CATEGORY: LitJournalFiction

S&R Fiction: “Henry’s Suicide” by Jennifer Ryan

8:20pm London

All four of them got the summons at the same time. Annabel was working an art event in Chelsea, waiting for Sebastian to whisk her away. Elliot claimed to be at work, but no one believed him. And Izzy? She was in Sebastian’s bed.

A flurry of messages swept around London and before long a freshly-showered Sebastian picked up Annabel and made the Wickham-Holbury train. Izzy went home, changed into jeans, and canceled the date she had lined up. She missed the train, as intended—she wasn’t in the mood for Annabel’s self-satisfied wisdom. Instead she caught a fast train to Oxford, taking a cab through the drenching rain to the manor. She met Elliot on the train, who proceeded to talk manically for the whole journey about trades, his job in the city, and, inevitably, drugs.

The storm was in full pelt as she reached Henry’s manor. He’d inherited it four years ago, in his mid-twenties, when his parents were killed in a private jet crash off the Bahamas. It remained unchanged, the decaying grandeur of his forebears, Henry animating it with parties and dogs and hunts and hedonism. Tonight it looked familiar yet shadowy and distant in the churn of the wind, an owl screeching from an outhouse, the shutters battering with intent. Continue reading

CATEGORY: LitJournalFiction

Scholars and Rogues Fiction: “Return to Me,” by Mark Sumioka

There is a capability within.  Knowing how to stop.  I know how to stop.  In fact, it’s very few and far between when I need to, because I know how to gauge my line.  I can drink a glass of water instead, and then another.  There is a span of time that wavers before it passes.  It is self-loathing.  But pride stops it in its tracks, and before it has a chance to progress it is wiped from the mind.

There.

It has disappeared, that thing, and it’s neither wonderful nor painful because it is numbness.  It is gone.  Yet while I toil thinking about trivialities like food and warmth and where I am and for how long, it silently creeps back, staying just out of sight, waiting in the closet where the door is ajar and I can feel the desperate eyes on me like those of a starving child.

I am glad it is under control.  It isn’t a matter.  It is fine. Continue reading

Scholars & Rogues Literary Journal: NonFiction

Scholars and Rogues Nonfiction: “Smile: Love Song to a Fading America,” by Malcolm Cooper

CATEGORY: LitJournalNonFictionIn terms of art and artistry, culture and the intricate moving multitudes of its respective parts, the 1960’s in America dissected almost every aspect of popular culture and reimagined it into the future. It was a revolution, in the most basic sense of the word–a rotation from the old into something novel and remarkable, the past winding the gears onward. The music of the era tended to be the best representation of this new experiment of interpreting one’s place in a cultural reality; this new imagining, this great experiment, was the philosophy of psychedelia and psychedelic music. For music to be psychedelic, it must rip apart the binding structures of the status quo and rearrange them for a better, more complex view. Many artists were taking old traditions of music and creating sounds never before heard out of their essence; Jimi Hendrix played the blues through a buzzing cloud of electricity and noise; the Grateful Dead took American folk and melted it down into abstract explorations; and bands like the Beatles looked toward the folk traditions of the east to guide rock into another abyss. But as the excitement of the new took hold, as freedom became the modus operandi, the past seemed to be buried, or at least looked upon as simple and out of fashion. Dylan, who seemed to lead the charge out of the shackles of the old world, warned those of the past to “get out of the new way if you can’t lend a hand.” The Who sang of their generation and hopes to “die before [they] got old.” Continue reading

CATEGORY: LitJournalFiction

Scholars and Rogues Fiction: “The Shirt,” by Patty Somlo

Ji-li stood in the small dark room, studying her reflection in the cloudy mirror. Barely blinking, she watched herself fold a worn shirt and slip it into her large, right pants pocket. Then she pulled the shirt out and practiced sliding it in again.

Moments later, she stepped outside and walked her bike to the front of the house. Fog blended with soot, causing flat gray clouds to swallow the sky.

A crowd of bike riders passed Ji-li, headed for the factory. Ji-li steered her bicycle onto the street and joined the throng. Unlike mornings when she passed the ride imagining the day her son Liu would make his fortune in America, she kept her thoughts focused on the steps needed to pull the plan off.

Anxious one moment, brimming with hope the next, Ji-li arrived at the factory, without realizing she had ridden that far. Continue reading

Scholars and Rogues Fiction: “That Little Kick Boxer Within,” by Samuel Vargo

CATEGORY: LitJournalFiction“Anything to make a buck.” That’s what Mom always says about Dad.

And there’s a lot of wisdom in her words. Mamma knows best and Mamma knows her man. That’s “man” as in my old man or more appropriately, her old man.

Anyhow, the old man — what an entrepreneur!

First, it was having us all pick strawberries on weekends. Then it was potato picking and later, baling hay. Continue reading

CATEGORY: LitJournalFiction

Scholars and Rogues fiction: Slick by Alan Swyer

The first time Slick Taylor told me I’d been sent to him by God, I should have known enough to bolt.  But instead, seated with a musician who was legendary for all the wrong reasons, plus his abrasive manager, in an only-in-LA-setting, a Westside Mexican restaurant helmed by a French chef and catering to an upscale, almost entirely gringo crowd, I continued to speak — or should I say pontificate — about what could, or should, be done to rehabilitate a shattered image and thereby increase the ability to bring in revenue. Continue reading

CATEGORY: LitJournalFiction

Scholars and Rogues Fiction: “That Night,” by Mark Sumioka

It had been a torrential night.  The drinking had gotten out of hand to where our buzzes were delightful and we talked over nonsensical matters with luster and humor.  But there was that chemistry of ours, the one that changed when we drank together.  And it spun out of control that night.

Gale found a button to push, and exploited it.  I argued over it with flaring pride.  She egged me on, needling me – even physically with her fingernail – until we burst and our fight was intense, though never loud.  And she persisted like no other woman I’d ever known; she knew how to lead me to the gaping trap where I would fall into the hole in the ground and sting with assaulted pride.  She knew me well.  Then I grabbed her forearm and held it tightly.  I could feel my fingers pressing so that the bruises would come in a days.  She grabbed my hair but it was too short, so then my ear.  Suddenly I released her, realizing my foolishness.  But she kept her hold on me until I raised my forearm like a karate block and moved away with headiness that said you are a man and dangerous now. Continue reading

CATEGORY: LitJournalFiction

S&R Fiction: “The Space Between,” By David Landrum

Martin Rollins thought he had performed well as the opening act for Nickel Creek, but a local journalist cut him to shreds in a review the next day. He called his music notable for technical proficiency but for nothing else. “No tone, no dynamic, no melodic qualities,” he had written, “just a lot of speedy runs and dexterous strumming, which grows dull after five minutes. Thank God Rollins was only opening the show and was not the feature performer”—that despite the fact that the audience had liked him, Nickel Creek had lavishly praised him afterwards and wanted to check their concert itinerary to see if he could open for them again. But when he got an email from Talia Metzger, it erased all the consternation from his mind. He read it over and over, unable to believe what he saw on the small screen of his iPhone.

“Martin, this in Talia. Remember me? Just kidding. I wonder if we can see each other. I’m in town for a friend’s wedding. Repost. I’d love to see you.”

Sitting at an outdoor table at Starbucks, feeling the cool breezes blow on him, he quickly replied.

“Talia! How could I forget you? Let me know where we can get together. Martin.”

The reply came instantaneously.

“How about Wealthy Bakery at 3:00? By the way, I thought that guy who did the review in The Press was a real asshole.”

He texted a reply:  “So did I. 3:00 at WB is good. I’ll see you there.”

She wrote back:  “OK.”

He sat back in the wrought iron chair. Noticing his coffee, he took a sip. He had not seen Talia Metzger in ten years. They had dated and been lovers in high school. She was the most beautiful woman he had ever known. Their physical relationship was at once the oddest and the sweetest he had ever experienced. Talia was deaf.

His thoughts went back. They had sat next to each other in chemistry class and were lab partners. Despite her disability, her parents had mainstreamed her in regular school. She did well as a student. She was beautiful and accomplished. And she had taken a fancy to him.

Her mother was Israeli, her father American. Martin had been on the tennis team with her brother. She had a grown sister who lived in Tel Aviv and worked for the Israeli government.

He finished his coffee. He had a performance scheduled tonight and had to practice. He went back to his motel room, got out his guitar, and began to play. He had a lot of trouble concentrating on the pieces he needed to work on as memories of the two years they had been together flooded his mind.

At first their communications were smiles and looks. He was uncomfortable around because he did not know how to relate to her because she could not hear him. He did not want to be condescending, wanted to treat her as he would treat anyone else, but she was not like anyone else he had met. She could speak, but her speech was imperfect because she could not hear what she was saying. She did not talk a lot to him, he noticed, even when they were working on an experiment in class as lab partners. Gesture and facial expressions conveyed what she wanted to say to him (though he noticed she talked quite a bit to the instructor and the other students). The two of them developed a whole vocabulary of non-verbal markers. Occasionally she scribbled notes, but mostly they used their bodies to talk rather than using their voices.

Sometimes he reflected on a quote he had heard—he thought it might have been Isaac Stern who said it. “It’s not the black notes on the page that are the most important thing. It’s the white space in between them.” This was usually interpreted to mean timing is everything in music performance, and this was probably what the author of the statement meant. But for Martin, the quote underscored the recognition of silence as important—in music and communication, and particularly in the way he spoke with Talia. They spoke with silence, at least with silence of words. Their sharing, like the white spaces in music, created a beauty more than the precision of sound could ever manufacture.

Her parents were not enthused about their friendship. Martin came from a religiously mixed home. His father was a non-practicing Jew. His mother was a communicant of the Orthodox Church. To eliminate the chance of religious conflict, they had kept a religiously neutral home. He smiled to remember how they celebrated both Christmas and Hanukkah—his family would be festive for a whole month. He went to his mother’s church on Orthodox Easter (a week later than Protestant and Catholics celebrated it) and occasionally went to synagogue on Holy Days. Religion did not become an issue in their home until his older brother and younger sister opted for Judaism and became regular worshippers and Sabbath-keepers.

This bothered his mother, who said she did not want him going to synagogue anymore and exerted low-level pressure on him to be baptized Orthodox. He responded by refusing to attend services at either house of worship. Word of his lack of faith got back to Talia’s parents through his brother and sister, who attended their synagogue.

The first time she invited him over he sensed her parents’ iciness. He watched Talia as she and her mother and father spoke in sign language and realized they were in a heated argument over him. Her folks realized after a while that he could read their daughter’s expressions, backed off, and were cordial. At school the next day her face told him she was mortified and afraid he might close up to her. He assured her—non-verbally—that this would not be. She passed him a note. “Come to my place tonight. OK?” He nodded to tell her he would.

That was the night he first made love to her.

He turned his concentration to his guitar and used all his self-discipline to think only of his music. After a fruitful practice, he checked the time, showered, and changed clothes. He got in his car and headed for Wealthy Bakery, a bakery and coffee bar. It had not been open when the two of them were in high school.

He had come to her house that night so many years ago with a bouquet of flowers for her—and partially as a peace offering to her parents, whom he thought might apologize to him for their behavior yesterday. They were not there. She met him at the door. She had on a white long-sleeved blouse and shorts. Her eyes widened with pleasure when he gave her the flowers. She laid them on the table and threw her arms around him. He felt her strength, warmth, and softness and hazarded a kiss. She did not push him away but responded. She led him over to the sofa. They sat down and made out.

Talia Metzger won the prize of the most beautiful woman he had ever known. Tall and lithe, she combined the strength of an athlete (she ran track) and the gentle shape of a beautiful seventeen year-old. He had seen her run and had marveled at her body—the very way her body was put together and moved suggested grace. She could not hear the starting gun but could feel its vibration. Martin would marvel as she sprinted off the starting line with the grace of a gazelle and the ferocity of a jaguar. She excelled as one of the school’s top women runners. When she wore miniskirts or shorts to class he had trouble keeping his eyes off her legs. As they kissed, she touched him gently. It was then that he first realized the dynamic of silence in their relationship.

He turned into the Wealthy Bakery parking lot. He had realized back then she was not merely touching him but expressing herself—her touch told him her passion, her emotion, the outpouring of love she felt him. He also realized how much sound and speech went into passion. Talia gasped as they kissed, but no words, no sound, no groans or languid noises that expressed arousal, came from her throat. Her expressions of these things came from her fingers, her lips, her tongue, and her cheeks as she rubbed them against his.

His hands went to her breasts—too quickly, he thought. He took them away but she took his wrists and guided them back. He unbuttoned two buttons on her blouse then stopped, again thinking he was going too quickly. She reached down, unbuttoned the rest of them, and pulled her tucked-in shirt out of her shorts. He reached back and unhooked her bra. She had the loveliest breasts he had ever looked on or touched. Pear-shaped, not large but not small, delicate but full (like the rest of her body), sweet, exquisite melons with small, pale nipples, they compelled his touch. He caressed and squeezed them. The feel of her hands on him grew more intense. She did not nod but he could read her large brown eyes. They stood. She cocked her head toward the stairs.

Martin had started early with women. Sometimes he wondered if he really had got laid by a randy older cousin at age fifteen (she was eighteen). He had never lacked since then. Talia was a virgin. He remembered her shedding the shorts, dark blue panties, unbuttoning the long sleeves of her cotton blouse and throwing that and her unhooked orange bra to the floor. He marveled at how her slender thighs joined her upper body and her pubic mound rose from her opening and curved through a light tuft of hair to her flat stomach. She told him by her gaze that she was a virgin and he made sure he was gentle with her. She gasped when he pushed into her and bled a little, but he felt her quickly leave her pain and respond to him. The peculiar beauty of loving her was birthed.

As with kissing—much more than with kissing—sex was verbal. He had not thought about this much before his first time with Talia. You talked in the lead-up. The woman said yes. You commented all the way through. How many discourses had he heard in bed (or elsewhere) locked together with the different women he had loved? O my God, O that feels good, Slowly, slowly, Let it go—and the groans, squeals, the articulations of pleasure? When his lovers got their joy, they shouted and moaned. When an orgasm came, God and Jesus were frequently evoked. One girl he slept with would yell, Sweetness! A Muslim girl from India had shouted, Name of the Prophet! And women cooed, murmured and spoke softly in the afterglow.

Talia, of course, could not speak. This in itself would make loving her unique enough. What pierced him to the core, however, was the way she did the same things other women did but did it without voice.

She touched him. She rubbed her face against him and licked his neck and chin. She raised and lowered her body, not just in the way women did to maximize pleasure, but to speak, to respond, to communicate her ecstasy. It startled him that he could understand what she said without words, with the word of her body and the vocabulary of her movements.

Her orgasm came silently—at least as far as words went. She stiffened, of course, arched and shook as the spasm ran through her. No shout or declaration came, but her expression vividly enunciated the joy that tore through her. She seized two handfuls of flesh on his back and held them, then sank down when the surge of pleasure had passed through her and ended.

When this happened, it startled Martin so much he stopped for a moment but then went on, holding her tightly, thrusting deep and hard, finally coming to his own pleasure. She would not hear him shout, he thought, though she might feel the vibration of his voice. But she would feel his body. She would read and understand all that his physical frame said in a way no one else could—the language of the body, the language she primarily knew.

He locked his car and went inside. He saw her at the table, reading a book, looking lovelier in her maturity than she had looked at seventeen and eighteen, the years the two of them had dated.

She stood when she saw him. He gazed just a moment. Talia had lost the youthful, girlish lines but retained the graceful strength he remembered. Her eyes shone with love, her face radiating not just emotion but the silence that spoke to him and that he realized, with a surge of poignancy, he could still understand.

He put his arms around her. Recollection flooded his heart as he felt her strength, her softness, the communicating energy flowing out of her. Since they were in a public place neither wanted to make a show of affection. They pulled apart. She leaned forward and gave him a sisterly kiss on the lips. He sat down and took her hands. She pushed a yellow pad of paper toward him. In her even handwriting he saw, “So happy” and a heart drawn next to it.

The natural thing would be to talk, but Martin did not return her written greeting. He squeezed her hands. At least for a while, he thought, it would be like it was before. They would speak with silences and with their surfaces and motions of their bodies.

Talia understood. They went over and ordered drinks. She did talk to the barista. Martin noted how much her speech had improved since they were together. She spoke as articulately as anyone who could hear. A tiny bit of slurring punctuated a word now and then, but he doubted the clerk suspected Talia might be deaf. When the barista asked her if she wanted room for cream in her coffee, she could read his lips enough to tell him no. Back at their table, they drank and shared, though neither of them spoke.

Through his travels as a musician, he had occasionally heard about Talia. Magazines ran articles on her. She had a webpage and was on Facebook. She went to Brandeis and then earned a business degree at the London School of Economics. While there she began dating a Brit she married two years after graduating. They had two children. Talia ran a small investment firm and managed a chain of charter schools in Indiana and Ohio. She was active in organizations that provided support and education for deaf children and their families in the United States, Canada, Israel and the Palestinian Territories. More than once he had seen profiles in magazines by journalists presenting her in the incessantly attractive role of a woman who had overcome a handicap and succeeded admirably. Besides that, she was pretty (he noted how good she looked in the short blue dress she had on). He rejoiced at how well she had done. Such journalistic affirmations annoyed him because they focused on what she lacked and how she had not allowed this to hinder her. He had known what she did have—on how her lack of hearing had birthed in her an ability that, when he entered it, seemed nothing short of miraculous. It was the ability to communicate and to express herself without words. No one knew of it because they did not assume it even existed. Now he was entering it once again.

As they drank, the melding of their spirits took place once more. In high school he had tried to explain to a buddy of his how they communicated. “Oh, the Vulcan mind meld, like Mr. Spock does on Star Trek,” his friend had quipped. Martin dropped him as a friend. When he and Talia had been dating a year, her father had said one evening at their home when Talia went inside to change to a bathing suit (they had a pool), “Do you enjoying fucking my youngest child, Mr. Rollins?” Martin reacted with appropriate shock. Talia’s father laughed. “Don’t be afraid. I’m not going to beat you up or cut off your balls. In fact, I’m glad she started out with someone who is considerate and seems to be a gentleman. I do wish, though, you were a little bit more like David or like Leah.”

David and Leah were his brother and sister. Martin felt she should answer.

“If we’re being frank,” he said, “yes, sir, I do like fucking her. I like it a lot. I am a blessed man. I may become more like my sister, but David seems to be transforming to a fanatic.”

“Can I tell him you said that?”

“I’ve told him as much myself.”

“I admire him for his zeal.”

That was the only time they discussed the matter. Talia returned with her mother at that moment, both of them decked out in next-to-nothing bikinis, her mother looking very good even with her forty-eight years and three children. Martin, Talia and her father and mother swam, ate by the poolside, and talked cordially until past midnight.

As Martin sat in Wealthy Bakery, he sensed the difference in her now that she was a married woman and had children. The energy she exuded felt different. It was not singular. He experienced it now as a mixture, more complex and mysterious, like blended wine, with nuances he had not known in her before. He knew, too, as they sat close and held hands, she was pleased at the progress of his career as a musician. For an hour, as people came and went, as the baristas prepared drinks and people bought coffee and talked, the two of them remembered. They understood. Finally, she stroked his wrist in a way that said she had to go. He nodded and kissed her. She pressed a small envelope in his hand. When she had gone out the door he opened the letter that looked like a thank you card you get from giving a gift at a wedding or graduation.

“I’m staying at City Flats Hotel. If you come at eleven tonight after your concert, it will be okay. We can be together again. Love, Talia.”

Martin folded the note and placed it in his pocket.

Their senior year, their relationship began to waver. It was not family pressure and not the question of Martin’s religious commitments. It was something he had never imagined, when they first met, would cause trouble and ultimately split them apart. A simple condition undid them:  Talia could not hear his music.

The realization that this was a problem came gradually. It came silently as well, as all their understandings of one another did. Martin had begun to play guitar at age eleven. He never particularly enjoyed classical style but continued taking lessons until he was in high school. His sophomore year, he discovered fingerstyle guitar:  guitar playing that used classical technique on a steel-string folk guitar. He listened to John Fahey, Chris Proctor, Pat Donahue, and a host of other artists who played that style. He began to learn it himself. In a year he had mastered open tunings and the fast techniques of the artists he admired. Martin found himself in demand at receptions and outdoor weddings. He played supper clubs and coffee bars that wanted ambiance music. He did blues and played venues that promoted music in that style. As he played and practiced, as his skill developed to a high level, he entertained thoughts of trying to make it as a professional musician.

