“Keeping” by Thomas Dodson
Thomas Dodson’s story “Keeping” follows seventy-three-year-old Guy, owner of a family hive and honey business, and his neighbor, Taylor, as they make the long journey from Iowa to California to save Guy’s colonies and fulfill his contract with a West Coast almond grower. This fast-paced story takes readers on a buzzing adventure, as Guy faces crime, a fading mind, and his own sexual identity. “Keeping” won the 2020 Jeffrey E. Smith Editor’s Prize for fiction.
It was a humbling thing, asking for help like this, needing it so badly. But removing his hat, brushing flakes of snow from brim and crown, Guy knew there was no other way. His neighbors’ fields, already stripped of corn and soybeans, would soon be a single plain of snow, patches of winter rye the only green for acres. Cold winds would blow freely across all that flatness, gathering strength until they reached the stand of pines at the edge of his apiary. The trees would provide a break, and he could wrap the hives in tar paper to keep out the frost, but it wouldn’t be enough. His bees, what was left of them, they wouldn’t survive an Iowa winter. He needed to take them west.
He’d been standing on the porch of Taylor’s place, weighed down with what he meant to ask, when he heard the baby crying. It wailed and wailed, a helpless thing, full to the top with need. When it finally hushed, he opened the screen and knocked. Taylor’s wife answered. She had the baby with her, his head covered in wisps of fine brown hair, face pressed to her breast, sucking away. Guy coughed and looked down at his shoes.
“Come in,” Andrea said, unconcerned. “Taylor’s out back, finishing up.”
He followed her inside, ducking to avoid the transom. Forty-odd years of lifting supers filled with honey, each box heavy as a newborn calf, had stooped his shoulders. But all told, work in the beeyard had done him good. He hadn’t dwindled like other men his age, was still broad-backed and tall. He knew to move carefully in these old farmhouses.
In the dining room, his eyes were drawn to the glass-windowed cabinet. It was built to house pickled beets and bottles of homemade jam, but Taylor’s wife had stocked it with books, their spines emblazoned with words like “feminist,” “gay and lesbian,” “queer.” He could remember a time when it would have been dangerous to have such books where people could see them. “Ain’t much difference,” his father had said, “between a cocksucker and a communist.”
“You’re in your Sunday best,” Andrea said. “Business in town?” She lowered herself into a chair and settled the baby on her lap.
“The bank. Every once in a while, they like to bring you in, turn you upside down, see if anything falls out.”
She smiled politely. In truth, it was only for this visit that he’d traded his work boots for Oxfords, set aside his overalls, and retrieved his suit from the back of the closet. He’d worn it last ten years ago, at Alma’s funeral.
The back door clattered shut, and Taylor called from the kitchen, “Something got at one of the hives. Scat on the ground and some bees chewed and spat out.”
“In here,” Andrea said. “Guy stopped by.”
“Oh, yeah?” Taylor said cheerfully. She strode into the room, wiping her hands on the front of her jeans, the cuffs still tucked into her socks. She placed a hand on Andrea’s shoulder, bent down and kissed the baby’s head. The chair next to Andrea was stacked with papers. Taylor cleared them and sat down.
“Should’ve phoned first,” Guy said, shifting in his seat.
“You’re always welcome, you know that.” The tips of his ears burning, he looked at his hands. These bouts of bashfulness, they sometimes happened around Taylor. She was just so—he couldn’t think of a better word for it—handsome. She reminded him of James Dean in East of Eden and also, vaguely, of Milton Law, a high school classmate and the first boy he’d ever kissed.
“Brought you this.” Setting his hat on the table, he retrieved the package from under his arm, a square section of honeycomb in a clear plastic box. He’d selected, for his offering, a product of his strongest hive. Workers had filled each of the cells with amber honey, sealed them over with the freshest wax. It was a beautiful comb, white-capped and neatly cut. Something to be proud of.
“You didn’t have to do that,” Andrea said. “You know, Taylor keeps trying to win me over to the dark stuff.” Her face crinkled, and she shook her head from side to side. “It’s not for me, though. Too funky.”
“I’ve always been too funky for you, mi reina.”
Taylor had seeded a portion of her land with buckwheat. Bees that fed on its white-petaled flowers made dark honey—near to black—nutty and pleasingly bitter. More traditional, Guy kept his meadows stocked with wildflowers: Shasta daisies and black-eyed Susans, clover that bloomed in shades of white, pink, and crimson. His bees rewarded him with a sweet, light honey that he sold to grocery stores, driving in each week to stock the shelves himself.
“You say you’ve got some critter nosing into a hive?”
“What do you think?” Taylor said. “A raccoon?”
“Skunk more likely. You can put up chicken wire. She’ll have to stand up on her hind legs, and the bees can sting her belly. Or you could set a trap.”
The baby began to fuss again, and Andrea excused herself. She bundled the boy in a sling and carried him away, her flip-flops slapping as she mounted the stairs. Guy sat across from Taylor in silence. Most of the time, it was easy between them. They’d known each other for going on eight years now, ever since she’d come to the beekeepers’ meeting at the VFW hall. She’d had so many questions, been so eager to learn the trade.
He’d invited her to join him in his beeyard, a kind of apprenticeship. Later, when he’d gotten a call from the fire department about a swarm hanging from a picnic table in Happy Hollow Park, they’d gone together to capture it. They’d smoked the bees, doused them with sugar spray, and shaken them into one of his spare supers. He’d given her the box and all the bees inside, her first colony. Together they’d cleared her backyard, transformed it into an apiary. She ran her own operation now, small but thriving. That was how their friendship worked, Guy offering help and advice, passing on the craft, taking pride in Taylor’s success. But this, asking her for help—real help, the kind that involved sacrifice—it felt wrong.
“Guy, is everything alright? You seem, I don’t know, bothered.”
“It’s been a hard year,” he began, “a real hard year.”
He told Taylor about the outbreak of nosema. Bees with swollen guts had deposited smears of brown diarrhea down the sides of the supers. They fell from the boxes, littering the ground with their hollowed-out carcasses. Others perished midflight, some bearing fat wads of pollen, food their spore-ravaged stomachs could no longer digest. He’d lost other hives to mites, passed from bee to bee until they reached the brood chamber. There they fed on larvae and laid their eggs, fouling whole colonies.
And then there were the bees that ranged beyond his meadow. In August, he’d found a pile of dead bees in front of one of his hives, the rest stumbling around like they were drunk. He couldn’t prove that chemicals were killing them, but during the summer months, he’d seen plenty of crop dusters swinging low over the nearby fields, raining pesticides down on the corn.
That was as much as he was willing to tell Taylor, or anybody else. The truth, he knew, was that he was to blame for the bees’ decline. Autry Honey had been a family business, his wife and sons all chipping in. After the boys went away to college and Alma passed, he’d hired help for processing and bottling, an accountant for the books, seasonal workers whenever he needed an extra hand. But the bees, he cared for them himself, alone.
It had worked out fine for a couple of years. But then, last summer, not long after his seventy-third birthday, he’d found himself standing in front of a hive, not sure what he was doing there. The cover was off, his smoker spent. Had he set out to harvest honey or check for a sick queen?
After that, he kept his logbook close, needed it to tell him all the things he used to keep in his head—when and how much he’d fed each colony, whether he’d treated them for pests. And then there was the time he lost the book, wasted a whole afternoon searching. He spotted it the next morning, scrambling eggs over the range. On the shelf by the window, the frayed binding sticking out from a row of Alma’s cookbooks.
Pests and chemicals hadn’t killed his bees, at least not on their own. Some died every year, but well-tended colonies could bounce back. His losses, enough to put his whole operation at risk, those were due to sloppy stewardship. He’d failed his charges, left them vulnerable.
“I treated the hives for mites and all,” he explained. “Had to torch the sickest ones. All told, I’m down to one-third what I should have this time of year. Not enough to make the contract out West; colonies too weak to winter up here.”
“Jesus,” Taylor said, leaning back in her chair. “If I’d have known, maybe we could have . . . so, what are you going to do? Get them indoors, a barn or something? Then buy nucs in the spring?”
Guy chuckled bitterly. “With what money? And besides, I can’t wait for the thaw. First winter storm, and I’ll be finished.” He couldn’t bring himself to look Taylor in the eyes, so he looked instead into the kitchen, at the high chair and the sink full of dishes. “I can see you’ve got your hands full here. And I hate to ask, but . . .”
“Hey, Guy, whatever you need.” Taylor reached across the table. Forgetting himself, he gripped her fingers. There was no sorting out everything he felt—humiliation, gratitude, a shameful urge to seize and cling to this sudden closeness between them, for it to mean something it didn’t. He released her hand and straightened up in his chair. He was a foolish old man.
“All the bees I have left, they’re healthy. You’ve got my word on that.”
Her lips slightly parted, Taylor waited for him to explain.
“The California trip,” he said, “the almond bloom. It’s good money. Real good money.” He retrieved his notes from the breast pocket of his suit, unfolded them, and set them in front of her. “Now inspections, truck rental, equipment—that’s all settled.” He tapped twice on the top page, where he’d written out all the expenses. “That comes out of my end. The profit, though, we split fifty-fifty. I’ve got a Class A license, had it for years, so I’ll do the driving.”
“Guy, what are we talking about, exactly?”
“I leave in three weeks, but I don’t have the hives. Not enough, anyway. I need your bees, together with mine. I’m sorry to come asking, but I need you to come with me to California.”
A rumble strip throbbed beneath his feet, and Guy nudged the truck away from the shoulder. The wind was up, and he had to keep a firm grip on the wheel. The sky was a monolith of low gray clouds, spitting needles of sleet against the windshield.
In spite of the weather, things had gone easy. He’d managed to keep his cool when tailgaters blew their horns, to swing the trailer into traffic as they passed through Des Moines and Omaha. Taking charge of a twenty-ton rig, sending it hurtling down I-80, it might have intimidated another man. But back in Vietnam he’d been the driver for a Patton tank, crashing through the jungle, taking point on thunder runs: top speed with one track on the asphalt, the other spitting dirt, all guns firing, praying they didn’t hit a mine. And anyway, he’d made this trip before, every year for the past five, and always on his own.
That morning he’d found Taylor on her porch, slumped in a rocking chair. It was before dawn, and the house was still dark. He hadn’t asked if Andrea would be seeing them off. The stars were veiled, and a rabbit flung itself into the dark as he turned his headlights to the beeyard. He helped Taylor load her hives onto the flatbed, next to his own. When they were ready to leave, he offered her the little mattress behind the driver’s seat—he’d raised children too, knew how hard it was to get a decent night’s sleep with a baby in the house. Taylor said no, promised through yawns to help navigate.
Hours later, and she was still out cold, strapped into the passenger seat, her temple pressed against the glass of the cab. There was a sign for gas, and he took the exit for the travel plaza. Taylor stirred and looked around. “Everything okay back there?” she said, putting a hand through her dark, upswept hair.
“Sure,” he said. “They’re strapped in tight. We had some weather, but that’s what the tarps are for.”
Taylor looked once over her shoulder, then drew a phone from her chore coat. Splashing sounds came from the speaker, then a woman’s voice, a rhythmic murmuring, together with a child’s happy clamor.
“Andrea sent a video,” she said. “Oscar in the tub.” The warmth that spread over her face, it had nothing to do with Guy, but watching it made him feel close to her. The brakes hissed, then sighed as he eased the rig alongside a bank of diesel pumps. She tapped briefly on the screen, then pocketed the phone.
“The tank’s on my side, I’ll fill her up.”
“Alright,” he said. “I think I’ll stretch my legs.”
“Do you know how to work that thing or what?” said the man in line behind him. Guy was staring down at the card reader, his fingers hovering over the keypad. Had he already paid for the gas?
“Your card’s run,” the cashier was saying, “just need your PIN.” Place like this, no reason to think they would cheat you. In any case, best to play along. But looking down at the blank place on the screen, he couldn’t conceive of what numbers ought to go there. He had to put in something, but if the numbers were wrong, they’d make him start all over. He could hear the man behind him breathing.
“Step aside, some of us have loads to haul.”
“Just a minute,” Guy grumbled.
Alma. The number had something to do with her, but what? And where was she, anyway? Still in the bathroom? Every damn time. And if it wasn’t her, it was one of the boys. He was always having to pull off somewhere.
But no, that was a different time. Years ago. He was here with Taylor now. The card. The machine. She needed him to pay for the gas. He glanced over at one of the display racks. Did they have that gum he liked? The kind that tasted like licorice?
“Hey, I’m talking to you.” Someone tapped him on the shoulder. A trucker. He seemed to be grinding his teeth, the muscles along his jaw visibly taut. One of his arms was badly sunburned, the pale underflesh fringed with translucent patches of dead skin. A molting reptile.
“Quiet, now.” Guy turned back to the machine, waving his hand in the air as if swatting an insect. The next thing he knew, Taylor was there, saying his name.
“And who’s going to make me? You? Your little boyfriend here?” Sneering, the trucker turned to Taylor, looked her up and down. He looked both exhausted and agitated, a man kept awake by chemicals, capable of anything. The cashier, secure behind her bullet-resistant window, watched warily but said nothing.
“Fifty on pump nine,” Taylor said, shoving a wad of bills into the metal drawer beneath the window. “Happy now, asshole? Guy, take your card, we need to go.”
When they got back to the rig, Taylor reached under her seat. She unzipped her nylon bag, packed with snacks and other essentials, and drew out something heavy and black. A handgun, trigger and barrel secured in a molded-plastic holster. “You okay to drive?” she asked, arching her back and tucking the pistol into the waistband of her jeans.
“I’m fine,” he said, not sure yet if he was. He started the engine.
“Let’s go, then. I don’t want that psycho following us.”
“Her birthday,” Guy said when they were back on the interstate.
“The PIN. Five four forty-eight.” Alma’s birthday. How could he have forgotten a thing like that?
It wasn’t until hours later, when they’d traded the foothills of Arkansas for the Colorado Rockies, that Taylor stopped checking the rearview mirror, peering into the cab of every semi that got too close. Later, they pulled into a Safeway parking lot in Grand Junction, as good a place as any to spend the night. Guy insisted that Taylor take the sleeper cab. “My truck,” he said when she protested, “my rules. And that gun, we need to talk about that, too. Can I have a look?”
Taylor considered, then took the pistol out of its holster and handed it over. “I guess I should have said something about it.”
“Probably,” he said, checking that the safety was on and then weighing it in his hand. An all-metal, hammer-fired semiautomatic; a newer model, but not so different from the Colt 1911 he’d carried in Vietnam. “This size, I’d think it would be chambered for .45 caliber. But it’s light.”
“It’s a .22. I take it with me when I go camping.”
“We’re pretty far from the woods,” he said, handing it back.
“Don’t tell Andrea, alright? She doesn’t understand about guns.”
“I guess it’s your own business.”
“It is,” Taylor said, suddenly defensive. “Two thousand miles, to somewhere I don’t know anybody, where truckers and farmers and drunks—any man, basically—can decide that just because he doesn’t like my clothes, or my walk . . . I know what they’re like, what they do. No way I’m taking a trip like this and leaving my gun at home.”
It occurred to him that his idea of Taylor’s life might be distorted: his notion that she’d had it easier, never knowing a world that expected her to hide—at least, not the way he had. But refusing to hide, even now, he imagined there were risks to that, too. Things he probably knew nothing about.
“Well, alright,” he said, forcing a grin. “So long as you don’t point it at me.”
When Taylor was settled, Guy folded himself into a sort of crouch in the passenger seat. Feet propped on the dash, he tried to quiet his mind. The incident at the truck stop had left him shaken. The way he’d fallen out of the world, it was like slipping on black ice. No warning, no chance to catch himself. And that trucker running his mouth, like Guy was nothing at all. The worst of it was that Taylor had been there, a witness to his infirmity. He’d tried to apologize, but she’d just shrugged. No big deal, she’d said. She forgot things too: passwords, birthdays, the names of Andrea’s nieces. If she suspected there was something he wasn’t telling her, she seemed willing to let it go.
No point going into it. He needed only to stay vigilant, focus on the tasks in front of him. A few weeks, that was all, and then he’d be back home with his bees. He’d kept bigger secrets than this from neighbors and friends—from his children—and for much longer.
The next morning, he took a handful of Advil to soothe the pain in his back, and they traversed the whole of Utah. A sheen of still water stood over the salt flats, an enormous mirror perfectly reflecting mountains and clouds. I-80 was a bridge that split the sky.
Just before nightfall, they took the on-ramp to the Vegas Freeway. The Trump Hotel was visible for miles, a tower of gold-infused glass, tarnished by the late-afternoon sun. They pushed on to the San Joaquin Valley, then checked into a motel outside Bakersfield. When they got to the room, they each claimed a bed and fell asleep in their clothes.
After a breakfast of coffee, eggs, and chicken-fried steak, they set out for the Singh family orchard. Guy turned off the highway and onto a rutted access road. Beyond a rail wood fence stood rows of short, sturdy almond trees, an occasional pink-white blossom ornamenting their branches. When they reached the fence line, Taylor climbed down from the cab and swung open the cattle gate.
It was hours unloading, setting the hives on pallets at the end of each row of trees, Guy’s arrayed nearer to the gate so he wouldn’t have to walk as far to tend them. Their hives looked more or less the same, handmade boxes he’d shown Taylor how to craft from wood and wire. Still easy enough to tell apart. For years, it had been his practice, after assembling each box, to brand it with a home-crafted iron, always in the same spot. An AH for Autry Honey, the rough letters encircled by a crooked oval.
When they were finished, they sat with their backs against the trunks, in the shade of the new-blooming boughs. The sun was high in the sky, and across the row, Taylor was gulping water from a plastic bottle. She’d shed her shirt, and in her tank top he could see her shapely shoulders and the hard, lean muscles of her arms. It wasn’t ogling, he told himself. It had never been her woman’s body that fascinated him but something to do with her gestures, her walk, the mix of confidence and vulnerability. His attraction to her was nothing like what he’d felt for Alma: great love, but wan desire. It was more like what he felt for other men.
He wondered if there might be a kind of manliness that didn’t belong to men at all, one possessed instead only by certain kinds of women: the butch lesbians he’d seen in bars in the city, a few women he’d known in the service, the girl in his town who’d stayed a tomboy even into high school, so bold as to take a boy’s name—before her parents sent her away. These women, gay or straight, he’d always felt that they were somehow like him.
Did Taylor excite him, he wondered, or did he envy her, the kind of freedom she had, a self-assurance he’d always wanted but had never been able to inhabit? He looked at his boots, determined not to think about her anymore. Whatever these feelings were, they had to be wrong. It had been this way since he was a boy; he kept wanting the wrong things.
“Ready?” he said and cleared his throat.
They zipped into their bee suits and lit the smokers. Guy knew keepers who burned wooden pellets, burlap, even cotton waste. Though it meant shouldering a satchel from hive to hive, he’d brough
t fuel from home: long dry needles from the pines that grew on his land. He loved the smell of smoldering pine straw, the cool, white clouds that coiled from the funnel.
He directed a few puffs into the first box, then waited, giving the guards time to abandon their posts and wander, drowsily, deeper into the hive. Outside, bees hovered and dipped, drawing looping lines through the air. Others had begun to investigate the trees, lighting on the few flowers already in bloom.
Occasionally, a bee landed on his bare hands, crawled about, and then departed. He’d stopped wearing gloves years ago. They were too bulky, and besides, if you moved slowly and with care, few bees would sting you. Removing the covers and breaking seals of dried resin with his hive tool, he lifted the frames, then searched each box until he found the queen.
He was just putting the cover back on a hive when an SUV, freshly waxed and gleaming, pulled into the grove. Taylor was at the far end of the orchard, too far to hear him call. He removed his veil and walked alone in the direction of the gate. The vehicle’s windows were tinted, and he couldn’t make out the driver until the door swung open. A well-fed man in his thirties, his face framed by a short black beard. Erjot Singh.
Guy had met Erjot’s father, the Singh family patriarch, only once. The old man had gotten his start as a laborer in other men’s orchards, eventually saving enough to buy land of his own. Erjot, the eldest son, managed things now. Guy had heard the workers call him “the Little Prince.” He lived lavishly, it was said, and would, on his father’s death, inherit the Singh empire: two thousand acres of rich, central valley farmland with almond and pistachio orchards and a vineyard for growing raisin grapes.
The two men shook hands and talked in the language of farmers everywhere: weather, soil, seeds. And, because this was California, water. Erjot gestured to a plastic bucket. A line of bees was already marshaled along the rim, others perched on chips of wood that bobbed on the surface.
“We’ve had drought here the last two years. Micro-irrigation, flyover imaging—we’ve got to watch every drop.”
“I hear you,” Guy said. “But if they’re lacking for water on-site, they’ll go looking for it. That’s time they’re not pollinating your trees.”
Erjot didn’t assent, but he didn’t argue either.
They walked along a couple of rows, Guy showing off the hives, Erjot examining his trees.
“You’re just in time,” Erjot said when they were back at the gate. “Another day or two and all these trees will be in bloom. Big money,” he mused. “Small window.”
“Well,” Guy said, trying to sound good-humored, “we sure hauled ass to get here.”
They shook hands again, and Erjot gave him the first payment, a check made out to Autry Honey.
The next day, they slept in and took their time getting ready. He’d wanted to talk to Taylor about how to divide the day’s work, but for most of the drive to the orchard, she was on her phone.
“That’s not going to happen,” she said. “Well, she’s my cousin, actually. You’re being crazy.” She was silent for a long moment, then sighed heavily. “Look, it’s just me and Guy, cariño. It’s all orchards and IHOPS out here. Sweat and dirt and a motel off the interstate. As soon as we’re done, as soon as we’ve made this money, I’ll be home again.”
“Everything alright?” he asked when she was through.
“She’s acting like I’m out here on spring break. And you know how my mom came up, to help with Oscar? I guess she’s bossing Andrea around.”
At the orchard, he went looking for a hose while Taylor got into her suit; he’d top off the buckets and walk the rows before suiting up, see how his bees were taking to their new diet. He got as far as the first tree before he stopped, confused. Two hives, ones he’d tended himself the day before, had vanished, along with their pallets.
He willed himself to concentrate. Surely, he hadn’t lost his mind completely.
At his feet, a jumble of symbols had been pressed into the dirt. Gradually, he registered the marks for what they were: indentations left by pallet slats, together with boot prints and the overlapping tracks of forklifts. Almond flowers, both flattened and freshly fallen, lay in the wide chevrons of the tread marks, the pink blossoms smoldering against the dark earth. Shielding his eyes, he looked down the next row and the next. Gone. All of them gone.
He found himself walking, as if in a trance, toward one of the remaining hives. There was a scent in the air—alarm pheromone, a smell like those hard, banana-shaped candies sold at gas stations. Bees landed on the bare flesh of his neck and arms, stinging. As they pulled free, viscera tore from their abdomens—venom and acid sacks left behind.
“Guy,” Taylor called. “Hey, Guy!”
“Who would do this?” he said. And then, for the first time since Alma died, he began to cry.
“These guys, they knew what they were doing,” the sheriff said. “How many did you lose?”
Guy leaned against the fence, his face in his hands, unable to speak.
“More than half,” he heard Taylor say. “A hundred fifty, maybe? We haven’t had a chance to count.”
The number didn’t matter. There were too few left to fulfill the contract with the Singhs or even to run his operation back home. Insurance might pay out for an injured worker or a tornado, but not for this. With no money to replenish his stocks, the only asset he had was the apiary itself, the land on which he’d lived and worked for years. In one night, he’d lost everything, and, worse, he’d taken Taylor down with him. The shame of his impotence, his selfishness, it was almost too much to bear.
Back in the motel room, they sat at the little end table with the curtains drawn. Taylor had scraped the stingers from his neck and shoulders, pressed dollops of calamine lotion onto her fingertips and dabbed them onto the welts. What he must look like to her. His bare chest, strong but sagging. Tangles of spider veins visible beneath the sagging flesh of his arms. Normally, he would have resisted, embarrassed to be shirtless in front her. But after what had happened, he was past any care for pride or propriety.
“You can do the rest yourself,” she said, tossing the crumpled tube on the table. She paced the length of the room, her boots leaving muddy prints on the thin carpet.
His shirt was hanging over the empty chair, but reaching for it seemed impossible. He’d experienced something like this before, coming back from the war, a week when all he could do was sit, slumped and motionless on the living room couch. Later, Alma had told him that he’d refused to eat or take himself to the bathroom. Whenever she tried to speak to him, he would grimace and turn away.
