Editors' Choice 2008: What Could Be Said about Pedris Road by Ru S. Freeman
Freeman is a Sri Lankan-American writer and activist. Her political commentary is published in Sri Lanka and on commondreams.org. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Kaduwa, the University of Peradeniya's Anthology of Literature and elsewhere. Her nonfiction is forthcoming in Crab Orchard Review. She has received four consecutive writerships to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference from 2005-2008. Her first novel is forthcoming from Atria/Simon & Schuster.
What Could Be Said About Pedris Road
Ru S. Freeman
Everything that happened could be traced back to brick and cement walls broken up by doors and windows. Long ago, when she was much smaller, when the word small was the only one she knew to describe herself, diminutive, petite, these acculturations still beyond the horizon accessed by British Airways, she remembers there was a first window. It was one of four that belonged to the flat, one of two that looked out from the single bedroom in which they all slept: father, mother, brothers, uncle and she. This window opened into a square of loamy dirt the size of two saris cut in half and laid side by side. The two saris were her mother’s. One was red and black, the other blue. Later, as she described the space with more sophisticated language, with terms that analyzed it for what it meant and not, as she had experienced it, for what it held, she explained that in concrete terms. Terms without the color and texture of saris: five feet by twelve feet. She corrected herself, no, six feet by ten feet, and then clarified it, small, like she had been.
“My mother had punished us,” she told the woman who, when she stood up, was always shorter than she was in her high heels and therefore could not, she had known from the first moment, help her.
“What had you done?”
“I don’t remember.”
“Why don’t you remember?”
“I remember what we did there.”
“My brother and I.”
“What did you do with your brother?” the woman asked. Her name was large and older than she was: Margaret. Margaret Spelde. She wanted to suggest that the last name be extended somehow; to Spendewind perhaps. Something to balance it on a page. The way it was spoken now, it tilted to the left. Margaret had told her that her problems with left and right could be traced back to her inability to receive help.
“The left side is the receiving side, the right is the giving side. They say that people who are uncomfortable with the right being outweighed by the left are people who cannot accept help. They always want to do the giving. They want other people to owe them. They don’t want to owe anybody anything.”
Owe. A curious word. A word that had meant yes in the language that was hers when she used to speak it, unlike now when she only referred to it as the language of my country. She had turned it about on her tongue wondering in which language it was being uttered there, inside her mouth, silently. Owe. Owe.
“What did you do with your brother?”
“What did you play?”
There was a large flat stone there on the ground. She couldn’t remember why that stone was there, clean and grey like it had a purpose. And then she did, because she remembered Mary. Mary was Tamil and Catholic and wore a bright orange sari like a Buddhist priest. She was fair skinned and she must have had curves because men whistled at her. She remembered that now, how the men had whistled at Mary and men only whistled at women with curves, not flat-chested ones like she had become. But she had circumnavigated that obstacle too. She felt proud of herself saying that word, circumnavigated. And then she remembered that if a person circumnavigates, that person would return to the place of origin. She felt crestfallen. A better word then, something like leap but grander. Leap was a small word and she was no longer small. But no word would come to her. All the ones she could think of were small too, words like jump.
“Circumvent!” she yelled, startling herself.
“Was that the name of the game?” Margaret asked; pale, untroubled.
“What did you circumvent?”
“I circumvented the men.”
“The men who whistled at Mary.”
“Mary,” she said. She said it slowly and wrote in her notebook. “Why do you think the men whistled at Mary?”
“Mary is real. Mary was real.”
“Is there anybody who was not real?”
“No. Everybody was real.”
“Why do you say Mary was real?”
“Mary was real. She worked in our flat. She lived with us.”
“In the flat?”
“In the flat with one room?”
“Mary slept in the kitchen, on the floor. She had a mat. She worked for us. She was a servant.”
“Your family lived in a flat with one bedroom where everybody slept. And you had a servant?”
“Tell me about Mary.”
“She was fair.”
“Did she participate in your game?”
“The one with your brother.”
“So how was she fair?”
“She was fair. In her skin. She was fair skinned. Light skinned.”
“Oh,” Margaret smiled faintly the way she always did. She wanted to fault her for this somehow, to assess a lack against her, but she couldn’t. She was fair, heart-fair, not skin-fair: Margaret had not been enlisted to beam at her, she had been enlisted to Find Out with questions like her next. “Did you like Mary?”
“I loved Mary. She bought us Cracker Jack chocolates when she got paid, and naarang bik when she wasn’t paid. She chewed betel with hunu so her voice always had a bubbling sound to it, from the spit in her mouth. She could spit in a hard stream and sometimes it looked like she was bleeding from her mouth except that she was controlling the bleeding, putting it out and pulling it in whenever she pleased.” She stood up to demonstrate. “She tilted over like this when she spat into the drains, gazing into the places where the red spit was landing as though she was painting a picture and wanted to make sure.” She sat down again, feeling lonely without something to say about Mary in her mouth. The room she was in was very foreign. Everything was foreign and unusual. The lamps and the shades and the carpets, not a single bulb, curtains and cement floors. No open drains.
“What made you think about Mary?”
“She never went home.”
“Why didn’t she go home?”
“She didn’t go. She wanted to stay with us. My mother teased her. When Raheema’s became a big store,…it used to be a small one, a kadé, with a few things to sell, kadju, seeni kooru…sorry, peanut brittle, sugar…sugar sticks, sweets like that in big glass bottles, and Bristol cigarettes and beedis for the poorer men. They sold hairnets on round cardboard circles and tiny packets of Sunsilk shampoo for fifty cents. But then they became big. They grew. Mr. Raheem, we didn’t call him that of course, he was just a shop owner, not a gentleman, he sold some land and wanted to expand his store. He invited my parents to the grand opening. My father was away then so my mother didn’t want to go. She sent Mary, but she put her hairpiece…my mother had a long hairpiece that she tucked under her own hair before she rolled it into a bun. It made her bun enormous. I don’t know why she used it. Her own hair was enough. And the hairpiece sometimes stuck out so her bun had different colors in it. It would have been much better if she didn’t have that hairpiece.”
Why did her mother use a hairpiece? It interfered with the shape of her face. If she hadn’t had a hairpiece, if she hadn’t tied her hair into a bun and covered it with a hairnet, everything taut and tucked except for the strands that she scraped loose with the edge of her comb across the two sides of her middle parting, would she have had a happier marriage? Her father had called those pieces ang once.
“Why do you keep doing that? They look like ang.”
Ang. The horns on cattle. She had stared at her mother’s head. Her mother had been taller than her then, and still powerful. They had always seemed important to her, those loose strands of hair. And suddenly they had seemed stupid. When had she lost her own eyes and taken on those of her father? She was always replacing her eyes with other eyes. Her mother’s. Her father’s. Her mother’s. Her father’s. Back and forth, back and forth until night fall. Until she shut her lids and put back her own eyes and could not sleep. Until she got on a plane and slowly worked those eyes out of her own, scraping and peeling and worrying until she was here, in this room, looking with her own eyes.
“You were talking about Mary,” Margaret said. “You’re frowning. What happened with Mary and the store?”
“That was funny. My mother’s hairpiece had two strands of short ribbon at the top of it; that is how she tied it onto her own hair. She called Mary and told her she had to go to the grand opening and when she was ready, she pretended to arrange her sari. Mary wore it like a lungi during the day and only put the fall over her shoulder if she was going out. My mother slipped that hairpiece into the waistband behind. It looked like a tail. Then she sent her to the store.”
“What did you think of that?”
“I laughed. Mary came back and scolded my mother and told her how all the men in the store had teased her. She said my mother was like a child. My mother laughed till the tears came. Mary laughed too. It was a happy day. We still talk about it sometimes. The time that Mary went to the store with a tail.”
“What happened to Mary?”
“She went home. She was sent home. My mother said she had a fruit in her stomach. A growth is what she meant. But we were small and we imagined a large round fruit. She said Mary had to go home to have it removed and then she would come back.”
“Did she come back?”
“She came back and we had moved from Pedris Road where we didn’t have a number on the door of our new place. A real house. But she didn’t want to stay.”
“Why do you think she didn’t want to stay in the new house?”
“She was pregnant. That was her fruit. I think she went home but she didn’t have an operation. She couldn’t stay. I don’t remember her much in the new house.”
“Did you miss her?”
“Yes, but other servants came and I had to get to know them. I liked all of them. They didn’t ask me to do anything.”
“What did your mother say about Mary?”
“My mother read Everybody’s Book of Fate and Fortune to ask if Mary would ever return. She said Napoleon consulted that book before every decision. She borrowed it from a friend who belonged to the British Council. It was very large. I had to stand to look in it. She made dashes and dots on a piece of paper and then found the answers.”
“What did it say?”
“I don’t remember. My mother always wanted Mary to come back.”
Would things have been different if Mary had come back? Would Mary have stopped all the other doors and windows from opening or closing or having to be locked or gazed at or frightening her?
“Why do you think you talked about Mary?”
“Mary washed our clothes.” Margaret was silent, nodding, waiting. “Mary washed our clothes on the big flat grey rock in the space behind the bedroom. That’s why it was there. She carried it into the bathroom when she washed clothes. She put it next to the basin and then she beat the clothes on it. The basin was white enamel.”
She remembered that basin. When they were very small, her mother bathed all the children by holding them across her lap with their heads hanging over the basin. When her brother was old enough to panic at being held that way, out of control, naked, his head lower than his body, she stopped. They all stopped together even though she and her other brother had been squirming over this ritual for a long time before. It couldn’t stop until her oldest brother had had enough of it. The first born. The second born. The last.
“He wasn’t punished.”
“My oldest brother.”
“Why wasn’t he punished?”
“I don’t remember. I remember that he wasn’t punished. I don’t remember what we had done to be punished. My mother shoved us into that square of space and she shut the bathroom door. That was the only way to get there. The square was surrounded by walls. On one wall was the entrance to our bathroom. On the second was a window from the kitchen to the flat next door. On the third a window from our kitchen where Mary stood and watched us. On the last, the window to our bedroom.”
