Editors' Choice, 2005: Living with Fingers Crossed by Daniel Cubias
A resident of Minneapolis, Minnesota, Daniel Cubias' stories have appeared in The Harpweaver, Word.com and Eclectica Magazine. He is finishing his first novel, The Fifth of July, which looks at the Hispanic immigrant experience by chronicling a quarter-century in the life of a family.
Living with Fingers Crossed
However, despite its prominence on the menu, no one had ordered the cerviche all night. The head chef was deducing the odds of going the entire evening without one order of it being placed, and the waiters were bitching about the snobs at table five.
Among the diners, a married couple was discussing divorce (although the debate was held strictly in their respective minds), and a dating couple was discussing marriage. A woman afraid to move for fear of splitting her dress was quoting last night's Malcolm in the Middle, and a man who had not gone one day in sixteen years without thinking about his high school girlfriend was scalding his tongue on after-dinner coffee. A child was tasting caviar for the first time and hating it, and a small group of lawyers was celebrating the nominal ascension of one of their group.
A bottle of mid-level Burgundy was ordered, and a cell phone rudely went off. The horrific state of the world was discussed, and an ill-advised rendezvous was arranged. A filet was getting cold, and a secret about a third-party's income tax dodge was revealed among much hilarity.
All this and much more were happening as the professorial-looking man at table nine started singing.
The staff did not recognize him, and he was the only person dining alone that evening. The man didn't look up from his roasted duck, didn't acknowledge his surroundings or his audience. But his mouth was clearly moving, and melodic sounds gushed forth.
"Amazing Grace," the man sang. "How sweet the sound."
He went on, singing louder with each phrase so that by the time he got to the second verse, the people nearest to him could no longer pretend they did not hear it. A woman stopped her diatribe about the decline of Hollywood movies so she could stare at the singer in perplexity, and a man who was on his second dessert also looked up. A busboy fantasizing about the salad girl snapped back to reality when the singer howled "saved a wretch like me," and a little boy caught in a stultifying dinner with his weekend dad asked, "Why is that man singing?"
The singer ignored their comments and glances. He was positively cantillating, and he looked up and through the hushed crowd to howl "but now I'm found" as tears flicked off his face and onto the cold bird on his plate.
His singing was the only sound in the motionless restaurant for a moment; then a meek harmony came from a weeping woman in the corner. A few diners looked her way as she sang a low, off-key tremolo that dodged under the man's soaring voice.
For an eternal moment, nothing else happened. Then the attention that had been focused on the two singers was divided as a third voice joined in, that of an insurance agent who hadn't sung in public since her kindergarten days. A man who was one week out of the hospital for gall bladder surgery abruptly sang a smooth baritone, and a waiter who wanted to be the next Ricky Martin howled over all of them.
Other voices - some wretched, some wonderful, most mysterious - flowed into the song. And still the singer recognized none of them, and still he sang on.
An awestruck girl seated near the kitchen stood up, and her parents followed suit, as if the national anthem were being presented. A soprano sportswriter rose and continued harmonizing "but now I'm free," and a cook exited the kitchen with the words tumbling from his mouth.
The entire party at table four stood, as did both customers at table two. A veteran put his hand over his heart, and a graphic designer started blubbering.
The a cappella music echoed around the restaurant, and the people standing quickly outnumbered those who were left in their chairs. Almost everyone was singing now, and for the first time, they looked around at one another. They offered smiles and clear eye-contact, and they received nods and open mouths that issued the mournful noise.
This warm feeling lasted eight seconds.
Then an elderly woman scowled at a young man who was seated and looking around in annoyance, and a burly guy tried to force his reluctant date to her feet. A police officer squirmed in his chair, and a video store clerk took a sip of water and hoped that everyone would finish up soon.
The smiles of the singers lost color as people discovered the non-singers in their midst. Their attention was no longer on the song or the original singer. It was focused on the disrespect of the uncomfortable and the unmoved.
Jostling occurred by the kitchen, and a mumbled threat was made at table six. Hushed condemnations broke between each motif, and a cowed middle-aged woman averted her gaze.
The singing was at din level, and the stares of the singers were unwavering in their judgment. The song broke over the restaurant, again and again, while a tiny minority folded their arms or plotted their escape.
And just as the final verse ended, and the singers took a collective breath to start anew, and a woman cleared her throat and prepared to stand, the first singer - the professorial-looking man at table nine - grabbed the edge of his table and flung it over.
