Category: Winter 2017 Issue (Page 1 of 3)

Winter 2017

Photo Courtesy of Fox Colton


Rachael Warecki
Fiction Holy Land

Emily Rapp
Nonfiction Conversion

Tatiana Forero Puerta
Poetry Denny’s Grand Slam Special

James Croal Jackson
Poetry | Mid-December

Kathy Rucker
Drama Beautiful Scar

Anne Falkowski
Nonfiction | Robbie

Douglas Wood
Fiction The Barn

Barbara Westwood Diehl
Poetry | Red Princes

John Patrick Bray
Drama | Fix

Christina Cha
Nonfiction Raped and Murdered

Gillian Lee
Poetry How to Become a Poet

Jeremy John Parker
Fiction | At the Speed of Light

Tamra Plotnick
Nonfiction | Barbie and Gandhi Sitting in a Tree

Janet Reed
Poetry | Blue Exhaust

Jodi Adamson
Poetry | Six-Word Stories

Rachel Joseph
Drama | And This Before Leaving

Renee Winter
Nonfiction | And Away She Goes

Jay Shearer
Fiction | Little Resurrection Machines

Marie-Andree Auclair
Poetry | Mummy

Anne Babson
Poetry | Regina

Kelly Shire
Nonfiction | The Great Unknown

Megan Stielstra
Interview | TCR Talks with Megan Stielstra

The Coachella Review is a literary arts journal published by the University of California, Riverside–Palm Desert Low Residency MFA in Creative Writing & Writing for the Performing Arts.

 

Barbie and Gandhi Sitting in a Tree

By: Tamra Plotnick 

Risa Margolis and I are sitting cross-legged on my hot pink shag wall-to-wall carpet. The vinyl Barbie case is open and propped against my closet door.  Barbie and her cohort are scattered about in various stages of nakedness: tangerine negligee pulled up to her generous (yet generic) bust, gold lamé cocktail dress tangled in Malibu’s suntanned legs, adorned with one white plastic go-go boot, and Ultrasuede hot shorts pulled over Ken’s rubbery hair cap—he stares at the ceiling, his plastic jock exposed.  I don’t have much love or apparel for Ken. 

Risa Margolis and I are secretly playing Barbies due to our block’s unspoken edict against playing with dolls.  The teens we look up to happen to be tomboys, and the tomboy ethics permeate most of our games.  Kids on the block tend to play army, crab apple war, spy, freedom, relay races, kickball, shipwreck, or they just sit around and gesticulate from our permanent seats in Kim Shetsky’s mimosa tree.  From the tree, we might tease anyone who shows signs of romance by filling in their names and singing:  

Manny and Barbie sitting in a tree 

K-I-S-S-I-N-G,  

First comes Love,  

Second comes marriage,  

Next comes Barbie with a baby carriage 

We considered this taunt the ultimate insult. 

Risa Margolis and I, however, have also invented a game called “The Dainty Lady” and nicknamed “Ma” in which I play the role of an independently wealthy single mother; Risa Margolis portrays my bratty child; Kim Shetsky (a freckled tomboy of our age and my best friend, whose twin house is attached to mine)—when she’s around—acts as our chauffeur who makes mud pies for my brat. If prematurely boy-crazy Mindy Sokoloff drops in, she becomes my miniskirt sporting, rebellious teenager.  But mainly, it’s Risa Margolis’ and my version of playing house, and we know it could easily be mocked by the tomboys, even though we have raucous fun playing it. Anyway, today, no one else is around, and Risa Margolis and I are trafficking shamelessly in the contraband of Barbies. 

There is about to be a date.  We are searching madly for at least Ken’s original outfit—nowhere to be found.  Maybe Barbie and Ken will be going out, but Risa Margolis thinks it’s got to be a honeymoon. And she wants to create a wedding, which seems old-fashioned to me. On TV, neither Mary Tyler Moore nor “That Girl” get married, so why Barbie? Besides, for all of our Barbie episodes, the main event consists of changing the clothes and styling the hair. Anyway, weddings strike me as incredibly stale.  It is the early 70s, and Laugh In’s psychedelic go-go scene wallpapers my imagination of desirable adult settings. 

Risa Margolis’ obsession with matrimony reminds me of her mother, Arlene, who recently rallied a huge group of kids in the neighborhood to stage a wedding between her youngest son and Mindy Sokoloff’s five-year-old sister.  Arlene actually dressed up dozens of kids as bride, groom, flower girl, bridesmaids, best man, relatives, guests—she even made one a rabbi to conduct the ceremony.  Kim Shetsky and I boycotted the whole thing for being lame. 

Nevertheless, we might have actually liked participating if Kim Shetsky and I weren’t embroiled in one of our regular fights with Risa Margolis and Mindy Sokoloff. On the block, we are four girls around the same age who can be found playing together on most days—unless we are mad at each other.  We do tend to have monthly fights, but they are never physical. They revolve around the stupidest things.  Mindy Sokoloff, when she isn’t busy highlighting her hair with Sun-in, does enjoy contradicting me. She and I have argued over whether or not suede is leather.  Another time, she insisted our neighboring country to the south should be pronounced “Me-EEE-ko” while I said it was really “Me-HEE-ko.”  Then, Risa Margolis, always eager for a conflict, jumps on the bandwagon of being mad at me—or at Kim Shetsky. The freakiest part of these regular spats is that Arlene, Risa Margolis’ mom, loves to throw herself into the fray and finagle three of us to gang up on the girl left out, which inevitably means Kim Shetsky or me.  Once, Arlene even gathered a trio in her basement and cooked up a plan: we should sew a felt dunce cap and plunk it on the head of anyone who plays with Kim Shetsky.  Another time—Kim Shetsky reports to me—Risa Margolis’ mom called me a little puppet who will tap dance to anyone’s order.  Although I am no troublemaker, I know Arlene’s assessment of my character is false; still, her brand sears some hidden fold of my self-image. 

Risa Margolis, on the other hand, has a rep on the block for being brazen.  If you cross her, she’ll curse and threaten to get her big brother Brent, a gorilla of a boy five years older, to beat you up. Once, my brother, a skinny kid people associate with Alfalfa from The Little Rascals, got into a squabble with Risa, and there was a tense moment in which Brent planned to pummel him.  I even feared it would somehow come down to a confrontation between my dad and Risa’s, a burly guy who always appears silent beneath a cloud of undershirts and cigarette smoke. I can’t recall how that altercation evaporated, but I do remember my mother mentioning that the Margolises are Italian Jews (as opposed to the rest of us, descendants of Eastern European Jewry) and that they had moved up to the Northeast from South Philly, near the Italian market.  This—we are made to understand—accounts for her family’s bullying ways. 

Even so, I never tell my mother about Risa Margolis’ mom’s endeavors, nor do I mention that any time I eat over at the Margolis’ house, Arlene launches into an endless routine about how I (cue whine) “eat like a bird.” She literally repeats, “Look at her! She’s so skinny. She eats like a bird” like fifty times as her teased-hair cronies cackle and stab out cigarettes around the Formica kitchen table. I can always feel her animosity wrapped up inside the supposed good nature of the taunt. It makes me wonder if Arlene actually hates me.  If she believes that my family has been gifted our house, a misconception about us by other families on the block, my mother has explained.  

Although the reasons are foggy, I definitely have the clear sense that something is askew about a parent delving into children’s affairs, as Arlene does.  In contrast, my mother is way too busy to bother with this kid stuff.  She re-matriculated into college when I turned three after having dropped out pregnant with my brother five years earlier.  She is constantly at her Temple University classes in North Philly.  

My parents aren’t hippies, but my mom does sport suede miniskirts and hot pants, her hair hanging long and straight. She has surely been influenced by attending an urban university in the early ‘70s. Although we don’t engage in dinner table discussions about the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, or Feminism, she somehow has infused me with liberal views.  In fact, I often fall asleep to a vision of myself, arms outstretched in the midst of a battlefield, convincing the warring sides of a peaceful solution with the mere vision of my petite figure.  I am no marionette in that theater of war. 

A miniature battlefield is shaping up between Risa Margolis and me in our Barbie game.  Risa is trying to dress Barbie’s kid sister Skipper in a cocktail dress, but the smaller proportioned doll easily trips over the long hem.  I am dead set against the wedding and think we should create a rock and roll dance competition. Risa insists that a wedding is classier.  Then, I suggest a go-go wedding.  That’s when Risa Margolis picks up the Barbie like a club and bonks me on the corner of my face so hard that it feels like my left eyebrow is on fire.   

None of my friends have ever hit me before. 

I am stunned and silent.  Suddenly, I turn around, squat, place my hands on the carpet, then my head between them.  There is no thought in my mind as I put my weight on my skull.  Slowly, I lever my legs up past pike to a headstand.  (All of us girls on the block are on the elementary school gymnastics team, so the headstand, itself, is no great feat.)  I am upside down and silent.  I fold my legs into a full lotus and stay in the headstand, a new trick.  My action is automatic.  I cannot say where this reaction came from.  I can only feel the burn of my brow from where Risa clonked me with Barbie. 

If Risa talks, I do not hear it. 

Inside my upside-down head, I am hiding beneath a giant blanket, a blanket so warm and soft and fuzzy that when I peek out, there is nothing but a storm of betrayal.  I duck back under.  All the while I am on my head, my legs pretzeled into a knot as if levitating inverted from the ceiling. 

My mind rewinds to how Risa has, more than once, taunted me, calling me “fat lips,” which I always ignore, secretly pitying her pencil-thin mouth. I am considering erasing Risa from my life, starting with the lips. I think about her mother and how wrong her behaviors seem, yet there is something mesmerizing about her antics—about all the Margolises.  Their twin house sits at the top of our block as if the whole family is poised to slide down the hill like a runaway roller coaster car.   

My family lives in the center of the block. My parents bought into the development while it still sat atop dirt lots, right after my dad graduated college.  The Margolises moved in a few years later.  Her dad works as a butcher.  Her mom stays home.  Maybe our families are too different.  Maybe Risa Margolis and I are not meant to be friends.  I think about what to say to Risa but cannot figure out how to explain that hitting is primitive, how it won’t solve our differences, how her smack won’t convince me that a wedding is the way to go, nor will it make me dive into a wrestling match with her, which would be idiotic on a number of levels, not least of which Risa’s girth relative to my delicate body. 

Though I’ve never heard of yoga, I am doing it.  I stay silent and on my head for a long time.  Barbie’s dresses and plastic accessories are scattered on the rug around my head and hands. Risa Margolis sits frozen in front of me.  I remain steady and silent in the headstand, legs folded.   

Eventually, Risa leaves. 

When this occurs, I am pretty sure I have not yet heard of Mahatma Gandhi and the concept of passive resistance.  Perhaps I have seen footage of Dr. King-inspired civil disobedience on TV, but I know for sure that my parents have never brought me to a real demonstration.  Yet, my action that day while disagreeing over the fate of Barbie had the effect of a nonviolent protest.  After my headstand, Risa Margolis never hit me again.  There was once a wrestling match (and a cream puff fight) between Mindy Sokoloff and me, but generally, the four of us girls remained friends till I moved to the suburbs at eleven.   

Still when I think back, I wonder if my reaction that day represents a nascent statement on the power of nonviolence.  On the other hand, perhaps the headstand was the perfect parry, given my relative lack of physical power.  My move, after all, astonished and paralyzed my mightier rival, Risa Margolis. Maybe if a swift punch were available to me, I would have gone there.   

Then again, unwittingly launching into an advanced yoga asana at eight foreshadowed my study of yoga a decade later in college and my subsequent yoga teacher certification at thirty.  I learned that yogic philosophy prizes ahimsa, which forbids harm to all creatures.  Drawing from this tradition, the great guru of nonviolent protest, Mahatma Gandhi, said, “I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.”   

