Carrie Callaghan – The Mercenary

Carrie Callaghan
The Mercenary

Spring, 1631

A carriage raced down the humpbacked bridge over the Singel canal, across the quay, and then it turned sharply toward him. Abraham hopped out of the way, but not fast enough. The corner of the wooden cab smashed into his shoulder, sending him sprawling across the quay, where feet skittered away to make room. The paving stones hit his mouth like a hammer.

He lay, facedown in the mud, and tasted his blood. Around him, voices cooed and clucked, but no one stopped to help. He fought back tears, then pushed his aching young body up to a seated position. He probed his tongue against the bloody mess inside his cheek.

He had lost no teeth, it seemed, but that was a small mercy. Mud clung to his face and clothes, and now he would look like a vagrant when he met with “Johann.” Abraham had arrived in Amsterdam two days ago, after escaping from Haarlem buried in the back of a farmer’s wagon and on the condition that he meet with this recruiter. And now he was late, according to the church bells. The small advance, just a few stuivers, the Haarlem man had given him was already gone, claimed by the hag who ran the boardinghouse. Tomorrow night Abraham would be sleeping in the alley, unless Johann could help him.

He stood and tried to wipe the cold mud from his tunic, while avoiding eye contact with any of the people walking busily around him. Knots of people flowed past, more than even the prosperous Haarlem could gather in the main square. A woman with a fur-trimmed black bodice and starched white collar stepped around him, followed by a serving woman in a coarse brown linen skirt. Alongside one of the tall brick buildings with the fashionable tapered frontage pointing toward the sky, a boy Abraham’s age juggled four cloth balls and a potato between fingers pink with cold. An old man with a knit cap and a heap of patchwork tunics layered over his shivering hands wobbled by on a stick. He handed Abraham a rag.

‘Pennings, pennings,’ he whispered, his voice hoarse.

Abraham had already run the rag down his face, and he hurried to give it back.

‘I’m sorry, old man. I’ve got nothing.’

Abraham rushed to walk away, though a throbbing in his left hip put a hitch in his step. His heart pinched. If he were injured, or broken, Johann might not sign him as a soldier. And then he’d be begging himself.

No, he’d accept anything by that fate. Ten years ago, his parents had fled Haarlem because their bankruptcy soiled every social connection they had, and now Abraham followed in their footsteps. Except he fled his home because he had been—almost—caught stealing.

It had been wrong of him to try to steal from the silversmith, and foolish to think the man wouldn’t recognize him. No matter. Here he would make amends. He wouldn’t become his cursed, heartless parents.

He found the inn, judging by the painting of a green hare outside, and inside he was the only man in the common room. He shifted his weight back and forth on his cold feet, and hoped the mud was hard to see on the brown of his outermost tunic. Perhaps Johann had already left. The inn had clean-swept floors and a few windows in the front that looked out over the canal, and was tidier than any tavern he had been to yet in this city. Abraham hesitated, conscious of his filth, and then asked the tavern keeper if anyone had earlier been waiting. The man shook his head. After a moment, Abraham sat at a table. He waited, and then, with his stomach gaping with hunger, ordered some bread and cheese. He didn’t have a single coin.

A tall man with a reddened complexion and a short, blond beard entered the main room. He walked up to Abraham’s table.

‘You’re Abraham?’ he asked.

‘That’s right.’ Abraham placed his hands in his lap, and his palms left a hint of anxious moisture on the wooden table. ‘You’re Johann?’

The other man didn’t answer, but he didn’t disagree either. He pulled up a high-backed chair, and the serving woman took his order. He had a slight accent, German possibly.

‘Let’s keep this brief,’ Johann said. He nodded his thanks when his tankard of beer arrived. “We need men. The pay’s good, conditions are good. I can’t say much now about location, but you know where the war is.”

Abraham nodded, though in truth he had only a vague idea of where the fighting was taking place. Somewhere south, or perhaps west, of here. He was seventeen, and he’d had little schooling. But he didn’t care.

‘I’m fine with all that. I want to fight and earn … my place at home again,’ he said, and then flushed at the intensity of his confession. He hoped Johann wouldn’t ask him to stand up, or worse, run. He’d certainly have a limp. ‘Is there some sort of equipment I get?’

Something like a smile swam over Johann’s face, and Abraham noticed a light scar running down the man’s left cheek, hidden under his faint beard. Abraham tore off a chunk of bread and stuffed it into his mouth.

‘You’ll sort out the equipment when you join your unit. Our responsibility is to get you there. I’ve got a few boys headed to the fight, leaving tomorrow. You ready to join them?’

‘No doubts here.’ Abraham swallowed a large mouthful of beer.

‘Just give us a signature.’ He pulled out a parcel and extracted a sheet of paper covered in writing. Abraham frowned, slowly picking his way through the first few sentences, before he gave up and signed. It was idiotic, but he didn’t care. He needed a way out. Besides, in addition to clearing his name, he’d be contributing to Holland’s freedom, fighting to keep the Spanish King and his allies away from the United Provinces. That would be worth telling his family back in Haarlem—if he ever saw them again.

As Abraham had hoped, Johann settled the bill with the tavern keeper. Abraham’s belly was full, but when Johann glanced away, he stuffed the rest of the cheese under his tunic. There was no sense in throwing it out.

‘Be at the southern gate just after sunrise tomorrow,’ Johann said. ‘Sober, if you care about your comfort.’

Abraham suppressed a bitter smile. He had no coins for drinking. ‘And who do I look for?’

‘Myself. You’d better be there, or I’ll find you and make sure you pay up at that inn you’re sleeping at. The lady keeps a close watch on her bills, and I’ll take care of it if you’re with us. But it’s on you if you’re not. To be paid in blood, if I know Margrieth.’

‘I’ll be there.’ Abraham glanced down at his waist, wondering how much the lump of cheese would protrude when he stood, and when he looked up, Johann was walking out the tavern’s door.

Abraham followed quickly, just in case the innkeeper decided to try to charge him for the warmth of the fireplace or his time under the dry roof. His hip hurt as he walked. Outside, a grey rain fell, and Abraham pulled his floppy-brimmed hat down over his forehead and yanked his collar up. No fine lace for him. But he’d settle for anything warm and dry, and to hell with fancy.

A boy carrying four bundled packages ran into him, cursed, and scurried along, head bowed under the rain. Abraham could follow him, see what else there was to do in this city beyond affix his signature to documents he couldn’t understand. Instead, he stepped to the side, under the dry protection of an eave, and watched. He blinked back tears. What a fool he was.

‘Pennings, a penning,’ a hoarse voice mumbled next to him. Abraham looked over to see the same old beggar from earlier. A wooden knife hung from the man’s loose belt.

‘Sorry old man,’ Abraham said, and turned back toward the crowd. The man fell silent, but didn’t move away, though Abraham wished he would. Abraham was a soldier now; he should keep honourable company. He should have asked Johann what weapon he would be using. Just how would he have to kill another man? Children splashed and laughed, while a woman in a clean white cap frowned at the water sneaking down the back of her neck.

‘It is like no other,’ the man next to him said. Abraham started and turned to look at him. The man’s brown hands trembled as he rubbed his shoulders for warmth.

‘The rain?’

The man gave him a half smile. ‘The city, boy. This city.’

Abraham nodded, not willing to reveal his ignorance of Amsterdam.

‘I love it still, you know. These streets, these tall houses. See those cranes there?’ He pointed across the canal, above the roofline. ‘Building new houses. When I was strong, I could do that work. I built some of these houses.’

‘Then why doesn’t your Guild care for you now?’ Abraham looked away as soon as the question came out. He hadn’t meant to be rude.

‘Ah, boy. They’ve forgotten me. It’s been too long. No one knows anyone here, not anymore. Sometimes that’s good—’ He smiled and cupped his hand under his hanging pocket, which gave the tinkle of a few coins. ‘When there’s no shame to be had in asking the new masters for a penning. And no one to blame me for what I’ve become. Sometimes there’s pain … But I love it here.’

He straightened his tunics, tightened his grip over the cane, and took a shuffling step out from under the eave. The rain, Abraham realized, had lessened.

‘Wait,’ he said. He pulled the cheese from inside his tunic. “Here.”

The man pressed his lips together, looked at Abraham, and then took the cheese.

‘Just half,’ he said, broke it, and handed a piece back. ‘My thanks.’

Before the rain could resume, Abraham loped on his aching hip back to the boarding house, where fleas hopped from the rag over his pallet, and a leak in the roof dripped water down the nearest wall. He kicked the straw bundle that passed for a bed and cursed his parents’ names. If they hadn’t left him poor, maybe he would have turned out better. He kicked it again, ignoring the pain in his hip and the skittering laugh of another boarder behind him, and sat down. Abraham spent the rest of the night eating the cheese, bit by bit, and waiting for dawn. His last night without a weapon in his hands.


Abraham woke in the dark, not realizing he had slept. He made his way outside the quiet city before dawn, and nine other men waited at the gate, marked out by their shabby clothing and downcast eyes. He hugged his arms against himself and tried to ignore the growing sound of his pulse in his ears. His hip didn’t hurt anymore, at least there was that to be grateful for. Young bodies healed quickly. Two of the men traded bawdy jokes and laughed loudly in the tender morning, but the rest of them scuffed their boots against the ground and waited. Johann arrived wearing a large floppy-brimmed hat and ticked their names off a list.

‘Pieter van Sloot? No Pieter? Damn the son of a whore.’ He made a note on his list and handed it to a filthy boy, who ran off. ‘The rest of you, climb up.’ He pointed at a large wagon hitched to two morose horses, which he had driven up from somewhere inside the waking city.

‘An open wagon?’ Abraham said.

‘Oh, you’ve got standards, do you? In that case, I’ll have my money back, if you please, and you can hire a private stagecoach for yourself.’

‘No, it’s not that, just … it’s nothing.’

Johann nodded. Abraham watched the other men climb into the wagon, some with the limber ease of farm boys, others with clumsy effort.

Finally, Abraham was the last one standing in the mud.

‘Go on,’ Johann said, and waved his arm. He was already looking toward the driver.

Abraham walked over to Johann, who blinked and raised an eyebrow when he saw the boy approach.

‘I’m not going to go,’ Abraham said. ‘But I want to pay back what I owe you.’

‘Christ’s blood,’ Johann swore. He took his hat off and ran his fingers along the lining before putting it back on his head. Then he looked at the ground, turned away from Abraham, and swung back toward him with his right fist.

The punch smashed Abraham in the left temple, and he stumbled and fell.

‘I’m still not going,’ he managed to say.

Johann muttered something inaudible, then yelled out for the driver to carry on. As the wagon started rolling, he kicked Abraham in the ribs.

‘I—’ Abraham tried to say.

‘You son of a whore,’ Johann said. ‘Make me look weak in front of the other men. Couldn’t you just not show up so I could send someone to cut your ear off, like the other bastards?’

Abraham rolled onto one hip and clutched his pulsing rib.

‘Please don’t cut my ear off. I want to pay the money back.’

‘That right? You got a handful of guilders in your pocket? I didn’t think so, you filthy louse. Get up.’

Abraham stood, and Johann examined him. Then he grabbed Abraham’s shoulder, pulled him low, and kneed him in the gut.

‘No one’s ever shown up and asked to back out,’ he said as Abraham coughed. A pair of peasant women walked past them, clucking in amusement while they held their produce baskets tightly.

‘Let me make it up,’ Abraham said, forcing the words out. It had been years since he’d had a beating like this, not since he snuck away from lessons to run around with Bartol and the other boys.

Johann clenched his jaw. ‘Follow me. Don’t talk to me while I’m walking, I need to think.’