Their doctor, a family friend, had come to the house to examine him but found nothing wrong. The next day, he returned with release forms for electroconvulsive therapy. Alma had feared their life together was over. But then one afternoon as she was eating cottage cheese in the kitchen, he’d sat up and asked for a glass of water. He hadn’t had an episode since.
“Motherfuckers!” Taylor shouted, sweeping one of the lamps off the nightstand, sending it crashing to the floor, the bulb flaring out with a dull pop. Not satisfied, she kicked it across the room. Guy stared at the crumpled shade, crooked on its dented base, then at Taylor, hands on her hips, practically panting with fury.
“I need you to snap out of it, Guy. I need you to get mad.”
He looked over at his shirt and willed his body to move. But some invisible force seemed to hold him in place. Slowly gathering his strength, he found he was able to lean forward. He grasped the shirt and pulled it over his head.
“Tomorrow,” Taylor said. “As soon as the sun is up. We’ll get a map. We’ll go down every back road, see if they were stupid enough to put them out someplace we can find them.”
They spent the next two days driving around in a rented sedan, scanning the deserts and canyons of the San Joaquin Valley for any sign of the hives. It wasn’t entirely hopeless; the land on either side of Interstate 5 was flat for hundreds of miles, punctuated occasionally by a gas station, a fast-food restaurant, or a field of pumpjacks. There were only so many places to hide the bright white boxes, fewer if the thieves hoped to keep the bees alive and healthy for resale. Besides, what was the alternative? Locking himself in the motel room with the curtains drawn, pinned to the bed by dread? At least this way, they were doing something.
“What did you say to Andrea?” he said. “That is, if you don’t mind my asking.”
“I told her the people here are assholes. I told her we’re getting sick of each other.” Taylor took a hand off the wheel and dug out some sunflower seeds from the bag in her lap. She cracked one open with her teeth and spat the shell out the window.
“And that’s all?”
“Just watch your side, okay?”
the first they’d spoken to each other all afternoon.
“I just want to fix this,” she said finally. “We fix it, finish the job, and she never has to know.” She shifted another seed from her cheek, cracked, and spat again. “You and Alma. You had secrets, right?”
“We did,” he said. “There were things I kept out of sight, or tried to.” Taylor’s anger, the silence between them, all day it had been like a dull ache in his chest. She was talking to him again, and he didn’t want that to stop. “She went through hell with me, I guess. The kind of man I am.” Taylor looked away from the road, as if trying to see from his expression what he might mean. “The kind that’s attracted to other men.”
He wasn’t quite sure why he’d said it. To show her how small her betrayal really was, how much more a marriage could stand. Or maybe just selfishness, a need to unburden himself, a hope that the distance she’d imposed might be narrowed somehow if she knew that this, too, was something they shared. He could tell from her look that she hadn’t suspected. Because he was old. Her idea of him, it probably didn’t include the sorts of desires that quickened and troubled the lives of younger people.
“So, then, when you and Alma were together,” she asked carefully, “did you have other lovers? Did she?”
“Not her. It was my problem. When I met Alma, I thought I was cured. I wouldn’t have gotten married if I’d known it would happen again.”
“Sounds peculiar, I know. But back then, that’s how I thought about it. It wasn’t who I wanted to be, so I tried to stop. But then I’d be tempted again. I’d give in. I’d ask her forgiveness and make promises. Then I’d put her through it all again. We stayed together, had our children, and I kept that other part of my life, well, I kept it separate. We didn’t talk about it anymore.”
“But she knew?”
“She knew who I was. When the kids were grown and out of the house, I offered to give her a divorce. But she didn’t want it. Neither of us did.”
As the light began to fail, they broke off their search and turned back towards the motel. Pulling into the lot, they found a black Lexus parked next to their rig. Erjot met them at the door.
Taylor put herself between the two men, said her name, and stuck out her hand.
“It’s Guy’s name on the contract,” she said. “But half the bees that got taken, they belong to me.”
“I see. I have some news about that. But maybe not out here . . .”
Taylor unlocked the door, and they went inside.
“We’ve been asking around,” Erjot said, removing his aviators and hooking them onto the collar of his shirt. “Someone calling himself ‘Laki’ has been reaching out to the other growers, saying he has hives to rent. My father and I, we think this is the man who stole from you.”
Hope hit Guy like a blow to the chest. All through their search, the frantic activity of the last forty-eight hours, he’d never really believed they’d get the bees back. It was just something to keep from shutting down again.
“One of our friends was contacted. He played me a phone message, and I recognized the voice.” As he talked, Erjot fingered the little diamond stud in his ear. “His real name is Fetu Leota. Years ago, he did some work for our family. But he started causing trouble, and we had to fire him.”
“So, you know where he is?” Taylor asked. “Have you told the police?”
Erjot shrugged. “We could do that. The sheriff will want to go to a judge and get a warrant. But all that will take time. Fetu is a coward. As soon as he senses trouble, he’ll run away. Maybe he takes your hives with him.” His voice was calm and remote, as if he had more important things on his mind. “His family will hide him. Here or in Samoa. Also, my father, he’s old fashioned. This sort of dispute, he doesn’t like to involve the police.”
“Dispute?” Taylor said. “We were robbed. Those colonies are worth thousands of dollars. Tens of thousands.”
“So,” Guy said. “It sounds like you have a different idea.”
“Yes.” Erjot placed a business card facedown on the table, a number jotted on the back. “Tell him you’re growers, willing to pay a high price for the hives.”
“Set up a meeting.”
“Exactly. Fetu and the hives will be at the same place at the same time. If you find that he’s stolen from you, you can handle things however you want.” The corner of Erjot’s eye twitched, stirring his fine black lashes. He set his sunglasses back on his nose and rose from the table. “What this man did, it was a terrible thing. My father and I, we regret that it happened on our land. But the almonds won’t wait to bloom. We can give you two more days. After that, if you don’t have the bees, we’ll have to get them from someone else.”
They met the man calling himself Laki in a suburban neighborhood at the edge of town: a network of cul-de-sacs lined with beige houses, aboveground pools set up in the yards. His fenced-in compound was little more than a split-wing with an attached garage, sitting on an acre and a half of sand and scrub-grass. As they approached the house, Guy saw the uneven rows of palettes, hives stacked two or three high. Most beekeepers painted their boxes white or grey, but these were bright orange, like the tops of traffic barrels.
In the driveway, a middle-aged man in cargo shorts and a sweat-stained polo waved them over. He greeted them with a wide smile, slapped their backs as if they were neighbors arriving for a barbecue.
“Sorry,” he said, “but the A/C isn’t working right now. We’ll be better off out here.” He led them to the backyard, a court of sun-scorched grass and a few evergreen bushes clinging to life. There was a trampoline, the sagging safety net half detached from the poles. Nearby, a miniature plastic chair, the kind used in preschools, lay overturned in the dirt.
They sat at a lawn table. Fetu reached into a cooler and handed them cans of Coors Light. “We can’t go higher than two-ten per box,” Taylor said, once they’d gotten down to business. Fetu tried to hide it, but Guy could see that he was pleased.
“Make it two-twenty and you’ve got a deal.”
“That works for us.” Taylor looked at him, and Guy paused, keeping up the act, then reached out to shake Fetu’s hand.
Fetu raised his beer. “To new friends, and a profitable partnership.” They tapped their cans together. It was all Guy could do not to seize the hive tool hidden in his jacket and see how many of the man’s teeth he could pry out.
“Let’s make it official,” Guy said, setting his beer on the table. “I’ll get the paperwork out of the car.” A quick look at Taylor told him that it would be fine to leave her there.
He went back around to the front of the house. In the driveway, he bent down and tucked his trousers into his socks; a few stings were inevitable, but he could do without bees getting inside his clothes. Leaving the car where it was, he headed in the direction of the orange boxes.
When he reached the first one, he dropped into a crouch and took out his hive tool. Angling the sharp end just above one of the handholds, he scraped off the top layer of paint. Sticky orange shavings clung to his blade, and he reached out to feel the exposed wood. Someone had been at it with a sander, but his fingers could still trace the faint outlines of a four-digit number, and after that, his brand mark, just where he knew to find it.
A popping sound, like the bursting of a plastic bag, echoed through the yard. It was quickly followed by a second pop. It was only after the third shot that he registered the sounds as gunfire. Bees still clinging to his hands and clothes, he turned and ran toward the house.
When he reached the backyard, he found Taylor on the patio, both hands gripping a pistol. She had tears in her eyes, from anger or fear, he couldn’t tell. Fetu was facedown on the ground, half inside the house and half out of it. The sliding door was partly open, the glass punctured and spidered where two bullets had passed through it. Fetu was down, but Taylor kept the gun trained on him. The smell of gunpowder still hung in the air.
“Fuck, I don’t know. He must have figured something was up. We were talking and then he flipped over the table, tried to get past me. Go through me. I mean, what was I supposed to—Fuck, this is bad,” she said. “This is so bad.”
“It’s alright.” Guy approached her slowly. “How would you feel about giving me that gun?”
Taylor glanced down first at Fetu, then at the gun. Guy reached out and, slow and gentle, the way he moved when he was working his bees, he placed his hands over hers. Gradually, she loosened her grip, let him wrest it away.
Fetu let out a little moan. At least he was still alive. Not that Guy cared whether he lived or died. His only concern was for Taylor. The plan, if they found the hives, had been to call the police. That wasn’t going to work now. They’d have to deal with the situation themselves.
“She shot me,” Fetu whimpered. “She fucking shot me.”
“Is there anybody else here?” Guy said, looking into the house. “Is anybody coming?”
“I’m hurt. I’m bleeding.”
“I asked you a question.” Guy pulled back the slider and let it go—the unmistakable click-clack of a round being chambered. He took aim at the back of Fetu’s head, his thumb finding the safety, flipping it on.
“Up on your knees.” Reaching for the doorframe, Fetu complied. Blood seeped from his waist, running down his leg and staining his shorts. Not spurting, though. That was good. Guy had heard three shots, two of which had gone into the door. So, shot once in the hip with a twenty-two, a round better suited to killing squirrels than people. They’d caught a break, it seemed. This man wasn’t going to die; he was barely injured.
“It’s my house. It’s just me. Please, don’t—”
“You got a car in that garage?”
“You’re going to get in it. Now.”
“Guy,” Taylor said, hesitant.
“You’re going to drive far away from here,” he continued, “and forget this ever happened. We know who you are, and we know what you did. The police will too, if you don’t get out of here right now.”
Guy found himself sitting on the couch in an unfamiliar house, a ceiling fan slowly churning the air. His hands were dappled with stings and in one of them he seemed to be holding a pistol. The sound of machinery and shouting reached him, and he got up to look out the window. Men dressed for farm work, people he didn’t know, were loading hives onto pallets. Another man drove a forklift, transferring the hives to a flatbed truck.
They weren’t the right color, but somehow, he knew these boxes were his, full of his bees. He was angry, already very angry, though he wasn’t sure what the feeling was attached to. Whatever was happening out there, he was going to put a stop to it. Was that why he had the gun? He flipped off the safety.
Outside, the sun was blinding. When he could see clearly again, he pointed the pistol into the air and pulled the trigger. It was so light in his hands, made such a pathetic little crack, that he fired again just to be sure he hadn’t imagined it. The men stopped what they were doing and stared. One dropped to the ground, and another dove behind a stack of boxes.
“What’s going on here?” Guy demanded. “What do you think you’re doing on my property?” It looked nothing like his property. But his hives were here. None of it made any sense.
“What the fuck, Guy,” someone shouted. “Put the gun down!”
Shading his eyes, he searched for the source. With the sun at her back, he couldn’t be sure, but it seemed to be Taylor, maybe twenty yards away. She was walking toward him, her hands raised. This was wrong, all wrong. He dropped the gun and backed into the house.
As he sat on the couch, certain facts surfaced. He was not in Iowa but California. His hives had been stolen by a man named Fetu, and this was Fetu’s house. The people outside worked for the Singhs; he had been the one to call them. There was a gentle knock on the frame, and then Taylor came to sit beside him.
“Guy, are you okay?”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I was confused.”
Without thinking, he wiped his nose on the sleeve of his suit jacket. It had begun to run.
Years later, Taylor drove her own rig, bringing her bees to the Singhs’ orchard, then moving on to pollinate plums, cherries, apples—even cotton and lima beans. By the time Guy retired, she was doing well enough to buy him out. After that, he kept only the house and a few hives, working them just for the pleasure of it. In the afternoons, he sat in a chair in the yard, the nurse inside if he needed her, and watched his bees.
His feet bare, he gripped the soft grass with his toes. All these years and his love for the bees—his admiration for their industry, the fierceness with which they defended what was theirs—it had not diminished. They served one another and harmed nothing. Was there any human being who could say the same?
One of the colonies was bearding, a thick curtain of bees hanging from the bottom of the hive. Scouts were already on the wing, looking for a new home. Left to themselves they would choose wild and broken-down places over the handsome boxes he built for them. A hollow tree perhaps, or the eaves of an abandoned barn. In the past, he would have split the colony, placed the old queen and her retinue in an empty box. But there was no need for that now. He’d let them go. A summer breeze brought the scent of pine. The sound of wings, a gentle hum, fading as he closed his eyes.
Author statement: The idea for “Keeping” came from an article in National Geographic about bee heists in Canada and the western United States. I realized early on that to tell this story, I would need to learn about bees and beekeeping, the decline in honeybee populations, the pesticides that leave them vulnerable to fungal parasites and mites, almond growing in California, and more. Luckily, as a librarian, I’m no stranger to research and enjoy opportunities to indulge my curiosity.
For help thinking about Guy and Taylor, queer people of different generations, both seeking to make lives for themselves in the rural Midwest, I consulted oral histories gathered by projects like StoryCorps’ Stonewall OutLoud, the Country Queers podcast, and LGBT Oral Histories of Central Iowa. There is a moment in the story when Guy considers Taylor’s gender in relation to his own feelings of identification and desire. My thinking about what is happening in that scene was influenced by engagement with drag performances by Alana Kumbier (among others), queer spaces curated by producers such as Aliza Shapiro, and scholarly work by gender theorists—especially Jack Halberstam’s Female Masculinities. I’m grateful to my teachers Ethan Canin and Margot Livesey, as well as my fellow workshoppers at Iowa. This story went through several drafts, and it was greatly improved by their comments and suggestions.
Thomas Dodson is a librarian and assistant professor at Southern Oregon University in Ashville, Oregon. His fiction has appeared in Gulf Coast, Chicago Quarterly Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, and elsewhere. Founding editor of Printer’s Devil Review, he was also the executive editor of the Best Indie Lit New England series. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was an Iowa Arts Fellow.
Karen Tucker on Her Debut Novel ‘Bewilderness’
Our June 4 prose feature, “Bewilderness,” was adapted from Karen Tucker’s short story “Anklewood,” which appeared in TMR 40:4. Tucker’s recently published novel from Catapult is a story of female friendship, low-wage work, and addiction in small-town North Carolina. In the interview that follows, Matthew Zanoni Müller talks with the author about the intersection of her own experience and her debut novel. You can read our featured excerpt from “Bewilderness” here.
Following Each Dangling Thread: An Interview with Karen Tucker about Her Debut Novel Bewilderness, and Writing about the Restaurant Industry, Friendship, and Addiction
by Matthew Zanoni Müller
Matthew Zanoni Müller: Your two main characters, Irene and Luce, both work restaurant jobs. This is how they make their money, where they meet, and where they forge their friendship. It is also where they encounter a host of challenges, from sexual harassment, to low pay, to difficult customers. Your book seems very interested in exploring this industry that you worked in yourself for years. What was it like mining this territory? Were there specific things you hoped readers would take from Irene and Luce’s experiences?
Karen Tucker: It’s funny: back when I was mired neck-deep in the restaurant industry, the absolute last thing I wanted to do was write about it. Imagine working so hard your legs shake as you walk to your car at midnight, going home and having yet another waiter nightmare that leaves you stressed-out and exhausted, and then waking up to spend even more time in that world by writing a story about a couple of food servers? No, thanks. But at some point after those twenty-plus years had passed, my ruined legs and I decided to allow ourselves to be exploited in a different fashion, and together we finagled our way into grad school. In Florida, with a sizeable pay cut, I taught writing to undergrads in exchange for time to work on a novel. Of course I deeply missed my restaurant colleagues––the funniest, most creative bunch of humans you could ever assemble––and at last I was ready to tie myself into an imaginary apron and write about the lean and hungry experience of waiting tables. One thing I wanted readers who haven’t been on the other side of the table to understand is that it’s not the romanticized version of low-income work we see so often in various stories. Forget the popular customer-as-savior trope––harassment is a million times more likely. No one theatrically quits midshift in protest over harassment; you can’t afford to. Your manager probably won’t defend you if you complain, but you also won’t get fired on the spot if you say something rude to Mr. Harasser. Your manager will instead wait for you to finish out your tables, do your sidework, turn in the cash and credit card slips you’ve collected, and leave the building. Only after you’ve shown up for work the following day, hoping to earn a few more crucial dollars, will they give you the axe.
MM: This is foremost a book about addiction. We follow Luce and Irene as they score drugs, go to meetings, and experience the highs and lows of pills. How did you approach balancing the very real and specific characteristics of both Irene and Luce’s addiction with the larger and more universal workings of this world that so many experience?
KT: By no means did I set out to scrutinize the pharmaceutical industry, the rehab industry, the health insurance industry, or any other for-profit systems that routinely fail people with substance use disorder. I have no experience in that kind of reportage. My only goal was to take a close-up look at two characters: Irene and Luce. As I came to discover, peering through a magnifying lens tends to reveal something unexpected, and you can’t tell the full story about food servers in a former mill town unless you’re willing to follow each dangling thread. In the end I spent as much time researching the circumstances of these characters’ lives as I did imagining them. In this way, I often felt more like the novel’s reader than its writer. Some days it felt as though the story were being told to me. Not in a spooky mystical sense––no characters were channeled in the drafting of this story––but I learned so much about my novel and those who inhabit it by reading numerous accounts of shady pain management centers, criminal rehab centers, doctors who accept payments from pharmaceutical reps in exchange for overprescribing opioid medication, and doctors who refuse to prescribe meds to patients with real pain.
MM: At the heart of this book is the friendship between Irene and Luce. In an especially poignant moment, Irene says, “That night, when I met Luce’s eyes in the dim of her beat-up Impala . . . I sensed she understood me better than anyone, including my own mother.” This moment explains so much of what comes after. The small acts of sabotage Irene engages in to keep Luce close to her, the protective need she has to keep Luce in her life. It seems to me that friendships don’t always get the nuanced attention they deserve in our culture. What considerations did you have in mind as you chose to center a friendship in this story?
KT: I wrote this novel at a very lonely time in my life. This is embarrassing to admit, even to myself. But yes: I was an older person who had gone back to school after dropping out of undergrad years earlier. I felt ill-equipped, anxious, frightened. At times I felt excluded because of the age difference––not always, but enough for it to sting. Looking back, I think I dreamed up this intense and heady relationship, flawed though it is, because I so very much wanted a friend like Luce.
MM: Irene and Luce are constantly scraping for extra money, have to settle for the indignities associated with low-wage work, and near the end, when Luce is offered the opportunity go to a posh rehab facility, Irene cannot join her since she does not have insurance. Their town of Anklewood too, seems to have fallen on hard times: “The old Revco where we’d once filled my father’s heart med prescriptions before it went out of business, which was now E-Z Title Pawn and Payday loans. After that came a string of boarded-up buildings…” How did you approach thinking about class in this book? Is the role of the novel to describe and illuminate, or should it also advocate in some way?
KT: When I first saw Bewilderness being described as set in a world of poverty, it surprised me a little. These women have jobs, they pay rent each month. Luce has a car that needs repairs, but it’s not totaled. Irene has a thousand dollars in her savings account. These were my circumstances for years and years, and while I understand now that some people view this as impoverished, to me it’s normal. At the same time, I always intended for class to play a distinct role in this novel. By centering a low-income community and scooting middle-class earners out to the periphery, it felt like seizing hold of something vital. Power, I think is the word. Along with class, gender plays a sizable part in how Irene and Luce’s circumstances unfold, as does their whiteness. Throughout the novel, I tried to show how these three identities, inextricable from each other, work for and against them in multiple ways. And just like you can’t separate multiple identities in a set of characters, it’s impossible to extract them from an author. A white author who doesn’t engage with whiteness, class, and gender likely sees no need to because they’re already in possession of power and glad of it. Writers who insist that art should be some mythical version of neutral are––as my mom would say––telling on themselves.
MM: The previous question also brings up for me the ways in which this book tackles sexual harassment and the very real dangers that Irene and Luce face in a variety of situations, be it trying to score or working at a restaurant. You write, for example, how they get a job at a chain restaurant and how one of the major benefits of this setup is that there is “Even a sexual harassment hotline that went straight to corporate.” How did you approach writing about the dangers posed to female addicts in particular?
KT: Very few women escape harassment of some kind, and statistics reveal that many of us have experienced far worse than that. Among other delights, I’ve been chased on foot, chased in a car, serially harassed at multiple jobs by customers and co-workers, received explicit anonymous letters mailed to my apartment, and been grabbed by any number of male humans, including one who briefly and terrifyingly refused to let me leave his house. Once, a customer asked me to join him for drinks elsewhere after my shift ended. I declined, excusing myself with some made-up story. The next morning I learned that he’d shot the cocktail server he went out with instead. I won’t describe the grisliest event of all, which happened to a woman I worked with back when I was Irene’s age and she was Luce’s. She is no longer alive. All this is to say that it wasn’t difficult to weave the dangers of being a woman into this novel. It would have been impossible to leave them out.
MM: Irene’s voice rings so bright and true in the book, and so much of my experience of reading this book was propelled by that voice. Did you hear it right away or did it develop over time? I imagine you must have spent a lot of time crafting the delicate balance of her voice as both a real person and someone tasked with telling this story.
KT: Thank you for saying that about Irene’s voice! I’ve always sucked at that part of storytelling, so it makes me happy to hear. Whatever might be effective about Irene’s voice is probably the result of two things: years and years of writing, and a lot of personal fear/anger/desire finding its way into the sentences. Once I gave up trying to sound smart, abandoned the notion of pretty language, and instead harnessed those feelings, I was better equipped to fight my way through the story’s brambles, including the dilemma of how to tell it. Also, I thought a lot about readers and how short our time is on this absurd little planet. I tried hard not to bore anyone.
MM: In an epic chapter you make use of a Reddit substream and allow the reader this objective look at Irene and how she interacts with the other members of this group. This was a risky move in the book, since it took us outside her perspective. It also brought us right into one of the spaces where Irene clearly spends a lot of her time. How did you come to include this section in your book, which ends up being part of the emotional weight of your ending?
KT: Haha, that was one of the most enjoyable chapters to write and I’m glad it worked for you. It probably doesn’t work for everyone. The idea to include it came about pretty naturally, since I was already spending a lot of time on Reddit. I knew why someone like Irene might be drawn to that world. I mean, hey, if you’re marginalized and/or criminalized, as people with substance use disorder so often are, anonymous online message boards can be a great way to safely find community. Added bonus: that chapter gave me the opportunity to include a wide range of voices, since up until that point in the story, narrator Irene has been hogging the mic.
As a baby writer, I used to believe that first-person point of view is the most intimate of choices, but now I think first-person can be the most distancing, which for me is a big part of the attraction. It’s certainly one way for writers to get a lot of mileage out of that perspective, since it essentially gives readers two stories: the one the narrator is telling them, and the shadow story hot on its heels. Including the Reddit chapter was my way of hitting Irene with one of those oversized theatre spotlights, making her shadow even more prominent.
MM: We are currently living through a pandemic where issues surrounding mental health have risen to the fore. Included in this is the difficulty that so many people who struggle with addiction are facing. A student I was very fond of overdosed in his car in our school parking lot, and while I don’t know too much about his situation, I can only imagine that this pandemic did not help. It’s tough to discuss a book’s timeliness, and of course you wrote this before the pandemic, but I’m wondering whether you’ve been thinking about this at all as you’ve watched the events of the last year unfold. Do you have hopes for how it will be received?
KT: I’m so sorry to hear about your student. I came very close to losing a loved one in January 2021. Thank god for the quick response from EMTs and the paramedic. Thank god for Jack Fishman, inventor of naloxone. It’s true this global health crisis did no favors to people who grapple with substance use disorder. Recent data from the CDC confirms that overdose deaths accelerated during the pandemic. And once again, it’s impossible to ignore how race and class play into this. Research shows that Black and brown individuals receive less evidence-based treatment than white people, partly due to racial bias from medical providers, partly because there’s less community access. Meanwhile, class and income levels affect everything from the cost of short and long-term treatment, to the availability of life-saving Narcan, to the ability and willingness to call an ambulance during an overdose crisis, to living in an accessible location that allows a medical team to reach you in time. As far as Bewilderness goes, this novel was written by a person who felt a bit stranded and at sea. If it helps someone else feel less alone during this terrible era, I would be grateful.
