Kelly blinked her eyes awake, but saw no difference in her vision. The room was absent of light, but she could tell this wasn’t her bed. Being a blackout drunk, she had become accustomed to waking up in strange places; but when she felt the flannel bedding, that’s when she knew she’d hit bottom. Kelly hadn’t slept on wool since she was a child. In fact, from the day she left Ireland and landed in San Francisco, she vowed that she would only ever lay on the finest feathers and softest satins for the rest of her life. Shunning her old rural lifestyle and her “culchie” farm mother who wielded Catholic guilt with all the wrath of the Old Testament. The “Oul Dear.”
When she tried to sit up, her head smashed against a low hanging flannel ceiling just above her head and an odd sense of detached relief washed over her. Thank God, she thought, at least I’m in a ……
To find out where Kelly woke up, head on over to Forum’s Fall 2020 Fiction and check out some amazing stories. The “Oul Dear” by Wess Phillipson can be found on page 2, accessed by clicking the picture below
Jeremiah lied every night. After prayer circle the youth group would discuss what concrete steps they’d taken to establishing their church here, in Buenos Aires. And every night Jeremiah, who would’ve spent most of the day walking aimlessly around the metropolis, lied. He said that he’d witnessed to a drunk in Bosques de Palermo, or to a divorcee in a Cafe Havanna, or to a toothless communist in a parillada. He’d seen these people during his wanderings, but he never talked to them. If he did occasionally talk to cashiers, bus drivers, and the like, it was never about Jesus. The other youth group members usually managed to bring one or two fellow college kids to the drafty space they’d rented between a cell phone store and a butcher shop. Jeremiah had zero new-comers in two months. One night Pastor Jeff pulled him aside after share circle.
“You’ve been on my heart a lot lately, Big J. I hope you know that. And I just wanted to have a one-on-one to see how everything is going. If maybe there’s some way we can better make use of your time.”
The other youth group members went to Spanish classes at the University by day. Jeremiah already knew the language because of his Spanish grandmother, and had his days to himself. It was agreed that he help the others with the language in the evenings, though only a couple of the quieter girls actually took him up on this.
“I’ve been trying. It’s just everyone here’s so Catholic.”
Pastor Jeff assured Jeremiah that he completely understood. He only asked that Jeremiah make a solid commitment to getting one person, just one, to come to Bible and Bites. Jeremiah said he would do his best, and then skipped dinner to go for walk around the neighborhood.
As he was stepping out of the building, a policeman got off a bus dragging a kid about Jeremiah’s own age behind him. Once on the sidewalk, he slapped the kid on the back of the head, booted him on the butt, and called him a maricón. He then let him go and himself got back on the bus. The kid walked past Jeremiah, rubbing the back of his head. One of his eyebrows was pierced, and the other had three vertical lines shaved out of it. He wore an adidas track suit that swished as he walked. He caught Jeremiah staring. He smirked as he took off his white tennis hat. “Que?” he asked. Jeremiah looked away.
Jeremiah replayed the scene in his mind. He wondered what the kid had done to deserve that. Lost as he was in such thoughts, he walked farther than he’d meant to. He had left the dorm’s neighborhood, but he wasn’t sure in what direction he’d gone. He turned down a street he didn’t recognize at all. It looked like medieval Europe. Part of it was the trees. With their thick, gnarled trunks, they could been older than the buildings they stood in front of, which themselves had an immovable aspect unique to the oldest of buildings. He stepped under the trees and was surprised to find that it was already night under there. The street itself was cobblestoned, and in the extreme darkness it appeared wet. Another pedestrian passed by him, but Jeremiah hardly saw them. It was as though they were gliding past each other underwater. After they’d passed, Jeremiah craned his neck to look back. They might’ve done the same, it was too dark to tell.
He had to strain to hear his own footsteps. He looked at the backs of his hands, and then his palms. He laughed without knowing why. It felt good here, there was that. So good, in fact, that once he’d reached the end of the tree shaded street, he turned around and did it all over again.
Now he wanted to stay out a little longer. Perhaps there was more to find. He’d noticed the train tracks before, but had never walked along them. He found a way in and started down them. After a couple of minutes the kid who’d been kicked off the bus came towards him. Jeremiah stared for too long again, and the kid stared back. “Que onda Yanqui?” he said when they were near, each one on their own set of tracks. Jeremiah tried to respond, but only managed to make a sound that died somewhere in the back of his throat. A few steps after they had passed each other, Jeremiah craned his neck to look back. The kid had turned to look too. Jeremiah snapped his head forward.
During the day Jeremiah continued exploring other neighborhoods; Recoleta with its middle aged women in fashionable pants suits, giant sunglasses, and white high heels; San Telmo with its aging intellectuals in wool vests; the skater kids by 9 de Julio with their adidas warm-up pants tucked into their socks; the garrulous drunks of La Boca in worn slacks and wine stained oxfords. At night he walked the tree shaded street and the train tracks. It wasn’t long before he saw the kid from the bus on the train tracks again. This time the kid pointed directly at Jeremiah’s chest, at the blue youth group sweatshirt with its crucifix insignia. “Evangelico?” he said. Jeremiah nodded, to which the kid pointed at his own chest and said, “Satán!” with a laugh. He motioned for Jeremiah to stop. He told him that his name was actually Manolo, not Satan, and offered to sell him marijuana.
“Evangelico.” Jeremiah said while pointing at his own chest. Manolo slapped himself lightly on the head, “Ah claro, disculpa disculpa.” He wanted to know what, if anything, Jeremiah did for fun. Did he even ate ice cream? When Jeremiah said of course he did, Manolo threw his arms up in relief and offered to take Jeremiah to the best ice cream spot in Buenos Aires. He promised that it was close and that he would get Jeremiah back home before his bed time. Jeremiah said that he didn’t know, but Manolo insisted, “Te invito.” He assured Jeremiah that he was not, in fact, Satan.
They hung out a few times after that. Manolo showed Jeremiah a famous empanaderia, walked him down a culvert where kids their age smoked weed and made out with their girlfriends, took him to a part of Bosques de Palermo that had an astonishing number of stray cats in it, pointed out the transvestite prostitutes on their way back from seeing the cats, and, always and no matter what else they were doing, showed him video after video on his phone. Clips of street fights, cruel pranks, soccer riots, and lurid reggaeton music videos. He would sidle up very close to Jeremiah to show him the videos, and he always smelled of menthol cigarettes and musky cologne.
Jeremiah began skipping his tutoring sessions in the evenings to hang out with Manolo. Eventually Pastor Jeff pressed Jeremiah about what he’d been doing with all his time if he wasn’t tutoring, if he still hadn’t gotten anyone to come to the church, not even for Bible and Bites, not even for Movie Night. “Maybe,” Pastor Jeff offered, “you’re out there looking for yourself? I know how it is at your age. But just remember that whatever you’re looking for is not of this world. Remember to find yourself in the light of God’s love.” And so Jeremiah imagined himself with a flashlight, the beam the deep crimson glow of the Sacred Heart. This was something he’d started doing on this trip, trying to take the words in sermons and in the bible as literally as possible. He meant no disrespect, it was just the only way he could pay attention to words like that now. Otherwise they lost all meaning. And so in this instance he imagined himself with the crimson flashlight in hand, searching the darkened streets of Buenos Aires. He came upon the tree shaded street. There he found himself cowering on a dank stoop. He shined the light on himself then, but his other self would not look up. He kept his head buried in his arms as the light shined on him.
After his talk with Pastor Jeff, Jeremiah started doing some tutoring again. One of the quieter girls, Taylor, was picking up the language fast, and she too had taken to going off on her own to explore the city. She visited museums and attended dance performances, though she always made sure to be back in time for prayer circle.
After one of their lessons she asked Jeremiah where it was that he went all the time. He must have been feeling stir crazy because without thinking twice he offered to show her. He had them leave the dorm at twilight so that he would miss prayer circle. Taylor wore sandals with jewels on them and a purse he had never seen her use before. She had also put on some eye make up. They passed through a fancy part of the neighborhood on their way to the tree shaded street. She slowed to admire the spacious cafes and brightly lit clothing stores. When they turned the corner onto the tree shaded street, she hesitated.
“I know,” Jeremiah said, “Super dark.”
She said it felt about ten degrees colder under the trees. Jeremiah agreed and breathed in the cool, almost minty air. After the tree shaded street they passed all the warehouses and junk yards that led to the train tracks. There was more and more dog shit on the sidewalk to dodge. Jeremiah stepped in it about once a week and was barely bothered by it; it was good luck if it was your left foot, or so Manolo said. Someone yelled at them from a passing car. Taylor asked what they had said. Jeremiah hadn’t quite caught it, but he knew it wasn’t howdy. When they finally reached the train tracks she stopped and looked back the way they’d come.
“I might catch a cab back,” she said.
He asked what was wrong. She said that she didn’t know, that maybe she’d just been expecting something different.
“And now that guy is staring at us.”
