Letter to God — Mbizo Chirasha

Somewhere beside Zvagona hills, near Zvamapere ‘kopje of hyenas’, adjacent to the foothills of Dayataya mountain lies bones and spirits of my great grandfathers and their descendants. I loved this land. Every rain season, Zvagona hills were village brides fitted in green dresses and floral doek’s over their heads. Their lush skin shimmered blue from a distance in the hazy of December sun. Usually, autumn arrived with god’s gifts of multi- colored costumes of blooming flowers, their petals nodding erotically to the hesitant sun, the sun winked back secretly to the smiling flowers. Bees and cicadas haunting them like delinquent boys to village damsel’s. This time, the earth becomes a beautiful princess scented with natural perfume and clad in floral gowns of pink, yellow, white, peach and ox blood red.

June is a vicious dog, it brought howling winds and winter’s canines grazed deep into our lives. The earth is undressed into utter nudity. Elephant grass saluted to the passing wind like grandfathers surrendering life. Our hills spotted jailbird’s bald shave as they nodded to the winter’s sirens: whirlwind and dust ripples. Forests stood shell shocked in their torn overalls. Flowers are tightlipped, their cousins rot into extinction waiting for rain when the earth is born again. The cold bruised sun is a patch on the undergarments of grey horizons. This time, the moon is a hesitant bride. It is winter and nights are ink black and unfriendly. Hyenas wail in pain of winter’s bite, regular face- booking of monkeys is on hold. Cicadas are silent like birds. Sometimes hills wept to each other under the veil of mist and the shivering moon lulled our somber souls into sleep until the next morning. When morning comes, the baldheaded hills are ready for a fight, standing proud in anticipation of sunshine or rain, alas the biting winds persisted and the hills are resilient too and similar to the undying spirits of peasants eking out life from tracks of hard red earth on the fringes of Zvagona hills. At night hills were draped in robes of white mist and towards dawn, they fit onto skirts of grey and top gear of blue. We were told ancestors walked alongside the mist at nights and in mornings they would go into deep sleep. The mystery of Zvagona hills, hills of home. During that season, we stacked loads of firewood for warmth, cooking meals and brewing traditional beer. We lived off the forests.

When Gods are angry, the earth is clad in rags like an imbecile. It wears a black torn monkey hat over itself like a pick pocketter. The air is taunt with foul smell of decaying lives. Baboon’s sermons are placed in God’s wardrobe. Our creased faces told sorry tales of poverty and hunger gnawing the pits of our bellies.

When the red glow of heat persisted like in hell. Silence and barrenness are weaved together onto red earth. While rivers become white washed skeletons of dry sand. Elders spoke in tongues to the wind, we lost their words in the pleats of their elderly language. After some days they traverse to the end of the earth to supplicate Zame, the spirit of rain. Njelele, Zame’s disciple would direct them to Nyami Nyami, the goddess of water. They are told to wash their feet and dance to Gods. They were punished for replacing forests with concrete jungles. Birds and spirits of the land were now vagabonds. They are told the earth is simmering in abomination and Gods are angry and choked with carbon laced fumes. They are warned of the coming of devil’s triplets: hunger, heat waves and cyclones. They paid their ornaments, applauded the gods and returned to their hovels underneath the fringes of Zvagona hills.

Later, when heavens get overexcited. Gods washed our sins with tears of their joy, rains washed and blessed our land. The earth is born again and is dressed to kill in its usual green gowns and floral doek’s. We danced to the clap of thunder and camera flashes of lightening winked at us. Our poverty marinated, yellow maize teeth grinned to sudden glows of lightening. Sometimes lightening jolts sank our tender hearts into our rib -boxes. Zvagona hills also gyrated under the grip of thunder. We danced still for the blessing of rain and rebirth. Our planting fields were patches of alluvial earth between the hems of the hills and the banks of Mamvuramachena “river of white waters”. Sooner pumpkins bred like rabbits, veldts wore a silver cap of water and new dark green military combat of sprouting elephant grass. Smells of fresh dung and the scent of fresh udder milk were our morning brew. The new grass fattened our cows, their oily skins shimmered under God’s obedient sun.

Our mothers traversed from hill to hill harvesting mushroom, nhedzi, zvihombiro, nzeveyambuya nezhouchuru ‘names of different kind of mushrooms’. Wild mushroom is an African delicacy, a delicacy that raised us from mucus drooling kindergartens into goat bearded grown-ups. Wild fruits of maroro, nhengeni and nhunguru were showered to us by the excited Gods. Bushes became our second homes. We dried fruits and mushroom for the future with the aid of our loving grandmothers. We salivated to the rich fart of roasting meat and baking bread emitted from kitchen huts. Grass beautifies the earth as food beautifies lives. We enjoyed to see our goats getting fat. Bush honey was abundant. We fought successful battles with ferocious red bees for the mouthwatering delicacy, dendende sweet red honey. We accompanied the red honey hunt with a song

Sunga musoro wedendende
Sunga wakanaka dendedende
Sunga musoro wededende,  
Sunga wakanaka dendende
Sunga wakanaka dendende
Sunga wakanaka dendende

 The rhythm had returned.