After the door shut, her brother had taken her by the hand and they had explored the brown earth, a place they never played in, preferring by far the long narrow parapet approach to their flat, the flat bars of steel that had been brought in to build a bigger house and abandoned in the overgrowing grass beyond it, the white farm gate beyond that; things to swing on. That gate had shut once, leaving them inside alone, and what their mother had said as she left had come true: the steel bar they had been standing on, she, her brothers and the neighbor’s boys and girl, had fallen on this brother’s foot and fractured it for a hard cast. A few years later he had gotten hepatitis A and lain there for months, yellow eyed and weak, eating only seer fish cooked white and rice, drinking powdered milk in a yellow plastic mug with Marie biscuits; food bought just for him. The neighbor had once screamed her way into their bathroom with a gagging daughter and her mother had placed her mouth over the child’s nose and mouth and sucked out wads of phlegm that she spat on the floor, large gelatinous yellow pods of mucous, and brought her back to life. She had a birthday party when she was five and won a blue watering can in a school race when she came second and she had to yell the correct pronunciation of her name into the microphone next to the nuns. She had watered her mother’s potted plants that cluttered up the front of their house bordered by more walls and a wall for their feet too, where her father pulled out their four chairs, so close for lack of room, and drank with his friends who were all homosexuals and slept in their beds too if they were drunk. Once she had walked into the kitchen and seen Mary on her back with her orange sari above her waist. Her father had discovered it, the fruit that sent her home. Another time, her mother had made warm tapioca and the table was pushed against the wall to make room for one pink desk and one blue desk for her brothers and for her to share, had seemed like it had expanded, the heat from the pudding wafting up, the teaspoons her mother had taken out of the blue chest that had come from Rome - along with her father, returning after six months service there, carrying household goods, dinner sets and cutlery - and set beside each small bowl. She had felt like a dormouse. Small and safe and cozy at a table beside their last window, some sun coming through, themselves clean, and one-time tapioca pudding on the table. Cozy. Once.
But that day, she and her brother had examined the dirt in the small square and this is what he had said: “Let’s play a game so that when they come to the window we won’t look sad. We will look like we’re having fun.”
He had thought up the game: they collected ants from the dark earth and placed them on the clean, smooth rock and watched them crawl about looking for something. They had only picked the black ants, the harmless kind who traveled fast, not the red ones who went about in single file and bit brown skin into welts.
Their mother and oldest brother had finally come to the bedroom window. Their mother had pointed to them, herself and her other brother, as though to show him where they were, reassuring him that they had not disappeared. Her mother had stood there toweling his head dry, powdering him and putting Johnson’s Baby Eau De Cologne behind his ears, under his armpits, and bending down, out of sight, to rub it between each toe. And he had looked sad behind those bars; his head tilted like he did not understand, his wise eyes solemn, his mouth soft, his hair wet, his arms hanging from his shoulders. That is what she remembered.
“What happened?” Margaret asked, her whole body waiting.
“Nothing,” she said, her hands folded quiet in her lap. Her lap of blue jeans and white cotton.
Margaret gave up after a year of stories about windows and walls and parents and siblings she would not name, and the silence in between the thoughts she shared. She wrote citalopram on a sheet after six months, aripiprazole after nine. Their last meeting was conducted in silence. Margaret asked no questions; and she kept her voices inside, repeating two words to herself, Marge Spelde, Marge Spelde, to correct the imbalance.
She was not forgiven, not punished. Nothing was exacted, not that she could put into words. They placed her in a small room; a room within a building, a single window looking into a courtyard where other people walked. They sent her home.
Editors' Choice 2008: On the Case by Jeff Kass
Kass is a teacher of English and Creative Writing at Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor MI and also works as the Poet-in-Residence for Ann Arbor Public Schools. He has performed his work all over the U. S. His poems, stories and essays have been published in several literary reviews, newspapers, magazines and anthologies, and he has taught poetry workshops to thousands of young people. Kass is the Poetry Director in the acclaimed theatrical production Lay Your Comfort Down and recently co-edited the anthology Unsquared: Ann Arbor Writers Unleash Their Edgiest Stories and Poems. He currently serves as a member of the Board of Directors for the Ann Arbor Book Festival.
On the Case
“I think somebody stole a box of Pop Tarts from my backseat,” you tell Daniel, because, well, who else are you gonna tell? Not your wife. You don’t even want her to know you bought Pop Tarts from the Safeway, or that you ever buy them, with your stomach starting to push these days like a soccer ball against the skin of your shirt. You can’t tell your kids either because you don’t want them thinking buying Pop Tarts is a legitimate way to spend money after you refused them the Pokemon treasure chest and the Gamecube. So who else can you tell? The cops? You’re gonna report a Grand Theft Pop Tart?
You tell Daniel at work because you know he’ll think it’s funny, he’ll laugh with you, but he’ll take it seriously too.
“Are you telling me someone jacked Pop Tarts from your car?” he says.
“Yeah, man, it was a double-box too. Sixteen pastries.”
“Yeah, I was looking forward to eating them too.”
“That’s messed up, man,” he says. “People are messed up.”
The thing is, you’re pretty sure you know who stole them. When you parked, there was a woman next to you pulling garbage bags filled with cans and bottles out of what looked like a thirty-year-old Lincoln. It was rusted around the tire-wells and inside her trunk a large spool of yellow nylon rope lay on its side, surrounded by a half-dozen bruised and misshapen gallon-jugs that looked like they once held bleach, but had since been used to pummel someone’s skull. She was maybe five-foot-four with brittle grey hair, blue jeans with oil stains and a lumpy lime-green sweatshirt with an ironed-on portrait of Dora the Explorer. Her face looked red and pissed-off as if she’d just lost a fight. Shit, you thought, maybe I should lock the car.
You didn’t lock the car though because you hate locking your car and it was your second trip to Safeway that morning anyway. You bought the Pop Tarts on the first trip and you forgot to pick up the toothpaste and tofu you were supposed to get, so now you had to stop back there, and you were irritated because who wants to go to the supermarket twice in one day, and why does your wife apparently believe tofu is the answer to every damn thing wrong with the world, and so, screw it, you didn’t lock the car, but you did grab your laptop bag as if maybe if there were a long enough check-out line, you’d be able to locate a wireless network and check your e-mail.
But the woman saw you re-open the rear passenger door and reach in to shoulder your computer bag, and a moment passed between you, and she knew damn well you only took your laptop because you thought she might steal it and she looked at you like she would like to batter you with one of those bleach bottles, so when you returned to your car and the Pop Tarts had vanished from the back seat, you figured she just stole them out of spite.
“Yeah, man,” you say to Daniel, because you think he’s right about people being messed up, but you can’t decide if the person who’s more messed up is that woman, or you.
“What are you gonna do?” Daniel says.
“I’m not gonna do anything. It’s Pop Tarts, dude. Should I, like, red alert the FBI?”
“You could call Safeway and complain. Say they need more security in the parking lot. Demand they replace the box for you.”
This is what you love about Daniel. He always finds a weasel third way for dealing with problems. That’s why the two of you are the best sales team at the network, why you’ve won a free cruise every year for hitting your quotas. You just closed a huge deal last week with Cypress Mineral Water when the stuck-up budget skank in their conference room was tapping her pen on her copy of the leather-bound proposal and whining about how there weren’t enough primetime spots, and the Q-factor of the Thursday night sitcom was too low to generate the viewership of twenty-something females they want buying their bullshit over-priced fake water, and you were ready to reach over and smack her designer granny glasses straight through her eyeballs, when Daniel said, hold on, what if we talk to the writers? What if we have them write in a new love interest for our tragi-comic hero and she’s this totally buffed rock climber with arms like lithe muscular snakes and we’ll do product placement and every time our hero talks to her, she’ll zing hip witty comments and show off her guns and beautiful flowing hair and she’ll be holding a cold dewy bottle of Cypress Mineral Water? How’s that sound?
And now you’re making reservations for the boat going from San Juan to Port-of-Prince, (expensive berths) and it’ll be just like it’s been for the past three years. The kids will eat their heads off and attend day-camps starring Midwestern undergrads as warm and welcoming counselors, and Emily will play suntan and volleyball, and you and Daniel will do what you always do – beer, beer, and beer except there will be more of it, and better potato skins with grease that’s creamier and more luxurious and the best part, the chugging forward through ocean as if you’re riding a grand carving knife splitting the watery seam of the world because if even the waves will re-fold and heal themselves, you will have made a cut in something so much bigger than you, something that could swallow you and not even taste you in its spit.
“Listen,” you say to Daniel, “I think I know who did it.”
And you tell him the story of the woman with the beat-up Lincoln, leaving out the part about how she saw you shoulder your laptop and knew you were afraid of her, but emphasizing the menacing bleach bottles in her trunk.
“Dude,” he says, “I think we can catch her.”
You think that’s basically absurd – and what would you do if you caught her anyway, beat her ass? Demand restitution? – but you let Daniel spill out his idea because he seems excited about it, rotating back and forth on his spinning desk-chair as if he’s a kid at an ice cream parlor, and when he’s finished and flips you his smirk which says damn right I closed the deal, you realize his plan actually makes sense.
Later, after the staff meeting and a bout of unsuccessful cold-calling, and lunch with the people from the discount furniture chain which looks like it might lead to something promising – even though you hate their revolting cheerleader-like jingle – couches, coffee-tables, touch-lamps more/ let us decorate your living-room floor – you give Daniel the thumbs-up and you can see him chuckling as he jots down notes from the city’s web site that will tell you which neighborhoods will be flaunting their recyclable materials curbside tonight.