Talia, of course, could not hear what he played.

She was puzzled at what to do about this. He knew there were ways the deaf enjoyed music—people stood and signed the lyrics to songs while colored lights represented the cadence and harmonies of a composition. Talia did not seem interested in this. Genuine to herself, she simply excluded music from her life and found beauty in areas of art she could see or touch. As the conviction that he would pursue a career as a guitarist grew stronger, he felt the strain of it on their relationship. It was, simply, an area they could not share. That they could not share it raised debate and the necessity of Talia talking to him or typing out messages as they attempted to reconcile the issue. They failed to reconcile and ended up splitting. One day they both simply understood it would not work. They agreed on this, their silent mode of understanding one another coming into play again. They made love one last time in her room when her family had gone away. She nodded good-bye to him. He kissed her on the forehead and drove away into the night.

A few days later he was sitting in the Kava House in East Town when Talia’s father burst in. Martin thought for a moment he meant to start a fight because he had seduced and then dumped his daughter, but he sat down, a worried look on his face, and said he wanted to talk. His manner and tone of voice were conciliatory. He said Talia had told them they had split. She was heartbroken.

“I hope,” he said, brushing his hair back with one hand, “it was not something I said or Tzipora said. I know I might have been a little hard on you at times, but we both like you, Martin, and we were very disappointed that you and Talia broke up.”

For the sake of their parents, he and Talia had dinner at her home with them. Martin remembered how difficult it was and how being with Talia again only confirmed it was over. She went to Brandeis; he went on the road to establish himself as a musician. He reflected upon it as one of those things in life that wrench your soul but you have to endure. Now she wanted to see him again.

He felt waves of deep emotion but had a show that night. He again summoned his discipline to get ready. Starting out as a musician had been tough and lean. Now he had a reputation as one of the top guitarists in fingerstyle, attracted good crowds for concerts, and had solid sales of his CDs and teaching tapes.

And the performance went well. The auditorium sold out. He did his standard numbers, some vocals, and some new compositions. It was hard to get Talia off his mind, but he drew on the ability he had developed over the years to blot out distractions and let the music take him. He felt the adulation of the audience and felt the creative flow that must be released for a successful performance. At the end, he did two encores, talked with fans, signed CDs, and then drove downtown to City Flats. He found a parking place on Ionia Street and walked to the hotel. She had left word for the people at the front desk to admit him. He rode the elevator up to the fourth floor and knocked. The door opened immediately. He knew she had not heard his knocking but knew the time and knew his habit of punctuality (“Musicians are always on time,” he had often quipped to her). He came inside. She closed the door and threw her arms around him. She had on a light blue robe.

He had not kissed her with a lover’s kiss in ten years. The innocent eagerness of her lips took him back. Nothing had changed—their bodies, yes, were older, but that was not a limiting factor. She kissed him with hunger and abandon. The silence (he did her faint gasping) made him exclaim his—exclaim it with speech that did not use verbal utterance.

Talia pulled him into a luxurious bedroom filled with a plush bed, the curtains closed tight. He undid the rope of her kimono-style robe, pulled it off her shoulders, and let it fall to the floor. Once more he saw her beauty of her body, still trim from athletics (he had read that she still ran and played sports). Once more he marveled at how she was put together—how her body fit, how graceful and complimentary were the proportions of her physical frame. He saw her beautiful breasts, the strong shoulders and flat stomach, powerful thighs and graceful intimate parts, the long legs. Apportioned like a statue of Artemis or Daphne, her physical frame communicated strength, elegance, and femininity. He felt her arms, her breasts against him, her hands quick and adroit to remove his clothing.

No words—like where the Bible said heaven heavens declared the glory of God but without speech or language. Once again, he heard the utterances of her body, the elocution of her touch, her nakedness the tone of what she said, her touch the sentences and phrases. After so many years, he knew the magic, the miracle of it once again.

They sank into the bed. Their lovemaking was quiet and full, enveloping them in its rapture, in the work of grace only the two of them knew. He gripped her and felt the writhing, smelled the scents, knew the little movements, the touch of fingers and of her face that spoke.

She was a married now. He was violating the seventh commandment. He knew, though—she told him—her husband loved her but did not understand her. She loved him but he could not reach one spot in her heart. It sat like an empty room, sending tiny impulses of discord into her soul. Only he could fill that empty space. Only the love he offered to her could complete and make her spirit whole. She told him this. She told him with her body.

When they were finished they lay side by side—silence, but no silence as their selves interchanged, as the sorcery of their relationship worked its spell.

Martin realized something else. She understood his music now. Though she could not hear, she knew it. Before she had not known it, and this was the thing that had split them up.

She ran her left hand over his shoulders to say “Yes” to the thought that had just passed through his mind. In their high school days, when they became lovers, when they fell in love and established their bond, he had just begun his endeavor to make it as a musician. He had only played as a performer for a year or so. The passion for music had not yet taken full root in him and he had not at that point fully committed himself to becoming an artist who lived by his music. She could feel and sense it now. It possessed him to the degree that she could know it. The thing that had pulled them apart no longer existed. They could be together again. No barriers interdicted their love.

All the same, he knew it would be a liaison, an affair. He would see her now and then. She would be able to get his performance schedule from his website. She would notify him when they could rendezvous. She could not sacrifice her marriage, her career, or her reputation for him. He could not interrupt his career for the emotional turmoil that marrying her would bring. It would be a different sort of beauty, and all the more so for its secrecy.

They lay in bed together, arms around each other, speaking with silence, their words more sure than any he had known before.

CATEGORY: LitJournalFiction

S&R Fiction: “The Trouble With Kids,” by Mark Sumioka

In this heat little was possible.  I sat on my couch with all the windows and doors open so that the houseflies could do as they pleased.  They wandered here and there.  My skin was sticky, even after I went and rinsed off at the sink.  Here at the beach this heat was unfathomable, though every year in August or September it returned, that humidity, the stale hovering oven heat that told us by the beach that we weren’t special like we assumed.  It would come from God knows where, then crawl all the way to the coast, hardly a breeze, with me on the couch breathing like I’d just walked up a steep hill.

It would be better at dusk.  I looked out my screen door again to check on the level of the sun.  It worked its way down in an arrogant fashion, like a guy who had what you wanted and made you wait on purpose.  It was like that – the heat – and I wanted so badly for it to be over.  But evening would bring us happiness.  We would fill it with a good meal, with drinks, with relaxation through light conversation and laughter.  It would be a fine night.

Footsteps stomped up the stairs, and suddenly as if she’d leaped the last three steps Gale was at the warped screen door, pulling it open in a huff.

“Hank!  You’ve got to come help.”

“For what?” I said.

“A boy.  He’s passed out.”

“Where?”

“In the alley.  Over by the trash cans,” she said and thumped down the stairs.

I knew it was serious because Gale hadn’t waited for a response.  I slipped barefoot into my tennis shoes and instantly was regretful.  I could already feel the hot moistness between my toes.  I stumbled down the stairs, holding the dirty railing as I went, and it made me think of the gook on a car’s engine.  The low sun was directly in my eyes, blocking my way.  I managed down the steps without bothering my knees, and hurried to the alley.

“Hank!” she called after me.

When I got to them there was a boy, maybe twelve, lying on his side near a row of trashcans.  His face was wet with sweat, his mid-length hair stuck to his face.

“Is he breathing?” I said.

“Yes, I checked.”  Gale was kneeling at his side.  She looked up at me for guidance.  I shrugged for response.  Then she got frenzied.  “Well, c’mon Hank!  What do we do?”

She stood up and we switched positions, me kneeling so that my joints popped and it was a mixture of relief and fear of the unknown.  There were Gale’s eyes, searching, waiting.  Then I realized.  It was up to me.  Gale was a sharp person, better than most I knew, but she looked to me in times of danger.  I wasn’t sure why.  Maybe it was because I was a man.  Maybe it was because we were a team.  I’d never thought to ask.

“Give us some space,” I said warily, touching the boy’s shoulder and turning him to me.

“Careful, his neck might be injured,” she said.

I gave her an annoyed look because she shouldn’t have thrown me in the driver’s seat if she still wanted to drive.  It frazzled me and I lost my place.

“I’m being careful,” I said sternly.  I let go of the boy’s shoulder and leaned in closer.  “He’s breathing.”

“I know, I already checked.”

My hand felt his forehead.  He was hot as hell.  That was when I turned and looked up to the sky, as though in question.  We were all sweating.  My shirt was a peel on my torso, and when I turned it caught, so I twisted my body until it gave with a slither.

“Get on the phone.  Call 9-1-1,” I said instinctively.  “Wait.  His eyes are open.”

“I’ll go,” Gale said as she went.

The boy moaned.  Then from far down the alley there was the sound of youthful voices.  I looked up and there were four boys running toward us shouting, “Dane!  Dane!”

“Son, are you okay?” I said to the boy.

“Me?” he said curiously.

Now the noise of the boys’ shouting was booming, low and high voices shrieking.  Suddenly, they were upon us, the boys panting and huffing with their hands on their knees.

“Is he okay?” one boy said to me.

“Is he?” another said.

“I’m not sure,” I said.  They looked at me curiously, as though I were a fraud.  Then I put some gusto into my voice, “He needs a doctor.  My gal is on the phone calling 9-1-1.  Is this your friend?”

“That’s Dane,” a third boy said.

“This happened to him once after a soccer game,” the final boy said, and his tone seemed to imply that he was desperate to be heard, not so much by me, but the other boys.  “I saw it happen.  But he was okay.  He just got exhausted because he was so hot.”  He looked at the other boys with growing confidence.  “He was overheated.”

“Makes sense,” I said.  Then I looked upstairs, listening for the sound of Gale.  I heard nothing so I shouted, “Gale!  Bring some water for the kid to drink!”

“Okay!” she answered.

Dane turned on his back and stared up at us, his eyeballs moving, though his head stayed still.  And then, strangely, as if a switch had flipped, his face changed with the slightest narrowing of his eyes.  His cheekbones rose so that his mouth became a smile.  The boys exhaled as though Dane had pulled one over on them.  They guffawed, “Dang, Dane!” and shuffled around the perimeter, returning to conversation about the game they had been playing.

“What were you kids doing outside in the heat anyhow?” I asked.

“We were playing a game.  We were chasing him,” the kid who liked to talk said.  “Dane’s out of bounds.”  And then accusingly to Dane, “You lose.”

“Forget your damn game!” I shouted, and they snickered and looked at each other.

Gale came with the water and I sat Dane up to let him drink.  He sipped tentatively at first, and then realizing it was fine, began gulping the water.  When he was finished I took the glass and handed it back to Gale.  The talkative boy stepped forward to inspect his friend’s condition.  Dane cocked his head back and scowled at the intrusion so that the boy flinched and backed away.

“You call 9-1-1?” I said to Gale.

“They should be on their way,” she said, and then with familiarity, “You know how they are.”

I nodded then looked Dane over again.

“How do you feel?” I said.

“Okay,” Dane said.

“He’s okay,” a boy said.

I jerked my face to the four of them.  I said, “This isn’t normal when a person passes out. You get that?”

They nodded silently, some shrugging.

“I wasn’t passed out,” Dane said.

“What do you mean?” I said, and then to Gale, “I thought you said he was passed out!”  And then back to Dane, “You were awake the whole time?”

“I had to stop and rest.”

“How come?”

“Because I was tired.”

I looked at the boys and they were quiet, awaiting my response.  I exhaled a heavy puff of air.

“Mister, he don’t need to go to the hospital,” a kid said.  “If you want, we can take him home.”

“C’mon, Dane,” another said, “Let’s go to your house.”

“There’s Gatorade at my house,” a third boy said, and the fourth’s eyes widened with temptation.

I looked to Gale just as she had looked to me before.  There was that silent exchange.  I thought she might cry.  What the hell was eating her?

“Stupid cops.  They’ve got no business taking their candy ass time,” I said and the boys snickered again.

I got Dane to his feet and he seemed fine.  Kids were a miracle.  I was envious at their youthfulness.  I was envious of many things that they wouldn’t understand until much later.

“Brush it off,” a kid said like they were in a baseball game.

“Yeah, Dane.  You’re all right.”

“Enough with the cheerleader crap,” I said to the lot of them.  “Give Dane room to walk.  Now you get him on one side and you get him on the other, and you boys make sure he can walk.  If he gets shaky you grab his arms and hold him up.”

I gave a last look up the alley.  Then Gale walked to the street.  We all waited for her to get there.  She looked up and down then shook her head at me.

“Okay, now be careful.  You’re sure you weren’t unconscious at all?”

“No.  I was just catching my breath,” Dane said with assurance.  He brushed himself off and led his pals toward the street.  As they walked he said suddenly, “And I’m not out of bounds!” bursting to a sprint.

They chased after him, cackling, and were gone in an instant.  Gale looked at me and shrugged.  I put up my hands and did the same.  She walked sideways with her eyes still hovering where they had turned and gone.  So I moved toward her until we met halfway.

“I thought he’d passed out,” Gale said somewhat apologetically, walking to the spot near the trashcans where she had found Dane.  She inspected it thoroughly, as though there might be some explanation waiting to be found.

“It’s kids messing around,” I said to her.  “I’m sure we were the same way.”

Gale lingered there for a spell, the worry on her face eventually calming to neutrality.  She came back to me and we stood face to face in the alley.  A long silence passed, that mute conversation flowing through us like a short wave.  And then she said, “Maybe the police are busy with the heat.”

“Hell, I’d damn near forgotten about the heat,” I said and chuckled, feeling the texture of my wilted collar.

“Such a scorcher,” Gale said and her eyes rose to the sky where an orange flame was now burning and beautiful.

I looked to the place where the kids had turned and gone out of sight.  Gale followed suit, then gave a distinct sigh.  We were quiet again, and this time the muted communication between us was awkward.  I knew she was thinking about children.

“You think it’ll be as hot tomorrow?” I said, at a loss.  Whenever we got on the subject of kids, and the fact that she couldn’t have them, I got awkward with nothing to say.

“That’s a dumb question,” she said dismissively.

When she turned to me, her eyes were listless, and I could feel her mind light years away from mine.  There would be no meshing this time, so I nodded and put my hands in my pockets.

Gale made her way toward the stairs like time was of no importance.  I stayed put, watching as she made her way up them.

I looked again to where the kids had disappeared, and then to the place in the alley where Dane had lain in exhaustion.  I was irritated.  Those kids had derailed my night.

CATEGORY: LitJournalFiction

S&R Fiction: “Out in the Far Hills,” by Thomas Healy

One at a time the server at the Hookah Lounge placed three smoldering charcoals on top of the perforated foil that covered the bowl of the water pipe which was filled with mint-flavored tobacco.  Carefully, then, he took several long draws on the pipe to get it started then put on a clean mouthpiece.

“Enjoy, gentlemen,” he said, with a slight bow, after setting the mouthpiece in a glass bowl in the middle of the small brass table occupied by the three tire salesmen.

“Who wants to go first?” Arnett asked, leaning forward in his cushioned chair.

Norville winked at Gartland, knowing Arnett liked to go first in just about everything.

“After you, Robb.”

“You sure?”

He nodded along with Gartland.

After taking a sip of water, Arnett set the mouthpiece between his soup-cooler lips and inhaled slowly, savoring every bit of the tangy smoke.  Then, aware from his previous visit to the lounge that it was considered impolite to pass the pipe to another person, he set it back in the bowl when he was through and leaned back and crossed his arms.  As he did before, listening to the seductive Arabic music playing through the speaker above the front door, he imagined he was in Beirut or Damascus, somewhere far removed from the familiar shopping mall that was only a few blocks from the store where he and his friends worked.

“Oh, look,” Norville said, staring at the television attached to the wall behind the espresso bar, “there’s been another sighting of that coyote.”

Gartland groaned audibly as he reached for the water pipe.  “There seems to be a sighting reported every few hours.”

Arnett looked up at the television whose sound was off so it didn’t interfere with the music.  “I bet there’s more than one of them.”

“Not according to the sheriff,” Norville said quickly.

He disagreed.  “I wouldn’t be surprised if there are a couple at least.”

“If that’s so, no wonder they are having so much trouble getting this thing taken care of.”

“The folks they hire these days in the sheriff’s office are lucky to find their way home at night, let alone some wild animal on the loose,” Gartland cracked.

“Oh, I don’t believe that’s why they haven’t killed the coyote yet,” Norville remarked after returning the pipe to the glass bowl.

“You don’t?”

“It’s just not a priority for the sheriff,” he contended.  “I have no doubt if the coyote was loose in the Emerald District, say, it would have been killed by now.  But he really isn’t that much concerned about what goes on in the east corridor of town.”

Gartland smiled, aware that the Emerald District was one of the areas where the sheriff garnered a great deal of support in the last election.

“So what you’re implying is that it’s up to us to kill the coyote,” Arnett said, sitting up in his chair.  “Is that right?”

“I suppose we can wait for the sheriff to get around to it but by then a lot of damage probably will have occurred.”

“I understand a number of cats and dogs already have been attacked.”

“Lord knows, this critter has to be killed before it goes after some person because, if I’m not mistaken, coyotes sometimes carry rabies.”

Gartland exhaled a faint ribbon of smoke.  “Remember last year, just before Thanksgiving, when that drug dealer released those pitbulls in the Emerald?  The sheriff rounded them up in a couple of days.”

“More like a couple of hours, if memory serves,” Norville remarked.

“That’s not going to happen here.  That’s for sure.  He’ll take his own sweet time just as he always does when it involves something at this end of town.”

“We all have a rifle or two in our closets,” Arnett interjected.  “I suppose we could go after it ourselves.”

“I wasn’t suggesting we do it,” Norville said hastily.  “I just pointed out that it’s more likely someone in this end of town is going to kill it before the sheriff does.”

“Then why not us?”

Norville, frowning, glared at Arnett.  “Because the only thing we’ve ever shot are jack rabbits and birds.  That’s why.”

“We could do it, though,” he insisted.

“Maybe you could, Robb, but not me.”

“Or me,” Gartland added before he inhaled another mouthful of smoke.

*

“About ten o’clock last night a man walking in Cedar Hills claimed he saw the coyote race across a footbridge,” the reporter on the radio announced.  “Deputies were dispatched at once but the animal was not found.”

Arnett, relieved, leaned back from the kitchen table, smiling to himself.  It’s still out there, he thought, still waiting for him to come and kill it.

After the weather report, which called for rain all weekend, he turned down the volume on the radio and resumed cleaning his father’s hunting rifle.  Scattered across the table were a roll of paper towels, some cotton patches, a bore brush, a cleaning rod, and a can of Remington oil.  A stub of a cigar burned in the ashtray on a corner of the table.

As expected, his friends didn’t waver from what they said the other night at the lounge so he would have to go after the coyote on his own.  He didn’t mind, though, almost preferred it because he wouldn’t have to share any of the accolades that were bound to come after he killed the animal.  Maybe, for once in his life, he would be seen as someone who could accomplish something significant instead of one of those people who only wished he could do such a thing.

Seemingly, ever since his younger sister died six years ago, he had lost the trust of many members of his family, particularly his father, who no longer acted as if he could rely on him.  As her only brother, it was his responsibility to look after Jenny, and he believed he always did the three summers they worked together as grooms at a riding stable across the river where a friend of their father’s was a longtime trainer.  But then early one morning that third summer, shortly after they arrived at the stable, a stallion broke out of its stall, and as it charged through the barn, Jenny tried to stop it and got kicked in the face.  She died in a matter of minutes from the severe trauma she suffered to her head.  He was only a step or two from her when the accident occurred so some in their family felt he should have protected her.  He didn’t know what he could have done, really, the horse stormed by so quickly, but that sentiment was shared by a lot of people who believed he had let her down.  That was preposterous, he knew, absolutely preposterous.  No one at the stable that morning thought he was in anyway responsible for her death.

At times, he almost wished he had been the one kicked by the horse but he wasn’t and would just have to accept that some people never would think he did enough for his sister.  They were wrong, dead wrong, but he doubted if he could ever change their minds.  But maybe, just maybe, if he shot the coyote, they would have a better opinion of him.

*

It was so early it was pitch dark out but Arnett wanted to get started as soon as possible so he was surprised to see Ignatius, who lived in the apartment below his, already in the parking lot.

