had made sense for her to say “Stay good” right before he walked out to get a coffee earlier and then, when he came back in, it had made perfect sense for her to be gone already. It had, in a way, made sense for her to slowly vanish right there on his watch, while he stroked her thin hand and held it in his own. Stefan was so lost in these thoughts; he almost didn’t notice the little girl in front of him waving at him with a stick. “This is my bench,” she told him. “What?” “This is my bench that you are sitting on.” Because of Stefan’s slow reaction, or perhaps because of his sad and curiously detached eyes, the little girl with a pink hat on top of her head gave him a friendly smile and shook her head at him. “It’s okay, you can sit on it.” Stefan didn’t move. The little girl watched his cigarette and then looked straight into his eyes. Stefan still didn’t fully comprehend what it was that had been said and he certainly didn’t understand what the little girl was doing there, talking to a stranger. A man smoking a cigarette on a park bench, that must be the first thing parents warn their kids about, he
thought to himself and took a deep drag on his cigarette. The girl watched him still. He looked away, gazed at the trees and searched the park; her mother had to be around here somewhere, he thought. She was too young to be out on her own. It was best to just ignore her stare instead of talking to her, otherwise she would never leave. Kids are like that. (Stefan had nephews.) “What’s in that box?” she asked him. He decided not to answer. It would seem strange, anyway, for a man to be talking to little girls in a park known for its rapists and gang-related crimes. Besides, the little girl’s mother was bound to be here any minute now and he didn’t want to deal with her concerned look. It would mean he would have to be friendly to let her know he wasn’t a pervert, which seemed too much of an effort today. So he wouldn’t speak to the little kid, at all, he decided. “Can I open it?” she asked him. “Can I see what’s inside of it?” “Curiosity’s a bad thing, didn’t they ever teach you that?” he finally told her. The girl grew impatient and walked up to Stefan to reach after the box. He put his hand on top of it, demonstratively, and took another drag of his cigarette, blew out the smoke way above the little girl, as if to keep it from getting into her lungs. She might grow up to be something, who knows, he thought to himself and felt suddenly humble. Awkwardly humble. “Smoking is bad,” the little girl said. She threw her stick away. It seemed worthless to her now but had seemed peculiarly important to her only a while ago. Stefan lost whatever humbleness he had felt earlier and frowned briefly before taking another long drag of his cigarette and tossing it on the armrest of the bench. He assumed this, too, would be commented on by the little girl, but
she was focused on the box. “Do you keep rats in there?” she asked. “No, I don’t. Where’s your Mommy?” “It just looks stupid,” she continued. “To be carrying around a box like that.” Stefan considered telling her about his mother, because that would surely shut her up, but kept himself from doing so. It just seemed very inappropriate. In fact, this entire conversation taking place between him and the little girl seemed highly inappropriate. But he needed to sit down for a while. He couldn’t go back home just yet. He wanted to postpone the phone calls to his brothers for as long as possible. She should be the one to leave him alone. He was here first.
“… or if there’s something inside of it which is important, then it’s not so stupid.” She said, accidently stroking his knee with her hand as she reached out once again to see if perhaps this time she would be allowed to see what was inside the box. But Stefan didn’t remove his hand from it. He was a little uncomfortable now that she had come so close and he kept looking around to see if he could find her parents or a grandmother or a babysitter – he wasn’t particularly fond of kids; he imagined them to have hands full of bacteria. Also, they had a way of telling stories without any sense of focus and this really bothered Stefan. Most of his nephews really seemed stupid. “Is there?” she asked. “What?” “Is there anything really important in that box?” Stefan looked at her for a while, thinking about his mother. He glanced at his hand, on
guard, resting on top of the box and, defeated, almost let on a smile as he sighed and removed it. The little girl moved one step closer to the box, looked at Stefan and then back at the box. “You can open it,” he told her. She opened it, removed the top lid and put it aside. Stefan then watched the girl as she brought out each of his dead mother’s belongings, one by one, studying them closely. It seemed to Stefan these seemingly worthless things somehow appeared to be full of life and, he came to think of the word ‘hope’, in the hands of the little girl. She never opened the notebook but stared at its cover for a long time. Stefan thought this a strange thing to do, or was it that she was actually being polite? She removed the book and discovered the gold watch and looked at it and felt its weight in her hand. Then she removed that too and went on to the worn out flip flops. She took them out of the box and put each one of them onto her hands. She pretended to be walking in the air with them and giggled. Stefan smiled and when their eyes met, the little girl handed him back the flip flops. “You try it,” she said. “Put them on your hands like I just did.” He did exactly what the girl told him to do and made a few silly movements with his hands as though they were dancing. The little girl laughed. She brought out the pair of glasses from the box and put them on; they made her eyes look enormous. She made a funny face and Stefan chuckled at the sight of it. Someone called out for a certain Fiona, and the little girl suddenly removed the glasses from the tip of her nose, carefully put them back into the box and then hurried away. Stefan was left with the rest of the things spread out on the bench, and the box. He looked up at the sky and felt the sun warm his face. He recollected the things, put them back into the box
and got up on his feet. He walked towards the high street and as he passed a recycling station on his way, he emptied the box, putting each item into the right recycling container and then held it like that for a while; feeling the empty box light in his hand.
Then, he let go of that too.
Story by Joan Potter Non-fiction
Photography by Marcus Cooper
I’m sitting next to my Spanish teacher in her dusty old Honda as she pulls into the town square and parks on the packed dirt near a stone wall. The square is crowded with people, mostly women and children in traditional Maya dress; the fragrant smoke of cooking fires floats above them. As I step out of the car I feel dazed, as if I were in a dream. A young woman rushes toward me from across the plaza – a small, solid woman with shining dark eyes and a beautiful wide smile. “Hola, Juanita,” she calls. She wraps her arms around me and the warmth of her hug makes my eyes fill with tears. I know she must be Maria Francisco, the wife of my friend Elio. But how did she recognize me so instantly?
Of course, I realize, I am a grey-haired American woman standing next to a car in the plaza where she and other women of her poor village cook and sell food every day in their spots in front of a church, the place where she said she would wait for me. “My wife never knew a gringa,” Elio told me back in my New York suburban town when we were planning my visit to his family in Guatemala. I had been tutoring Elio in English for more than two years at a community center for Latino immigrants, and he often told me how much he missed his wife and three young children. I’d been in his country for several days, studying Spanish in a language school in the colonial town of Antigua. My teacher, Luisa Elizabeth Alvarez, a chubby, good-natured woman who preferred to be called Betty, offered to take me on the half-hour drive to Elio’s town, Santa María de Jesús, and help me communicate with his family, who spoke no English. This day, Betty steers her car up the rutted dirt road and past the slope of the Agua volcano that looms beyond the lush green foliage of coffee plantations. The entrance to the village is announced by a small sign on a curving road next to a billboard advertising the Oasis restaurant. The unpaved streets and worn buildings are very different from the cobblestone roads and pastel-painted houses of Antigua. In Antigua, the sidewalks are filled with an energetic mix of tourists and native Guatemalans. Driving through Santa María de Jesús, I see only a scattering of women, dressed in long skirts and loose blouses, some holding children by the hand, some carrying buckets to the communal water supply.
