Karen Lethlean – Being Outdoors

Karen Lethlean
Being Outdoors

There were noises. More like something was eating the trail than walking. At the very least, something rearranging the undergrowth. Were there Tasmanian Devils on the mainland? Or course not. A troop of mountain bikers were headed for him maybe? What is the plural term for mountain bikers? Peloton? MTBers? Train? A Murder? Nope that was crows. Anyway, mountain bikers’ groups fractured quickly within sight of the start line. Out for a social ride MTB “bro” would carry on a conversation. Gary’d be able to hear snippets like the time they taught Ryan to get up steep inclines, “…keep your pedals spinning over…pedal, pedal, pedal.” Or the tale when Jonno fixed a pinch flat with just a Band-Aid. Wouldn’t have thought those repairs could be enough to get him home, but damn thing worked. Cheapskate Jonno was probably still using that wheel. Anyway, MTB noises: what would they be—pedals grating over fallen branches and rocks, rear wheels slipping in loose gravel, chain suck or rear wheel wash out. Maybe someone yelling to warn the tail ender to avoid the way motor bike trial bikers had gouged ruts and loosened stones. Gary remembered his days growing up near the national park, exploring trails similar to the one he was on. That time they were confronted by the group of runners training for the Six-Foot Track Marathon. When his motley group had been heaving supplies for several days walking had met a sweat laden group, carrying little more than drink bottles, the track barely wide enough for them to pass. But those runners had been silent, apparition like; whereas now the landscape was interrupted by distinct grunts. Noises of flattening scrub, stomping on endangered species was more like an unruly group of army cadets or scouts pushing down the trail broke Garry’s reverie. Soon enough of five burley fishermen lugging rods and a huge esky came into view. Pity, had it been mountain bikers Gary would have liked to see what they were riding.
      They smiled and waved and the more senior of them asked Gary if he was all right, which he resented. They would be in trouble soon, trying to get the outsized esky down that steep hill without going arse over tit. Might function to keep drinks and to a lesser extent food cold but did they really need something the size of a small fridge, and just how do they manage to lumber it along these trails?
      ‘Perfectly fine.’ Gary answered.
      ‘Severe weather warning, bro. Came over the radio.’
      Gary shook his head, refused to believe. ‘Thanks. But I only just got here.’
      ‘Reckon it’ll hit just after dark. You camping out?’
      ‘Might.’
      ‘It’s going to be rough.’
      Younger members of the group had gone on, the pair carrying the esky between them slipping and sliding and laughing, so the harbinger of doom bade farewell and went too, unhurried.
      Harbinger. Hard bringer. Harp binger. Where had that word come from? If Gary had his phone he could find out. It was odd, not being able to satisfy his curiosity immediately. But he felt healthy, disciplined; like refusing a beer or a meat pie, increasing exercise or cutting back on sugar. Gary thought the words ‘Are you going to talk to me or look at your phone?’ Crossed his lips way too often these days.
      It was less windy up here than on the beach, and there were places where Gary could see that the fishermen had skidded with the esky’s weight. Broken saplings, dishevelled bush on the track’s edges. He fell himself at one of these markers, his foot sliding back and putting him off balance so that he came down hard on one knee. Onward, Gary told himself, despite the throbbing and bleeding. Don’t even think about the giant mud bruise spread over his new walking pants. Sure, enough he’d encountered similar pain on more than one bike ride. More than his share of involuntary dismounts, most spectacular was that face-plant because he’d caught a glimpse of a large lace monitor lizard ascending a tree.
      Gary could barely make the words heard, competing with raucous laughter, “thought the tree was moving. Lizard was so big.”
      All good fun till his step dad had issued that ultimatum, “unless you can promise me no more picking dirt out of wounds, no more MTB. He’d tried to soften it by saying, ‘I’m only telling you this because your mother worries you will seriously hurt yourself…’ Gary always felt he could have really been famous, more well-known than Cadel Evans.
      His knee wasn’t that bad, Gary could shut it out. Told himself, if you can’t see the blood it’s not hurting.
      First-aid kit. He supposed he should have packed one. Hadn’t even thought of it. Gary had a mind-image of a much younger version of himself trying to explain to his mother why a list of essential equipment had been ignored. “Well I did have food. I had a bar of chocolate and a packet of chips…” That walk along the Helensburgh spur track had been a disaster; he’d been lucky to come back alive.
      Gary turned at the first fork the track offered and went along for half an hour or so. By now his knee was pinging and now his back hurting from the lumpy load. Further on around the shoulder of the hill before the track narrowed and dropped again to a small clearing. Perfect. The trees were taller here, not so wind-bent, and there was a stream and blackened fire spot. Gary was sure this defunct group would not have had tents like his brand new two man dome bright yellow and green, compactly packed, a cylindrical marvel with tiny instructions written in pale ink. He opened the bag.
                  Insert male push rod (4D) inside of female rud (33F). Bend for make archin.
                  Raise high the tent roop up by sliding rud flaps.

      Gary was sure there wouldn’t be 33 pieces in his pack, nor that he would find any numbers, even if he looked. Plus, this was the best example of poor translation he’d ever seen, probably from Chinese or Vietnamese. He dismissed these instructions by folding up the paper and putting it into his pocket.
      The rods and slots were colour coded; the tent pegs and guy ropes less complicated than the tents he’d erected on surf beaches with his stepfather. Always accompanied by adult caustic comments. He recalled being stung in the face with sand. The misshapen tent usually dismounted what seemed like mere moments later. Before too long Garry’s new tent took shape, sitting on the ground like an igloo, a child’s playhouse. Clever design. Any fool could put it up.
      There were enough twigs lying about for a small fire, which he could get it started if the lighter held out. Inscribed – Rugby World Cup 2011 found under the sofa in his flat. Gary sat on the ground, pulled the joint from his pocket and took a deep drag. And another, until he felt the warmth seeps into his brain. Night was falling bit by bit and so was the rain. Heavy drops plinking and plunking on leaves high and low sounding like music, the higher tones above and the bass pattering on the clearing floor. On the humus. Hummus. Humans. Hubris. Gusts of wind higher in the canopy sent scatters of rain falling in a rush, like a kettledrum on the tent roof and dead leaf litter. Just a few drops – Noah isn’t called for, Gary told himself.
      One more drag took the last of it. Dave had hardly been generous. Anyway, the weed had belonged to a roommate, who said it was okay, as long as it as a pinner.
      Gary had stared at the wrinkled, emaciated thing. ‘Fifty bucks for that?’
      ‘I’m taking a commission.’ Dave said. ‘Then I won’t feel so used.’
      A torch. He’d forgotten to bring one. Or even a candle, and now was the hour for candles, as they used to say in the times before electricity. Gary stood up, his legs stiff from the two-hour walk. Was his knee actually swollen? He felt his head spin as if he was going to topple forward. Might have been a pinner, but it was strong and he was tired and unaccustomed. Gave it up with smoking tobacco in his mid-thirties. Crazy idea to have a bushie now after all this time. And alone? What was he thinking? No torch. The night coming. Just him and a cigarette lighter out here.
      Just him and his thoughts. His chance to do what he’d come here to do. Think about his relationship. If he even wanted it anymore. If he really wanted to go on with the same old, same old. ‘Plenty more possibilities out there,’ Dave had said. Fish in the sea, wasn’t that the saying. Being out here was all about efforts to deprive himself of company, anything really, see what was addictive, habitual, and what wasn’t. Live each moment in his own head. Shift the glut. Just be.
      A mistake. What a wanker. What a lofty ambition, when most people on the planet are worried about how to get hold of clean drinking water and their next meal. To think he’d had this dream of escape in the back of his head for months, maybe years. Fifty ways to leave your lover… Recognizing those words Gary was filled with joy and regret. Had he wasted any earlier opportunities? Maybe he needed to stop taking himself so seriously.
      Mea culpa…
      But then he realized he was stoned. The self-abasing alter-ego was haranguing the paranoid ego for perceived failures, under achievements or instances of bad behaviour. He would have to try and shut this off. Reach outside his brain – that would be the go. As his step-dad used to say, ‘Inside your head Gaz, that’s a busy place.’ Fuck he hated being called Gaz. Not like the prick didn’t know his real name.
      Here was a bird nearby calling out mournfully, a single downward cry, as if it too resented the rain. The bush was quiet apart from the wet and that one bird. Too quiet. What he hears others might call silence; therapeutic natural mumblings; bush ambience tones. Supposed to be relaxing, right; but this quiet made his skin crawl. He’d heard nothing other than gulls as he’d made his way up the bluff, and on the dusky ridge path an incessant insect drone. The single bird continued to call with little variation. Coo-woo. Coo-woo. The wind was strengthening. The bird went on and on.
      Gary entered his tent, spread out his sleeping bag on the bumpy groundsheet and lay down. Almost immediately, as if it had suffered sudden death, the bird call ceased; strangled out; stopped mid cry. Rain drummed more steadily on fabric. A dome of pale sunshiny yellow in the gathering gloom. The nylon rustling gently in the wind. He would go over pros and cons of staying with Brenda. Once. He would only do it once and then go on to other things. Promise. What’s in the past was done.
      There was a scuffle in the leaf mould outside; maybe it was his imagination, again, but that did sound like the impact of flesh on feather. Gary was sure he heard a low growl, and the tent wall bulged suddenly against his head – solid, animal, alive – and then all that noise was gone again. He was up and out of his tent and into the clearing, working the cigarette lighter to a flame, with a clicking thumb. Shielding it from the wind and rain. A flash showed him two reflective eyes the size of golf balls and a dark, muscled shape hunched over a feathered mess. When the lighter agreed to illuminate again, Gary held it cupped towards the nonchalant animal, jaws working. Eating the catch where it had fallen. Pricked ears gleaming, a flash of white incisors.
      A fucking huge wild cat. A super cat. He’d read about them. How feral cats were evolving after nearly two hundred years of going wild in the bush. Breeding ever stronger and larger offspring. How they feasted on native birds, marsupials, reptiles and lately rabbits, even Cane Toads didn’t stop these beasts. This one was easily twice the size of a domestic. Seemingly oblivious of the rain and increased night chill. A small tiger, brindled and strong, fearless. It must have known Gary was standing there, frozen in awe at such a powerful carnivore. Still the creature just chomped on, implacable. What kind of bird was it? He knew the names of city birds, noisy and Indian Mynahs, sparrows, lorikeets and even the aptly named King parrots. But this one wasn’t a parrot, even though Gary would have liked to think a feral cat might take one of those domestic vandals disguised as Sulphur Crested Cockatoos. That would be payback for all the chewed baloney railings, destroyed washing lines and robbed lemons. He’d told Brenda often enough, ‘Leaving out food only encourages them.’
      The flame died in the same instant that Gary realized his finger was burnt from holding down the flint. He put it in his mouth and waited for his eyes to adjust to the gloom. The cat’s eyes reflected dully but with more of a challenging air than they had before. And moving, coming nearer to stand between him and the tent. And vanished. Into the tent. He was sure of it. He’d heard the sweep of fur against nylon as it passed through the opening. Or had the creature just brushed the fabric on the way back into the bush?
      His hair was dripping into his eyes, his hoodie was soaked and Gary was paralyzed with indecision. If he could get the lighter going again, he could bend into the tent and see what the monster was doing. But it could fly at him, blind him with poisonous claws. A beast big enough to knock him flat, rip his throat out, eat his eyes. Groping in the dark, Gary patted the tent roof once, twice, harder the third time. Then the same thing against the wall lower down, to scare it. He doubted the impact of his actions, they seemed so insignificant.
      Then Gary listened. There was the sound of packaging being ripped open, like an eager child on Christmas morning. More ripping. It must be the salami. Or Garry’s small slab of cheese. The cat was quieter now. Difficult to hear over wind and rain. When he held his ear to the tent wall, Gary could hear another sound. A low rumble, and it took him a moment to realize the cat was purring. Monster hadn’t purred when it ate the bird. Obviously, it preferred his meagre supplies. Nitrates and garlic. Processed pork without feathers, must evoke genetic memories of ancestors’ lives spent eating human food and sleeping on soft beds.
      ‘Puss, puss!’ he called. In a way his mother had summoned the family moggie. ‘Puss, here pussy, puss.’ Falsetto. Shit if his gang of mountain bike buddies had heard they’d sign him up for the next stand-up comedy show.
      The purring went on, as did chomping and tearing, while outside rain beat down and wind picked up intensity. If he didn’t get under shelter soon, probably catch pneumonia. Who knew what sort of germs were only now having a procreative party on his drenched person? Aside from potential illness Gary knew he had to do something. Like riding that same trail after he’d fallen, getting back on the bike when his legs were quivering. Standing in the bathroom knowing he had to come out and face his step-father’s lip curl, endure the next verbal onslaught. Dry his face, couple of deep breaths: do it.
      It’s going to be rough.
      Ridiculous. ‘Be a man!’ Brenda would say.
      ‘Right.’ Gary said aloud to the listening forest. ‘I’m coming in.’
      The cigarette lighter gave one last wavering flame, enough to see the way to his bed and observe a damp-furred scavenger hunched in a corner. Gary climbed into his sleeping bag and pulled the thing up over his head. Defence, he thought. In case this beast sprung at him. There was a short silence. Then the cat let out a low growl and went back to its meal, crunching, purring, and sounding out liquid mastication of cheese and sausage. Gary would be left with the tin of beans, that’s all. If he’d stayed in town there would have been a warm bed, maybe not alone, and a good breakfast to anticipate.
      Nothing in childhood, hell even amongst his darkest ‘off the rails’ moments of early adulthood had prepared Gary for a night spent in a wet tent alone with for an apex predator with this sharp, gut-wrenching stink. Gary could smell it even from the confines of his sleeping bag. Tomcat. Probably already crapped or sprayed, maybe both. No neat scraping in a cat-tray from this animal.
      Eventually he closed his eyes. Didn’t make it any darker but Gary slept.
      In the morning, when he woke, the cat was curled up against him, the tent floor a wasteland of greasy paper and plastic wrappings. The cat woke too and for one long moment met Garry’s sleepy gaze. Tooth and claw. Brute nature. His first waking thought was a projection into a feral primitive mind: was this daemon wondering what was next on the menu? Can I eat you?
      Rapidly, with no warning, the animal extended a long hairy arm and scratched a deep incision into Garry’s brow and cheek, narrowly missing his eye. Then it was gone, a swift tumbling backwards movement which leapt through the tent flaps. He heard drumming paws, then shifting and refolding of enclosing bush.
      At the bus stop Gary endured curious stares from locals and knew he must have looked a sight. In the public toilets he’d bathed the scratch as best he could. Wished again for a first-aid kit or at least antiseptic cream. Would probably need a tetanus shot. His face and knee throbbed. His foul-smelling tent had refused to pack neatly into the cylindrical bag. Gagging from the stink and half blind with pain he’d stuffed the bloody thing as best he could, but still had to carry the segmented rods loose in one hand.
      After the night’s rain, parts of the track had been washed away. Gary had fallen, slipped, skidded, scraped his arms, and knocked his head on a low branch. His clothes were thick with mud, drying now but still likely to besmirch the seats of the bus when it finally arrived.
      ‘Rough night, mate?’ was all the driver said as he took the fare.
      ‘Yer, but you should see the other guy.’ Hurt his face too much to try and back that comment up with a grin.
      They wound up over the hills until the city spread below. Close to midday, mid-week, everybody going about their business as normal. There was the distant sheen of the busy harbour. Grey moody skies with the sea being crossed with white wakes of boats and ferries. A vista, to Gary, the most welcome sight ever, in the whole world.
      A deep contentment welled, satisfaction as unheralded as the sudden claw of the cat. He’d confronted the wilderness, he’d not taken his phone. He’d been alone with the elements, and survived. Soon as he could he’d get that old bike out of his mother’s shed, dust it off, get stuck into giving the thing a good lube, check the tyres, throw his leg over again.
      For now, he was going home to a bath and bandage his knee. Cook Brenda’s favourite curry, have everything nice by the time she got home.
      Ahead Gary saw a future with his arm around Brenda’s tattooed shoulder. He would by and not abandon her like his father.    AQ