As a grown up, I utterly believe his words, yet I wonder how I presaged that wisdom as a kid by responding to a whack with a spontaneous headstand.  It’s not like I meditated on it while sitting in Kim Shetsky’s mimosa tree. 

 


Tamra Plotnick’s poetry and prose have been published in several journals and anthologies, including: Atlanta Review; Serving House Journal; Lowsoft Chronicle; Lurch; The Waiting Room Reader, Vol II: Words to Keep You Company, edited by Rachel Hadas; and Global City Review: International Edition. She lives in Brooklyn and teaches public high school in Chelsea.  

And Away She Goes

by: Renee C. Winter

Mother stood by the front door—clutching her $59 Eastern airline ticket in one hand, her worn zippered purse in the other—and waited for the taxi’s honk. She wore a thick dark wool coat, a staple of the St. Louis winter. Her powder blue cotton sweater peeked out at her neckline. I envisioned it caressing her shoulders as she sat on the front porch of her rented Ocean Ave. apartment entertaining a suitor or two. By the time she’d land in Miami, Mother would have discarded her cold weather garb as effortlessly as a snake sheds its skin. She’d walk off the plane, leaving a trail of coat, gloves, scarf, and two teenage daughters behind. Like Clark Kent exiting the telephone booth as Superman, Mother would step onto the tarmac as the sexy divorcée ready to romp in her Florida beach playground.

Her unmatched Samsonite luggage lined the hallway, the large beige piece bruised by too many thuds into baggage compartments. The smaller suitcase held Mother’s powder and rouge compacts, shapely curved bottles of Tabu perfume, and a blue glass jar of Noxema cold cream that whooshed it all away like an eraser eradicating the day’s work. That morning, I’d helped pack her makeup bag, placing fragile containers in designated pockets lined with plastic, tightening caps to avoid leaks, and making sure “Fire Engine Red” nail polish sat next to matching Revlon lipstick. This was a task I had mastered.

“Thanks, Renee,” Mother offered, snapping the lock into place. For what? Helping you flee again?

Miami Beach was the city of refuge for Mother’s second husband who had run from the brief marriage that culminated their long courtship. She’d promptly packed up and followed, announcing to my older sister, Arline, and me that her presence was necessary to finalize their divorce. Two years and a bunch of missed junior high parent-teacher meetings later, I knew better.

This visit home had evolved as all the others had. She’d arrived with the pretext of staying for good. I’d raced down the apartment building’s two flights of stairs as soon as I heard the cab door slam. My arms wrapped tightly around her waist, as if by doing so I could hold her still, root her like the arching oak tree on the front lawn.

“Renee, you’re getting so tall!” Mother embraced me, her teased and sprayed hair scraping like steel wool against my cheek. Turning to my sister, she gushed, “Arline, my goodness, you’re a young adult!” Of course, she was. At 19, she was a veteran of the secretarial pool at Pittsburgh Plate Glass, Co. and had been catapulted into the role of onsite caretaker of me, her teenage sister. As far as I could tell, my sister paid the grocery bills, too.

Mother spent her first week home in the kitchen, creating limited but tasty dishes: fried chicken that crunched; pot roast wading in gravy; salmon patties that popped in the fry pan and filled our two-bedroom place with a fishy smell. I didn’t mind. The meals were a welcome relief from the food we’d gulp down in her absence: Swanson chicken potpies, Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks, Kraft American cheese sandwiches.

On weekends, she’d call a friend about a ride to the Sunday night single’s dance at Casaloma Ballroom, where she’d foxtrot and flirt. I loved watching Mother dance; as a child, I’d try to mimic her steps while she sashayed around the living room, sometimes grabbing me to join her.

“Hey, Ethel, anybody driving out tonight?” Mother had never learned to drive. Why should she? We hadn’t owned a car since my father had left almost decade earlier. “Yes, I know…the weather. Yeah, I’m back.” Was that a “for now” I heard her mumble into the phone?

Our Aunt Ruth would try to coax Mother out of the house and back to her pre-Florida work routine. “Molly, the Delmar bus runs every twenty minutes. Call Famous & Barr; your salesgirl job is waiting, I’m sure.” Older than my mother by three years, Ruth stood in our kitchen, hands on her wide hips, a pilled cardigan and flowered house dress covering a body grown plump from two kids and years of cooking for her family. Mother could still show off her body in a two-piece swimsuit that outlined curved breasts, firm arms, and shapely legs.

“Ruthy, I’m not going back to boxing up cakes and doughnuts for some fat-assed rich women!” That was the extent of my mother’s job hunting.

Gradually, Mother’s cooking faded, along with her tan. No longer in the kitchen when I rushed home from school, she’d be lounging on the cushions of our faux velvet couch, a scratchy wool blanket covering her lap and legs. Coffee mug in one hand, a Viceroy in the other, she alternated between sips and puffs. Cigarette butts accumulated, and the Folgers got cold as she watched episodes of Search for Tomorrow or All My Children. Modern Screen, with a smiling Doris Day and Rock Hudson on the cover, lay at her side next to a half-eaten box of Fig Newtons. If she kept at it, she’d outgrow her bikinis.

“Hey, Mom, what’d you do today?” She’d look up, shrug, then go back to the Philco black-and-white TV screen. As theme music signaled the start of a new soap, I’d head for the kitchen and grab a Hostess Sno Ball, biting into its crunchy shredded coconut, elastic marshmallow, and crumbly devil’s food cake. We only bought them when Mother was in town. That and the Twinkies were part of the “make mother happy” playbook. Pulling out my loose leaf and calculus book, I’d yell, “Mom, I’ll be doing some homework.” Was she even listening?

Maybe the rain lasted too long, or maybe she hadn’t found a worthy dance partner, or maybe she just had to boomerang back. “Girls, I’ve got to return to Florida. Still some loose ends to wrap up,” she announced at the kitchen table one evening, sipping from the cup of decaf she always drank at dinner. Her half-finished cigarette glowed in the ashtray, and I pictured her disappearing into a cloud of tobacco smoke. Arline grabbed her plate and turned to scrape a clinging glob of mashed potatoes into the red plastic garbage pail. Water gushed from the faucet. Palmolive dish liquid released a flowery aroma. I clanked my dish and utensils onto the countertop, tugged open a kitchen drawer to retrieve a terrycloth towel. We were in formation: Arline washed. I dried. Mother finished her meal.

Now, in the final throes of her departure, she stood by the doorway rummaging through her pocketbook. Coins jingled as she pulled out her change purse. I watched from my twin bed, witnessing a familiar scene. I couldn’t see the woman who boasted about graduating high school in three years only to work in bakery shops; the young wife who had the chutzpah in the 1950s to escape an unsatisfying marriage; or the jilted lover who ran after her man and found a paradise. I only saw that my mother was about to leave again, so I unleashed the one last weapon I had in this tug of war.

“If you go back, I’m not going to visit you again this summer. I’m not going to visit you ever. Ever! Don’t leave. Don’t leave.” My sister was lying in the other bed, flipping pages of Photoplay magazine. I turned to her, wanting back up. Arline kept reading.

Mother looked up, as though remembering I was there. Her forehead creased as she snapped her purse shut with a twist of the clasp. Did my threat work? Would she actually change her mind? Maybe we did matter. She breathed deep, as though taking a drag on an absent cigarette. No, she squeezed her airline ticket even tighter, as if refortifying her resolve.

“Why, Renee. I love you. You know I’ll write you and your sister every day,” taking a small step toward me. Yeah, I knew. I was quite familiar with the red, white, and blue trimmed par avion envelopes that would begin arriving, sometimes two in one day. Her writing us was supposed to make me feel better? Letters offered no solace when I was aching from menstrual cramps or crying if not invited to a dance. Letters wilted and smudged as tears dropped.

“Don’t leave!” I repeated. I was tired of explaining to friends and teachers why my father wasn’t around and, now, why my mother was gone. Must my sister keep signing my report cards?

Mother hesitated, turned her head away, and resumed the search for wallet or lipstick or maybe both. She wouldn’t be looking for the keys to our apartment. Those she always left behind. “I know you girls will let me in next time,” Mother had laughed earlier, placing them on the tarnished silver-plated tray atop her dresser.

We always did.


Renee Winter is a recently retired attorney, having earned a JD from St. Louis University. She volunteers as a writing instructor at the Santa Cruz jail. Her work has been published in the 2016 anthology Tales of Our Lives: Reflection PondShe has also presented her writings at the 2016 annual “Celebration of the Muse” event, honoring female writers in the Santa Cruz, California area.  

Raped and Murdered

By: Christina Cha

There is a murder house in my mind, built by stories. Two-by-four scaffolding and pale amber light between beams. I know this isn’t what the sub-basement of the Puck building looks like, where you are raped and murdered. This memory comes from what I know of the inside of an unfinished wall: the rough shed wall of my best friend’s clubhouse built by her own engineer dad. The exposed wall of a deep scene I can’t face, lit by unseen candles. You walk down a hallway, an echoing space in mid-renovation, to meet your husband who isn’t there, who has deliberately ditched you because you are in a petty fight. This morsel excised from Dad’s book, from your diary. Something about borrowing the car. You are in the right, yet you are the one to reach out, to reconcile. Your husband leaves you to wander the condemned floors of this building alone, to be met by two men in an elevator who force you into the lower levels. The walls are wet and dark and sweat cold black oil. The ceiling is so high the edge is always outside my vision. The sub-basements are a maze.  

These are my first memories of you, these are my memories of you: 

Two memories next to each other, which happen within days. I am six. Riding in a car to San Francisco with you. Me and my aunts, without my brothers. You make a nest for me in the backseat between a green cooler and the door. We stop in a diner; I am in the booth and out of it, orbiting around you and the hot chocolate that you won’t share with me. Orange booth seats, brown wood paneling, dirty yellows, swathes of color collected as I spin and fidget and wait. 

It’s not hot chocolate, you say.  

It is hot chocolate. I don’t believe you. Why won’t you share? 

You won’t like it, you say, but at last you give up and un-guard your cup and smile. 

I don’t remember the heavy cup or how it felt on my lips or the taste of diner grounds. Only hot shock, bitter not-chocolate, and betrayal. I don’t drop it; I think you must have taken the cup from me, waiting for this moment. My first coffee. How could you? 

I told you, you say.  

And next to this: I follow you up a windowless stairwell, clang of iron steps. I am six. You are on a landing above me when I pause. I flag. I don’t know where we are or how many more turns there might be. I am nowhere, only here, and I see you above me. You are erased by a radiating white. No face, no body, just thick blanking light around you, covering everything but your boots. I don’t know what I am seeing. An angel? I think, because I will still be Catholic for a few more years, but I know that isn’t it because the thing with the coffee seemed mean. I don’t know what I am seeing. The smell of old wood walls of someone’s apartment, scraping of bootheels on cement, San Francisco fog. 

You move to New York and draw me colorful felt-tip letters in pictures and all-caps, and when I ask why you write like this, you write back in all lowercase. You paint me in watercolor as a lithe dancer, a gymnast in quick watery lines, long-limbed and tan in running shorts with red racing stripes. Surprising strokes of me with one leg brushed in front of the other, opposite arm up for balance, a mysterious ballet grace far from the grunt of tumbles and minor flips that I know. I will curse in a boy’s face who dares to interrupt my jump rope or jeers at me with vaguely Asian sounds. Your letters, glued by their backs into a half-filled scrapbook with pale, dignified bunnies on its cover. These are my memories of you, disconnected from the images that come later. 

You are my Aunt Theresa. You are married; you are dead. These two new facts next to each other, separated by six months, collapsed by kid-time, fused tighter over the years. Sometime after this my parents first tell me about rape. I don’t recall the sex-talk, but I remember the rape-talk, when I am ten. 