They walked back through the tall stone gate and into the city. The cobblestone streets were filling with workmen hauling carts of bricks and bakers piling fresh loaves into their open display windows. Abraham’s stomach rumbled.

‘You’ll work?’ Johann stopped and grabbed Abraham’s shoulder.

‘Absolutely. I can’t read much, but I can run and lift and sweep—’

‘You’re a fool, boy.’

Abraham shrugged. ‘But you won’t cut my ear off.’

Johann spat at the cobblestones and then turned and walked away. He turned, raised an eyebrow, and gestured for Abraham to follow. AQ

Bruce McDougall – Waiting for Bo Diddley

Waiting for Bo Diddley
by Bruce McDougall

Jack walked home from school at noon down Tremont Street past the white house where Mister Patrenzic, the gym teacher, lived. After lunch, he returned to school by a different route so that he could stop at his friend Carl’s house and still get to school before the bell rang at one o’clock. Carl’s mother worked afternoons at the Cloverdale Mall, across the street from their house, selling dress pants, white shirts and nylon socks in the menswear department of Morgans. His father worked twelve hours a day as a plumber, installing water pipes and porcelain toilets in suburban housing developments that were rising from farmers’ fields on the outskirts of the city. His older brother went to the local high school, which was three miles away, and took sandwiches with him for lunch in a brown paper bag. That’s why Carl was always alone when Jack arrived on his way back to school.

Jack liked spending time at Carl’s house. His own father was dead, and his mother was a Presbyterian schoolteacher. In Jack’s amputated family, life’s possibilities depended on your obedience to the rules. Rules were the bannisters on the stairway to Heaven. The more strictly you held to them, the more easily you would make your way through life. Disobey a rule, and you’d tumble down the stairs of propriety to wallow in self-indulgent squalor with foreigners, hoodlums and sexual libertines. Jack’s father had taken a tumble and disappeared from his life. Fearing a similar fate, Jack now clung to the rules with all his might.

Before they continued on to school, Carl and Jack sometimes played ball hockey in the driveway, taking shots at each other with a tennis ball in front of the garage where Carl’s father stored his tools and a plumber’s jungle of iron pipes, brass drain fittings, bathroom sinks and toilet bowls. On rainy days like today they sat in the basement bedroom of Carl’s older brother listening to his record albums by The Coasters, Ike and Tina Turner, Chuck Berry and Sam Cooke.

Jack and his mother had moved into the neighbourhood three years ago, when Jack was nine. A few weeks later, his mother had driven Jack and his new friend Carl to Lakeshore Arena to try out for their first hockey team. Since then, Carl had become an all-star and now played three times a week at indoor rinks in the city on a team whose sponsor paid for all his equipment, including his sticks and Tackaberry skates. Everyone at school expected Carl to become a professional hockey player for the Toronto Maple Leafs. So did Carl’s parents, who dreamed of following their famous son into a life that offered more than relentless suburban drudgery.

At school, Carl told his friends about the bench-clearing brawls that erupted on the ice and spread into the stands, where even the players’ parents punched and wrestled with each other to defend the honour of their sons’ teams. Only players destined for professional careers competed with such sanctioned brutality. Lesser players like Jack went once a week in hand-me-down uniforms to an outdoor rink, where they stumbled and skidded on second-hand skates, exercising camaraderie and good sportsmanship, while their parents stood behind the boards, offered each other cigarettes and stamped their feet to keep warm until the kids’ game ended and they could all go home.

Jack had watched his first organized hockey games with his dad, who promised that Jack could join a league as soon as he was old enough. But his dad had gambled to excess, drunk rye whisky, gone fishing with unsavory characters on weekday afternoons, and hit Jack’s mother a couple of times. By the time Jack was old enough to join a hockey league, his mother had left his father and taken Jack with her. He never saw his dad again and didn’t know how to find him. On the one occasion when his father came to their house, his mother had sent him away before he could speak to Jack. Jack had imagined his dad drifting through inaccessible shadows with all the other deadbeats and rule-breakers from whom Jack’s mother wanted to protect her son. Once in a while, Jack thought of finding his father, but he didn’t know where to look and he couldn’t go far to do it because he was only eight years old and his mother wouldn’t let him leave the neighbourhood. Then, one morning last year, his mother had told Jack that his father was dead. He had drowned in Lake Ontario, she said. When Jack asked how it had happened, her face tightened and her jaw clenched as if he’d touched a metal spoon to an exposed nerve in her tooth. She said she’d tell him more when he was old enough. Since then, Jack had felt suspended in sorrow like a raisin in one of his mother’s jellied salads. Escape seemed out of the question, unless he wanted to break his mother’s heart. He didn’t want to hurt his mother. His father had hurt his mother, and suffered the consequences. Jack didn’t have the courage to face banishment from his own home.

It was just after twelve-thirty today when Carl and Jack started listening to an album by Bo Diddley. They’d listened to the songs many times, and they knew all the words by heart: “I’m A Man”, “Diddy Wah Diddy”, “Mona”, “Bring It To Jerome”, “You Can’t Tell A Book By Its Cover”. The music transported Jack into a world of libidinous fantasy and defiant joy, accessible only to a man with the courage to turn his back on convention and pursue a dream. Jack could only pretend to have such courage. He sat on the edge of the bed plucking at the loose strings of a broken guitar. “Now, lookee here,” he drawled, imitating Bo Diddley.

Carl stood beside his mother’s fold-up ironing board, tapping on imaginary piano keys. “Where you from, Bo?” he said.

“South America,” Jack said.

“You ain’t been to no South America,” said Carl.

“Have too,” said Jack.

“What part?” Carl said.

“South Texas,” Jack said.

“Ee-ee,” cackled Carl, in unison with the high-pitched, gravelly voice on the record player.

Between songs, Jack gazed at the album cover. The cover was as bland and unrevealing as the house of Mister Patrenzic, the gym teacher. You’d never have guessed from looking at it what went on inside. In the photo, Bo Diddley and his sidekick, Jerome Green, stood in a white room as featureless as the walls of a bathtub. Jerome was in the background, wearing a shirt and tie, holding a single drumstick over a snare drum. Bo stood in front of him, dressed in a spotless white sports jacket with a tiny black bow tie. He had his legs spread wide, and the toes of his black shoes pointed out, but you could tell from the way he held his red guitar that he wasn’t really playing, just posing for the picture.

It was now six minutes to one according to the clock on the wood-panelled wall. Jack and Carl had sung along to all the songs on one side of the record. They knew that school would start in a minute. But neither of them wanted to stop the music. Carl turned the record over. “All you pretty women,” they sang, “stand in line.”

When the last song ended, Carl and Jack ran out of the house and up the empty sidewalk toward their school. The street was deserted. Noon hour had ended. There wasn’t another kid in sight. Jack had never been late for school and had never been on the street at this time on a school day. He felt like an astronaut who’d fallen out of his spaceship. Even the grass on the lawns seemed unfamiliar at this time of day.

They pulled open the heavy steel door and hurried through the empty corridor. When Carl opened the door to their classroom, all of their classmates turned to look at them.

“Where have you been?” said the teacher, standing at the front of the class.

The teacher, a former professional football player, had a bald head as big as a cannonball and chewed with yellow teeth on the chalk that he used to write on the blackboard. In the face of such masculine power, Jack assumed a posture of abject apology.

“We lost track of the time, sir,” Jack said.

“What were you doing?” the teacher said.

“Listening to Bo Diddley,” said Carl.

Some of their classmates tittered. The teacher shook his enormous head and smiled. Carl’s status as a future player of professional hockey had already won the teacher’s admiration, and he regarded Carl in a much different light than Jack and the rest of their classmates. Jack hoped that the light would extend to him and that the teacher might give them both a break, tell them to take their seats, while he continued scribbling on the blackboard with his nibbled piece of chalk. If Carl had arrived alone, the teacher would have indulged his tardiness with a wink and a warning. But Jack was no one special, and the teacher had no reason to let him off the hook. “What were you listening to?” he said.

Jack looked at his friend. Carl spread his legs, pointed his toes outward and held in his hands an imaginary guitar, like Bo Diddley on the album cover.

“Now, lookee here,” Carl said.

Jack knew the next line. But he felt frightened of offending the teacher, and he didn’t have the courage defy his fear. His breathing stopped and his stomach clenched. He pulled back his lips in the grin of a thwarted idiot. He turned toward his friend but said nothing. The teacher ordered them both to go to the principal’s office.

In the hallway, Jack thought about his mother. He had dishonoured her reputation as a schoolteacher. His disobedience would shame her. He felt tears welling in his eyes. Something he had done in his short life had already cost him the presence of his father. If his behaviour could have such consequences, how was he to know that the shame he felt now was out of all proportion to his transgression? He dreaded the possibility that he might suffer such a loss again, that his mother might banish him from her life for breaking a rule.

Carl closed the classroom door and looked at Jack. “Say, man,” he said, as if their banishment to the principal’s office amounted to nothing more than a lark.

“Mmmm,” Jack said, rubbing his eyes and trying to hide his tears.

“You look like you been whupped wit a ugly stick.”

Jack ran his hands down his face and then began to scrub with his fingers at the flesh on his arms.

Loose-limbed and nonchalant, Carl strolled down the hall. “Don’t be such a suck,” he said as he walked away.

Jack felt as if he were walking to his own execution. He forced himself to put one foot in front of the other. He longed to escape not just from the school but also from the life of safety and obedience through which his unarticulated grief wafted like the sanctimonious odours of a church.

He thought of bolting down the hallway and out the door, but he didn’t have the courage to defy his guilt and follow his own counsel. He knew that hope lay in engagement, even if it meant engaging with punishment; in avoidance he would find only despair. There was no escape from the consequences of his ambiguity.

All these thoughts occurred to him without form or definition like the ghost of his dead father. He could not put them into words. He could hardly articulate his own name as he stood with his friend at the principal’s desk and wondered as he cried how long he could live with his own failure.

Grief enforced the rules that governed his life. The rules allowed no joy, no glory, no distinction, no diddy wah diddy. They reminded him constantly of his complicity in his father’s disappearance. But he would struggle to free himself from the bland tyranny of obedience to these rules. He would try all his life to stop apologizing for consequences that he had never understood. He would be amazed at the effort it would take, how much time he would need to do it and how sad he would feel when he succeeded. AQ

Michael A. Ferro – A Night on the Scales

A Night on the Scales
by Michael A. Ferro

As he sat contented upon his reclined chair he could sense the man’s anguish through the solid steel door nearby. With his feet up on the wood desk, he sucked on the pit of a peach that had been so exceptionally ripe he’d used an entire sheet of paper towel to dry his hands and clean his mustache. He took the pit out of his mouth and set it with a tiny clink onto a little white porcelain plate upon the desk and licked his teeth.

“Ain’t no fuckin’ peaches in there, is there?” he said toward the steel door.

This was a man who prized his job. All night long he got to sit and read the newspaper within a large municipal-looking room overspread with bright florescent light. On quiet nights like this one, when there was only a single man within one of the three adjacent cells, he would watch some of his favorite television shows on a tablet that he kept hidden within a bottom drawer of the desk. He knew this particular man on the opposite side of the steel door would be silent throughout the night this time—he would make sure of it.

Near the top of the steel door was a small window with more steel in the form of thick bars. The door itself was new as they had recently replaced it after long-awaited funds from the state came through. His chair had also been swapped and he particularly appreciated that this one could recline. He threw the yellow-stained paper towel into a wastebasket at his side and eyed the door again.

“What? No big drama show tonight? Not gonna yell ‘n’ scream your head off like last time?”

There was no sound from the room.

