It was her panting that drew me over. I was exhausted, as the new work regime had been sucking every last drop of life out of us. But my misreading of the situation (what with the cries, groans, and stifled moans) put some life back into me, and I shot over to her like an arrow.
She was alone under a palm tree in front of an abandoned shop and surrounded by her filth. Even though it was pitch dark in the alleyway, a shaft of light coming from a lamp on the main street illuminated her sufficiently for me to see her dust-covered face, its petite muscles drawn taut, and the redness of her eyes as they alternately narrowed and widened in a painful, mechanical sort of way as though, in her loneliness and gloom, she was crying out for pity to the demons of darkness. My gaze slid down to her hands, which she was pressing against a swollen belly beneath threadbare garments. When she saw me, she went quiet all of a sudden, gazing at me with steady eyes, and with a face as cold and expressionless as a mummy from the age of the Pharaohs.
Then, in utter innocence, she said, “Can you deliver the baby…? It’s going to split me in half. I’ll die if you don’t!”
Without thinking I asked, “Why don’t you go to hospital?”
She gave a dark, heavy smile. “I can’t walk, and I don’t have the taxi fare. Besides, I wouldn’t be able to pay the hospital. Everything costs money.”
She let out a faint meow and then passed out, babbling like a drunkard. I didn’t know what to do. All I had with me was five pounds for the bus ride home, and it was ten-thirty—just half an hour before curfew. I was so worn out from sweeping and mopping the cinema, I wouldn’t be able to pick her up and carry her on my back. And even if I did, the hospital wouldn’t admit her. After all, there isn’t a hospital in this country that would treat somebody out of the goodness of its heart.
A voice whispered inside me. I couldn’t tell if it was the voice of an angel or a demon.
“What’s with you?” it said. “Her Lord and Maker can find her a way out. Just take care of yourself now. Curfew’s in half an hour. So, hurry up and catch the last bus. Then come back tomorrow morning, and you’ll find that she gave birth to a big cockroach. It’ll be sitting next to her checking out the world with its antennae and its beady eyes.”
Then I had an idea: to try carrying her to the sidewalk along the main street. A patrol might find her and take her to the cells, then bring her a midwife or a doctor who’s paid by the government.
But before I could do it, the curfew patrol took us both away.
The doctor might have been right in part. She was dirty, filthy even. She reeked of the discharge caused by a sexually transmitted disease, and the stench was piercing, unbearable. So the doctor instructed the cleaning lady to remove her pubic hair with its crabs, foul odor, and rank secretions, wash the area thoroughly with warm water and carbolic soap, and apply Dettol.
Then he went to the sink and vomited up everything in his gut, cursing the day he’d decided to study medicine, gynecology, and obstetrics.
“Help me, please,” the cleaning lady said to me.
“I’m dying,” said the girl.
“Die, then! Die!” the cleaning lady lit into her furiously. “Make it easy on us and on yourself!”
Parting her brown legs, soiled and spotted with sores, the girl fell into a semi-coma, surrendered to the labor pains and the pleasure of travail.
When its front claws appeared—small, white, soft and smooth—the cleaning lady and I were startled, immersed in a dense, phantasmagoric trance that was being imprinted on our consciousness by the reggae music wafting in toward us from the health office next door: The squeaking of rats, the roaring of the sea, the cawing of black crows, the gentle rustling of the towering palm tree outside the window, a sudden clap of thunder, vague chatter filtering through the pores in the walls and the spaces between the beds, pieces of heavy white fabric, bloody cotton pads scattered here and there.
We felt cold all of a sudden as we saw its rectangular head emerge into the room, its tiny black whiskers drenched in sticky, translucent, jelly-like mucus.
The cleaning lady said to me later, “I felt things glowing, as if bright little moons had landed on them.”
I said, “When that happened, I was filled with eerie-sounding, weighty talk that I couldn’t understand. It was choking me up.”
With a final contraction, it popped out, nimble and energetic, as though the strains of the reggae music were giving a rhythm to the flow of blood in its newborn arteries.
In my statements to the Department of Criminal Investigations, I told them that the Qur’anic chants, the cooing of the doves, and the hymns of adoration hadn’t been coming from a specific source, and that we couldn’t possibly claim that any of us would be able to put Time’s standstill to music.
At that moment, the palm tree’s ripened fruit fell, a nightingale sang, and a star that had illuminated the world’s Eastern reaches tumbled to Earth. Opening a pair of bright black eyes, it shook the mucous off itself in a series of violent jerks. Then, as others can attest, it barked and leapt through the window onto the sidewalk outside.
Years ago, Aunt Renata squeezed a picture into my hand when my mother wasn’t looking. Aunt Renata wasn’t really my aunt, but rather someone to whom my mother had clung like a sister, like blood.
In the picture, my mother is thin but she is wearing a pale belted dress with a flared skirt and she is smiling. That is, her mouth is smiling. Her eyes are unreadable, her cheeks taut. There is a tree just behind her and the smallest hint of a fence. I have studied the picture a thousand times trying to figure out whether this was in one of the camps. The dress belies that possibility but still the fence looks menacing, cage-like and my mother’s expression is strained and odd. On the back of the picture, in German, and in a masculine script, it says only “Spring.” Aunt Renata said she had found the picture when they were liberated from the camp. She won’t tell me anything else.
My mother was a beautiful woman. Even now it’s obvious—her bearing still regal, her cheekbones high and proud. She never talks about her experiences and her silence walks the house like the ghosts that accompany her. She was 17 and had snuck out in search of food when the Gestapo came to collect her family. She was caught a few days later and shipped from Prague to the first of several camps. That’s all I know, and I don’t even think she was the one to tell me.
There is so much I have wanted to ask her but she’s never offered up anything but silence. The next part of her story is a void, a portal between dimensions that I dare not enter. Her words, when she speaks, are carefully chosen. I watch her move around the house like a spy in her own life, surprised to have found herself capable of holding a baby, of pulling weeds, her skin glowing, alive.
Throughout my childhood I waited for death to claim her. As if I didn’t dare believe her stay of execution, surprised again and again to find her moving about the kitchen in the morning, preparing her strong coffee then settling into her favorite chair by the window, not a figment of my imagination, not a dream I had dreamt.
In school, when I would perform in the annual play, I would peer out from between the curtains to make sure she was really there. But there she would be, sitting quietly in one of the front rows amid the chatty American-born mothers with whom she had nothing in common, the long sleeves of her simple but elegant dress hiding the number on her arm. I would see her looking around, as if she were once again wondering whether she had done the right thing by putting me in this Jewish school with its fortress-like walls, its windowless brick.
Alongside her would be a sprinkling of fathers who had rushed home early from work or rearranged their schedules to join their wives at the plays. I knew little about my own father except that my mother had met him in one of the DP camps, then lost track of him. A decade later they remet and were briefly married but he’d died when I was just a baby, ultimately succumbing to the ravage that had been done to his organs in Birkenau. Growing up, I couldn’t imagine what it might be like to have a father. My mother and I were plant and soil. We were a greenhouse, hermetically sealed. But lately, she seems to me paler, thinner. As if the reserve she had all those years, the strength with which she raised me and urged me far from the dark banks of her memories—as if that were finally dwindling.
Last week, when I entered her apartment unannounced, I caught her staring, unblinking, out the front window as if it held a view other than of a New York City street, as if her memories, rather than receding, were coming finally to greet her. It took all I had at that moment to hold back from asking her, When will you tell me?
It was a few days after that visit that some of my own memories came flooding in to haunt me. On my way home from work, I had slipped into my favorite bookstore with the idea of treating myself to a new novel. But once in the store, I found myself stopping instead in front of a dark wooden bookcase entitled World War II where a book I’d avoided about the children of survivors stared out at me. I pulled the thin book off the shelf, took a deep breath, and opened it in the middle.
I don’t know how long I stood there reading. I just remember at various junctures wanting to stop, but not being able to. It was as if someone had found all of the secrets of my childhood. All the quirks and odd behaviors, the ghosts and the inhabited silence. I was reading a section describing the different paths that survivors had taken with regard to their religious beliefs, either complete renunciation or complete acceptance, with a few sustaining a complicated and ambivalent relationship with both. I thought about the Jewish school my mother had put me in, but then otherwise seemed to want to avoid, and then about her relief when I asked to leave it and disappeared, indistinguishable from the others, into a vast public school. She never censored me or criticized as I transferred from school to school, from persona to persona. As if she thought—of course—how could it be otherwise?
What she did for me was hold the course. Grab onto her life and steady it as much as she could, let me know that at any moment, I had a place to land, and if necessary, to hide.
I looked up for a moment to check the time on the old brass clock that hung high above the bookshelves. And that’s when I saw him. Older, his face thinner and lightly lined but lit by the same shock of wavy blond hair. There was no question that it was he. His name was Jurgen and on that strange
and disturbing night on which we had met twenty years earlier,
he had just arrived to New York from Berlin. That night, I had learned little else about him. I was about to stop him and say hello when he continued past me down the non-fiction aisle, then turned out of sight.
He doesn’t know me, I thought. He doesn’t remember. And it all came back to me, as if all those years hadn’t passed, as if just the night before I’d rested my head on his shoulder, felt his arm around my waist, his cheek a breath from mine.
He didn’t know into what he had wandered that Saturday night, in the East Village, any more than my friends and I knew yet who we really were, what we were hiding. He had just flown in to begin his graduate degree in philosophy at Yale and someone had brought him, oblivious to what would take place. A party was a party. We were young, and we thought, very chic. Globe hoppers. Citizens of the world. We flirted with the edge. Offered ourselves to whatever abyss we could conjure. None of us had figured out yet that all of our parents had survived the camps. We’d simply met our last year at NYU and congealed like a tribe of abandoned children. We didn’t know and didn’t yet wonder what we were looking for in all the clubs and parties we sought at that time, in the excesses of alcohol and whatever fashionable drug lined the bathroom sink like a ritual offering.
This particular party was hosted by Zuna something, I can’t remember her last name, only that her parents were presumably diplomats living in London, and that she had piled her hair high on her head and secured it there with little cocktail forks. Someone in our group had met her at an art opening and had brought us along like extended family.
The party was in Zuna’s East Village apartment in which walls had been broken down to create a loft. Here and there a private space was carved out by a piece of dark cloth, or by curtains made of long strips of eight-millimeter film.
We arrived like the refugees we were into this dark room. Like speakers of an underground language, we had learned to find our way to the drugs that inevitably were served up at these evenings. One by one we went into the bathroom where a friend of Zuna’s was offering opium from tiny bits of foil.
When I came out, someone had turned off the raucous punk music and put on a waltz. As a joke I’m sure, but suddenly the large and shadowed loft, with its brooding ceiling murals, seemed like a large chandeliered hall. Some couples stood up laughing and struck poses of affected elegance. It was quite a sight—at least 80 people, most in different shades of black, some ears sporting skeletons, crossbones, some heads shaved, all dancing as if at a grand ball in Vienna.
I was watching Varda—the only other woman in our group—dance with Isaac, her glittering scarf, her long black dress, her dark hair flying like a gypsy’s after her. It was then
that I felt Jurgen’s hand on my arm. Tall and blond, with a
sweet smile, he didn’t say anything, just led me to the floor,
wrapped his arm around my waist and began initiating me into the trance of the waltz. He was a superb dancer and if I didn’t think about what my legs were doing, it felt effortless.
The room began to spin. One two three. One two three. He pulled me closer until we were flying as one body. It took a while before I looked up from that whirling, hypnotic dance and realized that my friends had all stopped dancing. From different corners of the room, they stood watching us, voyeurs to their own deepest horror and desire. And I understood from their expressions that the sight of us was somehow both thrilling and disturbing. The Ubermensch extending his arm to the Jewess. I knew then that I held all of their expectations, unarticulated, unimagined, all of their hopes that I would continue to rise to the occasion, that I would dance at least as gracefully as he, that somehow I might even introduce some new element, redeeming, transcendent. And I was thinking this when all of a sudden Jurgen somehow missed a beat and, still following the rhythm, I tripped over his foot and fell on my side.
“I’m so sorry. Are you okay?” Jurgen crouched down beside me. But as he did, I could suddenly feel the rage in the room and had I been able to, I would have pushed Jurgen away as Isaac rushed toward us, pulled him to his feet and away from me, then punched him in the face. Then, within seconds, as if some signal had been sent out, the rest of our group moved in on him. Before Jurgen could recover, his stunned hand just beginning to move to his cheek, they surrounded him and lifted him into the air, Rafa and Nano grabbing his legs, Isaac and Uri supporting the weight of his shoulders and back.
“Bastard,” they hissed as they carried him toward one of the loft’s large windows. “Son of a bitch.”
“What are you doing?” he yelled, as they held down his struggling arms, grabbed someone’s scarf off the coat hook and tied it around his kicking feet. They hoisted him head first out the window, holding him by his bound feet and dangling him over the pavement six floors below.
And Jurgen hung over East 6th Street like a sacrifice. Like everything that had never been said. Like the demons unmentioned, alongside which we had all been raised. In the closets that were sealed and stuck, the long dim hallways of the apartment buildings that collected every nation’s misery, the hallways in which we’d grown up. Even when we had moved to the suburbs, our cars full, our windows down, shadows followed us. Trap doors. Hatches. There were more lamps in my house than in any house I have ever known. Lights were left burning. Flowers planted in every inch of soil.
Some people on the edge of the crowd saw what was happening and stopped dancing. Zuna and I started yelling at Isaac and at the others. We rushed to the window, leaned out on either side of Jurgen, offering him our arms. He grabbed my arm with one hand then Zuna’s and we pulled him as hard as we could toward us.
“Untie his legs,” I yelled at Nano as we pulled him fully inside. Jurgen brushed himself off and left quickly, slamming the door. The moment was over. If there was shame, no one rose to claim it. Someone quickly changed the music. Isaac, Uri, Rafa and Nano retreated to a corner. When the crowd had thinned out, the rest of us collapsed exhausted in various corners of the large room. Zuna threw blankets over us and I remember wondering, before I fell asleep, why we had never realized it, why we had never talked about what it was that joined us. I remembered the thick darkness of Isaac’s mother’s house when we’d all visited once, Nano’s father who worked three jobs and who never met our eyes, about whom I was later to hear the whispered accusation, “Kapo.”
The next morning, I went to see my mother. There were no words to describe what had happened, not the events themselves, but rather that I had known then, in a new way, what was at the core of my being, what I needed to grapple with.