 

You are married when I am ten. I am your flower girl.  

Uncle James takes a long photo of the whole family before the wedding ceremony. We have to be still for the exposure, so the photo can be wide. There I am, with my crooked braids.  

The morning of the wedding I sit at the bottom of the stairs that curve into the front room of Grandma and Grandpa’s house. The stairs are still white, not the deep rose they will be later. You and Aunt Bernadette sit on either side of me and braid my hair in complicated ways, like you always do. You pull too tight and take a long time. I close my eyes to the pulling and pling of the tiny teeth of the combs, the warm bloom on my scalp when you draw your parts with the pointy end. On the day of the wedding, though, the braids don’t match and you argue above me. You push my hands away when I want to unravel my hair. 

Your dress is a plain white sheath with a scooped neck. The stiff cloth stands away from your body and the sleeves end just above your wrists. The important part is the high lavender sash with diagonal hatch marks of deeper purple. Lavender is your favorite color, irises your favorite flower. You don’t want much at your wedding, you say, but you want these things. Purple is my favorite color, and rainbows and unicorns are important to me. It is 1982.  

Your sisters stand close to you, binding and unbinding the cloth around your waist. Grandma frowns as she watches because the cloth is a kimono sash. 

Ma, it’s not a kimono; it’s Theresa’s own style. It’s not Japanese, Bernadette says. 

Living under Japanese rule is still fresh for Grandma.  

Grandma steps back in, moving between her daughters again, trying to be happy you, for marrying Richard. My brothers and I think he is weird. He seems to float sideways instead of walk, appearing or disappearing from a room when you don’t expect it. No one likes him. Before he is a suspect in your murder, before he does the things that he does that make him always suspect, long after he is cleared by the police. 

I am there when you pick out your shoes. Lavender, suede high heels that almost look like boots and are very expensive. Bernadette handles them like something precious, making her hands cupped and floating and beautiful.  

I am wearing the white dress Grandma made for my first communion two years before, but it still fits, just shorter. She made it that way on purpose. This dress and the satin ribbons Grandma chose for the waist, depending on the occasion: they are the girliest things I own. My ribbon is lavender, like yours. I walk before you to throw petals on the ground. Everyone is in the living room already, and we are facing the tall windows with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge, the angle of light so familiar in this room now crowded with strangers.  

I step down into the living room when the music starts. My first time with shoes in the house, and I am afraid to slip on the silky, white carpet steps. My sandals are taupe, one of my favorite worst words, which my mom loves to torture me with. The straps are an X stitched with rainbow pastels. My white tights are brand-new with no worn spots at heel or toe. I am not cute, I think, and feel ill-cast for the role. But you are my favorite niece, you always say. I am your only niece, I always answer, leaving me glowing in the word favorite, undercut by the only and the adult laughter.  

After the ceremony, when the knot of guests expands into the house, I retreat to the stairs where I can see the door and the rooms that connect the party. The broad steps spiral up and get smaller behind me. Uncle James kneels in front of me with his camera and adjusts the long lens, aims, backs up, kneeling and duck-walking and re-aiming. I try not to laugh; it seems like I shouldn’t laugh. I wait impatiently and try to smile without laughing.  

The photo of me at the base of the stairs appears on our wall at home, framed by James, with two quotes from your book. Me, close up and black and white with my crooked French braids, the smaller braids branching out from my center part wispy in the sunlight. The quote is from your new book, which you will never see. A copy is waiting in your mailbox on the day you are murdered. Is this true? This is what I remember. If I distill my particular essence of why I hold back, why I am afraid to share my words, I could (conveniently, shamefully, with cowardice) boil it down to this phrase: your book is waiting for you in your mailbox on the day you are murdered. My flavor of this, of a writer afraid to cut a story loose.  

Beneath the photo are two cut white squares of words from your book, the main piece in bigger print: 

you remain dismembered with the belief that magnolia blooms white even on seemingly dead branches and you wait.  

you remain apart from the congregation. 

There is more, in italics and smaller, running over the bottom half of the image. The line I come back to often: 

chaste you wait you are supposed to you are to wait for the silence to break  

I don’t know what I am seeing, or what I am missing. 

 

The table, my parents, the hutch. Three of us sit around the table, just me and my parents, without my brothers. Is it a settee or an armoire? A hutch. I don’t know the correct term and will never bother to learn. The hutch under the window that frames the backyard. The furniture is always moving, so the hutch could be against the wall. I am always in the same chair. I learn to read in this chair, in a book shaped like a fat ginger cat. The and cat, my first words. I am sitting there when they tell my brothers and me you died in a car accident. I am sitting there when they recant. It was not a car accident, they say. You were raped and murdered. Raped, then murdered. Raped and murdered. Those words holding the memory, always linked. They, together, are their own term. Repeated mostly in my head, and occasionally aloud. It spills out. 

Why are you telling me this? I ask. Why just me and not my brothers? Because you need to know, they say. The rest of the words sucked upward into heavy silences, or forgotten.  

After they tell me, I go up to my room. I have something to write in a new diary I have been saving. A square block of tan hardcover and thick cream pages. Butterflies stamped onto the front, orange and black and purple, outlined in gold. I write something simple; I write slowly. I bear down hard with blue ballpoint. Something like: Today my parents told me Theresa was raped and murdered. They didn’t tell my brothers. The words are upright and round, not my usual slant. Raped becomes the worst word there is, and murdered is the relief that comes after. I put the diary next to my decorative unicorn plate, in a pocket of space between books, high on a shelf. 

It is the 80s. My favorite color is purple. I have a rainbow shirt in shades of purple, and deep purple dolphin shorts. I also love my grandma-made clothes. Billowy, forest-green knickers in velvety, wide wale corduroy. Giant, yellow-orange sweater (grandma-knit) with multicolored sleeves. Burnt-orange blouse (grandma-sewn) patterned with smeared, split avocados. Green argyle socks and brown two-tone vans. High fashion. I have no thought that these clothes might be hideous; each piece, individually, makes me happy. I can wear this more easily in San Francisco. At home in Southern California, I can sometimes wear thin cotton cloth with dainty polka dots or small repeating patterns. My quiet girlishness a layer close to my skin and obscured by my loud, dirty mouth and shocking jibes because being cute is a death sentence, being girly is shameful.  

Dad writes a book. I don’t know when he starts. The book looms, always there. The book, THE BOOK. A call and response between me and Dad repeated into distortion, from a terrible movie where a lumpy-faced troll shakes a magical tome at the sky, proclaiming the book, the BOOK! The manuscript of his years of trials (seven by the end), as a witness, a brother; the book, his way to process and distance and keep it close. The book fills the house until it settles in the office behind the office, in the addition that he builds, where he does most of his writing. Incarnations of typewriter progressively smoother and quieter, and then a fat monitor with a tiny blue screen. Dad builds the back room without the proper permits, even though he is an engineer and knows what is what. Years later he is asked to destroy this room before he sells the house, and he does. Our house, the same as every other house on the block except for this room.  

The first time I read the book, I am seventeen. I ask for it; I want to know. The trials are over, the sentencing. I want to know. I bring the binder into bed with me like a normal book, reading into the night, although I close it carefully and push it away from my bed instead of letting it fall on my chest to follow me into sleep. Still, it stays behind my eyes and in my body, and the nightmare that comes is enormous.  

 

The dream is dark lit; I am escorted by Aunt Bernadette out of a murky arcade and onto a street in Manhattan. She hooks my arm in hers. We pass a canopied bar where the murderer met a friend, after. The name of the bar is written in light bulbs: Stuckey’s, or Shutters, something possessive or plural, starting with an S. This detail used to be important, because I dream it before I read the name. You lean against the side of the brick building, just outside the light. Jean jacket, collar popped, arms folded. Bernadette turns her back on you and hustles me along. That’s not Theresa, she says. The thing that looks like you smiles at me, mocking me, follows my path with your eyes, turns your head. Your sisters lead me down a dark alley while James scouts ahead. They pull me back down when I try to fly away, so I force myself awake. 

When I wake up I know that you are at the foot of my bed, and I can’t open my eyes. I do, and then know you must be right outside the door. The grinning, hyperreal caricature of you, outlined, brightened. Minutes standing with my cheek against the thin door, not listening but feeling through the wood, feeling you on the other side until it doesn’t matter anymore. I erase and fold together the moment of opening the door, and leaping across the hall to my older brother’s room. I sit by his bed until morning, waiting for the dream to fade. The nightmare and the memory of the nightmare translate and contain the horror in the bubble of its metaphor. I don’t think to be afraid of the murderer, but I am afraid of you. I know it isn’t you, but it is.  

The first time I see you as horror I am at Grandma’s, on the stairs where I am caught in photos sitting at the bottom, and at the top. The wedding, summers, Christmases. Standing unseen at the top of the tight spiral, still connected to downstairs, the light from the stained glass spilling out pink and yellow. It is a good spot in real life. From here I see you, in a ghost-shock of a dream, post-murder, pre-teen. You kneel at the base of the stairs, bowing away from me, in a funereal white dress and long, black braid against your back, to your waist. Long before the various Ring movies and images of angry murdered Asian women in white with long, threatening hair. An image lifted from a performance piece you did, a photo of one, it must have been, the timeline jumbled. I dream of you kneeling there, pulling me to you with an obliterating static and void that leaves its mark, still, of the second-worst thing that is, that never happens. I begin to be afraid of the doom of you, the trappings of you, captured in images, text, wearing your face. Photos on the walls, boxes of your books in our garage. 

Dad’s book: reading about the defensive wounds, deep gashes in your forearms from a security guard’s nightstick. The coroner’s Q-tips. Martial arts didn’t help you. Being brought into the scene of the sub-basement, this triangle of dark space. Knowing certain facts: strangled by your scarf. This phrase persists when I put on my own. The faceless second man who is known by the police but can’t be prosecuted. I know nothing about him and don’t want to know, but it leaks through the blurry sense of graying paper holding the stories away, contained in the black three-ring binder that holds this draft. Family names as characters in text, their dialogue in quotes, Dad and Grandma and aunts and uncles having tea and conversations in diners without me. 

The first time I read the book, it is summer. Summers become the book, the BOOK. The next summer, I copyedit it, a Dad-granted internship to give structure to my days, to get me out of bed. My days otherwise bound by soccer time, friend time, piano time, which seem plenty to me. The formless grief and ecstasy of lonely summer after I’ve lost my piano teacher, movie-themed, non-classical pieces chosen to distance myself from her and hand-feed my melancholy. At last, old enough for co-ed summer soccer so I can play and pretend I don’t care about the boys I am impressing with my skills. My attempts at flirting subsumed, driven underground into hard tackles, stealing balls, pleased about being the only girl the guys would pass to because I will always pass back, then back again, triangulating with them up and down the field. Quit playing like a girl and they will play with you; it’s so obvious. Why don’t the other girls see that? Complex and encoded desire under Dad’s coaching-overlord, ever-watching eyes. By the pool, cooking in the heat and warmth, the antidote to isolation and too much feeling. Baking away the damp and dripping angst. Reading the same books over and over, epic fantasies that arc and arc and never end.  

Dad’s book with its laser-dot words, gray on white and bound in its black folder, splayed open behind memories of this time, enlarged and translucent in the background like a premium sixth grade class photo with one’s ghostly profile looming. I wear aunt hand-me-downs, from you and Bernadette: a red cloth version of a denim jacket with the collar popped, over a fine horizon of black-and-white-striped sailor dress, red leather belt, black shiny flats, one of Bernadette’s thick bracelets clacking against one of mine. She curates this outfit for me, my one indisputably cool, era-appropriate outfit. Every time I see Bernadette at home in Orange or in San Francisco: she takes time to adjust my hair and wardrobe, to razor-cut and accessorize the suburbs out of my bangs and my clothes. On sixth-grade picture day, the photographer calls my jacket ratty and makes me take it off to expose my bare shoulders. There I am, looming over myself, with optimal view of a blemish that has appeared on the side of my nose. My first zit.  

