The Old House by Frank Kozusko

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I drove by the old house last year; it had less than a week to live.

It was the first and only house my parents ever owned. My father used his WWII GI Bill benefits to buy the Rose Gardens cookie-cutter house in Linton, Arizona. Linton, 20 miles west of Phoenix, was one of the many suburbs that sprang up after the war to house the families being created by the post-war baby boom. Rose Gardens contained 500 identical one-story ranch houses. My 1948-pending arrival prompted my parents to follow the crowds leaving the cities.

The 1000 ft2 house was adequately spacious even after my sister, Lisa, was born two years later. Over the years, several modifications were made to enhance the creature comforts. A covered back porch provided a big indoor play area. A master bathroom, a previously undreamed-of-luxury for my parents, left Lisa and me alone to fight over the original single bathroom.

For most of my seventy-two years, the house was the anchor of my life. The 1950s were my “Leave it to Beaver” years, grade school, and black-and-white TV. High school and girls highlighted the 60s. My college years of living at home and commuting to U Arizona led from the 60s into the 70s when I was drafted and sent to Vietnam. My parents unselfishly endured my years of PTSD until I was able to get a grip on myself in 1981.

When I married, I bought a big house in a luxury development a short traveling distance from the old homestead to ensure many grandkids’ visits with the folks. Lisa and her family were close by too. I once asked my father if he ever thought about getting a newer house.

He answered, “No! I like this house, and it’s good enough for me. It’s where I raised you and Lisa.”

The lure of a more modern house wasn’t going to outweigh his sentimentality, or his depression-era developed frugality. So, the house continued through the decades to host the holidays and family events. The birthday celebrations were first for me, later adding Lisa, then our children and, finally our grandchildren.

In her later years, Mom needed a wheelchair to get around. Dad had a ramp added to the front of the house. It wasn’t much of a ramp; the stoop was only two steps up. A little later, he added another ramp to the back door so he could take Mom out to her garden.

When Mom died in 2009 at the age of 84, Dad refused to leave the house. Lisa and I knew he was still active enough to function on his own, we just didn’t like the idea of him being alone in the house. When I recommended that he might be happier in a seniors’ development with lots of available activities, he strongly protested, “This is my home and I am staying right here.”

Dad lived and cared for himself until he passed in 2019 at 95. I inherited the house, which needed a lot of work. Not able to get passed my emotions and make a reasonable decision about the fate of the house, I let it slide further into disrepair. Over the next year, it was vandalized several times; I had it boarded up, doors and windows. Sadly, it wasn’t the only house in the old development that was succumbing to age.

My dilemma was solved when Windem Homes, a nationwide builder, decided to buy every house in Rose Gardens with plans for building upscale homes. Each new house would occupy four of the Rose Garden lots. When Windem offered to buy the house, I sold it. I didn’t have a choice. The owners who fought the buyout were forced into submission when the city of Linton invoked Eminent Domain.

I drove by the house that day as the last look. I knew Windem had scheduled the razing to begin in a few days. Mom and Dad had been early Rose Gardens buyers. Their house was near the entrance; it would be one of the first to go.

As I drove away, I was overcome by emotion, nostalgia, not quite tearing. I made a U-turn. I needed more than a drive-by. I parked at the strip mall across the road and made my way into the ghostly remains of past dreams.

I approached the house from the front then circled through the tall grass to the back. The area of my mother’s garden was distinguished by the weeds. I walked up my Mom’s ramp; so many times, I had pushed her up that ramp. The plywood covering the back door came off easily as if it had been pried loose and partially reattached.

The inside was dimly lighted by the narrow rays coming through the cracks around the plywood sheets. The one exception: the kitchen where the west-facing, and now open door, let in the late afternoon sun. It had been one of my father’s bragging points that he had been able to get a house where he could sit in his backyard and watch the sunset.

As I walked around from room to room, it struck me how small and simple the house was compared to my own and my kids’ even grander houses. In each room, I stopped to let the memories surface. Sometimes, I tried to force a chronological order to them.

My last stop was the front room, which my mother called the parlor. I stood at the spot where the old man had his chair for over sixty years, positioned efficiently for a view of the TV, and a look through the picture window across the lawn to his car parked on the street. There was no view for me through the boarded-up window.

I remained there for a while, contemplating my last departure. My head back, staring at the ceiling, I took and held a deep breath. I had the sensation that something external was mingling with my thoughts: a communication, not of words but feelings. It was the spirit of the house. There was loneliness. There was sadness. The best that I could do was to say out loud: “I am sorry old friend,” as I turned to leave. As I was about to step out the back door, I got an idea. I turned briefly to inform the house: “I’ll be back.”

I drove directly home. Luckily, Janice, my wife, wasn’t there to delay or stop me from what I had planned to do. In my study, I searched through digital copies of years of family picture albums, picked and printed the photos I needed.

I drove back, and once again parked at the shopping mall. I hurriedly retraced my steps to the house. It would soon be sunset. Inside the house, I went from room to room taping pictures to the walls. In my bedroom and Lisa’s were pictures scanning the years from infancy to adulthood. In my parents’ room: the picture of them toasting the last payment of the mortgage. In the kitchen: my mother pulling a turkey out of the oven. In the dining room: birthday parties and cakes. In the living room: Christmas trees and Easter baskets, and one picture of the old man in his chair.

I had one more thing to do, and that was the hardest. I gathered, in a pile, all the flammable material left after the last squatters had been evicted. Before I lit the match, with no forethought or reason, I started to sing.

“Goodnight, … Irene.

Goodnight, …Irene.

Goodnight Irene, Goodnight Irene.

I’ll see you in my dreams.”

It was a song Dad would sometimes sing to Mom, though her name was Margaret.

I threw the lighted match and headed for the back door. Halfway across the threshold, I turned, and over my shoulder made my final farewell, “Goodbye house. Thanks.”

In the twilight, I quickly made my way to the car. I sat and waited for the flames to light the night sky. A crowd gathered to watch, I joined. The firefighters came; they let it burn. The area had a long-time drought, no reason to waste water on a house that was a few days from scheduled destruction. Just a little water was used to wet down the nearby houses.

I watched as the flames engulfed the house. When the walls could no longer support the weight of the roof, the structure collapsed.

Janice must have detected my sullenness at dinner that night. She made no objection when I cocooned myself in my study, where I went through more old photos from my days in the house.

The evening TV news reported the fire, noting the scheduled razing. The blaze was attributed to vandals.

To save it from the wrecking ball, I had destroyed my family home and in doing so killed the spirit of the house. It wasn’t murder; it was euthanasia, a mercy killing.

I never drove down that street again.

The Absolution by Leila Allison

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“Is it fair?”

Those were the last words Eddie said to the man he had thought I was before he drifted back into the only honest sleep of his final days. A smiling sleep caused by my youngest daughter, who did one of the finest things I have ever seen a human being do.

Eddie died yesterday, and his parents have asked me to speak at his Celebration of Life this Sunday. I have plenty of harmless Eddie anecdotes to warm hearts and kill ten minutes with. It may be cynical of me to say it, but even though the most timid human being tends to live an R-rated life, few celebrations of such are anything less than family friendly.

What I Won’t Be Saying Come Sunday

When we were kids, slow was the polite term to describe what had been up with Eddie, while retarded had been the “scientific” word for it. He spent his entire fifty-five year run at the same house in Crestview Drive, two doors down from my childhood home. It’s one of those faux ranch-style houses that had been so popular in the suburbs during the early days of Camelot, NASA and Bonanza. Those homes have always reminded me just how cheerful and prosperous things had been, and how the future, even that for guys like Eddie, glittered with great promise. I catch a permanent sense of Sunday when I look at Eddie’s house nowadays; and his death isn’t the only cause of it.

Eddie was that kid. Everybody gets one of those in life, and everybody is told by their parents to be nice to that kid if you know what’s good for you. For whatever reason, I became the closest thing to a best friend that Eddie ever got (here I must add, except his dad, for they did everything together). And although I eventually went off to college, a career, marriage and family, we still lived close enough to each other as to allow the continuation of our friendship, which had lasted something around fifty years, until the same condition that had held back his mind at last silenced his heart.

All right, before I allow the current to sweep this thing off to the Purple Sea of Sentimentality (where it seems determined to go), it’s dishonest to fit the dead (even the special dead) with a harp and halo, and speak of them as though they were saints. Eddie could be hell, annoying, a petulant little asshole when he didn’t get his own way, and there were times when his handicap made being with, and looking out for him as burdensome as dragging around a wrecked Buick.

And there had been that terrible time when his in no way diminished sexual awakening had almost got him “sent away.” At twelve or so, he’d fallen into the habit of pulling down his pants and underwear around the girls and hoped (I guess), they’d do the same. Although Eddie had never touched anybody, and although his dad had somehow finally set him straight on the subject, there is no doubt in my mind if the trouser dropping had happened now and not in 1970-whatever, he would have been sent away. My opinion here is mixed: I cared for and perhaps loved Eddie, but was this part of himself that he (nor any other child about him─or herself, for that matter) could never possibly understand harmless? For the record I’m the father of three girls whom I never allowed Eddie to do more than shake hands with, even after they had grown up.

Still, Eddie was what he was. The older kids used to call that sort of a statement a “cop out.” Whatever. It really doesn’t matter anymore. Eddie was. He did the best he could with what little he had.

The Stuff I Should Say Come Sunday

Eddie’s parents had been told that their only child might live thirty, maybe thirty-five years, and never on his own. His parents are, I think, what Christians are supposed to be. They have a gentle and loving faith, and humor and kindness. His parents are the only lucky break Eddie ever got; thus he didn’t need a second. And I guess that this part might sound hard, but I’m glad he died first. His folks are “getting on,” as the old saying goes. I have a pretty good idea what happens to guys like Eddie after their parents die.

Eddie had nearly doubled his life-expectancy when his wheezy heart finally found itself no longer up to the routine of its master’s small life. He was abed in his room the last time I saw him. It had been three months or so since our last meeting, and he had lost a huge amount of weight and nearly all his hair.

Our youngest daughter, Trina, had been home from college when I got the call from Eddie’s mom. Although Trina had had the scantest relationship with Eddie─save for what I had told her over the years─she asked if she could come along.

We visited him for awhile in that same room where we had played trucks and drank Kool Aid all those thousands of years ago. We spoke of those times, and Trina listened. There were Seahawks and Mariners and UW Husky posters on the wall, as well as the various trophies and medals Eddie had earned in all the Special Olympics he had participated in. A little kid’s room; sweet and nostalgic.

After his mom (who at nearly eighty was still cheerfully caring for her little boy) came in and gave him a blue pill and said something about five minutes and left the room, we made as to say our goodbyes. Eddie had been shifting between the now and a fuzzy delirium for a bit by then, and he had confused me with the church deacon who had recently come by to visit every day. In Eddie’s mind everybody associated with the church was “father.” And toward the end, Eddie uncharacteristically complained about the fact that he had never gotten married. He called me father, and asked “Is it fair?”

This is when Trina drew close to where he lay and gently kissed him on the lips and said, “No, it isn’t. But it soon will be.”  

The sun came out in his face. He knew he had been kissed; first and last. He settled into a deeper and healthier sleep than what I guessed he had had in days. Maybe that kiss caused secret dreams to go on in there until the end. If so, it’s all right.

Fight for Me by L.T. Ward

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Geoffrey sneezes on my face as I bend to give him the kiss he’d pleaded for. My sassy four-year-old, my fourth child, has always been demanding of my affection, but this stage of still being unaware of anyone’s needs but his own is breaking me.

It has only been over the past year that I’ve been reclaiming me and who I want to be. Who I need to be.

I hand Geoffrey a tissue and he taps it to his nose before snorting the dripping vulgar mucus from his upper lip back into his nostrils. I gag but press the tissue to his face. “Blow,” I say.

He does lightly, the tissue fluttering from the air out of his mouth.

“Blow!” I say.

This time, I’m rewarded with a sopping tissue and a son without a clogged nose. “Good job,” I sigh.

Geoffrey wipes his nose on his sleeve then runs from the room. My wild children are always bringing home their school-cultivated viruses. Blech.

I roll my eyes as I toss the tissue into the kitchen garbage then go to the sink to wash my hands. I’m so stressed from being confined to my home over the last month. Pain. Degradation. Misery.

Two more months and I should be healed. That’s what the doctor said from the very beginning. The tummy tuck would be four weeks of hell followed by two months of restrictions.

But my doctor lies. She omits details, waiting to warn me until whatever horror would come is already here. First, about what came right after the surgery, then, at each follow-up appointment.

The worst were the two drains collecting my blood and other fluids from behind the incision for the first two weeks of recovery. Dr. Denali had mentioned them briefly at a pre-op appointment, but it wasn’t until the hour before the surgery that I was told exactly what was to happen. Two tubes stretched beneath my cut and sutured skin. From both of my hips dangled a tube that fed into a bulb─each needing to be strapped to one of my thighs by pinning them to the bottom hem of my full-body compression girdle.

In my oversized pajama pants post-surgery, I was at my least sexy with what looked like droopy testicles hanging between my legs. Hearing the muted sucking from them doing their job, knowing that they were filled with my fluids, I was furious and heartbroken at having to endure more humiliation and pain.

A heads up from Dr. Denali would have been appreciated. But the thing she did get right was the swelling. My skin had been tight and choking my entire body until a few days ago when it simply subsided. Now, I’m like my old self.

My new self.

I walk into the living room and ease myself onto the sofa. My belly is still sore, and after being on my feet for the last few hours─wrangling my children through homework, making dinner, and convincing them to stop killing off each other’s digital sheep in Minecraft─I need a break.

“Geoffrey?” asks Brian.

I nod. “He’s fine now.” Brian grunts, ignoring the television show across the room to flick a finger absentmindedly over his tablet. “Can you put the kids to bed in a half-hour?” I ask.

Brian grunts again. He lets out a deep sigh. “Sure.”

I roll my eyes and pick my phone from my pocket. A text from Seamus: How’s your night?

I smile and text back a censored version, noting how the villain sitting further down on the sofa is ignoring me and leaving out the snot fest that is my youngest.

***

After I drop the kids off at their two schools─because of course we live too close for the bus services─I make my daily phone call to my mother, my daily Russian roulette of either loving support or crushing judgment and unwanted advice. “Kristen, are you sure I can’t take the kids next weekend?” Mom asks.

Today, I am trying to recover from a bullet wound. “I’m sure, Mom,” I say through gritted teeth.

If I keep my cool, I can get her off the phone and get on with my day─my worthless day of trying to get a job somewhere in my small town where I’m nowhere near as connected to the local business owners as I need to be. I wasn’t born here and I’m no one’s cousin.

“But couldn’t you use the break?” Mom asks.

I pick up the socks from the living room floor. My teenager, Megan, had thrown them at me before telling me I was ruining her life because I wouldn’t allow her to leave the house dressed in denim shorts in the middle of February. Three feet of snow outside and ice on the roads, but I was the one being unreasonable.

“I’m sure, Mom,” I say. I could use the break, but a break would mean being alone with Brian, and my plague monsters being underfoot has been the only thing keeping Brian’s libido at bay. It certainly wasn’t the scabbed incision running across my belly. Or the fact that I had rebuffed every flirtation he’d made in the last three months.

“It’s just that you and Brian need to find a way back to each other,” Mom says.

I close my eyes until the darkness bursts to stars. “Mom, I told you that I don’t want to find a way back to Brian. I want out. I’m done.”

“But you’ve been married so long. Twenty-two years is nothing to throw away.”

I inhale and hold my breath for a few seconds before saying, “I’ve tried. For twenty-two years, I’ve tried. I want out. I want someone who wants me to be more than his family’s personal assistant.”

“But it’s hard out there. And you’ve been in so long. Why end it now?”

I feel my heart pound as my honesty pours out to my mother. “Because I no longer hate who I am and I want better.” My eyes sting and my stomach tightens.

Mom has another bullet in the chamber. “Honey, you’ve been through so much over the last year. You lost all that weight, and now you’re starting that new hobby.”

I pinch the bridge of my nose, closing my eyes. “Mom. It’s not a hobby. Singing is my career.”

Mom sighs. “There are so many perfect voices in the world. And you’re so old. I know you think you can become a professional singer, but I don’t want you to be disappointed. Wouldn’t teaching at Megan’s school be better for you?”

I flex my jaw and stare at the ceiling. “The high school isn’t hiring for the Music Department. Besides, I told you that I don’t want to be a teacher. I want to be on stage and sing.”

“Sweetie, you need to be pragmatic.”

“Mom, I love you, but I need to get going,” I say.

“Okay. Love you, too. Have a great day.”

I disconnect the call before she can slip more round into the chamber. I stare at my phone’s screensaver─a picture of my kids at an apple orchard last fall. My tweens, Mason and Abigail, smile happily for the camera, but Megan scowls as her usual pissy self, and Geoffrey is turning away from the camera, trying to ditch the picture to resume climbing the trees. Brian hadn’t bothered coming because he claimed he needed more downtime after a long work week. An outing with the kids wasn’t downtime, he said.

