Short Stories 





Short Stories by Joanne Collings and John A. Bray

Silva’s House

By Joanne Collings

Silva and Lucy are sitting in Silva’s kitchen in Cramer Hill drinking Rolling Rock. It is one of those South Jersey summer nights that threaten rain but probably won’t deliver. If the rain does come, it will bring a lot of thunder and lightning, break a few tree limbs, tear down telephone wires throughout three counties, and leave, without taking the heat with it. Lucy is hoping the storm won’t come. She is afraid of such shows of uncontrolled power, and she doesn’t want Silva to know. Silva is her friend, she thinks, but she doesn’t want to disappoint Silva by revealing how weak she can be.

The house is in a section of the city that was once white and is now mixed, leaning toward black. Silva’s grandmother left her the two-story row house, and Silva’s parents think that Silva, whom they named Sylvia, should have sold it when she still had the chance of getting a good price, but they were not surprised that their contrary daughter chose to live in it instead.

That Silva lives in the house is one of the many reasons Lucy admires her. Lucy knows she would be scared to live here all alone. Of course, some one of Silva’s many friends is always staying for a few days, or overnight, but none of them actually lives in the house with Silva. Silva believes it is important that she live here, that she present a feminist example to the women, and the men, of the neighborhood. It isn’t easy, she has told Lucy, but it is necessary. White women must not allow their black sisters to be lost to the movement. Feminists have to stand between black men and their desire to put black women into the very feminine mystique that white women are still in the process of escaping.

It is getting on past midnight and Lucy is tired. She is not used to drinking, and she feels a little fuzzy, slightly off-center inside her head. Yet she, in the three hours or so they have been sitting here, has had only two bottles of beer, is on her third, while Silva has drunk at least six and appears fine.

The streets seem to Lucy remarkably noisy for the hour, but Silva has told her that the neighborhood is always restless, no matter what the time, especially in weather like this. Nothing ever happens, Silva says, except a fight once in a while, but still Lucy is nervous. She doesn’t know how Silva can stand it. She would never be able to sleep. She is used to her home town in Salem County, where the silence that falls at nine in the evening is broken only by the crickets and an occasional, usually lost, car. Lucy wonders how she will ever get to sleep this night and immediately regrets the thought. She has been carefully avoiding speculation about sleeping arrangements all evening.

Silva calls herself a bisexual. Lucy has no sexual designation for herself. Oh, she has slept with a couple of men, three to be exact, but she is not a doctrinaire heterosexual. Silva says that no feminist worthy the name would call herself that without having slept with a woman. Silva believes that you cannot truly understand what it means to be a woman, to be a sister, to love women, unless you have slept with a woman, that you cannot be totally at peace with your female body until you have slept with another female body.

Still, Lucy is not convinced that she is ready. She wants time to get used to the notion, although Silva thinks that waiting is merely another way of wasting time. Besides, Silva wants to know how Lucy can hope to become a writer, a good feminist writer, without have slept with a woman. Think of Colette, of Virginia Woolf. Think of May Sarton.

Lucy has no ready answers for Silva’s arguments, but then she never does. Maybe sleeping with Silva will help her to become more like Silva, more self-confident, more sure of herself, of her beliefs. Maybe she should let things take their course, as Silva has designed it, and get it over with. Tonight. She might even like it. She has never found sleeping with men all that wonderful. She doubts that sleeping with women could be much worse, or any more boring. It is just that she feels so embarrassed. She won‘t know what to do, and she is sure she will seem foolish, both to Silva and to herself.

She didn’t know what to do when she slept with Scott back in high school, but then, she thought, she wasn’t supposed to know. Scott would take care of everything. Of course, it turned out that Scott didn’t know much more than she did, but it was a natural mistake to make, she felt, on her part.

This will be different. They will be two women, two feminists, and even though Silva will know that it is Lucy’s first time, she will expect her to have some natural instincts about how to behave, how to react, and, worse, how to act. Lucy does not believe that she has any natural sexual instincts, but she is aware that Silva thinks all women have them. Unless they are repressing them.