Jeremiah looked over. Manolo was crouched against the railroad wall, smoking a cigarette slowly and deliberately while staring right at them. Jeremiah waved.
“You know him?” she asked.
“A little, yeah.”
“Then why didn’t he wave back?”
Jeremiah said he didn’t know, though of course he had an idea. He walked her back to the street to catch a cab. She made room for him in the backseat, but he remained standing, holding the door open.
“You’re not coming?”
“I think I’m going to stay out a while.”
She scooted over to get a better look at him. The orange glow of the streetlight illuminated her face. There was a spattering of freckles across her nose that he’d never noticed before, and her make-up highlighted the inquisitiveness of her expression.
“What’s going on with you, Jeremiah? These aren’t nice places. And that guy looks dangerous.”
“It’s just a style.”
“I don’t mean to pry, but are you, do you think you’re still walking with Jesus in your heart?”
He put his hand over his heart and felt it beat. He imagined a tiny Jesus living in there, seated in an armchair, watching Jeremiah’s life unfold. What would that tiny Jesus say, he wondered.
“That’s a good question,” he said.
Manolo was still at the tracks when Jeremiah got back. There were big clouds passing in front of a big moon and the world felt three times its usual size. Manolo stood up from the wall just as the clouds cleared. For a moment, he was bathed in moonlight. They both were. Light glinted off his gold chain as he walked up to Jeremiah. He smelled of menthol cigarettes and musky cologne. His hand was warm, despite the cold.
Christopher Williams lives in Oakland, where he works as an interpreter. He hopes you’ll check out his fiction blog at christopherpaulwilliams.wordpress.com. Last month he had one visitor. He believes that if we work together, we can double that number.
Charles is a lover of all things San Francisco. His fiction writing includes stories of traveling abroad, baseball, a misguided youth on the streets of SF, and other tales of life in the city.
This night, like every night, Angelina stands at her kitchen table in the light of a bare bulb, cutting leftover bread into small squares. Her long black hair is neatly wrapped in a bun, like a little hat on the top of her head. A silver cross, hanging from the brown leather neck, glimmers with her rhythm. She drinks a cup of yerba buena tea, fighting off a cold so as to not let her friends down by missing her morning appointment. She places the bread into an old shoe box, using the care of a mother laying her children to sleep. She goes to the bedroom where she will rest the tired body, free her mind of the barriers of flesh for the night.
She rises with the sun and emerges from her once-white studio apartment into the noise and decay that exists even in the dawn of the city. She wears a pink skirt bought at a church bazaar and a light blue sweater she found hanging from the fire hydrant around the corner. Under her right arm is the shoe box of bread which is kept closed with a rubber band.
She walks down the street, passing corners where boys live and die selling highs to those who have only known lows, passing sleeping drifters, the broken glass of windows and beer bottles, the sticky thickness of drying urine mixed with cool morning breeze, the cry of a baby, the roar of a bus, until she arrives at Our Lady Of Grace, crosses herself and then the playground between the church and the classrooms to the clogged water fountain where pigeons drink and bathe their dusty feathers.
A couple of feet from the fountain she slows and leans against a flowering plum. Its dark purple trunk, only inches taller and slightly sturdier than Angelina, bends under the weight of her years. She looks around the playground at the tire swings and wooden jungle gym and at the tile roof of the church. “Pajaritos.” She claps her hands twice. “Breakfast, el desayuno. Angelina’s here.” She slides the rubber band off the box and onto her wrist and sets the lid on the cracked earth at the base of the tree. A few pigeons fly to Angelina and land at her feet. She takes a handful of cubed bread and broadcasts it in a sweeping arc. The birds peck at the bread, bobbing up and down as if bowing in appreciation of her generosity. Now others fly down from the church roof and join in the meal.
When she was six, her mother brought her to the capital to see the main cathedral. It was so large and beautiful. The great stones! And the ceiling was so high it seemed to reach to heaven. At the plaza in front of the cathedral her mother bought a small bag of seeds from a skinny boy, so Angelina could feed the pigeons. They looked funny to her, clucking and hobbling around, their little heads tilting side to side. Her mother explained that the birds were the spirits of people who were searching for something they had lost, and after they found it, they could spread their wings and fly to heaven.
Now, over fifty years later, Angelina feeds these grey creatures, these wandering souls, wondering what it could be they have lost. Self-respect, fortunes, a leg, or are they like her and lost their country?
She thinks of times past, before her husband’s plan of coming to the United States and making a new life, before their long journey from Guatemala, to Mexico, to The Border, before encounters with opportunistic coyotes and power wielding border guards. The same guards who beat her Antonio and left her without a husband in a strange new land. She misses the open-air markets, orchids growing on roadside trees, the abandoned temples of her great ancestors, the song of the marimba.
But most of all she misses her husband, a stubborn man, whose head was full of crazy ideas and dreams. None of which she understood until now. Like the times he spoke of organizing the people to overthrow the government. Or being a bird. He had always wanted to be a bird. “So I can fly above cities of tyranny and corruption with a freedom and grace I have never known,” he had said.
Angelina casts another handful from the shoe box. Bits of bread drop to the pavement like tears. She looks at the feeding birds. “What are you looking for, m’ijitos?” A pigeon with a red thread tangled around one of its legs lifts its head from the crumbs and turns a curious eye to her. Angelina looks at the thread and wishes she were a caterpillar. If I were the size of a caterpillar, she thinks, I would wrap my little body around that thread and be taken high into the clouds. She looks back at the pigeon who is now busy pecking at a piece of crust.
“I’m looking for my husband,” Angelina tells the bird. “He’s been gone for years now and the sad thing is—” her words are interrupted by the first gun shot of the day. Whether the shot came from the gun of a police officer, a gang member, or an angry husband, she doesn’t know. It was blocks away, though, and Angelina knows there is no cause for alarm at this distance, but the pigeons scatter. She looks to the sky and watches grey bodies disperse against blue. “The sad thing is,” she continues, “we never got to say goodbye.”
She remembers the crack of a nightstick against her Antonio’s head and the flutter of wings, the frozen fear on his face, the look of mad pleasure in the eyes of the border guards, and running – so much running. Running from the fat-bellied laugh of corrupt politicians, the emptiness of poverty, the back-breaking work of cotton and coffee plantations, cleaning the dirty houses of rich light-skinned women, and the cold certainty of hot bullets. Running to a better life in a country built on the gold and bones of her ancestors, the acres of lettuce and tomatoes, to garment sweat shops, to cleaning the homes of the rich, to the emptiness of poverty, the worries of a widow. Nothing better than before. Memories and pigeons, her only company.
“Come back,” she looks at the terra cotta tiled roof of Our Lady of Grace. “Come back.” Feathers rustle softly behind her. As she turns to see, a pigeon flies past her like a memory of forgotten dreams and rests on the green copper cross at the top of the steeple. They gaze at each other, eyes fixed in silence. She opens here mouth and a warm whisper is carried in the light breeze. “Good bye.” The breeze fills the bird’s wings and it rises – above Angelina and the playground, above the corner stores and rotting apartments, upward, past the humming power lines, beyond shouts of pain and despair, into the blanket of sapphire sky, and disappears behind a soft white cloud.
The tide of Angelina’s soul surges in her eyes. She sighs and looks at the crumbs scattered across the pathway, then bends over and picks up the pieces and places them in the shoe box, saving them for tomorrow. She walks the path between the church and the school towards the street. A car pulls up and a young girl with long hair the color of chestnuts jumps out yelling, “Thank you, Mommy,” and runs to the classrooms. Angelina smiles and continues walking, wondering how much it will cost to fly home.
Eric is a proud graduate of City College who believes in the power of words to not only entertain, but to express, heal, and affect change.
Meredith Brown is a CCSF student who seeks to interpret her world through printmaking, photography, writing, and interior design.
One night after work I asked her if she wanted to go for a drink. I hadn’t slept with her yet but it was looking pretty likely. But nothing had to happen, I liked her well enough just to hang out. While we were in the bar she recognized a waiter she used to work with. She went over to say hello, and came back with a couple of Qualuudes in her palm.
When we got back to the car, she said, “I want to kiss you.”
I leaned her against my car and we kissed.
“I knew this was going to happen,” she said. Like there was some force operating outside of our own volition.
We were going to go to my apartment, but first, she said, we had to stop by this guy’s place to put him to bed. She got paid through the State for helping him out. We pulled up to a sagging little house in a modest working class neighborhood. A ramp that had been built for his wheelchair zigzagged up from the sidewalk to the porch. The house was dark except for light jumping around in the living room from a TV.
He was a young guy, paralyzed from the waist down. Someone had shot him in front of his house one night in a drive-by. There was no explanation for it. He was going up the steps and heard two pops. The second pop had hit him in the back. He didn’t know anyone who hated him. He had a bit of history with drugs and booze and sex, but he couldn’t think of anyone who would want to shoot him. Maybe it was just for fun.