MM: During a chapter where they’re working a booth at a fair, Luce meets Wilky, the man who poses a threat to their friendship by wanting to lure Luce away to Florida and therefore, out of Irene’s life. In a moment of jealous abandonment, Irene “Went straight to her purse and chewed up [their] last two pills.” When Luce confronts her about it later, she lies. I was taken by moments like this because we spend a lot of the novel watching Irene work through her need for something steady, reliable, for something like love. And throughout we see her struggling with this. Her flaws are what end up revealing her desires so forcefully to the reader and also set up the double-bind of her gracious act at the end of the novel. In a time where we often talk about likeable or unlikable characters, this seemed like a risky move. And yet, we wouldn’t know her at all without these moments and the book takes so much of its beauty from them. Did you worry about whether or not she was likable, or did you just write her as she was? Is this even something we should ever worry about as writers? It seems like such a trap.
KT: My favorite protagonists are sloppy, flawed people. My favorite people are flawed and sloppy. I happen to be someone who very much wants to be liked as well as someone who turns out to be quite unlikeable with regrettable frequency. It’s the neediness, I think. Not ideal in a real-life situation, but quite useful for a character. It wasn’t difficult to have Irene make impulsive, needy decisions. Besides, if she’d been anything close to a saint, I would have abandoned the draft early on out of boredom. Her constant hunger kept me awake and paying attention. Some days I felt compelled to write just so she’d settle down a little––and once I finished, I felt myself settle down a bit, too.
You ask if this likability quality is something authors should worry about. Who knows? No doubt some readers will be put off by Irene’s nonsense, and since I hope to publish another novel at some point in the future, it’s probably not the most brilliant strategy to make writerly choices that will cut into the numbers. Anyone trying to earn actual income as a storyteller has no shortage of obstacles. Maybe I shouldn’t have chucked another one onto the pile. For me, though, my primary concern was creating a real human who exists in a fantastical situation––by which I mean plopped on a watery rock and hurtling through a vacuum-packed concoction of radiation and space plasma and who knows what else. It’ll all be over sooner than we expect. I did my best in this book to slow things down and take them moment-by-moment, and although I dedicated Bewilderness to those of us who are already gone, I also wrote it for those of us who are trying to stay.
Matthew Zanoni Müller received his MFA from Warren Wilson College and published a memoir with his father entitled Drops on the Water: Stories about Growing Up from a Father and Son (Apprentice House). He has also published shorter works in the Southeast Review, NANO Fiction, the Boiler Journal, Hippocampus, and Halfway Down the Stairs, among others. Müller is an associate nonfiction editor at Pithead Chapel and is at work on a novel. He was born in Bochum, Germany and lives in western Massachusetts, where he teaches English at his local community college. To learn more about his writing, please visit: www.matthewzanonimuller.com
“Flying Lessons” by Melissa Madore
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too vibrant to be confined between the covers of a print journal. Melissa Madore’s “Flying Lessons” follows the unique personal journey of a woman named Anna, in a narrative centered around self-discovery, and the acceptance of transformation.
William wakes up to the sight of Anna standing by the apartment window, her pearly-gray feathers glistening in the light of the morning sun. Her gaze is fixed on the doves shuffling on the fire escape, their wings unfolding, ready to take flight. She isn’t aware of his presence. Her eyes are open, but she is still in her dream.
At least the window is shut. Last week he found her on the floor in the early hours of the morning, a chair tipped next to her, feathers everywhere. Regaining awareness, she grabbed his legs. She told him how she had felt the weightlessness and the rush of air. He scanned her body for injuries—nothing. Her wings had cushioned her fall. Or had she actually glided for a few seconds?
Her wings emerged at fifteen. While other girls compared the swelling and firmness of their breasts, the way they turned their bodies into objects of lust and mystery, her chest remained flat. Instead, she felt the prick of something hard on her back. She stretched her arm, pinching and pulling, felt feathers slipping out, tender and wet as a newborn. The lump that swelled on her back itched at night. What came out weeks later was never intended for flight—too frail. She cannot fly. Her wings, framed by thin bones, can merely displace pockets of air: no more than a breath snuffing out a candle.
When he met her a year ago, she wore a masquerade mask of a bird and a low-back dress—the wings looked part of a dress-up. The club where he was bartending on weekends was near Broadway Centre Theatre, and they often had troupes of actors and members from bands coming to party after their show.
“I like the costume,” he said.
She let out a sound like a chirp.
The different shades of gray, their fragility, and the way they moved with her—there was something organic about the feathers. “They look real,” he said, pointing at the wings.
“What, you like birds?” She lifted up her mask, looked straight into his eyes. “Birds are unpredictable.” Her throat throbbed a little when she spoke. She had a long, very fine neck.
By the fire escape, there is a rustle of wings. Pigeons take off, and Anna’s stare is tethered to their flight. She looks skinny and pale, and he thinks this might be how her flying dream materializes—her losing weight until she becomes so light that gravity loses its grip on her, and she starts to float.
At least today, she is trying something. They are meeting up with James, a paragliding instructor who will take her for a tandem jump. They met him last week while hiking at the Wasatch Mountains. Anna had wanted to see the sego lilies, in full bloom after the wet spring. Midsummit, they came across a group of paragliders standing in a circle, heads touching. Anna pulled on William’s hand. Together they watched as the paragliders lined up onto the ledge. The tallest approached them and slipped them a business card. His name was James. The card read How about flying Utah with me?
As they head out of the city, they drive past electric lines heavy with birds. William wonders why they gather there. “They think it’s alive,” Anna says, pointing at the line as if she’s heard his thoughts. “It’s pulsing like a heartbeat.” She reaches forward, taps on his chest. This is something she does, give him facts about birds, convinced that she knows. “Birds have accents,” she once told him. “Listen.”
They have come up with many theories for her wings. Once, when they were talking about it, he said she was a hybrid, her mother actually a scientist who took pity and stole her from a lab. But her mother couldn’t even measure laundry powder—Anna spent a childhood with soap-stained dresses. And when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, years after they’d arrived in Salt Lake City, she had no answers for Anna, knew of no fancy treatments. She swallowed all her morphine tablets and called it a day. “Worst scientist ever,” Anna said.
They were drinking that day. Anna couldn’t tolerate alcohol very well. She downed her wine, and then suggested that DNA contained genetic material from all the species, everything that had ever been and would ever be. Nothing created, nothing lost—that was her theory. “Maybe we will need wings,” she said, toppling onto the couch. “Maybe our next world is somewhere high up.” She lifted her hand and pointed at the ceiling. Her head lolled, and soon she was asleep.
On nights she can’t settle against his body, he feels guilty for his mundanity. It’s not only the wings, but the fact that her desires seem so clear to her. He’s a drifter: a middle child, a college dropout, a bartender who can’t hold a job for more than a summer. His brothers both lead successful lives as lawyers in California. They send him glossy postcards of sunny coasts. He writes back telling them he would never ever trade the views here. What he doesn’t say is how the views make him feel small and inadequate.
Anna and her mother found refuge in Utah exactly because of the landscape: it was easier to hide in a place where eyes had so many reasons to be drawn to the surroundings. In Chicago, people had too much ambition. Doctors, when consulted, told them the wings were an abnormal growth. They made Anna climb chairs and told her to jump. They asked if she felt something, in that moment just before she hit the floor: a twitch in her wings, an itch. With Anna’s father long gone, her mother pulled her out of school, and they fled.
For seconds, William loses control of the car and it wanders slightly on the shoulder line.
“Are you OK?” Anna sits up straight.
“Yes,” he says as he steers the car back onto its course. He rubs his face. “Just tired.” He almost says, “because a little birdie kept me awake” but doesn’t. This happens when he gets lost between the ordinary and what she is.
James is already waiting at the parking lot when they pull in the driveway. His eyes follow Anna as she climbs out of the car. They told him about the wings. Anna didn’t want to bandage them for the flight. As with any other limbs, the effort of moving them is both conscious and at times unconscious, involuntary. When she has a fright, they flare up. When, in bed, William moves his hands up and down their length, they twitch. If they are tied up, all these impulses made them ache.
After learning about the wings, James told them he was himself a birdman. He forwarded them a picture of him wearing a wingsuit—a jumpsuit with arms and legs connected by fabric, used for wingsuit flying. The suit made him look like an odd superhero.
Now he is not wearing shoes. His skin is sunburned and thick, the blond of his hair almost white. “We’ll hike through here,” he says as they approach, pointing at a spot where the mountain yawns open. William offers his help with the backpack, but James smiles and starts to lead the way.
They hike until they reach a ledge. There James sets down his duffel bag and announces that this is where they will launch. The wings James extracts from his bag are flashy and bold— red, green, and white like a Christmas candy cane. He spends a lot of time smoothing creases and aligning strings. There is a clear ritual, and William stands at a distance.
While he sets up, Anna sits at the tip of a boulder, her head cocked as if she is listening to something. Her wings are fanned out. She looks pristine, sunlight adding texture to the gray of her feathers, like mother-of-pearl.
James calls her to him. He shows her where to sit, back to front with him on the harness seat, her wings on each side of his head. He betrays no emotion when feathers brush against his chin.
“When I tell you to run, you run for your life,” he says. His mouth is close to her ear, his hand in the middle of her wings. The skin there, right at the joint, is very soft, William knows. Sometimes Anna asks him to bite at this spot, softly, tenderly.
They take position and start running, and within seconds they are miles away.
William is to meet them back at the parking lot. He looks for them on the way down, spots them drifting gently, crisscrossing the sky as if following an invisible path. He stops to watch. James appears to be making them spin, and William wonders if this is for Anna’s sake, to give her a thrill.
When he reaches the base an hour later, Anna is waiting, sitting on a rock, arms wrapped around folded knees. James is packing the wings next to her.
“How was it?” He asks both of them.
Anna shrugs without looking up.
“She should try wingsuit-flying,” James says. He brings his hands together and makes them fly in the air. “No harness. No strings. Free. Like a bird.” He gazes skyward and suddenly smiles, as if he and the sky are in on a private joke. William looks up—clouds are starting to take shape. He remembers how James had insisted they meet him early because the weather was going to change by midafternoon. When they left, the sun was a perfect orange disk, not a wisp of white in the sky.
Anna stands up. William notices how her pixie cut is a mess, ruffled by the paraglide ride. She cut her hair last week, a spur-of-the moment endeavor.
“When can we start?” she says, looking at James.
“Wingsuit? First you need to qualify as a skydiver.”
“Can we start tomorrow?”
James lets out a chuckle as if recognizing something in her, something he expected. He lifts his hands above his head, and seconds later it starts to drizzle. He smiles.
“Sure thing,” he tells her.
It is the beginning of June. James thinks that if she jumps at least once a week, she will be ready for her first wingsuit-flying jump by winter. William wants to know if they can fly even when it snows. James jerks his shoulders, grins. “Never stopped a bird.”
James has his theories, too, about Anna. He asks William one day about whether she can really not fly—not even glide?—and hearing that she can’t, that her bones are too heavy and everything about the wings is wrong, he stares at the ground for a long time, disappointed, and then confesses how a small group of wingsuit flyers believe that what they are doing, wingsuit flying, is evolution. “Think of the flying squirrels,” he says.
In the course of the summer, William catches him on several occasions on his knees, picking up Anna’s feathers. He is aware of how James’ hand keeps returning to the pocket where he places them. Like a tongue to a wobbly tooth.
Anna has to complete two hundred free-fall skydiving jumps. James makes all the arrangements for her training. He has a friend who owns a Cessna. First William accompanies them, and then he stops. The ride makes him dizzy; he feels the rattle of the plane through his teeth, finds the interior smells of metal and old anxiety. And he stays behind also because of how Anna rises, straight as an arrow, as soon as James opens the door, how she spontaneously positions herself on the ledge, a ton of air already hitting her face, how she jumps into the void without ever looking back.
One night while she sleeps on her side and her wings part slightly, he sees the bruises. They look like ink spots, some of them resembling shapes—a heart, a leaf.
“You’re jumping too much,” he tells her in the morning.
She waits. “Do I have a choice?”
She becomes more and more agitated when she dreams, as if fighting the stillness of the mattress. Twice she jumps off the bed. When she opens her eyes, she looks wilder than she ever has before.
Her feathers, he notices, have picked up different scents since she’s been jumping. They smell like grass, leaves, or smoke from distant fires.
One morning he catches her in front of the bathroom mirror. She is twisting her head farther than he could ever reach. She frantically takes hold of feathers and starts to bite.
“Everything itches,” she says, upon seeing him. “It’s like a healing wound. Maybe it’s a good thing?”
She wants to sleep on the mountain. She argues that it doesn’t make sense for her to make the journey all the way back to Salt Lake City every time. And in between the skydive jumps, she wants to paraglide. She has borrowed James’s equipment. She doesn’t ask William if he wants to go with her. She brings him keepsakes—small stones, branches, bird feathers, not hers, that are long and stiff and asymmetrical. “Flight feathers,” she says, pointing at their ragged edges and stroking them gently. She presses them against his nose. They smell like dust.
“How does it feel to skydive?” he asks on a day she is stranded at home because it is too windy to jump.
They are sitting on the balcony. The wind catches her wings, lifts some feathers. All her home sweaters have slits in them. Outside, she keeps her wings bandaged, concealed under thick jerseys.
“It doesn’t feel like falling, more like accelerating toward the land,” she says.
He searches her eyes. There is screeching and cooing—not far from them, pigeons are shuffling on a gutter. There are youngsters, too. Their cry is high-pitched like a door hinge. She points at them. “They never get thrown out of their nest to learn to fly, you know. Never on purpose. They leave when they are ready to fly. When they know they can.”
As she speaks, two adults take off. There is the flutter of wings like a gift being hastily unwrapped. The baby pigeons’ cries intensify. Their beaks are wide open, the insides of their mouths are dark holes. None of them try to follow.
When fall comes, she goes through a molt. The feathers that grow back are long and dark. She loses a molar. Her toenails grow thick, hard to file. She accidently claws him at night. “Did I do this?” she says, finding him in the bathroom one night, a bottle of peroxide in his hand and a bleeding ankle. “It’s OK, just a scratch,” he says. But it hurts. The wound is deep and will take a long time to heal.
Sometimes when they talk, her voice suddenly rises and drops. It is as if she is seeking to imitate his voice. Soon he realizes that she can echo the calls of the red throats, the sparrows, and the mourning doves that come by the kitchen window. There are also more birds that hang around the apartment—last week he surprised a falcon balancing on the flower box. A new flock of doves nestled in the gutters.
One afternoon, he comes home to her sitting on the kitchen counter, crouched under the running tap. She is moving her head in and out of the water trickle. When she sees him, she hisses; he sees it in a flash, the ghost of her wildness. He steps away from the kitchen, carefully.
By the end of spring, she has lost the ability to speak.
“I love you,” he tells her before going to sleep.
“Drill. Drill,” she answers, staring back, unblinking. Instead of her eyes closing, a thin membrane of skin swipes horizontally across her eyes.
For a job, Anna is an assistant editor for an online travel magazine. Most of the time, she writes about places she has never visited. The details she gives are sometimes so precise that she wonders whether she might have seen the waterfalls she describes so vividly, the sequoia forests, the river brimming with rainbow trout. She once asked, “What if I have flown above them . . . in another life?”
“You’re good at your job,” William interrupted. But the truth was that he was more scared about her being wrong than being right.
When the magazine editor calls, asks to speak with Anna because she hasn’t submitted articles in days, William tells her that Anna has fallen ill, too sick to even let her know. As he speaks, he suddenly feels overwhelmed. He looks at his hand—the five fingers, the moon-shaped fingernails. Wherever Anna is going, if there is such a place higher up, he is not going.
James drops by the apartment. Anna hasn’t met up with him in weeks, and he is worried. He also has something exciting planned for her: BASE jumping, a sport that involves launching from cliffs and delaying the deployment of a parachute.
But Anna is not home, William explains. James enters the house anyway. Together they sit outside and drink beers. James points at feathers stuck between the balcony railings. “Are they hers?”
William looks at them for a long time before he realizes he can no longer tell.
The wind hisses. The mountains in front of them stand tall, solid. Somewhere in the middle of small talk, William asks James, “Wingsuit-flying, BASE jumping . . . why do it?”
James brings his fingers to his lips. He takes a sip of a beer, then another. He scratches his head. In the end, he can’t explain.
After she’s been gone a week, William drives to the Cottonwood Canyon State Park. This is where she has been camping mostly. He waits till dusk, takes the longer way heading back. The next day, he spends the night at the park. He lies awake in his tent, hears sounds—howls, shrieks—he can’t place. He hopes Anna is safe.
In the morning, he spots her. She is perched on a high branch of a bare cottonwood tree overlooking his tent. The nails on her feet have grown into powerful claws. She has lost all her hair; her body is a lattice of dark, velvety-brown feathers, except for the feathers on her face, which are bone white—he has a vision of a bald eagle.
All the time, Anna watches him with wings slightly spread, talons clutching the white bark. He inches forward; the thin remaining layer of first snow bears witness to his presence, crunching under his feet, holding an imprint.
He tries reaching a hand to her. She crouches, lets out a high-pitched cry. A feather comes loose and drifts downward. He bends slowly and picks it up, brushes it against his lips. It tastes like salt and grass and mud, like everything that is around and beyond.
He returns several times to the mountains, but never sees Anna again or if he does, he does not recognize her. Twice, he comes across a bald eagle, feels the intensity of its stare before seeing the flashes of white, the yellow feet. It crosses the sky above him, always alone, its giant wings eclipsing the sun. There is a whistle of air as it speeds. Then the sky goes quiet.
Melissa Madore is a French Canadian writer who lives in Cape Town, South Africa. Years ago, she was the first-prize winner of the French competition “Les dix mots de la Francophonie.” In 2010, her story “Swallow Dive” was chosen as a Regional winner (Canada/UK) for the Commonwealth short story award. In 2019 “That’s Not the Story,” a craft essay, was featured in the Masters Review blog. When not writing, she teaches French for corporates. She has two amazing daughters, a wonderful husband, and lives by the sea. “Flying Lessons” is her first story publication.
“The Names of the Saints” by Megan Peck Shub
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too vibrant to be confined between the covers of a print journal. In Megan Peck Shub’s “The Names of the Saints,” set in contemporary Israel, a couple’s visit to the national cemetery at Mount Herzl exposes both the flaws in human relationships and the deep dignity of enduring grief. This story is Shub’s fiction debut.
The Names of the Saints
by Megan Peck Shub
“Isn’t this the cemetery where your uncle is buried?” she asked Daniel. They were in the car leaving Jerusalem, where they’d spent the day on a walking tour. They’d seen the wall and the market and, best of all, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where a hooded clergyman had proceeded like a zombie through the room, swinging his brass thurible of burning incense, the clouds of myrrh billowing everywhere. She got a kick out of it.
His eyes pivoted to the cemetery and back to the road, a four-lane highway winding gradually down the mountain. He always drove carefully, hands at ten and two, and if he drank more than a thimble of anything, he wouldn’t touch the car keys. He was good.
“Yes, that’s it,” he said. “Mount Herzl. That’s where all the soldiers are buried. Well, many of them.”
“Is it still open? Pull over,” she said.
“Really?” he said, but he flicked the turn signal and pulled the car into the empty parking lot along the road.
“Do you remember where the grave is?”
“I can figure it out,” he said. “I came here so often with my grandmother. I’d have to be able to figure it out.”
They got out of the car and walked toward the entrance. It was after 5 o’clock; at that hour only a few other cars sat in the parking lot while traffic jammed the road, which was a major thoroughfare leading out of Jerusalem’s old city. Tour buses idled at the volume of jumbo jets, expelling streams of ash-colored clouds. As a child, at the close of every school day, she’d walked through a canyon of yellow buses in the anxious search for her own. The loud, sudden bursts from their hydraulic brakes frightened her. The hissing came randomly. There was no way to prepare for it—and that was the scary part.
They entered the cemetery through an open gate, and, as if someone had turned a radio dial, the street noise faded to the whistling of the high tree branches catching wind rushing from the valley below. They passed the shuttered visitor center and a posted map. Someone had scratched “fuuuck you” into the plexiglass over the “you are here” marker. She lingered for a second.
“Would this be of any use?” she said.
“No, I think it’s this way. I remember,” he said, and started up one side of a forking path.
Not long after they started dating, Daniel had told her about his weekends with his grandmother, Esther, and their visits to his dead uncle’s grave. Uncle Eli had died in the First Lebanon War, back in 1982, a few years before Daniel was born. “He was twenty years old,” Daniel said whenever Eli came up, his tone lined with sadness and disgust. “A kid.”
The cemetery was built into the mountainside in a series of long flat terraces, the collections of graves organized by war. As they walked along the stone pavers, she meandered, taking in the information engraved on the headstones. They had died, after all; reading their names was the least she could do; it only seemed fair. But Daniel was focused, forging ahead, once in a while thinking out loud about his grandmother. He paused occasionally, as if the precise direction and temperature of the light or the sensation of the breeze could trigger a memory as evidence, as a clue.
“Here,” he said, pointing to a particularly steep incline, which they scaled halfway before pausing.
“She had a cane, you know? She hobbled all the way up here,” he said.
“Did she?” she said, a little winded.
“And she did this every single weekend,” he said, turning around and heading back upward. “We’re getting close.”
Once they cleared the incline, the terrain leveled out again and they approached a circle of World War II-era headstones. A small tour group dispersed in their direction—a local guide trailed by three American tourists stupidly wearing their sunglasses atop their baseball caps.
“I remember this area,” Daniel said. “Hannah Szenes is buried here.”
“Who is that?”
“She already lived in Israel during the war, but she went back to Europe to try to save people. She was a spy. Yeah, look, here she is.”
They paused to take in the headstone, which looked nothing like the grave of a national hero. No statue. No monument. It was like all the others, distinguished only by the foot traffic coming and going, the American tourists aiming their pricey SLRs at the nondescript granite stone etched with a few Hebrew words.
“Eli’s grave was not far from hers,” he said, starting to walk again. They approached another group of graves, this one the biggest yet, the size of a few lots in a suburban subdivision. The headstones dated from the early 1980s, but the name of the war was unfamiliar.
“Operation Peace for Galilee,” she read.
“Yeah, not quite,” he said. “They started off calling it that, I guess. It wasn’t always the ‘First’ Lebanon war either—there had to be a second to make this one the first. But the headstones don’t change.”
“No,” she said. Gravel had worked its way into her shoe, and she hopped onto one foot to remove it.
“Eli didn’t have to be buried here,” Daniel said. “But it was important to my grandfather that he was. My grandfather wasn’t the person who had to drive to Jerusalem and climb up this fucking mountain every weekend, though. It was my grandmother who did that.”
“Why was it important to him?” she said. She knocked the sole against a palm, dislodged a few little rocks, and shoved her foot back into the shoe.
“Because this is where the heroes are buried, of course,” he said, motioning to the epic view from the mountainside. He shook his head.
She’d heard Daniel’s grandfather speak about Eli only once, a few years ago, during a visit to his apartment at an old folks’ home an hour south of Tel Aviv. After lunch, she’d wandered into the spare bedroom and saw, propped up on a stack of cardboard file boxes, a black-and-white portrait of a young man who looked a little like Daniel.
“Such a shame,” his grandfather had said in his labored English as he passed behind her. But that was all he said.
Over a stone ledge, which protected visitors from tumbling down the steep slope, distant buildings glowed off-white in the late-afternoon light, and faint construction noises echoed from cranes across the valley.
“Wouldn’t you want to be buried among the nation’s great Zionists and prime ministers and fallen soldiers?” Daniel said, winking at her before turning his gaze back over to the headstones.
“We’re getting close. This feels familiar.”
“Why don’t you start at one end, and I’ll start at the other?”
He removed his baseball cap and ran a hand over his bald head. He had shaved it this morning as she took a shower, the steam totally obscuring the mirror. He’d carried on even without seeing his reflection. He knew all the contours of his skull.
“He’s in here somewhere,” Daniel said and put the cap back on his head.
All the graves were identical: headstones a few feet tall, with names and dates etched into the stone. Simple. Stalwart. At the bases of the headstones lay rectangular planters measuring a few square feet. Manicured patches of rosemary grew in most of the planters, but a few yielded signs of personalization: pebbles, trinkets or photos, flags, flowers still in bloom.