Amazing Grace went on for a bizarre half-second then died in an ignominious hush as the man whipped his chair across the room. A gasp of shock and fear gurgled within the restaurant, but it was subsumed as the plates and utensils and food of the man at the former table nine caromed off the hard floor.
"I survived the war!" the man screamed at everyone and no one. "I survived the war!"
Not one person in the restaurant knew which war the man had survived, and several patrons put their shock on hold long enough to mentally list the possible conflicts that the singer was referring to. But nobody said anything, and movement only occurred when the man took quick steps into their midst.
"I survived the war!" he screamed again. "I survived the war!"
Then shrieks erupted, and another table tipped over from the fleeing diners. Two doctors having a clandestine affair rushed out the door, and the entire family at table one retreated into the corner.
The maitre'd grabbed the man, and a busboy and a waitress each clamped on an arm of the gesticulating, shouting, frenzied singer. They dragged him toward the door, but their progress was slow because the man from table nine was intent on acknowledging his audience for the first time.
"I survived the war!" he screeched. "I survived the war!"
Then he was out the door and everything was silent. The singers and the non-singers looked at one other, everyone straining to remember who had belonged to what tribe. They wanted to ask what delusions plagued the man, and they sought to reassure themselves that the spontaneous display of community, spirituality, and intimacy was pure and sincere - that it was the kind of moment that happened once in a lifetime, if at all.
Then a fork dropped to the floor.
Contest Winners | Home | Top
Editors' Choice, 2005: Nameless by Sarah Halford
Originally from the Cotswold area of England, Halford lives and works in Brunswick, Maine, where she writes fiction and essays and practices as a Jungian psychoanalyst. She received a Ph.D. in religion from Syracuse University in 1990 and frequently teaches through Celtic mythology and festival. She recently published work in Maine Voices: A Celebration of the People of Maine and the Places They Love. She is currently exploring oral storytelling.
Please let this be an ordinary day. I've craved ordinary days many times since my parents, my doctor, and my seventeen-year-old self turned my womb into a dead, red sea. We all fell for the promise of an afterlife free of an unwanted child.
These cool, familiar tiles under my bare feet and the mellow tones of the bell across the square reassure me. I dress quickly, rearrange my grey curls and pick up a rumpled prayer book beside the bed. Outside, a primrose morning kneads my shoulders; the permanent knot under my left shoulder blade softens for a second and I groan.
Mica flecks glisten, and the stone chapel turns to light. Days begin and end there with women I sometimes believe are my sisters. We are all wedded to hope and dread, and we nurse the twins, love and hate. We try to serve more the favored child hoping-for what? How many of us feel like imposters? As a psychotherapist, I find my days are a mycelium of hourly appointments with my people. Possessive pronoun. We are initiates searching for contact deeper than the ruptures we know. Fortified by work and prayer, I wander into days, weeks, months of peace. But there are nights when I tumble alone in a barrel of knives. More often since a girl named Grace found me. More often as her baby grows.
A tall man ambling toward me through the morning pulls on the peak of his cap. "Sister," he says.
I smile, "Good morning, Tom."
He hands me a brown bag, small in his nubby hands. A perfect tomato glows inside. A Magdalene among fruits. Sunlight captured by green leaves and turned into sugars that drench the senses. Monday mornings for eleven years Tom has handed me a brown bag holding some miracle of packaged sunlight he has coaxed into flesh in the little plot down by the river. I push my nose into the bag and inhale summer memories of greenhouses and aphid hunts. My father's tomatoes always won first prize.
Mother still shakes her head, Dad still rearranges the slant of his shoulders when my vocation is mentioned, even after two decades. My decision to leave their secular political activism for this community of faith remains incomprehensible to them. This family of women is archaic, mythic even; yet I have found here a heart big enough to absorb my guilt. Often. Not always.
When I took vows, the name Mary was attached to my given name, Catherine. Mary and I have something in common. We know how it feels to be overshadowed. By a god. And to conceive a child. Did she love the father of her child?
The summer I was seventeen, Ray overshadowed me. He was my brother John's friend, ten years older than I. He worked his family farm where I spent the first weeks of every summer vacation since I was thirteen. He smelled of earth. Like a mountain, a cloud or a wave, he blotted out the light. Something poured through us. Was it love? Our child would arrive with the following spring. I could never tell my parents about Ray. How do you speak mystery? I let them believe one of the boys who came to cut hay that summer was the father of the child. Then I let them make me believe there was no place for the child. Mary had Joseph. Ray was no Joseph. I didn't go back to the farm.
