Short Stories 

 

 

 

Thursday
Jan302014

Short Stories by Brian Patrick Heston, Lindsay Merbaum, Emily Glossner Johnson, Kelly Simmons, and Sanjaya Mishra

BILLY PENN'S HAT

By Brian Patrick Heston

Samuel Thompson pulls the cotton tights past his plump thighs to the hairy meat of his belly. Pete told him not to worry about them during the summer months, but Samuel won’t go halfway. The man himself wore them year round. When sweat forms slippery pools beneath Samuel’s shirt, August sun blaring down from the high sky, he will feel William Penn as he was—feel what it was like to live in a world where the future held the promise of new lands. Besides, what sort of impersonator would be wandering streets in full garb without tights? 

After securing his brown breeches, he sits on the edge of the mattress. First he pushes away an empty bottle of St. Ides, then places his bulbous feet into the black buckled shoes. The hardest part comes next: trying to squeeze the ruffled cotton shirt over his paunch. He pushes his stubby arms into the shirtsleeves then sucks in his gut to fight the buttons into their minuscule holes. Years ago, when a graduate student pursuing an MA in American history at Temple University, he first used this costume while leading walking tours through Old City. He had no trouble getting into it then. Even though Penn was tall in life, the costume was designed for a short man and fit Samuel perfectly.

“Ah, you will be Penn the younger—the best we’ve known,” said his supervisor when seeing him for the first time in the costume.

His supervisor’s comment had left such an impression that he decided not to collect his final paycheck when the tourist season ended with the summer, just so he wouldn’t have to return the costume. Now it was musty and worn, especially the long coat, which had one solitary button remaining from the eight it had started with. The planter’s hat, though, remained in an almost perfect condition, as sturdy as the day he first put it on. He places it on his head in front of the bathroom mirror, making sure it’s not too far back on his head or pushed down too close to his eyes, but straight and even, the exact way he imagines Penn to have worn it. Now the transformation is undeniable—William Penn lives again. He tips the hat to the mirror, checks pockets for the only photo he has left of Liz, the one he took shortly after the baby was born. He then turns toward the door. On his way out, he again notices the pile of untended bills lying stacked on the ancient wooden chest of drawers beside the front door. The eviction letter is the ace of the pile. Two weeks notice. When Samuel first received it, he held it in his jittery hands and promised to get his act together. That was three weeks ago.  

When Samuel arrives, there are only a few customers in Old City Tavern. He has been working here for almost a year, longer than he lasted at his previous job, dishwashing at La Fontana’s on Spruce. When he first saw the “Help Wanted” sign in the tavern’s window, he went home and put on the only suit he owned, which was beaten and worn and now entirely too small for him. He then rushed back like a prospector in danger of losing a claim on a newly discovered gold deposit. The application he filled out asked nothing about schooling or past work experience. It only asked for a name and contact information. He didn’t have to wait to be interviewed. The manager, Pete, came out immediately. He didn’t ask much.

“You able to stand a long time without needing to sit?”

“Sure thing,” Samuel said.

“You mind wearing an uncomfortable costume?”

“Who will I be dressed as?”

“We’re leaning toward Ben Franklin. Costumes are real expensive, so we need someone who’ll take care of it. You that guy?”

“What will I be doing?”

“Standing in the park across the street, handing out coupons and fliers.”

“That’s Welcome Park,” Samuel said. “It’s dedicated to William Penn.”

Pete shrugged.

“So, you don’t want Ben Franklin, you want Billy Penn.”

When it looked as though Pete was taking a little too much time thinking it over, Samuel mentioned that he had a Penn costume at home, and Pete hired him on the spot.

Samuel sees Pete in his usual morning place, crouched behind the bar, taking inventory of the previous day’s stock. He is holding an empty bottle of Crown Royal. “Could-a-swore this was full last night,” he overhears Pete say to himself.

Samuel leans over the top of the bar, and Pete stands to meet him. “Sup, Sam?”

Without waiting for an answer, he gives Samuel a stack of fliers and coupons. “Now don’t let half of them blow away like last time.”

Samuel waits to be told something else, but Pete again kneels behind the bar, returning to the hushed conversation he’d been having with himself. 

Once outside, Samuel crosses Second and takes his post in Welcome Park, just beneath the William Penn statue that crowns its center, a smaller replica of the more famous version that stands on top of City Hall. In one hand, Penn holds a treaty. The other reaches out toward the city in friendship. Painted on walls behind the statue is a chronology of Penn's life, but the chronology only tells the famous stories: Penn's conversion to Quakerism, his voyage to what would become Pennsylvania—his fair dealings with the Indians; but before Samuel readies himself for the long day, he always takes a moment to remember the stories barely mentioned in the history books: Penn’s lonely childhood in Ireland, the father he barely knew—the lost and angry teenager. Only then does Samuel take his post, one hand full of fliers, the other of coupons. Mornings are always slow, people hurrying to offices. If anyone does come into the park, it’s only to walk up the brick path that runs through it. To the left of the path is McDonald’s. The end is a parking lot. Come afternoon, the empty benches will fill with people eating Big Macs in the shade beneath ash trees. Now, though, there is only the occasional pigeon cooing for scraps. To get into character, he takes his usual pose, the same Penn has in the statue. He watches people pass on Second.

“Hear ye, hear ye,” Samuel calls out to them.

No one stops, most barely even looking up. Usually, after an hour or so, an ache begins to throb in his head, creeping down to his stomach, ultimately spreading everywhere beneath his skin. He is never moved by the ache immediately because the only way he can get paid is if he’s in the park, counting how many coupons and fliers he gives out. Since the tavern is right across the street, there’s no way to fake it. Pete is always keeping an eye out. Finally, someone comes into the park, a slender, long-haired man with a camera. He takes a picture of the statue.

            “Tally ho,” Samuel says.

            “Excuse me?” The man asks.

            “Tally ho.”

            The man laughs then walks away shaking his head. 

“Well, good morrow, friend.”

Left alone again, Samuel waits. Then from the quiet, he can hear a hushed conversation. A group of people comes into the park dressed in business formal, dark suits and knee length skirts.

“Hear ye, hear ye,” says Samuel. “Cometh one and all to Old City Tavern.” 

They stream past. One man stops. He is young and wearing a white dress shirt and gray slacks. He has a briefcase in his left hand and a shiny gray suit coat hanging over his right arm. Around his neck is a loosely knotted red tie.

            “I dare might say, lad, have you seen a stray treaty around here anywhere?” When the man doesn’t answer, Samuel checks his pockets. “I lament that I did misplace it.” 

  The man ignores him, staring down the path. Samuel can’t help but turn to look where he looks. A woman emerges. She is also young. Her fair skin and long amber hair seem to materialize right out of the sun. A tan skirt floats about her knees and a white blouse wraps her breasts in a tight cocoon. She saunters gracefully on uneasy heels before making it to the man.

“Liz?” Samuel asks.

Both the woman and man turn to him.

“Hey, buddy, you fucking mind,” the man says.

Samuel grins and bows from the waist. “By all means, good sir. Thy lady awaits.”

He steps back from them, remaining close enough to watch. The man takes the woman by the elbow, pulling her away from Samuel. He watches them talk. Their indecipherable sounds grunt through street noise as though through clenched teeth. The woman stands with arms crossed over her chest. The man flails his briefcase and coat. Sometimes he stops and watches the ground listening to the woman talk. Each time the woman stops talking, the man continues his flailing, his voice getting louder and louder.

“Fuck you!” He shouts. 

Before she can respond, he turns and walks away, disappearing behind the trees at the back of the park. The woman doesn’t move for a long time, staring off at the place where the man used to be. When she finally does move, instead of walking away from Samuel, she moves toward him, stopping and staring up at the statue of Penn. Tears make luminous streams down her flushed face. Up close now, Samuel is sure that it can’t be Liz because the woman is no older than Liz was twenty years ago.

Samuel pulls a handkerchief from his coat pocket.

The woman turns her eyes from Penn and sees him. She takes a wet breath through her nose.

“Thank you,” she says.

Samuel thinks of one of the most famous lines attributed to Penn, one he thinks is perfect for the situation.

“As love ought to bring them together, it is the best way to keep them well together.”

The woman smiles, but her sadness quickly returns. “I see you around all the time. You work here or something?”

Samuel bows from the waist. “I am William, governor of this colony.”

“What’s your real name?”

Samuel stares as if searching for the right answer. “Penn.”

She laughs loudly, giving back the handkerchief. “Okay. Well thank you, Mr. Penn.”

She crosses Second, and Samuel watches her go away.

That night Samuel lies in bed nursing a bottle of Old English. He studies the picture of Liz and the baby, comparing her red hair and blue eyes to the woman's. He even thinks their smiles are the same. Still, he's not sure because he has a hard time remembering the Liz of the photo. It's the twenty-two-year-old Liz he remembers best, the one from their first year together when they were both students at Temple. Always broke, he was never able to afford to take her on real dates. So when spring came around, he filled a thermos with cheap pinot, loaded up a basket with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and took her to picnic in Rittenhouse Square, where they took turns laying their heads in each other's laps in the shade of the blooming dogwoods. That Liz always smiled.

The Liz of the picture is just the opposite. Though she smiles, it's forced and obviously full of anxiety. This is the Liz that gave him the ultimatum: “Stop drinking or leave.” Was she surprised when he didn’t come home after he told her he was going to pick up a paper? How many days did she sit believing before she finally realized he was gone for good? He turns his attention back to the costume. It hangs from the hook on the bathroom door. The hat sits on the floor beside him. Sounds of the night street echo through the heat of the room. Streetlight trickles in, putting everything in shadow. There is the hotplate atop the counter, the lawn chair in front of the little TV that hasn’t worked in months. There are the two milk crates on which the TV sits. Every time he tries to sleep, the woman with Liz’s face stares back: the kind way she notices him when he speaks to her, her gentle words of greeting after he offers her his handkerchief. He begins to wonder if he can find her again.