I head to my text messages and tap on Seamus’s name. Seamus, my unexpected and unplanned reward for the new me. His picture appears and I smile. My lower belly clenches with excitement. I bite my lip as I quickly type up a dirty text. He’ll be at work and arousing him gives me a thrill I haven’t had since I was a teenager.

I hit Send, then head to my sofa and laptop to search for any job that will allow me to earn income while I satisfy my soul, singing.

***

“What’s for dinner?” whines Abigail.

“Food,” I say. I’m standing at the stove, stirring spaghetti noodles in a pot. The sauce jar is on the counter, as is a cheese grater and a mountain of shredded mozzarella. My ten-year-old is somehow oblivious to the food before her.

“Fine,” she huffs, leaving me to prepare the rest of our dinner.

A faint rumble of the garage door catches my ear. Brian’s home. At least he’s on time for dinner tonight. The door to the garage thumps, and, seconds later, he’s in the kitchen, dropping his keys and phone into a bowl on the counter.

“How was your day?” I say.

Brian grunts. My apathetic caveman says, “Dinner almost ready?”

“Yep,” I reply.

“Cool,” he says, then leaves me to my domesticity while he heads to our bedroom to change into his lazy man’s attire. No kiss. No hug. For the last few years, Brian’s only attention to me is to work out the logistics of our lives. And, on occasion, to tell me I’m sexy a few moments before he wants me to perform wifely duties.

Before, I lived for those comments. Now, my stomach roils at the idea of being touched by Brian. Even before Seamus, I was done with Brian. Twenty-two years of begging for scraps of affection from my partner and being rebuffed over and over again.

I strain the steaming noodles into the sink and hear my phone ding. I blush. It would be Seamus on the other end. His daily check-in.

As the noodles drain in the strainer, I check the text. Good day?

I smile and text back: Same old. Same old. No luck on the job hunt, but I’m hopeful. How was your day?

Him: Fine.

I wait for another reply, but when one isn’t forthcoming, I brush it off. I assume he’s busy with a life thing, and I go back to prepping dinner.

***

It had been Brian’s idea that I take vocal lessons. Megan had been giving me a hard time for not going after my dreams, and, for once, Brian suggested something that was about me and for me.

As I’d attended the weekly sessions with Marjorie, I found myself liking myself more and more.
Then the pounds started falling off. I was no longer feeling the vacancy in my life’s purpose. The emotional, lonesome snacking was replaced by hours of studying music theory and working my diaphragm for the right pitch in a ballad. My self-image morphed into a fierce warrior who walked into a room carrying a big stick with a wall of fire behind her.

I was feeling amazing until I’d lost around seventy pounds. That’s when things changed. The slack skin was a particular brand of hell. I had developed a stomach apron that I had to lift to wash, and my bottom became a laundry line of skin sheets that folded and pinched when I sat. I watched as my warrior became a shrunken old woman identifying more with Sophia Petrillo than Wonder Woman.

My kids remind me of this with their own aging. Megan is my fifteen-year-old teenager and my mini-me in every way except her mouth. Her smile is Brian’s. Next year, she and I will be searching for colleges because I’m about to become a mother to an adult. I am old and I missed out on my life.

Trying to ignore my wrinkles and self-disgust, I refocused on my singing career. My research on becoming a professional singer required me to create an account on Instagram. Pictures and videos needed to be uploaded for my skills to catch someone’s eye. I needed to be visible and have a following in order for anyone outside of my hometown to give me a chance. For my profile pic, I chose one that Megan had taken of me that actually reflected the momentary goddess I had been, and I opened my account.

Enter Seamus. A songwriter I mutually followed.

I had posted a video of me singing The Streets of Laredo, and he’d sent me a direct message telling me how impressed he was with my rendition. After spending two hours cooking dinner, then convincing Geoffrey that the broccoli wouldn’t make him barf, followed by getting soaked as I washed the massive dish pile, I sat on the sofa to watch television with Brian. But he’d turned on Firefly several episodes past where we’d left off. When I asked him if he’d been watching ahead, Brian told me he figured I wouldn’t mind. The only thing we do together is watch a series, and he’d left me out.

So I got lost in my DMs with Seamus. For the next few weeks, we messaged daily. He lived in Ohio while I was in Vermont. Single, but divorced for six years. One child in college. Mid-forties and passionate about classic rock while enjoying diversity in genre from spirituals to punk to K-pop music.

Our DMs drifted from casual life and professional discussions into flirtations. One day, I became his “Kit.” He texted that I was an amazing woman while I carefully walked the line between flirting and remaining a faithful wife, but the messages that man sent about how gorgeous I was in my pictures and videos made me feel seen in ways that I’d long thought were impossible.

After a few app glitches, we decided to exchange phone numbers and became regular texting buddies. He knew I was married, but I let him in on a secret.

I’m going to divorce Brian. I have plans and they are in motion.

Seamus didn’t ask about Brian after that. Instead, he sent me a sext that I reciprocated. Our deliciously naughty words fell right into place. Sure, we continued texting about music and books we loved and the travels we wanted in life. Ninety percent of our conversations were about mutual interests, but that other ten percent was hot, dirty, and made me feel sexy as hell, despite the collapsing skin shell over my improved body.

Once the sexting began, platonic conversations between our digital dates were satisfying. The sort of discussions between friends where you both share so much of the same ideals, but the differences are easily discussed. He didn’t want a serious relationship or romance, wasn’t even looking. I was still shackled in matrimony. Everything about us clicked.

Our sexting trysts were initially impromptu, but after a few dates, we started scheduling with one another. On his end, it was when he was home. On my end, it was when the kids were all distracted and Brian was out with his buddies doing who-knows-what-and-I-no-longer-cared.

The highlights of my day can be broken down into five moments: morning hello text from Seamus; singing practice; my kids coming home from school, eager to tell me about their day; evening check-in from Seamus; and Brian going to bed before me.

I want out of my marriage. I want to feel alive. Singing started that feeling in me. But being seen again was taking my vitality to a whole other level.

***

“How’re we doing today, Kristen?” Dr. Denali says. I’m sitting naked apart from the full-body girdle and a cotton waffle-weave robe on the patient’s table before her.

“Fine,” I say. “When will I be ready for the next surgery?”

Dr. Denali smiles in that way I do when Mason asks if he can have an ice cream sandwich for breakfast because it is technically a sandwich. “Let’s see how you’re recovering from the tummy tuck before we get to the lower lift. Can you lower the girdle?”

I nod with my heart in my throat. I can’t leave Brian until I get through the second surgery and I land a job. I need this surgery. Vanity be damned. My soul is in pain.

I stand from the table and slip the robe back from my shoulders. My breasts are on display and I unhook the over-the-shoulder straps. I unzip each side of the girdle, then unhook each of the dozen eye hooks. I lower the girdle I’ve worn all day, every day, since my surgery to reveal my perfectly flat stomach. My first win in regaining my life.

“Looks good,” Dr. Denali says as she eyes my abs, oblivious to my nudity. She looks at my reconstructed belly button, the original having been tossed into a medical waste receptacle during the tummy tuck. Most of the scabs have fallen off, but there is still a little bit left within the superficial indentation which is otherwise a beautiful shade of rose.

Then, Dr. Denali lowers her gaze to my incision. She cocks her head to one side, then to the other, taking in the angled line. Still more scabs on my right side, which had the drain in longer, but the left side of the incision has been fading from red to a muted pink. My stretch marks run perpendicular to my scar. The tattoos of motherhood crossing paths with the scar of the New Me.

“You’re free from all restrictions unless your belly hurts. Then stop. And no more girdle except when you do something strenuous. Your muscles will want that support, at least initially. But, I think we can schedule the second surgery for eight weeks from now,” says Dr. Denali. My chest swells as I inhale a deep breath of excitement. “Go ahead and get dressed. Cleo will check you out at the front desk and schedule your next appointment in four weeks as well as your lower lift surgery.”

I squeal, “Thank you.” The good doctor leaves the room and I re-dress. My mind swirls at taking the next step toward freedom. I slip on my winter jacket and weave through the hallway until I reach the front desk.

“Kristen Yonce. I need to schedule two appointments.”

Cleo taps her keyboard, then pauses to look up at me with a smile. “Ah, the Mommy Surgeries,” she says.

My face flushes. I hate her. Her friendly demeanor and that horrific label. A tummy tuck and a lower lift. Common surgeries for any woman who has borne children. A breast lift would be the trifecta.

My abs tense and I feel the tight skin across my navel. Since my tummy tuck, I’ve worn a belt of pained-turned-desensitized skin. This is my championship belt for losing weight. For finding myself.

It’s not about my kids or motherhood. It’s my achievement.

“Yes,” I say through gritted teeth. “I need to schedule my follow-up and then the lower lift.” For the next five minutes, I ignore all impulse to tell off Cleo who is only doing her job.

When I leave the doctor’s office with my faux-fur hood pulled tightly around my face, I hear my inner mantra: Fight for me. Fight for me.

***

Home over the next two weeks is almost unbearable. Brian works late and texts with Seamus have been falling to the wayside. His wayside. I’m still keeping up with reaching out.

He claims he’s busy and that he hopes I’ll understand, but I miss him, and it hurts that the person who once saw me now seems to be dismissing me.

It’s not helping that the winter snow and ice keeps generating travel warnings and making any outings nearly impossible. I want to escape anywhere, even if that means driving forty-five minutes to the nearest Target with no interest in buying anything. Instead, my confinement at home continues.

Then, the kids’ extracurricular activities are canceled. One by one, my children are stuck at home with me and they’re bored. So bored that they fight over who sat on the spinney chair last until one of them is flung off said chair and is crying. Or they come up with disgusting games like who can spit in the sink with the most mucus.

The screaming and crying, followed by the banshee wails for Mom, are piercing into my spine. The dreadful secret I’ve held onto over the last year floods my brain as I break up Mason and Abigail from trying to bind Geoffrey to one of the kitchen chairs. They use Megan’s belts, which means all four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are in my kitchen and screaming.

I wish I’d only had one child. I wouldn’t trade any of my four for a specific one of them. I don’t regret the people who are smaller versions of Brian and me. I resent the responsibility of raising plague monsters into adulthood─never-ending and exhausting. These are the people I chose to create when I wanted more people in my life to love me, but the moments of stress, constant worry, absolute grossness, and prioritizing all of them before myself are breaking me.

As I have discovered who I am, I realize that I was never meant to be the mother of four. Instead of my children fulfilling me, I have no one to build me up. All I want is to be saved. Even if it’s for a moment. Someone to care enough to take the burdens off my back. The most loving act, and I have no one.

With another shriek in the air, I’m fighting tears. This regret is my greatest shame.

***

The next Wednesday, school is canceled due to an ice day. Megan screams at Abigail for stealing her makeup without permission and using it to paint her whole face as a gothic fairy when my phone dings and I have a plausible reason to ignore the chaos around me. I open the email to see that I’ve been accepted to perform with The Vermont Chorale in the upcoming summer season.

Accepted.

Accepted!

My first singing win. And the ensemble practices are due to start five weeks after my next surgery. It pays almost nothing, but it’s a professional credit and I can make the schedule work. Another step forward in my plan to leave Brian.

“Kids,” I say. The mob ignores me. “Kids!” I try louder. They all turn, equally indifferent.

“Mom’s got her first singing job.”

Geoffrey says, “Does this mean you will be on YouTube?”

“What? No,” I say.

“Pfft,” says my baby.

“Congrats, Mom,” Mason and Abigail say flatly in unison.

“Megan, don’t you have anything to say?”

My beautiful eldest rolls her eyes and sasses, “Congrats.”

I shake my head to turn back to my phone while my children resume their fight for dominance over one another. I text Brian: I got the Chorale gig!

Then I text the same to Seamus. I want more rush from my acceptance, so I reread the email. And reread it. And reread it.

My phone dings. Brian: Congrats!

I shrug. Not the respondent I wanted, but at least someone congratulated me.

The day passes, and it’s not until I’m cooking dinner that I hear from Seamus. Nice. You up for a date later tonight?

My chest tightens. My big win and that’s all I get? But Seamus has been busy. Tone and context are hard in text. I exhale and text back: Sure.

Closing my eyes, I focus on my mantra: Fight for me. Fight for me.

***

March has rolled into April. I’m two weeks away from the lower lift. My NOT-Mommy Surgery surgery. Over the last month, I’ve lost myself in prep work for the upcoming performances. I spend my days rehearsing and doing yoga to work my lung capacity. My evenings, I wrangle children while an exhausted Brian ignores the family chaos from the sofa. Always with the television blaring and his focus on his tablet.

After Brian leaves the house without saying good-bye and I’m left to contend with Mason who now requires and doesn’t want pinkeye medication, I desperately need something to cheer me up. Brian had pointed out all the hours I was putting in for my low-paying gig last night. Now, looking at the sheet music infuriates me. Brian has tainted my small win.

Instead of rehearsing, I reread the last texts between Seamus and me. My expectations for a pick-me-up fizzle as I see them with fresh eyes. My texts are full sentences, usually two or three. His responses are less than three words. He has stopped initiating the contact.

And I am no longer “Kit.” I have no name.

My throat clenches. He’s bored with me. I’ve annoyed him. What happened for him to lose interest in me?

I scroll through our texts. My heart races as the words lay out the story before me. I’m there for him with support about his songwriting. He never asks me about my singing. I ask about his day and follow up with questions. He asks about my day without anything more than a one-word comment.

Even our last few dates were all about him. Focused on his desires.

Choking on my breath, I head to my bathroom and lean over the sink. I rip off my shirt to view myself in my bra. I strip until I’m standing in only my socks before my mirror. I can only see my body from my hips up. My battle scar and motherhood tattoos glare at me. My belly is flat and the marks are soft silver.

I twist to check out my backside. The sagging horrifies me.

All of this work. All of this pain, and I’m a middle class mother of four who no one ever sees as anything but a mother of four. Even when I’m seen, I can’t hold anyone’s attention.

I re-dress and fling myself onto my bed to sob. I have three hours until I have to pick up Geoffrey. I cry for the next two, mourning my wasted life. My faltering dreams. My destroyed body. My worthless value.

***

“But if you leave him, how are you going to make ends meet?” Mom’s a pro at Russian roulette.

“Mom, Brian doesn’t care about me. He doesn’t notice me. Don’t I deserve better?” I say quietly from the kitchen. Abigail is in my bedroom, home with strep throat and watching a YouTube Fortnite video.

“How will you afford to live without his money?” Mom’s go-to worry. “You have four kids, Kristen. You chose to have them. It’s irresponsible if you leave.”

Steadying my voice, I say, “I’m leaving for them.”

“But…”

“Mom, my kids can’t keep watching their mother be weak because it’s easier than fighting for herself. Myself.” I’ve said this repeatedly to my mom for the past few months, but my explanations fall on deaf ears.

“Kristen, you think this will be better, but it’s going to be so hard.”

I sigh. “I know, Mom. But how can my kids ever think they’re worth anything if I don’t show them that I’m worth something?”

“It’s all my fault,” Mom says.

Tears choke my throat. “Not at all. This is about me. I’ve made mistakes in my life, and I need to fix them. I’d rather be alone than with a partner who never notices me. That’s it.”

“Mommy,” whines Abigail.

“Mom, I gotta go. Abigail needs me,” I say.

“Alright, sweetie. Give my angel a kiss and tell her Grandma wants her to feel better.”

“I will.” We hang up, and I compose myself before I enter my bedroom. My poor sick darling sits propped up against a pillow throne. “What do you need, baby?”

“Mom, can you snuggle me?” she says. Her pale face pleads with me.

I climb across my bed to wrap my arms around my fevered child. “Of course, baby.”

She nestles herself into the crook of my arm. “You’re my favorite mom ever.”

The words of my own mother in my mind are replaced by my mantra: Fight for me. Fight for me. Fight for them.

***

“Welcome, Kristen,” Cleo says with her bubbly smile. “Doctor’s running on time. It should only be a few minutes. Have a seat and we’ll come get you shortly.”

I curtly nod then sit in the waiting room, avoiding eye contact with the other patients. I open my phone and scroll through my Instagram notifications. Seamus has been liking my recent posts. I smile.

I go into the main feed. He’s been liking a lot of other singers’ posts. All female.

Then, his responses populate. Kissy emojis. “That’s hot,” and “You’re incredible!” are his comments.

My mouth drops as a purple scrubs-clad nurse calls, “Kristen Yonce?”

I rise from my seat and slip my phone into my winter coat pocket. I follow the nurse as he leads me through the hallway, my mind in a haze. He ushers me into a patient’s room. “Go ahead and take your coat off.”

