Fresh & Ripe
John Blade was born and raised in Jacksonville, Florida. He earned his B.A. in History with Baccalaureate Honors from the University of North Florida. While working on his J.D. from Florida State University, he received the 2009 Book Award for achievement in American Legal History for his research on James Madison, and the Pro Bono Service Award for his work with The Innocence Project of Florida. “From Three to Five, These Views of the Moon,” Blade’s first published story, was awarded the Page Edwards Award for Short Fiction.
The award was named for the late novelist and short-story writer Page Edwards and for a number years was sponsored by Florida Community College at Jacksonville (now Florida State College at Jacksonville).
From Three to Five, These Views of the Moon
About them from the swamp came the grinding bellicose roar of a great host in waves of couplets and triplets, a cumulative insect drone punctuated with the resonant indistinct bellowing of what might equally have been basketball-sized frogs or adolescent gators. The binal, receptive ch-chunk of their car doors caused a dimple in this plane of humid sound, transitory and quickly past.
“God, they always get so loud after it rains,” Lindsay said.
“Yeah,” Catherine said, her round little face smiling abstractly.
Lindsay strode up the walk and Catherine followed a few steps behind, heavy lidded and watching her feet. The house was on the small side, boxy, and painted a bluish color that looked unlikely in the bit of sodium-vapor light that reached it from the street. Atop its sliver of porch, Lindsay started to reach for the doorbell with one hand, then stopped and peered at the watch on her opposite wrist. She turned and walked back down the steps, passing Catherine.
When they left the apartment, they rejoined the highway and began their return. Lindsay was quiet, seeming intent on the country station, and Catherine sat with her arms folded, yawning intermittently. They passed over the Intracoastal again, with all the open water and swamp invisible beneath them.
another, then simultaneously and with perfect confidence in each other’s intent slid from the booth and walked out of the restaurant.
Diana Brantley spent more than thirty years teaching traditional advanced courses in high school English. She helped establish curricula for Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs. She also served as IB Coordinator and taught Theory of Knowledge. Her teaching was praised by critic John Leonard in The New York Times, when his son was in her class. In the Introduction to Phases, her first poetry volume (Culicidae Press, LLC, 2011) from which the selections below are taken, Brantley relates her teaching to her writing: "Reading and explaining the works of others to the children of others meant that I repeated incantatory words until they became my way of seeing the world. Then, when my own lines began to come to me, my goal, though not necessarily the result, was a combination of compression and inevitability." Diana and husband Richard divide their time between homes in Florida and in the mountains of North Carolina.
Egypt 1975 (2011)
Now, when I stare back down the life I've spent,
I see it as a narrow stone defile
Leading, like those caves along the Nile
From open sunshine to the living rock,
Where lies, or rather, where there once was laid
The crowned glory of that ancient land.
Now treasure grand and even corpse are sand
And all that's left of plans those pharaohs made.
So here I come to face of days the one
Where inventory calls me now adult,
And all those goals of early life are met.
What next? Another child or job begun?
(Now, years complete, the path shows plain:
Out to the sun, to open self again.)
Heroes Are Made
Cornbread ate the taco chips
With a fat roach sandwiched between
His lips when others bet him that he
Would not eat that lively arthropod.
One hundred dollars gathered fast
Could prod that graceful man-child
Into god: his palate tickled,
The sophomores awed
For half a high school day.
How do women imagine difference?
Breasts grow from flat chests of childhood,
But convoluted internality shudders at penile baggage.
Anatomy can't be destiny: men's pendulous globes
Call for skirting, announce fragility.
The female, contained, compact,
Fits easily in pants.
Could fashion go more wrong?
Men wear their weapons from first
Focus on their rooted center,
Imagine it external other. Bravely
They thrust into new flesh, out of sight,
But much in mind. Their vulnerable
Transformation reads fear into power.
Female skirts may imply availability,
Invite men to the fruits of drink or war,
But no birthing mother doubts the child is hers.
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Howard Denson, a native of Jasper, Alabama, claims his perspective was warped because he grew up listening to Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. "When your hero is made of wood, you have a different outlook on life," he says. After writing and editing for newspapers, he taught at what is now Florida State College at Jacksonville until retirement. In 2012, he published a fantasy novel, Mowbray and the Sharks, along with a collection of essays and humor (Shoot-Out with a Wild-Eyed Moderate) and grown-up fables in A Quandary of Fibbles. He edits the website, "Kassandra's Kitchen." His website: http://howarddenson.webs.com.
A black-and-white blur whizzed across the room, stopped at the ottoman, gave Mr. Coxley a quick up-down, and zipped behind the couch. Since Mr. Coxley had almost lost his balance again, he cursed under his breath. If Sabrina had been there, she would have observed, "You've turned into the Cat-Killer."
And he would have snorted for the hundredth time since the arrival of the kitten, and now a young cat, "I am not a cat-killer. I have never hurt an animal in my life."
"They sense it, you know."
She said that to irritate him since he would grumble and settle behind the newspaper to shut out her nonsense.
Then he would look up after finishing a story, and she'd be sitting in her chair, her legs up on the ottoman, and Panda-Boy on the back of the chair, glaring at him, then starting away. The old gray cat would settle alongside Sabrina, while the gray cat's senile black sister would lie on Sabrina's lap and drool.
If he bent over to kiss Sabrina on the forehead, the senile sister would whirl her head and sling drool three feet in all directions. And if he complained to anyone, he always had to clarify, "No, kiss my wife: kiss Sabrina -- not one of those damned cats." He had petted dogs or cats occasionally, but he certainly had never kissed one.
Ah, but he had kissed women, and lots of them, perhaps thousands, though he was not one for counting. He thought once again of Mrs. De Carlo when he was twelve years old. Actually, her name was Mrs. Courtland, but she reminded him of a technicolor Yvonne De Carlo, all bracelets and necklaces, with a marvelous cleavage and silks. He could still see her playing a belly-dancer, Salome, or a harem girl. Smiling, he remembered how Mrs. De Carlo came to where he was sun-bathing next to the complex's pool, noticed he was all at attention in his suit, and coaxed him upstairs to her apartment. She was surprised at the skill of her novitiate, and he found something much more fun to play with than a baseball. Years ago, he tried to keep track of the ones that he had been with, but he stopped when he turned twenty-two. At seventeen, there had been one girl or woman for every year of his life, and then. . .well, who can count after you move from city to city, then to the University? Perhaps, when he had been certified as an architect, he should have moved back to a small town, where the citizens could have watched him like a hawk, but he liked going to night-clubs, buying things at 1 a.m., and, well, having it off with all the good-looking women in a big city. Besides, big cities need architects; small towns generally don't.
Big city newspapers, however, could be brutal and heartless, but not as cruel as the internet and its thousands of homepages from sociopaths leading lonely lives to check out. . .well, Daphne's graphic homepage. She had begged him to let her photograph their love-making, but he refused, so the homepage mainly had images of Daphne, panting toward the camera. The cruel part was her online diary, her "blog" (what the hell kind of word was that anyway?).
The information from her blog had zipped around the world until finally the Daphne-Coxley chronicles became News.
Mr. Coxley winced as he remembered the headline on the front page of the Post: "Daphne Loves Man with No 'Off' Button."
"It pays to advertise," Mr. Coxley had mused back then, since the internet and the stories only increased his attraction to women. After all, he always used protection, as Daphne recorded in excruciating detail. At a party, if the host was drunk enough, he'd be introduced, "And, my fellow web surfers, here's our famous architect Roger Coxley, 'the Man without an Off Button.'"
He would try to keep a dignified face, but he also spotted, and remembered, the women who wanted first-hand proof. They would talk house designs and renovations, and he would inspect with them their townhouses or estates, and especially the bedrooms.
Neat little Sabrina, with her beeper, cell phone, attach case, and calculator, had been one of those, except her beeper went off when he was reaching for her again that first time.
full of strife.
That was his refrain for Sabrina. Sometimes he liked another one:
After all, she was good at counting.
In fact, he had a little rhyme for each of his three wives.
that's for life.
That was for Mona, the first one, and, after their till-death-do-us-part kiss, it mortified her that a husband would want to Do It a second time. She had the skill of a tennis player in slapping away his hands and asking if that was all he was interested in. She ignored the other women and the gossip. "Good riddance," she would say whenever a best-friend decided that poor Mona just had to know what was going on behind her back. She tolerated The Act enough to have Amy, and then she and Amy divorced him and moved to Perth Amboy.
played a fife.
Actually Eliza did not play a wind instrument. She liked the piano and painting, plus saying, "I always liked playing house, so that's why I married an architect!" It had been her one joke, and she punctuated it by braying bwah ha ha! The first time he heard it, that hee-ha-ha-ing made him drop his whiskey sour. She painted still-lifes of flowers and vases, favoring pastel violet acrylics mixed with her light reds and greens. And she'd settle at a piano and pound out "Heart and Soul," except she tried to use the rumba-dumpa-rumba-dumpa bass for other songs, too. That marriage would have been quite tedious, if it had lasted.
However, he and Eliza had gone to the Fowlers for a weekend at Kennebunkport, and, looking for some aspirin, Eliza had stumbled across him and Daphne Fowler "going at it, Your Honor, to beat the band," as she said in court. Whereas Eliza had been unnecessarily cruel in their divorce, Stanley Fowler was being civilized and philosophical. He told his sullen daughter from a first marriage that he and Daphne might try counseling, but then the triumphant daughter, self-righteous and smug, dragged him to a computer and typed in the URL of "Daphne's World."
So the host at one party had laughed out an introduction: "Sabrina, meet Roger, the man with no 'off' button. Roger, meet Sabrina, Kramer's best C.P.A. and the trainer of two wonder cats."
When they married, he discovered that Sabrina had not trained the cats at all. She had gotten them from two wanna-be rockers who smoked grass and played heavy-metal so loud that it turned both cats into nervous wrecks, but Sabrina settled them down after a few years.
When he was first alone with the cats, that day after their honeymoon, Gramalkin flexed her claws and sank them into the fabric of the sofa.
"Cat, stop that!" he had commanded.
And Gramalkin flattened her ears slightly, looked him in the eyes, and said, "Bitch!" She did not make the actual words, but he could read what her eyes said.
He found himself wanting to argue: "Listen, you stupid cat. A bitch has to be female, you see? It's more appropriate for you to call me a bastard or a son-of-a-bitch." He never made the retort, however, since he would only look foolish if Sabrina or a visitor caught him in mid-debate with a cat.
Thanks to a looseness of flesh from when she was spayed, Blobbo oozed black furry fat over the recliner when she took up his chair.
He tried to be friendly. "How are you, Blobbo? Want to sit with me?"
But Blobbo glared in disbelief when he dislodged her from the chair. When he sat down and patted his lap to invite her to climb back up, she looked at him as if he were a degenerate. Like a Nazi officer, she goose-stepped toward the back of the house to the food dish, with her loose fat slinging side to side.
As the years went by, Sabrina had remarked, "They recognize Mr. Cat-Killer when they see him." In between her endless discussion about changes in tax laws, she kept giving extensive insights into cat psychology.
Eventually he would check the clock and remember the time of his next tryst. He'd try to be discreet in checking his watch and then reach into his pocket for his keys.
Finally she would raise her eyebrows as he pulled out his car keys. "Going somewhere?"
"Forgot to get out some designs at the office," he would say, perhaps knowing that she could figure out he was meeting another woman. "Contractor wants to pick them up when we open." He knew which elusive contractor to name in case she asked.
Sabrina eventually quit asking questions and settled into her chair, with Gramalkin at her side and Blobbo oozing over her lap. Later on, he showered in the guest bathroom to remove the smell of sex and strange cologne and slipped into the bedroom and onto his side of the bed. Blobbo, sleeping on Sabrina's abdomen, raised herself up, glared at him, and stomped into another room.
Occasionally, Sabrina's boss dropped by, and, as she sat in the den looking over a folder he had brought, Fred Kramer would flick up and down a light switch in the living room. He would wink at Mr. Coxley. "How about that? You do have one!"