“Don’t even think about banging yer head against somethin’ in there again,” he said to the door. “I got no time fer that shit.”

Satisfied with the silence that filled the room, the man reached for the handle on the bottom drawer of the desk when through the main entryway came the judge. At first, the man sitting in the chair wasn’t certain that it was him; he’d rarely seen the judge without his immodest black judicial robe flowing down off his large shoulders, but his short cropped silvery hair and square jaw were unmistakable. He walked with a slight limp into the large room and wore a heavy woolen sweater over a snow-white dress shirt with too-long khaki slacks.

“Judge Anderson, Your Honour,” said the man swiftly rising from his reclining position, “What brings you here?”

The judge smiled courteously and came to the opposite end of the jailer’s desk. He placed his big knuckles onto a stack of papers.

“Evening’, Dan,” said Judge Anderson. “Good to see you again.”

“Yeah, only been a few hours, mm?”


The two stood there while the judge watched the cell door.

“Something I can do for you, Your Honour?”

The judge rapped his knuckles upon the desk.

“Need a favour, Dan. It might sound unusual.”

“How can I help?”

“I need you to let me into his cell.”

“… Why?”

The judge slightly furrowed his brow.

“I mean, what d’you have planned, Your Honour?” asked the jailer.

“Listen, Dan, I know it’s an unusual request, but I can assure you that everything’s in order. I spoke with Chief Jailer Ramirez. He’s aware.”


“Just so you’re aware,” said Judge Anderson, “I plan to spend the night in the cell with him.”

The jailer realized that this meant his world of solitude and privacy would be shattered for the night—there would be no chance to watch his shows.

“I see… well I’m sure y’know what yer doing,” said the jailer. He looked over toward the steel door. “He kin prob’ly hear us right now.”

“That’s fine,” replied the judge.

“Well,” said the jailer turning toward the steel door. “Let’s get to it, Your Honour. Into the jail cell y’go.”

He smiled as he said this and peered back at the judge, but the judge wore no visible emotion.


The door to the cell closed with a violent thud; not because of any particular force the jailer had used to close it, but rather due to the very nature of these thick, heavy doors. It was impossible to close them without a sound of finality in the air, a gavel’s crash.

The judge stood by the door for a few moments and watched over the man lying upon the cot. The man had his back turned to him with his body snug close to the wall in the fetal position and one arm under his head. The man was breathing softly. If he had been sleeping, the judge was sure that the noise had woke him.

The light sound of the judge’s shoes against the cement floor surprised the man. He’d been awake since the jailer yelled out to him earlier and was now unsure about what to make of the judge being inside his cell. Though he could not see him, for his face was turned toward the wall, the man fully expected the judge to be wearing his antediluvian robe, freshly shined black dress shoes, and whatever else it was that a judge wore underneath their vestments. But upon the judge now stepping over toward the opposite cot, the man could clearly hear the patter of soft shoes hitting the floor in an uneven rhythm.

“You wearin’ sneakers, judge?” the man said casually to the wall.

The judge let out a small chuckle.

“I am, Joe,” said Judge Anderson.

The room was dusky and still, akin to a small basement closet.

“We on a first name basis now, judge?”

“We can be, if you like,” the judge said as he rested his forearms upon his thighs and sat forward.

“Don’t want me to call you ‘Your Honour’ no more?”

The judge realized at that moment how accustomed he had become to watching the man’s facial gestures in his courtroom as they spoke.

“You can call me whatever it is that you like right now, in here.”

“I don’t remember your first name. Sure it was printed on one of all those papers I saw but I don’t remember it now.”

“My name is Ronald, or Ron for short.”

“Ronald,” said the man.


There was a long pause.

“I’ll just call you judge.”

“That’s fine.”

Judge Anderson gazed around at the cast of shadows within the cell. Some of the only other times he had been in one were when he took part in walkthroughs of the facility in prior years before minor upgrades. Each time though, the tiny enclosed space had left a profound impression upon him. At night, home lying upon his own bed, he often thought about the shadows in the cells.

“Okay, I’ll bite. Whatchu doin’ here, judge?”

“I’d just like to talk, if you don’t mind.”



“Talk ‘bout what?”

“We can talk about whatever you like.”

At this, the man spun with a quick motion and sat up abruptly, though his left arm fell limp to his side. He expected the judge to recoil but the judge hadn’t flinched. Instead, he merely locked eyes with the man as he sat squarely across from him. The man pursed his lips.

“Alright, just what the hell is this!?” barked the man. He waited for a response. He could see that the judge was looking at his arm now, so the man took his left forearm in his right hand and placed it in his lap.

“You know, I was also in the military, Joe.”

The man analyzed this statement and his eyebrows slowly turned upward from their center, relaxing his expression to one of slight puzzlement.

“You were?”

“I was. Marines. Before law school I did two tours in Vietnam.”

The man scratched his head.

“You Marines had them 13-month tours then, right?”

“Most of us did,” replied the judge with a smile. “We wanted those extra 30 days of free R&R to go anywhere we wanted.”

“Yeah,” said the man, cracking a smile for the first time.

“Of course, it was hardly a free vacation, right?”

The man’s smile faded.


The judge moved closer toward the edge of the bed and his impressively well-maintained bulk forced a whine from the cot’s wire springs.

“You did two tours over in Iraq yourself about a decade ago, didn’t you, Joe?”


“I read in your report that you had some trouble in Ramadi then. That’s where the incident happened that caused the damage to your arm.”

“Yes it was.”

“An IED, right?”

“Yeah,” said the man resting his right arm upon his left, “But what the hell does that matter now? Shit happens. Now I’m stuck in the can for the night.”

“You know that my putting you in here for the night was the right decision, Joe. When they brought you in, you’d been a mess out there, out in the streets. You threw that bottle right through that window and cussed at the patrolman.”

“Yeah, but the building was empty! Abandoned or whatnot. The fuckin’ pane of glass wasn’t even there! Bottle landed on some sheets and didn’t even break nothin’.”

“I know it,” said the judge. “But still—can’t allow you to be doing that kind of stuff.”

The man leaned against the cement wall behind him.

“Yeah, well, I know it, too.”

Judge Anderson relaxed and leaned back.

“This is your third time in here, right?”

“Third time by your ruling, Your Honour, but I got put away twice before over in Harrison County, too.”


“Those were longer stints, too.”


“Same crime though. P.I.”


The man looked at the fingernails of his right hand while the judge studied him intently.

“So how do you decide how long to put the person away for, judge?”

The judge sat up and tilted his head to the side in contemplation. He brought his hand up and ran it through his cropped, snowy hair.

“Well, first thing I do is review the case against the person and look at their history. Then I assess the crime and hear their defence in court. After so many years you begin to see patterns.”


“You start to see the same people committing the same crimes. Sometimes it can be difficult to make sure you’re looking at each individual for who and what they are. Every now and then, a judge of the court needs to stop and take a step back in order to take a closer look at each defendant that comes before them.”

“Oh yeah?” asked the man through a slight chortle.

“It’s true,” said the judge as he leaned forward and gripped the edges of the cot with both hands. “And seeing you in my courtroom for the third time, it made me realize I needed to stop and do just that: take a closer look.”

“You did, did you?”

“I did.”

“And?” asked the man.

“I knew when I handed down your sentence that I was going to come in here tonight and do this. I was looking over your history while I was rendering my judgement and saw someone that I wanted to get to know.”

“Is that a fact?”

“It is, Joe.”

The man began to nod emphatically and fixed an exaggerated grin on his face.

“Well, here I am, judge! An ex-military, one-armed boozer. Put ‘er there!” he said using his right hand to hold up his disabled left arm.

“I’m pleased that we’re talking here. I really am.”

“I’m sure you are.”

“Would you like to know why I entered the Marines, Joe?”

The man shrugged.

“I originally joined to pay for my education.”

“Sounds smart.”

“It seemed like a sound plan,” said the judge, nodding. “But obviously, things can happen that can change those plans. No matter what we had in store for after we got back home.”

“Yeah, no shit,” said the man nodding to his arm. “Try gettin’ a job or findin’ a girl, or going to law school for that matter with one dead arm.”

At this, the judge slowly rose while his back audibly cracked as he put one arm behind his spine to straighten it. With a timid glint in his eyes, the man watched as the judge methodically stepped over to his cot and sat down on the thin mattress next to him. After a moment, the judge took the man’s right hand in his own.

“Make a fist,” said the judge.

The man complied and formed his fingers into a tight fist. The judge then took the man’s hand and brought it down to his leg and rapped the man’s knuckles onto his shin through his pants. To the man’s surprise, rather than hearing the dull thud of a bare fist upon another man’s flesh—a sound that he had come to know quite well—he heard the distinct noise of his own bony fingers rapping against an unyielding metal prosthesis. The judge let go of his hand and the man looked up at him before he promptly looked away.

“Listen, Joe,” the judge began. “Here’s what I’ve come to say to you: I know it isn’t easy. God knows we all have our setbacks and you with a fair share more than others. I wasn’t literally there with you in Iraq when you hit the IED, just as you weren’t literally there with me in Khe Sanh when a VC shell fell from the sky and took my leg, nor were you even born yet, but that doesn’t matter—what does matter is we caught the shit.”

After hearing him curse for the first time, the man looked over at the judge who was staring at him with a concentrated sincerity.

“Yeah, we caught the shit and it felt like the end of our world. But let me tell you something, Joe, and I know you’ve heard it before but let me tell it to you again right here and right now: it isn’t the end of anything. You lost the use of your arm and I lost a leg, but whatever we lose the mind compensates for tenfold. Yes, it takes time. Sometimes it takes longer for some than for others. When I got back to the States, I drank quite a bit. A lot of the guys I went over with got into some heavier stuff when they got back, but let me tell you: booze will take you down just as fast as anything else on earth if you got the mind for it. You and I? We both got the mind for it. It can be part of the price we pay to defend our country.”

The judge leaned in toward Joe and put his arm upon his shoulder. “It was my dad that got me to quit drinking. A cop who was sympathetic to us returning vets took me home one night rather than to the jailhouse after a bender and told my dad what went down that night. My dad was a line worker at the assembly plant. He wasn’t born with ten pounds of brains but he had a heart the size of a Buick and let me tell you, son, he set me straight. I didn’t know if I had one ounce of intellect in my head anymore and once I lost the leg I figured that was that—no good even for the line, I thought. But he reminded me of one of the reasons why I went overseas in the first place: I had greater goals. You can’t buy brains or your future, but your actions can acquire you justice, meaning—something over nothing.”

Joe lowered his head and the judge tightened his grip on his shoulder.

“I understand your dad passed away while you were over in Iraq.”

Joe nodded and sniffed quietly.

“I’m sorry, son,” said the judge. “Like I said, though, you’ve got a fair share more to set you back than others, but all that really means is you got that much more potential ahead of you. Much more than me and that’s the straightforward truth.”

The judge looked around the room and gestured widely with his hand.

“This—this place around you right now—this is just a stepping stone. The best places worth getting to are harder to reach than others and they require these things. You step out of here in the morning and all this becomes nothing more than just some stepping stone; you’ve been in worse places, you’ve been in better places. Some places were made just for finding new places. You’ve got a few misdemeanors on your record but you’ve also got a wartime record that I happened to take a look at and let me tell you, that’s the record people are going to remember. You’re a hero, son, and I don’t say that lightly to anyone. The good we do isn’t just written down in some history book, it lives off the page, people breathe it—they soak in it like a sunray, Joe.”

Joe looked away from Judge Anderson though the judge had seen Joe’s eyes begin to water.

“If you can make it through war, son, you got what it takes to make it here at home.”

The judge gave Joe another hearty pat on the back.

“You got anything you want to say, Joe?”