The two of you lean over your desk like a couple of hardcore analysts from the slaughter-all-the-terrorists weekly drama that’s the network’s highest rated Sunday night hour, and you glance to the corner of your office and try to channel the steely gaze of the life-sized plastic model of John Benson, the show’s twice-divorced, sometimes coke-addicted ass-kicker. The thing is essentially a six-foot-tall bobblehead doll, except that his large square head doesn’t bobble, and he stands before you, arms crossed beneath his train-car pectorals, with a silver pistol poking from his waistband like a mammoth gleaming erection. Generally, you get a laugh looking at him, but today you are searching for another kind of motivation. You stare down Benson’s empty eyes and his hyper-masculine carriage reenergizes something vital in your blood and you and Daniel huddle over the map he printed from the city’s web site, and you participate in several minutes of squinting and nodding, and you plot makeshift parabolas and hypotenuses, and you decide, yes, it’s got to be the area known as Lower Edgar Park. That’s the closest neighborhood to the Safeway, the neighborhood with the most houses with the most children who drink the most soda and bottled water – and the most dads like you with beer-fridges in their garages – and that’s where she’ll be tonight.
“I’ll come by your house at midnight,” Daniel says. “She won’t be out before that. Recycling pirates wait until everybody’s asleep, then they’re out lurking, you know, stealthily plundering the bins.”
You like that Daniel called them pirates instead of scavengers, as if they’re committing a despicable unlawful act and not just trying to survive by sifting through other people’s garbage. The pirate appellation makes you feel better about trying to apprehend one of them, as if, well, if you don’t draw the line here, what will she do next? Cans and bottles to Pop Tarts. Pop Tarts to wallets and jewelry and guns. What you intend to enact is justice, crude though it may be. This is a nation of laws and nobody’s above them. Daniel’s getting way too excited though, speaking in a near-whisper about how he’s going to ride up on his bike and how you should have your bike ready too, how the night will be a slow cruise, kind of a mobile stake-out from block to block, and how it would never work with a car because you’d make too much noise and spook her.
“Dude, hold on,” you say, thinking how Daniel’s got no wife or children and is probably gay so he shouldn’t just make assumptions about your availability for this kind of adventure, even though Emily and the kids will already be asleep so it won’t be a problem for you to sneak out either. “Listen,” you tell him, “I’m up for this, but if you show up in a black turtleneck and a watch-cap, I’m gonna beat you with a bucket.”
He doesn’t. Just a navy windbreaker and a backward Dodgers hat, and some eye-black under his eyes as if the streetlights might blind him, but you don’t say anything because you’re also surprisingly excited for the mission. You even spent twenty minutes in the garage spraying WD-40 on your gears and chain to minimize squeaking, and you set your phone to vibrate on the off-chance your father with the emphysemic wheeze will die and somebody will call to tell you at two in the morning. You’re amped. When you swing your legs up over your bike like the Caped Crusader hopping into the Batmobile, Daniel has to reach out and grab your arm. “It’s a slow cruise, remember?” he says. “We need to sneak up on her while she’s in the midst of her thievery. We need to swoop like silent owls. She looks up and, wow, where’d those guys come from? Get it?”
You’re not much of a swooper. You’re line-backer beefy, more like a bulldozer. But you nod at Daniel in all seriousness because, yes, you will lance the dark with silent grace, yes, you will. You will do that.
For the first hour, you see nothing. Not the lady. Not any other recycling pirates. Just two teenagers having a 45-minute break-up fight that should take thirty seconds, one inside the car brooding, the other outside on her driveway with numerous violent-looking gestures and a loud fuck you that resonates like a church bell off the high roofs of the surrounding cul-de-sac.
And what you’re doing feels spiritual. You’re riding bikes like two tactical assassins, cruising slow and quiet through the dark, all senses on high alert. The night is warm and calm, there’s the faint echo of hip hop beats from the basement of a house with a glowing platinum ball like a miniature moon shining amidst a leafy driveway hedge. Large screen TV’s push purple and blue spectral clouds through picture windows and you glide right through them. You feel the air streaming around you as you pedal. You are swooping, it’s true. You have been designed aerodynamically – not for sales, not for beer, not for husbandry or parenting, but for this specific moment astride your bicycle. You bless that woman for stealing your Pop Tarts. She has given you this night, this liquid panther-stalk through your city, and people are not messed up. People just need to get out more. Need to lube their chains and glide.
Both you and Daniel are surprised when you see her. You have long trusted Daniel’s genius, but this is something different. Predicting human behavior when you’re sitting across the table from someone in a conference room is one thing, but knowing not only what a woman he’s never seen will be doing at 1:30 in the morning, but also approximately where she’ll be doing it, that approaches the level of mythical prophet. “Holy shit,” Daniel says, as if he’s scared too, “there she is.”
She’s half-a-block away, across the street, shuffling beneath a streetlight. You and Daniel stop pedaling and roll a little closer, angling like two felines behind a large SUV where you stow your bikes. You crouch down near the front bumper so you can watch her, and as long as you’re quiet, she won’t spot you. Daniel moves into position behind you and you could be two brothers-in-laws at a Bar Mitzvah in a conga line, except his hands aren’t on your hips and you’d elbow him in the eye if they were.
The woman has replaced her Dora sweatshirt with a maroon raincoat, but it looks like she’s wearing the same grease-stained jeans. There’s a rhythm to her pushing, a right-left shove forward, a pause, a hover of dead space, a right-left shove forward, a pause. She’s got three shopping carts strung together with her nylon chord and the bottles of bleach are knotted along the rope too, situated as buffers between the carts to muffle the jangle when she shoves forward and they smack against each other. The cart she’s pushing is full and the one in front of it almost full, the lead cart empty. She’s close to two-thirds of the way through her mission.
What do you want to call what she’s pushing? A makeshift junk-jalopy vacuum? A recycling freight-train? Performance art? She’s pilfering trash bins, but she’s also a kind of social engineer. The cardiovascular architect of Lower Edgar Park. She’s a sieve, thinning the neighborhood’s refuse, siphoning glass, aluminum and plastic nickel-nuggets, and re-injecting the discarded wealth into the blood of the city. She’s guiding a mobile laboratory, a shopping cart IV drip, and she halts it expertly with the nearly filled middle cart parallel to the next bin she investigates. Most bottles and cans she shuttles quickly from bin to cart, but when she encounters a product she’s unfamiliar with, she raises it to the streetlight and examines it like a jeweler, searching for the hieroglyph that will reveal its value. It is when she lifts to the light a bottle that you recognize as being from Cypress’ newest line of flavored water – which tastes mostly like sugared sewage – that something else nags at her attention. She glances back at the house she just passed, where she didn’t stop her junk-lab because whoever ferries the trash out – probably an overworked new father who’ll wake up at 4am to schlep it to the curb – hasn’t done the job yet.
For a moment she rolls the revolting Cypress bottle in her hands as if she’s considering something new that just occurred to her, then she dumps it into her cart and finishes sifting through the rest of the bin. But before she shuffles on, she leaves her plunder at the curb and creeps across the front lawn toward the porch of the house she glanced at moments earlier.
Daniel grabs your sleeve. “Dude,” he whispers, “We gotta stop her. She’s trespassing.”
“So, it’s not about garbage anymore. She’s crossed the threshold from curb to yard. Anything can happen now. What if she breaks into the house and stabs someone?”
You consider this, but don’t move. The woman steps quietly onto the porch.
“Stop her,” Daniel hisses, but he doesn’t yell out, and neither do you. She appears to move a few things around the porch, then grabs the handle of a jogging stroller, wheels it around, and pushes it down the stairs.
“Yo, she’s stealing that,” Daniel says.
“You don’t know that,” you say.
“I’m sorry – what? She just crept up to that porch and snatched it. Are you blind? That’s her, right there, pushing it down the walkway.”
“Maybe she has a kid at home and she’s thinking of buying a new stroller, did you ever think of that? Maybe she just wants to test this one on the street, see if she likes the feel of it. A woman like her who pushes stuff around all the time, she’s probably a discerning consumer.”
“A discerning consumer? Are you fucking kidding me? She stole your Pop Tarts. Now she’s stealing the stroller. Dude, she’s a thief.”
Daniel’s right. There’s no third way here. The woman’s affixing the stroller to the front cart, weaving the yellow twine around the handle to secure it. It’s an expensive model, a status-stroller, sleek and triangular with a lightweight aluminum frame that’s collapsible for easy stowage when traveling. No way you could have afforded it when your kids were of stroller age. The family with the front porch will wake tomorrow morning and want to take their kid to the park, probably a wailing infant who needs to get outside, needs some time away from the house and Mommy who’s been nursing him for five hours straight, and Daddy will volunteer for the job in order to keep his marriage afloat and he’ll pack the diaper bag, fill the sippy cup, get ready to earn some serious sensitive-male points with his wife and when he goes to garner the stroller – uh oh, oh shit.
The recriminations will be loud and enduring because Mommy has told Daddy repeatedly not to leave the stroller on the porch, to store it in the garage because hasn’t he noticed stuff disappearing from their yard every once in a while? Little stuff like the rake that one time, and whatever happened to the Frisbee? Yeah, he said, but who’s cruel enough to steal a stroller? And who’s bold enough to venture all the way onto our porch?
Once again, you minimized my concerns, she’ll say, you never take me seriously, and he’ll shout don’t make this a bigger deal than it is, you always blow everything out of proportion and the baby will be wailing and the whole weekend will be ruined, and maybe their marriage too.
“Do something,” Daniel says, because even though he’s the genius, you’re the muscle. That’s what makes your team work. He does his let-me-appeal-to-your-inner-weasel thing, and then you step forward with the papers, holding them with your meat-hook hand, your lead-pipe arm and GQ smile, and the subtle undertone of we just spent our whole afternoon talking to you and if you end up wasting our time maybe you shouldn’t be too confident about your legs or your jawbone or your windshield, and the deal closes and it’s time to start making reservations for the cruise.
Daniel’s right, of course, you should stop her because even though you don’t give a shit about that couple’s marriage – they’ll be fine with their too big house with the fake Victorian eaves and the satellite dish, and they’ll have a new stroller, a more chic model with an even lighter alloy by this afternoon – still, there’s the broken window theory to consider. If you don’t stop the woman from jacking the stroller, what will she steal next? Maybe, you’ll wake one morning and there will be empty space on the street where your car was the night before.
“Do something,” Daniel says again, almost whining now because at heart Daniel’s a wuss and if you don’t do something, there’s no way he will, but you don’t do anything, because the woman’s moving again with her rhythmic right-left shuffle push, and the night is warm and calm, and the stroller affixed to the front cart looks like the sharp prow of a ship, and there she goes cutting her way through the dark.