After she greets us in the plaza, Maria slips into the car and directs Betty to the twostory concrete-block building where she lives. She leads us up a flight of stone stairs and into a small, dark living room furnished with a couch, a couple of chairs, and a bookcase. A woven tapestry and two colorful calendars hang on the wall. Her children and their grandmother, Elio’s mother, are waiting for us. The girls, ten and seven, stand close to their grandmother, smiling shyly but not speaking. Their four-year-old brother greets us with a merry grin. They each have glossy black hair, smooth brown skin that seems to glow, and slightly uptilted dark eyes. Elio’s mother, probably in her sixties, with high cheekbones and elegant features, wears her black hair parted in the middle and pulled behind her head in a long braid. She’s dressed in a full skirt, a long apron with intricate designs of multicolored flowers, and a blouse – the huipil of indigenous women – embroidered with bright flowers and leaves over an emerald green background. The others wear more modern clothing, Maria in a plain white blouse and sweater, and the children in jeans and cotton shirts; the little boy’s t-shirt is black and turquoise with lettering that reads “Going Places.” I bring out the pictures I took of Elio. He is standing inside the community center where I first met him, wearing a neat red plaid shirt and a serious expression. His slender frame and delicate features, his dark eyes behind round glasses, are so much like his eldest daughter’s. The photos are passed from hand to hand, from Maria to the grandmother to the children. Each gaze intently at the face of the man they haven’t seen for almost four years, and each begins to cry. I cry too, struck by what they have lost, and how little they have.
When we finish looking at the pictures, I take out my gifts – t-shirts, books, colored pencils, and sketchpads for the children, bracelets for Maria. Then Maria lifts a plastic bag from the couch and hands it to me. I pull out an embroidered wall hanging decorated with geometric designs and stylized flowers in different colors; in the center are two quetzales – Guatemala’s national bird – depicted in pale green, yellow, and lavender. I didn’t expect her to have a gift for me, and at that moment I wish I had brought more for them. After the grandmother excuses herself and leaves the room, Maria begins to talk. The stream of her words is so rapid, interspersed with tears and sobs, that I can only pick out part of what so troubles her. Later Betty tells me it was about Elio, Elio’s drinking, how sometimes he couldn’t work and didn’t send money.
I knew that Elio had a drinking problem. Most of the time when we met he was fine, determined to improve his English, taking whatever jobs he could get – landscaping, carpentry, electrical work. Using the skills from his former profession in Guatemala, he even taught a tailoring class at the center. But on some days his eyes were dim, unfocused, his breath smelling of alcohol. And sometimes, he told me, he felt so weak, his heart pounded so rapidly, that he had to go to the hospital emergency room. The doctors there told him he was nervous and depressed. During the years that I volunteered at the center – teaching English one evening a week and spending a few daytime hours helping out at a small canteen that sold snacks and soft drinks – I got to know many immigrants, most from Guatemala. Elio usually didn’t
come to the evening class; he preferred our one-on-one English lessons while I was working in the canteen. He brought his Spanish-English workbook and I helped him translate words and phrases he wanted to use: “I am looking for work;” “Where is the wrench?” When I decided to travel to Antigua, the news moved quickly through the center. Many people approached me and told me how excited they were that I would be seeing their country. “How long before you go?” they asked often. “What day are you leaving? Those who came from villages not far from Antigua asked if I would visit their families. Chino urged me to visit his parents, his wife, and his two young sons. “My mother will make you her special dinner,” he said, “chicken with pepián.” Laura and Gustavo, the couple who cooked empanadas and tacos and sold them in the canteen, insisted that their two daughters meet me at the airport in Guatemala City. José asked if I could bring him a t-shirt, maybe one with an illustration of a volcano, and tried to give me money to pay for it. I looked forward to seeing all the families, but I was beginning to feel sad and a little guilty. I had the means to visit the country that many of these people – with no papers and little money – might never see again.
When I finally arrived in the village of Santa María de Jesús, it was hard to picture the Elio that I know living there. In my suburban town, although he was crowded into a small room in a house filled with Guatemalan immigrants, he wore American clothes,
bought food at the deli, got soap and toothpaste at the Rite-Aid pharmacy. How much had he changed, I wondered, since he left this poor, primitive town? And what would it be like for him if he returned? After Maria unburdens herself to Betty and me, she leads us downstairs and across the narrow street to a carpentry shop owned by Elio’s brother, an affable man who looks like a healthier version of Elio. The shop is in what appears to be a garage, open to the street. A carved wooden bed frame is resting on a large workbench, and tools are arranged nearby. Elio’s mother has set a wide, shallow pan over hot coals on the ground. Maria covers it with slices of meat that were marinating in a bowl, and when they have browned she serves them to us with warm tortillas. We’ve been there longer than we planned and have to leave soon to visit Chino’s family in another village. So we all sit in the car, digging into our plates of the tender, tasty meat wrapped in the soft tortillas. Then we say goodbye and headed for San Antonio Aguas Calientes. This village is very different from Elio’s town. Low buildings surround a large, attractive plaza bordered by leafy green trees, benches, and a decorative iron fence. Nearby is a spacious structure that displays and sells the woven goods the village is known for. Chino’s family is different, too. They live in a neat square house, painted white, with a veranda and pots of green plants in front. We sit around a long dining table where Chino’s wife and mother serve us an array of food, much too much for me to finish. When I compliment them on their home, his father says it was built with money Chino sends home from the United States.
After dinner, Chino’s father takes me for a stroll down the narrow road. The warm air is filled with a light drizzle – chipi-chipi he calls it. He leads me into his woodworking shop, where he presents me with a bowl he made. It is formed from wavy bands of wood fitted together in tiers that widen as they reached the top.
I see Elio’s family once more before I leave Guatemala. Maria and the children take a bus to Antigua and we have dinner at a Chinese restaurant; they say it’s their favorite place. I have a photograph of the eldest daughter, Sindy, sitting at a table there, wearing a pale green shirt a bit too big for her, with a bright smile on her face. We all enjoy our meal, although the local version of Chinese food is different from anything I’ve ever eaten, and we manage to communicate, even without Betty to translate. Sindy tells me she loves school and hopes to become a scientist. I think of her future – the family’s poverty, Guatemala’s poor schools. I wonder how she could possibly reach her goal.
I take many pictures in Guatemala, photographs of the villages, the countryside, of Elio’s family, of Chino’s, and of Gustavo and Laura’s two daughters at the airport where we meet before my return flight. We spend about an hour together, sharing coffee and doughnuts and playing with their babies. And they, too, hand me a gift just before I leave to board my plane.
Back home, I order extra prints of all my photos and separate them into three envelopes, one for each family. Then I bring them to the center where my friends are waiting to hear about my trip. Chino and Laura and Gustavo gaze at the pictures and all began to cry. Elio stands back, holding the white envelope against his chest, making no move to open it. I think I understand what he’s feeling. He has to save the pictures for later, when he’s alone in his room. It would be too hard for him to look at them in front of us, his emotions might overwhelm him.
Sindy and I begin exchanging letters and I send occasional gifts – books for the children, sometimes shirts and sweaters, and often a money order for twenty-five or thirty dollars. “Querida Juanita,” Sindy’s letters begin. She tells me about school, the weather, news of the family. She asks when I will visit again. She says she hopes “que Dios la bendiga hoy y siempre,” that God will bless me today and always. Elio helps me translate the words I don’t understand, shaking his head over her misspellings. Along with the letters, his family sometimes sends me presents – two potholders shaped like roosters, a small change purse with a leather tag stamped “Guatemala,” and once, a bedspread in deep green spaced with narrow stripes in red, dark blue, and purple. On Thursday evenings when I come to the center, Elio is usually there teaching his tailoring class. He talks to me about what’s going on in his life. Sometimes he’s been finding
work, sometimes not. He tells me Maria is sick. Something wrong with her head, but I don’t understand. “I’m going to go back, soon, soon,” he often says, “Maybe in December, maybe in the spring. I have to make more money.” Finally, seven years after he left for the United States, Elio goes home. A few days before he is to leave, the women in his tailoring class plan a farewell party for him; they bring snacks, a cake, and bottles of fruit juice. But Elio never appears. Several weeks later he calls me from Guatemala and tells me he found a job as a tailor, and hopes to keep up his English so he can work as a tourist guide in Antigua. I say his English sounds fine. “But I have no one to practice with,” he says. Sometimes he calls just to say hello, and always after I’ve sent a present. “Thank you so much,” he says, and tells me I shouldn’t spend so much money. “You have a good heart,” he says. Next I talk to Maria and each of the three children, straining to understand what they’re saying and trying to remember enough Spanish words to reply. They always ask when I will visit again. I’d love to go back to Guatemala, and maybe I will someday. “When you come you can stay with us, at our house,” Elio says. “The hotels are so expensive.” In our latest phone conversation, when I ask about Maria’s health, he says she has been falling down a lot. As he describes her illness, I think it might be epilepsy. Her medicine is very expensive, he says, maybe he should come back to the United States to make more money. His job in Guatemala pays only $12 a day.