Katherine Gustafson – Gold, with a Cross

Katherine Gustafson
Gold, with a Cross

Jesus had been weighing the decision for days, sawing his tongue in and out of the gap, considering the possibilities. He had finally decided what he wanted: gold, with a cross. The cross would be on the front, carved in lightly so you might have to look twice.
      He had knocked the tooth out against the grainy bottom of a swimming pool two weeks before, diving deeper than he meant, losing himself in the moment of cool, chemical blue. Slamming into the concrete felt like being punched in the face. He came up yelling, the thick, iron taste of blood in his mouth.
      The gold had been his brother Edgar’s idea, since Edgar was the kind of guy who wore three gold necklaces at a time. But the idea of having the cross was all Jesus’s own. It had come to him, of course, at church. Ever since the accident, Jesus had developed a habit of inspecting people’s teeth when they spoke, of imagining the shape of them hiding behind closed lips. When Father Gutierez took the sip of the blood, Jesus pictured his teeth—crooked, overlapping like shacks leaning on a hillside, deep black grooves between them.
 

***

 
Dr Hibart’s first thought when he saw the kid in the doorway was that he looked like a young hooligan. The slicked hair and thin beginnings of a moustache reminded Dr Hibart of the groups of teenagers who loitered at the bus stop near the garage where he parked his clunker Toyota every morning. In baggy jeans and sports jerseys, they yelled into cell phones, their arms around girlfriends in tight skirts, wearing shirts that looked like they were made of fishing nets.
      Dr Hibart thought these kids spent too much of their time on the street corner, looked too much like they were waiting for something to happen. This particular kid in the doorway looked too young for that group, though, surely no older than thirteen. And despite his longish hair shining with gel and his oversize t-shirt with a graffiti-style logo, he had a nice way about him. The missing tooth gave him a loopy look that Dr Hibart found endearing. He remembered his own young self, talking back to his parents for the first exhilarating time when he was eleven, not caring that his father would beat him with a belt for saying the word ‘bullshit.’ He had wanted the beating, actually, perhaps had even provoked it, so that his brother couldn’t call him a sissy anymore. So he could finally be a man, a guy who gets hit with a hard strip of leather and doesn’t cry, not even once.
 

***

 
Jesus looked at the dentist looming over the chair, his teeth small and straight, his eyebrows raised in alarm when Jesus pronounced the word ‘gold.’ The gold front tooth with a cross in it would be the exact opposite of what the dentist would want, which was partly why Jesus wanted it. The dentist surely thought it should be white and plain like every other tooth. The dentist was white and plain, too, and had a paunchy belly and flying snatches of balding hair above his ears. Jesus suspected the dentist did not approve of gold, that he bought his wife only fussy, silver things studded with diamonds.
      Jesus thought it best not to mention the cross to the dentist, since he knew this guy named Suarez, one of Edgar’s friends, who could carve it in for him later, after the tooth was in his mouth. Jesus imagined that the dentist did not approve of putting religious symbols on front teeth, gold or otherwise.
      But being religious wasn’t necessarily the point. The cross would be more of a symbol of the faith that held his family together than it would be of God himself. The family of eight attended mass every week at Iglesia de la Virgen on Route 15, where Jesus had been baptized in the fancy font and taken his first communion just last year. He was glad of that now, despite his wavering sense of God, because he wanted to know how people lived life where he had come from, where he was born. He had no memory of his native country, but his parents still lived immersed in a squeezing nostalgia for the valleys and cities in which they had grown up. The cross in the tooth would say: El Salvador.
      And the cross would describe in the merest glimmer the rhythms of his current home, a poor, gang-addled neighborhood on the outskirts of this brutal and dirty American city, an area where his little sister Irma could only play safely inside, allowing her dolls on pretend picnics to run through imaginary grass. The people of his neighborhood were bonded together by their burning dedication to God and Jesus and the Virgin Mary, able to bear up under the pressure of continual violence and crushing poverty because they were buoyed by the certainty of a divine and perfect love. Their ability to endure was just as inspiring as any God that Jesus could have found in the wide, blue sky.
      The dentist said, of course, that he did not work with gold. ‘I do replacement teeth in white only,’ he pronounced slowly, as if Jesus would not understand his English. ‘I don’t do gold teeth.’ Gold teeth seemed to him, no doubt, to be related to mobsters and gang members. ‘Low-lifes,’ he would call them, alone in his parlor with his needle-nosed wife.
      ‘I guess I’ll go somewhere else, then,’ said Jesus casually, waiting with a thrilling sense of anticipation for the shock on the dentist’s face.
      ‘Honestly,’ said the dentist. ‘You don’t really want a gold tooth in the front of your mouth. No one will take you seriously. I’ll put in a white one. You’ll be on your way in no time.’ He rapidly clipped an aquamarine paper bib around Jesus’s neck and swung the light on its hydraulic arm into place above the chair.
      ‘Gold or nothing,’ said Jesus, allowing a note of challenge to creep into his voice. ‘Quiero solo oro.’ He almost hated himself for provoking the poor man that way, allowing the statement to slip out in Spanish, to become some kind of taunt. It was the same way he heard Edgar talk to the teachers at school. The dentist blinked in what Jesus took to be a dense and uncomprehending way.
 

***

 
Dr Hibart felt he was losing stamina. He didn’t know how many more times he could calmly examine mouths studded with cavities, lance the abscesses of poor oral hygiene, put up with the attitudes of burgeoning gang members. It was all so noble, but it was exhausting. When he had set up his storefront twenty years ago, bursting with the charitable spirit, he had never imagined that the people he was trying to help would resent him, find him suspicious, demand discounts on services that should rightly be twice as expensive as the prices he was asking. The people of this forgotten corner of the city seemed to feel entitled to what he was so generously offering. Inexplicable, he thought, how people didn’t realize he was doing them a favour.
      And now here was this kid, asking for a gold front tooth, like Dr Hibart was some kind of ghetto jewellery store. He thought about his wife Clara, just last night, insisting over dinner that he move his practice to the suburbs.
      ‘Just think,’ she had said, ‘we could go on another cruise next winter. With the money you’d make.’
      And to be honest, it didn’t sound half bad. He could picture himself on the deck of an ocean liner, a gin and tonic balanced on the arm of his chair, the great blue iron of sea and sky pressing the wrinkles out of him.
      But, even so, he didn’t know if he could. He had spent so many years being the good guy, giving back to the world, fulfilling his responsibility as a son of privilege. It was what he was supposed to do, the role he had always played, and the people here depended on him. He was needed in a way other people weren’t.
      Even if at times the need did overwhelm him. It got exhausting, always coming to their rescue. Old Mr Santos, with his twelve teeth, five poodles, and one pair of shoes. Mrs Palmero, whose son was a crooked cop taking bribes from the gangs to neglect patrolling his own mother’s block. Little Ricky Lindo, with the biggest smile around and teeth so prone to cavities he was in the office every other week. At times he desperately wanted to close his office door and leave them all to fend for themselves. He could be on a cruise ship while they went on living their miserable lives, which he was never going to be able to fix anyway. But there were only two other dentists in the area, neither of whom properly sterilized his instruments, and Dr Hibart knew he would never forgive himself for selling out.
      ‘I know you feel an obligation, dear,’ Clara had said. ‘But honestly, how many more years? It was really a youthful fling, wasn’t it? And what about us? I was thinking it would be nice to go to Venice again.’
      Listening to this punk kid talk about putting a gold tooth in his mouth, Dr Hibart suddenly felt an incredible fatigue. Venice, he thought. Canals and gondolas and cobbled alleyways. Pasta and wine and cannoli. Venice would be very nice.
 