It’s my pre-surgery appointment, so he has me fill out several pages of medical history on a tablet. While I tap away, the nurse runs through the usual vitals check─temperature, blood pressure, and one blood draw for my hemoglobin levels. I barely notice the questions on the screen. When I hand it back to the nurse, I wonder if I marked that I have an infectious disease.

Turning to leave the room, leaving me alone with my thoughts, the nurse says, “Doctor will be in soon.” He flashes me a smile and adds, “You’re just a week away from your second Mommy Surgery.”

And the hits keep coming.

***

That evening, I plate the kids’ meals while I try to ignore my phone. I don’t want to see something that I can’t unsee, and I’m tired of checking for new messages that aren’t there.

As I sit at the table, my phone dings across the room. I shift in my chair, conditioned to get up to check the message, but it’s dinner time. With my kids surrounding me and babbling about their day, I don’t want to think about anything else.

Even Brian’s presence is far less grating. He’s actually jabbering on with Megan about something from her sociology course. Watching their animated faces, my heart winces. He’s a good dad, even if he is a terrible husband.

We finish eating and I clear the table. Setting the dishes on the counter near the dishwasher, I finally check the message I’ve obsessed over for the last twenty-five minutes. It’s a DM on Instagram.

I apprehensively open it. Then I read it, twice. Then a third time.

It’s an offer for a voice-acting gig! And it will pay me $500. With a possibility to add more gigs.

Sure, I’d be a singing rabbit in a commercial, not on stage, but it’s paying work for my voice.

I rush to Brian in the living room, his feet on the sofa and his finger swiping up and down the tablet. I tell him the offer and show him the email.

Brian stands from the sofa and hugs me. Then he places a chaste kiss on my lips and says, “Congratulations. I’ll take care of the dishes. You enjoy your win.”

I shake my head at his version of a supportive response and text the one person who I know will understand what an accomplishment this is. Moments later, my phone dings: Congrats.

That’s it? I text Seamus again. It’s big, don’t you think?!?

Several moments pass before he answers.

It is. Congrats.

My weighted sadness bubbles until it rages into my fingers. I type. I emotionally vomit everything into one massive text that I had previously held back while hoping we’d get back to what we had been. His distance. His indifference. His public flirtations with other women. His apathy.

I hit Send.

I stare at the screen and heartbreak floods my veins. I skim through what I’d written. Autocorrect and my fury had transformed several sentences into gibberish. But the rest, very clear. Very angry.

My eyes still fixed on the screen, Seamus’s response pops up: I’ve been meaning to bring this up for some time. I think we both know this isn’t working and we should just stop. This is too much drama. You took all the fun out of this for me. Congrats on the gig.

I swallow hard. I meant what I’d said, but Seamus viewed my pain as an attack from a madwoman. Except that I’m no madwoman. I’m a madwoman. A hurt woman.

I want to hide, but there’s nowhere to go. I resign myself to the living room. Brian’s not there for once, so I plop myself onto the sofa. Megan sits on one end, posing for selfies, having taken Brian’s usual seat. Geoffrey lies on his back on the floor, his feet in the air and his hands holding a Kindle above his face as he twists it around.

Mason and Abigail run in screaming. “Mom! Blabigail won’t let me play on the PS4!” Mason wails.

“Don’t call me that!” Both of my middle children push each other as they stand in front of me, waiting for my ruling on which child is in the right and dooming the other to shame.

“Hey, kids,” I say softly. “Mom has some happy news.” I hear the sadness in my voice, but I need to tell them. “Mom got a job today. I’m going to be the voice of a cartoon bunny in a commercial.”

“That’s so cool,” Mason shouts simultaneously to Abigail’s, “You’ll be famous!”

Geoffrey climbs off the floor and onto my lap. “You’re turning into a bunny?”

I smile and chuckle with tears ready to fall. “No baby. I’m going to sing for a cartoon bunny.”

“Okay,” he says and presses his back against my chest to resume play on his tablet.

“That’s really cool, Mom,” Megan says.

I turn to look at my daughter, shocked at the lack of sarcasm. I hear the click of her phone. “Had to take a pic. It’s a big moment,” she says. “Gonna post this.” Her attention leaves the room for the digital world.

Mason leans over his brother and hugs me. “Proud of you, Mom.”

Abigail overlaps her brother’s embrace. “I’m prouder.”

Next week, I will resume a state of pain from another surgery. As soon as I recover, I will tell Brian that I don’t want to be his wife. First the physical pain. Then the emotional.

But today, it’s a battle won for me and my plague monsters.

Fight for me. Fight for them.

Assumptions by James Mulhern

Featured

(First published with Fiction on the web and previously published in The Writing Disorder Literary Journal)

“You are altogether beautiful, my love; there is no flaw in you.” (Song of Solomon 4:7)

Peggy Fleming, according to my grandfather was the “homeliest damn woman” he’d ever seen. Her face was swollen and pasty, with broken capillaries that sloped down the sides of her nostrils, flooding the arid plain of her skin, like some dreary river and its tributaries eking over a delta of nasolabial folds to terminate in the red seas of two droopy cheeks. Spindly, awkward limbs stuck out of a round body, like you might see in a kindergartner’s rendering of a person. She was, unfortunately, toothless and hairless as well, suffering from a mysterious childhood disease that had left her with chronic alopecia.

Peggy used to tell us kids that she lost her hair because she refused to eat green beans when she was a child. I always thought it a cruel irony that she had the same name as the graceful and beautiful skater who had won the Olympic Gold Medal in 1968.

I remember hearing my grandparents and Auntie Ag, my grandmother’s older and “much smarter” sister (the one who graduated high school), likening Peggy’s features to those of a bulldog as they puffed away on Lucky Strikes and Parliaments, stopping every now and then to slap down a poker chip or a playing card, or take another sip of whiskey. While they played, I circled the kitchen table and listened, picking up snippets about Peggy’s tragic life.

Her story goes something like this:

She was married once to a very handsome man named Jim, who was quite successful in business, something to do with cutting pants—”slacks” my grandmother called them—for a good company. Everyone was surprised that Peg could get such a catch, but like many ugly people, she had a heart of gold, and oh could she sing! The two of them, they met in a nightclub in Boston’s Back Bay, one of those divey joints, nothin’ too swanky, where Peg sang jazz classics for a small crowd on Friday nights. Jim often stopped by the nightclub after work, and you know, eventually they hit it off. One thing led to another, and of course they got married. But by Christ! How in God’s name could Jim stand to look at that puss day in and day out?

And wasn’t it a tragedy, how one evening, after a game at Fenway Park, Jim drove the green Buick that he loved so much into a fruit stand on the side of the road, killing the old Italian guy selling the stuff, and himself, of course. Afterward, Peg was never the same. She wouldn’t go out, still hardly does, and that was years ago. It’s a shame how she’s tried to drown her sorrows by cozying up to that bottle. It’s a good thing she has a neighbor like Helen to check on her, and take her out once in a while.

My grandmother would beam smugly. Aunty Ag would say, “Oh what troubles some people have,” and my grandfather would look down, embarrassed he had said too much.

***

In the knotty pine basement of Peggy’s home was a beautiful Steinway piano. My most vivid memory of Peg’s singing was when. After my grandmother and she had a few highballs, they led me down the cellar stairs so that she could sing for me. My grandmother had bragged that I was a most talented pianist, and Peg wanted to share her own talent with me, encouraging me that I could “make it” like she had.

They were both very drunk. I was relieved that neither of them fell down the stairs and broke their necks. My grandmother goaded Peg to sing “When Your Old Wedding Ring Was New,” Peg’s favorite.

With one thin arm braced against the polished black surface of the Steinway, she sang with no accompaniment. Even now, years later, I hear the swelling sadness in her voice, the indignity and shame that I experienced when my grandmother slyly smirked at me and rolled her eyes. Peg was horrible of course. Years of smoking, drinking, and heartache had ravaged her vocal chords, but her pain was so real. I knew that she was dreaming, longing for her husband Jim. I think it was then that the first throb of death’s glower entered my consciousness.

***

When I was ten, my father sent my dog to the pound because he barked too much. I cried and phoned my grandmother, who had just come from lunch with Peg. The two of them arrived within the hour, scolded my mother, and cursed my father, who was still at work. A few hours later, we retrieved Scruffy from the Animal Rescue League of Boston. During the ride back, my grandmother and Peg convinced me that the best thing was to find a new home for the dog.

“To hell with your father.” Peg passed me a mint she kept in her pocketbook in case her blood sugar dropped. “We saved Scruffy’s life, sweetheart. And what matters most, Jimmy, is knowing that he’s happy.  Sometimes that’s the way it has to be, my love.”

At my grandmother’s house, Peg took charge, calling the local radio stations and asking would they broadcast that “the sweetest dog Scruffy” needed a home. She and my grandmother drank several whiskey sours during their home-for-the-dog campaign, and I’m certain that the disc jockeys did not take Peg seriously, let alone understand her slurred words.

“You’ll see. Everything will be all right,” she kept telling me.

We had Chinese food delivered, and at the end of our meal, Peg opened a fortune cookie and read, “Do you believe? Endurance and persistence will be rewarded.” For Peggy, this was a mystical sign that we should “get off our arses” and knock on doors all over the neighborhood.

“Where there’s a way, there’s a will,” she stammered. “What we need is faith is all, and our coats.” She smiled at me and rubbed my head.

My grandmother said she was too damn tired to go traipsing around the neighborhood, and passed out on the couch.

Peggy said, “To hell with you, too, then!” and laughed.

The three of us, Peg, Scruffy, and myself, canvassed the neighborhood. It was December and cold. The sky was crystal clear. I could see my breath, and just above us, one bright star seemed to be chasing a crescent of moon.

What a sight we must have been. Peg zigzagging beside me, me nudging Peg–trying to keep her from falling off the curb, Scruffy following behind, wagging his tail and sniffing spots along the way.

We walked several blocks that night, ringing bells and knocking on doors, stopping a few times to plan what we should say. Peg said that what we needed was a “hook.” She suggested that she could take off her wig and tell the people “just a little white lie” about her dying of cancer.

I said that I thought that was probably a mortal sin, and my grandmother wouldn’t like it. She reluctantly agreed, and we decided to state the simple facts. “No blarney. Just the bit about your father sending poor Scruffy to the pound.”

Some people didn’t answer their doors. It must have been after 10 p.m., and I imagined tired strangers peeking out at us, annoyed to be disturbed at this time of the night. Of the people who listened to our tale of woe, most were gracious and polite. Some of the neighbors clearly recognized Peg though, and they expressed exasperation and disgust on their faces.

“Take the boy and his dog home,” one young mother said. “It’s too late to be out, especially with you in the state you’re in. You should be ashamed of yourself. It’s freezing out there and the boy’s gonna catch a cold.”

“But the dog needs a home,” Peg pleaded.

“The boy needs a home. Now take him home before I call the police and have you arrested for public drunkenness.” She gave me a pitiful look before shutting the door in our faces.

“Show me the way to go home. I’m tired and I wanna go to bed,” Peg sang. “I had a little drink about an hour ago and it went right to my head—”Have faith,” she told me, “We’ll find a home for him. You know I’d keep him if I could, Jimmy, but I’m all allergies. Makes my face puff up and screws up my breathing.” In addition to alopecia and diabetes, Peg suffered from episodes of acute asthma.

My grandmother was snoring on the couch when we returned. Scruffy jumped onto the wing-tipped chair, and curled himself into a ball.

Peg and I serenaded my grandmother with “You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You” until she awoke with a start and asked for her “damn” drink.

The rest of the night is a blur. Perhaps I fell asleep on the rug watching TV. Maybe my grandfather carried me to bed when he returned from his night job. What I remember most about the events of that evening is that Peg kept her promise.

Later that week, she found a home for Scruffy–with a “rich doctor” at the clinic where she got all her medications. A couple times over the following months, she took me to see Scruffy. I was content. He had a large fenced-in yard, and there were other dogs as well. I was happy to know that he was happy. Peg had been my savior.

***

A few years later, my grandmother brought my sister, Beth, with Peg, and me to be “cured” in the waters of Nantasket Beach. Snapping open her compact, she peered into the mirror while she smothered her lips with red, all the while explaining the importance of August 15th to us. We were seated in her kitchen, sunlight flickering on the orange-and-gold checkered pattern of the wallpaper behind her.

“On August 15th,” my grandmother elaborated, “we celebrate the Feast of the Blessed Mother’s Assumption, when Jesus’s mother, was taken to her heavenly home.”

“Who took her?” Beth asked.

“God, dear.”

“In an airplane?”

“No, sweetheart. Finish up your eggs.”

“Then how’d she get there?”

My grandmother rose and began washing dishes at the sink. Beth and I looked past her head through the window to examine the sky.

“It’s a mystery, Bethie. Just one of those things,” she said.

“Oh.” Beth picked up her fork. “A mystery.”

The dogma of the Assumption, I later learned, was firmly established in 1950 when Pope Pius XII made his decree that the Immaculate Mother of God was “assumed into heavenly glory.” I’ve always wondered why it took so long to decide on the fate of poor Mary, who like a participant in a tableau vivant, remained motionless, one foot on the earth and one foot in the air, for centuries.

On that August day, the idea of a “cure” paled in comparison to the roller coaster ride my sister and I, if well behaved, might enjoy at Paragon Amusement Park across from the beach. Since we weren’t sick and didn’t need a cure, “Mary’s blessing” seemed like a gip.

After breakfast, the three of us—Beth and I wearing bathing suits under our T-shirts, and my grandmother arrayed in a white and gold sundress, a wide-brimmed hat with a spray of lilies, and black Farrah sunglasses—crossed the street to get Peggy, who had been “very ill” lately.

I had overhead my grandparents whispering about Peg’s “delirium tremens,” how she was imagining things, and telling crazy stories about monkeys calling her up on the phone. One night a police officer brought her to my grandmother’s house after he found Peg wandering the streets of a nearby square; she was bruised and teary.

Peg said she was looking for her husband Jim, trying to bring him home. I remembered our cold walk in December and wondered if Jim had been on her mind even then.

In the bag I carried were six baby-food jars to collect salt water for our family, some clusters of red grapes, as well as apples, raisins, and a few banana loaves that my grandmother had stolen from Solomon’s Bakery, where she worked part time. My grandmother believed it was a mortal sin to waste the day-old baked goods, even though the management had insisted that they be tossed in the rubbish.

Just outside Peg’s door, my grandmother stopped us. “Now you both behave. And Jimmy, remember to call her Lovely Peggy, ” she whispered quickly.

“Lovely Peggy” was the sobriquet my grandmother had invented one Sunday after a sermon the priest had given on the power of names and the mystery of the Word. If we thought lovely things about Peggy, she explained, Peggy’s life would be happier, and she would feel better. “You kiddos don’t know how much this visit means to a lonely old lady.”

Peg opened the door. I mechanically announced, “Good morning, Lovely Peggy.”

Peggy responded, as she always did, “Isn’t he adorable,” while Beth skirted past her into the kitchen, desperate to get away, and my grandmother, appalled at Peg’s appearance, said, “What’s the matter with you? Did you forget we were going to the beach?” She looked down at Peg’s feet, tsking at what Peg was wearing. “You look foolish in those things.”

Peggy had a confused look on her face, like she was half-asleep. There was pure grief in her expression, as if she felt cheated from a surprise. Her housedress, which had a pattern of tiny roses, shrouded a pair of small black boots. There were red stains at the end of her sleeves from where she had spilled some juice. She had forgotten her wig and the sunlight highlighted a laurel of peach-fuzz hair; a few silver strands, moist from sweat, garlanded the area by her temples and behind her large ears. The blinds were pulled down on the window behind the kitchen table, and the sweet smell of cedar cabinets and wine surrounded us in a cloud.

My grandmother crossed the threshold, flicked on the lamp, and guided Peg to the table. I hadn’t seen Peg in several months. Her usual cheeriness had vanished, and she was distracted and distant. It unnerved me to see how much she had changed. I joined my sister who was seated on the verdant green divan in the living room, strategically positioned in front of the dish of hard candies that we had grown accustomed to raiding on our visits.

We were quiet, enjoying the deliciousness of peppermint candy, swinging our legs together and humming just a little, eavesdropping on the conversation from the kitchen table, which was not far from where we sat.

“Let’s have one for the road, Helen.”

“You’ve had quite enough already, Peg. Aren’t your feet hot in those God-awful boots?”

“Not really.”

“But your feet must stink. You’ve got to take those damn things off. The salt water will be good for your gout and all that puffiness around your ankles. And the water will help the calluses on our soles!”

Peg laughed. “I figured the boots were perfect for the beach.”

“For Christ’s sake, Peg. The point is to get wet. How else are you going to get the cure?”

“Cure for what?”

“Anything. Your aching bones, your mood, your bowels, whatever it is that’s bothering you. God will know what you need. Miracles do happen, ya know.”