“Your family needs you there,” I say. “And it’s very dangerous now to cross the border,” I add, as if he doesn’t already know. “Immigration has been picking people up and sending them home. People have been dying in the desert. It’s better if you stay there.” I think I’m right, but how can I be sure. It’s not my life.
Story by Jessie Szalay Non-fiction
Photography by Marcus Cooper
When I was seven I went to sleepaway camp, where I fell and got eight stitches in my knee, never knew with whom to sit in the dining hall, and drew a spectacular picture of a ladybug. The wings were smooth red with seven spots; the pronotum was black with white markings, deceptively eye-like, like an orca whale; and the head was small with friendly eyes and antennae. I drew it on the last day of camp with a sticky bandage on my leg while the other, braver children climbed the old California oak. All week long I had sat under inspirational posters in the dining hall: ladders of success with rungs labeled, “I won’t,” “I can,” “I did.” Finally, I thought, as I looked at my gorgeous ladybug, I had really done something at camp.
My friend Katie had a pet ladybug in second grade. She kept it in the pastel box in her desk at school, and when she was bored she would slide the box open and watch the ladybug – its name was Lady – crawl around between the colors. She lost Lady somehow. She remembers the shock of it, getting to school and finding only vivid crayons, frantically searching under the desk until her teacher caught her. Lady hadn’t even left tracks in the pastels’ oily residue. My friend Sarah’s parents dressed her as a ladybug for Halloween as a toddler. My friend Bethany had a black halter dress dotted with them; she wore it to high school graduation. That was what we knew about ladybugs when they attacked. It was our freshman year at college. We’d been on the campus that sat in an Ohio cornfield for a few weeks. It was my first time east of the Rocky Mountains and I was confused about everything, from the humidity to if it was humanely possible to read 200 pages of Edith Wharton in less than forty-eight hours. One thing I did like was my spacious dorm room – until the ladybugs appeared on my window. I came home from class one Thursday afternoon and they were there. On the bottom half of my window was an orange swoop of knobbly shine, as if someone had cut a yoga mat into the shape of a great wave. The mass was mostly still but for the occasional flutter or jerk. One opened its wings and snapped them shut furiously. In that glimpse of crisp movement, and the skeletal creepiness underneath, I realized that my room had been invaded by insects. It took several more moments for me to realize that the insects were ladybugs.
I moved closer. There were hundreds, quite possibly a thousand, but because they were ladybugs I didn’t scream or stand frozen the way I might have if they were bees or flies or even rolly-pollies. Ladybugs are sweet and pretty. Ladybugs, in many cultures, are good luck. They’re not bugs that you kill, but ones that you shelter and love in your pastel box. The bugs on my window were a particular type of ladybug called Asian lady beetles or Japanese ladybirds. Ladybugs hibernate over the winter; Asian lady beetles like to do it in people’s houses. In the wild, they weather the winter by clinging to the sunny, southwestern sides of cliffs. In cliffless areas, like rural Ohio, they come into houses. Lightcolored homes remind them of rocks, but they’re not too picky and will cling en masse to most windows and walls. They are especially fond of screens because the netting traps heat. Because people like ladybugs – they’re cute, so round and bright and spotted – one or two would probably be tolerated by most people for the winter. That’s what happens with the common, red seven-spotted type, but the Asian lady beetles are highly social. They excrete pheromones, bringing hundreds of friends to their hibernating spots – like the excellent one in my room. Seasons start early for animals; like earthquakes, they can feel them coming. So though in mid-September Ohio was sweltering and I’d stand slack-jawed in front of the air conditioner, the Asian lady beetles were preparing for fall, taking up residence while I was still hanging my Radiohead posters. But since it was still warm, they were not yet hibernating. The insects buzzed about the dorms. They flew around our heads while we
studied, they dropped from the ceiling onto our faces while we slept, we woke to find them crawling in our sheets as if our bodies were mountain trails. My friend Katie said she woke every twenty minutes convinced she was covered in them, feeling phantom legs scurrying across her skin. Sarah threw away all the food that her parents bought her when they dropped her off, even though we told her that bugs can’t get into factory-sealed Easy Mac packets. Sometimes I thought I heard their buzzing in class, those wings that snapped like a ruler hitting a desk, loudly for their miniature scale. They were all but impossible to get rid of. We sprayed and shooed, but, having excellent vision and memories, they returned. Bethany told all the girls on the hall that she had the brilliant idea to vacuum them up. We all took turns with her little vacuum, delighted in lifting the hose to see patches of vacant screen, and tossed the bags in the dumpster outside, triumphant. A day later, they were back and not even dusty. “What’s going on with these ladybugs?” We asked older students, professors, townspeople, dining hall workers. “How can we get rid of them?” “First of all,” said everyone. “You know they’re not real ladybugs.” Of course, they absolutely were real ladybugs; in Japan, they are the definition of the insect. What everyone meant was that they were different than the ladybugs of our childhoods in two ways: they were bad and they were ugly. Unlike the common sevenspotted ladybugs, they were not black and red with a touch of white all over. They were mustard colored, burnt orange, or brownish, with entirely too many spots. Like their hibernating behavior, their spots had no self control. Rather than seven or nine elegantly spaced, 1950s housedress-like spots, the Asian lady beetle’s are placed willy-nilly, too close together, splotchy and large and inconsistent, up to sixteen on one pair of wings.