Joe turned his face toward Judge Anderson and sniffed loudly, discreetly wiping at the corner of his eye. He wore a cautious smile.

“So that peg leg is what’s been under that big black robe all that time?”

The judge leaned back and let out a tremendous guffaw, startling the jailer eavesdropping just outside the cell. AQ

Robert Rorke – Ten Dollar Bill

Ten Dollar Bill
by Robert Rorke

We came down to breakfast Sunday morning and found Himself slumped on the kitchen floor, back against the white enamelled oven door. His head was hanging down, dark hair hiding his right eye. Mom leaned against the sink, sipping a cup of coffee in her pink flannel nightgown, and looked down at him, as if trying to figure out how she was going to lift him—or if she was just going to leave him there.

He was conked-out. If you screamed in his ear, he wouldn’t have heard you. We’d found him passed out before, usually at the kitchen table, but never on the floor. Did he fall off the kitchen chair? He was like one of those guys you saw on the Bowery. How do you come home like that, so drunk you just collapse? I didn’t want to see any more and almost went back to my room until Mom hustled him upstairs.

I waited with my sisters in the dining room for the okay to walk in. Mom put the coffee cup down and waved us over. I went first.

Mom lit a cigarette on the gas burner and took a long drag on it. “She’s all yours,” she said, pointing.

As shocked as we were to see Himself in such bad shape, the bigger surprise was the dog. She was reclining next to his bent left leg, a tricolor collie blinking at us in the most bewildered way, as if she were waiting for us to tell her what she was doing here, in our kitchen. She was very striking, even beautiful. Her coat was mainly black. Her forelegs were brown, paws and chest white. Her snout was longer and narrower than most collies, with a thin stripe of white in the brown. It gave her a slightly aristocratic air. She was going to need it in this house.

Like me, my sisters were half-asleep. Ringlets of damp hair stuck to their necks and temples.

Maureen, the eldest, immediately knelt to pet the dog. “Look at you,” she said into the collie’s confused, melancholy face. She looked up at Mom. “Where’d she come from?”

“Your father brought her home from a bar. Where else? Who wants coffee?”

The aroma of a freshly cooked pot filled the kitchen. I raised my hand. “I do.”

Maureen glanced at Dad. “He’s really smelly, Mom.”

I didn’t plan to get that close. A thread of drool hung from his lip, pack of Pall Malls crushed in his shirt pocket. I checked the clock over the far wall of yellow cabinets. Eight a.m.

Maureen gently unbent Dad’s leg to free the collie. Now his legs were spread out in front of him, blocking the way to the sink. Standing on his other side, Mom poured coffee into cups she took from the drain board and passed them over his head to Dee Dee, who put them on the table. Then she passed out Tupperware cereal bowls.

“Let’s get her some water,” Maureen said. Mom filled a cereal bowl and passed it to Maureen. The collie lapped up half of it and then reclined on the floor next to Himself, crossing her front paws. Master and pet, in repose.

“Ooh, she’s such a lady,” I said. “Definitely not the saloon sort. What did he say when he brought her in?”

“What was there to say?” Mom said, flustered. “He opened the door at five o’clock and said, ‘I’ve got something here for the kids.’ I looked into the front porch and there she was.”

Having the collie there made it possible to overlook my father, as if he were a sofa too cumbersome to move.

“Well, she’s pretty and that’s nice,” said Patty, the second sister. “What’s her name?”

“I don’t know if she has one,” Mom said, wiping her glasses on a hand towel. “I think that’s up to you kids.”

We all looked at her.

“Well, we could name her after the bar where he found her,” I said.

Maureen shot me a baleful look. “Like what? Dew Drop?”

“We are not naming her Dew Drop,” said Patty. “Don’t be such an ass.”

“No, I think we’ll name her Queenie,” Maureen said.

She was always so pushy. “Hey, who says you get to decide?” I asked.

Mom took a ratty leather harness off the closet doorknob and handed it to Maureen. “Before you start arguing, why don’t you get dressed and take her out for a walk? Your father swore she was housetrained.”

We threw our clothes on without taking showers first and walked the dog together, the five of us. Me, Maureen, Patty and our two youngest sisters, Dee Dee and Mary Ellen. I helped Maureen put the harness on the dog and felt the hairless skin under her coat. Himself was grumbling on the kitchen floor.

“Go on now, while I get him up to bed,” Mom said.

The block was empty except for other dog walkers. It was a cloudy day with a raw, wet breeze. The Black Beauty, Himself’s vintage Pontiac, struck a lopsided pose in the driveway, its fancy back end, with a two-tone Continental kit, nudging the orange berries on our neighbour’s firethorn bush, its grille breathing on the alyssum plants around the border of our garden. Maureen held the leash and guided the collie into the street. The dog trotted along and Maureen, long brown hair lifting off her back, kept her eyes peeled toward Snyder Avenue for oncoming cars. It was uncanny, how she knew which way the collie was going to move. She pulled the leash to her, stopping the dog when a car approached or even if another animal appeared in her path. You would have thought she had been doing this for years. When I tried, I held the leash too loosely, and the dog almost walked into a passing Dodge.

We took the collie across Snyder Avenue where a dirt path ran along Holy Cross Cemetery. Gina Martinucci was already there, walking her dog, a camel-colored mutt named Muffin. She lived across the street. Not one pimple on her face. I’d known her as long as we’d lived here, almost ten years; she’d never looked so pretty. She was wearing a bright green raincoat, her wavy brown hair cascading to her shoulders. Not one pimple on her face. Next to her, I felt grubby in my blue corduroy pants and sweatshirt. And I wished I’d combed my mop of hair.

Gina was obviously ready for church. She sang and played lead acoustic guitar at the St. Maria Goretti folk mass (I hadn’t been to church since starting high school; maybe I needed to go back). There were almost as many girls in the Martinucci house as there were in mine, and one son, also the eldest child. The big difference was that her whole family was involved in the church: her mother sang in the choir, her father was in the Holy Name Society. Rumor had it that the Martinuccis said the rosary together—something we would not do in a million years.

“My God, is that your dog?” she said. “She’s beautiful. When did you get her?”

“This morning,” I said. My sweatshirt was not warm enough for the crisp air.

Gina gave me a strange look. “This morning? You’re kidding. Wow.”

“It was a surprise.”

She bent down to pet the collie. “How old is she?”

I shrugged. “We don’t really know.” I sounded like a first-class doofus.

“What?” Gina said, glancing up. “Well, she’s not a puppy. Where’d you get her?”

This encounter was getting more awkward every minute. I glanced at the flower arrangements on the graves through the cemetery’s wrought-iron fence. Piles of raked red, yellow, and brown leaves colored the dying grass.

“Our father brought her home,” Patty said finally.

Gina stroked the collie’s black fur. “Really? I mean, was she a stray?”

“The dog belonged to a friend of my father’s who couldn’t take care of her anymore,” said Maureen, standing next to me.

Gina was beginning to get it, her knit brow registering the weirdness of this meeting. “Oh, that’s too bad. So I guess you didn’t get to name her. It’s more fun when they don’t have a name.”

“You’re right,” Maureen said. “We were told her name was Queenie.”

I wanted to step on her feet. It was such a frigging stupid name.

“Queenie,” Gina said, trying it out. “Well, that’s different. I guess there enough Princesses around.”

“And they’re all German shepherds,” I said.

Muffin and Queenie were sniffing each other out, the collie ever so standoffish. Maureen didn’t even grip the leash. Gina ran her fingers through the collie’s thick coat again. “She must be shedding everywhere. I’m constantly picking up hair.”

“Yeah, it’s a real drag,” Maureen said, rolling her eyes. She started to lead the dog away. “Come on, Queenie.”

When my sisters were out of earshot, Gina told me, “Her coat’s a little dull. You should give her a raw egg once in a while. Makes it shiny.”

I caught up with my sisters after Gina left. “Why did you tell her we got the dog from daddy’s friend, of all things?”

“Why do you have to broadcast our family’s business all over the place?” Maureen said, letting the dog drag her ahead as she sniffed the ground.

“What did I say? We have a dog. We don’t know how old she is, and we don’t know where she came from—except some bar. Which I didn’t tell her.”

Maureen remained stone-faced. “You didn’t have to tell Gina Martinucci anything. She thinks who she is.” Finally, the dog squatted and peed.

Even though they met under the most unlikely circumstances, Queenie seemed to like Himself most of all. Whenever he sat in his chair, a rust-colored recliner, the dog ran over to him and leapt into his lap, offering her neck for a good rubbing. He always obliged and the dog moaned appreciatively.

“Daddy, why doesn’t she ever bark?” Dee Dee asked. That was Queenie’s thing: to almost bark, moaning when she became excited but never really opening her mouth to let the full sound out. “It’s like she wants to but doesn’t know how.”

“I don’t really know,” he said with a yawn. “I think she may have been beaten when she did bark.”

“Poor Queenie,” Dee Dee said.

There was no question that the arrival of the collie was a blessing in our lives. We could all take care of her. Dad set up a schedule for the care of the dog. Queenie was walked five times a day; I had the late shift. Soon we wanted the dog outside with us all the time. If there was no one else for Dee Dee and Mary Ellen to play with on the block when they came home from school, they could run her up and down the sidewalk between our house and Snyder Avenue or try in vain to teach her tricks, like how to catch a ball. And Queenie was always good company, whether you wanted to hang out on the stoop or walk two miles around the perimeter of Holy Cross.

There were only a few things she hated: baths, firecrackers, and bars. I discovered that one night when Dad called home, asking for money to stay out and drink. That had been going on a while, the staying out, maybe an entire year. Nights in neighborhood bars like the Dew Drop and the Brooklyn Inn or even Harkins, a bucket of blood in Park Slope, got longer and longer and sometimes ended the next day. It had us all on edge because we never knew what mood he would bring home. The morning he brought the collie counted as a good mood, but some of the others were ugly. Last week he summoned us to the kitchen table at the crack of dawn after being out all night about talking on the telephone too much—even though we never got a bill since he worked for Ma Bell. No matter what we did, there was always something wrong with it and we learned to walk on eggshells around him. Or avoid him altogether.

Mom was using her lowest possible voice as she talked to him on the phone, sitting on the telephone bench on the staircase landing; I knew she didn’t want to give him five cents. Then she hung up, called me over and asked me to give her the pocket book on the dining room table. She took a ten-dollar bill from her change purse and handed it to me.

“Take this to your father,” she said evenly.



I finished my French and geometry homework and was ready to watch “The Avengers.” Diana Rigg in a leather cat suit doing karate on the bad guys, then changing into something sleek at the end of the episode for a martini with Mr. Steed. Never missed an episode.

Mom knew from my expression I didn’t want to go, but I didn’t say anything. I went where I was told, though she didn’t have to tell me where. I knew: the Dew Drop. “He says to take the dog with you.”

Queenie, napping in front of the television, didn’t look like she wanted to go anywhere. “Why do I have to bring her?”

Mom bit off her words. “It will take ten minutes. Do me a favour and take the dog.”

Maybe I’d make it back in time for the second half-hour. Emma Peel would be kicking the villain-of-the-week in the teeth by then and the show would really get good. Maureen could tell me what I’d missed.

I walked up Church Avenue, heading towards Nostrand. Our neighbourhood was more black than white now. The streetscape I knew was changed forever. Roti shops had replaced grocery stores. Guy’s hair salon, with its sun-bleached pictures of women with blonde beehives and champagne bouffants taped to the windows, was now called De Hair Wizzards and advertised weaves, wigs and Afros. Himself wanted me to bring the dog for protection in case I ran into any trouble, but I didn’t think I’d have any problems. Now that it was colder, the corner boys who usually hung out in front of the bodega on New York Avenue drinking Colt 45s were gone. The few guys I did pass sidestepped me as if they were afraid of the collie. Little did they know she barely barked; it was hard to imagine her biting anyone.