I pictured my grandmother making the sign of the cross, Peg watching dreamily. I don’t know that Peg was very religious. I’m not even sure if she was a practicing Catholic, but that wouldn’t have stopped my grandmother in her missionary zeal.

“I believe miracles sometimes do happen, Helen,” Peg said at last. “It will only take me a moment to get ready. I have to use the little girls’ room and put on my fancy wig and makeup so I can look divine for my Jim over there,” she said, looking at me.

“I need to straighten out, get my life together.” Peg arched her back.

“You’re fine, Peg.” My grandmother helped her through the narrow doorway and down the hall. Peg hesitated every now and then, pressing her trembling palm against the wall, as if to discern whether it, or she, was still really here.

***

It was breezy at the shore. Soon we found a comfortable place on the beach. My grandmother rubbed tanning oil into Peg’s bald scalp, forehead, and the nape of her neck. She shone like a miniature Sun.

Peg let Beth and I drape a necklace of dried seaweed upon her. We pretended it was a string of jewels. Then the two of us scribbled words into the sand with our fingers and played Yahtzee until we lost one of the die. The salty north winds felt good against our skin, and Peg wrapped our shoulders with her purple towel so we wouldn’t get burned.

Later, as Beth and I waded through the shallow waters at the ocean’s edge, we stopped occasionally to work and wedge our feet into the cool sand, then sloshed our legs through the foam a bit, deliberately making heavy giant steps and dancing to keep pace with the sun. We splashed ourselves as we jumped to avoid dark clumps of seaweed or a jellyfish. We scanned the hard bottom for a lonely starfish or stone, or the clam with a secreted pearl.

For a while, we explored large rocks that edged the beach, unearthing small crabs in the sand between, and startling a mourning dove that sped from its cleft into the bright sky. It made a whistling sound as it rose, descended over the water where my grandmother and Peg were walking towards the ocean. The waves beyond glimmered like sparks from an unquenchable fire. On a jetty in the distance, a father and his son cast fishing lines into the sea.

Suddenly, we heard my grandmother shout, “Watch yourself!” but it was too late, both she and Peg were surprised by a spirited breaker that razed them in its wake.

Of course we ran to help, but delighted, too, in the spectacle—my grandmother and Peggy, seated on their asses just a few feet from where the waves trickled to their end. In an instant they were kneeling forward, laughing so hard that they cried.

We helped lift them in between guffaws and groans that the soles of their feet were cramping from shells and stones beneath. My grandmother said that her “permanent is all ruined” while she fussed with her hair.

Peggy answered, “At least I don’t have to worry about that,” and they laughed even harder. Then Lovely Peggy reached for me.

I was mesmerized by her wet silvery scalp, and resisted the urge to touch the crown of her head before I gave her my hand and she rose from the sea. “Jimmy, you’re my angel,” she said, and kissed me on the forehead.

We filled six jars with water that day, and starving, we made a feast of the bread and fresh fruit by a small tide pool in the shade of a bony cliff. In the late afternoon, Beth and I had our roller coaster ride. With hands shielding their eyes from the sun, my grandmother and Peggy waved to us, transfigured figurines on the earth below, their clothing white as snow. The coaster lifted our chariot further into the crystal sky, while on the horizon, heat lightening flashed behind a lacey curtain of gray.

***

It has been a long time since that ride, but when I recall that afternoon, I feel the heady anticipation of the rising, and the delightful fright of the quick fall.

Only a few days later, early on a Sunday morning, my mother came to my room to wake me. She sat on the side of my bed where I had propped myself against a pillow.

She told me that Lovely Peggy had died in her sleep.

I felt the pang of grief, but a sweet happiness, too, as I remembered our December journey, Peg’s persistence and her songs. I imagined Peggy “over there.” Eyes no longer teary, her countenance reflected the brightness of a blazing fire.

Finally she was home with her Jim. Completely awake—laughing, altogether beautiful, and divine—she rose once again to sing her favorite song. The sun’s great light shone upon and caressed her warm skin, like the flesh of a Father’s hands as He cradles His child’s head before lifting. His crossed arms relaxed to kiss her soft cheek. A Father, joyful and tearful at the same time, became hallowed by a loveliness that would forever be a part of Him.

Love and Extinction by Geoffrey Enright

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Andrew Moore killed my wife, Julianne Woodrow exactly six months ago. Ran her over with his car after drinking all afternoon at some work party. I couldn’t believe how many people took the stand in his defense, swearing up and down what a good guy he was, how “out of character” it was for him to get so lit. Luckily my brother, Jacob Woodrow, was able to present Andrew’s history of similar behaviour: four DUIs with an assault and battery to boot.

Andrew was sentenced to forty years in prison, which would put him close to eighty upon release. Assuming he’d make it that long. But I know he won’t, me neither, or anybody else hanging out on this planet for that matter. 

In exactly eight minutes an asteroid the size of Kansas is going to get into a slugfest with earth and it’s going to kick our ass. As a matter of fact, the radio just signed off; guy made a point to get in a bit about God. We’re about to see who God is and isn’t looking out for. Suppose it’s as good a time as any to start smoking again after three years without. 

***

You see, the federal government and NASA, that’s who I work for, have known about this asteroid for a little less than three hours. Three hours, that’s it? Yes, that’s it. We’ve never seen anything like it before, a “silent” asteroid that was never picked up until it was much too late. And it is very much indeed too late. At least someone had the sense to give a name to the planet we think the asteroid cane from, not that the record will survive: G9V5. 

Stub out a cigarette, light up another.  I know what some of you are thinking, what some of you may be thinking at least: why is everyone so calm if the world’s down to its final minutes?  There’s a very simple answer for that, we haven’t told them what’s going on, only the immediate members of the team are aware any of this is going on. 

“But what about the guy on the radio, the sign off?” you may say.  To that, I will tell you while the sign off was indeed very real, the reason we fed him was not. At this exact moment in our country we are going through something of a health scare, so we used that to our advantage. 

At this exact moment government personnel are flooding the streets to put a “quarantine” into effect in attempts of catching and stopping the supposed health crisis. Believe what you will about the federal government, but this quarantine was put into play in the hope of guaranteeing that nobody, at least in this country, will die alone. We all deserve to have somebody. 

From where I’m at, on the deck of my penthouse, I can see everyone moving inside, empty stores, and men in biohazard suits with assault rifles gathering everyone up in nothing more than an attempt to keep calm. I’m shocked nobody’s noticed the lack of tents, tanks, scientists, and whatever else they’ve seen in the movies. By the time their panic burns out and the rationality sets back in we’ll all be dead. But for now my cat Lacy, sitting on the deck at my feet beside the chair, doesn’t have a care in the world. 

All I can see now is my wife.  Stub out cigarette, light up another.  Julianne had my eyes, my heart, and my soul from the first moment we met at a house party back in our days at NMU together. She was the only person talking that night who had something to say. Being profound by nature was her gift from the god she believed in.

And her beauty, it was radiant and never ending. Her beige skin, straight black hair and brown eyes… the little arches on her long slender feet…the way her eyes always guided me out from the deepest pits of my soul. 

She may have been the only reason for me to ever consider God, because she was an angel. She was my angel. Always was, always will be. For a few moments longer anyway.

I would love nothing more than to reawaken and find her waiting for me but I just cannot bring myself to believe in such things. And for that, Julianne, I am truly sorry.

The sky’s getting brighter, fast. I don’t know if anybody else has noticed it. Like there was a film over the sky but it’s been since removed. Before long we all might live long enough to die from our suntans. That was a bad attempt at humor, none of us will live long enough for such a thing. 

My skin tells me so, Lacy tells me so as she begins to cry in discomfort from the heat that continues to grow rapidly. I reach down and grab her, scooping her up into my lap. She’s crying like birth now. My lips meet the top of her trembling head.

I whisper: It’ll be over soon, baby, I promise. 

It’s getting brighter…and hotter.  Brighter…and hotter.  Lacy is seizing and leaking bodily fluids into my lap, her desperate cries for help are gargled as she continues to liquefy in my arms.  I’m next, oh my it’s getting so hot. I’m going to die any second, it’s so hot, oh my it’s so hot.

OH MY GOD!

Geoffrey Enright lives on the island of Malta in the Mediterranean with his girlfriend and their dog Tasha.

The Albino Kangaroo by Steve Carr

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Perhaps I should have known from the beginning how it was going to end. Perhaps.

My mouth was as dry as the arid scrublands that the highway cut through like a surgical incision. Dust devils of brown soil whirled across the barren landscape, skimmed across the pavement as if purposely dashing from one side to the other. Even with all the windows rolled up, grit invaded the inside of the car, finding its way between my teeth where it settled; an irritant that I lacked the spittle to expel. The glaring sunlight that cooked the earth formed watery pond-like mirages on the highway that vanished just before they were reached.

The only indication that there was life in the region, other than the infrequent truck stops, roadhouses and ramshackle motels or motor lodges was the images of kangaroos, wombats and camels painted on the yellow signs that stood along the roadside. Occasionally, a land train with several semi-trailers pulled by a prime mover sped by, heading east. They were like huge, terrifying, roaring metal beasts. Their tires stirred up clouds of dirt and tossed rocks like solid raindrops against my windshield.   

My sister, June, had fallen asleep in the seat beside me soon after we departed Port Augusta. She curled up in the seat and remained motionless with her windbreaker pulled over her. She slept silently and motionless, inert like a pile of laundry. I fought the urge to shake her awake and remind her that it was her idea that we drive the 1,700 miles west, taking the Eyre Highway to see this stretch of the outback, the Nullarbor Plain and the Great Australian Bight. She had placed the cost for renting the car on her credit card, so there was that at least.

In the rear view mirror I glimpsed the Volkswagen van following behind. It kept the same distance from my car from the moment it suddenly appeared out of nowhere fifty miles back. It was a 1980s model, blue, but in need of a paint job. Its front grill was dented and one of the headlights was missing. I tried to check out the person driving it, but sunlight reflected from the van’s windshield and hid his face. He was male. That’s all I could tell. There was no one in the passenger seat.

For many miles, the scenery rarely changed. There weren’t abandoned structures or remnants of farms, silos, or ghost towns reminiscent of many highways in the American west. Unlike the plains of the United States, the vast space wasn’t broken up by miles of fencing. There were no road turnoffs.

It was apparent from the onset that the Eyre Highway would live up to its billing as the longest stretch of straight road on the planet. Looking ahead was mesmerizing, hypnotic, like staring into a never-ending tunnel filled with light. Miles of seeing nothing but the beige landscape sporadically dotted with a patches of saltbush and bluebush scrub produced the same effect I once experienced when becoming snowblind while trekking in the Alps; I lost my range of vision.

I might have missed the rest stop altogether had June not awoken in time to sit up in her seat and call out when she saw its entrance fifty yards ahead.

***

The heat was all-enveloping, so oppressive it made breathing difficult. It felt as if my lungs were being seared with every breath. Sitting on a picnic table bench in the shade under a corrugated tin awning I watched the visible waves of heat rise up from the pavement in the rest stop. Unlike back home in Seattle where there was always the feel of moisture in the air, on that stretch of the Eyre Highway, there wasn’t the slightest hint of it. The breeze came from the north carrying the scent of baked earth.

I guzzled a full bottle of water and was halfway through another as sweat ran down my back in rivulets. June stood at a map of the area pinned on a corkboard under a sheet of plastic near a row of soda and snack machines. She slowly traced the single black line that marked the highway with her finger as if unable to accept that the line never veered from its two-directional course.

Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail held together with a bright yellow scrunchie. She tilted her head from side-to-side, as if listening to music. Her hair swept across her upper back like the pendulum of a metronome.

It was moments like that I forgot she was only a few years younger than me and we were no longer children. At twenty-nine she had retained many of the same movements and gestures she had when she was a girl of six or seven.

An orange-colored dingo wandered into the rest stop, and she turned to watch it─entranced the entire time the wild canine sniffed about the trash cans and around the doors of the restrooms. June had taken time off from finishing her courses to become a veterinarian to take this trip, so animals of any kind were of special interest to her. When it ran off, returning to the open scrubland, she went into the women’s restroom.

I shifted on the bench to get a better look at the Volkswagen van that had sat parked in the driveway leading into the rest stop, arriving there within minutes after we did. The driver of the van didn’t get out. He sat hidden in the shadows inside the vehicle.

I was considering talking to the driver of the van when June came out of the restroom. She called out to me. “How far to go until we reach The Bight?”

“Another hour or so,” I replied. I looked to the west, uncertain even after looking at the map of Southern Australia a dozen times, where the Nullarbor Plain began and ended, and if we had entered it. The name alone conjured up in my imagination fantasies of places that seemed other-worldly, like the Sahara Desert and Machu Picchu.

June sat on the bench on the other side of the table. She rubbed her shoulder and winced.

“You shouldn’t still be feeling pain there,” I said.

“It’s not actual pain,” she replied. “It’s psychological.” She hesitated before asking, “Does anyone ever get over being shot?”

I looked to where the van had been sitting. It was gone. “I don’t know,” I answered her.

***

I stood on the edge of a sheer cliff holding binoculars to my eyes and looking out over the turquoise waters of The Great Australian Bight. A large pod of Southern Right whales breached the surface, shooting fountains from their blowholes. At the base of the cliffs, small waves washed up onto the narrow strip of beach that extended along the coastline. Seagulls circled and swooped above the white-capped currents. Far out, the white sails of a large yacht gleamed in the late afternoon sunlight.

June sat on the ground near me, her legs dangling over the edge of the cliff. Bits of grass she tossed into the air fluttered above her head like wounded butterflies before being blown inland or sucked into the ocean breeze and pulled seaward.

After a long silence between us, she said flatly, “I miss Patty and Mom.” The suddenness of the statement took me out of the moment and hurled me back to Seattle the year before.

I had just returned from a trip to Iceland and was sitting at the kitchen table in our mother’s condominium drinking a glass of iced tea. She leaned back against the sink stirring a cup of coffee. The sliding glass doors that led out to the balcony that looked out on the Puget Sound were open and a fish-scented breeze blew in. She gave birth to June and I when she was young and as she gazed at me it struck me that she could have passed for a woman in her early thirties. There wasn’t a single wrinkle on her face.

“Even when you were a toddler, I couldn’t hold on to you. You always wanted to run off and explore,” she said.

June came into the kitchen at that moment, her arm draped around the shoulders of her girlfriend, Patty. They were giggling like adolescent schoolgirls, which suited June’s bubbly personality at that time, but was unusual for Patty who was usually sober and restrained. They had flown in from Chicago the evening before to join me at Mom’s to celebrate our mother earning her masters in social work.

“What are the two of you so happy about?” Mom asked.

June kissed Patty on the cheek and with a huge smile on her face, said, “Patty and I have decided to get married.”

Just as quickly I was brought back from Seattle to that cliff when I realized June was sobbing. I let the binoculars drop against my chest and hang there by its strap and sat on the ground next to her. I put my arm around her and pulled her against me. She rested her head on my shoulder as we sat there staring out at the whales until they disappeared from sight.

When we stood up I turned and saw that the Volkswagen van was parked not far from where I had left our car. It pulled away and returned to the highway as we began walking toward our car.

***

Twilight saw the spread of bands of purple and gold across the darkening sky. The Nullarbor Plain stretched out beyond the opposite side of the highway like an endless dirt carpet, looking as if it had been bulldozed. I stopped the car a few times so that we could watch troops of kangaroos crossing the plain, the first large number of them we had seen, which was surprising given that their images were on every sign and their remains littered the highway. The landscape didn’t seem to offer much in the way of vegetation for them to eat.

June got out of the car each time we spotted a troop and took dozens of pictures, then got back in breathless with excitement as she chattered on about them. When we were children it was she who had pet dogs, cats, rabbits, hamsters, canaries and fish. I was still inside the car when I heard her shout, “An albino kangaroo!”

I got out of the car and standing by her side saw an entirely white kangaroo hopping along with the troop. To me it resembled a large white mouse.

“Do you have any idea how rare an albino kangaroo is?” June asked as she took pictures of it.

“I think an albino anything is kinda rare,” I replied.

Minutes later I realized she was holding her camera up to her eye, with the lens pointed at the albino kangaroo, without snapping anymore pictures. “As rare as I used to think it was to be shot by a mass murderer’s bullet.” She put the camera back in its case and got back into the car.

I watched the albino kangaroo for a few more minutes before returning and opened the map. I spread it across the steering wheel. I had the town of Cocklebiddy circled in red ink. It was about a half hour away.

June rolled up her window and rested against the glass. Her eyes were closed.

“Are you okay?” I asked her.

She sighed, expelling breath like a punctured tire. “Now that I think about, maybe coming on this trip wasn’t such a good idea after all.”

“You got to see an albino kangaroo and you said they’re rare.”

“Yes, they’re rare.”

In the ambient light of night I could see the Volkswagen van following us, maintaining the same distance and always at the same speed.