Mr. Coxley gave a polite laugh and tried not to recall how Kramer's own wife had wanted to research his "off" button, too. He had his ethics, though.
He sighed. So many do's and don't's. Run from the underage, of course....Stay away from sisters-in-laws or female cousins-in-law....Avoid the wives of bosses...don't go near the basket-cases....And don't make passes at lasses who know how to operate the computers at work. He needed someone to operate the programs and fix the damned things.
When he was younger, it was simpler: You did it, and you broke a holy commandment, if she was married -- not that he felt for a minute that God cared a fig about human coupling. If she was single, you made certain she was willing and had a good time. If she wanted a commitment, then she learned you were a male being a male. If you showed poor judgment, you had to take a penicillin shot. Then later, you always used protection, period.
Mr. Coxley smiled with satisfaction at his record. He had taken penicillin shots only for colds and once for an abscessed tooth. Later, of course, you had to size up a prospect for runny noses or needle marks and really make certain she wasn't deadly.
Frowning, he recalled the transformation in things. That was about when the cats changed. Sabrina had found the black-and-white kitten, a hissing, spitting fur-ball trying to convince you that, if you touched him, by God, you died. Over several days, she calmed down the kitten and introduced Panda-Boy to the two old ladies. They hissed at Panda-Boy, but, even if Sabrina had not locked him safely in the guest room at night, they would not have killed him.
Instead, Panda-Boy changed them. Blobbo started losing weight, possibly because she was not able to graze at her trough all day long. She was now having to move fast to keep out of the way of the leaping kitten. Soon, her face was gaunt, and they could see her bones. The vet checked her three different times and found nothing wrong. "She is fifteen years old, Mr. Coxley."
He insisted on renaming Blobbo "Bag O'Bones," or "Baggo," and Sabrina was too busy to care one way or the other. He noted that Gramalkin fleshed out and became a portly old lady cat.
Often he came in late at night and hurried to shower so he could "get the film off me." If it was tax-season, she came in later than he did.
During the lulls that accountants have, he came home to a tranquil scene of Sabrina relaxing in her chair. Panda-Boy would be at the top, Gramalkin at her side, and Baggo on her lap.
He changed, too. The doctors found a growth and cut in deep, and he was weaker afterwards. He had a new joke, but he didn't use it at parties or anywhere else: "They opened me up and installed an 'off' switch." When he tried the new medicines, they didn't reinvigorate him. The switch stayed off.
Sabrina received promotions at work and adjusted her schedule whenever Kramer requested it. She needed to go out at night a lot to check on accounts, and the Kramer Corporation had quarterly meetings in Albany, or Rochester, or Manhattan.
Sabrina Coxley planned everything, Kramer said at parties. "We couldn't have a meeting without her. Everyone at Kramer needs her." He could say that without even winking.
Panda-Boy raced across the room, leapt onto the back of the sofa, bounced onto the ottoman, and soared onto the back of Mr. Coxley's chair. He was purring madly and looking wildly for things in the room.
Baggo stood blankly, trying to focus on Mr. Coxley, who was reaching up and scratching Panda-Boy's back. Then she came to his chair and pulled herself up, thought about the appropriateness of his lap, and settled into a bony circle.
Mr. Coxley saw Gramalkin studying the arrangement, and he eased over to make a space at his hips. Since his operation, he had lost so much weight that a cat could fit there.
Panda-Boy started at the sound of Sabrina slamming her car door and walking over the flagstones to the front door. When the keys were being jiggled, Gramalkin finally heard the noises, too. When the door knob started turning, Gramalkin pulled herself up into the protected space next to Mr. Coxley. She opened her mouth slightly as she identified the scent of something alien.
It was the Cat-Killer.
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Southern humorist D. H. (Darlene) Eaton was born and reared in Jacksonville, Florida, married a hometown boy, and remains to this day in the town of her birth. Much of D. H.'s 1950's era childhood was spent visiting relatives in the small backwater towns of central Florida. She drew from these experiences when writing her first novel The Osceola Community Club. The first in a Florida trilogy, this novel-cookbook features fifty-four regional recipes woven throughout its storyline. In 2004, the novel earned the Florida Writers Association's highest awards: First Place in Literary Fiction and Book of the Year.
Excerpt from The Osceola Community Club
D.H. (Darlene) Eaton
I doubt anyone who was around Osceola, Florida, in the late 1950's or early 1960's will ever hear the name "McCullough" without thinking of the atomic bomb, and of the Russian missiles aimed at someplace in Florida from someplace on Castro's Caribbean isle.
Roland McCullough was one of the more prosperous Osceolans - a cattle rancher with a huge ranch ten miles outside of Osceola village, heading southwest on the washboard road to Kingsland. The McCullough's spacious house was perched on top of a picturesque rise about five hills over from my Nanny Ellie's. Miles of grazing land surrounded their hilltop house, kelly green grazing land uninterrupted, save by long slats of pinewood plank fencing that traveled up and down the hilly landscape.
Early in '62 Roland chose a stony spot about a hundred feet from his home, hired union stonemasons from Bradyville to drill into the rock, and built one of those unique hideouts the nervous rich constructed during JFK's Camelot administration - a fallout shelter.
When local cars cut through the pig path that sliced the live oak lined dirt lane that wound between the gravel road to Osceola and the hard road to Kingsland, there it stood, high and formidable - that mighty iron door that seemed to grow out of a hill, and the ghostly dead oak tree that stood sentinel over the grassy knoll that topped Roland's impenetrable shelter.
It was only natural for Roland McCullough to get himself elected as Osceola's civil defense chief. Elected, my hindfoot! There was no election. Roland simply appointed himself. And everyone accepted that as that. No one cared anyway. Truth is, until that frightful autumn day in 1962 no one took Roland's doom-casting seriously.
But come October twenty-third, nearly every Osceolan, from the age of twelve on up, showed up at the town meeting held in Strom Lee's general store that very night. Before that evening I'd only had one encounter with the counters of Strom Lee's mercantile store, one I could remember anyhow. There may have been other visits, when I was a baby or such, visits I don't recollect.
But the one I'd had since getting bigger was the time Mama and I, not long before the civil defense meeting night, had experienced together, strolling into the ancient bronze-brick building, both surprised to see merchandise that had long ago been discontinued everywhere else - aging goods no one had cared to purchase when they were new and attractive - goods that would now remain forever un-bought, for they were unsightly, and in most cases no longer serviceable. Many of the items were objects no one had a use for anymore. Who even knew what the hang they were?
Mama knew what I was after her to buy for me - Helene Curtis Spray Net. She said to a female clerk, "Spray Net, please."
"Whut'd you say, ma'am?"
"I doan' know whut you talkin' 'bout."
I butted in with "Helene Curtis Spray Net."
Mama told the clerk, "Go get Mr. Lee."
A skeletal stooped old gentleman emerged from a dark back room, parting a grimy canvas curtain as he approached us.
"Mr. Lee, we'd like some hair spray," Mama said.
Exasperated, Mama said, "Never mind," and we left the store, convinced that folks in Osceola had not yet heard of hair spray. "And," Mama told me during the ride home, "what use would they have for it anyhow? To get themselves fixed up for cows and pigs?"
Mama and I went to the Osceola civil defense meeting, even though, technically, we were outsiders - residents of Hendersonville, the largest city anywhere around Osceola. But Mama and I were Nanny Ellie's blood offspring, which meant we were Fosters, and Fosters were always counted as part of Osceola. Had been since 1850.
My grandparents didn't go to the town meeting.
Nanny Ellie said, "Russians, horse hockey!"
Granddaddy was tuned in to one football game on the television, a second on a radio in the pantry, and a third on my transistor radio on a bedside table in the back bedroom. He was in another world - oblivious. Thinking back on it from a perspective of 2002, I suppose they were the smart ones. Heck, they'd been raised on Civil War lamentations, were teenagers during the First World War, starved and worried through the Depression, cried through the Second World War, groaned through the Korean conflict, and now this - Bolshevik communists. No wonder Nanny Ellie was peacefully smoking a Kool menthol in her porch swing and Granddaddy was snoring in front of the TV set when Mama and I headed out for downtown Osceola and the civil defense meeting.
Roland McCullough was feeling full of himself that night. He strutted imperiously to the front counter of Strom Lee's antiquated general store, coughed three or four times for effect, then read a dull civil defense booklet to the crowd. Perhaps it was news to those country types, but I had heard it a humpty-dozen times already - in public school - in Hendersonville. Boring!
I was smacking my bubble gum loudly, trying to stir up something, anything, 'til Mama shushed me with a light pinch to my knee.
Then things got interesting.
Roland laid the pamphlet on the cracked glass store counter and announced, importantly, "An' what we gonna' do when them hordes from Hendersonville descend down on us?"
"What did he say, Mama?" I whispered.
"Hush!" Mama whispered back excitedly, "he said 'whores from Hendersonville'!"
"Thousands of people from Hendersonville will come runnin' to Osceola when them bombs hit up there," Roland continued, "an' what we gonna' do with 'em? We cain't feed 'em. Cain't take 'em in. Got nowhere for 'em. And nothin' to give 'em. We got to decide right now what we gonna' do when they show up."
Mama leaned close and whispered straight into my ear. I could feel the warmth of her breath. It tickled, but it was a pleasant tickle. "I don't think I heard Mr. McCullough right," she said, "he prob'ly didn't say 'whores'."
Traylor Delamere raised his hand, was acknowledged by the mayor, then asked, "Roland, what makes you think those city folks will rush south to our little town?"
"Why not?" Roland huffed, "they got to refugee somewheres."
The mayor spoke up and said, "Roland's got a point. After all, Hendersonville's a target Russia won't miss shootin' at. She's got all them big military bases you know."
Roland was red in the face. He yelled, excitedly, "See! I told you! Remember them big air bases in Hendersonville! An' them shipyards too!"
The mayor turned to Roland and asked, "Mr. McCullough, as our civil defense chief, what do you sugges' we do about 'em?"
Roland was smug. "Mister mayor, as I see it we only got one choice."
"And that is?" asked Traylor Delamere.
"Lock 'em out."
"I said lock 'em out."
"What do you mean 'lock them out'?"
"Exactly that. Lock our doors and not open 'em no matter what they say, no matter how hard they beg - no matter what. An' have our shotguns ready!"
Traylor Delamere shot to his feet, saying, "That's absurd."
Roland argued, "We cain't feed 'em all! Cain't take 'em all in!"
Men in the crowd murmured among themselves. Women were sighing, "Oh my!"
Traylor Delamere walked to the front of the store. Roland McCullough, intimidated, stepped to one side, then crouched low, almost hidden behind the cashier's stand.
Delamere said loudly, as loudly as if a microphone had been just under his lips, "Seems to me McCullough's the only one here with a genuine worry, because he's the only one here with a structure to hide in, should the nuclear missiles be fired. McCullough's just scared someone will ring the doorbell of his elaborate hut, asking for shelter. And for food. And for water. He's scared folks might get into his precious protection cave, might overrun him, might eat his food and drink his water. You don't see me building a blamed fallout shelter on Delamere property - and God knows I can afford one better than McCullough, whom I happen to know is mortgaged down to every last head of cattle on his place. McCullough, I say keep your damned bomb closet to yourself. There's not a one of us here who'll come knocking on your damn door." Then moving his head to slowly encompass the entire group, he added, "Shall we give McCullough our word we'll not bother him?"
The crowd shouted in unison, "Yes sir, Del."
Delamere turned to Roland McCullough, then he said quietly, so quietly that only those sitting on the first row of folding chairs heard (Mama and I happened to be right up front), "And I wouldn't worry over Hendersonville coming here, Roland. They'll all be blown to Hell the minute the Commie missiles hit."
Delamere returned to addressing the crowd, and after holding his hand in the air for silence, which he got immediately, said, "So shall we take our chances together, just like we always have?"
"Yes sir, Del," the crowd responded unanimously.
The meeting broke up - instantly.