When you are found you wear black and white with red. Belt and boots and scarf and jacket were black, white, red. Cool aunt outfit flattened into cloth pieces lying on the ground, empty of you. Your gloves, and a button, some accessories, and a big pool of blood are missing, and the detectives need these things. Finding these things is the worst part for Dad, it must have been, because he spends so much time on this scene. 

Dad finds the crime scene. He doesn’t find your body. He finds the crime scene, not the body. Your body, dumped in a parking lot in Little Italy, leaves a mark of black night with big stars above, pitted macadam below. You hover vertically above your body, looking out at me.  

Dad and Uncle James and Richard find their way to the larger crime scene, after the police have no more leads, though the murder dogs go nuts in a certain area of the Puck building’s basement. This is the beginning of my own summary, the canned version I hold in my head. What I know, I know from the book: I know Dad is in a dark room, moving along a wall by touch, and feels the edges of a hidden door. The door opens into the sub-basement where he finds the rest of you, his sister reduced to blood and clothes. I know only one basement, Grandma’s, a finished basement with white walls and a bouncy wood floor, your bowls and sculptures in one corner smelling like cold stone. Partway up one wall there is a smaller door to crawl through, more triangles of dark space and long white bends of your sculpture resting on plastic to protect them from the crumbling floor. 

 

So where is the murderer? The question a person wants to ask when they hear raped and murdered. Also: Did you know her? Were you close? Or were you too young?  

Did they catch him? Is he in jail? I mean prison. The questions that I ask my parents when I am ten. The conversation cannot go beyond. I don’t think to inquire further. I don’t know what to ask. He isn’t a real person, this serial rapist, this security guard. The serial rapist who raped and murdered my aunt. I can’t call him person, I default to “piece of shit.” He is blonde with sweaty pink skin and blurry eyes framed by white-blonde lashes, wearing the blue uniform of a mall cop. I dream this and it sticks, a vague figure who strangles me in my sleep, but with his hands from behind, not with a scarf. The real rapist is Italian, with black hair and bright blue dead eyes, I read in the book. My older brother, Joe, sees the rapist at the sentencing. I don’t see a real image of him until the internet is invented. He is nothing, a blank space, a placeholder; there is only the fact of my raped and murdered aunt.  

Brutally raped. That word not often used. Adjective too inflammatory and unnecessary. Raped is enough; it needs no adjective. Murdered seals it. Words to tell, not show, not feel. Break the rules of writing and storytelling and cap it off, plug it up, use well-worn un-description to hold images at bay. Filtering language, summary. Raped and murdered are words, typed onto a small rectangle of paper, thin cardstock memorialized in Plexiglas. Placed precisely to hold back a wordless expanse of too much. You will have a piece like this at the Whitney. We go there as a family in 1992, to see one of your posthumous shows. We all go; Grandma wants everyone there. The first tug on the thread to unravel my hatred of Manhattan, where aunts are murdered and where dads disappear for months and years. 

Then, and now, when feeling the need to relate these facts for this or that reason—and it leaks out more often than I like, a quick shield against vulnerability—raped and murdered (by a serial rapist) is the fast phrase used to sever casual discussions about serial killers, the death penalty, the fevered thrill of true crime. I know my face goes blank and my heart goes flat and I kill the conversation. My eyes go flat, too. Old, used words. I don’t give a shit about the mind of a murderer sounds in my head like a song, an angry song. 

 

In the years between your death and the trials, Dad comes, he goes: I am slow and sad and hushed when he is home, quick and happy when he is gone. All of it makes me feel guilty. While he is in New York, investigating and then testifying at one, two, three trials in seven years, I bond with new soccer coaches. I learn to slide tackle, steal the ball and be back up in one go, so fast the spectators feel the force of me. I can forget and be this, until he comes home or it is time for a trip to San Francisco and a visit to Skylawn.  

 

At Skylawn, the grass is always green and wet. The wind is always high and cold, and your grave is above the fog. Blue sky, green grass, flowers interrupting the gray stone. Always: A white angel looms near the last turn up the hill. The silence is as wide as the view of the valley below. The view below can be trees and water, rolling fog, or vehicles carving brown rows through the green for new levels of graves. The silence, deafening, heavy, all the clichés. An absence of sound that expands to contain the gravelly roll of tires, and is bigger than the wind pulling at our coats and flattening our hair across our faces. The clipping of Grandma’s scissors, clearing grass from the edges of the stones, the insult of grass with a stubborn root requiring extra force, how dare it encroach.  

Letters chiseled into the speckled gray: born, died, beloved. My eyes are pressed up against this memory like I am just inches away, but the closest I can be is kneeling next to Grandma, her elbow linked in mine. Maybe once we bowed together. I sponge and soothe and am soaked and darkened by the adult terrors.  

The water is poured flat against the stone to wash away the grass and make it shine dark gray again, and this moment is always the same; the cleansing of the stone is the ritual sigh and relief, the sound before the sound, before Grandma starts to cry, and then my aunts and uncles and maybe my mom and hopefully not my dad, but him too, in the beginning, and as years pass only Grandma cries. 

Skylawn for Christmas, birthdays, mine, yours, anniversaries, deathaversaries. Grandpa dies suddenly, alone in a restaurant, without ID. The graveside visits multiply, because now you have flat marble stones side by side. You’d think the visits might lessen, that we could double-up.  

 

Decades later, I am thirty-seven. I have long since refused to visit Skylawn. I learn a new friend has been raped and lived. Kidnapped and gang-raped for hours or days? Did I turn hours into days because I can’t fathom the difference, or is days so terrible that I refuse to remember? In this moment: disjuncture of the words rape and murder force an opening in my mind. The words break apart like old pressboard and behind their flat meaninglessness is something new, something real and joyful and terrible, with dimension and a new flavor. Raped and lived! Raped and lived a cool, art-filled life with cool, hapa kids. I am told this story with great care, by the woman’s mother. The next time I see the woman, she is opening her front door to me for a party, stands close and touches my hair, admiring and decoding my artfully messy bun I’ve created with one ponytail holder. Her touch, the ease, the warmth, and it is also her Asian-ness, melt together the edges of the thing that has cracked.  

 

I didn’t know that I never wanted my dad’s book to be read until it was already out there, translated and published first in Korean, now making its way back to the original English. I hear it has opened into something more spacious and airy, details of the trials pared away, the poetry able to break through the facts of the case. So I gather from him, and my mom. I haven’t read it since 2001. I read two more drafts after that first one in 1989, and the transcripts of two of the three trials.  

After that first time, when I am seventeen. The book is now a tentative foundation, anchored between us, able to bear one or two light steps. I can ask questions, in scenes and subtext. Did that really happen, I ask. It might not have happened exactly that way, he says. Once or twice some license taken to make the story move faster, and do what it needs to do. These conversations happening in the tall off-season grass of my high school’s football field, where we have our best talks, arcing and spinning a soccer ball between us, kicking up divots of grass. In the last version I read, details disgorged from the underside of his grief and bad choices that I want to put back in their place and tamp down. What do you think, he says. I don’t think that scene feels real, I reply. I don’t think it is necessary for the story. Has mom seen this version? The silences we send back and forth as important as the sentences. I don’t want to read the book again, but I probably will, I have to. I have to see how much of me is in there. 


Christina Cha is a teacher for the Story Is a State of Mind School, a short fiction writing program created by acclaimed author Sarah Selecky, featuring master classes with Margaret Atwood, George Saunders, Francesca Lia Block, and others. She has studied with Sarah SeleckyZsuZsi Gartner, and Peter Levitt.  

The Great Unknown

By: Kelly Shire

In the awkward season of my family courting itself back into existence, I spend an afternoon alone with my dad. He’s back in town, and in my mom’s borrowed car, drives us south down the 605 freeway through a steady drizzle. Fiddling with the radio, he switches over to AM and dials in KMPC, a station with a playlist of standards and old pop songs by Bobby Goldsboro or Glen Campbell. I hope that “Honey” will come on, a song about a young wife who up and dies one day. “And honey, I miss you,” the husband repeats in the chorus, and though he tries to sing along, Dad’s voice cracks every time his brown eyes well with tears. My daddy is a sap, and I am beside him, my fingers tracing the crack in the vinyl bucket seat; the windows are rolled tight against the weather, except for a tiny crack where his cigarette smoke streams out.  

Read More

Conversion

By: Emily Rapp  

This will be my name when I marry Ben, I thought, as the Rabbi and I looked over a list of Hebrew names. “Ruth is quite popular with converts,” he suggested, “but here,” he pointed with a finger just beginning to spot with age, “Shoshanna is a nice name, too.” The light from the large window in his office fell over the desk stacked high with papers and textbooks and printed spreadsheets. I felt a surge of real affection for this man, who had been coaching me in the fine points of the Jewish religion for the past six months. 

“Can I wait until I get back from Israel to decide?” I asked.  

“Of course!” He opened a desk drawer and pulled out a few fistfuls of pens before producing a calendar. “And let’s schedule your mikveh now, to be sure all the rabbis are available.” 

As I was driving down Mulholland to my apartment in Hollywood, that odd toxic but beautiful blend of yellow and orange, a quintessential Los Angeles sunset, I practiced some of my potential new names aloud. I imagined saying the Shema, rising up out of the ritual bath, and emerging a new woman, water dripping from my shoulders, my hands, my knees, and Ben waiting for me on the other side of the curtain, both of us glimmering with the power of my transformation, a new name on both our lips and with it, the promise of a new life. To be made new: this had always been, since I was a child, my singular wish.  

During one of his best sermons, my father brought to the pulpit a copy of his birth certificate. Born in a Chicago Salvation Army hospital to an unwed teenager mother in the early 1940s, this certificate was one of his mother’s most prized possessions; it proved to her that she’d done at least something right. On the certificate was proof that he was saved, marked by God, a child of the right religion, even if my grandmother had broken every other moral code. My father, in turn, baptized me when I was three months old. Although I no longer believed in the sanctity of this act, or that it saved me or bestowed upon me grace or favor, my father had spoken my name, and the congregation repeated it, and that repetition meant you belong to us.  

When had that tribe started to feel like the wrong one? 

I met Ben the day I moved to Los Angeles. From the beginning, I couldn’t get enough of him. Something about his body, his presence, the way we fell together so easily—at the bar, in his truck, in his single bed that was still marked in Sharpie with his name, camp sheets that his now-dead mother had sent him away with, to identify him. I loved the way his hands felt in my hair when he sat behind me at a party and told all of his friends that we were in love. “Is she Jewish?” his friends asked. I was not, but I would be, I determined, and this solidified our love, at least for me: now, I had a task. 

At the church bazaars of my youth, I loved best the sugar eggs sold by women who still made such novelties. When you carefully peered inside, a mini-nativity scene or a family of tiny bunnies sculpted from marzipan revealed itself. In much the same way, everything about Ben presented a new universe to me, and I never grew tired of looking. Curiosity, I thought, was as good an indication of love as any other.  

Within a month of meeting Ben, each Sunday I now drove along Mulholland to my conversion class, passing groups of bikers out for pre-heat rides and brown-skinned maids getting off buses, holding plastic bags in their hands, headed off to clean the houses of the well-heeled in Beverly Hills. 