The Dew Drop was on the corner of Church and Fairview Place, six blocks from home. Queenie trotted along at my side under a dark blue sky, her coat shiny in the moonlight (I’d taken Gina’s advice and mixed a raw egg into her Alpo). I wore a red-and-black plaid jacket that used to belong to my Uncle George; the sleeves were a little long, but had a great scratchy feel I always associated with old-time wool. He moved to Germany last summer. As a parting gift, he gave Himself a copy of The Big Book, a present from one recovering alcoholic to another on his way down. The book had vanished, hidden somewhere in our house, I was sure, probably unread. I needed no further proof than the morning he brought home the dog, unconscious on the kitchen floor.

As I approached the bar, something strange happened. Queenie pulled at the leash. I looked down at her and said, “What’s wrong?” I took another step and she dragged her hind legs on the sidewalk, claws on her forelegs scraping the concrete. I stopped. She gave me a frightened look. She knew more about this place than I did. I didn’t know what to do, so I bent down and pet her.

I glanced at the bar. The window was decorated with green shamrocks, decorations someone forgot to take down; it was already October. Or maybe every day was St. Patrick’s Day at the Dew Drop.

We went back to the corner and crossed the street. I walked the collie down to the corner of Martense Street and crossed back over. “Come on. It won’t take long,” I said, as if she could understand me. When we were near the bar’s side exit, she allowed me to tie the leash to a No Parking sign and I stayed with her a minute.

I was hoping I could make this quick, give the old man his ten bucks and scram. I entered the bar through the side door, hands at my side, not knowing what to expect. First surprise: It was a mixed crowd. I couldn’t even imagine Himself drinking with black guys, especially the ones here with Afros, when he was always making jokes about blacks, but I guess in the smoky confines of the Dew Drop, racial tensions were set aside as long as everyone could watch the Mets game. They’d won the World Series last year and were still the city’s favorite team, giving hope to underdogs everywhere.

I was the only minor in the joint, sure I stuck out like a sore thumb. Standing on tiptoe, I saw Dad sitting on a red stool. Probably itching for this ten-dollar bill, thinking about it every time he saw the foam slide down the inside of the empty pint glass next to him. He was talking to some middle-aged white guy with a sharply receding hairline and a cigar sticking out of his mouth. The TV set was poised above the far right end of the bar. They were complaining about first baseman Ed Kranepool. I knew that name from listening to my parents watch the game at home. Dad always called him lard ass.

I stood behind him, took the bill out of my pocket and placed it on the bar in front of him. I leaned in. “Mom said this was for you.”

He turned and shot me a look. “Hey, who’s this?” the man sitting next to him asked, and I reached out to shake the hand of someone I didn’t really want to meet.

“You haven’t met my son, the scholar?” Dad said, poking the shoulder of a guy next to him. “Nicky, can I buy you a drink?”

Mom didn’t say I was going to have to stay. “Uh, maybe a quick one. I’ll take a ginger ale. I have the dog outside.”

One of the Mets scored a home run, and he shouted to everyone, in the booming voice we heard him use to cheer on the Giants, his other favourite team, “Seven to four, top of the eighth. We are home free.”

When he was wound up like this, Dad was hard to resist. He called the bartender over. “Charlie, give me another beer. And a soda for my son.”

Charlie was an older white man with liver-colored lips and thinning brown hair slicked back with some old-time tonic with a medicinal odour like Vitalis; when he spoke, his nicotined teeth flashed garishly from the right corner of his mouth. I bet Dad had known him for years, from one place to another as he stopped in for a quick one after work. Charlie slapped another foamy beer on the bar.

So this was Himself’s inner sanctum. A private world of men playing the away game from their families. Some customers were older than Dad, guys with thick-lensed eyeglasses, pudding skin, and chin lines lost to jowls, but many looked like they were about the same age, early- to mid-thirties, still slim and well built. All eyes were on the television screen and the all-important game. I sipped my soda, trying to seem natural though the smoky air was bothering my eyes; it was hard not to rub them.

Compared to some of the joints I would later retrieve Himself from, this place wasn’t terrible. The décor was standard: a jukebox, a pool table, dartboard, neon signs advertising Rheingold and Pabst Blue Ribbon. Two photos over the walnut case that housed the bottles of liquor and liqueurs caught my eye; they seemed so out of place. One was John F. Kennedy, in a fake gold frame, the kind we used for our school pictures, lined up on the fireplace in the living room. The other was Martin Luther King Jr. The owner wasn’t stupid; he wanted to keep his changing clientele happy.

Dad was telling the guy sitting at the next stool—his name was Molloy, Joe Molloy—what a fantastic student I was. “This kid got one hundred in Latin, I kid you not,” he said. I remembered more the lecture he’d given me about my mediocre algebra grades on the same report card.

“I’m lucky I can speak English,” Molloy said. He got up to take a leak and I took his seat.

The ginger ale tasted kind of flat. I drank it anyway and gestured to the dog when I finished. The side exit was open now, and Dad glanced at Queenie resting on the sidewalk.

“She’s some watchdog,” he said with a wink. “Best game of poker I ever won.”


“I was playing cards here with Tommy Sullivan and Phil Cooney and Joe was flat broke. So he put his dog up as ante. You see, he’s the owner and she was kind of like the bar dog.”

The bar dog. I wished he had the sense that she did about coming here. “And you won the game and the dog.” I couldn’t even smile.

Dad gave a hearty laugh. “That’s the way it goes sometimes.”

I wondered how long Queenie had lived here. We didn’t even know how old she was. I rubbed my eyes and looked at the guys sitting on the stools. How many of them would go home after the Mets had won? Most, probably. So why couldn’t Himself do that?

Standing up, I glanced at the singles on the bar, the change from our drinks. I was feeling nervy. “So I guess you’ll be home when the game’s over?”

He did a double take, as if I’d cuffed him on the ear. “What did you say, Mr. Flynn?”

For the moment, I forgot about Emma Peel. “I want to take another driving lesson tomorrow. We haven’t gone out in a while.”

He’d given me my first driving lesson in The Black Beauty, inside Holy Cross Cemetery. I crept along the winding rows in the ancient Pontiac—it was new in 1958—driving ten, twenty miles an hour amid the rows of granite and green. By some fluke, I learned to parallel-park there, on the first try. Since then, we’d branched out, taking the black-and-white tank to the Brooklyn Terminal Market, which had no yellow lines, just huge spaces between the vendors. “I don’t want to get rusty.”

“Yeah, well. We’ll see what we can do about that.”

As saves go, I was proud of myself, although my knees were shaking. An appointment with a car he could make. Spending the night with his family, he was on the fence.

Queenie looked fairly miserable out on the sidewalk, panting in the dark, but I wanted to see if I could get Himself to come home. It was the top of ninth, the score unchanged. I ordered another ginger ale, chipping away at what was left of that ten-dollar bill. Tom Seaver, the cute Met my two eldest sisters had a crush on, was pitching so that was a good sign. He could knock out the other team and when he did, the guys in the bar cheered as if they were out at Shea Stadium. Then they started to leave, settling up, shaking hands with the bartender, and going on their way.

I stood and nudged my old man. “Come say hi to the dog.”

I went outside. Queenie jumped on me when I untied the leash, thinking we were finally getting out of there. When she settled down, I pet her under the collar, rubbing the white hair under her neck, which she loved. Then Himself joined us on the sidewalk and she got excited all over again. She was ready to go. I wondered if he was too.

“Want to walk us home?”

He stopped petting Queenie and looked up at me. “Why? You afraid of the dark?”

“Game’s over, Dad. Your team won.”

He stood, looking down at the sidewalk with his hands in his pockets, as if giving serious thought to my proposal. “You go on home, Nicky,” he said. “I’ve got to talk Molloy about something.”

When he raised his head, his eyes were full of regret; he knew what I was up to and he was still going to let me down. I wondered how much of that ten-dollar bill was left—enough for one more drink? Maybe he had to talk Molloy into giving him a free one. A buy back, they called it. Except that my mother was doing the buying here. He was doing the spending.

He left me on the sidewalk with the dog. I was a fool to think I’d convince him to come home. Voices came from the TV set inside the bar, sportscasters falling all over themselves about tonight’s game. I stood there like a jerk, looking at the mannequins in the window of Bob and Betty, the children’s clothing store across the street. A stock boy from the Big Apple dragged tied-up cardboard boxes to the curb for garbage pickup tomorrow morning.

I had him, then I lost him, like an image that slips out of focus in the lens of a camera. All the elements were there to give me a clear picture of what I could expect the next time I was sent to get him. And the time after that. The corner bar, the sound of my own footsteps as I walked up the street, the kid taking out the trash, as I would do when I had my own after-school job, scooping thirty-one flavours. A lingering sense of futility, and the lonely certainty that these missions would end only when I grew up and moved away.

I took the dog and headed back down Church Avenue. She pulled at the leash with the same force she showed when clawing the sidewalk. Home, that’s what she wanted. Me too. Neither of us belonged here.

André Gouyneau – Léon, the Tiger

Léon, the Tiger
by André Gouyneau
translated by Kathy Janes

Imagination will often carry us to worlds
that never were. But without it we go nowhere. — Carl Sagan

In the old theatre, the last people were taking their seats. The compère walked back and forth in front of the red stage curtain, incessantly repeating the words on the poster by the entrance.

An unforgettable first act. From the top of the theatre, Leon the Tiger will leap onto one or two members of the audience. There is no danger, once he has landed on you he will weigh less than a small cat, a soft toy… a feather. He will fall into your arms. Don’t be afraid, have faith.

They took their seats tentatively; should they be near the aisles to escape in an emergency, or should they be in the middle of the crowd. Which strategy should they adopt? All were sceptical, not believing that a large, wild beast could, in an instant, transform its considerable weight into that of a small cat. The children were impatient and scrambling over the knees of their parents. They wanted him on their laps so they could stroke him. Anxious mothers tried in vain to keep them safely sheltered in their arms.

The wait was never-ending. Then, quite suddenly, the lights went out, taking the audience by surprise. The hubbub became a sustained whispering tinged with anxiety. Just as in the circus, a loud drum roll erupted and Leon appeared in a pool of white light. He was magnificent. He walked about to the tune of the Pink Panther, swaying his hips and rolling his shoulders.
Next, roaring in a fearsome manner, he made some jumps on the spot, perfectly in time with the loud and rhythmic music. Then, at the speed of light, he scoured the theatre in all directions. This was a well-rehearsed number, a perfectly choreographed fusion of light, sound and theatrics. This freely roaming tiger turned the audience to jelly.

Leon knew just how to play on the nerves of his clients. He roared in the face of some, swinging blows in the air at them with his paws, giving them some broad winks. Then the artist became serious. He chose his partners for this evening with care. A fleshy old man gave way to a magnificent young woman, a tattooed guy to a cute, retired couple. By turns he was wily and affectionate or loud and aggressive. He froze for a few seconds to look just right on the big screen and to allow everyone to take excellent photos. He also managed to make his breath felt on a number of spectators. This was a fierce, frightening animal and also a big pussycat, who purred and fooled around.

Then Leon, the warm up act, gave way to Leon, the artist. He became serious. From way up high in his circle of light, he slowly crouched down, hidden from the view of most of the spectators. In one diagonal swoop, like a coloured arc, he took a leap of about twenty metres and landed on a dear, old couple, who remained impassive. On his back in their arms, he begged to be stroked under the chin, then gave them a big lick with his tongue. He moved away from them nonchalant and smiling. The crowd were on their feet applauding. He returned to the top of the theatre with his supremely supple gait.