***

Countless stars glittered in the night sky, distracting me from what would have been an otherwise very boring trip from the time we saw the albino kangaroo until we reached Cocklebiddy. June said only a few words during the long stretch of darkness, keeping her eyes closed during most of it, although I could tell from her breathing that she was awake.

I tried to entertain her with anecdotes from my travels, but after twenty minutes of not getting a response from her, I drove the rest of the way to Cocklebiddy in silence. Upon approaching and entering the small town I had the uncharacteristic response of feeling happy to see lights, my preference being to travel where there was less civilization.

There was a roadhouse in the town for those just passing through and a small motel where I had pre-booked two rooms for us before leaving Port Augustus. When I pulled up to the curb in front of the motel June opened her eyes and gently placed her hand on my arm.

“What happened will be with us for the rest of our lives,” she said, despondently.

“I know.”

***

The Italian restaurant in the Capitol Hill area of Seattle catered to a gay clientele which is why June and Patty chose it to celebrate Mom’s achievement and their plans to get married. Although it was Mom’s car we used to go to the restaurant, June drove and Patty sat in the front passenger seat. Mom and I sat in the back seat. Along the way, Mom pointed out everything that had changed en route to the restaurant since it had been three years since I had last been in Seattle, which was to attend my father’s funeral. The trees that lined the curb in front of the restaurant were strung with white lights and two large rainbow flags hung from its facade.

We parked a block away and walked to the restaurant, merrily chatting and laughing the entire way. The restaurant wasn’t as crowded as we thought it would be, so we managed to get a table by the front window. Before I sat down I looked out and saw a blue Volkswagen van park across the street from the restaurant. I sat next to June. Patty and Mom sat across from us.

We were almost done eating when I saw a man get out of the van and cross the street, but gave it little thought and didn’t see what he was carrying, until he walked into the restaurant, raised a gun and started shooting.

In a moment of disconnect, I thought it was firecrackers I was hearing and not gunshots, and then I saw Mom get hit in the back and Patty shot in the head. June was struck in the shoulder before I had the presence of mind to react. I shoved her from her chair and threw my body on top of hers. The shooting, the killing, seemed to last forever. It was only later that I learned the shooter had been tackled and pinned down by an off-duty policeman until help arrived. The killer owned the Volkswagen van.

***

The motel in Cocklebiddy had a sign in front of it with an image of a young kangaroo peeking out from its mother’s pouch. The name of the motel was Joey’s Motel. The woman at the check-in counter was gregarious and talked non-stop while I checked us in. When she paused long enough for me to answer her numerous questions, I explained that it was June who had decided on the trip across Southern Australia. I didn’t explain anything further. June had remained at the motel office door, staring out at the street as if lost in thought. When we got to the doors of our rooms that were next to one another, June opened her door and went in without saying anything, and shut the door.

My room was nondescript with hardly a suggestion that it was Australian. I threw my backpack on the bed, laid down next to it, and without intending to, I quickly fell asleep. I awoke with a start a few hours later overcome with a sense of dread. I bolted from my room, ran to June’s and pounded on the door. When June didn’t answer back, I turned the doorknob and it opened.

Moments later I found June lying in a pool of blood on the bathroom floor, dead. She had slashed her wrists.

I’ve not seen the blue Volkswagen van since then.

For the Smell of the Rain by Patty Somlo

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If anyone asked, I could say I was on the Granada-bound train for the ride, and for the smell of rain coming into the windowless car. I might mention the bright green banana leaves and peasants waving along the tracks, or the sellers of nacatamales and guayaba juice who boarded at every stop. I could add I was going to Granada to bathe in the sultry saltwater lake or to take a boat to one of the islands, to sleep in a thatched-roof hut and listen to the monkeys cry. Perhaps I could pretend I wanted to go back to the hospedaje where I first stayed, to sit in a rocking chair in the courtyard and listen to Doña Alicia gossip and complain.

The truth is that I was on the Granada-bound train to see Alfredo, only one week after I’d left him for the last time. I sat next to the open door and let the rain dampen my face, just as I had done the first time, when Alfredo took my face in his hands and said, “You look so beautiful.”

“You must see Granada,” the owner of my hotel said on my first day in this country. “And you must go there on the train.”

Granada, he explained, was a replica of its Spanish namesake, a jewel of a city set in a special spot between black volcanic hills and a vast blue-green lake that stretched further than the eye could contemplate. The water in the lake, he went on, was salty, the same as the sea, warm and filled with sharks. Throughout the lake were pristine islands, like emeralds spit into water. Parrots and palm trees, even monkeys, populated the islands, and local artists painted the landscape in colorful, minute detail, not missing a single chicken or banana tree or bright blue bird.

Moments after the train left the capital, I could see why I had been told to travel this way. The landscape we slowly moved through burst with color. The sky was dark, nearly purple in places, and the darkness helped saturate the land the richest shades. Banana and coffee leaves throbbed a vibrant green.

After the rain stopped, the leaves shone. Purple and reddish-pink bougainvillea spilled over fences like bright tongues. Smoke rose in wide circles from the chimneys of small red-tile roofed houses. Even in the rain, people came out. Men with dark faces wearing wide straw hats smiled and waved as we went by.

In the damp air, I imagined Alfredo’s face as I saw it that first day, peeking out under a green rain poncho. His dark eyes. The curls stuck to his forehead from rain blowing in the open door.

“You are so beautiful,” he said.

Tiny beads of water clung to Alfredo’s black moustache. A few fragile crystals hung onto his eyebrows.

I smiled and turned away from him, not wanting to miss a minute of the breathtaking landscape rolling past.

When the train stopped to let on more passengers, Alfredo jogged away from my side. I thought he had gotten off and was a little disappointed but also relieved. While I was no longer surprised at how men here could suddenly become enamored with me – a light-skinned, green-eyed blond – I hadn’t gotten used to this at all.

The next thing I heard was the jittery sound of metal scraping against metal that signaled the train’s departure. Then I felt fingers lightly tapping my shoulder.

“You are beautiful, like the bougainvillea.” Alfredo handed me a slender stem with purple petals glittering from the rain.

The car was crowded with men and women, kids and woven coffee sacks, colored straw baskets overflowing with folded shirts and crisp bread and orange-skinned mangoes. The only place left to breathe was next to the open door.

How many times had I sat in this spot on my way to see Alfredo? How many times had I told myself the trip would be my last?

Alfredo was kind enough that first day to take me to Doña Alicia’s hospedaje, a two-block walk from the lake. He rented a royal blue motorboat and we sailed to one of the small islands, where we ate fresh-caught fish under a canopy of palm trees on a wooden porch. He told me that he traveled to the different islands to paint, sleeping in the simple huts, getting to know the peasants who lived there, and living off the fish and fruits and vegetables from the small plots of land they cultivated.

“I went all the way to Paris to study art,” Alfredo said. “Now, I have come back home to find that the peasants of these islands have more to teach me about art than all the world-renowned teachers in France.”

***

When I awoke with Alfredo in the small square room I had rented from Doña Alicia, sunlight slid through the narrow bamboo window slats─fell in lines across our skin.

Alfredo traced the light on my legs, his fingers moving up to my neck, and then my forehead.“What I love about this country is the light.” He kissed me and twisted his fingers in my hair. “The light is so thick and sad. It is impossible not to fall deeply in love here, because of the light.”

Riding the Granada-bound train, I couldn’t stop wondering how Alfredo would paint the passing scene. I felt sure he would want to capture all the details. The skinny dark-skinned boy wearing red shorts, with a scrawny gray and brown dog running behind him. White chickens pecking and scratching in a brown dirt yard. A woman wearing a bright green dress and pink apron, smiling and waving from the doorway of a turquoise stone house.

As the train moved along the tracks, I thought about that evening in the capital when I saw Alfredo’s paintings for the first time. It was raining and just getting dark, as I shook water from my umbrella and stepped inside. Glancing around the gallery, what struck me was the color. Small squares saturated with turquoise, red and a lush, lush green hung a careful distance apart on the clean white walls.

People stood in their colorful clothes, talking and sipping wine in the center of the room. Others, alone in front of the canvases, leaned in close to see the tiny birds and curled bananas hanging from the wide-leafed trees.

I looked for Alfredo and when I found him, I quickly glanced away. I felt his eyes on me until I turned and headed for the door. The quick thunderclap of my thin heels assaulted the floor beneath the steady hum of conversation.

On the porch, I stopped to open my umbrella. Raindrops landed with a smack on the thin curled metal roof.

“You are leaving before you have even seen the paintings,” Alfredo came up behind me, so close, I could feel his breath. “I wanted to introduce you to some people. Why are you going?”

“I can’t see you with her.” I refused to turn around, to see his face. “I’ll see the paintings another time.”

I opened my umbrella and Alfredo turned me around to face him.

“It is only a show,” he said. “What is real is what everyone does not see.”

 “How can it be real if no one sees it? How can I know it’s real?”

“It cannot be controlled. Doesn’t that make it real?” He reached his hand out from under the porch roof and cupped his palm. “If I catch the rain in a barrel, it is no longer rain. Rain must fall. That is the essence of rain. What you think you saw tonight was not love. It is as much like love as water in the barrel is like rain. She is my wife, the mother of my children. You are the woman I love.”

A mist clouded my eyes, brought on by the memories of Alfredo. They rose up whenever I rode the Granada-bound train. The sound of the rain hitting the metal car and the fertile smell of the dark dirt reminded me of an afternoon when I was swimming in the warm salty lake with him and the rain started falling. We watched the rain hit the water from a dark protected spot close to a nearly deserted island. The only sound interrupting the steady beat of rain against the leaves was the song of one lone bird.

Alfredo kissed my wet lips and pulled my bathing suit off in the water and dropped it on the high bank. With the rain wetting my already damp hair, Alfredo made love to me, as both of us listened to the insistent song of that one invisible bird.

“Would you mind if I sit here?” the voice said, almost in a whisper.

I looked up to see a dark face. Perfect drops of rain were clinging to the beige hood of the man’s thin plastic poncho.

“No,” I said and turned back toward the open door.

“It is a beautiful ride,” the man said, after he was seated. “Even in the rain.”

“Yes. I think the rain makes everything more beautiful.”

“I think you are right,” he said. “I never thought of it that way.”

We sat in silence, staring at the landscape. The train moved slowly south. I felt a light tap on my arm and turned to see the man holding out a long loaf of bread.

“Would you like some?” he asked.

“No. Thank you for asking. I will be having lunch in Granada.”

“So, you are going to Granada.”

“Yes.”

“Is this your first visit?”

“No, I have been there before.”

“Oh, that is good,” he said. “Granada is a very special place.”

“I think so.” I nodded. “But why do you think it is special?”

“It is a wild place. But it is also protected. The volcanoes are silent now, but we never know when they will burst with fire again. The lake is beautiful and warm but filled with sharks. They say that people have been lost on the islands in the lake, never to be heard from again. Once you have been to Granada, you must keep returning. I know. I have left dozens of times, yet I always find myself coming back.”

I sat in silence and thought about what this stranger had just said.

“It’s funny.” I shifted in my seat. “I thought it was just me. Even when I tell myself I am through with the place, I keep coming back. Now, you are saying it happens to others.”

“Oh, yes.” He laughed. “I have gone to many beautiful places in the world. I could practically live anywhere. But I keep coming back to Granada.”

I thought about the last time I was on the Granada-bound train, silently telling myself that the trip would be my last. I walked away from the train to where Alfredo stood waiting near the tracks, told myself to remember the feeling of Alfredo leaving in the night to go back home to his wife.

“I have missed you.” Alfredo held me so close I could barely breathe. “I am glad you have come.”

That night I couldn’t eat, stirring the metal spoon slowly, around and around the thick red broth of my seafood soup.

“You are not eating. Do you feel all right?” Alfredo asked.

“No. I don’t feel all right.”

“What is the matter?”

“I can’t keep doing this, Alfredo. I can’t. This visit will be my last.”

Alfredo made love to me that night like a desperate man. “It is so good with you,” he kissed me between words. “Being with you is like painting to me. Something comes over me in your presence and I lose myself. This is what happens when I am with you. Don’t you see that we must be together?”

“If you feel that way, Alfredo, why can’t you leave your wife?”

“What you and I have is wild. Something free. If we tried to capture it, it would be the same as putting the lion in a cage. He looks the same but his spirit is out there somewhere, running free. If I left my wife and married you, my spirit would be out there, running free.”

The soft voice of the man in the beige poncho suddenly broke through my thoughts.

“Are you in love with someone in Granada?” he asked.

My face grew warm and red beneath the humid dampness.

“Oh, forgive me,” the man said. “It is not my business. Please excuse me. “I always ask too much,” he went on. “It is impolite, I know. I have a curiosity, so I ask.”

“Yes, I am.” I leaned my face out the door to let the wind and rain cool me.

“That is what I thought.” the man smiled. “Why else would a beautiful woman be on the Granada-bound train, alone, again and again? I wonder, though, why he doesn’t ask you to stay with him in Granada.”

I waited in silence for the man to take back his question.

“Oh, I am going too far again,” the man said, almost as if he were talking to himself. “I know that. It is not a lack of manners that makes me ask too much. My mother and father raised me well. It is a game in a way. Like a puzzle really. What else is there to do on a long train ride but put the pieces together?”

I turned to the man and took several quick breaths, trying to calm myself before speaking. “So, you use people’s lives and emotions to amuse yourself. Is that it? And afterwards, what happens then? Do you sit with your friends drinking beer, telling them about the silly woman you met on the train, who goes to Granada again and again, to be with a man who will never leave his wife for her?”

“It is not like that all. You think I see this conversation as something trivial, something unimportant. That is not so. This conversation is everything. I could sit here in silence next to you, walk off the train and be hit by car. My life over, just like that! If I don’t live this moment, there is no point in going on. For this moment is all I have.”

“That’s a pretty morbid way of looking at things.”

“In one sense, yes. In another sense, no. Isn’t it sadder to think about living forever in silence? Isn’t it sadder to think I could ride all the way to Granada next to a beautiful woman and not know a thing about her? Isn’t it sadder to see all the pieces but never try to put them together?”

“You think about life in a way I never do,” I said. “I’m always planning for what’s going to happen next or brooding about the past. That’s what I’ve been doing this whole ride. It never occurred to me to ask you anything about yourself. I don’t even know your name.”

“Mario Pravia.” He held out his right hand. “I am pleased to meet you.”

I shook his hand and looked at him, without telling him my name.

“Okay, then. Let me ask you a question. If you were in love with a married woman who said she was deeply in love with you and not in love with her husband but wouldn’t leave him to marry you, would you keep seeing her?”

“I am not one to ask such questions.” Mario laughed. “I have ideas. Big ideas. But I am the last man in the world who can take these ideas and put them into my life. No, I am not someone to ask for advice.”

“From what you said, the future is irrelevant. Why should we plan for the future if it might never come?”

“Yes, I suppose I did say that. I don’t know what any of this means when it comes to love. Love is like the volcano. Completely unpredictable.”

“Are you in love with someone, Mario?”

“I am always in love.” He grinned. “For instance, right now, I am in love with you.”

I blinked at Mario and when my face grew warm again. I turned away.

“This is what I am saying. I am not a good person to ask for advice about love. But you see how easy it is for two people to get all tangled up. Here, I have only known you a short time and look what has happened to us.”

Mario reached under his poncho into the breast pocket of his shirt and pulled out a pack of cigarettes, holding it out to me. I slid a cigarette from the pack, even though I hadn’t smoked for nearly seven years. With his thumb and first finger, Mario pinched a cigarette between  his lips, struck a match and cupped it near my mouth, then moved it close to his.

Smoke swirled between us as we sat, inhaling and exhaling in silence. For the first time, I noticed the small straw bag set next to Mario, filled with books. I noticed the way his black hair was flecked with several strands of silver. I noticed the way his thick dark fingers curled around the slender cigarette, a breath from the filter.

“It is the same, you see,” he said.

“What is the same?”

“A man can make love to a woman with his body.” He twirled his cigarette in the air, making ever-smaller circles of smoke. “Or he can make love to a woman with his mind.”

I took a long, slow drag and let the heat of the cigarette burn the back of my throat.

“Look,” I said, pointing in the direction the train was headed. “We’re almost there. I know when we pass this farm, we only have a few minutes left.”

“Only a few minutes left?” Mario asked. “What can I say to you with only a few minutes left?”

“I don’t know,” I said, flicking the hair on top of my head with my fingers as I checked my reflection in a small mirror. “What is it that you want to say?”

“Only that I wish you were coming to Granada to see me.”

I gestured with my head as rain fell lightly on Mario’s poncho.

“There’s Alfredo,” I said. “I have enjoyed talking with you. I won’t forget what you said.”

I turned away and Mario slid a small slip of white paper into my hand. “Here is my address. I have no phone.”