Mama and I were silent on the drive back to Nanny Ellie's hill. As the station wagon eased itself into the front yard I said, "Mama, is it true we Hendersonvillians are gonna' die? An' die quick?"
I fretted for a minute. Then I laughed and said, "Good. Them Osceola folk don't want us hornin' in on them anyhow."
Mama laughed too. "We wouldn't wanta' live here no way," she said. "Shoot, they ain't even got hair spray."
"An' don't even know what it is!" I added.
We shared a nervous giggle.
Then we went into the house.
Changed into our nightgowns without a word.
Crawled into the double bed together.
But didn't sleep.
I could hear my grandparents' contented snores coming from the front hallway.
Afterthought: Constance McCullough missed the civil defense meeting that night because, as her embarrassed husband explained, "Connie's home choppin' up her famous cranberry relish. It's nearin' to holiday time, you know, and that relish has to set awhile, or it's too sweet."
After hearing Roland McCullough's explanation of why his wife did not attend the meeting, I noticed Traylor Delamere leaning into Strom Lee's ear and heard him whisper, "What's McCullough going to need with cranberry relish if the Russians have already blown his fat butt to bits before Thanksgiving?"
Then I heard Strom say, "Constance just used that stupid relish as an excuse to get out of hearin' Roland blow off . . . "
But then the meeting started, and we all had to behave circumspectly.
Submitted to the Osceola Community Club Cookbook by:
1 pound cranberries
Chop all in food chopper, including skins of apples and oranges. Add the same amount of sugar as the cranberry mixture measures.
Mix, put in jars and store in refrigerator for at least two weeks before using. (Mixture is extremely sweet if you try to use it before it sets as long as it should.)
The Osceola Community Club, published by Cumberland House Publishing, is now available online from Cumberland House Publishing at www.cumberlandhouse.com, from www.barnesandnoble.com, from www.amazon.com, or from your local bookstore.
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Eric Flamm was raised in rural Minnesota and studied English literature and Chinese at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon. After graduating, he worked as a journalist in Taiwan, and then at a startup technology company in Israel, where he became a citizen. In 1996, he was drafted into the Israel Defense Forces, joining a combat unit as a reservist. In 2001, he returned to Portland, where he lives with his wife and young daughter. "My Partners" is his first published fiction and was an Honorable Mention choice in the 2004 E. M. Koeppel Short Fiction Contest. He is presently at work on a novel inspired by his time in Israel.
I went to the truck and grabbed four plastic shields, casually throwing them into the center of the circle formed by sandbags and lounging soldiers. Nearby Raffi carefully attended a gas burner with a coffee pot, the other soldiers leaning against the wall of the position with flak jackets open, languidly drinking. Boaz alone stood guard over us behind the sandbags, walking back and forth, keeping his eye on the far end of the street and the crowd of Palestinians slowly gathering for the day's activities. There was another squad gearing up by the truck and everything was quiet so we didn't need to be particularly vigilant. I had gotten the shields for when the order came to push the Palestinian crowd back onto its side of the street. One soldier would hold it up to give his partner protection from the hail of rocks and bottles, allowing him to fire his rifle with a steady hand.
I accepted a cup of coffee from Raffi, sitting down and stretching out my legs. Some settler group was on the move today, coming into the town for the simple pleasure of making a statement and pissing off the Arabs.
"You were shield bearer yesterday; today I'll take my crack," Yoni said, underscoring that neither of us had much enthusiasm for shooting anymore, given the eternal and ambiguous nature of the mission. The bullets we now used were metal slugs coated in rubber to reduce their velocity, fired by jamming a packet of three down an enlarged tube anchored to the ends of our rifles, the shot powered by the gas emitted by a blank cartridge. The bullets, small cylinders half an inch wide and three-quarters long, could imbed themselves deep in flesh should they hit at close range. After thirty meters or so the bullets would usually bounce off skull or bone leaving a jagged cut, soft tissue faring less favorably. We fired the rubber bullets in groups of three, each one drifting in its own random trajectory as it tumbled through the air, further allaying any fears that we personally were responsible for the injury we inflicted. It had come down the grapevine that if you really needed to take down a troublemaker, you could break open the cellophane holding the three bullets, loading your gun with just one and thereby ensuring greater velocity and accuracy. Raffi had tried this several times with good result, but I hadn't felt the need yet.
"Whatever," I said. "I'll give this Kabuki theatre a performance." I scanned the dusty street past our barricade toward Arab Hebron, looking at the low drab concrete buildings, the stores with steel shutters, and the knots of Palestinian youths who also lounged, talked, and smoked. Political setbacks, settler violence, the endless drone of shuttle diplomacy: all just a background hum when I looked down my gun sights as young Palestinians would run to the end of their courage to throw Molotovs or rocks. Usually the hulking presence of our squad would ensure the missile would land short of its mark. But once a day the protestors' anger and drive to raise the level of confrontation would reach fever pitch, and the mob would boldly start advancing. We'd then aim for the legs and let loose. Head injuries were not uncommon, nor suspect, given the chaotic nature of the encounters. Afterwards an ambulance would be called and we'd chase down the lightly injured, the others fleeing back to their homes or to hide behind old women in the souk. But when the sun rose the next day all players would take their mark for another round.
I had no appetite for any of it. Sure I knew the political issues, all the appropriate answers to the ever-repeating questions, but in my heart I just wanted to be somewhere else far away. After being in the city for less than a day, I reached the conclusion that despite Hebron being an historically important city for the Jews, it was a patch of dust and dirt inhabited by 90,000 people who didn't want me around.
Between us and them the news cameramen peeked out of alleyways wearing bicycle helmets and sport shoes, sweating and out of shape. Half of the soldiers wanted to shoot all members of the media, the other half regarded them as minor pains in the asses who deserved to be shot, just not on purpose. It didn't seem right that we'd be out here all day, every day, and for the thirty seconds things got way out of hand, soldiers shooting and screaming, whacking Palestinians on the ground with rifle butts, it's all over the BBC and CNN what a bunch of war criminals we all are. Don't even ask me about the Arab media. Also, no matter what the Palestinians do, they are always the victims, the cameras and reporters never mentioning the abuse and petrol bombs, rocks, and occasional bullets the shabab hurl at us whenever they can. It's like these pundits get up in the morning surprised Israel continues to exist even though we've been here, on this dusty street, going on thirty years. Sure I feel misunderstood, but the bottom line is that it's a crap city full of zealots. Save my blood for a battle that counts.
I sipped my coffee and tried not to think of anything. It would be a long, hard day and the sun had already become punishing. Soon the Palestinians would start their chanting, or the settlers would arrive and initiate some shit. Shots would be fired, blood would flow, the cameras would catch it all, and another journal entry would be logged for humanity. Despite all of what I've said, I am sympathetic for the Palestinians. They have a clear reason to hate us as we harass them on a daily basis, ignoring the question of whether they deserve it or not. Still this doesn't mean jack when it comes to showtime, for I know which side I'm on in this struggle. I also have a special feeling of aggravated disgust for the settlers. Do they understand the plight of a soldier? Hardly. They hate us, too, as representing the secular government, mere pawns of a morally bankrupt regime, and for not shooting all the Palestinians while we have a chance. Whatever good will anyone could ever ask of the Palestinians is bled dry twice daily by these yutzes.
I heard a vehicle approach but didn't feel the need to peer over the edge of the sandbags. "The circus has arrived," Boaz said. I figured I had at least five minutes to get my head out of the clouds. The dream of purity of arms, of being a fighter, now seemed a stupid joke and I couldn't wait to get out of the army. I stood up, flung my plastic cup in the general direction of the protesters, and closed my flak jacket. "Jim, jim, jimalaya," I said, kicking Yoni in the boots, making him smile with the old Palmach work chant.
"Fuck," he said.
With the arrival of the bus our counterparts had also come alive, and a spirited round of chanting began accompanied by the slingshot-launched influx of small gravel which pinged and popped around us.
"Why can't they just declare a curfew," Sergei said. "Lock those bastards down and it'll be a blessing for everyone."
"And which bastards are you talking about?" Yoni asked.
"Joseph is buried here," Sergei said, raising his voice a notch. "We can't ever turn over the city to the Palestinians. What the hell, you wear the kipa, doesn't this mean anything to you?"
"Give it a hundred years, then we'll see what's what," Yoni said, fastening his helmet strap in a slow, meticulous manner. "Then the messiah will come, or maybe he won't."
I sat on the sandbags with my rifle in my lap sharing the plastic shield held over my head with Yoni as gravel occasionally fell on us, watching the settler bus and its army jeep escort unload. The men stood outside the bus, hands on their hips, looking around at the scenery as if it were a fine day for a picnic. They had the usual dark pants and white shirts with the tzitzith fringes hanging out, sporting large machine pistols in neoprene holsters strapped to the outside of their clothing and the occasional Uzi. They looked pale, hot, and greasy under their beards; the women didn't look much better in their long dresses and head coverings.
Robert, who had been in the escort jeep, walked over and accepted an offered cup of coffee, nodding hello. "It's going to be hot today," he said. "Last night a trailer took a few bullets. But no one got hit."
"More goddamned Jewish charity," Yoni said. "A full company needed to protect seven families up on that hilltop. What the fuck."
"That place was Shamir's departing gift," Robert said. "Those assholes are pissed when the bullets miss. For every Jewish victim the true Zionist response, according to them, is to build more housing units so even more crazies can come and stir up even more shit."
Carmeli came over and told my squad we had the great honor of escorting the settlers past the souk to the yeshiva. I threw the shield back in the truck and removed the rubber-bullet launcher from my rifle barrel, angry about having to leave the tangible hazards of the street protest for those unseen. I walked over to the settlers, trying not to look anyone in the eye. The men generally appeared defiant and happy, radiating confidence and menace, talking boisterously among themselves. The women wore tight, cruel faces, but also glowed with an air of contentment. I put a magazine in my rifle and chambered a bullet. I had that acid feeling in my stomach that I could taste in my throat, and I gritted my teeth. We'd be walking down streets where someone could just drop a cinder block or Molotov on us from a rooftop, no chanting, no protest, no nothing, just quick serious injury for a bunch of assholes still fighting the War of Independence. They'd go to their yeshiva, have their prayers in the face of a crowd of pissed-off Palestinians, floating above ground that this was some great victory. Already I sensed that the assembled teetered on the verge of congratulating their neighbor for the mere fact of reaching that dusty Hebron street, even though they had accomplished this under military escort.
We formed a rough ring around the twenty-odd settlers and proceeded to move away from the barricades and chanting. The settlers began singing as I nervously scanned rooftops, holding my rifle tightly in my hands. We passed old men and women on our way to the souk and looked questioningly at their weathered faces, wondering if this was the enemy.
Reaching the souk I was relieved to find no angry crowds, the road opening up and allowing us to spread out a bit. The ordinary scene was a relief, just the usual congregation of people doing their daily shopping, men and women tending stalls piled with fruit and vegetables, clothing, shoes, household wares. As if on a signal, the settlers stopped their singing and ran toward the stalls, overturning and scattering the produce, screaming and yelling about last night's shooting at their compound.
Goddamnit all, I muttered as I put my rifle on my back and gave chase to an overweight man, his kipa flopped to the side of his head as he strained to knock over a vegetable stand. I grabbed his neck and shoulder and flung him hard on his fat ass. He looked up at me, genuine surprise on his face, saying, "Easy brother!"
"Get back to the street!" I yelled. All about me settlers and soldiers were grappling, yelling, scuffling, the Palestinians looking on in mute wonder as their livelihoods were trampled. Instinctively they knew that to resist would break the momentary war between the settlers and soldiers, uniting them against a common foe. Stall keepers resolutely took a step backwards and watched as their goods were scattered on the ground.