She moved from grave to grave, sounding out the Hebrew names letter by letter and reading the ages of the deceased. Eighteen. Eighteen. Nineteen. Eighteen. Twenty. Twenty-one.
Her mother always said that having a child was like having your soul exist outside your body. She imagined Daniel’s grandmother’s pregnancy. Imagined growing a baby for nine months, enduring the pain of delivery. The crib, the nursery, the late nights, the baby becoming a child blowing out birthday candles year after year after year until he is a man. All the love and optimism. And then, one day, a soldier approaching her front door. Her son is a soldier, but this soldier is not her son. She imagined Esther seeing him through the curtains. Unsmiling, the soldier rolls a steel barrel up the driveway and knocks on her front door. He douses the barrel’s insides with gasoline, lights a match, and tosses it into the barrel. He does it just for show. Her soul is not there in the barrel. Her soul is not there in her body. Her soul is lying somewhere in a field far away.
The smoke from the barrel reaches all the way to the top of the sky.
“Here he is,” Daniel said from a few rows up. She cut over, taking care not to step on the planters. Eli’s grave looked like the graves of all the others, even the hero Hannah Szenes.
Daniel took a seat on the stone border of the neighboring grave and crossed his arms over his knees. She sat beside him.
“Every weekend I stayed with her, she brought me here. Sometimes she’d bring flowers. Sometimes we just came here and sat like this.”
She plunged a hand into the rosemary and broke off a few inches, rolling it back and forth in her palms, releasing a hit of fragrance.
“It was so hard for her to scale that hill with her cane; I can’t stop thinking about it,” he said.
“It’s difficult to imagine that kind of devotion,” she said.
“We’ll have kids one day,” he said. “And then you’ll know.”
“Will we?” she said.
The night before, at his parents’ house, the entire family had carried on for an hour debating a recent essay about the morality of having children amid looming climate change. Daniel stayed mostly silent as she and his sisters volleyed arguments back and forth. She enjoyed herself with Daniel’s family, which felt like the family she should’ve had, and their visits always felt to her like coming home.
“How about you get married, Daniel, and then we’ll come back around to this conversation?” his younger sister said, lighting up a cigarette as the seconds of silence accumulated into something uncomfortable for everyone.
“You should leave early for Jerusalem tomorrow,” his mother said to Daniel, getting up from her chair and collecting the empty dishes. “The traffic will be a nightmare.”
An old couple emerged from behind the bend in the road, the woman with a scarf tied around her head and knotted beneath her chin, her black orthopedic shoes kicking up dust. The man swatted his palm with a folded-up newspaper and then raised it, as if to say hello.
Daniel took a deep breath. “When I was a kid, it felt like Eli’s death was ancient history. But he only died a few years before I was born, and—even in my earliest memories of coming her—this grave was barely ten years old.”
He removed his glasses and, in one swipe with his pointer finger and thumb, scooped tears from beneath both eyes. She’d never been able to see him cry without doing so herself.
The sun had descended almost completely behind a mountain, creating a darkness that reduced the clusters of buildings throughout the valley to their twinkling lights. She remembered learning in elementary school that a beam of light could travel, theoretically, forever, a fact she considered often, especially when riding in her mother’s car at night, staring up through the sunroof at all the stars. “How is there no wall where this all ends?” she used to think. Even as a little girl, she couldn’t believe in God.
Daniel smiled at her, “What are you thinking about?” he asked, and she shook her head. From everywhere, the distant roar of traffic sounded like waves hitting the shore.
They’d spent a few hours at the beach in Tel Aviv the day before. For chairs, Daniel dropped some shekels into the automated rental kiosk, and they walked fifty yards through the throng of people before finding a vacant spot beside an oil-slathered man listening to Russian radio on a boom box.
Daniel had looked at the radio and back to her. “No,” he’d mouthed. She motioned to the chairs around the—all full.
A louche young attendant had come over to collect their ticket. As he waited for Daniel to fish it out of their tote bag, he stuck a Marlboro Red into his mouth, lit it, and drew in a huge breath. She’d wanted to bum one, but she didn’t ask.
“Here,” Daniel had said, handing the ticket over. The attendant took another drag of his cigarette and expelled the smoke in Daniel’s direction. He walked away without thanking them.
“I hate Israelis,” Daniel had said, sitting down. He pulled his hat over his eyes and fell asleep immediately. She opened a book and read a few lines without concentrating before shutting it. In the row of chairs behind her, an American bachelorette party discussed their upcoming manicure appointments.
“I know, but you have to go with my colors,” the bride had said in a Brooklyn accent. She was chewing bubble gum. “It’s one day of your life, honey. Some people have real problems, you know?”
She broke off another sprig of rosemary and put it in her bag, the resin sticking to her fingertips. She sometimes saved odds and ends from places as a way of holding on to them. The shelves in her apartment hosted rocks, shells, and pine cones. Pamphlets. Trashy tourist keepsakes. Little cards from cathedrals with the pictures and the names of the saints.
“Do you think your grandfather wanted Eli buried here as a way of getting back at your grandmother?” she asked.
His grandparents had divorced when Daniel’s mother was thirteen. One night, his mother drank a few glasses of wine and said that Esther had had an affair with her piano teacher. Her father had basically disappeared after that. And then, of course, Eli was killed in a tank explosion.
All of a life in a barrel and a lit match thrown in.
“I don’t know,” Daniel said.
“Would you ever ask him?”
Daniel hoisted himself up from the grave, beating the dust off his palms on his jeans. He took his glasses from his front pocket and put them back on his face.
“This has been good,” he said, extending a hand to her. “Traffic could be bumper-to-bumper, even this late. Let’s get going.”
By the time they returned to the parking lot, the sky was black as a tarp pulled high over their heads, and the stars like little punched holes, illuminated by something shining back from the other side. They got back in the car and resumed their place in the procession of cars headed down the mountain.
Megan Peck Shub is a segment producer at Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. Previously, she produced Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr. on PBS. She lives in New York, but she’ll always be a native Floridian. This is her fiction debut.
“Dartitis” by Mika Seifert
BLAST, TMR‘s online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too lively to be confined between the covers of a print journal. Mika Seifert’s story “Dartitis” offers an out-of-the-ordinary, humorous look at the rise of a world champion darts player, whose obsession with infinite possibilities almost leads him to lose focus.
by Mika Seifert
In his youth, Berry Barnes was a tall, lanky fellow who threw darts the way he looked: awkward, ungainly, possessing almost no grace. Inexpert, he seemed, almost amateurish. Twenty years later, Berry was world champion. Still tall, but a far cry from lanky. Having well-nigh doubled his weight, all that good life had somehow turned him into the gentle giant of darts, the tender-hearted bear of the bull’s-eye. The crowds adored him; the tabloids fell at his feet. They called him Dartman, Dartagnan, Dartslinger. In epic battles, his opponent was always the Prince of Dartness, Dartenstein, Dart Vader.
With added weight had come grace. At nineteen, with Berry still a stickman, the darts had seemed to hold their own against the boy, making themselves out to weigh much more than the thirty measly grams they actually did. They seemed to have a will, and Berry and the darts never looked like a team, intent on the same goal. It was always Berry on his own, using the darts for some purpose that went against their very nature. Now, they were inseparable, Berry having somehow, over time, convinced the darts of his good intentions. It didn’t even seem like he was throwing darts at all anymore but shooting off single digits from his own hand.
Around the time he turned forty, then, two things happened. Firstly, he developed a passion for quantum physics, of all things. This was a pivotal development in his life, even if no one suspected it at first, least of all his own family. The tabloids, silenced for once, merely ran a single article with a photo of Berry laying into a hamburger on a park bench, reading Feynman. The fans didn’t care. Like everything else about the man, they found it endearing, winsome. They called him Dr. Dart.
The second thing that happened to Berry was fatherhood. “The Missus says his head is round as a dartboard,” he told reporters at the clinic. “I say he’s no bigger than a dart.”
They called him Benjamin.
The physics thing: it didn’t seem like much of anything, at first. Berry bought a book, then two, but, according to his wife Brenda, never talked about what he read, never mentioned quantum physics at all.
“Honestly,” she said, “it was just a thing of his. I didn’t pay it a mind.”
That all changed after a year or so. Little Ben was off to daycare and instead of averaging one or two books a year, Berry plowed through three books every week.
“Why all those books?” Brenda told a reporter. “I never understood. He didn’t seem to get any joy out of it at all!”
Stone-faced was how she put it. He turned sullen, morose, and after reading would stay in a grumpy mood all day. The books, meanwhile, slowly took over the house. He lugged them around wherever he went. Before he went on tour, he gave her a precise list of titles to order, then pick up, then pack.
“It was quantum this, quantum that,” Brenda remembered. “Quantum mechanics, quantum gravity, quantum foam. Quantum physics for dummies, for professionals, for poets. He couldn’t get enough of it.”
“When did you get suspicious?” the reporter asked.
“I never did!” she answered, wide-eyed. “To me, it was all humbug.”
A close friend of Berry’s, Dexter Dachs, had a different story to tell. Dexter was a professional darts man, too, though considerably less talented than the big man. “Chugging along in the wake of the jumbo jet,” was how he himself once put it. He had an easy-going manner, however, and a booming laugh, and he quickly became Berry’s best bud while on tour.
“Once,” Dexter told, “at the Speedy Hire, he woke me up in the middle of the night. Pounded on the door, and when I let him in, he was in a right state. All drenched in sweat, as if he’d gone running. Do you realize, Dex, he said, grabbing me by the collar, the trouble we’re all in? I told him to sit down, have a bud. But he wouldn’t have it, just kept going. I throw a dart, he said, and it hits the bull’s-eye, right? But at the same time, there’s a world out there where it doesn’t. There’s a world where it hits the outer bull, another where it hits the double ring, the triple. There’s even one where it goes around the board, comes back, hits me in the face!”
“What then?” the reporter asked. “What happened?”
Dexter seemed lost in thought.
“Why, nothing,” he said. “I believe I convinced him of that bud after all.”
It was the last good championship round for Berry, the last in his string of miracle years. He won the Skybet, won the Partypoker, and won the Ladbrokes, too, a final, farewell time. But at the Ladbrokes, the dartitis was already there, and when the fourteen weeks of McCoy’s rolled around, it was in full bloom.
“A twitching,” he told Bull’s-Eye News. “Some cramping. A rough patch.”
But it wasn’t a rough patch, and it was far from his only fight. At home, the extent of his love for little Ben was landing him in a world of trouble as well. There were a million doors in his mind, and they all opened to heartbreak.
“I told him nothing’s going to happen to Ben,” Brenda said. “I told him a thousand times. The little one’s fine. We’re doing the best we can. How could we do more?”
For Berry it was never enough. He couldn’t close those doors fast enough, and new ones popped up all the time. He saw little Ben fall from his chair, choke on some candy, tumble down a well shaft. It got so bad that he was unable to do anything anymore, decide on any sort of action, be it to pour his morning coffee or brush his teeth lest it somehow led to little Ben getting in the path of a tram or the neighbor’s Hyundai.
At night, lastly, Berry was fighting his third war, equally hopeless, duking it out for hours at a stretch with Bohr and Bohm and Heisenberg and ending up with a bloody nose each and every time. He simply couldn’t accept their findings, refused to see his son’s life as a wave function comprising not only the blissful present in which they lived but every possible calamity imaginable.
“You couldn’t argue with him,” told Dr. Gordon Greene, from Caltech. “For him, it was a world of pain out there just waiting to trip him up. I love him so much, said Berry. The little one. But there’s always going to be moments when I don’t look at him, and when I don’t look at him, I don’t know what the deuce is happening. When I look away, I’m sending him through one of those doors. Through all the doors.”
“What did you do?” the reporter asked.
“I tried my best!” said Dr. Greene. “Told him his very wavering, his indecision, was just as much a factor that might lead to disaster as surely as bustling action. That only made it worse. I could see his face crumbling before me. I was helpless. I made a case for quantum physics, told him he was drawing all the wrong conclusions. That quantum physics was meant to set him free, elate him. That was the last thing I ever said to him before you-know-what. It’s a blessing, I said. It’s the bane of my life, was his reply.”
The dartitis progressed rapidly. Soon it wasn’t just twitching anymore, and the darts didn’t just land a little off.
“He never used to talk to me about darts,” Brenda said. “That was his world. But after the Partypoker that year, he started talking. I’ll never forget his words. Like trying to throw a brick at the board, was what he said. That’s when I got scared.”
It wasn’t only a figure of speech. You could see it, live or on television. Holding the dart, his elbow sagged, and when he finally did release it the momentum, for all to see, was much greater than by all rights it should have been.
That year, at the Unibet, the dartitis broke him. It was one week, to the day, before the call.
“It was the first time I ever watched Berry sling,” said Brenda, “and after ten minutes, I had to turn off ESPN, switch to something else. I was in tears.”
Tears were also streaming down Berry’s face as he stood facing the board, the dart in his hand no longer a brick but an anvil. Thirty minutes he stood like that, an hour, nobody daring to interrupt him. Then he slowly bent under the dart’s weight, tipped over and finally fell forward face first, still holding the dart.
A week later, when the call came, Berry was in Brisbane. A glance at the clock told him all he needed to know. It was 3 a.m., and he was suddenly wide awake.
“Ben,” he said.
“They’re doing all they can,” came Brenda’s words. “Berry, they’re doing all they can.”
After Brisbane, Berry abandoned the tour, abandoned professional darts, abandoned quantum physics.
“I was lost in quantum foam,” he once told. “Lost in other ways, too.”
Dr. Greene described how Berry made his peace with Heisenberg, even if it was an uneasy one, ever in danger of flaring up again.
“I can’t take credit for it,” he said. “It wasn’t anything I said or did. He came up with it all on his own. One day, he simply walked into my office and said, ‘Doc, there are always going to be a million darts. Ain’t anything I can do about that. But there won’t ever be more than a single dartboard, and they all end up there. One way or another, they all end up on the board.’”
Dr. Greene smiled wistfully.
“And that’s how it ended,” he said, “for Berry.”
He lost weight quickly, and after a few years began to resemble the lanky, slightly maladroit youth again who had started slinging darts, lo those many years ago. Looking less and less like the bear of the bull’s-eye, each day a little more he brought to mind something else. Brenda once said it best.
“Darling,” she told her husband. “Don’t mind me saying so, but you do look like a dart yourself!”
Berry had just turned sixty, and they were throwing some darts for the heck of it, Berry taking his sweet time, but getting the job done, unbreaking himself one dart at a time.
He still attends the tour, sometimes as a talking head for ESPN, but mostly as a member of the crowd, and when I warmed up for the McCoy’s last year, he was there, too, throwing a dart or two himself, but mainly watching, as if he couldn’t believe it was really me.
“Still here, Dad,” I said, as I caught him looking at me that way again. “I’m still here.”
Mom released his hand, and he came over, and we hugged. Then we threw some darts. Then we hugged again and threw some more darts. We never missed the bull’s-eye, and we never died.
Mika Seifert is a concert violinist and writer whose short stories have appeared in the Antioch Review, Chicago Review, Image, the Southern Review, World Literature Today, and elsewhere. He works as concertmaster for the Northeast German Symphony Orchestra.
“If You’re so Smart” by Tim Loc
“It’s been reported that 5 percent of students in the University of California system experience homelessness. For the state’s community college students, that number is a staggering 20 percent. The stats are a sobering reminder of how pervasive homelessness is and how it can’t be defined by any single narrative,” Tim Loc comments about the contemporary social problem that inspired his story. “If You’re So Smart” appeared in the summer 2020 issue of TMR and was Loc’s first published fiction. Recently TMR intern Eric True talked with Loc about the story; you can read that interview here.
If You’re So Smart
by Tim Loc
The first setback came when the art store on Fairfax shuttered. Mr. Hashemi, who played Dizzy Gillespie records during store hours, wandered the aisles on the final days of the business, sighing and wiping his hand across his balding crown. “This is a small thing to you,” he said to Simon. “But I was here the first day. Some things you don’t forget.”
“I’ll miss this place,” said Simon.
“You’re too young to be sentimental.”
The second knock came when his roommate, Paul, kicked him out. Simon had found on Craigslist a subdivided room in Westwood. Paul, who’d inherited the condo from his parents, had put up separators and advertised the single bedroom as being three. He was paying off fifteen grand in debts from online poker. He was twenty-three.
The setup was less than ideal—the third roommate sleepwalked—but the rent was only seven hundred a month, and it was close to UCLA, where Simon was getting his master’s in design. The ploy was working until Paul’s parents dropped in for a surprise visit on Labor Day. They entered the room to find three mattresses, each with a grown man fanning himself in the late-summer heat. Paul, after ushering his parents back to Burbank, told Simon that he was persona non grata, effective the next day.
The third blow was announced in an e-mail from Tran, Simon’s uncle. He informed Simon that there were complications from a hernia surgery he’d had a year ago.
The doctors don’t fix anything. If they did, they wouldn’t make any money.
Tran, who was impractical and prone to anxious paroxysms, had never married. He spent his Thursdays going to Freestyle Night at the roller rink. He lived with Simon’s single mother, relying on her for financial assistance during times of distress. This fact both embarrassed him and made him protective of his older sister.
His messages to Simon became increasingly urgent, exasperated. It culminated with a four-hundred-word e-mail with the subject title “important.” In it, Tran reiterated the story of his sister’s life, beginning with her childhood in Da Nang (When her cat died, she got a chicken. When we ate the chicken, she got a lizard.). He talked about her many suitors and her hard luck in finding Simon’s father, who was a lush and a cheat. He reminded Simon of the time she’d spent two months of her savings to get him a pair of Air Force 1s. He reminded Simon that she was helping him with tuition.
You’re a big man now. Think about your family.
Simon, confused and hurt by the cryptic message, shoved his iPhone under his pillow.
Which is how he ended up in the parking lot at the Westfield in Culver City. He’d been staying at a Days Inn for a week until his funds ran out. He checked out on the final day and drove to the mall for Chipotle. It hadn’t occurred to him that he’d be sleeping in the lot that night. He didn’t know until he’d gotten back in his Hyundai and realized he had nowhere to go.
Though, of course, he’d known it all along. There was a reason he’d driven out to the Westfield—he wasn’t even hungry for Chipotle. He began to panic. He got out of his car and walked around the parking lot. A paunchy man was carting a flat-screen TV from Best Buy. A woman in jogging gear said into her phone, “There should be a dating app for people with night terrors.” Simon felt singled out, as if everyone knew why he was loitering. He felt so uncomfortable that he got back into his Hyundai.
As he sat there, a profound sense of shame passed over him. He’d failed in a manner that was personal and flagrant. He felt a gulf opening beneath him. He began to weep, and then he started bawling because he felt so stupid for crying in his subcompact car.
At some point he fell asleep. The next thing he knew, he heard a tapping on the window. A white light bore down on him. He turned the ignition and rolled down the window. “I was about to call the cops there,” said the person behind the light. “I thought you were strung out.”
“No, I’m sorry,” said Simon. “My bad. I’m leaving.” As he rolled up the window, the man said, “Hey, hang on a sec. You good to drive?” Simon put the car in gear and peeled off. He drove out of the lot, his heart lurching in his chest.
He carved out a routine. In the mornings he’d go to the student library to charge his phone, respond to e-mails, and send out job applications. At noon he’d buy a three-dollar mulita or sope from a truck on Wilshire. After lunch he went to class, and after class he drove out to Santa Monica to shower at one of the stalls by the beach. The showers—cold and bracing—expelled all feeling from his body.
In the evening he’d return to campus to work in the library. Then he’d swing by a Subway for a meatball sandwich. When night fell, he drove out to his spot in West LA, a sleepy street that abutted a middle school. He’d tried a couple other locations before he found it. He’d camped out in Venice for a while, but that was a waste of gas. He tried a suburban area of Westwood, but someone had called a community patrol officer on him. The West LA spot was perfect. The looming elms formed a dark canopy at night. There were only apartments on the street. It was mostly students and young professionals—people who had no illusions of ownership.
He tried to make himself as inconspicuous as possible. He’d sit in the driver’s seat and stare at his phone as if he were waiting to pick someone up. Then, when sufficiently tired, he’d climb into the back to lie down. He had a Powerade bottle to pee into. In spite of his efforts, there was one person who took note of him. It was another Asian guy—someone Simon’s age. He was probably a graduate student at UCLA too. He’d come back to his apartment at eight at night, lugging a North Face backpack and a bag of groceries.
Whenever he walked by, he’d gawk openly at Simon. Once, he even ducked his head to get a better look—their faces were just a yard apart—and Simon shot him a forbidding glare. Simon couldn’t tell if he was mocking. There was a semblance of real surprise in his stare, but how could that be? Simon came to hate his face—his wire-frame glasses, his gape-mouthed astonishment.
One night, Simon saw him turning the block. Simon stared at his phone, willing himself to keep his head down. But he looked up anyway, just as the guy was passing by. They caught each other’s gaze. Simon opened the door. “Hey, can you stop staring?” he said. “It’s not like I’m in your way.”
“Yeah! There’s no one else here.”
The guy stood there and looked at Simon. Then he nodded and did a faint waving motion with his hand. “Okay, okay,” he said. He walked up the stoop of his apartment.
The confrontation left Simon feeling disconsolate. He sat in the driver’s seat, stewing with indignance. Then, just as he’d decided to get into the back seat and call it a night, he heard a rapping on the door. It was him again.
Simon rolled down the window. “Do you want dinner?” the guy said.
“I don’t need your money,” said Simon.
“Uh, no, not money. I mean food. I made dinner. I eat very late because I have to study in the evening. If you want, you can come inside and have some.”
Simon blinked. “Sure,” he said. He wasn’t actually hungry. He was blindsided by the offer and had said the first thing that came to mind.
The guy introduced himself as Wen. He went to UCLA, too—a PhD candidate in Bioengineering. He had grown up in Tianjin. Before coming to LA he’d gotten his bachelor’s at McGill. His apartment was nondescript: a Timex clock, reprints of art nouveau posters, the assorted detritus from IKEA. It was a transitory place, clean but faceless. The one anomaly was a marionette that resembled a Creamsicle-colored sloth. It sat on top of a bookshelf. Wen caught Simon looking at it. “That is from my mother,” he said. “She is a schoolteacher. She does plays with puppets, for small children.”
“Oh, right,” said Simon.
Dinner, as it turned out, was claypot chicken and liang fen swimming in chili oil. “You made this?” asked Simon.
“It’s not hard,” said Wen. “You just need a good market.”
He cooked when he had the time, he said. He had a girlfriend who was doing her MBA at Emory; she’d spend the rest of her life ordering off Postmates if she could. “It’s a waste of money,” he remarked. “Plus, the food is cold by the time it comes to you.”
Simon found that he was ravenous once he’d started eating. He’d had Subway earlier, but this was the first home-cooked meal he’d had in months. His senses perked at the taste of real nourishment. He ate too fast. The heady vapor of the peppercorn pooled in his sinuses. Sweat collected on his brow. He scooped more rice into his mouth to tame the burn, but it was a lost cause.
He looked up from his bowl to collect himself. Then, as if the pressure in his head was causing a purge, he opened his mouth to speak.
“What do you think I’m doing out there? In my car?”
Wen stopped eating. He shifted in his seat, then placed his chopsticks on the rim of his bowl.
“Hmm. At first, I thought maybe you were, how do you say it, stalking someone.”
Simon barked with laughter. Wen, looking relieved, laughed too.
“But one night I see that you have your shirts on the coat hanger,” said Wen. “So I think, ‘Okay, this guy is living in his car.’”
He cleared his throat. “I’m sorry for staring,” said Wen. “It was rude. It’s just that I always feel surprised when I see homeless people in America. There are so many.”
Homeless. Somehow Simon had avoided the word in the six months he’d been living in his car. To hear it spoken—to hear it applied intimately to him—made him fidget.
“What did you think America would be like?” asked Simon.
Wen pushed up his glasses with an index finger. “I don’t know. I watched a lot of Friends. Shows like that. I always thought that Americans had no worries. Even when they’re in trouble they act very confident, like they expect things will work out. Phoebe? She never seemed to have a job, but it didn’t matter to her.”
He grinned at Simon. “You’re like that. Kind of. You don’t seem very worried that you’re homeless.” Simon plucked a sliver of chicken and ate it. “Right. Just like Friends,” he said.
Upon leaving, Simon made it clear that he wasn’t a charity case. But after some haggling, they came to an agreement in which he’d drop in for dinner on Thursdays. Wen framed it as a mutual setup: he needed an American audience for the Western recipes he’d been meaning to try. That first week, it was clam chowder and Baltimore crab cakes. The next week it was meat loaf—a stately mound of ground meat. “They would serve it in Family Matters, but I never knew what it was,” said Wen. “When I found the recipe, I was like, ‘This is it?’”