***

 
No oro,’ the dentist said, picking up a sharp instrument as if to threaten with it. ‘Blanco o nada.’
      Jesus blinked. He could feel his mouth fall open. The dentist had spoken in Spanish, the foreign words lurching through his pallid lips. They sounded almost unrecognizable, floating in the air over Jesus’s head, waiting for him to grasp them. Blanco o nada. White or nothing.
      ‘Dios,’ Jesus finally said, staring hard at the dentist, wondering if perhaps he had heard wrong. The man’s pale blue eyes did not look like the kind that would open up onto a lush foliage of foreign language.
      ‘Blanco o nada,’ said the dentist again, brandishing his gleaming tool, a pointed hook.
      ‘¿Conoce Español?’ Jesus asked. Maybe the dentist only knew a few words. Perhaps this same argument had occurred before with someone else.
      ‘Todo sobre dientes,’ responded the dentist, picking up the small mirror on its silver stick. Tooth-Spanish was what he knew. He had learned it during a semester as a guest lecturer at the Escuela de Odontología in Buenos Aires. Sitting there with Jesus staring up at him, he thought fleetingly about the joys of dancing Tango with beautiful dentistry students in the sultry Argentinian air. Those were younger days, when Clara had been willing to learn the steps from handsome men after three margaritas, exchanging seductive glances with Dr Hibart as they wheeled by each other on the dance floor in the arms of strangers, gorgeous and coordinated partners who laughed with affection at their gawky, North American ways.
      Jesus didn’t know the words for the different teeth; was unfamiliar with language in Spanish for things like fluoride, cavity, root canal. The dentist, it seemed, knew things in Jesus’s own language that he himself did not. He looked away from the dentist, toward the slat-blinded window.
      Blanco o nada. He turned the question over. He had set his heart on the tooth with the cross carved into it. But he knew that in neighbourhoods other than his own, people did not have gold front teeth. White kids, the ones at he sometimes saw from afar who wore striped polo shirts and played baseball after school, did not have such teeth. Would he be making a fool of himself? Not that he wanted to be like them. He wanted to be him, Jesus, Salvadoreño. But he didn’t want those kids to laugh at him either. He thought for a moment about how the boys on the all-city soccer team he had qualified for that year called him ‘Holy Ghost,’ joking that he should go crucify himself when he missed a shot. ‘Hang it up, Jesus,’ they said, laughing. ‘Don’t you know how to cross the ball?’
      ‘But the thing is,’ Jesus told the dentist. ‘The thing is, I wanted to get something carved in the tooth. With gold, you can carve it.’ The gold he could forgo—after all, that wasn’t even his idea. But the cross, no way. He needed to have the cross.
      ‘Carve it?’ asked Dr Hibart, not sure the boy had spoken correctly. ‘What do you mean, carve it?’
      ‘Well, actually, a cross,’ said Jesus, tracing it with the tip of his finger on the space where the tooth used to be. ‘Católico,’ he said, touching the graffiti logo on his chest.
      ‘A cross on your tooth?’ The dentist considered for a moment, studying his own face in the mini tooth-mirror he held. ‘Ah, because you’re Jesus,’ he said finally, nodding as if he had figured out a riddle. The name sounded awkward in the dentist’s mouth, Hey-Zeus, the syllables distinct and separated, like two different words.
      Jesus, in fact, hadn’t even thought of that connection, hadn’t realized that the cross on the tooth would be a symbol of who he was in a more literal way than he had imagined. Like a nametag. For a moment he felt that the dentist understood, that he might tell the dentist that his grandfather’s name had also been Jesus. His grandfather, who had grown coffee beans in El Salvador for thirty years until he was killed by a guerilla during the fighting in 1984.
      ‘Oh, well, yeah,’ Jesus said. ‘And just, you know, because my family’s Catholic and all.’ He couldn’t express to the dentist that he wanted the cross because he was afraid of losing himself in the battering bustle of life in the United States. The cross would create an invisible golden thread that could tie together his two cleaving halves.
      The dentist nodded, pursing his lips and looking curiously at the space where Jesus’s front tooth used to be. He imagined the ridiculous look of this child with a gold tooth gleaming in his mouth, the unfortunate error to be regretted ever afterwards. But the boy had looked at him with such an earnest expression, laying bare on his face his desire to do something special, to impress the meaning of his life on his body. Perhaps it was something like the desire for a tattoo, Dr Hibart thought, which was an idea he had toyed with back in Argentina. The desire to change oneself to show the inside on the outside, to bear a small piece of your identity to the world.
      ‘Well,’ said Dr Hibart slowly, pausing, not quite sure he wanted to follow his own trail of reasoning. This reasoning might lead him places he didn’t want to go. But why not? A cross, so pious. A statement of this boy’s own true self, so honest. ‘If we do a white one, I can leave a cross-shaped indent.’ He paused again, reconsidering if in fact this was a good idea. What would Clara say about this new adventure?
      Jesus did not want to hurt the dentist’s feelings, but he was not quite sure this scheme would be good enough. How would anybody see the cross carved into a white tooth? He needed to be bold. This tooth could not be a namby-pamby, white-man tooth.
      ‘Well, you see,’ continued the dentist quietly, as if he were telling Jesus a secret he was afraid his dental assistants would overhear. ‘If there’s a groove in the tooth, someone who works with gold can fill up the groove with gold. You could have a gold cross in a white tooth. Would be very good-looking, I imagine. Of course, you’d have to find someone else to do it. As I said, I don’t work in gold.’
      The dentist ducked his head after he had finished speaking, shocked at what he was proposing to this kid. Was this a dentist’s office or a carnival? He could see Clara’s face in his mind, that shrewd look of hers over the tops of her half-glasses burning the inside of his stomach. But he could just imagine it, could see the process by which he’d shape the tooth, could picture the subtle shine of the finished product. Inside of Dr Hibart somewhere an artist was hidden, covered over by years of enamel. His wife did not know this part of him.
      Jesus also had not suspected the depths of this dentist. The guy looked like every other white guy with a bad comb-over, but here he was, envisioning the exact tooth that was destined to fit into Jesus’s mouth. Like the dentist, Jesus could picture the beautiful finished product. He could see the way the tooth would look normal if glanced momentarily. But there would be a glint, a special gleaming, that would cause people to pause and look again. Then they would see it: a simple, gold cross, a statement of himself, Jesus.
      ‘Bueno,’ he said to the dentist, grinning, the gap with no tooth making him look lopsided and silly. ‘Diente blanco, cruz oro. Gracias.’
      Dr Hibart smiled as he pressed the button to lean Jesus’s chair back. The boy looked like a young child with the tooth missing from the front, much less like the surly ruffian who had appeared half an hour before. Briefly, the dentist thought of his own son Charlie, estranged, living halfway across the country, he and his efficient wife in their house with the pleated draperies.
      ‘De nada,’ Dr Hibart said to Jesus, poising his mirror and his pointy hook as the kid opened wide for his inspection.  AQ

V. J. Hamilton – Flightless Bird

V. J. Hamilton
Flightless Bird

Abigail’s fingernails dig into the armrests as the van pulls into her parents’ driveway, and she turns to the driver, her brother Ethan, and says, ‘You did bring the turkey, right?’
      His man-child face fills with soft bewilderment. The air in the van is thick with the aromas of candied yams, bacon drippings, broccoli au gratin, and kabocha squash casserole. ‘Let’s see,’ he says, pulling on the parking brake. ‘The roasting pan was so hot I took it out to cool… I went to pack… you came over…’ His face grows blanker and blanker.
      Her voice rises. ‘Do you mean to say we drove all this way and you never once thought: “Did I actually put that giant pan with the forty-pound turkey in the van?”’
      He shrinks against the driver’s seat and turns off the ignition.
      ‘All this way—blocked for an hour by the G-D Thanksgiving marathon,’ she emphasizes. She says ‘G-D’ rather than ‘goddamned’ because they are in their parents’ driveway, and their parents are deacons in the church. Might as well get right back in the habit that served her throughout her teens.
      The Grand Plan threatens to crumble. This year, with Mama’s recent heart trouble, the three young adult siblings had insisted: ‘We’ll divvy up the feast and cook things separately and bring everything to you.’ The siblings live on the east side of the city; their parents live on the west. Ethan had insisted that he would roast the starring dish—the turkey—and Abigail and Ruth co-ordinated the side dishes.
      His thumbs are already dancing madly over his phone. ‘I’ll text Ruth. She can swing by and pick it up.’ Ruth is the eldest child of the family, ten years older than Abigail, who is the youngest.
      ‘Ruth has three kids and four pies and you think she’s got room for that giant turkey in her hatchback?’ Abigail pulls at her hair, staring at her parents’ neatly kept bungalow with the long wooden wheelchair ramp, now unused. ‘Besides, I bet she left ages ago.’
      Abigail and Ethan are already two hours later than planned, which means they are missing the Thanksgiving church service the parents usually drag them out to attend—but she refuses to share this silver lining with Ethan. She wants him to twist in the wind over yet another stupidity.
      She exits the van, his lovingly refurbished two-tone vintage VW camper van, slamming the door harder than necessary, and tries to unlock the bungalow door. The 4-digit number code does not work. She tries several codes, punching harder and harder at the keypad. She returns to the van, muttering, ‘They changed the G-D code!’
      Ethan looks up from this phone and grins. ‘Good news: the baby is projectile vomiting, so Ruth hasn’t left yet.’
      Abigail puts her hand over her mouth. Her nieces are darling, but whatever germs they carry, she usually falls ill from them, too. Just the thought of a crowded noisy table makes her woozy.
      He checks the phone. ‘She’ll pick up the T-bird.’ He grins. ‘Problem solved, Miss Fussbudget.’
      ‘But can she get into your place?’
      ‘Don’t worry,’ he says, ‘There’s likely someone there.’ He shares a house with four other undergrads a couple blocks away from Abigail’s funky little apartment. He pats her arm and clucks. ‘I see your stress-o-meter is ratcheting higher, Sis. Tell you what, I’ve got some edibles to help you chill out.’ He smiles his goofy gap-toothed smile.
      ‘What! Why’d you bring those? With Papa’s radar? And the kids around? Oh Ethan, you know how worried Ruth gets!’
      ‘I’ll keep the candies out of sight.’
      ‘Yeah, that’s what you said about the tabs last time.’ Abigail pulls harder at her hair, remembering the frenzied call to the Poison Control line.
      Ethan rummages vigorously in his duffel bag. ‘Oh crap, these are my floor hockey things. Guess I brought the wrong bag.’
      Of course, she thinks bitterly. Now she wishes she could gnash her teeth on defenceless little gummi bears, and absorb some of the calming CBD, THC, or whatever it is, to cope with another day of Ethan.

* * *

A day earlier, Abigail had dropped by her brother’s house and discovered he was ‘short on funds’ so had not done a speck of shopping. ‘But you said you’d do the meat,’ she scolded him. ‘We can’t show up empty-handed!’
      Looking stunned, as if a pet dog had bit him, Ethan said, ‘I thought Thanksgiving was, like, next week.’
      Too disgusted to speak, she stomped off to her local butcher and begged for his very last bird, a forty-pound behemoth. Meanwhile, Ethan played a round of Blade & Soul with his posse, then searched the cupboards for pans, tested the oven, and inadvertently tested the smoke detector. He was just turning off the screeching alarm as she returned, breathless from hauling the bird. ‘Hey,’ he said, ‘I bet there’s tons of roasting pans at the thrift store.’
      They trekked to the thrift store to buy their largest pan, and to the bakery to buy day-old bread.       Ethan tried to win back her good graces and even charmed her into buying a flat of day-old sprinkled doughnuts.
      Back at the shared house, she silenced her inner nag and helped him cut up a mound of bread and mushrooms. Together, they wrestled the raw carcass open to rinse it and rub it with garlic. She couldn’t help but laugh as the turkey slipped and slid around the sink. The truce continued while they crammed the bird’s cavern with Ethan’s bread mixture. The loaded tinfoil-covered pan was so big it took over most of the shared-house refrigerator, displacing his housemates’ food. But their grumbles were soothed by the flat of doughnuts. Karma seems to go in Ethan’s favour, she thought.
      She left at sundown, after extracting a promise from him to start roasting the turkey at 8 AM so it would be done by the time they had to drive across the city, dodging the path of the city-wide marathon.
      But this morning, she made repeated unanswered calls to him. Finally she’d gone to his house, banged on the door until he opened, sheepishly saying, ‘Incredible as it sounds, I overslept.’