Silva has assured her that sleeping with a woman will not preclude having sex with men in the future, not automatically, but Lucy wonders. Silva herself believes that bisexuality is merely a phase she, Silva, is going through, that when her, Silva’s, sexualization is complete, there will be no further desire to sleep with men.

Lucy is afraid and is ashamed of her fear. After all, what is Silva but another woman like herself (only stronger)? Lucy swallows a yawn. The decision cannot be put off much longer. She is very tired.

She has been having a recurring dream. It wakes her up and won’t let her go back to sleep.

In the dream she has washed her favorite African print skirt and pinned it out on the clothesline. But it is a windy day and the clothespins are not secure. Lucy looks out the kitchen window just as the skirt blows off the line. Instead of falling on the ground, it billows wide and flies away, as Lucy runs out of the house and follows it across the yard, down the driveway, into the street. Lucy chases it but the skirt remains always just beyond her grasp. Finally, as she is about to give up, the wind suddenly changes direction and blows the skirt directly over her outstretched hands and arms. It covers her face and blinds her. She can’t breathe and she can’t move to save herself.

It is at this moment that she wakes. She never dies, but she never pulls the skirt away from her face either.

She wonders if she will have the dream tonight if she sleeps with Silva. Lucy has never been good at interpreting her dreams, and she suspects that she isn’t because she doesn’t want to know or understand what is happening in her subconscious.

Lucy is aware that Silva has been studying her for some time, but she is not yet ready to meet the stare. She is fond of Silva, she truly is, and she is deeply grateful for all the time Silva has given her since they met at the women’s center at the university. Silva has many friends who are far more developed in their feminism than Lucy is and whose company Silva would surely find more stimulating than her own. Silva can say things to strangers that Lucy cannot say to her oldest and closest friends.

Lucy hopes that, in time, some of Silva’s strengths will rub off on her. Lucy feels that Silva’s sacrifices in her behalf have not been wasted. Lucy has progressed much faster with Silva’s help than she would have on her own or with just her CR group. Silva is special. All the women at the center think so. Many of them envy Lucy for being Silva’s protégé, and some, Lucy suspects, believe that Lucy is not worthy of such an honor. Lucy would like to prove them wrong, if only in her own mind, by doing the right thing tonight. None of the other women would do anything but wonder at their luck were they in Lucy’s place right now. Lucy wishes that one of them were and blushes with guilt at her ingratitude.

“It is awfully warm, isn’t it?” Silva remarks. “I know it would be cooler to sit on the front porch, but it’s so difficult to have a private conversation out there. Some of my neighbors don’t even pretend not to be listening. There’s an air conditioner in my room though. I use the back bedroom even though it’s smaller--it’s much quieter. I think you’ll find it pretty comfortable. I mean, if that’s where you want to sleep. There’s nothing to be afraid of, you know. If you want you can sleep in the front room. There’s a fan there. You’ll have to tell me, though, so I can make up the bed. I stripped it yesterday, after Molly left, but I didn’t have time to remake it. Lucy, it’s okay, you know, if you’re not ready. If you’re not ready, there’s plenty of time. It’s no big deal. I want you to wait until you’re sure. Lucy? Lucy, you understand what I’m saying, don’t you? Lucy, come on, say something.”

Silva is smiling at her and looking as if she is not all that surprised at Lucy’s reluctance. But Silva often says that she is not easily surprised anymore. She puts out her hand to touch Lucy’s shoulder, then stops. Lucy is afraid to say anything. She is sure she will cry, no matter what she tries to say. But she must say something. The moment and the look on Silva’s face demand it.

“It’s this dream I’ve been having. It makes me really tired. I’m sorry, Silva, it’s just that I’m confused.”

“Why don’t you tell me about the dream, Lucy? It’ll help, believe me. Keeping these things bottled up never does any good. You have to make use of your dreams.”

“I’m not sure I can tell you about it.”

“Well, try, at least.”