My belly growls a mid-day reminder. Grace raps at the office door. Our meeting last week mirrored many over the last four months. Grace ached with despair. She longed to keep her child, but feared becoming her mother, a hungry hawk of a woman too harsh for anything tender.
I do like Grace. She is tough with me, afraid to show her fear, afraid to trust. Yet, our work is punctuated by warm silences and easy smiles. Even so, as I open the door I check my appearance in the mirror; I need to know what's showing.
"I've got plans," Grace says, fingers skimming her short, sapphire hair. "I'm going to keep dancing and make a good life for me and my baby." She strokes her huge belly, circling the stalk of her navel.
I feel the back draft of her defiance shoot past me to stand guard at the door. Ah, yes, her beloved cabaret. She stays poised before the bay window, noon light etches her into the room. Still no talk of the father of the child. I can't push her. Or myself. Too often I've left wet chunks of myself in this particular minefield. She chatters; I wait. Even with her bulk she is a long-legged crane tipped for flight.
"My aunt's in Idaho. She's widowed. She runs a skateboard park and she wants my baby. She can't. It's mine."
The glass stud in her tongue glints like the eye of a night creature caught in sweeping high beams; it crouches low, watching me.
The talk show host's slick grin fades from the TV screen as the phone chirps. I put down the watering can. The caller ID reads, "UNKNOWN." I pick up the phone even though it is after 9 p.m. "Hello?" Sobbing. "Grace. What's going on?" More sobbing. "Try to breathe slowly, and tell me."
Sniffing, the girl says, "I remember."
The Canadian rocker hits me in the back of the knees and I sit. "You remember?"
My fingers fumble for light; she stutters through an all-too-familiar story---a party, drinking, unconsciousness punctuated by vague images and sensations: boys, laughter, pain, her body refusing to follow the vague survival commands of her brain, waking half naked.
"I was bleeding," she says. "I couldn't walk. They hurt me so bad."
We talk. Her tears subside for now. We decide on a friend's house where she can stay the night and we arrange to meet at 9 a.m. The receiver rattles hard as I place it in the cradle.
She comes in spitting. Her flashing tongue punctures the air of my office.
"You old witch, why didn't you come and get me last night? I could be dead now."
She pins me to the wall like an insect. I grip the floor through the soles of my shoes. Thank God they are rubber. What's going on? The ungrateful little brat! I'm taking this way too personally. I brace. Our bodies stand rigid. To sit we'd have to bend in the middle and that's impossible. I'm a flame fed oxygen. How dare this child treat me this way? It was she who put herself at risk that night, expecting the universe to take care of her.
"How could you be so stupid?" I hiss. "Wake up."
The girl glowers at me. I glower back.
"I hate you," she says and runs from the room, slamming the door.
I move through the day, indignation warming me. OK, so I was harsh with the girl, lost my objectivity. She deserves it; she needs a wake-up call. This will help her in the long run. If only someone had cared enough to jolt me out of my somnambulance thirty-four years, five months and two days ago.
In the hour of the wolf between three and four in the morning, my torment slithers into place behind me on the bed, forming his bulk to the 'S' shape of my back and thighs. A paralyzing hoar frost spreads through my lungs. His heavy arm and meat-slab hand curl around my middle. He sneers into my ear and jiggles the loose sac of my empty, middle-aged belly slumped beside me on the bed. What have I done to that girl?
A thick morning fog settles over the trees and swallows time. I make calls, walk the streets near the cabarets she loves. No glimpse of Grace. I check my messages. Her voice sizzles into my ear.
"I still hate you. I've gone where there are thousands of cabarets. You'll never find me."
A second message is from Sister Louisa in New York City. A very pregnant girl with blue hair has arrived on the convent doorstep with my business card in her hand. I call Louisa and pledge my family's funds to pay the girl's expenses. To give her time to deliver the baby and decide whether to keep it, I say. What I don't say is that guilt is my bookkeeper. I've hurt Grace. And then there's the mini-skirted seventeen-year-old who believed her only option was to kill her child. Years of counseling, confession and absolution. Still, forgiveness avoids me. I'm told I'm the one who evades. Maybe. There are moments when love clambers in and hitches me to life. More frequently I brand myself a murderer. Unforgivable. Alien.