 When cockerels announced the new days, eastern hills were beautifully capped with the glow of orange hats from the sparkling sunrays. Baboons cuddled each other in the wake of dawn romance. Rock rabbits jived to the acoustics of cicada tunes and to the discord of village sounds. Mother monkeys rebuked their babies from over eating. Down the stream, fish and toads bathed in smoking falls of fresh water. They are home again. Shezu ‘honey bird’ spoiled the festival by singing a warning hymn, maybe for another drought to come or death of a reputable person. Nights are stitched with thread of hyena’s laughter’s and the syntactic hymns of owls.

Our elders sang in contented choruses, nhaka inhara meaning ‘the year is blessed with rains’.

We sang to the silver white moon that was fresh from God’s mouth as it sat on its throne, over the fontanels of Zvagona hills, Mwedzi wagara ndira uyo tigo tigo ndira –and later with time the moon was ripe to go we bade her farewell mwedzi waora ndira tigo tigo ndira.

Now many years had passed since I left for the city, two decades away from years of dance and abundance. The land is now a wretched vagabond. I am sitting underneath the ragged skirts of mystery hills, pondering if my great ancestor’s bones and spirits are still lying here. I see the luxury of rotating seasons is long lost in the abrupt silence of this land. The tenor of birdsongs and baritones of baboons on the mountain zenith is no more. Birds and baboons are long gone, maybe to blessed climes. The joyous scream of hyenas and jackals at dawns was cut short. The joy of reeds dancing to the soprano of mighty streams was remote silenced. A deadly silence.

The sun’s heat is menacing as if tongs of red hot charcoal are floating in the air. The heavens are rude and clear blue. Waves of heat turned the earth into a baking oven. Fields are chunks of dried and burnt bread. Trees are strips of roasted biltong. Cyclones passed through and carried away my ancestor’s bones to faraway seas. Skeletal dunes of sand replaced our mighty Mamvuramachena ‘river of white waters’

Hills are bald headed and wearing a herpes zoster belt around their bellies. They are sweating under the grip of heat caused eczema. I suppose we are cursed. Nyami nyami once warned of hunger, cyclones and heat waves, the menacing triplets.

 Behold my earth is naked.

Dear beloved God are we cursed?

JJ Stick
©2021 All Rights Reserved

©2021 Mbizo Chirasha
All rights reserved

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Pilgrims of Zame — Mbizo Chirasha

Hybrid African-Spiritual-Cultural Narrative

A harsh heave of shrine incense combined with the stink of ancient snuff and herbal concoctions choked our lungs. The smell was new and strange. The evening was pleated with defiant black shadows and mismatched silhouettes of small hills. Everything was stitched together by instructive spiritual incantations and strange guttural bellows. Angels warmed drums on live embers. Mediums roared in synchronized incantations—

Heyi hii hoo
Heyi hii hoo
Heyi hii hoo

They unstoppably shook their heads and trembled their shoulders from one trance into another. Dust swirls aroused from their dances carried our blessings. The mist that shrouded the grey hills carried the anointing of the land. They guzzled the millet brew in their order of seniority. Worshippers had brought large pots of millet beer from our villages. The ceremonial beer was brewed and brought to the shrine gallery by pre-pubescent and post-menopausal women. That was to ensure that the shrine’s sacredness is maintained.

Matonjeni hills were shrouded in silence and draped in long gowns of grey mist at dawn. During evenings, hills were hugged by apostolic like plain white robes of mist again. Zame is known of bone chilling spits of drizzle year in and year out. We arrived before shadows fully quilted the earth. We didn’t bring modern utensils and blankets into the hills. We walked with our barefoot. Men sat on leopard skin mats and women sat on sheepskin.

Drapes of mist grew the hills into a shrine of black shadows. The moon set like a silver arc over the rim of the mystic Malindidzimu “the seat of gods”. It was gorgeous. It winked to us behind a veil of fluffy, white and smoky drizzling clouds. Soft rains caressed our day long sun-drained skins.

Malindidzimu is the zenith of Zame, the place where gods sit to watch the earth underneath them. When night is ripe the silver moon winks to the gods to take rest. Mermaids are said to wash gods’s feet in Mavulamachena, the gorge of white waters situated at the fontanel of Malindidzimu. The waters are ever silver moon white. The mist rises from Mavulamachena “white waters” to dress the sacred mountains with white skirts and grey doeks towards dawn. When the world is trapped in the web of sleep, gods are said to float along with mist draping’s to meet with their earthly ambassadors. The mystery of Matonjeni, shrine of gods.