But before Lucy can try, Silva’s attention is drawn by something outside, in front of the house. Lucy listens, and she, too, hears the loud voices of a man and a woman who must be fighting just outside Silva’s house, the sound is so near. Silva and Lucy go to the open front door in time to see a large man drag a much smaller woman onto Silva’s little porch. (Silva never locks the door in case a friend comes.) The porch light is not on. The neighbors have disappeared.

Silva opens her mouth to say something, to protest probably, but she has no chance to say anything before the man, pulling the women behind him, pushes past Silva and Lucy through the door into the nearly dark living room.

Lucy is terrified. She is sure she cannot move. Silva has grabbed  her  hand  and  yanked  her  out  of  the  man’s  path.

It is then that Lucy sees the knife in the man’s hand. It is an ordinary kitchen knife, the kind used to dice vegetables. The man gestures at them with the knife, and Lucy and Silva stand still and watch him yank the woman, who continues to twist and tug under his left arm and hand, up the four steps to the stairway landing. The man does not seem to be drunk, just very angry.

Lucy hears Silva’s voice and realizes that she has been speaking for some moments. “You really don’t want to do this, Mister. You’re not thinking or you’d let her go. You don’t want to hurt her, Mister. If you cut her with that knife she’ll have a scar but you’ll go to jail, for a long time. You don’t want to go to jail, do you? It’s not worth it, not for just a few minutes of feeling stronger and bigger than a woman is. You are stronger and bigger. You don’t need to hurt her to prove that. You know it, she knows it, we all know it. Anyone can see it. Why don’t you put that knife down and we’ll talk about it? You don’t need that knife to show us how big and strong you are. We can see it. I can see it, my friend can see it, and so can she. Can’t you see how big and strong he is?”

The captive woman, who has stopped her wrestling to listen to Silva, nods, then says “Yes” in a weak voice but with a convincing tone.

Lucy watches, fascinated, as the man considers Silva’s argument. She can almost see him thinking, pondering the pro’s and the con’s. Silva is even more amazing than Lucy has realized, and this frightens her.

Finally, the man decides. He pulls the woman up, left arm circling her throat. He moves the knife so that the blade is beneath the woman’s chin. It stays there, stays there. Then it drops, slowly, slowly, to the floor of the landing.

Lucy hears Silva draw a long breath. “Don’t you still feel big and strong, even without the knife?”

The man nods, as slowly as the knife fell.

“Now, let her go, and we’ll sit down and talk about it. I have some beer in the kitchen. I’ll bet you could use a beer, couldn’t you?”

The man nods again and removes his arm from around the woman’s neck. Silva starts to talk again, but Lucy does not hear her because she is watching the woman who bends quickly toward the floor. Lucy thinks the woman is fainting until the knife gleams quickly and the woman straightens, turns, and jams the pointed blade into the side of the man’s neck. He folds into a pile on the landing.

Lucy is never sure what happens next, what the woman does, because she is looking at Silva. At first, Lucy thinks she is mistaken, that it is Silva, not the man, that the woman has stabbed because Silva’s expression has changed.

Lucy does not realize until much later what Silva’s expression has changed to. But, after the police are gone, as she lies in Silva’s cool back bedroom, Silva curled around her, and waits for sleep to come, Lucy thinks back over the events of the evening and recognizes after the fact what the look was on Silva’s face. Silva was surprised.


Joanne Collings was born and raised in South Jersey. Before her death in 2009, she was for several years a free-lance interviewer and book reviewer in Washington, D.C. This is her first published fiction.


Gray Mail

By John A. Bray


Bill Hawes sat at his desk in a broom-closet-sized office during a day in late 1975, and waited for the client who had called for an appointment. A lieutenant and an attorney, recently assigned to the NYPD’s Department Defense Counsel’s Office, Bill had few clients to occupy his time.

The man who made the appointment, a sergeant assigned to the Organized Crime Control Bureau’s Narcotics Section, arrived on time. He took a chair across the desk from Bill and after a long embarrassed pause, began his story.

 “I asked to speak to you, Lieutenant,” he said, “because I heard you are a straight-shooter. I can’t use a private attorney. Too many of them have organized crime figures as clients and I don’t trust anyone outside the department. I have to rely on you that nothing I tell you here will go any further than this office. I believe my life depends on the factual background to my charges remaining confidential.”