He was sitting in front of a muted TV when we went in. He’d probably turned the sound down when he heard us pulling up to the curb. The sound was muted but from the images it looked like a lot of pops and explosions and yelling going on.
She said hi, and introduced us. He didn’t seem surprised to see me.
She clearly had the run of the place, and straight away went into the kitchen without turning the light on and brought out three bottles of beer from the fridge, then announced that she was famished. She returned to the kitchen, this time switching the light on, but it was still dim in there. It was like light didn’t matter that much.
She rummaged through the cupboards, pulled out a jar of popcorn kernels and came to the doorway, presenting it to us like she was doing an ad.
“I’m going to make popcorn,” she said brightly, pleased with the idea.
He said he wasn’t hungry and was ready to turn in, but we should go ahead and make ourselves at home.
I heard her putting him to bed. There was metal clinking as she removed what must have been braces or something, as she got him out of the chair, then the crunch on the bed from his body weight. There was muffled talk between them, and silences in between.
She took her time. I was a little annoyed at just how long she was taking. I wondered if anything was going on between them. She had told me that he had no control down there, that he got erections, like in the morning, but there was no sensation. I wondered if she didn’t fiddle with him anyway. I would bet that she did, if only out of curiosity. She had plenty of curiosity and genuinely cared about him and he was young and she was young.
She came out from his room, said hi, and went back into the kitchen and proceeded to make popcorn. I listened to the kernels erupting, the shake of the pot on the stovetop. After all the talk, I was looking forward to it. She brought it into the living room on a big stainless steel bowl. With herbs and butter and lots of salt. Herbs, that was a new way of doing it then.
We sat on the sofa, the bowl between us, and mashed popcorn into our mouths with the sound of the TV still off. After a bit she turned to look at me, like she’d forgotten something.
She plucked a kernel from the bowl and tossed it at me, then another. I scooped up a handful and pelted her in return as she moved around the room, ducking. It was all breathless and on the edge of giggling. I gave her a shove onto the couch. The bowl slid to the floor, spilling, her skirt riding up her thighs. Light stuttered from the screen. I hesitated and she read my face.
“He likes to listen,” she whispered.
William Petersen has worked as a musician, a cook, and a video producer for multimedia. He has published in several literary magazines, The Washington Post, and the anthology Fathering Daughters, edited by DeWitt Henry and James Alan McPherson. He is an admirer of Forum and its staff.
I was born in San Francisco in 1943. Except for about 15 years I have lived here all my life. In 1965 I graduated from San Jose State with a B.A. in philosophy. Since my retirement in 2013, I have been attending classes in the Fort Mason CCSF OLAD art program.
It’s honestly a wonder that anything at all happens here in the afterlife.
I say that not only as a Pleasantly Surprised Atheist, but also because of the truly staggering bureaucracy of all of human history’s souls learning to coexist, with more arriving every day than the day before.
Here’s my experience with how everything works here. On Monday, I saw your hand tremble as you sold the soccer tickets we’d bought together months ago, to someone outside the stadium. When I saw that Jane and Mark were going to come over to watch the game at home with you, I got an idea. I rushed over to the Sports Miracles department and grabbed one of the forms. I crafted a perfect goal: Tie game, in stoppage time. A cross from the far left side of the field. Here comes the striker, leaping up, higher than the defender. The goalie’s outstretched hand is going to get the ball first, but wait! There’s some bend to the kick, and no, no way, the striker’s able to head the ball down and past the goalie, and it goes in!
That was the plan, anyway. I filled out the form and craned my neck to take in the line, which wrapped around the Sports Miracles building. I sighed and shuffled to the back. The woman in front of me asked which team I was for. When I told her, she shook her head. “I grew up watching the other team,” she said. “I guess our miracle requests cancel each other out.”
Then, the man in front of her heard us and joined in. “I’m actually for the same team as you,” he told me, “but I want the team to earn the victory all by themselves. I’m here to ask for no miracles to happen.”
I sighed. No wonder these things happen so rarely. I walked back to the Observing Area with my head and shoulders down, and arrived just in time to see you with our friends, and the game on. Your eyes were moist and you barely moved or spoke the whole time. That was Monday.
On Tuesday, when the beautiful little freckles underneath your eyes tilted downward as you got ready for work, my heart sank. But after the previous day’s debacle, I had no idea what I could do.
There’s the Museary, where I could go to request that the author you like finally gets that next book out in their series, or that the movie version actually does a good job. But I hear that place is really snobby, and they only approve the most subtle of miracles, and almost never to the same artist twice.
There’s of course the Politics Department, but that is crawling with those annoying purists, like that guy from the sports line, and they’re always saying things like “powerful movements only develop in the absence of miracles.” Not helping.
Everywhere I turned, there was gridlock, delays, or committees. I had to find something I could do to make you happy. I finally spotted a building with a relatively small crowd around it, and went in without reading the sign.
Colorful maps swirled on the walls of the huge lobby. Countless globes slowly turned above my head, distracting me until I bumped into someone standing in the only long line in the building, which led into the Large Weather Events Office. I wasn’t going to wait in that.
Up on a balcony above, I spotted a door with just a few people waiting outside. I climbed the stairs, got in line, and only a few minutes later, success! My request to the Tiny Weather Moments Office was in.
As I left the office, I pictured your smiling face when the early autumn breeze I requested would rustle the leaves in the front yard outside your house, carrying the smell of apples, and cooling your ears in the same way the air did every fall growing up.
But later that day, when the big moment finally came, and the breeze met your face, you were still… hardened. Your eyes froze, and your breath quivered. You shook even though it was warm out.
I went back to the Tiny Weather Moments Office on Wednesday, searching my mind to try and cook up something better this time. But as I clicked my pen above the clipboard over and over, what I’d seen the day before finally caught up with me. I have no idea if any of the requests I put in will actually make you happy. I hope they do. But if they don’t, I get it.
So tomorrow, there’s supposed to be a sunbeam reflecting off a perfect, crunchy oak leaf on the driveway as your bicycle tire rolls over it. And the day after that, if they don’t mess this one up, there should be a blended purple and pink sunset outside the window and between the trees, when you need a distraction from doing your taxes. You’re supposed to be able to hear the frogs and the nearby creek at that same time, but the person in the office was kind of inattentive when I’d told him that part, and I couldn’t tell if he really got it or not.
But these moments don’t belong to me. Whatever you do with any of them, is all yours.
Matt Luedke is pursuing a Creative Writing Certificate at CCSF. You can often find Matt either hiking, heading up a steep hill on his beloved sticker-covered hybrid bike in the easiest gear, or bundled up at one of SF’s cold beaches with a notebook and pen.
Jalil Kazerooni is an Iranian artist. He infuses his art with his passion for archeology and history. He sees his work as a way to reveal stories that lie all around us, hidden in cracks and rust. you can find more of his work at instagram.com/jalilkazerooni
One day there was a girl who climbed an overpass and looked down on the interstate. She stood at the edge, holding the railing. A squadron of police cars gathered below her, and a man called up to her with a megaphone, remarking that she ought to think about those who love her, and offering her various quid pro quos—don’t jump and we’ll. His name, he told her, was Lieutenant Candy. Candy? Kandi? Khandee? No first name. She squinted. He was of ambiguous ethnicity. He had thick grey hair and black eyebrows and a mustache. Why do they all have mustaches? “I want a cigarette!” she called down. An officer of the law shimmied out to where she stood and gave her one. He was sweating as he lit it. She held herself by her fingertips, suspended over the interstate, and because of that he held his hand up as though to say whoa, whoa, and backed away. She laughed. She didn’t even smoke. The negotiator, Lieutenant Candy, said: Life is one tragedy after another—everybody knows it—everybody’s felt it, in a resigned voice, as though he himself had been up here above the interstate, contemplating a handful of pills, behind the business end of a gun, and had made the life choice. It was hackneyed, but she almost came down because of it. You are not alone, on the other hand, and she almost jumped from the sheer bullshit. How do you know? The traffic was backed up as far as the eye could see. Do it already! shouted a frustrated motorist, and a plainclothesman pointed at him sternly through the car window with his cop sunglasses. The sun was high in the sky. It could have been worse, traffic-wise: they were still a few hours from rush hour. She would be cleaned up by then, probably, but then again, what did she know? Maybe there was a chalk outline had to be made and then photos and whatnot, a whole beaurocracy. She wasn’t up on her police procedurals. It struck her with what little knowledge she had gone into this enterprise. Mr. Candy shielded his eyes with his free hand. He was the only one not wearing sunglasses, and the girl assumed this was because he wanted her to be able to see his eyes. He did have kind eyes, as far as she could tell from up here, the sort of eyes you want in a negotiator. All at once the woman wasn’t sure. Her resolve, so strong moments before—and hours and days and years—wavered, and she felt tears come hot and humongous and rolling, and she felt fright at her predicament.