The next day, Samuel spends the morning looking for her. He walks along Market. This is where they all seem to go with their professional clothes and stern faces. The sky’s furnace blazes, and he wants desperately to take off his coat and the heavy shirt underneath—to rid himself at least of the hat that absorbs heat like a sponge.  He thinks about the Penn of later life, the one with the paunch and thin gray hair twirling from beneath the famous hat, a hat (according to one of his professors) much despised by Penn’s father because it was worn by the peasantry. Yet, Samuel liked to imagine that Penn still removed it and wept when he was told of his father's death. That he would continue to weep for his father late into life, even calling out to him at his own death, the hat sitting on a nightstand at the end of the bed so that he could see it. Samuel wonders if his daughter has ever wept for him. 

He arrives to work two hours late, not having found the woman. Pete is behind the bar searching bottles again. When Pete sees him, he gives him the fliers and coupons without a word. Samuel takes them, tipping his hat to Pete, who doesn’t notice.

Samuel decides that the best way to find the woman again is to wait her out in the park. He will stand his post all day without taking a single break. It will be like a private religious holiday, a time for fasting and cleansing. If the woman shows up, he will talk to her. It won’t be easy, but he welcomes the idea of hardship in the face of belief. He tells himself that this is a time for fortitude, for real sacrifice. After all, if he can’t sacrifice just one day, then he isn’t even capable of being human any longer. He will wait as long as he needs to. 

Throughout the early afternoon, people pass and giggle, ignore and question, and he tries to remain in character throughout, even as his throat tightens and his muscles ache. A little girl comes up to him and tugs his coat sleeve.

“Benjy Franklin. Benjy Franklin.”

Her mother leaves a conversation to get her. “Don’t wander off again, damn it. What I tell you about talking to those people?”

He tries to say something in character, tell her that he knows the perfect destination for them to have lunch, Old City Tavern, where American rebels sat and conspired over mutton soup and warm ale, but the words lodge in his throat. That familiar ache is slowly burrowing. He can feel it eating a hole straight through him. “It will only take an hour,” he says to himself. “No time at all.”

He makes his way up Second, walking a few blocks until he comes to Blackhorse Alley, the location of Joey’s Wines and Spirits. There is only one customer inside other than himself, an ashen man in a winter coat rummaging through a freezer in the back. His hair is long, slick, and white. His gritty beard still has a shade or two of black in it. Every few seconds he shrieks. He emerges with a bottle of Mad Dog 20/20, shrieking all the way to the register. His shrieking continues as he counts out change for the young clerk. When the clerk receives the right amount, he puts the bottle into a brown bag.

Samuel was also going for a bottle of Mad Dog, but he can’t bring himself to buy it now. Even though he can’t afford it, he grabs a bottle of Fighting Cock instead. He breaks his last remaining twenty dollars. After the clerk puts the bottle into a bag, he makes his way out of the store to search for a place to drink in peace. On Fourth, he comes across an eighteenth century style garden. A brick wall and well-manicured shrubs hide it from the street outside. At the entrance is a dedication plaque. Samuel reads its inscription before going in as though he were a tourist. The garden is filled with morning glories and rhododendrons but no people. Even the gazebo at the far back is empty.

He sits down in the gazebo, allowing a sense of relief to drift into him. The smell of flowers and the slight scent of baking pizza from Angelo’s across the street mix with his own sour scent. He twists away the cap on the bottle. The newfound shade and the warmth of the liquor down his throat give him a feeling of tranquility. It’s this same feeling he had when he walked out on Liz. The day was like any other. He was watching TV—the Phillies were at home against the Braves—and just as Gregg Jefferies was about to bat, the baby started crying. He already had ten beers in him, but didn’t feel very tipsy as he made his way upstairs. He took her from the crib and held her to his chest, feeling the intense heat of her through his shirt. She was lighter than anything he had ever imagined. A blind rush of terror came over him. All he wanted was to get the baby out of his arms and back in her crib, but she continued crying, so he decided to take her downstairs to feed her. It was on the steps going down that he began to feel the beer. Everything was fine until the last couple steps, which he missed. He could feel himself losing his footing, knowing that an inevitable collapse was coming. Fortunately, he didn’t fall frontward. His back hit the steps hard, and the air rushed out of his lungs in a jolt. When he regained his breath, the baby was still in his arms, crying but okay.         

            Back at the park, Samuel unsteadily takes his post. It’s the height of afternoon: a mother reasons with a screaming toddler, two women in business formal eat lunch on a bench, and a group of pocked-faced teenage boys with spiked hair and dressed in too tight jeans skid around on skateboards. Samuel’s head spins at it all. He pulls the Fighting Cock from the inside of his coat to take a drink. It’s empty. Tonight he will have to visit the new night bartender again. She hasn’t been bartending long, so she doesn’t question him when he tells her that Pete promises him one free drink on the days he works. His Penn outfit amuses her, so he always shows up in it and sits close to the bar, nursing his drink. Whenever she has to step away, he goes back and takes long gulps from a previously opened bottle.     

            “Hear, ye, hear ye,” he yells. “Y’ole Shitty Tavern. Best tavern in the whole shitty.”

            People move past him quickly.

            “Y‘ole Shitty Tavern.”

            He reaches out his hand, trying to mimic Penn’s pose, but loses his balance. He falls back against the statue’s pedestal. Amoebic cinders of light dance around the sky, forming shapes like continents and ships. He focuses to see Pete staring down at him.

            “You alright, Sam?”

            A breeze hits Samuel in the face. “Sure thing, Bossaroo.”

            “Look, Sam, I’ve been putting up with this sort of thing for a while now. There’s only so much I can tolerate.”

            The words are only another wave moving in a series of waves sloshing around in Samuel’s head. He can make out sounds and syllables, but it takes work for him to put them all together. 

            “Can I keep it?” He asks, tugging at the costume.

            “Course you can. It’s yours, remember?”

            Pete helps him up, holding his elbow until he can stand on his own. Samuel looks at his feet and notices that he’s missing a buckle from his right shoe.

                Exhausted, Samuel decides he must sleep, so he walks on Market to the subway. He descends down the urine stained stairs into its dark populous pit. People pass him to get to trains that are always ready to leave. Homeless people stand in the stairwell, asking for change, giving their sob stories. When they see Samuel, they ignore him, and beg the person directly behind him.

            He pulls his last two dollars from his pocket to pay his fare. A bench closest to the main exit is empty. He plops on it and sprawls out on his side across the hard, sticky wood, looking straight ahead at the chasm of space that will reveal the incoming trains.

 

***

 

The loud bellow of a train leaving yanks Samuel from sleep. He climbs to his feet shivering, a seeming arctic chill freezing him from the inside. He searches his empty pockets for change, but finds nothing. Maybe if he takes off his hat and puts it on the ground by his feet, people will drop money into it. He’s seen it done, but the people who do it are usually playing an instrument. What could he offer as entertainment? And if he takes off the hat, no one will recognize him. His only chance is that the night bartender hasn’t heard about him being fired. He exits the subway, crossing Market’s traffic against the light to a cacophony of screaming horns.

            The night bartender is there when he arrives, her hair packed into a white bonnet, strings of rusty red falling away to stick to her cheeks. She is talking and laughing with a strapping colonial waiter.

            “Hey, Jill,” Samuel says.

            She puts a bottle of Sea Wynde beneath the bar as Samuel takes a seat.     

“Oh, Sam—”

“It’s been a hard one. I’ll take a shot from that bottle you have there.”

The strapping waiter is immediately beside him.

“Hey, Sam, why don’t you take a walk with me?”

“Sure, right after I get a shot. It’s been a hard one.”

Now the waiter has a grip on Samuel’s left arm. “How about getting that shot someplace else. Come on, I’ll go with you.”

“Oh no, that’s alright. I worked, so I get a free drink here today. It’s a deal between me and Pete.”

The waiter squeezes tight and pulls him to his feet.

“Look, dude, we know, alright? So cut the shit.”

  The waiter pulls him towards the door, but Samuel grabs Jill’s arm. She screams. The waiter lets go of Samuel in order to pry his hand loose from Jill. Samuel lets go of her then runs farther into the interior of the restaurant. Two more waiters come on the scene, hulking towers glaring down on him from above. Samuel backtracks. A young woman’s face draws his attention. She is talking and laughing with a man as she picks at the remains of her Shepherd’s Pie. It’s her. He’s sure of it. The waiters lunge, but he dodges them, now face to face with the woman.

“You’re better off,” he yells in her face. “Now you don’t have to remember me. You see that, don’t you? Don’t you!”

The woman pulls away. The man she’s with jumps to his feet.

The waiters finally get hold of him, and Samuel kicks and screams. It’s only after they wrestle him to the floor that he finally relents. They lift him back to his feet and lead him out of the interior of the restaurant to the front door. Once outside, they don’t shove or throw him, but gently release him as though a stray cat.

“Go on. Don’t make us call the cops,” one of them says.

  Samuel then walks up Second, making it only a couple of blocks before he has to stop. He sits down and leans his back against the wall of a convenience store, pulling his knees to his chin. He is now shivering so hard that he feels like he is about to break apart. There is a heavy wind blowing, and it slaps the hat from his head, depositing it just a foot from the curb. Samuel watches it, half praying for another wind to come along and blow it beyond his reach. There is that other part of him, though, that won’t let it go. This part of him always overpowers the other part, so he closes his eyes, hoping to keep himself from knowing what becomes of the hat. When he finally opens his eyes, the hat remains and has now been joined by a crowd of drunk college kids. They stagger past not seeming to notice him or the hat, but one of them stops. He stares down at Samuel with grinning, glassy eyes.

“Isn’t that the dude from the park,” he says.

They all stop and come back.

“Who?” A girl asks.

The boy looking down at Samuel turns, “you know, the Billy Penn dude, like the statue.”

This is when Samuel hears something unexpected, the distinct sound of change plopping into the hat.

“Do your thing from the park,” one of the other girls say. “It’s hilarious.”

The rest of them agree and are now calling on him to be Billy Penn. Samuel hears another coin plop. His first instinct is to retrieve the hat in order to make himself complete, but this might stop the flow of change, so he decides he will have to make do without the hat by mimicking the statue perfectly. The trick is not to appear stiff, but remain loose as if real flesh and blood. Since he doesn’t have the statue in front of him for comparison, he will have to go by memory alone. The crowd grows visibly frustrated as they watch Samuel search for the Penn of the statue, yet none of them leave. Instead they grow quiet as though awaiting the performance of a master musician. When Samuel finally feels satisfied, he greets them: 

“Hail good gentlemen and gentleladies. Welcome to the fairest colony in all the Americas.”