Bill assured him that the rules of professional responsibility forbade the breach of the attorney-client privilege. The sergeant began his narration saying that his current difficulties started when he stopped off in a bar in Lower Manhattan while off-duty, to have a few drinks. The manager approached him under the mistaken belief that the sergeant belonged to the local vice and gambling enforcement unit as a plainclothes patrolman. The manager offered the sergeant a sum of money to overlook whatever illegal activities he might observe, with mutual promises exchanged between them to continue the relationship on a regular basis. The sergeant accepted the money and immediately reported the offer to his commanding officer. He then vouchered the cash given him by the manager of the bar with the Department Property Clerk. This putative bribe aroused suspicions with his CO that ongoing and serious illegal activity took place in the bar. The sergeant received instructions to return to the scene in an undercover capacity and maintain his pose as a plainclothesman from the local gambling enforcement unit. As the relationship continued, he visited the bar frequently and accepted additional sums of money. The criminals came to depend on him as a corrupt cop.

The sergeant soon discovered that a violent narcotics ring operated from the premises. He continued to voucher the money he accepted, and became trusted enough for them to use him to transport packages of drugs, all of which he reported to his commanding officer. His deep involvement with the gang enabled him to learn about proposed and prior murders of suspected informants and rivals.

The sergeant continued, “If these people had decided to kill someone it would be a mercy if they just shot him. The gang specialized in torturing people to death. They constituted one of the most vicious and lethal gangs on the Lower West Side of Manhattan, or anywhere else.” Exposure as an undercover cop who reported everything to his CO would place his life in serious jeopardy. The significance and sensitivity of the intelligence he provided about this major drug trafficking and murder operation necessitated that he begin reporting directly to the chief in command of the Organized Crime Control Bureau. The chief assigned him a false identity and gave permission to use department gasoline for his private vehicle during his undercover duties.

For the preceding three years Lieutenant Hawes had worked as a prosecutor in the Department Advocate’s Office. Both the Advocate’s Office and Defense Counsel practiced exclusively in the Department Trial Room where breaches of the Department’s Rules and Regulations are held to account. His former commanding officer had just traded him to Defense for a more compliant if less experienced attorney, believing that Bill disagreed too often with pending prosecutions. The Inspector in command of the Advocate’s Office harbored concern that Bill’s attitude might spill over onto the other attorneys assigned to his unit.

Recent zealous internal scrutiny within the department had resulted in a lengthy series of major corruption charges brought against patrolmen, detectives and superior officers. Some of these allegations involved acts that had occurred years prior. Bill had openly opposed prosecutions that he believed had weak underpinnings based on marginal evidence. The decision whether to prosecute, of course, always remains with higher authority, but he had balked at going forward after examining the charges and the evidence in some of his assigned cases.

The sergeant, now the subject of the charge of theft of department property, had found himself enmeshed in the web cast out by the internal security people motivated by the drive for vigorous investigation and charges designed to eliminate corruption within the department. As sometimes occurs, an otherwise innocent act might receive a sinister interpretation.

The sergeant’s narrative proceeded. “One Sunday afternoon at my home in Nassau County, a suburb of New York City, I glanced out my living-room window and I saw a car parked near my house with the engine running. If anything was going to happen to me, I didn’t want it to happen near my home with my family there. I got into my car and began to drive away from the house. The car I had seen began to follow me. I tried to get to nearby Alley Pond Park in Queens with its winding paths, hoping to lose the tail. Then I noticed that my gas gauge read nearly empty, so I pulled into the Highway Patrol Precinct in the park located on the Grand Central Parkway. The car following me left off the chase. I got some gas from the pumps behind the Highway Precinct and filled out the gas receipt book with my false name, the make and model and plate number of my private car.”