* * *

Now Abigail sits in the van, glaring at the family bungalow, as squat and imperturbable as a toad statue. There’s peeling paint on the highest trim, where Papa can’t reach any more; there’s a warp to the plastic siding where the family once had the barbecue set up too close; and every time she visits, the front steps look more rickety. How did her parents raise all their children in this tiny place? Routinely they’d have twenty people enjoying turkey and fixins every Thanksgiving.
      A joke about a turkey, the flightless bird being unable to travel, occurs to her but she refuses to share it with Ethan. That goofball needs to learn a lesson.
      A triple-rap on her window startles her. Mrs Persimmon, the next-door neighbour, steadies herself with a rake. Abigail lowers her window. The woman leans in. Her dentures are too big and a nimbus of white hair surrounds her face. ‘Oh, it is you! How are you doing, Abigail and Ethan? How lovely. The family for Thanksgiving. Your parents are the luckiest.’ She crackles with good cheer. ‘Mm, smells delicious.’
      ‘Hello Mrs P, how’ve you been?’ Ethan says. Their family occupies a unique and unwanted prominence in the neighbourhood: a decade ago, one child, Susannah, was diagnosed with a rare bone cancer. Mrs Persimmon’s late husband had built the wheelchair ramp and for a time it was Abigail’s favourite thing because they could wheel Susannah in and out of the house so she could still be part of the games, a faint-voiced cheerleader. ‘That ramp is still holding strong,’ Ethan says.
      ‘It is, isn’t it?’ Mrs Persimmon says wistfully.
      ‘I loved racing my skateboard on it.’ He smiles. ‘Hey, maybe my board’s still in the—’
      ‘Don’t even think of it,’ Abigail says irritably. ‘You’ll break your arm and then I’ll have to drive this G-D van.’
      The old woman laughs uncomfortably, like someone seeing static disrupt a favourite TV show. She excuses herself to continue raking.
      ‘We’re sitting ducks now,’ Abigail says, half-dreading the coming barrage of well-wishers. They’re like the Royal Family, she supposes. Minus the jewels.
      ‘I have an idea,’ Ethan says. ‘Why don’t I run and get some cola? Ruth never lets the kids have it. I gotta be the uncle who spoils them.’ He leaves the VW, giving a jaunty wave.
      Go ahead, rot their teeth, she thinks. Another stone upon Ruth’s load.
      Thuds rain upon her window. It’s their neighbour Frank, former chairman of the fundraising committee for Susannah’s experimental treatments.‘Well, hello, Abigail! You are looking beautiful, as usual. How wonderful, you kids coming home to see your ma and pa.’ Frank, a retired barber, is carrying leaf bags and a copy of Community Courier under his arm. She admires his fedora and mustard-yellow tailored jacket. His dapper moustache is trimmed so sharp you could cut your thumb on it.
      ‘Yes, it’ll be fantastic to see them,’ she says with bombast. They chat briefly about her parents being at church and how they (the kids) concocted a Grand Plan of bringing the Thanksgiving feast. ‘What with Mama’s heart, you know.’ No mention of the turkey fuck-up.
      ‘What treasures you are.’ He pulls out his phone and shares a picture of his newest grandchild, born last month.
      Frank leaves, and Abigail frowns as the memory of Ethan’s stupidity washes back on her like acid reflux. The turkey, the heart of the meal. Missing. Honestly, what a sieve-brain. What a chucklehead.       She adjusts the mirror, checking her scarecrow hair, then checking in the rear-view to see if Ethan is on the way back. But no. He’s a dawdler, too.
      She rummages in her bag for a comb and spies the Bible, today’s passage still book-marked. She’s secretly glad she didn’t have to go make nice with dozens of church folk. The reading was about Abel and Cain. What were they fighting over, anyway? Was it some screw-up by an idiot brother? She reads:
Now Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let’s go out to the field.’ While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him. Then the LORD said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’
      ‘I don’t know,’ he replied. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’
      She feels a frisson of recognition as she reads the words ‘my brother’s keeper.’ That sly old Cain, ducking the question by answering with another question.
      ‘Boo!’ Ethan leans in the window and Abigail jumps. He drops a box of Nerds Candy on the page. ‘Reading the Good Book, are you?’
      ‘Cause I feel like murdering you,’ she says.
      He gets in the van and puts the two-litre bottle of cola between them. ‘Everything will be okay.’
      ‘How can you say that?’ She scowls. ‘Again, Ruth has to rescue us.’
      ‘Hey, I should be the angry one—I roasted the damn beast.’
      ‘Which makes you all the stupider for forgetting it!’
      ‘You could’ve asked me, “Hey, did you pack the T-bird?”’
      ‘You could’ve asked yourself: Duh, what’s the one thing I’m s’posed to remember?’ She mimics a beefcake voice.
      ‘I had so much going on, Abby! Laundry, phone calls, grocery shopping…’
      ‘That is normal, everyday life! Can’t you handle it?’ She pulls at her hair; the scalp is quite tender. ‘It’s the damn gaming. Taking over your life. Tell me, when’s the last time you went to class?’
      ‘Aw, Sis.’ He smiles winningly. ‘You have the checklist. You have the menu. Why didn’t you say 1-2-3 like you always do?’
      ‘Because I’m sick of always being your memory device!’ She thumps the armrests. She digs in her nails until white crescents show. ‘How are you ever going to manage? And find a girlfriend and settle down and—and—’ She waves at the family bungalow, its aura of homey comfort, and drops her voice to a whisper. ‘Haven’t you ever wondered why no girl sticks around past the second date?’
      Ethan’s face crumples. ‘Is this what she said to you?’ he asks quietly.
      ‘What? Who?’
      ‘Melissa.’
      Abigail is briefly immobilized: Melissa and Ethan? Beautiful, talented, intelligent Melissa? She is stratospherically out of her brother’s league. Melissa had sung at Susannah’s funeral. Abigail recalls the crystalline moment: Melissa’s voice soaring ever higher in the nave. Abigail had ached with grief over losing the sister she was closest to, but somehow, that perfectly sung note of the requiem acted as a lighthouse: shining, guiding, showing that the land of hope was within reach. As the notes swelled, Abigail’s heart had stopped hurting. Yes, Susannah was gone, but there were still the others. The three musketeers. She had sworn she would never, ever let her siblings down.
      ‘I was just so happy thinking of driving over here with you,’ Ethan says, lit with innocence, his longish side-hair looking like floppy dog-ears.
      She blinks rapidly.
      ‘Oh hey, Abby. I wanted to share my new song with you…’ He fishes in his pocket and pulls out a turtle-shaped flash-drive. ‘Oops, I forgot. My van player is busted.’
      ‘This is … cool. Your song-writing.’ She does not ask what the song is about. All his songs are, in one way or another, about Susannah. Good times with Susannah. Losing Susannah. Wishing Susannah was here. Of course, he disguises them as ordinary romantic ballads or (on occasion, for Mama) Christian hymns. Abigail accepts his flash-drive and tucks it in her bag. Her eye lights on her notepad. She pulls it out, chuckling. ‘Look at this. How did you know I had a checklist with me? You really should try making lists, too, Ethan. Lists keep you focused.’
      ‘Thanks! I’ll try that,’ he says. He takes the notepad from her and peruses it, then pulls a stubby pencil from the junk tray of the van. He makes a mark and jots a note, item 17.5, in between items 17 and 18. It says, Review checklist with Ethan.‘There,’ he says, handing it back. ‘It’s more efficient to add one little thing to your list, isn’t it? Instead of starting a whole new list for me.’
      Abigail’s face falls. ‘You’re mocking me.’ Her eyes sting.
      Honk honk! As if to emphasize the cruel joke, a horn toots. Ruth pulls up in her hatchback with enclosed roof carrier attached. As the car doors fly open she yells, ‘Everybody, take your knapsacks and pillows.’ Three children pour out, doing as told, and Ruth bustles around, unloading cooler, boxes, and bags—and the giant roaster. The children are locked out from the bungalow and Ruth says, ‘I guess Papa forgot to tell us the new code.’
      ‘Forgetfulness runs in the family,’ Abigail says icily.
      ‘Thank God for that,’ Ruth says. ‘With all the suffering in the world, forgetting is a mercy.’
      ‘Not if you’re responsible for a flightless bird.’
      Soon the six of them are surrounding the pan Ruth has placed on the cooler. ‘Well, Ethan, I picked up your giant pan here but I didn’t look inside… are you sure there’s a roast turkey?’ Ruth teases, ignoring the evident tension. She pulls off the lid and six heads incline. ‘Ahhhh.’
      ‘So beautiful, so brown!’
      ‘Smells amazing!’
      ‘Mommy, can I try a lil piece?’
      Abigail’s mouth is already watering, longing to taste Ethan’s new stuffing.
      ‘The centrepiece,’ Ruth proclaims. ‘Good job, kiddo.’
      Ethan shuffles. ‘I was starting to wonder if I’d remembered to roast anything at all,’ he says defensively. ‘The stupid incompetent ass that I am.’ His eyes dart to Abigail.
      Ruth pats him and says, ‘You’re a turkey genius, lil bro.’
      ‘Oh, I thought I heard voices,’ chortles Mrs Daguerre, the west-side neighbour. In her house-dress and wispy chignon, she totters toward them. ‘Let me take your picture—you are the perfect ensemble—say cheese.’ The neighbourhood shutterbug, she snaps three photos before they can object. She was the self-appointed photographer for the fundraising efforts to bankroll Susannah’s treatments. Her photos often ran alongside articles in the community newspaper. But her best photos, to Abigail, were the ones shown at Susannah’s memorial service. ‘How splendid… you are home to celebrate with your parents. Were you held up by the marathon?’
      ‘It’s open,’ calls the oldest niece, running to the adults. ‘I tried 4321 and it worked!’
      Ruth continues chatting with Mrs Daguerre and Ethan, who is making them laugh. Abigail picks up her kabocha casserole and heads inside. Soon her parents will arrive, and a new kind of madness will descend.    AQ

