Philip Loyd

Philip Loyd

Elephants Never Forget

I sneaked another peak at her across the bar, trying my best to not look like I was looking, but it was too late, she had seen me already.  Why was I trying to avoid being seen?  Because I was shy?  Not hardly.  I was lonely, and I didn’t want to look like it.

More than that, I was horny, REALLY horny.  The only problem was, she was fat: hippopotamus fat.  It was nothing a few more beers couldn’t take care of, however, and anyway, there’s no shame in being lonely.

She looked familiar.  Maybe I had seen her before.  She just had that look about her, like I knew her from somewhere.  I looked in the other direction, but it was too late; she was already on her way over.

“Excuse me,” she said, “but you look so familiar.  Do I know you?”

“I’m not sure,” I said, still trying to pretend like I hadn’t been looking.  Loneliness is a hideous bitch.

“I’m sure I do,” she said.  “Do you come here often?”

If a man had said that, it would have been a line.

“Not really,” I said, “at least, not anymore.  It’s been fifteen years since I moved out west.”

“It’s just that, you look so familiar,” she said.

“It happens.”

“Where do you live out west?”

“Aspen.”

“Aspen?” she said. “Cool.  I’ve always wanted to go to California.”

So she was dumb.  So what?

“Are you from here originally?” she said.

“Yes, just down the road.”

“Did you go to Briardale Elementary?”

“Yes.”

“Small world. Me, too.”

“Small world,” I said.  “Would you like another beer?”

Stupid question.  Turns out, the fat cow could drink me under the table.

She said her name was Kelli.  Kelli, with an i.  Kelli with an i ?  That did sound familiar.

“My name is Jeffery,” I told her.  “Jeffrey Joe Paul.”

“Jeffrey Joe Paul?” she said.  “Of course.  I knew I knew you.  Kelli Kirkpatrick.  We went to McKinley High together.”

“We did?”

“Yes, silly.  Mrs. McGonaguill, homeroom.  Don’t you remember?”

“Kelli Kirkpatrick?”

“In the flesh.”

As we continued talking, drinking more and more beer, it all started coming back to me, where I remembered her from, and it surely wasn’t Mrs. McGonaguill’s homeroom.  It was here, right here at this very same bar.  My only hope was that she had forgotten all about it.  The problem was, elephants never forget.

“You don’t remember meeting here?” she said.

Damn!

“Not as such,” I said.  I was lying.

“Granted, it was a long time ago,” she said, “but I remember it just like it was yesterday.”

Of course you do.

“It was the night of the big fight, remember?” she said.  “You and I ducked out just in the nick of time.  Then we went down to Lazy Dave’s, then back to your place.  Still don’t remember?”

I told her sorry, but I did not.

“We made love until the sun came up,” she said.  “Of course, I’ve lost a lot of weight since then.  Maybe that’s why you don’t recognize me?’

elephant

Lost a lot of weight?  Sweet Jesus.

“You told me you would call,” she said, “but you never did.”

That’s because it was a line, you stupid cow.

“I tried calling you for weeks.  I called your house, I called your work, I called your mother, I came by your apartment, I left notes on your door, I sat on your porch all night waiting for you.”

Of course I remembered.  It’s the whole reason I moved to Aspen in the first place.

“So what happened?” she said.  “Why didn’t you call?  You said you would call.  I was waiting for you to call.”

You’d think at this point a guy like me would have enough sense to get the hell out of there.  You’d think that, but you’d be wrong.  Remember what I said about loneliness?  It’s a hideous bitch, and it’s no goddess.

I decided to deal with it the same way I deal with most of my problems: by drinking more beer. By morning I realized, I was going to have to move again.  I hear Atlanta is real nice this time of year.

 

Philip Loyd loves fat chicks and cheap beer, though not necessarily in that order. His first novel, You Lucky Bastard, is represented by New York Literary Agent Jan Kardys. Loyd lives in Dumbass, Texas.

Jesse Bant

The Music Man in the Sky

There was a flautist jamming in the stars, and I used to sit watching, seated on air. He made me cry one day but I wasn’t really that sad. His tunes were just too good, they had me skating around upside down all over the icy place. Didn’t know which way was up, so it rained.

Well it was just too bad.

One day I was doing my thing in the rainy cold sky when I cast my binoculars to the shoulder of Orion. There were attack ships on fire, but where was the Music Man? I couldn’t hear anything, there was only silence and then you’re sobbing.

Who are you and what have you done with Jammin’ Sam? Why am I now crying too? That skull in your uplifted palm, who does that belong to? Ah, I have detached my self from myself again, it is only my humbly decaying corpse who intrudes upon my pleasure.

So is this the skull of that musician? Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio.

No, it cannot be, for…

It be. How sad.

The stars are out in force tonight, they form a – a skull. So that is where you got to, you flutey fellow of infinite zest. Your body has been broken down into carbon, which has been then gravitationally sucked into a super-hot funky party. It seems that they have now exploded into a strangely sinister silhouette. That’s how you would have wanted it, Jammin’ Sam.

I best be off now. Intransient water-based beings like my good self haven’t any time for such trivial blowings-on of some jazzy musician.

I am crying.

Where did the music go? Your songs?

But up there, kicking it with the stars, I would listen all night. Now your skull smiles down on this ethereal dude. I don’t mean to be rude.

In my mind’s eye I still hear the tunes. Rhythm and blues. So take off your shoes and salute to the flautist who jammed, the soundtrack to the universe.

To that superheated constellation (who used to be Sam), which now grins fatally at those mere mortals who dare to jam.

To the mortals who dare to jam, salute.

To the end of time, play on, play it again, and don’t stop playing.

You may fall quiet (as Sam did), but others will play on.

For the past I weep, for the future I laugh. Aint it always the way. Till another day. To the flautists I say do continue to play. It is the price you will continue to pay, immortality for eternal musical appreciation, because I will remember.

I still remember the music man in the sky.

Steve Slavin

The Broadway Actors Matrimonial Service

My name is Sergei and I managed to get out of Romania almost thirty years ago by paying an American woman $10,000 to marry me. We got married at City Hall, just a few hundred feet from the Brooklyn Bridge, and I never saw her again.

I got a job working for my boyhood friend, Serene, who also came here by marrying an American. But they actually loved each other, and remain married to this day.

Serene had always liked the theater, and he hired me to assist him. He was what is called a house paperer. Every day he bought up several hundred theater tickets for off-Broadway plays – usually for just two or three dollars apiece – and resold them for eight or ten dollars.

Everybody came out ahead. The ticket buyers got deeply discounted seats without having to wait on long lines, and picked up their tickets within blocks of the theater. The actors play to full houses. And Serene made money. So what was not to like?

Serene had three other Romanians working for him, none of whom had a “Green Card,” which would have entitled them to work here legally. Virtually all of the ticket buyers were regulars, and everything was on the up-and-up.

But after a couple of years, I began to grow restless. So I decided to move on. I did a little of this and a little of that, while I always had my house papering gig to fall back on.

It wasn’t until about twenty-five years later that my luck suddenly changed. My friend Caroline asked me for “a great big favor.”

How big?”

“Well, Sergei, I’ll let you be the judge of that.”

Caroline, who is a fairly prominent author, had not been to her office in over two weeks. Why? Someone had been murdered in the building.

Like me, Caroline is nocturnal, never getting up before two or three in the afternoon. Luckily, her office is in a building that stays open 24/7. But on the downside, it is largely unoccupied after 8 or 9 pm.

“So would you be able to stay with me for five or six hours, while I go through all my mail, and try to get a little work done?”

“Sure. But why don’t you just take all the mail home?”

“Three reasons. First, it’s too much to bring home. I’d rather have a messy office than a messy apartment. Second, I’d then have to lug some of it back to the office. And third, the main reason I rent the office is to go through the mail and store my files.”

I love Caroline, and one of her charms is that she can be a little compulsive. In fact, she’s written three books on organizing your life, and she had won some kind of award from a group that advocates for people with psychological disorders similar to her own.

So there was no way I could argue against her logic. “Of course Caroline. I would be most happy to help you.”

Great! Maybe bring along a book to read. I promise it won’t be more than six hours.”

At 8pm the next evening, we met in front of an old seven-storey building on Third Ave. just below 14th Street. A uniformed guard asked for our IDs and had us sign in. Then he went back to whatever he was watching on a small TV and we took the elevator to the top floor. We walked down a long corridor lined with doors with frosted windows.

As we walked, I asked, “Are these all offices?”

“I think so. If they came in dress sizes, mine would be a 1. In fact, my office is actually divided into two cubicles.”

“Who has the other one?”

“Sergei, did you ever hear of Elaine Champagne?”

“I’m afraid not. I just got off the boat.”

“You got off the boat twenty-five years ago, Anyway, Elaine was a very highly regarded theatrical agent.”

“What happened to her? No wait! Let me guess: she drank too much of the bubbly stuff and lost all of her clients.”

Worse! Much worse! Her son, who was in his mid-twenties, and a newly-wed, committed suicide.”

I just stared at Caroline.

“She hasn’t been back to her office since then. Not even to pick up her mail. And for all I know, maybe all of her clients did leave her.”

“That is such an awful story. You’re not in touch with her?”

“I’ve tried calling her and leaving messages. But it’s been two years. The only thing I know is that she still pays the rent on her office.”

We stopped at a door near the end of the hall, and she let us in. It was a windowless room divided into two cubicles, each about ten by twelve feet.

Caroline immediately got down to work, and I squeezed into Elaine Champagne’s cubicle. It was almost entirely filled with stacks of mail. Imagine if you went to the main post office when they were on strike.

I cleared off her chair and a little space on her desk. But I had to be careful not to cause an avalanche. There had to be tens of thousands of pieces of mail. I began going through a small stack. On top was a postcard with a glossy headshot of a smiling guy who reminded me of Ashton Kutcher. On the back was a note about a showcase he was staring in. Next was a card from a beautiful woman who proudly noted her appearance in a Volvo commercial.

I went through another dozen cards before it struck me that nobody had a clue that Elaine Champagne was no longer in the industry. They were doing mass mailings to every New York theatrical agent in the hopes that one would take them on. How sad is that?

I kept reading. A lot of the notes struck a personal tone, as if Ms. Champagne closely followed the actors’ careers: “In case you missed me on the HBO special, it will be rebroadcast next Sunday at 4pm.” Or, “Please keep me in mind for a role, however small, in any upcoming musicals.”

Finally, we were ready for a break. Caroline explained that hundreds of these cards still arrived every week. Everybody needed a theatrical agent – even one who might be terminally depressed. When I went back to the mail, I decided to put all the headshot cards into two neat piles – boys in one pile and girls in the other. I’m not that much of a neatnik, but an idea was beginning to form, and I knew that I would find a use for them.

When we were getting ready to leave, I asked Caroline if I could take some of the cards home.

“Sure! Take all of them! God only knows if Elaine will ever be back!”

So I filled a couple of shopping bags, and we made our way down to the street. I walked her home and then spent the rest of the night figuring out what I would do with the cards. Early the next afternoon when I woke up, I grabbed a piece of paper and wrote down these words: The Broadway Actors Matrimonial Service. It turned out to be the best idea I had ever had.

Remember the $10,000 I paid an American woman to marry me? What we had had has long been known as a “Green Card marriage,” because an immigrant who marries an American can get an expedited Green Card, or work permit. There are hundreds of thousands of Eastern European men and women who would agree to pay someone a lot more than $10,000 to go through with this charade.

So far, so good. Foreigners are willing to pay their way into the United States, and there are Americans willing to be paid to marry them. So why not arrange marriages between Eastern Europeans and American actors and actresses?

Tens of thousands of actors live in New York, but only a very small percentage of them can support themselves by acting – or doing commercials. Most of them get by with relatively low-paying jobs like waiting tables, tending bar, doing office temp work, and providing childcare. Many of them were saddled with huge student debts. I was sure that some would jump at the chance to pick up a sizeable amount of money by agreeing to a Green Card marriage.

But wait: there’s more! What if we could add a sweetener? Even more than money, what most actors crave is finding a theatrical agent. Let me add here that we’re not talking about just some schmuck who claims to be an agent, but can’t do anything for his clients that they can’t do on their own. No, I mean a real, honest-to-goodness, seasoned, respected, and legitimate theatrical agent.