My mother didn’t hear me come in. She was cutting vegetables on the large marble counter in her kitchen, listening to her favorite classical music station. Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 concluded and then the radio show host introduced the famous Strauss waltz—Voices of Spring. As the music began to play, my mother froze where she stood and the color drained from her face. She stared blankly at a corner of the room until I coughed and she looked up. Slowly her eyes began to register the present moment and her arms, trembling slightly, opened wide to greet me. She held me tightly to her, then released me.
“Coffee?” she asked.
She reached for two of her best ceramic mugs. Ground some beans. This was how it had always been. The small rituals that held us. But I could no longer keep my part of the bargain.
Her back was to me as she poured boiling water into the French press. The knotted bun that held her hair was almost all white now. A brilliant white pierced by a red lacquered hair stick.
“Mom, what happened?”
She turned to look at me, holding the carafe. “What do you mean?”
“During the war, what happened?”
For a second her eyes held mine, then she turned from me.
The carafe shook in her hands, the coffee sloshing up the sides. She set it down. When she turned back to look at me, she was livid.
“Why are you doing this?”
“I’m not—I just—are you ever going to tell me?”
She turned, giving me her back and just stood there. “There’s nothing to tell,” she said, and left the room.
How much time is left?
Is it fair of me to want to know what she lived through?
I am beginning to lose faith that she will be able to tell me. Still I wait. I tiptoe around the fortress of her silence, waiting to glimpse even the slightest easing. She obviously knows now what I need. But ultimately, the choice is hers. Only she can be the gatekeeper of her memory.
Meanwhile, I have begun to construct tales. I hang them next to one another like the panels of a triptych, try them in this, then that array. I move them, shift them, look at them in the light of different days. When I’ve come close, I tell myself, when I’ve captured some of the true essence of her story, I will know.
In one of these stories, which hangs alone, without a frame, without beginning or end, my mother is being waltzed around a small room. The man she is dancing with has removed his jacket and draped it over a chair, its insignias and swastika for the moment unseen. He clutches the waist of the pale dress he has her put on for these occasions.
One two three. One two three. She follows the man’s step carefully, trying not to think beyond this dance. Instead, she tries to imagine that beneath her hand is not a stiff brown fabric, but instead a jacket of linen and silk. That Strauss’s Voices of Spring is not locked inside this small room, but is reaching up into the cathedral ceiling of a vast and brilliantly lit hall. That beyond this room is not barbed wire but the glistening streets of a city. One two three, one two three. Her body continues to obey the rhythm but she suddenly knows what it is that will redeem her. For a moment her cheek goes soft, her eyes blaze with light as she reaches several decades forward to touch me, as she dreams me into being.
*Licensed from The University of North Texas Press. Copyright 2018 by Tehila Lieberman from Venus in the Afternoon
I don’t think we did go blind, I think we are blind, blind but seeing, blind people who can see, but do not see.
Saeed, drunk, opened the door. The rabbit hopped inside. The kicking started. Both were yelling.
“What are you doing here? It’s my place.” With that Saeed was violently booted out of the broken-down electric fridge…
This country has a specially powerful and high-voltage electricity supply. When you try to turn off the light the switches don’t work. Electricity, like air, is compulsory. An electric sun blazes night and day; there’s no such thing as a dim light. Lots of equipment is broken because there’s no way to repair it. Repairs mean turning something off, so the repairman doesn’t get an electric shock.
Buildings, houses, and hospitals take measures to make the light less bright when needed. To lower the lighting, hospitals put cardboard boxes painted black over light bulbs and nail them to the wall. In people’s homes, incandescent bulbs are covered with pieces of thick canvas or coarse black cloth, which put up the price of coarse black cloth.
Saeed was aggrieved at being kicked out of his house. He squatted on the ground slapping his right thigh.
It was me who cleaned up the house when that damn cat was sleeping in it. I kicked her out. My friend Sameer helped. He gave me some cleaning products and told me I had to clean the place up. I don’t understand how that blasted Qassim could steal my house so cynically. I’ll complain to the police. It’s my right, people, my right.
Qassim was my friend until a few days ago. What made him renege on our friendship? Where am I going to find another fridge on such a cold night? What have I done to deserve all this?
The rabbit of the pavements started wailing and sobbing. He tried to pull his faded dishdasha tight around his body to block the holes. He wiped away his tears and, suddenly, as if he had remembered something, he rubbed the tattoo on his right arm. A surge of long-lost warmth lit up his tears.
He crossed to the pavement opposite, to the café whose owner had forgotten to turn off the radio. The newsreader announced: “Parliament is due to vote tomorrow on the decision to allocate residential plots to government officials.” Saeed collected a few plastic bags strewn nearby. He gathered them into a ball, put it down as a pillow, and lay on the ground. He gave a sigh, relaxed, and dozed off. The sound of his shivering bones mixed with his snores. He laughed and guffawed in his sleep. Perhaps he was dreaming?
The crowds were getting ready to plant the seeds of their dreams on the journey ahead. Samar raced behind the beautiful rabbits. One of them disappeared into its burrow. The little girl cried as she waited for it to emerge. She lowered her head and peered into the rabbit hole between the trees in an effort to find it. One of her four rabbits was missing.
Seagulls flapped over the Tigris. The bridge opened its gates to a crowd of thousands: tender heads whose time for reaping had not yet come and heads heavy with worry and sorrows. O God, O Helper, O Champion of the downtrodden, grant us, the poor and deprived, our desire. Iman pulled up her dusty, old abaya and pushed the children, Ahlam, Omar, Mohammed, Zayd, and Ali in front of her: “Hold on to me, kids. The Lord calls, and we have to obey. Bab al-Hawaij, the one who grants, refuses no one.” The children move with the crowds towards the roadway.
Saeed woke in the morning. He roamed around Mutanabbi Street. Everybody was his friend, but he had no friends. Sameer, who worked in one of the bookshops, took pity on him and gave him a cup of tea and a piece of bread.
“I swear by the Tigris and the Euphrates – I don’t distinguish between them – Qassim robbed me while I was sleeping. I had some money and when I woke up it was gone. That wretch Qassim who stole my home.”
“Saeed, calm down. It’s Friday today. The day you make money. God will compensate you. We’ll find you somewhere else. Guess what? Yesterday a friend left you a new dishdasha and some food. You have to come with me and take a shower and put on your dishdasha.”
“Today’s a work day. If I wear a new dishdasha I won’t make any money. You’re my friend and I like you because you’re kind and don’t steal.” He was silent for a while then continued, “Listen, yesterday I went fishing with a friend. Whenever he lifted his line he’d catch a big fat fish, but always threw it back in the river. Whenever I lifted mine, I’d hook some weeds or Qassim al-Tanbouri’s torn-up shoe. I asked him why he was throwing the fish back. He said he only had a small pan for cooking fish and wanted one that fit.”
“Listen. I’ve got good news for you. They gave me 9 million dinars and I repaired my house after it fell down. But government officials ignore me and travel to Egypt or Syria or I don’t know where. They’re always travelling and dropping my case. Even though all the papers are in order I still owe them 3 million dinars!”
“You’re talking nonsense, Saeed. What strange things you’re coming up with today.”
“If you add jam, it becomes really delicious. Should I buy you some? Give me the money then, I don’t have any.”
Saeed moved off to perform his daily rituals. He started with the Tigris. He raised his hands, recited the Fatiha, cupped his right hand and filled it with water. He brought the water to his nose, kissed it, then tried to put it back. He touched the tattoo on his upper arm. He turned around and was annoyed as they passed. All he could do was shout in English, “Why you inside? Come here so I can have a souvenir photo with you.”
He leapt into the midst of the people with white skin and blue eyes and the few dark-skinned ones with them. They smiled warily at him, and he called out to Sameer, “Come here for God’s sake. Take a picture for me with your camera.”
Smiling, Sameer did what he was asked. Saeed, however, intended to hang the picture in the toilet after spitting all over it.
At last, Samar’s rabbit came out of its hole to play with his friends. The rabbit of Mutanabbi Street disappeared. Nobody knew exactly where to find him. He might be sitting in some corner drinking alcohol and weeping over his old love.
Iman, don’t forget to pray for me. Perhaps God will guide me to give up drinking. Perhaps Kadouri, the shop owner, will raise my day’s wages rather then threatening to get rid of me. Perhaps God will provide me some other work, better than that blasted Kadouri. You know I’m a great metal worker, but for the drink. I love drinking Iman, like I love you, a lot. Watch out for the children, and pray for me there. Ask for your wish. Go in through Bab al-Hawaij and tie this green ribbon onto the window lattice. Don’t forget. Let all our needs be known there. Believe me, the Imam Musa bin Jaafar really loves me. I feel he will intercede for me this time. Trust me. He knows I’ve never robbed anyone and that I love him a lot. God be with you now.”
The convoy of a well-known security official was passing and Saeed turned up. The official got out of his car and was immediately followed by a great many police officers. They crossed Mutanabbi Street towards the river. When they got closer, the rabbit ran quickly behind them repeating in a loud voice:
Long life! for I died after you
Spurn me as long as you wish
What remained of love in my heart
Went out forever with you.”
He closed his eyes and waved his hands, totally immersed in his singing. Some of the officers tried to block his path and prevent him walking behind them, but one of them said to another, “Leave him be. He’s just a beggar.” Saeed heard them: “Shut up. You shut up, not a word.” The officer ignored him, and he carried on singing.
“I fell in love with a girl thirty years ago, a beautiful Indian-looking girl from Basra. She was called Suheir Mohammed. I spotted her working at a ladies’ hairdressers and spent two and a half hours every day waiting for her to come out of her workplace just so I could watch her from afar. Then I confessed my love to her and we were in a relationship for a year and a half without me touching her. I swear by God Almighty, I didn’t touch her. She did once go with me to Zawraa Park, and I brought her kibbeh, but her family forced her to marry her cousin. Time has made today’s love stories horrible because men have become love fiends. They’re randy donkeys.”
That’s what Saeed told me. He gave off alcohol fumes, swaying so much he could hardly walk. He was quiet for a little then continued as if far away, “But Iman…”
His eyes filled with tears and his voice choked off. He looked away and vanished.
On Fridays, pilgrims head to Mutanabbi Street, casting stones at the Devil in their various ways. All the roads were blocked, because it was also time for pilgrims to head to the bridge that leads to Bab al-Hawaij. When the tunic of Uthman took the road to Mecca, the road to God, it started in Baghdad. Uthman’s tunic was also stoning the Devil.
What are you talking about? What Friday? What road? What bridge? It’s all out of context. Uthman was martyred millennia ago. Absolutely not, Uthman was martyred a few years ago! No! Uthman was a boy in first grade at the Tigris Primary School! Sameer is crying on the banks of the Tigris: You’re not Naathal, Uthman. You’re the shining star of Iraq floating on the river.
The rabbits preened their fur after the little girl had washed them with the finest shampoos and dressed them in coloured ribbons with coloured stones and a blue bead in the middle. When one of the rabbits bit a large carrot the little girl clapped in delight.
“Mama, please tell me what do constitution and demonstration mean? Why are people going out into the streets everywhere and holding up signs? I saw it on TV yesterday.”
“Oh darling, the people are demanding their right to a decent life in which they can have food, medicine, and security.”
The little girl Samar got lost in deep thoughts…
Sameer went with Saeed to get him cleaned up and put on his new dishdasha. Saeed refused to have his long hair cut.
“Kebab. Kebab. Today I won’t scrabble in the rubbish. I’m going to have kebab, just like a VIP.”
While he was eating, scalding water suddenly poured down on him. He screamed as terrific heat surged through his entire body. His lower limbs seemed to boil. The rabbit fell to the ground yelling and screaming, “Sons of bitches! Ow! Ow!”
His new dishdasha was torn. The food was spilled. The skin was stripped from his body, like a sheep being flayed. The rabbit’s pelt was all burned. Blood spurted. A large empty bucket lay there.
The little girl Samar clapped. Her rabbits had finally crossed the path she had drawn for them. She called it the bridge and they crossed it with ease.
Devotees scrambled to jump into the Tigris. A rumour had spread: a suicide bomber in the crowd. Panic ensued. New openings for longings were announced in the depths of the Tigris. Prayers drowned in the stampede before they reached their intended path. Clothes floated. The Tigris was dressed in black abayas. Shoes were scattered. Many cried out for help from the midst of the river: “Uthman, Uthman, save us, Uthman!”
Uthman jumped, followed by his friends. Shout clung to shout; abaya clung to abaya, until the weight became too much for Uthman. The rocks dragged him down. Was he chasing away the blackness? Did he want the surface of the Tigris to be pure white?
Iman and her little ones and thousands of others slept cared for by the shark of needs, until at last the surface of the Tigris became white with Uthman’s tunic. Sameer beat his chest and shouted, “Our agony… for the past thousand years, Uthman’s tunic has been floating on the Tigris.
“If I knew who burned me I’d burn down his house. What do they want from me? Do I own a royal palace? If they’d asked I’d have given them the dishdasha as a present rather than all that!”
Saeed was crying in pain. Sameer handed him ointments and medicine. Al-Jawahiri turned in his grave and emerged, pointing his finger at the Tigris: “O apoplexy of death, O tempestuous storm, O dagger of betrayal, O olive branch.”
The forensic department in Baghdad answered al-Jawahiri’s call, declaring days of mourning and opening refrigerated burrows for the rabbits that had drowned in the Tigris and the rabbits yet to be born, so that they could go home without kicking. Saeed continued to guffaw in his sleep despite his burns.
Samar tugged at the hem of her mother’s robe. “Mama, come and look at the rabbits, please come!”
Her mother moved towards the garden saying, “You are making a lot of demands these days, my dear.” She was taken aback to see the rabbits running in the garden. On their backs were pieces of paper tied on with coloured ribbons. Her mouth opened in shock and disbelief. She went closer to the rabbits and read the slogans scrawled on the pieces of paper:
— I want a big carrot
— I want a bunny to play with
— I want a bed to sleep in
— I love Samar a lot
Her mother burst out laughing. “What’s all this, Samar? A rabbit demonstration?” Then she clapped her hands together and said, “God preserve us. We have to get rid of these rabbits before you go mad. They’re all you ever think about.” Meanwhile the little girl was shouting …
Spring Will Come
I hate the world and I don’t want anyone to hate the world. Life is beautiful. Spring will come to Iraq, despite the autumn. He raised his palm towards the river and called, “Abu Ahmad, Abu Ahmad. Watch out, your boat is crowded with people. Take care, there are children on board.”
He touched his arm and smiled sadly to someone far away. He rolled up his ragged sleeve for me to look at the tattoo: a large heart with the names Iman, Zayd, Omar, Ahlam, Mohammed, and Ali written inside it.
Saeed left me and headed to the middle of Mutanabbi Street shouting, “I want a pillow! I’ve decided today I’m going to sleep on a pillow. I won’t sleep on the pavement. I want a pillow! I want a pillow!”