“I think there was a time when I thought waffle fries were fancy, thanks to Boy Meets World or something,” said Simon. “I would rather go to an IHOP than eat my mother’s cooking. Complete insanity.”
For the most part, Wen followed the recipes on Bon Appétit. Sometimes he’d incorporate a trick he’d picked up elsewhere. He added fish sauce to a Bolognese, giving it a umami aroma. He put lemongrass and coconut milk in a pot pie. Every dish seemed faultless to Simon, but Wen would eat with an inward look on his face, chewing slowly to parse the flavors. He never seemed pleased. “I can taste the ingredients I didn’t use,” he explained. “It always feels like something is missing.”
One night, after they’d polished off a bowl of New England clam chowder, Wen took out a sheet of paper and flattened it on the table. “This was posted up at the Weintraub Center,” said Wen. “I know the professor. He’s old. That’s why he’s still printing these on paper.” It was lab work. Bachelor’s required. No background in sciences necessary. There was clip art of a Bunsen burner with googly eyes—it was spinning a basketball on a finger.
“Thanks,” said Simon. He slid the paper closer to him, then took a sip of the cheap wine he’d brought.
“You don’t have any questions?” said Wen.
Simon looked up. Wen gave him a quizzical look. There was a waft of disappointment.
“It’s all here, right?” said Simon. “I’ll just send him an e-mail. Wow. Hotmail.”
Wen shrugged. “Yes. That’s how you would contact him. But I mean you don’t seem very interested.”
The secret was that Simon already had a job. He had been hired a month before at a Petco in WeHo. Once employed, he told his mother that he’d received a surprise scholarship—the rest of his tuition was covered, he’d claimed. Then he spent a week looking at economy lodgings. The best he could find within his budget was a studio in Palms. The room was hardly larger than an inflatable pool. When he tried the faucet, it sputtered violently, dry-heaving as if it were choking on a bone. There was a sandal in the mini fridge for some reason.
After checking out the apartment, he told himself he’d mull it over and sign the contract the next day. But a day passed, then another, and suddenly he couldn’t justify spending all his paycheck on what was essentially a box made of drywall. He wouldn’t have any money left over for food or textbooks or simple toiletries. He could have looked for a place with a roommate, but that wasn’t much of an improvement. The idea was ludicrous: working thirty hours a week—on top of his studies—just so he could exist somewhere. He was already doing that in his car. So he remained in his Hyundai. He kept attending dinners at Wen’s to keep up the ruse; it seemed easier than trying to justify his decision.
“Why wouldn’t I be interested in a job?” said Simon. “I’m just keeping my hopes realistic.”
Wen sighed. “But they won’t want someone who seems unmotivated.”
“I’m just tired,” said Simon. “I had a presentation today in class.”
“I see,” said Wen. “Well, let me know if you want a recommendation.”
Simon took another sip of his Merlot, which tasted of syrup and metal. In that moment, he understood an essential fact about their acquaintance. Wen wouldn’t have been surprised to see a homeless person on his street: he’d been surprised to see a homeless person who resembled him. Suddenly, Simon felt like he had been invited here to prove a point.
The next Thursday, Simon texted Wen to say he was at a mixer hosted by his program. He drove out to the Westfield and parked in the lot, taking care to not fall asleep.
One morning, as Simon worked on his laptop in his car, an older woman waved at him from the sidewalk.
He rolled down the window as she came to his door. The woman shined a smile on him—a megawatt beam that almost made him squint. She wore a turquoise rain slicker. She gave off a thick, fragrant scent like lavender.
“Hello. How are you doing today?” she said.
“I’m doing okay,” said Simon.
“Are you lost? Do you need directions?”
“It’s just that I noticed you here yesterday. And, well, I live around the corner, so I know these parts pretty well. Are you sure you don’t need directions?”
They looked at each other for a moment. She held her smile.
“No, I can find my way around,” said Simon.
“I’m relieved to hear that,” she said. “I hope you get to where you need to be.”
Simon drove off that afternoon. He cruised around Culver City, Westwood, WeHo, going as far east as Mid-City. The county was enormous, yet every block felt cloistered with unwanted attention. By night he was back in Venice. He recalled seeing a street lined with RVs and lumbering commercial vans. They were clearly being used as living spaces. Towels were hung up as curtains. One van had a mural of Gil Scott-Heron painted on its side.
Simon parked behind an RV with an assortment of bumper stickers: San Diego Padres, The Descendents, Save the Bay, Gravel 2020. He climbed into the back and tried to sleep, but his mind kept flitting from one thought to another. He saw vestiges of his mother, his uncle, friends he knew from high school, peers in his courses. He thought about one of his instructors, who said she’d come up with the design for a popular laundry detergent when she suffered a seizure and experienced a hallucinogenic fugue (“Not that I suggest it.”). Fragments of his life whirled past him, colliding like atoms. Suddenly it was dawn; the early morning blush seeped through his eyelids. He sat up and, for a moment, tried to remember how he’d gotten here.
He climbed into the front seat, started the engine, then drove off to a Winchell’s, where he hung out until classes started at ten. After class he drove back to the same spot behind the RV. He wondered if the area would look more inviting in the daytime, but the sun only made him feel more conspicuous.
By noon he’d caught the attention of a man sweeping the sidewalk who’d gotten out of the RV covered in bumper stickers. He was short, with ropy arms and a wind-beaten face. His T-shirt was tucked into his jeans. His hair—close-cropped and streaked with silver—was topped off with a Pennzoil ball cap. He kept glancing over in Simon’s direction as he swept. When he finished, he went back into the RV, reemerged with an orange, and began peeling it as he sat on the curb. Simon ignored him and turned his attention to his phone. He was on his third game of Sudoku when he heard a tapping above him. He turned to see the RV man at his door.
“Yes?” Simon said as he rolled down the window.
The man put his hands at his waist and stood erect. “Are we doing okay here?” he said. “Not really my business, but I like to check in on our neighbors.”
“I’m fine. I’m sorry, do I need a permit or something?”
“No. Not in any official sense.”
The man went quiet, as if he’d proposed a question. Not knowing what to say, Simon asked, “Is Mike Gravel still running?”
“Look, is this for some newspaper assignment?” said the man. “I got one of those a month ago. You know, investigative reporting. Putting a face to a societal problem. That stuff.”
“No, I’m not a reporter.”
“Okay, then. What do you do? What’s your thing?”
“I’m a student at UCLA. Design.”
The man sighed and looped a thumb around a belt strap. He looked away for a moment, then pointed at the van with the mural. “That guy right there. Plays the flute. Chess whiz, too. Used to work at Northrop Grumman until he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.” He pointed farther down the curb, at an RV with a Jolly Roger flag taped on the side. “And that woman there is Sally. She’s pushing fifty now. She waits at a Johnny Rockets. Sends half her paycheck to her mom up in Modesto for hospice care.”
He leaned over and put his hands on the ledge of the car door. There was a measured quality in his eyes. He looked like someone who was hardly surprised by anything. It was comforting, yet it spoke to the futility of it all. “My point is this,” he said. “This isn’t some temporary situation. We’re just in it, pal.”
“It’s not like I’m on a road trip,” said Simon. His eyes began to sting with tears. “It’s not like I’m out for a joy ride.”
“I didn’t say you were,” the man said, putting up his hands.
“I looked all over the city.”
“I’m sure you did.”
“You make it sound so easy, like I can knock on the next door I see.”
“Maybe you should try that.” The man shook his head and took a step back. “Look, I’m just kidding,” he said. “But you’re a university kid, right? If you’re so smart, you’d realize that we’re in RVs out here, not dinky sedans with gaping windows. So this is a safety issue, for one thing. And if any of these officers see a kid out here? That would catch their attention. We have an understanding with the city. It’s in our best interest to keep things the same, you know what I’m saying?”
“You mean I have to leave.”
“That’s not within my jurisdiction. I work in elevator repair. I spend my free time sweeping the sidewalk, doing the crossword, and letting Marcus kick my ass on the chessboard.”
Simon rolled up the window and turned on the ignition. The man tapped on the door again. “Hey, you stay safe out there, all right?” he said. His voice was muffled by the glass. “Use your good sense, if you got it.”
Simon refused to acknowledge him. He pulled away from the curb. He looked in the rearview mirror when he came to a stoplight; the RV man was still monitoring him, standing with his arms crossed. There was an air of permanence in his posture, as if he’d been there forever, waiting as the sun raked its way across the sky.
Pain radiated in his head. He reached up to touch the back of his skull; he felt something slick and gummy. He opened his eyes. The picture before him was inscrutable—as free of context as a foreign script.
Gradually, it came to him. He recognized the amber glow of the streetlamps. He saw the “reunion gate” sign on the fence by the school. He was parked at his old spot in West LA. Other bits of memory began sifting through. He recalled placing an order at a Yoshinoya. He remembered exiting the store and coming upon someone rummaging through his car. Simon yelled. The culprit—ancient, skinny, eyes flashing with terror—darted off with an armful of loot. He also had Simon’s backpack strapped around a shoulder. In it were a MacBook and a hard drive.
Simon gave chase. The thief started dropping odd bits of bounty. A Henley shirt. A textbook on Alan Fletcher. A bottle of Head & Shoulders. At first it seemed like he was losing grip, but then Simon realized that he was tossing the items to make an obstacle. It was a comical move, like something out of a Pink Panther movie. And just as Simon had this thought—of how funny it was, how outlandishly ineffectual—he stepped on the Powerade bottle and pitched backward. A white light erupted in his field of vision. It felt as if his mind were a television set and the channel had changed with a click of the remote.
He got up on his feet. The thief was far off now, rounding the corner of a Rite Aid. He was laughing to himself, though it was possible Simon was imagining this. His head hummed with static. The programming kept switching in his brain. The next thing he knew, he was back in his car, driving down a residential street (Where had he left his Yoshinoya?). He blinked, and suddenly he was on the freeway.
And now he was here, at his former haunt on Selby Avenue. A woman walked by with her lumbering mastiff. The dog turned its snout toward Simon. The woman discouraged it with a sharp “Hey!” She bowed her head and kept walking. He must look like a mess, Simon realized. Also, one of his windows was smashed in.
His mind clicked again. Now he was watching a different sitcom, one in which he was trying to scale an evergreen to get to Wen’s second-story balcony. He was amazed at his agility and at the sturdy conviction of the branches. When he got onto the balcony, it was just a matter of opening the screen door (the lock was broken, a fact that Wen had kept complaining about out loud). Simon made his way across the darkened room and dropped on the couch. Once down, the reserves of energy that had guided him up the tree were abruptly shut off. His limbs felt like columns of rubber. He descended into a dark hole.
A hand jostled him awake. The light was on. Wen was jabbing him in the shoulder. Bags of groceries were at his feet. “What’s going on? What happened to you?” Wen shouted. “You’re getting blood on the couch!”
“I fell,” said Simon. He felt the back of his head again. This time he found a crude lump. “I climbed up to your balcony,” Simon continued. “I had to hide out. Someone would have called the cops.”
Wen sighed. He picked up the groceries and walked off to the kitchen. “This is crazy!” he screamed.
Simon cleaned up as best as he could in the bathroom. The blood had caked. He used his fingers to untangle the clots of hair. When he came out, Wen had set the table. He’d heated something he’d made the previous night: mapo tofu and steamed eggplant. Simon took a seat and picked up his bowl. He wasn’t hungry, but he understood that this would be the last time he’d sit down with Wen.
They ate in silence for a while. Wen started taking little pauses in which he’d set down his bowl, fold his arms on the table, and glance away as he chewed his food. There was a look of disdain on his face. A moment later he picked up his rice and shoveled another mouthful. Then he’d go back to folding his arms and chewing angrily. Simon made it a point to finish the rest of the food. He kept eating the mapo tofu until rivulets of snot were streaming down his nostrils. At the very last bite, he held up his bowl to scoop the remaining bits. Then he set it down and laid the chopsticks on top. He and Wen sat that way for a second, just looking at each other.
“You don’t even try. It’s like you want to live in your car,” said Wen. He was practically spitting out the words.
“Right, I guess it comes out now,” said Simon, sneering. “You know you wouldn’t have invited me in if I wasn’t Asian.”
Wen puffed out a breath of air and shook his head. He laughed. “You know you’re crazy, right? That’s why you don’t have a normal life. You’re just crazy.”
“I’m here to make you feel better about yourself,” said Simon.
“Fuck you. I am not the Red Cross,” said Wen. “I am not here to feed everyone who shows up at my door.”
Simon got up.
“Goodbye,” Wen said dismissively.
Simon walked out, back into the damp embrace of night. His car was still there, thankfully.
As he floated down Olympic Boulevard, his future revealed itself in his mind. It came to him with total clarity, as if he were recalling a material fact. He imagined himself as a graphic designer at a buzzy start-up. Once his portfolio was respectable, he’d jump ship and work for a vaunted but dwindling publication—the pay would be less, but the work would be more meaningful. He’d adjunct at Art Center on the side. He’d hike Runyon Canyon with his Shiba Inu every Saturday morning. He’d have a condo in downtown, and in that condo he’d have an espresso machine, an assortment of potted ferns, and a shelf filled with first-press vinyls. He hadn’t wanted these things before, but now they appeared to him with a strange pointedness. He could feel the closeness of these objects—the mere possibility of them. This sense of proximity was exhilarating.
He arrived at a stoplight. It flashed yellow, then red. The night was cloudless. The asphalt glowed under the moonlight. An Uber pulled up next to him. He could make out the silhouettes of the driver and the passengers, but he couldn’t discern a face.
Yes, he had it all planned out. He just needed a spot where he could think beyond the reach of his day-to-day. He needed time and patience. He needed a place to wait. It could be so simple.
Tim Loc splits his time between Los Angeles and his home city of Alhambra, California. He has worked as a writer and editor for several LA publications. He is a graduate of the New School’s MFA program. This is his first published short story.
“If It’s True, It Must Also Be Beautiful” by Jacqueline St. Joan
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features fiction and nonfiction too lively to be confined between the covers of a print journal. Jacqueline St. Joan’s story “If It’s True, It Must Also Be Beautiful” takes as its subject a young woman pregnant from rape, a distant time and place, and a life-changing decision. The story is infused with rich historical detail drawn from the author’s research into her own family’s history–research that has inspired a collection in process.
If It’s True, It Must Also Be Beautiful
Jacqueline St. Joan
Glenties, County Donegal, Ireland 1819
I pray I’m not breaking the sacred seal of the confessional to tell you that the townspeople think Nancy Boyle is a bit strange—but lovely. Of course, they don’t say so to her face, as she already has pride aplenty and doesn’t need a drop more. The general opinion is that Nancy’s vanity is due to the sad fact that she is an only child, which is her mother’s sorrow—and now that sorrow is turning to shame, what with Nancy being with child, but unmarried. When Richard Moore confessed to me his willingness to wed Nancy Boyle and take her to America, I asked her parents, Peter and Margaret Boyle, and Nancy herself, to meet me at the rectory. And, later, to join Richard Moore in a cup of tea at their house so we could discuss what was to be done. As the town’s only priest, I knew it was my duty, even though this kind of thing should be the Lord’s doing and not mine.
I plan to say little or nothing at our meeting, and I am a bit late, snapping the horse’s reins as we ride through County Donegal, a vast landscape of stubbly fields where stumps and roots from the old forests are scattered here and there. Cloud formations broad as the fields reflect off frosty lakes, run pink to red in the late winter sunsets; and just before evening, all the colors fade like dried blood. The Boyles’ home at Glenties is more than a hovel but less than a farmhouse. Once inside, I feel a bit trapped with curtains of gray rain closing in, and for a moment I long for a sight into the distance, but the few windows are foggy. Before I take a seat, I make the sign of the cross and bless the house.
“May the Good Lord bless the four corners of this house. Bless the door that opens wide to stranger and to kin. And bless them all who come within.”
“Amen,” says Margaret, getting up from her knees, leaning on her husband’s arm.
The house is a thatched, modest place improved largely by Margaret’s sense of organization and her insistence on cleanliness, as well as Nancy’s pencil sketches that adorn one corner. Peter Boyle, in his fresh white shirt, sits with the young couple, Richard and Nancy, lighting his little clay pipe. Margaret, with her unwashed hair pulled back tightly into a bun the size of a biscuit, stays behind her husband. Nancy is silent in what must be her best dress, moss green and modest, around her neck, a tiny cross from St. Patrick’s Day. Richard, in his common linen shirt, waistcoat, and heavy black boots, is telling Peter about Europe where, four year earlier, he fought with the Irish 44th Regiment in the British Army at Waterloo and then joined the occupation of Paris. Peter interrupts Richard and looks my way.
“Something for a rainy weather, Father?” he asks, already starting to pour from the old jug. Recently Peter has become an old man crippled by life. “Will ya take another drop?” Peter asks Richard. Richard squeezes his lips together and shakes his head. Peter leans forward, craning his thick neck toward the window, wiping the glass with his fingers. His face makes a shadowy reflection, the chair rocks, and he fumbles. “Looking for me hound,” he says. “Did ya see her out the door, Father?”
“I didn’t,” I say.
“That dirty dog is not coming into my house,” insists Margaret, sniffing in Nancy’s direction.
Peter looks at Margaret, who refuses to return his gaze. “Well, it looks like rain, so she’d best be coming in.” He strains to stand, and Richard reaches to steady the old man. Don’t bother,” he says, slapping Richard’s hand away, making light of his injury and its unending pain. “Ox got the best of me . . . long time ago now.”
Margaret sits behind her husband with her needles and patches in her lap. She runs her palm across the handiwork and relaxes back into the chair. Her nose is red from a head cold or from crying, or maybe both. She takes a white handkerchief from her dress pocket and blows her nose. Margaret’s political opinions are well known, and she is not at all sure about this Richard Moore. She does not cater to Irishmen who take up arms for the Protestants to fight Catholics—even Catholics who are French.
“Sure and it must be a mortal sin, Father,” she said to me at the rectory when I mentioned Richard Moore as a husband for Nancy. Margaret is old enough to remember when it used to be hunting season for priests in Donegal and the Holy Mass could only be celebrated in hiding. Once, the English arrested her own kin for not paying their taxes and their tithes. “They were screaming for help to us—we were also the helpless—as they carted them away.” Whenever she tells that story, she cries like the child she was when it happened. Margaret cheered with the others when a landlord was shot after evicting a dozen families. She said it did her heart good to know there were those who opposed the tyrants. And she still can speak what was our own Irish tongue, before it was outlawed by the English and forgotten by the people.
Now Nancy—her only surviving child—first raped by a stranger while she was salmon fishing at Lough Anna and now having to make the devil’s choice—bear a child unwed or marry a traitor like Richard Moore. That’s how Margaret sees it. “God forgive me,” she pleaded to me, “but I pray He takes that child back, so I may have my only daughter again, or I’ll raise that baby for her! Who knows where this fellow might take her—India or Canada or some wild place called Ohio?” Margaret does not want Nancy going away at all, especially not so far away. It will be a kind of death for her, another endless ache. Still, she is a practical woman and knows there is a big problem and a task at hand: to nab a good one for Nancy—quick, before her star fades.
Richard Moore sits, wicker chair by wicker chair, next to Nancy Boyle and the glowing fire. He holds out his cup so Peter can pour the whiskey. Maybe the drink will help with the talking. We say what we do know how to say:
Take another drop?
That’s a fine hound ya got out there.
Oh, it’s not worth a cuckoo’s spittle.
Richard is a tall man, lean and straight-backed with ruddy skin, sandy hair, and soft, lidded, pleading eyes. He is the kind of man who lives in the future—planning, dreaming, saving today for tomorrow, restrained—like a real man should be. He’s a bit of a snob, bragging to me that he understood the “peasant mentality” and all; but, to be fair, Richard’s had lots of experience with it since his return from the British Army—mean looks, challenges to fistfights, dirty names and curses that follow him on the street. It’s another reason he plans to get away—plus the intoxicating idea of being landed. The look he’s giving Nancy says to me it’s more than land he craves. And not just her beauty, he told me in private, but it’s something else in her that he needs.
“Not the way a drunk needs a drink, Father,” he explained, “or the way a child needs a mother, more like a sinner needs a priest.” We laughed about it then. Still, we all agreed that everybody in the room must consent to a marriage and a voyage to America. Richard knows he has the advantage, given Nancy’s condition, but he senses Nancy’s uncertainty and her mother’s outright disdain.
Nancy pours for her mother and herself from a china teapot—chipped and cracked in several places but repaired and painted with delicate bluebells and catmint. Her long black hair is tied up with hemmed strips of cloth she saved from her mother’s old dresses. Several long wavy strands refuse to be confined.
“Our Nancy brewed that tea from chamomile she picked herself,” Peter says, pausing, pointing up at the tied bunches of dried wild plants suspended from the rafters—nettle leaves, dandelion root, calendula flowers, and thyme. “Not a lazy bone in that girl’s body.” He smiles, then looks away, grimacing. The mention of Nancy’s body causes the embarrassing memory of its condition to rise in all our minds. Margaret blushes, but Nancy does not. It is not clear whether Nancy will accept Richard, but her dark eyes shine when she looks into his. It is a bold step for a young woman—to let a man know she will look that directly and deeply.
Peter is at the window with his cane, acting like he’s checking for weather, but we all know knows he’s hoping to catch sight of the dog. He has a chicken bone in his hand.
“That hound ought to be catching her own birds,” Margaret shouts to Peter, which starts her coughing fit. Nancy turns away from her parents’ squabble and faces the raindrops catching on the windowpane and offering their soothing soft sound.
Richard is nodding too much, talking too fast, as he makes his case to Peter, when it’s Margaret he should be convincing.
“Our sergeant saw the broadsheets outside the American Land Office in London, and he told us all about it,” Richard is saying. “Best financial opportunity in history—lots of land for very little money, rich land with water and forests full of deer and game of all sorts. They are wanting people along the Ohio River.” Now his hands and arms spread open and his eyes include us all. “You only have to put a quarter down and build a small cabin within two years, they give you a loan, and it’s yours, on the installment plan. ‘Land is freedom,’” he quotes the land company brochure. To Richard, America is a giant step away from being an Irish cottier and a tiny step closer to becoming gentry.
“I hear there are savages in Ohio,” Peter comments, leaning forward, placing his elbows on his knees for balance, and getting just that much closer to Richard. He is asking the questions he thinks Nancy must be mulling.
“Savages are everywhere,” Richard responds quietly, “like what happened to Nancy.” Everybody knows it was rape, and as it was a stranger who’d done it, and the officials caught him, too, and jailed him quick. The man rushed to confess like a sinner on Good Friday, so they don’t fault Nancy. Still, there is some unwarranted shame, plus nobody knows what will happen to a bastard child like that, God love him. “But you don’t have to worry,” Richard is explaining, “the Americans have fought off most and made treaties with the others. They’re only selling land where the Indians have moved far away.” He pauses, uncertain whether Peter is convinced. Margaret signals to Nancy to pour her another cup and clears her throat to be heard. She does not look up or speak to anyone in particular.
“God punishes those who take land from the ones it truly belongs to—the ones who had it first,” she says. We know she is talking, not about America, but about Ireland.
“I hear there’s a Petition to the British Parliament for Catholic Emancipation,” Richard says, changing the subject.
“Pray God,” she replies, and we all mutter agreement.
“But there’s lots of Irish in America already, so we’ll stick together,” Richard laughs. “They say that’s why they call it O’Hio.” Peter and I chuckle, as expected, but the joke falls flat. “Plus I’m pretty good with a pistol and a musket,” Richard adds, and thunder cracks. Nancy startles at the mix of it—the thunder, the pistol and the musket. She must want his promise of protection.
Richard is from nearby village of Ardara. He and Nancy were childhood sweethearts of a sort as youngsters in school at St. Brendan’s, and, when I asked her, she said she’s always carried what she called “a feeling” about Richard. She did not say just what the feeling was, and I did not ask. His family is respectable—good Catholics and hard workers; they even own cows, pigs, chickens, and goats. In the early days, before the incident with the ox, Peter cut turf with the Richard’s family for the church when it was being built and mixed the limestone too. Margaret tatted lace for the altar cloths and the curtains. Nancy was only three years old when they buried their firstborn son, taken by brain fever, in a tiny grave behind the church, so St. Brendan’s is a place precious to them. Nancy and Richard grew up, and he went away to war. Now Nancy is a grown woman, not one to fancy a man’s pity, but she must wonder who would marry her. What will happen to her? Will she remain a spinster at her wheel in her parents’ home? So when I told them that Richard asked to visit, to ask for her hand, her father said to her at the rectory out loud and clearly before God, “Nancy, I want ya to have a new and better life. Love him,” he said, “and let him love you.”