Alternatively, sometimes they lack spots all together, making them creepy albino bugs and not to be trusted. The color difference made the whole situation easier. When Sarah told us she’d been trapping them in duct tape, folding it all up into a slick gray square, and throwing it away, we were elated. But what if they were the ladybugs of Halloween costumes and happy birthday cakes? Swarms of “real” ladybugs look like plump cherry tomatoes on a vine. I doubt we’d tolerate it if they, too, invaded our homes, but we might feel guilty smashing and suffocating them in tape. The Asian lady beetle’s pukey coloring made it more okay, somehow. When we did manage to kill them, we were not only ridding our dorm rooms of pests, but the world off an ugly type of ladybug. We were thinning out the gene pool, letting only the attractive survive. But compared to a mud-colored rolly polly, shiny orange ladybugs are rather pretty. It’s true that some of our beauty preferences are evolutionary – symmetrical faces and lustrous hair signify good genes. But much of what we consider lovely is as arbitrary as the color of a ladybug. Fat goes in and out of style with the centuries, as does the ideal size of a woman’s breasts, hips, feet. Ankles are erogenous or not thought about at all. Real men wear their hair long; real men wear their hair short. Beards are low class; beards are manly. Tans signify health, tans signify sickness; they signify wealth, poverty. Muscles are the same, as are callused hands. Our current preference for hairlessness makes no sense at all. In truth, “real” ladybugs are preferred to Asian ones because they are the only type that eat aphids consistently. Centuries ago, those benefits made them beautiful to us. But no one talked about aphids on my college campus. Instead, they denied the Asian lady beetles
membership in their very species because of their coloring – which was made ugly by their bad behavior. So I wondered, what would happen if supermodels swarmed the world, committed acts of violence? Would tall, thin women with even features be thought of with dread, with worry that they’d soon ambush our homes, infiltrate our sleep, terrorize us, snapping around our heads? Would we switch to appreciating short, fat women with big noses? In addition to being relative, beauty must also be rare. In lush Ohio, it took work for me to appreciate grass or trees, whereas a hundred-foot tall oak tree in dry California inspired contemplation, delicately stroking of the bark. An orange ladybug on its own might be lovely; by the hundreds, they were unsettling sights and annoying pests. I sat on my dorm room bed, stared at the swarm and tried to see beauty. Then, I stood up and got a piece of printer paper. With it, I scooped up dozens of Asian lady beetles from my window screen. Under the window was a vent. I shoved the paper into it, and the insects were sucked down to the dorm furnace where their little legs singed and their orange wings cracked in thermal blasts. The ones that went down the vent didn’t come back. Our world is too big, our preferences too scary – we need boxes and classifications, for who knows what would happen if we went around thinking and everything and everyone was beautiful and worthy. From China to Germany, a ladybug is a sign of good luck. What are college students to do with all those charms on their windows but shove them down the vent? For life, we seem to think, should not be saturated. There is only room for a few standout things, a few bugs worthy of baby outfits and balloons, worth keeping in pastel boxes. Butterflies, red ladybugs, maybe a glowworm here and there. There is space on my
paper for one perfectly drawn ladybug at summer camp. There is not space for hundreds of orange Asian lady beetles, especially not on my window.
Photography by Eleanor Bennet
Isnâ€™t That Nice?
Story Jan Jalenak Flash Fiction
Photography by Marcus Cooper
He knew who he was. He knew what he wanted. He knew he could have what he wanted. He loved life. His sister was confused. She knew what she wanted and thought that maybe someday she'd have it but someday what she wanted kept changing, because she kept changing. As she went through her life, she grew to accept so many other things, because they were tangible and transient, temporary, even though down deep they weren't what she really wanted. She grew to appreciate the world as it entered her existence. She loved life. He was given a football. He was taught to throw the football and given encouragement for his ability. He was told he was special. She learned to throw the football. They told her she was cute because she knew how to throw a football. She thanked them and giggled because they seemed to like it when she giggled. He was given the freedom to make a decision. When they gave him a set of building blocks, they said, â€œBuild something.â€? They watched him play with his building blocks and said, "My, how creative you are." She played with the building blocks. They gave her suggestions of ways to build. When she didn't play according to their method, they said, "No, no, honey, that's not right. Do it like this." She was not given the freedom to choose. He was a boy. Someday he would become a man. She was a girl. Someday she would become a little lady.
He would be strong. She would be soft and pretty. He would excel and do great things. She would do satisfactory things and marry a great man. He grew up, did well in school, and became a man. She grew up, learned to giggle at the appropriate times, cry at the wrong times, and became quite a confused little lady. He was told he was smart. He knew how to use his smarts. She was told she was cute. She was glad she was cute but wanted to be smart. She didn't know she was smart. He wanted to do great things. She wanted to do great things. When he told people what he wanted, they looked at him square in the eye and nodded. When she told people what she wanted, they smiled and said, â€œSo, who are you dating?â€? He had clear vision. She had visions. He judged the world by the definitions of his parents and teachers. She understood the weakness of others and felt their struggles.
He had certainty. She had passion. He was a Republican. She was not. He made money. She wanted to but didn't place it first on her list of priorities. It was always in the future. She got used to not having it. So indeed, even her definition of money changed, although she knew she'd eventually have all that she wanted. Someday. What was it she wanted? He studied the market and methodically went about planning his future funds. He talked to his friends about what companies they were investing in. Sometimes they invested together. They talked about going into business together and talked about baseball and travel, about airline fares and frequent flier programs, credit cards and debit cards. Mutual funds and pension funds. Insurance policies. â€œAren't we too young to be talking about insurance policies?â€? Then they'd laugh and talk about women and just what is date rape anyway? They'd shake hands, avert their eyes and say good-bye. She invested herself in all that she did and with whom she came into contact. She got hurt. She would cry and the hurt would go away, until next time. She and her friends talked about world peace and human strength and deficiency and organic food, theatre and where to get the best shoes. They talked of their dreams for the future, the quality of life they'd like to have and the quality of life all people should have. They spoke their carbon footprint and mercury in salmon being bad for us in our childbearing years. Then they'd get quiet
and talk about love. They'd laugh and discuss the most intimate details of sex. Then they'd hug and say, “we have to do this more often.” They both worked hard. They knew the difference between right and wrong. They were loved. They had much strength in the love they shared. Their values were definite and they were well grounded in their ideas of family tradition. Their parents had confidence in their strength as adults in the modern world. He was following the right path to do great things. “Aren't we proud?” She was following a path to do great things. “Isn't that nice? Now, why isn't she married?”
A Night with Gerald
Story by Ben Belizzi Fiction
Photography by Marcus Cooper
It was Thursday night and once again Gerald was packing them into the Old Town Pub. They came through the door in twos, the men stepping uncomfortably in slacks that had been purchased for them, the women attempting to appear grand in their pearls and summer dresses while they held their men close and claimed them. The couples at the tables settled in and agreed, 'This is nice, we're glad we did this," while those who'd arrived late were forced to either balance on stools or lean against the walls. No one wanted to arrive too early, for the food went right through you, but there were certain sacrifices to be made for a big night out. It was Thursday and Gerald was playing, there was nowhere else to be.
A handful of youngsters braved the stage to get things started. Bill Watson's boy played some tunes on his fiddle, the brothers McAllister plucked their banjos in an agreeable manner, and then the tall girl whose name nobody knew sang with a piano accompaniment, causing the men to explain their attention with comments such as "She's so tall, she must have to wear men's pants…are those men's pants?" These opening acts were enjoyable and the musicians were talented, but when they finished, most of the crowd was engaged in conversation and forgot to applaud. They wiped the smudge marks from their drink glasses and kept an eye on the hunched figure stooped to his drink at the end of the bar. They left him to himself. Whatever his mood, he was not to be disturbed. At a few minutes to ten they cleared the stage and dimmed the houselights. People angled their chairs to face the front. The bartender raced to fill glasses. The spotlight wandered blindly around the wooden stage before coming to a rest on the stool and microphone in the center. Conversations fell. The manager, heavyset and perpetually sweaty, scurried up before the crowd, raised a hand to shade his eyes, and said, "Okay Gerald, we're ready whenever you are." The pub roared. Men whooped, women whistled, and his name rang out every few seconds. Fists rumbled against the unsteady tables and boots stomped against the floorboards. At the far end of the bar, Gerald stared into his drink. His reluctance was part of the performance, too. He suffered the encouragement as it pelted his back. Slowly he straightened, displaying more years than were his own. He emptied his glass and sulked toward the stage. Women inched closer to their men. Hopeful bachelors straightened their collars. Single girls plumped their breasts. Gerald assumed his perch on the stool and there was silence.