The spotlight followed him for his second performance. On his back and with all his paws spread wide, he did a kind of loop-the-loop and glided for a fraction of a second before landing on the knees of three delighted young children. The audience were completely won over. He continued his tomfoolery and his showmanship during the ovations. Now the hero of the children, he was less and less frightening.

The third jump was incredible. Swirling in the air and roaring, he espied a woman clinging to a man in a yellow suit. The panic-stricken couple threw themselves to the ground in the aisle and Leon crashed down onto their seats. The stifled, muffled sound of a bass drum rang out. Everyone understood right away that Leon had fallen with his full weight because he was not ‘welcomed.’ The anger of the crowd spilled over and they booed the couple, who had to flee. Leon went out slowly, limping, leaning for support on the shoulders of two bruisers. Turning his head, he made little gestures with his paws, he smiled at his fans. The compère quickly got the crowd back under control and announced the main attraction. In the wings, Leon’s agent congratulated him.

“Well done! With the perfectly synchronised sound system, even I thought you weighed a ton.”

“Heaven forbid. Thank goodness, I am as light as a feather, otherwise how could I make such leaps.”

“It was good tonight, but we should vary the finale.”

“I could land on a rib of beef placed at the front of the stage,” said Léon.

“Or pretend to eat me,” joked his agent.

“Why not, it’s quite plausible. After all, I am somewhat feral.”

Nancy Ludmerer – Cara Cara

Cara Cara
by Nancy Ludmerer

In a Florida hospital, I peel navel oranges to mask the smell of death. I sing dad’s favourite: “Gonna sit right down and write myself a letter.” As a girl, I’d pictured him, young, besotted, writing endearments in florid penmanship, pretending his sweetheart (mom?) had written the sweet words.

Retired to Florida a decade ago, widowed, he’d send Cara Cara oranges every December to Boys Town, the Doe Fund, me — lonely souls back North.

Now I sit beside his lifeless form, white-sheeted. Neither of us has anywhere to go. I sort through his mail, which he’d asked me to bring that morning. Ralph’s Orange Groves has written: “Did you forget your orders this year, Morris?”

Should I tell them?

“It was time,” the doctor says, stopping by to express his regrets. But the doctor didn’t know him. None of them did: not the kindest nurses, the cheerful receptionist, the jaunty mortician wandering the halls saying, “Hopefully you’ll never need me, but just in case.” None had heard him sing.

None had tasted those oranges, skin burst, dripping with juice.

Except, of course, Ralph.

“Dear Ralph,” I begin.

Srinjay Chakravarti – Bitter Pill

Bitter Pill
by Srinjay Chakravarti

The late afternoon sun was deliciously warm and mellow, and Mrs Lahiri, sitting on the park bench on that cold December day, had almost dozed off. Her head was nodding and the cashmere sweater she was knitting lay on her lap, forgotten.

The sound of sudden raucous laughter, harsh and discordant, roused her from her incipient slumber. She blinked her eyes behind her pince-nez glasses and looked around. There was no one to be seen. She turned around and looked carefully again. She could hear voices from behind the screen of dense foliage. Someone was talking loudly.

She yawned and picked up her knitting again. Suddenly some of the words wafted to her ears and she sat up straight.

“That old fool of a woman, Mrs Chitra Lahiri,” came a deep male voice, “did you look at her face?! It was a picture!”

A young girl’s laughter tinkled in the air. “The idea of the soap lather coming out from my mouth—that was too brilliant. Just wicked! Where did you learn it?”

The young man laughed. “From a friend who was in the army. He had read about it in a book. It’s a trick some young men had used during a war to act out epileptic fits. That way they weren’t drafted into military service in their country.”

Mrs Lahiri was aghast. Not just the mention of her name, but that voice—particularly that young woman’s voice—seemed rather familiar.

She raised her heavy body with difficulty from the park bench—her knees were rather weak—and hobbled around the bushes to see who all were chatting there.

The young couple had come and had sat down behind her while she was feeling drowsy. They hadn’t noticed Mrs Lahiri, screened as she was by the bushes, creepers and a large peepal tree.

They looked up as Mrs Lahiri came into view and stared at her for an instant in horrified shock. They had been smoking, but dropped their half-burnt bidis on the grass and fled. Mrs Lahiri, too, was reeling with shock, now that her worst suspicions had been proved true. Wasn’t that her maid Sabita, who was supposed to be in hospital?

The realisation of what had happened suddenly hit her and she felt quite, quite sick. She felt giddy, her knees gave away, and she fell on the grass in a dead faint.

When she came to, someone was sprinkling water on her face. There was a hubbub of voices and several people had gathered around her. A few elderly gentlemen, who had been walking in the park, some children with their mothers and ayahs, and a few young idlers. These young men were much like the scoundrel she had just seen—thin, swarthy, with scruffy beards or stubble, clad in skin-tight jet black or shiny blue shirts and t-shirts and skinny “butter” denim jeans, in various shades of beige or muddy brown. She looked at them in trepidation, but they helped Mrs Lahiri to her feet kindly.

“Are you all right?” one of them asked solicitously. They helped her to a park bench, where she sat down, fanning her face. Despite the cold, she was sweating.

“Where do you live?” asked a middle-aged man. She replied, “Quite close by. Left turn from this park, then right down Rhododendron Avenue.”

“What happened?”

Mrs Lahiri started to describe her encounter, but then thought better of it. “Oh, it’s nothing, just a spell of giddiness.”

“Shall we take you home?” asked a gangly youth, unctuously. She blinked up at him and was about to refuse, but then she nodded weakly. Two of the young men helped her across the street and took her home. They asked her, “Do you live here alone?”

“Yes, ever since my husband passed away.”

“Is there no one at all at home?” they asked.

“No, both my daughters live abroad, one in Canada, the other in Australia. I had a maid who lived with me all the time, but—” She was about to say Sabita had been hospitalised, but stopped just in time. She felt the tears sting her eyes.

She stopped for breath, then rubbed her eyes. “I’m so sorry, I can’t even offer you a glass of water now,” she said to the young men.

“No, no. It’s perfectly all right,” they replied. “Please take care of yourself,” they said courteously. “We’ll come back tomorrow and ask after you.”

First a dubiety, and then a kernel of suspicion, started to harden in her mind. Mrs Lahiri looked at the youths in trepidation. Now why were they so interested in her well-being? She wondered….

The old lady’s thoughts must have flitted over her face, for the youths looked embarrassed and left quietly soon after.

Mrs Lahiri plopped down on the sofa in her living room. Things were moving too fast for her. Yesterday’s events flashed like a 35mm reel of an old film through her sluggish mind—scratched, disjointed and discoloured.

Last afternoon, after they had had lunch, Sabita had complained of stomach pain, probably caused by indigestion. It was the maid’s wont to ask Mrs Lahiri for medicines for minor ailments. And the old lady often gave her tablets and capsules from her own stock, whenever she could.

This time, however, events had taken a dramatic turn. Mrs Lahiri had taken out an antacid from the medicine cabinet. A few minutes later, her maid’s fiancé—what was his name now? she had clean forgotten—had come running. He often came to visit Sabita.

“Sabita is very ill! She is foaming at the mouth…”

Mrs Lahiri had at once rushed to the kitchen to find Sabita lying on the floor, hands clutched to her abdomen, writhing in agony. Foam had indeed been coming out of her mouth.

The pimply young man had exclaimed, “What’s happened to her? She fell ill right after taking the tablet you gave her. It’s all your bloody fault! You’ve given her the wrong medicine.”

Mrs Lahiri had not known what to say. She had stuttered, “I mean… not I, it isn’t my fault…the medicine… I mean…”

Sabita’s fiancé had snarled, “Shut up! I’m going to take her to the hospital at once. Perhaps we’ll be able to save her!”

Saying that, he had taken Sabita away and put her on a rickshaw.

Mrs Lahiri had stayed back at home, her heart beating a drumbeat in fear and anxiety, waiting for news. After some time—for the life of her, she couldn’t remember his name—he had come back.

“I have admitted Sabita to Oriental Nursing Home.” It was a well-known, expensive nursing home nearby. “Her condition is critical. They have asked for a deposit of ten thousand rupees.”

Mrs Lahiri had stared at him, speechless.

“Where will I get so much money?” he had demanded. “It’s all your fault. You’ll have to pay the deposit.”

Mrs Lahiri had been shaking with fear by now, yet had protested feebly, “It’s not my fault, I never knew that—that—the medicine was wrong…”

The brash young fellow had said, “How dare you? If you don’t give the money for the hospital expenses, I’ll bring a thousand people from my bustee and burn down your house! You old witch—!”

Mrs Lahiri had been terrified. There was no one she could turn to right then. She lived in a secluded stretch of the upscale Rhododendron Avenue and most of the residents were elderly people like her. Next to her was a single-storey house that had been lying vacant for the past few months ever since the tenants had moved away. In the other house next to hers there lived an old couple and the gentleman was ailing. She had not liked to bother them. Opposite her house lived a middle-aged couple, both of whom were doctors, but they were both at hospital at that time of the day and their daughter was at school. Her only relative in the city was her nephew, who lived in another part of Calcutta, several kilometres away.

At that point of time she had been so frightened that she had not known what to do, she had not known whom to turn to. What if something happened to the girl? The very thought had filled Mrs Lahiri with dread.

As it was, she was not sure if she had given her maid the right medicine. She had thought it better not to argue with the young man and, with a trembling hand and tremulous eyes, had made out a bearer’s cheque for fifteen thousand—“to cover all hospital expenses and medicines,” as he had so rightly pointed out—on her savings bank account. Before he had left, the young man—what was his name now, she tried desperately to remember—had threatened her yet again: “If something happens to Sabita, I swear we’ll get even with you…”

There had been no news of Sabita, that day and the next day, too. Mrs Lahiri had feared the worst. Sabita’s fiancé had not come back at all.

The maid used to live with her. She had come to Mrs Lahiri’s home as an orphaned young girl from a remote village in Medinipur district. Sabita had been with her for some ten years now. Mrs Lahiri recalled how the malnourished Sabita had first come to her, frightened, innocent, and alarmingly thin, and under her ministrations, had blossomed into a dusky beauty, doe-eyed and lissom. Mrs Lahiri had done all she could have done for her, and not out of pity either…

Mrs Lahiri didn’t know much about the young man to whom Sabita had recently got engaged. He lived in a slum on the other side of the railway tracks nearby and did odd jobs for a living. But she didn’t have his address.

Mrs Lahiri went to the park only occasionally, but today she had gone out in the evening for some fresh air, having passed a sleepless night. When she saw Sabita and her fiancé, she realised how badly she had been duped. But was there much she could do about it? What information could she give the cops? She didn’t know their whereabouts or even the ruffian’s name.

A sudden thought struck her. She went to Sabita’s little room on top of the empty garage. She was thunderstruck, as they say. All her belongings were gone! Not even her comb or mirror was there, nor even a scrap of her clothing.

Mrs Lahiri came back to the living room on wobbly feet and collapsed into a divan. Her nephew Saikat came in just then.

“So it was all meticulously planned,” Saikat said heavily, after hearing her out. Saikat Bhaduri was her nephew, the only son of her late brother. She had called him up yesterday itself, but he had not been able to come over from Circus Avenue. He had promised to make it that evening, and there he was, as good as his word.

A thought struck him. He picked up the phone and called up Oriental Nursing Home. “Has any patient by the name of Sabita Mondol been admitted to your nursing home yesterday afternoon? Yes, could you please check? I’ll hold on.”