Peter opens the subject a bit. “Have ya saved enough money for the down payment and all that?”
“I have, sir. Plus enough for the voyage, and the carriage travel, plus the things we’ll need—a one-room cabin to start,” he adds, looking around their one-room cabin. Richard glances at Nancy, and she smiles, looking excited. “We’ll have to work hard and send crops to market to pay for the installments,” he says. Nancy nods her understanding of the hard labor he is asking of her. “But we’ll get land along the river, so we won’t have far to go to market.”
Peter interrupts. “I’d like ya to have all the money before ya go. If you’re wanting to take our girl all the way to Ohio, you’d best have all of it.” Peter’s words draw Richard’s eyes toward him. “I’m afraid there will be no dowry,” he says plainly. “Crops have been few.”
“And the landlord takes most,” adds Margaret, “and the King just keeps placing more and more debt on us.” She pauses when she sees Peter pour himself yet another one. She’s used to counting them, and lets him know it with a side glance. She brags, “Why, Peter used to make horse collars, but no more now that the English replaced ours with their own.” She told me she wonders what ideas Richard picked up from the English while he was in the Army? She wants him to know that her husband is not lazy. She gets up to put on the kettle, turning her back to the fellow who intends to take her Nancy away, and she reaches for a dishtowel so fresh she must have put it out just before he knocked on the door.
“Of course,” says Richard, pouring himself a small one. “None expected. Not in America. A dowry is an old-fashioned idea anyway. And there’s no rush to sail. We can live in Donegal and save for the rest, if that is your wish.”
Nancy is squirming in what Richard is weaving—I imagine her drawing the line of his profile down the center of a page, a kind of a heart-shaped face, a pouty mouth, always a little bit open, and shining light eyes. But what moves him inside, she wonders? She hungers for real contact, not an imitation of it, and she may be terrified, but she looks completely calm. Richard is a handsome, traveled, God-fearing man with some money in his pocket and big dreams. Nancy has dreams herself—to make a home, of course, but she also dreams—she told me—to cross the ocean and find a new place to be, new lakes and skies to draw with her colored pencils, new earth in which to plant seeds she would take with her to this Ohio. Is Richard the best opportunity in history or just another English speculation? Is she a fool to go with a man whose soul she does not know? Or is she the luckiest girl in the county to have Richard Moore at her parents’ hearth asking for her hand?
Nancy is a dreamer. Oh, she does her work—about half, anyway—and then she appears in the woods with her herb bag or by the river or the lake with her fishing net and the pencils and paper she must have. She scrubs floors at the manor and cleans shit houses for the shillings to buy them. But the pictures Nancy draws can break something open inside you. And Richard has not even seen any of them up close. Margaret silently rearranges the baskets and the pans near the stove. Nancy brings her the old teapot and stands close enough to her mother to listen to the rhythm of her breathing, and I realize that Nancy will be homesick for this old woman.
What will Richard say next, to sign off on this contract? He’s not hearing any objection from Margaret; if she feels one, she is keeping it to herself. And Peter is with him. Anyone can sense that. Richard turns to Nancy, who is moving away from her mother and stepping into the corner where her bonnet hangs on a ten-penny nail. There’s a small statue of the Virgin Mary, and Nancy’s sketches are tacked to the wall.
“Come,” Nancy says, gesturing for Richard to take her outstretched hand, and I can imagine her gesturing to him like that through the years, allowing him to be closer and closer. He draws himself up next to her. Margaret looks pleased. She tries to catch Peter’s eye to share their knowing of what Nancy is doing—she’s putting Richard to the test. They trust that Nancy knows how to get to the heart of the matter. Peter opens the door to let the hound in from the cold. There is a quick, electric scent in the air, and then the door shuts. She’s a skinny brown thing and she smells like a barnyard. The dog goes straight to Richard, sniffing his boots suspiciously. Peter upends his cup of whiskey, then limps to add a chunk of peat to the fire. When he stumbles, Margaret is there to catch his arm. There is a shift of light toward evening. Margaret reaches for candles while sheets of rain drench the fields of Donegal, the lake overflows its banks, and the young salmon hide in murky water under a darkened, colorless sky.
Nancy and Richard stand in front of her three drawings, their backs to her parents. Nancy points to her sketch of Lough Anna. It is a large drawing, the size of a side table, and it is tacked to the wall. It shines in silver shadings with such detail that I swear I can see wrens in the distant trees beyond the water’s edge, the flat hills at a distance, the burly cloudbanks of winter. Richard tilts his head, reading the corner date.
How can this drawing be so beautiful when something so terrible happened to her there? There is no trace of pain in it, but neither is it a pretense; it is more like a place that has held so much for so long that it has incorporated all of that into itself.
Nancy watches Richard’s confused response to her work and points to the second sketch. The thick paper is creamy and rectangular. It is a colored drawing of a faceless soldier. Richard’s eyes widen; obviously, he recognizes himself in it. There are no marching lines of young men in their bright stockings and red coats, no fifes and drums. No, none of that. It shows a lonely man sitting on the ground, his back to a wall, his bare head thick with reddish, matted hair and resting in his hands. Bones on bones, muscles on muscles. Against the wall is a musket, and on the ground, a three-cornered hat and an old rucksack. The soldier is crying; he is crippled by war, but will not let it show, and the artist is kind enough to respect that. Richard takes a sharp breath, and I know what he is remembering. He once described to me his pal, Paddy—how he’d abandoned Paddy on the field to die alone—and he is thinking of the stunned eyes of the French soldier who cried out to God, “Mon Dieu,” when Richard’s saber cut open the boy’s guts. Richard doesn’t look at Nancy, who must know all these things that are broken inside him.
Nancy reaches for the last drawing. She removes the slender nail and places the paper in Richard’s trembling hands. It is another black-and-white pencil sketch of a gray, shimmering graveyard where a little girl stands, looking up at her mother, whose face is soaked with tears and whose thin body is heavy with grief. What could be a worse sight for a child to see? And its weight is doubled by being recalled on the page and now tripled in the seeing of it. A single tear appears in the corner of Richard’s eye. Nancy’s gaze follows the tear as it reaches the peak of his cheekbone and falls onto his boot. She bends down, takes the drop with her finger. She places it on her tongue, and drinks his tear.
Richard and Nancy Moore were my great-great-grandparents. This story is part of a collection of short historical fiction I am writing—what I call “family fiction,” as it is based on deep research into my own and my former husband’s ancestry. Richard and Nancy arrived in New York in1825 from New Brunswick, Canada, on the schooner Lady Hunter, accompanying an unnamed girl. With my cousin’s help, we identified and visited the seventy acres in Salineville, Ohio, (about twelve miles west of the Ohio River) that Richard Moore purchased from the US Government as evidenced by a deed signed by President Andrew Jackson in 1831—one year after the Indian Removal Act forced the native people of that area to migrate west of the Mississippi River. Research for this story included a visit to Glenties and Ardara in County Donegal, as well as research in museums, churches, and other historical sites in Ireland. In writing this family fiction, I tried to rely on documented facts, and the rest I had to imagine.
Jacqueline St. Joan is writing a collection of family fiction: short stories based on deep research into her extended family’s ancestry. She is the author of the novel, My Sisters Made of Light (Press 53), a book of poems, What Remains (Turkey Buzzard Press), a letterpress, hand-stitched chapbook, Restitching the Sky, and coeditor of the anthology, Beyond Portia: Women, Law, and Literature in the United States (Northeastern UP). She lives in Denver, Colorado.
“Triumph” by Sahar Mustafah
In her richly textured story “Triumph,” Sahar Mustafah employs the setting of a women’s clinic in contemporary Palestine to address issues of gender, power, and domestic violence. The story appeared in our summer issue (TMR 43:2). Recently the author talked with TMR staff about the story and about her writing on women’s issues and Palestine. You can read that interview here.
by Sahar Mustafah
It was harder than she expected. Some of the patients at the women’s clinic refused to give Intisar their full medical history, as though it were gossip she might turn loose around the refugee camp. They only reported their immediate ailment or injury, scoffing at her clipboard. It’s only a headache—just give me something for the pain.
They were guarded and suspicious, calling Intisar “amarkaneeya,” though her Arabic was sound. Her parents had made sure of that. Sunday school at Izzadeen Mosque in Chicago until she turned fourteen, Miss Sawsan standing at the front of a small classroom, a ruler in her hand, pointing to words on a whiteboard:
She knew it would take time before the women warmed up to her. They would see how she hadn’t given up after five months and returned to the States, how the mass of hopelessness that had formed in her throat the first week upon her arrival had now hardened into a lump in her stomach. The clinging stench of the sewers, the burning heaps of garbage outside cinder-block shacks, and the pro-Hamas graffiti smearing retaining walls and storefronts no longer shocked her.
Every morning, the women clamored behind her when she unlocked the clinic door. More than one had pulled her aside and in a hushed tone asked if Intisar could help with a delicate matter: I want to pull it down. What am I to do with another child?
At first, Intisar had not comprehended; then her face flushed, and in a low voice she told these young women that the doctor didn’t do that here. They’d storm out of the clinic, weeping, children clinging to their hips. Intisar hated those days the most.
This morning was comfortable and cool. Soon enough, the heat would seep inside the unadorned building and stifle the two minuscule examining rooms and the small room for breaks. There were frosted hexagonal windows ensuring patient privacy that were never opened. The women’s clinic reminded Intisar of an animal shelter back home in Illinois.
The buzzer sounded, and Intisar checked the security camera. She watched Amal, an assistant, come through the clanging metal door, then through a slight entry, carrying a steaming paper bag. “Salam! I’m sorry I’m late!” She was a slender woman with small shoulders. Today she wore a lavender headscarf. “My daughter had a fever last night. Elhamdullilah it broke early this morning.”
Three of the meagerly compensated volunteers had come and gone since Intisar had started at the clinic in the spring. Amal was the best one they had. She knew most of the women in the mokhayam, and they respected her. Her husband was being held at Nafha Prison in Israel, had completed his second year of confinement without a trial. Amal had been pregnant at the time they raided her home and dragged him out in the middle of the night. He hadn’t seen their firstborn, had missed his daughter’s akeeka, when the imam blessed the baby and the extended family ate from platters of broiled lamb and yogurt-soaked rice. Once a month, Amal traveled a half-day between checkpoints and detours to visit him. The drive to Nafha alone could take up to five hours each way.
Intisar had soon discovered that the third question on a form she fastened to the clipboard for new patients was necessary, if not surprising: Is your spouse or any member of your family in prison?
The second question was Has your spouse or any member for your family been killed? It was as casual a question as the seventh one: Do any congenital diseases run in the family? If yes, please list them.
Intisar found Amal’s sense of optimism boundless, her smile never faltering, as though the absence of a husband and father was not the worst thing to happen to a family.
It made Intisar ashamed of her own father, living in the States with his new wife. Seven months ago, he’d taken Intisar to a restaurant, trying to avoid a spectacle, afraid she might throw a temper tantrum like a child. He’d never given her enough credit.
“Why are you leaving? You have a career here,” he’d said.
In Cook County, she’d been working with victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. The University of Illinois at Chicago Hospital had offered her a managerial position, but she’d turned it down.
“I want to go where I’m needed,” she flatly told him.
“Life is difficult in Palestine,” her father pressed.
Life is difficult everywhere, she replied evenly. “For some of us, it’s almost unbearable.”
“You’re doing this to punish me?” He’d said it like a question.
“Punish you for what?”
“Your mother is a wonderful woman. We married young, habibti. We aren’t”—he’d fumbled with the words in English—“the same people.”
“Isn’t that what marriage is about?” Intisar had wanted to say. She’d thought it inevitable that married people changed, but couldn’t these new selves be woven into the fabric of their original bond? If their love was strong enough? Instead, she’d kept her mouth shut, poking at her chopped salad.
“I will always take care of her, Intisar. And you.”
That had meant helping Intisar with her nursing graduate loans and paying the mortgage on the house she’d grown up in while he lived in a new one with his young wife. It meant finishing the payments on Mama’s SUV while the other woman drove around in the latest BMW series.
Intisar wanted him to stop calling her that. She’d heard him on his cell phone call his new wife, Khitam, the same. “Habibti, I’m on my way home. Do you need anything?” A young woman only three years older than Intisar. Young enough to be his daughter, young enough to be her sister. Intisar knew Khitam’s brother, had gone out with him and a group of college friends. He was blithely pleased to see her at the wedding, a lavish affair that deeply embarrassed Intisar. She hadn’t wanted to attend, but her mother insisted. “Don’t let them know they’ve hurt you.” Her father was dressed in a tuxedo with a yellow carnation pinned to his lapel, one meant to be worn on the day he would walk Intisar down the aisle, if that ever happened—not to be married in himself, to a young woman in a sequined, sleeveless mermaid dress. Her brother had referred to Khitam as “Kitty” during his reception speech. She’d also been married before, had a son twenty-five years younger than Intisar.
Would it have been any different if it’d been a woman her mother’s age? Would that have stung less? She’d pretended she hadn’t cared, packed up her clothes and books, and flew across continents to leave it all behind. She was thirty-one years old, could call the shots in her own life.
Amal placed the bag on her reception desk. Dorit Borja, the clinic’s sole gynecologist, poked her head out of the examining room. “Do I smell falafel?” She drew the syllables apart in a charming, unobjectionable way. Dorit was fascinated by the Arabic language, particularly names; she had asked Intisar what hers meant.
“‘Victorious,’ I think,” she’d told the exuberant doctor. “Triumphant”
“Ah, the Triumphant One!” Dorit had gleefully declared. “I like that. You’ve determined our destiny here.”
Amal waved the grease-soaked bag. “I stopped on my way. Fresh batch.” She carried them to the small break room. “Abu Yasser asked about you again, Dr. Dorit,” she teased over her shoulder.
“I told him I couldn’t be his second wife,” Dorit called back. “My Lutheran father would never allow it.” Dorit Borja was a young Norwegian gynecologist. She’d worked with Doctors Without Borders in Syria before enlisting with UNRWA in the West Bank. The patients were enamored by her, perpetually awed by Dorit’s naturally platinum hair. Her eyes were frigid blue, deeply set in a lightly freckled face. To them, Dorit was ajnabeeya. A foreign woman. She beguiled them.
The first patients arrived early as usual. Their mornings were busiest when mothers from the refugee camp sent their children off to school and squeezed in an exam between cleaning and cooking. Amal spoke with the women in a soft voice, her tone kind and patient like a teacher’s. Intisar had developed a habit she found rather disconcerting: she imagined what Palestinians like Amal would be in life if not for the occupation. Would Amal have pursued a professional degree in education, or perhaps become a pharmacist? Would her husband be her husband, free and present in their daughter’s life?
A large woman toddled into the clinic with a nylon bag in her hand.
“How are you, Um Nabeel?” Amal smiled. “How are the migraines?”
“Same. I brought you all some tomatoes.”
Other women brought them green almonds and sour plums. Sometimes they brought jars of pickled turnips and pressed olives.
One girl, fifteen years old, came in with her mother, an overbearing woman, a noticeable mole on her upper lip. They rarely saw young daughters—virgins still.
“She can barely move when she gets her period,” her mother loudly declared. She looked at the other patients for affirmation. They nodded their pity. “Inshallah khair,” went around the waiting room like a spark.
The girl’s face flushed, and she kept her eyes on the floor. Intisar felt sorry for her.
“Bring her into the examining room,” Dorit instructed, waving the girl in.
“Lah, lah, lah!” the mother intervened, an arm blocking her daughter. “She’s still a binit—I don’t want you prodding inside her.”
Intisar explained that the doctor would only be examining her on the outside. She patted her abdomen to demonstrate.
“I’m going with her,” the mother asserted, ushering her daughter through the door with a hand clamped on her shoulder.
“How old were you when you got your first period?”
Dorit nodded. She gestured for the girl to lie down. Her eyes, fearful, flitted from her mother’s stern face to Intisar’s then to the doctor standing over her.
“She’ll need an ultrasound. Might be early endometriosis. I can prescribe an oral contraceptive for the pain—though I know the mother will refuse.” Dorit spoke as if the woman wasn’t present. Intisar smiled reassuringly at the girl. “Let’s give her turmeric and ginger vitamins in the meantime.”
By late afternoon, they’d seen a dozen women. Amal cleaned the waiting room and Intisar had begun sanitizing the equipment when the door alarm sounded. She buzzed in two women who appeared to be mother and daughter. They both had reddish complexions—a’la hamar, the women called it—disarming spatterings of freckles. Their eyebrows were the color of brown, turning leaves.
Amal immediately recognized them. “Ahlan, ya Um Hussain!” She kissed the older woman on both cheeks. “How are you, Muna?” The daughter smiled, the apples of her cheeks rising.
“It’s her wrist,” the mother said, holding her daughter’s arm for them to see. The mother’s body was shaped like a ripened fig, narrow at the waist, her hips straining against her abaya. “It’s hard to get to the hospital, you understand.”
“Khair inshallah,” Amal said. “Why don’t you have a seat, and I’ll speak with the doctor?”
Mother and daughter sat side by side, silently regarding Intisar. She brought over a clipboard.
“Your left wrist?”
The other patients didn’t disguise their curiosity and leaned in as Intisar wrote on her clipboard. The girl nodded.
“How did it happen?”
The girl answered in a soft voice, eyes darting around the room before settling on Intisar. “I fell.”
Intisar looked closely at her young face, freckles like tiny date palms. Beneath her black head scarf, Intisar imagined spirals of thick red hair.
“Can you show me how it happened?”
The girl glanced at her mother. The older woman said, “It was my fault, you understand. I asked her to bring down the laundry, and she tripped over a sack of clothespins.”
“You were on the roof?”
The girl nodded.
Intisar might have believed them if their faces hadn’t turned red. The daughter appeared nervous, and her mother clasped her left hand and patted it. “May our Lord reward her. She’s a helpful girl to me. I haven’t been well lately myself, you understand.”
In Cook County, Intisar had counseled American women, some whose faces had grown gaunt from opioids, sores on their foreheads and chins. Victims tended to offer her very little information, humiliated and scared, their cuts and bruises speaking for them, telling the stories of brutal attacks by men they typically knew. Then there were those women who’d been forthcoming with every detail. One named Amber had reported to Intisar that her boyfriend had shoved her head in a toilet. The motherfucker waterboarded me.
Intisar turned back to the mother. “Who lives in the house with you?”
It wasn’t precisely the next question on the form: How many people reside in the home?
Um Hussain said, “My sons and my youngest daughter.”
“How many sons?”
“Twenty-one and twelve.”
The girl shifted her body and kept her eyes low. She permitted her mother to gesture with her hand, their fingers interlaced. It looked as though they were performing a strange kind of dabke dance in their chairs.
“If there’s a problem in the home—” Intisar said “mushkala,” stepping around the word “abuse,” which she couldn’t quite summon at the moment. She was learning how easy it was to be proficient in euphemisms in this country. “We’ll have to investigate.”
“I fell,” the girl quietly said again.
Amal gestured to the mother and daughter to follow her to the examining room.
On the veranda, Intisar and her friend lounged on a long, cushioned bench set back from pedestrians walking below them on the narrow road. They had the privacy to smoke and wear shorts. A bowl of shelled watermelon seeds had been lazily set beneath their feet.
It was still hot, hours after she’d left the clinic, but a constant breeze from the wadi reached her great-aunt’s two-story villa. She’d been staying with Amti Farha, an invitation that had shocked the rest of Intisar’s paternal family. The old hajja had a reputation for orneriness and a fierce independence. But she’d insisted that Intisar reside with her instead of in the dormitory in Ramallah, where young single working women found cheap housing. Many had managed to leave Gaza on a work permit and vowed never to return.
Amti Farha’s villa sat atop Jabal al-Taweel, across from another mountain range, where a settlement rose, surrounded by barbed wire and a watchtower. The old hajja cursed its dwellers every morning as if it were an addendum to her obligatory prayers. Intisar had never seen them, and there was no life stirring as far as she could tell, aside from the drone of generators and the barking of dogs. When she’d first moved to Palestine, it was an ominous sight to her, like a prison compound. She’d wondered if they were under surveillance.
“Of course we are,” Amti Farha had spat. “The bastards don’t want us out of their sight. There will be retribution, inshallah.”
The villa had been built by Farha’s husband four decades ago, on a few dunum of land he’d purchased from a family who’d fled after the ’67 war. She and her husband had stayed, while ugly tanks rolled through Ramallah and her village. Others had long been driven from the coasts of Haifa and Jaffa and later from Jerusalem, feeling to Lebanon and Jordan.
From the veranda, a spectacular view of the village had stunned Intisar the first morning of her arrival. She’d descended after sunset, and the valley had been mostly dark, except for the lighted homes scattered below her. The refugee camp was located to the west of Amti Farha’s home and temporarily hidden from this vantage point.
Intisar’s toes grazed Ummaya’s thigh as her friend puffed from a hookah. Amti Farha hated girls smoking. She was in the vineyard behind the villa selling her grapes; they were temporarily safe from her scolding eyes.
“Have you ever had to report abuse? To the police, I mean?” Intisar asked her friend.
“You need to know how to finesse them to really get anything done,” Ummaya said, passing her the tube. “A little flirting doesn’t hurt.”
Intisar nudged her thigh. “Stop it. I’m serious.”
“I am too.” She took another long drag and exhaled, a ribbon of smoke obscuring her face for a moment. “Be careful when you go to them. You don’t want to be on their shit list. They can help your cause or pull the rug from under you.”
Occasionally, an officer from the Palestinian Authority would show up with a reporter and take photographs outside the clinic, respecting the privacy of female patients inside. “Attempts to show progress,” a volunteer had once snickered. Sometimes they asked Dorit to pose with them, but she adamantly refused. The officer would then attempt to hide his embarrassment, unaccustomed to being denied.
Intisar’s friend Ummaya interned with an international organization that worked with victims of posttraumatic stress disorder in Gaza. These were mostly kids whose daily lives were rattled by artillery and bombings, buildings gutted in their neighborhoods. They couldn’t sleep or play normally, and some refused to go to school anymore, terrified they’d come home to a pile of rubble, their parents killed while they were away. One little girl had told Ummaya, “I want to be killed with my family. I don’t want to be left behind.” Funding had eventually run out for the program, though, and now her friend would be going back to the States to finish up research on her PhD. Intisar would miss her. She was the closest connection to America she had.
Ummaya tapped Intisar’s leg with her toe. “Why are you asking? Who’s in trouble?”
“It’s a teenage girl from the mokhayam,” Intisar said. “Her brother is beating her.”
“That’s fucked up.”
Intisar reached for the tube. “Do you ever feel like you’re wasting your time?”
“What do you mean?”
“Not wasting your time, but—I don’t know.” Intisar hesitated. “Not making progress, I guess.”
Ummaya shrugged. “It depends on how you define progress. Once you learn to lower expectations, you won’t be so disappointed.” Her friend took a drag and exhaled, the smoke hanging on the air, then disappearing without a trace.
Intisar found her great-aunt asleep under the fig tree; the late-afternoon azzan hadn’t stirred her. It was the only thing that still astounded Intisar every time the melancholic call to prayer echoed from the minaret. It felt almost anachronistic: a human voice booming from a period when muslimeen traveled the desert, searching for truth and humanity.
A little boy was waiting with an empty nylon bag, staring at Amti Farha. He looked afraid, not daring to wake up the old hajja. Intisar didn’t blame him. Even in her sleep, her great-aunt appeared formidable. She dozed with a meaty fist under her chin, her seventy-six-year-old body still upright like a sentinel nodding off for a moment. Her lips were set in a straight line, as though she were formulating a verbal lashing that would burn your ears for days. Her father’s aunt, a widow for twenty years now, was like a matriarch in a house empty of its descendants.
The small vineyard was a wonder to Intisar. She like to stroll through it, cigarette in hand, a canopy of leaves forming a reprieve from the heat. “Imagine the killing she’d make if folks drank around here,” Ummaya had once joked. At the end of the season, her great-aunt permitted the villagers to pluck piles of dawali to roll and stuff with rice and ground lamb.
Intisar leaned over the old woman. “Amti,” Intisar whispered in her ear. “Amti. You have a customer.”
“Aywa, aywa,” her aunt grumbled. “Who’s come?”
Intisar nudged the little boy forward.
“Hajja, my mother wants one kilo of the green,” he said, encouraged by Intisar’s smile. He held out his bag.