I talked this over with Serene. He had an idea. There were three agents who shared an office on Broadway in the forties. They had a perfect location. There was only one problem. Their landlord wanted to double their rent. There was no way they could manage it. And there wasn’t any other suitable space they could afford in the theatrical district.

Serene made the connection. “If we set up a bunch of Green Card marriages of actors and Eastern Europeans – and take a cut of the dowry – we could keep these agents in business.”

“Wow!” I immediately saw the light. “And then we could offer their services to the new brides and grooms as a kind of wedding present.” Leave it to two Romanian immigrants to make the American dream come true.

In a few weeks a couple of our old friends in Romania had set up a website on which were headshots of dozens of very attractive actors and actresses. Are you wondering why we bothered setting up in Romania? Well, think about it! If you saw your picture on someone’s website – and they were using it to make money, wouldn’t you demand that they stop?

But if that website happened to be in a country like Romania or Moldavia or Russia – it would be much less likely that they would comply. And it might be almost impossible to sue.

Another potential problem would also be averted. While green card marriages are legal, the State Department would find ways to shut us down if we operated in the U.S.

On Valentine’s Day of 2011, a few dozen actors and actresses received the following e-mail:

Within hours after our e-mail went out, we began receiving replies. Some were a little nasty: “How DARE you invade my privacy!” “DIE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” “Rot in Hell!”

Others were somewhat quizzical: “Is this a joke?” “Are you legit?” “How did you get my e-mail address?”

But a few actually asked how they could sign up.

In the meanwhile, we spread the word through the social media and some carefully placed ads throughout the former Soviet bloc nations for green card seekers. We were completely upfront that it would cost them $50,000.

The response was unbelievable! Serene and I joked that we should become ordained ministers and perform mass marriages at Yankee Stadium. Our Romanian counterparts addressed us as the Rev Serene and the Rev Sergei. That made us feel like real Americans.

On June 3rd Serene and I witnessed the first marriage, which was held at City Hall. And before the summer was over, there were twenty-three more. We were on our way.

Just before Christmas, a new bride, who had signed with one of our agents got a part in a Broadway play. To celebrate, Serene and I had dinner at Sardi’s.

“So what’s our next move?”

“I don’t know, Sergei. You’re the idea man.”

“Thanks, Serene. You wanna know what I was thinking?”

“Sure.”

“Well, with all our contacts and the money we’ve been making, why don’t we produce our own play?”

“OK, I’m listening.”

“I’ve already got the title. We’ll call it, ‘The Broadway Actors Matrimonial Service.’”

“So far, so good.”

“We already have the cast.”

“We do?”

“Sure Serene. Our newlyweds.”

“That’s going to be a pretty large cast.”

“If we were making a movie, most of them would be extras. Well actually, we can give them relative short speaking parts.”

Serene sat there letting this all sink in. Then I continued.

“Now hold on to your seat. Our play is going to be on Broadway.”

“What are you nuts, Sergei? Who would put our play on Broadway?”

We will!”

“Sergei, you are one crazy Romanian! We’re talking about filling the house with at least 500 tushies. How can we possibly do that night-after-night?”

I didn’t say anything. After maybe six or eight seconds Serene began to smile. Then we burst out laughing. We would paper our own house!

“One week, limited engagement. Eight performances, which comes to ‘selling’ 4,000 seats. If we give each performer a couple of free tickets for each performance, that would take care of almost half the seats. And who knows: Maybe we’ll even sell some tickets.”

Three months later, we were ready for opening night. There were no previews performances. We knew we would lose a lot of money on our scheme, but we were not at all prepared for what happened next. Predictably the critics were brutal. If you think of what Bialystock and Bloom had counted on happening when they put on Springtime for Hitler, it turns out “The Broadway Actors Matrimonial Service” exceeded even those low expectations. “Complete Shit!” headlined one of the kinder reviews we received. And unlike Bialystock and Bloom’s play, ours was not perceived by audiences as a comedy. It was, by far, the worst play they had ever seen.

A reviewer for The Times suggested that if Tonys were given for “the worst” in all major categories, our play would make a clean sweep – except for the acting. As he pointed out, “Even the world’s greatest acting ensemble could not have rescued this piece of drek!”

Alongside its review, Variety placed a cartoon with this caption: “What Hirschfeld would have drawn had he still been alive.” Above the caption was a blank sheet of paper.

As word spread about the worst play in the history of Broadway, the completely unexpected happened. Legitimate ticket demand actually started climbing, and we were able to hold the play over for another week, and then still another. Audiences flocked to see for themselves just how bad a Broadway play could be. And they were not disappointed.

Our play finally closed after a very respectable six-month run. One week later an e-mail blast went to over 2,000 actors and actresses:

Humphrey Mass

Folding At Dawn

She felt listening to the Gregorian would flush out her hurt; the deep agony even that music which itself seemed to be sang for pain could not heal. She still felt it creeping up her throat within slowly biting every sense of comfort and dimming her hope and as every second ticked on seemingly reverberating with her heartbeat, the cold hand of death could be seen, drawing closer with the tides of morning.

“I’ll like to talk with him.” A faint whisper heavy with the pain and hurt of fast-approaching death came like a soft breeze billowing dry leaves of autumn.

“You mean?” she asked scared somewhat.

“Ty…” the old woman groaned, her voice becoming fainter as though the words were said with her last shred of strength. The faintness was one that could only come from someone who is living on recollections and who had not wasted her speech for several days, her face folding slowly into some kind of ghostliness.

“We can’t get Tyrone now.” She said, a tear speeding down her pale left cheek and then almost immediately, a larger bubble tracing slowly down the right. “I tried calling him all night but his phone was switched off.” This was a half-truth she wished to employ to dissuade her from insisting on having Tyrone summoned to her dying bedside. Death, sometimes wishes for many things especially a large mournership or just family; a thing which few people get these days.

“I want to talk with him…” the old woman said softly in agony, the words sinking into the silence of her soul, her face shrinking in the flash of her agony, and her eyes moving slowly as though her heart was going to drop like a withered rose into her stomach.

There was a queer silence, all the moment, the old woman’s eyes still as if she was staring at death at the far right wall of the small hospital room. She bent forward, held her right hand that felt strangely cold like that of a resuscitated bier, and spoke in a voice that struggled in pains to express feelings that are fonder that love.

“Mom,” she blinked in an effort to control the tears that were surging in them, “I and Tyrone…” she could not find any words that were less severe and more comforting to express this than what it actually was, “I…” she sighed, then as if overtaken by fits of emotion that cramped her senses, she sobbed. Then afraid that her pain would shock her dying mother and may be rob her of a few hours she desperately e needed to brave the events and find comfort in approaching death, she quickly kissed her hand and dried her face roughly with the back of her hand trying to give a dry smile of shallow confidence. “Just…” it was harder than her smile could make it seem, “its barely day break, mom.”

The old woman wagged her head slowly in a vague expression of her belief that she had not spoken the truth and then finding it more comforting accepting to go fetch Tyrone than have the woman know the truth, she stood up struggling to broaden a smile which was just an inch from sobbing.

“Okay.” She nodded, “I’ll go to his house.” She seemed not to catch the expression on the old woman’s face, it was obvious she wanted to know the truth than have her leave in pretence all was alright. She had already had an apprehension of what it was she had been hiding from her for the several weeks she had been lying there watching the sun rise shining in through the right window and disappear behind the hills on the left and dusk close on and death approach. She had wondered why Tyrone wasn’t coming to see her even in her last moments when it was becoming truer that she was slipping into the silent night through the dark side of terminal cancer. She wished she could speak and as her daughter walked out through the door, she wished she could yell and have her come back. Though from behind, it was easy to tell without seeing her face that she was sobbing right at that door even as it slowly closed behind her ushering in the total silence and loneliness of death.

For all the while she was gone, the old woman was enrapt in imaginations of the feelings of death, trying to figure out which was real; heaven, karma, hell or just passing into nothingness. It ran through her mind with such aching and maddening speed that the agony and confusion of her lone daughter was lost in it all as though it was another episode in the sad stories of leaving behind a world of warm people and descending into a lonely grave and perishing slowly even if to live again in spirit. She was becoming wishful in a childish way and tried to turn her hopes into a belief she could lean on as she sank into what seemed in her dying mind a dreamlike world of shadows. Her breath rustling softly through her nostrils, she seemed to be groaning a prayer.

As she walked slowly through the endless veranda consistently punctuated with doors leading into wards of departments and then outside into the yard and through to the street; all the while not feeling the rippling coldness and hurting dampness of early harmattan morning. Her mother’s entire life rolled on in her clouded mind like episodes in an old classic movie; coming in faint pictures of old grey, somewhat pixilating every moment, faded with the incongruities of its imperfect narrations and flaws in her understanding of every event like the recollections she would have of the details in a story she reads when she is just about to unveil the suspense at the end.

What now looked like an old artefact mistreated by time, constantly battled by the indescribable agony of leukaemia and fourth degree Alzheimer, wrought impetuously by frustration and folded in the dark shade of inevitable death was once an upbeat woman; a good height for a model, with what she was told by yearning admirers were warm bright eyes diming behind long lashes, and with ice clean teeth fitted into brown gums which looked like solid pieces of chocolate bars, giving a perfect fit behind her cake-brown face projected meekly on a long stiff neck. Just looking at her, one could tell she had a warm soul and it was confessed by all who had only conversed with her that she was rich at heart. She loved to grin even in great bitterness or even strong pain, and was known to make good for a rewarding conversation. Lewd men were always ready to make good offers, sometimes the best in their lifetime and would willingly leave it to her discretion and would be glad to know her cares if she wanted to throw away a good moment but these were not to her a least fair part of her own story.

She did not look like any part of her past to her daughter, and as she narrated her story, carefully knitting the details but trying hard to cut out the guilt of the people, and like some painter, was rather using them like her colours and words only as the brush with which the painting was made on the clear mirror of her recollections; telling the truth but all the while avoiding to be judgmental. Her daughter felt the hurt of tragedies the woman had walked over, the difficult tight ropes of her growing up though surprisingly she had kept her cheer and still was able to cope with them_ the bitter episodes__ like she was just a passive figure in the general drama of her own life.

“I did not attend any school.” She had introduced her bitter childhood with the courage of familiarity.

She seemed to only have faint recollections of everything, though it is clear this kind of memories never fade. She had grown up without any clear memories of her parents__ her father died in a liberation war a few months before she was born and her mother a year after and like it just was going to be, she was given to the only known living relative; her uncle, Billy__ a man about whom untold stories lingered. Uncle Billy was spending his last moments of little cheer, sucking smoke from an aged pipe, in a small mountain village, Bome__ a few hundred miles from the Atlantic Coastline.

He had worked all his youth and adulthood in the wharves as a carrier, and his built, the hardness of his emotionless face, his flaring temper, and his coarse palms said a lot about the hell it was pulling goods off anchoring ships year after year, under the hotness and blinding mirroring of the red African sun on the sea and even through cold nights. Uncle Billy was yet single; a thing that seemed to justify his inability to discipline his appetites or control his temper and moods, though he had a son with whom he occupied a small bungalow in the slums of dirty town Bome; a small town marked in history as a slave deposit in the days of the practice that dishonourable trade__ and at the time, littered with shreds of every tribe.

Uncle Billy had moved to Bome after being spent by the hard life of working in the wharves, spending his last days tending his epileptic son whose mother he had never told anybody about. Uncle Billy could not afford white education for his niece and she chose to learn a cheap trade and before long, she was the warrior, battling hunger in a small family of an old wharf- retiree, an epileptic fisherman and an orphan girl herself.

Then, after the great tragedy, Uncle Billy died. A few months after his son drowned in the sea. She remained all alone in the small house; representing the last crisp of a family she knew very little about in the old bungalow a quarter of whose walls had collapsed like her own hope. About furniture, Uncle Billy had left behind, a single easy chair and a large European cupboard__ one probably abandoned at the wharves by someone who had found it too heavy to take away. She could only remember ever seeing Uncle Billy’s smile from a lone black and white photograph dotted with parches of mould, hanging in the sitting room but falling anytime there was a slight breeze, framed in what looked like an old wall clock whose covering glass had long shattered, perpetually exposing the picture to spiders and geckos who went across the wall on their routine hunt for insects. Of everything, the meaningful piece left behind was Uncle Billy’s soul__ the pipe with its stale smell of tobacco and unwashed lips. The mystery about it was how Billy revered the thing, for most of his life. It was a real piece of artefact; covered with the rare design of little images of life which looking at the thing seemed to open itself like a spiritual book in one’s mind. He had some peace smoking from it with relish, each time looking calmer and sober__ at peace with himself as he carried it up to his lips and then his face, soon seemingly going to vanish into the cloud of rings of spouts of smoke that he slowly flushed as he breathed.