He laughed loudly when someone handed him a pillow. He threw it on the pavement, lay down, and put his head on it. He started to laugh and cry. “Life doesn’t deserve respect,” he said. “Only love.” He closed his eyes. He closed his eyes for ever.
Samar’s rabbits are still demonstrating in the garden, but this time they carry signs reading: “No relocation.”
 Bab al-Hawaij, literally the Gate of Needs, refers to the mausoleum of Musa ibn Jaafar al-Kadhim, the seventh Shia imam. Pilgrims visit to petition the Imam. His mausoleum is accessed by the Bridge of the Imams across the Tigris. In 2005, a stampede on the crowded bridge resulted in around 1,000 deaths.
 Abu al-Qassim al-Tanburi was a rich and miserly Baghdadi merchant who continually patched his shoes rather than buy a new pair. These shoes caused him much misery, imprisonment, and impoverishment. He finally had a legal document drawn up to exonerate him from any of the crimes committed by his shoes. For a version of the tale, see: http://www.knightsofarabia.com/arabian/001/arabian00009.html.
 Uthman’s tunic was the blood-stained shirt in which the third Caliph of Islam, Uthman ibn Affan, was murdered. The tunic was subsequently used by Mu’awiya to incite the people against Ali, whom he accused of being behind Uthman’s death.
 Naathal was a Jewish man who lived in Medina and who resembled Uthman. Uthman’s enemies called him Naathal to mock him and encourage people to kill him.
Ginny stood on the counter of the diner decorated in tinfoil. She’s my wife, if you want to call her that, which I do. She’d made bracelets and earrings and a fake-fancy necklace by folding and shaping tiny glinting pieces. She even made a tinfoil tiara, perched on her red wig from the chemo clinic. Ginny clasped a ketchup bottle to her chest. “I really didn’t expect to win,” she gushed. “It’s such an honor to even be nominated. I have so many people to thank.”
“Get your skinny ass down from there and get back to work,” Joe said. He was standing over the flattop cooking us all some eggs. “Deb, get your honey’s skinny ass down from there before she breaks a leg,” he said to me.
I didn’t care about getting Ginny’s skinny ass down from there. She looked too damn pretty being all silly and shiny, like she used to be before she got sick. Her only customer at her only table was laughing his ass off anyway, and everyone else was home watching the Oscars. It didn’t matter if you lived six hundred miles from Hollywood. People still acted like all that business mattered.
“And really,” Ginny said. “There’s someone who deserves this award more than me, and that’s my high school drama teacher, Mrs. Futtlebutt. Mrs. Futtlebutt, will you please join me on stage?” She extended a hand down to me with a dopey look in her eyes.
“Oh my,” I said, clutching my throat. “What an honor.” I grabbed the edge of the counter to steady myself, then crawled up next to Ginny’s tennis shoes. The Formica was hard on my knees and my knees were hard on me, so I pushed myself the rest of the way up fast. Nobody could accuse me of being young and graceful, that’s for damn sure.
Ginny handed me the ketchup bottle. “Mrs. Futtlebutt, this is for you.” She placed the tinfoil tiara on my head.
“You sure are a couple of silly broads.” Joe stood there holding plates of fried eggs and hash browns. “Now get down before your dinner gets cold.”
We helped each other down. Ginny wiped off the counter with a rag, just like she did a dozen times a day, and we slid into a booth with Joe. I put Tabasco and ketchup on my eggs, but Ginny ate hers plain. That’s about all her stomach could handle these days.
When the phone rang, Ginny got up to answer it. “Eureka Diner, Home of the World’s Best Eggs, Crafted by Joe the Master Chef. How can I assist you this evening?”
“Wish she’d stop answering like that,” Joe said through a mouth of hash browns. I knew he didn’t really mean it—there’s just no way anybody could.
Ginny screamed. Not in a scary way, but more like she was at a Beatles concert. “No, really?” she said into the phone. “When? For how long? . . . Oh, I can’t wait! I love you!”
“Got competition, Deb?” Joe elbowed me in the ribs.
“Ha, ha.” There was only one other person Ginny said I love you to: her daughter.
Ginny slid back into the booth. “You’ll never guess what?”
“Christy coming to visit?” I said into my runny yolks.
“Yes! Tomorrow. She’s driving up first thing in the morning.”
Christy used to come stay with us for a week in April and another at Christmas and for six long ones in the summer. That was before she turned eighteen, when she still had to do what the custody agreement said. Too bad that agreement said nothing about looking me in the eyes, or saying anything more than “Let me talk to my mom” when she called, which wasn’t real often. Not since Ginny got sick. Not since I was left to handle it all.
After Ginny’s shift was done, we went straight home. We brushed our teeth side by side, taking turns spitting in the sink and passing the water cup to rinse. The sink was only a couple feet from the toilet which was only a couple feet from the bathtub— everything was only a couple feet from each other—but we knew how to make it work. We’d even figured it out with Ginny kneeling in front of the toilet and no room for me behind her. I could sit in the bathtub and reach one hand over to Ginny’s back to try and cool it off.
We got in bed under the wedding quilt my brother Keith gave us. Ginny curled onto her side, and I curved around her back. I put my hand on Ginny’s stomach. I didn’t rub, because that could be too much for her sometimes. But she liked a little pressure there. A little warmth.
“You should sleep in tomorrow,” I said. She didn’t have to be at work until eleven—Joe was real good about letting her work short shifts.
“I might go in early,” she said. “See if I can catch part of breakfast and pick up some extra tips.”
Maybe it seemed like Ginny should save her energy, but it was so good when she got it that she used it right up. I didn’t blame her. The energy surged in waves, and when a pretty one came along, she just had to jump on and ride it to the shore.
Ginny turned toward me, leaving a space just big enough for her to lay a hand on one of my breasts. She traced my nipple with her fingers, traced it like you run a finger through soft sand. That might have been all, just Ginny tracing my nipple because she often wasn’t up for much more, but my nipple got hard and I felt myself going warm and wet. I ran my hand from Ginny’s ass up to her head. Ginny moaned when I got to her smooth scalp. It turned out there were lots of nerve endings up there, and it felt good to Ginny in a way neither of us had known about before the chemo. Even though Ginny was in remission and her hair could grow back, she kept on shaving her head and wearing that silly wig.
Ginny slid her hand off my breast and travelled down to my stomach, and when her hand was there, on my stomach, I hoped that my healthy insides would soak into Ginny’s palm and make their way back inside of her. Even though some of her stomach had got cut out, I figured there was still a way for her to be whole. Her hand kept sliding down and between, and then it was less about Ginny’s hand and more about her fingers.
She’d caught a pretty wave and we were going to ride it to the shore.
I once saw a movie about three girls who were maids at a resort. They’d go into a room together and talk about boys and surfing while they stripped beds and folded towels and wiped down sinks. But I worked alone at the motel, pushing my cart from room to room.
I knocked on a first-floor door. “Housekeeping,” I said, even though there was probably no one to hear. Most people only slept in Eureka for one night on their way to or from the Redwoods. By the time I got to a room, the sheets were heaped and the towels were damp, the trash nothing more than a strand of dental floss or a dirty Band-Aid.
The inside of the room looked like a ghost town, with pages of the Times-Standard scattered over the floor. A pink lipstick stain rimmed a plastic cup next to the bed. I went about changing sheets and scrubbing the toilet and vacuuming the floor. It was the kind of job you didn’t need to think much for, which was good last fall. I’d been too worried that the surgery didn’t get all of Ginny’s tumor and that the chemo might not get the rest. Maybe a job that didn’t keep me on my middle-aged feet all day would have been nice, but at least it forced me upright. Made me move.
A shiny gum wrapper in the trash made me think of Ginny standing on the counter the night before. She used to be silly like that all the time. Her husband sometimes left her in charge of the market in Fresno while he ran to the bank or a meeting. As soon as he left, Ginny’d take over the P.A. system. “Knock, knock?” she’d say to the entire store.
“Who’s there?” I’d yell from the floor.
“Interrupting sheep,” she’d say.
At least once a week Ginny brought in food for the employees, Rice Krispies squares or chocolate pretzels or pumpkin-shaped cookies. She didn’t mind pitching in, either. Once a customer spilled a bag of rice on Aisle 6, and a kid threw up on Aisle 4. Ginny rolled a bucket and mop out to 4, and didn’t complain one bit while I swept up rice two aisles away.
After work, I stopped by the diner to see if Ginny wanted anything special from the store. She had a couple of tables, so I sat at the counter with a bowl of clam chowder. There wasn’t much lying around the kitchen that morning, so all I had for lunch was a hard- boiled egg, some saltines, and two slices of American cheese. I devoured the soup, not even chewing the bits of clam.
Three pencils stuck out from the curls of Ginny’s red wig. The hospital had wigs people donated after their hair grew back or after they were gone. One day I came home to find Ginny lying on the couch with one hand on her belly, and this red bouffant wig on her head. “Joe’s not gonna like it,” I told her. “Well, then he can just kiss my grits,” she said. Turned out that Joe got a kick out of the wig, and took to calling her Flo and fake-yelling that she was a silly broad.
Ginny wiped her hands on her apron and leaned toward me. “More coffee, babe?”
I shook my head. “Anything you want from the store?” What sounded good to Ginny changed from day to day, and there were some days when nothing did.
“Vanilla ice cream,” Ginny said. “With little brown specks in it. And noodles. And peas.”
I wrote it down on a piece of paper so I wouldn’t forget. Anymore, it seemed if I didn’t write something down, there wasn’t much chance of me remembering.
“Holy shit!” Ginny said, and went for the door. Standing outside the front window was Christy, wearing jeans and a bright blue UCLA T-shirt. Her hair streamed long and blond down her back, like Ginny’s used to.
Ginny started screaming—I could hear that from inside—and jumping up and down. She hugged Christy and it was hard to tell if Christy hugged back, because Ginny had pretty much pinned her arms.
“That’s Gin’s girl, huh?” Joe squinted toward the window.
“That’s her,” I said.
“She looks older.”
“Don’t we all.” Not that Christy cared about how old I looked or felt. I was pretty sure that girl didn’t care one bit how hard I’d had it, working full time and driving Ginny to the clinic, cooking and cleaning and wondering if there’d ever be fun again.
Ginny unpinned Christy and waved, then pointed to Christy like I might have missed the whole thing otherwise. It had been quite a while since I’d seen Ginny smile so wide for so long.
I cooked up noodles for dinner, with butter and peas, and figured we’d have vanilla bean ice cream for dessert. Christy took one bite of the noodles and said, “Kinda bland.”
“Spices are next to the stove.” Ginny pointed.
Christy walked to the drawer, which was only about an arm’s length from the table. Before she’d tasted the noodles, I’d asked what classes she was taking, so Christy went right on about that. “Mostly, I’m knocking out core classes,” she said, sprinkling on garlic salt. “But I’ve got this cool psych class on Theories of Cognition and Abnormal Behavior.”
“That’s quite a mouthful,” I said.
“Cognition means the way people think about things.” Christy stirred her noodles and sat back down. “And abnormal means—”
“I know what abnormal means.” I’d taken a smattering of classes at Fresno Community College when I was Christy’s age. Before it got to be too much, studying, working, paying the rent.
“You still a maid at that motel?” Christy asked. She had the same blue eyes as her mom, but they sure didn’t see people the same way. “It sounds gross. Cleaning other people’s toilets.”
“There’s much harder things than that,” I said. That girl had never cleaned up after anyone a day in her life. She’d certainly never had to wipe up puke or mop up diarrhea that wouldn’t go away.
“It sounds fun,” Ginny said. “Learning about so many different things.” She hadn’t touched her noodles, but I didn’t know if that was about the excitement of Christy being there, or more about her stomach.
“So, what’s with the wig?” Christy asked through a full mouth.
“It’s kind of fun, don’t you think?” Ginny pushed and primped her curls like she was Rita Hayworth fussing to go on stage. She didn’t normally wear the wig at home, at the dinner table. She usually wore a hat or a scarf or nothing at all, and when she wore nothing at all I would reach over and run a hand across her smooth head.
“It’s weird,” Christy said. “You can do better.”
“So, what are you doing here?” I asked.
“Came to see my mom.”
“Well, it’s spring bre—”
“No, why now?” I clanked down my fork. “Why now, when she’s all finished with the surgery and the chemo, why are you coming to see her now, and you didn’t then?”
“Deb,” Ginny reached over to touch my hand, but all she got was a fist. “She was just starting college. I didn’t want her to get distracted.”
“That was your decision, huh?” I looked at Ginny, who was looking at her napkin trying to pretend that the hurt hadn’t dug away at her. “What about Christmas break? Or Thanksgiving? Or just some long weekend.”
“College is hard,” Christy said. “It takes all my time.”
It was the excuse Ginny had told me and herself and everyone else again and again, so you couldn’t really blame Christy for falling back on it. But I wanted Christy to tell the truth. I wanted someone else to say that Ginny being sick was so terrifying you couldn’t see or feel straight, that it made you want to hide away.
“You don’t know one damn thing about hard,” I said.
“Mom!” Christy’s voice got loud and whiny. “Don’t let her talk to me like that.”
“Stop it,” Ginny said. “Both of you stop it, stop it, stop it!” She pulled off her wig and threw it on the table between us. It sat there limp and dull, like a circus balloon that lost all its air.
I pushed my chair back and rose up tall. I picked up Ginny’s wig from the kitchen table and took it with me, out the front door.
I walked for a long time. My legs and feet were already tired from pushing my cart from room to room all day, but there wasn’t much else to do. I’d left the apartment without grabbing the car keys or my wallet, like some teenage drama queen. I didn’t even grab a coat.
My head and hands were cold. I wanted to blame it on the moon, which couldn’t even bother to get half-full. The cold light made the sequoias look like Halloween decorations, blackened cutouts from giant pieces of cardboard. I slipped Ginny’s wig over my head. It was a tight fit and I had to yank it down hard.
After Ginny left Christy’s dad, the last thing on her mind was being a wife again. She was plenty happy just to be making a home with me. But when they started marrying folks down in San Francisco a few years back, it just seemed like the thing to do. My brother, Keith, even said he’d come up from Fresno with a minister friend who’d do the ceremony for free.
We drove to San Francisco early in the morning and stood in line for nearly five hours. Everyone was laughing and holding hands, sharing coffee and muffins, and someone we didn’t even know handed a single red rose to every couple in line. After we got our license, we took the trolley down to Fisherman’s Wharf and had a glass of wine. We sat staring out at Alcatraz, wondering why someone would build something so ugly in the middle of so much pretty. When Ginny asked the waiter, he said, “They wanted the prisoners to see what they were missing.” I know they were criminals, but it still seemed cruel, forcing them to look right at what they couldn’t have every single day.