A woman had found a stick and was gamely having a go at a housewares stall. I grabbed her by the waist and pulled her away as she screamed and kicked and scratched at my arms. She shrieked that I wasn't her husband and had no right to touch her as I threw her to the ground. I looked up to see Yoni struggling with a settler who looked a bit tanner and tougher than the rest, as if he did agricultural work which thickened his limbs. I tackled him, landing heavily on top, deciding to butt him in the face with my helmet for added good measure. He looked stunned as blood flowed from his nose and I felt my acid stomach turn into a warm glow, that here was the real fight, a satisfying place of conflict that had the potential for catharsis. I could have ridden that wave, but I suppressed it. I wanted to punch all these fat settler fucks full arm in the teeth, kick them hard in their fat bellies. The Palestinians would hate us forever. They were our consistent, unfaltering brethren whom we were locked together with in hate for time immemorial. But these other idiots were supposed to be on our side. They were responsible for all of my suffering: my misguided enlistment, my parent's divorce, my inability to give a shit about anything, and today for having to scrap in the heat and filth of the Hebron souk. But I knew my place. We were the padded cell, the gentle restraint, trying to prevent destruction until the settlers felt they had punished the Palestinians enough or ran out of energy. I got off the man and went on to find another.
Somehow I kept my cool, pushing settlers with an aggressive fury back towards the road and out of the souk without administering too much personalized violence. Too far in that direction and I knew it would mean problems later. I also lacked the ironclad belief that the settlers were completely wrong.
I saw two young women run past the line of soldiers and go deeper into the souk trying to gain distance on us. I gave chase, finding them attempting to overturn a watermelon stand, both working together to lift one end of the heavy table to bring the melons cascading down. Like little girls, I grabbed each of their arms and pulled them back without too much effort.
As I turned to push them toward the road, out of the corner of my eye I saw the flash of metal and a blur of motion. When I realized what was going on, the teenager was already bringing the knife down on me, aiming squarely for my neck. I dropped the arms of the women and hunched over to catch the blow on my body armor. The women screamed and sprinted back toward the soldiers. The knife caught and stopped and I shielded my face with my left arm as I fished for my rifle with my right. I caught a blow across my forearm and felt a burning pain. My rifle now in my hands, I quickly smacked the kid in the chest with the butt. He stood there, eyes on fire, sixteen or so, staring me down, desperately jerking his head left then right, looking for an opening to stick me again with the boning knife clenched tightly in his fist. I looked at the downy hairs on his upper lip, his rigid black eyes, his stained T-shirt, taking in these details as if they would tilt the balance one way or the other. I resolutely flipped the safety off, hoping he would wake up and run away. No reaction. I should have screamed or kicked him, something, but it was as if we had locked together somehow and the outcome was preordained. He made a low noise and swung the knife high with a lunge. I took a step backward and fired with just a few feet separating us. The kid stopped and lowered the knife with a blank look on his face, as if he didn't inhabit his body anymore, collapsing on the ground and holding his chest as blood oozed between his fingers.
All the chaos in my head settled into silence as I froze, noticing now the perimeter of Palestinians who had at first retreated during the rampage now pressed forward with dark, angry faces. Maybe they wanted to give aid to the kid; maybe they wanted to rip me limb from limb. I still didn't know what to do, standing there with my rifle in my hand, listening to the kid scream and wondering if the sky was going to fall or if the kid was going to leap up and have another go-around. Sergei came up beside me in a combat stance, yelling in Arabic for everyone to step back and waving his gun. The crowd retreated.
"Let's go," Sergei said. Blood flowed liberally out of my arm with every pulse yet I couldn't feel it. "C'mon, man, let's get the fuck out of here, time to go," he said, coming closer and putting an arm around my shoulder, pulling me back towards the road. We slowly backed away from the watermelons, the wailing screams, and made our way to the souk's entrance. The shot had effectively ended the settler's rage, and they now straightened their clothing and donned their cloaks of pious respectability, congregating where they had started their tear.
Carmeli was in my face, "What the fuck happened?" he yelled.
"I shot someone, sir," I said. Hearing this, the settlers cheered.
Carmeli looked at me for a moment before his expression changed, yelling, "Medic!" grabbing a compress bandage out of his pocket and applying it to my arm. Yehuda came and unpacked his medical kit, but before he did anything one of the settler men came up, sweating and dirty. "I'm a doctor. Let's have a look," he said. Somehow the quick change of hats from adversary to rescuer felt normal, as if the game had ended and we were all mates again in the pub. He peeled back the compress and said, "You'll need to go get stitched up."
I leaned back against a building feeling limp, hoping that this would be my last day in the army, the last day in Hebron, knowing that I would become familiar with the city as if it were my own neighborhood, coming back to the souk for month after month for another year. I looked at the doctor as he taped the compress into place, thinking now how great it would be if he and his group existed someplace else far away and it was only us and the Palestinians waging the eternal war. I cleared my weapon and went to the jeep, settling in to await the ride to the hospital.
Authors | Home | Top
Carlota Fowler grew up in Bogota, Colombia, and came to the U. S. as a college freshman. She received her B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Tennessee and taught Spanish and French in high school and college for twenty years. Her publications include "The House of the Vargas Delgado," a short story in the twentieth anniversary issue of Kalliope: A Journal of Women's Literature and Art; poems in the anthologies of the Florida State Poets Association; an essay in Woodrider; and book reviews in The Foreign Language Journal. For three years she edited and produced the Pojax Anthology.
In "The Execution," Fowler takes us into a terrible world that most know only from news reports. Going beyond the news, Fowler shows us a poignant example of the brutal reality that has engulfed many of the homeless and downtrodden.
Since our publication of the "The Execution," the Bilingual Review of Arizona State University has accepted two of Fowler's poems for publication: "Born in Another World" and "Foreigner."
The abandoned garage is furnished with a scant section of makeshift bleachers, two stools, and two tables.
Both tables reek of mildew and are leveled on the sloping floor with chunks of broken bricks. The one occupied by the judge is stained with rings from wet bottles, embroidered with caked spilt food, and dotted with fly droppings. He sits on a Thrift Store wicker chair, its wobbly legs barely holding him. The other table is reserved for the execution.
The judge is past fifty, defrocked, divorced, disowned by his brood. Every feature in his face reveals the ruckus within. Alcohol, dreadful temper, shady business, biased sentences. The fixed downward curve of his mouth might be dubbed a smile by some. He doesn't look in the eyes of any of the men gathered in front of him. Several of his teeth are gone, leaving dark gaps that he uses to gush brown tobacco saliva onto the floor. The bridge of his nose was bent in several fights, but still, when he is not cursing or spitting, one can say he might have been called handsome by his mother, dead long ago.
The sparse section of bleachers that lies against the back wall of the run-down garage was stolen from the auditorium of the old condemned school and rebuilt inside the garage.
* * *
At the condemned school, a homeless couple slept in the one room that had been occupied by the custodian. They kept to themselves for fear of being thrown out or forced to pay rent. They used almost every cent they could get on hard liquor, the rest on fast food, and barring that, in restaurant dumpsters and park garbage cans. They visited almost every AA Center so often they were famous for staying sober for 24 hours almost a hundred times, without quitting either the alcohol or their visits to the Center.
The wife had a ferocious temper when sober but was docile when drunk. Her husband discouraged their visits to the Center, fearing her fierce tongue-lashings when she was off the booze by choice, but she kept going back because, she said, "We mean to get back on our feet."
An arsonist set fire to the frame part of the school, which included the janitor's room. The husband perished in the fire. He was too drunk to try to save himself before the firemen could get to him. His wife was in the street, gathering food scraps, and her basket was her one possession in the world left after the fire.
Several bums who knew the arsonist from way back, caught him, tied him down, and kept him secluded in the back porch of a shack where they often "camped" when it rained. "What in hell made you burn poor Joe's place? You'll get yours soon," one of the bums whispered into the arsonist's face. They usually kept a low profile when they were "camping."
"How was I to know they lived in there? I thought the school was abandoned."
"Don't give us your pack of lies! We know you, damn you. What in hell makes you burn people's houses, anyway?"
"That's a lie. I haven't burnt anybody's place. I stick my match in empty, run down houses. I just get a big kick watching the flames and hear them gobbling up the air, feeling their warmth close to me, almost like being with a woman," he said, inebriated as usual.
They kept him roped, mouth taped, gully running with rum. They told the widow what was in store for him, mostly because he was a rich bum who thought he could get by with anything because his family was wealthy. They hated him and his money.
"I can't believe what you're gonna do to him. It doesn't happen no more. There's laws," she said, slurring her words and waving her almost empty bottle of wine in the air like a reversed exclamation point.
"To hell with the laws! We better get out of here before the po-lice find us," said one of the rabble, which consisted of the defrocked judge, a former electrician, and a jobless bartender. The electrician and the bartender had served time for robbery and had a grudge against the law. Also, there were two drifters peeved with anybody who rejected them which was everybody they bumped into, and finally there was a "guest" the rabble had carefully picked.
The widow had been living in the street. Drunk since her husband was charred, she couldn't cope with her loss without the booze. She drank most of her welfare money and kept enough cheap wine in her system to mellow her soul and make her feel kindly towards people.
* * *
The garage has been reclaimed by the vegetation. The floor slants down on the uneven ground, along with the roof that leaks in places. On the walls, a few boards are missing, some crunched together leaving vertical gaps for the rain and the wind to flow in.
The garage was built back in the 40's, in the back of the big two-story house owned and occupied by the judge's family. The house was leveled by a hurricane, with only the garage left standing at the end of the driveway. Nature wrapped around it her green octopus arms, smothered the window and the car door, and mortared their frames with rain and sand. The family suffered financially. The judge, then a child, endured great emotional wounds with the death of his parents within a short time after the hurricane. He managed to make it on his own through law school and became a judge, but his family's best friends up the street, in their sumptuous house that was not leveled by the hurricane, "Disowned me," as he said to a listening acquaintance.
"Are you sure you didn't disown them out of pride? You didn't turn the tables around?"
"What do you mean?" the judge said and never spoke to the listening acquaintance again.
* * *
Out of curiosity, the widow comes knocking at the garage around midnight. The men see her dingy, red-hooded jacket through the murky side window, which is stuck to the frame and can't be lifted by more that a couple of inches. They holler at her, "Get lost! This ain't no place for ladies." They belong to the brotherhood of unwashed, often hungry and drunk drifters, wearing the same street-walkers' uniform and speaking with the same voice. As they taunt the widow, they giggle like kids.
She keeps banging at the garage door with her empty bottle. "Let me in, you bums, or I call the po-lice."
"She ain't no lady," one of the scruffy fellows says. "She'll call the cops." They don't even try to raise the garage door. The widow continues knocking, so they let her in by the side entrance, which they manage to force half open. The first time they came in, when they were sneaking in the few bleachers, the slim door came off its hinges and they had to screw it back in place.
As the widow enters the "courtroom," the judge is banging a mallet over the table as though squashing roaches, ordering everybody to shut up, but no one listens.
He threatens her with the mallet, but she doesn't flinch. "You sit in that corner on that stool, away from the jurors, and keep your mouth shut," he says, signaling with his index finger but barely looking at her.
"You, there, electrician," he says, laughing, "you be the district attorney."
"Who, me? I can't, your honorship," he says bantering. "I mean to be a juror. 'Sides, I wired this place like you told me. I had to stay sober for a full damn day and wear rubber gloves, this place is so damn damp." All the men laugh.
"Sober, huh?" the bartender says, slapping the electrician on his shoulder, "Wher' you got the wiring?"
"Anybody see you?"
"What you think I am, an amateur? I felt like putting a match to this dump, like our rich bum likes to do. If it starts raining, it might take some fuel."
The two men chuckle again. The judge ignores them.
"You be the executioner," he says pointing to a bored-looking, flabby six footer who scratches his pony-tailed black hair with his fat fingers, bringing out something in his nails he examines carefully, then cleans his fingers on his pants. Except for a black vest, he is naked from the waist up, his trunk completely covered with purple tattoos that run down his fat arms stopping at his wrists. His open, old-fashioned corduroy vest sports two useless straps tied with a small metal buckle to the threadbare silk on the back. The vest looks like it used to belong to his grandfather.