When he died, she turned the precious thing over to a museum in her own vague yearning to give a measure of value to Billy’s life. She was surprised the collectors had accepted to add it to their display, she had insisted Billy’s full name be inscribed on it before display, a thing the collectors accepted almost without consideration perhaps because they saw the value of the pipe in how it looked__ the strangeness of the rare design of a crown and the sun, a river and a boatman paddling towards the crown. They had felt it had a soul.

“We’re glad you are donating something as precious as this.” One of the collector’s had congratulated her, perhaps more glad she wasn’t auctioning the thing. “You can’t understand what this is.” The collector had smiled as though he was unravelling the mystery behind the solace and comfort Billy had derived from the object in his life of great regret and painful solitude.

The girl had gone to the museum a few months after, to meet in spirit, her grand uncle; her only known other relative.

“Here’s the precious pipe of a man who had experienced true peace in his agony in life.” The museum agent who was showing her around read the wordings of a note that introduced people to the pipe breathing almost hastily with a kind smile of personal appreciation on his face.

“I came here to see it.” She said.

“Oh, you heard about it?” the lean man asked, pleased the item was bringing business, “Thousands of people flock into this place every year to see this pipe. Some even say they have had miraculous encounters with it. That is why we’ve decided to put it in that box and we are considering vanishing it with gold.”

“You don’t mean that!”

“Of course I mean it,” the lean fellow smiled confidently, “I have no personal testimonies though, but many say the thing has some mystic about it. A researcher who came here last year has written an article about it in a journal, I can show you if you’ll want to see it…” Then as if after profound meditation, he looked piercingly into the girl’s eyes and asked, “Would you want to have an experience with it?”

“I don’t know.” She answered hastily first feeling, vaguely, that it wasn’t a good idea. “I’ll like to have a try.” She smiled nodding to indicate that her mind was indeed made up about it.

“You will have to pay a little extra for that. Just a few dollars, I mean…” The fellow said giving added value to the thing and noticing the show of resentment on the lady’s face, he shrugged apologetically. “It’s the business. Many pay gladly for it.”

“Pay extra gladly to have a feel my own grand uncle’s old pipe?” she asked queerly. “For Heaven’s sakes, that thing was freely donated to this museum by my mother. C’mon!” her voice rising in a steady expression of disbelief, breaking the peace of the large exhibition saloon. In that brief moment, a subtle pride grew up in her then soon whistling strongly; leaving her seeing some value in what was a long story of genetic frustration. Everyone in the large hall froze and stared. The lean fellow, putting a hollow look of reverence on his face tried to give a dry smile in unease. Few moments after, a group of tourists, museum attendants and the collectors’ child who was now running the museum circled her, requesting pictures and autographs; glad she was benign. A small boy who introduced himself as a student on research on antiquities asked difficult questions__ variously about Uncle Billy and her mother, about the pipe and its story. She told the listeners all she knew and the assumptions she had made; embellishing a little, mystifying somewhat, discreetly carving out the truth to exclude the gruesomeness of Uncle Billy, his attitudes, and the pipe as an expression of the man’s deepest frustration. All the while, her pride seethed confidence from the smiles she was getting at an undeserved price.

Before she left, the man who was tending the museum; a tall mulato with a firm stature and good cheers, sounding single, had invited her to visit the museum another time. She left; still feeling the warmth from the handshakes and smiles of her admirers, she knew she had felt the only value of her mother’s entire past and the thought that despite the sorrow that clouded it all, a faint lining made it so meaningful still.

She always smiled contentedly or even unconsciously, like now, when she thought of that day but the story of after Uncle Billy seemed to always cut the smile sharply before she could relish the feeling. The reason was clear, the twist in the narrative had a personal meaning to her and seemed to force itself each time she thought of anything about her mother’s past which forces itself into her own life, childhood and growing up, in a way that it is obvious, she would live with the curves it had made to her upbringing. Boziana. The man who written the last part of the trilogy.

Her mother had been recommended to Boziana by a local pastor who respected her sense of values. The pastor had done everything, fixing the small wedding which came in a flash of a strange rush with two weeks of intermittent courtship that seemed not to have been fond__ a matter of a few conversations the lengthiest lasting between seven o’clock and ten one night in the second week when strangely the courtship turned from cold to tropical and then to intimate, commemorating the physical expression of the desire of the couple to walk down the aisle.

After marriage, the child came in to disrupt the patterns of the couple’s youthful life and Boziana was clear he wasn’t ready to shed his ambitions and dreams of going back to school to expand his prospects and make better of his life, to walk into the endless burdensome season of nursing an uninvited child. Even that, he concealed his true feelings from her and the world_ he wasn’t ready to give up the huge unfinished pleasures of his youth for fatherhood.

He’d left after she insisted it wasn’t Christian to coerce the baby into nothingness, and to wait to feel good comfort before nursing children like he said the city women would, to save their marriages; letting their husbands savour the last bits of whatever delicacies they still had on their single men’s plates. One night, he disappeared into the faintness of the shafts of faraway bright summer moonlight. Then, she was only a few weeks old a few months younger than the marriage itself. She realised as the years went slowly by, that she was wrong when she thought he couldn’t just walk over his past like that; avoiding the hurting memories of it. He was able to completely and softly cut off his haunting past and go into the unknown of that night to emerge somewhere under the newness of promising sunrise.

The woman was hurt for a long time because she was sure he wasn’t coming back because he didn’t say goodbye in walking away.

In this small town, many of the men were doing that; the hit-and-run father’s thing; walking away and never looking back and so, many children grew up through the shoals of their adolescence without the male parent, always taking them for dead or just conjuring up enough courage to accept that they are collaterals of abandonment.

The woman had stayed in the same small apartment he’d left her somewhere down street Ring Way; where gangs fought their battles at night and children got hurt by pieces of broken bottles or bullet shells as they rode their bicycle or played with their friends down street; till the girl left college__ the woman felt she kept him alive within her, not fleeing from the danger of staying there with the same furniture and collection of pictures, paintings, flower vases, and books in a small shelve, all arranged in the same pattern as it was when the first occupied the place after their wedding.

“Who are you?” the girl asked.

“Me?” the man looked a little baffled by her rudeness, and calm alarm. He smiled and chuckled coldly; “You mean you don’t know me Miriane?” He asked his eyes glittering with surprise.

“You very well could know my name no doubt.” She said employing restraint, “But may I ask you, what can I do for you?”

“Definitely nothing! I want to see Uris.” the man made a cold sound of pent-up pain and then raising his head that looked like something unreal in the shading cloudy darkness of early evening, he heaved a sigh and added. “Is she in?”

“She’s not in.” She looked soberer. “But…” her voice quaking with unease.

“May be I should come in first. I’ll tell you.” He assured.

She walked back a few steps and the man walked up the steps, in, and straight over to the couch sinking into it with uncouth ease unexpected of a total stranger. “Miriane, you’ve grown into a big woman now.” He mumbled and gave a smile of tender familiarity.

“Are you telling me who you are?” she had exhausted the patience of a long questioning stare.

The man was silent for a few moments, closed his eyes as if he was going to give up his last breath, he leaned backwards and relaxed hiding the determination to be stubborn. Realising that he wasn’t yielding she went over to the door and peered outside into the dreadful darkness, imagining what could happen if she made the choice of solving the risk of a gang visit by locking herself up in the house with a stranger she couldn’t trust.

When she could hear the faint approaching echo of her mother’s voice as she spoke with a neighbour, she tried to peer into the man’s face to read the note on it, but it was just blank and vague and it seemed in the brief while to look like the face of someone who died a long time ago. He could not recognise the voice; its coarseness and heaviness. Its age. It had lost the tenderness it once had, almost a quarter of a century ago.

“That is him!” she exclaimed, trying to whisper faintly her eyes twinkling in the dark like two bright stars. “That is your father, Boziana.” Her voice trembling with concealed excitement such that it almost came like a joy cry.

“I don’t…” the expression on her face said it all; how stupefied she was. For a moment, she imagined him as a nightmare and the feeling of screaming out of the present overtook her for a while though not strong enough for it. She was seeing him in the rare-view mirror of life: that though he was just lying there, present, it occurred to her as if he had only been imagined sitting there many years ago.

Boziana had lost a lot; the dreams he’d set out to make had done him unclassifiable damage, the fire in his soul had completely quenched and age and frustration had ruined his good looks and disrupted his cheer. He was now HIV positive and was looking at the inevitable end. He looked to the girl like the shameful version of the man she’d grown up to know in a colour blind photograph that hung boldly in that sitting room all twenty-three years she had spent trying to ignore it.

The woman received the man as though all she could remember were those few years they’d spent together here; laughing, walking hand in hand along the beach and down the quiet streets under the moonlight of early evening, attending church together and dancing rumba at the downtown club hub. Years which seemed to have vanished swiftly into the breeze of time and which she felt clout some pain in the guise of love.

She had neatly folded and kept these fond memories as if she was waiting for the man’s dying days to clothe him with them. She rescheduled her work making out time to cook his meals exactly the way she could remember he like it, reading the bible to him as he lay in bed withering day after day, and sit with him by the window watching the moon fade into the darkness of late nights in summer evenings. They seemed to just have found each other again.

Miriane was hurt with the ease the woman had forgiven a man who had terribly wronged her; she tried to throw light unto her soul in vain and it seemed her feelings were leaving her reeling in the drowsiness of the memories. When he died, the woman went into a dissociative state for several months walking at the edge of losing her mind. Doctors were making their predictions on her going to suffer a grave mental alteration that might shatter her sanity completely. Here, Tyrone walked in almost stealthily.

“Driver” a crooked voice heavy with pain and long silence emerged from somewhere deep down the lady, driving itself all from behind, breaking through the tightness of crude country music, hitting the taxi driver with the mild stench of unpolished morning breath, “Lontel Junction please.” The last word almost inaudible.

The bumper of the small car went in an unsteady movement of nodding to the steam of the slowing engine and then she hurried down and off, drowned in the deep blue of her imaginations of the encounter and old wounds seemed to hurt as fresh. Down through a series of yards and houses of small gates and neat gardens silent like the old church cemetery up Doweway she walked fast short steps. She could hear her heartbeat hitting in firm painful pulses as her palms sweated and her breath became increasingly warmer and almost hot as it rustled through her nostrils. She felt something well up inside her and then forced its way in an unthought-of sneeze. She cleaned her nostrils with the back of her hand and swiftly trudged the clenched fist into her warm overcoat.

The thumb was suspended in the midair of the bell button near the door just when a pale shadow crossed a full arc, through the window in a long pale shaft and then stretched out in a clearly recognisable form. She walked to the window pushed by the strong stench of her curiosity which had been stirred by the promise of the glimpse of what was betrayed by the window from within the walls. Her steps were slow, almost rehearsed and soft enough to be said to be careful and even thought-out. At the window, she squinted, her vision almost blurring. A swift shudder went down her spine as and her muscles went numb; a hot tear running a full course down through the funnel of her overcoat making for her chest in a hot heavy drop.

A hand slid from the left cheek of a head that looked like some motionless perfect sculpture of a roman soldier, then slowly in a tense smooth flow down a strong neck, a heavy breast built like a strong breastplate and then down waves of a stomach, the fingers taking the hand down further the abyss of short knickers. The movement was too coy to be believed in the speed of the instant; the two sharp nostril of the men bypassing in the warmth of passion, the ears brushing the cheeks and rough whiskers, as the lips went for the ears beneath short blond hairs and then coming slowing back to be stuck.

She held her breath.