 The Matonjeni gallery sits somewhere on a mountain range that runs from east to west. The shrine entrances wind up and down among overhung granite boulders into the gallery. We washed our feet upon entering the shrine to do away with dust and bad omen. Every visitor was blessed with portion of ancient snuff before entering the shrine. The scent of snuff was strange. I sneezed and drooled like a wild pig. That was the same with my fellow congregants. The snuff was strong. After the ritual, eunuchs and nuns led us into the shrine. The shrine is an art gallery with a unique spiritual presence. Gallery walls were beautifully decorated with red and black clay earth extracted from the nearby termite mounds, the lush and green combat that dressed the anthills added ambiance to this astounding earthly but spiritual wonderment. A plethora of ornaments that included animal horns, bone-made trinkets, grass-made beads and ancient-spears made up the Matonjeni gallery collection. The exhibition was diligently curated. The gallery walls were stripped with white, red, black clay patterns. After our maiden tour, we then supplicated to God with a thunderous chorus of applause and heart-rending, mountain-cave echoing, ululations. We thanked gods and spirits for guiding us from evil during our long day journey to the holy land.

The Hallowed eunuch of the shrine, Nyamasviswa with his band of Matonjeni disciples welcomed us with that verve of spiritual merriment. The dignifying gesture uplifted our sun burnt, day long trip tired souls. We brought large pots frothing with millet beer. It was abundant, plenty more than what other clansmen had brought. The traditional millet brew smelt like freshly baked bread. Mediums salivated with that greedily gusto, waiting impatiently to feast from the mouth—watering pots frothing the ancient delicacy. It was intelligently brewed by earth scratching, peasantry lifestyle hardened hands, thus combined with the verve of ancestral wisdom passed from one matriarchal epoch to more and more other matriarchal generations. The welcoming merriment was remote-paused by a blood-splashing hymn, divinely echoed from a swarm of beautiful nuns as it passionately coiled into our groping hearts. We got spiritually connected to the land that carried the bones, breath and promise of our fathers. The wild dove-hen crowing like alto voices pleated our static black silhouettes, the tinkering tenor of throbbing drums, discordant snores of sleeping waters and the vibe of human mass together onto the hems of mystic hills—

Dzinomwa kuna runde
Mhondoro dzinomwa a a
Dzinomwa kunaSave
Mhondoro Dzinomwa…a…a a a
Dzinomwa kuna rundee
Mhondoro dzinomwa AAA

The shrine suddenly slid into an abrupt frenzy of traditional dance-songs and a poetic trance of ancestral praise. The scantily dressed nuns danced until their slim frames soaked in sweat. Their rotund figures were clad in different regalia made of goatskin, leopard and lion skins and other beautifying paraphernalia. They received their costumes in accordance with their levels of seniority and nature of duties. These maidservants were all beautiful but well trained to charge their duties with due diligence and requisite zeal. It was like they were born from one big womb, we found it difficult to distinguish them, and they looked alike as black-eyed peas and they carried themselves with that high calibre of moral consciousness and hyperbolised dignity. Their body frames were a real fulfilment of god’s unmatched creativity. Their breasts were taunt and straight like porcupine quills ready to spike, as they quivered like turgid, fresh ripe mangoes ready to fall from their mother tree. Our untamed hearts skipped to suffocate us, the amazing beauty that blinded both brave hunters and seasoned dancers among other revellers. Male congregants had to tame their manhood because the temptations were extreme, beyond human reasoning and above sexual-emotional control. We uncontrollably salivated at the rawness of that unspoilt human dignity. The wonder-angels were all virgins, they had under gone a traditional initiation including sacrificial oaths to be maid servants of the holy land. That, they would never become wives, mothers or indulge into any intercourse of sexual nature until the time of their demise. They carried their chores with profound zeal and well calculated precision. Their service varied according to age, clan of origin, talent, teachings, practice and seniority.

The appearance of Dungwiza, the rainmaking medium interrupted the current mood. His elephantine frame was draped in an unusual all black apparel. The baritone gifted man boasted of his gigantic frame and ever darting eyes that never blinked to anything. A sign of bravery. He waved and yawned thrice, the drumming, the chanting and dancing stopped abruptly. The night was still young. Dungwiza was the leader of main rituals including rainmaking occasions at Matonjeni. The gallery slid into an abrupt silence like at graveyard. Dungwiza made a rushed stride towards the epicenter of the shrine. Maidservants ululated like cooing doves praise and worshipping the last rays of setting sun.

Dungwiza blew three full finger pinches of ancient snuff and then wiped black snort with the back of his aged and weather-toughened hands. The rustling sound of stubborn winds was drowned by the beat of his poetic incantations—

Imwi mhondoro dzenyika
Varidzi vepasi nemuronga wenyu
Ndauya kuzosuma pwere dzenyu
Nyika yapinda munzamusha
Musha waparara nehosha
Musha wovava segavaka
Pasi ronhuwhwa segutukutu
Vana vayaura, pasi raoma roda veta
Vana vofa nenyota vodzungaira
Dzorai moyo, musasunga moyo
Nyika yoda donhodzo vana vagute
Vanayaura, vafamba mitunhu kuzochema kwamuri
Mukai muone misodzi yavo netarisiro.
Vana vasingachemi vanofira mumbereko

The spirited supplications were punctuated by yawns, bellows and sneezing from shrine disciples and other mediums. Plumes of burning incense and whiffs of black snuff conquered the shrine the scent was both suffocating and beautiful. The rainmaking prayer was capped by an electric echo of ululations from the band of Matonjeni nuns. The shrine was lit with spiritual blaze and human rhythm. Dungwiza tossed his Muhacha rod upwards. He ordered drummers to beat the Shangana neShumba drum. Drums were cracked and their throb vibrated the land. The tense rhythm beat, unmatched. Behold the land was holy.