We converts sat in a circle on straight-backed chairs in a conference room at a university on top of a hill. Most of the converts looked like me, one even strangely so, with her pale skin and long red hair. One woman was a Swedish model who drove all the way from Santa Barbara with her fiancée each morning. They looked like someone’s long ago idea of hippies who kept talking about “beautiful life” together, although as far as I could tell, she didn’t have a clue what was going on when we discussed the meaning and significance of Passover. They’re not doing their reading, I thought, and was proud again of my ability to keep up with the weekly homework. I was reminded of being in Sunday School as a child; standing up to sing songs at the beginning of each class, only this was not about Jesus, and the songs were in Hebrew. Next step? Full conversion. In Israel. When I arrived, Ben would have been there for a few months on a fellowship. My flight was booked for June. 

* 

On the flight from Los Angeles to London and then on to Tel-Aviv, I couldn’t get three pages into the modern history section of my Israel guidebook without feeling overwhelmed by the complicated maneuverings of invasions and treaties, agreements and occupations. I skipped to the logistical section, making lists of the hotel meeting points for the tours that Ben and I had booked—Nazareth, The Old City, the Dead Sea. I felt giddy and frightened, as if I had been released from a burden I wasn’t aware of until I was released from it.  

A few days later, as I stood in line for the bus from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem, a man asked me, “What are you making of Israel?” Ben was buying sodas at a nearby kiosk. The neon clank of the station was overwhelming: watches and gold for sale in booths notched at the top of escalators, sarongs and skirts swinging from long racks that extended like arms into the rush of bodies, a constant press of passengers headed out of the city and into the desert. I looked around, embarrassed by my uneasiness, expecting violence to come sprinting around the corner at any moment: a stranger with a weapon raised, or someone screaming warnings about a bomb. “Oh, it’s lovely,” I said, thinking no such thing. I stared at the young men and women with submachine guns slung across their chests as they snapped gum and talked on their cell phones, shuffling their way through three years of compulsory military service. I’d nearly shouted at an Orthodox woman who had rammed her baby carriage into my calves, rushing me through security at the messy mouth of the station. The River Jordan was a disappointing strip of brown river. The site of Jesus’s tomb was mobbed by a line of tourists waiting in swaying, impatient lines that reminded me of the rollercoaster line at Six Flags. Outside, tour guides waited for their groups, smoking cigarettes in the sunlight that crashed over the concrete, painted the sides of the walls—the strongest sun I had ever encountered. After we entered the Garden of Gethsemane church through a grove of olives that looked much smaller than in my imagination, a priest shushed us violently, his reprimand washing into the high rafters. Walking through the notorious Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Sha’rim, sweltering in his long sleeves, I watched a small boy with blue eyes hissed at me and covered his brother’s eyes. The two boys were under five, dressed in dark suits, and walking alone down streets running with wind and trash. Printed bulletins begging women to respect the residents’ way of life and dress modestly had loosened from the wall and flew down the streets like paper birds. An empty doll’s carriage—a child’s lost toy—tugged against a wall, cornered by wind, before a shift in the wet breeze sent it careening down the road, its wheels spinning inches above the ground as if in a cartoon. I didn’t feel connected to any of it.  

“It is wonderful,” said the man.  

“Yes!” I chirped, blinking back tears.  

Ben made his confession two days before I left Israel.  

“Why are you telling me this here?” I asked. We sat in the basement cafe at the Holocaust Museum—a room of white tiles and white tables. Ben looked at his hands and said nothing. We were alone except for an older couple sharing a banana split near the floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out to a circular driveway where tour buses pulled away from the museum entrance in exhausted lines. The café was silent except for the clatter of coins into the cash register till in the back room and the hum of fluorescent lights over the tables, the floor, and the ice cream tubs sealed and cold under domed glass.  

“I feel like I have to be honest,” Ben said. He held his ice cream cone in one hand, the other hand flat in the middle of the table, expecting me to reach for it.  

The sound of coins dropping was replaced by a laugh. The woman who scooped our cones minutes before had propped her feet up on a chair, the money till in front of her, a cell phone pressed to her ear. She slammed the door shut with one foot when she looked up and realized I was staring at her. The man near the window muttered something to his companion in Russian. She said nothing, but spooned up part of his banana. A security guard peeked around the corner, glared at us, and then turned away toward the museum entrance, shouting at someone. 

“Emily,” Ben said, smiling too, as if he’d told me something different—a joke perhaps—and he’s desperate for us to share in the punch line. I stared at the couple, at the man’s bald spot, and at the sun bobbing in the air, scorching everything. I took one lick of my ice cream—a too-rich vanilla—and stayed carefully tucked into my chair.  

We’d been at the museum since it opened eight hours earlier. We’d moved slowly through each room, each taking notes in small journals. We watched every video that played at fifteen-minute intervals behind heavy curtains, and squinted at the historical timelines printed into the walls. “It’s possible my aunt was in that transport,” he whispered to me as we read about the fate of an entire community in a small town in Poland. He studied life-size images of people traveling single file into ditches as a video of a spitting Hitler played over and over again in a curtain-free corner. We both paused briefly at a video acknowledging that the Lutheran church— my church, my former church—had just recently apologized for its collusion with the German government during WWII. I walked with him, trying to experience this place through his prism, his history, thinking I was just about to adopt this history as my own. But how?  

Finally, after I convinced him that we’d seen enough and could skip the final rooms at the end of the museum’s long gray corridor, we walked through glass doors to stand on a balcony balanced on a steep hill. In the distance, Jerusalem: a snail shape of gray and brown buildings winding around land that had been endlessly changing hands in a grabby parade of wars.  

Shrub grass poked up near the edge of the concrete wall where Ben and I leaned, our elbows touching. A few couples wearing sun visors and belly packs spoke intently to one another in Italian. The ground below us pulsed with insects. “Imagine,” he said, but imagination was a failed enterprise; even numbness had no meaning. I would never be able to do anything with the notes I took. They were half-formed ideas, streaks of pen, a capital “T” and then a page of white space. 

“Em? Do you understand that I’m just trying to be honest? That I don’t want us to have any secrets?” I looked at the woman, who threw her plastic spoon into the dish, where it landed almost soundlessly. The man thrust both hands in the air and said something I imagined might translate as, “What do you want from me?” 

I longed for the bright distraction of a shopping mall or a chain restaurant or some other anonymous place that didn’t feel like spinning in some bowl of a world beyond anyone’s comprehension.  

I stood up, walked to the trashcan in the corner, and dumped my ice cream. I felt petty and combative. “Let’s go,” I said. Ben gave me a look that said please, and then all four of us, in this café in the middle of the world that documented the end of the world for so many, looked up and listened to a pre-recorded announcement in Hebrew as if it were God telling us that the place will close in five minutes. 

On the bus back to our hotel, the teenager on the other side of the aisle was reading a novel. An Orthodox man snoozed lightly in front of me. His head snapped up each time the bus hit a bump in the road, his payot swinging gently back and forth like ropes in an abandoned playground. 

“Are you okay?” Ben asked. My body was angled away from him as I looked across the aisle at the teenager’s book, slowly deciphering the first few lines. Some kind of fantasy novel. I wished I could read it in one gulp. 

Back in Jerusalem, the early evening sun punched through the cheap curtains of our hotel room to expose the contents of our suitcases piled together in one corner. I flipped on the air conditioner and stepped inside the narrow tunnel of cool air. While Ben took a shower, I lit a cigarette (a holiday indulgence) and leaned out the window. A few Orthodox girls, their arms linked, strolled out of the clothing store that catered to the signature, prescriptive style (long jean skirts and long-sleeved cotton shirts, brunette wigs in 1940s coifs, colored hair scarves). A vendor closed the iron door of his falafel store with a rattle. A drunk man broke an empty beer bottle on the side of a building. Slowed by the day’s heat, people moved up the sidewalk with shopping bags balanced on their wrists. The spiky shadows of feral cats slunk around corners before shooting out of doorways to claw and hiss at one another in the center of the street. A security guard perched on a stool at the entrance to the bar beneath our hotel (PARTY EVERY NIGHT! the banner promised), rifling absentmindedly through the bags of the young girls who stepped through the door, resplendent and ridiculous in their glittering tank tops and tight jeans, their eyes bright as stars in the fading light. A mosque bellowed out the prayer time in the distance as the setting sun pulled down cool air like a shade.  

Ben emerged wearing flip-flops, a towel around his slim waist, his dark hair slicked back, all the heat washed from him. 

I sat down on one of the two twin beds that we had pushed together, kicked off my sandals, and turned on the television. I flipped through the channels, hoping to find an episode of Law and Order or an American sitcom. Anything familiar, on a loop, repetitive, safe. 

Ben perched on the edge of the bed. The towel drooped between his legs, a thin roll of flesh doubled at his waist. Water dripped from his chest hair onto his thighs. He looked so sheepish that I wanted to soothe him; so childish I wanted to scream. “When did it happen?” The television channels flash by in a staccato dance of shapes and light.  

Ben folded his hands in his lap. On television I settled on the International Strong Man competition. A bright British voice called out the challenges as Hebrew subtitles scrolled quickly across the screen. I stared at the letters, matching translation with sound, thinking with sudden concentration about how Arabic looks like ink spilled on paper, just an accident of shapes rolled into life under the back and forth motion of someone’s hands. 

“Can you turn that down?” Ben asked. I didn’t touch the remote. A man with a name that sounded like a myth walked across a gymnasium with a refrigerator on his back. 

“The dates of your little infidelities, when were they?”  

“They weren’t exactly infidelities. They were just dates,” he said. “Stupid, innocuous dates. No kisses. No cheating.” 

“No kisses. No nothing.” 

“Nothing.” 

“Nothing happened.” 

“No kissing, no sex.” 

“No! God, no.” He shook his hand. “Hand holding at the most. Sometimes a hug. I put my arm around a girl once. I was just playing a part.” 

“Can you put on a shirt or something?” I asked. The men on television were grotesque and mesmerizing. The next contender made it halfway across the room before the appliance slid from his back. Sweat ran down his cheeks. His thigh muscles quivered like a pouting, miserable lip.  

“Sure.” Ben grabbed a T-shirt from the floor and pulled it over his head. It still ached to look at him. 

He looked at the bed, at me, at his pale, wonderful hands. “I didn’t like any of those girls. Nothing happened.” 

“Girls.” 

“Not girls. Young women.” 

“What does that even mean? Young women are girls. Girls wear pink shirts and polka dots and get their ears pierced at the mall. They giggle in groups. They’re girls. What age? How young?” 

“I don’t know. Young. Twenty? Sometimes younger. All of them were legal.”  

“What a comfort. Thank God they were legal.” 

“I just want to be honest,” he said. “I feel so guilty, I have all this guilt. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.” 

As sweat popped on his forehead, I noticed that his hairline had visibly receded in the few months we’d been apart. Neither of us was so young anymore. I was thirty-three, and he was twenty-seven. Young, but not so young. We’d talked about getting engaged, building a life together. I could see now that these discussions would never be more than that. On television a bald man tried to pick up an anvil with one hand. He strained, dropped it, cursed. The other contestants paced along the sidelines, staying warm for competition. “It’s just…I had to tell you. All this guilt I feel today. My mom.” 

“Don’t blame this on her,” I said. “What happened to your family doesn’t give you license to be a prick.” 

“I’m just trying to explain!”  

I tossed the remote control against the wall, but the channel didn’t move. The air conditioner gulped, disturbing the edges of the curtains. Someone called out to a friend on the street below; I heard them kiss one another’s cheeks with coordinated slaps. I walked into the bathroom and resisted an adolescent urge to slam the door. 

The bathroom was steamy and rank. I turned on the shower and let the water thrash against the curtain, crying as quietly as I could. I felt the soft thud of Ben’s forehead as he set it against the door. “Come out,” he pleaded. “Please. Talk to me.” A riot of applause exploded from the television. Someone had won. 