Guitar on lap, shoulders scrunched over guitar, head bent to one side, Gerald addressed the microphone. His voice was scratchy, and as always, difficult to understand. "This is a song I just wrote," he mumbled. Yesssssssssssss, went the crowd. These were the best, these new ones. Nothing could top Gerald singing songs recently written by Gerald. God bless this man. He swiped his fingers across the strings and stopped immediately. He didn't like one note, it had to be tuned. Everything had to be a certain way. He took great care to fix the errant string, much to the delight of the crowd. He showed a doctor's concentration, a good doctor's concentration, not like Doc Peterson in the second row who was known to pull and prod at body parts like levers in a rusty transmission. Gerald took his time with his guitar, the guitar that was old and battered and said to have once been used to knock a man unconscious. No one was allowed to touch the guitar but Gerald himself, and though it couldn't be counted on to hold a tune, and its tone was questionable at best, people only scoffed when someone suggested he find a replacement. "But that's Gerald's guitar," they would say, "He could never use another. It simply adds to the wholeâ€Ś" and they would drift off holding an imaginary something in their gesturing hands. If someone required an explanation, they simply wouldn't understand. Gerald finished with the string. He apologized and began again. He strummed with every finger, raising his hand dramatically high above the strings and dropping it far below, imploring the sound out into the creaky pub. The notes varied as a few of the frets were too worn to be true, and of course he stumbled between the chords, perhaps not landing on the correct formation until the third or fourth strum, and then also there was the F chord in which his mangled pointer-finger could never bend in the proper position and sounded
more like a C chord, and he knew it was wrong, and had been told it was wrong, and he knew he didn't have the ability to play it correctly, but he played it all the same, in fact rarely chose a song without an F chord. Gerald played the introduction as a maestro might have played the finale, lingering on that F chord for longer than the beat required, perhaps thinking that with just a little more effort this might be the night of all nights when he would finally conquer it, which he didn't. And his timing was off, as usual. But the people inched to the edge of their seats, some licking their lips in anticipation. His guitar was quieted and he was inhaling, about to sing. As poorly as he played guitar, Gerald's singing was far worse. His range barely encompassed one scale, his voice cracked painfully in all the wrong places, and he often ventured too close to the microphone and caused it to screech in pleas for mercy. Hands throughout the audience clutched at tables, standing individuals cinched up their anuses, and the bartender gulped at the dark liquid in his plastic cup. This new song, even more than the others, was hardly endurable, yet when Gerald finished to more fist pounding and boot stomping, people leaned into the ears beside them and said things like, "Amazing! He didn't forget a single word!" and "What inventiveness! I canâ€™t imagine where he gets his inspiration!" The crowd clamored for more. Gerald, completely drained from the one song and looking like he might collapse right there on stage, did what he could to pull himself together. He brought his mouth to the microphone, thanked the crowd, and started in on a second. Another song, what a treat! He played for an hour and a half like this, he seeming to fall off his stool at the conclusion of each song, the crowd begging him for more, and he rising to their demands.
He put everything he had into his frightful songs, belted them out like a prizefighter swinging blindly as he stumbles backwards, and a gambler might have wagered on whether he or his guitar would give out first. Gerald always made it, though, and his guitar too. He inspired his audience with his passion, had them rooting for him even as they cringed at the sounds he spat at them. The town's music teacher, who gently encouraged his students not to attend Gerald's performances, sat alone at the first table. His eyes were aflame. The women talked about him throughout the week. Here was a man who was certainly aware of his incompetence. He couldn't play a lick and his voice sent birds to the skies, yet he got up there Thursday after Thursday with his songs of loss and abandonment and performed them as if his life depended on them. Nothing was more important. Single women fantasized of throwing themselves at him; if he was so devoted to something so wrong, there was no telling the lengths to which he might commit to a woman. He would never leave her. He would forever go down with the ship, and even if she left him, he would treasure her memory, immortalize her and sing songs about the heartache she caused him. To be loved…ah, there's nothing like it. As for unavailable women, they saw his unwavering commitment flood out from the stage and into the very men beside them. No one left Gerald's shows early, no one looked at their watches or cast longing looks at the door. The men beside these women accompanied them each week not only without complaint but with a certain amount of enthusiasm. They enjoyed themselves while there. A man who would endure such pain for his woman was a man to hold on to. He was a man who would put himself second, who would stay until the end and do so with a smile on his face, a man, perhaps, as reliable and dedicated as the one suffering before them.
Now the men knew all this. They felt the gratitude the women displayed for their demonstrations of commitment and support, and they looked forward to Thursday nights as much as their partners. No matter what holes they'd stepped in previously that week, all would be forgiven with a night out at the Old Town Pub. Single men recognized an opportunity to establish themselves with a new beau and show that, like the man on stage, they were willing to stick it out regardless of any woeful forebodings. We are men, they were saying, we might not be great men and we will certainly make our mistakes, but we will do our damndest to see it through. We will plug away, just like that poor son of a bitch. In their attendance, these men, single or otherwise, formed a bond with Gerald. He was a fighter, unafraid of the devil himself. They stood in awe of the obvious punishment his own music inflicted upon him, one he not only accepted but seemed to invite, and he made them look good. What would we do without Gerald? they'd say, Don't let that man pay for a single drink. At the night's conclusion, Gerald returned to his seat at the end of the bar, a full glass awaiting him. He asked to pay but was never charged. He sat alone as the couples disappeared arm in arm out the door, spewing laughter into the warm summer air. Some flirtatious ones remained at the bar, pairing off and pawing at each other, noticing nothing around them, playing out their own song that might lead to the most glorious of finales. Energy was everywhere, all thanks to the man too inspiring to approach. Leave him be, people said, if you listen to his songs, if you understand them, you'd know it's what he wants.
Gerald remained there all night. When the last couple trotted out the door, the bartender poured him one more, full to the brim, and then attended to his cleaning. He didn't mind Gerald, it was but one glass. He enjoyed the company. Gerald took his time with that final drink. New songs for the following week began to write themselves. It was true, music poured out of him like water from a pail. It was all he knew. It didn't matter that his hand cramped and throbbed within a minute of his playing and didn't subside until sometime late the next day. It didn't matter that his throat ached and made it easier to spit than to swallow. It didn't matter that his name was actually Dave, had always been Dave, but that so much time had passed since the bartender had listened too carelessly to the story of his former sweetheart's cat, named Gerald, that he'd taken to introducing himself as such. He hadn't imagined himself drinking in a closed bar, playing music for people he didn't know, or returning to an apartment with that thin, single bed, but it was the path he was on and the one he would walk. At night's end he tipped back the last of his drink, put on his coat, and collected his guitar. The bartender looked up from his cleaning and smiled. "See you next week, Gerald?" He looked up, nodded his head, and said, "Sure, I'll be here."