They burst into laughter. At first there is a hint of derision in the laughter, but it soon turns into smattered clapping, then into shouted requests: talk about the Indians, talk about the voyage—talk about jail, the usual. Many times Samuel has the urge to tell people something of the real Penn, like that he was an absentee father and husband, but that William Penn is dead after all, and the only one that remains is a character in the story book of American history, so Samuel gives them the hero their nostalgia demands. This brings other requests, many not even attributed to Penn. But Samuel doesn’t falter. He simply incorporates them into the great man’s life: Penn the pirate killer, Penn and El DoradoPenn who battled Leif Ericsson to the death. More drunk students gather, swelling the crowd around him until he can’t even see the streets beyond them. And they are all listening intently. None turn away. 

 

SOLEDAD

By Lindsay Merbaum

 

            Marisa stood in front of the bathroom mirror, pinching the skin at her midriff. She turned to the side and pushed her stomach out as far as she could, then sucked it back in.

            Sarah hit the door and rattled the doorknob.

            “Go away!” Marisa shouted at the door.

            Sarah pounded harder.

            Marisa’s parents were outside at the swim-up bar. Her father had reserved two rooms, which meant it was Marisa’s job to get Sarah to bed on time without gum in her mouth. If she had a bad dream and started sleepwalking again, Marisa would have to catch her and bandage any scrapes she got. The day before, she had woken up to find Sarah tangled in the sheets, her head at the foot of the bed, feet on the pillows, her mouth slung open.

            Marisa opened the door and went back into the room. Sarah was hiding under her bed.

“Sarah, we’re going down to the pool now.”

The room had a blue tiled floor, two queen-size beds. A fruit basket with bananas, mangos and soft chocolates sat on a table by the TV. Marisa grabbed a piece of chocolate. “You can have this if you come with me.”

Sarah scrambled out, snatched the chocolate, and wriggled back under the bed.

Marisa sighed and picked at her nail polish. “There’s probably scorpions and spiders under there.”

Sarah crawled out howling. There were dust bunnies in her lank hair. She needed a shower. Marisa would have to see to that later.

When they reached the bar, their father toasted them with a bottle of beer.

“Hey, girls! Want something to drink?”

Marisa knew what was coming next: “The family that drinks together, stays together!” It was her father’s new favorite joke. He made it on their first day there when the waiter brought Marisa a regular strawberry daquiri instead of a virgin one. Now he repeated the joke several times a day. Only Sarah laughed, not because she found it funny or even understood it, but because she loved their father more than anyone, still rode on his shoulders and danced standing on his sneakers. It made Marisa despise and pity her.

The worst part of the joke was that it was a desperate revision. Marisa’s parents’ bedroom was next to hers and she heard things. After this trip, her father was moving out. He’d worn Marisa’s mother down with guilt-trips and tears.

“My three girls,” he moaned, “I want my three girls together one last time.”

Now her parents were drinking their way through the vacation. At home, Marisa’s mother stuck to gin and tonics. She left empty glasses smudged with red lipstick all over the house. Here she drank piña coladas and frozen margaritas. She joked that “margarita” was the only word of Spanish she knew, which wasn’t true. Her first name was Soledad, after her grandmother. Marisa had inherited it as her middle name. Her mother still called the housekeeper, who had raised her, once a month and spoke to her in rich, lilting Spanish. Sometimes, Soledad sang a Mexican ballad to herself that sounded full of longing.

 

***

 

Sarah went with their mother to the beach while Marisa lay in a lounge chair by the pool in an electric orange and turquoise bikini. Male hotel employees in button down shirts continually asked if she’d like something to drink.

            Her father had taken up the chair next to her and sat there nursing a beer. She’d thwarted all his attempts at conversations so now he tried to imitate Marisa’s pose, his knees bent, feet together, arms at his sides. Every time she shifted her weight even slightly, he made the same move. Marisa wanted to scream at him but she knew that would only make him laugh.

            Eventually, he sat up and sighed. “C’mon, Mis. Let’s go get some ice cream or something.”

            “No thank you.”

            “This is really what you want to do all day? Just lie here? We could do anything.” His eyes were red from the sun and booze. He smelled like yeast, sunblock and, faintly, vomit. “We could go to the gift shop. I’ll buy you whatever you want. Earrings, some sandals, whatever.”

            Marisa hesitated. “All right,” she said. “Just for ten minutes.”

            The hotel shop was full of ceramics, knickknacks in the shape of sea animals, bright sarongs, bikinis, and flip-flops in clear plastic bags. Everything was over-priced. Marisa touched a pair of earrings made out of beads and shells.

            “You like those?” her father and his scent hovered over her.

            Marisa shrugged.

            “I’ll get them for you.”

            Only when he got to the register, the cashier informed him with a sympathetic frown that his credit card had been declined. Marisa looked away as her father fumbled in his pockets, pulling out crumpled bills and an assortment of change he slowly counted out on the counter. She assumed her mother had already cut him off.

            They walked out of the store, Marisa holding awkwardly the little parcel containing the earrings.

            “Put them on now, enjoy them,” her father said, “but take them off before you see your mother, ok?”

            Marisa nodded as she slipped the earrings on. She knew she would only wear them this once.

When they returned to the pool, her father headed to the swim-up bar. Before long, he was taking tequila shots with a bunch of girls in bikinis who licked salt off their hands and sucked on lime wedges.

            Now and then Marisa opened her eyes behind her sunglasses and picked her head up to scan the crowd. She saw her sister’s head bobbing as she ran at full speed over the swell of sand leading from the beach to the hotel. Sarah had something in her hand that looked like a giant spider. It was a crab, Marisa realized, as Sarah reached the other side of the pool. She threw the crab down at her sister’s feet. It was dead.

            “Hey! Look what I found!”

Now her mother approached, her lips painted bright red, her body clad in a black, low-cut one piece with a gauzy black sarong tied around her hips, her skin already three shades darker than Marisa’s. She could feel people turning to look at her mother.

“Marisa, when did you last put on sunblock?”

She took hold of her towel and stood up, wrapping it around her body. “I’m going back to the room.”

“You don’t have to leave, just put on more lotion.”

 “I just want to go to my room,” she said and took off before her mother could reply.

The sun went down, dinnertime came and went, but Marisa didn’t budge. She sat on her bed watching TV and eating all the bananas in the fruit basket, her new earrings on the nightstand. The room smelled like unwashed clothes and rot. Fruit flies had begun to gather around the fruit basket and settled on her banana peels. Marisa half-expected one of her parents or even her sister to try to coax her out of the room, but no one did. Close to her bedtime, Sarah banged on the door.

“You have a key, you know,” Marisa said when she opened the door.

Sarah just grinned and squeezed past her.

“Mom and Dad sent you back up here alone?”

Sarah undressed, throwing her clothes on the floor. “Yup. They’re at the bar.” She climbed into bed, fished a peso out of her mouth, and set it down on the nightstand.

“Someday you’re going to hate them.”

Sarah sat up. “Why?”

“You just will. You’ll have lots of reasons.”

Sarah lay back down. She seemed to be mulling this over. She didn’t say anything more.

Once her sister was asleep, Marisa got up, ran a brush through her hair, rolled some pink gloss over her lips and slipped out of the room.

The hotel lobby opened onto a set of wide stairs that led down to the sea. One floor up, a balconied bar overlooked the ocean. As soon as Marisa reached the ground floor, she could hear its call.

She went up to the bar. Young, suntanned adults were laughing, ordering drinks and shouting to each other over the sound of the waves and music. She drifted toward the edge of the balcony where only a couple stood talking, their faces almost touching. She noticed a boy leaning against the wooden railing. He was scanning the crowd and his gaze settled on her. He smiled. Marisa looked away, unsure if she should move closer or wait for him to approach. But when she looked again, a gaggle of girls had formed around him. They were holding cocktails and Marisa could feel their eyes on her. Suddenly, a bolt of lightning illuminated the bar, lighting up the surprised faces of all the guests like a flashbulb camera. Marisa quickly made her way back into the hotel just as it started to pour, the bar patrons shrieking and shouting.

When she got back to her room, she stood outside the door and listened. She imagined running through the halls past a line of closed doors as in a nightmare, hissing Sarah’s name. Marisa went in and found the room dark, Sarah standing with her forehead pressed against the balcony door the wind was pelting with rain. Her hand was fumbling for the door handle. Marisa got up and led Sarah back to bed as another bolt of lightning lit up the room, blinding her for a moment.

 

***

 

At breakfast the next day, no one mentioned the storm. Instead, Marisa’s mother announced her intentions to buy some genuine Mexican ceramics.

“There’s a market not far from here, just a short bus ride. I thought Marisa and I could go and you and Sarah could stay at the beach.” She had her large, black sunglasses on, though they were indoors, and had barely touched her fruit. Already she’d emptied her coffee cup twice.

Sarah looked up from her cereal and beamed. Marisa scowled at her. She made a mental list of things she’d rather suffer through than a day alone in a Mexican market with her hung-over mother.

Her father had gotten out of his chair, knocking it over in the process, and was pretending to surf next to the table. Marisa glanced around the room to see if anyone was watching. They were surrounded by thin couples and families filling their mouths with eggs and watermelon juice, nodding at each other and smiling.

“We’ll catch those waves, won’t we Sarah? But they won’t catch us!”

“Yeah!” Sarah cried.

“Dan, surfing?” Marisa’s mother pursed her lip.

“She’s perfect age to learn. And this is the perfect place.” He righted his chair and sat back down, grinning.

“It’s not her I’m worried about,” her mother murmured loudly enough for all of them to hear.

Marisa’s father grinned at Sarah and began humming “Let’s Go Surfing Now.” Marisa noted he was already sweating. She imagined he’d down a few beers, feeding Sarah Maraschino cherries he’d pluck from the tray when the bartender wasn’t looking. No wonder her mother wanted to leave him, she thought, then shook her head quickly to erase the idea, as if her mind were an Etch-a-Sketch.

After breakfast, Marisa’s mother sent her back to her room to get ready.

“Bring whatever money you have. You might see something you like and I’m not going to spend the whole day buying you things. And make sure your sister has sunblock on, all over. Not just her arms. Her feet, too.”