"I ain't got no executioner's mask," he says in a gravelly baritone, his homely red face looking almost as purple as his torso.
The others laugh raucously. "You have the mask on," says one. "And you won't kill him; you'll just tickle him a bit."
"I'm only a guest here today," the big man says, "and I ain't even drunk like you bums."
"NOW you know why we invited you," the judge says. "I told you what you're supposed to do."
"In that case, I rather just kill your damn arsonist. I know where to bury him so the cops won't find him."
"No, no, no," the bartender says. "We just want to teach 'im a lesson. We ain't no murderers, not even you."
"And what do I do?" The widow says, sliding down from her stool.
"You are the Defense Attorney," the judge says, his mouth curved in a roguish smile. "We do respect courtroom procedure." The whole precinct bursts with exaggerated laugher.
"Okay, that suits me just fine. Here it goes," she says. "The arsonist didn't mean to burn my Joe alive. He didn't know Joe was inside drunk, in the dark." Her voice sounds almost sober and dignified for such a solemn occasion.
"He knew, he knew," the DA refutes. "He has it against transients, wants to flush 'em out and force 'em to move on."
"We're no transients. We been around since way 'fore Joe lost his job and couldn't find decent work after that. We sold all we had so we could eat, till we had nothing."
"He don't care if you eat or not," the DA says. "Our arsonist here is filthy rich, so he paid the law to let 'im go. Not enough evidence, and the burnt building was an eye sore anyway."
The audience bursts out laughing.
"I know that," she says, "but I still think it's no good to harm 'im."
"Guilty as charged," one of the jurors says.
"You defended him fine," the judge says to the widow, wrinkling his forehead and peeking at her over the top of his glasses. "Now go back to your seat and shut up. Let's get some action here."
The drifters who serve as jurors, along with the bartender, rush out and bring the arsonist in through the side door. They had left him outside lying on the ground, mouth duct taped, hands roped on his chest, and drunk. He barely knows his whereabouts.
"Four points," the judge says.
The men splay the arsonist on the execution table, face up, and secure his arms and legs to the table legs with ropes. The drunk man does not resist. He looks rested and almost happy lying on the table, which rocks a bit, to the continued hilarity of the abject audience. The widow holds on to the front folds of her red vinyl hood and moves her lips as though praying. She has been sobering up fast as she observes the proceedings.
The judge hands the executioner a metal band attached to an electric cord. The latter is wearing rubber gloves. He fastens the band to the man's right leg, takes the cord and screws the round plug into the one electric outlet hanging from the ceiling where a bulb used to be.
The precinct is dark except for one flashlight held by the electrician, aimed precisely at the arsonist's face, bleaching it into a mask of white cardboard. The entire pack is silent inside the vague halo of clarity that encircles the disc of light. The widow pulls her hood over her face, her hands go up to her mouth, and her head turns away from the execution table. She jumps down from the stool and turns toward the side door, as if to leave.
"Stay put!" the judge says, "you've got to look at this. We're doing this for you."
She obeys. Her breathing is audibly fast.
The hit man stretches his arm toward the wall. Quickly he flips up the brand new rheostat switch a judicious fraction, then quickly turns it off. The procedure is carried out so swiftly that only the victim's body jerking, his wide open eyes grown huge, and the muffled grunt coming from his taped mouth signal to the group that the sentence has been carried out.
The executioner unscrews the plug from the electric outlet and lays it on the table.
The arsonist's face twists with fright while his body slacks from the shock.
The widow approaches him, and no one blocks her. She rips off the tape from his mouth, but only a slight squeak rents the silence.
"He's going to die," she says. "We better take 'im to a hospital."
"Are you crazy? You want to get us all in jail? They'll want to know wha' happened."
"He won't die." The judge's voice quavers. "We made sure the new wiring was fixed right, didn't we?" he says, addressing the electrician, who doesn't make a sound. The judge slams the mallet on the table so severely, the handle breaks. He grabs the handless mallet and raps on the table as though stamping jail sentences, grumbling about justice having been served.
It was the arsonist's father, the lawyer whose mansion up the street from the judge's family was not destroyed by the hurricane, whose fearless deposition against the crooked judge finally caused his downfall. For months and months, the judge thought of nothing else but to avenge himself on the lawless arsonist for the testimony of his law-abiding father.
When the idea of the prank came into his head, the rest of the bums agreed with him that justice must be served.
The inside of the garage is now getting wet with the noisy April rain that began to fall even before the punitive shock on the victim, when the widow began to fret about his safety.
The group begins to blabber all at the same time.
"You talked us into this shit," one of them says, addressing the judge.
"I asked you if you had some idea what we could do to him. Of course you dummies never had any ideas in your empty heads, and besides you didn't have to agree with my plan."
The widow, worrying about the victim's chance for recovery, frees his arms and legs, and the men don't stop her.
Water is trickling fast through the uneven boards of the walls and the wide holes at the bottom, against the ground, where weeds can't completely stop the rain from running in. A hole in the roof allows enough rain to fall straight down on the victim, drenching his clothes.
He slumps down to the floor and attempts to crawl, his outstretched hands grabbing the damp ground as though it were quick mud he is drowning in. The crotch of his faded jeans is wet with urine, his shirt wet with rain, his breathing so short he can barely drag himself a few inches towards the side entrance.
Slurs against him flap around the garage like squawking caged crows suddenly set free. The widow watches the weakened body and says, "There's pink foam oozing out of his mouth." The men keep cursing.
"He's just a rich son of a bitch. Don't pay him no mind, just keep your trap shut."
She heard this a few minutes before, when she was still semi-drunk, but this time the words register in her sobering brain and linger there, full flavored.
"Rich bums are the worst," a man's voice says. Her head goes up and down several times, like a yo-yo.
"You mean his mama should've dropped him in a ditch?" she says, echoing the men. Her mouth grins, brown teeth exposing the gaps in her un-brushed, whitish gums.
She has regained her head, as if waking from a restless nap. "His ole man should've let him drown that time their boat took water in the lake," she says. She guffaws, aware of her audience.
The men turn mute, as though deciding the widow's words are enough to damn their victim.
Their silence is short lived. The bartender craves credit for his largess.
"He'd pay me a hundred dollars to start the fire at the school," he says, "but I says no, I know Joe, I can't do it, and he says Joe is a fuckin' scum and his wife's a slut. He says he's just helping the Mayor clean up the place for decent folk to live in, you two should be run out of town or burnt together, and I says, why don't you go do it you'self, and he did."
The widow's anger for the death of her man awakens as she hears the bartender's speech. The spirits in her head evaporate, and her anger quickly grows, spooking the men who search for a bottle of booze to pacify her. They came unprepared. Plenty of alcohol inside their blood, but nothing in their pockets.
"I told you not to let 'er in," the electrician grumbles. Everyone twitches nervously, including the judge, who has joined his drinking chums, the jurors and other drifters, on the bleachers.
"I've got a bottle in my trunk," the judge says.
"Go get it," the bartender says, " 'Fore she starts acting crazy."
"Nobody's going nowhere," the widow says, catching up with the victim, who is heading for the side door, crawling on his belly. "Especially not you," she says, grabbing him by his shirt collar. "To hell with you bastard! I keep forgetting what a creep you 're, but right now I'm as dry as yesterday's toast and you're gonna get it." Her voice erupts, volcanic, and the men sink into themselves like worms inside their holes.
So rapt is she in the fulfillment of her reprisal, she missed the hurried escape of the judge who slithers out the door and runs, right through the rain.
"He won't be back," the bartender says.
"Yeah, he will or else," the electrician says.
"You there," the widow orders the executioner, thrusting her arm toward him like a spear, "get 'im back on the table. He's not gonna get by with burning my Joe; he's got to pay. NOW!"
"Yes 'm," the tattoed guest says jumping down from his place on the bleachers, his shoulders ostensibly shaking with mute laughter as he follows her command and bows at her as if she were a queen. "Off with his head," he says, mocking her commanding tone. The other men follow his burlesque gesture with sneers and mock coughing. The arsonist is limp and wet all over from the rain that traced tiny rivulets on the floor of his escape route.
The executioner, still wearing his rubber gloves, hoists the arsonist off the floor like a whimpering Raggedy Andy. Without any effort he spreads the arsonist on the drenched table, ties his arms and legs as before, adjusts the metal band with its electric cord to his ankle and reconnects the screw-type plug to the socket hanging from the ceiling. "Who rigged this mess?" he says, addressing the electrician.
"I did the best I could. Kind of a miracle the new wires work, this place is so damp, but it could still burn down with a bit of fuel, if you know what I mean. He's been wanting to torch it for some time," the electrician says pointing to the victim.
"You did a great job with the wires," the bartender says, slapping him again on his shoulders. "You still got the touch."
The executioner leans against the wall where the switch is located and lets the widow approach him.
"This is as far as I go," he says slowly, his voice like grit. "We already taught 'im a lesson. I was just humoring you a bit, maam." And he winks roguishly at her, accompanying the wink with a mawkish giggle.
His humoring and his mawkish wink and giggle splatter her feelings like hot grease on bare skin. Her eyes ablaze, her breath gushing out in quick spurts, her whole body tensing with fury, "Move off," she says, "it's too late to take his side. I want 'im dead, you hear me? Roasted, like my Joe! Then you can take his carcass where the cops can't find it, just like you said you could."
The widow attacks the executioner. His breath smells of moist garbage, so she turns her face away. The men watch her scoffing, kicking, and punching the chest of this man, two or three times her size.
"Stop it, I tell you, stop it, you fuckin' bitch, get out o' here 'fore I throw you out."
"You try that, you big shit, and see wha' happens." She throws a punch at his face. As the man moves his trunk to avoid it, the buckle of his vest catches on the wall switch, turns it on full force, and before anyone has time to think, the arsonist is electrocuted.
The executioner spins around and turns off the rheostat switch. The stupefied group looks on, but no one suggests mouth to mouth, let alone going for help. The white light of the lantern covers the dead body like a shroud. When the judge slips inside the garage, all wet, he says not one word as he takes in the situation. He stares at the scene from the side door, a half full bottle of bourbon in his hand.
"Wha' do we do now?" one man says. No one responds.
The widow moves toward the perplexed judge, grabs the bottle from his loose grip and slips out the side door, closing it behind her.
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Sohrab Homi Fracis won the 2001 University of Iowa Short Fiction Award for his collection Ticket to Minto and was awarded the 1999-2000 Florida Individual Artist Fellowship in Literature/Fiction. His work has appeared in Other Voices, India Currents, Weber Studies, the Antigonish Review, and the Toronto Review of Contemporary Literature Abroad. Born and raised in Bombay, India (now Mumbai), Fracis taught literature at the University of North Florida and was a fiction and poetry editor at the State Street Review. His website is www.fracis.com .
Writecorner Press is pleased to present two stories by Fracis: "Distant Vision" and "The Reader." "Distant Vision" is excerpted from the author's novel GO HOME. It first appeared in Slice Magazine and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Fracis read it to an enthusiastic audience in New York City.
Sohrab Homi Fracis
For his first thirteen years, growing up in India, Viraf Adajania could see without glasses. There were no frames, whether square, rectangular, or circular, to define what he saw of the world then, just a wide open vista and constant, automatic clarity. That the sharpness of edges, the vividness of colors, the recognizability of objects was not a given, always to be relied on, that the specs he saw on many adults and a few boys in Campion School could someday descend onto his own nose—such an idea did not, except once, occur to him; he simply didn’t question the way things were.
The sole exception had occurred on a family trip from Bombay to Mahabaleshwar, up in the hills, when he was seven. It was Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights: literally billions of tiny oil lamps were set flickering around the nation, and everyone, including his father, was on holiday. They loaded up the steel-blue Ambassador, more roomy than the Fiat, and hit the Poona highway early, armed with thermos flasks and meals in stainless-steel tiffins packed by their cook, Louise.