But everything’s attracted by its own end. The girl let go. She experienced a thrilling, frightening moment of weightlessness. Then she accelerated. She remembered, ridiculously, from a physics class she’d almost failed, that she was accelerating at 9.8 meters per second per second. Meaning, she thought, that each second she was going 9.8 meters a second faster than the previous second (right?). She was surprised by how nice acceleration felt, and regretted all at once that she didn’t have longer, farther, to fall. It was a nice day she’d chosen. Sky bejeweled with plump little clouds. On the way down, she thought she heard the man who’d jilted her call out, Watch out for that…! But his voice failed to move her. He was, she realized with regret, not worth this gesture, this falling off the overpass gesture. Then she thought about her parents, who’d been helpless in the face of her mountainous sadness, and she felt sad all over again, a sharp pointed little anguish like acupuncture needles in her spleen. They wanted to have been good parents, Maud and Dick. They’d been less interested in becoming good parents. They didn’t love the future tense. Remorse, they’d wallowed in it. It was more fascinating to them than she was. So stately, their self-mortification. Nevertheless, I love you, parents, she thought, as though giving a speech from a balcony, gesturing benedictions over the whole crowd, the freeway, the patrol cars with their spinning lights, her whole audience: I love you all!
Falling, and the sped-up air excited. Her shirt flapped. Her own heartbeat was in her cheeks, a heartbeat, she knew, that had a finite number of beats left. Sam used to take her pulse. He’d turn her toward him, catch her wrist, and lay two fingers against the blue veins there. She said, “What are you doing?” and he answered, “Shhh.” That was during his residency, when he came home forgetting that he still had a stethoscope around his neck. She’d put her fingers against her neck, and they stood still, listening to her heart. “What’s it telling you?” she asked. He said, “Nothing unusual.” That was the problem.
The girl thought suddenly, with a twinge of anger, about getting kicked out of her ritzy high school because of the boy she’d been caught with up against a column at a school dance, her dress pulled up to her waist. (What was his name? Something biblical: Aaron or Ezekiel). She didn’t notice the assistant principal coming up to them, because her eyes were closed in strain or rapture (she didn’t remember which: everything in high school was somewhere on that continuum). Double standard! Nothing happened to the boy, but it was Catholic school for her, where she didn’t get in trouble again because a wooly sadness had started to envelop her like a wet winter coat, and rebellion just didn’t seem worth the effort. At Catholic school she had a classmate, Margaret, who played the harp. She was some kind of a prodigy or some such, went on National tours, and the girl thought of Margaret’s face when she was playing the harp. It was almost goofy in its concentration, but hard to laugh at because it was obvious what Margaret was doing was deadly serious to her. Some boys laughed anyway, and the falling girl remembered feeling a deep despair in her soul that people could laugh at a serious thing and if they could what was the point of doing serious things, or indeed any things? She’d envied Margaret the harp and all its attendant meanings. She didn’t have the sense of a future that was worth working toward. And then at a party Margaret got her fingers caught in the garage door—going up, it lifted her clean off the ground—and after that her hands were too broken to play. They canceled her performance at the commencement ceremony. Margaret went to the same college as the falling woman. They didn’t speak once aside from a hello here and there in the hall. The girl heard later that Margaret died of an overdose. It had been her first introduction to death and decay, and to be honest she’d been a little romanced by it. “I knew her,” she’d said. “That girl and I used to be good friends,” she’d said, which hadn’t been strictly (or remotely) true. She didn’t remember being sad at the time of Margaret’s death, but now when she thought about Margaret and the one-by-one snuffing out of dreams and plans made her feel, well… it was self-evident, the falling girl thought, how she felt. The falling made it so.
Sam was the first man she made love to whom she loved. Confident, he was her first great lover. Good rhythm, that’s what he had, maybe because he was a medical student and well-acquainted with the tempos of bodies, and well acquainted with her entirely average heart. But Sam, Sam was so long ago… the one who jilted her was fresher in her mind. A last straw is what she had told herself. He didn’t deserve this gesture.
(Here’s the ground, OOP. Not a pain exactly, but a not-rightness on the left side of her body. The arm, the leg, maybe she’d…)
No longer the falling girl. Now the fallen. All the thoughts in her head fell, too, like type in a drawer that’s fallen, that the girl remembered was… “pied”? Pied was the chaos of lead letters that have fallen out of the typesetter’s case. At the ritzy school she’d taken an elective in which she learned to use a letterpress. Memories bled out of her and as she struggled to gather them, to order them, she had a sudden thought: semaphore? Something she’d used to do? Flags and… legs and arms and a red-and-white outfit. A telegraphy system to convey information at a distance using…
(Could she really have already hit the ground? She wasn’t done falling! Words… come. Not easy).
…Visual signals with hand-held flags which… Yes, she’d done a summer of semaphore. There had been a patchy field, and mosquito bites on her ankles like Morse cold. Not cold. Morse code. Transmission of messages around the field and why on earth did her parents have her do semaphore? What makes people think of what they think of. Rhetorical. Question. Her right arm with the flag had gotten more tired than the left.
(She could only move her right arm. Her left was heavy as the deep).
Sometimes she still thought words out in semaphore when she was especially bored, like in group therapy at the hospital. During every moment of her six hospitalizations, when the clock crept slow and the minutes mocked, she’d subtly lifted her arms, lowered them, as though they had flags in them. The hospital seemed to have a philosophy about extending life by slowing it. The hospital made life into an asymptote: it bisected the minutes into infinity. Y equals one half X, where every second stretched out longer and flatter along the axis, but never met zero. She thought about the one who’d jilted her—his smell like hay in the sun, the smile that burst all over his whole face, his whole body, like a sun, warm, a life-giving force. In group she moved her arms in arcs: right arm straight, left arm left, angled down; right arm straight, left arm right angled up; right arm straight, left arm left, angled down. S.O.S.
She’d written a note this morning and posted it to her parents with a Save the Rainforest stamp. “I’m a waste of space and money,” she’d said. (Ugh: maudlin). And, “There’s something wrong with my brain. It’s broken. I’d like to donate my brain to science.” She wished she’d written another fig. Another thing.
I love you parents, it’s not your fault.
Language leaked out and pooled around her head. Shapes—blurry. Motes floated. So this is the end. Dust spread from a focus in her visual field and wiggled out of sight. (Focus, Foci. Lat, N., masc. A hearth, a fireplace, an altar. Latin at the Catholic school. Catholic at the Latin school). A sudden deep and dreadful sense of meaning flooded her, more lovely than any harp, and her heart lit up like a fireplace, like an altar. Bitterer because it might be her last. And in a sense her first. A fatal fall finally makes life feel falluable. Valuable. And it is, isn’t it? Valuable? Precious, even? See it drain—try holding it in cupped hands—but hands won’t cup.
Mother, father, peace and blessings upon you. I forgive you. Do you forgive? Sam, are you there? Come and take my purse.
And you, boy who jilted, with the sun-warm smell, with the fingertip you kissed and pressed against my lips like my body was an altar, in whose pale arms I nestled, a child again. I loved. But this is hate. I’m sorry for this entirely wrong gesture.
There’s blood still surging around in here. In the donate-to-science brain. In the entirely average heart. Lay your stethoscope against my breast. Be gentle. And Margaret. Play your… harp. And you, scorner, do I hear your voice? Why did it take death to give life, finally, this gravitas? Life—stop unspooling. Come back. I order you.
And just like that Lieutenant Candy was above the fallen girl. She stared in wonder. She’d never seen someone so beautiful and terrible. An angel made of pure light. A mustachioed angel. Death gives you this. It takes away semaphore and letterpress and Latin, lovers and doctors, sense and trajectory and words, but it gives you this: a huge rough-hewn angel of your very own, offering something. A choice. Lieutenant Candy had big pores on his nose. His lip was a little twisted, like perhaps a bar fight had gone away. Gone awry. His eyes, flashing with blind kindness, took her into a fierce embrace and squeezed like a boa constrictor.
He leaned in, squatting, supporting himself with his hands to get close enough to her face.
“That was a magnificent jump,” he said quietly. It was exactly what she’d been thinking, longing to be back in the jump.
“Lieutenant!” an officer behind him admonished.
“Step back,” said Lieutenant Candy over his shoulder. He came in close again. “I’ve never seen a jump so beautiful. You should go to the Olympics.”
If only I could do it again—different outcome. The life choice—she made it now. Too late for that but there’s also this other. Something was pooling beneath her. Deliver me. From. She lifted her right hand part way and pointed at her lip.
“The mustache?” he said. Of course angels read minds. “People always ask. We wear them so we can rub menthol into them. Sometimes things don’t smell so good. Not now.” he shrugged. “But sometimes.”
Gratitude flooded the whole right side of her body. She tried to nod.
“The ambulance is almost here,” said the angel. He pushed her bangs from her forehead and took her right hand. “The doctors are waiting. I’ve seen it all so I know what will happen. They can put you back together.”
His hand was hot and hard and full of purpose, and he laced his fingers in hers.
“You have to want to live,” he said. “Do you? Don’t nod.”
With her remaining strength, she squeezed the angel’s hand.