“You’re up bright and early this morning,” he said as he unlocked the back door of his panel truck.

“A little too early,” he admitted.  “I’m still half asleep.”

“Quail season hasn’t opened yet, has it?” he asked, noticing the rifle tucked under his arm.

“Not that I know of.”

“You going to a shooting range then?”

He shook his head.  “I thought I’d see if I could find that coyote that’s causing all the ruckus around here.”

“You and plenty of others, I gather, from a report I heard on the news last night.”

Arnett opened his trunk.  “I reckon one of us ought to get it this weekend then.”

“Where are you going?”

“Cedar Hills.”

“Yeah, that’s the last place where I heard it was seen,” he said.  “Well, I wish you luck.”

“Thanks.  I’ll need it.”

Because of the earliness of the hour he scarcely encountered any traffic on the drive out to the large stretch of wilderness in the east corridor of town that was owned by the county.  For as long as he could remember, people in and out of government had discussed developing Cedar Hills into an eighteen hole golf course, maybe even a football stadium, but nothing ever came of the discussions so a couple of years ago it was designated by the county as a migratory bird sanctuary.  He parked near the footbridge at the north end of the refuge because that was where the person was walking who spotted the coyote the other evening.  A few other vehicles also were parked there so he assumed he would not be the only one looking for the creature this morning.

Occasionally in the summer, when the temperature rose into the nineties, his family would seek refuge in the shade of all the trees in the sanctuary and have a picnic beside one of the ponds.  He and his sister would often skip rocks across the linoleum smooth water, always competing to see whose rock went the farthest before sinking, but most of all he remembered the games of hide and seek they played with friends their parents let them bring along on the outings.  She always found the best hiding places, managing to blend in wherever she was, and seldom lost a game.  The few times he beat her, he suspected she let him win because she didn’t want him to get too dejected.  Since her death, he had visited the sanctuary only a few times, and whenever he did, he imagined she was still hiding there somewhere, refusing to show herself until he spotted her.

The day was every bit as dreary as forecast.  It rained steadily throughout the drive to the sanctuary but, almost as soon as he got out of his car, it intensified, the drops noisily pelting him like pellets of ice.  He had on an orange felt hunting hat so he would not be mistaken for the coyote but quickly realized that the hat would not keep its shape very long in the heavy downpour so he took it off and put on a dark blue baseball cap that was waterproof.

Not really having any idea where the coyote might be, if it was even still here, he decided to follow the narrow creek that passed under the footbridge and headed west, the rifle cradled in the crook of his left elbow.  He moved cautiously, not wanting to step on anything that might alert the animal of his presence.  “Walk as if you’re in a house full of people sound asleep and you don’t want to wake them,” his father told him the first time he took him quail hunting.  The ground was flat for nearly a mile then began to rise, and soon he could feel the strain in the back of his legs but he trudged on, knowing it was too soon to take a break.  He passed through a field of Scotch broom, through prickly hedges that were needle sharp.  He passed a boulder the size of his car and another the size of a tractor.  Above him herons circled, even a falcon appeared briefly between the limbs of a towering tree.

He proceeded at such a deliberate pace that he almost felt as if he were half asleep.  So, before he started up another rise, he removed his cap and lifted his face to the rain.  It stung like a dozen slaps but it jolted him awake and he continued on, one step at a time through the muddy ground.

*

Suddenly, off to his right somewhere, he heard what sounded like a rifle shot.

“Oh, Lord,” he sighed, halting at once.

Intently he listened for another shot, a voice, but all he heard was the pelting rain.  Perhaps what he heard before wasn’t a shot at all but only a branch snapped by the wind.  Lord, he hoped so, because he didn’t want anyone else to kill the coyote.  It was his prey, he believed, and his alone.

*

“Jesus, man,” a voice above Arnett snarled as he approached a blackberry vine, “I almost plugged you.”

Startled, he looked up and saw a grizzled figure in a camouflage jacket and hat perched in the neck of an oak tree.  A rifle rested on the top of his left shoulder.  “Thank God you didn’t.”

“Don’t thank Him,” he snorted.  “Thank me.  I might have more yesterdays in my life than tomorrows but my vision is still good.”

“I didn’t even see you.”

The hunter grinned, revealing a badly chipped front tooth.  “That’s the point, isn’t it?  Otherwise why would I have my bony butt up in this tree?”

“You here for the coyote?”

He nodded.  “There’s nothing else worth shooting in this goddamn swamp.”

“Have you seen any sign of it?”

“Nah, and I’m beginning to wonder if it’s even still around here.  I figure I’ll stay up in this tree another hour or two then call it a day.”

“I’d wish you luck but I want to shoot it myself.”

“Believe me, if it comes by here, I have no doubt I’ll kill it.  As I said, my eyes are sharp as ever.  Otherwise it’s all yours, friend.”

*

Breathing hard, Arnett slumped against the side of a tree and looked at his wrist watch.  It was nearly ten o’clock, and still he had not come across the coyote.  He wondered if it wasn’t here any longer, as the guy in the tree speculated, if maybe it was never here at all and the person who claimed to have seen it was mistaken.

“Damn,” he groaned to himself, as he fished a cigarette out of his pocket.

He started to reach for a match when he saw the pair of pale yellow eyes staring at him from behind a manzanita shrub.  Immediately his pulse quickened, and the cigarette dropped out of his mouth.

There it is, he realized, not more than fifteen feet away from him.

His heart was in his throat.  And for nearly a minute he didn’t budge a muscle, afraid if he did he might spook the animal.  But he knew he had to retrieve his rifle, which he had set across a stump beside his left foot, if he hoped to get off a decent shot.  He almost wished the coyote would start to move away but it remained as still as he was, its eyes as lifeless as tacks.  Ever so slowly, while still staring at the lemon-colored eyes, he reached for his rifle and, just as he was about to pick it up, the animal darted out from behind the shrub and raced past him and disappeared in some fireweed.

“Goddamn!” he shrieked.

To his amazement, it wasn’t the coyote but a reddish brown fox and, in frustration, he fired a shot at it and missed.

*

Minutes later, maneuvering down a narrow slope, he stumbled on a tree root and fell to his knees.  His pants were caked in mud, his hands too, and as he got up he suspected he must have looked like someone who had fallen through a chimney and was covered in soot.  He smiled.  Certainly he didn’t look like a person others were likely to embrace in celebration.  Not at all, he thought, continuing down the slope.  But he knew his appearance really didn’t matter if he killed the coyote.  He could look like a scarecrow and people would still want to shake his hand and have their pictures taken with him.  And maybe his perceived failure to protect his sister would finally be forgiven by those who still held him partly responsible for her death, if not forgotten.

He truly hoped so, mindful of the convicted arsonist last spring who rescued an elderly man and woman from an overturned car.  Many in the neighborhood who remembered that, as a youngster, Metheny set an abandoned warehouse on fire congratulated him for saving the couple, including Arnett who had gone to high school with one of his younger brothers.

“You must feel as if you’re back,” he remembered asking him one evening.

“Back?”

“In the good graces of the community?”

He shrugged.  “Some folks will never forgive me for what I did but a few might after they see I am really not such an awful person.  I don’t know.  I wish I could say I don’t care but I do very much.”

So did he, Arnett thought, climbing over a cracked tree.

*

Around half past one, when Arnett returned to his car, his hands were shaking he was so cold and he had to steady one hand with another in order to insert the key into the lock to open the door.  Immediately he turned on the heater, full blast, and toweled off his face and hair.  He was soaked down to his socks and decided to warm up a little before he headed back to his apartment.

He had not found the coyote, hadn’t come across any trace of it, and was terribly discouraged.  He wasn’t really sure if it was in the sanctuary, but if it was, he realized he wasn’t going to find it.  Not today, anyway, because it was just too miserable out so he decided to stop looking before he caught pneumonia.  Tomorrow, though, he would be back, maybe with some cold cuts from the butcher shop to use as bait.  He didn’t intend to sit up in some tree but he might set up a blind near the creek and wait for the animal to come after the meat.

“Seduction is every bit as important as marksmanship,” his father told him time and again when they hunted.

He had never killed anything larger than a jack rabbit but was confident he wouldn’t have a problem killing the coyote after all the trouble it had caused.  Briefly he looked at his drenched face in the rearview mirror, remembering when one of the trainers at the stable asked if he wanted to shoot the horse that killed his sister.  He did, certainly, but he knew Jenny wouldn’t have wanted him to because she hated to see any harm come to the horses at the riding stable.  She was the sort of considerate person who would stop whenever she saw a dead squirrel in the road and bury it.  So he declined and asked that the horse not be killed.  It was a decision that disappointed the trainer who he was sure thought less of him because of it, probably considered him weak and irresponsible.  And it was a decision that he came to regret five months later when the horse kicked another groom, severely fracturing her hip, and was put down at once.  The trainer didn’t ask for his approval then, didn’t say anything, just looked at him with what almost seemed contempt.  His attitude would be much different, Arnett believed, after he took down the coyote, much, much different.  He would see he wasn’t the weakling he thought he was but someone capable of doing something important and necessary.

His hands still shivering a little, he turned on the ignition, put the car in gear, and got back on the road.

*

Ignatius, removing a small crate from the back of his panel truck, smiled when Arnett pulled into the parking lot of the apartment complex.  “You get it?” he asked as soon as Arnett climbed out of his car.

Wearily he shook his head.  “Didn’t even see it.”

“Well, someone did, and I thought it might be you.”

“The coyote’s dead?”

“That’s what was reported on the radio not more than half an hour ago.”

His shoulders slumped in disappointment.  “I’ll be damned.  I thought for sure I was going to be the one to get it.”

“It’s too bad you weren’t.”

“Where was it shot?”

“Somewhere at this end of town.”

“Out in Cedar Hills?” he pressed him.

“I don’t recall but I don’t believe so.”

“There must be more than one loose because I’m sure one’s in the hills.”

“I thought you didn’t see any sign of it.”

“I didn’t but I just have a feeling it’s there somewhere.”

His eyes narrowed.  “You do?”

“I do.  I definitely do.”

Despite the skepticism of his neighbor, he went to the butcher shop that evening and purchased three pounds of ground beef.  Still convinced the coyote he was after remained at large, he returned to Cedar Hills early the next morning and hiked deep into the sanctuary.  The rain wasn’t as intense as it was yesterday but it was just as cold and blustery.  After he found a place that provided some cover, he set out the meat and waited for the elusive coyote to appear.  It didn’t, though, but he wasn’t discouraged and planned to return to the hills next weekend, and, if necessary, the following weekend and however many after that until he found the animal.  He was so confident he would kill it he could almost see the smiles on the faces of the people in his part of town and hear the compliments they surely would extend to him for his accomplishment.

CATEGORY: SRLitJournal

S&R Fiction: “House With a Black Door,” by Nicholas Wisseman

At first, I thought Dan’s death would blow through the house like a storm: a day’s worth of rage and tears—two at most—and then the grief would be gone. Lots of things rolled off my tough old bunch; why not this?

But I sold them short. You’d think I’d know not to by now.

Stacy was mad for weeks. She’d shake her small white head and say, “I guess that’s it,” screw her face up in a pout, and look at big Paula, who—on cue—would say the same thing. Paula would pout then too.

Julia wept all the time. “I mith Dan tho much,” she told me most days, her blurred face red and wet.  “I loved him.”

“I know,” I’d say, shocked that she still knew who he was…and who he’d been. “He loved you too.”

Carter said much the same thing each night. “Dan—was—a—dear…Dan—was—a—dear—friend—to—us—all,” he’d start and stop at least twice. “And—he—liked—us—a—whole—lot…I—liked…I—liked—him—a—whole—lot—too.”

“That’s nice of you to say,” I’d note as I passed Carter his meds. “I’m sure he knows that.”

Keith just sat and stared, more out of it than I’d seen him since he came. No jumps; no fits. Just blank eyes and a fierce need to sit in the same spot on the couch.

Lisa made the most noise, but I’d planned for that: I taught her to hug Julia when the sobs came, so that they both had a friend’s touch to turn to. Of course, Lisa would have liked my touch, but Julia seemed pleased to stand in for me.

And Kate…Kate lost her spark. It was hard to watch. She still bossed us—up and down and left and right and back and forth—but there was no grit in it. Dan—when his head was clear—had been her Dan. “Old Dan,” she’d called him, “old Dan, my old Dan. He’s my Dan, Charles. Where’s my Dan?” She’d wait for him to come home, just like she had when we could still trust him to leave the house. “I knew you’d be back!” she’d yell when you came through the door, hope etched across her face…and then she’d see who it was, fall back into her hunch, and give you a task. “The trash stinks, Charles. Take it out, why don’t ya?”

I did my best to help them through it. When Stacy’s face set in a pout, or Julia broke down, or Kate had her hopes dashed once more, I donned my mask and found the right words: “He’s with his dad, now; he’ll like that,” or, “You’re a good friend. He’ll miss you too.” Most times it worked for them.

But not for me.

It hit me worst at night, when the house was still and my shift was close to done. The job was…calm now. No one called me Fuck (in place of Chuck); no one talked up the Cubs; no one threw their pills in my face; no one asked me to watch John Wayne films with them; no one told the cops I was a “Jap spy up to no good;” no one asked me if I liked birds; no one told me they would “do for me” if they got the chance.

So yeah…I missed him too. We all did. Our door—the door to the street, the door whose hue marked us as “that house”—was still blue…but for months it felt black.

And that was our gift to him.

CATEGORY: LitJournalFiction

S&R Fiction: “A Rough Translation,” by Norman Waksler

CATEGORY: LitJournalFictionMr. Massicot was not pleased when they tore down the old woodshop next door, even though it had been unoccupied the last four years. The woodshop stood, had stood, on a double sized lot of which it occupied about a third, the rest covered by low shrubs, tall grasses and the occasional slender tree, not exactly an English ornamental garden, but green and peaceful to the eyes.

A retired private school history teacher – American to the Civil war, Ancient to the fall of Rome, European to the fall of Napoleon – Mr. Massicot believed that what had gone before inevitably presaged what was to come, and every time a large lot was cleared in Carbury townhouses followed. And as he said to his wife, Illona, not only did this mean months of construction dust and disturbance, a minimum of four sets of neighbors where previously there had been none plus a minimum of four additional cars, but, “You never know what kind of people are going to move in.”

Tall, slump shouldered, liver spots on his bald head, Mr. Massicot had been a second string first baseman in college and still carried an athlete’s bulk, though not his athlete’s grace of movement. Illona Massicot, on the other hand, once willowy, had thinned out with age so that in her short sleeved top and summer shorts she seemed all elbows, knees and shins. They had married rather late for children, and she had continued over the years as a university librarian, which was just as well with Mr. Massicot given what teachers’ salaries were. She said, “People who can afford to buy townhouses in Carbury these days are likely to meet your standards of respectability, Alexander.”

Mr. Massicot thought Illona had been a little tart with him lately and he didn’t like it one bit. “Money is no guarantee of respectability, Illona. Look at your drunken, adulterous cousin Claudia.”

“Well,” she said. “Poor Claudia.”

Since Carbury, a comfortable college town, was a desirable alternative to its even more expensive neighbor Cambridge, Mr. Massicot had the sour satisfaction of being right about the fate of the double lot. Soon after the debris of the woodshop was carted off bulldozers cleared the shrubbery and trees, foundation digging commenced, and the irritation of  noisy construction got under way. By summer this resulted in a pair of paired townhouses with noxious green siding, senseless gables, random porches and decks – the two sets separated by a wide blacktopped driveway to garages and front doors. From their living room and his study upstairs Mr. Massicot could look straight along the drive and into the small yards behind each townhouse, so that when they all sold out and the new people moved in, he had a perfect perch from which to assess them.

Four couples, all in their late twenties to early thirties, all white, middle class, nothing wrong with that of course, yet they all annoyed Mr. Massicot to one degree or another. “What do you think of the new people?” he asked his wife.

“They seem nice enough. They mind their own business, certainly.”

“They’re completely self-involved. No sense of neighborhood at all. They don’t even talk to one another.”

“They don’t seem to be doing any harm.”

“They don’t do any good.”

“That’s —-.”

“That’s what?”

“I guess that’s true of any number of people.”

Mr. Massicot didn’t know the names of the new neighbors so after a few weeks, he named them himself:

The Lawn People, a thin, mousey pair with a baby in arms and a toddler that squawked like a hungry grackle. They seemed to spend all their time watering the lawn, mowing the lawn, edging the lawn, planting flowers, pulling up weeds, rolling balls on the lawn for the toddler, and otherwise frolicking as if they thought they were fauns and nymphs

The Boozers, a chunky woman and a big bellied man who were always on their little porch in wicker chairs drinking alone or with friends so that their white wicker table ended the night loaded with empty bottles and the porch looked like a cheap barroom.

The TV People. Mr. Massicot didn’t in fact know what these individuals looked like because all he could ever see was their shadowy forms and beyond them the continually shifting colors and shapes on their gigantic TV which, ridiculously, was on at all hours of the night and day.

But the ones who annoyed Mr. Massicot the most were The Shoppers. Another pair around thirty, he was thick legged in those multi-pocket shorts that came down below his knees, square headed with a buzz cut; she was athletically built with short cut hair and muscular calves and they always seemed to be indulging in one sort of sport or another, the two of  them on bicycles, or attaching their bikes to their SUV or tying two kayaks to the top of it, or loading it with coolers and duffle bags and driving off and disappearing for days on end.

“Don’t they work? How can they afford their mortgage?”

“Maybe they work from home, Alexander. Or even from wherever they go off to. Not everyone has to go into an office these days. It’s called computer commuting.”

“Yes, I’ve heard of it. The perfect method to promote irresponsibility and laziness.”

Yet what really disgusted Mr. Massicot  was that every day – every day they were home, that is – he saw them carrying cartons or handle bags with the logos of pricey stores from their SUV to the house, or a large delivery truck stopped at the sidewalk and men wheeled obviously heavy cartons down the driveway on a dolly, or the UPS or Fed Ex driver, or even the mailman, left a box on their front stoop.

“Look at them,” he’d say seeing the couple coming home. “Three bags and two boxes this time. How extravagant can you get?”

“Well,” Illona would say, “They’re in a new home. There are things they must need.”

“Need. Nobody needs so much stuff that they get deliveries every day. They’re just indulging themselves. They must be up to their eyeballs in debt and their credit cards must be full up.”

“We’ve always bought what we needed.”

“Yes, but wisely and with moderation. That’s why we’re enjoying a comfortable retirement.”

Mr. Massicot didn’t spend all his time disapproving of the neighbors. If Illona in retirement had her gardening, her daily walk with a woman friend, her gourmet cooking and her 18th century English novels, Mr. Massicot had his project. He greatly admired the Roman historian Sallust and the way he used his two great works – War With Catiline (a conspiracy to take over Rome), and Jugurthan War (Romans against Numidians) –  to deplore the moral and political decline of  Rome (even though Sallust himself had accumulated his wealth by oppression and extortion as  governor of a Roman province). However, Mr. Massicot had never found what he considered a satisfactory translation of  the historian, and despite his rusty Latin had set out to do one that truly captured the compressed, pithy style that made him so effective.

The project had sputtered through his last years of teaching, an unhappy and disappointing period for Mr. Massicot who knew that he failed to reach his students, all of them totally uninterested in history, disrespectful, always playing with their phones, writing nearly illiterate papers, giving incoherent oral reports, simply not caring if they flunked. It was with relief that he finally retired, taking his silver goodbye bowl and his pension and settling in to a regular schedule of translation, which he entered on a computer connected to a printer, but not to the internet.

For ideas he could have used the Loeb Library edition of Sallust with its translation on the facing page, but then it wouldn’t really be his own work, a form of cheating actually. Instead he stayed strictly with the Latin text, a classic grammar, and a giant dictionary, methodically conning definitions, conjugations, declensions, idiomatic expressions. At times he’d read over finished sections and polish a phrase or a sentence. He found himself tiring more easily than he liked, age threatening his ability to finish, but despite slow progress, these were the most satisfying hours of his present life.

When he was having difficulty with a passage, struggling to find the trenchant English to match the concise Latin, he would get up from his six drawer teacher’s desk and shuffle about the office in his slippers, touching a book on the built-in bookcase, sliding a file cabinet drawer open and closed, flipping the printed pages of what he’d so far completed, stopping to look out one window and the other, then he’d shuffle back to the desk and enter what he’d finally worked out.