Marisa pressed Sarah down on the bed, then sat on her butt to hold her in place as she slathered her in lotion. She screamed and kicked, her foot striking Marisa in the face.

“Stop it, you little bitch!”

“You called me a b-word! I’m telling Dad!”

“Go ahead and tell him. If I don’t get this lotion on you, it won’t matter. It’s shark repellant, you idiot. Do you want to get eaten by sharks? Or lose your leg? It’s fine with me. I don’t care.”

“You’re lying,” Sarah said. But her kicks turned to feeble flops.

“Why don’t you go and find out?”

“Dad would save me!”

“We’ll see,” Marisa said, releasing her sister.

Marisa met her mother in the lobby. They walked in silence to the bus stop a half-mile from the hotel. How Soledad knew where to go Marisa wasn’t sure and was too proud to ask. She vowed not to speak to her the entire trip.

When they boarded the bus, she tried not to act impressed when her mother spoke in Spanish to the driver. Marisa could tell from the man’s response that she spoke well.      

            The market was a sprawling, open-air maze of stalls, full of row upon row of identical knickknacks, sweets, cheap jewelry and ceramics. Their proprietors beckoned to the shoppers as they passed, many of them white foreigners wearing sun hats and clunky sandals, carrying backpacks. An old woman without a tooth in her head grinned at Marisa, her withered hands gesturing for her to come near. Marisa stared at her, inching closer to her mother who had paused to examine a set of napkins across the aisle.

            “These people are really…poor,” she whispered, forgetting she’d promised herself not to talk to her mother.

            “You think the whole world is like California? Jesus. You wanna hide in the hotel?” She looked over at Marisa and studied her face for a moment. “All right, we can go soon. I just want to find the ceramics.”

            They moved on, her mother barely pausing to look around. Finally, they stopped in front of a collection of ceramic plates, bowls, cups and figures. To Marisa, it seemed to be of the exact same quality and design as all the others they’d seen. But her mother entered the stall and began a systematic examination of everything in it, while Marisa remained standing at the edge. A few moments later, a man approached. He was in his forties and wore a button-down shirt, tucked into a pair of polyester pants. His sparse hair was gelled and carefully combed in place. He smiled broadly at Soledad.

            “Hello, hello. How are we today?”

            Examining a water jug, Marisa’s mother responded to him in Spanish without bothering to look up at him.

            “Oh, sorry, señora. Can we speak English? I never get to practice.” He smiled at Marisa. She noted one of his canines was coated in gold.

            “How much is this?” her mother asked, gesturing with the jug.

The man took a step forward as if he needed to examine the object for himself. He named a price, then took a step back. He stood next to Marisa, close enough to brush her arm, leaving the stall to Soledad. 

She picked up a dinner plate casually and frowned at it. Marisa knew this was the thing she was really after. Twice she turned it over in her hands.

“How much for this?” she asked.

“This?” the man said. He shifted his weight, repositioning his body so that he stood just behind Marisa. “Fifteen dollars,” he said as he reached out and cupped the right cheek of her buttocks with his palm.

“Fifteen?” Marisa’s mother frowned.

“It’s very good quality. Made here. My wife hand-paints.”

The hand wriggled, the fingers spreading out. Marisa wanted to move but couldn’t.

“Well, how much for a set? There must be a discount for a set.”

“Depends how many you buy, señora.” The man laughed. His hand vibrated.

Marisa took a step forward. “Mom,” she said.

“All right, Marisa. All right. We’re going soon.”

“Marisa,” the man repeated. She could feel him looking at her, his eyes sliding over her backside. “What a lovely name.”

Marisa walked over to her mother and stood close to her. “Hold on,” she hissed at her daughter.

Marisa stared at the plate in her mother’s hand as she continued to bargain. Soon, the man wrapped up six plates in newspaper, then stacked them in a plastic shopping bag. 

“Goodbye, Marisa,” he called as they walked away, “Hasta pronto!”

They rode the bus back to the hotel in silence. Marisa could feel her mother seething beside her, but she didn’t care. She clenched her buttocks against every bump and rut in the road, as if trying to keep the seat cushion from touching her.

When they got off the bus and started walking back to the hotel, her mother started in: “Are you pleased with yourself?”

Marisa didn’t answer. It was as if her mother’s voice were coming from a radio.

“We could’ve had a nice day together. Instead, you pouted the whole time. Pardon me for trying to spend time with my daughter.”

When Marisa didn’t answer, her mother grabbed her by the wrist, scratching her with her nails, and jerked her close. Marisa saw that her face was sweaty and flushed with rage, her hair coming undone. Her lip trembled into a sneer.

“You’re a spoiled brat. I was a brat, too. I promised myself I would raise you better than that but I guess I failed.”

She let go of Marisa’s wrist. They continued in silence, Marisa walking slightly behind, dragging her feet that were now filthy with dust. She felt dazed and dehydrated and stumbled occasionally.

When they arrived at the hotel, they found police cars surrounding the entrance. Hotel employees had gathered there. They seemed both worried and idle, as if they had an important task to perform but had no idea what it was. Their eyes fixed on Marisa and her mother.

“What happened?” Marisa whispered. She kept walking towards the hotel. Her body had become weightless. She was swimming through the air. Everyone stepped aside to let her pass.

The lobby was full of police. Some of them were just standing around, hands on their hips. Others spoke harsh and fast into walkie talkies. In the center of the room was a circle of reporters with TV cameras and microphones. Their attention was fixed on something Marisa couldn’t see. She heard a woman speaking slowly. 

Her mother stood beside her. There was a weight to her presence, her eyes wide with concentration. Suddenly, she rushed forward and began pushing and clawing her way through the reporters to the center of the circle. She broke through. A high wail broke out. Marisa recognized that voice. She could see her mother’s head above the crowd, then Sarah’s as she lifted her up. Her sister’s  face was swollen.

The journalists now began pointing their microphones at Marisa’s mother. They fired questions at her, but she snapped back and began pushing her way out of the circle, Sarah clinging to her though she was too big to be held. “Dad!” she screamed.

“Hey, hey, let them through!” Marisa shouted. “Get out of the way!” She jabbed a reporter in the ribs with her elbow. The man turned and cursed her.

Finally, a few police officers came over and began breaking up the crowd, pulling the reporters back.

The police took Soledad and Sarah away to an office somewhere behind the reception desk, leaving Marisa alone in the lobby. She stood there waiting. Her chest heaved with each breath, but her eyes were dry. A reporter approached her and said something she didn’t understand. When Marisa didn’t respond, she gave her a quizzical look, then wandered away.

Curious guests began to clump together, whispering and stealing glances at Marisa. She glared at them.

When her mother eventually emerged from the office, her head was bowed to hide her face. She was holding Sarah up in her arms. Her sister was wailing like a toddler, still calling for her father.

“Mom?”

“This way,” her mother said.

“Where’s Dad?”

Her mother stopped and turned to Marisa. Her face had changed into a mask made to resemble her real face.

Strangers began to move towards them, people with sunburns in sundresses and shorts. “I’m so sorry,” they murmured. “Can I help? Can we help?”

“Where’s Dad?” Marisa asked again.

Her mother’s eyes weren’t blinking. “He’s gone, Marisa.”

“What do you mean he’s gone?”

Sarah let loose another wail. Her mother shushed her and rubbed her back.

“He…” she whispered, “he drowned. Sarah got caught in a wave and he swam out after her. Some people in a boat picked her up but your father…” She stared at Marisa, her eyes peering through the mask that was once her face, as if the story were all a lie and she wanted to see if her daughter was buying it.

The crowd encircling them broke apart to allow a policeman through. He spoke to Marisa’s mother in a hushed voice. She nodded. “C’mon, girls,” she said. 

The officer brought them to the police station to file reports. The station was dark with endless, narrow hallways, the bare light bulbs emitting weak, yellow light, washing everything in a pall of urine. They took her mother into a room and left Marisa with Sarah outside in what seemed like a waiting area but had no chairs, garbage littering the floor they sat on, their backs pressed against the wall, till an officer brought them two folding chairs. The others stared at them. They were all women, many young and holding babies, others widowed grandmothers in black. They paced and prayed or spoke solemnly into their cell phones. Marisa watched them and wondered who they were waiting for.

Sarah was slumped in her chair. She was still weeping feebly, no longer conscious of her crying. Marisa noted her hair was still damp.

Eventually, their mother emerged. She gestured for them to follow her. No officer accompanied them out of the building. Outside, Marisa’s mother hailed a taxi.

 

***

 

They flew back to the US first class. The moment the three of them stepped onto the plane, Marisa felt an acute sting, like a thin needle sliding into her breast: her father was dead.

Marisa’s mother sat down and immediately put on an eye mask. She’d taken some pills and would sleep the whole trip. The seat next to her remained empty.

            In the seats behind her, Sarah huddled close to Marisa. She wept softly and steadily, occasionally wiping her nose on her sleeve.

            “We left him. We left Dad,” she sobbed. “Do you think the sharks ate him?”

            Marisa hesitated, shifting her weight in her seat. Her chest ached. “Why would sharks eat him? Didn’t he wear sunblock too?”

            Sarah shook her head. “I don’t know. I didn’t see him put any on.” Her eyes moved about frantically, searching for something to look at.

            “I’m sure Mom made him use lotion. She always does. Besides,” Marisa stroked her sister’s head, “Dad’s with the mermaids.”

            “There’s no such thing as mermaids.”

            “There’s a big, giant octopus down there who protects him. He holds him close and keeps all the sharks and big fish away. And the two of them explore the sea together. They find all kinds of awesome things like… starfish and sunken treasure.”

Sarah listened, sucking her thumb, something she hadn’t done since she was two. Marisa didn’t say anything.

            “So, Dad can breathe underwater now?”

            Marisa nodded. “Yeah. Now he breathes underwater.”

            Sarah paused, considering this. “So, could we go visit him sometime? If we wore scuba stuff?”

            “Yeah, we could go look for him.”

            Sarah had stopped crying, though her thumb remained stuck firmly between her lips. She breathed in hisses and sighs through her nose. Her head on Marisa’s shoulder grew heavier as she fell asleep. Then her hand fell away from her mouth. The plane was dark, everyone reclining in their seats, covered by blankets, snoring softly. Marisa wanted to cry, she felt it in her chest, but she could not let it out. Not now, she told herself. Not yet. 