Suddenly, spats of drizzle grew fat, heavens opened their floodgates, and heavy rain soaked the earth. Drums tinkered still. The night was now aging and was clad in a dark grey gown preparing to surrender Matonjeni shrine to the angels of dawn. Dawn proudly winked its twilight for the elephants to rise from slumber and take an early morning bath, Nguva dzamashambanzou. Mediums sneezed from one trance to another. We chanted still, we sang still and danced still. The rhythm of our dance and song traversed to the lands faraway and reached onto the holy ears of gods.

The eastern hills wore an orange monkey hat and ochre—red blood robe, wiping off mist from the rain—thickened eyelids of our hills. We were served with food, goat meat stew alongside stiff millet porridge sadza remapfunde. We washed down the delicacies with calabashes filled with traditional mhunga brew both alcoholic (mhamba) and non-alcoholic (maheu) beverages. We ate until our bellies stretched; we couldn’t afford a fart or a belch. It was difficult. Dungwiza jumped from his sitting position and an unexpected lightening jolt sparked the semi-dark gallery. It was followed by another unusual lightening wink and a thunderclap. The gallery trembled as if the caves were falling apart. The rainmaker ordered us to be silent and to be stationery.

The gods of this land have heard our concerns; our tears have wetted the mats of heaven. The gods are confirming their and concern and their presence, Dungwiza boasted with his big eyes fixed onto the gallery entrance.

A solitary baboon barked from a distance, a ferocious roar of a lioness ensued, it shook the granite boulders of the shrine and then a strong jolt of lightening blazed again like tongs of fire. There was a deathly silence. We could only hear calculated farts, faint whispers, sighs of awe and feeble breaths from a battalion of congregants packed like sardines against gallery walls. The shrine was seized by the discord of fear.

A frail, thin and uncombed young woman limped lackadaisically into the quiet gallery. Dungwiza, Nyamasviswa, shrine desciples and nuns rose in salutation to the unexpected guest amid fish eagle like—cackling ululations, praise incantations and bellows. A song was pod-cracked from amongst the disciples

It was again a familiar song but many of us were still in utter shock—

Tovela, mudzimu dzoka
Ha heyihe mudzimu dzoka
Aee yiye Mudzimu dzoka
Vana Vanogwara mudzimu dzoka
Kwaziwai Tovela

It was a song to welcome the spirits of the land.

The frail woman spirit shook her head unstoppably, belched and sneezed incessantly. Her fumbling’s were stitched together by continuous handclapping and song from the shrine disciples. She hung her dreadlocked head languidly twice or thrice and then fumbled for an apparel to cover her beautiful bosom. She sneezed hetsu hits hetsu uncontrollably. She roared again like a lioness chasing after a prey. It was an ear-shattering roar. A ferocious roar.

She began to speak in a frightening baritone-laced voice. She spoke deep kalanga tongues—

Ndini Tovela
Mutumwa wedenga nepasi
Ndatumwa naMurenga
Muridzi wapasi nedenga
Matama enyu asvika munzeve dzedenga
Ndauya nemisodzi yedenga
Muchamwa mvura, mucharima, muchaguta
Murenga vanotenda nezvipo zvamauya nazvo.

The frail woman spirit was Tovela, the supreme messenger of gods. She was ordained to become supreme when she was still a fetus in her mother’s womb. She is the princess of Matonjeni of the patriarch of Murenga. She had brought the message of rain, healing of the land and good life for pilgrims. Tovela Kalanga was the remaining lioness of the land. Her service was dipped in sanctity, honesty, dignity and spirituality. A pot of frothing millet beer was offered to her as a gift, she guzzled the beer and blew a wide smile into the awed but obedient congregation. A sign of merriment. We chuckled with the relief that our supplications were received.

Drinking, dance and song persisted. Delinquent disciples imbibed until they crawled like skunks. The sun-rose with its old-aged forehead creased with paradox of the rainbow and metaphors of rain. Its rays winked to the fait nightly shadows with a calculated rhythm, tearing apart grey and white gowns of mist off our hills. Fingers of dawn caressed the snore-congested gorges and mist-clad mountains of home. Mourning doves with their melodious hymns deleted owls all-night poetry slam. The nightly rainmaking ritual and Matonjeni vibe were quickly scribbled onto the godly wind slates.

Tovela and Dungwiza disappeared alongside the grey and white veil of the clearing mist. Song and dance continued. Rains persisted. This is the Mystery of Zame, the holy land of rain, ancestral spirits and gods.