This particular day, Illona out shopping somewhere, Mr. Massicot was laboring over the half sentence “quin defessis et exsanguibus qui plus posset imperium atque libertatem extorqueret.”

His first rough translation read, “but when they’d been worn out and exhausted someone more powerful would take the power away from them and also their liberty.”

Of course “worn out and exhausted” was redundant as was powerful and power, and “power” was of course really more specific than just command, more like rule or dominion in this case. And “take away” was rather a weak expression of  extorqueret. Altogether unsatisfactory.

He leaned himself out of his desk chair and made his contemplative circuit of the study, ending up at the window overlooking the townhouses, where in front of the one owned by the shoppers, he saw a white van with  the side door open and three men in blue coveralls and baseball caps, rather warms outfits for late summer, one putting a computer in though the open door, one stepping to the side to let the third, coming out of the townhouse with a CD player, get by him.

At first Mr. Massicot thought the couple was moving out, but nobody used such a small truck to move a house, and besides, the shoppers had been gone all week; he’d seen them set their kayaks on top of the SUV and load their bikes inside, so wouldn’t they be there to supervise the move? No, the likelihood was that just as he’d said, they’d overspent their credit cards and couldn’t pay what they owed, and these men were repossessing everything they were in default of.  It would be a hard lesson learned.

Two of the men came out with a flat screen TV which they slid into the van, and Mr. Massicot, losing interest was about to get back to his translation, when the third man came out of the townhouse holding a dark suit on a hanger against his body as if to demonstrate that it fit him. The taller of the other two said something to him, perhaps disapproving, because the third flung the suit into the van with what Mr. Massicot saw as an angry gesture, spun around and went back into the townhouse, emerging shortly with a small speaker under each arm, and Mr. Massicot finally understood that the men were in fact stealing all the easily moved, costly contents of the townhouse, which apparently wasn’t meant to include that suit.

He’d never seen the like, though of course he’d read about it and seen television reports. The men were remarkably businesslike: both unhurried seeming and swift, much more efficient than any moving men he’d ever encountered. Mr. Massicot wondered how they’d gained entry – he supposed one of them must also have lock picking skills. It occurred to him that he should dial 911. However, he deliberately didn’t have a phone in the study, nor was there one in the bedroom. Illona had a smart phone that she put by her bedside at night, and he himself had what they called a flip phone that was very convenient when he was out, if otherwise uninteresting. But that was downstairs as was the house phone, and he almost had the phrase he was looking for. Anyway, the shoppers shouldn’t have gone away and left their precious purchases unattended so often. Obviously the thieves hadn’t been fooled by their house lights on timers. Mr. Massicot  went back to his desk to try the phase, but it had slipped away while he let himself be distracted.

The next couple of days Mr. Massicot couldn’t help glancing out the window now and then as if expecting to see the same white van and the same thieves, perhaps at another of the townhouses. What he saw was the quiet strip of blacktop in the sun, the green yards, anywhere from one to five parked cars, the woman with the baby strapped to her chest pushing the toddler filled carriage toward the sidewalk, the mailman, normality.

But on the third day he saw the couple, their SUV with the kayaks on top, and two uniformed police officers, one talking to the pair, the other taking notes. Obviously the two had returned from their outdoor adventures and found their townhouse stripped of every electrical toy, and a suit as well, though possibly they didn’t know that yet. The athletic looking wife was the one talking, upset, gesturing with her hand as if counting off each stolen object. The square headed husband was tight lipped, his balled fists by his thighs, slowly and repeatedly shaking his head. For a moment Mr. Massicot felt a kind of non-specific discomfort, the rough equivalent to almost remembering something from an uncongenial dream. Then the couple and the police went into the townhouse, and Mr. Massicot went back to his translation.

Mid-afternoon that same day, Mr. Massicot in the kitchen after his daily nap cutting a piece of chocolate cake to go with his coffee, when Illona came into the room saying, “Oh, Alexander, what an awful thing. The Kerns’ house was broken into, all their valuable things were stolen. Their TV, stereo, everything, even their microwave oven.”

“The Kerns?”

“Terry and Amber. Our new next door neighbors.”

“Oh, yes. I saw.”

“What do you mean, you saw?”

“They were like superior moving men, except the only things they were moving were electrical.”

“You mean you saw them while they were doing it?”

“That’s what I said, isn’t it?”

“Did you call the police? Wait, no, you didn’t, did you?”

“It was none of my business, and I was busy.”

“But that’s totally irresponsible. How could you do that?”

“Well, there’s no law that you have to report a crime, you know. Anyway, it serves them right.”

“Serves them right for what? My god, Alexander, that’s mean. You’re mean. You’ve always been mean.”

“I beg your pardon.”

“No. No. I mean it. What you call running a tight ship is just being mean. What you call feeling irritable is just being mean. What you call always making the hard decisions is just being mean. You’re a mean old man, Alexander, and you’ve always been mean.”

“Illona, you’re just getting hysterical over nothing.”

“I’m not hysterical, and it’s not nothing. You’ll see.”

Mr. Massicot wasn’t pleased. Illona had on occasion gotten mad at him, more lately to be sure, but that was normal, husbands and wives couldn’t always agree. But this was extreme and unpleasant. As well, he was offended by the threat in her voice, but before he could make her calm her down and explain what “you’ll see” meant, she turned her back on him and left the kitchen. He refused to pursue her.

About an hour later, Mr. Massicot was in the living room reading Our Mutual Friend. Generally he read history, rarely fiction, but he made an exception for Dickens whose oeuvre he went through chronologically from Boz to Drood. Liking them for their complicated plots, rich descriptions, Dickens’s touching affection for his strange and warped characters; and of course for the historical element, which was a kind of vivid companion to Mayhew’s London Labor and London Poor.

Illona, for her part, was presently going through Richardson’s Clarissa, 1500 pages, a million words, some infinite number of volumes. As a rule, they sat together there on matching wing chairs across the faded blue Tabirz rug, every now and then one reading a  passage aloud for the other’s enjoyment, but Mr. Massicot noted that the volume Illona had reached was absent from the little drum table beside her chair. She’d probably taken herself off in her huff and retreated with the book to the bedroom. She’d get over it, she always did, especially when she was making a mountain out of a mole hill. After all, if he was so mean why had she married him and stayed with him all these years. Surely she’d understood all along that he only wanted to see things done right.

The doorbell surprised him. He couldn’t imagine who would be stopping by unannounced at this hour; friends always called first, and the days when a paperboy rang to collect and be tipped were long gone. He hoped it wasn’t some religious fanatic; he wasn’t in the mood although at other times he never minded twitting them for a few minutes before they gave up and went away. He looked up at the ceiling in the direction of the bedroom, waited another while, but when the doorbell rang again, he bookmarked his page and set the book on the drum table beside his chair.

Through the sidelight he saw a uniformed police officer, someone obviously a veteran of the force, tall with a pot belly, grey sideburns below his cap, and glasses sitting on a pointed, investigatory nose. He had a small notebook in one hand, a pen in the other. “Blast!” said Mr. Massicot, then opened the door. “Good afternoon, officer. Though it’s nearly evening isn’t it?”

“Are you Alexander Massicot?”

“Yes. Yes I am. What can I do for you, officer?”

“It’s about the robbery next door, Mr. Massicot. Your wife called the station and said you’d seen it while it was taking place. Can you tell me exactly what you saw?” He clicked the ball point pen and raised his notebook ready to write.

For a minute Mr. Massicot could hardly breathe, as though the weight of his wife’s betrayal was crushing his lungs. He put a hand against the door jamb to steady himself, at the same time trying to look as if he was being casual. The officer was staring at him with that particular, just waiting non-expression that all policemen must have learned as part of their academy training. Finally Mr. Massicot was able to speak. “I’m afraid my wife exaggerates, officer. I might have seen someone leaving. A white van pulling out of the driveway,”

“Your wife said you saw individuals taking electronics out of the building.” Flat voiced, un-accusatory, factual, hard as a police baton to the chest.

“I don’t know where she got that idea, officer. Perhaps she confused what the neighbors said with what I said later. A white van. Leaving the driveway. That’s what I saw. I didn’t even know there was robbery.”

“I see. You didn’t happen to catch the plate number, did you?”

Mr. Massicot shook his head. “It might have been a Massachusetts plate. I think.”

“You mean to say that’s all you can tell me?”

“That’s all I know.”

The officer lowered his head a little and stared at Mr. Massicot. He frowned. “I see. Well then.” He unclicked the ball point. “I guess that’s it. Thanks for your help.”

“I’m sorry I couldn’t be more help. But I could only tell you what I saw.”

“Uh huh. Well. Have a good day now.”

“You too.”

Mr. Massicot was almost dizzy with indignation and disbelief at Illona’s disloyalty. When he turned to go upstairs and confront her, the hallway going past the living room and dining room along to the kitchen had the gray porous look of an underground tunnel he’d seen years ago in the Roman Coliseum, an illusion that passed when he started up the stairs, slowly as always given the chronic ache in his knees and ankles.

Illona was on the bed, propped up against two pillows, her rolling reading tray across her lap with the Richardson tome aslant on the ledge at the bottom. Mr. Massicot said, “How could you do that to me?”

Illona took off her reading glasses and just turned her head to look at him. “Do what, Alexander?”

“Do what, Illona! Call the police and put me on the spot like that. I just had a police officer here interrogating me. It was very unpleasant.”

“Well, you did see the robbery, didn’t you? Did you tell the officer what you saw?”

“Yes, I told him, but that’s neither here nor there. The point is that wives don’t betray their husbands. They don’t make trouble for them. It’s criminal.”

Illona laughed. “Well, as Al Jolson, I think it was, used to say, ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet.’ From now on, any time you do something untoward, Alexander, I’m going to do my best to thwart you. Any time you say something gratuitously mean, I’m going to set you straight. Whatever it takes. You brought this on yourself, so just be warned and watch your step because I’ll be watching you.”

Mr. Massicot stood there immobilized and breathless. That his wife would conspire with the police was bad enough, but that she would be overtly planning to fight him at every turn was something for which he was completely unprepared. This just wasn’t the way things were supposed to be. There was simply no precedent for it.

CATEGORY: SRLitJournal

S&R Poetry: Two poems by Colin Dodds

CATEGORY: LitJournalPoetryOur Ineluctable Deal

Men fear for the cook in the kitchen,
with her pint glasses of vodka.

“She’s really needy tonight,”
says the man to my left.
“You know, we all have our deal,”
says the bartendrix.

And, well, yes. And, yes, indeed.
We’ve each negotiated our deals
down to the minutest point.

And now the needle’s on the record,
the rubber’s on the road and we’re in a bar,
pitying the cook, enumerating
our own real and imagined afflictions

and slyly hinting at our plans
to rise from the dead
on the third day.

The New York Ouroboros

The day taints,
from the forced march of the morning
to the sun-wrecked afternoon.

The sun makes its low circle,
lights the office windows
in our hour of usefulness.

Our Lady of Windows
watches the streets fill
with her statue-blank eyes.

Even the men who sleep in doorways,
the leaky ghosts with shredded bowels
mad from the sound of it all,
are half healed by her, and thank her profusely
for the hand that hits them, for everything.

On the subway concourse,
businessmen and cleaning ladies
exchange rosary beads at rush hour,
hailing Mary over and over again
like an enormous wheel wobbling.

An unconsciousness
stronger than my own
runs through all of it.

The New York Ouroboros
is a subway, with a face on either end.
And they stare each other down
for longer than I can watch.

The skyline regulates heaven.
Night is dark and forty stories high.

Up too late, the city
translates me back to myself
with something missing
and something inscrutable inserted.

What goes on
is more than science and history.
What goes on
waits for poetry to grow up and become worthy.

_____

Colin Dodds grew up in Massachusetts and completed his education in New York City. He’s the author of several novels, including The Last Bad Job, which the late Norman Mailer touted as showing “something that very few writers have; a species of inner talent that owes very little to other people.” Dodds’ screenplay, Refreshment – A Tragedy, was named a semi-finalist in 2010 American Zoetrope Contest. His poems have appeared in dozens of publications, and have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife Samantha.

CATEGORY: LitJournalFiction

S&R Fiction: “The Treehouse,” by Aimee Stahlberg

I was nine the first time Tommy gave me butterflies. Mother had just made welts so big on my sister Jackie’s and my behinds that I thought neither of us would be able to wear a bathing suit the whole rest of summer. Her face turned pink as a pomegranate when she saw our soggy, wet crescent moons of mud scattered across her freshly washed kitchen floor–our footprints–from a sneak-attack water war launched on us by the boys.

My hair didn’t even have time to unclump out of the earthwormy tendrils before I started rolling clothes inside of my Barbie pink sleeping bag. I was ready to stomp down the street to what would be my new home.

By the time I got to Tommy’s house, I expected the battle scene to seem like a distant memory. The balloons that had popped on our bodies and left their skins flailed across the ground would have been scooped into a pile, ready to be placed into a big, black trash bag and tossed out with the rest of Thursday’s refuse. Instead, as I climbed the slats nailed crookedly into the trunk of the tree–something surprising to know was the craftsmanship of Mr. Alamonti–I could see pieces of exploded rubber hanging everywhere. And the floorboards of the treehouse were still so soaked that they were swollen. It was as though they should have squished with every step that I took like a cushiony sponge.

Still, I sprawled my sleeping bag wide over the floor, keeping my clothes on top, neatly piled into the corner. I ran my hands quickly over the fabric, causing ripples and waves in it until it was a perfect rectangle. I knew I had to stay there; it was the only place I felt safe.

The moment it became straight and even, I heard creaking coming from just below the trap door. It had to be Tommy. He was never quiet when he approached, whether he was sniggering, or hiccuping, or chewing on some candy that he’d stolen from a neighbor kid; he’d never learned to be sneaky.

He stopped two rungs from the top, his messy tuft of sun-bleached hair peeking just above the floorboards.

“Who goes there!?”

I didn’t realize I’d made the floorboards squeak when I moved to set my rump on the balls of my feet, squatting so he couldn’t see the handprint that I knew was sticking out the bottom of my shorts.

“Get up here, you nimrod!” I whispered so loudly the whole neighborhood should have heard, but lucky for me, the birds were tweeting wildly that day.

“Whitney!?” His naked feet finished climbing fast, and he pulled himself fully into the treehouse.

He was only in his blue swim trunks, his stomach and legs stained green and brown from sliding into puddles the boys had created in the grass. His cheeks were kissed pink by the sun, and so was the tip of his nose. His eyes were sparkly and green, contrasting intensely with his newly reddening skin.

“What’re you doing here?” He slanted his body, pressing his back against the window-frame of the treehouse, leaning and folding his arms across his chest as he smiled at me. He was starting to realize that his quickly growing, nine-year-old body was becoming too tall for the ceiling so he always adjusted his position accordingly.

I pulled my feet forward and out from under my butt and tucked them under my knees to sit Indian style, then interlaced my fingers in my lap.

“I’m moving in to the treehouse,” I told him.

He hugged his stomach, pinching his own skin, hunching himself forward, and laughed.

“I. Am. Not. Joking.” I said this slowly, wanting to make sure that he got every word, but he continued to laugh. “I am moving in whether you like it or not.” I unfolded my hands and put them on my hips. “You can come in here if you want, but I’m gonna make one thing clear: I’m the boss of this house now, and nothing’s gonna happen in this place, or even in this yard, if I don’t want it to, even if that means not growing up.” I kept watching his face; it didn’t seem like he understood the level of trust that I was putting in him, the level of protection I felt when I was with him.

He stuck his tongue in his cheek and swelled it up like a Blow-Pop.

“Whatever you say, Whit. Whatever you say.” He let me stay.

I should have made him pinky promise that day that nothing would ever be forced upon me in the treehouse, but I didn’t. The fact that he let me stay until my mom called all of the parents in the neighborhood and then marched door to door searching for me gave me enough faith that I should just be able to trust him. Sometimes, it’s easy to confuse protection for love, the kind that gives you butterflies.

And that wasn’t the last time he protected me either. Growing up, he would tell people to leave me alone on those days that girls would qualify as “bad” when there’s nothing more wrong than a hair out of place or a slip of the mascara wand. He protected me when we’d walk home from football games and it was rainy and I didn’t have my umbrella, sheltering me under his sweatshirt, taking the brunt of the wind and hail for me.

Then, there was the time when I dated one of his friends, Zack. Our relationship lasted for the first three years of high school. Even though Tommy had always been around–and don’t get me wrong, was something special–we’d always said, even during Zack’s and my relationship, that we were too good of friends to ever try dating.

By the time Zack and I fell apart, though, Tommy found me huddled in the corner of his treehouse, a bruise shadowing the left side of my jaw. I’d told Zack at a party that I didn’t like the way he acted when he drank, the way he pushed me up against walls, the way he shoved his tongue into my mouth, the way he didn’t want to use a condom, the way he always thought he was sober enough to drive.

Tommy sided with me and stopped talking to Zack; he helped me to break all ties with him, freeing me from the situation. He helped to make me stronger.

We sat in his treehouse on New Years Eve just before we both turned 19 while our parents were in his house watching the ball drop. We were both listing all the things we were looking for in a potential mate.

“I want someone who can make me laugh,” I said, watching him pull the hairs that hung over his forehead forward over and over again, as if his fingers were a flat-iron.

“And I want someone who knows what she wants, who knows how to stand up for herself.” He was still staring at the hair between his fingers.

“And I want someone who is understanding that you don’t push someone into something they don’t want to do.”

“I’d never do that.” He let go of his hair and gazed at me, smiling. He was rocking back and forth on his knees.

“If we ever dated, you’d have to understand that we couldn’t get physical until both of us are ready,” I started.

“Of course,” he responded before I even finished.

“I mean it,” I continued. “We’d both have to be ready to do anything before we did it, even things we’ve done before. If not, we’ll ruin everything we have.”

“Of course.” He was scooting closer to me, as if he was about to kiss me.

I pressed my hand to his chest, keeping him at an arm’s distance. “So, we’ll discuss things before taking things to another level physically, you know, like sex?”

“Of course,” he said, again. His understanding made the butterflies flap their wings even harder.

A year later, when we celebrated our anniversary, he told me that he had big plans for Valentine’s Day. He told me not to even try planning anything because he wanted to make it magical.

My heels clip-clopped to his house between patches of ice that hadn’t melted off of the sidewalk yet. I wrapped my thin, leather jacket tightly around my waist, hugging myself, trying to shield my body from the cold. Thank God he only lives five houses down, I thought.

But as soon as I got to the driveway and saw a bobbing glow reflecting off the trees and house coming from the backyard, I knew I was severely underdressed for the occasion. Heels and a cocktail dress with a fashion jacket are by no means the right attire for a bonfire. I didn’t realize that a night at home was what he had in mind when he told me to wear my sexiest outfit, something he could show me off in at a dance club.

As soon as I realized there was a fire on my boyfriend’s patio, I froze in my tracks. I let go of my jacket, feeling my hands begin to tremble as I thought about my sister, Jackie, and how her friend, Brian, had committed suicide by lighting himself on fire a few weeks back. Seeing the flickering light, I wondered if I was in the wrong place, if I should have been with my sister instead. The typically level-headed girl had been doing things that were so out of character for her, I’d started growing afraid that she might do something crazy on a whim to try to ease her pain, maybe something irreversible. Seeing that fire made me paranoid that I never do really know what’s going on in other people’s heads.

But if I’ve learned anything from the relationships I’ve been in, you take care of your “personal” business on your own time. If a man is expecting you, it’s best not to keep him waiting.

So, I took a deep breath, letting the bitter February air sting my lungs, and ran my ever-shaking hands over my clothes to smooth them out one last time before heading for the stone walkway that snaked between the pine trees hugging the sides of the two-story house.

Rock salt glittered and crunched beneath my feet, and for a moment, I was reminded of all the little gestures he’d done that would be so telling of how well he knew me: leaving a straw by my cup when we would sip lemonade because sugar hurt my teeth, though he never asked why; always leaving a flashlight in the treehouse for those times when I needed a place just to get away. And now, he knew that in seeing that glow, I wouldn’t even bother with walking to the front door; there wasn’t any salt leading that way.

By the time I got to the back of the house, the bright orange firelight was pulsing, leaving the lawn furniture, the treehouse, Tommy, and everything else in the backyard as nothing more than a negative, their images just shadows on the shivering background.