Mario looked over to where Alfredo was standing, just inside the covered waiting area, out of the rain. “If you decide not to visit Alfredo anymore but you want to come back to Granada, you will find me there.”

I stared at Mario while the rain soaked my hair and face. He smiled and with his free right hand wiped the water from his chin.

“I have so many pieces to put together now,” I said. Mario glanced over again to where Alfredo was waiting, staying dry out of the rain. “All I know is that this piece is beautiful,” he said.

I watched him as the rain poured down and he stepped away from the train.

Patty Somlo’s books, Hairway to Heaven Stories (Cherry Castle Publishing); The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil) and Even When Trapped Behind Clouds: A Memoir of Quiet Grace (WiDo Publishing) have been Finalists in the International Book Awards, Best Book Awards, National Indie Excellence Awards, American Fiction Awards and Reader Views Literary Awards. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize four times and for Best of the Net once, as well as receiving Honorable Mention for Fiction in the Women’s National Book Association Contest and having an essay selected as Notable for Best American Essays 2014.

Bedtime Story by Pauline Yates

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A creak in Timmy’s bedroom makes an old fear pound at my heart. Wondering if he’s still awake, I hurry to his bedroom. The door is open. The light is off. The window is closed but a glow from the streetlamp outside slices a gap through the curtains. The yellow line falls across the bookcase, a pair of shoes, and the wooden sword I gave Timmy when he insisted he was old enough to sleep alone.  

Visions of childhood terrors race through my mind as I step farther into the room. Timmy lies in bed with the blanket draped over his head. His left foot sticks out from beneath the blanket. His right foot dangles over the side of the bed.  

scritching sound reaches my ears. Needle-thin talons reach for Timmy’s toes.  

Teeth and talons. Needle thin. Razor-sharp— 

I rake my fingers down the wall and flick on the light switch. Bright light floods the room. My heart drops from my throat, allowing me to breathe. Not talons. Pipe-cleaner fingers belonging to a papier-mâché robot, last week’s school craft project, on the floor beneath the bed.  

I stride to the bed and pull back the blanket. Startled, Timmy drops his torch. It falls to the floor and rolls beneath the bed.  

“What have I told you?” I say, pulling the comic book from his hand.  

“It’s Captain America,” he whines. 

“You know that’s not what I mean. Where are your feet?” 

He jerks his foot back onto bed but gives me a defiant look. “I’m not scared.” 

The floorboards creak.  

Fear digs its nails into my throat. I wrestle it with a deep breath filled with reasonable explanations. It’s the aging house. It’s the winter wind. It’s the heat from the fire expanding the floorboards. 

Bullshit.  

Fear wins. I jump onto the bed. 

“Daddy,” Timmy squeals, clutching the mattress. “You nearly bounced me off.” 

I mask my terror with a mischievous smile. “I don’t want to do that. It might be hungry.”  

Timmy giggles. “It’s not hungry. It’s sleeping.” 

“As you should be.” I straighten the blanket and tuck it around him. “Quiet now. It’s past your bedtime.” 

Timmy snuggles into his pillow. “Can I have a story?” 

“Didn’t mummy already tell you a story?” 

“I want another one. Please?” 

“Hmm?” I clear my throat. “Once upon a time—” 

“Not a fairy story.”  

“This story isn’t about fairies. This is a story about a little boy who liked to dangle his feet over the edge of the bed. Now, hush and listen: 

Once upon a time, there was a boy, just like you. He lived in a nice house and had a nice bed, just like yours. He even had a real sword, just like yours.” 

Timmy pouts. “I’ve heard this one. I want a different story.” 

“I think you need reminding why you should go straight to sleep and keep your feet under the blanket. Because if you don’t,” I shape my fingers into claws,“when the light goes out, and the room is silent, it will creep from beneath the bed, grab your foot and eat you.”  

“I’d kick it.” Timmy peddles his feet at my hands.  

“What if it ate your leg?” 

“I’d kick it with my other foot.” 

“Okay, Mister Brave. What would you do if it ate both your legs?” 

“I’d poke out its eye with my sword.” 

I point across the room. “But your sword is over there. You can’t jump that far. It will grab your legs when you step out of bed.” 

“I’ll sleep with my light on. It doesn’t like the light.”  

“The boy in the story slept with his light on. That was his mistake. The light doesn’t reach under the bed. That’s why it lives there. Under the bed is always dark.” 

“I’ll scream so loud its ears will hurt.” 

“Its foul breath will smother your screams. I won’t hear you. Mummy won’t hear you, either. Do you remember what happens after that?”  

Timmy wriggles from beneath the blanket, jumps up and bounces on the bed with a cheeky grin. “It will swallow me whole, and devour my soul, and spit out my body as a dust bunny,” he shouts in a singsong voice. “I’m not scared. I’ll jump so high it won’t catch me. I’ll get my sword and smash its head.” 

I catch him mid bounce and wrestle him back into bed. “You are Mister Brave, aren’t you? No more bouncing. No more stories. And no more Captain America. It’s time to sleep.” 

I swing my legs off the bed but another creak sounding more like a yearning growl reaches my ears. Fear drives its fist into my heart. I draw my legs up and leap from the bed so high I land near the door. I clutch the door frame and look back.  

The light from the torch shines beneath the bed. There’s nothing there but the robot. 

I breathe out my shivers in an exasperated sigh. “Do you want the light left on, Mister Brave?” 

“No. Goodnight, Daddy.” 

“Goodnight.” I switch off the light. My gaze drifts to the sword on the floor near the window. A dark mark on the tip of the blade swallows the streetlamp glow— 

It bleeds. 

I clench my jaw. It’s not blood. It’s not even real. It’s just the story that my father told to keep me in bed—the same story I tell Timmy. Even if it’s true, Timmy’s brave. Timmy’s safe. It only feeds on fear. 

“Daddy?” 

“Yes, son?” 

“Can I have my sword?” 

My heartbeat quickens. A responsible father wouldn’t tell his son scary bedtime stories. A responsible father would show his son that there’s nothing to fear in the dark. “Of course.” 

Leaving the light off, I walk across the room to retrieve the sword.  

“Daddy, what’s that smell?” 

“Daddy?” 

Pauline Yates likes to explore the world on the other side of the improbable and write about what she finds. Her short stories have appeared in Metaphorosis, Abyss & Apex, Bete Noire, Sirens Call, Aurealis, plus others. She lives in Australia, loves writing past midnight, and lurks on Twitter @midnightmuser1.

Keep Calm and Carry On by James Mulhern

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My grandmother sat on the toilet seat. I was on the floor just in front of her. She brushed my brown curly hair until my scalp hurt. 

“You got your grandfather’s hair. Stand up. Look at yourself in the mirror. That’s much better, don’t you think?” 

I touched my scalp. “It hurts.” 

“You gotta toughen up, Aiden. Weak people get nowhere in this world. Your grandfather was weak. Addicted to the bottle. Your mother has an impaired mind. Now she’s in a nuthouse. And your father, he just couldn’t handle the responsibility of a child. People gotta be strong. Do you understand me?” She bent down and stared into my face. Her hazel eyes seemed enormous.  

I smelled coffee on her breath. There were blackheads on her nose. She pinched my cheeks. 

I reflexively pushed her hands away. 

“Life is full of pain, sweetheart. And I don’t mean just the physical kind.” She took a cigarette from her case on the back of the toilet, lit it, and inhaled. “You’ll be hurt a lot, but you got to carry on. You know what the British people used to say when the Germans bombed London during World War II?” 

“No.” 

“Keep calm and carry on.” She hit my backside. “Now run along and put some clothes on.” I was wearing just my underwear and t-shirt. “We have a busy day.” 

I dressed in the blue jeans and a yellow short-sleeve shirt she had bought me. She stood in front of the mirror by the front door of the living room, holding a picture of my mother. She kissed the glass and placed it on the end table next to the couch. Then she looked at herself in the mirror and arranged her pearl necklace, put on bright red lipstick, and fingered her gray hair, trying to hide a thinning spot at the top of her forehead.  

She turned and smoothed her green cotton dress, glancing at herself from behind. “Not bad for an old broad.” She looked me over. “Come here.” She tucked my shirt in, licked her hand, and smoothed my hair. “You’d think I never brushed it.” 

Just as she opened the front door she said, “Hold on,” and went to the kitchen counter to put her hand in a glass jar full of bills. She took out what must have been at least thirty single dollar bills. 

“Here. Give this money to the kiddos next door.” 

When we were outside, she pushed me towards their house. They were playing on their swing set in the fenced-in yard. In front of the broken-down house was a yard of weeds. A rusted bicycle with no wheels lay on the ground. The young pale girl with stringy hair looked at me suspiciously as I approached the fence. Her brother stood, arms folded, in the background. He had a mean look on his face and spit. 

“This is for you,” I said, shoving the money through the chain links. The girl reached out to grab it, but most of the bills fell onto the dirt. 

“Thank you,” she said. 

As I walked away, her brother yelled, “We don’t need no charity from you.” 

I opened the door of my grandmother’s blue Plymouth; she had the air conditioning blasting and it was already full of cigarette smoke. 

She crossed herself. “Say it with me. ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ ” 

I repeated the words with her and we drove to her friend Margie’s house, not more than ten minutes away. Margie was a smelly fat lady with a big white cat that hissed at me. She always wore the same navy-blue sweater, and was constantly picking white cat hairs off her clothes, while talking about the latest sermon, God, or the devil.  

Nanna told me when they were young girls, their classmates made fun of her. 

“Stinky” they called her. And she did smell. Like urine, and cats, and mothballs. 

“Don’t let him get out,” Margie yelled, as the cat pounced from behind the open door. “Arnold, don’t you dare run away!” She bent over to grab his tail and groaned at the same time. “My back!” 

“Don’t worry. I got him.” I had my arms wrapped around the white monster. He hissed. 

“Why don’t you put him in the closet when you open the front door? We go through this every time.” My grandmother pushed past her towards the kitchen in the back of the house. “I gotta sit down. It’s hot as hell out there.” 

Margie placed a tray of ham sandwiches, along with cheese and crackers on the round grey Formica table. I liked her wallpaper—white with the red outlines of trains. Her husband had been a conductor. He died when he got squished between two train cars. 

“I don’t know how I feel about all those miracles Father Tom was going on about.” Margie placed a sandwich on a plate for me with some chips. “What ya want to drink, Aiden? I got nice lemonade.” Her two front teeth were red from where her lipstick had smudged. And as usual she had white cat hairs all over her blue sweater, especially the ledge of her belly where the cat sat all the time. 

“That sounds good.” 

She smiled. “Always such a nice boy. Polite. You’ll never have any trouble with this one. Not like you did with Lorraine.” 

“I hate when you call her that.” 

“That’s her name ain’t it?” She poured my grandmother and me lemonade and sat down with a huff. 

“That was my mother’s name, her formal name. I’ve told you a thousand times to call her Laura.” 

“What the hell difference does it make?” Margie bit into her sandwich and rolled her eyes at me. 

“Makes a lot of difference. My mother was a crackpot. I named my daughter Lorraine to be nice.” 

“Well, Laura is . . .” I knew Margie was going to say that my mother was a crackpot, too. 

“Laura is what?” My grandmother put her sandwich down and leaned into Margie. 

“Is a nice girl. She’s got problems, but don’t we all.” She reached out and clasped my hand. “Right, Aiden?” 

“Yes, Margie.” 

My grandmother rubbed her neck and spoke softly. “Nobody’s perfect. Laura’s getting better. She’s just got a few psychological issues. And the new meds they have her on seem to be doing her good. She’s a beautiful human being. And that’s what’s most important. Besides, who’s to say what’s normal? My Laura has always been different. One of the happiest people I ever met.”  

Her eyes were shiny and her face flushed. Her bottom lip trembled. She looked at me. “Don’t you gotta use the bathroom?” She raised her eyebrows. That was her signal. 

“Yes, I gotta pee.” 

“Well, you don’t have to get so detailed,” she said. “Just go.” 

Margie laughed hard and farted.  

I made my exit just in time, creeping up the gray stairs. The old banister was dusty. The rug in the upstairs hall was full of Arnold’s hair. I bent down and picked one up to examine it, then rubbed my pants.  

Nanna said Margie’s room was the last one on the left. Her jewelry case was on top of her dresser. I took the diamond earrings and opal bracelet Nanna had told me about. There was also a couple of pretty rings—one a large red stone, the other a blue one. These and a gold necklace with a cross I shoved into my pockets. Then I walked to the bathroom and flushed the toilet. I messed up the towel a bit so it looked like I dried my hands in it. 

 
When I entered the kitchen they were still talking about miracles. 

My grandmother passed our plates to Margie who had filled the sink with sudsy water. 

“Of course there was raising Lazarus from the dead,” Margie said. “And then the healing of the deaf and dumb men. Oh, and the blind man, too,” she said raising her hand and splashing my grandmother. 

“Let’s not forget about the fish. And the water into wine,” my grandmother said. 

Margie shook her head. “I don’t know Catherine.” She looked down. “It’s hard to believe that Jesus could have done all that. Why aren’t there miracles today?”  

I imagined a fish jumping into her face from the water in the sink. 

My grandmother smiled at me. “Of course there are miracles today. As a matter of fact, I’m taking Aiden to that priest at Mission church. A charismatic healer is what they call him. Aiden’s gonna be cured, aren’t you, honey?” 

“Cured of what?” Margie said. 

“Oh he’s got a little something wrong with his blood is all. Too many white cells. Leukemia. But this priest is gonna take care of all that.” 

“Leukemia! Catherine, that’s serious.” Margie tried to smile at me, but I could tell she was upset. “Sit down, honey.” She motioned for me to go to the table. “We’re almost done here.” 

“You gotta take him to a good doctor,” she whispered to my grandmother, as if I couldn’t hear. 

“I know that. I’m not dumb. God will take care of everything.” 

We said our goodbyes and when we were in the car, my grandmother said, “Let me see what you got.” I pulled the goods out of my pockets while she unclasped her black plastic pocketbook. Her eyes lit up. 

“Perfect. She isn’t lookin’, is she?”  

I glanced at the house. Margie was nowhere in sight. Probably sitting on her rocking chair with Arnold in her lap. 

“Now put those in here.” She nodded towards her bag, and I did. 

When we were about to turn onto Tremont Street where the church was, I remembered the gold necklace and cross. I pulled it out of my back pocket and my grandmother took it from me, running a red light. “This would look beautiful on Laura.”  

In a moment, there was a police car pulling us over. 

“Don’t say anything,” my grandmother said, as we moved to the side of the road. She looked in the rearview mirror and put her window down. 

“Ma’am, you just ran a red light.” The policeman was tall with a hooked nose and dark brown close-set eyes. 

“I know officer. I was just saying a prayer with my grandson. He gave me this gold cross. I got distracted. I’m very sorry.” 

He leaned into the car.  

I smiled. 

“Is that a birthday gift for your grandmother?” 

“Yes. I wanted to surprise her.” 

“And he certainly did.” She patted my knee and smiling at the police officer. 

“It’s a good thing no cars were coming. You could have been hurt,” he said. “That’s a beautiful cross,” he added. 

My grandmother began to cry. “Isn’t it though?” She sniffled. 

The officer placed his hand firmly on the edge of the window. “Consider this a warning. You can go. I’d put that cross away.” 

“Of course. Of course.” She turned to me. “Here, Aiden. Put it back in your pocket.” 

The police officer waited for us to drive away. I turned and looked. He waved. 

“Are you sad, Nanna?” 

“Don’t be silly.” She waved her hand. “That was just an act.” 

I laughed and she did, too. 

We parked. “I need to get that chalice, Aiden. I read an article in The Boston Globe that said some people believe it has incredible curing powers. It’s a replica of a chalice from long ago, over 100-years old, with lots of pretty stones on it. Experts say it’s priceless. I’m thinking if I have your mother drink from it, she’ll get better and come home to us. Won’t that be nice?” She rubbed my head gently and smiled at me. 

I looked away, towards the church where an old man was helping a lady in a wheelchair up a ramp. “Won’t God be mad?” 

“Aiden, I’m going to return it. We’re just borrowing it for a little while to help your mother. I think God will understand. Don’t you worry, sweetheart.” 

We entered Mission church. It smelled of shellac, incense, perfume, and old people. It was hard to see in the musty darkness. Bright light shone through the stained-glass windows where Jesus was depicted in the twelve or so Stations of the Cross. 

“Let’s move to the front.” My grandmother pulled me out of the line and cut in front of an old lady, who looked bewildered.  

“Shouldn’t you go to the end of the line?” she whispered kindly, smiling down at me. Her hair was sweaty and her fat freckled bicep jiggled when she tapped my grandmother’s shoulder. The freckles reminded me of the asteroid belt. 

“I’m sorry. We’re in a hurry. We have to help a sick neighbor after this. I just want my grandson to get a cure.” 