©2021 Mbizo Chirasha
All rights reserved

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The Dance — Joseph Hesch

In the conversation we never had, you didn’t say, “Life’s subjective. One person’s joy could trigger another’s despair. Like someone else’s woe could bring another cheer.”

“We’ve lived each,” I would’ve said. “You, often, the latter,” my eyes would blink in code.

But we weren’t really talking about Life (like I said, we weren’t really talking at all), unless you consider just getting out of bed Life. Really about living, opening those eyes, taking that big inhale, letting it go, sometimes with words strung thereto, just to get to the next gulp of existence.

“You know, there was a time I didn’t care if my last exhalation, whether preceded by a sob or a snore, was indeed my last. Go to sleep. Wake not. I wouldn’t have considered that failure. THAT might’ve brought someone solace.” I could’ve revealed.

“That’s what I’m saying,” you didn’t say.

“I wish you would’ve talked to me about it,” I wish I’d said.

“There was no point. I wanted to talk to very few people and you weren’t one of them.”

Ergo, the non-conversation we weren’t having.

“Would you like to come talk now?” I might say.

“No. I’m not going anywhere with you.”

“Yeah (or is it ‘No’), we’ve each made that clear,” I might whisper.

“What didn’t you say?” You’d probably ask.

There was so, so much.

“I’m not going anywhere with you, either,” I’d say.

It’d always been a one-step-toward-and-one-back thing with us, symbiotically going nowhere, needy dance partners with no sense of rhythm.

©2021 Joseph Hesch
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The same sun scorched downtown Los Angeles that had seared the Iraqi desert. Army Private First Class Samantha Cummings stood at attention holding a stack of boxes, her unwashed black hair slicked back in a ponytail and knotted military style. She stared out from Roberts Shoe Store onto Broadway, transfixed by a homeless man with hair and scraggly beard the color of ripe tomatoes. She’d only seen that hair color once before, on Staff Sergeant Daniel O’Conner.

The man pushed his life in a shopping cart crammed with rags and stuffed trash bags. He glanced at Sam through the storefront window, his bloated face layered with dirt. His eyes had the meander of drink in them.

Sam hoped hers didn’t. Since her return from Baghdad a year ago, her craving for alcohol sneaked up on her like an insurgent. Bathing took effort. She ate to exist. Friends disappeared. Her life started to look like the crusted bottom of her shot glass. The morning hangover began its retreat to the back of her head.

The homeless man vanished down Broadway. She carried the boxes to the storeroom.

In 2012, Sam passed as an everywoman: white, black, brown, Asian. She was a coffee colored Frappuccino. Frap. That’s what the soldiers nicknamed her. Her mother conceived her while on ecstasy during the days of big hair and shoulder pads. On Sam’s eighteenth birthday, she enlisted in the Army. She wanted a job and an education. But most of all she wanted to be part of a family.

“Let me help you,” Hector said, coming up beside her.

“It’s okay. I got it.” Sam flipped the string of beads aside. Rows of shoe boxes lined both walls with ladders every ten feet. She crammed the boxes into their cubbyholes.

“Can I take you to lunch?” Hector asked, standing inside the curtain.

“I told you before. I’m not interested.”

“We could be friends.” He shrugged. “You could tell me about Iraq.”

Sam thrust the last box into its space. The beads jangled. Hector left.

She glanced at the clock. Fifteen minutes until her lunch break. The slow workday gave her too much time to think. She needed a drink. It would keep away the flashbacks.

“C’mon, Sam,” Hector said outside the curtain.


Hector knew she was a vet. He didn’t need to know any more about her.

On her way to the front of the store, Sam passed the imported Spanish sandals. Mr. Goldberg carried high-quality shoes. He showcased them on polished wood displays. She loved the smell of new leather, and how Mr. Goldberg played soft rock music in the background, with track lighting, and thick-padded chairs for the customers.

The best part of being a salesperson was taking off the customer’s old shoes and putting on the new. The physical contact was honest. And she liked to watch people consider the new shoes—the trial walk, the mirror assessment—and if they made the purchase, everyone was happy.

Sam headed toward the door. Maria and Bob stood at the counter looking at the computer screen.

“Wait up,” Maria said. The heavy Mexican woman hurried over. “You’re leaving early again.”

“No one’s here,” Sam said, towering over her. “I’ll make it up, stay later. Or something.”

“You better.”


“Or you’ll end up like that homeless man you were staring at.”

“You think you’re funny?”

“No, Sam. That’s the point.”

“He reminded me of someone.”

“In Iraq?”

Sam turned away.

“Try the VA.”

Sam looked back at Maria. “I have.”

“Try again. You need to talk to someone. My cousin—”

“The VA doesn’t do jack shit.”

“Rafael sees a counselor. It helps.”

“Lucky him.”

“So do the meds.”

“I don’t take pills.”

“Oh, Sam.”

“I’m okay.” She liked Maria and especially Mr. Goldberg, a Vietnam vet who not only hired her but rented her a room above the shoe store. “It’s just a few minutes early.”