My feet scraped against the patio, and Tommy whipped his head around, and jolted, as if he’d been caught in the middle of some act I wasn’t supposed to see, his hair sticking up awkwardly in all directions. The only other time I’d seen him behave like this was when he was drawing on a make-your-own puzzle kit to ask me to senior prom, right after Zack and I broke up. He peeked over the back of the love-seat, letting only his squinted eyes pop above the top as he hid a huge grin behind the wicker.

I ran my shaking hands over my outfit again, tugging at the fabric, hoping I could get it to lie flatter. And as I saw Tommy leaping over the lawn furniture like a track runner’s hurdles, I suddenly felt lucky that it was so cold. I knew the minute that our bodies embraced he would feel my shaking and want to know the reason for it; I didn’t have any excuse good enough for him. Since Brian’s death, he’d become clingy and needy, always wanting proof that I loved him. It wasn’t like him; it scared me. But telling him that he’d been worrying me lately would leave him less than thrilled.

He strutted toward me with his arms outstretched and called my name slowly, dreamily, as though we hadn’t seen each other in years. In reality, we hadn’t seen each other in maybe twenty-four hours. His fingers were splayed wide, which could have seemed magical, like maybe an ice skater gliding to their partner, ready to pick them up and twirl them in the air, but with everything else that was surrounding us, he appeared more like a scarecrow.

My eyes darted all around him as I smiled, patting my hair.

“You’re beautiful!” he said and wrapped his arms lightly around my waist before pulling me close to kiss me, gently, a peck. It was almost romantic. He even blushed, and his eyes glittered when he pulled away. It was the face of someone in love. For a second, I believed that maybe I actually was beautiful.

I pushed his body off of mine, though, thinking about the way my bones must feel pressing against his body, or whether I’d brushed my teeth well enough to get the smell of regurgitated food off my breath. I’d hid it for this long, but still, you couldn’t ever be too careful. And those kinds of things always make me nervous.

“What’s all this?” I asked him, quickly. I used my arm to reach underneath his and lift it off my body, then shoved it farther away.

I swept my arm in a broad arc, and as if my hand had the ability to paint things technicolor, I noticed how the backyard was actually arranged for the evening. The love-seat was scooted close to the fire, with the outdoor coffee table right in front of it, a bottle of champagne chilling in a recycled margarine container sitting on its top. The shrubs that sat in ceramic pots on either side of the fire pit were wrapped in flickering, white Christmas lights. And the fire was so bright, glowing hot with a stack of logs piled way too high to burn out even within the next couple of hours.

“What do you mean?” He stepped to my side, turning around to admire what he perceived to be a masterpiece. He again set his hand on my body and slid it down until it rested at the small of my back. “Don’t you like it?”

“Well, it’s a little much, dontchya think? I mean, all of this really wasn’t necessary.” I rolled my shoulders back, realizing that for the first time since I’d known him, practically my entire life, I was uncomfortable with him touching me.

“Nothing’s too much for my girl.” I didn’t even have to look at him to know that he was staring at me with that dopey, crooked grin that he always wore when he said something that he thought was going to make me blush.

I couldn’t take my eyes off of the champagne bottle, though. Did he even think about the memories alcohol and a man might bring back for me?

He pushed gently on my back, nudging me toward the love-seat and the fire pit, giving me less than a choice but to sit down.

“Don’t you like it?” he asked as he cozied up next to me.

I patted my hair, feeling the blond locks still tethered neatly into the braid, and smiled, avoiding eye contact. I really didn’t like any of it, so I didn’t answer the question. Instead, I changed the subject.

“I guess I just don’t understand what you think we’re going to be doing right here for several hours.” I used both of my hands to point at the ground, as if he wouldn’t understand which “here” I was talking about. But I regretted it the very instant that I saw both hands trembling in mid-air, their shadows bouncing helplessly against my body.

He assumed I was cold and scooted his body closer to mine, so close that our hips touched. He stroked his hand up and down my side and pulled my head onto his shoulder.

“You leave that to me,” he said. He ran his tongue over his chapping lips. “I’ve got the whole night planned.” He leaned us both back in the seat, the way we would’ve sat when we were cuddling up to watch a movie. He ran his tongue over his lips again and sucked his teeth. “Listen, we’re gonna start the night off by sitting down here, enjoying the fire–us, the stars, a little champagne, and a toast to a relationship that knowns no boundaries.” His arm was moving in small circles, slowly, like a fortune teller.

The champagne bottle was burning itself into my eyes, its round head throbbing in the glowing background, taunting me, laughing at me.

“Then,” he went on, “once we’re nice and toasty down here, I thought you might spend the night.” He squeezed me tighter to him, raising his eyebrows. “I’ve cleaned the treehouse and made it more private. Do you see the paper-towel I stapled in the window?” His fingertips touched the back of my head, and I gazed upward, seeing a flowered sheet blowing in the wind. “I even zipped my G.I. Joe and Transformers sleeping bags together, so if you get cold–which with me here I don’t see how you’d even have an excuse–we could lie together in them.” I swallowed hard, realizing that since we started dating I rarely even came to his house when his parents weren’t home; I didn’t know what gave him the idea that I’d spend the night.

His hand was making mini pirouettes in my hair, and I knew he had that glassy, glittery, magical look in his eyes that he would get when he imagined something big. I realized that my butterflies were flapping so hard that I was getting nauseous now; the idea that sometimes people confuse lust for love frightened me.

“But why do all of this now? What if I’m not ready to do all of this now?” And the roar of the fire seemed to quiet into nothing more than pops as little sparks shot off of the pieces of golden, glowing wood. My voice seemed way too loud for this backyard.

He laughed as he spoke, but found nothing about what I said funny. “It’s Valentine’s Day, Whit. And my parents are out of town. That’s why we are going to do this now.”

I lifted my head off of his shoulder. He wasn’t understanding what I was saying, just like he didn’t understand that I didn’t appreciate being compared to movie stars, or how he didn’t understand that having my waist squeezed and prodded at in his attempt at tickling wasn’t something that I found funny. He didn’t understand that sex in a backyard wasn’t something I found romantic and wanted to do. He didn’t understand that I was still struggling with being physical with him because it really would change the friendship that we’d had before we got romantic.

“But why start with the champagne and the fires and the sleepovers now?” I turned my body to face him without even realizing it. “Why not when we’re both ready?”

He straightened his back to sit up tall. His eyebrows crawled toward each other, leaving his forehead wrinkly and his eyes squinty, but instead of keeping his eyes on me, he glanced down at the sleeves of his shirt and started rolling them to the center of his forearms. He shook his head hard, his hair fluttering back and forth.

“You never can seem to make up your mind. You tell me you want a romantic date, so I deliver and you’re not happy with it. Every time you tell me you want something and I try to give you it, you just can’t be happy.” He kept shaking his head. His tone dropped as he spoke again. “And I shouldn’t even need to mention that it’s not like it’s your first time.” Sometimes it’s easy to confuse a person’s present relationship with their past ones.

I opened and closed my mouth repeatedly as I reached for his arm, noticing that for the first time all night it was his hands that were shaking instead of mine, so instead I pulled mine back. I scooted away from him and rested my elbows on my knees, allowing the heat of the fire to lick my face, the pops happening in quick succession as the sparks shot off of the wood like fireflies. But when I rubbed my hands over my face, frustrated, I couldn’t tell if the heat on my skin was from the fire or my face flushing from the irritation I was feeling.

I couldn’t help letting out an audible sigh before I spoke. “I don’t know what to say. I mean, this isn’t what I asked for, Tom.” I held my hands out in front of my face as if I was holding a platter. “I mean, come on, we’re twenty years old. We’re not thirty trying to rekindle some dying relationship. We’ve been together a year. We don’t need to rush things and spoil them; we don’t need to grow up this quickly. Our relationship has plenty of life ahead of it and lots of time to develop. There is absolutely no reason to do things before both of us are ready and destroy it in the process.”

He ran his fingers through his hair, making the roots a shade darker than the rest of his ashy, blond hair. It was standing on end even more now than it had been before. The strands were sticking up every which way.

Tommy scooted toward me, our knees knocking against one another so hard that I expected them to clink. He wrapped his hands around my wrists, forcing my elbows up off of my knees and my whole body back into the armrest. Bits of foam sprayed from between clenched teeth as he began to talk.

“I don’t get what you don’t see about how I was trying to do something nice for you, that I was just trying to show you that maybe I could see us being together forever. I was hoping you could show me that you really feel the same way back tonight. Instead, you have to make tonight miserable, just like always.” His grip tightened around me, and I could feel fingerprint bruises starting to form, dotting up my arm. I tried to push back against his weight, but he kept pushing, kept squeezing. “Who are you to talk about growing up too fast when you’ve already done all this before? Who are you to talk about growing up too fast when none of us know how much time we’ve got left? Who are you to push me away when all I’ve ever tried to do is make you happy?” Veins bulged in his neck, and his eyes flickered like the lights that were wrapped so tightly around the potted shrubs.

My hands balled into bony fists, partially from the pain of his squeezing and partially from anger at him for hiding that he’d been this miserable; we’d never fought like this before and he’d never brought up wanting more, physically. Tears welled in my eyes.

“I don’t know what kind of world you live in, but in my world, hurting someone doesn’t make them happy,” I said. And like that, his grip on my wrists suddenly loosened, his fingers spread apart, his hands still shaking. He surveyed them incredulously. The nails had been chewed away so far that they were red.

He swallowed so hard that his Adam’s apple bounced before he tried to speak.

“Whit…” he said.

But I stood up. “I need to go.” My ankles wobbled from the unevenness of the salt sticking to the soles of my shoes. I watched the way he stared at his hands. We shared the disbelief that he was capable of doing that with those normally beautiful hands, the ones that always seemed to be protecting. “I really ought to be with my sister right now,” I said. “She’s taking this whole Brian thing really hard.”

And as I started to walk away, I could hear my shoes and the wind and the fire popping and the sound of my breath as I hyperventilated. Tommy mumbled something that I wished I would have heard that night, that he was taking Brian’s death hard, too. I think most of us on the block were, but I knew I had to bottle it up for the sake of my sister; I needed her to feel some sense of normalcy somewhere.

The last loud thing that Tommy said to me was that he had something for me. He ran toward me again, and it was as though we’d rewound to the beginning of the evening. He wrapped his arm around the small of my back again and pulled a sloppily made valentine out of his shirt pocket–crayon, glitter, and an uneven heart all under the words “I love you!”

I held it between two fingers as I let my hand fall to my side. I stared into his eyes, searching for the person that I’d thought I’d known all that time. I realized then that this wasn’t the first time I’d been in his backyard with angry handprints on my skin from someone that I thought I could trust, that I loved and thought should love me enough not to hurt me.

The day I claimed the treehouse as my new home after mother punished Jackie and me, and the night I stood up to Zack at the party, sure Tommy had been sweet to me, but I still ended up in the same position I was in now, hugging myself for comfort. And now, I was running away from this yard with handprints.

I swallowed hard, still searching his eyes for the right words to say. The only ones that could come out of my mouth were, “I really hope this card isn’t the last good thing I can remember about you.”

I dragged my feet toward the stone walkway, wanting the salt off my shoes, and sad that this place no longer felt safe. Tommy stared at me, not moving anymore than to shift his arms to hug himself.

I felt the valentine vibrating as the wind blew against it, but this time I didn’t feel cold. I didn’t feel like wrapping my jacket around my waist. There weren’t butterflies knocking against my insides anymore. Instead, I felt as if I had actually done something right, and, maybe, this time I knew better than to run back to that treehouse.

CATEGORY: LitJournalNonFiction

S&R Nonfiction: “The Nobodies,” by Jennifer Pocock

Girls from the church youth group I led were taken from their home by Child Protective Services with a police escort, their step father yelling and threatening violence. They called a few hours later. With no foster parenting prep classes, no reading over the rules, no official designation, my introduction to foster care was strangely perfunctory. Social workers brought the kids late at night, checked a few things (like the number of beds), 911 was written on a scrap of paper by the phone, and my husband and I signed a form. The children stood in a home they’d never seen before with wide eyes, searching to find any harmful secrets that might lurk. If their own home isn’t safe, how could this one be? They hoped that what little trust they had in me held true.

—–

Foster parents must promise to keep all information about their foster children private. Social workers, teachers, doctors and anyone else who works with the child are also bound by privacy laws. The National Resource Center for Child Welfare Data & Technology attempts to help professionals negotiate between the laws and the need to share information. They concede, “Child welfare professionals face a daunting array of privacy, confidentiality, and security rules. Too often, the answer to the question, ‘May I share this vital information with a colleague who is also working with this family?’ is a frustrated shrug and an exasperated, ‘Better not, just to be safe.’”  (http://www.nrccwdt.org/2011/12/privacy-protectio)

It’s clear that these laws were put into place by well-meaning individuals who seem to have never been a foster parent. Want to know if the child sleeping under your roof has AIDS? Sorry, that’s private. Want to find a foster family where a child previously lived so they can have continuity of care? Sorry, that’s private. All information is on a need to know basis. There is no conclusion about who needs to know, until you’ve been charged for sharing without cause.

The only time Child Protective Services (CPS) can publically release information about a child is after a fatality or near-fatality. And even in those cases it is not mandatory: “The State is not required to provide the information to the public unless requested.”(http://www.acf.hhs.gov/cwpm/programs/cb/laws_policies/laws/cwpm/policy_dsp.jsp?citID=68)  How does anyone know to request the information if the case is confidential?

The consequences of this veil of secrecy over the care of the most needy children is expressed well by Jim Newton of the LA Times on March 8, 2011: “Their fates are controlled by officials who take them from their homes, assign them to new ones and reunite them with parents who brutalized them — all in secret.” (http://articles.latimes.com/2011/mar/08/opinion/la-oe-newton-column-foster-care-20110308)

———–

With her baggy leather purse flopping at her arm like a broken limb, the mother moved in broad strokes, sweeping up her timid son. She covered him in gregarious sorrow and tears in front of all the other foster kids waiting for their parent visits or therapy appointments in that stained room. He didn’t want to come, but she lured him with a long awaited birthday present. Watching her cry over him like a lover I wondered where the gift was, hoping that her tears weren’t just show.

She started in with crazy stories and unrealistic promises as the social worker stood behind me, out of the reach of her mucus and grief. As she spoke her bloodshot eyes plead with me to believe her and I answered, “Okay,” and “I understand,” without conviction. I believed her for as long as she could see my eyes.

Walking away with her son at my side I told him I was sorry. He knows more of the world, filled with anguish and tribulation, than 9 years can hold. He brushed away silent tears and said he would never visit her again.

——

I met Erica at church. She had an adorable one year old daughter who toddled into mischief. Erica and her boyfriend were married at church in a simple ceremony. A week later they were baptized. I was asked by the church to visit Erica every month, to be her friend and assess their needs.

The first month I took a coloring book and crayons (washable) along with a large package of diapers. Erica didn’t sit still, she got up to pull chicken out of the empty freezer, explaining that her husband hadn’t worked much because business had been slow at the car wash. They were grateful for their illegal sub-let: a gay couple that fought nearly constantly and chipped in for food. The baby headed for the stairs so Erica turned on the big screen TV to distract her and I sat on the drooping couch covered with a sheet.

Erica had been in nursing school a little over 6 months, I asked how classes were going. She couldn’t afford gas money or childcare, so she hadn’t been to school in the last week. She talked big- that her husband would get a second job, she would get a night job, and they would move into a house, where she would have room for her 5 kids. Four lived with her mom now, something must have happened between the birth of her 4th and 5th children.

When a mom with kids in the foster care system gives birth to another child it’s like a do-over. Child Protective Services assumes normalcy until they find evidence to the contrary. That evidence can be drugs in the bloodstream of the mother at the baby’s birth or in the worst cases, later, when it’s too late.

Erica hated that her Mom cared for her children because her son has ADHD and her mom lost her temper often. She vacillated between gratitude for her mom’s care of her children and anger. The money her mom got from the state for taking care of Erica’s kids was more money than her husband made at the car wash. If she got the kids back, there would be no payments for her.

She never said how she lost custody.

——

The county jail is inaccessible by stroller. There is a wide set of steep steps leading to a set of darkly tinted glass doors high above street level. The advantage is that a passersby can’t gawk in the windows. The problem is taking an uncooperative two-year-old boy inside. Buckled into a stroller his protests would be of little consequence, the stairs eliminate that possibility. Instead, I throw his diaper bag over one shoulder, my purse over the other and heavy laden lean down to unbuckle the stroller straps restraining him. He bursts out of his seat and I grab his mittened hand. It takes a tight grip to hold onto him through the layers of knit.

With the other hand I hold the stroller and push the button with my foot to collapse it. I fold it to a manageable size and drag it behind me while lifting Bobby up each of the steep stairs to the glass doors. I can’t open the door, my hands are full. Standing there physically overwhelmed with burdens, mental burdens also stop me. I am walking into a jail. This two year old boy who was delivered to us at 4 am (filthy and grasping his only possession, a plastic red car) is now ordered by the court to visit his father in jail. His father is charged with child endangerment. He left his diapered son alone in their inner city apartment so long that the neighbors called the police after they couldn’t take his screaming any longer.

There must be a shift change, because through the dark glass doors I can see rows of guards coming towards me smiling. They hold the door open for me and I try to catch someone’s eye, to show them by my clear conscience that I don’t belong here.

Sitting on the row of plastic seats that look like leftovers from a 60’s era airport, I see that the only other white girl in the waiting area is with smeared mascara and ratted hair, rambling incoherently into a phone. My tawny skinned foster son pushes his red car across the floor, laughing when it crashes against the cement walls. When he runs his wiry black mop of hair bounces into his eyes. He comes over to eat Cheerios on my lap and an African American grandmother sitting next to me asks if his daddy is inside.

I say, “Yes, but I’m his foster mom.”

Her smile vanishes and she scoots to a chair further from me.

The guard at the desk calls Bobby’s name. I grasp his hand again and walk him up to the metal detectors. I bribe Bobby with more Cheerios so he’ll happily pass through with the social worker. After he’s beyond the solid metal door and is in the belly of the jail with his father I don’t know what to do. I choose walking the winter streets over the cold shoulder of that grandmother.

——–

Marcy calls me because she left Bobby with a social worker at the jail and is now in that situation that I was in over a year ago – at the jail with time and no friends. I quickly realize that she’s on that border between tears and tantrum that is common for compassionate souls dedicated to nobodies’ children.

“This is ridiculous! This child has spent most of his life in foster care because of this man’s choices, yet here we are again, a 4 year old sentenced to spend time in jail because of who his father is!”

Marcy quit her job to be Bobby’s mom. She and her husband are providing foster care for him with the intention of adoption. He went to their home after being in legal limbo with us for six months. They are waiting for the courts to grant the coveted TPR: Termination of Parental Rights.

We say TPR because it isn’t the courts that really terminate the parents. They made the decision themselves years ago, courts just make it a legal fact.

————-

The first time I went to the gym with Bobby the childcare was full, so I walked over to the older woman in charge, and asked if I could leave him for an hour, even though he wasn’t legally a member of my family. She smiled and gave an overwhelming, “Yes!” He ran off to bang trucks together and watch Dora. The woman kept talking to me. I wish I had walked away because what she said next will not leave me. It remains like an unhealed scab on my brain. I try to pick it off and make it go away, even though I bleed, but it comes back and stays.

“One tiny foster girl my neighbor took in had two broken legs. Her father raped her until he broke them.” She demonstrated with a crude thrusting motion.

Years later my head fills with bile and tears to write it.

————

I found a blogger who’s been a foster mom for more than 5 years. In that time she’s given birth to 2 daughters and will soon have a third. She and her husband also foster parent Becca, who just started kindergarten, has been with their family for more than a year and has Leukemia. When she came to their home she had no hair and a long list of doctor appointments and medications.

In the current system, the goal of foster care is always reunification with birth parents. Until the moment that the parent’s rights are legally terminated it is the focus of everyone involved in the case. Except for the most severe cases, children who are in foster care visit their birth parents regularly as part of a reunification plan.

Becca’s birth father doesn’t show up to her doctor appointments, as the judge ordered him to do as part of the reunification plan. Becca still goes to visits with him where they might eat ice cream or go to the playground. The social worker doesn’t share information with the foster parents about the other things Becca’s parents should be doing to work towards reunification. They did ask if they would be willing to take in Becca’s little sister too, on a long term basis. (Long term basis hints at adoption, or at least the agonizing legal process of sorting out parental rights.) That is how you know things aren’t going according to plan for reunification.