Saramanda Swigart has an MFA from Columbia University, with a supplementary degree in literary translation. Her work has appeared in Oxford Magazine, Superstition Review, The Alembic, Border Crossing, Expanded Field, Hypertrophic Press, Saranac Review, and Euphony. Her first novel, Meaning Machine, is currently out for consideration. She teaches at CCSF.
As a Philippine-born visual artist, I continue to explore concepts of identity and of home through the lens of the Filipino diaspora. My work draws from Western art history, Filipino and American cultures, post-colonial life, and pop culture.
I had been considering shaving my moustache when a squadron of nuns knocked my door. None wore habits, but they had that sturdy nun look. The young one said they’d come to surrender my daughter to me. I haven’t had actual sex in seven years, but here was this four-year-old daughter: Germina with scuffed shoes.
While the child gnawed a braid, the woman flustered paperwork at me, proving this address as the father’s. I tried to argue, Germina started to cry, and I can’t handle that shit. My afternoon hadn’t promised more than window shopping the meat case at Piggly Wiggly, so I said what the Hell. Not one nun blinked. They lobbed me a small backpack and flocked back to their van.
I paused on the porch to enjoy what I thought would be the last cigarette of my old life. Inside the house, Germina had found some newspaper, and the jar of gasoline I kept under the sink. She’d brought her own matches.
Eric Darby lives and writes in San Francisco. Unlike the narrator in this story, he does not usually store gasoline in his own kitchen.
Ginny Fang makes art and lives in San Francisco. Initially drawn to nearly achromatic water-based mediums and the immediate gratification of large, abstracted figurative drawing on paper, she more recently expanded her exploration to embrace color and the slower meditation of oil painting.
Robert’s mother hobbled into the kitchen. When had that started? The lively woman he had known as a child was visibly ravaged by time. Her bottle blonde hair that had once been so full sat deflated in shoulder length curls, her muddy roots bleeding into the fading bronze bleach. Her green eyes had become tiny as her once angular face became lost in a surplus of waxy flesh.
“I’m so happy you were able to make it home for the holiday,” she grunted as she moved. “And Gabe’s turkey was amazing.”
“Me too. It’s been too long,” he said as he locked his phone and tucked it into his back pocket. “Yeah, he’s a great cook.”
A crack of a beer can snapped the silence of his brother’s home. It was so loud in the late evening silence that he half expected to see his mother return shotgunning it.
Robert looked at the gold framed photographs and paintings that adorned the walls of Edward’s living room. He had not anticipated the house to be decorated so meticulously. Washed in hues of blue, grey, and white, accented with flashes of gold here and there and brought together with sharp, clean lines the 1950’s starter home had been successfully upgraded into the modern age. The scent of vanilla and spices perfumed the air from burning candles throughout the space and decorated with all manner of neutrally colored plush couches and cushions.
With a slurp and a sigh of satisfaction, his mother limped back to her stool at the dining table.
“How many of those have you had?” He asked.
“Oh hush!” She waved at him playfully with a chuckle. “This is only my second one. I only brought two with me.”
“You brought them…with you?” His phone vibrated from his back pocket and he ignored the urge to grab it.
“It’s how I relax.”
“I can see that…but you need to be careful.” Another, more agitated alert, buzzed like a mosquito in his ear.
“Oh stop. I’m not gonna drop dead from two beers,” she said with another loud slurp.
He raised his brow at her at that statement. “You know that’s not true,” his leg had begun to bounce rapidly.
“That was my high blood pressure.”
“Which you still have. And that,” he said with a nod at the can as his phone spasmed from his back pocket for a third time, “Isn’t helping.” He could feel that itch to check it rising.
“I know. I know. I know. I’m cutting back though.”
How often she recycled his lines. He wondered if she ever heard herself when she thought back on her conversations at the end of the day.
“I hope so…I just worry. I don’t want anything bad to happen to you, Mom,” the phone had gone silent and with it the urge to check it had begun to abate some.
She put the beer on the dark wood of the table and gave that familiar warm smile he’d grown up seeing.
“Don’t worry about me, honey. I’ll be fine. I’m made of tougher stuff,” she assured.
“We all get old, Mom. You need to take care of yourself. I want mine and Gabe’s kids to know their grandma.”
She grew quiet, the warmth draining from her face revealing the weariness and concern lurking below. “Well,” she gave a smile that was immediately replaced with a contemplative frown. “At the rate you two are moving on that front I’ll be dead either way.”
“I just wish you’d tell me the truth…I live too far to be able to check in on you and I don’t want your health to be like the divorce,” he shifted in his seat. “I just don’t want to be surprised again.”
“Honey, I didn’t want to worry you while you were away at school,” she recited.
“Well now I worry regardless.”
“I’m sorry, honey…”
“I don’t need your apologies, Mom. Did you ever tell Edward and Brian?” he asked sharply.
“Not yet,” she muttered.
“I didn’t want to worry them.”
“You have a heart attack and the only child you tell is the one who can’t look in on you,” he said shaking his head. “And you told me three months after the fact. Jesus…”
For a moment they both sat quiet. Robert’s phone buzzed once again and instinctively he grabbed it from his back pocket to check what had been happening while he was away. A wave of relief washed over him as he checked his notifications.
“Have you talked to your father lately?” She asked as she put the can back down on the table.
“A few weeks ago,” he said absently as his fingers jabbed at the glass, typing a response to a work email.
“How is he?” She sat forward in her seat.
“Let’s not talk about him, not tonight,” Robert locked his phone and placed it under his leg.
“I’m just asking you how he’s doing,” she remarked with a slighted tone.
“He’s fine. I don’t want to get sucked into a conversation about the divorce right now,” he said as his phone buzzed from under his leg. He retrieved it and checked the screen.
“I’m not talking about the divorce. I’m just asking how he’s doing,” she said matter-of-factly and took another drink.
“Why do you care though?” He said as he looked at an image he had posted on an app earlier that day. It had gotten some attention which made him excited.
“I’m nosey. I wanna know everything,” she laughed.
“You need to move on,” he said as he scrolled through news articles now.
“Trust me honey,” she said retrieving the beer, “I’ve moved on.”
“Then why do you wanna know everything he’s doing?” He asked not looking up.
“Because I’m a stalker,” she said playfully.
“You’re somethin’ alright,” he said as he now typed a message to a friend.
“Come on! Tell me, I wanna know,” she pleaded playfully.
Robert’s patience gave out and he closed the phone and shoved it back under his leg.
“He lives a sad, lonely life by himself in a colorless house in Vegas. It’s repressive. I felt the joy leave my body at the door when I saw him in October,” he said coldly.
It was true. The sensation must have been how Dante felt crossing those gates. The house was a ruin of salvaged bits of all the previous homes they had occupied as a family, arranged in all the haphazardness of a denizen of the fifth circle.
Pictures of Robert and his brothers sat arranged on the ground propped against the walls of an empty room. All that had been missing was a few chalk lines, candles and some chicken blood. In the kitchen was the old four-seater table for a family of five with only three chairs now. Bills sat organized neatly in descending columns, waterfalls of cascading stress. The kitchen was equipped with the worst bits of the leftover pots, pans, cutlery and dishware Robert had grown up with. None of it matched. He recalled his confusion at the hundreds of bottle caps his father had thrown into the silverware drawer as if they were shells or colorful glass beads.
His mother’s phone vibrated and she turned to grab it, squinting at the notification that illuminated a wallpaper of Robert and his two younger brothers as toddlers. They stood around Brian, the youngest, who sat in a high chair. Robert and Edward smiling with an uneasiness that couldn’t be attributed to a reluctance to pose.
“That makes me sad…” she paused. “You know he’s on Facebook again, right?”
“No I didn’t. I deleted mine,” he said with a sense of pride. “Why are you even looking him up?”
“Because I wanna see if he’s as miserable as I am,” she laughed forcefully. “He’s back with that crazy woman.”
“He posted a picture of them both on a beach. Did you hear about his last girlfriend?”
“Edward said she wore a bikini to the beach and it was awful!” she exclaimed delightedly.
“Well when I was visiting him, he told me that’s how he judges if a woman is beautiful or not,” Robert scoffed with an eye roll. “She was a pretty lady, a little heavy on the makeup. But he was showing me pictures of her and while he was scrolling through them I saw a few less than wholesome ones.”
“What?!” She stammered.
“No, no. Let’s drop that. I don’t want to remember them.”
His mother picked the can up and took another drink. “He still drinking?” She asked putting it back down.
She scoffed. “He told your siblings he’d stopped.”
“All he told me was cutting back.”
She grew quiet, then shook her head disappointedly.
“Do you know why he married me?”
Robert grabbed his phone in the moment of silence and checked his email.
“I needed dental work done and it was cheaper for me to use his insurance than pay out of pocket. So, that week we go down to city hall and get married…” she paused for a moment as she stared off into the distance then chuckled with a huff. “You know where he took us out to celebrate afterwards?… Pizza Hut…. Fucking Pizza Hut….” her voice cracked and she paused. “He was the love of my life,” her forlorn voice quivered as she wiped at her eyes before taking another drink.