I was trying not to make a sound, inhaling as I had learned to do on long runs: in through the nose, out through the mouth. I wished I could reel my limbs in. 

“I need you to forgive me,” he said from the other side of the door. “I want to be with you. Please. I love you. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Please.” 

When I was an acolyte, I assisted my father with communion on the first Sunday of each month. I followed him, a row of communicants kneeling before the two of us. This was in rural Wyoming, so their shoes smelled of snow and gravel in the winter, their hair of sweat and grass in the summer. I knew the tops of their heads so well I could tell when they’d changed their parts, dyed their hair, or when the circumference of a bald spot had widened. I knew who took the grape juice instead of the wine from the center of the round serving tray of tiny glasses. My father knew more: he knew their individual addictions and much, much more about their fears. He placed his hands on the heads of children and whispered blessings into the air, the organ’s careful accompaniment pedaling the words into the hushed room. “We’re spiritual gymnasts,” I once overheard my father saying on the phone. “We give out blessings and forgiveness like we’re doing backflips.” When Ben asked me to forgive him, he knew what I would say. If I let him keep begging I would stop wanting him, which was a loss I felt wholly unprepared for, like being mugged in broad daylight, that quick unraveling of certainties that had previously been taken for granted: safety, independence, choice. I wasn’t ready to be free, to let go of the fantasy that I could change my life with a name. I turned the shower off and stood up.  

“You’re forgiven,” I said before he could go on. 

“I’ve been faithful while I’ve been here,” Ben said as I opened the door and squeezed past him. He followed me to the bed. “Can I touch you?” he asked, and I nodded, lying down on my side, but when he positioned himself in the slight space between the two beds and put his head on my shoulder and his arm across my chest, I moved away and took just his hand, holding it loosely on the bed behind my back, the cheap blanket rough against my wrist. A man named Igor was crowned as the international strong man. We watched the ceremony in silence. Tugging at their tight leotards, the competitors bowed their heads to receive their medals. 

“Their necks look like tree trunks,” I said, my voice wavering.  

Ben sighed into my back, his breath hot, and said, “I swear to you it will never happen again.” 

That night Ben kept talking long after the bar beneath us closed and people rolled into the street where their voices rose in a riot of languages. He told me the names of the girls and that he had met them online. (“Unoriginal, I know,” he said, as if that mattered.) He told me it was a compulsion, an escape, like a terrible television movie in which both the satisfaction and comfort lie in the lack of surprise, in the ability to anticipate each emotional moment, every reversal of feeling. He told me that he was often late coming to my apartment where I sat waiting because he’d been entertaining the young women with whom nothing had happened. “Just having drinks or dinner,” he said. “That’s it. And none of them could hold a candle to you.”  

I thought of Ben’s grandmother, who in 1940 stood in an Amsterdam synagogue and handed her baby to a stranger as if her daughter had only been hers to watch for a while and this other woman with different colored hair—slowly walking away down the center aisle in her worn heels, making soothing noises that the mother knew would never soothe—was the rightful parent. I see her stay through the long-standing prayer, tipping her torso left and then right, her arms so light it’s as if they’re disappearing, her heart beating fire. I thought of Ben’s mother, hidden in the countryside for nearly five years, a baby growing into a child. When she finally returned home, she did not recognize the thin woman who held out her arms, calling her by a name she no longer knew. She kept the statues of Catholic saints she’d been given as gifts lined up on the windowsill next to her bed. A cheap cross dangled below her collarbone for three years. A skinny girl on her knees each night, her hands folded in prayer to the wrong God while her mother listened, desperate, on the other side of the door, thinking: We should have let her stay. We should give her back. Before her death last year, when I’d asked Ben’s grandmother how she’d felt during those years, hiding herself, posing as Christian with her blond hair, bringing food to her dark-haired husband who never left the top room of a farmhouse, and she said, I felt hunted. I felt like an animal. Ben began repeating himself, starting again from the top of the list of his sins—so small, so silly compared to so many others. 

“Let’s put it behind us,” I said. “Please. I forgive you.” 

Ben fell asleep quickly and I lay awake, remembering his phone call on a Saturday in the middle of the night just a month into his stay in Israel. In a panicked voice he’d told me he was thinking more seriously about becoming Orthodox. He wanted to discuss it with me, said that his time in Israel had changed him. He was thinking more and more about his mother, he said, about her narrow escape during the war, and about his responsibilities as a Jew. I glanced at the clock—four a.m. Falling in the moonlight, snow accumulated slowly outside my basement window in a dark drift. 

“Talk me out of this, babe,” he’d half-begged me. “What am I thinking?” 

And I’d said dutifully, “You’re not religious. You’re swept up in your surroundings. Totally normal.” 

“But I might be religious someday. I don’t know. What if I decide to be Orthodox? What will I do about you?” 

“You won’t,” I promised. “You don’t want to.” But I couldn’t fall asleep after I’d said good night. As the snow darkened my window entirely, I thought about his question. Me: The thing weighing us down. He never brought it up again. Now, just a few hours before daylight, as the sun climbed the red curtains, I looked at Ben’s face and part of me believed I deserved his betrayal.  

As we headed downstairs for breakfast the next morning, Ben stopped and turned around, notching his chin over my shoulder. “Thank you,” he said. I felt the weight of his head as if I was holding it in my hands. “I feel so much better. I needed to tell you. We’re okay now.” Sunlight spiked hot and clear through the skinny window at the landing. I nodded in the face of his exuberance, feeling savage and absurd. 

We took our final tour: the Dead Sea. We rode in a hot bus through the Judean Desert, where King David once stumbled around shamefully, doing penance among the heat-soaked rocks. “Inside these caves he hid,” our guide said into a sputtering microphone, pointing out the window as if identifying David’s exact ancient location. It was hard to imagine practicing the art of hiding here. We traveled through open space between two spinning disks of earth and sky. Every change in terrain registered: a darker desert plant here, a cloud pooling over a rock formation here. Cave openings were obvious and vast. It was like standing on a dark street, looking through the lit windows of a house and watching as a family ate dinner. Watched TV. Washed dishes and took off their shoes. Argued.  

The Dead Sea itself looked about as glamorous as an outdoor pool at an interstate Motel 6. The concrete changing rooms resembled a prison. The air felt greasy with the smell of wet sand, perfume, and the clammy smell of private places swathed in wet polyester and sweating in the heat. People returning from the sea left watery footprints on their way back up the stairs, like sea creatures released from their rightful homes to temporarily enjoy life on dry land. 

Ben emerged from the men’s changing room in his trunks. “Ready?” he asked, and gave my hot pink bikini an approving nod. I wrapped a towel around my waist, and together Ben and I descended the wooden steps and walked out to the beach where the sea spread, a dense thicket of blue salt. Bodies bobbed in the water like corpses that had just been discovered in a city’s decrepit dock. People flapped their hands in the water, rolled back and forth like clumsy seals. I was so disappointed with this last piece of Israel I could hardly speak. 

At one end of the beach, where the black mud was deepest, visitors emerged like prehistoric people. Like Adam stepping out of the hand of God, fully formed but completely new: wet, fresh, and bloodied by mud, his slimy footprint visible on every surface crossed, anxious to find a mate and name some animals. People waited in civilized lines at a large hose in the center of the beach. Wielding the spray with glee, playfulness, or perhaps revenge, parents and partners and siblings released body after body from anonymity, the second skin rinsing away to reveal freckled shoulders, wacky tan lines, wide hips, misshapen belly buttons, a middle-age paunch. All the details of the recognizable self.  

“Shall we?” Ben asked, and took my hand. To our right, two teenage girls—a brunette and a blond, one a few years older than the other—waded carefully into the thick lip of mud. Their resemblance made clear they were sisters. The brunette tentatively dipped a manicured toe into the dark muck, as if making sure it wouldn’t splash on her bikini, which she tugged at self-consciously, yanking on the bandeau top every few seconds. The blond girl slowly waded in, ankle deep. Careful to keep her balance, she squatted down to scoop up a handful of mud from the shallow water. She smeared it so tenderly on the arm of her older sister that I looked away.  

Ben glanced around as if looking for another place for us to go in. “Should we find a spot that’s more secluded? Do you feel comfortable here?” 

“I’m fine,” I said, but sensing his agitation, I, too, began to look around for other entry points. A fence would stop us at the far end of the beach, and the middle patch of sand was too crowded. 

“The muddiest part is here,” I said, deciding, and so we waded in near the two sisters. Ben leaned over, palming the mud carefully and spreading it on my back; it was warm, the way guts would feel. He painted the backs of my legs and my arms. Carefully, with his fingertips, he drew circles around my eyes and used his open palms to cover my cheeks.  

“They say it’s great for the skin,” he said. Under the weight of the mud I felt tomb-like and diminished, a smaller version of myself. 

“Mom and Dad are so annoying,” the older girl grumbled.  

“This mud is so muddy!” the younger girl exclaimed. She covered her sister’s back, reaching out a thin hand to grind a glob of heavy mud in her sister’s hair, where it balanced for a moment—“Ewwww,” the older girl said—and then slid down her back. Both girls laughed unselfconsciously, their mouths open, their heads tipped back. 

Ben was rubbing the mud over my chest when I felt his erection against my lower belly. My feet made a suction noise as I stepped closer, straddling his feet with mine. Inside the skin he’d given me, the indignity of last night’s conversation gave way to desire. But when I turned my head to look up at him he was staring at the girls, who hadn’t stopped giggling but were swaying together, holding on to each others’ elbows. 

“I’ll cover you now,” I said, stepping away from him, the mud gripping at my feet. I bent over, grabbing a fistful of mud. 

I covered him quickly as if I could erase him or send him back into this mud to reappear as the man I thought I loved. Ben touched me gently on the shoulder. My face was hot beneath its baking mask of dirt and salt. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, his hands resting lightly on my hips. I outlined his mouth, pressing as hard as I could.  

A sunburned man with a gym-fit torso walked over to collect his daughters. “Let’s go, girls,” he said, and as she walked past, the younger sister glanced at me and smiled. 

“Do you want to float now?” Ben asked. I shook my head and told him no. 

While Ben changed, I waited in the souvenir shop where an unfriendly-looking salesgirl sat behind a counter selling beer, bottles of water, Star of David key chains, and tiny Israeli flags. She turned the water-damaged pages of a British tabloid that had perhaps been abandoned by another tourist. It was late in the day and the place was emptying out. I walked around but bought nothing. The salesgirl looked up when a couple walked into the shop and began to argue.  

“You could at least not drink for one day,” the woman said. Her black hair was pulled back in a severe ponytail, and she was very pregnant. “I’m telling you not to have a drink,” she said. 

Is that what I should have done? Set limits as if Ben were my child? “Listen up, I’m telling you not to surf the net for age-inappropriate dates. I’m asking you not to cheat on me or look at other girls young enough to be your students, and in not so many years, your daughters.” The whole idea of it was an insult. The salesgirl chuckled when she handed the man two bottles of water. I could smell whiskey on him from across the room. I wanted to shout at both of them. All of this anger, I said to myself, crossing my arms. Take a breath. My rinsed skin felt softer, but tougher, almost waterproof, as if I might shake anything off.   

On the bus ride back, Ben and I didn’t talk about what had happened on the beach. We didn’t talk at all, and in our shared silence, a sense of purpose bloomed in me. I felt ready to ask for what I wanted and demand what I needed. The moment we returned to our humid hotel room, we moved together without turning on the air conditioner to lift the mantle of moldy air in the room. The mosque called out its song, a deep energy moving slowly over the lit green wires of the minaret. 