Becca still visits her father each week. Now her little sister joins them.

—————

Nine year old Vinnie came to stay with us for a week, which turned into a month. Whenever possible siblings are placed in the same foster home, but Vinnie fought with his brother so violently that his previous foster mom refused to house both of them. She’d been fostering for 15 years and was spotlighted in the foster agency newsletter the same month we got Vinnie. Over the years foster kids had gotten more violent, she said. There had never been a child that scared her, until Vinnie.

A month later Vinnie cried and gave every member of our family hugs when we gave him belated birthday gifts, wrapped with bright paper and curled ribbon. That same week he told his friends at school that he hated his new foster family and wanted to kill himself. After investigating the comments his social worker assured me that it was a misunderstanding, Vinnie was not suicidal. After he left our home I heard rumors that he was institutionalized for attempting suicide.

Vinnie’s previous foster mom told me that the school nurse called Child Protective Services over her concerns about his home life for two years before he was finally removed from his drug addicted mother’s care.

——

Excerpt from “The Nobodies” by Eduardo Galeano

“Fleas dream of buying themselves a dog, and nobodies dream
of escaping poverty: that one magical day good luck will
suddenly rain down on them- will rain down in buckets. But
good luck doesn’t even fall in a fine drizzle, no matter
how hard the nobodies summon it, even if their left hand is
tickling, or if they begin the new day with their right foot, or
start the new year with a change of brooms.
The nobodies: nobody’s children, owners of nothing. The
nobodies: the no ones, the nobodied, running like rabbits,
dying through life, screwed every which way.”

 ——

Before we became official foster parents my husband and I saw commercials on TV pleading, “You don’t have to be perfect to be a foster parent.” We felt strongly that homes like ours were needed. Foster parenting blogs and web sites also begged the sane and competent to step to the plate, out of traditional roles and into parenting a stranger. We had a taste of it with the girls from church so knew this would be hard. So we said then.

Hard isn’t a word I use much anymore. It’s a stupid little word, four little letters insignificant against all the meaning packed behind it. Difficult is better, I’s surround too many F’s and a crossed T brings up the rear. The base sound of the big D fights with the C in the middle, ending with the sharp LT. “Hard” makes it sound as if it can be broken through, like ice crusted on a street puddle. “Difficult” is complicated, like the thick ridged winter crust of an arctic lake, and goes on long enough to arouse fears that it’ll never end. That’s how this problem of endangered children feels, never ending.

Laws and rules have been made, with strict lines and solid parameters. But these are people, worn down round the edges- soft babies pitted against poverty and ignorance, accidental parents with addictions and mental illness flowing through the curves of their viens, and disheartened teenagers scoured by the mean streets until their soft child palms clinch into hard fists. These things don’t fit the image we have of America, where the huddled masses come to breathe free, not to be suffocated by the cold shoulder of secrecy and the hard lines of policy.

When I signed the paperwork to become a foster parent I signed a confidentiality agreement. I’m breaking it by writing this. It could ruin my hopes for a career in social work – a great irony considering “Social workers help people overcome problems and make their lives better.” (Bureau of Labor Statistics, bls.gov) Very few people listen to children; they have little voices that don’t vote. They are nobodies in the eyes of politicians, lawmakers, and power players – people with the resources to help them.

——

While picking up my foster kids from their inner city school I saw a large woman walking a small boy home. They stopped as she stooped to tie his shoe. As we walked past them the little boy stared vacantly at me. His mother, with her back to me while she tied the small shoe, released a train of profanities that burned a trail from my ears to my heart. The destination of the singeing words was her son. The cause- an untied shoe.

I thought about putting a stop to it, pointing out that an untied shoe is hardly cause for verbal abuse. Then I looked down at my foster kids and remembered that in some homes children get the worst of everything. Concerned for how the boy would be treated if I embarrassed his mom, with burning eyes I put my head down, took my foster daughter’s hand and kept walking.

CATEGORY: LitJournalFiction

S&R Fiction: “Lord and Taylor,” by Gary Marmorstein

“Chanel Number Five?” said Jerry. He and his brother, David, had entered the store at Fifth Avenue and were making their way toward the center of the ground floor. They had expected to find one perfume station in the department store; instead there were half a dozen, each with its own sales people, each designed and lighted differently. Jerry recited what was in front of them. “Lancôme. Estee Lauder. Elizabeth Arden. Bobbi Brown. Who he? Or she?”

“You’re the one who lives here,” David said. To Jerry’s ears it sounded like an accusation. “Remember Catherine Deneuve selling Chanel Number Five on television? ’He knows what you want.’” The commercial had been shown more than thirty years earlier, before David had leaned happily into European exile.

“Chanel isn’t Mom’s style,” Jerry said. “She’d never open it.”

“You don’t know Mom very well, do you?” said David. “Somehow I still see her more than you do.” Jerry knew it was true. Arlene lived in Los Angeles with her third husband; Jerry lived with his family some thirty miles north of New York City, in Westchester, and visited Los Angeles as infrequently as possible. Whenever David came back to the States, he took the trouble to go to both coasts. “Let’s try over here,” David said, leading Jerry to an amber-lighted L’Oreal counter.

The sales clerk behind the counter had cinnamon-colored skin, her black hair tied back with a violet ribbon, and large eyes so dark they were almost black, too. The eyes tracked the brothers as they approached the counter, then professionally looked away. The clerk seemed to be busying herself with flowers in a vase behind her.

“Stop leering,” said Jerry.

“Leering is good,” David said. “If we weren’t leering, she wouldn’t be doing her job.”

I’m not leering.”

The brothers stood over the counter.

“Hello, gentlemen,” David said, playing ventriloquist to the clerk’s dummy. “Would you like to sample some perfume?”

“You’re makin’ my job easy,” the clerk said. Brooklyn or Bronx, Jerry thought. “You’re brothers, I can tell,” the clerk said.

“Cousins,” David half-sang, “Identical cousins!”

“Cousins? Are you serious?”

“It’s the theme song to The Patty Duke Show,” Jerry said.

“I’m not familiar with that show,” the clerk said.

David and Jerry looked at each other. With each passing year, they felt increasingly ancient, superfluous.

“The show was on when we were kids,” Jerry said. “Patty Duke was an actress.”

“Isn’t she still?” said David. He turned to the clerk almost apologetically. “I’m not up on American obituaries. I’m based abroad,” David said.

“He’s in Lapland,” Jerry said. “Where reindeer come from.”

“Oh, like there’s such a thing as reindeer!” the clerk said, smiling prettily.

You’re confusing reindeer with Santa Claus, Jerry thought, but he didn’t say it.

“I live in Norway,” David said. “It’s where the Liberal party is reactionary, and the Conservative party is relatively liberal.”

“Are you in politics?”

“Politics? No no. Music. I’m the manager of Oslo Filharmonien, a very old orchestra. Maybe it’s just a different kind of politics.”

“You were correct earlier,” Jerry said to the clerk. “This is my younger, taller, handsomer brother.”

“Aw, I’m sure you have good qualities, too,” the clerk said, holding two tiny bottles, each tweezed between thumb and forefinger. “Would you like to sample some perfume? For your wives?” Each brother wore a wedding band; the clerk was glancing at David’s left hand, Jerry noticed, though not at his.

“For our mother’s birthday,” David said.

“She must be a great lady,” the clerk said, her eyes flashing at David.

“Oh, she is,” David said. “Even if my brother here doesn’t think so.”

“Of course she’s great,” Jerry said. “I just don’t necessarily have the same relationship you have with her.”

“Aren’t you the guy who refers to her as Miss Passive-Aggressive of Nineteen Fifty-eight?”

“I said that once.”

“Why don’t I show you a couple of things she might like,” said the clerk, unscrewing the brass-colored cap to one of the bottles.

David said to Jerry, “You shouldn’t talk about Mom that way.”

Jerry said, “You’re behaving like that Marine in Hail the Conquering Hero, the self-appointed defender of mothers everywhere.”

“No. I’m defending my mother,” David said. “And the character’s name was Bugsy. He was fixated on mothers because he wasn’t lucky enough to have one himself. You’re the film professor. You should know these things.”

“Bugsy was a little off,” Jerry said.

“No, he wasn’t.”

“See the movie again. He was wacked out. He kept threatening Eddie Bracken.”

“Sir?” said the clerk, offering her antelope wrist to David. “Shall I tell you about this one?”

David leaned over the counter and sniffed her wrist. “Mmm, yes! This is fantastic!”

“Lanvin. Our very best.” The clerk glanced at Jerry. “Would you like to try, sir?”

Jerry could remember the first time someone called him sir without irony. He had the window seat on a Peter Pan bus traveling from the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York to the bus station in Springfield, Massachusetts. A soldier stopped in the aisle, poised to stow his gear in the overhead rack. “Is this seat taken, sir?” said the soldier. Jerry was twenty-four and felt, for the first time, middle-aged. And that had been decades ago. “I must defer to my brother and his taste,” Jerry said. “Or do I mean sensibility?”

“Mom always liked you best!” said David.

“You guys don’t need perfume,” the clerk said, retracting her wrist, “you need a referee.”

“He’s doing Tom Smothers,” Jerry said.

“Tom’s mothers?” the clerk said. “Should I know who they are?”

“Please. One more sample?” said David, who reached across the counter for her wrist and tugged. Her resistance surprised him, and so it surprised Jerry—that’s how he would remember it later, anyway—and the push-pull tension caused the open perfume bottle to topple from the countertop and crack on the floor.

“Wow, that is strong!” said Jerry, the fumes rising to his nostrils.

The clerk muttered, “Fuck,” and strained to press something on the underside of the counter. She came around the display case and knelt to examine the mess, one knee emerging from beneath her skirt.

“Let me help you,” David said, hovering over her.

“Hold it there, sir!”

The brothers froze. An enormous man in a gray suit approached them. The suit itself looked like it was on steroids. The man’s skin was as coppery as the clerk’s, but shiny on his shaved head. His eyes were so unrevealing that he might as well have been wearing sunglasses. An earpiece was clipped to his ear, a plastic nametag pinned to the breast pocket of the suit. He held his arms slightly away from his body—a gunslinger without a gunbelt.

“There’s glass all over the floor,” David said, his elegant hands displaying the glittery, aromatic puddle.

“Just back away from her, sir!”

David stood up straight and took an exaggerated, giant step back. Jerry noticed that they had drawn a group of onlookers who were pretending, New York-style, not to look, tacitly implying that confrontations like this were merely part of the cityscape. Up close, Jerry could read the gray-suited man’s nametag: Arroyo. Satisfied the brothers would not move, the man turned his broad back on them. David shrugged quizzically at Jerry. After half a minute, Mr. Arroyo put a finger to his earpiece. He seemed to be speaking to the air.

“This is Arroyo, Loss Prevention.”

Jerry turned to David. “He’s in Loss Prevention.”

“Can he tell us how to prevent loss of testosterone?”

“Loss of face, maybe.”

“We’re in Fragrance and headed upstairs,” Mr. Arroyo said.

“Think he has handcuffs?” David whispered.

“Sidney Poitier cuffed to Tony Curtis! The Defiant Ones!”

“Come with me, please,” Mr. Arroyo said. It took Jerry a moment to realize that he was speaking to the brothers and not to someone in his earpiece. Jerry threw an apologetic glance to the perfume clerk, who looked up at him neutrally, neither pleased nor upset. Mr. Arroyo led the brothers to an unmarked elevator at the western end of the store that was separated from the passenger elevators. Following him down the aisle was like a perp walk with mood lighting and no catcalls, just some curious faces and the sound of Muzak. Mr. Arroyo pressed the button for the elevator without ever taking his eyes off his detainees. Jerry could hear the rumble of the old elevator descending from a floor or two above.

“Are we in trouble?”

“Hoo, boy, are we in trouble!”

“Gentlemen,” Mr. Arroyo said when the elevator door opened. Jerry went in, followed by David, then by Mr. Arroyo, who let the door close behind him. The elevator began to lift. Mr. Arroyo did not turn around to face front but kept his eyes on the brothers.

“Wasn’t this a Candid Camera episode?” said David.

“We saw that episode at Grandma Elsie’s, didn’t we? On her black and white TV.”

“The show was in black and white, Einstein,” said David. “Elsie had a color TV.”

The elevator cables hummed. As he often did while riding in an elevator, Jerry imagined the cables snapping, the car dropping suddenly.

“Are you staring at my feet?” said David.

“I’m not, I swear,” Jerry said.

“Yes you are! You’re staring at my goddam feet!”

“Gentlemen,” Mr Arroyo warned.

“Salinger,” Jerry explained. “‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish.’ After that scene, he goes into his hotel room and blows his brains out.”

The Loss Prevention officer narrowed his eyes. The elevator stopped; the door opened; Mr. Arroyo stepped aside so the brothers could exit. They found themselves in a long, narrow room, painted in a color somewhere between gunmetal gray and boys’ nursery blue, given over to security. At the moment a techno-rock version of “The Shadow of Your Smile” was piped in from somewhere near the ceiling. Braced against one wall was a large rack with shelves tipped slightly down, as if to display invisible shoes. The opposite wall space was empty, except for two paintings that must have been made more than a century earlier. One was of a man with slicked-down hair, ice-blue eyes and thin lips. The other was of a man with wispy hair and muttonchops and a monocle. Against a third wall stood a console of monitors showing various parts of the store.

“I had an apartment like this once,” Jerry said.

“Your identification, please, gentlemen.”

Jerry reached for his New York State driver’s license.

“I only have a passport,” David said.

“That’s acceptable,” Mr. Arroyo said. He took Jerry’s license and David’s passport and looked at them. After a few seconds he glanced up at their owners, from one to the other, as if confirming their identities. “Wait here,” he said. He stepped back into the elevator, which closed again. The brothers could hear it move.

“He didn’t say please that time.”

“He’ll be sorry,” David said.

They looked around the room. “Man, they got everything bolted down!”

“They don’t want you stealing anything.”

With only the techno-rock playing above them, the brothers’ paranoia wafted about the room like cigarette smoke in search of a vent.

“You ought to film this,” David said.

“Those days are over,” Jerry said. “I’ve become just another parasite of the arts.”

“Then what am I? I spend all my time making reservations, procuring music stands and folding chairs in Prague, arranging for a piano to be tuned in Seoul.”

“But you’re a real composer.”

“Because once every five years I write down a few notes? At least you still pick up a camera.”

“Eh, they’re home movies. And teaching film at a community college does not make me a filmmaker.” Jerry glanced at the video console. “All that stuff is being recorded for security.”

The brothers took a few steps closer. One screen showed two women fingering dresses, one of them lifting the hem of each dress to find a price tag. Another screen showed the escalators, patrons going up past patrons coming down. Jerry’s cell phone rang. He looked at the readout.

“It’s Helen.”

“Take it,” David said. There was nowhere to go to give Jerry privacy, so David bent farther over the monitors, as if to pay closer attention to each screen.

“Yeah, honey, we did find one. But we’re being detained. . . . David was a bad boy. . . . We were both bad, I guess. Call it a mishap. . . . No, I don’t think so.” Out of habit, Jerry put the phone to his chest and said to David, “She wants to know if we need a lawyer.”

“I can always use a lawyer,” David said.

“Christ, I’m already in the doghouse, now she thinks we’re going to jail.” Jerry put the phone back to his mouth and said to Helen, “No, don’t call him yet. If we get taken to Riker’s, you can visit us tomorrow.”

“Tell her to bring an iron file,” David said.

“David sends his love,” Jerry said to Helen and clicked off.

“Trouble in paradise?” said David.

“Helen sends love back.”

“Well, she’s a nice woman.”

“Uh oh, Here we go.”

“What? Didn’t I just say she was nice?”

“Davey, it’s no secret you don’t like my wife.” For years Jerry had experienced it as part of David’s superiority, and it kept him off balance. Jerry liked David’s wife, Astrid, well enough. Astrid designed sleek furniture, was dazzling to look at, and didn’t seem to care one way or another how Jerry perceived her.

“Not true. I figure Helen doesn’t have much interest in me. I don’t take it personally. You once said yourself she became a children’s librarian because she’s more interested in children than in grownups.”

“I said she was more interested in children’s books.”

“Okay, I guess that’s what you said. So why are you in the doghouse?”

“Last weekend I said something I shouldn’t have about Girls.

“Maybe because you called them girls instead of women,” David said.

“Come into the twenty-first century. Girls is a television program, created by and starring Lena Dunham.”

“I’ve never heard of Lena Dunham. Lena Olin? Oh, yeah!” David glanced again at a monitor. “Jer, you’ve really got to take a look at this.”

Jerry went to his brother’s side. A camera was fixed on a bench—it seemed to be outside a ladies’ room—where a woman of pale complexion and stringy hair sat breastfeeding a baby.

“That kid is slurping away!” said David. “That’s right out of the London street scenes of Hogarth, you know, where the breastfeeding mothers all look drunk.”

“I’m thinking Fouquet’s Virgin and Child,” Jerry said. “Now that’s a painting!”

“Except the Virgin isn’t actually breastfeeding. Look over here.” David pointed to another monitor. “This guy’s wearing half the store.”

“And he’s walking right out! Jesus! Should we tell Mr. Arroyo?”

As if on cue, the elevator door opened again. The brothers hopped away from the console as if they’d been caught looking at pornography.

“Anything interesting?” Mr. Arroyo asked.

“Nothing out of the ordinary, Mr. Arroyo,” Jerry said. “Not that I know what the ordinary would be.” He could feel his brother throwing him a look, though he wasn’t sure why. Should he have told the Loss Prevention officer about the shirt thief? A line came to him from his all-time favorite movie—I don’t eat cheese for no cops—but he wasn’t about to say it right now.

Mr. Arroyo produced Jerry’s New York State driver’s license and David’s American passport. “I am returning these to you, gentlemen. Ms. Perez has made no complaint against you.”

The brothers looked at each other. “I’m sorry I made her so nervous,” David said.

“The store would like you to pay for the breakage, however.”

“Of course. How much is it?”

“They’ll have to tell you downstairs. Please come with me.”

They followed Mr. Arroyo back to the elevator. “The fellows on the wall?” said David as they entered. “Founders of the store?”

“Honestly, I have no idea,” Mr. Arroyo said.

Jerry said, “The hairy brother was preferred by the father. The other one pretended to be the hairy one so he could get the old man’s blessing.” The elevator door closed on them. The three men descended. “Used an animal skin. The hairy brother sold his birthright to the unhairy brother.”

“What’s a birthright?” said David. Mr. Arroyo smirked. “What? I never knew!”

“I can’t tell if you’re mocking Genesis or you’re both just uneducated,” Mr. Arroyo said.

“Oh, the latter,” Jerry said. “I often don’t know what I’m talking about.”

The elevator stopped on the ground floor. Mr. Arroyo led them out by placing one meaty hand in the middle of Jerry’s back. Yet it was a light touch: Jerry could barely feel it. “You get a lot of shoplifters, Mr. Arroyo?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Some of them get away?”

“Yes.”

“I guess shoplifters aren’t the most violent types.”

“You could say that. Except for the ones who hit you with a ball-peen hammer or try to slash you with a box cutter or a switchblade.”

“Jesus!” said Jerry. “How do you handle it?”

“He’s a security expert,” David said. “He can handle anybody.”

“I have some training,” Mr. Arroyo said. “We’re walking this way, gentlemen.”
Several steps ahead of the brothers, Mr. Arroyo navigated the narrow center aisle. Passing the L’Oreal counter, Jerry did not see Ms. Perez; the broken glass had been cleaned up, but the powerful fragrance remained. David turned to Jerry and whispered, “You keep insisting on using the man’s name. Is that an American thing?”

“Is what an American thing?” whispered Jerry. “He’s wearing a name tag.”

“Do you refuse to consider the name tag a badge of class identity?  Security guards. Waitresses.  Bank tellers. They’re all there to serve you. And they don’t call you by name.”

“Oh, Jesus,” Jerry moaned. “Many of them already know my name. And yours.”

“Gentlemen, say hello to Ms. Bostic,” Mr. Arroyo said, stopping to present a woman who appeared on the other side of a counter. She seemed a beguiling mix of African-American, red-hair and freckles.

“Hello,” Jerry said.