By the time Keith got to us, it was all over. He’d heard on the radio. No more marriage licenses were being given out, and the ones already out there didn’t count. Keith said that didn’t matter none, we should still do the ceremony. His minister friend blessed me and Ginny while we kissed and exchanged rings. The fog had come in, and we couldn’t see past the bridge. Only the tops peeked through, and they didn’t look golden so much as a ragged red.
I drove us home the next day, playing the radio to cut the quiet. The signal turned fuzzy about a mile into the Humbolt Redwoods. The giants made it dark like dusk in there, even though it was just past lunch. I looked over at Ginny to ask for a CD, but her eyes were closed. Her forehead rested against the window and her blond hair curled around her neck. Even in the daytime dusk, I could see the collar of Ginny’s pink shirt was blotched by tears.
The red wig made my head hot and my scalp itch. I shifted it around, shoving strands of hair underneath, then pulling them back out. But there was no way to make it comfortable, so I took it off. I took off that wig and dropped it to the ground, and I stepped on it once or twice. Hard.
When I got home the living room was hot and bright. Christy was on the couch watching TV. “Where’s your mom?” I asked.
“Gee, I don’t know.” Christy didn’t move her eyes. “Maybe she’s in the screening room or the conservatory or something.” The girl had no intention of going for sorry, and I suppose I didn’t either.
I pushed open the bedroom door real quiet. Ginny was lying on her side with a pillow scrunched underneath her. I unbuttoned my shirt and unhooked my bra, and while I was taking off my jeans, Ginny turned and watched. The sliver of moon peeking in the window made me feel flabby and ghost white. I pulled on Keith’s flannel shirt, the one I’d been sleeping in since stealing it from him years ago. It was worn and ratty, but sure didn’t feel that way.
“Where’s my wig?” Ginny asked.
I got under the quilt, looked at the popcorn ceiling. The peaks and valleys looked like the far-away surface of the moon. “I lost it.”
“What do you mean, you lost it?”
“I guess I dropped it,” I said. “Out in the woods.”
“How could you drop it?” Ginny sounded exhausted more than mad. “I need it. I wear it every day.”
“Not every day.”
There was as much room between us as could be in our double bed. I’d hate to see how we looked, like two sides of a log split by a dull axe.
“You were too hard on her,” Ginny said.
“She doesn’t respect me,” I said. “Us.”
Ginny turned to face me, and the lack of light didn’t matter. I could see her blue eyes just fine, her sharp cheekbones, her thin lips, bare skull. “She thinks you’re why I left her dad.”
“That makes no sense.” I could see how Christy thought that when her folks split up, because that’s how young people think. But now she was in college, thinking for herself. She should have figured out it was more complicated. That a big piece of Ginny had already left him, long before I came along. That all of her was never really with him in the first place.
“She’s the only family I’ve got,” Ginny said. She had no brothers or sisters, and ten years had gone since her parents last talked to her. Ten years since Ginny decided she couldn’t stay married to Christy’s dad.
I reached across the small space between us. I slid my hand over Ginny’s bare head. There was no wave between us that night, but no riptide either. There was just water creeping on the shore, and then draining back, leaving a blanket of smooth, wet sand.
The next day when I got home from work, Ginny and Christy weren’t in front of the TV. They weren’t in the kitchen, so I headed to the bedroom. I heard Christy before seeing her, heard her small, clipped whining sounds. She was on the ground next to the closed bathroom door, hands wrapped around her raised knees. Ginny was behind the door, retching up nothing but bitter bile. It used to be the tumor that made Ginny sick. Then it was the chemo. Anymore, it was because her stomach was so small it didn’t empty out right. Her body knew purging would rid her of the pain.
Christy looked up at me, eyes puffy and pink. “She won’t come out and won’t let me in.”
I crouched down next to her, the muscles around my knees straining like old rubber bands. “How long’s she been in there?”
Christy wiped her nose with the back of her hand, her fist coming back wet and shiny. “I don’t know. Like, half an hour, maybe.”
I was still wearing my work uniform, brown polyester pants and a navy blue smock. I swiped the corner of the smock across Christy’s nose. She was just a scared kid who didn’t know how to deal with a sick mom. She shouldn’t have to.
I reached above the door frame for the allen key. “It’s just me, babe,” I said to Ginny as I let myself in.
Her body was a limp paisley on the cool bathroom floor, her ear pressed down like an Indian listening for footsteps. “Close the door.”
I pushed it most of the way closed but didn’t let it latch, didn’t let it lock. Left some room for Christy to hear, to talk, to move. I stepped into the tub and sat with my legs long. I reached my hand out to Ginny’s back, to her green T-shirt damp with sweat.
“Someone left a brochure in one of the rooms,” I said. “For Lake Shasta.” Nobody ever left clues of where they were going, but sometimes I could piece together where they’d been. “Prettiest picture you’d ever seen, the water like a mirror. Same color as the sky.”
“Was the mountain in it?” Ginny asked.
“Oh, sure.” I reached over and flushed the toilet, sucking away layers of bile. “The snow was so bright that it looked like it was covered in diamonds.”
The bathroom door pushed open real quiet. Christy’s voice had a shakiness that didn’t match up with the girl from the kitchen table last night. “You okay, Mom?”
“Been better, been worse,” Ginny said.
Christy couldn’t get to her mom because there was no space to crouch into. It would have been easy for her to leave, to just close the door and let us be.
“Here.” I folded my knees to my chest and scooted to the other end of the tub. Christy climbed in next to me. I lifted my hand off Ginny’s sweat-stained shirt and nodded there, to the damp imprint of my palm on her back.
Christy reached toward Ginny real slow, like she was moving toward a fire. Her hand landed on my palm-mark. It seemed like Christy might jerk back, away. It was easy to get scared like that, like your hand might just make the pain worse. Like it might make the disease come back. Like it might be your fault in the first place. All that fear never really went away. It just kept shifting around, trying to figure out what else to be. But Christy kept her hand steady. Her mother’s back. Next to me.
I kneeled up in the hard tub. I ran my hand over the landscape of Ginny’s skull, over hills and rivers and flat sand beaches.
“This summer,” I said, “We’ll go over to Shasta. We’ll get a room that looks out on the mountain.” I got a discount at other motels in the chain and, maybe, if we started saving right away, there’d be enough for a couple of nights. “We’ll rent a little boat and pack a picnic, and I’ll row you out to the middle of the lake.”
We’d have wine and vanilla bean ice cream, if that’s what Ginny wanted that day. The two of us would lie back in the sun, letting our skin grow warm and wet in the middle of the lake.
“We’ll take lots of pictures,” I said. “Make one into a Christmas card.”
“I’ll put it up on my mirror,” Christy said. “In my dorm.”
I couldn’t see it, Christy’s dorm or her mirror or the Christmas card held on by clear tape. But I had no problems seeing Ginny lying in a boat caressed by the sun, the water like a mirror, and Mount Shasta glittering nearby.
*Licensed from Press53, LLC. Copyright 2018 by Baby’s on Fire: stories by Liz Prato
From May to September Delia took the Churro sheep and two dogs and went up on Joe-Johns Mountain to live. She had that country pretty much to herself all summer. Ken Owen sent one of his Mexican hands up every other week with a load of groceries but otherwise she was alone, alone with the sheep and the dogs. She liked the solitude. Liked the silence. Some sheepherders she knew talked a blue streak to the dogs, the rocks, the porcupines, they sang songs and played the radio, read their magazines out loud, but Delia let the silence settle into her and by early summer she had begun to hear the ticking of the dry grasses as a language she could almost translate. The dogs were named Jesus and Alice. “Away to me, Hey-sus,” she said when they were moving the sheep. “Go bye, Alice.” From May to September these words spoken in command of the dogs were almost the only times she heard her own voice; that, and when the Mexican brought the groceries, a polite exchange in Spanish about the weather, the health of the dogs, the fecundity of the ewes.
The Churros were a very old breed. The O-Bar Ranch had a federal allotment up on the mountain, which was all rimrock and sparse grasses well suited to the Churros, who were fiercely protective of their lambs and had a long-stapled top coat that could take the weather. They did well on the thin grass of the mountain where other sheep would lose flesh and give up their lambs to the coyotes. The Mexican was an old man. He said he remembered Churros from his childhood in the Oaxaca highlands, the rams with their four horns, two curving up, two down. “Buen’ carne,” he told Delia. Uncommonly fine meat.
The wind blew out of the southwest in the early part of the season, a wind that smelled of juniper and sage and pollen; in the later months it blew straight from the east, a dry wind smelling of dust and smoke, bringing down showers of parched leaves and seedheads of yarrow and bittercress. Thunderstorms came frequently out of the east, enormous cloudscapes with hearts of livid magenta and glaucous green. At those times, if she was camped on a ridge she’d get out of her bed and walk downhill to find a draw where she could feel safer, but if she was camped in a low place she would stay with the sheep while a war passed over their heads, spectacular jagged flares of lightning, skull-rumbling cannonades of thunder. It was maybe bred into the bones of Churros, a knowledge and a tolerance of mountain weather, for they shifted together and waited out the thunder with surprising composure; they stood forbearingly while rain beat down in hard blinding bursts.
Sheepherding was simple work, although Delia knew some herders who made it hard, dogging the sheep every minute, keeping them in a tight group, moving all the time. She let the sheep herd themselves, do what they wanted, make their own decisions. If the band began to separate she would whistle or yell, and often the strays would turn around and rejoin the main group. Only if they were badly scattered did she send out the dogs. Mostly she just kept an eye on the sheep, made sure they got good feed, that the band didn’t split, that they stayed in the boundaries of the O-Bar allotment. She studied the sheep for the language of their bodies, and tried to handle them just as close to their nature as possible. When she put out salt for them, she scattered it on rocks and stumps as if she was hiding Easter eggs, because she saw how they enjoyed the search.
The spring grass made their manure wet, so she kept the wool cut away from the ewes’ tail area with a pair of sharp, short-bladed shears. She dosed the sheep with wormer, trimmed their feet, inspected their teeth, treated ewes for mastitis. She combed the burrs from the dogs’ coats and inspected them for ticks. You’re such good dogs, she told them with her hands. I’m very very proud of you.
She had some old binoculars, 7 x 32s, and in the long quiet days she watched bands of wild horses miles off in the distance, ragged looking mares with dorsal stripes and black legs. She read the back issues of the local newspapers, looking in the obits for names she recognized. She read spine-broken paperback novels and played solitaire and scoured the ground for arrowheads and rocks she would later sell to rockhounds. She studied the parched brown grass, which was full of grasshoppers and beetles and crickets and ants. But most of her day was spent just walking. The sheep sometimes bedded quite a ways from her trailer and she had to get out to them before sunrise when the coyotes would make their kills. She was usually up by three or four and walking out to the sheep in darkness. Sometimes she returned to the camp for lunch, but always she was out with the sheep again until sundown when the coyotes were likely to return, and then she walked home after dark to water and feed the dogs, eat supper, climb into bed.
In her first years on Joe-Johns she had often walked three or four miles away from the band just to see what was over a hill, or to study the intricate architecture of a sheepherder’s monument. Stacking up flat stones in the form of an obelisk was a common herders pastime, their monuments all over that sheep country, and though Delia had never felt an impulse to start one herself, she admired the ones other people had built. She sometimes walked miles out of her way just to look at a rockpile up close.
She had a mental map of the allotment, divided into ten pastures. Every few days, when the sheep had moved on to a new pasture, she moved her camp. She towed the trailer with an old Dodge pickup, over the rocks and creekbeds, the sloughs and dry meadows to the new place. For a while afterward, after the engine was shut off and while the heavy old body of the truck was settling onto its tires, she would be deaf, her head filled with a dull roaring white noise.
She had about 800 ewes, as well as their lambs, many of them twins or triplets. The ferocity of the Churro ewes in defending their offspring was sometimes a problem for the dogs, but in the balance of things she knew it kept her losses small. Many coyotes lived on Joe-Johns, and sometimes a cougar or bear would come up from the salt pan desert on the north side of the mountain, looking for better country to own. These animals considered the sheep to be fair game, which Delia understood to be their right; and also her right, hers and the dogs, to take the side of the sheep. Sheep were smarter than people commonly believed and the Churros smarter than other sheep she had tended, but by mid-summer the coyotes had passed the word among themselves, buen’ carne, and Delia and the dogs then had a job of work, keeping the sheep out of harm’s way.
She carried a .32 caliber Colt pistol in an old-fashioned holster worn on her belt. If you’re a coyot’ you’d better be careful of this woman, she said with her body, with the way she stood and the way she walked when she was wearing the pistol. That gun and holster had once belonged to her mother’s mother, a woman who had come West on her own and homesteaded for a while, down in the Sprague River Canyon. Delia’s grandmother had liked to tell the story: how a concerned neighbor, a bachelor with an interest in marriageable females, had pressed the gun upon her, back when the Klamaths were at war with the army of General Joel Palmer; and how she never had used it for anything but shooting rabbits.
In July a coyote killed a lamb while Delia was camped no more than two hundred feet away from the bedded sheep. It was dusk and she was sitting on the steps of the trailer reading a two-gun western, leaning close over the pages in the failing light, and the dogs were dozing at her feet. She heard the small sound, a strange high faint squeal she did not recognize and then did recognize, and she jumped up and fumbled for the gun, yelling at the coyote, at the dogs, her yell startling the entire band to its feet but the ewes making their charge too late, Delia firing too late, and none of it doing any good beyond a release of fear and anger.
A lion might well have taken the lamb entire; she had known of lion kills where the only evidence was blood on the grass and a dribble of entrails in the beam of a flashlight. But a coyote is small and will kill with a bite to the throat and then perhaps eat just the liver and heart, though a mother coyote will take all she can carry in her stomach, bolt it down and carry it home to her pups. Delia’s grandmother’s pistol had scared this one off before it could even take a bite, and the lamb was twitching and whole on the grass, bleeding only from its neck. The mother ewe stood over it, crying in a distraught and pitiful way, but there was nothing to be done, and in a few minutes the lamb was dead.
There wasn’t much point in chasing after the coyote, and anyway the whole band was now a skittish jumble of anxiety and confusion; it was hours before the mother ewe gave up her grieving, before Delia and the dogs had the band calm and bedded down again, almost midnight. By then the dead lamb had stiffened on the ground and she dragged it over by the truck and skinned it and let the dogs have the meat, which went against her nature but was about the only way to keep the coyote from coming back for the carcass.