Jackie Kingon – Once Upon a Passover

Jackie Kingon
Once Upon a Passover
 
Matzah balls floated like celestial bodies in chicken soup. Its electrons danced with delectable aromas. Sadie inhaled. ‘Let’s have some now,’ she said to her pregnant daughter Zelda. ‘I’ll pass out from hunger if I wait for Aaron to finish reading the Haggadah.’
      Zelda dug a crater into a matzah ball and brought it to her lips. ‘They’ve defied gravity Mom. Light and delicious.’
      Aaron, wearing the tie saved for special occasions, opened the door. ‘What’s this? Eating before reading the Passover Haggadah. It’s a sacrilege.’
      ‘It’s just soup, Aaron.’
      ‘Everything’s ready, Dad,’ Zelda said. ‘The brisket, the tzimmes. the roasted chicken with gribenes is crisper than bacon.’
      ‘Nothing’s crisper than bacon,’ Aaron said.
      ‘And how would you both know?’ Sadie asked.
      Zelda rolled her eyes. Aaron shrugged and said, ‘I don’t see a place for Elijah?’
      Sadie pointed to a bridge-table near the hall. ‘I put Elijah there. The table’s too crowded when your cousins come.’
      Aaron frowned. ‘Elijah is supposed to sit at the head of the table. He’s the honored guest who announces the arrival of the Messiah.’
      ‘But he never comes,’ Sadie sighed.
      ‘Maybe you didn’t see him.’
      ‘That’s what they said when I was a child. OK. Kids at the bridge-table.’
      The front door opened.
      Irving and his family piled in. ‘You’re early,’ Aaron said.
      ‘This year we didn’t want to be hungry while you read the Haggadah,’ Irving said. ‘So, we stopped for Chinese before we came. Moo Shu Pork doesn’t stick to your ribs like brisket.’
      Sadie frowned. ‘Moo Shu Pork on Passover? God will be angry.’
      ‘Not the God of the Chinese,’ Irving said. ‘And they have more people.’
      Finally, everyone sat at the table and Aaron began the service. After ten minutes Sadie said, ‘Move it, Aaron.’ David drank his wine. ‘It is supposed to last for four cups.’
      David pouted. ‘It will be bad luck if I don’t drink three more.’
      ‘It’s symbolic,’ Sadie said.
      ‘Why when I want something it’s symbolic?’
      She pushed a red manicured finger into David’s chest. ‘I’ll show you symbolic!’
      Aaron said, ‘If I cut the ten plagues to five what five should I cut?’
      ‘Keep the locusts,’ Irving said. ‘No locusts. No Passover.’
      ‘And keep the frogs,’ his wife said. ‘Their legs are delicious sautéed in garlic butter.’
      Suddenly a strange green light illuminated the room. Everyone glowed. Aaron got up peered through a window and saw a pewter grey ship sitting on his front lawn. ‘If I didn’t know better I’d say it’s a flying saucer.’
      ‘Since when did you become a maven on flying saucers?’ Sadie asked.
      ‘It says—Flying Saucer: Property of Elijah the Prophet from Tau Ceti.’
      ‘What’s Tau Ceti?’ Sadie asked.
      ‘Tau Ceti is a super Earth exoplanet that orbits a G-type star. Its mass is 3.93 Earths and takes 162.9 days to complete one orbit of its star.’
      ‘And what makes you so smart?’ Irving put in.
      ‘The small print on the side.’
      Everyone went outside and looked.
      Irving’s voice rose. ‘Do you realize if this is what we think it is we might be making first contact. We’ll be famous. Better, we might get rich!’
      Aaron said. ‘Whatever, it’s ruining my lawn. We’ll call someone later to have it removed. Let’s finish the service and eat.’
      A man who looked like someone you thought you knew sat at the head of the table. He wore a well-tailored blue suit, white shirt, blue tie with six-pointed gold stars. Sadie closed her eyes and hoped when she opened them he would be gone.
      Aaron, distressed he didn’t take his class in how to spot a homicidal maniac more seriously said, ‘Who are you?’
      ‘I’m Elijah. You invite me every Passover. Here, take my card.’
      Aaron looked and read: Elijah: Prophet: Specialty: Passover.
      ‘Everyone wants to see me in a robe and sandals but I prefer to keep up with the times.’
      ‘Nice suit,’ Aaron said. ‘Ralph Lauren?’
      ‘Saville Row. But actually, I prefer this. Then in an eye blink he wore ripped jeans and a white T shirt that said Happy Passover.’
      Irving’s daughter, who up to that moment wished she could be elsewhere, peeked from under her auburn tresses, battered her eyelashes and smiled at him.
       ‘Parlour trick,’ Aaron said mixing curiosity with caution. ‘How come we never saw you before?’
      ‘I use a cloaking device. Santa and I share it. It’s out of season for him. People in ancient days saw me.’
      ‘Yeah,’ Irving said. ‘All the good stuff in the Bible seems to have happened in ancient days.’
      ‘Later, when people wanted autographs and pictures I couldn’t enjoy my cup of wine, so I activated the cloak.’
      Brows wrinkled. Elijah continued. ‘It’s not easy being a prophet, a saint, an immortal being? Everyone wants favours. The critters from the kibbutz near Betelgeuse love wine and expect me to bring them several cases after all the seders. And the children on Arcturus, who look like your oysters, want toys from Santa. Anyone want winged sandals? I can get them wholesale. Elijah holds up his arm. ‘And now I have a Rolex.’
      Irving said, ‘I’m wearing one just like it.’ He pushed his sleeve up. ‘Hey, where did it go?’
      ‘God moves in mysterious ways,’ Elijah said.
      ‘I don’t think God needs a Rolex,’ Irving said.
      ‘He still likes sacrifices. This is a token sacrifice.’
      Irving lowered his arm.
      ‘We usually exist as a quantum wave in superposition being near many places at the same time. That’s how we are able to reach so many families in one night. But when someone observes us, we become a particle. Someone here must have observed me: caught my eye.’
      ‘I thought I saw food fly out of the Chinese restaurant,’ Irving said.
      ‘Bingo!’ Elijah said pointing to Irving. ‘Checkmate.’
      Sadie, not knowing what to say asked, ’Do you want your cup of wine now?’
      ‘But none of that sweet stuff. No one ever drank that while wandering in the desert. I’ll have merlot. This night would be different from all other nights if I had dinner. No one gives me food: no nuts no canapés. Santa gets Christmas cookies; roast turkey; sometimes Beef Wellington. I tried switching jobs with him but he said lox didn’t compare to lobster.’
      Aaron brought the merlot and poured Elijah a cup. Sadie placed a steaming bowl of matzah ball soup in front of him. The aroma of chicken broth going back to antiquity permeated the room. He inhaled its soothing sent, dipped his spoon in, tasted and swooned.
      ‘Ah, the real thing. Not what I get on Tau Ceti. Come back with me, Sadie, and teach them how you make it? I’ll give you almost eternal life in exchange for your recipe. Even the restaurant at the end of the universe could learn from you.’
      Sadie said. ‘You sound like the movie Cocoon. I’ll give you some to take home. I don’t want eternal life if it comes with arthritis.’
      Elijah sighed. ‘Few realize, that movie was a documentary.’
      ‘You look like us,’ Aaron said.
      ‘Immortal beings have the ability to shape shift. You would never recognize Santa when it’s not Christmas. As long as I’m here, I’d like to enlighten you about your version of Passover.’
      Aaron picked up a Haggadah. ‘We are enlightened! We’re called “the people of the book” and here, here it is written.’
      Elijah smiled. ‘By people who wanted to sell scrolls. But dinner first, commentary afterwards.’
      After dinner everyone moved from dining room to living room, sank into the upholstery and turned their eyes toward Elijah who now had a salt and pepper coloured beard and wore a dark brown robe. ‘I thought a change of clothes set a better mood,’ his voice sliding into a deep baritone. ‘And it came to pass…’
      ‘Why does stuff like this usually start with “and it came to pass?”’ Aaron asked.
      ‘Poetic license. “And it came to pass,” appears some 727 times in the King James Version.’
      Irving said, ‘We don’t use the King James version.’
      Elijah shrugged and continued. ‘The Martians needed a more fruitful planet because their seas were evaporating and the third planet from the sun, that they previously thought too hot and too wet for intelligent life, now with their options closing, looked like a promised land. But after close analysis, they saw most of its inhabitants didn’t want to share their spaces with other inhabitants making it unlikely that they would share their planet with them even if they brought gifts and asked nicely. Finally, after googling “top non-threatening beings of the universe,” a human baby surfaced as number one, as long as you weren’t its parents who usually worried about it forever from the second it was born.’
       ‘So, Moses was a Martian, disguised as a human baby,’ Aaron said. ‘That’s like superman: a being from another planet comes to Earth ensconced as Clark Kent.’
      ‘But Clark couldn’t be near kryptonite or he would lose his strength,’ Elijah said. ‘And Moses learned he couldn’t eat dairy and meat products together or shellfish and pork or he would lose his powers.’
      ‘So, a bacon cheeseburger for Moses was akin to kryptonite for Superman,’ Aaron deduced.
      ‘Precisely! And to ensure that this would never happen to them they created dietary laws called Kosher laws that restricted these things.’
      ‘Did Moses see God’s face?’ Zelda asked.
      ‘He saw a being from the Soup Bubble Nebula in Cygnus who was cruising the area. When Moses asked if he was God he said, “I’d like to be. But it’s too much responsibility.”’
      ‘Close enough,’ Moses cried.
      ‘And the burning bush?’ Aaron asked.
      ‘Works on batteries. Santa always gets a big order for them. At Christmas.’
      ‘And the parting of the Dead Sea?’ Irving asked.
      ‘Strong winds push water to one side making it possible to cross on the shallow side. It sometimes happens other places like Lake Erie.’
      ‘Told you we didn’t need so much commentary,’ Sadie said. ‘A few words. Ten minutes tops. So, was Moses the only Martian who came?’
      ‘Oh no. Martians disguised as a tribe of beautiful intelligent people followed. They lured Moses to an oasis that made Heavenly Pizza and gave free manna toppings and free delivery. Everyone wanted in.’
      Zelda patted her belly. ‘Am I carrying a Martian?’
      Elijah popped a chocolate covered macaroon into his mouth. ‘Hmmm, real cocoanut. Not like the stuff they grow on Rigel Kantaurus that tastes like hay. Delicious.’
      ‘Well…’ Aaron said.
      ‘We’re all related. It’s one big universe including all its parallel parts. Everything bouncing from wave to particle and back to wave. To quote your poet Walt Whitman who today has incarnated as a Hasidic obstetrician, “Out of the cradle endlessly rocking.”’
      ‘No one is going to believe what you told us let alone parallel universes with parallel Passovers where we could still be slaves unto pharaoh,’ Sadie said. ‘Besides, what should we do with all these Haggadah books?’
      ‘Santa can give them as Christmas presents. Everyone likes a good story. But a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.’
      ‘Especially for kids that get thrown out of school,’ David piped.
      ‘And a lot of knowledge is not dangerous?’ Irving asked. ‘What about Schrödinger’s cat? Could it have been a hamster? Did you have a Bar Mitzvah? Who paid?’
      ‘Ah, questions and more questions whose answers might bend the space time continuum.’
      ‘Surely you’re jesting,’ Irving said.
      Elijah smiled. ‘Though I’m not limited by time and space as you are, it’s time to move on. Check your watch Irving.’
      Irving looks at this wrist. ‘It’s back!’
      ‘Never really left,’ Elijah said. ‘An aspect of quantum physics.’
      Irving tapped his wrist. ‘Quantum physics has an answer with no answer to everything these days.’
      ‘Do you mind if we take your picture?’ Aaron asked.
      Elijah nods, runs his hand over his hair to smooth it.
      Everyone gets their phone, snaps a photo and looks. Aaron gasps. ‘I’ve one of a four headed octopus with red scales.’
      ‘Oops! Try now.’
      Everyone snaps again.
      Elijah checks Aaron’s camera. ‘Better.’
      ‘But no one would believe that photo is Elijah,’ Irving said.
      ‘It’s not. It’s a computer-generated composite image of a middle-aged multi-racial human male. But I can add wings and a halo if you want.’
      ‘Forget it,’ Sadie said. She went into the kitchen and brought a large container of chicken soup and two dozen chocolate covered macaroons that she gave Elijah.
      ‘Do you really need to fly in a space ship?’ Aaron asked.
      ‘No. It’s a mystical illumination. But the razzle dazzle insures I’m taken more seriously and I and get more dinners.’
      ‘I thought you traveled in a chariot of fire,’ Irving said.
      ‘It was time for an upgrade. Besides chariots of fire are hot and uncomfortable.’
      ‘Shall we walk you out?’ Sadie asked.
      ‘No need.’ Then he kissed Sadie on both cheeks and gave everyone else a high five. ‘Adios amigos. Time to roll.’ He paused. ‘Is that still a hip expression?‘
      ‘I wouldn’t know,’ Aaron said. ‘I’m over the rolling age.’
      For a moment nothing happened. And then it happened. He was gone.
      Everyone ran outside. There was a grand silence. Nothing was there. The lawn looked greener and lusher than it ever looked. Then Aaron spotted a small bottle that he picked up. The label said ‘Miracle Grow.’ ‘Where did this come from?’
      ‘Probably a neighbour,’ Sadie said.
      ‘Or Tau Ceti,’ Irving said.
      No one ever saw Elijah again. And no one revised the Haggadah. But each year when Sadie set a place for Elijah at the Passover table the wine, the soup, and macaroons vanished.            AQ

Rosalind Goldsmith – Levity

Rosalind Goldsmith
Levity

Cheerless days. Serving up coffee, eyes clammy with fatigue. Shuffling home. Late. Leftovers. The kids whingeing about soggy beans. Long jagged cracks in the tiles that the landlord would never fix. The mold. Her bank account draining like the life draining from her heart. Her daughter’s sadness.
           Yelling at the kids despite herself—get up, do homework, do the dishes, do something. They lay on the sofa, on the floor, flat to their screens. She yearned to yank them out of their lethargy—to squeeze them, slap them, wring them out—shock the life back into them.
           Cal would be ok—he was lazy, sure, but still loud, and still telling awful jokes. Sash though—she got quiet, veered inwards, showed no interest in anything—not even her mouse house. Said nothing when asked about her day, just wandered off to her bedroom. So pale. Wouldn’t say what was wrong. And just these past few days wouldn’t eat—not honey and peanut butter on bagels, not jelly donuts, not strawberry ice cream with chocolate sauce.
           The mother twisted herself every which way, trying to pull Sasha out of her misery—to get both of them interested in something—chess, Pictionary. Charades. No go. She bought Cal a second-hand guitar, Sasha new tiny wooden chairs for her mouse house. They barely glanced at these gifts.
           The two of them lay sprawled for hours. Thrown into a dead stillness. Defeated in their bodies and minds, in their little half-lived spirits. It was Sasha—her refusal ran deep in her blood. And now she was pulling Cal down with her.
 