David put up his hand close to, but not quite touching, the Prevention Loss officer and said, “One quick question, if you don’t mind.” Then he added, “Mr. Arroyo.”  Almost imperceptibly, Mr. Arroyo nodded his shaved head. “Did Ms. Perez say anything? About us, I mean?”

Mr. Arroyo did not smile with his mouth, but he did with his eyes. “She said, “Son hombres suaves antiguas.”

“Suave?” said David. “What’s that again?”

“If it’s not in Norwegian, French, or English,” Jerry said, “my brother won’t understand.”

“She said you’re a couple of harmless old geezers,” Mr. Arroyo translated.

“Well, that puts it in perspective, doesn’t it?” said Jerry.

“These are the gentlemen making restitution,” Mr. Arroyo said to Ms. Bostic. He retreated from the counter and was soon moving toward the store’s entrance.

“With tax, the perfume’s cost is one hundred and thirty-seven dollars and forty-six cents,” Ms. Bostic, all business, said.

Jerry extracted a wallet from his inside jacket pocket. “I have a Diners Club card here somewhere.”

David pulled a tiny Scandinavian purse from his outside jacket pocket and unzipped it. “Forget that! I’ve got Mastercharge!”

“We accept VISA, Mastercard, and American Express,” Ms. Bostic said.

David snapped a card on the counter in front of her. “It’s VISA, as you can see.” Annoyed, Ms. Bostic inspected the card, then swiped it through her machine.

“Why couldn’t you just hand her the card?” said Jerry.

“I’m paying, aren’t I?”

“Well, thank you, Mr. Rockefeller!”

“Marjorie Main! She played a bag lady in some movie that takes place in New York.”

“It was Bette Davis. We saw the movie with Dad, summer of sixty-three or -four.”

“But you can’t remember the title.”

“You’re thinking of A Pocketful of Miracles,” Ms. Bostic said, handing David’s credit card back to him, along with a receipt for the perfume.

“Hey, a cinephile hiding in plain sight!” said Jerry.

“Don’t tell anyone,” Ms. Bostic said, focusing on her computerized cash register.

Lacking an invitation to linger, the brothers headed for the exit. Jerry got a glimpse of Mr. Arroyo, one hand clasping his opposing wrist; although Mr. Arroyo seemed to be looking right back at him, there was no recognition. Jerry was aware they were passing through the merchandise detectors, and he half-expected an alarm to go off, even though neither brother was taking anything away from the store. They stepped onto Fifth Avenue but, for the moment, stood back from the swarm of pedestrians.

“Well, that was fun,” Jerry said. “Should we try Saks?”

“Anyplace that doesn’t have fifty American flags hanging over the door,” David said.

Jerry looked up. “Funny, I never noticed those.”

“Of course you wouldn’t. You take them for granted.”

The brothers began to walk south on the avenue, neither of them certain where they were going.

“I am famished,” David said.

“There’re a couple of Irish bars, one on Madison, one right off it.”

“I’m Irish bar’d out this trip. What else?”

Jerry said, “There’s also pretty good Korean a few blocks down. We could order oyster pancakes and have ‘em shipped to California, never mind the overpriced perfume.”

“Mom told me the best birthday present she could have is for us to get along.”

“Yeah, well, maybe next year,” Jerry said. “Speaking of The Defiant Ones, remember the ending?  Sidney Poitier cradling Tony Curtis and singing the blues?”

“Bowlin’ gree-een!” sang David.

“Sewin’ machine!”

***

CATEGORY: LitJournalNonFiction

S&R Nonfiction: “Saturdays in Kid Heaven,” by Allen Long

About 7 a.m. on a warm Saturday morning in July, 1990, I slipped out of my bedroom and into the hall, relieved I hadn’t woken my wife, Linda.  I knew she’d rise shortly, and then I’d have an hour or less to get our three sons fed, dressed, and out of the house before she started screaming at us to leave.  She’d been like this ever since we’d moved into this house the previous month and she’d claimed the extra room as her studio for her fledgling landscape architecture business.  A large drafting board covered with new graph paper, rulers, rubber guides, and other paraphernalia dominated this converted-garage room, and the boys and I knew we’d be instantly eviscerated if we ever dared to cross the threshold.

No sound came from Ben’s bedroom—our three-year-old son was the most talented at sleeping in—but I heard strains of “Tiger Sharks” coming from Mathew’s bedroom, and when I cracked the door open, my sons Matt, 8, and Josh, 6, sat on Matt’s bed watching the program with rapt attention.  They were pleased to see me, but Josh frowned, knowing his cartoon time would last only until I returned with a box of donuts purchased from the shop a few minutes away in downtown Castro Valley, a small, unincorporated township near San Francisco and Oakland.  However, Matt’s face grew animated.

“Making a donut run?” he asked.

“Yep, wanna come?” I said.

Matt smiled, leapt down from his bed with a thump, and snatched up a pair of sandals. I winced at the noise, hoping it hadn’t woken Linda, but I was happy.  Sometimes Matt was just as much of a tube zombie as Josh, but on days like today, he really wanted to hang with Dad.

When we entered the donut shop, we received a satisfying blast of warm, moist, sugary air.  The middle-aged Chinese woman at the counter named Faith smiled and said, “Hello, Mr. Long!  One dozen like usual?”  She reached for a large pink box.

“Want to pick ‘em, Matt?” I said.  “Get a couple of maple ones for your mom, then pick out what you and your brothers like.”

Matt pressed his face against the glass.  “What are those?” he said.

I followed his gaze. “Bear claws,” I said.

“Are they real?”

“No, they’re a pastry, like donuts.”

“Can we get some and eat them here?—we could buy some milk.”  His face was bright with excitement.  I pictured Linda standing by the bed, hearing the low-volume TV, and jerking the belt of her bathrobe into an angry knot.  The clock was definitely ticking now.  I felt my usual Saturday morning spike of anxiety.  Still, the little guy had given up his cartoons to hang with me.

“Sure,” I said.  “Grab us two milks, and I’ll pick everything out.  We have to hurry, though.”

Matt almost knocked over a chair in his rush to the milk refrigerator.

We sat at a bright yellow table near the window.  While Matt snarfed down his bear claw between gulps of milk, I nibbled mine and glanced at the front page of The Daily Review.  Russia had recently become a sovereign state within the Soviet Union, and a headline predicted the entire Soviet Union was headed toward dissolution. 

“Donut Man!” Matt and I yelled as we burst through the front door of our house.  This was the only moment we were allowed to make noise. Linda was showered and dressed, her shoulder-length blonde hair combed but damp.  She shot me a warning glance—my time was almost up.  Ben was on the move, and Linda had unplugged Josh from the tube.  Everybody was hungry.  I poured glasses of milk, and the five of us stood over the pink box on the kitchen counter, devouring donuts, almost as if we were predators and prey in Africa sharing an uneasy truce while lapping water from the only stream within miles.

As soon as we were sated, I rushed to dress the boys.  Except for some crooked buttons I could fix later, Matt and Josh were fully clad.  This allowed me to focus on Ben.  He was easy enough to clothe, but finding his sneakers was another matter.  Ben subscribed to the Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer philosophy that no shoe was a good shoe.  He would fling them into distant corners the moment we returned home from the outside world.  I conducted a quick survey of the living room, the play room, and Ben’s bedroom.  No Keds.  My anxiety spiked again.  We had T-minus two minutes to vacate the premises before Linda’s screaming commenced.  I deputized Matt and Josh to help me, and they found Ben’s tennis shoes in Matt’s bed, where Ben had taken them off to watch TV the previous day.  As soon as they made this discovery, Matt and Josh shot out of the front door, quickly followed by yours truly carrying Ben in one arm and his sneakers in the other.

“See you at dinner time,” Linda said as she closed the front door behind us and slipped on the chain.

You can never go home again, I thought, echoing Thomas Wolfe.  At least not until dusk’s long shadows.

We piled into my blue Ford Ranger pick-up.  Matt rode shotgun, and Josh and Ben sat in the jump seats in the rear.

“Where to, guys?” I said.

They all answered at once, “The Pirates!”

I drove us to Lake Chabot, a beautiful jade body of water surrounded by woods and hiking trails occupying 300 acres.  I was ever-thankful this majestic and peaceful setting lay only fifteen minutes from our house.

As we stepped out of the truck, a warm breeze carrying a pleasant floral scent—jasmine?–caressed our faces.  We began our walk.  The sun was hot, but live oak trees shaded much of the path.  We marched resolutely to the half-mile marker, which was just beyond a grove of shady and fragrant bay trees, then descended a side path leading to the water’s edge.  Within a minute of hiking along the shore, we came to the boys’ favorite place to play, The Pirates.  The boys loved the movie Swiss Family Robinson, and this was the spot where they could best enter that world.  While my adult eyes saw the remains of a teenage party, complete with a burned out campfire and a scattered variety of empty beer cans and bottles, my sons saw the remnants of a recently abandoned pirate campsite.

“Dad, were the pirates just here?” Matt said.

“I think they left at dawn, so they’ve only been gone a couple of hours,” I said.  I pointed to the small island about half a mile from shore.  “That’s where they hide during the day, and they’ve got their pirate ship hidden on the other side of the island so we can’t see it.”

“Have you ever seen it?” Josh asked.

“Just a couple of times, once at sunset and once at dawn.”

The boys examined the island carefully, looking for movement in the woods and signs of the Jolly Roger flapping through the treetops.

“Do the pirates like skipping stones?” said Matt, skipping a stone across the water.  It bounced five times.

“It’s one of their favorite activities,” I said. “Particularly when they’re full of rum.”

Matt continued to skip stones, which inspired Ben to pick up the largest rocks he could find and plop them into the water to see how big a splash he could make.  Meanwhile, Josh, the engineer in the family, became fascinated with a fishing pole holder constructed out of niched branches and fishing line.  Over the next half hour, he would take it apart and reassemble it.  I watched the boys as they played, making sure they were safe and not getting too wet, since going home for dry clothes was not an option.

While they played, I thought about how I’d met their mother at Virginia Tech our freshman year in 1975.  I first noticed her in my English class, where I thought she was a pretty blonde with a nice smile who seemed down-to-earth, unlike many of the stuck-up good-looking and popular girls who’d attended my high school.  We shared two classes, ate in the same dining hall, and lived in adjoining dorms.  We kept crossing paths.  At one point, I learned Linda enjoyed Fleetwood Mac.  I liked them too, and my cousin Jeff, who lived in my dorm, owned all of their albums, so I invited Linda to my room on a Saturday night for a Fleetwood Mac fest. She accepted, we sipped cheap red wine while we listened, and I kissed her after I escorted her back to her dorm.

She seemed surprised but pleased.  “We’ll see about that,” she said as the door closed behind her.

Christmas break followed almost immediately, and we exchanged silly postcards.  We both had long-distance lovers with whom we’d rendezvous over the holiday, but those romances hadn’t been going very well, and we knew our kiss was the start of something special.

However, when we returned to school, Linda was solemn.  She’d had sex with her boyfriend over the holiday without birth control, and she was terrified she was pregnant.  She told me this as we stood in the courtyard between our dorms one evening when the temperature was in the teens and the wind whipped wildly about us.  I held her for hours, comforting her, and when we finally parted, we were in love.

A loud splash startled me out of my thoughts.  At first, I was terrified one of the boys had fallen into the lake.  However, I quickly surmised Ben had dropped an unusually large rock into the water.  His brown corduroy jumper was wet from the splash, and I pulled him onto my lap so he could dry in the sun.  He asked me a long stream of questions about pirates, and I told him everything I knew or could make up.  Matt concentrated on digging miniature channels from the lake inland, and Josh had the fishing pole holder apart and was laying out the pieces in an orderly manner.

I hoped Josh felt okay.  The previous weekend, his best friend, Seth, had thrown a birthday party and failed to invite Josh, instead inviting a group of older boys he wanted to impress, and they had attended because Seth was the only child of indulgent parents, and he had the coolest toys in town.  Linda and I had been upset and angry when we learned of this treachery, but here’s the difference: while I quietly seethed, Linda phoned Seth’s mother and screamed at her.  Every now and then, it was handy having a banshee in the family.

While I tend to characterize Linda as a banshee, witch, succubus, or other evil creature, I also recognize she was deeply unhappy, and I remind myself to feel compassion for her.  Even as she destroyed virtually everything in her path, she was desperately searching for inner peace.  After we divorced–two years following the events of this story–she earned a Ph. D. in spirituality.  When that didn’t bring her calm and contentment, she went to Nepal on a spiritual quest.  I don’t know if she ever found the tranquility she sought.  A sad thought is she might have avoided a lifetime of misery by simply consulting a psychiatrist, which she refused to do. At the time of our divorce, her doctor brother and nurse mother told me they suspected she had a chemical imbalance in her brain.

Anyway, back to my concern for Josh. He looked like he’d regained his high spirits—just a few days earlier, when the trash truck made an unusually deafening noise in front of our house, Josh ran up to me and said, “Daddy, the trash truck just crashed into your Ranger!”  Of course, I ran to the front picture window only to be confronted by my unscathed pick up and three wildly giggling boys.  I was so grateful I was surrounded by these happy little guys in a marriage that had begun to scare the hell out of me.

After Josh reconstructed the fishing pole holder, I noticed the boys’ interest in their play waning. I suggested we hike a little farther along the shoreline.  At first the boys weren’t keen on this idea, but I piqued their interest by pointing at the hut-like brown-and-gray thatches of cattails around us.

“See these huts?” I said.  “Witches live in them, and they’ll come out and eat us if we aren’t sneaky and quiet as we hike past.”

Suddenly, everybody was up for a hike along the witch trail.  Matt picked up a cattail.

“This is a kitty protector,” he said.  “If it meows, we know there’s a witch in the hut.”

“Kiddy protector or kitty protector?” Josh asked.

“Kitty protector, as in cats,” Matt said.

We each picked up a cattail, and we quickly navigated the next half-mile of witch huts, quietly rushing past any that elicited a “meow.”

At the end of the witch trail, our kitty protectors suddenly turned into swords, and we fought one another valiantly until we each held the useless nub of our hilt.

“You guys ready to do something else?” I said.

The boys nodded, shouting out a variety of destinations common on Saturdays: Village Toys, Toys R Us, Crush Comics, Play It Again Video, Burger King, the Oakland Museum, and the Oakland Zoo.  They left out the more mundane activities, like picking up my shined shoes or dry cleaning, but they were always good sports about even these dull ventures.

We ascended a path leading to the main hiking trail and headed back toward the truck.  We proceeded without incident until the boys asked if they could sit in the last bit of shade before the parking lot to cool off for a few minutes.  I assented.  Ben immediately took off his shoes.  I watched him with a sharp eye, making sure his sneakers didn’t disappear into a clump of poison oak.  When it was time to move on, I helped Ben back into his shoes.  While I was thus engaged, Matt decided to conduct a gravity experiment.  He rolled a large rock off the edge of the trail down the embankment leading to the lake’s edge, curious to see how fast the rock could travel and whether it could make it all the way into the water.

I cringed, then thought, oh well, probably no harm done. Just then, we heard a loud clank and a scream as the rock smashed into the base of an aluminum chair occupied by a fisherman.  The man, who was about sixty, sprang out of his chair, threw his white cap into the dirt, and charged up the long flight of oak stairs leading from the shoreline to where we stood on the main trail.

“I’ll teach that little son of a bitch to scare the shit out me!” the man yelled, his blue Hawaiian shirt and formerly combed-over gray hair flapping in the breeze.

Matt stared at the approaching man, terrified.  “Dad, I’m sorry,” he said.  “It was an accident!”

“He’s just a little kid,” I shouted at the angry fisherman.  “It was an accident, and he’s sorry.”

“Sorry’s not going to cut it,” the man yelled back from halfway up the stairs.  “He’s going to pay!”

“Dad, what should we do?” asked Matt in a paroxysm of anxiety.

I quickly assessed the situation.  Should we do the right thing and stay and apologize to the enraged fisherman?  My mind and body screamed, No!  I didn’t like that the man was swearing, I didn’t like that he’d already rejected the possibility of an apology, and he sounded as if he intended to strike Mathew.  Having received many severe spankings as a child, I was not about to let this happen to Matt.  Also, I’m an introvert, and I get tongue-tied when an angry person is yelling at me, so I didn’t think I could talk the man out of his fury.

“Run!” I shouted.  I snatched Ben up into my arms and ran as fast as I could; Matt and Josh streaked down the trail well ahead me, almost as if they were twin versions of The Flash, one of Matt’s comic book heroes.

Although we glanced back a few times, we didn’t look carefully behind us until we arrived at the truck.  I quickly locked the boys inside and turned to see if the angry fisherman was rapidly approaching, but there was no sign of him.  He’d been noticeably overweight, he’d probably been winded by his charge up the stairs, and the boys and I had just sprinted a quarter mile flat-out.

I took my place behind the steering wheel, buckled up, and said, “Who wants ice cream?”

“I do!” everyone shouted.

Usually making a pilgrimage to Loards Ice Cream in Castro Village, our town’s main (and almost only) shopping center on Castro Valley Boulevard, was a sacred afternoon activity reserved for family Sundays.  If Linda learned we’d visited on a Saturday without her, we all risked losing major body parts—all she’d have to do was cruise down the Boulevard on an errand and spot the Ranger.  Also, her best friend Susan’s daughter, Emily, worked here—we’d tried to sit in her busy section when we arrived, but she gave us a sad smile and gestured for us to sit in a less crowded area served by a cute red-headed teenage waitress.  So word of our transgression might get back Linda, but I was willing to take this chance.

We were shaken from our experience with the angry fisherman, and I figured we could use a shot of sugar and endorphins to steady our nerves.  Besides, it was too early for lunch, but we were about to crash from our donuts.  Out of the many positive experiences I arranged for my sons on our Saturdays out, I confess teaching them good nutrition was not one of them.

Speaking of those donuts, it occurs to me now that I ate them in a similar manner to Wonderland’s Alice drinking from the bottle of magic potion that shrank her to a tiny size.  The donuts allowed me to revisit my own childhood so I could best relate to my boys and keep them pleasantly occupied, since we had nowhere to go if we got bored.

Although many of our town’s citizens mindlessly flocked to Baskin- Robbins, we knew Loards had been producing some of the best ice cream in the Bay Area for decades, and we loyally stuck to our brand.  I wanted my boys to become gentlemen of discerning taste.

We were soon gorging ourselves on ice cream fit for the gods. While the boys ate simple or crazy flavors like strawberry or bubblegum, I indulged in the mighty Fudge-Anna, a combination hot fudge sundae and banana split.  I was thirty-three, trim, and didn’t yet have to worry about what I ate.

I was very proud the boys said please and thank you to our server, whose name was Kate.  I once read that a woman on her first dinner date should decide whether to grant a second date based partially on how well her date treats the waitress.  If he treats her well, that’s probably how he’ll continue to treat his date.  If he treats her poorly, that’s probably how he’ll treat his date in six months.  Even then, I was confident my boys would earn second dates.

As we consumed our ice cream, I realized moments like these with my boys were the happiest of my life, and maybe being kicked out of the house served the higher purpose of allowing me to spend Saturdays exclusively having fun and bonding with my sons.  I was glad Linda wasn’t with us.  Her sour presence would have added an element of tension that would have ruined our wonderful, guys-only enjoyment.

I didn’t know it then, but Linda would have a mental breakdown sixteen months later on Thanksgiving Day.  After that, she was in a constant state of rage alternating with bouts of suicidal depression.  The boys and I endured this situation as long as we could.  Six months later, I filed for divorce, and Linda moved out.  Our boys’ Saturdays continued long beyond Linda’s evil reign.

After the divorce, the boys and I spent Saturday nights watching Indiana Jones or Star Wars movies while eating pizza with root beer float chasers, our menu reflecting the same junk food fare over which we’d bonded.  At one point, I asked Josh how he felt about our new circumstances.  His answer warmed my heart.

He said, “Well, I think we’re all going to learn a lot, and we’re going to have some great bachelor parties!”

But let us return to the main action.  As we finished our ice cream, Emily’s mother, Susan, came into the shop to deliver her daughter’s lunch.  She worked as a dispatcher for the Oakland Police Department, and Linda shared her jaded view of the world.  Susan spotted us immediately and came over to our table.  We are so dead, I thought as I stood up to greet her. But she looked at me with deep sympathy.

“You guys still doing your Saturday thing?” she asked.  I could see she knew Linda had kicked us out of the house.  We said yes.  She leaned so she could whisper into my ear.