While the dogs worked on the lamb, she stood with both hands pressed to her tired back looking out at the sheep, the mottled pattern of their whiteness almost opalescent across the black landscape, and the stars thick and bright above the faint outline of the rock ridges, stood there a moment before turning toward the trailer, toward bed, and afterward she would think how the coyote and the sorrowing ewe and the dark of the July moon and the kink in her back, how all of that came together and was the reason she was standing there watching the sky, was the reason she saw the brief, brilliantly green flash in the southwest and then the sulfur yellow streak breaking across the night, southwest to due west on a descending arc onto Lame Man Bench. It was a broad bright ribbon, rainbow-wide, a cyanotic contrail. It was not a meteor, she had seen hundreds of meteors. She stood and looked at it.
Things to do with the sky, with distance, you could lose perspective, it was hard to judge even a lightning strike, whether it had touched down on a particular hill or the next hill or the valley between. So she knew this thing falling out of the sky might have come down miles to the west of Lame Man, not onto Lame Man at all, which was two miles away, at least two miles, and getting there would be all ridges and rocks, no way to cover the ground in the truck. She thought about it. She had moved camp earlier in the day, which was always troublesome work, and it had been a blistering hot day, and now the excitement with the coyote. She was very tired, the tiredness like a weight against her breastbone. She didn’t know what this thing was, falling out of the sky. Maybe if she walked over there she would find just a dead satellite or a broken weather balloon and not dead or broken people. The contrail thinned slowly while she stood there looking at it, became a wide streak of yellowy cloud against the blackness, with the field of stars glimmering dimly behind it.
After a while she went into the truck and got a water bottle and filled it and also took the first aid kit out of the trailer and a couple of spare batteries for the flashlight and a handful of extra cartridges for the pistol and stuffed these things into a backpack and looped her arms into the straps and started up the rise away from the dark camp, the bedded sheep. The dogs left off their gnawing of the dead lamb and trailed her anxiously, wanting to follow, or not wanting her to leave the sheep. “Stay by,” she said to them sharply, and they went back and stood with the band and watched her go. That coyot’, he’s done with us tonight: This is what she told the dogs with her body, walking away, and she believed it was probably true.
Now that she’d decided to go, she walked fast. This was her sixth year on the mountain and by this time she knew the country pretty well. She didn’t use the flashlight. Without it, she became accustomed to the starlit darkness, able to see the stones and pick out a path. The air was cool but full of the smell of heat rising off the rocks and the parched earth. She heard nothing but her own breathing and the gritting of her boots on the pebbly dirt. A little owl circled once in silence and then went off toward a line of cottonwood trees standing in black silhouette to the northeast.
Lame Man Bench was a great upthrust block of basalt grown over with scraggly juniper forest. As she climbed among the trees the smell of something like ozone or sulfur grew very strong, and the air became thick, burdened with dust. Threads of the yellow contrail hung in the limbs of the trees. She went on across the top of the bench and onto slabs of shelving rock that gave a view to the west. Down in the steep-sided draw below her there was a big wing-shaped piece of metal resting on the ground which she at first thought had been torn from an airplane, but then realized was a whole thing, not broken, and she quit looking for the rest of the wreckage. She squatted down and looked at it. Yellow dust settled slowly out of the sky, pollinating her hair, her shoulders, the toes of her boots, faintly dulling the oily black shine of the wing, the thing shaped like a wing.
While she was squatting there looking down at it, something came out from the sloped underside of it, a coyote she thought at first, and then it wasn’t a coyote but a dog built like greyhound or a whippet, deep-chested, long legged, very light-boned and frail looking. She waited for somebody else, a man, to crawl out after his dog, but nobody did. The dog squatted to pee and then moved off a short distance and sat on its haunches and considered things. Delia considered, too. She considered that the dog might have been sent up alone. The Russians had sent up a dog in their little sputnik, she remembered. She considered that a skinny almost hairless dog with frail bones would be dead in short order if left alone in this country. And she considered that there might be a man inside the wing, dead or too hurt to climb out. She thought how much trouble it would be, getting down this steep rock bluff in the darkness to rescue a useless dog and a dead man.
After a while she stood and started picking her way into the draw. The dog by this time was smelling the ground, making a slow and careful circuit around the black wing. Delia kept expecting the dog to look up and bark, but it went on with its intent inspection of the ground as if it was stone deaf, as if Delia’s boots making a racket on the loose gravel was not an announcement that someone was coming down. She thought of the old Dodge truck, how it always left her ears ringing, and wondered if maybe it was the same with this dog and its wing-shaped sputnik, although the wing had fallen soundless across the sky.
When she had come about half way down the hill she lost footing and slid down six or eight feet before she got her heels dug in and found a handful of willow scrub to hang onto. A glimpse of this movement—rocks sliding to the bottom, or the dust she raised—must have startled the dog, for it leaped backward suddenly and then reared up. They looked at each other in silence, Delia and the dog, Delia standing leaning into the steep slope a dozen yards above the bottom of the draw, and the dog standing next to the sputnik, standing all the way up on its hind legs like a bear or a man and no longer seeming to be a dog but a person with a long narrow muzzle and a narrow chest, turned-out knees, delicate dog-like feet. Its genitals were more cat-like than dog, a male set but very small and neat and contained. Dog’s eyes, though, dark and small and shining below an anxious brow, so that she was reminded of Jesus and Alice, the way they had looked at her when she had left them alone with the sheep. She had years of acquaintance with dogs and she knew enough to look away, break off her stare. Also, after a moment, she remembered the old pistol and holster at her belt. In cowboy pictures, a man would unbuckle his gunbelt and let it down on the ground as a gesture of peaceful intent, but it seemed to her this might only bring attention to the gun, to the true intent of a gun, which is always killing. This woman is nobody at all to be scared of, she told the dog with her body, standing very still along the steep hillside, holding onto the scrub willow with her hands, looking vaguely to the left of him where the smooth curve of the wing rose up and gathered a veneer of yellow dust.
The dog, the dog person, opened his jaws and yawned the way a dog will do to relieve nervousness, and then they were both silent and still for a minute. When finally he turned and stepped toward the wing, it was an unexpected, delicate movement, exactly the way a ballet dancer steps along on his toes, knees turned out, lifting his long thin legs; and then he dropped down on all-fours and seemed to become almost a dog again. He went back to his business of smelling the ground intently, though every little while he looked up to see if Delia was still standing along the rock slope. It was a steep place to stand. When her knees finally gave out, she sat down very carefully where she was, which didn’t spook him. He had become used to her by then, and his brief, sliding glance just said, That woman up there is nobody at all to be scared of.
What he was after, or wanting to know, was a mystery to her. She kept expecting him to gather up rocks, like all those men who’d gone to the moon, but he only smelled the ground, making a wide slow circuit around the wing the way Alice and Jesus always circled round the trailer every morning, noses down, reading the dirt like a book. And when he seemed satisfied with what he’d learned, he stood up again and looked back at Delia, a last look delivered across his shoulder before he dropped down and disappeared under the edge of the wing, a grave and inquiring look, the kind of look a dog or a man will give you before going off on his own business, a look that says, You be okay if I go? If he had been a dog, and if Delia had been close enough to do it, she’d have scratched the smooth head, felt the hard bone beneath, moved her hands around the soft ears. Sure, okay, you go on now, Mr. Dog: This is what she would have said with her hands. Then he crawled into the darkness under the slope of the wing, where she figured there must be a door, a hatch letting into the body of the machine, and after a while he flew off into the dark of the July moon.
In the weeks afterward, on nights when the moon had set or hadn’t yet risen, she looked for the flash and streak of something breaking across the darkness out of the southwest. She saw him come and go to that draw on the west side of Lame Man Bench twice more in the first month. Both times, she left her grandmother’s gun in the trailer and walked over there and sat in the dark on the rock slab above the draw and watched him for a couple of hours. He may have been waiting for her, or he knew her smell, because both times he reared up and looked at her just about as soon as she sat down. But then he went on with his business. That woman is nobody to be scared of, he said with his body, with the way he went on smelling the ground, widening his circle and widening it, sometimes taking a clod or a sprig into his mouth and tasting it, the way a mild-mannered dog will do when he’s investigating something and not paying any attention to the person he’s with.
Delia had about decided that the draw behind Lame Man Bench was one of his regular stops, like the ten campsites she used over and over again when she was herding on Joe-Johns Mountain; but after those three times in the first month she didn’t see him again.
At the end of September she brought the sheep down to the O-Bar. After the lambs had been shipped out she took her band of dry ewes over onto the Nelson prairie for the fall, and in mid-November when the snow had settled in, she brought them to the feed lots. That was all the work the ranch had for her until lambing season. Jesus and Alice belonged to the O-Bar. They stood in the yard and watched her go.
In town she rented the same room as the year before, and, as before, spent most of a year’s wages on getting drunk and standing other herders to rounds of drink. She gave up looking into the sky.
In March she went back out to the ranch. In bitter weather they built jugs and mothering-up pens, and trucked the pregnant ewes from Green, where they’d been feeding on wheat stubble. Some ewes lambed in the trailer on the way in, and after every haul there was a surge of lambs born. Delia had the night shift, where she was paired with Roy Joyce, a fellow who raised sugar beets over in the valley and came out for the lambing season every year. In the black, freezing cold middle of the night, eight and ten ewes would be lambing at a time. Triplets, twins, big singles, a few quads, ewes with lambs born dead, ewes too sick or confused to mother. She and Roy would skin a dead lamb and feed the carcass to the ranch dogs and wrap the fleece around a bummer lamb, which was intended to fool the bereaved ewe into taking the orphan as her own, and sometimes it worked that way. All the mothering-up pens swiftly filled, and the jugs filled, and still some ewes with new lambs stood out in the cold field waiting for a room to open up.
You couldn’t pull the stuck lambs with gloves on, you had to reach into the womb with your fingers to turn the lamb, or tie cord around the feet, or grasp the feet barehanded, so Delia’s hands were always cold and wet, then cracked and bleeding. The ranch had brought in some old converted school buses to house the lambing crew, and she would fall into a bunk at daybreak and then not be able to sleep, shivering in the unheated bus with the gray daylight pouring in the windows and the endless daytime clamor out at the lambing sheds. All the lambers had sore throats, colds, nagging coughs. Roy Joyce looked like hell, deep bags as blue as bruises under his eyes, and Delia figured she looked about the same, though she hadn’t seen a mirror, not even to draw a brush through her hair, since the start of the season.
By the end of the second week, only a handful of ewes hadn’t lambed. The nights became quieter. The weather cleared, and the thin skiff of snow melted off the grass. On the dark of the moon, Delia was standing outside the mothering-up pens drinking coffee from a thermos. She put her head back and held the warmth of the coffee in her mouth a moment, and as she was swallowing it down, lowering her chin, she caught the tail end of a green flash and a thin yellow line breaking across the sky, so far off anybody else would have thought it was a meteor, but it was bright, and dropping from southwest to due west, maybe right onto Lame Man Bench. She stood and looked at it. She was so very goddamned tired and had a sore throat that wouldn’t clear and she could barely get her fingers to fold around the thermos, they were so split and tender.
She told Roy she felt sick as a horse, and did he think he could handle things if she drove herself into town to the Urgent Care clinic, and she took one of the ranch trucks and drove up the road a short way and then turned onto the rutted track that went up to Joe-Johns.
The night was utterly clear and you could see things a long way off. She was still an hour’s drive from the Churros’ summer range when she began to see a yellow-orange glimmer behind the black ridgeline, a faint nimbus like the ones that marked distant range fires on summer nights.
She had to leave the truck at the bottom of the bench and climb up the last mile or so on foot, had to get a flashlight out of the glove box and try to find an uphill path with it because the fluttery reddish lightshow was finished by then, and a thick pall of smoke overcast the sky and blotted out the stars. Her eyes itched and burned, and tears ran from them, but the smoke calmed her sore throat. She went up slowly, breathing through her mouth.
The wing had burned a skid path through the scraggly junipers along the top of the bench and had come apart into a hundred pieces. She wandered through the burnt trees and the scattered wreckage, shining her flashlight into the smoky darkness, not expecting to find what she was looking for, but there he was, lying apart from the scattered pieces of metal, out on the smooth slab rock at the edge of the draw. He was panting shallowly and his close coat of short brown hair was matted with blood. He lay in such a way that she immediately knew his back was broken. When he saw Delia coming up, his brow furrowed with worry. A sick or a wounded dog will bite, she knew that, but she squatted next to him. It’s just me, she told him, by shining the light not in his face but in hers. Then she spoke to him. “Okay,” she said. “I’m here now,” without thinking too much about what the words meant, or whether they meant anything at all, and she didn’t remember until afterward that he was very likely deaf anyway. He sighed and shifted his look from her to the middle distance, where she supposed he was focused on approaching death.
Near at hand, he didn’t resemble a dog all that much, only in the long shape of his head, the folded-over ears, the round darkness of his eyes. He lay on the ground flat on his side like a dog that’s been run over and is dying by the side of the road, but a man will lay like that too when he’s dying. He had small-fingered nail-less hands where a dog would have had toes and front feet. Delia offered him a sip from her water bottle but he didn’t seem to want it, so she just sat with him quietly, holding one of his hands, which was smooth as lambskin against the cracked and roughened flesh of her palm. The batteries in the flashlight gave out, and sitting there in the cold darkness she found his head and stroked it, moving her sore fingers lightly over the bone of his skull, and around the soft ears, the loose jowls. Maybe it wasn’t any particular comfort to him but she was comforted by doing it. Sure, okay, you can go on.
She heard him sigh, and then sigh again, and each time wondered if it would turn out to be his death. She had used to wonder what a coyote, or especially a dog would make of this doggish man, and now while she was listening, waiting to hear if he would breathe again, she began to wish she’d brought Alice or Jesus with her, though not out of that old curiosity. When her husband had died years before, at the very moment he took his last breath, the dog she’d had then had barked wildly and raced back and forth from the front to the rear door of the house as if he’d heard or seen something invisible to her. People said it was her husband’s soul going out the door or his angel coming in. She didn’t know what it was the dog had seen or heard or smelled, but she wished she knew. And now she wished she had a dog with her to bear witness.
She went on petting him even after he had died, after she was sure he was dead, went on petting him until his body was cool, and then she got up stiffly from the bloody ground and gathered rocks and piled them onto him, a couple of feet high so he wouldn’t be found or dug up. She didn’t know what to do about the wreckage, so she didn’t do anything with it at all.