Editors' Choice 2008: The Transparent House by Edith Pearlman
Pearlman has published more than 250 works of short fiction and short nonfiction in national magazines, literary journals, anthologies, and on-line publications. Her work has been selected by Best American Short Stories, the O. Henry Prize Collection, Best Short Stories from the South, and The Pushcart Prize Collection. Her essays have appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, Smithsonian, Preservation, and Yankee. Her travel writing has been published in the New York Times, The Boston Globe, and salon.com. She is the author of three collections of stories: Vaquita (1997), Love Among The Greats (2002), and How To Fall (2005).
Binocular Vision, Pearlman's latest short story collection "is about predicaments--odd, wry, funny, and painful--of being human. Her characters are sophisticated, highly literate, relatively affluent," writes New York Times reviewer Roxana Robinson in her article of January 16, 2011.
The Transparent House
What a visit that was! Shall I remind you in my beautiful script – catch that serif! – of how we adored it, adore you, abandon ourselves to you, spread like spilled oatmeal before you our idol. My little boys – and my big one too, don’t let anybody tell you different – admire every one of your distinctive attributes. Your five feet and ten inches. Your unchanging wardrobe of black stovepipe pants and black sweaters and black tees. Your black-rimmed glasses. Your giddy smile. Your cropped black hair. And your long fingers cavorting on our upright, and your infinitely expandable store of tunes and lyrics including music hall ballads you learned from your grandmother who learned them from hers. You can sing their favorites too: every line of Raffi.
Each time you come, the two children and I imagine your journey eastwards, the bus barreling from New York through New Haven New London Providence, crossing the Cape Cod Canal, and landing in Hyannis, hub of the universe to my sons, certainly the hub of the Cape. Then the next bus pops from village to village until it reaches tip-of-the-Cape Provincetown. One of those villages is Ours. Oh, she’s in New London – she’s on the Bridge, looking down at the water – she’s changing buses in Hyannis. Now we move towards you -- we get into our car and drive to the bus stop on the south side of Main Street. Some bus stop! -- three glass walls and one tin roof enclosing a bench just long enough for four backsides. The boys call this glass enclosure and its twin across the road the Transparent Houses.
Here you are! You step off the bus; and because the month is March, you are wearing a black pea jacket and a black-and-white striped scarf wrapped twice around your long neck. Fifty? You could be thirty. You carry a satchel that belonged to your other grandmother the doctor. Fifty? You could be seventy. You walk past the Transparent House. James and Teddie are jumping up and down beside the car. You bend to hug them, and straighten up, and hug me.
The whiff of you! It’s the scent of our life together, our single life, our double life. In your brief embrace I relive my existence between twenty-five and forty. I think of the man in the apartment upstairs, and his collection of high-heeled boots. Of the waiter who would never reveal his name, maybe because of those unmarked cartons in the kitchen. Of that Euroglam we called The Presence, who seemed not to enter a party but to materialize in the midst of one, as if she could switch herself on and off at will. The time we Got Organized, and threw out some bonds from Erie County worth who knew how much and also our lease. The time we wandered into the wrong Bat Mitzvah in a Long Island Syna-plex, and stayed for lunch anyway. The night, ten years ago, that I met Jeff. I came home and told you about the overweight doctor soon to start a practice on Cape Cod. I told you about the sweater he wore, knitted in shades of rust and mud, with little orange whiskers here and there. Any man who could buy a sweater like that was a danger to himself.
“So you’ll marry him,” you said evenly.
“Somebody has to,” I explained.
And now, here, last Friday, after lunch at the Pancake House and an afternoon at Bosky’s Wild Animal Farm and an hour discussing dinosaurs and a dinner of Boeuf Bourguignon, for I am still a good cook, you and Jeff and I bathe the boys and read them stories and put them to bed. Then we sit around the kitchen table with a bottle of wine like retired bandits. Jeff’s wardrobe hasn’t improved in eight years and my hips haven’t gotten narrower. As always I invite you to stay forever. Nature meant children to have three parents -- why else did She make nannies. But you can’t stay; there’s the job back in New York, and there’s your Italian class, and you’re the only resident in our old apartment building who knows CPR. You and Jeff talk peaceably about climate change – he doesn’t believe in global warming, and you don’t even believe in the globe, my gentle flat-earther. I’m the one who fears that we’re all going to melt, to seep away. I begin to nod, and it’s catching. We go to bed.
The weekend spins like a carousel. We bike, eat, read, play more games, walk along the chilly beach. We adults stop to watch the boys behind us watch the footprints behind them fill up with water. And then I make a stagy business of tying my sneaker until the procession goes past me and I can get you all in my sight, my four loved ones: tender napes, humble buttocks, hair wool corduroy and that striped scarf like a flag. James turns to make sure I am still there. Satisfied, he turns again. Your eight legs move, not in concert. I grow rigid with happiness.
Sunday morning we read the papers and play games and take a shorter walk, this time under scrub pines. Jeff doesn’t join us because he has to do paperwork, poor single practitioner, so we leave him wedged between chair and desk, adding figures and forgetting to carry. I’ll fix it all later. Slap, slap, slap: our sneakers on the road. “The Presence,” you say abruptly.
“What about her?”
“I didn’t know,” I mutter.
You shrug, or at least your pea jacket does.
“Was she run over?” James inquires.
You give him a kindly look. “She was. By a disease.”
I wonder but don’t ask if the beautiful Presence lingered in a hospice, visited by all her friends. I wonder if the funeral coffin was open, or if, dying, she instructed that it be closed.
Sunday afternoon, as always, comes too soon. After lunch you and I and the boys get into the car and drive to the other Transparent House, the one on the north side of Main Street. There you will catch the reverse of Friday’s bus, the one going from Provincetown to Hyannis.
This Transparent House stands in front of a tiny seventeenth-century graveyard that by ancient irreversible law cannot be built upon, though CVS has tried. I pull up in front of the cemetery and we sit in the car, watching through the back window for the bus which will appear over a little rise in about five minutes … in three … in two. We get out. Of course we are alone: March is no season for vacationers and Sunday not a day for commuters. We wait beside the Transparent House. A few people go into the The Faithful Dog diner. You unwind your scarf and wind it again. The boys stamp their feet. You tell us to go home. The bus is sometimes a little late, you remind us; but it always comes.
It might have broken down, I say; you have no cell phone to call us with, I say; we need a few things at the convenience store, I say. We’ll go to the 7-Eleven and come back and if you’re still here we’ll say good bye again. So we embrace, you and I, and you stoop and kiss the boys, and then you do enter the Transparent House.
We linger over our purchases. But when we return you are still waiting, satchel at your feet, hands in your pockets. I lean across the passenger seat you recently occupied and open the window. “We’ll keep circling these blocks,” I yell. “What happened to that damned bus …”
“Nothing happened to that damned bus,” you yell back. An old man comes out of the The Faithful Dog.
I drive off. “We’re going to circumnavigate,” I say to the boys.
We take a wide tour at first, and even stop to look at the windmill that no longer grinds anything, and at the public library with its new addition, and at the sign in front of the Chokecherry Day Camp, June to September, ages 5 to 7. “I’m not going to that damned camp,” says James. When we get back to the Transparent House you are still within it. We wave, you wave. “Circumgavinate,” Teddie directs.
We circumnavigate, we circumgavinate. Each time we pass the Transparent House you are standing like a sentry in your pants and jacket and scarf. Your head is turned towards the unforthcoming bus. The panes of your glasses catch the waning winter light.
“Gee,” says James. Teddie sings to himself. Two teen-agers light up in front of The Faithful Dog.
How long before the boys get cranky, I wonder, or before I conclude that the bus has driven into the sea, or before you change your determined posture. There’s that empty bench, after all; you could sit down and take a book out of your satchel. But no: the next time around you are still standing guard inside. And the next time … still there.
The next time … you are not there.
“Oh,” says James.
“Can we go home?” says Teddie.
We know what has happened – the bus arrived while we were elsewhere; the black and white figure carried its burden up the two steps, withdrew the ticket from the pocket of the pea jacket and handed it to the harried driver, stumbled into a seat as the vehicle lurched forwards. You are now on your way to Hyannis and from there to fabulous Manhattan.
And here is where this letter should end, Julia, with a ‘Love’, with our private name for me, Muffin. My pen does miracles with those two ffs, doesn’t it, loops intertwining like shoelaces before there was Velcro.
Do you imagine your own death? – not your dying; what comes afterwards. Of course you do; everybody does. You think of what you will miss: piano bars; Italian class; Eighth Avenue at twilight; safe solitary walks up Broadway in the very early morning; friends. You regret that a headful of lyrics will vanish along with you, and your strict sartorial principles. You recall your own kindnesses which this letter has not even mentioned – it would become too bulky, it would burst the seams of its envelope. You are sorry that there are things you won’t know the next of, like the Presidency, or Spring in Bryant Park.
Now imagine your death from my point of view. For I have endured it. Between one circumnavigation and the next you became an Absence. You escaped the world’s shallow attention – those teen-agers in front of the diner doorway noticed you, forgot you – and then Teddie’s, and then James’s. You were replaced by what had contained you – a glass structure, a three-dimensional parallelogram, a geometrical problem on the S.A.T. Someday, told only the height, width, and depth of the Transparent House, my boys will be able to calculate its surface area and its volume. Geometry outlasted you; it preceded you, too, preceded humankind, preceded even dinosaurs, existed in God’s young eye long before we stank in His nose.
You will turn to glass.
I will turn to ice.
Then I’ll get over it. That’s what I can’t bear – I’ll warm up again.
Contest Winners Home
Editors' Choice 2007: Breakfast with Strangers by Sara L. Gmitter
Gmitter is the production stage manager and an artistic associate for Lookingglass Theatre Company in Chicago, and she teaches stage management at Northwestern University. Her short story "Harold" has been heard on Chicago Public Radio's Stories on Stage as one of the winners of their "Now Hear This" story competition and was also published in the River Oak Review. Her play, "A Long Fatal Love Chase," adapted from the Louisa May Alcott novel, will be performed in summer 2007 in New York. She is working on a novel inspired by Alcott's blood and thunder tales.