             Eventually, Marisa fell asleep. She dreamed of her father, of his body nestled among the seaweed and coral, his hair falling over his face, his hands outstretched, beckoning to her with each gentle roll of the waves.

 

***

 

When they got back to the States, Marisa found the news full of stories of her father. The headlines read like bad TV movies: “California Dad Sacrifices Himself to Save Daughter.” None of the stories mentioned his drinking. Marisa stayed out of school for a month. Sarah slept in her bed every night. She sleepwalked more often and Marisa would find her standing outside the door to their parents’ bedroom, trying to turn the locked knob. Their mother drank more heavily and spoke in Spanish to them as if she thought they were still in Mexico. As if she’d never left and never would. 

Marisa missed her father fervently, but for all the wrong reasons. Every day she grew thinner till her pants slid right off without a belt. Then her hair started falling out. Sometimes she wanted to wear the earrings he had bought her, but it wasn’t until they’d arrived home that she realized she had left them on the nightstand in the hotel room.

 

THE ESCAPE

By Emily Glossner Johnson

 

            The children’s faces press against his study window. If James ignores them long enough, they’ll go away. He sits at his desk, working, but they stay, staring in at him, speaking softly, yet still he can hear them: “There he is. There’s Old Man Andrews.”

            They’ve called him Old Man Andrews since they started sneaking onto his property, even though he’s only thirty years old, and a youthful, comely thirty at that.

            “He’s a ghost, you know. He haunts this house,” says the voice of one child.

            “Shut up. You’re scaring Emma,” says the voice of another.

            “But it’s true. He’s trapped in there. He never comes out because he can’t. A ghost can’t leave the place it haunts.”

 

* * *

 

While James fucks Fiona Smith, he’s contemplating suicide. He’s been thinking about suicide frequently in recent weeks, and even at the point of orgasm, half his mind is on razor blades, rope, and the jimson weed that grows behind his shed.

            Fiona Smith is neither pretty nor smart, but once a week for fifty dollars, she has sex with James. He found her through an escort service online, and the first night she came to his house, he got down to business and asked her how much she would charge him for sex. She’s a good fuck—good at everything—plus she has a remarkable body that he enjoys in other ways besides intercourse. Even if her face is pockmarked and rather sour, he considers the fifty dollars to be money well spent. And another thing: she’s not looking for conversation or tenderness or affection. They have sex thoroughly and usually more than once, but she expects little in return aside from the money. The arrangement makes James happy.

            But not happy enough to stop thinking about how he will kill himself, which is something he intends to do once he figures out the best way. Autoerotic asphyxiation has occurred to him—it might be nice to go out with some pleasure—but he’s afraid he would survive it. Smoking a lot of jimson weed might be agreeable to a point, but he isn’t sure how it would end. Would there be terrible hallucinations? Convulsions? Coma? He wants to go faster and easier than that. And then of course there’s the problem of getting the jimson weed, which he can’t ask his gardener to do. Getting it would require leaving the house—something James can’t do. Hanging himself strikes him as perhaps the most practical and efficient of options, so he’s heavily leaning towards this method.

 

* * *

 

James has a full head of dark brown hair, good posture, and fine smooth skin. His hands are well formed and he’s satisfied with his height and leanness. Fiona tells him that his penis is the largest she’s ever seen, and while James figures that she says this to every man she screws, he knows she must be telling him the truth, given his generous endowment.

            What the children say is true—he can’t leave his little bungalow. But he’s not a ghost. He’s trapped, but not because he haunts his house.

            He lives comfortably off the money he makes as a freelance accountant, a career that allows him to work out of his house. When James was three, his father died young of a rare heart condition. When James was nine, his mother disappeared under mysterious circumstances. She left the house to go to the library and never returned. Her car was found in the library parking lot with her purse and keys and three overdue books in it. A long investigation turned up nothing. She had disappeared as surely as if she’d been sucked into a hole in the earth.

            After his mother’s disappearance, James was raised by his paternal grandparents in the very house which he is now unable to leave.

 

* * *

 

By the time James was nineteen, both his grandparents were dead. They left him enough money to attend a local college and obtain his degree in accounting. When James was twenty-two, he was able to go to the grocery store, the library, and the hardware store. He could walk in the park along the lake. He was afraid of dogs, even dogs on leashes, and would turn and walk the other way when he saw one coming. Nothing had ever happened to make him afraid of dogs. He just was. He never waded in the lake because there were rusty nails and sharp stones and water snakes under the water. And there were zebra mussels, an invasive species that he feared, a species that didn’t belong but came in droves to destroy the ecosystem. It wasn’t right.

            “Fuck it all,” he would mutter, and he went outside less and less. When he was twenty-five, he could still go to the grocery store. By the time he was twenty-eight, he couldn’t leave the house at all. He made arrangements to have his yard tended to and his groceries and other items delivered. Acne-faced boys deliver his necessities in boxes: food for the week, and milk, juice, coffee, cigarettes, toiletries, condoms, Advil. Other items he orders from specific stores: the liquor store, for example, delivers his wine and gin and rum. Otherwise, he orders items from Amazon or other websites. The mailman and the UPS and FedEx men greet him by name when they bring packages to his door.

 

* * *

 

James knows at once who the woman on his doorstep is. She’s his mother. A letter the week before had informed him of her pending arrival.

            “My baby!” Ellen Andrews says.

            James is too stunned by his mother’s appearance to speak. She looks exactly like the thirty-year-old woman in the picture he has of her on the living room mantle—the same bobbed brown hair, the same overdone make-up with the bright pink lipstick. And she isn’t alone. A man stands a little behind her to her left. He’s tall, lanky, about fifty years old, James figures, and handsome in a rather austere way. He’s wearing tiny round glasses and has a closely trimmed goatee.

            “I’m back, honey bee,” Ellen says, smiling broadly.

            “I see that,” James mumbles.

            “Look how beautiful you are,” Ellen says. “Raul, look at my baby boy. James, this is Raul.” She gestures to the man with the goatee. He’s wearing the sort of plain grey suit that you might see at a business conference.

            “Hello, James,” Raul says softly, stepping forward and extending his hand. James shakes it and gestures for the two of them to come inside.

            “Raul is from Brazil,” Ellen says when the three of them are standing too close to one another in the bungalow’s small foyer. “Well, not exactly—his parents were from Brazil. He was born in New Jersey, but close enough, right?”

            “Yes,” James says, hardly aware that he’s spoken.

            “Raul is a magician,” Ellen says. “I’m his assistant.”

            “Yes,” James says again, unthinkingly, still taken aback by his mother—her appearance, her sudden presence.

            “Well, then,” Ellen says, “we’re going to get ourselves settled. Raul, would you be a dear and get our luggage from the car? And James, please direct us to where we’ll stay. And then I’ll cook a nice dinner. Do you remember the nice dinners we used to have?”

            James doesn’t. He looks at her but doesn’t speak.

            “Well, never you mind. If you’ll just show us to our room, you can rest until dinner.” She reaches out and rubs his arm. “Relax, my dear, everything is fine.”

 

* * *

 

There never is a nice dinner that night. There are only sounds coming from the second bedroom where James has put his mother and Raul. James hears them when he goes up to retrieve several documents he’s left in his bedroom. Oh, Raul! Laughter. Oh, my… Ellen! Gasps and sighs. James, disgusted, runs downstairs.

            Later that night, Ellen appears in the doorway to James’s study in a negligee under a thin robe. “Can we talk, honey?” she says.

            James gestures for her to come and sit in the chair beside his desk. He can smell her stale perfume.

            “You’ve got to explain to me,” he says. “You can’t just come here and expect to be my mother again.”

            “Where else would I go if not to my baby’s house?”

            “You left me. You left me, didn’t you? You left and let twenty-one years go by with nothing—I thought you were dead!”

            She pulls a pack of cigarettes from a pocket of her robe, puts one in her heavily lipsticked mouth, and leans towards James as if waiting for him to light it.

            “I don’t have a lighter,” James says. “Or an ashtray.”

            “You don’t smoke?” she says.

            “No,” he says, thinking of the lighter, the ashtray, and the pack of Marlboros in his top desk drawer. He doesn’t intend to get the lighter and the ashtray out for her.

            Ellen returns the cigarette to the pack and sighs. “I wasn’t dead,” she says, “but in a sense, I was gone. I couldn’t get in touch with you even if I’d wanted to.”

            “If you’d wanted to?”

            “Oh, James—”

            “I can’t believe you would say that!” He feels as though he’s going to be sick.

            “Talking now is a bad idea.” She stands up. “You always were an emotional child. You rest and we can talk tomorrow.”

            James stands up and grasps her arm. “Why do you look the same? You look my age.”

            “I’m fifty-one.”

            “You don’t look it.”

            “Well… that’s probably true. You see, during my disappearance, I… I suppose I stayed the same.”

            “He took you from the library.”

            She laughs. “Yes, that is how it would appear, isn’t it? I was going there to return books I’d gotten for you.”

            “You left with him from the library.”

            “No. I never knew Raul before he made me disappear.”

            “So I’m to believe that this—this Raul—made you disappear for twenty-one years?”

            “For twenty, actually,” Ellen says.

            “So you’ve been back a year and you’re only now coming to see me?” James says.

            “We were in Paris. Raul had a lot of shows.” She smiles a small lopsided smile.

            “This is ridiculous. What kind of game are you playing? What do you want from me?”

            “I want to spend time with you. Get to know you.”

            “What if I told you that that’s impossible?”

            “Everything is possible, Jamey.”

 

* * *

 

Throughout the next couple of days, sometimes Ellen and Raul are just gone. Their luggage and two large trunks will still be in the second bedroom, but they will be nowhere in the house. If they’ve gone out, he hasn’t seen them go and they’ve never told him when or where they’re going.

            They’re gone the next time Fiona Smith comes over. He tells her about them after they’ve fucked and while they’re lying in his bed, James tracing slow circles around Fiona’s pierced belly button.

            “She left when I was nine, and now she comes back here as if there’s nothing at all wrong. She hasn’t explained anything—not really, not in any real sense—and she expects me to… I don’t know… to love her? To cherish her?”

            “She’s your mom,” Fiona says, turning away from James and reaching for her cigarettes.