In May, when she brought the Churro sheep back to Joe-Johns Mountain, the pieces of the wrecked wing had already eroded, were small and smooth-edged like the bits of sea glass you find on a beach, and she figured this must be what it was meant to do: to break apart into pieces too small for anybody to notice, and then to quickly wear away. But the stones she’d piled over his body seemed like the start of something, so she began the slow work of raising them higher into a sheepherders monument. She gathered up all the smooth eroded bits of wing, too, and laid them in a series of widening circles around the base of the monument. She went on piling up stones through the summer and into September until it reached fifteen feet. Mornings, standing with the sheep miles away, she would look for it through the binoculars and think about ways to raise it higher, and she would wonder what was buried under all the other monuments sheepherders had raised in that country. At night she studied the sky, but nobody came for him.
In November when she finished with the sheep and went into town, she asked around and found a guy who knew about star-gazing and telescopes. He loaned her some books and sent her to a certain pawnshop, and she gave most of a year’s wages for a 14 x 75 telescope with a reflective lens. On clear, moonless nights she met the astronomy guy out at the Little League baseball field and she sat on a fold-up canvas stool with her eye against the telescope’s finder while he told her what she was seeing: Jupiter’s moons, the Pelican Nebula, the Andromeda Galaxy. The telescope had a tripod mount, and he showed her how to make a little jerry-built device so she could mount her old 7 x 32 binoculars on the tripod too. She used the binoculars for their wider view of star clusters and small constellations. She was indifferent to most discomforts, could sit quietly in one position for hours at a time, teeth rattling with the cold, staring into the immense vault of the sky until she became numb and stiff, barely able to stand and walk back home. Astronomy, she discovered, was a work of patience, but the sheep had taught her patience, or it was already in her nature before she ever took up with them.
Every night my father took the path from the cemetery to our house. I could hear his footsteps in the garden. I pretended to be asleep while he looked for the stick that he used to hide in my closet. I left the door open for him and played an amusing game with him – he left his eyes in his grave and every time I hid his stick in a different place.
I watched him with half an eye until he gave up. Then he curled up on the floor, miserable and tired. I got out of bed, took his hand and walked him back to the cemetery gate before the people of the house woke up. He walked through the gate confidently and with assurance, and I watched him from a short distance as he disappeared among the graves.
I’d never thought of getting rid of the stick—by throwing it in the river, for example, or breaking it on the garden wall. On the contrary, I’d taken extra care of it since my father’s night visits began. After each visit I got rid of one of the scars he had given me with it. I had one on my right shoulder, one on my left leg, and many small scars here and there—some visible and some beneath the skin.
I had gotten rid of all but one scar that was left at the bottom of the list. I didn’t know where it was on the skin or beneath it. One last visit from him and it would all be over and I would have eliminated them all. This time I would leave him lying curled up miserably in the corner of the room for longer than usual. I might wait until dawn or until he swallowed his pride and asked me openly to escort him back to his grave before the sun came up.
But he didn’t come for three nights. His absence made me very anxious. Had he caught on to the game? Or had he given up hope of finding his stick?
On the fourth night I decided to look for him. Maybe he had lost his way or was having a long doze in his grave. But this would be his last visit to us and then I would leave his stick on top of his grave and he wouldn’t bother walking around at night dead and blind.
At two o’clock in the morning I left my room quietly, taking care not to wake my mother, who leaves the door of her bedroom ajar. Then I crossed the living-room and the garden and made my way towards the cemetery. I didn’t think about how I was going to persuade my father to visit us for one last time. I didn’t have any particular plan in mind. But what dead person doesn’t hope to be invited out for a walk at night so that they can breathe cool refreshing air?
At the cemetery gate I spotted two shadows moving in the distance. I couldn’t make out their features in the dark. I went closer slowly and watched them from behind a large tree. It was my mother laying into my father with the stick. My father was trying to avoid her blows but he wasn’t moving from where he was or making any noise.
From my hiding place I heard her say, “You bastard, I told you not to hit him on the head. Don’t hit him on the head or you’ll kill him.”
I felt my head and found a deep wound covered with dried blood.
A few minutes later the two of them were making their way towards the house with tired and heavy steps.
I went through the cemetery gate and disappeared among the graves sunk in darkness.
Most of all I hate the sun, loud human voices, and pounding. Rapid, rapid pounding. I am so afraid of people that if I hear someone else’s footsteps and the sound of voices in the corridor in the evening, I start to scream. Because of this I have a special room, the quietest and the best, No. 27, at the very end of the corridor. No one can get to me. But in order to protect myself further, I kept begging Ivan Vasilievich for a long time (actually, I cried in front of him), to give me an official typed authorization. He consented and wrote that I was under his protection and that no one had the right to take me away. But, to tell you the truth, I did not have much confidence in the weight of his signature. So he persuaded a professor to sign it too, and affixed a round blue seal to the paper. That made all the difference. I know of many instances where people have avoided death solely because they had a piece of paper with a round blue seal on it in their pockets. True, that worker in Berdyansk with the cheek smeared with soot was hung from a lamppost after they found a crumpled piece of paper with a stamp on it in his boot. But that was altogether different. He was a criminal Bolshevik and the blue seal was a criminal seal. It reserved him a place on that lamppost and the lamppost was the reason for my illness (don’t worry, I know perfectly well that I am ill).
In fact, something had happened to me even before Kolya. I walked away in order to avoid seeing a man being hanged, but fear walked with me in my trembling legs. At the time, of course, there was nothing I could do, but now I would boldly say, “General, you are an animal! How dare you hang people!”
This alone shows you that I’m no coward. I did not go on about the seal because I am afraid of death. Oh, no. I am not afraid of that. I am going to shoot myself, and it will be soon, because Kolya will drive me to despair. I will shoot myself so that I do not have to see or hear Kolya. As for the thought that other people might come… It is loathsome.
For days on end I have been lying on the couch and staring out the window. Above our green garden is an empty void. Beyond it the yellow bulk of a seven-story building turns its deaf, windowless wall to me, and right under the roof is a rusty square. A sign. Dental Laboratory. In white letters. At first I hated it. Then I got used to it and if it were gone I might even miss it. It can be seen clearly the whole day. I focus my attention on it and ponder many important things. But evening is falling. The cupola darkens, the white letters fade from view. I become gray and dissolve in the gloom just like my thoughts. Twilight. A frightening and portentous time of day. Everything fades, everything becomes indistinct. A pale ginger cat begins to slink along the corridor with velvety steps and from time to time I scream. But I will not allow a lamp to be lit because the glare of the lamp will cause me to wring my hands and sob all night. It is better to wait submissively for the moment when that most important last picture begins to burn in the quivering darkness.
My aged mother said to me: “I can’t go on like this much longer. All I see is madness. You are the oldest, and I know that you love him. Bring Kolya back. Bring him back. You are the oldest.”
I said nothing. ٠
So she put all of her yearning and all of her pain into her words.
“Find him. You pretend that nothing can be done. But I know you. You are intelligent, you have long understood that this is all madness. Bring him to me for a day. For just one day. I’ll let him go again.”
She was lying. Would she really let him go again?
I said nothing.
“I only want to kiss his eyes. I know he will be killed. Don’t you understand? He’s my baby. Who else can I ask? You are the oldest. Bring him.”
I could not stand it, so avoiding her eyes, I said, “Okay.”
But she grabbed my sleeve and turned me around so that she could look into my face.
“No, you will swear that you will bring him back alive.”
How could I swear any such thing?
But being the insane person that I am, I did it: “I swear.”
My mother is fainthearted. With that thought I left. But in Berdyansk I saw the crooked lamppost. General, Sir, I agree that I was no less criminal than you, I accept great responsibility for the man smeared with soot, but my brother does not have anything to do with it. He is nineteen years old.
After Berdyansk, I resolutely fulfilled my oath and found him by a small stream twenty versts away. The day was unusually bright. Along the road to the village, from which came the smell of ashes, a cavalry column moved slowly, stirring up clouds of white dust. He rode at the end of the first rank, with the visor of his cap pulled down over his eyes. I remember every detail. The right spur came all the way down to his heel. The strap of his cap stretched across his cheek and down under his chin.
“Kolya. Kolya!” I yelled, and ran down to the roadside ditch.
He started. Along the ranks the sullen, sweaty soldiers turned their heads.
“Ah… brother!” he cried in response. For some reason he never called me by my name, but always said brother. I am ten years older than he. And he always listened carefully to what I said. “Wait, wait here,” he continued, “by the little wood. We’ll be back right away I can’t leave the troop.”
At the edge of the wood, a little away from the dismounted troop, we smoked greedily I was calm and insistent. Everything was madness. Mother was absolutely right.
I whispered to him, “As soon as you return from the village, come with me into town. Then get out of here and never come back.”
“What are you saying, brother?”
“Be quiet,” I said, “Be quiet. I know what I’m saying.”
The troop had mounted. They were swaying, moving at a trot toward the billowing black smoke. In the distance a pounding began. Rapid, rapid pounding.
What could happen in just an hour? They would come back. I settled down to wait by the tent with the red cross on it.
An hour later I saw him. He also returned at a trot. But there was no troop. Only one horseman with a lance galloped on either side of him, and one of them, the one on the right, leaned towards my brother periodically, as if he were whispering something to him. Squinting into the sun, I watched the strange masquerade. He had left in a gray cap and was returning in a red one. The sun was setting. Only a black silhouette crowned with brightness remained. There was no hair and there was no forehead. Instead, there was a red crown with yellow spikes in clumps.
My brother, the horseman, wearing a ragged red crown, sat motionless on a lathered horse, and if the horseman on the right had not been carefully supporting him, he might have been on his way to a parade.
The horseman sat proud in the saddle, but he was blind and mute. There were two red blotches with streaks where an hour ago bright eyes had shone…
The horseman on the left dismounted, his left hand clutched the reins, but the one on the right very carefully led Kolya by the hand. Kolya swayed.
A voice said, “I’m afraid our volunteer… he’s been hit by a shell fragment. Orderly, call a doctor…”
The other sighed and said, “Sure… but why call a doctor, buddy? Better a priest.”
Then the black veil thickened and everything was obscured, even the head gear…
I have gotten used to everything. To this white building of ours, to the twilight, to the ginger cat who purrs at the door, but I cannot get used to his visits. The first time it happened, when I was still living downstairs in No. 63, he came out of the wall. He was wearing the red crown. There was nothing terrifying in that. I had seen him like that in dreams. But of course I knew that since he was wearing the crown he was dead. Then he spoke, moving his lips, which were caked with blood. He eased them apart, clicked his heels, put his hand to the crown in a salute, and said: “Brother, I can’t leave the troop.”
Since then it is always the same. He comes wearing his field shirt, with straps across his chest, with a curved saber and silent spurs, and says the same thing. Salute. Then: “Brother, I can’t leave the troop. “
You cannot imagine how it affected me the first time it happened! He gave the whole clinic a fright. Anyway, it is all over for me. It stands to reason that since he is wearing a halo, he has been killed, and if the dead come and talk to me, it means I have gone mad.
Yes. Now it’s twilight. It is the hour of reckoning. But once I dozed off and saw the living room with the worn red velvet furniture. The comfortable armchair with a cracked leg. The portrait in a dusty black frame on the wall. Flowers on stands. The piano was open and on it was the score from Faust. He stood in the doorway, and a wild happiness warmed my heart. He was not a horseman. He was as he had been before those accursed days. In a black double-breasted jacket with a smudge of chalk on the elbow. His lively eyes smiled playfully and a lock of hair hung down over his forehead. He was nodding to me.
“Brother, let’s go to my room. Do I have something to show you!… “
The rays from his eyes lit up the living room, and the burden of remorse melted inside me. That ill-fated day when I told him: “Go” had never existed, there was no pounding or acrid smoke. He had never gone away and had never been a horseman. He played the piano, the ivory keys tinkled, the golden rays of light touched everything, and his voice was expressive and he laughed.
Then I woke up. There was nothing. No light, no eyes. I never had that dream again. Then that very night, to compound my unbearable torture, he came anyway, stepping silently, the horseman in full military regalia, and he spoke to me the way he has decided to speak to me for eternity.
I decided to put an end to it. I said forcefully, “What are you, my eternal torturer? Why do you come? I admit everything. I take the blame for sending you on that doomed mission. I also take the blame for the hanging. Since I admit all this, forgive me and leave me alone.”
I tell you. General, Sir, he said nothing and left.
So I became bitter from this torment and wished with all my might that he would come to you just once and put his hand to the crown in a salute. I assure you, you would be finished, just like me. At one stroke. However, perhaps you, too, are not alone at night? Who knows, perhaps you are visited by that soot-smeared man from the lamppost in Berdyansk? If this is so, we suffer it as we must. I sent Kolya to help you carry out the hanging, but you were the one who actually did it. By verbal order.
So, he did not leave. Then I scared him away with a scream. Everyone woke up. The attendant came running, they woke Ivan Vasilievich. I could not face the next day, but they wouldn’t let me do myself in. They bound me with canvas straps, tore the glass from my hands, and bandaged me. Since then I have been in No. 27. After I was drugged I began to doze off, and heard the attendant talking in the corridor:
“A hopeless case. “
It’s true. I have no hope. Futilely, in burning anguish, I wait in the twilight for the dream to come – that old familiar room and the peaceful light from those radiant eyes. But all of that is gone forever.
The burden does not ease. And at night I wait submissively for the familiar horseman with the sightless eyes to come and say hoarsely: “I can’t leave the troop.”
Yes, I am hopeless. He will drive me to my grave.
I can’t recall when I first started scribbling those little notes I later stashed in various hiding places around the apartment. It sure as hell could not have been a lot earlier, because at the time I was still a little girl and surely needed to have first learned how to read and write.
But I do remember quite clearly the day when the light tapping sounded on the door, in an attempt to reproduce the cadences of “I did it my way!” It was the last day of some school vacation, 10 AM. She was still in the shower, and rather chipper—a surprise in itself. “Open it, come on, get there fast, open the door already. Say I’ll be out in a jiffy,” she kept yelling.
I shuffled over to the door.
And there he was. Impatient to come in. Moishele, Regina’s husband, with his little white mustache. His potbelly threatening to burst through his shirt buttons. The man was shaped like a pistachio nut whose shell was fitted with a tiny sheaf of bristles. Likewise swaths of porcupine hair gleaming with Brylcreem pulled down towards his jaw on both sides of his head.
So there he was, eager as a beaver, arms outstretched to wrap themselves around me the way grownups sometimes do to have fun with kids.
I ducked nimbly. His scissoring hands failed to trap me and he almost fell on his nose. I could hear the whiplash produced by his near miss.
I flew down the hall leading to my room. From a safe distance I blurted out: “Mom’s still in the shower and dad took Davidi to get some shoes.”
Moishele must have managed to retrieve his balance, since in no time he was in the living room. There he settled to wait for her, whistling “I did it my way!” just slightly out of tune.