He looked up now only having half heard what she said. “I’m sorry, Mom.”
“You know…as awful as it was with your father sometimes, it wasn’t all bad,” she added with a sniff. “There were some good times.”
“Yeah when he was at work,” Robert shot back.
His mother laughed heartily. “True. But at least we had a house and money. That was the one thing you could always rely on your father for was to have money in the bank.”
“Yeah, because he’d never let us buy the things we needed. He’d just spend it on his car,” Robert looked up at his mother now. “Mom…please don’t try and make him out to just be flawed. He put us through too much.”
“I know…” her voice cracked. “And I blame myself everyday for staying as long as I did.” At this she began to cry once more.
“Don’t,” Robert consoled. “You did what was necessary to survive, Mom. And none of us blame you for it,” his phone buzzed in his hand and he looked down at it.
“But I can’t even help my children now. I live in a trailer park!” she exclaimed through tears. “God…how did I get here?” her voice trailed off.
“By surviving,” Robert said flatly as he responded to the message he had just received.
Robert’s mother looked at her son as he stared down at the glowing screen in his hand, tapping away.
“Anything good?” she asked with a sniff as she nodded to his phone.
“No…” he said slowly. “I’m waiting on a work email.”
“On Thanksgiving weekend?”
“If you’re salary they own you.”
“My depression? It’s alright. Getting off Facebook helped a lot. My anxiety is still…eh,” he shrugged.
“Not like it was though, right?”
“No,” He found himself opening up and closing the same app for the third time now.
“That’s good,” she said with a solemn expression. “I was really-”
“Yeah, therapy has really helped, thank God,” he interjected. “Got me out of that dark place.”
“Good for you honey. I’m so proud of you,” she smiled.
Robert’s leg was bouncing rapidly now.
“I just read an article about phone use. Said that these smart phones are bad for kids. They can get addicted to them, can you believe that? Addicted to your phone?”
“I don’t think you can get addicted to a phone. Social media, sure. It’s designed to be addicting. But a phone is just a tool. Where’d you read this?”
She thought for a moment. “Don’t remember…Probably on Facebook,” she said with a laugh as she took another drink. “It was interesting though.”
“Yeah I’m cutting back. It isn’t good for me.”
“That’s good. You’re right, it isn’t. I wish I could, but I can’t delete Facebook all my relatives are on there,” she sighed. “Maybe someday…” she drifted off as she shook the now empty can.
“Not just, Dad?” Robert asked. “Brian told me you posted on his page the other day.”
“Yeah. Said you called him a piece of shit husband who didn’t even bother to keep in touch with his kids or something.”
She laughed. “I said he changed his number every time one of his kids got ahold of him so they couldn’t keep in touch.”
“Nice,” he said as he scrolled through articles and pictures on his phone.
“It just pissed me off that he posts on there about how great these other women are that he’s dating. Or how he goes camping with these women and their kids or some other shit. He never did anything like that with you guys.”
“Had to save money.” Robert said flatly.
“Family was the only thing your father ever successfully cut back on,” his mother added.
“You gotta just let him go.”
“Then do it.”
“I will,” she shot back a little too quickly.
They sat in silence once more as Robert flipped through his phone and his mother sat at the table beside her empty beer can. She picked up her phone and began to scroll through the various alerts. Just as quickly as she had picked up the device she set it back down.
With some effort she got up from her chair and hobbled back into the kitchen and opened the fridge. There was a loud crack and she returned to the chair.
“I thought you only brought two,” Robert said coldly.
“I forgot I left one here earlier this week,” she dismissed him with a jovial laugh.
Robert shook his head as he tapped a link on his screen.
“I love you,” she said as she took a drink.
Robert let out a laugh at the video that played softly in his hand.
A student at CCSF studying Computer Science, Keith Trottier is a west coast nomad and a lover of Final Fantasy, cheese and his best friend Haley. He currently resides in San Francisco with his fiancé, Mike, and their two cats Ori and Lir.
Josh kept repeating what he could fit in his mind while his mother lay in an assisted living center 450 miles to the south, where hospice care was now assisting her dying.
It was the hospice nurse who called Josh’s home office in San Francisco on a Sunday in January. “I think you should come down here if you want to be with your mother.”
Josh packed for a week, Mom should live at least that long. His wife Sally kissed Josh goodbye after dropping him at the crowded, fog-challenged airport. He hadn’t cried yet, but there he almost did.
The plane descended into the balmy smog-lit winter tropicalia of Long Beach. What a contrast to venerable gray Brooklyn, where Mom had grown up in a noisy expansive rowhouse, with ten siblings and half-siblings who sweltered and shivered together through all those early 20th Century summers and winters. What a change for Mom from the crisp clean coast of Maine, to which she and Dad had escaped sixty years ago to raise Josh and his two brothers. After Dad died and Mom had grown older and lonely, she’d let herself relocate to the Good Samaritan Assisted Living Center in Oceanside, California.
It was an ironic placement for an ethnically Jewish woman who’d learned to label all religion as the opiate of the masses, but she was summoned there by Esther, the youngest of her half-sisters, who’d long ago relocated to Oceanside from Queens with her husband Abe.
Josh picked up an airport rent-a-car, switched on the air conditioning and the Long Beach jazz station, and headed south. The freeway flirted with views of the Pacific, all along the way to San Diego County, where Mom was now at least near another ocean. Josh had grown up loving his seaside strolls with her, on Maine’s Atlantic coast. Unlike the land, and the people who’d built their lives on it, the sea never changed, it was maybe eternal, a place you could always go to, no matter what.
At the end of the 90-minute drive, Josh parked, signed the log at the Good Samaritan, and nodded to the grand piano in the lounge, a gift from a benefactor. Mom had made her own since arriving, offering up impromptu concerts for one and all till as recently as a week ago. Her captive audience would miss her fearless virtuosity.
Walking into Mom’s room, number 146, Josh also entered his memory of the bedroom at 7 Atlantic Avenue, some fifty years earlier. Mom had always seemed regal in that private place back then, particularly in the early morning after Dad had gone off to work at the Laboratory, leaving her undistracted, except by Josh. Was he her favorite son? She’d worn a quilted robe, her already graying hair streaming down her back. She’d always have something to say.
Now she was silent beneath the covers, her head and pillows slightly elevated, her eyes waiting for something to watch. Josh waved to Juanita, the hospice nurse, who was sitting beside the bed, glad for his arrival. He drew close enough to see the sparkle in his mother’s gray eyes, and then leaned in to kiss her brow. She reached up towards him, speaking very softly.
“Hi, Mom. I’ll be here for a few days.”
“Good, darling. Juanita has been keeping me company.”
“I know. I brought you some music.”
Josh pulled a cd album of Schumann’s Papillions from his shoulder bag and put it on Mom’s portable player. He smiled to see her extend her arms along the top of the institutional comforter and begin moving her swollen fingers to the music. She seemed happily both awake and asleep, like the drifting figures in the 19th Century music.
Rachel dozed herself back to livelier times.
Joshie is a toddler sitting beside the piano bench, smiling up at her, listening attentively, but watching his mother too, watching and wanting. Wanting to dream Schumann’s pretty dream with her. Rachel plays back to Brooklyn, where her own mother, Beth, and the mother of her eldest half-siblings, also named Beth, sit in the living room of the rowhouse, as Rachel performs Papillions for them and for several of their many children, several of who are also Rachel’s piano students. Two mothers, living and listening under the same roof.
“Ahhhhh,” the Beths murmur to each other in Yiddish, “Rachela should be playing for big money at Carnegie Hall. She should.”
The evening lingered outside the windows of the Good Samaritan. Inside room 146, not much was said, the lights were switched on, and it came time for dinnertime. Josh bid his mother and Juanita good evening, and drove to his Aunt Esther’s handsome home, in a well-kept development up against the scrub and cacti.
Inside and warmly greeted, avorites, Joshie,” and she helped him settle into the spare room before serving up a delicious supper. Josh put the soundtrack from Kiss Me Kate on his aunt’s cd player. Esther has always loved musicals.
“So how did your mother look to you, Joshala? I’ve been up to see her every day, you know, sometimes twice since she got the congestive heart failure diagnosis, did she look okay to you?” Esther the concerned little sister.
“Well, she didn’t have much to say, but I brought her some music, some of the music she taught me when I was a kid.”
“Good, she would have liked that, it’s important to her that you’re here with her now. Whether or not she shows it. And she never saw enough of you, but even if she had, she wouldn’t have been able to tell you that she wanted to see you more. That’s just the way Rachel is.”
Nephew and aunt went off to bed early, glad to be keeping each other company under the same roof with the same mission, but glad to have some relief from that mission for a few moments.