Some weeks later the sergeant received Departmental charges from the Internal Affairs Unit of the Organized Crime Control Bureau, which alleged he had stolen gas from a department facility while using a false name. The personnel at the Highway Patrol precinct, alarmed by the use of its facility by someone seemingly not a member of the department, reported the loss. Only the now-former chief of OCCB knew the exact extent of the sergeant’s activities. The chief had recently received a promotion to Chief Inspector, the highest ranking uniformed person in the department and no longer in command of Organized Crime Control. He had no knowledge of the charges preferred against his undercover operative. 

The sergeant’s personal concern became manifest. “It can’t be known what my assignment was. My life is at risk, but at the same time my career is ruined if these charges are sustained. There are no secrets within the department that are completely safe. Everything is available for a price. That’s why I came here, Lieutenant. This all has to stay confidential. Most criminal defense attorneys would give this information away to protect their own high-paying drug clients.”

The attorney’s trial preparation consisted of an interview with the lieutenant from the Internal Affairs Unit who had preferred the charges and who insisted that he had serious reservations about the sergeant’s story and that the sergeant had invented the part about being followed from his home. Next, the defense attorney sent one subpoena through department channels.

Some days later, while Hawes was sitting in his office, the telephone rang. When he answered, the caller identified himself as an aide to the Chief Inspector, “Hold on for the Chief.”

The next voice said, “This is the Chief Inspector, Lieutenant. I understand you subpoenaed me to the trial room in the case of the sergeant you represent.”

“Yes, sir, that’s correct.”

“Do you think that’s wise?” he asked.

“Sir, as his former commanding officer you are the only one who knows all the circumstances. You are the only defense he has.”

“Well, he exercised poor judgment.”

“Yes, sir, but that’s far cry from theft of department property.”

“Very well, Lieutenant.” He terminated the conversation by emphatically replacing the receiver.

In the Department Trial Room, on the day of the trial, the clerk called the case and both the defense attorney and the prosecutor answered ready. The Deputy Commissioner of Trials, who functioned as the judge, then motioned both attorneys together to the bench for a side-bar conference.

The Commissioner ordered, “This is how it’s going to work out. The respondent will plead guilty to one count of improper entry in a department record (the gas receipt book), he will be fined three days vacation and the matter will be concluded.”

The Department Advocate, a detective, began to sputter an objection.

“What did I just say?” the Trial Commissioner snapped. That ended the prosecutor’s protest.

Each lawyer returned to his respective table.

“What just went on?” the anxious client asked Bill in a whisper.

The attorney repeated to him what the Commissioner had just said: “You plead to one count of improper entry in a Department record, you are fined three days vacation, case closed.”

The overjoyed sergeant could hardly restrain himself. “Are you kidding me? That’s great, thank you so much.”

All the participants rose to face the court. The sergeant accepted the plea arrangement and the hearing ended. Lieutenant Hawes could only surmise that the Chief of Organized Crime Control chose not to testify in the Trial Room and made the appropriate telephone call.

Soon thereafter, Bill began to realize that he would find greater happiness, spiritually, emotionally and professionally, defending people instead of prosecuting them. He visited the NYPD pension bureau and submitted a request for vested interest pension benefits. With seventeen years of service in the department, less than the full benefits accrued at twenty years, he terminated his service. Boarding the Long Island Railroad at its midtown terminal, Bill went home and set up his own practice. He never experienced any regret about his decision.

One day some years later, entering the Nassau County District Court building to represent clients scheduled there that day, Bill saw in the lobby a man whose face looked familiar. They recognized each other immediately. The same sergeant from all those years back greeted him warmly.

“I wish I knew you were out in practice,” he said. “My dopey son got himself jammed up and I had to get him a lawyer.”

“Not a problem,” Bill replied. “By the way, how did you ever make out in the job?”

“I’ve got to tell you, after that thing you handled I was assigned to the Homicide Squad and promoted to deputy squad commander. You saved my ass back then. I’ll never forget that.”



John Bray is the author of three novels published by BeWrite books of Vancouver, Canada: The Ballad of Johnny Madigan, a historical novel of the Civil War era, and The Confidential, a police procedural/thriller, and Code Name: Caleb, the sequel to Johnny Madigan.

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