The next thing that happens is the bathroom door swinging open. She emerges wearing her red galabia, lavishly embroidered at the top on both sides of her exposed cleavage, gleefully humming back “I did it my way!” She strikes a ta-da! posture with the hip-swing to match, before rushing into the slithery arms of the visitor, who has risen to meet her. And now, using that phony falsetto of hers, she giggles herself silly: “Oy, Moishele, what a surprise! Where’s Regina and the kiddos??”
Moishele retorts with a question of his own: “What’s the matter, Tamara, can’t one hug this honeybee sweet little thing that ran away from me for dear life?” All the while fluttering his hands on her butt, which certainly is not about to run off anywhere. Not that I needed to actually see that to know it was happening.
Instantly her cheerful tone gives way to that loud, domineering, screeching voice. The familiar note announcing the onset of yet another tantrum.
“Doreet! You cheeky brat! Over here at once! And now, apologize! What’s wrong with you, running away from Moishele like this?! Right now!” And she’s back to giggling, trying to recoup her upbeat mood: “This child has no manners. Doesn’t appreciate being loved.” Then, turning to me, hissing: “You should be thankful anyone should ever feel like touching you, you scrawny, redheaded monkey…”
I was always capable of dodging Moishele’s embrace. Her violent outbursts of rage were harder to elude. Any attempt to do so would only fan her fury. And the violence that followed would get meaner. I knew she would still be there after he left.
I dragged my feet along the hallway to where I could glimpse the living room, then veered left into the kitchen. The large, serrated knife lay on the cutting board next to a loaf of bread. I deftly grabbed it and hid it behind my back. Her yelling resumed: “Come on, did I not tell you to get over here and apologize to Moishele?!” The mustachioed pistachio was marking time, one hand wrapped around her waist, the other flung forward to do the same for me. She speared me with the devastating look reserved for this very moment, the brief moment just before she’d totally lose control. She demanded: “What is it you’re hiding behind your back?” stomping one plump foot whose long toes were painted flaming bright crimson.
I returned her stare, this time without fear. I remember well the slow motion of my hand, making its way around my ribcage, then setting the handle against my stomach with the sharp business end pointed at the couple facing me.
“It’s the bread knife,” I told her.
The bread knife, to chop off Moishele’s hands, that always aim to hug little girls as well as their mothers.
This took place the day before. And the next day I gathered my notes from their various hiding places and bundled them into little piles: there were quite a few notes. I went out into the nearby sunflower patch, that was taller than my red head, and I burned them all. I no longer needed them.
And as she kept threatening and screaming like a crazy woman, all the while re-casting the sequence of events that had just transpired with lie upon lie against the background of Mr. Pistachio’s whitening face – I knew.
I knew that I no longer needed any notes to protect me. Knew that I could remember very well. That I could rely on my own memory. That she could no longer confound my with her lying. I knew that lies make me sick to my stomach, and only sticking to what I know can keep me sane. More precisely, can keep me from going crazy. Crazy like her.
The restaurant is crazy busy and my entire head is engulfed in the heat and steam and smell of all the dishes being cooked and readied on the line. I am tired. I am always tired but this is where I like to be. Where I belong. Everything seems to be as it always is but when I look up from the trout I am just about done sautéing and see someone I don’t recognize standing where the servers stand while waiting to pick up their orders, I think I am hallucinating.
He is young, maybe thirty, slight, not smiling. But his lips are parted and his teeth—very white—are clenched down in a hard bite. He is too handsome. There is menace in the way he is looking at me.
“You need some help,” he says.
I am thinking the same thing. I need some help, I should call out for some help, because despite the kitchen heat my skin is cold and I know the hairs standing up on the back of my neck have nothing to do with the kind of fear I normally have when I am feeling threatened. This is something else.
But maybe I am dreaming. God knows I am exhausted and no one notices anything is amiss. Waiters use their hips to back him out of the way as they reach for plates and he disappears but then like a wave, he rolls back up after they’ve gone. I close my eyes, open them fast and there he is. I want to swallow but my breath is in the way.
“You need help,” he repeats, morphing through the steam this time into a lost boy, his forehead the kind you want to brush hair off of.
I hear myself say, “I don’t know, do I need help?” and when it comes out it sounds like flirting. Someone is flirting with this stranger-boy on my line in the middle of my dinner rush. The trout is overcooked, beyond saving.
His face relaxes then. “You look like you do,” he says.
There have been some things I wish I’d had the prescience to understand before acting on and when I remember them, I want to set myself on fire. But right now time is moving too fast for memory to intrude. When I don’t answer, he says, “I put in an application for a cook. Your ad said you needed some help.” That is true. Then he looks around the madhouse that is my kitchen and says, again, “You look like you need help.”
What do I look like? It has been so long since I have thought about it, since I was pretty. I have been sweating behind the line for two hours, for too many years, and sweat makes my small face wet and a bright red. At the end of every dinner shift, when I go into the employee bathroom at midnight to splash cold water on my face, I find my morning mascara, that small homage to vanity, has left my lashes and settled into the deep cups of skin beneath my eyes. I am forty-five years old, always bone-tired yet plagued with nervousness all the time, even when I sleep. I am married to my South Beach restaurant, entering it in the dark mornings and leaving it in the darker nights so I never see what I am supposed to look like, the public I might be compared to were I ever to put myself among them. I hardly see the daylight. I wear chef whites every day, stained with grease and sauce. I know exactly what I look like and feel surprised, and then ashamed, that I am so sorry about it right now.
“Why did you do that?” I ask him. It is the next morning and he is here to fill out the paperwork.
“Do what?” he asks. He is wearing the same jeans and black t-shirt he’d had on last night but now, somehow, they are miraculously clean.
“Just show up,” I say. “Come into the kitchen like that, at the height of the dinner rush.” I sound like a punishing mother, someone trying to teach someone a lesson.
“Because I knew you’d be here then.”
I have to admit that makes some sense. I look at his application. He has left the space for his address blank.
“Where do you live?” I ask.
“And it’s true,” he says. “You need me.”
I am not afraid anymore. Last night, when I finally got a hold of myself and told him “Fine, go back to the prep kitchen and help,” it felt like I was doing something that absolutely needed to be done. It felt like we both needed help. Now he tells me that when the restaurant closed, he had gone to an all-night Laundromat and convinced two drunk girls to let him throw his clothes in with theirs. While his jeans and shirt washed and dried, he sat in his boxers reading the newspaper. They had given him two beers. I can imagine the whole scene, him charming them with his good looks and serious stare, their wanting to help him.
I hire him for a two week probationary period. I don’t know him, don’t know who he is or who he’s been so I try to watch him when I can. I can tell he has worked in a restaurant like mine before, can tell by the way he handles the equipment in the prep kitchen, by his movements and his focus, by the fact that he never asks anyone any questions. But there is so much to do when you own a restaurant and today I am all over the place—in my office planning menus, then working on the books, in the stock room taking inventory, then the walk-in cooler doing the orders and much of the time I don’t know what he’s doing. I don’t forget about him but I’m not always sure where he is.
In the late afternoon, I find him on the line. He has made a shimmering pea mousse to serve under my house salmon. I am surprised but then I am angry. I ask him who he thinks he is. I ask him how he made the mousse and he won’t tell me and that is how I discover he is a trained chef. I am a trained chef and never share the recipes I’ve invented with anyone. I know all about the relationship between privacy, thievery and pride. Still, I find the secrecy insulting until he gives me a bite and I am whisked away on the pleasure of peas.
After the two weeks, I let him keep the job because there were mashed potato cups filled with foie gras, the pineapple-jalapeno salsa and Serrano Ham panini, the roasted marrow toasts, a peach bombe, old customer raves, new customers—younger and so hip—forming a line outside at night, willing to wait however long it took to be seated. In my restaurant.
He is quiet, never late. I don’t know where he lives. Or what he does when he is not at work and sometimes I forget about him but then when I realize that he is at the restaurant during every shift, even the ones I don’t pay him for, I start thinking about him all the time. This is my restaurant, I am the boss, so I ask him questions, try to figure him out.
He answers everything too vaguely. I think he thinks his life is none of my business. Maybe he is right. He is a good worker, that’s all I need to know. Or maybe he is shy. I am shy, I get that. Then one day, out of the blue, he says he thinks we should close between 4 and 6, that that would give the kitchen time to regroup, the staff a chance to have a meal together. He’s already prepared it—lentil soup, spinach salad, grilled ham and manchego cheese with roasted tomatoes and pesto. The food is so good, comfort food but with an indefinable touch. He tells me to sit down, next to him at the table with the staff, and I do. We eat.
I start to like him, and then I discover I like having him there. Everyone else likes him, too. He does his job in the back kitchen but then when I’m not looking, he helps everyone else with their jobs. He shows the waiters a new, more sophisticated way of laying the napkins on the tables. He teaches the bartenders to make a drink with vodka, shaved ice and shards of fresh ginger; they start to offer it as a house specialty and we can’t keep up with the demand. He asks me if we can serve our scallop appetizer on the ceramic spoons I only use for private tastings. He cooks the staff meal, the family meal, every night.
One night he sees me struggling over the books in the office and he tells me he can help. He was right from the start, I need help. I let him install a program in my aging computer that transforms my bookkeeping into some-thing I actually like to do. He smiles. He works the day shift but is still here for the whole night shift and the hostesses tell me the customers love him. At night he greets them, sometimes walks them to their tables. I can’t explain why I didn’t know he was doing this, how he managed to do so many things without my knowing even though I knew he was there. I am not sure why I am letting it happen except that I am so much less tired than I ever was before he came. And business is booming.
Last night I found a stack of our linen napkins layered and folded into the shape of a pillow in the basement storage room. It was on top of an oversized garbage bag he was obviously using for a blanket. When I confronted him, he said I saved his life.
And when I wake up one morning some weeks after to the sound of the water running in my shower, I wonder what has happened to my own life. For the first time in ten years, I am sleeping in my bed. We drink our coffee there. He shampoos my hair, reads comic books out loud, makes love to me as if I am something precious, rare and fragile, something he must take care not to break, as if he knows me. After, he rubs his white teeth barely over my skin and I am afraid that he will bite me but he never does and because he never does, I relax. I know I should be at least a little frightened but I’m not.
When we are not at my apartment, we are both at my restaurant working. All I know for sure about his past is that something he won’t talk about happened and when he came to me, he was jobless. Homeless. But instead of wondering how on earth I’d let a stranger, practically a boy, infiltrate my small life, I fall headfirst into the supreme relief of not having to do everything myself in order to keep everything going. I fall into having someone to sleep with at night. Now I never look for him, wonder where he is. Like magic, he appears without warning beside me wherever I am—the line, the prep kitchen, the salad station—puts his arm around my waist and presses into me. Kisses me on the mouth. I do not know who I am. I think I am falling in love.
I discover he is a wizard with numbers so I let him oversee the purchasing. He is a whirlwind of energy and sometimes everywhere at once—the bar, the walk-in, the prep kitchen, the front of the house. I start to forget that he has not always been here, that we did not build this restaurant together. That I used to be alone.
Before he came, once in a while a guest would request to see the chef, and I’d tuck the wet sweaty hairs back into my headband, wipe my hands on my apron, and go out into the dining room to accept the compliments. But I had forgotten how to be social, comfortable only with people who worked for me and slipping in and out among the strangers in places I needed to go—the pharmacy, the grocery store, the dry cleaners. But he is so different, as easy and happy in his chef whites in the prep kitchen as he is in a suit in the dining room. Every restaurant needs someone like that.
He has even made some friends. A group of guys who eat dinner in the restaurant every Saturday night. He joins them. They are all unemployed chefs. I ask him if he thinks we should hire any of them but he says they are looking to start their own restaurant. At first, I like the stories he tells me about them. They are easy to listen to and I remember what it’s like to have pals and I am happy for him. I never expected to be enough for him. But then one morning, over coffee before work, it hits me.
“Are these people you are going into business with?” I ask.
“Honey,” he says, “I’m with you, aren’t I?” He frowns, as if I am hurting him. “You’re acting crazy.”
Because I am crazy. I am living with someone fifteen years younger than I am, someone who appeared in my restaurant and knew exactly what was going to happen, assumed things I didn’t know myself and was right. I went from working 15 hours a day without a break to spending an hour in the ocean every day at 3:00. I went from sleeping alone on my couch to spending nearly every waking and sleeping minute with a stranger who I thought was an illusion. I feel like he has always been here, that he is solid and I am safe. I didn’t know I needed that kind of safety until it was there everyday.
I have a right to be crazy. I am middle-aged, bony. My face is thin, drawn. There are a lot of wrinkles. But this man touches it. He wipes it when it sweats, he moves the stray hairs from it, he looks right into it. He kisses it all the time.
“Maybe you are crazy,” I say because when I think about this life, I know I don’t understand. And then I don’t want to think anymore so I say, “Maybe they are crazy. You don’t really know these guys. They could be thieves.”
I know an assortment of psychotics and thieves. They go anywhere they want with the extraordinary self confidence of the desperate who have nothing to lose or the stupidity to believe they will lose nothing. If they want money or liquor or sex, if they want to scare someone for real or just for kicks, if they merely want something to eat for free, they walk into places they don’t belong and demand to be seen and to be served. In South Beach, where bums and drunks share the streets and beaches with celebrities and wealthy tourists, it is often hard to distinguish between the real threats and the mere expressions and that’s what makes it so dangerous. Once I barred a mogul from entering my restaurant because he looked like a thug. Once I let a pair of thugs stay late in the bar because they looked like moguls; after we closed, they robbed two of my waitresses on the street. Some killers look only like thieves. Some thieves are a special kind of killer. I know these people, and I watch out for them.
So it makes me nervous to hear about these guys he eats dinner with every Saturday night, makes me wonder who they really are. I become afraid for him, start to think that he is being conned. I know he picks up the tab for their dinners. I don’t care about the money. I tell him to be careful because I want to protect him. He says, “don’t worry. I think people are basically good. You gave me a chance, didn’t you? And I know them better than you knew me.”
This is true. He’d come from a mystery I still know nothing about to the places—my restaurant and my home—that I know best. And he knew I would take him, and then trust him. His instincts are good.
I don’t have any friends. I tell myself it is by choice though, truly, I have morphed into this solitary person without realizing it. After my husband left, I didn’t know how to turn myself back into someone who could trust anyone again. I threw myself into culinary school and then into work. I like the people who work for me and I am glad to have them near me but before he came, I thought I only needed myself. I thought I knew myself, which is why I didn’t sense my own loneliness creeping up on me. I never saw it coming and then, abracadabra, it disappeared.