Breakfast with Strangers
Sara L. Gmitter
Margaret only lies on the train. Well no, that’s not entirely true. She has called in sick to work when she felt just fine. She has complimented dresses she found repulsive, has denied knowledge of gossip when confronted by the gossipee. She has hedged a little here, hemmed a little there, has nipped and tucked the truth when the occasion called for it. In short, she tells just as many little white or pallid pastel lies as anyone else. Her really extravagant, deliberate lies, her scarlet and cerulean intricately woven gold tasseled Persian carpet lies, she saves for the train.
The train Margaret always lies on is Amtrak’s Empire Builder which departs Chicago’s Union Station every day at 2:10pm and arrives in Seattle, Washington two days later. This is not to say that Margaret would not lie on the Ann Rutledge or the Hiawatha. She does not take those trains. She takes the Empire Builder to Winona, Minnesota to spend three days of Christmas with her family. She’s done this once a year, every year for the past fifteen years, since her college days at Northwestern.
The trip out is completely uneventful and she spends most of it in the observation car. She watches what little color there is in the bleak Midwestern winter drain away into the chill blue twilight which glows as much in snow and ice as in sky. The shape of the world is lost until in the darkness Christmas clad houses light up and lick past. Margaret thinks about these other alien lives as they jaunt by and it helps to unspool all the coiling up of her city life. She rewinds herself along with the landscape as through the window city becomes suburb becomes farm land.
In the little town where Margaret grew up, her life up to age eighteen is an open book which everyone has read. They know her brother’s friends once accidentally set her hair on fire in a tease gone awry. They know she once wanted to be an astronaut and drove her teachers crazy, speckling stars over everything she wrote. They know the names of every boy she kissed from junior high to senior prom. These things are alive as yesterday. In the three days she is home Margaret will be asked at least twice how her hair is growing, five or six times if she’s been to Saturn yet and twenty five times, once for each person she happens to meet, if she has seen Danny Alberts lately.
Margaret will oblige them with smiles, putting this old self back on like the sweaters she only ever wears at home. She is amazed at her ability to do this when she herself can’t remember what sparked those celestial ambitions or what on earth she had seen in Danny Alberts. That Margaret, so familiar to her parents and their friends was a stranger to her. She supposed she could give them something new to remember instead. She could dye her hair blue or pierce her nose, then perhaps the months she’d spent, singed and seething when she was eleven would be forgotten. Either way she’d come home a tourist on vacation from her self.
It is the return trip that Margaret looks forward to. Heading back to Chicago she boards the train in Winona at 9:25am and hurries for a place at the last breakfast seating. When you travel alone, as Margaret does, you do not eat alone. You are seated with another party, sometimes two. You have breakfast with strangers and here at last is a chance to peek inside the windows which usually go flashing past. The most normal Midwestern looking couple, he in patchwork sweater, she in something appliquéd with hearts, will tell about their son who is a falconer. A grandmother with a purse full of knitting will tell how she hitchhiked on motorcycles through Thailand thirty years ago. Another couple will relate how they met during a high school production of Our Town. He played the Stage Manager, she was the stage manager. Falconers, stage managers, Margaret had never even known such people existed. She would take away from these breakfasts vivid sketches of foreign territories. This is where the lying comes in.
It had started simply if not exactly innocently enough. One morning, during the initial orange juice pouring of breakfast she was asked if she was coming from visiting family for Christmas. This, Margaret felt with the jaded superiority of a nineteen-year-old, was a silly question. So she answered with the serious deadpan tone of what was meant to be a joke.
“No”, she said, “I’m Jewish.” The couple, however never having had a teenaged daughter, did not recognize the sarcasm and took her at her word.
“Oh,” said the woman genuinely abashed, “Of course we shouldn’t assume.” Margaret felt an instant repentance but feared that admitting the joke now would be embarrassing for them both.
“Don’t worry about it,” she said, adding in an attempt to close the book, “I was visiting my aunt who’s sick.” Feeling the need to embellish a little more she tossed out, “It’s my favorite aunt Rebecca. Actually I’m named after her.”
“I thought you said your name was Margaret?” asked the man. She’d forgotten they’d already introduced themselves.
“It is Margaret,” she said. “Actually it’s Rebecca Margaret but I go by Margaret. It’s a long story.” Which of course they wanted to hear. After a little prompting she’d plunged on, making it up, every word, on the spot.
“You see my mother is Jewish but my father is Irish. That tells you for starters how not really Jewish my mother is, which is also why she named me after her sister. It’s considered bad luck to name a child after someone still alive both for the child and the person they are named after. My grandmother was horrified, if it was possible for her to be more horrified by my mother. Anyway my grandmother scared me when I was little, and so I’ve always gone by my middle name so I wouldn’t offend anyone. Now I feel more like a Margaret than a Rebecca. I can’t even remember what it was like to be a Rebecca.” Back at last on the solid ground of truth.
Everything else she said at breakfast that morning was more or less true. She had to edit a few things to keep continuity with her adopted faith. But that just made her feel more present, leaning into the conversation on her toes. It was like rock climbing, she thought, or how she imagined rock climbing would be, constantly on the lookout for good handholds, wary of places she might lose her footing, regularly testing her safety line. Furthermore, when breakfast ended and Margaret said goodbye she felt as if she were sending this couple off with a picture of a more colorful Margaret, a blue and silver paper sailboat launched in the river, headed for the sea.
The following year she set out to lie from the beginning, though Margaret did not think of it as lying. She was an inventor, a conjuror of other Margarets and like all magicians she had her strict code of rules. She did not lie about things she had no knowledge of. She never repeated a lie. She never made them outrageous or fantastical. She never made real people a part of her lie. She never knew when someone would turn out to know someone else. For above all else Margaret wanted not to get caught. Not at the breakfast table, not in retrospect when her companions thought about it later, not years down the line, not ever. She wanted for her other selves, immortality. All her paper sailboats must reach the sea.
Over the years she had been a Republican mother of twins on her first trip away from her children. That Margaret had also been allergic to every kind of nut and was a finicky, fastidious eater. She had been a Margaret who was an only child and an amateur photographer. She had been an avid gardener, a glass blower, a sous chef and a left handed librarian. One time, she resolved to answer every question with a fabrication like one of the inhabitants of the mythical Isle of Beguile, in all those old riddles. That had been exciting but too distracted from the other people at the table. Lying Margaret was nothing if not a generous conversationalist. She did not want to hold court at the breakfast table casting out her whole story at once like a far flung hook, line and sinker. Her companions were not fish to be reeled in; they were pomegranates and olives. Her lie must come out naturally, a careful scattering of seeds in receptive ground.
One should not assume that Margaret lies because she has no stories of her own to tell. Two years ago, the breakfast companions were talking about why they had each chosen to take the train rather than fly. One man confessed to a fear of crashing, the precise source of which he’d never been able to rationalize. Margaret startled into a memory then of brakes vibrating and a raking scream in the cartilage behind her ears as she thought of her outbound trip the previous year and how that train had killed a woman. The engineer tried to stop to avoid hitting a woman lying in the track like some ancient melodrama come to life. They were stuck for hours only a few miles from the Winona station and the passengers were told nothing of what was happening. Margaret learned from newspaper accounts afterwards that the woman had been drunk and there were theories that she had committed suicide.
What the newspapers did not report and what she could have told was how the panic of the engineer as he pulled them to a lurching halt was transmitted through the structure of the train, the gravity of the situation immediate and unmistakable. She could have described the carefully blank faces of the attendants as they hurried through the cars speaking cryptic words into walkie-talkies which answered back in crackles. She could have told how the conversations around her vacillated between speculation and annoyance until in hour three they settled into the same numb indifference.
She could have, but she didn’t. She lied and said she was also afraid to fly. She told a story, a Frankenstein of borrowed parts, harvested from friends and friends of friends. There was the one about a CD player that had been left in the bathroom from a previous flight and was mistaken for a bomb. An unplanned landing for a passenger collapsing in a drug induced seizure. The required story of the near crash during which the flight attendants collected all the high heeled shoes. Her own, real story was too true to tell and at the breakfast table.
This year was different. This year Margaret did not lie on the train because she was too busy being appalled by the lies that were being told to her. She was seated for breakfast with two men who were not traveling together. The man opposite her on the left was Italian- American, from Brooklyn and somewhat predictably named Tony. The other man was older, in his early forties and wispy. His hair was beginning to thin and round glasses snugged in the midst of a face which had not lost the flesh of babyhood. It was this man, Rick who had begun the introductions, with a formality he was to maintain for the rest of breakfast, fussing over napkin and cutlery like a Republican mother of twins.
Tony surveyed the table for the briefest of moments then, without preamble or prompting, launched into the epic story of his life. He had been in Montana visiting cousins, “getting straightened out” he said. He was on his way back to New York which he left in the first place because of an uncle who was tied to the Mafia, “not a made guy per se but connected.” He’d been close to the uncle and had subsequently been caught in his entanglements. Drugs were involved and other things illegal. This is too much, Margaret thought. Tony was just getting started.
He was an orphan raised by a stepfather after his mother died and the stepfather beat him regularly before finally throwing him out of the house at eighteen. On his birthday. His stepfather (who Tony referred to as The Bastard) sent him out to buy a pack of cigarettes. When he returned he’d found the door locked and all his clothes on the front stoop in a brown paper. He’d banged on the door but there was no reply. He picked up the bag and as a parting shot, shouted to the as yet unanswered door, “What about your cigarettes?”
“Happy birthday, now get the fuck out!” had been The Bastard’s reply. This elicited an abashed cough from Rick who gave Margaret an apologetic look. Tony saw none of this, and continued to unfold his story, an origami of great and petty crimes including breaking into The Bastard’s house. “To get the rest of my stuff,” Tony insisted, “not to steal.”