            “Didn’t you hear me?” James says. “She left me when I was nine years old!”

            “Maybe she had a good reason,” Fiona says, shrugging one shoulder and lighting up. She fluffs up the pillow behind her and leans against it.

            “What could possibly be a good reason to leave a little boy?”

            “I don’t know,” Fiona says. She blows smoke from her cigarette out in rings. James knows that she’s proud of being able to do this.

            James looks at her bare breasts, so perfect, so enticing. “I suppose it doesn’t matter,” he says. “Not now, at least. Come on, then. Put your cigarette down.”

            He doesn’t kiss her on the mouth. He never kisses her on the mouth, but he takes one of her strawberry nipples into his mouth and reaches down between her legs.

            “You could go all night,” Fiona says blandly. When his fingers find her, she sighs with what sounds like weariness.

 

* * *

 

James and Ellen are sitting at the kitchen table in the morning, drinking tea. They’ve been there for an hour but it feels much longer to James. And now Ellen stares at him wide-eyed. “What do you mean, you haven’t left this house in two years?”

            “Because of the agoraphobia,” James says. “Haven’t you been listening to me? Do you know what agoraphobia is?”

            “Yes, but, I never imagined… I never thought it was real.”

            “Well, it is.”

            Ellen reaches out and touches James’s arm. “What will you do?”

            “Put an end to it.”

            “Good, that’s good,” she says. “You need to get out into the fresh air and live your life!” She takes a sip of tea. “Now then, tell me your deepest secret.”

            “Didn’t I just do that?”

            “Then tell me your greatest desire.”

            “To die.”

            Ellen laughs. “Come, Jamey, be serious.”

            “I am being serious. I want to die. Living here this way… it’s no life. I can’t take it anymore. I don’t want to live this way. There’s an apathy about it, a defeat. But there’s something more—something worse than that. Despair. Despair along with apathy, with indifference. It’s a terrible combination.”

            “My God!” she says. She reaches out and takes his hand.

            James looks down at their entwined fingers. “Where were you for twenty years?” he says softly.

            “I don’t know, James. I honestly don’t know.”

 

* * *

 

Several days have gone by. At twilight, James sits in the living room with Raul. James is drawn to Raul in a strange way, but he doesn’t feel uncomfortable with it and wonders if he should. He thinks about Fiona. She won’t be coming over for another few days. He looks at Raul and remembers the noises coming from the second bedroom that first night, the gasps and cries of pleasure.

            “There were children in your yard today,” Raul says. He takes a sip of his gin and tonic. “Did you see them?”

            “Not today, I didn’t. But I’ve seen them before.” James takes a big swallow of his own drink.

            “I hung myself on stage once and then freed myself from the noose unscathed,” Raul tells James. “I would show you how to do the trick, but from what your mother tells me, I don’t think you want to know.”

            “Maybe I do,” James says.

            “But if you learn the trick, you won’t succeed in hanging yourself. The trick is the escape, and you don’t want to escape.”

            “Then you can show me how to do the first part of the trick. You can leave the escape out of it.”

            Raul leans towards James. “Do you honestly want to die?” he says. He puts his drink down on the coffee table. “What about your mother?”

            “What about her indeed?” James takes another big swallow of his gin and tonic.

            “She’d be devastated by your passing.”

            “My passing,” James says, and then laughs.

            “She would be,” Raul says. “She loves you.”

            “She doesn’t love me and she wouldn’t be devastated.” James stares at Raul for a moment. “But how would you feel?” James adds quietly.

            Raul stares back at James, a softness in his eyes. “As though I’d missed out on something.”

 

* * *

 

“Old Man Andrews,” the children sing from outside late the next afternoon. They’re tapping the window with twigs, scraping the glass, tapping and singing. “He’s a g-g-g-ghost.”

            James looks up from his laptop and sees Raul in his study doorway. “There are those damn children again,” Raul says.

            James glances at the window. There are five of them, one of them a fat kid. “There’s always a fat kid,” James mutters.

            “You should do something about them,” Raul says. He’s standing in the hallway, his feet placed neatly together just outside the study doorframe. He’s polite, James gathers, and won’t come in unless invited. James invites him.

            Raul sits in the chair next to the desk and says nothing. James looks at his work. A moment passes in silence—James attempting to concentrate on the numbers on the screen while peripherally aware of Raul looking down at his neatly folded hands in his lap. Raul is wearing a knit turtleneck sweater and brown slacks. His hair is neatly combed and his goatee looks freshly trimmed. James detects a faint scent of a pleasant cologne and feels an odd stirring in his belly.

            Finally, James turns to Raul and in a rush says, “Come back here without her. Come back and tell me about your magic. Make me your assistant.”

            Raul looks up. “Will doing so keep you alive?”

            “It might.” James closes his laptop. He takes a deep breath and looks squarely at Raul. “You could make her disappear again.”

            “But I’m afraid I might disappear with her,” Raul says. He gazes at James. “I’m sorry, but it’s true.”

            “Make her disappear alone!”

            Raul puts his hand on James’s leg. “I don’t know if I can.”

            James puts his head down on his folded arms on the laptop. He feels Raul’s hand on his head. He begins to cry.

            “Let me teach you the trick,” Raul says.

            “But the trick is the escape,” James says, looking at Raul.

            “Exactly,” Raul says.

 

* * *

 

After two more days, they’re gone… everything is gone, and James knows that it’s permanent. The next time Fiona comes over, James sits in the floral chair in his bedroom, watching her take off her giant hoop earrings. She places them on his dresser. Next she unbuttons her blouse.

            “I don’t think they were real,” James says.

            “Who?” Fiona says.

            “Who do you think? My mother and Raul.”

            “Oh.”

            Fiona takes off her blouse and bra and places them on the wooden chair near the door. She’s already removed her high-heeled boots. James watches her slide out of her jeans. Underneath, she’s wearing a peach-colored thong.

            “This time, the luggage and the trunks are gone,” James says.

            Fiona looks at herself in the full-length mirror. “Well, I never seen them.”

            “Because they were never here…”

            She turns to him, looks him up and down. “So are we gonna fuck or what?”

            “That’s what I’m paying you for.”

            “Then why are you still dressed?”

            “Why indeed?” And with that, James undresses quickly and joins Fiona in bed.

 

* * *

 

James tests the knot again, tugs hard on the rope. It’s secured to the hanging light fixture in the dining room that’s hung with a strong metal cable inside of the decorative outer metalwork. There’s no way it won’t hold.

            Before climbing onto the chair on which he’s standing, James jerked off in a hot shower, ate a steak, had a glass of wine, a shot of rum, and several cigarettes. He savored all of it. Now he closes his eyes and relishes the rough feeling of the rope against the tender skin of his neck. It’s sensual, erotic. He opens his eyes and smiles. This is when he hears the children, laughing, tapping on the window. He can’t turn to see their faces, but he imagines them, sticky and bloated, pressed against the glass, suctioned there like tentacles rising from a single body. “Old Man Andrews,” he hears. He shuffles to the edge of the chair.

            “Old Man Andrews.”

            Closer to the edge he goes. Tap, tap. The tapping is incessant, like bones, like knives. He hears the laughter. He can see them in his mind, the group of them, the fat kid sweaty and loud.

            His thinks of his mother. He thinks of Raul.

            Tap, tap, tap.

            He shuffles out farther and kicks away the chair.

 

PHOENIX

By Kelly Simmons

 

 

Determined not to make a spectacle, Nancy focused on the departure board. Her hand shook as she daubed the sweat on her upper lip with the tissue she kept up her sleeve. But the worst was over. Her long sweater was readjusted, her shoes back on and tied, and her bag with her crosswords gripped tightly in her hand. Still, her heart was pounding. Today she’d gotten through screening without a hitch. Unlike that horrible time two—no, three—trips ago, when she thought she’d never fly again. But since her sister Lynn had moved to Phoenix, it was really the only way to see her. The familiar burn spread over her cheeks even now as she thought on it.

The airport had been crowded that day, and the large family behind her had jostled her out of the way in the security line. Shaken, she’d placed her purse, carry-on bag and jacket in the gray bin and proceeded to walk through the metal detector, but she’d forgotten her shoes. Her bag, already passing through the screener, had tipped over, and some of her magazines and crosswords had spilled out. There was nothing she could do. The agent told her to go back. She quickly slid off her shoes and went through again, but as she entered, the little beeper sounded. Back again, fingers trembling, she undid her watch and placed it in the little tray. But when she reentered, that damn thing went off once more. The TSA agent waved her back a third time. Passengers bunched up behind her muttering at the delay as she tried to keep an eye on her purse she’d sent through minutes ago. But she had to wait, shoeless. The young agent asked, very loudly, if she had some kind of hardware from a knee or hip replacement, or even a pacemaker. Lifting her chin as high as she dared, she shook her head firmly that, no; she had none of those things. She was then made to raise her arms so they could wave that thing around her. As she did so, her sweater lifted, exposing the halibut flesh of her stomach and the palette of mushroom moles that not another soul had seen in over nine years. Finally she was cleared, and, near tears, grabbed her purse, which she was quite frankly surprised to find, her bag, her shoes, watch and jacket. But she left her magazines and all her copied crosswords, and so had nothing to do on the long flight to Phoenix.

 

Nancy tried to concentrate on the board. She was glad to go, really. It would be nice to get out of the cold and sit in the sun for awhile. And Lynn insisted that she and her husband Neal were glad to have her. But the widow was always a bit of a fifth wheel, wasn’t she? The flight to Phoenix was on time. She finally found it. She’d been looking at Arrivals by mistake.

Nancy went to her gate. There were three empty chairs together, and she took the middle one, hefting her bag on top of another chair. She would move it if someone needed the seat, but she hoped no one would. She checked her ticket once again. Still an hour and a half to go.

Trying to get comfortable, she almost crossed her legs at the knee, but she didn’t want to lose the sharp edge she’d ironed into her khaki pants just this morning, and instead crossed her feet at the ankles. She liked the look of her walking shoes, white, but not “right out of the box” white, so as to draw attention.  When they were children, and when their parents could afford it, she and Lynn would each receive a pair of new school shoes. The minute she got home in the afternoon, she would re-store them in their box, wrapped in their crinkly paper that turned soft by the end of the year.