In Josh’s dream he’s in a house like one of the ones the rich folks owned back on the Island in Maine, right along the Shore Path. Mom is there, but no one else. They wander together, from her regal bedroom to the kitchen where she often overcooked the pot roast to the living room where her Steinway always stood waiting for her. But she doesn’t sit to play there. She stays standing, waiting and wistful. Josh knows it’s his role to make Mommy laugh, no one else is there to. But his efforts are gagged, he only mumbles. Mom isn’t laughing. There isn’t time enough.
Josh pulls himself awake, then wonders if he should have stayed in that dream house with his mother. But there’s a shower and a smiley breakfast of bagels and lox and orange juice with his aunt waiting.
His aunt smiling beside him, Josh drove to Good Samaritan through a sunny suburban Monday morning. Dad would have called this kind of community ‘bourgeois’. Dad had labeled Josh ‘bourgeois’ once, in a stupid argument at the dinner table over how much time his son was putting in on extracurricular activities at the high school, when he should be studying. Josh called himself a liberal, a champion of the rights of women and minorities. While Esther chatted with her bedridden sister in Room 146, Josh followed hospice nurse Juanita down the hall to the cafeteria for coffee.
“It’s good that you have come to her at this time,” Juanita said. “You are so important to your mother.”
“I was surprised she made me her executor,” he said.
“I am not surprised,” Juanita responded, “but that is really not what I mean. She is not talking much now, no, but she has told me about this special thing she feels with her second son, with you, Joshua. Sometimes it sounds like it is a music thing, sometimes it sounds like it is a love thing, I don’t know. But it is there. So, I prayed for Rachel, your mother, last night, Joshua. The doctor has said she will not be with us long. Her heart, it is not reliable any more, it is weak, and it is skipping beats. I prayed for her comfort. And the doctor, he is feeding her morphine through those tubes, to help her breathing. I prayed for you too, Joshua.”
“Muchas gracias, Juanita.”
Back in the room, which the Southern California sunlight was also visiting, Josh put the Bach Two-Part Inventions on the cd player. Rachel’s heart begged to borrow the strength of the beats, and the warmth from her son’s hand, as he sat on the bed beaming at her. All that and the morphine drip lulled her into a dreamy sleep.
It’s a smokey Brooklyn morning, and Rachel is holding hands with Harry, that intense boy with the dark hair from a few blocks away. She’s a normal school student, dancing in the auditorium with him. They’d met at the Young People’s Communist League, where she couldn’t really tell how much Harry might be falling in love with her and how much he might already be in love with Karl Marx. Ha-ha. And he’s so smart, this Harry, he studies science at City College. Science and scientific socialism, Harry tells her, will make the world right. It’s all too exciting. The shouting about the Manifesto and the coming Workers Revolution in America, a cure for cancer, the big band music, it all makes Rachel’s young heart beat better than it ever has. This is the way to go out into the world. They’ll elope, her family doesn’t have to know about it, they don’t much care for Harry. “He’s just too serious,” both Beths say, “and a communist? What are the communists doing with our people back in Russia?” “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Rachel responds, tears in her eyes. She’ll get her stuff and sneak away with Harry, when the family isn’t looking. “But what about the piano? What about the lessons I’m giving my little brother? “ “Don’t worry about your brother, Harry replies. He’ll become a bourgeois pharmacist just like his father. He’ll be just fine.”
“Aunt Esther? I think Mom is dreaming.”
“Well, she is starting to smile, Joshala. I’ll bet she’s dreaming about you. So I’ll get a taxi back home, you call me if anything, okay? And you and me, we’ll have dinner, okay?”
“Okay, Mom looks pretty happy right now, it’s probably music in her dreams.”
Rachel dreams an adolescent Josh onto the piano bench beside her, on Atlantic Avenue. “We’ll play through the four-hand transcription of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, the Pastorale.” “But Mom, I’m supposed to be getting with some of the kids from school, we’re putting together a talent show at the Casino.” “Tell them to start without you, Josh. You won’t have your mother forever, but you will have Beethoven forever And you need to practice.” “I can’t tell them something like that.” “Tell them something else then.” “Okay.” “Good, you play the primo part, you’ll be the melody, I’ll be the secondo, supporting you.” “But Mom, you’re so much louder than me.” “I’ll try not to be, and you try too, Josh. Try not to get in the way of all the brooks and rainstorms and rainbows that Beethoven put there, let them shine and be heard. There’s even a dance, your friends should appreciate that.” “Does Dad ever appreciate this kind of stuff, Mom?” “Well, your father is his own man, he does play some clarinet.” “He never was the one who wanted to have kids, was he? It was you, wasn’t it, who wanted us.” “We shouldn’t be talking about that. But I suppose he never really felt he needed children. And me, I knew I did. And I’m not sorry about that. I came from a big family, and I wanted a family of my own.” “I will too, Mom, some day.” And you’ll want to play piano for them, so let’s play right now. For us, for you and me. And for them.”
Rachel woke to the ring of Josh’s cell phone. She felt happy, his hands were beside hers on the covers. His ringtone was the sound of seagulls, it reminded them both of Maine and of the ocean. The call was from Mitchell Bros., one of the mortuaries Josh had contacted on recommendation from Good Samaritan. They did cremations, and that’s what Rachel wanted, just as her husband had. Josh had to drive over now to make the arrangements, maybe he could can get a little lunch along the way.
His mother started to speak, more than she had so far during this visit. Josh thought about calling the place back, and cancelling the appointment. Why make arrangements, why should he be leaving her now, why would she be leaving?
“Go and do what you should do, Joshie. I’m happy that you’re here, you know? How is your wife? How are my grandchildren? Are they making music?”
“They are, Mom, whenever we can get them to stay put. They’ll want to come back down and visit you during school break, they’ll want to hear you playing that grand piano for them again. They don’t get enough classical music in schools these days. And they’re so proud to have a grandmother who’s a virtuoso.”
“I could have been that, Joshala, but I had to support your father, you know. I know. And I had to be a mother.”
“You still are, Mom. And you gave us all a lot of music. I’ll go do this, and we’ll listen to some more of your favorite stuff this afternoon when I get back.”
“Alright, darling. Kiss me. I’ll probably be sleeping.”
Josh waved goodbye to Juanita, who looked like he felt, about to cry, but not yet.
On the way to the mortuary, he picked up a taco to go. It was warm and spicy, but it settled cold into his gut, where it remained as he parked and walked past the stucco columns into Mitchell’s, which looked like some Southern California office of the Department of Death. Josh had no appetite for the magazines in the waiting room, with their glossy posed covers. He was wide awake, but he felt like he was back in his little kid’s dream, abandoned on Main Street, with a long wait and nowhere to go and no why about being there.
At the Good Samaritan, in room 146, Rachel took a sip of orange juice, looked long into Juanita’s teary eyes, and then settled into her pillow. She’d agreed to this whole hospice thing, but she really didn’t understand it, she didn’t want to think about it, or about what the doctors were saying to her about her body. Harry could have figured it all out, he was the scientist. But neither Harry nor Karl Marx would have had much to say about death. Or memories, or music.
“Your son is such a good boy,” Juanita said, even though she knew that Rachel was falling back asleep, and that Josh was in his sixties. “And your son brought you such nice music. I think I will put this one back on the player.
It was Schumann’s Papillions again. Juanita had never heard of it before Josh’s visit, but she was already humming along with its pastel swoopings.
A man in a suit and tie with a preternaturally anesthetizing voice flipped Josh through the pages of a big book with pictures of pseudo-Greek urns and lists of services above four-figure total charges. Mom would never have known what to do with this kind of thing. Dad would have, but of course he would have judged it impossibly ‘bourgeois’. Josh made a choice, signed the papers, wrote a check, and headed back to his rent-a-car, still suspended out of place and time.
Rachel’s voyage in room 146 is serenaded by the gossamer loveliness of Schumann’s pianistic fantasy, written early in his short life, and by old Juanita’s alto hum. Rachel flutters with the butterflies. They fly beyond the science of socialism, beyond the science of medicine, beyond the fond bonds of family, far beyond the gardens of memory, even beyond the primal pulse of the heart which had long ago become hers and hers alone, inside the womb of her mother. This heart, not now needing any body, stills and stops itself after the last of the ageless chords.
When the seagulls rang on his ride back to the Good Samaritan, Josh was afraid he knew what it meant. Juanita told him the news, and after he’d gotten there, she sat with him by the piano in the lounge while his mother’s body was prepared for transport to the mortuary.
“It is often like this,” she told him. “Our loved ones will not go while their loved ones are beside them. They will wait for them to be away, and then they take their own leave.”
“Was she okay?,” Josh sighed.
“I think so. She was listening to your music.”
Josh was almost ready to call Aunt Esther when he saw his mother wheeled motionless to the lobby, awaiting the imminent arrival of the van. That’s when his tears came to him. He wanted to water her face with them, as if that would give life to her, or at least grow something of hers that he could take with him. Juanita was there to warm him with a grandmother’s hug.