           On an evening when the mother was so tired she couldn’t stand it anymore, she snatched Sasha up off the floor, clutched her shoulders and shook her. ‘What’s wrong with you?’ she screamed.
           Her daughter scowled, shivered, light as a blade of grass, a wisp of a thing, so thin, so brittle. She pulled away and ran off to her room. The mother collapsed on the sofa beside her son. Hid her eyes behind her hands and groaned.
           They sat quiet. The mother pushed out a breath like it was hard to get it out of her lungs.
           Cal laid his hand on her arm. ‘Are you ok?’
            ‘Oh sure,’ she said into her hands.
            ‘Did you hear about the rope?’
            ‘The what?
            ‘This rope went into a bar and—’
            ‘Oh no. Not now.’
            ‘Yeah, but you’ll like it. It’s good.’
            ‘Good enough to make your sister laugh? Why don’t you tell her?’
           He was quiet a moment, attentive, as if listening to an echo of what his mother had just said. ‘Ok. I will. I will tell her.’ He folded himself forward on to his knees. ‘I’ll try.’
           It got worse. After a few months, Sasha was so thin that her mother took her to a doctor. The doctor said they should encourage her to eat.
           When they were alone after school, Cal made sandwiches for Sasha, weird combinations that he called obnoxious concoctions: maple syrup and peanut butter, cherry jam and m and m’s, and he would give them strange names—a wink and a frog sandwich or a barfly and dustmop sandwich or a cosmonaut and sausage sandwich. And he cut them into strange shapes. Sasha never laughed, never smiled, never ate the sandwiches.
           Four weeks before Sasha was scheduled to check into a rehab centre for eating disorders, the mother bought three yellow balls from the toy store. For two weeks she practiced in her bedroom at night until she got it right, and one afternoon she stood in front of her children in the living room and juggled for fifteen seconds. They watched her, amazed. Sasha smiled—a little timid struggle of a half-smile—the first smile in months. The mother taught them the basics she’d learned from a boy at work. This was something—finally something.
           They both tried it—fumbled with the balls at first, laughing and dashing all over to retrieve them. Sasha got two balls up in the air, dropped them both and gave up. But Cal, thin and wiry and intense—he latched on to it with a vengeance and practiced for hours. Sasha watched him as if hypnotized. Cal would bow and apologize every time he dropped a ball, and Sash would smile and say, ‘Try again.’ And he did. He tried and tried until he got it right and Sasha would clap and say, ‘Bravo!’
           When the mother got home from work now, she’d see Cal standing in the middle of the living room, arms pumping, a flight of yellow above him, and Sash curled up on the sofa watching intently, nodding and clapping.
           The mother took Cal aside. ‘It’s a great thing you’re doing here,’ she said. ‘You’ve brought her back to life.’ She hugged him, stroked the hair off his forehead, tucked in his shirt.
            ‘Now can I tell you the joke?’ he said.
           She listened to his joke about the rope in the bar and the frayed knot. He helped her set the table for dinner. She thanked him and he closed his eyes and put his arms around her and held on.
           When he mastered the three balls, he asked his mother to buy more. He practised with four, then six, then eight. Sasha watched his every move.
           After a week or so, he began to make sandwiches for her again, and now she ate them, almost without thinking, while she watched him practise. She put on a little weight, began to eat dinner again. Her mother cancelled the rehab centre.
           He studied videos on YouTube, got better at it. One afternoon, he noticed that Sasha was distracted—staring at her hands instead of at him. He picked up a spoon and juggled it with the balls. ‘Look!’ he called out to her. The spoon twirled and caught the light. Sasha laughed, delighted. ‘Can you do plates?’ she said.
           Everything went up in the air: Keys, peaches, bunches of grapes, side plates and saucers, wooden spoons and small bowls. ‘Watch this, Sash!’ he’d yell, and then toss up into the air a series of household objects unremarkable in themselves but extraordinary in their patterns of suspension—running shoes, baseball gloves, candy hearts, frozen lamb chops. He juggled Oreos, rolled up socks, toothbrushes, rice crackers, bars of soap, dolls, ears of corn, face cream tubes, shampoo bottles, adjusting each toss according to the weight of the object. He juggled anything he could find, and she watched in awe.
           It was strange, the mother had to admit it—and sometimes plates and saucers broke—but she loved how her children were now—vital, full of life—and she was grateful to her son. She’d been distant from him recently—her anxiety about Sasha pulling her away from him, but she’d change that. She bought Manga comics for him, and arranged guitar lessons.
           But the comics and the guitar lay beside his bed, untouched. Cal was obsessed. He practised for hours every day. Sash watched him, in thrall, as she willed whatever objects were in play to stay up in the air. And they did! Sometimes the objects floated up there for longer than they should—as if they were suspended just under the ceiling by an invisible hand. When Cal juggled bright objects like glasses or jewelry, they glinted in the light. Every object soared up like a falcon, then floated down gently on moth wings.
           When the mother got home from work, exhausted, Cal would tell her what Sasha had for lunch, how she had watched him, how she had laughed. His mother would slump down at the kitchen table and look up at him and smile.
           It was summer, and the children were alone almost all day while the mother was at work. But she didn’t worry. Cal was her saviour, her daughter’s guardian angel.
           Cal went out in the mornings with a plastic bag and brought home whatever he could find out in the neighbourhood—a baby’s boot, a plastic elephant, tiny toy cars, a keyboard, a doll, wine bottles, a stuffed lamb, beer cans, dvds, paperback books. Day by day he increased the number and variety of objects he juggled—he could toss up a whole heap of different things and keep them soaring—and the more objects he juggled, the more his little sister laughed and clapped and encouraged him.
           He sweated and strained to keep heavier and heavier objects suspended – a frying pan and a pot, with a tricycle wheel, a bag of onions and an acacia plant – he made it look easy, kept all the objects upright as they soared up, each one on its own ellipse, each one describing a perfect arc. And at the apex of the arc, every object, no matter how heavy, would hover for a second – suspended, spinning there, winking in the light.
           Sasha was entranced. The objects her brother juggled were alive and grew wings – and if they ever threatened to crash to the ground, Cal snatched them up out of danger and tossed them back up where they belonged, flying. A plate was a phoenix, a tire was a dragon, a doll was a dove or a cormorant, a wine bottle a dragonfly. One afternoon, he juggled all the furniture from her mouse house, along with three peanut butter and honey sandwiches, cut into quarters. Not one sandwich fell, not one tiny chair disobeyed the trajectory of his will.
           The sun came in through the living room window and glanced off all of these objects in the air, and it looked to both of them—engaged in this labour of juggling and watching—as if gravity itself gave up in the face of their intent and abandoned their living room. Simply walked away.
           As the summer wore on, Sasha became well. She chatted with her mother when she came home, helped her with the cooking, ate two servings at dinner. She made marshmallow cookies with blue icing for Cal. She began to read the paperbacks that Cal had brought home to juggle. She memorized the jokes he told her, and told some of her own. Her pinched expression disappeared—she wanted to learn line dancing. Decided when she grew up, she’d be a ballerina or a pilot.
           Cal tried harder and harder to keep the magic happening. He knew he’d have to scale up his efforts. Like Mesmer, Svengali, or Rasputin, he held her spirit in his hands. He found more and more interesting objects to juggle, and ways to make them spin at different angles, different speeds. Doughnuts, pill boxes, five-pound bell weights, his guitar, her collection of glass cats—all went up in the air. She was a little worried about those cats, but he didn’t drop one. She never even wondered how he did it—just accepted her brother was a magician.
           Every morning Cal had to meditate for at least an hour to focus his concentration. He would sit cross-legged in his room, close his eyes and imagine the sky as a blue substance that could permeate matter, the stratosphere as a discrete orbit with its own gravitational pull, empty space as a collapsing star that drew everything into its centre. These visions were clear and precise.
           As the objects became more difficult, he had to spend more time meditating. One hour became two, became three. One day in July, after a whole morning of meditation, he achieved his masterwork: He juggled eight lit candles, keeping them upright and lit the whole time—she was thrilled—and asked him to do it again and again.
           Towards the end of the summer, the objects—no matter what they were, no matter how heavy or awkward or unusual—were no longer enough for her. She’d grown used to them and now wanted to see something truly spectacular—Catherine wheels, lit sparklers, whirligigs—there had to be frantic motion, flashing lights, intense spinning.
           Cal worked harder, using every scrap of his concentration and will to get those objects to spin and stay alight and to achieve that remarkable almost impossible floating effect, when the objects seemed buoyed up above the air, beyond the natural impetus and arc of their trajectory.
           He meditated now for four hours every morning. Sometimes his visions blurred—and he had to get the pictures clear and distinct before he could start. The effort of concentration began to tire him. The higher and longer he made the objects float, the dizzier and weaker he felt. He went to bed early, often before Sasha, and woke up late, barely able to lift himself out of bed.
           He would sit on the edge of his bed, holding his head in his hands, unable to stand. Strange dreams stole his sleep away from him. He dreamt one night of a crow he was digging up out of the earth, brushing the dirt off its wings. His mother asked him if he was alright. He told her a joke about a duck and some grapes.
           Every object he found made him more anxious—would it work—would it float. He caught a mouse, hid it and juggled it with her stuffed mice. She found that hilarious, begged him to find more mice, and juggle with twelve of them. He could only find three. One of them died of fright in mid-air. Had a tiny heart attack. She was distraught and cried. He buried the mouse in the acacia plant and made up a prayer for the mouse which he taught her word for word and asked her to recite until she stopped crying.
           It was late August. On an afternoon when it was grey and rainy outside, Sasha was standing by the window staring out. Cal came into the living room with his bag of objects and she slumped onto the sofa, and burst into tears.
            ‘What’s wrong?’ Cal said. He knelt beside her, staring at her as if she had a fatal wound that he could do nothing to heal. Or as if she was that wound.
            ‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘I don’t know.’ Her voice was a whisper, her eyes dull, her expression flat. She looked like she did before—turned inwards, empty and blank. The sadness—that didn’t seem to have any cause at all—or none that he could see—had come back and taken her over again.
           He juggled three bananas, six foil pie plates, two pairs of sunglasses, five trivets and a little plastic dog. He got the dog to spin. ‘Look, Sash!’ he yelled. But she didn’t watch. A trivet veered out of its orbit and smashed to the floor. He picked up the pieces.
           The next day at lunch she wouldn’t eat her barfly and dustmop sandwich. He told her a joke. She stared at the table. ‘What can I do?’ he said.
           She was silent for many minutes. ‘I don’t know,’ she said.
            ‘I’ll tell you what. I’ll break my record,’ he said. ‘I bet I can juggle twelve candles, three sparklers and eight side plates, all at the same time, and I bet I can get each one to touch the ceiling.’
           She looked up at him then. ‘Really?’ she said, with a premonition of a smile.
           For five hours Cal prepared himself for this stunt. He tuned his thoughts like a laser beam. He banished time so that his visions were not of the future but of the present, simply pictures of what was actually happening. He imagined every object rising, saw the ceiling of the apartment as the horizon of the universe. He called on all his strength, his will, his force of focus, until finally he stood in the middle of the living room, the lit candles in one hand and the plates in the other.
           He began with the candles. Up they went, upright, arcing gently, scorching the ceiling and floating back down into his left hand. The three sparklers followed, spinning and brushing the ceiling. Then up went the plates, wobbling, grazing the ceiling, and then sinking back down. At one point all the candles, all the plates, and all three sparklers hung suspended an inch below the ceiling in a spinning, defiant constellation. Cal was aghast—for an instant he felt a terrible fear—but Sasha was amazed. She laughed and watched in awe as each candle, sparkler and plate came back down, and went back up, one by one, under perfect control of their master.
           After three minutes of juggling, Cal opened his palms and allowed each object to return, like a tethered beast, to his waiting hands. He grinned at his little sister. ‘Tada!’ he said, opened his arms wide and began to bow. She stood and smiled and clapped. He caught her eye and tried to speak. Then he folded, crumpled, collapsed on the floor. The plates fell to the ground and smashed and the candles and sparklers went out.
           The mother came back from work at 6:00. She found Cal lying on the living room floor, broken plates, candles and sparklers all around him, and Sasha kneeling on the floor beside him, patting his cheek gently, trying to wake him up.
           The mother tried to revive him, screaming his name, shaking him, but he didn’t respond. She called an ambulance and sat on the floor beside him, holding his hand, begging him to wake up. For a few seconds his eyes fluttered open. He saw his mother’s face beside his, and looked into her eyes. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘I tried but it’s no good.’ He looked at his sister who was crouched beside him, tears running down her face. ‘Sash,’ he said. ‘You’ll have to learn to—’ He sat up suddenly and fell back down, his hand reaching up towards her face.            AQ

Carlo Rey Lacsamana – The Trespasser

Carlo Rey Lacsamana
The Trespasser

I

In exchange for fixing the power switch, the bar owner offered him a month of free breakfast of cappuccino and a sandwich of his choice, since the owner knew he would not accept money as payment. He would rather trade his talents and capacities with other people’s talents and capacities than sell them. Never let money be the mediator between man and man. He didn’t work. Work in the normal sense of its worldly engagement: being employed, contracts, salary, routine, etc. All these things he found extraordinarily tedious, rigid, and too artificial. To work is a form of bondage; no animal wants to be in chains. His ex-girlfriend saw this evasion as living a wayward life. Despite his intelligence, his knowledge of things, and his artistic nature, she dreaded his lack of concern for the future. Of course, she wanted security! Who doesn’t? Future and security: nothing could be more ambivalent. She thought he was charmingly vague.
         His vagueness—that is his refusal to be part of universal conformity and standardized living inspired disgust and admiration. Friends laughed behind his back, his family considered him a kind of failure. On the other hand, people who really knew him admired his will, imagination, idealism, and improvisational skills. He was never tempted to pursue the countless, dazzling diversions that lure young men. He took seriously the simple pleasures of life. The simple attracted him for they were striking; simple yet high minded, dangerous, and exciting. This irrepressible feeling for the simple was, perhaps, the secret of joy.
         What is the charm and logic of spending the glorious days of one’s unrepeatable life inside the dusty office room staring at a lifeless immobile screen making abstract figures, writing dull notes, sitting on a helpless stool for hours and eternity, waiting, till the judicious hand of the wall clock startles you: ‘It’s six, you can go home,’ he said eloquently to a curiously sympathetic friend. ‘And have faith that tomorrow will be as saturnine as yesterday and all the other tomorrows, going about again and again in this lifeless, lugubrious repetition.’
         ‘What a shame! What a shame!’ he exclaimed. He had naturally a plentiful stream of exuberance and humour. To embrace the world, to smell a strange flower, to get drunk with a stranger, to read a wise book, to squeeze the breasts of your lover, to sit in a corner to listen to a street musician, to defecate in the morning, to escape to the sea, ah! The sea!… to… to… love! He thought out loud these simple longings of life. ‘To!’ he cried as if referring to an invisible lover with tormented cheerfulness and passion. ‘Life must triumph against ennui!’ One must stretch this victory to the end. Indeed, his charming vagueness puzzled the people around him.
         The warm, sweet, foamy cappuccino mingled delightfully with tobacco. He devoured it up to the last drop. It tasted essentially good because it was free. He put out his notepad and pen: two indispensable instruments which served as mediator between his ideas and the marvellous world. They made thinking something light. On the blank page fell waves of sunlight: warm, tender, golden, like daffodils, solid light he could touch and feel. What was he thinking? There was something godly about the sun, the sheer warmth, the unknown power which stirred the heart with a hot, furious impulse of becoming. The sun was both calm and careless, patient and reckless. This contagious influence of the sun violated his bounds of reason. Like the wild animals his heart was possessed with that impulse for serious playfulness. One must explore the possibilities within one’s self and their painful limits to one’s transformation. In the grandness of the universe, he felt he was a fragmentary piece of something incomprehensible, terrifying beauty. And that strange feeling was enough a design to live wholly for the moment’s sake. He wandered and wondered out loud.
         And observed the world around him. The pretty young students walking their way to school, the fruits at the fruit stand, the pigeons drinking in the fountain pool, the bicycles peacefully parked on the corner. One could write epic stories about these things, he thought. He observed and wrote the hours of the morning, the pages bursting like pomegranates: poems, thoughts, ideas, soiled with wandering cigarette ashes and petals of divine sunlight.