Margaret could not be certain that Tony was lying. It was possible that his uncle did have connections to the Mob, possible that he had accidentally helped his uncle steal a truckload of suits, possible even that Tony really did “know where some bodies were buried.” Yet Margaret could not bring herself to believe these things. It all sounded too much like episodes of The Sopranos she remembered watching.
Margaret tried to enter the fray, looked for openings in the front lines, but Tony had marshaled his forces well and after the third variation on the theme of ‘inadvertent wrongdoing’ she gave up. She looked out the window instead, watching the bald eagles hunting along the banks of the Mississippi. Rick however was fascinated and provided all the reinforcement Tony did not appear to need. He was ever ready with a ‘really’ or ‘what did you do then?’ He gasped and sighed in all the indicated places and would look to Margaret as if for confirmation of his own amazement.
By the time they got to after breakfast coffee, however, Tony’s one man siege of the table was finally taking its toll on Rick. His listening interjections dwindled and he made attempts to steer the conversation away from the trials and tribulations of Tony. He tried the gentle segue, asking if Tony had thought of praying. He tried the brazen tangential leap saying, “I’ve written these raps about God,” but each sally into foreign territory was deftly turned back. Margaret declined a warm up of her coffee saying she ought to finish up as she was getting off in Chicago. At that, Rick lobbed a last, desperate grenade over the wall.
“There was a gunfight at Union Station yesterday. I was there, I saw the whole thing.” This at last silenced Tony.
“You were there?” Margaret asked, surprised. She had read about the incident in the morning paper while she was waiting at the station.
“Yes. I was on my way to catch my train to Minneapolis when a man with a gun ran right past me. Police were running after him and there was shooting. I heard a woman screaming and I ducked behind a bookcase. I was right next to one of those, you know there’s a place where you can buy books, like at the airport. And I saw a bullet whiz right past my head.”
“Did they catch the guy?” Tony asked.
Rick nodded. “He turned out to be mentally unbalanced.”
“No kiddin’” said Tony.
Rick looked at Margaret in an expectant way, waiting for her to say, “You poor thing or how terrible or that must have been so frightening.” But all Margaret could think was “Liar.”
This time Margaret was certain. Rick had described precisely the incident she’d read about in the paper using some of the exact phrases. There had been an eyewitness account with that same detail about ducking behind a bookcase. The witness also claimed to have heard a bullet whiz past his head- how could you see a bullet? Furthermore as she well knew, there is only one train from Chicago to Minneapolis. It leaves at 2:10pm and arrives just shy of 10:30pm and there is only one train from Minneapolis. It leaves at 7:40am. So Rick was claiming to have arrived in Minnesota after 10 p.m. last night and then left it again only nine hours later and all this on the day after Christmas? Margaret didn’t know what to say.
She felt as if she were the one who’d been caught in the lie at last. All this time she’d told herself she was just telling stories. Everyone tells stories, embellishes and alters. You skew one word, say the man was furious instead of annoyed, say you were shocked instead of surprised and the story is different, tilted like Gene Kelly’s hat but still a hat. She, however, had been inventing hats, making them up out of whole cloth or no out of tissue paper, tinsel and Popsicle sticks. Everyone is a stranger, she thought. We are all still strangers.
“How terrible,” she said to Rick leaving cash on the table for a tip. He stood up when she did, another old fashioned gesture. Behind her Tony was gearing up for another full assault. “That reminds me of the time my uncle,” he began, the rest of the sentence cut off by the closing door.
She went back to her seat and got out a book, staring at the words without reading them. I will never lie again, she thought. This turned out, of course, not to be true.
Editors' Choice 2007: Between the Lines by Olga Levinzon
Formerly of Chicago, Levinzon currently lives in New York City and writes in her spare time. Her writing has appeared in Barbaric Yawp and the compilation Ophelia Speaks. She has also won READ Magazine's Ann Arlys Bowler Poetry Contest.
Between the Lines
There was a smell of detachment in the air, in the hum of the AC, in the way the reporter smoothly transitioned from the most recent body count to an update on summer fashions. No pregnant pause, no solemn look - just one breath bridged a roadside ambush to Dior. Often, the divide was tangible; one only had to note the scrolling tracks at the bottom of the CNN channel, words chasing each other like bullets off the screen "35 U.S. soldiers killed at a checkpoint ambush; 15 soldiers wounded; total death toll for the month of August now 278; Virginia governor resigns in sexual harassment scandal; research shows chocolate reduces liver spots..." At other times, the divide lay like ether over furniture and people's faces, dreamlike, hazy, a somnambular cloud. Nearly invisible, but one could spot it occasionally in the droop of eyelids or the comatose way people seemed to chew the word "Iraq" in their mouths, sloshing it around like chewing tobacco, spitting it out in a slimy, toxic mass. The divide was always there with her, the silent actor in the wings.
On Sunday mornings she watched Fox News. It was an exercise of sorts - a game of willpower, and tolerance, and masochism. Men in suits flung out high phrases to the crowd like copper coins. Words like "purpose," and "democracy," and "staying the course" bounced and rolled and had the metallic ring of strictly symbolic currency. Sometimes mothers would speak, some proud, some angered. She couldn't bear those. The ether of detachment was not in the corner of their eyes and she could not fathom what put them on these shows, what made them speak, what linked them to the suited men of Fox. But usually, it was just the men in their armor of words. She would watch them with a scrutinizing gaze, like an anthropological experiment. They would throw out coins like "patriotism," she would flinch, clutch the remote tighter in her hand, and stiffen her body bracing for the attack. It often seemed she was fighting the same war as the one overseas. The same onslaught of coins and currency and ringing, hollow sounds - she wondered if they tuned into Fox News on the other side of the Gulf. Perhaps Mark was being bombarded by the same word-fire; perhaps the Iraqi warfront was mostly mental. And when the attacks turned vicious, and all the gloves were off, and she clutched the remote so tight the keys imprinted their shapes into her clammy palms, she could no longer tell the distinction. In those moments, the divide disappeared.
Mark never sent her pictures. His letters were short and straightforward and she could rattle off the names of the men in his platoon with the steadfast regularity of rosary beads: "Tom, Jeff, Preppie, Anwar, Roland..." But she didn't know their faces. Jeff was a California boy - blond hair, college dropout, could urinate his name in the sand with his eyes closed. Preppie came from the Bronx and had a real fondness for La Coste shirts (Mark liked to joke that the alligators were sewn onto the polo shirts upside down). Roland was a religious Southern Baptist; always carried a small bible in his pocket, always read it before going to sleep, always cleaned his machine gun in deliberate motions. She knew these boys by now, could rattle them off in a split second. Could imagine the way they joked around and ate in the mess tent and teased Anwar for being half-Arabic. She might as well have known them. When school acquaintances asked how Mark was holding up "over there," whether he liked his platoon, she would respond without hesitation "Yes. He's got a good group of boys with him." She knew them, after all. The divide was only in the faces.
In certain classes, professors felt obligated to address the topic. Rifling through pages on the Vietnam War or the growing class separation or political theory, professors would grope for some hooks among the sentences. Some rope, grapple, and they would toss them at this moving target called Iraq in an attempt to "solidify" class discussion, make it tangible and real and relevant to the masses of drowsy-eyed faces staring at them from the stadium seating. All roads inevitably ended in Iraq. She would shift lower in her seat.
"Now, does any brave soul want to launch this discussion by answering the following: the war in Iraq - an anti-terrorism war, a hegemonic war, or simply a grab for energy resources? Anyone? Anyone?" The professor stood tall at the front of the room, confidence propped up by stacks of editorial debates in the NY Times, political theory journals, and a PhD dissertation on the implications of the Korean War on U.S. labor unions. Silence in the stands interrupted only by the scrape of a few chairs, a low cough, some shuffled papers. "Come on people. Please pacify an old man and show me there's more on your minds than the latest MTV music video. Newspapers - I assume you've heard of them? Let's start with an easier question - does anyone in here read? Yes, Mr. Silver?"
"Oil." The boy in a baggy jersey sat up straighter. "That's all they're after - Bush and Blair and the whole lot. They just want cheap oil."
"Alright - let's assume the purpose of the war is, as Mr. Silver puts it, oil. Now what? Should the U.S. continue in this mission to secure cheap oil even as the country appears on the brink of a civil war? What will the implications be for any future efforts to negotiate Middle East policy? How will this impact the credibility of our nation in international affairs? How will the recent Democratic victory alter the course America has taken thus far? Anyone? Yes, Ms. Lee?"
"I don't think the war was simply about oil. Oil was a potentially lucrative side effect, but I believe the primary objective of America's invasion was to deter nations like Iran and Saudi Arabia from developing nuclear weapons."
"And how successful have-"
"And clearly we attacked the wrong country because now Iran will have nuclear weapons but has no appetite for diplomacy. That's all I have to say."
And so on, and so on. So many words - all confident and supported by mountains of articles and editorials and research. So many positions - like paths in the woods beaten into hard-packed trails by the boots of academia. But they were so far from the concreteness of Iraq, its daily writhing presence. Mark never spoke of oil or nuclear weapons or Middle East diplomacy. His letters were more immediate and tangible: the heat, the crappy food, the little boy who suddenly ran by and shouted "Murderer!" before darting into an alley. Mark wasn't a murderer. In this she was sure, here she held her ground. She was a rock. Murder was a complex societal act: it entailed motive, it assumed an agreed upon moral code, it implied a potential punishment. "Over there" none of these things existed. Iraq was like No Man's Land: dead space, acknowledged by no one and claimed by all. There were bullets, to be sure. Bombs. Hangings. Decapitations. But motives were elusive, slippery worms seized after one had already squeezed the trigger. And there were more moral codes in Iraq than there were people to uphold them. As for punishment, that lofty action assumed an overarching ruling body rather than bubbling, confused chaos. Mark was no murderer. Class was over.