Next summer in Maine, there were tears again, this time with a glint of joy and the taste of salt spray, as Josh stood on the granite outcrops flanking his hometown, just where Mom had told him to go, beyond the Shore Path. He opened the urn and tipped it, and as the tide slowly surged, in and out, Mom’s ashes waltzed away in the wind and out across their ocean.
With this semester, Jeff Kaliss has published fiction, poetry, non-fiction, and playscripts in Forum magazine and blogs. Jeff holds an MFA in Creative Writing from SFSU, and is a longtime entertainment journalist and author. He reads at open mics, showcases poetry with jazz, and hosts a CCSF poetry podcast.
I’m Eunbin Lee from South Korea. Studying digital photography at CCSF as an international student. Currently living in Nob Hill in SF, trying to take more photos of my neighborhood and around me.
“What are you doing?” Martin asked. He was a portly man with a bad combover, half-hidden behind an oversized city map.
His wife Dee waved him away, as if she was swatting away a bee or fly or some other pest she didn’t care for. She was short in stature, neither fat nor thin, but oddly shaped like a chemistry flask.
“Panhandling for bus fare. What’s it look like I’m doing? Excuse me do you know where–”
“Dee, stop, we look like tourists.”
“Oh you’re one to talk with that ridiculous looking thing.”
Martin grunted, wrestling with the map as he struggled to stretch it wider.
“Besides, we certainly aren’t from here, that’s for sure. Look at these people.”
They were coming off of a short set of steps onto a pathway in Bryant Park. A sea of grass was surrounded by a moat of slated concrete and gravel that crackled beneath the other pedestrians’ shoes. The pathway was littered with flimsy, forest green tables and chairs, occupied here and there with couples drinking overpriced coffees and families eating home made sandwiches. A troupe of street performers banged on bongo drums alongside men who danced fiercely for a semi-circle of easily captivated tourists, eager to soak up a less-than-authentic, real New York experience. A pair of college-aged women sunbathed topless on the grass, alongside other groups of young people grazing in the unseasonably warm March weather.
“Doesn’t mean we’ve got to look as naive as the lemmings,” he said, gesturing to the tourists engaged by the amateur street performers.
“Well what should we do Martin? Just pretend we know everything and hope our destination appears before us like friggin’ Narnia?”
“Relax! I know my way around well enough. Came here everyday for twenty-five yea–”
“And never once,” she interrupted, “deviated from the rigid routine of going from the train to the office, and then back again.”
“I sure do remember doing so, and you, bitterly complaining whenever I had a social engagement.”
“Oh sure you did, because when I think New York party animal, I think Martin out on the town, describing the evening as a social engagement. That’s why the Empire State Building is in the wrong place according to your map from 1986. Would you put that thing away already?”
He cleared his throat, “Just because this map is old doesn’t mean it’s not good.”
“The old map doesn’t bother me. The old man, on the other hand, too stingy to up the data plan a few bucks a month for an $800 phone does,” she shouted, waving her iPhone high in the air, like she was showing it off. “What do you know! Google Maps. Still…Not…Loading.”
“Do me a favor. Just stop. Just for today. And put your phone away for Christ’s sake. The bongo drummers could take off a week if they get their hands on that thing.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she rolled her eyes. “It’s New York. My phone costs about the same as three cups of coffee.”
“Fine, but don’t complain to me when they–when your phone is pilfered–Whoa.”
A greasy-haired teenage boy on a skateboard weaved his way between them.
“Sorry dudes!” he offered. He moved swiftly, and was long gone before they could respond.
Dee looked at the boy longingly, and started sobbing. Hard. Her shoulders moved up and down with each weep, and she hid her face within her hands. She seemed to get smaller as her body shook, like she was melting.
“Dee, it’s okay… You’re right. I’m sorry,” he came closer to her, and his hand hovered awkwardly above her moving shoulders. “I overreacted. Here I’ll put away the map. Let’s just compartmentalize until after we see him, okay?”
“It’s not that. What if- what if he won’t see us?” she stuttered, wiping her face, spreading her mascara everywhere.
“He asked us to come.” Martin pulled a handkerchief out of his breast pocket. “Here, you look like you just got out of a coal mine.”
“What-oh, thanks. But Martin, he asked us to come last time and changed his mind. Oh and we got lost then too. I don’t know about this, I’m starting to feel nauseous. Maybe we should go back,” she said, taking a step in the direction of Grand Central.
“What are you feeling nauseous about?”
“One doesn’t feel nauseous about something, Martin,” she quipped.
“The lady doth protest too much, me thinks.”
“Can you just not today?”
“Not be so goddamn pedantic, throwing around Shakespeare quotes!”
He chuckled, shaking his head.
A breeze ruffled the leaves on the park’s few trees. It wafted the stench of a man affected by homelessness, pushing a shopping cart full of trash–all his possessions. Policemen on horses examined the man, but seemed to regard him little to not at all. They trotted on.
The couple moved over a bit to let him pass, covering their noses.
“Why don’t we sit for a moment?” Martin suggested.
Dee nodded, trailing behind Martin like a shadow. He pulled out a seat for her first, dusting it off with his sleeve, regretting the loss of his handkerchief. It seemed that the trees had begun releasing pollen early this year, along with the premature warm weather. His once white sleeve now looked like it was covered in some sort of algae. He made a face similar to a toddler being confronted by a taxing piece of broccoli.
“We got lucky with the weather, not a bad day to be lost in New York, eh?” His eyes tried to find Dee’s, but she wasn’t looking at him. Her head was turned slightly, towards the direction of the dancers. Her eyes moved back and forth, like she was reading. One of the dancers, was doing something that Martin considered more along the lines of Olympian gymnastics than any sort of dancing he was acquainted with.
“It’s amazing a human being could move that way without cracking their head,” he commented, shaking his head.
“How can you be so cavalier?” she responded, still not making eye contact.
“How else would you like me to be?” he said, straightening up in his place, like a small child trying to stand taller to get a seat on a roller coaster they just didn’t measure up for.
“Damnit Martin.” She shook her head, finally focusing on him, tears welling in her eyes once again. “For so long, me and you both. We– we were so ignorant to what was going on, right under our roof!”
Her right arm was resting on the table. Martin reached out, cupping her hand within both of his.
“Dee, we’ve been over this. You’ve got to stop beating yourself up.”
“We could’ve done more!” she said, yanking her hand out of his.
“Don’t do that– accuse me, I’m not doing anything. The situation is upsetting. Reality is upsetting. Our son–” she trailed off, looking away, this time down at the ground.
“Even if we did more. Checked in more. Really pressed the question of things like how was your day today, all of the experts, the doctors agree, it’s not something people can easily know.”
“Jimmy seemed to think that better parents would have known.”
“Even if we were the world’s best parents, whatever that means, we couldn’t have known.”
“How do you know?”
“I don’t. You can never know what if, so why torture yourself?”
“So it doesn’t happen again.”
“You don’t know that!”
A family speaking in a language neither of them recognized stared at them as they walked by. The two groups did their best to avoid eye contact once they noticed each other.
Martin sighed, “It wasn’t a fair thing for Jimmy to write all that in the letter, to plant that idea that we were at fault. You have to forgive yourself even if the day never comes where he does.”
“You sound like Dr. Moskowitz.”
“Hey that Jew has had a few good points every now and then. And he better. If there’s any couple who single handedly bankrolled his second vacation home.”
“Shush!” she whispered, loudly, looking from left to right. “We’re in the city, there are so many of them here.”
“Oh come on, I didn’t mean anything by it. I like the doc. Honest!”
“Like bypassers would know that.” She shook her head.
“No one’s listening to us.” He frowned, and then began projecting, loudly, like a teenager playing the penis shouting game, “I am being serious! I really do like him!”
“Shhhh, okay, stop. You win,” she laughed, throwing her head back.
Martin seemed pleased with himself.
Dee said, “Please, you’ve never liked a doctor, ever. Our entire lives, it was easier to get Jimmy to mow the lawn then to get you in for your annual.” Her face fell and she sighed. “I don’t know if I’m ready for this.”
He smiled, and lifted her chin up with two fingers. “I’m not either, if I’m being completely honest.”
“And you’ve never admitted something like that,” she said, grasping his hand.
“That you’re afraid.”
“I’m not afraid,” he insisted, leaning back in his place.
“Okay,” she snorted.
“I’m not, I’m just not sure I’m ready.”
“I think we should decide,” she announced, rising from her spot. Martin followed.
“Well, no, I think we should go, I’m just not sure if I’m ready, ready. You know, psychologically.” He searched his pockets for his old map.
“No, no, no, I get that. We’re on the same page. I meant if we’re ever going to get there, we should probably decide if we’re going to ask for directions.”
“I suppose you’re right.”
“Hey–” he trailed off.
A man in a three piece suit holding a briefcase walked by. Dee got his attention with a quick wave.
“Excuse me sir, do you know which way’s Bellevue Hospital?”
Francesca enjoys reading and writing poetry and short fiction. In her spare time she enjoys hiking, walking dogs, and frolicking in the grassy knolls of Golden Gate Park. She is terrified of birds.