When she first learnt that Tyrone had served an entire year of 2001 in a jail in Britain for his sexual orientation, she’d simply not believed anything in the heat of passions; when she was lured by the flames that bristled behind his eyes and the constant yearning she saw, concealed behind the scales of his pupils. Even though she had not heard anything from him for several years until she received a mail from him in autumn of 2004, she cast all the news away, staying true to believing Tyrone. He’d had a union with a Russian billionaire and they had moved to England where they were thrown in jail for their sin before the man died and Tyrone inherited his fortune. And when she had first seen him, several months before her mother sank into the bleakness of Alzheimer, he’d lied; “it was not actually it. It was a money game sweetheart.” a thing he convinced her was for nothing canal.

The initial betrayal she’d felt when she learnt it, had vanished with the awfulness of the taste of the feeling but it seemed, she had only vomited to come to it someday.

The ticking sound of her cell phone had a strange effect on the activity she was silently watching, struggling to hold back crude tears and fast heartbeats. It had a cut effect on what seemed in the moment to be the performance of banal blue. She withdrew, made a few short fast steps down the through the lawn and to the roadside pavement completely deaf to the humming of early morning car engines and the irksomeness of hoots.

“St. Stephens hospital…” a rowdy male voice mixing in strange ticks and ringing phones, and grinding in the breaking of the lines “Miss Boziana?”

“Sure” her heart beat faster, thumbing in her chest, her breath stuffed in the instant as she almost gasped like a soldier wounded in her neck.

The screech of a door followed her, the sound sinking both in the distance and in the cold voice that came after it; “Miriane”, the voice carried the humidness of fresh guilt “hey! Wait! C’mon”

She gave fast steps urged by the pressure to disappear. Then the door seemed to withdraw its screech in the world behind her back and then without any words, a bang that was just a few inches short of hard followed like the sound of the final nailing on her own coffin. Her cell phone rang as she brushed her way through three thin girls careless giving up the belches of last night alcohol as they struggled in near comatose to wave to a stop a cab. She raised her phone in almost reflex unconsciously ignoring the hails of insults that shot towards her from the three freaks behind.

“Damn you bitch!” the faintness of their voices quickly swallowed by the sound of the busy street.

“Mrs Boziana Ulris…dead!” the Chinese accent mixing in the hysteria and fear. Though cold, the last word resounded in what seemed a new rendition of an old song.

Her legs went weak, her vision was blurred, and her hands came down with the phone sliding straight down onto the tarmac of the road. Her knees became unable to hold her small weight of a few pounds upright. The soft sound of a shutting door followed, disappearing in the hollow faintness of the world all around. She felt a strong pain pierce into her chest like a poisoned sword. She went down in a soft movement, taking another deep breath and the pain deep down her welled up in a breath that seemed was going to be the last. She straightened up, her body twisting to the position of an unconscious ashana; as though she was in a beneficial yoga practise but for her, the world was folding faster than the creeping dawn. Something sank within her__ the weight pressing too hardly as if she wouldn’t survive the hurt. She knew she was bleeding inside.

Mira Martin-Parker

Two pieces

Blur

He sat staring at his reflection in the mirror. It was an old bar, and the glass was original, so his face appeared cracked and fuzzy. The bartender came by and tried to strike up a conversation, but he looked away and made it clear he didn’t want to talk. He sat quietly for another minute, then turned and offered his girlfriend a cigarette.

“Did I ever tell you why I left school?” he asked.

She shook her head. “No, I don’t think so.”

“I lost a hundred grand gambling one night in Monaco. They came after me for the money, so I had to leave England right away. My father still hasn’t forgiven me for not finishing my degree.”

“Is that how you ended up here?” she asked.

“Yes,” he said. “And I fucking hate it. I hate the people. I hate the culture. I hate everything about the U.S. I especially hate this ridiculous college town with all these annoying alternative types.”

“They annoy everyone,” she said with a laugh, “especially themselves.”
He fell silent again and sat staring at the old mirror.

“You have no idea what it means to hate—I mean to really hate,” he said.
She didn’t respond. Instead she pulled a small compact from her purse and began checking her face.

“Of course you don’t. How could you? Your people do it to themselves. Your parents could have worked hard and saved money, but instead they partied all the time and pissed everything away—hippies, artists, homosexuals, and oh my God, that mother of yours! And you—look at you, out drinking and smoking. You have no conception of suffering. Your people know nothing of pain.”
She held the compact in her hand and touched up her bright red lipstick while he continued on his tangent.

“Did I ever tell you about my grandfather?” he asked.

“Nope,” she said, putting away her makeup and closing her vintage bag with a snap.

“He was only a boy at the time of the genocide—maybe seven or eight. He had nine brothers and sisters. The Turks forced them all leave home and wander the countryside. My great grandfather died, along with seven of his children. In the end there was only my grandfather and my great aunt.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, looking down.
He was silent for a long time, then suddenly a huge smile appeared on his face.

“Did I ever tell you I bought you?” he said with a laugh.

She abruptly turned around on her stool. “What do you mean by that?”

“Remember when I picked out that funky old kilim from your dad’s crazy shop. He was only asking four hundred for it, but I wrote him a check for eight grand. Your dad just smiled and thanked me—he never said a damn thing.” He laughed again and motioned for the bartender.

“Bring us another round down here, Carl. And don’t be such a stranger—come on over and say hi every now and again.”
She turned her stool back around and faced the window.

“Oh don’t get mad. You were under age at the time—he could have had me thrown in jail. He needed the money anyway. You guys didn’t even have food at the time. If it wasn’t for me you’d still be living in that dumpy apartment, dressed in rags, and starving to death with all your step mothers and your half-brothers and sisters—hippies, artists, and homosexuals, and you, their pretty little vagabond princess. Hey, that’s funny! Vagabond princess, vagabond princess, ha ha ha!”
She sat staring out the window. It was raining and large drops of water were running down the plate glass. She tried to focus on her reflection but it was nothing but a blur.

The Marketplace

She held her daughter’s hand tightly and dragged her through the crowded marketplace.

London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down
London Bridge is falling down, my fair lady…

“For the last time, I’m begging you, please stop singing that song. And for God’s sake, who taught it to you in the first place?”

“Uncle Wali,” the little girl answered, struggling to keep up with her mother’s footsteps.
Usually her uncle walked her to school in the morning, but today he had something to do, and reluctantly left the job to her mother.

“Take her directly to the school building,” he said before leaving. “And be sure not to linger in the marketplace. Pass through quickly and stay away from crowded areas.”

“Uncle Wali is teaching me English so I can go to school when we move to England,” the girl explained.

“Well, Uncle Wali shouldn’t be filling your head with crazy ideas.”
As they walked by a vegetable stall an old woman, upset by the high price of onions began abusing a merchant in front of his customers.

“A thief, a shameless thief, stealing from his own people. God sees what you are doing. God will punish you!” she yelled.
Again her mother held her close and dragged her on. “And you should know better than to sing that song in the street—especially now,” she said.

Build them up with gold and silver, gold and silver, gold and silver
Build them up with gold and silver, my fair lady…

“You really are trying to push it with me today, aren’t you? Uncle Wali is not taking us anywhere. We’re staying right here.”
She continued pulling her daughter forward, moving quickly—past the tea stalls, past the smoke shops, past the booksellers.

“That’s not what Uncle Wali said. He told me as soon as he has enough money saved up, he’s going to take us both to England. He’s going to open a carpet shop and send me to school. He said in England I can be anything I want when I grow up. I want to be a veterinarian. They take care of animals. I love animals.”

Take the key and lock her up, lock her up, lock her up
Take the key and lock her up, my fair lady…

Suddenly her mother came to abrupt halt. “Please be quiet!” This time she shouted so loud, several people stopped and looked over. But she ignored their glances, grabbed her daughter’s hand, and moved on. The school building was just around the corner.

“Why don’t you like Uncle Wali, mommy?”

“I love Uncle Wali very much, you know that. I just don’t like him filling your head with crazy ideas. And that song! You know how I feel about that song.”
Up ahead at the corner, a motorbike sped past. The mother hesitated for a moment, then continued through the crowd.

London Bridge is falling down, falling down falling down
London Bridge is falling down, my fair lady.

Kerstin Lindros

Crossing the line

Friday, 8 December 1989, 6.30pm—Departure
I was an inexperienced traveller; I had only been to Moscow so far. These blasted cramps. One more trip to the bathroom before we would leave for the station. My German-Australian boyfriend hurried me along because we had to catch tonight’s inter-zone service to Frankfurt. I was excited but nervous about stepping into this new world I was now free to enter.
On the evening of 9 November 1989, after weeks of mass demonstrations against the oppressive government of Erich Honecker & Co., the boom gates at the border to West Germany had opened for all of us. It was difficult to believe they would let us cross the line that had kept us in the dark and separated families for almost thirty years. Many people felt apprehensive.
I had never left my little girl for more than a few hours, but that day I had placed her into the care of my parents. She knew we would come back for her on Monday. Many people took their young children, even babies, with them for the first crossing—to make them part of history they said, but also to collect the extra 50-Deutschmark welcome gift every East German visitor received. Since that historic Thursday night my countrymen had flooded the western border and passed their children through carriages above the heads of hundreds of passengers standing and sitting in the aisles of the overcrowded trains. Many children wet or soiled themselves on the long and arduous way to the dirty and blocked toilets.
So the ocean had calmed; the aisles of tonight’s train were clear. Our fellow travellers, all first-timers as we were soon to find out, greeted us with nods and long supportive blinks as we entered the compartment.
Soon the train started to move. I was hoping for sleep to overcome me and for dreams to carry me away to a calm island after the tumultuous weeks leading up to and following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Cramps again. I stepped across a pair the outstretched legs, careful not to disturb the man who seemed to meditate. Today the toilet was not blocked; I could see the tracks flicker below. Just outside our compartment I was thrown against the window when the train suddenly stopped. The others inside sat upright at once, looking at each other with uncertainty written all over their faces, but soon the train began to move again. We drew the curtains to protect ourselves from the eyes of the inter-zone train personnel. These people had been hand-picked for this line, allowed to come into contact with Westerners—we would not trust them. Sleep did not come but I drifted in and out of a doze.
Saturday, 9 December 1989, 4.10 am—The crossing
The train had stopped some time ago. This was it. I wondered if they would still use dogs—anyone leaving our country in this direction was a suspect. I startled when the uniformed officer ripped the compartment door open and flicked on the light.
‘Passports, please.’
When my turn came I handed him my ID, and the poker-faced officer scrutinised my motionless pale face—for a whole minute it seemed. My grandmother had told me how frightening the border crossing was. She had been allowed to travel on this train several times over the years to see her other sons and daughters.
‘Thank you. Have a pleasant trip.’
Everyone breathed a sigh of relief. The officer had left but the lights were still on. Soon the train started moving again. I felt like a child who had escaped her parents temporarily, but I was sure I would gladly return home from my excursion.
All heads were turning to the window now. We wanted to see what the death strip looked like, and, more importantly, what came beyond. We glanced at each other, then back at the neon signs that began to appear.
Now everyone was wide awake.  The young woman opposite us was wearing a fashionable red scarf with silver metallic stripes, a gift from the West I’m sure. I was wearing my turquoise one. She was sharing her great expectations with us when a lady who had just boarded the train entered our compartment. The scent of her exotic perfume permeated the air. She greeted us travellers with a smile. She seemed to understand.
Saturday, 9 December 1989, 6.00am—Arrival
‘Welcome to Frankfurt. Passengers travelling to Munich …’ A warm and clear voice greeted us as we stepped onto western ground. To hear the names of these cities from a speaker and to be free to board any train I liked—
I choked back my tears. The lady at the speaker sounded smartly dressed, well groomed and enthusiastic, unlike the one in Dresden who robotically donned her shapeless uniform every morning to go to work at the dirty station that smells of urine and spew. My boyfriend stood back and allowed me to immerse myself in this new world, a world he had always been able to enter at will.
The day had just begun at Frankfurt Station: kiosks opened to make life pleasant for the early morning commuters, homeless people woke up in their sleeping bags at the bottom of the stairs, cleaners packed up their equipment after a night’s work. Bright posters and advertising signs adorned every available spot, as I had seen in the forbidden magazines. These magazines, which some brave grandmothers had smuggled into our country on their return, were considered anti-socialist contraband.
I had stepped from a black-and-white world into a coloured one and was dazzled now. I saw a bright blue dress in a shop window, which reminded me of the copper sulphate we had produced ten years ago in the chemistry lab at school. We had named it West salt, whispering the words to each other, because it looked so bright and beautiful. Now I was strolling through clouds of West smell—a combination of perfumed soap, fabric softener, cleanness, quality and sophistication—the scent of the big wide world. It was the smell that had filled our lounge room every year when we were opening Christmas parcels from our western relatives.
I came from the valley of the clueless. Here, the newsagency sported an impressive display of newspapers from around the globe, colourful magazines and forbidden books, like Orwell’s Animal farm and Nineteen eighty-four. We had heard of and secretly spoken about them, but only with the most trusted of our friends. Citizens suspected of possessing this kind of literature, the revolutionary spirits, were placed under surveillance until the opportunity arose to close the trap and take them to a Stasi interrogation cell, and possibly to jail, for thinking against the government.
Suddenly the smell of fresh pastries and coffee wafted across from the bakery. I walked around the feet of a drunk sitting up against the wall, to read Cr…oissants… How would I say that? I remembered reading Tolstoi and how I had tried to sound out the French words. I decided to be brave. After all, nobody knew me here.
It was delicious, and the hot cup of Jakobs coffee put some life back into our tired and shivering bodies. We walked out of the station with no set plan in mind to ring Aunt Lieselotte and Uncle Konrad who were expecting us. Was that a syringe next to the garbage bin? Hm, my boyfriend shrugged. I had heard of drugs. Not good. Well, let the good life begin.
Monday, 11 December 1989, 9.00 am—Return
I should have been asleep after the bumpy train ride back home through the night, but I was confused and paced through my apartment. I had walked out of the station in my home town many times before. But for the first time this morning, on re-entry after a brief stay in a more colourful world, I noticed how decrepit and grey the houses and how lifeless our streets were.
During the last two days I had imagined how quickly my own world would now become more open, colourful and fragrant. But in no time we would also step over the homeless sleeping at the bottom of some stairs. In a big circle we would walk around the syringe next to a park bench and check the sandpit before letting our children play.
I was excited and frightened at the same time. I now knew. It was a package deal.

Raquelle Azran

Lit-Mag #42 – The Arabian World

By the Roadblock of Bethlehem

The air was thick with sweat and exhaustion. Six snoring male bodies sprawled in darkness on metal cots. In their room at the base, the nineteen year old fighters of Dragon Squad, Team A noisily dreamed the final minutes of their six hour sleeping shift.
The door slammed open. The commanding officer inhaled the smell of his men, before blinding them with five hundred watts of bare bulb and yelling, “You won the lottery, you lucky bastards. You’ve been assigned guard duty at the Bethlehem roadblock as of 16:00 hours.  Move your asses and be outside in full gear, ready for transport, in twenty minutes sharp.”
“What the fuck lottery is he talking about?” mumbled Yossi.
Moshe, the team commander, reached for his cigarettes and considered. “Maybe fresh warnings about suicide bombers. It’s been pretty quiet here the past few days.”
Gideon kicked at his socks, stiff with sweat, before jamming his feet into them and lacing up his boots. “I’m due for leave tomorrow. Home is soft, clean socks and a soft, clean girlfriend.  A boring shift of guard duty under the stars is fine with me.”
“Idiots. Cretins. Made-in-Israel primitives,” grated Vladimir in thickly accented Hebrew. “Today, gentlemen, is December 24th. Have you geniuses never heard of Christmas Eve – as in Bethlehem, birth of Jesus, Church of the Nativity? People all over the world will be tuning in to watch the midnight mass in Bethlehem. Our roadblock will be the most important checkpoint in Israel today.”
David, always ready to pick a fight for Judaism, growled, “Take it easy, Vlady. And stuff the lecture on Christianity. You’re in a Jewish state now, remember. Bethlehem is where Rachel’s Tomb is, and that’s the only holy thing about the place.  I didn’t say goodbye to Ray’s New York Pizza to worry about some church.”
Vladimir bristled, his fists clenched. “So maybe, David, I’ll give you something else to worry about.”
“Cut it out, you guys,” said Shalom. “We’re all in this mess together, and if we haul ass now, we can grab some coffee before heading out.”
“I’m with Shalom the peacemaker (Shalom oseh shalom),” punned Moshe.
“Pissmaker,” muttered David.
“And I’m for fucking coffee,” bellowed Yossi, going out the door.

           Dragon Squad Team A leaped out of the command car as it screeched to a stop. Moshe took a quick look around. Everything seemed quiet. Cement barriers straddled the asphalt, and the makeshift checkpost in the middle of the road looked as uninviting as always. Floodlights illuminated wind-whipped olive orchards and empty roads, slick with rain.
Moshe huddled with the officer on duty before officially taking command of the post. The two men surveyed the bleak terrain. “Not much business today,” Moshe said. “Whatever happened to Christmas Eve and Bethlehem?”
“I scared away all the customers,” replied the other commander.
At Moshe’s signal, Team A took up their positions at the roadblock. The men fanned out, two in front and two in back of the roadblock and one in the checkpost. Moshe, as team commander, took first shift as ‘selector’, standing alone ahead of the roadblock where he would be the first to encounter traffic and decide which cars to pass through, which to refuse entry, and which to search. The men mentally geared up for the long, eight hour shift. Doing guard duty was the easy part. Thinking about why they were doing it was, they knew, dangerous.

           The hours passed. Not one car, taxi or truck approached from Bethlehem. From the other direction, uncommonly few vehicles – only about twenty cars with diplomats and clergy – crossed through the roadblock. With no routine duties to occupy their minds, the tension in Team A swelled. In the stark silence of the Bethlehem night, the men quietly dug inside themselves, searching for solace. Images of girlfriends, real and imagined, dissolved into other thoughts.
Gideon began planning the first things he would do when back home. He’d hug his Mom and wolf down the spicy stuffed peppers she prepared especially for him. He’d tease his sisters, talk some man talk with his father, and then rush off to Bella, as nervously and eagerly as if this were the first time.
Shalom nostalgically replayed his favorite childhood memories from the kibbutz, sitting in a circle and singing folk songs to the accompaniment of an accordion. Yossi, who prided himself on being a fucking strong silent type, wished for the thousandth time that his parents would buy him a shiny red Mazda Miata for his twentieth birthday. Vladimir thought longingly of white Christmases in Moscow, and David fantasized scenarios of a Greater Israel, from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea.
David was the first to crack. “Hey Vlady, what’s happening with your holy roadblock? You promised us Bethlehem would buzz tonight. What kind of crummy birthday party is going on with no guests? Man, what a loser that Jesus is.”
“Shut up, David,” said Yossi. “Shut your stupid American mouth. I don’t give a fuck about what you think. I don’t give a fuck about what anybody thinks. I want to finish my fucking three years in the army and live a normal life.”
“Forget normal, good buddy, here in Israel,” said Gideon. “If you haven’t noticed, we’re living a no-win existence. We’re not leaving, and neither are the Palestinians, even if David has wet dreams of etherizing them.” Gideon popped a fresh piece of gum into his mouth. “So we catch some terrorists and bulldoze their families’ homes, and other terrorists slip through our roadblocks and fences and intelligence networks and blast our friends and children into shreds of flesh which the Victim Identification Crews then scoop into doggiebags, and finally we get to hear the politicians sputter nonsense on prime time. If you call that normal, I call that insane.”
“Halt!” Moshe’s voice rang out. “Halt or I shoot!” he repeated, aiming an automatic rifle at two forms approaching the roadblock on foot.
“Don’t shoot, please don’t shoot. It’s just me and my wife. My wife is in labor and the child must be born in Bethlehem.”
“Cover me,” Moshe ordered his men, and slowly drew nearer the man and woman. The woman’s belly was huge, and he could see spasms of pain contort her face.
The man spoke in an excited mixture of Arabic and English. “Please, sir, we have walked for almost two hours and my wife thinks the baby will be born very soon. The Lord has commanded us to have the baby born in Bethlehem.”
“I’m sorry,” Moshe said, “you cannot continue on to Bethlehem. You’ll have to turn around.” He raised his M16 and motioned the couple back. They stood unmoving.
“Moshe,” pleaded Vladimir, “it’s Christmas Eve, it’s a baby, it’s Bethlehem.”
“Moshe,” said Shalom softly. “Give me permission to check it out. If they’re clean, let them through.”
Moshe hesitated. Say no, hammered fresh memories of women terrorists who had concealed explosives on their bodies and then blown themselves up with innocent bystanders. But this was the first request Shalom the peacemaker had ever made of him as team commander, and the situation was just crazy enough to be true.
“Go ahead,” he agreed unwillingly.
Shalom approached the woman. To still his trembling hands, he began singing Laila Laila, the lullaby his mother had sung in the peaceful kibbutz night to soothe him to sleep. The woman nodded in understanding, and sang the opening notes of “Ave Maria.” Hail Mary, full of grace, blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb. Vladimir heard himself joining in the familiar Latin, his rough voice soaring and falling. The imploring tones, Pray for us, Mary, in the hour of our death, Amen, echoed in the Bethlehem night. And then there was silence.
Shalom looked questioningly at his commander. Moshe stared into space, wrenched between rigid military regulations and what he, Moshe, the grandson of concentration camp survivors, knew in his heart was right.
Moshe slowly, heavily, nodded his assent.
Shalom stepped back.
The couple slowly crossed through the roadblock, the woman leaning heavily on her husband. The soldiers watched in silence as the two figures toiled on to Bethlehem, finally disappearing in the night.
The men in Team A surrounded Shalom, clapping and thumping him on the back.
“Piece of cake, bro, piece of cake.”
“Way to go, man.”
“Crazy brave, pissmaker.”
“Ave Maria,” sang Vladimir, eyes shining. “Peace on earth, Shalom, peace on earth.”
Only the team commander held himself apart. Eyes straining toward Bethlehem, the sour taste of dread in his mouth, Moshe could find no peace.

Andrew Madigan

Lit-Mag #42 – The Arabian World

Different People

“But there’s no bacon, Daniel.  There’s no bacon.”  Sarah grew frustrated, though she prided herself on never becoming frustrated.
“Sausage is fine.”
“But that’s just it, Daniel.  There’s no sausage either.  No bacon and no sausage, if you can believe that.”
“I can believe a great many things, Sarah.”  Daniel set down the newspaper, gingerly, looking over his glasses at his wife.  “Right now, I believe I’d like some breakfast.”  He smiled himself into Nick Nolte.
Sarah raised her eyebrows, especially the left, and tightened her jaw.  Daniel returned to the paper while Sarah continued to rummage through cupboards and drawers.
After thirty years, Daniel could measure his wife’s emotional temperature, to the degree, by something as vague as a fluttering eyebrow.  He’d read somewhere that everyone raises one eyebrow just a bit more than the other.  We’re either left- or right-browed, though he couldn’t remember what this was supposed to mean.
“There are no eggs in this house, Daniel.  Do you hear this?  I am now officially hunting for egg beaters.  It’s nearly 7:00 and I haven’t seen as much as an English muffin.”
“In the army, we lived on evaporated food.  Bring water to boil.  Add contents of packet.  Stir.  All the meals said this.”
“We’re not in the army Daniel, and we’re not boiling our breakfast.”
“How ‘bout some coffee, dear?”
“Not on an empty stomach.”
“There’s cereal in the cupboard over the sink.  With the crackers, peanut butter, macaroni and cheese.  Boxed things.”
“Cereal is not a proper breakfast.”  Sarah tied a tall kitchen garbage bag with a plastic fastener she’d brought from home, just in case.  “Do something with this, dear.”
Daniel put down the newspaper with good-natured frustration and escorted the garbage through the back door, which opened into a common area shared by each of the villas.  Wearing only pajamas and slippers, he felt underdressed.  When they’d arrived last night, it was dark.  He hadn’t noticed the other villas, which were huddled together like a small pack of wolves devouring a lesser mammal.
Daniel walked assertively toward a cluster of plastic bins.  He couldn’t read the Arabic writing; it was all scimitars and bugaboo.  He could make out the instructive icons, however, by positioning his glasses just so.  He quickly realized that they were supposed to have separated the trash.  With as much nuance as he could muster, he slipped the bag into a bin decorated with a flame eating away at three crossed logs.
Walking away, Daniel felt rather foolish.  He hoped no one had witnessed his ecological indiscretion.  His greatest fear was that something he’d done would reflect badly on his son.  Mentally, he scrolled through the bag’s contents, at least those levels of trash with which he was familiar.  No aerosol cans or plastics.  This was a minor relief.
“What took you so long?” Sarah asked.
“Just admiring the desert.  Beautiful sunrise.”
“Same one we get in Arizona over at my cousin Sheila’s.”
“Well, I imagine it’s more dramatic here.”
Sarah deployed a sound which, although seemingly obscure, was quite clear to her husband.
“Have you ever seen a kitchen like this, Daniel?  Have you ever?”
“I suppose not.”
“No flour.  There’s no flour, Daniel.  There are five types of coffee, five, for some reason, and very expensive looking coffee.  But no flour.  The priorities…”
“Maybe they like coffee more than flour.”
Sarah wasn’t listening.  “Can they even afford coffee like this?  I don’t think they can, Daniel.  I really don’t.  I haven’t seen one coupon, Daniel, not one.  Can you—?  Well, I can’t.”
“How do you know they even use coupons over here?  Maybe they don’t.”
Instead of answering, Sarah flattened her frilly, well pressed apron, making sure every line was perfect.  Daniel, watching from an armchair, knew what this meant.  Her insecurity had been awakened, like a cranky toddler from a nap.
“Do you think the child has coffee for breakfast?”
“Why don’t you ask her?”
“Very funny.  I’m serious, Daniel.  The child looks skinny.  I don’t think they’re feeding it right.”
Her.”
“Did you say something, Daniel?”  Sarah was hidden behind the counter.  Only the square knot of her apron sash could be seen jutting out from where Daniel sat in the living room.  She appeared to be mucking about on the floor near the refrigerator.  A natural multi-tasker, she was searching for food while also composing a brief for her son and his family.  It wasn’t nagging.  No, nothing like that.  It was Sarah’s duty to coax them into a better, a more efficient and productive life.
Her.  You called Skye it.  What are you doing, dear?”
“Getting rid of the water from the drip pan.  It hasn’t been changed in ages.  With a name like Skye, who knows if it’s a boy or a girl.”
“Keep your voice down, Sarah.”
“Well, they’ve given it, her, some hippy name and they dress her like a boy.  Who ever heard of a three year old girl wearing black and gray and blue clothing?  I never have.  Back in Ohio—  You know, Daniel, I’ve never seen her in that party dress we sent.”
“You’ve never met Skye in person, Sarah.  You’ve only seen photos.”
“Exactly.  Most people would conspicuously dress the child up in the gift clothing, snap a photo, and send it off to the party in question.”
Daniel couldn’t help but laugh, even after being awake for nearly three hours without coffee.  Sarah was quite serious, though.  “That would be the proper thing to do,” he said.
“No bacon, no eggs, no flour.”  Sarah added, by way of counterpoint, the banging of pans and dishes to her verbal litany.  Waking people up in such an obvious way didn’t embarrass her.  She was the guest.  It was their duty to be up first.
“No sausage, no tomato juice, no oatmeal.”
“How ‘bout a nice ham steak?” Daniel asked, certain there’d be no such thing.
“Sorry, Dan.  No ham steak.”  Judy, halfway down the stairs, was wearing their son’s high school track sweatpants and a black, bleach-holed, paint-splattered t-shirt that read Lynbrook Elementary, Home of the Leprechauns.  She almost choked on her coffee when she saw her mother-in-law rooting around in the kitchen.  It wasn’t the old-fashioned apron, which Sarah must have brought with her, or the noise, or the advancement of foreign troops across the borderline of her kitchen, so much as the Sunday dress, fake pearls and heels.  Judy hadn’t owned a pair of good shoes in years.
“You know, Sarah, Sunday’s not technically the weekend here.  It’s like Tuesday.  You don’t have to dress up.”
Sarah frowned, but said nothing.  “Where’d you get the coffee, Judy?”
“I made it upstairs.  Hot plate.  I don’t like to wait until I come all the way down here.”
“Good thinking,” Daniel tapped the side of his head.
“Aren’t they dangerous?” Sarah asked.
“Are we still talking about ham steaks?”
“No, Judy.  Hot plates.”
“Oh, not that I know of.  But ham clogs the arteries, leads to colon cancer, heart attacks.  It’s hell on the pig, too.”
“You’re still a vegetarian?” Sarah asked.
“You bet.”
Daniel gave Judy a raised fist as if she were a recovering substance-abuser who’d survived another week alcohol- and drug-free.
“That can’t be good for Skye.”
“We’re not connected anymore.  Since the operation.”
Daniel laughed out loud.
“You let her eat meat?”
“She makes her own decisions.  Lately, she’s not so much a carnivore.”
For a few minutes, everyone retired to his own corner.  Daniel kept turning the Gulf News over and over, quickly and excitedly, as though there was something he couldn’t find.  Judy wondered if he was looking for Columbus weather reports, Ohio State football scores, The Family Circus cartoon.
Judy brewed coffee while Sarah watched anxiously.  The older woman was afraid of the sleek, black coffee-maker, of the dark and pungent grounds.
“You guys are up early.”
“We’ve been up four hours,” Sarah said.
“It’s nighttime back home.”  Daniel was pleased with his observation.
“Considering you only landed about nine hours ago, that’s amazing.  Must be really jet-lagged.”
“No.  We just like to get up at a proper hour.”
“4:00 am’s a proper hour?  For trout fishing, maybe.”
Daniel chuckled from the living room.
“What do you eat for breakfast around here?”
“I don’t eat breakfast, Sarah.  Just coffee until noon.  Maybe Fruity Pebbles for lunch.”
“Skye?”
“She prefers Cap’n Crunch.  Really, I don’t know.  Stephen makes her breakfast or she gets it herself.  Tripe, I think.  Maybe tuna noodle casserole?”
“Very funny,” Sarah said, trying to bring the conversation under control, “but nutrition is serious.  You need to be very, very careful about what your daughter eats.”
“Well, I’m not.”

           “Do you have to smoke in the car?” Sarah asked.
“No.”
“Judy.  You really shouldn’t smoke in front of your daughter.”
“Don’t worry, Grandma.  I’ve seen worse.”
Judy coughed.  Stephen looked out the window.  Sarah was aghast.  “What?”
“She’s just having you on, dear,” Daniel said.
“What have you seen, Skye?”
“Violence, war, disaster.”  Skye thoughtfully sucked her thumb, head tilted.  She leaned toward her mother, who was sitting in the passenger seat, and whispered, hands cupping Judy’s ears, carefully checking so that no one overheard.  “And adult language.”
“You shouldn’t stand up in the car, dear.”
“It’s okay, Grandma.  There’re no local reg, reg’lations.”
“Don’t you have a car seat, Judy?”
“No.  We’ve thought about wrapping her in Styrofoam until she’s thirty-two, but it wouldn’t be eco-friendly.”
“Safety’s nothing to joke about.”
Daniel, eager.  “You could get one of those bubbles…?”
Judy turned to face Daniel, carelessly blowing the smoke in Stephen’s face.  “Like The Boy in the Plastic Bubble?”
“Yes, exactly.”
“That’s a great idea, Daniel.”  Judy turned up the radio and bopped her head.
“What ever happened to that boy?”
“The actor?”
“Yes?”  Daniel leaned forward, hands gripping the headrest.
“That was John Travolta…?  The famous actor?  He made it big.”
“Good for him.”  Daniel smiled, looking out the window at the desert moving by.  Everything was in its proper place.
“Can you put that out, please?”  Sarah was leaning into the front seat.
“One more puff.”  Judy hastily inhaled three or four times in a concentrated, delicate-fingered way, as if smoking a joint.  The pantomime wasn’t lost on Sarah, who was old but not that old.  She read Cosmo and knew what a blow job was.
“Doesn’t the sun bother Skye?”  Sarah didn’t ask Stephen specifically, but it’s clear to whom she’s directing the question.
“No, Grandma.”
“I was speaking to your father, dear.”
“She’s cool, Sarah.”  Judy turned up the stereo.  Beck was singing about the Devil’s Haircut, the Replacements about Red Wine.
“Stephen…?”
“Sorry, what?  I was trying to read the signs.”
“Don’t you have a sunshade for the car, for Skye?”
“Do we, honey?”
Judy didn’t answer.  Instead, she ignited another cigarette.  Sarah theatrically waved the not-yet-existent smoke away from her face.  She wondered when her son had become so spineless.  He’s completely dominated by this woman.  What does he even see in her?
The drive to Dubai, Sharjah’s glitzier neighbor, seemed endless.  Judy took another drag on her cigarette and flicked it expertly out the tiny slip of open window.
“I thought you were an environmentalist?” Sarah asked.
“I am.  Just not a very good one.”
Daniel took his wife’s hands and caressed them.
A white, black-windowed Toyota Land Cruiser, the default vehicle for Emiratis, cut them off.  It had approached from the center lane at 180 kph, crouched at their rear bumper for a half-second, then passed on the shoulder leaving inches to spare.  Stephen weaved.
“Good show, Stephen.”
“Thanks, Dad.”
“Yeah!  Bump, bump, bump.  More, Daddy!”
“We’re not driving in the wadi now, Skye.  We’re on the highway.”  Judy rubbed her daughter’s belly and leaned back for a kiss.”
“Can we drive on the sand, Daddy?  Bump, bump, bump.  Please?  Please?”
“Later, honey.”
“Not with me in the car,” Sarah said.
“Can I come, Stephen?”
Judy held Daniel’s hand, reassuringly.  Another black-windowed SUV nearly crushed  them.
“What is wrong with these Arabs?”
“They’re not Arabs, necessarily.  Emiratis come from a variety of ethnicities and national identities.”
“You sound like a guide book.”
“You sound like a Klan meeting,” Judy mumbled to herself.

           The passengers were dead quiet now, stuck in traffic, bored with what had become daily trips from Sharjah, where Stephen taught at the American university, to Dubai, a more obvious tourist destination.  At first, the cramped open-air souqs and camels grazing along the road had been astonishing.  Now they just seemed filthy.
Dubai was the cultural and urban center of the UAE whereas Sharjah was more rustic and traditional.  Judy wanted to poke around in the Blue Souq, help the in-laws buy a Persian rug, then eat at a greasy food stall or cafeteria, rubbing shoulders with sweaty workmen.  The Iranian, Indian and Sri Lankan food was wonderful and cheap, but Sarah wanted Italian.
Before dinner, they made a side trip to the Dubai Museum, to check off “cultural site” from their list.
“The museum was wonderful, Judy.  Thank you.”
“You’re welcome, Daniel.”  She took his arm as they guided one another across the street.  It had grown dark.
“You know, there’s a souq right here.  Behind that mosque.”  She pointed to a beautiful, massive, old building stained with soot.  The group watched as Pakistani men kicked off their rubber sandals and entered.  Outside, men washed their sandy feet from spigots stuck to the side of the mosque.  You could see hundreds of people inside, balled up on the floor.
“Can we go in?” Daniel asked.
“No.”  Sarah answered.
“Sorry, Daniel.  Muslims only.  Why don’t we walk through the linen souq, over there, and take an abraride across the khor?”  Judy waited, but no one said a word.  Maybe I should make the offer sound less ethnic, she thought.  “A small wooden boat?  Across the creek?  Beautiful view of the city?”
“Our reservation is waiting.”  Sarah was decisive, walking toward the car as if to persuade by virtue of inertia.
“We can cancel.”
Sarah stopped.  The group was now leaning toward an Authentic Middle Eastern Adventure.
“We don’t have to ride the abra.  But we can walk along the creek.  There’s some great Lebanese places down there.”
Fodor’s is pretty clear about that type of—”
“—Fuck the guidebook!”
They froze.  Trying to win them back, Judy nudged Daniel, “Smoke some sheesha?”
“What’s that?”
“A water pipe, like a Turkish hookah.  Strictly legal.”
“Oh, yes.  That sounds fun.”
“Come, Daniel.”  Sarah took her husband by the arm.

           Back in the car, finding their way through narrow alleys along the creek that would hopefully lead to the main road, Sarah and Daniel tried to take it all in.
“It sure is different than Ohio,” Daniel said.  He was proud of Stephen and his family, pioneers in an exotic place.  He saw men eating food deep-fried by the side of the road, others asleep in a vegetable cart.  He felt a surprisingly strong urge to jump out of the car and lie down beside them.  In a moment, the urge passed.
“Yes,” Sarah replied, derisively.  The dark men from poor countries frightened her.  Crowded together in food stalls, riding old bicycles, looking down from squalid balconies, holding hands on the street corner, whispering in alleyways.  She closed her eyes.
“Do you ever plan to come home, Stephen?”
“To Ohio?  I doubt it.”  He swung the car onto Trade Center Road.
“You’re from Pennsylvania, Judy, right?”
“Yeah.  Pittsburgh.”
“Well, Ohio would be perfect.  You could see both families.”
“Yeah,” Judy said.  “That’d be great.”
“You don’t—”  Sarah hesitated.  “—get along with your family?”
“As long as I live here I do.”
“Well, you can do your art just as well in Ohio, or even Pittsburgh, I imagine?  Isn’t that right?  Your sculptures.”
“Sure, I guess.  But the thing is, we want to be here.”
“I can’t imagine why.  I can’t see why you two don’t want to live in the US.  Who wouldn’t want to live in America?  Right, Daniel?”
Her husband made an ambiguous sound.
“We haven’t seen you in years, Stephen.  Years.”
“Just eighteen months, Mom.”
“Well, still.  We miss you.  We do.”  Sarah punctuated this string of staccato phrases with an awkward hand on her son’s shoulder.  He flinched somewhat, then relaxed.  The hand was withdrawn.
“What about Skye?  She’ll be starting school soon.”
Stephen and Judy exchange brief glances.
“Yeah, next year.  There’s a few international schools here, which is what we really want.  We haven’t decided yet.”  Judy paused.  “But I might home-school.”
Home-school?  I didn’t know you had your teaching certificate?”
Judy was quiet.
“She’ll learn to sculpt, I imagine.”  Sarah crossed her arms, momentarily pleased with herself.

           “Reservation for five.  Neumann.”  Judy smiled thinly at the hostess.
“You used your maiden name?”
“I kept my maiden name.”
“Oh.”
“Right this way.  Mum, sir.”
They were seated in a dark corner of Il Rustico, the Italian restaurant at Rydges, an unremarkable four-star hotel.
“You should get that dark tint on your windows like those cars passing us on the highway.  We have tinting on the Taurus back home.”  Daniel looked over the wine list, lost in the alchemy of currency conversion.  “Medium tint.”  He smiled broadly at everyone, in turn.  “I took it to Firestone.”
“Only locals can get tinted windows, Dad.”
“Is that right, Stephen?  That doesn’t seem fair.  You should do something about that.  Can you talk to someone, a…representative?”  Sarah spoke from behind her menu.
“The UAE’s a hereditary monarchy.  No political discourse, no official discussion of social issues, no televised proceedings, no representation.  Emiratis do what they want.  The rest of us are just workers.  Hallas.”  Judy hoped to subdue her mother-in-law with a sprinkling of Arabic.
“But you make a good wage, right son?” his father asked.
“Yeah, but that doesn’t matter.  Outsiders don’t count.”
“I still think it’s unfair,” Sarah pleaded, while asking the waitress for more bread with a wave of the empty basket.  “How much do you make, Stephen?”
“Mom, we’re not discussing this.”
Judy rolled her eyes and swished the bourbon-soaked ice cubes at the bottom of her whiskey glass.
“I bet it’s a lot, though, huh boy?”  Daniel winked at his son, who smiled back weakly.
“Would Mum care for some coffee, tea, dessert?”  The waitress hovered behind Sarah, looking despondent.
“Tea.  Thank you.”
“Tea, Mum.  And?”
“And?” she repeated.
“Dessert?”
“No thank you.”
The waitress made her way around the cramped table, taking orders, smiling with great effort.  Sarah wondered what she was thinking behind that small, closed mouth and why she wasn’t writing the orders down.  If she gets anything wrong…  Daniel, giddy with the foreignness of everything, was amazed by her wonderful English.
“Is she Chinese?” Daniel asked conspiratorially, leaning over to Judy, gripping her arm, after the waitress taxied off.
“She’s a Filipina, Daniel.  Lot of them work as clerks, waitresses, whatever.”
“Why are there so many foreigners here?”
“Because the locals can afford them.”
“You know,” Daniel began, clearly still working out the theory in his head, “I hardly see any Arabs.”
“Or hear anyone speaking Arabic?”  Judy finished the thought.
Daniel whipped off his glasses.  “By god, that’s right.  Why is that?”
“We’re interacting with waitresses and shoe salesmen and merchants.  The locals are filthy rich from oil.  They hire other people to work.”
“I see.”
“You hear Hindi, Swahili, Malayalam, Bengali, Urdu, Tagalog.  You don’t need Arabic.”
Fodor’s recommends a basic Arabic course,” Sarah offered, afraid of being outside the discussion for too long.
Slightly drunk, Judy toyed with her.  “Fff-forget the guidebook, Sarah.”
“Biscuit, Mum?” the waitress asked, setting the coffee down.
“Why on earth…?”
Stephen cut her off.  “Cookies, Mom.”
“Oh.  Thank you, Dear.”  She nodded to the waitress in an ambiguous manner, uneasily wandering from her comfort zone.
“Why do they say biscuit, Stephen?”
“The British ran the area first.  Before the UAE became a country in ’71.”
“Well, not firstFirst, the people ran themselves.  Then, they were subject to occupation, social and economic imperialism…”
Eyebrows hovered, coffee spoons meticulously rang.  “That’s awful, Judy.”  Daniel patted her hand.

           In the parking lot after dinner, they enjoyed the fresh air.  There was a sidewalk café a half-block from the hotel, next to a roundabout.  The area seemed comfortable and not aggressively exotic or third-world.  Sarah agreed to have another cup of tea, al fresco, which was the Ohio equivalent of an orgy.
They sat down on flimsy aluminum chairs.  No one spoke.  Next door, at a Lebanese restaurant, three waiters huddled by an unidentifiable piece of meat, slowly twisting on a silver pole.  They were dark, thin and craggy, wearing black pants, white shirts, black bow ties.  They had mustaches and slicked-back hair, characters from the distant past.  Sarah waited impatiently for her own waiter, but said nothing.  She was trying to be a good sport.
Eventually, the drinks came.
“What a wonderful night.  Not too hot.”  Daniel leaned back in his chair.
“It’s actually a bit cold now,” Sarah said.  There was something she wanted to add, but didn’t.  She bit her lip for the moment.
Judy sighed, smiling.  She was someplace else.  Stephen checked his watch.
Sarah had waited long enough.  She couldn’t take it anymore.  “Should she be wearing a sweater, Stephen?  It’s chilly out.”
“She’s fine, Mom.  Don’t worry so much, okay?  You’re on vacation.”
“I have to worry, Stephen.  That’s what a mother does.”  Sarah rubbed her hands, as if applying moisturizer.
Skye was climbing in and out of her chair, nearly upsetting the table each time.  The cups and saucers rattled.  Sarah wished her son would so something.  He didn’t seem to understand the first thing about parenting.  There was an article from Redbook that she would cut out for him.  She gripped the teacup close to her chest, asking the waitress, with a nod, for more biscuits.
The table was quiet.  It was the nearest thing to peace they’ve known all day.  Judy couldn’t imagine how she’d manage for three more weeks.  She thought about a late night joint, lying in bed with headphones.
The adults watched Skye because there was nothing better to do.  She was kicking small rocks into the street, singing a made-up song about palm trees and birds.  Judy lit a cigarette and Stephen repeatedly, obsessively, stirred his black coffee.
Looking up, Sarah choked on her coffee, coughing it out onto her lavender dress, and upset the table.  She could see Skye darting toward the hotel where a truck was swiftly backing out from an unseen driveway.  She screamed, standing up.
Stephen jumped out of the seat as the child shrieked and moved three steps closer, oblivious.
Judy, half-asleep in the darkness, turned away from the others with her feet extended and crossed in front of her, a partial obstruction to pedestrians.  She was half-drunk on bourbon, lost in thought, dreaming of another kind of life.  She took a long drag and stubbed out her cigarette six or seven times in the hulking plastic ashtray.  From the corner of her eye, she noticed her mother-in-law standing, beginning to scream.
Daniel remembered the rain, the tiny box, months of grieving.  He hadn’t thought about his first child, not for years.  Sarah wouldn’t allow the subject to be discussed.
Skye!”  His roar was startling.  The girl looked around, smiled and waved.  She was surprised at how energetic her grandpa had suddenly become, and she was still drawn toward the oncoming tires.

Hunter Liguore

Lit-Mag #42 – The Arabian World

Pieces

I’m picking up pieces: a piece of black fabric in the shape of a square, frayed at the ends and still warm; a chunk of rubber, also black, from the sole of a shoe, which smells like oil; a tuft of dark, black hair, singed on the ends and bent into a curl; a child’s finger, no bigger than a cigarette filter, stiff, yet pliable, like a worm to bait a fishing hook; a piece of skin, bloody on one side, rough on the other, and resembles a fleck of paint. I collect the pieces—the remains of the boy—into a small, plastic bag. I work fast. I must get the package to the boy’s father before he takes him away. Sometimes there’s no hurry. Sometimes no one is left alive to collect the injured. Sometimes they die before I can gather everything. The boy still breathes, and so I must hurry.
Behind me, my neighbors run in different directions, like ants that scramble when their mound is stepped upon. People run for shelter, for safety, to divert bullets, another missile, or because they don’t know what else to do.
The boy’s father lifts his son through a broken car window, close to where I work. The car is deformed; its metal framework melted and shapeless. Flames burn from the backseat. The boy’s hand is smeared with purple blood and his index finger is arched in a pointing position. Perhaps he had been pointing at something pretty, something amusing, something only a child could see, but had been cut down before he could share it. The boy’s body looks like a pile of rags in the arms of his desperate father. His arm swings as his father runs against the grain of people, and places him on the debris-laden ground.
The father appears calm as he rubs his boy’s chest, but his eyes shift around. He’s thinking. He is dissolving inside. I imagine he will have thoughts similar to ones that I’ve had on previous occasions.
What should I do with him? Where will I take him for help? Will I make it in time or will he die in my arms, my only son? Will another bomb explode? Will I get caught in the crossfire? Where’s my wife? Does she know to go home? Is she alive? Is she far from here? Does she know she will have to keep the others safe, while I’m tending to our son?
The boy’s father wraps the child’s dismembered hand with a discarded scarf he finds from the street. The cloth seeps with blood upon contact. The blood won’t stop. He searches for something bigger to tie off the wound, but he knows there’s internal damage, because of the way the boy’s body twists unnaturally. He starts to cry, feeling helpless.
I bring the bag to the father. He takes it from me with little thought. We don’t speak to one another. He knows I am there to help. Together, we lift the boy and carry him away.
Gunfire rattles behind the next building, causing more of my people to scurry like hunted game. The women scream through their tears, as their children fall under the rain of bullets. How many times have these mothers warned their children about days like this? Didn’t they ingrain in them how to avoid the bullets? Run low, toward the side of the building, hide, run, get away!
The father and I hide behind a building. We see soldiers spreading out into the square. Their green uniforms make them look like tall bushes attacking us. Their M-16’s scatter more bullets, more bodies fall. No one is spared, the young, the old, perhaps the lucky.
“Is he still alive?” I ask.
The boy’s father nods. I can see the boy’s breathing grow heavy, impaired. I’ve seen this before.
“He was always a good boy. He never…” the man covers his face with his hand. The wet tears clear away the dust from his skin. He never finishes his sentence, nor needs to. I know he wants to say his boy never caused him anger, and never wanted more than he could provide. My boy was just like his. He was about the same age when he was killed in a similar attack six months ago.
The man scoops his boy up in his arms and disappears down the street. The bag I collected for him is gripped in his hand. He doesn’t need to thank me. He will appreciate my efforts at a later time. I run in the opposite direction towards home. The gunfire still rages. A second missile explodes toward my left, like an ocean wave, for there is a brief silence before it hits, and then an unfathomable crash, that covers everything in its path.
I run in the direction of the attack, passing through the crowd with resistance. Faces I’ve known my whole life go by with terror. Their eyes look alien, unfeeling and scared. The missile destroyed a market this time. Arms and legs protrude from the rubble when I arrive. Men gather. Our eyes glance at one another, each hoping the other will move first, as if one of us already has a plan to lead us all to pull the bodies out. I move first, indicating I have the most experience. I yell for someone to help me lift the cement block from the top of the pile. Four hands are not enough. Two others join in, and we’re able to slide the block off the top of the mound.
“They may still be alive,” I shout. This gives the others hope, as they dig with their bare hands through rock, dirt, steel, and blood.
This was how I found my mother. First I found a torn fragment of her scarf covered in the dirt, a piece I keep tied around my wrist in remembrance. After I recovered the rest of the scarf, I found her arm. Upon pulling, the arm came free of her body. I dug quicker, harder, like a monster without emotion, not noticing that I was scraping the skin clean from my fingers. Her eyes were open, staring toward the blue sky, which never seems to change or notice what happens down here. Her body lay contorted in different directions like street signs perched at the corner of an intersection. I tore her body from the tomb, though it was not in my physical strength to do so. The body is as strong as the mind allows.
When the first cadaver is pulled free from the shopping center pit, we are encouraged to go further to find more, but then a child’s voice behind us breaks our concentration. We divert our energy to the definite living. Beneath the rubble, a boy has found a breathing space; he calls for his brother. Someone goes for him. The rest of us dig. Sweat pours down my face, as I work with the others to lift the stone and rubble, to free the boy. We all know with one wrong move, we could bury him.
The boy’s brother comes. Upon seeing his younger brother buried, he screams for Allah to do something, anything to keep him alive. His hands dig and lash at the gravel to reach him. “You’re not going to die! Do you hear me?” the brother says with strength. I used to pray to Allah, until I realized that he could not hear my prayers over the bombing and gunfire.
Gunfire cuts over our heads. We drop to our bellies. “Quickly,” someone says. “We must go,” shouts another man. Several escape over the mound.
“We can come back,” I say to the brother. “He’s safe where he is.”
The soldiers spot us. Though we lie grotesquely upon the ruins of the building, and the remains of life, with little left for them to take, but our lives, they come. A bullet grazes my head, as I pull the brother’s arm to leave. My head spins; my ears ring. More gunfire. The brother’s chest spurts blood when three bullets pass through his body. I roll to the other side of the debris pile, watching, as the brother’s brains spill out onto the cement stone like vomit, as the deadening bullet pierces his skull. I hear the boy screaming below. He is terrorized, no longer a boy, but a caged lion, crazed with fear.
Children take to the rooftop of a building on the other side of the street, and throw rocks down upon the soldiers, who return fire willingly. The boys are quick to hide, and their efforts give me enough time to get away.
Blood runs down my cheek. I keep wiping it, but it still flows. I am dizzy, but determined. After the soldiers leave, I return to the mound. New faces arrive to help clean the debris and dig for loved ones. I notice the boy doesn’t call out anymore. I remove a plastic bag from my pocket. I keep a few with me at all times. I can never tell when I might need one.
When my boy was killed in an attack, a month before my mother, his body lay in pieces on the gravel road. As his father I should’ve been able to pick him up and put him back together. I sat beside my dead son for what felt like an entire season, until someone stirred me, a man, who handed me a plastic bag with my son’s remains. Every piece is sacred, he said. He did this for me so I didn’t have to; it was the most loving act anyone has ever done for me. My son was my first loss, then my mother was taken, then my wife and three girls. My whole family has been slain during one attack or another. I have no one left, but my neighbors. They are what’s important now.
I don’t know if anyone would come for the two brothers. Sometimes they do. Sometimes they’re never claimed. I didn’t know if the boy was still alive, or if he would live. I half knew he was already dead—his silence confirming what I knew in my heart— but the hopeful side of me did not want to admit the truth. I bagged the soft, slick brain. Beside the body was a crushed flower. Its color purple stood out from the disaster. I put this into the bag too. I laid it on the brother’s chest and forced his eyes closed. I carried him to the end of the row of bodies already collecting in the street. I looked at the faces for anyone I might know, but I knew them all in one way or another.
I look for the first boy and his father, but I don’t see them anywhere. Maybe the boy lived, or maybe I already knew he was dead. He probably died in his father’s arms, just like mine did. The hopeful side of me wasn’t ready to admit anything with certainty. A missile soared overhead crashing in the plaza several blocks away. I ran against the grain to get there, a body in pieces, waiting. I took out another plastic bag and began picking up pieces.

Yahia Lababidi

Lit-Mag #42 – The Arabian World

The Belly Dancer at the Wedding

Egyptians love to dance. The national conceit is that belly-dancing runs in their veins and that even an amateur local is innately superior to a professional foreigner. Upon the faintest prompting, women of every shape, age and class will put this proposition to the test. It is typical, for example, to see little girls wriggling at gatherings in an astonishingly accomplished manner for hours at a time. Equally common, to hear coy protestations one moment of a guest being invited to dance and then to witness a creature possessed the next. Forget about asking them to take their seat until the shaking subsides.
The ubiquity and sheer joy of dance, however, do not detract from the perception of immorality associated with the dancing profession. Egyptians are deeply conflicted about the respectability of the art form. It is alright, they argue, to perform this type of dance in private, among friends or family, but to do so before strangers and for money is unsavory. Islamic preachers have gone so far as to proclaim that belly dancers cannot partake in religious rites (i.e. feeding the poor during Ramadan or performing the Hajj/Pilgrimage). In short, professional belly-dancers are regarded as little more than purveyors of titillation and the embodiment of sin.
At a time when more and more Egyptian women are taking the veil, Cairo remains the world epicenter for those who wish to master a dance that is only a slight variation on the theme of Salome’s shedding of her veils. And when, seaside, the bulk of Egyptian women are opting to wade in gallabiyyas (full-length traditional dresses) it is not unusual for a belly-dancer to perform at a public venue wearing little more than a glorified bikini, like a beached mermaid in her glittering, gauzy garb.

           An incident illustrating the paradoxically privileged position belly-dancers occupy in society occurred nearly a decade ago. A video depicting one of Egypt’s top belly-dancers in flagrante delicto leaked onto the street and internet, following a police raid on the villa of a well-known (and married) Egyptian businessman. A lesser mortal would have perished beneath the heat of such a scandal, especially a woman in a conservative society. Yet, following a teary public apology and a short leave of absence, the uberdancer bounced back on stage. Moreover, to add legislation to lore, a new law forbids foreign dancers from practicing this lucrative local art, another example of the almost unassailable status of the belly-dancer in Egyptian society.
A love/hate relationship for the belly-dancer places her in a perceived moral netherworld somewhere between actors and whores. Both dancers and actors, whose testimony was once inadmissible in court, are accorded the same morbid fascination and contempt. Every twist and turn of their private lives is deemed newsworthy, and a renewed source of censure. Hishik bishik, slang for all things associated with belly-dancing (and shorthand for tsk-tsk) is actually onomatopoeia: the sound of the shaking belly-dancer, beads and all. It is also used figuratively, as a derogatory term for the shaking of values or the loosening of moral fabric associated with the dancer’s questionable position in the public imagination. What does this say about the people who heartily embrace belly-dancing as a form of self-expression?
To begin with, Egyptians do not call it belly-dancing, but rather raqs sharqi (oriental dancing) or raqs baladi (folkloric dancing), and the origins of the dance are ambiguous. Whether or not it was born in Ancient Egypt, it is widely held that the dance has its roots in fertility ceremonies, meant to strengthen abdominal muscles and ease childbirth. The dance itself is a kind of break dance, only more fluid, exhibiting a variety of muscle isolation techniques: rolling the belly, swiveling the hips, or making the upper and lower body appear as though they lead independent lives. In many ways, belly-dancing is the anti-ballet. Whereas the ballerina wears her pretty steel-tipped slippers, the belly-dancer is sensuously barefoot. While the ballerina strives for the ethereal and seeks to resist gravity, the belly-dancer’s feet are firmly planted on the ground, tapping into a boundless fund of earthy energy
That is the technique, then there is the inspiration, the wordless ecstasy communicated, the body eloquence. President Anwar Sadat once described a celebrated Egyptian dancer of the 70s, Souhair Zaki, as “the Oum Kolthoum of dance.” “As she sings with her voice, you sing with your body,” he said to her. Speaking of the same dancer, Geraldine Brooks put it slightly differently in her book, Nine Parts of Desire:

What she did with her body was what a woman’s body did-the natural movements of sex and childbirth. The dance drew the eye to the very centre of the female body’s womanliness.

           The fact that, in Egypt, weddings are hardly complete without a belly-dancer is revealing, given the function of marriage as sanctifying the union between a man and a woman who is expected to be a virgin. Costing the family of the bride or groom up to $3,000 for a 30-minute performance, and widely considered the highlight of the matrimonial event, the belly-dancer’s entrance is anticipated with bated breath. And what an entrance it is. Some time past the witching hour, often draped in a sort of a sparkling cape, she shimmies into the room with a manic enthusiasm, heralded and accompanied by the wild beating of drums. Having established her presence and reveling in the power of an intensity inhabited, the dancer sheds her mock modest veil to reveal herself-a half-naked, shimmering apparition. All anima and the daemonic, she then proceeds to stomp on the hallowed ground of the wedding ceremony.
This primeval emotional maelstrom is transmitted to the enthralled audience in general and the blushing bride in particular. Women study her intently, but with a more guarded enthusiasm than their drooling male counterparts. Having transfixed the audience in a sort of reverse mesmerism-where the snake charms those who summoned it-the belly-dancer now turns her attentions to the bride. Weaving and dipping in her vicinity, she initiates her into the rites of uninhibited womanhood. ‘See the effect I have on the room (and your groom),’ she insinuates, fearlessly brandishing her sexuality. ‘That power is yours, too. Your birthright. Celebrate it.’ And she’s off, back with the crowd; challenging them to take guilt-free pleasure in their bodies, as she snakes between them and dances with a deliciously self-absorbed exhibitionism.
Wearing a wedding cake of a gown, the bride must fret: how can I possibly compete with this woman invulnerable to taboo? Having spent a lifetime shrewdly protecting her virtue and a small fortune on the appearance of her dress, she is being upstaged at her own wedding by a woman who seems to care for neither. How can she possibly stand up to this dancer-radiating sex and naked confidence-with her flamboyantly flagrant disregard for the fundamental commandments of Family and Society?
In such a charged atmosphere belly-dancing serves as a kind of ‘licensed murder’. This is Bertrand Russell’s definition of war, only the war declared here is on conventional morality and its mind-forged manacles. The force of the belly-dance is a force of nature, perceived as unharnessed and disruptive, hence the fear. The fear is an ancient one: of desire, of female flesh. The belly-dancer’s twisting sisters are many and ruinous in mythology and the human imagination:Eve and the Serpent, Medusa (Woman and Serpent fused), Salome (disastrous desire), Kali (fierce transcendence), the Sirens (femme fatale), the striptease (look, don’t touch), and the lap-dancer (crude sensuality). All hint at a vision of woman engaged in a frenzied dance of Life and Death, of passion careening out of control, threatening to overwhelm and consume.
It is not without significance that a 1920s Egyptian law forbade the belly-dancer from showing her navel. Later in the ‘50s, belly-dancing was prohibited in Egypt altogether. The ban was repealed following a public outcry, however, on the condition that the belly button be covered. But, why the belly button? Given that it is not a sexual organ, one suspects the significance is symbolic. The belly button is, after all, where the umbilical cord was severed. Is it the scene of the original crime, then, from which people wish to avert their gaze?
„Every vagina has secret teeth, for the male exits as less than when he entered,“ writes Camille Paglia. Teeth that are razor sharp in a patriarchal society. Vagina dentata, in turn, denotes a fear of devouring origins, as may the offensive belly button. Something of this age-old anxiety over female sensuality appears to lurk stubbornly in the myths of many cultures. Hence, trafficking as the belly-dancer does, in the heady cocktail of dance and womanhood, creation and destruction, the object of desire becomes a repository of fear and loathing. To accept their spontaneous joy in dance without the attendant sense of sin, perhaps Egyptians might take a cue from Nietzsche’s declaration: “I could only believe in a god who dances.”