Maria glared at her. “Mr. Goldberg has a soft spot for you, but this is a business. Doesn’t mean you won’t get fired.”

“I’ll make it up.” Sam shoved the door open into a blast of heat.

“Another thing,” Maria said. “Change your top. It has stains on it.”

Oh fuck, Sam thought. But it gave her a good reason to go upstairs.

She walked next door, up the narrow stairway and into her studio, the size of an iPhone. Curry reeked through the hundred-year-old walls from the Indian neighbors.

Sam took off her blouse and unstuck the dog tags between her breasts. The Army had no use for her. Take your meds, get counseling, then you can re-enlist. But she wasn’t going to end up like her drug-addicted mother.

The unmade Murphy bed screeched and dipped as she sat down in her bra and pants, the tousled sheets still damp from her night sweats.

The Bacardi bottle sat on the kitchenette counter. She glanced sideways at it and looked away.

The United States flag tacked over the peeling wallpaper dominated the room, but it was the image of herself and Marley on the wobbly dresser she carried with her.

Sam had taken the seventeen-year-old private under her wing. She’d been driving the Humvee in Tikrit with Marley beside her when an IED exploded, killing him while she escaped with a gash in her leg. Thoughts of mortar attacks, roadside bombs, and Marley looped over and over again. Her mind became a greater terrorist weapon than anything the enemy had.

Her combat boots sat next to the door, the tongues reversed, laces loose, prepared to slip into, ready for action. Sometimes she slept in them, would wear them to work if she could. Of all her souvenirs, the boots reminded her most of being a soldier. She never cleaned them, wanted to keep the Iraqi sand caked in the wedge between the midsoles and shanks.

The springs shrieked as Sam dug her fists into the mattress and stood. She walked to the counter, unscrewed the top of the Bacardi, poured herself a shot and knocked it back. Liquid guilt ran down her throat.

Sam picked up a blouse off the chair, smelled it and looked for stains. It would do. She dressed, grabbed a Snickers bar, took three strides and dashed out her room.

Heading south on Broadway, Sam longed to be part of the city. Paved sidewalks, gutters, frying tortillas, old movie palaces, jewelry stores, flower stands, square patches of green where trees grew—all of it wondrous—not like the fucking sandbox of Iraq.

The rum kicked in, made her thirsty as she continued down the historic center of town. The sun’s heat radiated from her soles to her scalp. A canopy of light siphoned the city of color.

She watched a tourist slowly fold her map and use it as a fan. Businessmen slouched along, looking clammy in shirtsleeves. Women, their dresses moist with sweat, form-fitted to their skin. Even the cars seemed to droop.

Waves of heat shimmered off the pavement. They ambushed Sam, planting her back in Tikrit.

She heard the rat-a-tat-tat of a Tabuk sniper rifle. Ducked. Dodged bullets.

Scrambled behind a trash bin. Searched around for casualties. She looked at the top of buildings wondering where in the hell the insurgents fired from.

“Hey, honey, whatsa matter?” An elderly black woman stooped over her.

“Get down, ma’am!”

“What for?”

Sam grabbed at the woman, but she moved away.

“Get down, ma’am! You’ll get killed!”

“Honey, it’s just street drillin’. Those men over there, they’re makin’ holes in the cement.”

Covered in sweat, Sam swerved to her left. A Buick and Chevrolet stopped at a red light. She saw the 4th Street sign below the one-way arrow. Her legs felt numb as she held onto the trash bin and lifted herself up.

“You a soldier?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Sam said, looking into the face of the concerned woman.

“I can tell. You fella’s always say ‘ma’am’ and ‘sir’, so polite-like. Take it easy child, you’re home now.” The woman limped away.

Sam reeled, felt for the flask in her back pocket but it wasn’t there. Construction workers whistled and made wolf calls at her.

“Douche bags,” she moaned.

Alcohol had always numbed the flashbacks. Her counselor in Baghdad told her they would fade. Why can’t I get better, she asked herself? Shaking, she blinked several times, forcing her eyes to focus as she continued south past McDonald’s.

At 6th, she saw the man with tomato-color hair on the other side of the street, jostling his shopping cart.

“It’s Los Angeles, not Los Angelees!” he shouted.

His voice rasped like the sick, but Sam heard something familiar in the tone. He pushed his cart around the corner. The light turned green. Sam sprinted in front of the waiting cars to the other side of the road. She had grown up across the 6th Street Bridge that linked Boyle Heights to downtown. From the bedroom window of the apartment she shared with her mother, unless her mother had a boyfriend, Sam would gaze at the Los Angeles skyline.

She followed the man into skid row.

The smell hit her like a body slam. The stink of piss and shit, odors that mashed together like something died, made her eyes water. A block away, it was another world.

She trailed the man with hair color people had an opinion about. The Towering Inferno. That’s what they called Staff Sergeant Daniel O’Conner, but not to his face. He knew, though, and took the jibe well. After all, he had a sense of humor, was confident, tall and powerfully built, the last man to end up broken, not the hunched and defeated man she was following. No, Sam thought. It couldn’t be him. It couldn’t be her hero.