II

Midday. The restless city was hidden under the blinding lustre of the midday sun. The city. Land of insatiable desires, of open secrets, of crowded ambitions, of petty crimes, of active limbs and confused minds. A world where the power of the screen creates distracted men; and man, obscure, faceless among other men, always at the mercy of want.
         He came to the food market at the busiest hour of the day. To buy food? Absolutely not! Watch how he spy and prey upon the train of fruit and vegetable stalls. To thieve? He could; but he believed in the kindness of man so he asked; besides asking was less risky. The customers wandered in search of the most brilliant red tomatoes, the most-slender bananas, the most electric bundle of spinach, the most seductive eggplant. They paid for what they got. He foraged for free.
         Fruits and vegetables which couldn’t be sold: the leftovers, the physically “unmarketable” food like odd-shaped potatoes, wrinkled lettuces, pillow-soft tomatoes, slightly withered cabbages; unattractive to the sophisticated eyes of urban consumers. Even in flea markets the instinctive obsession with outward appearance reigns supreme. What was deemed as “trash” he recouped and eat.
         At the end of the day massive quantities of food enough to feed a whole starving city went to landfills. What a mountain of waste we create every day! The very fact was sheer agony to him. How could one submit to this logic of waste? So much waste. The blindness! But he saw the wealth that lie hidden in those heaps of brilliant fruits and flocks of greens about to be thrown. Rummage.
         Politely he expressed his reasonable concern to the vendors and they in return listened and with the innate sympathy that tied all human beings had warmed up to his buoyant and sensible proposition. Before the garbage collector cleared the whole place, they put aside the leftovers for him. And there he was: choosing and picking: the variety of colours and textures of fruits excited his senses; the lusciousness of the greens delighted his appetite. He came and went without fear of necessity. The waste could always feed him.

III

The perfect full moon had arrived. He stopped, took a deep breath then climbed the fence covered with thick passion vines. Ah! The moonlight was full at the back garden of the church; flowers brimmed: poppies, daffodils, nasturtiums, hyacinths, primroses, scillas, pussy willows. Whatever they shut the door for? he wondered.
         Thanks to the choir girl who sang in the church he had discovered this majestic spot. And it was on this freshly cut lawn surrounded by magnolia, apple and lime trees where they both discovered the ecstasy of making love out door. It made him sad to look back. Last summer! Memories however happy are still sad.
         ‘Isn’t bad for you, smoking cannabis?’ he asked ridiculously.
         ‘Are you really that annoying?’ said the choir girl. She thrust the filter away and lifted her bare arms to embrace him. ‘Love me’.
         ‘What if I don’t Ave Maria?’, he said jokingly, imitating the voice of the priest. ‘Of course, I’m kidding!’
         And then they began, slowly and delicately, to undress…
         ‘They gasped between kisses. Swung back and forth. They laughed like little kids while they lay there in each other’s arms.
         But tonight, he was alone. And the moon that distant white body of fire that mystified the minds of lonely poets and desperate lovers shone with ominous intensity. It seemed the whole tremendous Creation improbable without that radiant little pebble hanging about the pressing darkness of the wide boundless sky. He could not express his curious, admiring affinity with the moon; he felt a pain of joy running through the space, racing through light years in his blood. He was alone. Why some people are afraid to be alone at night? When one is alone at night the senses become magnetic. The ears hear the breath of things, the eyes see the soul of things, the nose smells the stench of the past and the sweetness of the future, the mouth imbibes the darkness—the intoxicating darkness like wine. Alone at night you are one with everything, and the terrifying feeling of getting closer shoulder to shoulder with silence itself. Alone at night you are quite sad.
         He stretched his arms and legs like a crucifix. The silver moonbeams nailed his young pale body on the soft grass; the brittle yellow flowers cracked beneath his back. The hollow church and the trees watched him as he penetrated the grandeur of the space above him. He opened his mouth wide like a dark well. ‘Light years,’ he whispered. He wanted to swallow the moon like a host. To be distant, far, far away, remote but blindingly bright. Light years. He tried to measure the distance of the moon. Mouth wide open as if to swallow the light of the stars, the odour of flowers and trees, the lost memories, the awakened dreams, the entire history of his insignificant being. Quietly his soul screamed. Guilty of living; without resistance, without fight, he surrendered to the celestial prison of the sky. ‘Oh, terrifying beauty!’ he screamed and slept like a free man.     AQ

Claire-Lise Kieffer – A life well lived

Claire-Lise Kieffer
A life well lived

‘This one here would go quite nicely with your face,’ the surgeon was saying. ‘The Olivia Williams one.’
      Julia held the iTab away from her, the software overlaying the Olivia Williams wrinkle onto her temporarily smooth skin. She looked distinguished, kind. Shallow, evenly distributed horizontal forehead wrinkles and a few seedlings of elevens—or ‘glabellar lines’, as the surgeon called them—between her eyebrows. She frowned thoughtfully—now that she could—and her camera reflection frowned with her. When she relaxed her face, the wrinkles resumed their place unaltered. She swiped for the next filter.
      ‘Oh this one, I like this one!’ she exclaimed. Abundant laugh wrinkles, a line on the bridge of the nose and two high, parallel elevens gave her a regal appearance.
      ‘Ah, the Meryl Streep.’ The surgeon’s tone was cautious. ‘A lot of our clients like the Meryl, but as I mentioned, I would recommend something that goes with your unique facial attributes. As you have a—lovely—rounded structure, something like the Olivia Williams or even the Hilary Clinton we saw earlier would suit you best.’
      Julia puckered her mouth, and her faux-reflection drew a weave of vertical cheek lines that, admittedly, looked out of place. She swiped again, but she had viewed all the filters and was back to No Filter. The first part of the procedure that had smoothed her face had gone well. Even what she called her “bitch line”, the deep fold at the top of her nose that used to give her a permanently angry expression, had been completely resorbed. All these years, she had borne it like a cross made out of small but ever-accumulating failures: the times when she had forgotten her sunglasses, scolded the children, or tried to remember if she had locked the car, or worried about money, or increased her speed when walking past a homeless person, pretending to be absorbed in concerns of her own, or had a cigarette. These things don’t make you a bad person, they shouldn’t matter, and yet there they had been, branded into Julia’s face.
      Now it was time for the second part of the treatment: the addition of her final, improved, tastefully aged visage. She remained motionless, staring at her temporary face for a long while. The surgeon didn’t prompt her; she charged by the hour. Suddenly, Julia seemed to become aware that she was not alone.
      ‘If only we could just look like this, am I right?’ she said and the surgeon smiled politely. The room was silent for a few more minutes. Only a hint of the hot city whirred outside. The room smelled disinfectant-clean. Julia had always liked the smell in medical clinics, its sanitary sanity.
      ‘I mean, doesn’t it sometimes feel like this dictatorship of the natural…’ Julia’s voice trailed off. ‘Why couldn’t I just stay wrinkle-free, is all I’m saying.’
      ‘Of course, that is an option,’ the surgeon said in a tone out of which judgement had been removed, well—surgically. She herself was sporting what Julia guessed was a light Alec Baldwin—short, angled elevens, wavy forehead lines. The signature mouth-corner brackets. It wasn’t what Julia would have gone for, but she supposed that, being in the trade, the surgeon wanted something edgy.
      Julia pulled herself together. What was she thinking? Of course, she wouldn’t be one of those horrid wrinkle-free women. Her friends had warned her that this would happen. “When you see your baby face, Jules, you’ll be all like – bye, I’m outta here,” Sandra had said. Janet had concurred. They had met at Hebe’s wine bar, their regular, to show off their new frowns and laughter. ‘But stick to it, don’t you dare come back a bimbo!’ Andrea hadn’t had the procedure, though she was thinking about it too. They all had to admit it suited Sandra so well. No-one said: ‘you look ten years younger’—why not just slap a woman in the face? – instead, they all agreed: ‘Oh, you have aged super gracefully!’
      Julia hadn’t expected to be quite so taken with her face devoid of all wrinkles. She really did look ten, if not twenty years younger, and when you think about it, what’s really so wrong with that? For the first time, she empathised with the wrinkle-free women she and her friends made fun of. Her cleaning lady Maria, for one. Maria with her slouchy cardigans, rounded spine and black, visibly dyed, hair with the long, white roots. And then the smooth baby face on top of that. What do these women think, that you can just slap it on and it will fool people? Or were they trying to save on the procedure, which cost a couple of grand, but less without the artificial wrinkles? You can alter your face, but your posture, voice, your whole attitude will give you away. It’s jarring. It is simply not done. She wouldn’t be able to face her friends, even.
      Julia reminded herself that she had always successfully toed the thin line between looking her best and looking fake. At forty, when she had had her breasts done, she had gone up just one cup to a tasteful C, and she didn’t have them brought up to her neck, no, only a “credible lift”, as her then-surgeon had said. Now at fifty was not the time to let go of her lifelong ethos.
      ‘All right. I’ll go with the Olivia Williams, please.’ Julia reclined into the chair. ‘But could you go easy on the elevens?’ Hers was a life well lived, and soon she would have the wrinkles to prove it. AQ

William Cass – Judgment

William Cass
Judgment

Molly didn’t know about Peter’s disabled dog until their third date. That evening, he had her over for dinner and got her situated with a glass of wine under the umbrella table on his back deck while he worked the barbecue. After about fifteen minutes, the dog made his slow way out through the slider onto the deck, shuffled over to where Molly sat, and licked at her hand while Molly scratched him behind the ears. The dog nuzzled closer, the little cart that carried his back legs and hind quarter shifting behind him.
      Peter exchange smiles with Molly while he turned skewers on the grill. ‘Gus likes you,’ he said.
      ‘That his name?’ Molly asked.
      Peter nodded. Gus whined happily, turning his head into her scratching.
      Molly waited several moments before asking, ‘So, was he born like this?’
      Peter shook his head and closed the lid on the barbecue, smoke trickling from its vents.
      ‘No,’ he said. ‘Car accident about two years ago. Hit and run. Spinal cord injury just above his hips. Paralysed from there on down.’
      ‘Permanently?’
      Peter nodded again.
      Suddenly, Gus raised his right front paw and waved it towards his shoulder; the motion was disjointed, awkward, clumsy, odd. He stumbled as the motions became more pronounced.
      Molly felt her eyebrows knit as she looked from him up to Peter.
      ‘And then there’s that, too,’ Peter’s lips pursed before he went on. ‘Caused by the same accident. Some kind of neurological condition, the vets explained, called “random scratching”. Doesn’t happen all the time.’
      Peter stepped over next to Gus and ran his hands affectionately along the fur beneath the harness strapped around the dog’s middle running from his neck back to where the cart’s support began. He made kissing sounds as he did, and Gus’s tail thumped in pleasure. ‘Yeah,’ Peter said leaning down closer to him. ‘You like that, don’t you, boy?’
      Molly took her own hands away, folded them in her lap, and watched Peter with growing fondness. Truth be known, she’d started falling for him during their first date, but seeing him with what she knew now about Gus completed her tumble. Later, she’d come to find out that Peter’s fall paralleled her own, a surprise for both since they’d each all but given up on finding true love after having turned forty not long before.

They were married a little over a year later, though they were basically inseparable after that night. At first, Peter commandeered things when they took Gus for walks or on outings. But Molly quickly realized that aside from trying to ignore the curious or uncomfortable stares from others—particularly when the random scratching occurred—there really wasn’t too much different about handling Gus than any other dog, and she was soon taking him out by herself and dealing with his other needs without Peter. The exception was when Peter removed Gus from his harness and lifted him up onto the couch to snuggle while they were reading or watching television together. As a full-sized golden lab, Gus was just too big for Molly to manage that manoeuvre, with his hindquarters nothing but dead weight and dangling limbs.
      Molly and Peter were both thrilled when, just after their third wedding anniversary, they made the unlikely discovery that she was pregnant. Even Gus seemed to understand that a happy change had occurred. He began following Molly around almost all the time, nestling nearby in what seemed a protective and comforting response; as those emotions increased, his random scratching seemed to do the same. Peter fawned over Molly, too, making virtually all their meals and taking over most household duties so she could rest and stay off her feet. He accompanied her to all her doctor’s appointments as well, including the amniocentesis she had done early in her second trimester.
      Their obstetrician had them in to meet with him once he had the test’s results. They sat in two chairs across from him at his big desk and watched him remove his wire-rimmed glasses before he spoke.
      ‘Well,’ he said. ‘I’m afraid I have some potentially troubling news. The results from your amniocentesis indicate that there might be some difficulties with your unborn child. Some complications. Challenges, if you will.’
      Molly felt something in her fall. She put her hand over her mouth and felt Peter’s tightening on her knee. His voice was hushed when he asked, ‘What sort of complications?’
      ‘Well,’ the obstetrician said, ‘birth defects, to be blunt. There’s a higher risk that your baby will have some.’ He lifted a few pages from his desktop. ‘Per these results, quite a bit higher, in fact.’
      Molly and Peter stared straight ahead. It seemed to Molly as if it might be impossible for her to ever move again. The only sound was the slow, steady ticking of the big wall clock behind the desk.
      Finally, the obstetrician said, ‘So, you have a couple of options. You can continue with the pregnancy while understanding the potential complications involved, or you can end it. Should you decide on the later, it would be safe to do that for about another month.’ He slid a brochure across the desk, looked back and forth between the two of them, then said, ‘This will give you more information about the decision you’re facing.’ He paused. ‘Whichever you choose, there will be no judgment here.’