As I boarded my flight in Tel-Aviv the next day, Ben clung to me. “I’m completely recommitted to you,” he said, but I knew he was only saying this to crawl up over the ragged edge of his guilt. His breath smelled of hummus when I kissed him good-bye. After I cleared security I looked back and saw him waving, his lips bunched up. I waved once and then turned and walked to my gate. 

On the flight home I watched a few movies and read a beauty magazine, taking prodigious notes about the “year’s best” beauty products that I knew I’d never buy. Finally I looked out the dark window, thinking of St. Paul, of all things, and of his conversion. On his journey to Damascus, Jesus appeared to Paul (then Saul) whole, without wounds in his side or holes in his hands, just a shimmering form rising up above the tops of the olive trees, inspiring faith in a lone traveler with a shadow that hustled aside every other shadow on the road. Paul changed his name and went on to new things, a different way of living, thinking, being. The story used to make me cry; I thought it was so beautiful, all that transformation, all that willing change based on faith, but now it made me angry, and I stared at the wall of darkness outside the window as if it could conjure an answer. What a luxury, I thought. Paul’s next right action is so obvious in the story, so clear: The colorless flash in the sky and the dusty earth separating in sizeable chunks beneath his feet; a blood-free Jesus speaking words of wisdom. The whole world telling him what to do. It’s more difficult to change your life, to make a decision, when God isn’t throwing out such obvious signs. What if Jesus had appeared with wounds dripping and his face in a grimace, barking out difficult demands in Aramaic? What decision might he have inspired then? How was a person in the post-Biblical age of subtlety supposed to know how to choose? 

Ben seemed confused when I told him we were through. “I thought we could move on, put this behind us,” he said. “That’s what you said. You forgave me.” 

“I did, but we can’t,” I said. I didn’t really know what I needed, but I knew I couldn’t be with him, as much as I still longed for him, and would for years. This recognition made me feel like an adult for the first time. 

“I’m shaking,” he said, but promised nothing. As resolute as I felt, I had expected him to fight for me.  

Eleven months after our last conversation, I marked Ben’s return date on my calendar. I didn’t return his calls, and I didn’t respond to his polite, carefully worded emails. “We could meet at some point in the future, if you’re comfortable with that. I would be comfortable with that, or else we can talk over email. Either option is fine with me.” Meanwhile, I surfed online dating websites when I couldn’t sleep, or at mealtimes with a TV dinner balanced on my lap. Maybe I’d land on a girl Ben might like, one he’d been with or would be. I imagined Ben on a date with her, bright and engaging, a recent graduate of Boston Latin School. It was autumn, and the evening grew chilly as they walked through Copley Square, headed to the Common. Ben looped his scarf loosely around the girl’s neck. She smiled up at him and said thank you. As they walked past the church, the pigeons flew up in a group, spreading out like a stain. I perused blonds, brunettes, redheads, ages eighteen to twenty-one. Bobby and Ashley and Leni and Nicki. There were so very many of them. It would take a lifetime to get to know them all. 


Emily Rapp Black is the author of Poster Child: A Memoir and The Still Point of the Turning World which was a New York Times Bestseller, and a finalist for the PEN Center Literary Award in Nonfiction. A former Fulbright Scholar, she was educated at Harvard University, Trinity College-Dublin, Saint Olaf College, and the University of Texas-Austin, where she was a James A. Michener Fellow in Fiction and Poetry. Her work has been published in Utne, VOGUE, LENNY LETTER, the New York Times, Salon, Slate, Huffington Post, the Sun, TIME, Brain.Child, the Rumpus, Role/Reboot, O the Oprah Magazine, the Nervous Breakdown, The Establishment, Bodega, Good Housekeeping, and the Los Angeles Times.   

The Barn

By: Douglas Wood

When they pack up her house, a photograph will fall from the pages of a novel, carving arcs in the air as it drifts to the carpet. Pictured is an old falling-down barn. No one alive knows that this barn was built on the foundation of an even older falling-down barn, after it too fell down. No photographs, no paintings of that older structure exist, the thatched roof, the wattle and daub walls. No living soul heard the crack and the pop of the flames or remembers the charred east corner. 

On those sturdy bones, late one forgotten summer, a farmer—a fat and frugal man, fond of lager—put nails to boards and reanimated the structure that housed his small herd of dairy cows. Just in time, too. Days after the repairs were completed, the herd paraded noisily home, decked out in flower garlands with clanking, pumpkin-sized bells after months of grazing in the rolling green of Alpine meadows. 

The farmer patted a few flat haunches but let the hired hands put his girls away. He felt a chill coming on. The following week, he was looking at the ancient pine outside his bedroom window when he died, a casualty of the great influenza outbreak of 1918. 

A widower, he left the whole of the farm—house, cows, barn and all—to his oldest child, a cheerless, middle-aged daughter married for some years to the itinerant laborer hired during the barn’s reconstruction. By the time her father died, the daughter had so frequently, so forcefully proclaimed herself as the logical heir that her brothers and stepsister had already pursued other unclaimed ambitions. Her husband had been dabbling in this and that ever since their hurried wedding and six children, hoping a career would present itself before farm life took hold of him. No such luck. Thanks to his wife’s shrewd accounting skills and the rigor she demanded from him, the farm prospered and grew, their Gruyere gaining some local renown. Twenty-some years later, this farmer, who never wanted to be a farmer, was still farming. To his dismay, he was also co-owner of a barn whose roof desperately needed fixing. 

At his wife’s prodding, the farmer—having lost his willpower as well as his waistline—repaired the barn one board, one wooden shingle, one grudging nail at a time, with a thought to running out the clock of his life. But he lived longer than he intended, and despite himself, the work was completed. Spring came. And a whim: the reluctant farmer erected an easel in the barn. Soon, he was painting again, like he’d done in school. For long hours, he stole away when his forbidding wife was otherwise occupied to paint oil portraits of his favorite cows in various settings and configurations. A cherished brush in his hand, his cheeks ever so faintly dappled with cobalt, on a cloudless summer afternoon, his heart sputtered and stopped. He fell with a heavy thud in dust that billowed gold in the beams of light. 

For the following year or two, the newly minted widow leaned on her eldest son. Unfortunately, he had inherited his father’s ambivalence toward the place and was determined to escape the grip of rural life. At the first opportunity, he joined the military with all the other able-bodied and not-so-able-bodied young and not-so-young men. He was given a uniform and sent east in the fighting. Weekly, his mother wrote him breathless letters detailing the triumphs of the farm, the rich profits from milk, cheese, cream, and so on. Later, with no less glee, her letters concerned whose house the British had bombed in the nearby village and how much she thought to buy it for. 

The war ended and the gray-eyed soldier folded his uniform into a trunk in his childhood bedroom. The farm he had returned to was not merely operational, but larger than the one he’d left. His mother’s stony resolve had grown, as well; she would have him succeed her. Like his father, he did not contradict her. Instead, he used his strong back to swing open the barn’s complaining door, and with a length of rope, he hung himself by the neck from a sturdy beam. A series of vague infirmities plagued the old woman after: palpitations, phantom pains, dizzy spells. A neighbor offered her a fair price, but out of spite, she sold the farm at auction for next to nothing, moving in with her much younger sister, whose feral children tormented her final days. 

The new owners, brothers and businessmen from the capital, had hoped to turn a profit by leasing out the farm. Luck was not on their side, and tenants were few. For years, the barn stood, growing too decrepit to use, too expensive to tear down. Each year, the weight of winter snow threatened to crush it once and for all. But each spring it stood. 

Boys from the village came to explore. They broke windows, smoked pot, laughed, and dreamed big. One May afternoon, employing the full measure of his charms, a shopkeeper’s assistant persuaded the pastor’s daughter to hide away with him in the stale straw of the loft. In January, he told his co-workers she was a whore, and the baby she carried meant nothing to him. The farm was sold to a Frenchman, who gave it as a wedding gift to his son. He sold it, in turn, after just three years, grateful he could pay for his daughter’s leukemia treatments in Canada. The barn sank to its knees. 

The current owner, a second cousin of the pastor’s daughter—though he had neither met her, nor heard her name—shored it up, replaced the rotted walls and roof, and expanded it. Newly married with an elegant bride, he was already counting his profits, prepared to shower his beloved with all the luxuries she deserved once the herd was built up. 

She never set foot in the stupid old barn—she barely spent time in the house. She preferred drives into the city to shop with her mother, or dances at discotheques with her sister’s friends, or symphonies with her Spanish lover. One day, she drove down to the city and never returned. The barn did not notice she had left. It was only a barn. 

Her farmer husband proceeded to alienate family, friends, and uncounted patrons at the local inn with the tale of her disloyalty and his hatred of all things Spanish. Nightly, for sixteen years, with one foot on the floor to stop the bedroom from spinning, the farmer drifted toward unconsciousness, certain in one thing: that if this stingy farm hadn’t betrayed him, his delicate wife would be curled up, perfumed against his side right now. 

For almost two decades, dawn has woken him like an ice pick to the temple. Still, he soldiers out to the splintery barn to tend to the cows and goats, repair rotted beams, or change the broken hinges if he must—but he refuses to paint the fucking thing. 

# 

The young woman, a poet from America, jams the cork into the half-empty bottle of Riesling. Her dark-haired lover packs up the rest of their picnic, pitching the clinking plates into the wicker basket along with the Gruyere, and shutting the lid with such force it nearly snaps off. If she confronts him, he’ll deny it, so she allows him another of his Teutonic moods. It will pass. 

All she said was this: if he doesn’t want the answer, he shouldn’t ask. But he asked. Of course, he did. That’s his way. So, she told him that her answer hadn’t changed. Now, he’s making her pay for it with huffs and martyred sighs. That’s his way, too. 

They walk side by side down the dappled lane toward the room they share. She takes his damp hand in hers. It feels boneless. Her eyes remain fixed on the ruts below their feet. Their conjoined shadows glide over the clods. His name is Paschal. She has never known another Paschal, not in all of her twenty-three years. His love will be the birth or death of her, she is sure—isn’t that what love is? 

A scalp-pinching strand of hair is hung up under the strap of her bag. With both hands, she releases it and gathers her loose frizz into something less painful but still presentable. 

Disengaged, Paschal takes the opportunity to plunge his liberated hand into his pants pocket. He takes the lead. His shoulder blades poke through his t-shirt like twin hatchets. She’s convinced she outweighs him but is afraid to ask. Together, separate, they turn and continue up the weedy path they’d walked together a hundred times. A bird complains. Burrs catch on the hem of her skirt. She wore a skirt today instead of jeans. For him. 

They pass a field with cows frozen in their poses. The old dairy farm. The two of them keep their gazes resolutely ahead. Weeks ago, under a night sky dizzy with stars, seated just there on a little rise, he asked for the first time. She declined. Paschal wept and she held his head in her lap, stroked the fine bones of his face. A sickle moon rose higher and higher above the barn’s roof. 

Paschal’s longer gait takes him to the turn in the path before her. She says, “Wait. I want to take a picture.” 

With a weighted sigh, he leans on the fence post and taps a cigarette out of the pack. 

She drops her bag in the weeds and retrieves her new camera, the old-fashioned kind with a long lens, a graduation present. She clicks: a single shot of the barn with silvery boards as it peeks from behind the little grove of fruit trees. A day moon floats just above, chalky looking, faint in the sunlight. Beyond, a field yellowing for lack of rain. Behind it all, the mountain peaks are hidden, implied. 

Delighted, suddenly his sunnier self, Paschal bursts into laughter and asks in English if she’s some kind of fucking tourist now. He snags her free hand and pulls her close. Her heart pounds like it’s trying to break free from the confines of her chest. Any second he will tease her about it, she’s certain, some joke about this outsized hammering. But he does not. His lips press into hers in a tender kiss that lasts almost forever. 