As usual, Viraf and his sister Soona were fine as long as the road was straight, chorusing songs like “Home on the Range” and “Sapnon Ki Rani,” until they started to climb the Western Ghats and the road wound around the hillsides in jalebi spirals, with no parapet or guardrail to keep them from going over. Then things began to happen inside his head: body fluids sloshed around an area he wouldn’t hear of until he reached the States—his inner ear; small muscles between his eyes tightened reflexively; and before he knew it, he was car-sick and fighting to keep Louise’s prawn curry down.
Soona had similar problems to a lesser degree, and eventually the Amby was pulled over against the hillside so they could pour their guts out onto the slope. Viraf hated the brothlike consistency and distorted taste of the food coming up, but the more he tried to straighten up the more his head swam and the more he threw up, until a merciful feeling of emptiness left him staggering but clear-headed.
Their father took the turns slow and smooth after that, which was a good thing, considering the number of times an oncoming car or teetering lorry suddenly rounded the bend on the narrow single lane, exactly as it had done when their grandfather died. It was a frightening sight now, their mother said, to see a convoy of trucks grinding along in a cloud of dust. Even more so for their grandmother, Mamaiji, who refused to come along on trips anymore. By the time the kids reached the point where they had to do it all over, they’d left Poona far behind and were wetting the red mud that signaled the approach to Panchgani and Mahabaleshwar.
They stayed at Dina Hotel, which Aspi and Behroz always picked because it was owned by Parsis like themselves and had a homey feel. At mealtimes, people strolled out of their rooms, across a central compound overlooking the hills, and into a large common dining hall, which served a diplomatic balance of Parsi, North Indian, South Indian, and continental dishes. After dinner, on weekends, people stayed at their tables for boisterous sessions of Housie. Viraf loved the creative numbering system employed by the announcer: “Knock on the door, number 4 . . . . Two fat ladies, 88 . . . . Lucky for some, number 13 . . . . 1 and 6, sweet 16 . . . . All by itself, number 1 . . . .”
Soona and he held blunt pencil stubs breathlessly over their numbered tickets, watching two at a time, ready to stab out a number, ecstatic when they could shriek, “Top Line” or “Sandwich” or “Pyramid,” and dash up to the announcing table amid groans and scattered applause, to confirm their numbers and pocket the cash prize. Great was their shame when they drew the dreaded “False alarm,” greeted with jubilation by those just a number or two short. But on some rare night, if either one was fortunate enough to shout “Housie!” there was no sleep for anyone for hours after they retired to their room.
On Diwali night, there was no Housie. Everyone piled out of the dining hall onto the grounds for complimentary fireworks. The adults stood around in the cool mountain air and let the kids have all the fun. Fuljhadis were waved in circles of light, chakras went spinning and fizzing across the compound, fatakras burst or rapid-fired deafeningly, and rockets whistled into the night sky to flare over the hotel. Soona stuck to the sparklers. Viraf found himself in a group of boys lighting rockets and bombs.
The largest and loudest were the atom bombs, rivaled in spherical size only by the anaars, named for the pomegranates they resembled. When an anaar was lit, it erupted in a thick, sizzling fountain of sparks that surged fifteen feet high before subsiding.
Viraf, marveling at the heft of these giant firecrackers, put a match to the fuse of an anaar and backed away, only to wait in vain for the spectacular fulmination. Clearly, the fuse had sputtered out. Returning, he relit it and crouched to make sure that it caught.
In that instant, the anaar unloosed its fiery stream into his face even as he began to pull up from it. The hot jet was in his eyes before he could clap his hands over them and stumble backward. Jumbled sensations of burning and of shouts and quick hands at his back all flooded through him. He lifted his hands to see—and couldn’t. The world had gone black.
Among the voices, he heard his father’s getting louder, the words indecipherable, and he started to scream in that direction. “I can’t see! I can’t see!”
Then his father’s arm was around him, and the familiar voice took command, as always. “Come on, we’re going to a doctor. Who is a good doctor in Mahabaleshwar, somebody tell us.”
The unevenness of the ground—the acrid smell—the voices of his mother and sister—hands guiding him into the car seat—the engine roaring to life—its rising pitch and the feel of motion as it pressed him back into the plasticky Rexene—the hum of wheels punctuated by terse declarations: a host of such usually de-emphasized sensations now formed his entire perception of the strange new world around him. They seemed threatening, in the utter absence of colors, shapes, and dimensions and accompanied by the burning in his useless eyes. The world they only partially described felt like a nightmare. The Spirit of Light had been extinguished inside his head, and Darkness had fallen.
The doctor’s home dispensary could have been as large as the hotel’s dining hall, for all Viraf could tell, or the chair in which he was examined the only piece of furniture. The doctor himself was a disembodied male voice, quietly articulate and to the point. The fingers that lifted Viraf’s eyelids and clicked instruments around his eyes could have belonged to the doctor or to an assistant, and at times Viraf thought he detected a second voice in conversation with his parents. But he wasn’t sure. Once or twice, when clicks sounded around his eyes, he thought he registered a lighter shade of black. But he may have imagined it. All of this was overshadowed by his unquestionable blindness.
In the end, the doctor’s voice pronounced judgment in simple terms: Viraf’s eyes were in shock. The physical damage they’d suffered wasn’t serious, but as a turtle retreats into its shell in the presence of danger, his eyes had shut down for a while.
“Oh, thank God.” It was his mother speaking, the hands that clutched at his shoulder presumably hers. “It’s only temporary, no, doctor?”
“Yes,” said the voice, echoed by sounds of relief from his mum and a grunt from his dad—assuming the doctor’s grunts sounded different. Soona had either been struck dumb—too improbable a coincidence—or left in the car. His own tentative relief was muted by the unreality of a visible future, given the all too present darkness. How could the doctor know for sure?
“I will give you these drops to put in every hour for the first day tomorrow and every two hours after that. When are you returning to Bombay?”
His father’s voice: “We were booked for two more days, but we can stay longer.”
“No need. Put the drops for a week, then have his eyes checked again in Bombay.”
As it turned out, the darkness lifted from Viraf’s left eye the next morning when he awoke, reassuring his father enough that they stuck to the original schedule. But the right eye stayed sightless through their remaining days in Mahabaleshwar. With one-sided vision, Viraf blundered into more objects and people around the hotel than he had on the night he was blind. The world of dark sensations was replaced by a world partly lit and partly obscured.
And his depth perception, as his father put it, was so bad that when they drove around to Echo Point and Shivaji’s fort, he could have sworn the Amby was about to hit trees that were safely to the side. The massive stone walls of the seventeenth-century fort seemed still to conceal hordes of Maratha warriors ready to spring out at him—even the great chieftain himself, tiger claws and all.
At Table Top in Panchgani, an enormous plateau thousands of feet above sea level, Viraf’s mother forbade him to trek down to Hell’s Kitchen with them. And, now that his mishap was clearly a temporary and bloodless tragedy, Soona crossed her eyes and waved with a parting “Ey, kaanya, don’t get lost.” Even with one eye, he could see that their father enjoyed her use of Gujarati—her resistance to it had diminished ever since she’d switched from Presentation Convent in Kodai Kanal to J. B. Petit in Bombay.
The next morning, smack on time for the long drive home, Viraf’s right eye sprang to life and all was well. Once more, the world stretched clear and vibrant and many miles deep. Then it turned murky and gray and constricted again. But that was only because they were back in concrete Bombay.
Not until Dr. Dastoor cleared Viraf’s eyes, a week after their return, did Aspi Adajania deliver his inevitable lecture on common sense. And as usual it seemed unfair that the parental words of wisdom on Viraf’s latest blunder were provided after the fact, considering it was his first time lighting firecrackers. By virtue of this indispensable attribute, common sense, that it seemed he alone did not possess, all children except himself automatically knew not to go back to dud firecrackers, knew right away that dry ice could burn, knew that to drink from railway-station taps when thirsty or to play in the monsoon rain or to eat food from hawkers was to court a multitude of illnesses, knew a hundred other things that he would only discover one by one after he’d already done them and had to hear, too late, about his lack of common sense.
Those were the times he found Mamaiji good company. As irritable as she was, all four-foot-something of her, his mother’s spry mother was always willing to say that accidents would happen—she knew it only too well. When the long half of the long and short of it, as Behroz Adajania used to call her parents, was reduced to nothing by an oncoming lorry on the Bombay-Poona run, a permanently embittered Mamaiji had cursed all machines and predicted that mankind would eventually destroy itself with its own inventions.
Behroz, grief-stricken herself, reminded Mamaiji of how much she and Papa had loved to fiddle with the latest gadgets the family bought, such as their gramophone. But the old lady was all the more convinced that that had been their downfall. Had her Rustomji been content to live modestly like his forefathers, had he just walked to nearby places like the Parsi Gymkhana instead of wanting to drive everywhere and gallivant all over the country after he retired, he would still be with them. And she would still have her life-partner instead of having to be after the gunga every morning to change the chumpa garland around the black-and-white photo in the hall. In it, he was still young, his nose the family aquiline that had come down through Behroz to Viraf.
Mamaiji had sworn never to enter a car again. But her sisters’ family flats were spaced too far around Bombay for her to walk there, so Mehru Aunty and Katy Aunty had to visit her instead. And the Cricket Club of India was too far to go on foot, so she stopped accompanying the family there. The net result was that she rarely stepped out of the Seth Building flat anymore. Her way of keeping tabs on the world was to stand patiently on their balcony, looking down upon the sprawl of concrete and humanity that stretched to the horizon on three sides and to the Arabian Sea on the fourth. In actuality, the bay almost encircled the peninsula, but their vantage point in Seth Building was close to Marine Drive, with Queen’s Road and Marine Lines in between.
Queen’s Road had been renamed Maharshi Karve Road after Independence, but people still knew it mostly by the old British name. At that early stage of his life, Viraf had not picked up on the uneasy silence maintained by his elders on the subject of British times. History classes were still ahead of him, and for all he knew India had always governed itself. Independence Day was just a nice name for a holiday every August 15, celebrated with colorful parades under the flapping Tricolor.
When Mamaiji was finished giving dua repeatedly for their safe return from the needless, hazardous journey to Mahabaleshwar, she was sent into a tizzy all over again by Soona’s tactless account of Viraf’s misadventure. How could Aspi have allowed her little boy to play with such dangerous fatakras on his own, when every Diwali so many people around the country got burned by the silly things? It was no use Behroz trying to take partial blame—she was always above reproach and that only made Aspi’s mood worse. As far as Mamaiji was concerned, he should never have driven the family so far out of Bombay in the first place. People were supposed to learn from other’s mistakes, but apparently Rustomji had died in vain.
Standing on the veranda next to Mamaiji, the only grown-up other than the liftman’s wife who didn’t tower over him, Viraf gazed out over South Bombay and felt an enormous thrill at his regained perspective. Once he positioned his eyes between the balustrade’s curlicues, he could see all the way down Queen’s Road to where it passed Churchgate and flowered into the Oval maidan. Standing sentinel above the playfield, brooding over its swaying palms, was the Rajabhai Clock Tower. So sharp was Viraf’s vision once more, he could read the hands on the clock-face.
Mamaiji couldn’t, but that didn’t seem to concern her. Even the slim ladies’ watch on her hand clutching his was seldom consulted. Her focus did not extend to the Oval, nor to Crawford Market on their left or the sea waves on the right. It was riveted upon three parallel streams of manmade traffic that flowed along Queen’s Road, Marine Drive, and the railway lines in between. Her hand often tightened around his as the Fiats and Ambassadors and Heralds and the rare Jeep or Standard Companion grumbled through, five stories below, swerving around one another, honking at pedestrians.
“Government should have a law,” she said, “make everybody walk again.”
Secretly, Viraf felt that would be inconvenient for everyone except Mamaiji and the beggars, who had to walk anyway. But he couldn’t say so. After a while his hand felt numb inside hers, and his feet hurt from standing in place. Mamaiji was tall enough to support her weight with an arm on the railing, but he wasn’t. And the scene that never ceased to enthrall her was already beginning to lose its appeal in comparison to the charms of more distant worlds that he could now visit again.
“I’m going inside to read, Mamaiji,” he said.
“Go, baba,” she said, releasing him with a little push and leaning both arms heavily on the railing. “Go read. All those books of yours . . . In the end they will take you, also, away from us.”
He didn’t know what she meant by that, and left her to her vigil.
Television, even black and white on early Doordarshan or distantvision, was yet to arrive in India. But their mother had introduced Viraf and Soona to the pictures painted by words. Once Behroz was through deciding the day’s menu with Louise, taking hisaab upon her return from the bazar, making sure the servants didn’t goof off, and being driven around town by Satput Singh for the family shopping, it was time for her to settle down to Rebecca or Drummond or Peyton Place or Mandingo.
The children’s tastes, at first, ran to comics such as Spooky the Tuff Little Ghost, Little Lotta, Donald Duck, Goofy, and Richie Rich, or fairy tales with full-page drawings of the Seven Swans or the Little Mermaid or Puss ’n Boots or Rapunzel. They read the illustrated Panchatantra and Aesop's Fables side by side. They rented pile after pile of comics from the horaji on Lamington Road and went through half the pile by dinnertime.
But book series such as the Five Find-Outers or the horsey annals of Flicka and Black Beauty had already begun to train them in conjuring their own pictures, luring them into more detailed distant worlds that quickly became their own. Just as he would be the young Karna or Arthur or Sohrab of the ancient epics, Viraf was the young Ken, taming the filly Flicka on a ranch in Wyoming.
He was given to reading late into the night with the dim-light on, in spite of warnings from his mother that it was bad for his eyes—he didn’t even know what that meant. Or he’d lie on his stomach and look down from the bed at a book on the floor. It was a testament to the short memory of a child that within days of his encounter with blindness he was back at it, reading Billy Bunter and Biggles with not a thought for his eyes. His mother habitually forbade the most harmless activities on the grounds of unlikely and distant consequences: he shouldn’t make faces, it seemed, because he would end up looking like that—an obvious ploy to keep him from embarrassing her in front of company.
So he read more than ever, unconcerned for his eyes. Aspi grumbled about how his children were such bookworms. But he agreed with Behroz that the kids were safer at home than playing in Bombay’s streets, where kidnappings were so common—by beggars who broke the children’s arms so they could elicit more sympathy, or by hijdas who would castrate a boy to make him one of them. And so Aspi had his workers build more bookshelves for the kids. Though reading of faraway places made you dissatisfied with the blessings of home, even Mamaiji had to admit that books were not the worst of man’s inventions.
In time, Biggles and Bunter gave way to Poirot and Sherlock Holmes and Tarzan and Scaramouche and Psmith and Jeeves and Captain Blood. The Persian Shahnameh, or Book of Kings, gave Viraf the violent birth of an empire and the reverse Oedipal legend of Sohrab and Rustom, pitting father against son in a fight to the death on the bank of the Oxus. Even Soona read the epics, drawn to the crossroads of adventure and romance in the Ramayan, wherein Ram pursued Ravan all the way to Ceylon to rescue Sita.
It was a lot of reading.
At Campion now, there was history class, which really meant Indian history, which really meant a long succession of foreign conquerors and rulers. Despite an unwarriorlike waistline, Mr. Pande kept a dashing Shivaji beard and mustachios. He smacked his lips over the names of his Maratha hero’s nemesis, Emperor Aurangzeb, and Alexander the Great and Timur the Lame and Nadir Shah, who didn’t register with Viraf as Iranian despite the Parsi-sounding name. Persians, Arabs, Mongols, Greeks—all were lumped under the category of invaders from the north.
The central theme was this: India once was a land of untold riches, so Nadir Shah and the rest were tempted to come pillage its cities of such treasures as the fabled peacock throne. The irony, understated in their textbook, was that the North Indians had themselves arrived as invaders and steadily driven the original Indians further and further south, some all the way into Ceylon. The demon Ravan in reality was probably a dark-skinned Southern king—fat chance Sita would go for him over Ram. Mr. Pande, too, had little to say about that.
But he and the text had plenty to say about the most recent invaders from the farthest away: the British.
“Till hardly ten, fifteen years before you boys were born, for nearly two centuries before the freedom fighters led us to independence, India was under the British rule. You think now about that.”
The class was silent. From his third-row desk, Viraf could see the inscrutable or distracted or openly bored faces. Ten, fifteen years before they were born was ten, fifteen years before they were born. And yet, as the pause wore on, it struck him that not only Mamaiji but even his mum and dad would have been under the British—why did they never talk about it?
“Sir, what was it like?” he asked.
Mr. Pande smiled and leaned on the teacher’s desk toward him. “We were all second-class citizens, my young bawaji. In our own motherland. Even I was too young to know what all was going on, but basically they were the big boss. So long as our forefathers slogged for them, England was fat and prosperous while India had famine. Famine, I tell you.”
Viraf was quiet, assimilating the idea of his mother and father and Mr. Pande as second-class.
From the desk on his right, Robin Phillips, one of the three Anglo-Indians, spoke up. “Sir, Mr. Sethna says after the British left, the whole country has gone down the hill.”
That was word for word what Mamaiji often said. His mother and father never responded, at least not in front of their children, so who knew whether they agreed or disagreed. But Mr. Sethna, the Parsi science teacher, frequently halted dictation or notes on the board to issue a diatribe against “those bloody ghatis” and what they were doing to the state of Maharashtra.
Mr. Pande’s face tightened at Robin’s remark, and he stood up. “Let us not talk about what other teachers say, in my class. Adi Sethna may think he is good at history, but he should just teach his science. How is your arithmetic, Phillips?”
Robin’s gray eyes widened. “Okay, sir.”
“Calculate for the class how many years India has been independent.”
Robin looked glad of the chance to bend his head, black-haired like the others, over his copybook and scribble some numbers.
“Twenty-four years, sir.” It was 1971. The Indo-Pak war lay just over the horizon.
“Mr. Irani is teaching you well. Some other teachers, I don’t know. Your parents had their silver anniversary?”
“My parents? No, sir.”
Mr. Pande spread his hands. “Still one more year for India’s silver anniversary. Only four elections so far. Wait at least till the diamond jubilee, Phillips, then if Mr. Sethna and I are living we will see, down the hill or up the hill. You all will definitely be able to see.” He shoved his wooden chair under the desk. “But what life we had during one hundred and ninety years of British raj, you take this down.”
He turned to the wall-wide blackboard and began to scribble at a furious pace, starting high and keeping the letters small.
Viraf, entertained by the classroom drama, opened his copybook to a clean page and readied his blue ballpoint. Looking up at the board, he was surprised to see that their emotional teacher, virtually tattooing the surface with his chalk, had produced some unusually illegible writing. Even the headings looked fuzzy, while the lines between them were unreadable.
Glancing around with a tentative smile, Viraf was amazed to find that everyone else was busy copying, looking up and down as if nothing was wrong. The pages in his neighbors’ copybooks were filling up almost as fast as the board. He peered up at it again in utter puzzlement—the letters were definitely fuzzy. Then it came to him, and something plummeted within his stomach.
Straining to read and oppressed by a growing dizziness, he began to jot down only the headings: British East India Company . . . The Black Hole of Calcutta . . . Battle of Plassey . . . The Great Famine of Bengal . . . The Great Indian Mutiny . . . Savage Suppression . . . “The White Man’s Burden” . . . Sir Michael O’Dwyer . . . Gandhi Arrested . . . Non-Violent Protest . . . General Dyer . . . Jallianwallah Bagh Massacre . . . 2000 Civilians Shot . . . .
At that point, his head hurting, his eyes as dry as sandpaper, Viraf leaned over to Robin’s desk to read more—at that distance, his friend’s copybook was legible. It seemed General Dyer had marched fifty soldiers into the only entrance of a park in Amritsar, blocking it off for ten thousand unarmed men, women, and children gathered to protest the British rule. Without warning, Dyer had ordered his men to open fire on the trapped, unsuspecting crowd, cutting down thousands over the next ten, unrelenting, nightmarish minutes, murdering four hundred peaceful protesters in cold blood as they screamed and milled around in terror.
Mr. Pande stopped writing and turned to face the class again. In ominous silence, he stood there, a portly Shivaji, as boy after boy finally put down his pen and lifted a face in some variety of shock.
“Phillips, my young friend,” Mr. Pande said at last, very quiet. “You tell me now: it was better for Indians when we were under the British?”
“No, sir, I never said—” the hapless boy protested.
“Yes, yes, don’t worry. When young people hear something from old people, naturally they think this must be correct. When they hear it from a teacher, even more. It’s not your fault.”
Someone slyly asked whether Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance was better or Shivaji’s guerilla warfare against the Mughals. And Mr. Pande was off on a series of comparisons. But Viraf, staring straight through the side-wall, barely heard them.
That was his last week without glasses. The world would never seem the same again. From an initial prescription of just 0.5 diopters, his lenses grew thicker and thicker despite his constant, obedient use of them. By the time Soona, reading just as much, had to be tested a year later, he was still doggedly wearing his first tortoise-shell frame and already up to 1.5. She, worried about her looks, refused to wear her smaller, woman’s frame from Baliwalla & Homi, except during lectures at KC or in movie theaters. To his amazement and envy, her lack of reliance on the pair continued year after year and even increased to where she hardly ever needed to pull them out of her purse. She never wore them around her boyfriends.
But Viraf’s need for glasses only grew. By the time he went to grad school in America on the heels of the hostage crisis in Iran—to cries of “Go home, you fuckin’ Iranian!”—they’d almost doubled to 2.75. There was no going home . . . Mamaiji’s prediction had come true.
For the years he wore contacts, his prescription leveled off at 3.25. Then his inner eyelids erupted with the scarily named Giant Papillary Conjunctivitis, and he returned to wearing glasses. Their power rose to 3.75 by the time he found the nerve to have LASIK surgery, plummeted to a miraculous 0, or 20/20, for a while when the world was sharp-edged and right again, then regressed past 1.0. He had chronic dry-eye and needed lubricant drops every three to four hours. Two follow-ups later, his right eye was still short-sighted, but his left had turned far-sighted. When he wore an eye-patch after each surgery, his poor depth perception reminded him of the anaar that had once shot its fountain of light into his eyes, blinding him.
He juggled pinhole glasses, dark glasses, reading glasses, and distance glasses to ease the strain, then consulted a hotshot Indian expert in post-LASIK complications. Ah, the expert said ruefully after hearing his tale; the American surgeon must have based his assessments on many years of experience with the Caucasian eye. But the Asian eye is different.
Sohrab Homi Fracis' "The Reader" first appeared in volume 19 of Other Voices, the prestigious literary quarterly produced by the University of Illinois at Chicago. It was translated into German and published in the fall 2005 issue of the literary magazine Ort der Augen. It tells of a sensitive boy's feelings for literature and for his beloved grandmother and gives insight into Indian family life and Hindu funeral rites. The story predates Fracis' award-winning short-story collection Ticket to Minto: Stories of India and America, reviewed on this website (Reviews).
Sohrab Homi Fracis
Dinner had long been served in the belly of the 747 as it slid past India's boundaries, and now the lights began to go out, and the seats to be shifted into maximum recline. But one light stayed resolutely on. It shone down on the open pages of an imagined world and on a man who never once lifted his eyes from them, nor heard the swish of chiffon as the stewardess glided by in her golden-embroidered saree.
The young Somesh was a natural loner, an only too willing captive of the fictional world of books, to near-exclusion of the real world around him. Offered the company of the charismatic inhabitants of those books--funny, charming, reckless, tragic, heroic people--he did not look for other companions. At St. Mary's, an all-boys Jesuit Catholic school, he made few friends, none of them close. His parents were good, solid folks who--overly concerned about the spate of child abductions plaguing the city--were content to let their only child pursue the safe pastime he had chosen. Several years after his birth, Naresh and Vinita Somnahi began to realize that destiny intended to send them no more children. No matter, the family line was preserved; the Gods had blessed them with a son, and they vowed to keep him from harm.