Sometimes she tried to bridge the divide by searching for images of Iraq. Documentaries, photographs, movies. One had to be in the right mood to lift the veils of dramatization. The bleak lighting, the stylized mud streaked faces of the locals, the cold gleam of a machine gun: She had to dig beneath these hackneyed images in order to get at the real Iraq, the one that would occasionally peek though the lines of Mark's letters. One moment she would be sitting on the couch, leafing hopelessly through a journalist's photo essay on the slums of Tikrit when a sudden flash would catch her eye. It was always brief, elusive. The same knob-kneed children as in the previous pages, the same graffiti-masked walls, the same American soldiers in beige fatigues looking like apparitions in the metallic mid-day sun.
But something would catch her attention. Perhaps a dog lying on a narrow doorstep, looking indifferently on the scene with half-closed eyes. And suddenly she could imagine herself there, could substitute her petite body for Mark's bulky frame. She was the one in the beige fatigues leaning against the jeep, feeling the thick drops of sweat rolling down her lower back. She could feel the thirst that clung to the back of her throat with the persistence of a parasite; she could taste the sand forever on her tongue. The boy with the knobby knees and overgrown hair was lingering on the corner, eyeing the vendor peddling cold sodas. The dog maintained his lethargic position on the doorstep of an abandoned office building. Scraggly, chewed-out fur covered his body and half screened his eyes. He looked unimpressed. The soldier next to her was popping his gum loudly as he flipped through an issue of Maxim. Occasionally he would look up to make sure the scene was just as he had left it: the boy, the soda vendor, the dog, the heat that hung like a thick gauze from the street lamps. Then he would go back to Maxim, turning the pages slowly and deliberately. She, on the other hand, never took her eyes off of the picture before her. Although she wanted to walk around, to absorb the full 360-degree panoramic view, the heat kept her locked in place reluctant to move any muscle unnecessarily. But her eyes roamed the scene, shot up the alley that twisted in front of her, drilled into the boarded up windows of the house across the street. This much she knew: the danger always came in moments of extreme stillness, when the eyes lost their focus and the world seemed set on an ultra-slow Rewind.
The soda vendor was counting his money deliberately, carefully placing the coins on top of the cart. As he transferred them from his pocket onto the sleek surface, the coins would occasionally catch the midday sun and shoot a quick, blinding wink in her direction. The vendor continued counting his coins, oblivious to the little flashes and the two foreign soldiers in beige fatigues and the boy who kept lingering on the corner sending furtive glances first at the vendor then at her. She had noticed that too. The way the boy leaned against a faded shop wall, feigning a nonchalant air, even as he drummed the fingers of his left hand against his thigh. It was this left hand that betrayed him, that ate away at his feigned indifference. He was after the coins, she concluded. And so they both watched the coins make their way from pocket to cart in little eruptions of light, the boy clearly out of a desire to take them and she out of anticipation for the robbery scene that would unfold before her. She would catch him in the act, she decided. Seize him, bring him before the vendor, parade the guilty figure as a symbol of both justice and compassion. After she succeeded in bringing an ashamed look on his face, she would let him go as a sign of her good will. And her acknowledgement of the hardships he had to face. And sympathy for his young age and his as-yet untainted innocence. She would let him go to exonerate all American soldiers in Iraq.
But the boy didn't run at the vendor. Instead, in a flash of white shirt and brown knees, a blur really, he raced in her direction. It was momentary - she was pondering the scene of the crime and justice and pardon that would occur, working out the events to their most graceful conclusion, when the blur of white and brown zoomed past with an enraged face screaming "MURDERER!" before veering to her left. There was a second of loss and hesitation, as the halls of justice collapsed and the castles of compassion crumbled into heaps of yellow sand. And then she was running herself, boots digging into the dirt road, following the brown mass disappearing in front of her. She chased after him, swerved around the corner she had seen him turn --- only to discover an abandoned alley. No sound, no trace of the boy; not even the dust on the path stirred. It was as if the streets themselves had stepped up, had chosen sides, had enveloped the boy in a protective paternal embrace. And all that remained now was the shimmering, suffocating heat and the word "Murderer!" which continued to ring, perhaps in her own head or perhaps whispered by the Iraqi landscape. She slowed down, and began a sluggish journey down the alley, looking for hidden crevices, testing doorways to see if any opened. But the walls remained impenetrable and the doors remained shut, like so many mouths fastened and sealed. One of them had swallowed the boy (was he even a boy? She could not remember his face, only a blur of white and brown), and now the tiny back windows maintained ice cold stares and the doors did not offer a word of assistance. The streets did not like strangers.
She continued her slow passage down the alley, less out of a desire to track the boy (the dreams of justice and compassion were gone, replaced by a keen awareness of her precarious position among these mute and solemn houses) then out of a lack of a better alternative. She felt watched, followed closely, scrutinized. And although the buildings maintained their tomb-like silence, she could hear a vague ringing, a call in the distance, a persistent voice. It sounded like "Murderer..." though she could not be sure. She listened closely, trying to separate the ringing in her head from whatever potential sounds emanated from the white concrete walls...
...It was the phone. News journal in hand, half-sleeping dog still in the corner of the photo, she realized the phone was ringing in the kitchen. She moved slowly through the haze, as though through thick dense heat (though it was 50 degrees outside) toward the phone in the kitchen, which continued calling to her.
"Hello?" Silence. "Hello?" She repeated it, voice hacking through the blanket of sweat.
"Hey doll - how's life back home?" Mark's voice was nonchalant, almost cheerful, oblivious to the heat and the deathly Iraqi silence and the accusations, which she still felt clinging to her skin like a rash. "Hon, you there? I know you're there - I can hear you breathing. Dollface, what's the matter?" Again the air of indifference, as though he was calling from a friend's apartment to check in or from work to let her know what time he would be home.
"Mark. I.... I.... I'm so glad you're alive!" It was her voice tripping over itself, stumbling through the darkness of her throat and mouth, flying out disheveled and incoherent.
"Of course I'm alive! You think we're gonna let these Iraqis get the better of us? We're soldiers, for G-d's sakes! Trained by the good U.S. of A. These fools won't know what hit em."
"But it's not them you have to worry about.... It's the silence. And the heat, that terrible heat. And the fact that the land takes their side, sympathizes with them, gives them refuge even though there's sin in their eyes...."
"Doll, who the hell is talking about sin? This isn't the Last Judgment here - and I'm in no way, shape, or form a judge. I've got my weapon and my buddies, and the thought that when I get home, I'm going to take that little body of yours...." Mark went on. She wasn't listening. She still heard the ominous silence surrounding her, still felt the stares of empty (or perhaps not so empty) houses, sensed them glaring at her through venomous eyes and pitch-black windows (though now they were fused partially with the cupboards of her kitchen, the cavity of her sink). It seemed like two realities coexisted around her, washed over her in succeeding waves which drenched her in heaviness but never fully dissolved into a single body of water. Insoluble, it seemed.
"No! You have to listen to me - I was there! I saw you! I was you, in a way. You can't be so confident, so passive! The streets are on their side. I know you're not a murderer. None of you are... But the streets have a mind of their own. And when there are bombs involved, and ambushes, and shootings, you never know what they will do... In any case, you have to promise me you will be careful!" Again her voice was tripping, stumbling, leaping forward and then retreating back, uncertain.
"Look, I have no idea what you're talking about...." Mark's voice was hostile, unforgiving. A blade with a serrated edge. "Obviously I'm not a murderer! I'm just doing my job. What's gotten into you, lately?"
"Nothing. I just mean that I understand you. I've seen it. I can feel it sometimes- -Iraq, I mean. It's not a good place. There's something inhuman about it. You have to be careful."
But Mark wasn't listening to her. "You're nuts! What do you know about Iraq? What can you POSSIBLY know? Over there with your TV and your reporters and your political debates! What - you think you know what's it's like sleeping here, eating here, trying not to kill bystanders even as they all glare at you in complete hatred and little twerps scream 'murderer' in your face?! You think you know?!" He wasn't listening to her. The divide was descending swiftly, like the final fall of an ax. The telephone cord that held him tethered to her, tied him to her in an almost umbilical fashion, now seemed to be dissolving even as he remained on the line. Mark continued his tirade, hurling accusations about the know-it-all academics back home and the stupid war protesters and the even more stupid politicians who kept the whole war machinery going.
And she, for her part, was succumbing to the divide. The detachment began to materialize, to solidify, even as Mark's voice began to fade into the distance and the words appeared farther and farther away, like figures disappearing in the rearview mirror. She once again felt the sweat drip down her back in little rivulets. She felt the heat press its clammy hands against her eyes, push against her ears, squeeze around her toes. She saw the dog lazily scratch himself, before settling back into his customary position - guardian of the abandoned office building. She saw the vendor in his in eternal ignorance, counting his worldly wealth, coin after coin. And she saw the boy surveying the scene, waiting for his moment. This time it would be different, she wouldn't let him disappear, without justice, without reprieve. This time she was ready. She was home....
Editors' Choice 2007: Sunday's Catch by Catherine Mitchell
A writer and editor who divides time between the quiet North Woods in Wisconsin and the rowdy, urban zones of Houston, Mitchell received the Fiction Award from the Gulf Coast Association of Creative Writing Teachers and was selected for the Mississippi Review's online Emerging Writers project. Her flash fiction has appeared in Sojourn (University of Texas at Dallas) and Suddenly III (Martin House Press). She is completing a novel called "Love Child."
Something was coming fast down the beach. As Roger watched, it looked as though it wasn’t moving at all, like it was suspended, and utterly still, like the water, hardly visible in the gray light. But it was coming, fast. It would hit the spent waves as they drained back into the Gulf of Mexico and spray would fly. In the paleness before sunrise, though, the something looked like a fixed blotch anchored in the long, thin distance. Unable to move. Only the sudden spray indicated any progress.
Roger sat on the car’s hood, watching. The car faced the Gulf. He was waiting for sunrise, though he didn’t know why. He had been waiting all night. In the darkness, he and his son had sat out on the car hood, until the boy could no longer ask any questions and fell hard asleep. Then Roger laid Davey on the back seat of the car and covered the boy with a faded yellow beach towel.