Nancy rested her hand over her bloated stomach—one of the problems with travelling, and getting off schedule. She was still at her wedding weight of fifty years ago, but the weight she now carried all puddled at her middle. She’d stopped looking at her naked self, reminding herself of her mother’s body. Nancy had taken care of her in the end, and had been startled by the flaps of draping skin as she’d helped her out of the bath. She’d looked away then, as she did now. And now that Mel was gone, who was to care?

She tried to eat sensibly—one egg and a piece of whole grain toast for breakfast, which was what she’d had this morning. She wouldn’t tell a soul, but what she really liked were those chocolately cereals, or the marshmallow kind that left the milk a pleasing shade of blue.

The waiting area began to fill up. Nancy moved her bag closer to her side, but didn’t pick it up. There were still a few vacant seats. Her feet were now pulled in underneath her chair.  She studied a stain on the floor. It looked like a ballet dancer, and then changed to a clown.

Nancy patted her short, sprayed hair, which she admitted felt a bit like dead grass. But now that it had gone mostly gray, the barest attention seemed best. For something to do, she rechecked her bag, readied for the two-hour flight. She’d brought three days worth of crosswords, saved up from the morning paper; her book, the latest release in the Doubleday Large Print Book Club; and several packages of crackers, since they no longer bothered with the little bags of pretzels, which she found akin to eating baked dust, anyway. She tucked another couple of tissues up her sleeve and waited.

It was finally time. They called her section. Spotting her seat next to the window, Nancy slid gratefully into it. She pulled out her first crossword puzzle and mechanical pencil—one of the few new inventions she found useful over the years—then tucked her small bag tightly underneath the seat in front of her, secured her seatbelt, and waited.

As passengers filled the plane, she watched for the person who would be sitting next to her. She hoped he or she would be small, and not a talker. Oh dear. A young mother holding a baby, followed by another, not two years old, was squinting at the seat locater above Nancy’s head. Oh, thank God, the woman passed by. It wasn’t that she didn’t like children. Lynn’s daughter, Cheryl, had two girls. They were cute, but as she and Mel never had children, she really didn’t know what to make of them.

A large woman, no, fat, let’s be honest, was making her way down the aisle. Her wide face was blotched and damp, and dark crescents stained the armholes of her sleeveless blouse. She stopped at Nancy’s row, and rested her hand on the seat back as she caught her breath. Her hands were pretty. Plump, but with dainty buffed nails polished a light shade of pink. The woman’s eyes flickered momentarily, and then she grunted as she shoved her bag into the overhead bin. Wet curls stuck to the rolls of her neck, and Nancy thought about offering one of her tissues, but did not. Instead, she held her breath as the woman re-checked her ticket, and then turned to the seat across the aisle.

 “I think this is my seat.” Oh my. Nancy looked up to find an attractive older man smiling at her.

 “Oh, of course.” She looked for the wife who would be joining him but he sat down alone next to her. She could feel the heat of his shoulders. His aftershave filled up the space between them, but it was nice, not overpowering.

“They’re making these smaller and smaller, aren’t they?”

She wondered why he hadn’t booked an aisle seat but didn’t ask him. “Indeed they are.” She was unused to making small talk with strangers, especially attractive ones, and her face warmed. Indeed she repeated to herself. He was going to think she was a school marm.

“I’m Jim,” he said, holding his hand over the armrest.

“Nancy,” she replied, giving him her small, cold grip.

He layered her hand with his palm. “These need warming up.” His hands were dry and warm against hers, and taken aback, she pulled away too quickly. He smiled and turned from her to find his seatbelt which had fallen between the seats.

She watched him. His hair was white, but thick. His chest, she noted, had the bulk of a younger man, not shrunken by years, or certain irrelevance, as Mel’s had become. As he drew his seatbelt around him, his shoulder knocked against her lightly. “Sorry,” he said, his blue eyes on hers.

Her shoulder felt burned. “Not at all.” The smile she gave him was meant to be friendly, but instead felt as a pinch upon her lips.

“Excuse me. Looks like I’ll be joining you.” Nancy and Jim turned their attention to the pretty older woman. Her voice was squeaky, but in a pleasing way, as if she’d been a smoker and the cigarettes had taken away bits of sound, leaving her voice textured. The woman flashed a wide smile and took her seat next to Jim.

“I’m Susan,” she said. “Are you staying in Phoenix or going on to somewhere else from there?”

Nancy and Jim understood at the same time she thought they were together and shared a smile. “I’m on my way to Vegas to chase around with some buddies.” He gestured to Nancy.

“And I’m visiting my sister in Phoenix. We’re not together. We only just met.” Nancy was grateful to him for not blurting it out first.

“Isn’t this unusual?” asked Susan, referring to the fact that they were three travelers, all of a certain age, flying alone, and all managing to sit together.

“I wonder if they have a row for codgers,” Nancy joked. She was surprised at herself. The three of them laughed. “And you, Susan?” she asked, leaning over Jim. Her breast grazed the sleeve of his shirt and she pulled back sharply. Her cheeks warmed but he gave her an encouraging smile.

“Oh, I’m meeting a friend for the weekend in Phoenix.” Her hair bounced as she talked. Backlit, smooth and buttery, it invited touch.

“A friend, are you?” Jim kidded her. Susan giggled. Her face was a delight, plumped with the full cheek muscles of someone used to laughing. The fine, black lines drawn upon her upper lids enhanced the emerald of her eyes. Her eyes were so green Nancy wondered if she was wearing those colored contacts she’d heard of. Nancy realized she was again against Jim’s arm, and sat back in her seat.

“And what about you? Vegas, you say.” Susan leaned over Jim to give Nancy a sly grin. Her full breasts nearly sat upon his armrest. Nancy didn’t think this was appropriate but she liked the smile Susan gave her. Nancy didn’t have many friends. The few couples she and Mel had hung around with had mostly stopped calling. Mel was the social one. Mostly she didn’t mind. She had church, and her book club. It got lonely every now and then, and she despised Sundays. None of her programs were on that day.

Jim nudged Nancy with his elbow, giving her a broad smile. She could see the flash of a golden crown, and perhaps a dental bridge on the side, but it wasn’t unpleasant. It was reassuring, somehow. A lively and attractive older man. She’d always thought that she and Mel would travel after Mel retired. But he’d died of a heart attack only two years later, and she’d been alone ever since. Too alone, perhaps.

Nancy was surprised to find they were already in the air. The flight attendant was making her way down the aisle. “Can I buy you ladies a drink?” Jim asked. How long had it been since she’d heard those words?

“I really couldn’t,” she blurted. She looked at her watch. It was only ten in the morning.

“I’d love a glass of wine,” said Susan. “I get a little anxious flying if you want to know the truth. Drinking calms my nerves.” She touched Jim’s arm.

“Are you sure?” Jim asked Nancy, leaning forward as he pulled his wallet from his back pocket. He held it out in front of him as he pulled out his credit card. The dark leather was worn but not frayed. She glimpsed several other cards and a bulge of cash.

“Well, I…”

“Come on. We’re not here for a long time, but for a good time, right?” He winked at her.

Before, she would have thought that line foolish and indulgent. But now it seemed rather to the point. Yes, she decided suddenly, why on earth should she not? “Well, maybe a Bloody Mary, then.” She shoved her crossword and pencil in the pocket of her bag.

“That’s the spirit. A Heineken, white wine here, and a Bloody Mary.” He handed the attendant his card. With their trays covered in little cocktail napkins and drinks all around they smiled. “Cheers,” said Jim, first clicking Susan’s plastic glass and then turning to Nancy. She hadn’t yet opened her bottle of vodka, and instead held up her can of Mr. and Mrs. T’s.

Nancy fiddled with the can, the little cup of ice and the tiny plastic bottle of vodka, as Jim turned to Susan. The cap on the vodka was tight, and Nancy nearly knocked over her Bloody Mary mix as she opened it. She poured half of it into the glass and then filled it with Mr. and Mrs. T’s. She stirred it with the tiny straw and took a small sip. She hadn’t had one of these in years, and the spicy drink lingered on her tongue. Susan, a flattering flush of wine spreading over her cheeks, leaned over Jim to ask how her drink was. Nancy was sure she was in her seventies like herself. There were the telling age spots on the back of her hands, the brittle nails, and the lines like roadmaps that crisscrossed her neck. And yet, Nancy could see how one could mistake her for a much younger woman.

The drink kneaded delightfully through Nancy. She found herself laughing loudly with Jim and Susan and even elbowing Jim from time to time for something off-colored he said. She wondered why she hadn’t allowed herself this in such a long time. What in the world had she been afraid of? Disapproval? From whom? 

She was enjoying this. It’d been so long. A year after Mel died, one of their couple friends had tried to “fix her up” with a co-worker. She’d agreed only because Lynn was on her constantly about getting out and meeting people. And she thought it might be nice to have a gentleman friend. Someone to go to movies with. Cook a meal for. Maybe join the old group for cards.

Nancy still remembered what she wore. It was the pale pink pantsuit from Penney’s with the matching earrings. It brought out her color, people told her. He picked her up at her house. He was an attractive man with a little paunch and thinning hair. But she didn’t mind. On the way to the restaurant, her hand brushed his leg. He jerked it away, as if repulsed. Even though he was nearly her age, she knew he wished for someone younger. She tried to dismiss it, but kept her hands in her lap. Dinner was nice. She listened as he told her about his work, his divorce, and his grown children who never came to visit. He had two mixed drinks and she a glass of white wine. She wondered on the way home if he’d try and kiss her at the door. And if she should ask him in. What did people do in these situations nowadays? She didn’t want to offend him, but she didn’t want him thinking she was a loose woman, either. She needn’t have worried. He dropped her off at the driveway without walking her to the door. She never heard from him again. She’d met men at church, but nothing ever clicked. And then the years started to pass.

Nancy re-filled her glass, feeling pleasantly lightheaded. Susan and Jim, she noticed, had begun a conversation. “What are you two talking about?” She bent her head over her tray towards them.

“How fun it would be if we, the three of us,” Susan corrected, “all went to Vegas. Jim is meeting three friends, so we’d only need to find two more ladies.”

“Or not,” Nancy said. They all laughed. Maybe Mel hadn’t been the only social one, after all.