If he asks her at this moment, she will say yes. 

But he does not ask. Without a thought beyond each other, they thread their hands, duck under a fence, and cut across a field toward a copse of skinny trees, bare like shins below their swaying canopies. Behind: the barn, the rise, the little grove. 

After Paschal’s epic flame-out, after psycho Greg, after she cheated on Tony with his brother Joe, after Filipe with those shoulders, after steady Russ and the marathon that is their shared life with three children and zero chapbooks, after retirement from a thankless job, her ailing parents, the increasing silences—after all this life, she still feels a pang when she comes upon a certain kind of barn in a certain fading light. 

When she and her husband redecorate, she moves the excruciating photo from the shoebox and tucks it inside a paperback that Russ would never read. She will not open the book again, but glances from time to time at that high shelf, reassured by the solidity of the cracked spine. 

Across the world, the old barn stands still, a home for rats, cats, and owls, recently a gelding. Occasionally, it stores a truck needing repairs, or lumber too warped to use, too good to throw away. The smells: sweet hay, wood, manure, iron, moist earth, motor oil. 

Look there. At this moment, a shaft of dusty light jabs through a hole in the roof, penetrates, and is withdrawn, quick as a magician’s blade.


Douglas Wood received his Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from University of California, Riverside, Palm Desert. His short stories and poetry have appeared inNarrative Magazine, The Rattling Wall, The Eeel, Rise Up Review, andWriters Resist among others.  

Beautiful Scar

By: Kathy Rucker

(An adaptation of the memories of Eduardo Galeano)

CHARACTERS

Man
Woman
Boy

            The stage is dark. On the stage is a small house, a house in a poor neighborhood in South America. It has been blown up. All the bits and pieces are now hung from invisible wire from high above the stage—planks of wood that once were walls, shards of glass, pieces of chairs, tables, utensils, cloth, bedding, torn clothing, books—all floating in air. In the middle hangs one solitary light bulb. The set of this blown up house takes up almost the entire stage. In geometric form, the profile still resembles a house.

              Stage is dark. We hear traffic sounds, horns honking in the distance, dogs barking, screeching tires of a car stopping, the pounding on a door.

             MAN is in the center of the house and the light bulb goes on.

MAN.  They blindfolded me and put me in a van and drove. You could hear people laughing, the chorus of the street musicians, the sounds of noisemakers and horns. They told me:  “Listen to the people having a good time. This is the last carnival you’re going to hear in your life.” This hurt. When they took me out of the car, I stepped on grass. I thought we were close to the train tracks. I prepared myself to be shot. (WOMAN enters from stage left. We hear the sounds of a street carnival, people laughing. The sounds become softer and softer.)

WOMAN.  He had been given neither food nor drink for two days and his head had been covered by a scratchy hood. He had been interrogated about the sources of his articles, among other things. He saw only the dusty, worn shoes of his interrogators.

MAN.  She had been with us the entire weekend, but it was at dinner that I discovered that Indian face that Siqueiros would have liked to paint. I saw abundant light in those greenish eyes, as well as their dry tears, the dignity of her cheekbones, the very womanly mouth marked by the scar: a woman like that should be banned, I thought, with surprise.

WOMAN.  Afterwards we played cards and I bet my last cent. I won. Then…

MAN.  …she pushed everything she had into the middle of the table, and lost. I did not yet know that it had been a bullet that had grazed her face, but perhaps I already realized that no scrape from death’s claws would be able to disfigure her.

WOMAN.  My body had grown to find you, after so much walking and stumbling and losing itself. Not the port, the sea: the place where all the rivers end and where the ships and little boats sail. I was home.

MAN.  (Pacing the stage.) Later I got up and walked. I felt the cool sand under my bare feet and tree leaves touching my face. I pinched myself and laughed. I had no doubts or fears. That night I realized I was a hunter of words. This is what I had been born for. This was going to be my way of being with others after I was dead and this way the people and the things I had loved wouldn’t die. To write I had to get my feet wet, I knew. Challenge myself, provoke myself, tell myself, “You can’t do it. I bet you can’t.” And I also knew that in order for the words to come…

WOMAN.  I had to close my eyes and think intensely about a woman.

MAN.  Our bodies entwined, we change position while we sleep, shifting this way and that. Your head on my chest, my thigh on your belly, and as our bodies turn, the bed turns and the room and the world turn. “No, no,” you explain, thinking you are awake. “We are no longer there. We moved to another country while we slept.” (WOMAN moves to stage right. She stops at the wall of the house. In this section are a group of different colored glass bottles hanging. This section of the stage is lit with a soft warm light; everything else is dimmed. She taps the bottles with a spoon making as if playing a xylophone.)

WOMAN.  I dreamed that the poets were entering the house of words. The words kept in old glass bottles, waited for the poets, mad with desire to be chosen: they begged the poets to look at them, touch them, lick them. The poets opened the bottles, tried words on their fingertips and smacked their lips or wrinkled their noses. The poets were in search of words they didn’t know as well as words they did know and had lost.

MAN.  The telephone rings and I jump. I look at my watch—nine thirty. Should I answer or not? It’s the Argentine Anticommunist Alliance. “We’re going to kill you, you bastards.” “The schedule for calling in threats, sir, is from six to eight,” I answer.

WOMAN.  It’s time to go. We haven’t slept more than a few minutes but feel fresh and wide awake. We have made love and have eaten and drunk, with the sheet as a tablecloth and our legs as a table, and we have made love again. He has told me sad things about Uruguay. It’s difficult, he has told me, for companions to be dead after he has seen them so alive. He escaped by the skin of his teeth and now asks himself what he should do with so much freedom and survival. We arrive at the airport late. The plane has been delayed. We have breakfast three times. A long time—minutes or years—passed while the two of us sat there in… (BOY enters, goes to the center of the house.)

BOY.  —Silence. The dictatorship had erected a machinery of silence. They hoped to hide reality, to…

MAN.  …erase memory, to empty consciences. Once in a while the government would close us down and dawn would find us at the police station. Standing in the smoky hallway we received the news with more relief than indignation. Every day we didn’t publish the paper was a day to get money together so we could come out the next. We would go to the police headquarters and at the door we would say good-bye just in case.

BOY.  To survive we would have to become mute, banished in our own countries, and internal exile is always harder and more futile than any exile outside.

MAN.  I empty my desk drawers, full of my papers and letters. I read, haphazardly, the words of women I loved and men who were my brothers. With my finger I caress the telephone that had brought me friendly voices and threats.

WOMAN.  Night has fallen. The compañeros have left a few hours—or months—ago. I hear, I see them; their footsteps and voices…

MAN.  …the light that each one gives off and the vapor that remains behind when they leave. (Stage goes dark. MAN and WOMAN leave. We hear the sound of pots banging rhythmically.)

BOY.  (Spotlight on BOY banging on the pots hanging in the house upstage. Stage is enveloped in a late afternoon         golden light.) We waited for the summer, and in the summer, party time, carnival. Mars shone red in the sky, and the hot earth was warm with little toads. We roamed the quarries for good clay for the masks. We would hang an old pot around our necks, and the masked orchestra would set out to wander around the carnival parade. Every neighborhood had a stage, maybe two. In the shadows under the stage, with the commotion above, the first little kisses happened. (BOY exits stage left as MAN walks on stage right. WOMAN enters from stage left. Light goes from gold to early morning pink.)

WOMAN.  The police came. They put me in a car. They moved me and locked me in a damp cell. I stared for hours at the black boot left in the corner by a forgotten soul. The night they let me out, I heard murmurings and distant voices and sounds of metal clanking while I walked through corridors, a guard on either side. Then the prisoners began to whistle, softly, as if blowing on the walls. The whistling grew louder and louder until one voice, every voice as one broke into song. The song shook the walls.

MAN.  She dreamed that her glasses were smashed and her keys were missing. She scoured the city for her keys, groping on hands and knees, and when at last, she found them, the keys told her that they didn’t open any of her doors.

WOMAN.  Exile involves the risk of forgetting. Please don’t.

MAN.  Go where I may, I will never forget the land I belong to, because I wear her, I walk with her, I dream her,

WOMAN.  I am her. Cities and people unattached to my memory float toward me: land where I was born, children I made, men and women who swelled my soul.

MAN.  I walked out of Montevideo because I don’t like being a prisoner, and out of Buenos Aires because…

WOMAN.  …I don’t like being dead.

MAN.  We chat, we eat, we smoke, we walk, we work together, ways of making love without entering each other, and our bodies call each other as the day travels toward the night. I hear the train pass. Church bells. And then I remember, you are not…

WOMAN.  …here. (Silence. Stage goes dark.)

            Spotlight on MAN, WOMAN, and BOY in sequence as each begins to speak. They are each standing downstage, in front of the house. The sound of a slow tango begins.

MAN.  When I return…

BOY.  …I’m going back to the places where I made myself or was made. I am going to the red brick patio of the house where I learned to walk by holding onto our dog Lily’s tail. I’ll go horseback riding through the arroyo Negro grassland, where I learned to gallop. I will return to the streets leading down to the sea, the battlegrounds and soccer fields of my first years. That’s where we waged war with sticks and stones.

WOMAN.  They pushed me against the tree. I was still blindfolded. I heard several men get in line and kneel. I heard the click of their guns. A drop of sweat rolled down my neck. I heard an explosion.

BOY.  But I was still alive.

WOMAN.  I heard the sounds of cars driving off.

MAN.  I managed to untie myself and pull off the blindfold. It was raining. The sky was dark. Dogs were barking someplace. I was surrounded by tall, old trees. I could smell the eucalyptus.

WOMAN.  A morning made to die in. I walked…

MAN.  …home. It was a warm, serene night. Autumn was arriving in Montevideo. I learned the week before Picasso has died. A short time passed and my exile began. My exile from you, from our life together. (Pause.)

WOMAN.  Tell our children about the things that are happening now. Talk to them about the friends who are dead and in prison and about how hard life was in our countries. And I want them to look into your eyes and not believe you and tell you you’re lying. I want them to not be able to believe that this was possible. I want them to say that this time never existed. (Music ends.)

MAN.  I believe you.

 

End of Play


Kathy Rucker is an SF Bay Area playwright. Her plays have been seen in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, London and Valdez, Alaska. Her play, Beautiful Scar, was a finalist for the Heideman Award at the Humana Festival Ten-Minute Play Contest. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley.

Mummy

By: Marie-Andree Auclair

My first mummy,
I stared at so long
my father wondered
where I was.
He did not see

I was with herin the glass cage
sitting compact
arms holding my knees
staring back.

What had they done to me
that I lingered undissolved
leather on stone
prisoner of time
not allowed to fade?

She found my dreams.
We ran on the sand of her river
wove baskets in the reeds
laughed, rarely disobeyed.
In the dark, I feared her
loneliness matched mine.


Marie-Andree Auclair’s poems have appeared in many print and online literary publications such as Apeiron, Gravel Magazine, Canthius Literary Journal, Harpur Palate, The Windsor Review, The Maynard, Qwerty, filling Station, Contemporary Verse 2, Structo UK, HCE (IRL). Her chapbook, Contrails, was released by In/Words Magazine and Press/Ottawa. She lives in Canada and is working on another chapbook.

How to Become a Poet

BY: Gillian Lee

one sunny day you
are working or weep
ing and the little
great milk
colored butter
fly comes to
you.


Gillian Lee is a poet and maker of art from Vienna, Virginia. Gillian has had poems published in Dead King Magazine and Datableed Zine, among others, and has been featured as a Writer of the Week on Maudlin House. Gillian is currently studying and living in New York. More work and contact info is available at gillianlee.neocities.org.

Page 1 of 3

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén