The Tracks

After dinner the boy slipped out the back door with his tightly packed gym bag.  As he walked away from the house, he turned his smooth face upward.  The evening light pouring down seemed tinny and false, too bright somehow; like it was coming from some big machine in heaven that had fallen out of adjustment and was running unsupervised casting down this unhealthy looking light.    The tracks were a quarter mile off across the fields.   Reaching the tracks, he walked faster, the rubble of the roadbed crunching under his boots.  As he moved forward, great chunks of twilight fell down all around, making him walk faster.  One mile further up, he cut off the tracks onto the road to the church in Vestal.  The churches up here were not locked after dark like the big churches in the cities downstate, so he could spend the night there.  The church loomed up in the solidifying darkness.  He sat in a back pew.  He sat clutching the bag beside him, and the smell of old wood and candle wax in the dark church sent him to sleep.

She sat on the edge of her bed, pointing into her brother’s chest.

What’s the matter with you, she said—why are you going to leave?  We all love you—

They don’t, he answered.

He sat in the baby seat in a corner of the kitchen.  Across the room, they worked drying the dishes.  They were talking fast.   He talked too—and they smiled and nodded to him, as though they loved him.  So maybe once they’d loved him, but not any more.

I’ve just got to get away, he told his sister.   He ran a hand back through his tousled hair.

I love you, she said—and I love them.  I should tell them—

No, he said.  Don’t you dare tell them.  I’ve got to do this.  If you really love me, he said sharply, pointing back—if you really love me, you’ll say nothing.

She nodded.  She opened her mouth as if to speak again but she faded back away into the shafts of morning light pouring in the stained glass windows.  Gripping up his bag,  he left the church.   The shadows of the trees lining the edge of the churchyard passed over him and led him to the road back to the tracks.   They would be looking for him now.   Walking on the roads was too dangerous—they’d come upon him—or the police would, if they called the police.   So he stayed on the tracks.   Refreshed by the night’s sleep he had just gotten, he walked briskly with the embankment sliding by on one side and the trees and brush on the other.   As the rising sun peeked over  the tops of the trees,  he sat on the embankment by the roadbed and he ate one of the six ham sandwiches he had packed.   As he chewed, he peered up the tracks.  Something white stretched across the ties about a hundred feet up.   As he finished his sandwich, he eyed  the white object.  Zipping shut his bag, he started up the tracks.   The white object came up and brought him to a halt.  Stooping, he eyed it more closely; the sun-bleached skeleton of a small animal lay stretched across, fully intact from head to tail.   He pushed the skull with his finger, and it rolled away from the neckbones.   It stopped at an angle that told him it was a cat.  Feeling suddenly guilty at having disturbed the perfection of the skeleton, feeling guilty about now leaving the cat headless, he replaced the skull where it had been and he rose and walked quickly away from it.  It seemed important to get away from the cat skeleton as quickly as possible.  The probable violence of its death disturbed him.   Probably hit by a train, he thought.   The cat nosed along the tracks beside him as he walked.  He would not look at it.  As he walked along alone, it continued nosing its way forward until at last it faded away into the embankment passing by on the right.   After walking on for a long time between the tall stands of trees on either side, comforted by the shade the tracks were enveloped in, and the knowledge that he would not see the cat hit by a train, at last he moved toward something coming toward him up the tracks, off to the side, black and leaning; coming closer, he saw it was a tarpapered shack with an open padlock hung from the door hasp.  The lock was rusted and ancient.  The tarpaper hung in tatters and the nail heads were all rusted.  The door swung back lightly creaking.   A cot set in the shack, with grey-black sheets over it, and a grey striped pillow.   A cloud of dust came up from the cot when he lay his bag atop it.  The cot had not been disturbed for years;  the rotted sheet gave way tearing under the weight of the heavy gym bag.    On the other side of the shack’s interior hung a calendar.   DECEMBER 1914  shouted out above a faded waterstained picture of a jolly red suited Santa.   Scratching his head, he beheld the scene.   Whose shack was this—and so long ago—suddenly dog-tired from having walked for hours, he sat on the cot.  Then, oblivious to its filth, he lay full length out on the cot.  Who had lain here?   He lay there with his eyes set up against the slanted roof whose slender rafters stretched across and told him stay.

His eyes became the eyes of those who had lain here before.

You are tired, said the slant of the rafters.  As I was tired.

DECEMBER 1914—

1914—

As his eyes closed, his brother came down out of the  rafters and the shed tilted and he and his brother stood out behind the house yesterday, secretly smoking one of their father’s cigarettes.

Do you really have the guts to do it? asked the brother.

Yes I think so—you won’t tell them will you—

No, said the brother.   I hate them too.  Why would I tell them?  But where will you go?

Far away.   Anywhere.   Anywhere but here.

The rafters pinned him there asleep.  He had had enough.  They both had, but he was the innocent one who would not forsee all the problems running away would bring—where to live, to sleep, what to eat—he was too innocent to live too far ahead of the here and now.  He would do it.  He would pack up his gym bag, and he would go.

I wish I could go with you, said the brother.  But deep down he was not as innocent and he saw all the problems running away would bring, and they held him back.  The brother would stay.   The brother stayed there up above the rafters of the old shack, and when he crushed out the cigarette to go in for dinner his brother in the shack woke up and sat erect, remembering nothing, and wondering suddenly what time it was.  He wished he had stolen his father’s watch.  It was the only thing he had forgotten when he had packed.   He rose and got his bag and stumbled out the door.   What day was this?   Was today still today?   He dropped his bag and stepped away and urinated against the packed dirt embankment.   He got a bottled water from the bag and began walking up the tracks once more with his bag hung from his shoulder and the water in his hand.  He worried about the time until it suddenly hit him that it really didn’t matter what time it was, or what day it was, because he was free.  All the rest of time stretched in front of him.  The railroad ties rolled up to him and disappeared under him and passed away behind.  Walking without a thought in his head, refreshed by the mild breeze gently flowing over him, he went on free until something again appeared in the distance.   Walking faster, he came to a grade crossing;  a dirt road crossed the tracks here.  After crossing the road, he looked down at the thing he had seen from afar.  A shrine set by the side of the tracks with a tall white cross and a sign that said REST IN PEACE,  and two teddy bears sat against the base of the cross,  their fake fur matted and faded.   The fur told him this shrine had been here a long time.   He knew what such makeshift shrines meant;   someone had died here—at this insersection—and he wondered if it had been someone on foot hit by a train, or someone on foot hit by a car, or someone in a car hit by a train, or someone in a car hit by another car—he stood before the shrine a while and wondered all these things, and then he thought the worst thing of all was that he could not know the name of the person who died here.   Did the teddy bear mean it was a child?   Did—

Suddenly a car approached, and he darted down the tracks to avoid being seen—he knew they were looking for him.  Home was not yet far enough behind him for him to be totally safe.  As he walked the tracks, he felt the presence of the dead person walking beside him—and this went on as it had with the cat until the presence faded into the embankment, and he was again alone.  But the air lay about him tainted by the feelings of the person who had knelt by the side of the road putting up the shrine—they must have been in mourning at having lost someone close to them—tears must have fallen—real tears—and all of a sudden he felt as though he were in mourning at having lost people close to him—ones that now he had deliberately lost, left behind, run away from, but that something in him would miss nonetheless.  Tears flowed a moment, but he wiped them away with his sleeve.  The thoughts emptied from him with the flow of the ties rolling by below and the rails running by on either side, and how much time was passing—how many minutes, how many hours—until far ahead he saw another building of some kind to the left of the tracks, and he picked up the pace to see what it was.   It came up.   Faded black lettering spread across the peeling grey side of the building.

BLOCK AND WESTERN RAILROAD

FREIGHT STATION

The building’s door was wide open and he went up three creaking wooden steps and went inside.   File cabinets set in disarray in the shadows, and papers lay strewn across the floor, and a swivel chair stood by a desk with a broad window before it,  and he went and put down his bag and sat in the chair to rest.   He put his feet up on the desk and leaned back and looked out the window at the leaves of the trees across the tracks.   The window expanded and came around him and over him and brought him to the kitchen table gripping a half full glass of soda as his mother quickly dried dishes from the yellow wire drainboard and bustled about putting them away in various cabinets and on various shelves and all the while she was talking.

I’m sorry for how it’s been for you—I admit, I looked the other way—

He nodded.

I knew what was going on all these years with him and you but I just couldn’t face it, I blocked it out somehow, I’m sorry son I did my best but I have failed you—so I don’t blame you if you want to leave—

In the yard of a friend down the street, they played a game of baseball in the fading light as from the open screened in windows of his house up the street there came screaming, and shouting—a man and a woman alternating yelling, he could not make out the words from this far away but each volley of words cut him like a knife, and this went  on for a long long time, and he grew tough, and at last he no longer heard it—he no longer knew what was happening—

Someday I will leave, he told mother.

I know you will son.

I know you will.

The window shrank once more into its space before the desk and the leaves in the trees beyond moved in the mild spring breeze and he reached down to his gym bag and got out a sandwich.  He ate the sandwich and threw the wrapper on the floor with all the other paper scattered there—and he felt in the bag the envelope of money he had saved up from mowing lawns last summer and shoveling snow all winter, and from taking money from his father’s dresser that his father had left lying there, and that he never seemed to miss—one hundred and fifty dollars he had in the envelope, and he wanted to know this again so he pulled out the envelope and counted the money and sure, there was one hundred and fifty three dollars in there.  Holding the money in his hand, he grew curious as to where the money would be spent, where would he end up finally, when would he see another person again, when would it be safe to speak to someone again.   How far would the tracks lead him?  And the darkness of the inside of the freight station wrapped around him and lifted him from the chair and he put the money away and got the bag and went out through the door and down the steps and he started walking up the tracks again.   Off in the distance the rails stretched ruler-straight, and he was curious.  Where did they go?  Where did they end?  What would become of him?   At last a siding came up on the right, and an ancient boxcar stood rotting there, and he jumped in the open door and lay on the wooden floor and fell into a dreamless sleep, being more tired than he had realized from the constant relentless walking.  When he woke hours later he saw a black sky and stars through a hole in the boxcar roof and he sat up and again, he wondered what time it was, and he jumped down off the boxcar and started up the tracks again in the darkness.   The tracks led to a far away wall of darkness and stars and the starry sky above him led to the wall and from that wall there came a voice.

I only did it to you son, because—

The words fell to a mumble and then to silence.  Then the voice tried again.

I only did it to you son, because I—

He walked faster.  It was his father’s voice.  He remembered his father’s voice telling him a story a long long time ago and as he walked this played in his head.

—I was down by Kuhlthau’s coalyard and a box car had rolled down the hump and the brakes failed, and the brakeman jumped clear as the car rounded the bend too fast and it went over, and it caught the brakeman—that was what the policeman told me happened as I stood there  by the toppled boxcar that lay atop the man whose face stuck out from under the car and whose face had turned all black, his tongue thrust out and his eyes bulging, and son, when I look at you I remember that man’s face and it makes me think I hate you I hate you I hate—

The words cut off as he bit his lip bloody to stop the voice and at last he saw the outline of a church up against the starry sky, not too far off from where he stood on the tracks.   Leaving the tracks, he went toward the church and entered and he went into the confessional box and changed into fresh clothes from his bag, as he felt dirty and sweaty and greasy from the endless walk, and he came out of the confessional box and sat in the back pew and clutched his bag beside him and sat thinking  Everything’s in front of me, everything behind is forgotten, everything behind has never happened—everything worth living for is ahead of me.  Wide awake since he had slept in the boxcar before, he fixed his eye on the red candle at the front of the church that said God is here, this is God’s house, you are safe here, you can stay here, as the lifeless tracks waited not too far away silently in the dark to take him away again.

 

Defenders of Misrata

Frank Scozzari

The missile came crashing down to the earth in a huge plume of sand and dust, skipped twice through an open field, and slammed into the concrete barricade. Mussa and Abdelfatah remained motionless on the opposite side with their arms still over their heads, expecting any minute it would go off and kill them both.

But nothing happened.

Mussa, the brave one, was first to lift his head and take a look.

“Today, we are the lucky ones!” he exclaimed.

There on the other side of the concrete was a sleek, tan-colored, air-to-surface missile, its nose dented, its long delta wings bent like the blades of a blender. It was still simmering from the heat of its flight.

Abdelfatah rose too. “Praise Allah,” he said, looking at the long, cylindrical device.

For a moment, they studied the missile. The boys had seen older Soviet-era rockets before, but nothing like this one. This one was space-age in appearance, and it had numbers along its side and the writing, which was in English.

“Is it NATO?” Abdelfatah asked.

“Maybe,” Mussa said.

“What should we do with it?”

“We must take it.”

“Take it where?”

“Back to the compound.”

“To Shinabah?”

“Yes, to Shinabah.”

“What if it goes off?”

“Then we die.”

Abdelfatah did not answer.

Mussa leaped over the barricade and took hold of the missile’s nose and he strained to lift it. “It is a gift from Allah,” he said. “Come on, help me! We must take it.”

Abdelfatah reluctantly climbed over the barrier and together they tried to lift the rocket, one on each end. But the device weighed nearly four-hundred pounds and they could barely budge it. Mussa joined Abdelfatah at the tail-end of the rocket and together they were able to lift it off the ground. They dragged it around the end of the barrier and began to drag it down the street.

“Is it okay? It will not go off?” Abdelfatah asked.

Mussa looked back at the rocket, its nose having left a squiggly white line on the asphalt. “I don’t think so.”

“What if it does?”

“Then we won’t have to worry anymore.”

They stopped periodically to take deep breaths and rest their arms. And they admired their newfound treasure. What few victories the rebellion had known had been celebrated exuberantly, generally in the form of machinegun-fire from the beds of pick-up trucks and the rattling off AK-47’s indiscriminately into the sky, and the screeching out of the ancient Arabic battle cry——an oscillating sound made by forcing air through the windpipe while simultaneously flapping the tongue against the roof of the mouth. Now Mussa envisioned a victory celebration of his own. In a city besieged by rockets and sniper fire where NATO war jets screeched through the sky every morning and where CNN news coverage was filmed on a cell phone, coming close to death was an everyday occurrence for two fifteen-year-old boys. But it was not everyday that a weapon of considerable strength was delivered to one’s feet. Now he thought of how he could use it. And he thought of the Soviet-manufactured T-72 tank, a forty-ton monster which had been raging havoc in their neighborhood. It had recently shelled the marketplace where his mother bought bread and had destroyed the apartment building where his brother lived, nearly killing him. This rocket was just the weapon he could use to destroy it, he thought. If only he could figure out how.

He stopped again to take a breath and rest his arms. He looked over into Abdelfatah’s eyes. “We’ll use it to destroy Gaddafi’s tank!” he said.

Abdelfatah didn’t know how to reply. He simply nodded, “Praise the Rebellion.”

***

The main rebel meeting room was lively with discussion and strategy when the loud thud of the missile being dropped turned everyone’s attention to the door. Nouri Shinabah, the self-appointed leader of the ‘Martyrs Company,’ turned his eyes to Mussa and Abdelfatah, who stood there in the doorway light. The air-to-ground missile was resting at their feet. Mussa was straddling it, his right leg pressed firmly against it.

“What is it?” asked Shinabah.

“It is a missile,” Mussa said.

“I can see that. Where did you get it?”

“It crashed into a barricade.”

“But it missed us,” Abdelfatah said.

“What?”

“We were behind this wall when we heard something whistling down from the sky. We could hear it coming down fast and when we looked up, we saw this silver streak coming straight at us.”

“It came out of the air?” asked another man.

“Like a spear,” Mussa said.

“Down from the heavens,” Abdelfatah said.

The men in the room exchanged doubtful glances.

“We ducked behind the barricade and covered our heads. We thought we were dead.” Abdelfatah was rattling now.

“But it didn’t explode,” said Mussa.

Shinabah stared at both of them, as did everyone else in the room. But slowly all eyes turned back to Shinabah. It was he who formed this rag-tag militia, consisting of students and bakers and craftsmen and lawyers and mechanics and businessmen. They all stood there, dressed in all kinds of different clothing, some in traditional garments, others in western-style suits, and others in combat fatigues, waiting for him to speak.

Shinabah said nothing. He walked silently over to Mussa and Abdelfatah and knelt down beside the projectile. He studied the device, running a hand along its side. Then he tilted his head and read the numbers and writing on it.

“It is NATO,” he said, “an AGM-65 Maverick. It will be useful in the rebellion.” He rose to his feet, took off his cap, and looked around the room until his eyes found a stout man with a large moustache. It was Hakim Audin, their ordinance expert. “What do you think?”

Hakim came forward and looked at the missile.

“Can we launch it?” another man asked.

“No,” Hakim Audin said, “but we can remove the warhead and use it. It’s a blast-fragmenting warhead. We can use it as a mine or make some kind of road IED of it.”

“Yes, of course,” Shinabah said. He stepped aside and Hakim leaned in and wrapped his big fingers around the nose of the missile. Shinabah waved a couple other men in to help him, but before they could step forward, Mussa held out a hand and spoke loudly. “Wait! We have plans for it.”

Shinabah looked at him, waiting for further explanation.

“It is ours,” Mussa said. “We found it and dragged it back here. It belongs to us.”

“It belongs to the rebellion,” said a voice among the men.

It was young lieutenant Haftar, a twenty-five-year-old who had recently joined the group from Benghazi. He was from the Senussi tribe, an elite political-religious order whose Libyan blood was considered stronger than the other tribes in the region; much stronger than Mussa or Abdelfatah.

“It belongs to us,” Mussa cried. “It fell from the sky into our lap. That we were not killed by this device, that it came to use like a gift from the heavens, is divine providence. It belongs to us.”

“It is nonsense,” the young lieutenant said.

“It is not nonsense. It is Allah’s will and we will not give it up.” He straddled the missile in a protective stance, turned back, and looked to Abdelfatah for support. Abdelfatah only offered a shrug.

“You are both correct,” Shinabah then said in a calm voice. “It is divine providence that this fell out of the sky and did not kill these two. That is a miracle in itself. But it also belongs to the rebellion, like every one of us, and all that we own, and all who we are, and the air and the wind that we breathe, and the life that we love.” He looked at Mussa. “Tell me… what is your plan?”

“The tank in the city center, the one that destroyed the port shipment last week and that destroyed the apartment where my brother lived——”

“Yes.”

“It is a coward. It kills and then hides beneath the palm trees.”

“Yes.”

“I want to use this missile to destroy it.”

“How?”

“We will bury it in its hiding place when it is gone and blow it up when it returns.”

“Is it possible?” one of the men asked.

“Yes,” Hakim Audin said.

“Then how will they detonate it?” the young lieutenant asked.

Hakim Audin, who was still on one knee, held his thick fingers over the grey circle at the tip of the missile. “A simple shot from a rifle,” said. “It has a contact fuse in the nose. One bullet in this area will detonate it.” He looked up at Shinabah, who nodded his head in agreement.

“Then it is done,” Shinabah said.

“They are children,” the young lieutenant objected. “Let the men handle it.”

Shinabah ran a careful eye over Mussa and Abdelfatah, measuring them up. “There are no children in Misrata,” he said. “Only men. And we need all the men we can get to win this war.”

The young lieutenant, Haftar, shrugged his shoulders. “If it is your will?”

“It is my will,” Shinabah replied.

“Then so be it,” the young lieutenant said.

Shinabah knelt down beside the missile and cupped his hand over the grey-circled tip. He looked into Mussa’s eyes. “One round here.”

Mussa nodded his head.

“It is yours, then.”

Mussa smiled widely and looked back at Abdelfatah, who smiled back, nervously.

“But if for some reason your plan doesn’t work, you must bring it back here and we’ll decide another use for it.”

Mussa nodded.

***

When the meeting finished, Mussa and Abdelfatah dragged the missile back to Mussa’s apartment, to his mother’s disapproval. After a short argument, they took it from the apartment and hid it in a vacant building across the street.

The next morning, they scouted the place where the tank parked each day beneath three palm trees. It was cater-corner to a little café, which the crew frequented. They found a large oleander bush on the other street corner and hid in it. They sat and watched the tank.

The tank had flipper-like armor panels and a 125mm gun. It was a leftover from the Afghan war, but still a powerful weapon against unarmored street-fighters. For the past three weeks it had been targeting small factories and apartment buildings, and the shops on Tripoli Street where Mussa’s mother bought bread and women stood in queues for hours at a time waiting for flour, sugar, and pasta. And it had been targeting the marina too, where storage sheds kept the munitions and water, which were the lifelines of the revolt. He knew he could always rely on the tank being gone at night, out for its nightly runs, shelling and refueling, and back in the morning, to hide beneath the palms during daylight.

For the entire day they watched the tank. It did not move, but men with machineguns came and went from it to the little café. In the afternoon, they saw the tank Commander. He came walking past them with a young soldier. They knew it was the tank Commander because he wore a tank Commander’s helmet equipped with a microphone and earphones. It had a pair of goggles strapped to the top of it. On their return trip, the two men stopped near the oleander bush, not more than a few feet away.

“Rebel bastards,” they heard the tank Commander say. “Scum of the earth, ungrateful for what has been given them. Ungrateful for what the great one has done. And they will all die for their ungratefulness.

“They think the world will care,” he laughed. “The world does not care. The world only cares about money, and oil.”

“They are nothing but idiots,” the young soldier said.

Mussa looked up through the oleander leaves and he could see the Commander’s dark face, half-shadowed by the helmet. There was a military insignia on his sleeve and a portrait of a woman pinned to his lapel. The Commander unwrapped a stick of gum from a pack he had in his hand and offered it out to the young soldier, who took it. Then he unwrapped another stick and tossed the wrapper, which floated down into the oleander bush and settled near Mussa’s foot. Mussa looked at Abdelfatah and put a finger to his lips.

“This war will be over soon,” the Commander said.

“Finally, these rebel pigs will all die,” the young soldier said.

They walked back across the street, climbed up the side of the tank, and disappeared inside of it.

Mussa felt the blood rise in his veins. They will see, he thought. They are cowards who hide beneath palm trees!

Another couple hours past before the long shadows of late afternoon stretched across the street, during which time Mussa thought about the rocket and how best to bury it beneath the tank.

“We’ll leave the nose tipped up,” Mussa said, “so that we can put a bullet in it. We’ll cover it with something. Maybe some grass or a palm leaf.”

It made sense, Abdelfatah thought, looking over at the tank. “Yes, of course.”

They were both still watching the tank when the powerful V-12 engine first came on and they saw diesel fumes spew out the back. The tank remained idling for twenty minutes, maybe more, while the early evening light faded. Then it moved forward, slowly leaving the dirt shoulder and clanking onto the pavement. It stopped for a moment, then came rolling past them, its huge revolving tracks slapping hard against the asphalt. They could feel the earth vibrating beneath them. The shear size and power of the thing made them feel small.

“Where is it going?” Abdelfatah asked.

“Don’t know. Different night, different target.” He turned and looked into Abdelfatah’s face. “Last target.”

Abdelfatah smiled. “Yes, last target.”

They stayed hidden in the oleander bush until the tank completely disappeared down the street. Then Mussa sprung to his feet and hurried across the street to where the tank had been. Abdelfatah followed.

Deep in the dirt were the track marks. They could see where the tracks had come and gone many times. They could see an oil stain in the sand where the belly of the beast had rested. They could see where it entered the street, the deep lines carved into the asphalt.

Mussa looked up into the foliage above. He could barely see the darkening sky through the fanning palms trees.

“Right here!” he said, pointing to the place in the long shadows where the belly of the tank had rested many times. And looking around, he saw a white cardboard box lying in the street. “And that!” he said, pointing to the box. “We’ll use that to cover the tip of the rocket.”

He ran over to the box, picked it up, examined it carefully, and holding it out before him, tore open one side. Its shape and size was perfect, he thought. He carried it back and set it down near the base of the palm trees.

An hour later, the boys were struggling in the dark. It was no easy task dragging a four-hundred-and-fifty-pound rocket four blocks with a shovel strapped to it and a blanket over it. But the boys were strengthened by their faith and desire for freedom, and the cleverness of their plan. They were full of gallantry, which always makes such a task simpler than what it is.

When they arrived back at the palm trees, they were happy to see the street-lamps were off and the café was closed. There was no moon, which was good. The Arabian night was pitch black and speckled with stars. They dragged the rocket to the far side of the palm trees and hid it behind the trees. Then, with the shovel, they began their work. They took turns digging, piling the dirt carefully to one side so as not to disturb the tracks.

“It is like digging a shallow grave,” Abdelfatah said.

“A long and narrow grave for a big monster,” Mussa replied. “We will be the heroes after this.”

“Yes.”

After a long turn shoveling dirt, Mussa stepped aside and let Abdelfatah dig again. He sat quietly at the base of one of the palm trees, leaning against it. He felt a jubilant elation, confident that their plan would work. As the pile grew, he stared at the dirt. Once again, he imagined a victory celebration of his own and he smiled inwardly. It was the earth of his father and grandfather, he thought. It was the sand of all his ancestors; the birthplace of all his generations, and would be the birthplace of his descendants. It was the good Libyan earth, in which his forefathers rested and in which he would rest one day.

The ditch formed nicely, angling deeper at the backend so that the tail of the missile would be deeply hidden. When the hole was ready they dragged the missile around the base of the trees, rolled it into the hole, and covered it carefully, spreading the dirt and sand so that it looked as if no one had been there. They carefully swept away the drag mark and their footprints with a palm leaf. Then, with the long stem of the palm leaf, added lines in the dirt which closely resembled the original track lines. As planned, Mussa took the box and set it on top the protruding missile tip. But it looked too big, so he tore off a piece, folded it with a crease down the center, and carefully laid it back on top. Then he stepped back and considered it.

“It’s perfect,” he said, confidently. It looked like a wind-blown piece of cardboard which had just settled there accidentally.

“I think so,” Abdelfatah replied.

Abdelfatah took the palm leaf and evened out some irregularities in the surface and covered the remaining footprints. As they walked back onto the asphalt, he tossed the palm leaf off the side of the road. They found a perfect place down the street, behind a stone wall, from where they could get a clear shot at the cardboard. It was some fifty meters away; far enough for their presence to go undetected and close enough for them to make the shot. Then they left, back to Mussa’s mother’s apartment for some tea and bureeks, and flatbread.

They could not sleep, nor did they want to, and timed passed.

In the early morning hours, before the sun rose, they returned, now each armed with a Kalashnikov AK-47. And to their grateful surprise, they saw the tank had returned and had parked perfectly along the roadside beneath the palm trees in the same exact spot, its belly, presumably, resting squarely above the piece of cardboard.

They took their position behind the small stone wall. They positioned their rifles above the stone, and they waited. It was still too dark to see the piece of cardboard clearly. They could barely see a vague grayish thing beneath the outline of the tank.

As the light increased and the tank took form, the turret facing them, the grayish thing beneath it remained obscured. Despite the coming light, the cardboard was difficult to see because it was in the shadow of the tank, which was in the shadow of the palm trees.

“Can you see it?” Mussa asked.

“Barely, but I can feel it,” Abdelfatah said. He leveled his rifle.

“Not yet,” Mussa said, wanting to wait for more light.

A few more minutes passed. Now they saw the front armored plates and its running gear, and the machinegun on top the turret.

“It is my shot,” Abdelfatah said.

“Who is the better shot?” Mussa asked.

Abdelfatah turned and looked at Mussa. “I can hit it.”

“Who is the better shot?”

“We’ll shoot together,” Abdelfatah then said.

Mussa nodded. “Okay, we shoot together, on my count, when I say so.”

“Okay.”

With the accelerating light of daybreak, the piece of white cardboard came into focus. But it was farther beneath the hull than they had anticipated, and at this distance, it was impossible to see the circular grey nose of the missile.

Mussa looked at Abdelfatah. “We can hit it,” he said.

“I know.”

“Just hit the cardboard.”

“I know.”

Mussa pressed his cheek against the wood stock of his rifle. Abdelfatah did the same. And with both barrels pointed over the top of the stone wall, they each centered the blurry grey thing in their circular sighting apertures.

“Ready?” Mussa asked.

“Now?” Abdelfatah replied.

“When I say ‘go.’”

“When you say ‘go’?”

“No, on three.”

“Okay, on three.”

Mussa took a deep breath. Then he began to count, slowly; “one, two…” and on “three,” they both pulled their triggers. Their rifles bucked, and the bullets careened off the side of the missile and ricocheted and pinged off the belly of the tank. But nothing happened. Mussa shot again, quickly. And again, and the bullets continued to careen of the side of the missile and smack against the front armored plates of the tank. Then they heard the tank engine come on and saw a puff of smoke come out of the rear exhaust.

Mussa flipped the rifle’s switch to fully automatic mode, held the stock tight to his shoulder, pressed his cheek firmly against it, and pulled the trigger again. The rifle spit out a fierce, rattling folly of rounds, hitting the dirt before the tank, ripping the ground beneath it, shredding the cardboard, and ricocheting off the gilled-armored plates. Abdelfatah did the same, both rifles now rattling in fully automatic mode, the bullets ripping through the air, pinging against metal, uprooting dirt, and obliterating the cardboard. But still nothing happened.

Before they knew it, the turret began to move, ever so slightly, as to center in their direction. The boys exchanged horrified expressions.

Mussa sprung to his feet, as did Abdelfatah. They both ran with all their might toward the café, the tank’s 125mm cannon following them, its turret turning diagonally. Just as they reached the sidewalk, the building above them exploded into a fountain of pebbles and smoke. The entire structure was in a large ball of flames and smoke. Mussa was hurdled off his feet, as was Abdelfatah, and they were both buried in an avalanche of plaster and brick and boards and splintered wood.

There was that moment of time lost, when one doesn’t know what happened or how long ago it happened. When Mussa awakened, he heard nothing, only a loud humming in his ears. He pulled himself from beneath smoldering boards and plaster. He saw Abdelfatah beside him, also rising from the rubble. His body felt numb all over. He had cuts and bruises everywhere. His shirt was torn and smelt like burning sulfur.

Through the haze of smoke, both boys saw the tank. It had come out from beneath the palm trees and was stopped now in the center of the road. Its barrel had come around again. They could see the tank Commander’s helmeted and goggled head protruding from the turret. They could see him shouting commands and pointing in their direction

Mussa tried to move, but his limbs didn’t seem to work. Or maybe it was because of the weight of rubble on him. It didn’t matter. It was as if time stood still. And now he could see the barrel of the tank’s cannon fully upon them, pointing squarely at them. He could see the black hole at the tip, which he knew would soon flash white.

Then, suddenly, there was a loud screeching sound from above. Mussa looked up, as did Abdelfatah and the helmeted and goggled head of the tank Commander. Two laser-like beams streaked downward through the early morning light, and, in the same instant, the tank vanished in a huge white flash of flames and smoke. The turret flew skyward and a high-arching geyser of fiery debris reached above the tops of the palm trees. A second explosion engulfed the entire roadside where the tank and had been and took out the palm trees as well. At the same time, the roar of jet engines sounded overhead as two NATO F-16s screeched away toward the Mediterranean.

The shock waves had smacked against the two boys. They had involuntarily flinched and ducked below the rubble, which already covered half of them. Swirls of dust and debris were still settling around them when they lifted themselves a second time. They pulled themselves from the rubble, dusted themselves off, and looked at one another, not believing what had just happened. In the same moment they thought their lives were gone, they had emerged virtually unscathed, except for the bruises and scratches and ringing in their ears. Meanwhile, what was left of the tank was a burning plume of black smoke that rose high into the bright morning sky.

Mussa let out an involuntary yell. Abdelfatah did the same. Their faces shined with elation. They both grabbed one another and hugged tightly, as brothers do, and before they broke their clutch, a beat-up old white pickup truck came careening around the corner at the far end of the street. The truck rushed down the street and came to an abrupt stop in front of them. Clinging to the fifty-caliber machinegun in the bed of the truck was young Fathi al-Kharaz, a fellow soldier of the Martyrs Company.

“Get in,” he yelled.

The boys leaped into the bed of the truck and, as it zoomed off down the street, Fathi al-Kharaz began yelling jubilantly and he pulled the trigger of the machinegun, sending useless follies into the sky. He had very clean, white teeth and he showed them generously now in the morning sunlight. “You did it! You destroyed Gadhafi’s tank!”

“But our missile did not destroy the tank,” Mussa said.

Fathi al-Kharaz looked at Mussa. “Maybe not. But you brought it out of hiding so the jets could kill it!” He pulled the trigger of the machinegun again and it rattled indiscreminately into the sky. “You are the victors!” He fired again. “We are the victors!” He fired again. “Tonight, Gaddafi sleeps with one less tank!”

Then he let out the long, oscillating, Arabic battle cry.

The truck careemed around a corner into a plaza where stood two dozen rebel soldiers of the Martyrs Company. They were all holding their AK-47s triunphantly skyward, shooting rounds off into the air. Shinabah stood in the center, waiting.

“Tank killers!” he yelled. “We greet you and celebrate your victory!”

Young Lieutenant Haftar, the elite-blooded Senussi, stood beside him. His eyes looked to Mussa. His head nodded. “Yes, you are men of the rebellion,” he yelled out. “You are soldiers of the revolt!” Then he raised his rifle high. “To the tank killers!”

The machinegun in the bed of the pickup truck spoke loudly again, pounding off rounds into the blue Libyan sky. And when Mussa looked around he realized he was surrounded by an army of men celebrating a victory that was his; that was theirs. All around him was the rapid cracking of gunfire, and the loud chorus of tongues, flapping out the old Arabic battle cry.

“We have won, Brother!” Mussa said, looking over at Abdelfatah.

Abdelfatah nodded his acknowledgement. His face was bright and proud too. “Yes, we have won, Brother!”

Together, they watched over the many rifles pointing skyward above many heads, wasting rounds triumphantly into the blue Libyan sky. Then Mussa tilted his head back, filled his lungs with the warm desert air, and let out a long victorious war cry. He felt the warm air rushing through his throat as his tongue flapped rapidly against the roof of his mouth. Abdelfatah did the same, and their battle cry rose in a crescendo with the others, over the sound of the rifles, into the blue Libyan sky. And it was taken by the warm, desert wind.

Evensong

Michael Lauchlan

 

I stare north into lush green
that hides a rail link to Chicago.
A squirrel clambers pine to maple
to mulberry, shrouded by leaves, revealed
by limbs made animate. Beyond
the tracks lies a branch of the Rouge
which once led slaves to Canada.
Sun strokes the willow fronds
to a shade that’s no longer green.
If this moment had a word, we’d
use it for the look a woman wears
when her lover’s learned at last
how to touch her hair. I include this
because maybe you’re reading outside
somewhere in Oregon or B.C and what’s
more boring than an eastern brown
squirrel in my little yard, when
you have your western greys
going branch to branch through
a misty canopy; but I hope
you’ve once touched your lover
and seen that look, not desire
only, a look that wants and
hopes again as never before
to stay aloft like this and alive.
Life bustles around and past–vole,
rabbit, eastern brown, goshawk,
barking geese rowing through the blue
deep into the work of food, sex,
and getting up alive tomorrow. For me,
tonight, survival seems imminent,
though wakefulness depends on this
cup of coffee. I hold it quite
tenderly, thinking of you,
who’ll come later and not
read a line of this.

The End of Everything

I have a job telemarketing for a carpet cleaning service. I sit in a bullpen of low cubicles, reading a script about our patented dry foam technique. It’s guaranteed, the other telemarketers joke: this foam is so dry, you’ll shit yourself. They smoke and make fun of customers on their breaks. The high school dropouts try to get me to buy them cigarettes so they can join in, but I don’t.

People are nicer to telemarketers than you’d think. Sometimes they complain about their privacy, my having barged into it. I suspect the word they’re looking for is aloneness, and because I feel bad, because it seems their only shot at release, I let them rant until they’re ready to hang up.

This one woman, though. She said we should all go to jail for bothering people at dinnertime. I told her I killed someone with my sister’s car and that was a lot worse. I didn’t qualify that it was actually Eva because you can’t get into that sort of thing on a sales call. Wanda gives me a hard time for saying things like that, but she doesn’t know what it’s like.

I visit Wanda on Sundays, the only day I’m not at the call center. It’s a relief, not having to read that script, even though it would mean inflicting a Sabbath Day nuisance on the housewives of Wake County. The gamma ray burst of horning in. They wouldn’t talk to me about Jesus if I called, though. It is a documented fact that the foulest mouths in the area are in Cary, where well-to-do young mothers will call you a cunt for interrupting their kid’s birthday party.

My coworkers track all that verbal abuse on a dry erase board in the call room. You get one point for crook, two for bitch, three if there are genitals in the cuss. Anything sick or original, like snatchmaggot humpweasel, gets ten. If you piss enough people off, or you piss a few people off bad enough, you win lunch at Chili’s. Wanda likes hearing who’s in the lead, the best insults of the week and such. She says I should participate, give things like that a chance. She thinks I’m down on myself.

“You a professor of temporal motherfuckin’ physics, Sherry. Don’t you forget it,” she says. She’s talking about the woman on the phone, who I told everything to, who’s threatened to get me fired.

She looks run down and queasy under the yellow fluorescent lights. When I was on her side of the glass, I thought visitors always had a look of contentment, as if they didn’t have problems, other than someone in here they had to visit. They came in all tan, wearing white shorts and baseball caps like they were headed to picnics after. It seemed cruel. My parents always looked like they’d gotten lost on the way to church.

“I am a physicist, Wanda,” I say. “I am not, for the moment, teaching anything.”

“That’s a load,” she says.

If my ex-husband, the thermodynamicist, were here, he’d say she was making a lot of sense. He always accused me of exaggerating, seeing plots where none existed. Why would the chair be out to get you, Sherilyn? Where’s the logic in that? The difference is he thought I was making things up, but Wanda can see I’m right. I imagine them in a room together, how that would go. Him, with those Buddy Holly glasses you want to knock off his face, fretting about the rug she’s flicked cigarette ash on. Had he mentioned it was handwoven by a Tibetan artisan? Her, knowing it came from Costco.

“It’s time to quit feeling sorry for yourself, baby,” she says, leaning across the table. She scratches her scalp through her Richard Simmons hairdo, which the bad yellow light is making into a halo. “Fuck fate, you know what I mean?”

I have wisdom on my side now, she means, I can avoid certain patterns. Not get in cars with Eva. She must know that’s not true, where she is. Prison is a temporal loop like everything else.

When we were kids, my parents were always cramming me and Eva together, hoping we’d learn to get along. They crammed us into the same bedroom and clogging troupe. On prom night, the night we could have died, they crammed us into Kyle McManus’s Trans Am. I guess you could say they only had themselves to blame. We tried to get out of it, being an embarrassment to each other, but the parental drive to have children who like each other is strong, so we lined up with our dates in front of the fireplace. I frowned and Eva looked out of it and Mother said, “Smile, for crying out loud,” as Dad took the picture.

On the way to the dance, Kyle kept putting Eva’s hand on the steering wheel while he lit up cigarettes, for the show of it. He’d take a couple of drags and throw it out the window, a waste of a perfectly good smoke. As they smoked and drove, they discussed a party they wanted to go to after the dance, someone’s parents rumored to be in the Caribbean. An improbability, but Kyle was certain there’d be beer. For a moment it was like Craig Snelgrove and I were watching one of those safety films from Driver’s Ed, the in-love joyriders driving fast in the rain, crossing medians, overcorrecting like it was going out of style.

“Kip and Muffin are about to learn a hard lesson…about responsibility behind the wheel,” Craig said, importantly. He smiled at me and patted the rectangle in his coat pocket, offering me another nip of peppermint schnapps. I took it, hoping he didn’t read this as a sign of movement in my thinking. There was another question hanging between us, whether I would live with him in the fall when we started at the state university.

I was running this experiment where I slept with him, just to see what happened. There was a lot of lying on my back afterwards, waiting for feelings to come, making careful logs of whether they did or not in my diary. Craig figured this meant things were official. He was trying to be accommodating and fun in the meantime. I laughed at the thing about responsibility, forgetting my plan to gut him.

Eva turned around in her seat. I could see her mind turning over and over for a way to eject us from the car. “We should drop them at the 7-Eleven,” she said.

Yeah,” Kyle said, settling it. “How’d you like that?”

“Compared to dying of a head injury, pretty well,” Craig said.

When the car went off the road, it punched a hole in the chopstick factory’s fence. Eva and I sat in the grass, watching the boys silently panic, unable to disentangle the grill of the car. I wanted to tell her out of meanness that our dresses, hers turquoise taffeta, mine silver, were the only way Kyle could tell us apart.

She skootched close to me, her face right in mine. Beam was on her breath. “You have to help me. You have to tell them it wasn’t my fault,” she said. She had Kyle’s tuxedo coat around her shoulders, trying to look martyred, knowing the sky was falling. I was pretty sure my wrist was broken. She had a gash under her mouth, a smear of blood in the shape of an isoceles triangle on her cheek from when she’d wiped her chin with the back of her hand.

 

A few days later, Eva came out of the bathroom dressed in black, with one of those home permanents that make your hair look like you stuck your finger in a socket. The house stunk with chemicals. The whole thing was a protest of our parents’ ban on Kyle McManus, and of his bomber jacket having appeared on Laura Moseley that day. Eva seemed to fragment after that. We blamed Kyle for the frizzy perm and the fingernails bitten to the quick and Phil Collins played so loudly Dad took her tape deck away.

Sitting at the kitchen table, I glued sticks of balsa wood together into a tower for my AP physics project. Because of the cast, I could only use the fingers of my right hand, so I couldn’t get the force distribution right. The tower would violate a number of building codes. I’d blame Eva for any carnage that occurred.

She came in on a cloud of hair stink and opened the refrigerator. “What a mess,” she said into its open mouth. She emptied the fridge slowly, grouping each piece of food together by category on the floor: dairy, fruit, condiments, beverages, Tupperwared side items, each inside a separate square of linoleum.

“What are you doing that for?” I asked.

“It’s for you,” she said, “for after I’m gone, so you won’t ever have to wonder where anything is.” She looked up at me from underneath that hair cloud, her chin looking infected with black train track stitches across it.

“You haven’t been using that gunk the doctor gave you to put on your cut,” I said. “Your face is going to rot off.”

She said she hoped I would look at all of this and understand what she’d been trying to do for me my whole life. She reached into her pocket and pulled out the schnapps flask, laying it in the middle of the food. When I saw Craig getting into his father’s truck, I’d noticed that the rectangle in his coat pocket was gone. I thought he’d thrown the flask over the fence.

She circled the mess on the floor, like it wasn’t arranged quite how she wanted it. After a while, she threw up her hands in a surrender motion and walked out. I heard her on the phone a minute later, talking about her life being over, about Laura Moseley. I believe this was about the time the sane and insane branches of Eva’s personality finally had the guts to fork off each other. It has been a slow process, in action our whole lives. Sometimes I think she knew that after the accident things seemed to be speeding up.

A few years later, Eva dropped out of college to marry Donald Tucker. His father was our family’s dentist, and he was going into the business, too. I told him the story of the accident during the Christmas holidays, when she brought him home to show off her ring. I stopped at the part where the car hit the fence. In those days Donald was a sanguine orthodontistry student with a full head of hair, who used words that were older than him, like flabbergasted. He shook his head. Kids. So rash and unflossed.

“I bet that guy’s kicking himself for ever letting her go,” he said.

 

Our mother says we fought in the womb, like Jacob and Esau.

“Fighting over what?” I’ll say, not quite remembering the story. Something about goat stew.

“Who got the better spot. Who got to come out first. Whatever babies fight over,” she’ll say.

Twenty years after Kyle McManus’s car went through that fence, the cut on Eva’s chin was a white half moon scar. Her eyes were dinner plates. It had rained that day, so my wrist hurt. I thought, I wonder what happened to Craig Snelgrove? Did he ever find anyone else? Is he out in California, working at the volcano observatory, naming craters after me? I thought how funny he was compared to my husband, how he asked what I felt about things. I’d logged this in my diary, too.

Eva whiteknuckled the steering wheel, both feet on the brake. “I mixed them up. I mixed up the pedals,” she said.

“You did not,” I said.

The Piggly Wiggly checkout woman sat up on the pavement, waving the receipt for our mother’s birthday cake. A hummingbird cake, store bought because I don’t cook and Eva wasn’t supposed to use the stove. When we got out of the car, I told everyone that the woman ran out in front of us, I’d panicked and mixed the pedals up.

“My fault, my fault,” the woman apologized, as blood squirted into her brain. That night, she passed out in her driveway. Corn muffins flew out of a restaurant to-go box and went rolling around her like little UFOs. Her husband crouched beside her and whimpered, Oh, Lord, Kathleen, while a neighbor, who was certified in resuscitation, tried to revive her. For the moment, though, she was just waving that receipt. “We aren’t supposed to let people leave without their receipts. In case there’s a problem.” A man who resembled a young Michael Dukakis helped her up.

Eva stood beside me, patting her hairdo, looking at the scene like she’d just wandered into it. “I told you we should of got ice cream to go with the cake,” she said, too low for anyone but me to hear. She was going through a stage where she only whispered. “If we’d of got ice cream, this never would of happened.”

“Be quiet, Eva,” I said. I took the receipt from the checkout woman and told her to take care. As I headed toward the driver’s side of the car, I heard her ask if anybody had an aspirin, but no one did.

 

A year or so ago, I looked Craig Snelgrove up on one of the computers in the correctional facility’s Media and Technology Center. It was fancy for a jail library, with a circulation desk like starship bridge, an honest-to-God card catalog, all kinds of outdated books and periodicals to help the cons reverse their course in life. According to the internet, Craig was teaching earth science at a high school in Rochester, New York. His faculty picture on the school website showed him about sixty pounds heavier than he was when I knew him. He was smiling flatly, like the flash had gone off too soon, like things weren’t going okay at home and the photographer had coaxed him into marginal joviality. I preferred the volcano scenario. It was worth thinking about after Eva hit the breaks.

The thermodynamicist lectured me for getting in the car with Eva. It was December. He’d spent the morning inside my mother’s Christmas village, a rife urban sprawl of little ceramic buildings all over the house: general stores, churches, ice cream parlors set up on gold-flecked blankets of artificial snow. He didn’t understand the logic of that either.

“Where was the sense in that? The woman could have been killed,” he said. “What’s your takeaway from all this?”

“I should have learned to bake?”

When he didn’t laugh, I told him about Eva parking behind me in the driveway, how I’d offered to move the car for her but she insisted. He said I was making that up to lessen my feeling of culpability. We argued about that for a few minutes, and then I cut him a big slice of hummingbird cake to make him stop talking.

We’re still married, in the legal sense. A woman I know named Silvie, who writes grants for the university’s School of Natural Sciences, says that he has moved to Durham, where he lives in a loft with one of his graduate students. Silvie is my friend, so she doesn’t tell me the girl’s name, just that his application to fund a new heat exchanger was turned down.

It’s winter. I imagine the girl, longish chocolate-colored hair, capped with a crocheted beret. She has on those stretchy pants the twentysomethings wear now but is not quite slim enough for them. Her legs look meaty and soft beneath her pea coat. She wears no makeup because he prefers women that way. She needs some, though. Her face is a blank no-face, with eyes and a mouth that don’t stand out, the kind of face you forget instantly. She’s drinking out of a paper coffee cup. I imagine something silly in the cup, like a pumpkin latte, though for all I know she’s taking it black.

She’s just come out of one of the tobacco lofts downtown. He’s upstairs, gathering papers and books for a morning lecture, running late because they’ve taken the time to make love. He is good at sex. This is why she looks content and dreamy, sipping her drink. She knows nothing about me, the wife with the record. I decide her name is Karen or Andrea, something weak but not ditzy, so I can’t roll my eyes when he tells it to me.
When I call, she answers the phone. She sounds annoyed and congested, as if the call has woken her up, but my asking to speak to him dries her head fluids up.

“Who is this?” she asks.

“Sherry Cole,” I say, deciding just this moment to start using my maiden name again.

There are some passing-the-phone sounds, squeaks and bumps and a rubber cordstretching noise. She whispers “Who is that?” and he asks her in his normal voice to give him a moment. I wonder if this exchange will bring the age difference between them into relief, if this relationship can survive the news of me.

“Sherilyn.”  I dislike being called Sherilyn, and he knows this. He told me once that Sherry is an aperitif, not a name. “We have some things to discuss,” I say. “Indeed,” he says.

The last time I saw him, he was sitting on a courtroom bench, looking disappointed. Not in the justice system, in me. He doesn’t believe in sacrificing oneself for others, in lying down on the tracks unnecessarily. He believes that equal and opposite reactions to fool choices are the natural order of the universe. What did you think you were saving her from?

“I hope you’re well,” he says. It seems like a cheap shot.

“I can come and go as I please, I guess.”

“You can or you guess you can?”

“Don’t split verbal hairs,” I say. “It’s an ugly quality.”

“I just wish you’d speak plainly. You’re always leaving these gray areas when you talk. It creates uncertainty for a listener.”

“That assumes you ever listen to people.”

I hear him swallow and then his breathing tapers off, and I fancy that he has turned to look toward the door, toward her. It’s another swallow before he speaks again. “Look, Sherilyn, I don’t have a lot of time here,” he says. “We’re going to this orchard, see.”

“Which orchard?”

“Some orchard or other, what difference does it make? Kelsey enjoys that sort of thing.”

“That’s idiotic,” I say, meaning the orchard, but also the girl’s name.

“That is neither here nor there,” he says.

“You hate that kind of thing. You say it’s like paying someone to perform migrant labor for them.”

“I’ve never said anything like that, Sherilyn. It’s racist. Just stop.”

“Okay, fine.”

He wasn’t a bad husband. He didn’t cheat. He organized our finances on a special computer program, which enabled a savings plan and bills paid before they were due. About a year into our marriage, when we talked about children, I said I didn’t think I wanted any, and he said, Whatever you prefer. It’s your body. I was disappointed that he hadn’t fought for offspring with me but had to concede that this made him a decent man.

The weekend of the accident, we spent the three-hour drive to my parents’ house talking about the separation, how it should go into effect after the holidays were over. He did small annoying things the whole trip. He drifted onto the rumble strip as he talked about my research assistant, let the sunflower seeds he was eating fall onto the seat. He insisted on keeping the radio on smooth jazz, even though it meant changing stations each time we drove out of range. I let him because I felt bad.

We agreed on the terms of the separation. He said that he wasn’t stupid, that he didn’t deserve any of this. I said he was right, he didn’t, but that didn’t change where we were.

“I just hope that all of this has taught you something about how the world works, about your role in it,” he says. I can hear the girl’s voice in the background, saying something about lateness, I think.

“Are we still talking about the orchard?”

“Sherilyn, be serious, for Christ’s sake. You didn’t even stand up for yourself. Not once.”

I don’t say what I’m thinking, which is that Eva would not have survived any of the things that might have happened to her after she hit the brakes outside the Piggly Wiggly, when I was wondering about Craig Snelgrove’s marital status. Since Kyle McManus, I’d known that if anything truly bad ever happened she would collapse inward and explode, and we’d all be annihilated.

 

On the day of my manumission, Wanda helped me put my things into the vanilla pudding box the guard brought from the kitchen. As we packed, I reminded her what she said to me my first night. You look like you just shit a moon rock. You some kind of scientist? She didn’t like me, and told me so. I reminded her of this, too.

“I still don’t like you,” she said, wrapping the picture frame in one of my shirts.

The photo was of some of my undergraduates, from our trip to the particle accelerator right before I switched places with Eva. The kids went nuts, all those infinitesimal futures being created and fizzling out in front of us. Baby universes, the tour guide said. I searched for a metaphor, some kind of landscape to put it in for them—seizing opportunity, not being daunted by failure—but the moment passed when some of the girls became so moved that they cried and held onto each other. Girls these days always cry in groups.

As I snapped the photo, I thought, I should have the guide take one with me in it, but we were behind schedule. Our bus was about to leave without us. I settled for the shot with a Sherilyn-shaped void in the center.

Wanda lay the frame on top of the other things in the box. It was her way of saying goodbye. She wouldn’t let me put my arms around her because we could do that when she got out.

A few weeks before I got into the taxi with the pudding box, Donald sent me a letter, offering me a room with them on Nag’s Head. I know he feels guilty, but I also know he wants some help with Eva. My mother said I should have taken them up on it. Nag’s Head is nice all year, the least they could do.

I never answered his letter. Around that time, I was also getting a lot of letters from Eva, at least three a week. She said she had acquired a special kind of vision that let her see into the core of people. Donald was keeping a log of her movements in his head where she couldn’t read it, with the help of a cleaning woman who was reporting on her and missing her appendix.

On Easter Sunday, I tell Wanda I can’t see her, and Donald drives his yellow Jaguar all the way from the Outer Banks to the Bojangles on MLK. He sits down with his plastic tray and a paper sleeve of French fries that he doesn’t eat. I have a chicken biscuit that I don’t eat.

Every time I see Donald, he looks more like an orthodontist. His hair is thinning in half lives, the hair of someone who is good with needles and gas. I wonder if people with bad teeth see him in line at the bank and feel sudden, unexplained courage to improve their smiles.

He hands me an envelope with a check in it, a lot of money. I wasn’t expecting it, but I take it. He understands what I have done for them. This is not the last time it will come up. Six years from now, we’ll be at my mother’s funeral and he’ll say something about what the poor woman went through and Eva will look out of it, her white scalp visible because she has started pulling her hair out. Trichotillomania, the doctor will call it, on top of everything else. My new husband, the high school orchestra teacher who I met on one of my calls—we just got to talking, that living room/dining room special an unexpected segue into the cost of things these days, into life and the Republican party and the falling salaries of teachers in the public school system—he will nod like he understands but be thinking about Vivaldi.

“She’s been digging holes on the beach,” Donald says. “Deep ones. A kid named Austin fell in one of them and almost broke his neck. The mother’s threatening to take us to the cleaners. That’s all I need, it’s all I need.”

“What is she digging holes for?”

Everything,” he says. “She said eventually everything there is is going to rush into one of them and collapse down to a single point and none of this will exist anymore.” He waves his hand in front of him, as if to indicate that this Bojangles would not escape the pull. “I told her that isn’t going to happen, but you know how she is.”

“It is going to happen, just at the end of time. And not on the beach,” I say.

Donald looks at me the way he looks at Eva. I tell him about the call center and Wanda and Craig Snelgrove and how since the moment our egg split, which the thermodynamicist always called The Big Bang, Eva and I have been moving away from each other at something close to the speed of light. When my students asked me how everything began, this was always what I thought about.

The Creek

It’s been years since I visited Audri’s country house. I used to go there regularly with my parents and her family over the summer, back when she and I were five or six years old. All of us piled into their car and drove for six hours to their old house in the Catskills, arriving long after sunset. Audri and I jumped out of the car and scampered up the overgrown asphalt path toward the front door. Our parents told us to be careful in the dark, because the path was so cracked and churned up by the weeds growing through it, so I slowed down. But Audri never stopped; she leapt over the cracks with the agility of a deer, running gracefully right up the path and into the house. She was always filled with energy when we first arrived, but long after sunset was a very late hour for one little girl, and my eyelids soon drooped. Once we were in bed though, we were both eager to sleep so morning would come sooner.

We awoke almost as soon as the sun rose, dragging our parents out of bed to make breakfast. Then we went swimming in the creek. I knew the way, but I let her lead me every time, watching the brown curls of her hair bounce on her shoulders as she skipped ahead of me into the unkempt yard. The grass grew up past my knees, and the expanse of green was peppered with dandelions. Their petals tickled my calves as we passed through. A gap in the bushes around the house opened onto the road. From here, we could see the mountains rising in the distance, their smooth curves emerging from the morning mist. The clouds cast shadows that rolled along these curves, as if the mountains were the sky itself.

We clambered down off the side of the road and then through a patch of brambles. They scraped my legs, dotted my bare feet with splinters, but I never cared. Besides, we soon came to the trees, and the ground turned soft again. Once in a while, we saw a deer that dashed away, showing only a thrilling flash of its tail. Finally, we reached the creek. We stepped out onto the algae covered, slippery stones, the water dancing around the edges of our feet. The water here wasn’t deep enough to swim in, so we followed the current to where it pooled next to a clay bed. We stood together by the edge. The water was still enough for us to see our reflections, mine slightly shorter than hers. But Audri kicked a small stone into the water and the reflections scattered away like more startled deer. We had learned that the water was too cold to enter slowly. We threw off our clothes and leapt gleefully in. I remember the shock of it against my skin.

We stayed in the water only a moment, climbing frantically away from the cold onto the
shelf of clay, getting coated as we did. We ripped handfuls of clay out of the bed and smeared it
on our bodies, using our fingers to stripe each other’s faces like war paint. It all was wild.

***

One time, her mother followed us to the creek, suddenly worried for our safety. While we slid and scrambled over the clay bed, she stood across the water from us. She balanced awkwardly on the rocks, absentmindedly twirling a strand of hair between her fingers. Placid and out of place, she was certainly not part of our game. We resented her presence. Losing her balance for a moment, she dropped her sunglasses and had to turn her back to us and bend over to look for them. I saw a mischievous glint in Audri’s eyes.

“Oh my God, we have to!”

“What—”

She quickly ripped out a fistful of clay, shaped it into a ball, and hurled it across the water, where it hit the back of her mother’s shorts with a slap. I was shocked. The thrill of being bad, of being complicit with Audri, mingled in my chest with fear of her mother’s anger. But Audri laughed so hard I couldn’t hear her mother scolding us. Finally, her laughter subsided. Her mother scolded us some more, telling us to come home with her. We obeyed, but as we were walking home, Audri grinned at me behind her mother’s back, extinguishing any spark of contrition I felt.

***

It is now too cold to venture into the water. It is only late August, but fall comes early here. We have returned, Audri and I, older and without our parents. We took the bus this time, getting here even later than usual. We have stayed up almost all night, though, baking scones and drinking coffee on the porch. The night air is uncomfortably chilly, so we find a couple of moth-eaten, oversized sweaters to curl up in outside. Slowly, luxuriating in every smooth movement of her thumbs, Audri rolls a cigarette, lights it, takes a drag. I envy the graceful curve of her neck emerging from under her sweater as she leans her head back to exhale a stream of smoke. Her rows of earrings dangle like chandeliers, and her rings reflect what little starlight there is.

Most things about Audri are wild. I am painfully domestic in comparison, and have spent much of my life in her shadow. It is moments like these, when I admire the ease with which she moves, the animal life coiled in her muscles, that I understand why I have followed her for so long. We do not speak. I watch her as she finishes her cigarette, and then we go inside to sleep.

We waken lazily, long after the sun, and decide to walk to the creek. We follow the same path we took as children, my feet stepping on the edge of her shadow as she walks in front of me. Finally, we reach the creek. We stand away from the water this time, making sure not to get our shoes wet. An abandoned railroad track runs alongside the creek for some distance, and we clamber over the rocks to it. Audri skips agilely ahead of me as I test each plank carefully with my feet, not wanting to step on soft, rotten wood.

“Dude, why are you so slow?” she calls back to me.

I want to make up an excuse, unwilling to reveal my unease, but she is already moving again, and I remain quiet in order to focus on catching up with her. As we continue along the tracks, the ground slowly falls away below. I am dizzied by the stripes of forest floor I glimpse between the planks. Our shadows walk along these stripes, mine still slightly shorter than hers. Looking ahead, I can see that the creek has widened into a calm river, and that the tracks curve, forming a bridge over this little river. I can also see that Audri intends to cross it.

She takes one step out onto the bridge. I want to stop her, but suddenly she is running, leaping gracefully over the gaps between the planks and letting out an exuberant whoop when she reaches the middle of the bridge. She turns to beckon to me. I shake my head, but I know, even considering my real fear, that I won’t be able to resist her. And then I am walking across the bridge, forcing myself not to watch the water streaming by below me. Only when I reach Audri do I allow myself to look down. I see I am only about ten feet above the water, but with no railing I feel exposed, ready to bolt back along the bridge.

“This is amazing,” she says.

It is hard for me to agree. I just want to be safe on solid ground. How can she be so fearless? But maybe I should be wondering about me. How can I be so cautious with only this sky above and this river below? I look down and the water is so calm that the sky is reflected perfectly in it, as though there is nothing between them; the sky and the river are one. I feel a sudden thudding in my chest, and Audri frowns as she sees a mischievous glint appear in my eyes. I take off my shoes, placing them next to each other on a solid plank. I look over the edge. The water here should be deep enough, I think. I throw off my clothes. I jump.

Throwing It Away

[wpaudio url=”/audio/june12/Hiraldo.mp3″ text=”listen to this poem” dl=”0″]
 
When I find myself
crossed at you my boy,
when you throw
the yellow car from
our balcony
to the second floor balcony
in the next building, when you hurl
the red umbrella
from the 30th Avenue N platform
to the tracks below, or when
you chuck
your milk bottle on the rising foam
of your soaking T,
I glimpse my mother chasing me
as I sped from the kitchen
to her bedroom window
to heave some slick-designed
1970s cutlery
from my parents’
5th fl Washington Heights apartment.

Then,
I remember the delight in relinquishing,
years before the experience of loss
turns us into collectors.

Did He Who Made the Lamb Make Thee?

My insides have always been very hot.

I can no more tell you what’s inside of me than I can tell you what’s at the heart of a fire.

 

My ex-boyfriend used to ask me what the fuck was wrong with me, and as I recall it, I tried to tell him many times, but the answer, always, somehow, got lost in translation.

 

But in that special way that you always know what to say long after the chance to say it has gone, I only now have realized that I should have answered his question with a question.

 

Do you remember the subway train, the tracks, the light inside the tunnel?

 

~

 

He stopped looking at my thighs because they became tiger-striped. Faint slices of acid purple zigged and zagged across the meat. Lacerations on skin pale, same as my stomach and breasts, as the underbark of a eucalyptus. A pattern so appropriate, so natural, as though I had been born with scars, as if they had been intended. He snubbed them—my thighs, my stripes.

 

~

 

Every morning he’d hit the snooze button and move closer to me and press his nose against the back of my neck. He would lay there like that for twenty minutes until the alarm went off again, and then he would get up and go into the shower, and sometimes I would go with him because that was the way he liked it.

I made coffee and perhaps made toast and scrambled eggs, and he’d sprinkle salt, pepper, and Tapatío on both the eggs and the toast, which I thought was cute. We sat at the table together. Then he’d go, and I’d stay in the apartment all day in my dirty underwear. Most days I went back to sleep. Some days, if I could get up the energy, I walked down the hill to the corner store and bought a bottle of wine, a chocolate bar, and, if I was out of them, a pack of cigarettes. The guy in the store (I always thought of him as Dave, but Dave’s was only the name of the store, and I never took the time to learn his real name) talked to me about hometowns, mine in Indiana and his somewhere in Jiangsu Province. Dave also talked about the church he was going to. He always invited me to come along some Sunday, but I had stopped believing in God by then (now I believe in God again, at least in some Spinozist version of Him swirling up there in the Cosmos, looking out for me; someone is looking out for me; I really believe that; and these days I read the Psalms and the Song of Solomon obsessively and repeatedly; oh, that I had the wings of a dove, right? Oh, that I had the wings of a dove. And I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon. But comely. Why does she say but comely?). I sat on the curb and smoked and drank wine from a flask. For a few weeks, I tried to make a few thousand bucks writing an internet study guide for John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, but I couldn’t get anywhere with it because I was stuck on the way Jimmy treated Alison, calling her Miss Pusillanimous, Miss Pusillanimous; what a cruel bastard, and also, I admit, I thought the nickname better fit me than her, and that made me feel curiously abused.

On a good day, on a very rare good day, I walked around the neighborhood and took pictures of flowers (bougainvillea, my favorite, lily, iris, passion vine, jasmine and honeysuckle, so fragrant), or I’d go and sit on the bus stop next to a nearby high school and listen to the Oakland kids talk, watch them flirt and swagger, hood rats, thugs, wiry little black things, thinking of the way it used to feel sitting in front of my high school when classes got out. All the mumble, all the chatter.

I tell you, I was so sexed for those blades, I’d get lightheaded and sweaty-palmed just thinking about them. I bit my lips, I banged my head on tables, I dug my nails into my palms, and I fantasized about drowning myself in the lake (maybe grasping a spray of bright magenta bougainvillea, maybe wearing my favorite black t-shirt, maybe blue-lipped and bald, maybe bobbing up and down in the algae beneath an expansive pale blue sky with a single heron floating in it like a twisted modern reinterpretation of Ophelia). But I always, without fail, waited until he got home. I’d get a blade, and he’d try to stop me, but he could never stop me, and when I was done and bleeding he’d clean me up and cry, and I’d say touch my thighs now, and he’d touch them, and his hands were cool against the feverish, swollen, broken skin.

 

~

 

I—barefoot—turning post-Impressionist green beneath the yellow bulb in the bedroom where our clothes were strewn haphazardly like barf from the mouths of bulging black garbage bags (the mattress sagged on one side, the bedside tables were made of cardboard boxes)—eyes red, face probably wet, pacing and/or talking about misery—I went into the bathroom and sat on the edge of the tub, or on the toilet with the lid down, or I leaned on the sink, or I sat in the bathtub or on the floor; if I was in the bathtub, I probably pulled the curtain closed—I took one of our disposable razors, and I pulled the plastic apart with my teeth until I could extract the blades, one, two, or three, and I dug the tips of the blades into the flesh on my thighs, and I sank the rest of the blades in and dragged them across until blood bubbled out in perfectly minuscule, shiny, round spheres. Like fungus growing in time-lapse.

 

Like beads of water dancing in a hot greased pan.

 

And he sat there and watched me do it—and I could see in his face—in his eyes, in the deluge that came out of his eyes, in his quavering body, in his teeth that were bared through his tight frown, in his hands that flitted like nervous swallows through the air—that he absolutely couldn’t believe he was watching me do it, and he couldn’t stand to sit there and watch me do it—because who just sits there and watches someone do it?—and was I a poor little rich girl?—because I had said only poor little rich girls do this kind of thing. Poor little rich girls think nothing about the price. Was I thinking about the price? Was I going to think about the price? If I wasn’t going to think about the price, who was going to think about the price?—and then he wouldn’t sit there and watch me do it anymore.

 

Oh, Lord, he left me, not with a bang but with a whimper.

 

~

 

I miss you. I miss your body. Oh God, your body, he used to say when we were apart.

 

Darling, why, I could have asked, do you care so especially much about  my thighs?

 

I remember when we were first together, laying unclothed in bed with you while you appraised my every inch against your lithe white frame, saying your brown thighs are so much fatter than mine, among other things (my toes look like goblins’ toes next to your pretty little ones; your ass is so round; your fingers are so long and slender; your hips are so sensuously curved; etc.); but the thighs you took in your hands and kissed with your soft, warm lips and said giddily your thighs, your thighs! And then you nibbled on them like a pair of juicy, fresh-out-of-the-oven holiday pig rumps. Why such celebration? Why, exactly, the thighs?And why, when they acquired their stripes, did it mean that you had to stop loving me?

 

Is it because you think you’re sculpted from biscuit dough (while I have convinced myself that  you are made of paper)? Is it because you believe you are a woolly little lamb?

 

~

 

(This is what you do when a man places what you feel is too much importance on the external you while neglecting the you that you feel is the really real you, the pulsating, crackling inside you:

 

you destroy it

 

[the external you, the vessel].

 

You don’t paint your toenails anymore. You stop wearing nice things and forego bras so that the asymmetry of your breasts is always apparent. You stop shaving so that the hair on your pussy and your armpits grows as tangled as the jungle your ancestors came from. You cut the luxurious hair on your head [which he got used to, even learned to love, because it was so edgy and so punk]. [As a byproduct, looking like shit will make you feel like shit, and every time you are in public you will ask him if he thinks the other college girls in your town are prettier, and when he says no you will know that they are.]

Further, not only do you cut your thighs [which bothered him most of all; he probably, though he would never have admitted it, began to believe that all brown-skinned girls are “emotionally disabled,” or whatever the PC term Californians are using these days is; he certainly called me crazy; and that’s not very PC but it was in the heat of a million moments], but you also cut your upper arms and the backs of your knees [and the backs of the knees only because it hurts you more, and you really wince when you walk]. You do all this because you are trying to say to him pay attention to me. You are trying to say to him you don’t listen when I try to tell you things with my mouth.

If none of this works, you set your face on fire. And then you ask, when your face is melting off, are the other girls prettier? Do you think the other girls are prettier?)

 

~

 

During my semester off, before I ever meet my ex-boyfriend, I live with my grandparents in the room in their house that everyone in our family calls the blue room. Blue walls, blue carpet, blue ceiling, an old blue bedspread, and a big mirror above the bed that makes all the blue appear double-blue.

I spend most of my time alone, drawing Egon Schiele-inspired sketches of myself on the bed with droopy eyelids, listening to Talib Kweli (especially the one about black girl pain—they just know the name/ they don’t know the pain. What is this nebulous “black girl pain”? Where to even begin? And who, Talib, is they? Everyone?). I see a therapist who tells me that around the time of the Civil Rights Movement psychiatrists started diagnosing more and more black men with schizophrenia (did they put the men into a machine like they did to the Invisible Man; did they zap them with electricity; did they lobotomize the crazy niggers?). There are a couple of waxy, slowly dying plants that I try hard to save—though, now that I think on it, I am probably killing them with over-watering. I have my own coffee machine in the room, and I like to listen to the whir of its mechanisms and smell the steaming chemical liquid sliding into a styrofoam cup. The coffee itself tastes bad, but sometimes I run the machine just to hear and smell it.

On Tuesday, I vacuum. My Papa and his oxygen machine are gone to church, so the dust doesn’t disturb his lungs. By the time he gets back, the dust has settled. I don’t want to disturb my Papa’s delicate lungs. My dear, delicate Papa. Dust, for him, i­s like finely ground glass. Oh, my dear, delicate Papa; his dear, delicate lungs.

There’s been something I’ve been trying to figure out for years, my Papa says. I’ve been trying to figure it out for nearly forty years. Longer even.

Some nights I stay up late sitting with my Papa. We watch the National Geographic Channel or South Park, which, I think, is his favorite show. Sometimes we talk. Rather, he talks. Rather, he asks me questions. About my thoughts on politics, if I know that male Nile crocodiles can grow to be sixteen feet long, other subjects I will forget, but I will remember his voice.

And suddenly one night he says this to me: There’s been something I’ve been trying to figure out for years.

My uncle Tyrone, my Papa’s namesake, is outside banging on the door, and he’s been doing it for hours. His banging wakes me, and I go down to see who it is, but my Papa is already sitting in the den, in the darkness, unmoving, listening. He gestures for me to sit, so I bring a chair in from the kitchen, and I sit. I sit with him in the darkness. Hm, he grunts.

Everyone in my family has been pretending they can keep secrets; they’ve been talking for years about Tyrone being on and off the wagon, and they can tell whether he’s on or off because of his red eyes and his slurred speech and, in very bad times, the track marks. We forgive him. My Papa forgives him. Not just for the alcohol and the drugs, but also for the things he’s stolen, like my bike, like my mother’s car, and the ways he’s made things hard for all of us. For the time he showed up on Thanksgiving and scared all the kids, told us we’d go to hell if we watched MTV; then he said he was going somewhere and to be good, kids, and then he left, and then he came back and said he was going somewhere and to be good, kids, and then he left again.

Something I’ve been trying to figure out for years, Papa says.

And the banging keeps going for a while, and then it becomes louder but slower, more regular, like a mechanical piston, pulling away and falling back again at intervals, and I realize he’s not using his fist but his head.

A month or so later, the spring rain comes. A thousand cantankerous hands drumming.

I get out of bed and go downstairs and outside, leaving the door propped open behind me. I am soaked through within seconds, but I have this idea that I’m going to do some kind of primordial tantra in the flooded grass of the back yard. Cold fingers poke the top of my head, trace the outline of the bone behind my ear, tip-tap down the back of my neck, sink under my top, tickle down my stomach, down my thighs, down to my feet. I lie down in the grass and spread my arms and legs. I imagine that I am glowing with the cold intensity of a distant star, a ball of hot white crystal spinning in frigid space. Alone out there, but autarchic and contained. A world of complexity beautifully folded and compressed.

After some time, I feel weak, so I get up and go back to the door, but it has closed and locked itself behind me. I ring the doorbell. Ten or fifteen minutes pass before my Papa answers, frowning but unsurprised. I can’t feel the cold, but he says I’ve turned blue. He sends me upstairs to get a towel and some clothes on while he puts some water on to boil. He tells me to come back down once I’ve dried myself and changed.

You ever sleepwalk before? he asks.

No.

I sip hot chocolate. He grunts, hm.

You believe in demons?

I don’t answer for a while. Then, I don’t know.

He says that he’s been teaching this demonology course at the church where he’s been a deacon since before I was born. He talks, in his slow, fathomless way, about Asmodai, the Nephilim, the group called Legion in the man of Gadarenes, incubi, succubi, and Samael, chief of all the demons. He says what separates demons from angels is that demons are fallen because they long to inhabit our physical world (and what makes humans sinners, he adds, is our quest to comprehend, no, to conquer the metaphysical one).

I don’t answer.

He gets up and rifles through his desk. I watch him, shivering, rain dripping from my hair and wetting the plastic cushion of the chair.

My Papa pulls out a single photograph from one of the drawers of the desk and hands it to me. What do you think?

It is of Tyrone as a child, taken in the kitchen some thirty-odd years ago. The kitchen still looks the same, cream yellow cabinets, dappled turquoise epoxy flooring, 1940s GE electric stove, vintage lace curtains embroidered with peaches and strawberries, all of it almost as grungy back then as it is now. Tyrone looks almost the same, too, though pudgier in the face despite his much scrawnier body. He is smiling, and his arms are thrown out as though he is about to embrace someone. Behind him, his shadow looms, swallowing half the kitchen. The more I examine the shadow, the larger it seems. It brings to mind the dusky lighting in one of those old silent horror films; Nosferatu’s hunched shoulders and bony fingers projected on the wall above the stair.

Shadow’s too big, right? my Papa asks.

Seems that way.

My Papa takes the picture from me and stares at it a moment (Something I’ve been trying to figure out for nearly forty years. Longer even, he says)  before replacing it in the drawer. I want to ask him how long he’s kept it special like that. How many times he’s taken it out to gaze at it, at the hovering black shadow. Many times after that, in secret, I take the picture out and stare at it, too.

 

~

 

(To me, he was a boy of exquisite and astounding beauty, but I never think of that now, do I? Now I only think of him, endlessly, always, as a figure backlit by a small distant light which he seems not to see. A figure made of paper. A figure who is nearly see-through except for the black letters I have printed onto his two-dimensional form.

He had perfectly shaped lips. Perfect. Golden brown hair and golden agate eyes with a special shape of their own, like a treble clef, I’d say. Soft skin like the skin of a fruit, man-parts that hung like fruit. Hips like a woman, smell like a little girl—“brown” like Lolita. He was a man, but there was something innocent about him that makes me think of him to this day as a boy. Something naive, delicate, fragile, blind, so lovely. It caught me off guard.

He wrote a poem: Look, I can catch up a piece of your hair/ And… something about curls recoiling, springing. Words that reminded me of love, life, spirit. Like I was a garden, or an exuberant green vine. Words I no longer remember. Words I no longer remember because, after all, they were only about my hair.)

 

~

 

He said, Don’t, and then he asked when it was done, in a flat, hurt voice, Why? and God, what’s wrong with you? and I smiled as blood puffed out and then dried and crackled and floated away like dust—

He said he had to take me back home.

 

I made a stripe for every mile. In the passenger’s seat with my pants down somewhere in the Central Valley near Fresno while he pumped gas several feet away, on the curb in Topeka after I threatened to throw a brick through his windshield if he didn’t leave me to it, under the lamppost at the stone picnic table near my mother’s house where there was so much blood he tried to pick me up and take me to the hospital (and where two months later I saw a coyote as we spoke on the phone; I mused that it had come from the west because it could smell the months-old blood dripping from my cracks)—

 

Lord, I was sweating like dynamite.

 

Lord, I was trying to puncture through to the explosive stuff inside. The thawing blood that was as viscous and volatile as nitroglycerin.

 

I tried to explain it to him way back then, really I did. I spoke slow and deliberate and with the precision of an actor.

 

I said watch out, the ice is falling off, put me back in the refrigerator!

 

I said I’m scorching from the inside, and I’m going to spontaneously combust!

 

I said I am goddamned hot! Shoot me into outer space!

 

But words failed; I said I was going somewhere and to be good, and then I’d leave, only to come back again. Words failed; until soon there was nothing but me laying naked and stinking and waiting on the bed when he came home from work. Words failed; until I only wanted stripes; stripes all over me, zigs and zags, popped out eyes, a split lip, torn out hair, a cracked skull, broken toes. Me, wanting to go back to my quiet blue room. Me, alone on the toilet with the lid down, on the edge of the sink, on the floor, in the bathtub—alone in the bathroom—alone—alone, repeating, I’ve got the demon in me. I’ve got the demon in me. I’ve got the demon in me. I’ve got the demon in me.

 

~

 

He asked me what was wrong with me, and as I recall it, yes, I do believe I tried to tell him many times.

 

Do you remember the subway train? Do you? You don’t, do you? You don’t remember, do you?

 

~

 

Let’s not quibble over details. Let’s not talk about what set me off, things to do with being a brown-skinned girl, lost friends, death, etc. Really, let’s not delve into that world of complexity that I’ve sent spinning into outer space, back where it belongs.

           

May I simply answer your question with a question?

 

I remember so vividly a moment some time ago when I first knew I was violently exploding. I was still so calm then, so wonderfully calm and cool and, yes, contained, so contained. I remember telling you I needed to leave you. Do you remember what you did? You stood on the edge of some subway tracks when a train was coming—I could see its light inside the tunnel, and I begged you to step back, I begged you, I begged you—but you stood there and stared down at those tracks and swayed back and forth—and I swear, dear, I swear, I thought you were about to kill yourself. And you were really thinking about killing yourself! splat, ripped off limbs and a shattered head all over the tracks, yours the story of a shocking Boston suicide. Your only story. So I never left you.

 

My spicy darling. Don’t you ever tell yourself that you haven’t got a demon in you, too.

Notes from the Pages of One Still Living

[wpaudio url=”/audio/september11/gary.mp3″ text=”listen to this story” dl=”0″]
 
There are days when I try to understand who I am or why I write or how it is that I am drawn to the writing of some writers and not others. I generally have these thoughts  in August.  My sister Jeanne died three years ago today (August 10).

*

Humpback whales are born knowing the ancient song of their species—no one teaches it to them. Each mating season a new musical phrase is added to the song, and the females wait to hear the song, and respond to the most beautiful singer.

*

I used to wish my writing could mimic such a song, in human terms, but I cannot escape the truth that my writing is more often (especially this time of year) a kind of bearing witness, bearing the body of this death.

*

I think that I write toward death and to stave off death and to remember the dead and to address what is dead in me.

*

Sometimes I come across a writer who writes from the place of the dead. A writer who looks, unblinking, at the third rail. It is a place that I recognize, riding backwards in the ghost train, as in Elizabeth Bishop’s poem , The Man-Moth. It is as if they are calling to me, across the tracks. I hear them, then. Sometimes too, their silent screams. I trace a finger across the abyss that separates us in modern life, across the chasm of individual self-expression and lunatic self-promotion, a chasm deepened by feinting and posturing that takes place on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter and Fictionaut, with its “likes” and “retweets” and “mentions”  and “faves” and avoidance of all things soulful, an avoidance characteristic of the present age. (Jacques Ellul: the irony of technique/technology, which distances and severs even as it hooks and reels, makes efficient.) And I will read this person and involuntarily say yes, I know. Yes. Only connect. Then the ethical challenge, as she who understands me also renders me senseless once we have climbed through the technology, on it, over it. To paraphrase Wittgenstein, we must throw away the ladder, after we have climbed up on it. Not apart from pain. Leaving us where we were before, only more so, separate and suffering.

*

I read and I write in order to feel less alone.

*

It is dangerous to seek human connection with writers we admire. Often it is the work that we admire and not the person, though logic tells us there is some essential connection. But writing is not logical and most writers fail, often miserably.  I count myself among this number.

*

I always believed that Jeanne was the writer in the family. She did too (smile). We did not have close enough contact to be competitive, and to my knowledge she did not write fiction or poetry or memoir (three forms I dabble in ) but she did write professionally, and worked for a spell as a journalist. She always meant to write a family history, and was cross with me when I dragged home from Miami the journals and poetry of our paternal grandfather, Giovanni Percesepe. She thought that these documents should go to her, the family scribe and keeper of lore. I did not disagree. I had made the trip to Miami because I had the time and the money to take such a trip, and I think she resented it. I told her she could look through the writings any time she wanted, when she was visiting my house in Ohio, or I would bring them to her in New York, but somehow we never got around to either. The poems and the journals sit in a trunk upstairs in this old house. They haven’t been touched in years, and not since Jeanne’s death.

*

Jeanne told me that one member of our small clan in Italia was a court poet, who had lived and served in the king’s castle. He was later given a castle of his own, a gift from the king. My grandfather was fond of recounting his days a child in this castle, reclining on cushions of soft velvet on wide ledges beneath tall lancet windows. Whenever I struggle as a writer (which is to say, every day), I smile to think that I am descended from a noble line of poets. I was very pleased with myself, taking consolation in this story, until I mentioned it to my Italian-American  friend Gabriella Belfiglio (south Philly) one day at the Antioch Review, and Gabriella said, Oh! And I said, What? And she said, we have that same castle story in my family!

*

I read through my grandfather’s papers many years ago. His handwriting was graceful and strong, the Italian lyrical, and his English translations idiosyncratic and funny. There was also a ledger from the old Italian Methodist Church where he had served as treasurer, during the darkest days of the Great Depression. I saw the entries for members of the Percesepe clan, each Sunday, week after week: $1.00, $1.00,  $1.00, and on the high holy days, $2.00. A small fortune in those days.

*

If Jeanne were here she would be able to explain our people’s place in the great progressive struggle for human liberation, of our direct connection to the Italian Renaissance, the meaning of our name, and a thousand things besides. But I was a poor student, and a worse listener, and now she is gone, and I know so little and have forgotten so much. I cannot bring myself to walk up the steps to the room where grandfather’s poems and journals lie buried in a chest covered with dust.

*

What I think I am trying to say here is that there are some stories that lie so buried we cannot even tell them to ourselves.

*

I was always going to talk to Jeanne about all of this. When she was alive and when I thought of her, I always seemed to be saying to her, involuntarily, “I was coming to that.” But I never did.

*

So I speak now.

*

When my sister died I struggled to know what to say at her funeral. I scribbled notes in bed for two days. My friend Frederick Barthelme was a great comfort to me during this time. I asked him what he had said, how he had borne the loss of his brother Don to cancer. And Rick shared what he could, the pain still fresh after twenty years, and then he said simply, “Take it easy.”

*

Each year on this day I post a new addition to Jeanne’s song—

What follows is what I wrote in 2009, and at her funeral  in 2008.

WHAT DO WE OWE THE DEAD?
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead.
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
… A terrible beauty is born.
–W.B. Yeats

How do we write the dead?

What claim do they have on us?

These questions still haunt me, one year till the day that my sister died.

A terrific writer and editor with a biting sense of humor, Jeanne was an opera singer who had studied with prominent New York voice teachers. The last time I saw her alive she had stopped going online, and was barely eating. Her laptop lay dusty on the floor beside her sick bed, from where she reached her hand out to me from time to time, to touch me, to know that I was there.

For many years, we had not been close. I fictionalized an account of our turbulent life as siblings in a short story I published online in Mississippi Review years ago, a story called “Moratorium.” In a sense, this is a companion piece.

We had an older brother who died in Yonkers, New York on the street outside our apartment building one snowy day in February, a few days past my fourth birthday. Jeanne was six. I remember the terrible shrieking, the wailing of the inconsolable. Someone had sent me to stay with a neighbor in the apartment upstairs during the tumultuous death scene. I don’t know where they sent my sister.

Decades later, long into the night one Thanksgiving weekend we tried to piece together what had happened. Eventually, adults reclaimed us from the neighbors.  Who were these neighbors? Why did they split us up? How long had we been separated? Which uncle did I stay with, which uncle had taken Jeanne? Where was our mother? We didn’t know, and no one was saying. It was a dark period in our family’s history and it remains mysterious and impenetrable. (I think this may help account for my congenital skepticism about the big things—I’m a big believer in nobody knows anything.)

For months before she died (of ovarian cancer) I had found myself saying over and over, sometimes audibly, “I’m sorry Jeanne. I am so sorry.” Just the other day, as the one year anniversary of her death was imminent, I found myself unconsciously saying it again.

I don’t know what I am so sorry about. What do we owe the dead?

Once, I was writing a novel that I set aside for a long time. There was a character in it named Anna. Anyway, for months, and then years, while this novel was stalled I would think that I heard Anna’s voice calling to me. “Yo, over here. You coming back for me? You gonna leave me here like this, unfinished? I’ve got some more things to say to you, pal, believe me.” Anna was insistent. I finished the first draft of the novel, finally. But Anna has not stopped speaking to me, as I go about the work of revision. Neither has Jeanne. And all I can come up with by way of response is, “I’m so sorry.”

I’m sorry that she died, sure. I’m sorry that she suffered so, there at the end and all the way through her tumultuous life. I’m sorry we didn’t spend more time together, that I didn’t make more of an effort to learn her brand of magic, sorry that we let the silly and the stupid interfere with what was, after all, a blood relationship, deeper than friendship, and outlasting mere death. I’m sorry that this is all I can come up with, after these many years.

A year ago today I spoke these words from the pulpit of an Episcopal church in the Catskill Mountains of New York.

I miss her like crazy. I understand that you didn’t know her. I just want you to know there was something about her. She was something.

+  +  +

My sister Jeanne was a giver of good gifts, a rough prophet, and a beautiful singer.

At Christmas, or on my birthday, Jeanne selected gifts for me that perfectly captured my essence—or at least the better self I aspired to be. Her gifts were always imaginative, often excessive, and sometimes completely useless. This was not because her gifts were dumb or because they bore no relationship to who I was as a person, but because they were so outlandish and exotic. Her gifts were intended to stretch me, to educate and reform me, or if necessary to remake me.

My sister was a native New Yorker, that peculiar species for whom being a person involves a perpetual quest for self improvement. Scratch the surface of any New Yorker and underneath you will find a dutiful museum-goer, concert-attender, gallery opening fundraiser-planning organizer who would like the world to be a little bit better every day and is consequently outraged when the world refuses to yield even an inch.

I used to wear a button on my jacket lapel when I was a philosophy professor, because it reminded me of Jeanne. The button said, “Ignorance is curable but stupidity is forever.” Jeanne constantly encountered stupidity in the land, and not all of it emanated from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue or Capitol Hill. Some of it was closer to home. Jeanne tried her best to straighten us out. Recalcitrant and hopeless as we were, she never gave up on us. I’ve often wondered if she thought of us as slow learners, or underachievers, or kitsch collectors helplessly mired in a world of dreck. She hated stupidity, and did daily battle against it. Her life mission appeared to be like that of Nietzsche: To do harm to stupidity.

Perhaps this helps explain Jeanne’s telephone habits. I never knew a person who could get as exasperated on the phone as Jeanne. Her furious telephone hang-ups were the stuff of legend in our family. How many of our conversations began quietly enough, sotto voce, and gradually escalated, tension mounting, until that sudden final crashing crescendo, BAM! (And the recapitulation, if you were unseasoned enough to call her back, to protest your innocence.) I heard Jeanne slam the phone down on me in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut– the whole tri-state area, basically– as well as Colorado, Missouri, Illinois, and Ohio. After a few decades I learned not to interrupt her when she really got going, and I finally figured out that my role was not as a participant in the conversation, but rather as an actor with a bit part in a dramatic stage production. It was Jeanne’s stage, and this was a form of performance art all her own.

As she entered the cyberspace era, she found a new outlet for her screeds against stupidity: E-mail! After a year spent doing battle with the stupidity of America’s health care system, which in her view put profits before people, withheld medicine and treatment from patients, excluded 48 million people, denied benefits because of “mysterious and ill-defined pre-existing conditions,” touted the “invisible hand” of the private marketplace as a cure all for what is obviously a broken system and generally reduced the lot of us to supplicants before the throne of the almighty HMO, Jeanne had had enough. She fired off a memorable e-mail, a real scorcher, flaming and white hot, excoriating the stupidity of the current health care system and the imbecilic politicians who resisted reforming it, vowing to cut off any one who was stupid enough to EVER in their lives vote Republican again, ever! I still have this subversive email, saved in its own special folder, password protected. It was an angry, funny, vulgar, passionate, petulant, one-sided polemic, completely lacking in nuance and totally Jeanne. I loved it! I forwarded it to all my friends, proudly, with an accompanying note saying, “This is my sis!” It was like Chris Rock or George Carlin on steroids. I was going to read it to you today in church but I don’t think they allow the mf word to be said aloud in church.

She was thunder and lightning! In fact, on Monday, the day after her death, my mother and I were crossing the Hudson River on the Newburgh Beacon Bridge in a terrible driving rain. The sky was dark and threatening, and then suddenly the heavens flashed with streaked lightning hitting Newburgh, right in front of us, and then we heard an enormous clap of thunder, and I immediately thought, “Jeanne!” It’s you!”

Jeanne was an athlete in high school, and you may be surprised to learn, a Lakeland High School cheerleader. She was an incongruous cheerleader, this petite olive skinned teen with the flashing dark eyes, tiny waist, big chest and bigger voice, reading the French existentialists and Frankfurt School theorists and Italian anarchists, decrying the war in Vietnam while cheering those poor boys of Lakeland, perpetual losers, some of whom would go on to lose their lives in southeast Asia. In time she came to see the stupidity of the war, its senseless waste and cruelty, and grew disillusioned with being a cheerleader for football or for war.

Even though she loved and worshiped our father, a World War II hero, Jeanne instinctively sensed that there was something that was not right in Vietnam, some basic lack of truth telling, of moral reasoning gone amok. Soon enough the war came into our living room, and the conflict between my sister and my father became unbearable.

And then one day Jeanne just packed up some things and left home. She stayed for a time with a woman who was her high school history teacher, and waited for college. She broke our hearts, but somehow, I understood. Watching all of this from what I thought was a safe distance, I began to see for the first time that ideas have consequences and that when you play the role of a prophet it will always cost you something, and you end up out in the wilderness. For Jeanne was like an Old Testament prophet, a rough rider and an outlier for justice and fairness. She saw things that were wrong and tried to stop them. This often put her crossways with people that she loved.

Thinking back, I wonder: Weren’t her tempestuous fits really grounded in her profound disappointment with the way things are in our world? Like Fanny Lou Hamer, Jeanne was sick and tired of being sick and tired. Like Catholic activist Dorothy Day she’d had it with the deception and lies and the violence and the domination practices of what Dorothy called this dirty, filthy, rotten system.

Jeanne stood next to me in this church several months back, her last Sunday in worship. She was weak, but she wanted to go to church. We stood for the opening hymn. I remember so well the way our voices blended together, older sister and younger brother. I was overcome with emotion. Ever the professional, Jeanne sang on, while I dropped out for a stanza, so in love was I with the sound of her elegant soprano. I had been singing my natural tenor, but as we moved into the middle verses I switched to the bass line, trying for something low and supportive. Singing here today in the same place, I know that she has never—can never–leave this sacred place, that she has now taken on the ability to meet me everywhere, in the joy of the robin in the morning, the beauty of a Hudson Valley sunset, the faces of her mother and brothers, or the sigh of one of her oppressed sisters or brothers.

Jeanne learned in time to lend her powerful voice for things she believed in: great ideas and progressive politics and beautiful music and love of family and friends. Her love for music and art was one she tried to pass on to her family, to her cousins and nieces and nephews. Like Dostoevsky she believed that only through beauty will the world be saved. That is why she gave us all those good gifts, and tried to kick us into gear. But now, at her passing, we come to see that Jeanne herself was the greatest gift of all, and all those gifts that she gave paled in comparison to the luminous beauty of her presence.

In our family, she was the keeper of the lore, the bearer of our family history. She is my only sister. There is no one to replace her. There is a Jeanne-sized hole in our hearts, and it is terrible. Our mother has lost her second child, and Jeanne’s mortal remains will be lowered into the ground where she will rejoin at last her beloved brother Tommy. Our loss is incalculable. I feel today like W. H. Auden when he lamented,

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone/ Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone/ Silence the pianos and with muffled drum bring out the coffin/ let the mourners come.

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one/ Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun/ Pour away the ocean and sweep up the woods/ For nothing now can ever come to any good.

I hardly know how to tell you how much I loved her, though loving her, as in all things Jeanne, was often difficult. I loved her for who she was, while she loved us for ourselves and also for what she felt we were called to become. She saw potential in each one of us. She’d want us to stop fussing and get on with it, to take up the causes she believed in, and to make sure to stop along the way and spontaneously break out into an aria for the beauty and goodness and mystery of life. She was a prophet and a singer, and a giver of good gifts. She was a gift that was incalculable, extravagant, excessive. What in the world will we do with her now, this gift that wants to keep on giving? The only possible answer is to keep our hearts open to receive what she still wants to give us, for loving someone means not only giving love but also receiving it in return. For myself, I do not worry about losing her because nothing that you truly love can ever be lost. But sometimes I think we didn’t know how to receive all the love that Jeanne wanted to give, because her heart and her voice and her courage and her passion were so large that they overwhelmed our little cups. But we can still experience her love overflowing our hearts, not worrying about capturing it, or losing it, just letting it wash over us. There is enough.

In the months that she battled her illness I saw in Jeanne a growing maturity, not uncommon for cancer patients–a willingness to accept, to receive what was coming, what could not be stopped. There is a common truth in all the world’s great religions: that we must learn to let go, to accept, to simply trust. And so it was that Jeanne finally came to be at rest. She made a good death, one that came to match the goodness of her life. I drove 1,500 miles through five states to be with her, arriving two hours before she crossed over, and she was waiting for me. Off the meds now, her face had thinned out, and she looked for all the world like the girl I knew in high school. She was at peace. And she would have all of us make the peace among ourselves, and in the world. Let us make a vow to do this, or Jeanne will be thunder and lighting before us and behind us, beneath us and above us.

Jeanne struggled to understand her illness. More than once she asked me, “What is my life’s work now?” And I would say to her, Go on, your life’s work is what you are doing, who you are, you are already there, go on. And now she has gone on, ahead of us, this rough prophet, this giver of good gifts, and she is still singing. And I hear her saying, “Don’t be deceived, all of us go down to the dust, take my hand– no death, no fear!– yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

Jeanne P. Batterson Koskie

January 2, 1952 – August 10, 2008

R.I.P.

History: I Dreamed of the Wheel, and You Were There, My Love

You to whom I address poem
not getting on juxtaposed
train with rhythm beside
the mirror with its toweled
face covered anyone
in the cellist’s green lake
in the park after midnight
wearing the skinny dresses
the pawn and the king and the pawn once
moved into the towel’s softness
with the green running shoes
covered over by buckets of paint
and in the city most nights
the lights leak out into the bright streets

You to whom I address it
an opening
in soft blue
a sudden quick use
for the tunnel’s best platitudes
and the mirror itself
a closed circuit a radio

You to whom
I address poem
making films
of inner space
in the outer spaces
of the bending realisms (I love you so)
voice torn from the tracks

You whom
I address after
the body has borne
its sutures
the crux
of this week’s effigy
is the moth following the lamplight
into our era of bright hope

Proof

Garnett Cohen

I hid the coiled spool of sepia film in the back of a desk drawer for years, years after I left the job, years after I moved from Michigan, years after I moved from the next state and the next. The desk was a family heirloom with Queen Anne’s legs that had grown increasingly wobbly over the years. The wide central drawer—where I kept the film—was deep. I came across the reel occasionally when digging for a pen or a paper clip. I usually uncurled and stretched out the strip, then held it to the light. The captured images were stored in a distant corner of my memory, but I kept the film to remind myself that I had tangible proof.

In my mid-twenties, following a difficult divorce and a few years of struggling—a dangerous ex-husband with a substance abuse problem and trying to raise a child on my own—I moved from Ohio to the town of St. Joseph in Michigan, to be closer to my parents. I needed a new start. I didn’t plan to stay long so I took a job as a waitress at a place called the Cove, a restaurant that had a popular bar with live music at night, usually folk singers stationed near a circular central fireplace. I was quickly promoted from food server to cocktails, where the tips were bigger and the loads lighter. My co-workers were similar in age and fun to be around. We often went to Silver Beach on Lake Michigan in the late hours after work. We sat in the dunes where we shared a bottle of wine or a jug of sweet kahlua and cream that the bartender concocted for us (free of charge) after closing while we watched the tail of the moon shimmer across the metallic waters until sunrise, my young son asleep at my parents’ house. Summer turned to fall, then winter: fewer tourists, smaller tips. I decided to extend my stay in Michigan and needed a more serious job.

Because I became a single mom in my early twenties, I was not yet a college graduate the summer I arrived in Michigan. After my divorce in Ohio, I worked as a reporter for a weekly newspaper while attending classes at Kent State. I wanted a similar job in Michigan so I could attend school at night. However, the daily newspaper in St. Joseph only hired college graduates full-time. I did some freelance writing and worked for about six weeks as a switchboard operator, providing answering services for local businesses and connecting ship to shore calls. So I was excited to interview for a full-time writing position at a family owned local radio station. I had a long interview with a man in his late forties (one of the family scions); he smiled and joked and asked questions that I knew verged on inappropriate though the exact nature of them has slipped from my memory. I squirmed in my chair, clasping my briefcase to my chest. The case contained a resume and tear sheets that he never asked to see. At the end of our meeting, he told me that the station didn’t hire divorced single mothers. Since he had learned my status early in the interview, I was angry. I knew that the policy was unlawful. But what could I do? He was probably in the same social circle as my parents. Besides, who knew what had happened except for the man and me. His word against mine. I had no proof. St. Joseph was not a large town and I would not benefit from accusing one of the prominent citizens of unprofessional behavior.

I thanked him and left.

Considering my options, I felt fortunate to land a position as an account executive/copy writer for a small advertising agency. I enrolled in night classes at Western Michigan University, a long drive from St. Joseph across flat, often icy, roads to Kalamazoo. In school, I felt I stood out among the younger students. In the daytime, I felt like a professional: composing copy, writing reports and making cold calls. Most of our clients were small. Our largest client—the one who paid the bills—was a frozen pizza company that had recently transitioned from local to regional, and is now a well-known national company.

The agency employed only six full-time people, including the secretary. Given our agency’s size, we were often required to assist in projects outside our regular purviews. I was particularly excited the day I was to be photographed for a brochure for the pizza company. I was young and attractive (maybe part of the reason I was hired at the agency without a degree) and had on occasion filled in as a model at the newspaper back in Ohio. Still I was flattered to be the star of the shoot. I also liked becoming a more involved member of the agency. Usually my position was solitary, sitting at my desk writing or talking on the phone.

I took extra care that day with my hair (thick and curly, swinging well below my shoulders) and with my make-up. I weighed thirty pounds less than I do today, but would have been called full-figured because of my large breasts. Although the catcalls and whistles I often received during that decade made me nervous, I remember walking with confidence during the shoot. I wore high heels (something I seldom did then and never do now). I even remember the texture of my button-down blouse, silky, and cream-colored beneath a pale gray hounds-tooth pattern, a little clingy, but appropriate for my position.

The shoot took place at a grocery store with the head of the art department, whom I’ll call Ned, and another man, who—along with an occasional freelancer—constituted the entire department. I had never clicked with Ned. A thin dark mustache rode his upper lip, the kind worn by villains who tied women to train tracks in old black and white films. In his mid-thirties, he wore pointy boots and tight jeans and constantly groused about his ex-wife and child support. His smirks and snide remarks made me uncomfortable. There seemed to be a meanness right below his surface, a coiled snake ready to spring at any wrong move. Though I did not receive child support, I think my status as a young divorced mom touched a nerve. The other person on the shoot, Ned’s sidekick, whom I’ll call Harold, was a pudgy guy about my age with a blonde bowl cut and a talent for drawing almost anything, particularly cartoons

Harold wielded the camera while Ned barked directions.  Yet Ned seemed unusually cordial to me that day. I felt like an equal, a member of the team—not that any workplaces in those days promoted the idea of teams. They were hierarchies and Ned considered me well beneath him. He viewed Harold as a trusted valet, a guy who was elevated or demoted according to Ned’s mood. Either the butt of a joke or ready to laugh at one. But that day, we three were a team with me at the center:

Me walking down an aisle.
Me leaning into the frozen pizza case to make a selection.
Me, smiling, proudly holding our client’s round cellophane-wrapped frozen
             pizza next to my face so that the label was prominent.
Me repeating all of the above, over and over.
The shoot took longer than expected but I felt good about it, good about a day away from my desk, especially good about my new camaraderie with the guys.

During that time, Ned and my immediate boss, Tera, were dating. Taller than me by a few inches, Tera had short reddish hair and wore outfits that always seemed in movement, long flowing scarves,  silky blouses and trailing jackets and vests. She smiled in such a way that her mouth seemed to open more in the corners than the center, like a flat figure-eight on its side. Tera was in her forties and in my estimation, superior to Ned, more sophisticated, more intelligent. Though I thought it must be difficult for older single women (back then, forty seemed ancient to me) to find partners, I believed she could and should do better. Her relationship with Ned was volatile with frequent break-ups. Ned was from north central Michigan. Tera had grown-up and worked in Chicago, done public relations at large agencies and for Playboy in its hay day. She and I had a few personal conversations over lunches but given her ranking in our tiny hierarchy, those moments were infrequent.

Months after the shoot, Tera came into my office and closed the door behind her.

“I have something for you,” she said. “Use it any way you want, just don’t say where you got it.”

She handed me the reel of film and left.

For the first time of what would be countless times over the years, I unwound the spool and held it to the light. The film contained a few frames of me that had been used in the pizza advertisement. The rest of the pictures were close-ups of my breasts.

My headless chest coming down the store aisle.
My breasts straining at the buttons of the blouse as I dipped into the freezer.
My blouse opening a bit, revealing a hint of cleavage, as I made my pizza 
              selection. 
My breasts proudly displayed center-frame as I held up the pizza—only the tip of my chin and the bottom curve of the circular cellophane-wrapped pizza visible in the frame.

I had been decapitated, only my breasts remained.

I can’t remember all of the emotions that swirled inside me as I looked at the film. Who had seen it? The three men at the agency? Others? Why would anyone want pictures of breasts that were covered by a blouse? Why did they do this? How much of the shoot was spent on my breasts? How much of my day had been given over to that? Did they hate me? Were they making fun of me? What could I possibly do with the film? Could one sue for such a thing? Would I have to face Ned in court? Was it “just boys being boys.” I wasn’t actually hurt, was I? If not for Tera, I wouldn’t even have known they had done it. In fact, if not for the vast number of panels containing only the expanse of my breasts—particularly in comparison to the few photos that contained my face and the pizzas—I would have thought the breast shots mere mistakes, moments when the camera slipped.

In the end, I did nothing.

After I left the agency, Tera and I became lifelong friends. She told me of the time in Chicago when she and another account executive took a client to lunch at a club that turned out to be for men only; instead of suggesting an alternative, the men went inside and left Tera in a lounge area that allowed women to wait. She was the primary executive on the account. She also told me that if I wanted to succeed in my career, I needed to put my job before my son, before family, before everything else. I listened to this advice but did not take it fully—I wish I had taken it even less than I did, though it was undoubtedly accurate at the time.

The day Tera gave me the film, I slid it into the back of the desk drawer at home. With the possible exception of later discussing it with her, I do not recall mentioning the film to anyone until now. I had a boyfriend then, whom I later married and later divorced. I did not tell him. My parents lived nearby. I did not tell them. I do not think I told any friends. I was ashamed and embarrassed that Ned and his sidekick had thought so little of me. What had I done to deserve this treatment? I was even embarrassed that my breasts were so large. How could I show the film to anyone? The agency later moved and disbanded. I don’t know what happened to Ned. I heard, though I can’t verify it since I don’t recall his last name, that Harold hung himself. Regardless, they both vanished from my life many years ago.

Yet I kept the film for at least thirty years. I kept the film as it faded to a light amber color, dried and stiffened—would probably crack if folded in the right place.

During my most recent move, two years ago, I gave the ancient desk to Goodwill. I don’t remember if I poured the contents of the center drawer into a box or into the trash. I still have a dozen or so unpacked boxes. I might come across it; I might not. For a long time, I didn’t know why I kept it. Far worse things have happened to me, and the bad things that have happened to me are minor compared to indignities others have suffered. But I needed it. As proof, yes, but proof for what? It’s not like I’m about to bring a suit against them—even if I wanted to, the agency was defunct years ago and the statute of limitations has surely run out—but I needed it for myself. Proof that even though I didn’t know what was happening at the time, it did happen, it happened to me and no one could say it didn’t.

 

# # #