He shoved his gear into the guts of the city with Sam behind him. The last time she’d been to skid row was as a teenager, driving through with friends who taunted the homeless. The smell was one thing, but what she saw rocked her. City blocks of homeless lived under layers of tarp held up by shopping carts. Young and old, most black, and male, gathered on corners, sat on sidewalks, slouched against buildings, drug exchanges going down. Women too stoned or sick to worry about their bodies slumped over, their breasts falling out of their tops. It was hard for Sam to look into their faces, to see their despair. The whole damn place reeked of hopelessness. Refugees in the Middle East and Africa at least had tents and medicine.

Sam put on her ass-kicking face, the one that said, “Leave me the fuck alone, or I’ll mess you up.” She walked as if she had on her combat boots, spine straight, eyes in the back of her head.

Skid row mushroomed down side streets. Men staggered north toward 5th and the Mission. She stayed close behind the red-headed man. He turned left at San Pedro. And so did Sam.

It was worse than 6th Street. Not even in Iraq had she seen deprivation like this: cardboard tents, overflowing trash bins used as crude borders, men sleeping on the ground. She watched a man pull up his pant leg and stick a needle in his ankle. Another man, his face distorted by alcohol, drank freely from a bottle. The men looked older than on 6th. Some had cardboard signs. One read, Veteran, please help me. Several wore fatigues. One, dressed in a field jacket, was missing his lower leg. Most, Sam thought, were Vietnam or Desert Storm vets. She felt her throat tighten, the familiar invasion of anger afraid to express itself. She’d been told by the Army never to show emotion in a war zone. But Sam brought the war home with her. So did the men slumped against the wall like human garbage.

The red-headed man passed a large metal dumpster heaped with trash bags. It stank of rotten fruit. He disappeared behind the metal container with his cart.

Sam looked at the angle of the sun. She had about ten minutes before thirteen hundred hours.

There was a doorway across the street. She went over and stood in it.

He sat against the brick wall emptying his bag of liquor bottles and beer cans. He shook one after another dry into his mouth. She understood his thirst, one that never reached an end until he passed out. He took a sack off the cart and emptied it: leftover Fritos bags, Oreo cookies, pretzels. He tore the bags apart and ran his tongue over the insides. He ate apple cores, chewed the strings off banana peels.

“What are you—” he growled. “You. Lookin’ at?” His eyes roamed Sam’s face.

Shards of sadness struck her heart. It was like seeing Marley’s strewn body all over again. Staff Sergeant O’Conner’s voice, even when drunk, was deep and rich. It identified him, like his hair. How could the man who saved her from being raped by two fellow soldiers and who refused to join in the witch-hunts of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, a leader, who had a future of promotions and medals, end up on skid row?

“You remind me of someone,” she said.

How could a once strapping man who led with courage and integrity eat scraps like a dog next to a dumpster? What happened that the Army would leave behind one of their own? Like a militia, disillusionment and bitterness trampled over Sam’s love of country.


She woke up to another hot morning. Her head throbbed from the shots of Bacardi she tossed back until midnight as she surfed the internet, including the VA, for a Daniel O’Conner. She found nothing.

For breakfast, she ate a donut and washed it down with rum. She pulled on a soiled khaki T-shirt and a pair of old jeans and slipped into her combat boots, the dog tags tucked between her breasts. Sam knotted her ponytail, grabbed a canvas bag, stuffed it into her backpack and left. She had to be at work at twelve hundred hours. If O’Conner slept off the booze, he might be lucid and recognize her.

At the liquor store, she filled the canvas bag with candy bars, cookies, trail mix, wrapped sandwiches and soda pop then headed down Broadway. The morning sun streaked the sky orange and pink. Yellow rays sliced skyscrapers and turned windows into furnaces. Sam hurried south. When she crossed Broadway at 6th, the same sun exposed skid row as a stunning morning of neglect. Lines of men pissed against walls, women squatted. She heard weeping.

Sweat ran down her armpits, her head pounded. Sam felt shaky, chewed sand, and looked around. Where was Marley? She stumbled backwards into a gate.

“Baby, whatchu doin’? You one fine piece of ass.” The man reached over and yanked at her backpack.

“No!” Sam yelled. She didn’t want to collect Marley’s severed arms and legs to send home to his parents. “No,” she whimpered, grabbing the sides of her head with her hands. “I can’t do it,” she said sliding to the ground.

“Shit, you crazy. This is my spot, bitch. Outa here!” he said and kicked her.

Sam moaned and gripped her side. She saw a plastic water bottle lying on the sidewalk, crawled over and drank from it. A sign with arrows pointing to Little Tokyo and the Fashion District cut through the vapor of her flashback. Iraqi women wore abayas, not shorts and tank tops. Sitting in the middle of the sidewalk, Sam hit her fist against her forehead until it hurt.