The Woman in the Rose-Colored Dress
Story by Kaj Anderson-Bauer Flash Fiction
Photography by Marcus Cooper
It started with a real woman in a real rose-colored dress. Roland saw her while we at the china buffet. All the while, as we’re eating, Roland is giving me this weird look. As we walk out, Roland whispers in my ear, “that woman in the rose-colored dress was staring at you the whole time.” I had no idea what he was talking about so I said, “oh yeah, the woman in the rose-colored dress, she’s been on my trail for years—she’s like a state of mind for me now.” That was sort of how the joke began. After that, it became a thing we did—the woman in the rose-colored dress—we used her like a turn of phrase. As in: “last night Jessica took me up to her room and finally let me see the woman in the rose-colored dress,” or, “You should be careful man, if you do
the woman in the rose-colored dress alone, you’ll never be able to quit,” or, “No, I think I’ll stay in tonight, got a date with the woman in the rose-colored dress,” We weren’t able to let it go. It was something Roland and I had created together. It made us close. There was something dirty about it too, because I thought about her while I was saying those things, the actual woman in the actual rose-colored dress who I never actually saw. She was sleeping naked with me. She was there in the bathroom stalls. She was stuck to the inside of my mouth covered in spit. She inhabited our bodies, and in that way, Roland and I inhabited each other. Roland got into some serious drugs during our third year living together. At first, it was no big deal—we loved drugs. It was great actually, because he was bringing all kinds of drugs home. We called the drugs after the woman in the rose-colored dress too. That was the only thing she meant in a certain context. You could use her for lots of things, but if you were bringing her home or picking her up, that was just for drugs. After a while, the woman in the rose-colored dress stopped coming home—or she did come home, but Roland didn’t say anything about picking her up. He was in his room all of the time. Sometimes I’d hear him bang into the bathroom at 3PM or 5AM or 11:50PM or 7:21AM—guy never slept. That was around the time he began using the woman in the rosecolored dress against me. As in, “why don’t you go to Chinatown and pick up your own woman in a rose colored-dress,” or, “If I was the woman in the rose-colored dress, I wouldn’t take you to bed either.” He always said it like he was joking—usually when there were other people around. He liked to cut me down when we had company. No one ever took up for me either—I’m still not sure why. Around that time, I abandoned the woman in
the rose-colored dress for good, and when I let her go it was sad, because it was the end of an era. When I think back to that apartment where Roland and I used to live, I imagine the little bits of my body that I left behind, the microscopic particles of skin and saliva left in the cracks and between the walls—the small bit of myself left in places that never get clean. I imagine that Roland’s dust is back there too. And at night, when the new tenants are asleep, our dust collects and magnetizes into these staggering, long limbed creatures—tiny versions of what we were—and they wander together, quiet and aimless. The apartment in the darkness, like an entire world. And they search for that woman in the rose-colored dress whose body made them, but whose face they can no longer recall.
Story by David Hollingsworth Fiction
Photography by Marcus Cooper
One strange day in my youth, on a Monday, the headmaster, Mr. Werman, interrupted my English class and Mr. Plimpton’s lecture on the Romantics, Wordsworth in particular. We were supposed to have read “Lines” the night before. I wasn't paying much attention and was instead doodling lazy daydreams in my mind. Mr. Plimpton, when he recited lines of the poem, had a sleepy, deep, and sonorous voice. Since I wasn't paying attention, Mr. Plimpton called on me and asked, “How would you describe the force that Wordsworth believes connects us all to nature and to each other, Mr. Rowland?”
Before I could answer him, and long before the chilling fear of an audience could sink in, Mr. Werman entered, shuffled across the room, and whispered into the long raisiny ear of Mr. Plimpton. After a moment of listening, Mr. Plimpton said, “Edward, Mr. Werman would like to have a word with you.” The class made a jocund noise, and Nathan Miller, who sat beside me, exclaimed, “You're in trouble now!” I smiled half in embarrassment and said, “Whatever it is, I didn't do it!” They all snickered, and Mr. Plimpton knocked on his desk to quiet them. I followed Mr. Werman out of the hallway, worried Nathan might be right, yet relieved at the same time because I did not have to lose any marks by giving an incorrect answer in class. Mr. Plimpton was a stickler about class participation, and I had been having a rather languid year. I had told my mom on the phone a few days beforehand that I was just practicing for my senior year and that I would eventually pull my grades back up to the expected summit of B's. Why be a failure? was my motto. Mr. Werman lead me down the hall towards his office. “You have some important visitors, Edward,” he said. “Please let me know if there's anything we can do for you. Don't be afraid to ask. Just let me know, okay?” He smiled, not at me but at the moving wall behind me. “Okay,” I said. But I was confused. Who would visit me? My mom, worried about my grades? She was always talking about potential, but it seemed kind of extreme for her to drop by the school all of a sudden without calling first or letting me know. The hall was tall and long and empty. Pictures of ancient trustees lined the walls like solemn inmates. I was fourteen then (turning fifteen in May) and nearing the middle of my sophomore year at Bloomberg Private School. We had to wear the standard uniforms: gray suits for the boys, plaid gray skirts for the girls. In 1956, one hundred or so years after being founded by Paul
Bloomberg (a wealthy spice merchant born in Boston in 1828), the school had opened its doors to girls so as to end the long-running protest by some local women's groups. I wrote an essay on it in eighth grade entitled â€œThe Girls of Bloomberg: Twenty Years Later.â€? I was able to interview numerous girls from the school, mostly upperclassmen, to get their insight into the topic. It was a good essay. Sarah Brooks was the prettiest girl in school, and it was rumored she had a crush on me. I had planned to write her a note but had not gotten around to it. Bloomberg taught from 7th to 12th grade, and I was going to be there for the whole run, just like my older brother Richie had a few years before me. I really liked the school, I had a lot of friends, and as I said before, I usually got good grades. During my freshman year, I was even voted treasurer of the student council, but all I did was just sit around during meetings and listen to other kids talk seriously about regulations and upcoming events (pie-bake, spring dance, do we have to wear these stupid ties all day?, etc.). I say this in all honesty: I liked everybody and everybody liked me. Sarah Brooks even had a crush on me. I had a tight group of friends who helped me study and have fun. I loosened my tie as I passed the secretary and neared Mr. Werman's office. After I crossed the threshold, Mr. Werman quietly shut the door behind him and went around to his desk. His office had a bland brightness to it that day, the curtains were wide open, and a large block of anemic daylight leaned into the room. A policeman in a dark jacket stood near the center of the room and turned to face me as I entered. He removed his cap, ran his hand through his thick brown hair, and then fitted the cap snugly back on his head. Ginger was sitting beside the desk in her overcoat, half covered in pale sunlight. I sat down across from her and looked at her rosy nose, feeling deeply unsettled by her
presence and somber appearance. She reached out and touched my hands, holding my fingers for a long time. Her wild strawberry smell came over me. Ginger was my brother Richie's girlfriend; they had been dating for about six or seven years and had planned to get married in the spring after they graduated from college. She was twenty-three years old and my brother was twenty-four, turning twenty-five next August. They had actually met here at Bloomberg and, with a bit of odd luck, discovered that they were both from the same town, St. Louis. Improbable but true. I had always thought my brother had gotten far too lucky. She had a light and dancing voice, tinkling and coy—a little bell in a dull room. “How are you, Eddie?” she asked. “Fine.” Why in the world was she here? Why was she with a policeman? I looked at Mr. Werman, at the policeman, and then back at Ginger. I instantly reviewed all of my past actions but found none that would warrant a visit from a policeman and my brother's girlfriend, or either of them by themselves for that matter. Her eyes were ringed and reddish. “Edward,” the policeman said suddenly. “My name is Officer Lane, from the Bent Oak Police Department.” He seemed to be only a few years older than Ginger and had a dark, bushy mustache and sideburns. He shuffled his feet a bit as he spoke. “I'm afraid I have bad news.” I turned to Ginger, who was crying and covering her face. “At about 5 p.m. last night,” Officer Lane continued, “your family was involved in a fatal car accident near your home. I'm told that it was very quick and that they didn't feel any pain. The officers at home will be able to give you more information and any assistance you might need. I know this is difficult, but they wanted me to let you know that there will be someone there at the station who you can talk to and who will try to help you get some sense out of this
tragedy. Miss Barrett will take you home, and I know from just the short conversation I've had with her that she cares a lot about you. You're going to be in good hands.” “I'm sorry, Eddie,” Ginger cried, touching my leg with her hand. I stared at the desk but did not see it. I could not feel my body; my head was floating away, then expanding and snapping like a wounded balloon. “What?” I heard a strange, hacking voice struggle to speak. “What?” “They didn't make it, Eddie,” she said. “Richie, your mom and dad... I'm so sorry. I came to get you right away. I know how terrible this is.” Mr. Werman, clearing his throat, nodded to the policeman, who then followed him out of the room and left us alone. Ginger, holding both my hands, moved closer and began to whisper. “They were just going to get hamburgers,” she said. “Some idiot fell asleep and crashed into the car. He knocked it over the median. There was a truck coming the other way.” I saw the immediate horror of it in my mind—the blood, glass, and metal wreckage. Ginger rubbed her eyes and continued, “Your neighbor called me at about three in the morning. Mrs. Larson. I couldn't believe it. She was going to call your school, and I told her I would do it. I had to go to the police station, to the... and I came here as fast as I could, Eddie. I didn't pack any clothes. I just got in the car and left. Even though I'm so scared to have to drive now... after something like that happened. But Eddie, I didn't want you to be alone when the police got here. I came as fast as I could, I drove all night. I've been trying not to think much.” I heard a car horn beep somewhere outside the window, and I flinched. I couldn't feel her hands anymore, although they had swallowed my own. “Uh, Edward,” Mr. Werman said from the doorway, “you can go collect your things from your room now if you're ready. You don't need to worry about schoolwork or anything like that.