“What’s wrong?” she whispered. We were four people away from the priest, who was standing at the altar. He prayed over people then lightly touched them. They fell backwards into the arms of two old men with maroon suit jackets and blue ties. 

“Aiden has leukemia.” 

The woman’s eyes teared up. “I’m sorry.” She patted my forearm. “You’ll be cured, sweetie.” Again her flabby bicep jiggled and the asteroids bounced. 

When it was our turn, my grandmother said, “Father, please cure him. And can you say a prayer for my daughter, too?” 

“Of course.” The white-haired, red-faced priest bent down. I smelled alcohol on his breath. “What ails you young man?” 

I was confused. 

“He’s asking you about your illness, Aiden.” 

“I have leukemia,” I said proudly. 

The priest chanted some mumbo-jumbo prayer and pushed my chest.  

I knew I was supposed to fall back but was afraid the old geezers wouldn’t catch me. 

“Fall,” my grandmother whispered irritably. Then she said extra softly, “Remember our plan.” 

I fell hard, shoving myself against the old guy. He toppled over as well. People gasped. His friend and the priest began to pick us up. I pretended to be hurt bad. “Ow. My head is killing me.”  

Several people gathered around us.  

My grandmother yelled “Oh my God” and stepped onto the altar, kneeling in front of a giant Jesus on the cross. “Dear Jesus,” she said loudly, “I don’t know how many more tribulations I can take.” Then she crossed herself, hurried across the altar, swiping the gold chalice and putting it in her handbag while everyone was distracted by my moaning and fake crying. 

“He’ll be okay.” She put her arm under mine and helped the others pull me up.  

When I was standing, she said to the priest, “You certainly have the power of the Holy Spirit in you. It came out of you like the water that gushed from the rock at Rephidim and Kadesh.” 

“Let’s get out of here before there’s a flood.” She laughed.  

The priest stared in confusion.  

The old lady who let us cut in line eyed my grandmother’s handbag and shook her head as we passed. 

When we were in front of Rita’s house, our last stop before home, I asked my grandmother what “tribulation” meant. And where were “Repapah” and “Kadiddle.” 

She laughed. “You pronounced those places wrong, but it doesn’t matter. Your mother used to do the same thing whenever I quoted that Bible passage.” She opened the car door. “I don’t know where the hell those places are. Somewhere in the Middle East… And a tribulation is a problem.” 

“Oh.” 

After ringing the doorbell a couple times we opened the door. We found Rita passed out on the couch. 

My grandmother took an ice cube from the freezer and held it against her forehead.  

Rita sat bolt upright. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. You scared the bejeezus out of me.” She was wearing a yellow nightgown and her auburn hair was set in curlers. “Oh, Aiden. I didn’t see you there.” She got up and kissed my cheek. For the second time that day I smelled alcohol. 

“So do you think you can help me out?” my grandmother asked. Rita looked at me. 

“Of course I can.” 

“Just pull me up and I’ll get my checkbook.” I suddenly realized all my grandmother’s friends were fat. 

At the kitchen table, Rita said, “Should I make it out to the hospital?” 

“Oh, no. Make it out to me. I’ve opened a bank account to pay for his medical expenses.” 

“Will five thousand do for now?” Rita was rich. Her husband was a “real estate tycoon” my grandmother was always saying. He dropped dead shoveling snow a few years back. 

“That’s so generous of you.” My grandmother cried again. More fake tears, I thought. 

We had tea and chocolate chip cookies. Rita asked how my mother was doing. My grandmother said “fine” and looked away, wringing her hands. Then she started talking about the soap operas that they watched. My grandmother loved Erica from All My Children. Said she was a woman who knew how to get what she wanted and admired that very much. Rita said she thought Erica was a bitch. 

When we were home, listening to talk radio in the living room, I asked my grandmother if she believed in miracles, like the ones she talked about earlier in the day with Margie. 

“Sure, sure,” she said, not looking up. She was taking the jewelry and chalice out of her bag and examining them in the light. I saw bits of dust in the sunlight streaming through the bay window.  

“You’re not listening to me, Nanna.” 

She put the items back in her handbag and stared at me. “Of course I am.” 

“Well do you think I’ll have a miracle and be cured of leukemia?” 

“Aiden.” She laughed. “You haven’t got leukemia. You’re as healthy as a horse, silly.” 

“But you told everybody I was sick.” 

“Sweetheart. That was just to evoke pity.” 

“What does that mean?” 

“Make people feel bad so we can get things from them. I need money to take care of you, Aiden.” She spoke hesitantly and looked down, like she was ashamed. “I’m broke. Your grandfather left me with nothing and I gotta pay for your mother’s medical expenses. If Margie notices her jewelry gone, maybe she’ll think you took it to help your Nanna. I told her I was having a problem paying your hospital bills. 

“Sorta like a tribulation, right?” 

“Exactly, sweetheart.” 

“Is my mother a tribulation?” 

This time my grandmother’s tears were real. They gushed like water from that rock in the Middle East. I knelt before her and put my head in her lap. She hugged me, bent down and kissed my face several times. Then she looked out the window. It seemed the tears would never stop. 

“Don’t worry, Nanna. I believe in miracles, too. Someday Mom will come home from the hospital.” 

And we stayed like that until the sunbeams dimmed and the dust disappeared and her tears stopped.  

In the quiet of the room, she whispered, “Keep calm and carry on” to me or to herself. Or to both of us. 

James Mulhern has published fiction, nonfiction, and poetry in literary journals and anthologies over seventy times. In 2013, he was a Finalist for the Tuscany Prize in Catholic Fiction. In 2015, Mr. Mulhern was awarded a fully paid writing fellowship to Oxford University in the United Kingdom. That same year, a story was longlisted for the Fish Short Story Prize. In 2017, he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His writing (novels and short story collection) earned favorable critiques from Kirkus Reviews,including a Kirkus Star. His most recent novel, Give Them Unquiet Dreams, is a Readers’ Favorite Book Award winner, a Notable Best Indie Book of 2019, anda Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2019. He is a college professor and high school teacher in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

 

A Distinguished Fellow By Kevin Finnerty

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I’m a law professor. I teach law classes to law students. I write articles on various legal issues that are published in law reviews. I have a number of books on the shelves in my office that list my name as author. I hold the title of Alexander Q. Thomas Professor of Law.   

Some would say I spend my days in an ivory tower, but my office resides in a blue rotunda in an area of the school reserved for distinguished faculty. It overlooks the lake that borders campus. When students arrive in late summer, a gentle breeze soothes the heated newcomers. In winter, the wind pelts those same students with a cold fury. Every semester, it halts a number of them in their tracks, and the students’ legs churn without making progress until the gusts relent.  

Some faculty have been known to gather in a conference room on the days with the largest gales, which inevitably occur the week before final exams or the days immediately before grades are released early in the second semester, to watch who will be attacked, who will battle through, and who will be turned away. Sometimes dollars have been known to change hands as bets are placed to keep things interesting.

When you’ve been a law professor as long as I have, you have to look forward to the good times.

I was not happy last Fall. One of the reasons for that was Dean required me to teach the very undistinguished class of Civil Procedure because Less Distinguished Faculty member chose to give birth in late August and take maternity leave during the Fall semester. L.D.F.’s planning or lack thereof aside, I was annoyed that Dean, a magna cum laude graduate of an even more distinguished law school than the one over which he presides and I teach, was somehow unable to calculate the likely birthdate and resulting leave request in time to procure Adjunct to teach L.D.F.’s class. Apparently, Dean only realized the impact on the upcoming semester’s teaching load in July, when he came to my office while I was reviewing the proofs for my latest book on the federal courts and told me I would be teaching 1Ls.

“Why’s that?”

“Because you’ve taught it before and because you practiced before becoming a professor.”

Dean stood in the doorway with his arms stretched across as if he thought I might try to bolt past him. He is tall and thin and looks ten years younger than me even though he’s actually a year older. It’s probably how he ended up as Dean and why I give him a hard time. That and the fact that he wouldn’t even be among the most distinguished faculty here were he not Dean.

“I know why I could teach it but why do you need me to teach it?”

“L.D.F. is pregnant.”

“You just realized that today?”

“I guess we didn’t focus on it in time.”

“You have a science degree from an Ivy, right? Seems you might have been able to figure it out a little sooner.”    

Dean smiled the smile of one who knew he had options: he could play along and match wits to kill time or he could rely on power for a quicker and more certain victory. “Guess you should dust off and update your curriculum.”

“Am I still teaching…”

“Yep, you’ll get a reduced load in the Spring.”

So I was unhappy because I had to teach a class I didn’t want to teach, because this was the result of the failure of others to plan, and because I had to adjust the professional and personal plans I’d made. They were tentative, sure, but I’d secretly been hoping my book would be well received and I might be invited to speak at various venues throughout the semester.          

Instead, I was assigned to teach a class that met on Monday morning at 9:00 on the first day of the semester. I knew going in what I’d find─a class of 50 students only ten of whom had spent their lives dreaming of becoming lawyers while 40 others were delaying their entry into the non-academic portion of their lives, fulfilling a wish of their parents, hoping to find a partner, or secretly telling themselves spending $200,000 over the course of three years was a worthwhile investment, regardless of any economic return. 

I entered at 8:59, cognizant this was not my target audience at this point in my career. Although it hadn’t been my intention to commence the semester in this manner, when I looked about the room I found myself recalling a story my own Civ Pro professor had imparted early during my experience as a 1L decades earlier.

“Enjoy these last few weeks,” the confident, statuesque woman, who was one of the few female tenured faculty members at the time, said. “This is the last period of your life when you won’t think like a lawyer. Soon enough that will be gone, never to come back.”

After I repeated the story, I offered the 1Ls my take, based on experience, “I agree with my former professor, in part. If we do our jobs, soon you’ll never again think like a non-lawyer. But while my professor implied something had been lost, I contend we are giving you something invaluable. The ability to think like a lawyer, to use logic, to persuade and argue based on facts and the law, rather than relying on emotion and force, is the greatest ability any human can possess. I would expect when all’s said and done those of you who succeed will thank your distinguished faculty for this gift and will not consider yourselves to have lost anything of value.”

***

I don’t hold a title like Alexander Q. Thomas Professor of Law in my home.  I hardly hold a title at all. Sometimes I’m referred to as “Dad.” Less often as, “Dear.” Mostly, it’s just, “You.”

And much of the time I feel like I’m being visited by Dean in the doorways and non-doorways of my home.

“You are going to do this.”

“Why are You doing that?”

“What are You going to do about that?”

Usually a verbal response is not necessary, just performance of some act I wish there were no need to take.

I have two Children who are not completing their teen years with distinction. I have Wife whom I thought was going to be an achiever when I met and dated her but who, somewhere along the line, placed her career down ballot. Worse, she appears to judge me as if I’d made a similar choice. I suppose I could tell her I did no such thing and that at least on a percentage basis I’ve done a better job accomplishing the goals I’d set than she. 

Come to think of it, I probably have told Wife that once or twice. I seem to remember her responding by telling me I couldn’t absolve myself as a partner and parent because I’d chosen to assume those roles too, while we drove home after meeting with Son’s principal a few years ago.

“I know and I’m not absolving myself but…”

“Ah, the yes, but defense.”

You see, Wife is certainly smart enough to have achieved more in her career, or even have a career instead of just a job. She remembered one of the few things I’d learned during my two years practicing law before I transitioned to become a faculty member─first Assistant Professor, then Associate Professor, then Professor, before finally becoming Alexander Q. Thomas Professor of Law.

Partner at the firm where I’d worked came into my office late one night when this Junior Associate was typing a memorandum for our Client. He asked to see the draft and placed his feet on my desk while he read it.

“It’s not finished,” I said as Partner dropped page after page over his shoulder after seemingly only skimming each one.

“Understood.  What else have you got to say?”

“I think we have a couple more defenses we could raise.”

Partner tossed the last few pages to the floor en masse.  “Sure defense numbers six, seven and eight.  I’m sure they’ll help.  What about the overall?”

“Overall, everything is defensible.”

“That’s true.  But at the end of the day it’s all ‘yes, but.’”

He must have seen the quizzical J.A. stare numerous times before, so he continued, “Did you do A? Yes, but we had a reason? How about B? Yes, but another reason. And C, D, and E? Sure, but…’ You see, when the trier of fact, be it the court or a jury, gets to reason number three, they just roll their eyes. That’s all they can take.”

So when Wife referenced my tale decades later and somewhat analogously applied it in another context, I was both proud and disappointed: proud because I’d chosen one so capable, disappointed because she never even tried for distinction. She chose to put Kids first, and Marriage and Career suffered. And Kids didn’t turn out great anyway, so what was the point? Why didn’t she cut her losses when she still had time to succeed in other realms? As smart as Wife is, she had to realize that was what she should have done.

I don’t blame Wife for Kids. They are wholly and completely responsible for their own status. Wife and I gave them more than either of us had when we grew up in middle class (She) or lower middle class (Me) families. We gave them opportunities; we didn’t force them to fulfill any unmet expectation either of us had about life; we never denied them any reasonable request they made; we let them try private and public school and then private again.

And yet there we were: Son on his second leave from his university to spend time at a rehabilitation facility. The only positive about that was that at least I knew it wasn’t the same drug because the first time he couldn’t sleep at all and during round two that was all he wanted to do.  Before he could never sit still, he was always moving about, his eyes bulging white. Now, he could barely keep his eyes open and his head slowly descended until it crashed onto the dinner table, prompting Wife and I to look at each other, wondering whether we should lift it and if we would see blood if we did.  

Daughter had just told us (or Me, at least) she was pregnant. I did the math and knew it was going to be a photo finish whether the child or high school diploma arrived first, if either arrived at all. It’s a little hard for me to admit this but from a pure intellectual capacity perspective Daughter probably has everyone in Family beat. She did long division when she was three; read and thoroughly discussed young adult books by the age of five; and spoke authoritatively about theoretical concepts before she entered third grade. And yet she still managed to have unprotected sex with Inferior, a future criminal she didn’t even love. How smart is that?

Maybe it’s my fault. My contribution as Parent when they were younger was to instill competition. Against each other, against classmates, primarily against themselves. I thought it would teach them to excel, to achieve, to distinguish themselves. In the end, it appears they only competed to see who could fuck up worse.

“What about You?”

Daughter’s words snapped me out of one of my frequent dinner daydreams. Her hair was blue. The month prior it was green. Before that, red. None of it was natural.

I said, “What about You?”

I knew she was naturally the most naturally intelligent but doubted she could actually read my mind. 

Daughter asked what You thought she should do about Baby?

I looked at Wife for guidance but did not detect any forthcoming. She apparently wanted me to tackle this one alone. In my experience when one is unprepared it’s usually best to say little, especially when it comes to family matters, lest You say something that would only make things worse. In response to the silence, Daughter sprang to her feet and pushed the table away, which caused Son’s head to fall, then snap back to life. 

“See, You’re only concerned about Yourself. Just as it’s always been. Got something to tell You, we should all wish the worst thing going on in Family was Your having to teach two whole classes in one semester.”

“Dad’s okay,” Son said when Daughter darted towards her room. “He’s got problems too but they’re not as bad as ours and we had advantages he never did.”

Amazed he could speak at all, let alone coherently, I couldn’t tell if Son was being sarcastic or sincere. He was so gaunt, so gray, I genuinely wondered if he’d make it through the night.

“I’m going to bed.”

“All right,” Wife said, “I’ll get up early and pack your things and then wake you and take you to the center before going to work.”

“As busy as you are, you might want to take some of his old drugs if you can find any.”

“Yeah, or You could help out without being asked.”

“Or told.”

Wife opened her mouth as if she had a response ready for my last retort or at least as if she didn’t want to leave me with the last word.  I’m not sure why but she chose not to deliver it.  After half a minute, she got up and left me alone to wonder why she spared me.    

***

My work Neighbor is the second (or third, depending whether I count Myself and whether I’m feeling humble) most distinguished faculty member at the law school. He’s also my best friend, even though we view the world, or at least the legal world, almost diametrically opposed to one another. So I had to share the news.

“It really happened, I got ‘em.”

He had his back to me and was looking out the window but turned around and winced. “The dreaded 1Ls?”

“Guess I should have prepared myself for the inevitable.”

“If you’re looking for a positive, on the whole, 1Ls probably care about their classes the most.” Neighbor was right. 1Ls knew the least and so worried the most and paid the most heed to their professors. 2Ls were too busy interviewing and focused on their future careers to concerns themselves much with classwork. 3Ls didn’t care about anything, except getting through the year so they could get on with their lives. “And it still beats practicing, right?”

Neighbor and I are forever linked. We both came to the law school after practicing as attorneys for two years; we both published frequently following our arrivals; and we both achieved a measure of national recognition in the academic world. Our employer so considered us equals, mirror images, the basis for my receiving a slightly more desirable office due to its position along the curve of the rotunda was simply due to the fact that I appeared on campus a day before him. Of course, that wouldn’t have mattered had the undisputed most distinguished faculty member of our school not declined it when it was first offered to him. Top Dog claimed he wouldn’t fully take advantage of it because he traveled so often, but Neighbor and I believed he declined the honor just so he could make a point of bestowing it upon whomever might be considered the second most distinguished faculty member. 