I walk to the window and pick up a small figure made of red clay. The round, opulent curves of the goddess figure rest in my palm. Under my feet woven grass matting yields a faint smell of crushed hay. Old hay in a familiar barn, warm, protective. Thirteen again in black rubber boots and favorite sweatshirt, I kneel beside a tiny calf whose bud of a nose is cupped in my palm. She sucks hard at my fingers. I gently lower her mouth into warm froth. She slurps and releases my fingers, milk soaked bliss veils her eyes. Ray is huge and fast. He grabs a chicken between scratch and peck and snaps its neck. Dinner. Ray with his single black eyebrow and three young sons opens his farm to my adolescent summer vacations, and my body to life and death.
"Hail Mary, full of grace; the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb . . . ." As always, the prayer stalls at the name of the child.
My palms slam into concrete silence spread out on both sides; I hover between red fog and bottomless fall. A tiny, slick package squeezes out between my thighs and flops into puddling rust on the hospital sheet. The claw stops ripping my belly, leaves dry surges. The little, poisoned body, flotsam burned by salt water stronger than the Dead Sea comes to rest.
I lie still. After thirty-four years this demon dream hasn't killed me. I follow my breathing out; its grip releases my chest. A dying fire flickers under my sternum where moments before a red hot wheel of pain had pulsed. Dad called me his Catherine Wheel, his spunky fire cracker. Did he know Saint Catherine was martyred on a wheel? Another hellish night.
"Hello, Mary Catherine?" Louisa's phone call is becoming a daily event.
"Yes," I say. My breath lurches out from somewhere beneath my collar bones, the shameless japonica in the corner rivets my gaze. Is this the call?
"Grace's baby has arrived and is doing well. He's beautiful, a shock of red hair."
"Ha," I say, "that's wonderful. Glad it's not blue!" But Louisa's voice carries a second, teetering shoe. It falls.
"Grace has disappeared. She left a note fit for a TV soap, 'Please find my baby a safe home. I can't do it.' What can we do?"
We talk, but I don't hear her through the sound of bees jamming my brain. I say, "I'll handle it," and abandon the phone.
I pray for the girl's protection, hitching myself to decades of training in this form of communication, and try to ignore my trembling gut. My mind bucks at its own audacious thoughts. But one scorches through and yells, "Claim the child!"
All day I imagine sweeping into the New York City hospital like some crazy combination of Zorro and Mary Poppins, wrapping the child in my cape and winging home with him. My child. At last. No more nightmares. My body craves treasure stolen thirty-four years ago. As evening chai fumes curl into my nostrils, an unmistakable sneer licks around my ear; I clench my fists hard. Empty belly be damned. I will keep this child.
I collect Grace's file from my office at first light on the way to the airport. I can prove my connection to the child with the intimate details I have collected. I'm a nun and a doctor of psychology---no one will question my credentials. Riding down in the elevator, I glance through the notes of our first session. My eyes lock onto a name at the bottom of the page. The warm wind thawing three decades of ice-bound joy stalls. The aunt . . . I forgot the aunt in Idaho! Louisa tried to tell me. The indicator light in the elevator counts down the floors as I scan my mind for solutions. As the doors open onto the ground floor, I smile at my own clarity. So simple. Grace broke off all contact with her aunt. She'll never find out.
I step out of the elevator into the morning-damp parking lot and walk toward black trash cans stacked along a yew hedge glinting with diamond cradles. I shiver. Clucking my tongue, I feel for crackers in my pocket as I do every morning and pause to inhale a honeysuckle's public rapture. I wait for the twitching tip of the skunk's snout to emerge from the hedge; the black chips of its eyes are already watching me in my blue jacket. Blue for serenity. I wish it were warmer. A road crew unloads on the far side of the hedge and a jack hammer spits out its first rat-a-tat. A small, furry blur shoots past me into the street. Tires screech. I turn with as little will as a compass needle.
Collapsed in the Canadian rocker, I punch in the phone number from directory assistance. A woman's voice asks my business, vibrant like the girl's. I pass on the message I'm hoarding, tears dammed somewhere under my heart. "There's a child."
"Yes," the voice says, "I know. I'm leaving today to claim him."
She knows. I half listen to the woman's story; her forgotten desire for a child, the years of tests, all the prayers.
"The kids hereabouts have been a godsend," she says.
Dimly, I remember the skateboard park. The aunt's voice muses about the child and a new life for them both. "His name is Grayson, after his mother. She's always welcome here . . . . " I register only the lyrical flow of her delight until one stark fact punctures me. He's gone.
Contest Winners | Home | Top