We'll get things worked out later. Miss Barrett, we will need for you to sign a release form; rules, you know. I know it's hard to focus on these things, but you understand if anything were to happen... well...” “I understand, Mr. Werman,” Ginger said, rubbing my shoulder and gliding quickly out of the room. Mr. Werman stepped back into the office for a moment, but I couldn't understand anything he was saying. Some other people, a secretary or two, another teacher, Officer Lane, drifted in and out like concerned ghosts. All my senses were gone, ripped out at the roots. I tried to stand up, but I had no feeling in my legs and my head was still shrinking and expanding, shifting from lightness to darkness and retreating again. I closed my eyes and sat back down. I don't know how long I sat there—at least fifteen minutes, I think. Next thing I knew, Ginger was hurrying back to me; her pale hair bouncing into the room, her blue eyes big and wet, her arms suddenly tight around my neck, her woolly coat irritating my chin, her warm soft hands pulling me out from the depths. I went with Ginger up to the room I shared with Nathan Miller on the second floor. Mike, the old custodian, was mopping the floor at the far end of the corridor. He raised his head as we approached the room. He kept swinging his mop back and forth and mumbling. He did not wave to me as he often did and instead seemed merely annoyed by the intrusion. In the room, I sat stiff and dizzy on the bed while Ginger tossed my clothes into the suitcase and asked if I wanted to take any books or not. I can't remember if I said yes or no. She was a golden-haired blur in a black overcoat floating from wall to wall, swinging shirts and pants over her shoulder and shoving my socks and underwear in the gaping suitcase with little thrusting motions. She packed nearly all of my clothes, tossing in everything she could as if I would never return—I hadn't even wondered about that possibility. It was vaguely
disconcerting to see her at school, shoveling though all my things like that. I had once seen a dim photograph of her from when she was a student here (pigtails, slim arms full of books, plaid dress swaying in the wind, blurry tennis court in the background), but I always had trouble believing it was her. I might only have believed it was and that she had truly gone to this very same school, if I could have seen her for myself some bizarre day, with her golden pigtails and slim arms near the tennis courts, on my way to Geometry. She stopped packing only once to recuperate, rubbing her eyes and taking in a deep, trembling breath. Then we were moving down the stairs, down the hall, and out of the doors of Bloomberg. I put my suitcase in the trunk of her tiny green car and crammed into the front seat. The policeman had already left. I didn't believe what they had told me, not completely anyway. Ginger sat holding the steering wheel for a while, peering blindly out the windshield at the cold stone steps leading up to the colossal front doors of the school. An impressive crow fluttered clumsily out of the snowy grass, its massive Plutonian wings pounding through the swirling gray air. A lean shape moved across one of the higher windowsâ€”a curious or bored student, like a shadow, fading away. Fresh snowflakes melted on the car windows. I wanted to take Ginger's hand. I started to reach out, but she pulled away without seeing my effort and blew her nose. Ginger's parents and my parents lived in St. Louis, and Bloomberg was about a hundred or so miles outside of Chicago in tiny Bent Oak, Illinois. She and my brother had been on winter break since last Friday (today was only Monday), and it had been decided that she and her family were going to have Christmas dinner at our house. The dinner alternated from house to house each year (since neither of us had any other relatives in town) and last year we had eaten at
Ginger's. Bloomberg's winter break wasn't until the end of the week, and I still hadn't bought presents for anybody. Ginger's hands gripped the wheel tightly as she pulled out into traffic. She flinched each time a car passed us, which was pretty often considering how slowly she was driving. I could not even imagine how she had managed to drive all the way to my school in such a state. Eventually she turned off the highway and stopped at a gas station to collect herself. She fumbled in her pockets for a cigarette and then struggled with the lighter. She inhaled deeply and leaned back. “I can't drive anymore,” she said, blowing out a puff of smoke. “I just can't do it. We'll have to get home another way.” “Could we take a plane?” I asked, aware from the crackle in my throat that I had not spoken for quite a long time. The car smelled of increasing warmth, crawling up our legs and expanding. “God, no,” she said. “There's no way in hell you're getting me on a plane. Damn. What are we going to do? Think, Virginia, think! Oh, we can take a train. Do you know where a train station is?” I shook my head. I had never really gone much farther than the school grounds and did not know where anything in Bent Oak was (except maybe the restaurant my parents often took me to when they picked me up for summer and winter break). And I wasn't even sure if we were still in Bent Oak anymore. I had thought she would have known her way around better, having also gone to school here, but she was probably just bewildered by the long drive and still in a haze.
Ginger decided to run into the gas station to ask for directions. I watched her slide past the pillars of silvery gas pumps and disappear behind the glass door, her blonde hair spotting my eyes like a hard glance at the sun. A woman was talking on the pay phone, waving mittened hands ecstatically in the air. Two older men and a girl got into a car and drove away. A large group of people talked loudly beside a dirty black truck, gesticulating and hollering. I saw a freckled girl my age wearing a bright red scarf dotted with snow. I wondered briefly why she wasn’t in school. Traffic howled from the nearby street and wind shook the car. I thought of a million wheels flying through the air, rolling like big black coins on the sidewalk. I listened to the scream of crushing metal, the soft patter of broken glass scattering over the pavement. My stomach tightened. The snow continued falling with increasing indifference and the clouds drifted in the ashen sky as one enormous mass. The sun had quit trying. Her absence was suddenly unbearable. I could not sit still. I longed for her. The dashboard crowded my legs. Ginger had taken the keys and heat with her. The cold seemed to instantly fill the car. I was about to pound on the horn and kick my feet when she finally ran back, slid into the seat, and slammed the door, which she immediately reopened to pull the end of her coat back inside. “He didn't know where it was either,” she said, out of breath. Her nose was a pale cherry. “We had to look at a street map. I think we just have to follow this road for a couple miles and it should be somewhere on the right.” She looked over and grazed my cheek with the back of her fingers. “Are you okay?” she asked, but I could only peer down at my hands.