“All this way for a kilo?” Amti Farha muttered. She knew every child, woman, and man in the village and nearly everyone in the mokhayam. She straightened up, pulled a bunch of grapes from a crate beside her, and set them on an old-fashioned scale. She placed a one-kilo disc on one tray, added another smaller bunch until the scale evened out. The old woman’s keen eyesight amazed Intisar.
“How’s your mother? Has her foot healed?” Amti Farha asked the little boy.
He shook his head. “She can’t walk yet. Or cook for us.”
“Don’t despair. I doubt any of you will go hungry,” she said huffily, handing him the bag, now heavy with grapes. “I’ll send her a tray of fatayer tomorrow. I know she likes the spinach ones.”
Amti Farha was prickly on the outside and soft on the inside, like the cactus pear the old woman ate every morning with a slice of goat cheese. She sold her grapes at a price to cover the labor of the Bedouin family who helped her till and harvest the vineyard each fall. There was no profit. Her husband had left her with the land, and her sons in the States made sure her other expenses were handled. For years, they’d begged her to move in with them—they were Intisar’s second cousins in Louisiana and Georgia—but Amti Farha refused to leave Palestine. Her mother had once told Intisar the old folks were afraid of dying in another place, far from home.
“Try to convince her, ya Intisar,” her cousins implored her when they called to bid Intisar farewell and make sure she’d packed all the items for their mother that they’d shipped to her a month before her departure. A small suitcase of slippers and robes for the winter, denture glue, insulin monitors (accompanied by a notarized letter from a US pharmacist to avoid confiscation at Ben Gurion Airport), and ibuprofen. Amti Farha had sneered at the robes she believed had been the frivolous idea of a half-witted daughter-in-law.
“I plan on staying for a while,” she’d told her cousins.
“Yeah, right,” they’d quipped on the phone. “You won’t last, Intisar. You’ll see.”
The little boy grabbed the bag of grapes and scampered out of the vineyard.
“How about some shai, Amti?”
“In a little while,” the old hajja said, re-draping her headscarf. Strands of gray hair framed her wrinkled face. She withdrew a handkerchief from the breast pocket of her embroidered thobe and blew her nose. “I’ve missed asr prayer. How were things at the clinic today?”
“Busy.” Intisar sat on her haunches, passed her great-aunt a water bottle. “Amti, do you know the Hussain family?”
“The redheaded ones? The father used to help out my husband—Allah have mercy on his soul—in his furniture store in Ramallah. A shame what the Israelis did to him.”
Unlike most of the women in Intisar’s life, arabiyat who’d give you unsolicited advice in the same breath as the latest rumor, her great-aunt needed constant nudging. And if she were willing, she’d parcel out the information, not freeing it all at once. It was a quality Intisar had come to admire, a form of restraint she figured had formed with being alone for so many years.
“What happened to him?” she asked.
“Shot dead,” Amti Farha said impassively. “During a protest in Jerusalem.”
Intisar was silent. Her knee-jerk reactions of outrage had dissipated since her arrival, and she’d quickly learned to swallow her expressions of sadness, which were as useless as the husks of watermelon seeds she and her friend had tossed in a bowl.
On Fridays, the women’s clinic was closed. Intisar used those mornings for home visits with Amal. Some women in the mokhayam still refused to come for regular checkups.
They walked down a road strewn with discarded water bottles and plastic bags. Graffiti covered the dented and rusted doors: Freedom for Palestine. Oslo Failed Us. The stench of rotting vegetables prickled Intisar’s nostrils. Amal walked on, unperturbed.
At the first house, a ramshackle structure with a corrugated roof, the young woman held out her crying toddler to Intisar. “He’s been constipated for days.”
“Maskeen!” Amal cooed, patting his chubby cheek.
Intisar held the toddler on her hip and fished out a pamphlet on how to perform a breast self-exam. “Sister, you’ll need to take him to a pediatric doctor.”
Amal took the toddler from her. “I give my daughter a spoonful of honey.”
The young mother nodded, listening intently. Her child’s crying had turned into a low moan as Amal rocked him. Intisar stood by, the pamphlet in her hand.
At the next house, a middle-aged woman allowed Intisar to check her blood pressure. “It will be my heart that gives out, worrying over my son. The Israelis revoked his license to work in Al Quds. He’s been unemployed for a year. His spirit is low. Can you speak with him?”
Portraits of martyrs hung in the sitting rooms of the cinderblock homes, taking up most of the wall. Head shots of young men with serious faces, dark eyes shining, the black-and-white checkered keffiyeh draped around their slender shoulders. Intisar been told they took professional photographs in case they were killed or imprisoned. She found the women—their mothers and wives, sisters and daughters—still cheerful. The same hopeful gaze in their eyes as Amal’s, as constant as time passing. They listened politely as she went through the motions of an exam, lifting her arm and pressing two fingers in a circular motion over the fabric of her shirt to demonstrate.
They approached a structure like a shed. Inside, a mother and her six children lived. Cushions lined the floor, dingy pillows propped against the wall. In one corner, there were a portable stove and refrigerator. Scratched steel pots hung from the ceiling.
“How are you, Um Ribhi?”
“And how are the children?”
Intisar noticed a boy on the floor, drawing circles on an old newspaper with a broken red crayon. He hadn’t lifted his head to acknowledge them.
Amal stooped to his level. “How are you, habibi Emad?”
“He only permits me to touch him,” his mother was saying. “Screams when his brother Nasser tries to play with him.”
“How long has been like this?” Intisar asked. She thought of her friend Ummaya and the work she’d done with children just like Emad.
“His father—Allah have mercy on his soul—was killed a year ago. A sniper. Emad was with him. Saw his father choke on his own blood.”
Intisar kneeled down on the floor next to the little boy. “Hello, Emad. I’m Intisar. I’m a nurse. How are you today?”
He refused to look at her, started rocking back and forth, his crayon creating a deep ridge in the paper. The lump in her stomach rose up into her throat again.
“He’s stopped speaking and won’t let anyone near him. His brother Nasser can’t stand to see him this way. He’s acting out, giving me a hard time. The school threatened to kick him out. They say Nasser fights the boys in his class. Disrupts the teacher’s lessons.” Um Ribhi pulled a handkerchief from her breast pocket, sniffled into it. “What do they expect? He’s already lost a father and now his little brother. Allah, give me strength.”
“God bless you,” Amal said, patting the mother’s back. “Inshallah khair. And how are your daughters?”
“Iman wants to be a doctor,” the woman told Amal, perking up. “She says, ‘Yamma, one day I’ll cure Emad.’ She loves school. First in her class, mashallah.”
Intisar smiled at this.
“Habibti, mashallah!” Amal beamed. “She sounds like an ambitious one. And what do you want to be, ya Emad?” She leaned down toward the boy. He ignored her, pressed the crayon harder, the spirals no longer distinct, turning into a red mass.
Outside, Intisar lit a cigarette, took a few discreet puffs and snuffed it out.
“It’s hard, isn’t it?” Amal smiled.
“How can she care for all of these kids?”
“Donations from the conservative groups, a little welfare from the sulta. They’re sometimes generous with the families of a shahid. May God protect and keep her children. They’re all she has, maskeena.”
By the noon prayer, they had covered half a dozen homes. At one shack, Amal prayed with a woman on a threadbare rug while Intisar sat with small children who’d gathered around her, covering their mouths and giggling. Intisar hugged them and handed out cherry-flavored suckers. Each woman absent-mindedly took a breast-exam brochure that Intisar held out and they waved it at her as they spoke hurriedly about backaches and canker sores. A few in the mokhayam refused to let them in, dismissing her and Amal through the heavy steel doors.
They walked slowly down an unpaved road, crunching pebbles. “Um Hussain lives in that bayt.”
A little girl with red curly hair sat on the doorstep, coloring on a drawing pad. She held a bundle of crayons in one hand, drawing with the other. Intisar remembered what Amti Farha had told her about Abu Hussain. Shot dead.
She tried not to think about Baba. She hadn’t lost to him to bullets or imprisonment. He had remarried. “There are worse things in this life,” her own mother had said, signing the divorce papers.
“Salam, habibti!” Amal called from the road.
The girl had the same spray of freckles as her mother and sister. She waved back at them. Behind her, a young man appeared in the steel doorway, the bars obscuring his face. He said something to the girl, and she quickly gathered her drawing pad and retreated inside.
“That’s Hussain,” Amal whispered. “The older son.”
He stood in the doorway as they passed, and Intisar could still feel his eyes on them as they continued down the road.
Outside the PA building, an old man was hocking his watch. “For a bite to eat,” he said to Intisar as she approached the steel entrance. The face of the watch he held out for her to examine was cracked, and the metal wristband had turned brassy green.
She dug inside her purse and handed him twenty shekels.
“Shookrun! Shookrun!” he waved.
Intisar climbed a short flight of stairs to the second floor and entered a suite filled with cigarette smoke and men in slacks and tie-less shirts. There were police officers who stopped their chatting to eye her up and down.
A receptionist in a black hijab asked Intisar to have a seat outside an office. She knocked on the closed door, poked her head in, then closed it again.
Ten minutes passed. Intisar said, “He knows I’m here?”
The receptionist’s eyes flitted from Intisar’s bare head to her designer purse—a gift her mother had insisted she take with her. “Yes. He knows.”
A police officer escorted a middle-aged man down a corridor. “If you can’t settle this privately, sir, you’ll have to take it up with the civil court.”
“I never promised her family that money! They stole it! That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you, ya zalama!”
At Cook County Hospital, Intisar had provided injury reports to the police. They’d usually showed up, a coffee in their hands, waiting for her to finish her examination. How many women had she seen in seven years? One to two per shift? Two thousand fifty-five women, give or take a hundred, on her off days? It seemed an absurd number. Their faces blurred now—a collage of bruised cheeks and blackened eyes. How much torn flesh had she tended, where their thighs had been clawed, handprints of the attackers left on their buttocks? And the sound of their voices. Soft, hoarse whispers; others loud and angry as they were made to sit in their soiled clothes while Intisar asked them preliminary questions. Then the examination and the whimpers of pain as she collected specimens of violation, assuring them she would try not to hurt them.
“Doesn’t it make you sad?” people asked her, their expressions really asking, “Doesn’t it disgust you?” Who would want to work such a job when there were other choices? “Have you considered pediatric care? I bet you’re great with kids.”
She’d believed in her challenging work, the reward being much greater than the easier jobs. Isn’t that why she’d come here?
The door to the office finally opened, and a man invited her in, gesturing to a single aluminum folding chair across from his desk. A fan whirred in the corner, but it did little to alleviate the heat. Intisar regretted the knit sweater she’d chosen to wear over a crisply ironed blouse. Her collar had started to wilt.
The office was small, and she could hear the muffled voices in the atrium and those coming through the adjacent walls. The despairing pleas of the old man outside floated through an open window facing the street.
“Ahlain. I am Chief Inspector Abdul Rasheed. How can I be of assistance, Miss?” His uniform lapel contained three service ribbons with stars. The golden eagle coat of arms was sewn on the opposite breast pocket. His top shirt button reached the bottom of his Adam’s apple. Behind him, a framed flag of Palestine hung with a plaque inscribed in Arabic: Atlanta, USA, Olympics 1996. She recognized it. It was the original flag carried by the first internationally recognized team at the opening ceremony. Intisar had been seven years old at the time, sandwiched between Mama and Baba on the couch, watching the grand entrance of each team. Her parents had never paid attention to the games before then or ever since. It had felt monumental to her, a young girl, Baba squeezing her hand and telling her, “This is history.” Only eight days later, a white man would plant a forty-pound bomb of nails and screws in Centennial Olympic Park, claiming a life and injuring over a hundred others.
Intisar smiled at the chief inspector. Her purse was propped on her lap, heeding her mother’s warning that it was bad luck to set it on the floor. She’d humored so many of her mother’s superstitions without thought. She could see the chief inspector studying it, and her face flushed. She quickly said, “I am Intisar Hassan. I work at the women’s clinic in Al Omari camp.” Not a flicker of acknowledgement across his face. She wondered if she should mention her great-aunt’s name. He kept his gaze steady on her face. Intisar continued, “I am concerned about a young girl who might be physically abused by her brother.”
“Do you have evidence?” The chief inspector lightly tapped his fingers on the edge of the desk. She noticed there were no papers or files spread across its gleaming surface.
“She came to the clinic with a sprained wrist.”
Someone laughed in the adjoining office. The chief inspector nodded and leaned back in his chair. The black eye of the eagle insignia on his breast appeared to blink at her. Her eyes traveled up to his face. There was a pockmark above his left eyebrow and a tiny cut beneath one nostril of his slightly crooked nose—from shaving, she suspected. “Did she disclose to you that it was the result of a beating?”
“No,” she said. “But she appeared frightened, and her mother made excuses.”
He nodded again. “So there was no clear admission of abuse?”
Sweat pooled in her armpits and trickled down the middle of her back into the seat of her khaki trousers. She thought of all the rape kits she’d administered, DNA she’d swabbed from the victims’ mouths. “Was it my fault?” some women had asked her. After all, they’d accepted a drink or let the man into their home. Others had never met their attacker before the incident, a stranger who’d forevermore stolen their privacy.
“No. There was no admission,” she told the chief inspector, shifting on the folding chair. “I’m convinced she’s vulnerable.” She had an opportunity to intervene before this innocent girl could suffer any more. It was too late for her other victims; she’d merely collected and cleaned off the criminal mess wreaked upon their bodies. She was a recorder of their battered limbs and broken spirits. But here she could speak up and circumvent the damage. Or at least prevent it from getting worse.
The chief inspector stood and turned the fan up a notch. His back to her, he said something she couldn’t hear above the increased whirring.
She leaned forward. “Pardon?”
He turned around. “We can conduct an unofficial visit.” He walked toward the door. “If there’s nothing else,” he said.
“You don’t want to be on their shit list,” Ummaya had warned Intisar. The chief inspector looked keenly at her as though reading her thoughts. She stood up. “Thank you for your time.”
When she reached the door, he said, “Sayida Intisar, may I offer you a word of advice?” For the first time, he switched to English, his accent like a British professor’s. The fan whirred behind him. “Beware of your boundaries.”
“I do not doubt the work you are doing at the clinic has been invaluable to the community. You do not want to jeopardize your reputation. Sometimes these folks lack education and a certain—what do you call it?—sophistication to adequately appreciate the intrusion of strangers into their private affairs.”
Heat rose from her collar. “Is trying to protect someone a private affair?”
“Of course not, Sayida Intisar.” He opened the door. “It is a pleasure to meet you. Keep up the good work in the mokhayam.”
In the atrium, the same men were still bantering and smoking. The receptionist gave Intisar a nod, and she headed to the stairwell.
Outside, the old man had moved on. A taxicab honked at her, and she waved him away. The sun hung high overhead. She wiped the sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand and slowly walked home.
The electricity went out in the middle of night. She’d awakened at the abrupt cessation of her fan and couldn’t get back to sleep. Careful not to wake Amti Farha, Intisar grabbed her cigarettes and sat on the veranda. Though it was dark and most of the village was asleep, the absence of electricity allowed every other sound to emerge. She heard a breeze through the trees before it rushed her skin. A mosquito buzzed near her ear, and she swatted. Across the valley, she saw lights dotting the top of a mountain—the settlers were unaffected by the outage.
The stars hung closer here, not like the two-dimensional backdrop in Illinois. “Light pollution,” her science teacher had told them in school. She remembered being a child on a field trip to the Adler Planetarium and sinking back in her chair as the domed ceiling transformed into a spectacular universe. To be looking at it while actually living and moving inside it boggled her young mind. She wondered if aliens were just as awestruck. From the veranda, she could make out Pleiades, the Seven Sisters. Intisar gazed at them: a milky cluster that flattened like a heart. She remembered thinking that even the stars were luckier than she, who’d grown up an only child.
Her parents doted on her to a fault; friends had teased her, calling her spoiled, though she’d had no idea what it was like to demand and not receive something. It had propelled her belief that she could do anything, change anything. The reason she came here.
At sunrise, she unlocked the caged door of the generator and started it up. The whirring sound disrupted the quiet hum of early morning. Inside the clinic, Intisar turned on the large oscillating fan. She opened her laptop, checked her e-mail. There was another message from UIC Hospital: Do you expect a long tenure overseas? The job was still hers. Their offer would expire in six months. How did they imagine “overseas” to be? They were careful not to say Palestine or the West Bank, as if she were on some secret mission.
Intisar was filing charts when the buzzer sounded. In the security camera, she could see an older girl, her hijab-swaddled head looking down at her feet. She buzzed her in. Behind her a young man suddenly appeared and entered too.
Intisar stood up. It was Muna, the girl with the sprained wrist. “Good morning,” Intisar said, her chest tightening. It had been a week since she’d gone to the police.
“Salaam,” Muna replied, nodding at her brother. “This is my brother, Hussain.” Her arm was still in a sling, though it would have likely healed by now.
Her brother glanced around the clinic, then stood in front of her desk. His hair was reddish-brown and wavy—the same color and texture she’d imagined the girl’s hair to be. His boyish looks might have been disarming if not for the dangerous glint in his eyes. “Stay out of our business.”
Intisar held a pen, clutched it tightly. “Excuse me, I don’t know—”
He gripped the edge of her desk and stabbed a pile of medical charts with a finger. “Why don’t you go after the Israelis?”
Intisar tried to keep her voice steady. What if he lunged at her? She straightened up, held a solid stance, the pen still in her hand. “You’re beating your sister.” She hoped he didn’t hear the loud thumping of her heart.
He clasped his hands into a ball and shook it at her like someone pleading for understanding. “You think you know anything about me? Or my family? You come from America, and you don’t have a clue.”
“Hussain, please—” Muna said, holding one hand up like a meager offering, but she didn’t dare touch her brother. Her white-swaddled head and an arm in a sling gave her an air of defenselessness, like a bird with a broken wing.
“Shut up!” he hissed at his sister.
“I won’t be silent,” Intisar said, “when I witness violence against women.” Had she uttered the correct word? Was it “ashad”? Or had she said “shahid”—like martyr.
“And what about violence against men?” he spat back. “Young falasteeniyah?” He laid his hands again on the edge of her desk. She could see his fingernails bitten down to the quick. “Ha? How about the boys and men shot dead every day? Or hundreds tossed in prison? Can you save any of them?”
Intisar’s face flushed. “That doesn’t justify what you’re doing. How does that solve political issues?”
“‘Political issues’?” He snorted, took a step toward her. She gripped the pen more tightly but didn’t move. “This is our life,” he said bitterly. “Not a political issue. But you wouldn’t understand that. You haven’t lived like a rat stuck inside a wall, scratching away.”
“When I observe a vulnerable—”
“I am vulnerable too!” he swiftly interrupted. He had begun to shout. “Can you not protect me? You sic those police dogs on me, and you have no idea what’s it’s like for our family.” He pointed a finger at her. “I’m warning you. Keep away from my sister. Keep away from us. Or you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.” He grabbed Muna’s arm and pulled her through the door, slamming it behind him.
Intisar stood there for a long time, her jaw clenched in fear, hands shaking. She sank back down in her chair, tried to file away the charts, but her fingers trembled so badly she had to sit on them for a few moments. She breathed deeply, exhaled. At Cook County Hospital, she’d never seen any of the attackers of the women whose bodies she salved and wiped down—just the evidence of their violence, their rage. She suddenly felt unsafe and began sobbing into the crook of her arm, muffling the sound.
An hour later, women gathered again outside the clinic and Intisar let them in, grateful for the distraction. She had somewhat recovered by the third patient, mechanically checking blood pressure and gauging temperature. The fear seeped out of her, leaving behind a heavy dread. She forced herself to stay in motion, to fight against the weight in her stomach. She waited until Amal took her break and sank in a chair across from Dorit.
“Muna’s brother came to see me.”
Dorit’s eyes shot up from her paperwork. “The freckled girl? What did he want?”
“He threatened me.”
“Intisar! I knew it. You seemed”—Dorit rolled her eyes, searching for the word—“off. You were off this morning.”
“I’m fine. Really.”
“You need to report it.”
“I did already, remember?” Intisar gave a bitter laugh. “That’s why he paid me a visit.”
Dorit shook her head, came around her desk and gently clamped Intisar’s shoulders. “You need to document it. This is a separate matter.”
“Not really. I mean, it’s because he beats his sister that I went to the police in the first place. And I made it worse.”
Dorit was quiet for a moment, her hands still on her shoulders. Intisar cupped the doctor’s elbows. “I’m not afraid.”
Dorit released her and smiled. “You must brace yourself, Intisar. Sometimes these people don’t always understand that we have their best interests at heart.”
Intisar nodded and gathered a chart from Dorit’s desk. Patients were waiting, and she registered the new ones, her clipboard in her hand. She bent down to speak to a young mother nursing a large baby, the fabric of her hijab draped over its suckling face. The woman whispered into Intisar’s ear.
“We don’t do that here,” Intisar told the woman, straightening up. And she moved to the next patient, trying hard to keep her pen from shaking.
Sahar Mustafah is a daughter of Palestinian immigrants, a complex inheritance she explores in her work. Her prizewinning short-story collection Code of the West (2017) is followed by her first novel The Beauty of Your Face (2020). She writes and teaches outside Chicago.
An Interview with Sahar Mustafah
Sahar Mustafah is the talented author of our featured fiction, “Triumph,” which first appeared in the summer 2020 issue (43.2) of the Missouri Review. Recently, TMR staff member Vivian Herzog spoke with Sahar about the occupation of Palestine, global feminism, and what it means to belong to a place. You can read her story here.
Vivian Herzog: As the American daughter of Palestinian immigrants, how do your own lived experiences inform the character of Intisar?
Sahar Mustafa: I very much see Intisar as embodying young people like my own daughters, who are third-generation Palestinian. They’ve largely enjoyed greater diversity and reclamation of their identities to an extent that I hadn’t growing up in America. Their generation is more optimistic and inclusive as opposed to assimilationist, as my experiences had been. However, there’s a danger in that kind of optimism—as we see in the character of Intisar—when you’re so far detached from the experiences of political occupation and trauma.
VH: Your story subtly discusses issues of abortion, domestic violence, and gendered power dynamics. How do these topics—and the way they’re portrayed in your story—speak to the current state of feminism in Palestine?
SM: I think we’re seeing a powerful surge of intersectional, global feminism and protection of women’s bodies. This story was inspired by a friend who works with a protective agency and has had to combat the patriarchal and cultural attitudes of silence. I hope this story might speak to the idea that women form the collective foundation of any country and it’s important to defend, uplift, and support Palestinian women from both domestic violence and the effects of the Israeli occupation—forces that seek to oppress or completely destroy them.
VH: The piece is written with such lush and precise sensory details. How did you conduct research so as to capture the specific character of the setting?
SM: Thank you for saying so! I’m fortunate to have lived in Palestine and to continue to travel there. Much of those direct experiences contribute to world-building that I hope feels authentic. My family still owns a small villa just a kilometer or so outside of a mokhayam, the Al Om’aari refugee camp.
VH: It seems to me there’s an element of challenge Intisar is chasing, or maybe that she has something to prove. Her cousins tell her she “won’t last” long in Palestine, which she refutes. What does this reveal about Intisar as a character or about her relationship to Palestine?
SM: Yes. I think it’s connected to a few things. One is the turbulent relationship with her father, away from whom a reader might sense she’s running in rebellion. Another dynamic is the American-bred sense of invincibility, which leads Intisar to feel equipped and qualified to succeed no matter where she lands. She’s got this “seen-it-all” experience of working as a sexual assault examiner in the States. Finally, and most interesting to me, is that Palestine represents a place she might find some sense of belonging and purpose in this life that she hasn’t quite achieved. This makes for a noble quest, but one that we discover is unattainable in Palestine. She’s fully immersed in her ancestral culture and wants to reclaim it, but she hasn’t rightfully earned it.
VH: Why did you choose to center the story around life at a women’s clinic?
SM: It allowed me to home in on a complex and nuanced population of Palestinian women as well as interlopers, so speak, like the Norwegian doctor. I could explore the salient similarities, as well as—and more intriguing—their resounding differences, stemming from race, culture, class, education, etc.
VH: Amti Farha’s villa is near to the refugee camp, but you explicitly write that the camp is hidden from the villa’s view. What does this detail say about the nature of life in occupied Palestine?
SM: As I shared earlier, my family and I were very close in proximity to the refugee camp, but it was essentially out of sight. I find this intriguing as an American citizen who gets to come and go, relatively unfettered. I was born to immigrants and have never had the experience of even temporary homelessness. It demonstrates the clashing existence of class and wealth among native Palestinians who escaped the squalor of poverty and displacement after 1948 and 1967, as well as the return of expats. In the end, I’ve come to appreciate that it’s really only a sliver of fate between me and my counterparts in the refugee camps.