Apart from them, and--until he was eleven--his daadima on Naresh's side, he had little real contact with people. Into this fascinating little book world the rain fell, its constant pitter-patter and slap-slapping on his windowpane forming a desultory backdrop against which the rainbow hues of fiction bore a striking contrast. When once a year around June the monsoons blew into Bombay, they found a bleak echo in young Somesh's heart. When, mid-September, they blew out of there to expend themselves in futile endeavor to cross the Western Ghats, hills rising like protective leviathans between the storm clouds and Poona, they left behind a soggy city washed unusually clean but already beginning to dry itself in the warm rays of the Indian sun. Even so, they blew unabated in that little pocket in the back of his mind. Daadima was gone.
His memories of his grandmother were of a solemn, silver-haired, straight-nosed, straight-backed lady who dressed, always, in gray sarees very unlike the colorful ones his mother wore. She would speak to Somesh as though he were an adult, in serious tones, saying aap for "you" rather than tu or tum, her eyes looking unwaveringly into his. He could lose himself in them, dark tunnels, her words blurring and blending into a soothing continuum. Once, his young ears caught a stage whisper directed by Naresh at Vinita: "She thinks she is talking to my father himself--that he was reincarnated as Somesh.
The boy wondered if it were true. He had heard his parents and their relatives speak in soft voices of the accident that had taken Naresh's father away, and how Daadima had refused to enter a car ever again. A couple of months later, Vinita had learned she was with child, and the normally reserved old lady had fallen on her, sobbing pitifully for the first time since her husband had passed away, saying it was Dhiruji come back again.
"But what if it is a girl, Maaji?" Vinita had said, disconcerted by the certainty in her mother-in-law's voice.
"Nahin, beti," no, my daughter, "it is my Dhiru, I know it." The old lady was firm in her conviction, and they were reluctant to disillusion her, but were also afraid for her. So Vinita lit extra sticks of incense in front of the Trimurti that was the centerpiece of the little prayer alcove in their bedrooms, and they sent up daily prayers, rising on slim blue tendrils of sweet-smelling smoke, that it be a boy, while Daadima serenely, smugly almost, sent thanks.
Vinita said when Somesh was born at Bombay Hospital, almost next door, he put up a lusty ruckus that must have woken sleeping--if not dying--patients, until Daadima, who had been completely calm all day, took him in her arms and looked into his eyes, whereupon he grew quiet and fell asleep. Naresh disputed this maudlin version, contending the rascal didn't know what it was to be quiet until a year after he was born, but he was quickly put in his place by Vinita and Daadima. Later, they decided Lord Vishnu had granted their request and sent a son, but decreed that, in return, they would have no more children.
"Good thing, baba," Vinita would say, patting her side at the bare space between the bottom of her blouse and where the saree tucked into her petticoat. "Two-three k.g.'s every time means I would become a fatso only."
Very often, it was Daadima who kept vigil over the boy when his parents were out, murmuring things to him under her breath. In later years, as he pored over his Famous Five, and his Billy Bunter, and his Tarzan of the Apes, and his Biggles, and his Psmith, and his John Carter of Mars, she was content to sit with him in the living room, under the large, always freshly garlanded close-up of Dhiru Somnahi in a sand-colored kurta buttoned up to the neck, the distinguished-looking old gentleman's eyes peering out in rather bemused fashion, as though the photographer had just asked him to do something quite ridiculous. Glasses balanced along the bridge of her nose, Daadima would embroider sarees in red, green, silver, and gold threads for her daughter-in-law, not saying a word, glancing up now and then at her grandson, the slightest of smiles flitting across her dignified features. With the passage of time his small, oval face was stretching, long like Dhiruji's.
Sometimes, when he put the books aside, she would lay the saree on the long sofa and take him by the hand out onto the living room veranda, where they would stand and look down on Thackersey Street, he peering through thin verticals of the railing. Sometimes he thought the crowded world spread below them had grown entirely out of his own mind. There sat Gopinath the paanvala, stolid as a cow, on his rickety wooden stool, chewing his own betel nut paan as usual. The footpath was red around him from his spittings and those of his customers, splattered in streaks that radiated like spokes of a bicycle wheel, each tipped with small globes of blood and dust flattened out by passing sandals. Across the road from him the banana vendor stood by his wooden cart, the plantains more black than yellow, and away to the left near the traffic circle was the paani-purivala, dipping his small, round, hollow, thin-walled puris in and out of the pot of pepper-water, the sticky brown liquid dripping through as he passed them quickly to the waiting folded-leaf cup in the hand of his customer, from whose chin dripped some more and whose mouth hung open to give his burning tongue some air.
The rest of the hurly-burly were transient, hurrying past only slightly less temporary beggars, stepping suddenly across the street in meditative disregard of honking cars that swerved but did not slow. As each Ambassador or Fiat or Herald or a rare Standard Companion grumbled through, it seemed to Somesh Daadima's hand clutched his tighter and tighter, until he had to wiggle it to remind her that it wasn't made of steel.
"My hand isn't made of steel, Daadima," he would say, making sure she got the point.
"Not made, I know," she would say, easing up. "But see those auto-fauto things downstairs? Hardest steel, they are; more dangerous than any pickpocket or gang of goondas. Government should pass a law, make everybody walk again. You would like that?"
The first few times he nodded dutifully, but on one occasion a plane happened to make its way across the sky, disappearing behind clouds, its loud drone still reaching them, and his reply changed to a constant, brash "I will fly instead, Daadima."
"Better than driving," she would say, and he'd tug at her hand so he could get back to his books.
One night, after the sun went down, Daadima went out with the lights. The next morning when Vinita went, as usual, to shake her gently awake, she was already cold and stiff. Naresh and Vinita were on the phone all day, calling relatives and family friends. While Vinita cried openly, Naresh was red-eyed but calm, and took Somesh--who had not seen Daadima yet, but knew she was dead--with him to have their heads shaved, leaving only a choti hanging behind. Somesh had a good time swinging the choti from side to side for a while, then grew tired of it.
"Somesh will go with the men tomorrow to the funeral pyre," Naresh said to his wife.
"Are you sure, Naru? So young the boy is."
"Still, I want him to be with us. The day will come when my son will do for me as I shall do tomorrow for Maaji."
Somesh did not want to go. He did not care to see Daadima, all cold and dead, gray as her sarees, and he certainly did not want to watch her set on fire. So the next morning when everything was ready for the procession to set out towards the funeral grounds--Daadima's body prepared, shrouded in flowers and laid on a wooden stretcher, the Punditji in attendance--he sat hiding behind a cupboard in the guest room, back propped against the wall, reading a book. It was an old but well-preserved rosewood cupboard, dark and burnished and brass-handled, strong and musty-smelling, a few inches from his nose. As he read, the voices and other sounds of people bustling around slipped away into fuzzy nothingness, and he was Thunderhead the young white stallion running free in the Valley of Horses, tossing behind him his choti, which had turned into a long flowing tail, when suddenly the light streaming in from the window was cut off, and he jerked up to see Naresh towering above, vast as the rolling Ghats, his face heavy with thunder, gray as the monsoon storm clouds.
"What are you doing here? We have been searching the entire house for you. Your grandmother's funeral procession is being held up for your sake, and you are hiding away, reading some nonsense." He wrenched the book from the grasp of the frozen, wide-eyed youngster and flung it across the room, where it crashed against the opposite wall and fell, lifeless, to the ground. "You read too much! Get out of there and put on your dhoti and kurta. And do it quickly."
A quarter-hour later, everyone filed down the seven curving flights of stairs, leather chappals slapping the wood; the stretcher and Punditji went down by lift with Jairam the liftman, whose stubble face showed even more confusion than usual, and the procession set out from Purnima Condominiums, past Gopinath and the paani-purivala and the large green mosque in the center of the road that they'd had to keep as a traffic circle. Punditji and Naresh led the way. They were dressed only in dhoti and sandals. Above the waist, sacred black threads hung diagonally from right shoulders across their chests. The Punditji's potbelly rocked like a boat in a swell above his dhoti, and the forest of shiny black hair that sprouted from his navel fascinated Somesh. He wondered if the Punditji used hair oil on his chest and belly like his father used Vaseline on his head. It would be a while before he had need of it again. The other men had on kurtas and chanted "Ram naam Satya hei ... Ram naam Satya hei." God is Truth. Somesh struggled to keep pace as they strode along, and after a while was too out of breath to chant. His father had now taken up position as one of the stretcher bearers.
Passing, snake-like, under Princess Street and the pedestrian overpass near Marine Lines Station, they turned into the Chandan Wadi ceremonial grounds and were surrounded by high stone walls open to the skies. The roughly trapezoidal pile of wood lay waiting in the center of the courtyard, and Daadima was laid on top, and heavy pieces of sandalwood placed on her chest to keep her burning torso from sitting up at the waist. He let his eyes sweep slowly to her face and past it, and in the momentary image he retained he thought he saw her mouth was turned just the least bit down in a frown. He swung his eyes slowly back again to the sandalwood chunks, and this time he thought he'd been wrong--it was the barest, grim twitch of a smile. The Punditji presided over the ceremony, but as Somesh looked on, it was Naresh who lit the pyre.
Once it caught, it sent great tongues of blue-gold flame leaping towards the sky, causing outlines of the men standing behind, on the side opposite from him, to haze into shifting gaseous figures. Acrid gray-white fumes of smoke spread through the air and entered his nostrils. Maybe it was the smoke that drew water from his eyes--there was certainly some streaming down his father's cheeks now. He watched the flames rather than Daadima, until finally they died down, and it was done.
When night fell, Naresh and Vinita sat down to dinner at the gleaming black Jacobean table without Daadima for the first time. The new cook, Ramdas, who'd joined them a few months ago, had prepared steaming green palak paneer, piquant enough to make them squint, with vegetarian pulao and soft brown roti, but they were neither of them possessed of an appetite and toyed moodily with what little they had taken.
Naresh spoke, sounding tired. "Where is Somesh, Nita?"
"I told him to come, Naru, but he's still in his bedroom reading some book only--you know how he is."
"Yes ... yes. Why don't you take him a plate, and let him read?"
She looked up, surprised, lines threatening to crease the red bindi on her forehead. "But Naresh, we never allow him to eat in bed."
"Yes, I know." He struggled with his words for a short while. "I was ... very harsh with the boy this morning. Let him read, it's O.K."
She refrained from inquiring any further and filled a thali. Stopping by his side for a moment, she stroked the back of his head, not saying anything, then went to give Somesh his dinner, the colored glass bangles on her arm tinkling like silver bells.
That night as he tossed upon his hard cotton mattress, Somesh dreamt a strange dream. Daadima came to him and sat on the edge of his wooden bed and it creaked mournfully, but she was a young Daadima, a dignified and gracious beauty, and she addressed him by the name of the grandfather he had never known.
"Dhiru," she said, and her voice engulfed him in a younger timbre and caressed him with its serene melodies. The saree pulled over the back of her head was gray no longer, but a pale green above hair that shone blue-black like the coat of a black panther he had once seen at the zoo. "You read too much, Dhiru, you read too much."
Somesh sat up, transfixed, and she motioned with a hand covered in red-brown mehendi patterns towards the large, multi-partitioned bookcase, and through the dark he could see clearly its color of blue sky and read the titles, and authors too--the Arthur Conan Doyle, so newly bought, standing tall in its shiny hard yellow jacket, and beside it the Brothers Grimm looking modestly brown, and in the shorter shelves the Agatha Christies and Zane Greys and P. G. Wodehouses beginning to multiply among the already neglected Enid Blytons.
"They will take you far from here," she said softly, shaking her head, gently accusing. "Never satisfied to walk."
And she leaned towards him, and the hand touched his forehead, cool and light as the early morning mist, and then she was gone, and it was pitch black and eerie and silent, even the ever-circling fan had ceased to breathe, but the faint, sweet smell of attar lingered, and he got out of bed and turned on the dim-light, hoping his parents would not see, and pulled down the Tales of Norway and read a tale of the Cold North Wind.
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