Jim touched Nancy’s thigh. “Have another drink,” he said softly, close to her face.

Nancy raised her hand to the attendant. “Another round, please.” She looked at Jim and Susan. “I’m treating this time.” This was so unlike her. She always paid her share—never less, never more. But to treat! She laughed at herself.

“Thanks, pretty lady,” said Jim. His hand rested just over her thigh and she could feel the tips of his fingers through her pant leg. “You’d be a real gas in Vegas. Do you like to gamble?”

“Well, I really don’t know. My husband and I went the one time, but that was years ago, before,” she began, but Susan whispered something in his ear. He pulled away, leaving Nancy to fumble for her purse. After their drinks were served, Susan and Jim once again began a two-way conversation. Nancy took this moment to make her drink. Jim popped open his beer but didn’t say anything to her this time. She noticed he was leaning farther away from her. She sipped at her Bloody Mary. Jim’s leg shook with laughter at something Susan said, and she wanted to place her hand on his thigh and smooth the pant crease with her fingers. Her face burned, and before she could change her mind, Nancy recapped her vodka, tucked her cup and can in the seat in front of her, and grabbed a small pouch from her bag. “Excuse me. I have to use the restroom,” she said more loudly than she intended.

“Oh, me too,” said Susan, jumping up from her seat.

“I’ll just stretch my legs,” said Jim, picking up his beer and moving to the aisle so Nancy could get out. There was a little bump of turbulence and Nancy fell back into him. His arm wrapped around her to steady her. She closed her eyes for just a moment.

Susan grabbed her hand. “Come on!”

The lavatory was occupied and the two women waited. Susan said she was about to wet her pants, that’s how she phrased it, so Nancy let her go ahead. As Nancy waited, the restroom across the aisle opened up. Inside, she steadied herself against the sink and looked into the mirror. When she rejoined Jim and Susan, she was wearing lipstick, and her cheeks sparkled with a light blush. Her hair now curled loosely around her face after the brushing she’d given it.

“Glad you didn’t fall in!” said Susan.

“We have something to ask you,” said Jim, fiendishly. They were both still in the aisle.

“And just what might that be?” Nancy raised her eyebrows daringly.

Jim leaned in close, his breath on her ear. “Would you mind changing seats with Susan?”  Nancy looked at him blankly, not fully understanding. “She’d like to be near the window.” Nancy noticed his breath had gone a bit sour with the beer. He could use a breath mint.

“Well, I…I like to sit by the window.”

“Be a sport, won’t you?” he said with a wink. Susan’s swampy eyes pleaded with her. Nancy motioned with her hand to go ahead, not trusting her voice.

“Thank you,” mouthed Susan, wriggling past her.

“You’re a real doll,” said Jim.

Once they were all seated, Jim handed over her drink makings from the seat pocket. Then he presented his back to her, squaring his shoulders towards Susan. Nancy finished her drink and felt a headache beginning at the base of her neck.  Jim’s back pushed against her side and she lowered the arm rest. She stared at the aisle. Were they kissing? Oh, dear God. She was afraid she was going to be sick. Or worse, that she might cry. She must do something. Her crosswords. They were under Susan’s feet. She must have them. She leaned forward, reaching for her bag, but her arm would have to travel through the legs of Jim and Susan. “Excuse me,” she said, kicking Jim’s ankle a little. “Excuse me.” 

Jim pulled away. There was a pink stain on his chin. 

“I need my bag.” She fought against the tears. “It’s under the seat.”

“Why sure,” he answered, grunting as he retrieved it. “There you go.”

“Thank you.” She didn’t look at the two of them again. Nancy pulled out her wrinkled crosswords . Underneath them she found a peppermint. She unwrapped it and sucked on it slowly. Her crossword sat untouched on her lap.

The captain announced they would be landing in Phoenix at the scheduled time.  The drinks were taken away. Jim and Susan were sitting up again holding hands. Nancy looked at her watch but didn’t register the time.

“This is really something, isn’t it?” asked Susan as they all waited to get off. Nancy didn’t answer. She swallowed, tasting the bitter tomato juice on her tongue. Was she really going to cry? No, she must pull herself together. This was absurd. Things would go back to the way they were, and she would get through the days just as before. If she’d learned one thing over the years, it was that you could get used to almost anything. Even loneliness had its routine.

As soon as she could she slid into the aisle. Across the row, the heavy woman pushed herself out of the seat. Nancy stepped back to let her go ahead of her even though she wanted to be off the plane as soon as possible.

“Let me help you,” said Nancy, reaching for her bag in the overhead.

The woman gave her a grateful smile. “Thank you.”

The line began to move. Susan giggled behind her. “I hope you have a nice trip,” said Nancy over Susan’s voice. Silly, she didn’t even know if the woman lived here or was visiting.

“You, too.” The woman turned and squeezed Nancy’s arm. Nancy gave her a sharp look. And then she smiled, as much at herself as the woman.

Nancy raised her chin, almost as if someone had a hold of it. It reminded her of when she was little and her mother would lift up her face when she wanted only the truth. She felt her bangs across her forehead, almost as a caress.

 

SUNRISE IN THE EVENING

By Sanjaya Mishra 

The sun was setting. The crimson red light it scattered in the western sky, indeed, got reflected from the mica dusts on the sea beach. The cold breeze charged with saline water was hitting Ian’s face. His unwavering eyes were still on the blue and green waves rising on the sea, accompanied by the gushing sounds, as they cascaded at his feet. But his mind was faraway, still at Eleventh street and the stock exchange building.   

            His shares had crashed, probably due to the impending recession as predicted by the economists and discussed with great earnestness by the media. Lots of interviews, with lots of postulations, along with assurances that it is just a passing phase, had compounded to his already restless mind and ever-low spirits.  “It is just a matter of time before they again pick up,” his friends had consoled him.

            “My dear, you are still too young to be so affected by the ups and downs of business that you ruminate about judgmental errors, however costly they may be,” assured his father Mr. Sorenson, the business tycoon, unfazed.

            But Ian was devastated. He just could not bear to watch all his business calculations going down the drain and all the pride he had gathered while graduating from the university with distinction, taking a body blow.  But, apart from all these, what disturbed him most, and which he could not tell anybody, neither his friends nor his father, was the attitude of Martha, his girl friend. She was an artist, but that did not give her the right to hold the notion that he was all brawn, scampering always to amass money, devoid of any sensibilities for finer, subtle things of life.  

            “You are a creature, with a head and an eye filled with ideas for materialistic gain. Even in your sleep, you blabber about investments, your meetings. You have effectively made yourself a reckless machine that always clamors for more money. I am sorry, but Ian, I can’t conceive the idea of spending all the years of my life with you tottering around the cliffs of interests, shares, investments and losses.”   

Martha had left him, and the timing of it had been gruesome for him. Maybe he could have laughed  it off  had not both disasters occurred simultaneously.

He wanted to escape from the scene of everything crashing around him. And then, he left his place, his office building, his home, and before he could realize anything he was at this sea beach of Puri in India. 

            “Would you like have these necklace sir, they are very beautiful, carved out of real pearl sir.”    He was wakened from his reverie by the persistent call of the boy selling items carved from shells. They were not real Ian knew, like his dreams of creating his own business empire. He waved his hands at the boy indicating his disinterest, but the boy was unaffected, still pestering him to buy. Disgusted, he got up, and walked along the beach northwards. A lot of tourists had gathered all along the sea, supposedly enjoying the sea and also the nagging entreaties of  the boys selling fake items. Some of them were even buying those fake items and seemed happy to own them.

“Don’t they know they are being swindled? A blind fellow could differentiate them from the original,” he thought. But the tourists were oblivious to his thoughts and naturally so. He walked on… As the tourists thinned out he could find lovers on the lookout for little bit of seclusion. He remembered about Martha… how they had enjoyed their vacations.  He knew some of these pairs would not be with each other perhaps after a few months or few years, notwithstanding, all the bonhomie prevailing now. The sun sunk further toward the horizon and Ian saw the fishermen approaching in their boats. Their loud voices and their laughter, along with the chirping of birds, presented an atmosphere which was altogether in sharp contrast to the disturbed state of mind Ian was in. The fishermen lugged their boats ashore and walked across to land collecting their catch along with the nets. The middlemen had already gathered, ready to purchase them wholesale.    As Ian watched, the transactions went on amidst cracking of jokes and the middlemen loaded the fishes in their trucks paying what Ian  knew was a pittance compared to the fishermen’s toil on the sea all day long. But they seemed happy and contented, surrounded by their children. Ian approached one of the fishermen.     

 

            “You know, what you are getting for the fishes is a very small price? They will be making a lot of profit out of it. Maybe three times what you got.”

“Oh, surely we do sir,” one of them replied.

“Then why do you allow such things? Why don’t you all form a society and market your products?” he observed.

They all seemed to be intrigued by his suggestion. “We know about it sir, but have never given a serious thought to it.”

One of the elderly men came forward and said, “We are out onto the sea daily in the morning and return in the evening. When do we have the time for such things?”  

Ian’s business sense took a beating. Clearly he was baffled… They thought nothing of being duped so openly. Some of them had already started leaving looking disinterested, probably to enjoy the evening or  just  to get some rest. They were absolutely nonchalant at having it  pointed out that they were being cheated, no rancor whatsoever about the fact that others with less labor grabbed a bigger share. It seemed to him they enjoyed things in their own small world. It was a closed world no doubt, but then, every place has geographical and political boundaries and every society and civilization has  mental barriers. He realized the size of one’s sphere of activity is not important; rather it is the state of one’s inner self, which plays a more vital role in keeping the spirits in good stead. 

The waves were coming incessantly wetting his feet, never stopping. They would continue their motion, irrespective of his moods and the state of his physical being. Everybody on this beach seemed very happy to him, and everything looked so serene here. His shares crashing, Martha deserting him were nothing compared to what these people possessed.  Nevertheless, they take on the days and nights uncomplaining, or maybe at times, complaining, clinging onto whatever  was offered. The sun was setting and darkness was enveloping  everything. Ian thought that this is how this place must  look  at dawn.  Yes, exactly the same. Yes, the sun was rising. At least, it seemed so to him. Turning around, he walked briskly towards his hotel to enquire about the next flight to his city. 

 

 

 

 


 

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