We did eventually find the station. I realized we could have taken a bus instead, but decided not say anything about it. She was focused on the train; “It’ll get us home,” she kept saying. But the word “home” seemed to trip her up, and she kept pronouncing it oddly, like a question. Inside, there was a large family (father, mother, three sons, two little daughters) sending off a grandmother with broad smiles and niceties. Dark wet streams of mush made paths from the main doors to the cashier, spreading out from the counter like an inky octopus before being pulled into a knot at the opposite row of doors. Paper snowflakes dangled from the rafters—the same kind I made in first and second grade. A forgotten Christmas tree sat in the corner dropping needles on the floor. Ginger told me to sit on a bench against the wall while she checked the train schedule and went to buy our tickets. She rubbed the top of my head and darted off. The station was cavernous and sweltering. The walls were brown and peeling with the leprosy of neglect. Sweat beaded up instantly on my brow. I took off my coat and draped it over my suitcase next to me on the bench. I was still wearing my school uniform, plaid tie and stiff jacket, but I didn't care. The needles under the Christmas tree nearby were already a rusty brown. I watched Ginger run up to the cashier sitting behind a portal of smudged glass. I watched her tilt her head to side while she chewed on her index finger, listening, I supposed, to the terms and prices. She rocked back and forth impatiently on her heels and shivered. A man behind her dropped a quarter on the floor, and it rolled and wobbled until his wet black shoe stepped on it. “I got our tickets,” Ginger said after walking back to me. “It's going a kind of roundabout way, but we have a cabin room—I could only afford one. We'll be okay, sweetheart. I'll be with you tonight; we'll both be okay. I called my parents, and they're going to meet us in
St. Louis. They were furious. I forgot to tell them that I was coming up here for you. I don't know what we're going to do about my car though. I guess we can worry about that later, huh? The train's here now, so we need to go. Who would've though it'd be on time?” I grabbed my suitcase and slid into my coat. She handed me my ticket, and I glanced hastily at it without really even seeing it. I had never been on a train before. Outside, voices mingled across the platform. A man checked our tickets and ushered us into the train with a swinging arm motion. “Let's step a little faster, people,” he said. “The train won't wait all day.” We walked through several cars before entering our designated cabin. I can't remember if it had a number on it or not, but I remember the smooth wooden door, my shiny and red and indistinct reflection on the way inside. I spent the next half hour whimpering. Ginger held me, and I clung to her. The train began to rock and howl as it slowly lurched forward. Ginger, stepping with the sharp undulations, walked over and closed the blinds. The light retreated, leaving us in a cavern of darkness. I watched her slide through the shadows back to our seat, her bobbed hair simmering to a dim, yellow glow. There was no other sun in the system. There was no world outside of that jarring box, no blurring forests, no powdery stretches of flat and jutting land, no more highways or roads. In short, I could not imagine a hint of life anywhere else but in that darkened room. The time of other things had passed and all their joys were no more. It was me and Ginger, Ginger and me. I understood that now even if I couldn’t quite believe the disaster. A loud child yelled and stomped outside the door like an elephant. A woman's voice came after it from down the hall. “Are you hungry?” Ginger asked. “I just heard your stomach growling.” “No,” I said. “Maybe a little.”
“Well, let's go get some food. Food's a good thing.” Ginger had three cups of coffee. Her hair was in a sort of disarray, sticking up in spots but still bright and sunny. Her eyes and nose were red, her cheeks were pale, and her hand across the table was warm. I devoured a ham and cheese sandwich, three bags of potato chips, half an apple, and three glasses of orange soda. A strange guilt went through me at each bite, a hard, sharp feeling that I should not be eating at a time like this. But I was so hungry I probably could have gone on eating for hours, filling up that emptiness with whatever I could stomach. Ginger watched me push aside my plate when all the food was gone. “Iowa,” she said vaguely. “We’re going to Iowa first. I’m not ready to go back yet. I’m just not… ready… I can’t…” I looked at her. She had covered her mouth and was staring out of the window. Her reflection in the glass was paler than any ghost. I felt sick. For a second I thought I heard my brother's voice escaping the mechanical concord of the train, rising up suddenly with a friendly shout. Someone behind us coughed, and it withdrew. Outside the window, the flat, white land, dotted with the skeletons of trees, rolled by under a vast and bleak sky. “I know it hurts,” she whispered a few moments later, “but we'll be all right. I swear we will. It's okay, baby, sweetheart. Come sit with me over here, honey. Come here, Eddie. I promise, baby.” I went to her. She squeezed my hand, and we quickly returned to our cabin. Ginger was with me; we had each other. We were trees and soil. Our lives, I believed, were more deeply entangled now than they could have ever been before, if she had married my brother and all that. This new connection with her was as strong to me as I imagined love was, stronger even. Ginger
would be the constant nurse of my woes, the infallible guide of my life and unimaginable future ways. I felt there were no clouds she could not brighten and chase away. In the cabin, we sat side by side in silence, watching time slip like quicksilver down the long red door, down into the far corner, and turn to shadow. All was darkness until the train stopped for a while so another car could be added. Her hand sought mine as we waited. It was getting darker and darker outside. I felt so much older, beaten into immediate dotage. Other kids had magazines and guns, sage advice, sex, and instinct, but this was how things would be for me. Through the small gap in the window and the shade, I could see great mounds of snow falling from the sky, turning the world into a stark white nothingness. I looked over at Ginger as often as I could when the train started moving again. There were two small benches facing each other and both could be flipped over and used as minuscule beds. I put on my pajamas in the small, cramped, narrow, frustrating bathroom and when I came out Ginger was down on her knees, elbows propped up on the newly formed bed, her head bowed in prayer. She stood up when she realized I was watching her and finally removed her overcoat. She took off her shoes and sweater (she was wearing a white T-shirt underneath) and folded them neatly on the other seat with her coat. “Can we, I mean, could we...?” I was mumbling. “Yeah,” she said, looking down at the bed. “It'll be a tight fit though.” We climbed into the bed, maintaining a respectable but profoundly intimate distance as that of soldiers crowded in a ditch. “Go to sleep, sweetheart,” she whispered. “Go to sleep, baby.”
I fell asleep quickly and woke up just as suddenly. I dreamt that I was falling from some impossible height into a great, white emptiness, and everything I tried to slow my decent only increased the speed of my fall. I didn’t know which was worse, the dream or having to wake from it. Ginger was on her back, taking up most of the bed. Her lips were slightly parted, and I could see the low shine of her teeth, which were so close to me I could feel the warmth of her breath. Her chest heaved and sank under the covers. In a prickly wave of embarrassment, I felt we were too close, that I should have slept in the other bed, but there was warmth here, and I did not want to leave it. She was so warm. Mindlessly, I touched her plump bottom lip with my thumb. A dreamy smile filled her lovely round face like the bright sun fills the sky, and she kicked her legs slowly as if she was running. Then—and I have never exactly understood why— I leaned down and kissed her. She shook, rubbed her mouth with the back of her wrist, rolled halfway over, and then jumped as if out of an amazing dream. “What are you doing?” she muttered sleepily. She was looking at me, but I had already retreated and turned away. I could feel her body shift abruptly on the tiny bed as she sat up. “What was that?” “Nothing,” I whispered. “Nothing. I was half asleep.” She turned her back to me, pulling most of the blanket off my legs and over herself. The cold flooded across my legs and chest. “I'm sorry,” I said. “Go to sleep.” On and on the snow fell, covering the world in thick shrouds, falling over houses and empty streets, filling the pine trees and windowsills at Bloomberg. I thought about Ginger's
crappy green car in a mausoleum of snow; I don't know why. I thought about Sarah Brooks’ face, but I could not remember it was well as I would have liked. There was no doubt she could see the snow from her window, watching those fragile shapes dissolve on the glass and in the ground. And in the far distance, across the gaping void of my mind, I could see snow blanketing the wreckage of my parents’ car. The snow would fall here forever if I had that power. “Eddie?” Her voice was a silver bell in the box of shadows, a familiar jingle. A long time passed, each second echoing the shaky wheels of the train as it clambered onward, forever and forever. I closed my eyes. A great pressure was slowly pushing down on me in the darkness of that cabin—it engulfed me like a slow but certain avalanche. I knew then how things would be for me in this life. “Eddie, you... you can hold me now if you want to,” she whispered. “Eddie? Please. You can hold me now and you can... I'll let you kiss me again, Eddie. If you want to...” Her voice was smaller this time, tiny and fading beneath mounds of comfortable snow. Her arms came over me at last, and I pretended I was asleep because something was changing inside me, and I did not want her to notice.