VH: Most interactions in the story take place between women. Obviously, scenes of interaction between men and women occur, but they are briefer and more charged. In other words, these interactions seem to lack the warmth that defines the relationships between the women in your story. Were you conscious of this when writing the story? What does this say about gendered interactions in Palestine today?
SM: I wouldn’t characterize it as a lack of warmth in those interactions, as much as my desire to focus on the community of women for storytelling. I’ve always been moved by the compelling bonds between women, as a woman shaped by such bonds. Palestinian women possess a resilience and grace that transcends hardship and propels them to live and love their families—not merely survive.
VH: How does the historical plight and identity of Palestine guide your writing?
SM: I’ve only written about native and immigrant Palestinians in my fiction. Being Palestinian is an incredibly charged and fraught identity that also informs other identities I carry: American, Muslim, woman, mother, writer, teacher. There’s a perpetual yearning for home in the diaspora and for an end to the Occupation in Palestine to which I’m drawn, as well as how generational trauma and collective memory manifest in future generations.
As a writer, I’m quite conscious of the privilege I possess in being able to write in a space free from the shackles of the Israeli occupation. I also pay attention to what I’m creating as art, dispelling commonly reductive narratives around Palestinians. For me, fiction provides a space to explore identity and belonging without having to worry about finding the answers. I hope we get closer to those answers about our humanity every time we engage in a story.
Vivian Herzog is an intern at the Missouri Review. She is a senior at the University of Missouri, where she is studying magazine editing and creative nonfiction writing.
“Wait for Me” by Katey Schultz
In “Wait for Me,” a finalist for the Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize in fiction, Katey Schultz gives us a sensitive narrator, hurt by a rupture in his family, and a bullying neighbor girl, whose own pain is harder to see. The importance of family, and the ways in which people we think we know sometimes act in startling ways are at the center of the story. Schultz writes about the inspiration for “Wait for Me” and its long genesis in her craft essay “When I Pulled Over on the Side of the Road.”
WAIT FOR ME
by Katey Schultz
Every day, I stepped off the school bus on Flat Run Road, and every day, on the other side of the fence, Judy Puckett sat astride a four-wheeler, gunning the engine. “Sarvis Morton, you’re dumber than a dummy!” she’d shout, then tear into the pasture, over the hill and through the coal chute. We lived in Pentress, seventeen miles from Morgantown, and even with the sock factory and a post office with Wi-Fi, Pentress was easy to miss. But Judy never missed the sad exhale of the school bus, or me, abandoned along the roadside after it wheeled away.
I had about fifteen seconds between insults while Judy took the four-wheeler through obstacles. I learned to walk fast. On a good day, I could be out of earshot after just four or five of her assaults. But sometimes the wind slowed me down. Or mud. The ditch along Flat Run Road was steep, and I’d fallen in once.
“Sarvis Morton, your brother’s a retard and so’re you!”
“Sarvis Morton, if you had another brain, it’d be lonely!”
I’d have settled for giving her a nasty look, but she already had one—pug nose that flared when she yelled, voice pitched like a pack of coyotes. Dirty brown hair like bitterroot vines slapping across her face, and a neon tube top paired with whatever jeans her older sisters had worn the year before. I couldn’t cross the road because Old Man Mooney’s pit bull lived on the other side. It doesn’t take being on honor roll to know a chain only puts the inevitable on hold. When a pit wants something, it’ll get it. If that means breaking a chain or breaking skin, that’s what it means.
“I didn’t ask for your opinion,” I’d shout back. “Earth is full. Go home!”
But rain, scalding sunshine, sideways wind—Judy came at me. She never could have gotten to me—not with that ten-foot pole fence between us, barbed wire rimming the top. Still, I felt more intimidated by her than by the punks at school. The way her biceps flexed when she steered, rounded and limber arms framing her rib-thin torso. The neon tube top unnerved me. Like she couldn’t be bothered to get dressed all the way, or like nobody she lived with cared. I guess that’s what it came down to. Nobody did care. Not as far as I could tell.
“Sarvis Morton. . . .”
“Sarvis Morton. . . .”
As the crow flies, my house wasn’t far from a wildlife management area. We just called it “the lake,” because that was the only reason anyone would ever go. The foothills boasted hundreds of acres of mixed hardwood, but all I’d ever seen of West Virginia was trees or the tops of mountains where trees used to live. More trees didn’t particularly excite me. A lake, however, was something special. Flush or poor—Morgantown or Pentress—everybody loved a good swim in summertime. Even Judy Puckett.
Judy had been giving me hell ever since I’d seen her at the lake, her older sisters ripping her tube top off and laughing. They had her outnumbered at the end of a dock that jutted into a deep, narrow finger of the water. I watched from the opposite shore just twenty feet away. The tube top came off fast—the tallest sister holding Judy in a full nelson while another pulled it down her waist and past her knees, throwing it into the water like a piece of trash. If that had been me, I’d have jumped into the water as soon as I got free. But when the tall one released her, Judy turned around and knuckle-punched her in the throat. The other sister got worked up then, and two more sisters came dashing down the dock, strutting in their bikinis and raising their fists, and it was only then—outnumbered by her own flesh and blood—that Judy finally got the idea to run.
Her tube top bobbed on the surface of the water, a bright pink stain against the dark green lake. Judy dove off the dock, her sisters punching the air and mocking her escape. Judy’s strokes triggered ripples across the lake, propelling her top to my side of the shore.
“I can throw it back to you,” I said, snatching it from my feet at the water’s edge.
“Get your hands off my clothes,” she shouted, a little breathless.
I set the top down on shore and backed away. I still hadn’t seen a real woman’s breasts up close, but Judy wasn’t grown, and besides, with her it was never like that. I’d watched my twin brother, Jimmy—autistic, whip-smart and sad-eyed—be misunderstood by everyone outside our immediate family for most of his life. I knew how hurt-turned-into-hatred could go.
I stepped back and let the woods swallow me. Judy reached for her tube top.
In the forest, the air turned syrupy, clinging. The last time Jimmy and I had been here, it took us forever to bushwhack over the rise, back to our property. But this time, Mom and Dad had ramped up their focus on Jimmy’s autism, and he was at some science sleepaway camp in DC. They had told me Jimmy was “special smart,” as if I hadn’t already figured that out. What they were really saying was that I—his twin brother, genetically the same yet somehow not—was only normal smart.
Shouldering my way through the bushes on the walk home, I missed Jimmy’s endless chatter—pointing out ginseng, meadow rue, cohosh. Reminding me that the bright red newts were technically called efts. That they’d already lost their gills in order to stay on land for up to four years in that form. He’d have talked about state law, too, quoting requirements for legal ginseng harvesting and explaining why regulation had been required in the first place. But if I’d asked him to play jungle with me, seeing how long we could wrangle through the rhodis without letting our feet touch the ground, or if I’d asked him to race me to the top of the rise—he would have given me that confused-kitten look. The one that meant he wasn’t sure whether to tuck in his claws or leave them out. For every emotion Jimmy couldn’t seem to express, he had twenty facts ranging from the circumference of the moon to the extraction process for pure quartz. Still, that he chose me to share with, more than anyone else in our lives, was a closeness I’d defended for years, distracting bullies in the hallways and shielding him from insults at the expense of my own social standing.
It was Jimmy, after all, who’d told me the meaning of my own name. A sarvisberry tree; mundane enough. But in these hills, everyone knew the blooming of the sarvis in early spring meant the ground had finally thawed enough to bury your winter’s dead. Horse, cattle, human. In the old days, nobody got laid six feet under during an Appalachian winter. You had to wait for me to do that. You had to wait till I bloomed.
Then one day, about two months into seventh grade, Judy wasn’t waiting for me. I stepped off the school bus, stealing myself for her litany, and after the bus’s diesel cough faded into the distance, the silence hit me hard. My family’s brick house sat a mile ahead at the end of Fry Pan Road. Behind me, the two-lane state highway ran a ribbon all the way to the interstate outside Morgantown, where Jimmy went to private school. That year was our first school year apart, and the change had come with a sense of grief I still couldn’t name. Judy’s threats had been a nuisance, no doubt. But without Jimmy next to me, and without Judy’s rage holding up the sky, the feeling of that much hillside, that much open space, reminded me of the first time Mom and Dad took Jimmy in for testing. We’d never been apart for that long, and even though it was only a few nights and we couldn’t have been much more than three years old, I felt unmoored without my twin, sleeping in a strange guest room at one of Dad’s colleagues’ houses, listening as they clanged around in the kitchen and made food I didn’t like.
There’d be many more tests for Jimmy, and even more time apart for the two of us, but that first time—the scary, silent, spaciousness of it—marked me. Mom, Dad, and Jimmy picked me up a few days later, and we drove home in our Volvo station wagon like normal. From my car seat, I saw Dad’s knuckles wrapped around the black, foamy steering wheel. I could smell Mom’s perfume—something like tulips and mulch that kept spring alive whenever she entered the room. Her hand rested on Dad’s leg, and she turned sideways to watch Jimmy as he slept beside me in the adjacent car seat.
“Momma,” I remember saying. “Tell.”
She must have thought I wanted to hear my favorite story at the time—Scuffy the Tugboat, which she’d nearly memorized—but I was trying to ask her what had happened, why they’d left me.
“I’m too tired, sweetie. We’ll read it when we get home. Can we just rest a bit?” Her voice sounded like cotton: warm and pilled. I missed it already, in a way I can only describe as nostalgia for something that hasn’t abandoned you completely yet. “Everything’s all right,” she said, then turned back in her seat and closed her eyes. But nothing felt all right to me. My parents and Jimmy had endured something, and when they picked me up, I immediately sensed that they’d been welded together anew. I spent the next ten years trying to find a way into that formation. Surely, if I stood up for Jimmy, they’d see I was doing my part—doing more, I believed, than any doctor could ever do.
I remembered doing that the last day of sixth grade, when Terry, the junior wrestling-team captain who’d been after Jimmy all year long had ambushed us after school before we got on the bus.
“Hey, knucklehead,” he’d said, pushing Jimmy from behind so that he tripped off the curb and ran into the side of the idling bus.
Tears came to Jimmy’s eyes immediately, and he began muttering to himself, pulling at his own hair. I’d fooled Terry before, getting him to shove me around instead of Jimmy—we truly looked identical—but he’d gotten wiser and knew our different hats and backpacks.
I approached from behind. “Back off, Terry,” I’d said, jerking his coat down his shoulders to tangle his arms. Terry flicked his coat off the rest of the way, faster than a fly lifts from a turd, and his punch came next. I dodged, stumbling up the knee-high steps onto the bus. The driver closed the doors.
“Late again, Sarvis,” he said. “Git in yer seat.”
The bus lurched forward, leaving Jimmy behind, and the driver turned his attention to a pair of eighth graders in the back row who were already making out. “Git a room!” he’d shouted. It would be years before I realized what that meant. But at the time, none of this registered because during those first fat seconds as the driver pulled down the straightaway and headed toward the highway, I couldn’t speak. I felt my limbs go numb. My heart squeezed into my throat. I could see Terry slugging Jimmy for a long time. First across the eye, then in the jaw. Jimmy slumped, turtle-shelled, clutching his backpack. Then Terry had struck the back of Jimmy’s ribs, the side of his head.
I don’t believe in melodrama. But believe me when I say I felt every blow, endured every cut. And though I’d shouted and begged the driver to turn around, my voice was only buried by those around me, jeering at my tears. After a few miles, I wasn’t crying for Jimmy anymore. I was crying for myself.
Walking along Flat Run Road that day, almost a full year later, Judy nowhere in sight, I tried to breathe into the quiet, calming my nerves. I longed to smell Mom’s perfume, hear the heavy rumble of our Volvo. But the hillsides were abandoned, the road an echo of failures.
To my right, the Pucketts’ property sat piled with trash and mounds of old tires, empty jugs, Styrofoam coolers, and yard debris. Across the street, Mooney’s pit bull lay chained at the base of a legacy oak, the kind we always talked about during West Virginia History Month in school. Mooney’s tree was one of the few left in the state, according to surveyors, and Pentress folks liked to joke that the fortune he’d made raising pit bulls wrong was buried so deep beneath that oak that even the state police could never get to it. I marveled at the pit’s thick, dirty-white shoulders. Its pink-rimmed eyes looked unnaturally tender, given the animal’s strength. A wide, dark brown patch of fur spread across one side of the dog’s ribcage and under its belly. Matching brown marked each paw, and there, as if the creature had an extra pair of feet, I saw Judy’s mud-coated sneakers poking from around the other side of the tree.
There are stories about perfectly well-behaved pit bulls who one day start attacking strangers. Jawing into a toddler’s guts. Popping finger joints like sticks. But what everyone remembers are the pits who turn against their owners. I couldn’t stop thinking about Judy’s sisters that way, how Judy had had to run from them. When I had asked Mom about the Pucketts not too many days after the tube-top incident, it occurred to me that the fence did more than keep people out. It kept the Puckett girls locked in.
“Maybe I should interview Bud for my research,” Dad had joked, referring to Judy’s father. Bud and Dad had worked together at the sock factory one summer during high school, and while Bud had faded into obscurity, Dad went on to chair the psychology department at West Virginia University, starting in 2001. He’d been researching what he called “the torture mindset” ever since.
“Judy?” I called. The space around me shrunk, vacuum sealed. “Hey, Judy, are you OK?” I pictured the worst—limbs akimbo, clothing torn—and even after I saw her unharmed, I couldn’t shake the gruesome image from my mind.
“He’s not all that bad,” she hollered.
I crossed the gravel road and stood at the edge of Mooney’s yard, fifteen feet from the tree, clear of the chain’s reach. “What’s his name?” I asked.
“Collar says Peanut Butter,” she said, then came around the tree and sat down in the dirt with her bare arm right next to the pit’s thick, flappy jaw.
“Think I can’t read?”
“Not the name. The dog. Are you’re sure he’s not all that bad? He’s always chained. There’s probably a reason. Judy, what’re you doing over here?”
“I ran away from home, dummy. What does it look like?”
I looked around and saw a small suitcase—clunky, pastel blue, something from the ’60s my mom would have said was only good for storing old linens. Next to it lay a plastic bag that I assumed held some food.
“Does anyone know you’re gone yet?”
She rolled her eyes, which was enough of an answer. I wasn’t sure what to do next; at first I thought she might try to pick a fight. I didn’t want one, but I would hit a girl if I had to.
The quiet around us filled with tiny sounds: the wet, hollow tock of Peanut Butter opening and closing his jaw as he shifted his head from one paw to the other; the small flocks of chickadee and titmouse flitting through oak branches above our heads; every few minutes, a jet plane. Eventually, I realized how silly it was to think Judy was trying to hurt me. Or Peanut Butter, for that matter.
“You could come over,” I finally said.
“I mean, you could hide at my house for a few hours. It’s boring, but if you just sit here, your sisters are going to find you.”
Judy squinted. She looked ready to punch me for talking about her sisters. Peanut Butter sighed and moved his head from one paw to the other again, and that seemed to bring her back. She picked up her suitcase and started walking down the road toward my house. It was the first time I’d seen her move with any sense of ease, and I couldn’t help but notice the determination. Her gray T-shirt was dirty, set crooked around her neck. Her jean cutoffs looked stained, too, one of the pockets flapping lightly at her backside with each step. But she walked like she was born in charge, not at all like someone who’d been bullied on the docks. I tugged on the straps of my backpack and kicked up a slow jog to catch up.
“You got any good food?” she asked.
“Goldfish,” I said. “Some other stuff, maybe.”
I stole a glance into the plastic bag she carried and saw a pair of cowgirl boots, several sizes too big. “Those yours?”
“What do you think?” she said, and in that moment, I knew I’d be on her side.
I unlocked our back door and walked into the house. My parents wouldn’t be home until after dark. I wondered what Judy might have heard about us. As far as I could tell, the prevailing rumor was that we were rich; Dad had tenure, after all. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Jimmy’s schooling was covered by scholarships. I’d figured out that much by watching the mail and snooping through awards paperwork on Mom’s desk. Most of our money went to Mom’s causes—she wasn’t from West Virginia but loved it, I sometimes thought even more than Dad. And if the money they earned wasn’t covering her passions, it went to Dad’s research during drought years when grants didn’t come through.
Judy asked if she was supposed to take off her shoes. I almost laughed. What was there to protect? Drab tiles in the kitchen. Dark hardwood floors beyond that, in the living room. A worn rope rug. The couch I’d known my entire life.
“No,” I said. “It’s no problem.”
She crossed the threshold and followed me into the kitchen. She set her suitcase and bag by the door.
“Here,” I said, angling for the cupboard of snacks.
She tore into a bag of Goldfish, and fake-cheese smell filled the space between us. I left her in the kitchen, which was mostly open to the rest of the house, and flopped onto the faded beige recliner. A row of cupboards hung between us, mounted to the ceiling, so that all I could see was Judy’s hand dipping in and out of the Goldfish bag at about waist-level. I grabbed the stereo remote and pressed a few buttons. Mom and Dad kept things pretty low-tech, but music was one area where they didn’t deprive themselves. Ad-free Pandora streamed Johnny Cash, my fave station. “I Walk the Line,” ballooned into the living room. I was supposed to be doing math homework, but Cash’s telltale voice hit me: a haunting comfort. It was an obsession I’d never thought I would share with the likes of Judy.
“Got a bathroom?” she asked. I nodded toward the hallway. “Light’s behind the door.”
She crossed the living room and disappeared into the dark hallway. I heard the door click. I wanted desperately to know what was inside her suitcase, but I didn’t dare peek. When Judy returned, her baggy cotton T-shirt was tucked into her cutoffs. She had splashed water on her face, I could tell, and it occurred to me then that the Pucketts might not have running water in their home. Their yard featured several outhouses, most of them toppling. Old. That was all I could see from the road. Their property extended much farther, a stretch of West Virginia hills I knew I’d never set foot on. Cash rambled on about watching his heart and keeping his eyes wide open.
Judy sat cross-legged on the couch. “Your daddy’s famous, right?”
“What do you mean?”
“I heard him once. On the radio. It was for a 9/11 anniversary. The ten-year, I think. Something about torture.”
“Oh. That.” I turned the music down a little. If Judy liked Cash, I couldn’t tell. Without Jimmy around, it hadn’t taken long for the stillness of our house to give me the creeps. Music helped. “No, not famous. I mean—maybe here, like, in our state. But famous isn’t the right word. He and Mom just do their thing, but they’re kind of intense about it. That’s probably why people remember them, to be honest.”
“But I heard him,” she said. “Got any more food?”
I scavenged a Dipps bar and an apple, which she took without thanks. What Judy had heard must have been the interview Dad had done on the low-fi station broadcast out of Morgantown—hardly anything that would make someone famous—but she was, in fact, referring to the little amount of PR he got the year his big grant came through. The one that would pay him and a small team to research the “ticking bomb” problem for five years. I remembered it because when the funding ran out, Dad didn’t have anything new to say. His hypothesis was that even the most virtuous people would eventually crack, endorsing torture if given a concrete set of contextual circumstances. Real life had already proven his thesis, though—no research or funding required—and whatever blip he might have made in the social sciences only came in the form of a joke. History, it turned out, had also already proven the thesis, rendering any of Dad’s pleas for future funding unsuccessful.
“What about your dad?” I asked.
She bit into the apple and shifted on the couch. “What about him?”
“I guess our dads used to work together. Back in high school.”
“I know that.”
“So is he why you’re here? I mean, is he why you packed that suitcase?”
Judy’s lips flattened into a hyphen. “I liked you a lot better about three seconds ago.”
For all the times she’d harassed me over the fence, I realized I’d never gotten a close look at her. Without the four-wheeler, her tough appearance became simple skin and bones beneath cheap, stained clothing. I might even have described her as vulnerable. I sensed I didn’t need to press any further about Bud Puckett.
“My parents’ll be home at like eight or something. They’ll bring dinner. They always do.”
“What’re you going to tell them?” She leaned into the armrest where I’d watched Mom lay newspaper clippings every weekend for as long as I could remember. While Dad studied obscure psychological theory, Mom spent hours tracking print-media coverage of her causes. Judy’s question was a good one. I had no idea how long she intended to stay, and even though we were in my house, it didn’t seem clear who was leading the way. Her presence charged the room with an energy I hadn’t felt in months. Very different than Jimmy’s vibe—which, until recently, felt like a parallel life I watched and sometimes coached or sheltered, as best I could.
“I don’t know,” I finally said. “What do you want me to tell them?”
Judy stared at her feet. Cash crooned, then blended into Pandora’s next track. Judy had taken her socks and shoes off, and I felt uncomfortable, but also curious. Somehow that simple gesture—the ease and ownership it suggested, her curved pinky toes and chipped purple toenail polish—won me over. “They don’t ask much. I’ll figure something out.”
But I didn’t have to figure anything out at all. As absent as I made my parents out to be, like Jimmy, they were also keenly observant. After a relatively normal dinner—Mom and Dad making small talk about the latest class-action mining lawsuit, me twitching my gaze from Judy’s face to the window to the pile of brussels sprouts on my plate—Judy and Mom disappeared into the den for almost an hour. When they emerged, it was clear that Judy would stay. In that efficient manner that only women, it seems, can call upon without effort, they made the sofa bed, closed the blinds, found some spare clothes, hung a wall calendar, put batteries in a small digital alarm clock found in our junk drawer, and that was that. Judy’s room was ready.
Only later, long past dark, did I hear my father speaking on the phone. The familiar B-flat hum of the refrigerator filled the house, its comfort seeming to hold the roof over our heads, as it did every night, while I tried to sleep. Dad’s voice pulled me from the bed to the edge of the darkness. A small stove light in the kitchen illuminated the threshold between the hallway and the rest of the house. I could see my father’s wide palm pressing the veneer countertop, his fingers effeminate-looking save for the hefty callus along his right middle finger, where his pencil always pressed.
“Yes, yes, I know that,” he said into the receiver. I heard him sigh, presumably listening to whoever spoke on the other end of the line. “But you see, Bud, if it’s all the same to you, and it’s all the same to us, then there’s no need to make any kind of phone call one way or the other. Laurie and I’ll get Judy set up at the school. They need anything more than a signature, they can call you. Otherwise, consider it handled. Consider it better for everyone this way.”
He spoke with a confidence I’d never associated with him before. It was different than the voice he used delivering lectures to graduate students at the university. Different, even, than the few times I’d heard him raise his voice at me or Jimmy. He spoke as though what he wanted was already so, as though the world would bend to him. Why he couldn’t ever stand up for me like that, I never knew. In that moment, all I knew was that my dad had lived entire lives before my brother and I were born, and whatever those experiences showed him then meant he had access to the tools of persuasion he needed now. He reasoned and lobbied for Bud’s blessing to house and care for Judy with a calmness and intelligence that made me long to be older, grown up. Though I assumed adulthood would be boring, that night, I could see it might have benefits. That night gave me hope.
Most people would find it hard to believe that’s how it started, but it really was that simple. Judy Puckett moved in, my parents too conscientious to turn away a girl who obviously needed help. I’m certain Dad and Bud came to peace about it; but what exactly they worked out, I never knew. Once, I heard Mom on the phone with the school district. In less than a week, she’d purchased Judy a few outfits from the co-op in Morgantown and set her up to attend school full time. The bus picked us up at the intersection of Fry Pan and the state highway. Judy always waited in Mooney’s yard, petting Peanut Butter. I waited across the road next to the ditch and the Puckett fence. For some reason, we held to an undiscussed agreement to pretend we were barely associated.
It’s hard to say what someone means to you when what you’re really missing is the wholeness you felt before everyone realized your twin was different. She’d never be my sibling. Never really be family—there was too much hardness in her for any of that. Over the years, she became a friend in a household where my parents were otherwise preoccupied, but even though we’d eventually graduate from high school in the same class, I still knew next to nothing about what her life had been like on the other side of that fence.
KATEY SCHULTZ is the author of Flashes of War, which the Daily Beast praised as an “ambitious and fearless” collection, and Still Come Home, a novel, both published by Loyola University Maryland. Honors for her work include the Linda Flowers Literary Award, Doris Betts Fiction Prize, Foreword INDIES Book of the Year for both titles, gold and silver medals from the Military Writers Society of America, five Pushcart nominations, a nomination to Best American Short Stories, National Indies Excellence Finalist recognition, and writing fellowships in eight states. She lives in Celo, North Carolina, and is the founder of Maximum Impact, a transformative mentoring service for creative writers that has been recognized by both CNBC and the What Works Network. Learn more at www.kateyschultz.com.