He listened, grim-faced, when the nurse on duty answered at last, then said, “Okay,” and hung up.

Mrs Lahiri knew the answer even before Saikat told her. As she sat on the sofa, talking to her nephew, she felt very weary indeed.

“It’s a pity you can’t recall that scoundrel’s name,” sighed Saikat. “That would’ve made the cops’ jobs a lot easier. Still, I’ll have a word with the officer-in-charge at the local police station. They might be able to trace Sabita somehow, though I fear it is too late—they must be miles away by now.”

Mrs Lahiri’s voice trembled. “And what would the police have done if they had managed to nab him?” she asked.

“Well, they’d have dumped him in the lockup and beaten him up black and blue, of course,” replied Saikat. “You would have got your money back, and both of them would have gone to jail.”

She shook her head, dispiritedly. “That’s no solution at all.”

“Then what to do?”

“I really don’t know… Ten years Sabita had spent in my home, I looked after her like my own daughter, and now this—this—betrayal…”

“I can’t bear the thought of her going to prison,” she went on, with a heavy sigh. “If they come to me and say sorry, and return my money, then I’ll certainly forgive them.”

“That seems hardly likely, does it? They have skedaddled—and I’m sure they won’t return to Calcutta, ever,” Saikat murmured.

Susan Lloy – Mademoiselle Energy

Mademoiselle Energy
by Susan Lloy

“Straightjacket. That’s what I’ll order if you keep this up and I’m sure you won’t like it much either.”

I was restless, it’s true. The halls were paced over and over, the nursing station at Emergency frequented time after time.

“How much longer? Can’t wait any more. I need medication. A pill. A shot. Anything! If you don’t give me something I’ll make a complaint. My psychiatrist is staff here and when he’s through with you – he’ll give you a kick up the ass like it’s the biggest dick you ever wished for.”

My words weren’t kind, but then again, I was under duress. Restrained. Ugh. However, I decided to heed his advice and silently trolled the corridor eyeballing patients. Calculating urgencies. My psyche was bruised from the overindulgence of mood enhancers and mild hallucinogens. Sleepless nights. I felt like Lady Macbeth and my brain bled tears as if they were raw exposed nerve endings. I held court with myself sustaining solitary conversations that ran day and night, blurring the boundaries of light and darkness. So goes the ritual of mood.

A young junkie rocked her arm, which was a deep red – almost purple – swollen like an active volcano waiting to erupt. An abscess. It was raised, perhaps four inches from her puncture site. It scared me, I could end up like her. My head rested between my knees and my palms at the base of my skull. Sound and light were the enemies now. Capsules and liquid meds the allies. Occasionally I lifted my head and confronted the nursing station with glaring pleads ‘When?’ On and off I heard muffled comments, Mademoiselle Energy, laughter and hushed words. Scrubs and white lab coats turned to me, distracted and for a minute their eyes met mine. Often moans and sighs, fast-moving stretchers and the clicks of heels on hard-polished floors assaulted my covered ears.

After several hours a young man approached me. An orderly with a wheelchair stopped and said, “Lets go.”

“I’m perfectly fine for walking.”

“Just get in please. It’s procedure.”

We travelled a corridor. Coloured directional signs were mounted on walls: Surgical, Medical, ICU, Psychiatry and so on. We waited for the elevator, heading to the psych ward, which was six floors up. My tour guide was rather emotionless and barely said a word. No doubt he needed a rest as well. He rang a bell, a nurse opened the door and he handed a chart to her.

“Hello Grace.”


“Come this way.”

I got up from the wheelchair. The orderly had disappeared through the door already.

“You’ll be staying here.”

It was a small rectangular room with space for only a single bed. No furniture and empty walls. A porthole in the door replaced a window. I must have really pissed off that ER intake doctor, because he had slotted me for the violent section of the unit. It wasn’t long before the nurse approached with medication.

“Here, take these.”

I didn’t even ask what they were.

Whatever she handed sedated me enough for a few hours of slumber. The door to my room wasn’t secured and I could navigate between the sitting room, dining area and cigarette roost with ease. My own psychiatrist came soon after and questioned me in the private confines of my enclosure.

“You know, I feel that these compounds are very similar to vitamins and they’re helping my illness. Don’t you agree?”

“I’m not sure about that Grace, however, you’ll be transferred over to the other unit. You don’t belong here.”

Within an hour I was moved across the hall where I had a normal-sized room with a proper window and bureau for clothes that I didn’t have. There were a few patients in the sitting room and the television was annoyingly loud. I sat in a chair. It didn’t take long before another inmate approached me.

“You’re new.”

“Yeah. Via the lockdown.”

“Know it well. I’m Karl”


“Don’t you find that television aggressive?”

I headed in the direction of the set and turned down the volume. The woman sitting opposite immediately put it back to where it had been. I lowered it once more. When she went for the third time I sternly stated, “Leave it alone. Or I’ll put your head through it!”

She mumbled inaudible words and slowly trudged along out the door to an unknown location.

“Consistent. That’s what she is. It’s always deafening. She doesn’t involve herself with any of us. I think the more thunderous – softer are the voices.”

“Poor thing.”

“Yes. There are many poor things here.”

“Why are you here? You seem absolutely normal to me.”

“I was digging up a tree in Westmount Park. They arrested me. So I ended up back here.”

“Oh. So you’re a regular then?”

“Pretty much.”

“And you? First time?”

“It is actually. I’ve had a few suicide attempts, but always with a noose. Never had the guts to kick the chair over. What if I fucked up and ended up with a broken neck? Why can’t things be simpler? For instance, if I had a driver’s license – I’d simply rent a car, go to a nice spot and gas myself. But it wasn’t suicide this time. I overdid it with drugs and endured weeks of insomnia. I just got so sick of myself. This never-ending restlessness.”

“There are easier ways.”


He got up and rummaged through his pockets and handed over a few pods. These are pods from the Black Locust tree – Robinia pseudoacacia. There are also Honey Locust trees in the city. The Honey Locust is more beautiful.


Karl held bean-like pods. The backs were darker. The fronts were a shiny warm silver. Thin bands stretched horizontally on one side with raised seeds attached. They were intricate, as if woven embroidery on a period dress.

“They’re lovely. How’d you get them?”

“I’ve been here a few weeks now and have more privileges than you. I can go outside for cigarettes and air”.

“Why were you digging up a tree anyway?”

“He told me to do it.”


Karl tapped on the side of his head.

“He’d been at me for weeks. He said it was wrongly positioned. It required optimum light, cloud cover and asylum from the wind. The cool breath of the stars and the moon’s crafty grin. We enjoy nature’s riddles and truths. When I get out of here I’ll calibrate myself according to the number of seeds on each pod that are always random. For each day I’ve been in this hospital, I’ll subtract a week’s worth of medication. The Honey Locust seeds are edible, but not the Black Locust’s. They’re poisonous. Effortless.”

Six months later I was back for an intentional overdose. I hadn’t managed to locate the Black Locust trees that are scattered throughout the city, but funny enough, I had the same Emergency doctor.

“I think the last time I was here I was rather rude. Sorry.”

“Not a problem.”

He came to me with a long plastic tube. “Open…”

Dennis Sinar – The Doctor in Town

The Doctor in Town
by Dennis Sinar

Fate, the mother of us all, guided me here in 1957. I drove a dusty 1950 Powerglide Chevy into town looking for a job. Cars parked at angles studded the four blocks of Main Street and shoppers crowded both sides of the street. Eventually, I found a vacant two-story building at the north end of town, a block beyond the established stores. Negotiations were quick. The owner needed a tenant, and the combination first floor office and second floor apartment were suitable for a businessman tenant who didn’t mind being on the edge of town. Location was not a problem because I knew people would come. It took a day to find a sign maker and hang my shingle above the door. Carl Jordan, M.D. was open for business. I was the only doctor in this small town.

In the late 1950s, a general practitioner was expected to be a caring, gentle, knowledgeable person who listened to his patients and most importantly, was willing to work hard. On the first day, people started coming with the usual illnesses, and in that first year, my practice grew steadily as I established trust. My patients were my neighbors and it was easy to remember all of their illnesses. I treated mostly common diseases in families and sat with other families for comfort when their people died.

My patients were black or white, rich or poor, ornery or not, and I made house calls. If a drunk wandered onto my porch on a Saturday night, he sat there until he was sober, then I saw him first when the office opened. My posted office hours were eight to five, five days a week, but that was only a guideline. If a sick patient knocked after hours, I yelled out the upstairs window for them to sit on the porch and I’d be down shortly.

I learned that the interview was the most important part of the encounter, a time to observe all the clues about what was troubling them. People needed to tell their story on their own terms and it was best to smile, nod, and listen as they talked. I remember a wife who was nervously waiting for my diagnosis of her husband’s illness. As she sat silently beside her husband, looking between us, rubbing her trembling index finger across the hair of her eyebrow and then repeating the motion on the other eyebrow. To hide his embarrassment, he looked straight ahead at the sunset print on the wall, studying the print and the color of the sunset. He was used to facing the setting sun in tobacco fields and his face was lined with crow’s feet. His right foot tapped, tapped on the floor to some rhythm in his head. The wife looked at her husband and then back to me, willing him to talk about his symptoms, to be truthful about his weight loss, lack of appetite, and the pains in his stomach. He was silent, not ready, so she told the story. I watched her hands and her eyes for clues as to what she needed. It was obvious that he had a cancer of some kind, likely terminal. He never looked at me. Before I said the words, she knew her suspicions were true, and her eyes asked what could be done. She wanted my guidance on the path from here to there, but he never stopped looking at the sunset print. Diagnosing cancer was terrible, but not difficult. Someone with a wasting disease, steady pain, or jaundice had the bad disease. Finding where the cancer was located was not important back then. People did not want to know the kind of cancer; they just accepted that it was cancer, an untreatable condition in their mind. Every day they stayed above ground was a blessing, a day to be used to work and provide for their family for as long as they were able.

In those early days, my hands were my greatest asset, warm, smooth, and neatly groomed. Someone told me that people didn’t trust a doctor with dirty hands and so I washed my hands after coming into the room so the patients knew they were clean. In the beginning, it was difficult for me to examine patients because I disliked physical contact, but when people complimented my gentle touch, I became more comfortable.

Examining a patient was like playing a fine instrument, my warm hands started well away from the tender area and slowly worked toward their particular area of discomfort. During the exam, I nodded often to encourage patients to add details to their story. If someone complained of pain in their chest, I’d gently palpate the back and front, feeling for tender spots. If I found tenderness, it was the end of my search and I knew what to do; if not, I’d listen with my scope and decide on something different. If their chest rattled, they went home with pills dispensed by the nurse from our back office supply; if their chest was quiet, they went home with the same pills, but a different colour. The results were the same—patients most often got better. Each of my capsules looked different, large, or medium sized and coloured blue, white, or bright yellow. It was easy to buy coloured double 0 wax capsules out of town and fill them with sugar. Placebo pills were common at the time, and as the nurse handed the patient their envelope of pills, she instructed them to swallow them whole, so they never tasted the sugar. I used simple medicines because they worked.

The mechanics of laboratory testing did not interest me; I was concerned only with the mystery and the manifestations of disease. My medical knowledge was refined by trial and error. On a back office shelf was my single reference, the Merck Manual. I consulted it with difficult cases and the pages became worn over the years. In most cases, the manual proved adequate. Most days I was able to puzzle out a patient’s problem using common sense. My treatments reinforced the placebo principle— examine carefully, treat with confidence, and expect a cure.