Just like a thief, while I wasn’t looking, he took away all of the things I had been afraid of. And he replaced them with the things I had forgotten ever wanting, like coming home and having a brandy and listening to music with my aching feet in someone’s lap instead of falling asleep on the couch in my chef clothes, having sworn off my bed years ago. Like having someone to walk home with after work, to scramble late night eggs for, someone to touch, who wanted to touch me. Slowly, subtly, bit by bit, he took me and left me fearless.
I think I am lucky, blessed. That somehow someone or something divine decided that I deserve this life I am living, really living, now. But then the spell is broken because the one morning, I wake up alone. I want it to be a dream. It isn’t the first time I close my eyes to conjure back what I think I can’t live without but before him, I had sworn it would be the last time. Back then, before the restaurant, before the work, when I learned that I was the kind of woman it was easy to leave, I had crumbled. Then I had begged and pleaded and promised to do anything to fix myself, to make myself right. Even though I did not know what was wrong.
This time, I am ready for a fight. By the time I get to the restaurant, my teeth are rattling. It is a steamy summer morning but I am shivering. I go back into the kitchen and he comes out from behind the line; it is clear he has been there for hours. He’s reorganized the walk-in cooler and now everything we need is in clear view. He’s dusted all the bottles in the bar. He’s taken the crate of lemons that had begun to spoil and made forty individually-sized citrus cakes for the dinner service. It is seven in the morning and the rest of the staff won’t be in until ten. In the dining room, he’s set a table for two with a bottle of champagne chilling. He pulls lobster burritos from the oven and feeds me mine while he explains that sometimes when he can’t sleep, he just needs to work. I understand this because it is true for me too but it doesn’t take away the ache and panic. I am so angry. After the first bite, I say, “Feeding me is hokey,” because I am so unsettled by the way I love it. But he is undaunted. He says, “You think this is hokey?” and leads me downstairs to the office where he has blown up an air mattress and lit candles.
The last time I had felt this way was the first time and I knew nothing. I was so young, thought it would last forever, didn’t understand how love can be consumed by fear and instead of stomping it out like a fire, I stoked it, tended it, fed its restlessness bite by bite so that it could never be satisfied and never be finished. I was so frantic trying to keep the fire alive that I didn’t see it growing out of control.
He says, “Look, I know I scared you. I’m sorry. But everyone comes to everyone with a history. We’re learning how we are together, but we’re still who we were before.”
I don’t know who he was before. And I had left who I was before a long time ago. I replaced her with someone who saved her heart for taste and texture and smell. Who used her head for everything else. Who made things make sense. Making sense is what saved me, sustained me. It’s what pulled me out of the ashes and wed me to a career that relies on all the properties of fire. It’s what recreated me into a person surrounded by people, by cooks and waiters and bartenders and dishwashers and vendors and customers, so I didn’t know I was alone. What I learned, in addition to how to cook, was that every time something went wrong, if I could make sense of it I could make it right. I didn’t take chances until I let a stranger into my kitchen, into my bed.
I made sense of him. He was young but already too tired. He wanted stability. He wanted to make a life with someone in an industry he loved and understood. He knew how to operate every piece of equipment, how to increase profits, how to train cooks and servers. He was a fabulous, inspiring, inventive cook. He could butcher meat, he could skin a Dover sole in one move, he could suspend caviar in sabayon as easily as he could make grilled cheese. These things made him happy and they made sense to me. He knew that by just giving me a bite of something I hadn’t had before, I would cave. That my heart would take over. He knew how to get there.
So when I get to the restaurant this morning, after having been with him for over a year and a half, and my key won’t turn in the lock, I know I am dreaming. About banana pancakes. I was not surprised that he left me in the middle of the night because since the first time, it has become a ritual and one I celebrate like a teenager. This morning I showered and shaved, put on lotion, per-fume. I hope he is making banana pancakes because that’s what I have a taste for. Banana pancakes with pecans and caramel syrup. I will let him feed them to me, bite by sweet bite, because I always do. Because I am certifiably hokey in love.
I try the key again and again and then so hard it actually snaps off in the lock. I look like a thief, trying to break into my own restaurant. It is only seven in the morning and no one is out on the street yet. I cup my hands to either side of my face like blinders and peer inside. The lights are all out and so it gives the illusion that nothing is there, that my restaurant is an empty room. Like when I first started, when I had been emptied out and bought a space I could fill. The tables and chairs seem to have vanished. Maybe he moved them. Maybe he is redecorating the dining room or washing the carpet. I knock. And wait. I knock again, and call out his name. No one comes. So I knock again and again and again, each time harder and then harder than that so that he will hear me, emerge from wherever he is and make the fear starting to smoke and smolder inside me curl back into ash.
A police car cruises by and the officer gets out and asks to see some ID but I have nothing that says this space belongs to me. My key is broken in a lock where it didn’t fit. My face is wet so I know I am crying and my teeth are clenched and they hurt—everything hurts—and then without seeing it coming, I start screaming, appear crazy, delusional, all the kinds of crazy I know, like someone to fear. Me. Someone to fear.
The cop pats my shoulder and asks me to calm down. When I do, he looks through the window and then asks me to tell him what is inside my restaurant. My description does not match what he sees. “There’s no stained glass hanging there, maam.”
“What about the coffee station?” I say. “In the back corner? The espresso machine, regular coffee maker, two pots, one for decaf…” I rattle off my inventory like an auctioneer.
“Nothing back there, maam. Nothing at all. Is there someone we can call?” Of course, there is! I think. Call him. We’ve been robbed! He is probably tied up somewhere in the restaurant, waiting to be saved. Why didn’t I think of this before? How much time have I wasted? He trusts everyone. He would have let anyone in. He could be dead in there!
I recite his cell phone number and while the officer dials, I wipe my eyes and gather my strength and stand up straight. I’m coming, don’t worry. I’m here. I’m coming, but a message on his cell phone says it’s been disconnected. I paid the bill last week.
“Is there anyone else?” he asks me.
Anyone else? No, no one. There is no one else.
“Uh, ma’am?” he says, because I have not answered him and am staring into the black window, my place. “An employee maybe? A manager?”
Yes, there are employees. Waiters and dishwashers. There are hostesses, line cooks, two sous chefs, busboys, a sommelier on the weekends. There are day managers and night managers. Sometimes there is a harpist in the dining room, a quartet in the bar lounge. There are lots of people, really nice people, who come here every day and night to eat. An entire world of wonderful people.
I want to tell him this but don’t know how when I look up and see Adele, the night manager, standing there. I hear her identifying herself, asking what’s wrong. I hear her identifying me. I hear her saying she is here early because she left her cell phone in the hostess stand last night and needs it now to call her mother. I wonder why she didn’t just call her mother from her home. I wonder what would have happened if we had been naked on the air mattress in my office, eating banana pancakes with our fingers, hearing someone upstairs rummaging around the hostess stand. We would have thought we were being robbed. We have been robbed.
Another policeman comes and together the two men bust open the door and Adele and I walk in. Adele says “oh my God oh my God” over and over again. I do not speak. Adele starts walking around the dining room, touching the walls, moving one hand over the other as if the missing tables, chairs, linens, vases, flatware will miraculously reappear from behind the dusky pink wallpaper I put up myself. In my lonely days. When I thought I was safe. Poof. Everything has disappeared. There is nothing in the dining room, the bar, the lounge. All the plates and glassware, the water pitchers, the creamers and sugar bowls, the cream and sugar. Gone. The kitchen is an empty stainless steel vault. The huge Hobart to the tiny paring knives, the pots and pans, the tongs and spatulas and slotted spoons, and strainers, everything has vanished. The food is gone, the steaks and chops and fish and ribs, potatoes and onions and garlic, all the oils and vinegars, the spices and herbs, the truffles, pates, flour, butter, yeast, milks, the extracts. The walk-in cooler is cleaned out, except for a crate of rotting lemons.
I pull one out and my fingers fall through the soft blue and white mold to the decomposing flesh with its rancid sorry smell. How did he ever use these to make cakes? He was a magician. I sit down on the cooler floor, the terrible lemon in my palm, and try to turn magic into sense. Sleight of hand.
The police are asking me questions, but their words are jumbled and meaningless so I can’t answer. They turn to Adele, who is crying. I hear her say his name, describe him, but the description doesn’t sound like anyone I know.
The bigger of the two policemen very gently slides his hands under my arms and lifts me up. He walks me into the dining room, forgetting there is nowhere to sit, and just as gently settles me onto the carpet that apparently could not be pried up in time.
“Is there anything I can get you?”
But what can you pull out of thin air?
“Can we call someone else?” the officer asks. I try to conjure up the image of his Saturday night friends, men I never met. He could not have done this alone. I hear Adele rattling off names and numbers.
“Ok. Good,” I hear the officer say. “We’ll call them. In the meantime, do you want to go get your boss something? A cup of coffee? She needs something.”
What do you need when everything is gone?
Something small. Just one small thing, something that I could make disappear, something irreplaceable that would be gone for good. The tip of a finger. The bottom pearl of an ear. A toe, something I could run my teeth across and then bite off, clean and fast. a real thing, a real loss, that by being gone would say over and over again, forever, that I had been there.
*This story is taken from: Party Girls by Diane Goodman, Autumn House Press, 2011.
*Copyright © 2011 by Diane Goodman.
When my husband first announced that he was leaving me, there were no packed bags. No studio apartment had already been leased on the other, seedier side of town. There were no missing photo albums or Le Creuset pots. But I don’t know why he would have taken those things anyway. It would be a gradual process, he told me. He couldn’t just up and leave me all at once, no matter how unhappy he was.
First it was his hands. Three days after he announced that he was going to leave me, I watched him drinking his coffee and noticed how his three middle fingers were slipped through the handle, gripping the body of the mug in a confident, almost loving way. I didn’t recognize those strong fingers. Next it was his voice. You aren’t going to leave me today, are you? I asked, turning to him in bed one morning three weeks after his announcement. Not today, he said. And his voice was not groggy and irritated and heavy with morning. It was rich and full, a voice I had never heard before. Next, flecks of brown and gold started to flash in his eyes. He would look at me, and those flecks were like little daggers of earnestness flaring out at me and waving hello from some new, secret place.
It has been months. Maybe years. He faces the shower head now, bold and unabashed in the strong spray. He is a very tall man now, with shoulders that stretch against the horizon. He eats steak and he exercises. We go to the movies and listen to music. A rich, olive tone has settled across his skin. His arms are strong and certain, no longer pale and wiry thin. When I smile, he smiles. Look at that little cat, he said the other morning. I joined him at the kitchen window and we watched the little cat slink across the street. We do that. We stand next to each other in the morning light and watch tiny, insignificant things happen right there in front of us.
He lost his scar today. The thin, almost invisible one across his left cheek from when we went sledding when we were very young. I had wanted to go fast. That was such a long time ago. He had pushed me so hard that he fell and hit his face against the runner of the sled. I had called it a love bite. Blood in the snow. He had only grimaced, his small hand hovering over the cut but not touching a thing.
In my mind, I secretly sort and catalog each way his body changes. The sudden, hard bulge beneath his shirtsleeves arrives on a Tuesday in October. The white teeth and the flexible toes in December, like Christmas. The vibrant ridge of his backbone. The happy earlobes. The kiss of flushed, healthy skin on the back of his neck. Sometimes I stare at him and convince myself that I can see him morphing right there in front of me. But then I blink, or look down at my plate, or fall asleep. And the next time I look at him, something else is brand new. More of him is gone.
My husband doesn’t remember how we met. There’s a look on his face when I quiz him—as if he knows it’s not there, but he’s going to dig through his mind regardless and show me that he’s trying, that he knows how important this is.
My husband is a hearty lover. My husband is a good friend. He is a hearty, good man.
We had a baby once, I say. Nine and a half years ago. Maybe that’s why I’m leaving, he says. Because of the baby. How long do you think she would have lived? I ask. If we had really had a baby girl? What name would you have given her? He looks at me with his beautiful, blank face. The strong plateau of his forehead does not scrunch or shift. I hate to say it, but it is almost enough when he places his big, flat hand over the top of mine. His hand is like a warm, tough palette of rising dough, and this is almost enough.
My husband used to have shoulders that sank when I laughed. Now his hair shimmers in the sunlight. I ask him if he got highlights. I ask him who he’s trying to impress and tell him he doesn’t look any younger. He just looks at me with his blank smile, his hair beautiful in the sunlight. When we hold hands he doesn’t seem distracted. He has a new job. We have new friends.
My husband used to have moles. He had a few angry looking ones removed over the years. He used to worry. I tried to reassure him each time and tell him that it wasn’t a big deal. It was just in case, that was all. He would mope around the house for days, sucked into the melodramatic daydream of his long, drawn out death. The drama was so tiresome. At night his ugly neediness would nestle in our bed like a solid, healthy baby, slumbering sweetly there between us. Now I try to trace all of the ghost places where little bits of him had been cut out by the dermatologist time and time again. I touch his perfect skin and wonder where they have gone off to—those shallow craters of shiny, stubborn tissue.
When my husband began to leave bit by bit, body part by body part, word by word, our dog didn’t growl at him or sniff suspiciously. Not once.
When his laugh left—that hollow, sarcastic staircase of sound —I didn’t mind. I don’t miss the deep dimples above his knees. I don’t miss the way he used to talk to me while brushing his teeth, gesticulating violently when I couldn’t understand him. I don’t miss his bony wrists. I don’t miss the way he folded the laundry or how his wedding band bit into his finger. I don’t miss his smile. I don’t miss his nose. I don’t miss his scent.
Where’s John? I ask while we are out working in the garden. He looks at me long enough to simply shrug. The sun slants down and fingers his beautiful hair. His heavy work boot rests on top of the shovel blade. There is a long stretch of earth in our garden yet to be turned, and it vibrates with all of his magnificent, endless energy.
My husband used to make an entire pot of coffee in the morning, insisting that it was the only way to get the taste right. Now he makes four cups exactly and everything tastes fine. He tries to make up stories for me sometimes when we are in bed at night. He comes up with various tales about why he left, what mistakes the two of us might have made. There were fights, I tell him. I remember that, I say. We will be strangers together for the rest of our lives, trying to recreate a history even I have started to forget. He knows that I am sad. That I regret things now. That I miss him. I pretend to get excited at the thought of our retirement years stretched out before us like an empty, flat ocean.
Once, and this was many years ago, my husband wept after I surprised him and tickled him. Once upon a time, I used to enter a room and see him sitting alone at a table, his back to me.
Sometimes I stay stretched out in the bathtub after I’ve opened the drain so that I can feel the suck and pull of the disappearing water. When the bath water is gone, I rest my hands on the molded roundness of my hips. There was something he used to say. There was something he used to hint at. In a painting, I could be beautiful.