They didn’t speak in the car on the way home, nor did they when they’d gotten inside the house where Gus was waiting for them, giddy at their return, pulling his little cart back and forth between the two of them and slobbering on them as they took off their jackets. It was late afternoon; Molly allowed Peter to embrace her briefly in the gloaming before going up to their bedroom and laying on their bed facing the wall. She heard him downstairs go outside onto the back deck and sit down in one of umbrella table chairs. She heard Gus whine and prance some more at the foot of the stairs, then hobble out onto the deck. She was aware that Peter must have removed Gus’s harness because of the familiar thump of Gus’s body as he collapsed onto the deck’s floorboards. She was aware of the sound of sprinklers going on in a neighbour’s yard and of them shutting off again a little later. She was aware of the sound of an ice cream truck’s jingle pass somewhere nearby in the neighbourhood and of it gradually dying away. Molly was aware of those things and others, but only vaguely. She felt numb, empty. She closed her eyes, shook her head, opened them again, and couldn’t quite believe that the same wall was still there that she’d been gazing at. Unmoving, unsympathetic, stoic in the dwindling light, staring back at her with no answers at all.

That night in bed, Peter waited until he heard Gus rustle into sleep in his own bed at the foot of the stairs to say into the darkness, ‘So, what are you thinking?’ When Molly didn’t reply, he said, ‘About today’s doctor’s visit, I mean.’
      ‘I don’t know.’ Although it was too dark to see it, she shook her head. ‘I don’t know what to think.’
      He blew out a long breath. ‘Yeah, me either.’ He turned on his side so he was facing her and found her hand under the covers. ‘You’d be such a fantastic mother. No matter what.’ At the foot of the stairs, Gus made a familiar contented grunt in slumber. Peter caressed Molly’s hand, then said, ‘But I’ll support whatever you want to do. As long as we’re together, we’ll be fine.’
      She closed her eyes tight. Earlier that evening after she’d finally gotten up off the bed, read the pamphlet the doctor had given them, and a shiver had passed over her when she’d gotten to the part about the percentage of serious birth defects increasing dramatically as the age of the mother did. She’d be nearly forty-four at her due date. If their child lived to the age of twenty-five with whatever limitations might be involved at that point for living independently, they’d both be almost seventy, the age her mother had been when she required assisted living. Molly made more tiny shakes of her head in the darkness before bringing Peter’s hand up beside her cheek, and saying, ‘Let’s be quiet now and try to get some sleep.’

Although she was still awake when Peter arose the next morning, she stayed in bed facing the wall and listened to him get ready for work. She heard him strap Gus into his harness and take him for his morning walk, something she always did, but still she remained where she was. After they returned, he quietly set a cup of coffee for her on her bedside table while she feigned sleep. He kissed her forehead and left the house. Molly heard his car start in the driveway, back into the street, and drive away. Still, she didn’t move. Since she worked remotely from home with no set hours, Molly felt no pressing need to arise. She lay there thinking and dozing on and off until Gus began making his late-morning whines indicating that he needed to be taken out again.
      Molly dressed haphazardly, took a couple swallows of cold coffee, brushed her teeth, and avoided looking at herself in the bathroom mirror. She went downstairs and found Gus prancing in circles by the front door, his leash already pulled from its peg and dangling from his mouth and his right paw waving up towards his shoulder.
      ‘All right,’ Molly told him as he licked at her and she got his leash attached. ‘Hold your horses.’
      They left through the front door, went down the short ramp that Peter had fashioned for Gus against the steps there, and he tugged her on the sidewalk along their familiar route through the neighbourhood. Molly moved in a kind of daze even after Gus had done his business and she’d dropped the plastic bag in a nearby trash can. Instead of going home, she let him pull her farther along, as she only occasionally did, to the park at the far end of their neighbourhood. They wandered through the park’s tree-shaded pathways until they came to the children’s playground. Molly sat on a bench there and Gus nosed around at the full extension of his leash.
      Not yet noon on a weekday meant the playground was full of only toddlers and their mothers. Most of the children scrambled on a Big Toy that dominated the centre of the playground, but a few played in the sandboxes or on the swings along the sides. One of the sandboxes was only a few steps away from Molly’s bench, and a small girl sat alone in it playing in the sand with a tiny shovel. She stopped her digging to watch Gus explore. After a few moments, she climbed out of the sandbox and tottered unsteadily towards Gus, grasping her shovel above her head and grinning. Gus whined happily at her approach, tugging towards her on his leash, and his right paw started its random scratching motion.
      A woman sat reading a magazine on an adjacent bench. When the little girl gave a squeal of delight as she leaned down towards Gus, the woman quickly surveyed their interaction, gasped, and dropped the magazine. She jumped off the bench and hurried towards the little girl saying, ‘No, Aubrey. No! Leave the doggy alone.’
      ‘It’s okay,’ Molly told the woman. ‘He’s very friendly and gentle.’
      ‘No!’ the mother shouted, closing the gap and scooping her daughter up into her arms.
      ‘Truly,’ Molly said. ‘He won’t hurt her. He loves children.’
      The mother squeezed her daughter against her shoulder, rocking her back and forth. Gus scooted his cart awkwardly in their direction, his right paw waving, and the woman retreated further. She looked from Molly to Gus, then back to Molly again. What Molly saw in her eyes then wasn’t curiosity or uncomfortableness, but something closer to disgust. Something, Molly understood immediately, that bordered on revulsion and repugnance.
      ‘Come on, Aubrey,’ the woman said to her daughter, then made cooing sounds to her. She turned away, and Molly heard her say, ‘Let’s go get you cleaned up.’
      Molly watched the woman use one hand to snatch a satchel off the bench where she’d been sitting, stuff the magazine into it, and walk off quickly in the opposite direction. The little girl waved her shovel at Gus until they’d turned at the Big Toy. As they did, the mother gave a last look his way, the same expression of disdain dominating her face. Watching the woman disappear down the pathway into the trees, she was reminded suddenly of a late afternoon when she was in college and sitting in the window of a coffee shop as an older woman passed by pushing a young man in a wheelchair. The top of the young man’s head was flattened slightly on one side, and his eyes stared off in opposite directions. His tongue lolled out of one side of his mouth and he drooled onto a bandana tucked into the collar of his shirt that was bunched around a tracheotomy. The young man tapped a crooked wrist under his chin, and the distorted grin on his face had seemed to Molly both nonsensical and off-putting.
      She’d sat perfectly still in the café watching. In a moment, the woman and the young man had passed, and Molly was left staring in their wake at her own reflection in the window. What she saw there wasn’t unlike what had been on the woman’s face who’d retrieved her daughter. Molly remembered being startled by that reflection, forcing her lips in it to uncurl and her eyes to widen from their troubled squint. She remembered shaking her head and whispering to herself, ‘Why?’
      Gus had shuffled over to her at the bench and had lowered his head onto her knee. From habit, Molly began scratching him behind the ears. As she did, his tail thumped at her feet and his right paw gradually slowed and lowered back to the pavement. Molly felt her heart lighten at those changes in him. Gus squirmed and tried to move closer, but one of his cart’s wheels became stuck in a crack in the pathway as he did. Molly reached down, released the wheel, and Gus lowered his head more fully onto her lap.
      Molly resumed her scratching, and watched as he gave one of his soft whines that was full of pleasure. She smiled down at him and whispered, ‘Doesn’t take much to make you happy, does it?’
      When Gus closed his eyes and nuzzled closer, Molly put her hand against her mid-section and thought about the life that was just beginning inside of it. A life that she and Peter had created. One, like all lives yet to be determined, that would have its flaws and its obstacles to face. Not the least among these, she realized in that moment, would be judgment. From other people, but most importantly, from her and Peter. Their own judgment: first, foremost, and ultimately, last. Molly thought about how, unlike in that coffee shop, her judgment had so quickly adjusted, vanished really, after she’d first met Gus on that back deck a few short years ago. She rubbed her belly, letting those memories tumble over themselves and thinking of the future, her heart lightening more and more as she did. AQ

Debasish Mishra – A World Without Water

Debasish Mishra
A World Without Water

‘There’s no water to drink and how dare you take a bath twice in a month?’ the stern officer asked. His bulging red eyes would have stabbed me, without the thick lens whose slender legs squatted on his ears like those of a toad. His uniformed brethren rummaged my house and dirtied their hands to see if I had hoarded water anywhere.
      ‘Trust me, sir. I didn’t consume a drop for weeks and used the liquid savings for a bath, to take out the skin that had grown over my skin.’ I had become another man with a mirror in between.
     ‘If you doubt my words, do a full-body scan to see if there’s any water inside my kidney. I piss air. My sweat is dry too. Dry like the sands of the Arabian desert.’
     He looked at my face, the way one stares at a jailbird. Unblinking, my confidence stood on the pedestal of truth and thirst. Thankfully, his men returned with empty hands.
     But he was unwilling to believe the evidence or the lack of it. ‘You ought to know there’s no water on earth. Your fuckin’ forefathers swigged everything. The government has deployed engineers to melt the ice in Mars.’
     ‘I know, sir. In fact, I have forgotten how water tastes. I did bathe but with half a mug and not a trickle reached my back…’
      Unconvinced by my explanation, he asked me to sign an affidavit to ensure that I wouldn’t bath for the rest of the year. I felt like crying but I didn’t. I couldn’t. I had no water in my body to produce the tears. AQ

Susan E. Lloy – Turn Left on California

Susan E. Lloy
Turn Left on California

‘Turn left on California.’ She likes the sound of that. Those were his exact instructions when she told him what time her flight would get in. He wanted to meet her at the airport, but she prefers to take the Bart to Powell Street and then walk over to his place. That’s if, she still has energy after the long flight. If not she’ll hitch a Lyft. She knows the city well from previous visits with its steep rolling hills and eclectic architecture. The ocean always within sight and often trees filled with chatting parrots depending on the hood.
      He isn’t at all practical. She met him online and he lives thousands of miles away. But, she is bored with her present and imagines what life might be. What time has in store for her? She constantly regurges her past, worries about the future and is barely here in the now, continually pondering what empty spaces she may inhabit someday or not.
      She should have sought a local hook up, yet California sounds appealing. She fantasizes what her life might be like there. Wearing jeans and casual tops. Something she never does at home. In this place it’s mostly black and sombre tones. Occasionally, a signature piece. Maybe she’ll touch up her grey locks with blond highlights to resemble the carefree West Coast sun-kissed windblown hair. She’ll walk his dog Yoyo and hang at the beach with all the other canine cuddlers. She’s bound to meet new friends.
 
Although just before her trip she gets a call for a follow up MRI. They saw something on her routine chest x-ray. As she waits for her test she examines the assortment of posters on the wall of different countries: Africa, Egypt, France, and others further down the corridor that are not within eyeshot. She looks up at the corrugated ceiling and tries to count the tiny holes within each panel waiting for her name to be called. She thinks about her exam and if it’s bad news she won’t be taking any destined excursions. She will stop time right on the spot. Not draw it out or fret about what may come.
      But for the moment, while she is positioned in the machine, she forces herself to be in the present, to breathe slowly and follow the instructions without twitching or moving unnecessarily. Each time she’s had this exam, all parts of her body begins to itch and cry out for her attention. She tries her hardest not to shift, to concentrate, envisioning herself on a beach, the warm water lapping at her feet. She stares at the horizon holding her breath as she is instructed and watches the red ball of the sun slowly dip below.
 
She flies out the following day anxiously awaiting to hear from her physician. Perhaps he hasn’t read the report as yet and all is masked if sinister or not. If he takes his time getting back to her she’ll enjoy her trip and look out at the Pacific and dream of things to come. She will get in better shape and give up social smoking. Out there she’ll get ‘the look’ if she lights one up on the steep streets. The smoke lost in the morning fog. She’ll sell up back east and start afresh here. In a week or two she’ll become one of them as if she’s born and bred.
       She dozes lightly along the way and has strange dreams of falling, only to be woken up abruptly from turbulence and the overhead announcement to fasten seatbelts. She sees the ocean. Cerulean and welcoming. She lets out a long breath and feels lighter as if she’s expelled all that worry into the air. She adjusts her phone from airplane mode and there are two messages from her doctor instructing her to contact him as soon as possible. But, for now she’ll focus on her trip and enjoy the surroundings. And try not be scared of looking down. AQ