Surprisingly, their confidence in me was the most effective medicine – if a patient believed I knew how to treat their problem, their belief was enough; patients tried to get better because it was expected. When people heard my diagnosis, they nodded understanding, and symptoms that were unbearable before the visit, with my reassurance, became bearable. I had a nervous tic, rubbing my knuckles back and forth across my lips and teeth as I thought about a difficult case. The tic initially gave patients a start, but then eventually instilled confidence in my diagnostic skills. The tic helped solve a surprising number of vexing problems.

Vaccination of children was not widespread in the South. I learned that childhood diseases, whether in a rich child or a poor child, mostly improved in a day or two, and if the child did not improve, I sent them on to a specialist in the big city. In children, what looked like a cold might actually be a serious disease like polio or meningitis that could get much worse in more than a few days. Those were the times of the most severe cases of polio, widespread tuberculosis, and the worst of a handful of other severe childhood illnesses. Thankfully, those times have passed. When I sent the child to the city, the specialists appreciated the prompt referral and always let me know how things turned out.

Payment for my services was a challenge because few people had readily available cash. Most offered trades or asked for credit until their crops came in. I collected food, dressed farm animals, or canned preserves. Patients saved their best harvest for the doctor. If I took care of all three kids in a family for their colds, I might get a smoked ham; if a farmer’s wife had the vapours, the husband brought a few thick steaks. When I had enough food, I took handmade clothing.

In the practice of general medicine, people came during regular office hours with common ailments: colds, scrapes, arthritis, and fevers. Emergencies and house calls always came in the middle of the night for patients too sick to leave their bed. An emergency for a farmer had the same importance whether it was a cow in labor or his wife’s spells. Often I would see the wife and the cow on the same house call. In both cases, I prescribed the same pills, and more often than not, the wife and the cow got better. I saw joy, grief, and the loss of life, often in the same week.

Toward the end of a long day, I was exhausted and failed in my caring. The best I could do at those times was to follow the thread of their history, but no diagnosis came into my head. I saw the person in front of me as a skeleton stripped of skin or a blob of muscles that talked. When that happened, I asked them to come back in the morning for a fresh look. People saw my foibles and believed my words, either in the office, or when they saw me on the street and stopped to ask about some medical problem.

One morning, a car weaving down Main Street hit a man, and the patrons of the Starlight Grill had an excellent view of the accident. I was sitting at a table in the front window, looked out at the splattered man, and then resumed my breakfast, knowing the man was already dead and beyond my services. None of the patrons questioned my decision.

Through weeks, then years, I learned to appreciate the strength of the human body—the oldest to the youngest bodies—and how they adapted as they aged. It was common to see an old granny and then a newborn baby, one after the other in a morning, and the diversity of life amazed me.

There were many times when I went to a person’s home, often in the middle of the night. On one visit, the spouse opened the front door, nodded, and led me upstairs to their bedroom. It was a clean room, but infused with the smell of sickness. On the wall opposite the window, there was a huge poster bed with a white lace canopy. The patient, a man I had seen only rarely, was propped up in the bed, leaning against large feather pillows, his breathing so laboured that he could barely get more than a few words out without pausing. There was an odour of urine from the bed and damp washed sheets hung out the window to dry. By way of decoration in the room, hanging on a nail in the middle of the wall across from the bed was a crayon drawing of a man. Underneath the drawing in a child’s handwriting was: “To Dear Papa.” This man was Papa.

One hot summer afternoon, a woman sat in the office and told me about her husband: “That man is disturbed, sick you know. He’s never been all there, what with staring into space rather than looking me in the eye like a normal person, talking crazy sentences about the devil or someone following him or trying to poison him. He never tells normal things anymore, and people stay well away from him. I’ve never known for him to hurt anybody, but with crazy people, you never know when they’re just going to snap and go for your throat.” She went on in that vein for some time, and I found that letting her get it out was the best tonic, nodding, looking at her face, and listening with my hands crossed in my lap. Eventually, her tape ran out and she went back into herself. Our conversation continued, but she avoided my eyes and looked down at my hands, as if they would give the diagnosis and tell what she should do.

Then, one week, my routine changed. Odd feelings stirred in me, and I felt something alive moving deep inside my abdomen, tightening and squeezing, not yet pain but becoming pain. The feeling became worse and changed to pain in another week. I had examined enough patients to know the diagnosis, but not how long the disease would take. I knew there was no treatment, even in the big city. My nurse and I decided to close the office gradually over the next two months.

At home, I turned to thoughts of God and an afterlife. I became philosophical about the extremes of life, knowing that the boundary between life and death could be measured like the narrow path of a tornado, and like the tornado, my disease was unstoppable. My ego hoped that perhaps medicine might hold back that boundary, and that my will alone could determine the path enough for the storm to miss me. With each day as the pain increased, the division between life and death became more narrow, making me wonder about the next adventure. A week after the office closed, I sat in the sun on the front porch and looked at my hands. I was surprised at how bony they had become, how the flesh had stripped away. The knuckles were prominent, and the skin was stretched tight around every joint, yet my grip was still strong and my gentle touch was the same touch that so many patients recalled.

I had seen life end in suddenness, a merciful transition between living and then not, and I had seen the opposite—a slow, painful process of ending that fostered replaying, regret, and only a few pleasant memories. Which path would I prefer if it were in my power? My preference didn’t matter because the choice was made for me.

Perhaps my legacy will live on, but I doubt it. After I’ve gone, people will forget the good and only remember the bad in their dealings with me. My greatest secret would go with me into the grave. On my scout drive into town in 1957, I was looking for easy money, but instead found my destiny on a path that was irreversible. In the end, if people thought I was a doctor and helped them, then I was their doctor.

Srinjay Chakravarti – Messengers to the Goddess

Messengers to the Goddess
by Srinjay Chakravarti
It was a bright clear day in autumn and wisps of white fluffy clouds floated in a transparently blue sky, white like the kash flowers in the fields. It was the season of Durga Puja, the autumn festival of the Mother Goddess.

Mr Pal was painting a pair of model clay birds with blue paint. They were brilliantly plumaged, and beautiful works of art. Adrija came into his studio.

“Grandpa, what are you doing today?” The little girl loved to watch her grandfather work on his clay, terracotta and marble sculptures. He was an artist and his studio was right next to his house.

Adrija was seven years old and lived in New York with her parents. She had come to Kolkata for the Durga Puja festivities.

“These are clay models of Neelkantha birds. The organisers of our local Puja have requested me to make these birds and so I am making these models.”

“What are Neelkanthas?”

“They are a kind of beautiful blue birds called rollers. They are found in India’s forests and jungles—or, rather, I should say that they used to be found there.”

Adrija thought this over for a while. “Why are you making clay models of the birds?”

“Neelkanthas are used in the worship of the Mother Goddess. There are very few of them left in the wild now, which is why we have to use replicas made from the mud on the banks of rivers. Brahmin priests drop these clay models into rivers and lakes during the Pujas.”

“Why are there very few left in the wild, Grandpa?”

Mr Pal sighed. “They have been hunted through the centuries by kings and princes, and now they are almost extinct. The birds were snared and kept in cages by hunters. Now even fledglings can hardly be found. When taken from their nests, the chicks die very soon, and grown-up rollers have all but vanished from the hills and forests. It is forbidden by law to capture or sell rollers—if anyone catches these birds now, he will go to jail.”

He paused, then went on. “Earlier, just before the Durga Puja festival was about to end, priests used to release two of the Neelkantha birds into the freedom of the sky, within hours of each other. The first would carry the message on its wings to Lord Shiva that His consort had just left Her pandals and temples. The other was freed when the idols of Ma Parvati were immersed in rivers, ponds or lakes—to tell Lord Shiva to prepare for Her return to Mount Kailash. The Divine Mother of the Universe is returning from the plains of Bengal to the frozen mountain peaks of the Himalayas in Tibet.”

He picked up one of the lovely clay birds. “Now we have to make do with these models, and we drop these from boats in the water. And the Neelkanthas take their messages all the way to Lord Neelkantha Himself!”

“What does that mean? Who is Lord Neelkantha?”

“Neelkantha is another name for Lord Shiva, the immortal god whose throat turned blue after he drank a terrible poison to save the world.”

“Why did he drink poison?” Adrija was astounded. “And he didn’t die even after drinking it?”

Her grandfather smiled, stroking his white beard. “It’s a rather long story, a very old legend. Once all the gods and demons were churning the ocean to get the nectar which gives immortality. But first this poison, named kalkut, came out of the waters. No one could bear its heat! Only Lord Shiva could drink it all up, and even He passed out. His throat turned a deep shade of blue from the poison—that is why the name Neelkantha, which means He-with-the-Blue-Throat. These birds, too, have blue throats; that is why the rollers are called Neelkanthas as well.”

Adrija was listening wide-eyed to all this. She digested what her grandfather had said, then blurted out, “When the birds used to be released into the sky, did they fly all the way to the Himalayas?”

“That I don’t know!” Grandpa shook his head, smiling. “But nowadays, since there are very few blue rollers left, we have to immerse the clay models in water to tell Lord Shiva that Ma Uma is returning to Him. And that is why I’m painting these birds.”

“But these are not real birds. They are only make-believe!” exclaimed Adrija.

“No, it is not exactly like that. When your father is not at home, when he goes out on tours, you look at his photograph, don’t you?”

“Yes, I do that.”

“Why do you do that?”

“Because—because—I like doing it! It reminds me of him…”

“That is why we make clay models of Mother Durga and paint them and decorate them so beautifully. The images remind us of the real Goddess.” He went on, “In just the same way, the clay replicas represent the real birds!”

“But wouldn’t it be better to use actual birds, real living birds, instead of these blue models?” Adrija asked.

“Yes, of course,” her grandfather nodded. “But, as I said, the rate at which the forests are disappearing is alarming, and blue rollers can hardly be found any more. The survival of countless other birds and animals is also very much threatened.”

“What will happen if forests disappear altogether?” she asked, her eyes wide.

“Our very lives will be in danger. The whole planet will be at great risk.”

“When we can’t see Ma Durga, we make clay idols and worship them. When we can’t find live birds, we make clay models and use them,” she said, more to herself. “But—” she turned to her grandfather— “can we make models of forests and jungles? Would that be the same thing?”

“No, of course not. If trees are cut down they can’t be replaced at once, and it takes a long time for new trees to grow.”

“We grown-ups have been destroying the world around us, the forests, mountains, rivers and lakes—cutting down trees, polluting waters, dumping garbage all around. We have been taking away sand and stones from hills and river beds for building houses and factories. We are destroying the environment, damaging the planet’s ecology—”

“What is ecology?” asked Adrija.

Her grandfather paused for a moment. “It is—it is—the nature we have all around us. Trees, forests, jungles, birds and animals, mountains and rivers, fields and ponds. It is the environment we live in, our very world. And it is slowly being destroyed.”

“Can’t we do anything about it?’ Adrija asked, her voice tremulous. Then she asked, “Can’t I do something to help?”

“Well, you are too young right now. But I’m sure that when you grow up, you and your friends will certainly make our world a better place for us to live in—not just for human beings, but for trees and animals and birds as well. We can all make a difference, there are many things we can do to make Mother Earth happy. In the meantime, we can only pray to Ma Durga that our forests and rivers and mountains are not destroyed, that these don’t turn into deserts.”

Adrija looked downcast. Suddenly her face lit up. “I know what to do! When I pray during the Puja this time, I shall send a message to Ma Durga!”

“What message will you send Her, Adrija?”

“I will pray to Her so that once again forests can grow on earth and that more birds and animals live in the forests. Then there will be more Neelkantha birds and we will be able to send real blue rollers to Lord Shiva and Ma Durga with our prayers and messages, not these make-believe ones!”