Before the boy fell asleep, the two of them watched the moonless sky. Roger cast the beam of a flashlight on the breaking waves of the outgoing tide. Davey said the waves looked mad, like they wanted to come and eat the boy and his father. The man startled sand crabs with the light, and the boy squealed as the crabs skittered sideways back to their holes in the sand. Now, in the gray light, Roger could see new, dark crab holes up against the car tires.
He looked again at the coming blotch. Sunlight, piercing the haze, glinted off the blotch and hurt his eyes. Dawn looked like a broken egg in a skillet, still some traces of red mixed in with the hard yellow and the transparent, misty white. In the Gulf, the heaving darkness gave way to white froth and sparkles. He could see now that the blotch was a truck.
He pulled the boy from the back seat and sat him on the car hood.
—It’s the ocean, Daddy.
—No, it’s only the Gulf.
The boy lay on the hood, using the windshield as a backrest and gazing at the green water. Roger stood beside the car next to his son and stroked the boy’s dark hair, felt it thick and sticky between his fingers.
Now the truck was much closer, still going fast, still hitting the water’s edge and making arcs of rainbow spray. The new sunlight blazed off the truck’s windshield, making it look like a locomotive coming out of tunnel, sudden and bright. It swung wide away from the water, as if it were changing direction, going back, but then it spun again in a hard turn, stopping before it reached Roger’s car, parking parallel to it, facing the Gulf. It was a tow truck. Black, with silver lettering on the cab door: Willy’s Towing Service.
The boy jumped as the sand sprayed out from the truck’s fat rear tires. His bare feet bounced against the car hood. Roger held onto the boy. The driver of the tow truck opened his door on the other side of the truck. Roger and Davey couldn’t see the driver for a moment. Then the man appeared on their side of the tow truck. He was small, and stocky. His head was bald and pinkish, except for a fringe of light brown hair. He wore tan shorts and a faded blue t-shirt. Bare feet. He opened a storage bin on the side of the truck and pulled out a light, fine net.
The boy drew a quick breath.
—What’s he doing, Daddy?
Davey’s voice carried high and crisp in the salt breeze. The driver looked over and gave them a wave with his free hand. Then he strode out into the waves, until the water was up to his waist. He raised the net over his head and tossed it out into the sandy green water. The boy leaned out over the car hood as far as he could. The driver hoisted the net up and slung it over his shoulder. He walked back to the tow truck. The net bulged with something.
The driver pulled a plastic bucket from the back of the tow truck and dropped the net into it. He let out a low whistle and looked over to the boy.
—Come over here, boy. There’s a surprise.
The boy looked at his father.
—All right. Let’s go see.
The dogfish lay in the bucket surrounded by small, flipping minnows. At first the dogfish didn’t move. Then, as they watched, its body swelled and a loud barking noise came out. The boy jumped back, but grinned. The man smiled and held the boy against his legs. The driver laughed and slapped his hands together. Then he pulled a smaller bucket from the tow truck.
—That’s why they call him dogfish. He barks. He’ll bark and bark, until he dies.
The dogfish let out another bark. The boy covered his ears.
—Will you put him back, Mr. Willy?
—If you want me to, Davey.
Roger watched Mr. Willy and Davey as they stood in the shallow surf holding onto a big fishing pole together. Roger was tired. The morning sun was bright and hurt his eyes when he looked at the glimmering water. It wasn’t six o’clock yet, but the sun felt like midday. White gulls landed on the faded wooden pilings that marked the end of the public beach. Their hooked beaks cast crab-claw shadows on the sand.
—Daddy, I’m hungry.
Roger squatted down, eye-level with Davey.
—I’ve given you the last of the cookies. We’ll go get something in a little bit.
Davey let out a loud grumbling sound and his body seemed to collapse in upon itself.
—Roger, I’ve got some jelly donuts up in my cab. You and Davey’s welcome to them.
Mr. Willy shared his donuts and the soft drinks he had iced down in a small cooler.
—It’s nice to have someone to eat breakfast with. Don’t nobody but me come down the beach this far usually.
—I just kept driving. Until I saw the pilings.
Davey smacked the white powdered sugar on his lips.
—I like the beach, he said.
—Me, too, Davey, said Mr. Willy. Me, too. I come here every Sunday morning to catch something for supper.
Davey’s eyes widened. He looked at his father.
—Could we come every Sunday, Daddy? Could Mommy come, too?
Roger reached out and wiped the white sugar from Davey’s lips with his thumb.
—We’ll see, Davey.
—Saturday nights are bread and butter for the tow-truck business, said Mr. Willy. But my wife, she likes to sleep in on Sundays, so I come out here until she’ll be getting on to church.
Roger watched Davey draw squiggles in the wet sand with a stick.
—That’s considerate of you.
—We’ve only been married three years.
Mr. Willy rubbed his bald head.
—I’m no great catch, but she seemed to like me, he said.
Roger watched Davey measure himself against the big front tire of the tow truck.
—I can’t blame her, said Mr. Willy. For wanting to sleep in, I mean. There’s a lot of tow drivers can’t stay married. It’s worse than being a doctor, you know.
Roger saw another small blotch coming down the beach.
The black and white sheriff’s car glided along the dry sand above the waterline. As the sheriff passed, he gave a curt salute out the window. Davey waved back with both hands. The sheriff’s car turned before the pilings and picked up speed as it went back down the beach.
—See him every Sunday morning, said Mr. Willy. He’s like clockwork.
Mr. Willy took a sip of his soft drink.
—Policemen don’t stay married much either.
—It’s hard for anyone, said Roger.
—Amen to that.
Davey peeled off all his clothes and threw them into Roger’s arms. Then he ran down to the water and sat down in the shallows along the edge. He stretched out on his stomach and rolled with the waves that broke gently there. Roger spread the clothes across the car hood.
—You’re lucky, said Mr. Willy. I wish I had me a boy like that.
Mr. Willy tied some chicken necks to a crab bucket.
—He’s a good boy, Roger said.
—That’s the truth. You’re doing a good job.
Mr. Willy reached into the sack of chicken necks.
—You and his mother.
Roger squinted toward Davey. The boy jumped over the lapping water at the edge of the beach, as if he were jumping rope.
—We try, I guess.
Mr. Willy stopped. His hands dripped with pale chicken fat. His face was flat and gray, except for the pink tinge at the top of his forehead.
—Trying, that’s what it takes.
There was a pause, and then Mr. Willy laughed.
—Trying is all you got, he said.
A chicken neck slipped out of his hand.
Roger stared down at the pink and brown blob in the sand.
Davey piled sand into a mound at the water’s edge. Roger watched the boy use a stick of driftwood to poke holes in the mound. The waves licked at the mound, eroding the lower portion. The waves retreated and the boy dug more sand to add to the mound. Roger saw Mr. Willy drop the crab bucket on the far side of the sand bar that separated the beach from the Gulf. Mr. Willy stayed a long time on the sand bar, jumping to stay above the rolling waves.
Davey sat on the broad, black hood of the tow truck. He was wrapped in the faded yellow beach towel, his toes and his chin tucked in. He saw Mr. Willy pull up the crab bucket and wave it toward the beach. Davey jumped up on the hood of the tow truck and dropped the beach towel.
—He’s got one, Daddy! I want to see.
Davey scrambled down from the hood.
The wind took the beach towel and blew it off the hood and toward the pilings. Roger ran after it.
—Davey, wait, he called as he ran for the towel.
Davey ran to the water and out to meet Mr. Willy.
Davey lay sleeping on the beach towel in the back seat of the car, his dark wet hair beginning to dry and curl around his face. Roger saw Mr. Willy packing the net back into the storage compartment of the tow truck. Roger got out of his car and walked over to the tow truck.
—I’m sorry I got so upset.
Mr. Willy closed the storage compartment. He picked up the fishing pole and began to remove the hook and weights from the line.
—No matter. You were looking out for the boy, that’s all.
Mr. Willy locked up the reel and pulled the rod apart. Roger watched Mr. Willy’s bare arms, pink and freckled.
—I guess I’m a little edgy. I overreacted.
Mr. Willy slid the rod and reel into another compartment and snapped its door shut. Then he opened the lid of the ice chest. It was full of perch and crabs.
—See that? Every Sunday morning for three years I bring home a good catch. A lot of times better than this. Redfish, flounder. Sometimes shrimp.
Roger stared down at the jelly eyes of the fish.
—It’s the little things, you see, Mr. Willy said. It’s the small things you got to do to make a family.
Mr. Willy slapped the lid down on the ice chest.
—You take this home.
Roger put up his hands, shook his head.
—No, no. That’s your catch. Your wife will be expecting it.
Mr. Willy picked up the sack of chicken necks and pulled one out.
—What time is it, Roger?
Roger looked away from the chicken neck in Mr. Willy’s hand and focused on his watch.
Mr. Willy pulled the stringer from the bait bucket. He pierced the chicken neck with the pointed metal end and strung the neck onto the thin rope.
—My wife won’t be expecting anything, Roger. Her sister will have come by to pick her up by now.
Mr. Willy strung another chicken neck, and another. Roger watched the cold, pinkish-gray necks line up like fingers on the stringer. Then Mr. Willy draped the stringer around his neck, and the chicken necks lay across his chest. Mr. Willy looked off down the beach.
—Morning’s about gone.
Roger looked down the beach. Something was coming. It was moving fast, spray flying.
Mr. Willy walked toward the water’s edge. Roger followed him.
—Mr. Willy, what are you doing? What are you doing?
Mr. Willy walked into the surf. When he was knee-deep, he turned to Roger.
—Now you look after Davey.
Then he looked out at the Gulf.
—Maybe if I’d had a boy like him, he said.
He held the chicken necks onto his shoulders with both hands and walked toward the sand bar.
Roger heard Davey calling him from the car. He sloshed back to the beach and pulled Davey out of the back seat.
—Daddy! Where’s Mr. Willy going?
Roger saw Mr. Willy out on the sand bar, the string of chicken necks floating on the rolling waves. Then he saw Mr. Willy swim into the waves, swimming deeper and deeper and deeper in the stream of the Gulf. Davey stood on the hood on the car, holding on to Roger’s neck. The sheriff’s car sprayed sand next to the tow truck. Davey jumped and Roger held him.