“Is Linda still riding her bike insane distances?” she said in a low voice.

“Yes.”  It was true.  Almost daily, Linda wheeled the Specialized carbon-frame racing bike I’d given her for Christmas out to the street, where she’d take off on 50- or 100-mile rides without a word.

“Be careful.  I think she’s going crazy.  My sister did the same thing right before she cracked up, only she was obsessed with running.”

“Thanks for the heads up,” I said.  On the surface, Susan’s suggestion surprised me, but a deeper part of me recognized the truth of her words. Whatever’s going to happen is going to happen, I thought, but my main mission is to protect the boys.

Susan smiled and stroked my back in a way Linda hadn’t touched me in months.

*******

After Loards, the boys and I walked across the now-blazing parking lot to Village Toys, which was run by two brothers, one of them a father himself, who loved children.  I always relaxed when we entered the store because the brothers doted on the boys as if they were young millionaires with the potential to buy anything they desired.  In fact, when I asked the brothers if I could go next door to Jordan Books for five minutes, they said they’d be happy to watch the boys.

At Jordan books, I selected a Ross Macdonald detective novel entitled The Chill.  At that time, I read about a novel a week.  I was unhappy at home and work—I was employed by a dishonest and unethical management consulting firm– so books and the boys were my primary means of escape and pleasure.  As for Linda, every night after dinner, she locked herself in the bathroom while she soaked in a hot bath, and then she later holed up in our bedroom with a closed door to read and avoid the boys and me in a mini-version of the exile she imposed on us on Saturdays.

When I put my book on the counter to pay, the fetching brunette cashier in her mid-twenties smiled and said, “Nice T-shirt!”

I wore a white cotton T emblazoned with the orange image of The Thing, my favorite Marvel comic book hero.  “Thanks,” I said.  “I guess some kids never grow up.”

“I like a man who still has some boy in him,” she said with a brightness of eye that went well beyond routine store clerk courtesy.  “Did you know the Rowell Ranch Rodeo is next weekend?”

“No,” I said.  “But it sounds fun.”

“It’s really great,” she said.  “And they have a chili bake-off with some of the best chili you’ll ever eat.  Would you like to meet me there?”

My spirit started to soar, only to be anchored firmly by a sudden tightening in my stomach. This is what it feels like to be offered a fresh start on love when you’re deeply unhappy in it.

I held up my wedding ring finger.  “I can’t tell you how much I’d like to go,” I said.  “But I can’t.”

My face must have telegraphed pain or sorrow because the clerk, whose nametag read “Trisha,” came around the counter and gave me a hug that had nothing to do with romance and everything to do with comfort.  On one hand, this kind-hearted embrace felt wonderful, but it also saddened me because it wasn’t coming from Linda.

Back at Village Toys, the boys lined up the merchandise they wanted on the cashier’s counter: two LEGO sets for Matt and Josh, and a firefighter-themed Duplo kit for Ben.  Although I’m not very mechanical, my sons only desired toys they could construct.  Perhaps Matt and Ben shared some of Josh’s engineering ability, perhaps it was reassuring for the boys to build something with their hands while they were enveloped in a disintegrating marriage, or perhaps they simply were displaying their high levels of creativity.

Next, we went a few doors down to Play It Again Video, the first and only video store in town, which was run by a family of handsome and beautiful blondes who loved working together as a family at this new, high-sales business.  After examining every video in the crowed store, we selected the original Star Wars movie, along with Swiss Family Robinson.  After we’d rented these movies a thousand times, I finally wised up and bought copies.  As a side note, Play It Again met a sad fate when Blockbuster and Hollywood Video came to town: the happy blonde family quickly sold out to an Indian gentleman, the store gave up half its floor space to another store, and it opened up a small corner room filled with pornographic movies.  A year later, Play It Again no longer existed.

During the second year of my relationship with Linda, she screamed at me for the first time.  We cooked a meal in her off-campus apartment, and I was in charge of slicing and sautéing a green pepper.  In high school, I spent three years cooking at Pizza Hut, so I definitely knew my way around the vegetable in question.  However, as I finished slicing, Linda yelled at me, “What are you doing?  That’s not how you slice a green pepper!”  Her face was heart-attack red, and her eyes filled with fury.  Mental illness, I correctly diagnosed.  Flee now while you still can! And then a stream of counter-thoughts rushed through my mind—maybe she had a really bad day, maybe she’s having her period, she’s never done anything like this before, maybe I should give her another chance….  At the time, I didn’t know where these thoughts originated.

Now I’m certain they came from a weak part of my psyche riddled with low self-esteem resulting from the harsh punishments my brother and I endured as children.  We’d been raised by seemingly loving parents who nevertheless frequently transformed into ogres and beat the childhood innocence out of us, so marrying a witch or banshee wasn’t that much of a stretch.  I had a very high tolerance for abuse, which was familiar, and, foolishly, I decided to stick it out rather than flee.   Of course, all of these decisions were subconscious.  So I stayed with Linda.  The result was fifteen years of often unhappy marriage and the birth of three wonderful sons.

From Play It Again Video, we drove down Castro Valley Boulevard a few blocks to Crush Comics, which stood next door to the Chabot Cinema. Matt excitedly picked up the latest issues of several series of Spider-man comics.  I was pleased I’d turned at least one of my sons into a comic fanatic, not because I wanted Matt to be like me, but because I wanted him to experience the same deep pleasure I had.  I flipped through the favorite comics of my youth: The Amazing Spider-man, The Fantastic Four, and The Incredible Hulk.  Just seeing these familiar heroes brought happiness to my heart.

Josh and Ben explored the store with less interest.  Josh eventually picked out an Invincible Iron Man, and Ben selected a Tales from the Crypt.  The first time I bought comics for the boys, I thought Linda was going to rip my lungs out, but eventually even she recognized the pleasure they gave the boys, especially Matt.  She even bought Matt a pile of comics once when he was ill.  As we moved through this quiet, joyful room toward the cash register and clerk, I realized how much this little shop nourished the spirit of boys of all ages.

*******

After Crush Comics, we refueled at Burger King, then drove west on I-580 to the Oakland Zoo. Back then, the zoological park was a beat-up, old-school enterprise with bars and cement enclosures.  However, a patron donated a large sum of money the zoo spent wisely, and it seemed like every time we visited, another animal had been liberated into a new roomy and natural habitat.  After we arrived, the boys begged me to go on the Sky Ride with them.  The Sky Ride consisted of plastic benches hooked up to a pulley that enabled passengers to view the animals from above their enclosures.

This was the last thing I wanted to do; I was afraid of heights, and the Sky Ride didn’t have any flooring to anchor our feet, and the thin aluminum safety bar across our laps felt like I could bend it into a pretzel Superman-style if I gripped it too hard.  Also, the plastic seats were slippery, and I worried we would slide right out from beneath the bar.  In addition–I don’t know whose bright idea this was– the Sky Ride traveled directly above the open lion and tiger exhibits.  One simple slip and you were literally dead meat.  As I looked at my sons’ pleading faces, I thought, come on, don’t disappoint these guys, how scary could it be?

            So I succumbed and bought four tickets.  As soon as we squeezed into our bench, it swung wildly as Matt and Josh squirmed to find comfortable positions and Ben pulled at his shoelaces.

“Don’t move,” I said in a panicked voice.  “Stay still.”

“You scared, Dad?” said Josh, pumping his legs like he was on a swing.

The bench spun with a strong jerking motion.  The tigers below watched with keen interest.

I was soon drenched in sweat, and our seat suddenly grew wet and slippery.  I jammed my butt into the curve of the bench and willed myself not to slide out.  This was like a nightmare I sometimes had where I let myself fall from a tremendous height because I could no longer bear the fear of falling.  Somehow we made it back safely, despite our sweaty squirming.  As soon as we docked, I hurried the boys toward the men’s room—and not because they were the ones who needed it.

We spent a long time in front of the savannah containing giraffes, eland, and a wide variety of African birds.  The boys gawked at the strange shape of the giraffes, and they laughed in wonder when the sound of approaching dinner inspired several of the creatures to run with a surreal gait toward one of their high feeding baskets.

Of course, we visited the monkeys and chimps—Jane Goodall was conducting a study of chimps in captivity there because of their outstanding natural habitat enclosure.  And we flinched at the fierce and fury-eyed baboons who charged any spectator who accidently met their hostile glare.

As we toured the zoo, I lived in the moment as much as my sons.  Looking back, however, I recognize two thoughts flickered in the back of my mind.  The first one was about the progression of our day.  We first visited the site of evil pirates and witches, who were now no longer a threat; then we’d entered the fantasy world of superheroes where evil was almost always vanquished by good, and now we were contentedly observing the natural world as it was, a world of tremendous fascination and adventure.  We had temporarily purged the evil from our lives and were living in a state of grace.

The second thought was about my father.  He never would have spent a day like this with my brother and me, although he occasionally took us on walks through the neighborhood, flew kites with us, and terrorized us as a sea monster at the swimming pool.  Basically, he engaged us in activities he enjoyed, but he never showed an interest in entering our world.

My father has many times told my brother and me he’s nowhere near the father we are to our sons.  He’s right.  Interestingly, my dad’s father delighted in taking us boys fishing so he could share this great, manly pleasure with us.  These outings were short-lived, though, because our grandfather fell on ice soon after he retired, and he injured his legs, which had to be amputated because poor circulation prevented them from healing.

We saved the elephants for last.  As we plopped down on a bench facing their enclosure, a zoo keeper with a red face and walrus mustache finished filling up a large hole with water from a hose.  While he threw apples into the makeshift pool and coaxed the elephants to swim to retrieve them, he recited a long string of facts.  For example, these awe-inspiring creatures have 150,000 muscles in their trunks, and they can use this appendage to suck up to 15 quarts of water at a time, which they then squirt into their mouths.  Also, he said, elephants can hear with their ears, trunks, and feet.  In addition, these captivating mammals are believed to have the same level of intelligence as dolphins and non-human primates, and they can feel grief, make music, show compassion and kindness, mother one another’s infants, play, use tools, and recognize themselves in mirrors.

When some of the elephants exited the pool, they used their trunks to throw dirt on their backs.

“Dad, what are they doing?” Ben asked.

“Putting on sunscreen,” I said.

The boys giggled.

The zoo keeper continued to lecture, but we tuned him out and focused solely on the elephants as the great, gray, wrinkly creatures with the small dark eyes and long eyelashes and formidable, floppy ears shaped like the African continent bobbed and swayed in the hot July afternoon.  Perhaps the boys’ minds wandered briefly to Babar, one of their favorite books about an anthropomorphized elephant, just as mine may have flashed briefly upon the proverbial elephant in the room at home, but our thoughts quickly returned to the magnificent elephants and our simple but immense male joy.

CATEGORY: LitJournalFiction

S&R Fiction: “To Each His Own,” by Mark Sumioka

What I liked about the very early morning, during the gray misty fog, was the fragility of the newborn day.  There was daintiness in the air.  I stepped over the moist welcome mat with the feeling that something was about to be broken, or that something had just happened, not so much a calamity but the calm after complete disappointment.  They were out there, waking and finding their morning routines.  For them it was the same as every other day.  They crept out of bed slowly, realizing what was happening.  They shuffled across the wood floor, opened the door, walked on the icy tile, ran the water, brushed, started the shower, their feet squeaking on the porcelain tub as the streaming hot water woke them and reminded them it was necessary.  This was what they had to do.  This was their side of things.  My side was different.  The silence lingered each morning in my neighborhood.  Most of my neighbors were retired, many still asleep.  Even those awake went quietly about their morning chores as if it were Christmas morning and no one should be bothered or awakened from that sweet blissful sleep that gave many the feeling of calm and peace.  But soon enough the mist would dissipate and the light of day would show and before long the blanket of morning would give me the signal that it was time.

I began hearing the sounds of everyday life, the sound of a dog’s leash, cars accelerating, voices, and the bass of a television.  I made a fried egg, mashed the soft yolk and dipped my toast into it.  I drank a large glass of water, every drop, and it was a struggle.  Then I walked along the wood floor, to the icy tile, rinsed my face, brushed and spit, tapped the brush twice on the side of the sink, disrobed and got into bed, holding on to the daintiness and remembering the images of the peaceful morning which had just passed.

When I awoke it was late afternoon, and the sun was already turning a golden hue.  I had slept through the high sun and the warmth.  The coolness of the ocean breeze picked up the more the sun tanned.  I wanted to go outside, to sit somewhere and have a conversation with a friend.  It was an urge that arose on occasion, and when it did I generally called the same person.  But he was in a different place now and I knew better.  Though I hated to premeditate matters, I knew what would happen, that we would meet over a drink and proceed to talk about our very different lives.  He would get tired after a few cocktails and tell me he had to work in the morning.  I would tell him I was just getting started, and of course, he would laugh.  He always laughed at me.  I knew it wasn’t mockery.  It was our humorous clashing of personalities.

“At this age and you’re still a night owl,” Noble said, touching a lip to his glass before sipping the scotch carefully.

“It’s worse lately,” I said.

“Oh?  How so?”

“It’s later now.  Now, it gets bright before I sleep.”

“But why?  You aren’t tired?” he said with the same understanding that hadn’t changed in twenty years.

“I’m usually drunk.”

“You shouldn’t joke.  It’ll mess up your life,” he said and tapped his sternum.

I sat back with a sigh.  It was still no use.  But I tried every time we met.  It was funny to me.  The recent years, Noble didn’t wait for my explanations, though truthfully I had few.  He just made a dismissive comment like “It’ll mess up your life” and let the subject go.  We were grown men, Noble with a wife and a child already in high school.  I was alone, with no children.

“How’s that nice house of yours?” I said.

“Oh, Hank…”

“What is it?  You getting foreclosed on?” I said with a mixture of worry and twisted elation.

“No.  That’s not it,” Noble said and downed the rest of his scotch.  Then he pointed at me with two fingers.  He knew I hated that.  He said, “You don’t get it, do you?”

“Don’t patronize me.  I’m not your damn daughter.”

“I’m sorry.  I don’t mean to patronize you,” he said as if he had a history with the word.  “I’m saying it’s just a house.”

“Oh really?” I said and lifted my eyebrows.  “Well okay.”  I knew he didn’t want to be flattered.  I knew he wanted to feel so high and mighty that something so nice as a two million dollar house couldn’t be something to be proud of.  It was just another worry added to the pile.  It was just a possession.

But there was something in his eyes that told me he wouldn’t leave even though he set his credit card on the table.

“What else?” I said and confronted his eyes with mine.

“Oh, Hank…” he said with an exhale of total frustration.  “I screwed up.”

“The wife?”

“Is it that obvious?”

“That is the face of a man who’s screwed up on his wife.”

“I did,” Noble said and nodded his head like a man on the guilty stand.  And then I’d thought about it.  I’d never actually seen a man on the stand nod his head.  I’d only seen it in the movies.  I hadn’t experienced many things first hand.

There was a pause when Noble couldn’t look at me.  His eyes were listless, downcast at something on the floor, and then at a woman on the other side of the restaurant.  His mouth smacked of dryness.  With a somber lift of his chin he looked toward the bar where the waiter was chatting with a customer.

Jimmy!” Noble shouted as though he were aching.

I was roused in a strange way.  I’d never see Noble so deflated.  Sure, I’d seen him distressed.  I’d even seen him cry once after his mother died.  But this time in the restaurant he was different.  He ripped off a piece of the cold, hard bread Jimmy had left in case we got hungry for a tidbit.  As he chewed, his eyes found me with a face of sudden disgust.

“The bread that bad?” I joked.

Jimmy rushed to the table and said, “Sorry guys,” motioning back to the bar, “but that one is on my jock.”  We all looked at the bar where a forty-something woman drank a martini, her hair died platinum blonde, her skin tanned and leathery.

Noble’s eyes lit up, but not with excitement.  They were taken aback.

“Give us another round,” I said and Jimmy left.

We watched him pass her with a trailing hand to caress her back.  She turned and ate it up.  Noble turned his entire upper body and watched.

“What’s the matter, your wife holding out on you?  You look like a sixteen year old at the pool.”

“I screwed up, Hank,” Noble said and turned to me.  Now he was fiddling with the bread crust.

And then I knew.  Jimmy brought back the drinks and Noble wouldn’t look at him.

“You want me to run the card?” Jimmy asked.

“Just leave it and give us some time, for Christ’s sake,” Noble said at his bread crust.

Jimmy chuckled at the outburst.  I nodded and smiled so that he would leave.

“When did it happen?” I asked with a gentle tone.

“Oh for Christ’s sake, who cares?” Noble said and slapped the white tablecloth as if a fly weren’t dead yet.

“Okay.  So what now?  You going to tell her?”

He looked at me, worried.

“You don’t think I should, do you?”

“Well…” I said and downed half my drink with a gulp.

“Jesus, you haven’t lost a step,” he said and smiled minutely as that was all he could muster.

“Don’t tell her.”

“I know, right?” he said and sat back, exhaling relief, assured for the time being.  “If I don’t say anything, before long it’ll be gone and I won’t think about it any more.”

“That’s one way to look at it.  Or, you’ll never stop thinking about it, and sooner or later you’ll cave and tell her.”

“Why do you think that?”

“I don’t.  I’m just saying what a lot of men do.”

“Like who?”

“Let’s not get into that,” I said like he’d brought up the score to the Chargers game.  “Look, how are you right now?  Can you deal?”

“I think so.”  And then the change came, “Yes, absolutely.”

“Then let it go.”  I got firmer, “You want to mess up all those years of marriage, a daughter in high school, a two million dollar house?  Not to mention however much you’ve got in your portfolio.  You want a gigantic headache?  Well okay.  Go on and tell her,” I said and suddenly something occurred to me.  “Say, you aren’t still carrying on with the other one?”

Noble paused and looked away, then at his drink.  He slowly picked it up and brought it to his lips.  He didn’t drink.  It stayed at his bottom lip a while until he put it down.  I watched the beads of moisture on his cocktail glass.

“You should’ve gotten it neat,” I said motioning to his scotch.  “At your pace you’re going to water it down to filtered water with a scotch garnish.”

“Who cares?” Noble said, and moved closer with both elbows on the table.

“Relax,” I said.  “Sit back and drink your single malt Kool-Aid.”

“So you think it’s okay that I don’t tell her?”

“About what?  About the one timer or about the fact that you’re still at it?”

“Is it that obvious?”

I shook my head.  Then I downed the rest of my drink.  Jimmy saw me do it and came over.

“Another one, Hank?” he said.

“No.  Not this time.  Run his card,” I said and handed it to him.

Jimmy came back promptly and set the checkbook in front of Noble who was far off in his land of infidelity.

“I’m going now,” I said and got on my jacket.  “You stay here and think about it.  And stay away from the bar.”

Noble continued staring at his bread crust, while fingering his sweating glass.  I stood up with a bit of a struggle.  Damn joints.  I went back to the truck and drove home slowly so that cars passed me and I could see their ominous figures condescend me as they picked up speed, whooshing in front of me.  My mind was calm, and glad.  I would go home and start up the real drinking.  I felt badly for my friend.  It was a harsh time.  If he wanted to meet again for drinks I would do it.  I sat at the small table in my kitchen and set my whiskey glass atop the newspaper I used for a placemat.  After a while I glanced out the window.  The lights of my neighbors’ apartments were going out.  A fireplace nearby had extinguished so that the smell of charred wood crept in through the crack of my window.  They were all retiring for the night.  Conversely, I was just beginning to feel the alertness, that light-headed perk that told me I was at midday.  In my unlit apartment, the television flashed its varying colors at the white wall and I watched the flashing exchange rather than the television itself.

My telephone rang.  I answered it knowing it would be him.  I listened carefully and nodded accordingly as though he were in the room.  I waited when he paused, and then he went on telling me what he wanted me to tell him.  Another anxious pause arrived.

“It’ll mess up your life,” I said, and though it may have sounded like I was being cute, mimicking him, it was quite the opposite.  And there was really no more to say, so I hung up.

As expected, the telephone rang again.

He had to do it alone just as I was doing it now.  He had to search deep and either admit or deny it.  We were far apart in that regard.  I knew, and had known for some time.  It had been painful at first, but now it was acceptance and numbness most of the time.  Occasionally it was like a lonely dog staring at me with the eyes of hope.  The phone wouldn’t stop ringing.  So I bent over and carefully unhitched it from the socket.