Top Dog joined the law school directly after clerking for a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. Both before and after receiving tenure, he’d had multiple offers to leave our distinguished law school for even more prestigious ones. While we both presumed this was done with ulterior motives, Top Dog’s choice to stay prevented Neighbor and me from ever needing to compete against one another. There was no point. No one wants to hear anyone shout, “I’m number two!”

“Did you ever tell me if there was a particular case that brought you here?” I asked.

“Six or seven times. Securities fraud, remember?”

Fact was I didn’t give a hoot about securities fraud or stories about securities fraud, but I did sort of remember Neighbor telling me that was the one and only area he’d asked his firm not to assign him a case, so more than anything, the firm’s decision to do so taught him how much he could trust his employer. He quit three months later.

“I remember. You got out without having to acknowledge substantive incompetence.”

“It was a preemptive move to avoid malpractice.”

My departure from Firm had not been as preordained as his. I’d handled a variety of cases for more than a year before taking on an antitrust case. I thought I’d be able to tackle that one as well, but when I stood at the podium before the federal judge on the first motion I realized for the first time I was merely bluffing. Words spilled out of my mouth, but I wasn’t really sure what they meant. I feared being made the fool, or worse, that opposing counsel and the judge already knew I was one. I fled to the academic world where I thought I’d be better able to control my fate.

***

I’m a small “c” conservative. I believe in a federal government of limited, enumerated powers, and a system of government that was meant to be difficult to change. I do not believe there should be wild swings after one of the political parties obtains 53% of the vote from the 50% of the population who decided to cast a ballot in a given year. 

I believe the states exist as places for experimentation─for good and bad─and I’m true to this position regardless of whomever controls Washington. A party shouldn’t invoke states’ rights when out of power and then seek to impose its will upon them once it has the ability to do so. That’s intellectually dishonest.

Because I wish to remain true to my beliefs, not party allegiance, I do not consider myself Republican or Democratic. At least I don’t do so per se or all of the time. The parties may change their positions on issues based on their perception of voters, but I don’t change mine. I’d rather be right than popular.

Neighbor’s a liberal or progressive. I forget what he calls himself these days. Either way, he’s a smart fellow. He listens to arguments presented and attacks them rather than the person who makes them. If I had to pick on him for something─other than his entire belief system─I’d say he can be a little too outcome-oriented at times. I think sometimes he determines the result he wants on a particular matter and then work backwards, using his intellect, logic, and reasoning to determine the arguments to put forth to reach that end.

Neighbor’s not the only person with legal training to do that sort of thing.  Most practicing lawyers and judges operate that way.  But I don’t think a distinguished law professor should. 

Dean required me to teach my Federal Jurisdiction class in addition to Civ Pro. Most of my students are busy 2Ls but some 3Ls will slip in. Usually students who only decided late in the day to become litigators or those who didn’t want to take the course─which they correctly heard is difficult─during the semester they were flying around the country to interview for summer associate positions.     

I teach the class in a lecture format because there’s a lot of material to cover and that’s what works best for me, but there’s always one student who has something to say. This semester it was Mousey who was always raising her hand to challenge me or at least my words in front of the class. I don’t know if her actions annoyed her classmates or not, whether they wanted her to speak to break the monotony of solely hearing my voice or if they preferred her high pitch not waken them from their slumber. 

I figured she must have taken Neighbor’s Con Law class the previous Spring because he engages with his students more than I. He likes to hear them make arguments contrary to his own and then joust with them. I have no time and little tolerance for that, and I don’t see the need to showboat. I know I’m right without the need to prove it to a bunch of 20-somethings. So I’d just let Mousey have her say before continuing. The only time I even paid attention was the first time she spoke so I could evaluate her. 

I cover the principle of sovereign immunity early in the semester because I like starting the class by showing students the types of cases that do not belong in federal court, which are courts of limited jurisdiction and not intended to be venues for all the complaints a person may have.     

“I can’t believe how wrong the Court’s been on this issue for more than 100 years. It seems ridiculous to rely on some old English maxim that the King can do no wrong when we’re not England, we’ve never had a king, and our Founders─however much they even debated the principle of sovereign immunity─chose, for whatever reason, not to include it in the text of the constitution. And whatever one thinks of the Chisholm decision, a constitutional amendment was enacted. Arguing that it was ratified so quickly wouldn’t seem to support a broad interpretation but a narrow one. Everyone agreed with the simple, straightforward text, so the Hans court had no business going off on its own and expanding the reach of the Eleventh Amendment. And a hundred years later the Court just kept pushing a theory it wanted adopted, the text of the amendment be dammed. What’s left after Alden? Congress can pass laws and say they apply to states but can’t permit people to sue them in federal court or require the states to be sued in their own courts? What’s the point? The Court shouldn’t have excluded the avenues for relief Congress provided solely on its own judicially invented concept. That’s the sort of judicial activism those justices supposedly oppose.”     

I waited for anyone else to chime in, knowing they wouldn’t, before setting the class back on track. “Thank you. You stated your position quite well. In fact, I know someone who occupies the office next to mine who would heartily agree with everything you just said. I, however, disagree for all the reasons I previously stated.”

***

As disruptive as Mousey could be, I wish my discussions at home were as reasoned as hers. Thoughtful discourse is a rarity at our dinner table. When I learned Daughter might be reconsidering her decision, I believed I had an obligation to speak, to tell her she might not want to keep Baby. 

“You have multiple options.” That was probably the wrong approach. I should have let her get there on her own instead of suggesting it because any opinions I had, had to be wrong by the very fact that they were mine. 

“I don’t want to hear them. I know I’m going to have it and am going to love it.”

“That might be true if you had it and kept it but you don’t have to.”

“You don’t know what I’m feeling. You can’t. You’ve never been a mother.”

“That’s stating the obvious.”

“I can still do other things.”

“That may be true but you’re going to be making things much, much harder on yourself than they need to be.”

Daughter got to her feet. I stared more than I should have because I wanted to know if others would know her secret already. I couldn’t tell. “You,” she said, shaking her head before she left the room. 

Walking away is never the best way to win an argument.

“But it might be the only way to do what you know is right.”

Had I said my last thought aloud or had Wife read my mind? She remained at the table following Daughter’s departure. 

“They don’t know what’s right,” I said. “They just do what they feel is right. There’s a difference.”

“Right and humans act on both.”

“Do you really think doing whatever you feel like, including unprotected sex and drugs, is the way to go?”

“No, but we’re past that now.”

“You’re the parent. You’re stopped them from doing whatever they felt like when they were Babies, when they were Children.”

“And now they’re not. You can’t parent the same way.”

“I can’t tell them they’re wrong?”

“You can tell them. You can’t make them do what You want them to do or not do. And, in any case, You have to deal with what’s happened, whether You wanted it or not.”

I thought Wife was abdicating her role at the same time she was minimizing mine. I got to my feet and carried my dishes to the dishwasher. She was still seated when I came back for round two. I met her eyes. She met mine. I tried to see if I had the same ability as she after all these years together but I couldn’t read her thoughts.

“All right, we’ll do it your way.”

I didn’t hear her sneak behind me, but there she was when I bent up after placing a second load in the rack.

“Don’t You know I wish I could be like You?” I thought for a moment she meant be successful, but it became clear that was not the case when she continued. “Don’t you know I’d like to get away permanently or temporarily as well?”

I looked at her and thought I could read her better this time.

“Okay, not permanently. But I certainly could use a break from all of you every once in a while.”

***

I’ve known Neighbor’s wife almost as long as I’ve known Neighbor, and his kids as long as they’ve been alive. We don’t live very close to one another and don’t socialize that frequently, but we get together at some faculty or social event two or three times each year. Maybe Neighbor and I have stayed above the fray all around us because we’ve shared so much with one another over the years. Still, I think I have a better understanding of his relationship with his kids than with his wife. 

We share all our kids’ achievements and problems. Lately, it’s been his kids’ achievements and my Kids’ problems. But I know his youngest son is on the autism spectrum, and Neighbor worries about him long term, even when he seems to be faring well at the moment. 

We talk about what our spouses are doing but we don’t tell each other how often we fight or have sex or the types of fights and sex we have with our wives. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t seem like the sort of thing distinguished professors of law should share. Or maybe it’s because that would reveal too much about ourselves, even if couched as revelations about our spouses. 

It seems safer to discuss our children. They just landed at our feet; we had no choice as to the type of humans we’d get. But who knows, maybe Neighbor thinks I’m a bad parent because of what I reveal about Son and Daughter. Or maybe he worries I believe he has bad sperm, given his own son’s challenges.

It used to be safe ground to discuss the law, the profession, and politics. It was like a game of chess, intellectually challenging but ultimately just sport. Not so anymore. Tribalism in society has infected our distinguished law school. Neighbor and I might be the last members of the competing tribes to actually hold pleasant conversations with one another. This works more to my benefit since numerically he has many more affiliates than I.

After the election, I probably erred in telling him I’d noticed the change around us. I certainly did by doing so while he was editing. It was a Friday, so I should have recognized he wouldn’t even have been at the office if he didn’t have serious work to do, but I popped in nonetheless. I guess I needed someone. “I’m starting to feel lonely around here.”

“Why’s that?”  He was typing on his laptop.

“There are fewer and fewer people who will talk to me.”

Neighbor looked up and stared, offering me one last chance to excuse myself. When I didn’t, he said, “Maybe you guys should go back to battling on the basis of the merits of your ideas.”

“What’s that?”

“If Republican ideas are so great, why do they spend so much of their effort trying to limit who can vote and supporting anti-democratic gerrymandering efforts? You would think they would have faith that the majority would support their positions if they were truly superior. It’s because they know that’s not the case that they seek to win elections through other methods. And you wouldn’t think there would be a need to discredit the media or prevent research concerning gun violence if they weren’t afraid of objective reporting and studies.”   

“I’m not a Republican.”

Neighbor chuckled at my response and when I stared with what I considered appropriate seriousness, he broke into loud laughter.  

“Do I really have to ask who you voted for?”

“Just because I’ve voted for them doesn’t make me one.”

“Is that how your conscience stays clean?”

“I mainly voted that way for the judges.”

“And as a result you’ve pretended facts and science don’t matter. That’s not worthy of the profession. You’ve bought it all, Bill, not just the judges.”

Neighbor and I had openly matched wits on numerous occasions in the past, but it had never seemed so personal. This one did and I felt unprepared to continue so I retreated to my office, using Neighbor’s work as an excuse for my abrupt departure. 

Some less secure person might say that was when a lightbulb went off in his head and he abruptly changed course. That’s not me and it wouldn’t be intellectually honest. Fact is, long before Neighbor uncharacteristically spoke to me the way he did, I’d been evaluating my political alignment. The Republican Party has moved further and further away from my belief system─no longer expressing genuine concern about moral leadership, fiscal responsibility, or true foreign threats around the world. 

I’ve been reluctant to switch my affiliation for a couple of reasons. First, I had hope (now fading)  that the Republican elite would re-assert their leadership of the conservative movement. At the same time, I’ve had a fear (growing) that the elite Democrats will lose control to their activist wing and soon no one will represent a true conservative position.   

I wish there were a third choice. That said, I understand that at some point one party can become so intolerable that if there is only one other viable option, you go with that, even if you find its philosophy somewhat repellant.

***

When I arrived on campus the following Monday, I found Neighbor in the hallway outside his office speaking with Mousey. They both waved, then followed me. 

“Bill, this is Megan. She was one of the stars of my class last Spring. She was telling me how much she enjoys your class.”

“She’s probably the only one.”

“That’s not true.” Megan’s tone was different than Mousey’s. In my office, it was lighter, more personable, than the one she displayed in the classroom, which I found to be more than a little strident. “You know how it is. Most of those who disagree with you are afraid if they speak up, they’ll get shot down in front of their peers, and those who agree with you don’t want to appear like they’re sucking up.”

“Those things don’t appear to bother you.”

“I love talking in all my classes.” She pointed out my window. “Out there lots of people try to shut me up, put me down. Here, for the most part, people listen, even when they disagree. Like you. And you and Professor Brennan and just about everyone else here are helping me acquire the skills I’ll need for out there.”

Neighbor looked down at Megan but only because she failed to reach his shoulders in physical stature. “I’m glad we’re helping, but I always think I get as much from my students, especially students like you, as I give to them. Would you mind if I speak to Professor Buckley now?”

After Megan excused herself, Neighbor waited until I’d taken a seat and closed my door. We’re essentially the same age, but he still has a full head of hair. It’s long, wild, and gray. I lost most of mine and cut the rest close enough that it looks shaved from a distance. That said, anyone meeting either of us for the first time probably would peg our age within a year or two. “I want to apologize.”

“No need.”

“Yeah, there is We’ve always been friends first.”

“Still are as far as I’m concerned.”

“Me too. That’s why I came to tell you something, though you’ll have to promise not to share it until the announcement’s made public.”

“Sure.” I expected him to tell me he was taking a position at another law school.

“You’re going to be recognized as the Distinguished Law Professor of the Year. I submitted your name and was given a heads-up.”

I jumped to my feet, and, at the same time, my cell phone rang. I ignored it and allowed it to go to voicemail.

“When did this happen?”

“I learned this morning. I submitted your name after reading your book.”

My office phone rang next and I ignored it as well.

“What will your buddies out there think?”

“Doesn’t matter. To me, great is great.”

I answered my cell when it rang again, figuring I’d just tell one of the members of Family that I’d call back in a bit. A voice I didn’t recognize and whose name I didn’t catch told me I needed to go to the local hospital.

“Because of Son?”

“Yes, but not just him.”

“Daughter too?”

“Yes, but not just her.”

“Who else?”

“Wife.”

“Wife?”

“Yes, she’s been in a car accident.”

Neighbor drove me to the hospital, where I made the rounds. Son had overdosed and was recovering. Daughter had miscarried and was sobbing. Wife had suffered a concussion and was disorienting.

***

As Neighbor had promised, I was soon notified that I’d receive an award for apparently being a distinguished law professor. Upon delivery, I used my momentary standing above even Top Dog to tell Dean I intended to take my sabbatical one semester earlier than had been scheduled. Neighbor told Dean he’d cover my class in the Spring if Dean couldn’t find anyone else. I subsequently told Dean he needed to hire someone.  Because I knew he wouldn’t solely on account of my request or Neighbor’s schedule, I appealed to Dean’s politics.  Like me, he leans towards conservativism. I reminded Dean Neighbor surely would teach a course called The Fourteenth Amendment differently than he or I.  

“And wouldn’t it be better if…”

I didn’t have to finish. Dean knew where I was headed and nodded in agreement. It wasn’t much of a repayment, but I thought it was the least I could do, given Neighbor’s role in getting me the award. 

I chose not to attend the faculty gathering for the gusts at the end of the Fall semester. I was no longer interested in seeing students battle against strong forces and feared such a gathering these days might devolve into a Survivor episode instead of good ol’ fashioned gambling on the abilities and perseverance of our students.

Once the semester ended, I scrapped my plan for traveling and writing during my sabbatical. I realized I’d reached a peak in my professional career and my next advancement needed to occur in other realms.

***

Davis is doing well. He and I both understand addiction much better. It’s a disease he’ll live with the rest of his life, but he now recognizes he wants a life and that to have one he needs to fight. So far he’s battling hard. I think he recognizes if he beats back his foe he will accomplish something far greater than Dad ever did or could.

I think the miscarriage was best for Caryn and that although she won’t say so (at least to Me) she might feel the same way. She’ll be a great mother someday. At the right time with the right partner. And I have no doubt either before, after, or both she will offer the world something with her phenomenal mind I cannot yet comprehend. 

Judy still suffers from post-concussion syndrome. She cries for no reason when she never did even though she had lots of reasons to do so before. She forgets things. She worries. Her doctor tell us she will improve with time, but I wish she would be more specific and wish we saw more progress.

I’m better now too. I know I made mistakes. Lots of them. It was easy to see the errors others made and were making and to tell them how they should correct them, correct themselves. Maybe I didn’t think I was immune, but I didn’t really see mine before. I didn’t want to recognize them; I didn’t want to acknowledge their breadth and scope. Maybe that’s not so unusual. But it is necessary.

Perhaps simply acknowledging all the things one has done wrong is insufficient to warrant distinction. But doing so when appropriate would seem to demonstrate a level of emotional and intellectual honesty that had previously eluded me. I hope it’s a start anyway.

Kevin Finnerty lives in Minneapolis with his wife and a pug named Shakespeare.  His stories have appeared in The Manhattanville Review, Newfound, Portage Magazine, Red Earth Review, The Westchester Review, and other journals.