She saw the American flag hoisted on a pulley from a cherry picker over the 6th Street Bridge, heard the click clack of a shopping cart, and the music of Lil Wayne. The sounds pulled her away from the memory, away from a place that had no walls to hang onto.
Sam held the bottle as she crawled to the edge of the sidewalk. She took deep breaths, focused and glanced around.

What the fuck was she doing sitting on a curb in skid row with a dirty water bottle? “Or you’ll end up like that homeless man you were staring at.”

“Oh Jesus.” Sam dropped the bottle in the gutter and trudged toward San Pedro Street.

She had thought that when she came home, she’d get better, but living with her mother almost destroyed her. It began slowly, little agitations about housework, arguments that escalated into slammed doors. Then, one day, her mother called George Bush and Dick Cheney monsters who should be in prison. She accused Sam of murder for killing people who did nothing to the United States. Sam lunged at her, when she stumbled over a chair and fell.

Her mother ran screaming into the bathroom and locked the door. “Get outa my house and don’t ever come back!”

“Don’t worry! You’re a piece of shit for a mother, anyway!”

She left and stayed with her friend Jenny until she told her to stop drinking and get her act together.

In her combat boots, Sam scuffled along, hoping to catch O’Conner awake and coherent. She turned left. The shopping cart poked out from the trash bin. Sam walked to the dumpster and peered around it. O’Conner wasn’t there, but his bags and blankets were. She stepped into his corner and was using the toe of her boot to kick away mouse droppings when someone grabbed her hair and yanked back her head, forcing her to her knees. Terrified, she caught a glimpse of orange.

“Private First Class Samantha Cummings, United States Army, Infantry Unit 23. Sergeant!”

She raised her arms. Sweat streamed down her face. His grip remained firm.

“Staff Sergeant O’Conner, I’ve brought provisions. They’re in my backpack. Sandwiches, candy bars, pretzels!”

He let go of her hair. The ponytail fell between her shoulders.

“I’m going to take off my backpack, stand, and face you, Sergeant.”

Her fingers trembled, searched for the Velcro strap and ripped it aside. The bag slid to the ground. She rose with her back to him and turned around. She saw the war in his eyes.

“It’s me. Frap.”

His skin, filthy and sun-burnt, couldn’t hide the yellow hue of infection. He smelled of feces and urine. His jaw was slack, his gaze unsteady.

“You want something to eat? I got all kinds of stuff,” Sam said.

Her emotions buried in sand, began to tunnel, pushing aside lies and deceit.
O’Conner tore open the backpack and emptied out the canvas bag.


She knelt beside him and unwrapped a ham and cheese sandwich.

“No booze. Here, have this,” she said, handing him the food. “Go on.”

Her arm touched his as she encouraged him to eat.
O’Conner sat back on his heels, “It’s all . . .”
Sam leaned forward, “Go on.”
“It’s all . . . stuck!”
“What’s stuck?”
He shook his head.

“It’s all, stuck!” he cried.

He grabbed the sandwich and scarfed it down in three bites. Mayonnaise dripped on his scruffy beard. He kept his sights on Sam as he tore open the Fritos bag and took a mouthful. He ripped apart the sack of Oreo cookies and ate those too.

“Go away,” he said as black-and-white crumbs fell from his mouth.

Sam shook her head.

“Leave. Me. Alone!”

“I don’t want to.”

He drew his knees up to his chest, shut his eyes and leaned his head against the metal dumpster. Here was her comrade-in-arms, in an invisible war, where no one knew of his bravery, where ground zero happened to be wherever you stood.

“You saved me from Jackson and Canali when they tried to rape me in the bathroom. I should have been able to protect myself. And when they tried to discharge me. For doing nothing. You stood up for me. Remember?” O’Conner didn’t move. “I never, thanked you. Cause it showed weakness.”

O’Conner struggled to his knees.

“I don’t know you!” His breath smelled rancid.

“Yeah, you do.”

“I don’t know you!” he cried.

“You know me. You saved me twice, dude!”

O’Conner stumbled to his feet and gripped the rail of his shopping cart, his spirit as razed as the smoking remains of a Humvee. He shoved off on his morning trek. For how long, Sam wondered.

She gathered the bags of food and put them in the canvas bag. She kicked his rags to the side, took his blankets, flung them out, folded them and rearranged the cardboard floor. She put the blankets on top and hid the bag of food under his rags.

Emotions overcame her. Loyalty, compassion, anger, love—feelings so strong tears fell like a long-awaited rain.

Sam couldn’t save O’Conner, but she could save herself.

She ripped off her dog tags and threw them in the dumpster. Once home, she’d take down the flag, fold it twelve times and tuck the picture of Marley and herself inside it. She’d throw out her military clothes and combat boots. Pour the rum down the sink. She’d go to the VA, badger them until she got an appointment. Join AA. She’d arrive and leave work on time.

The morning began to cook. It was the same sun, but a new day. Sam walked in the opposite direction of O’Conner.

© 2019, DC Diamondopolous

The Dogs of Midnight

This is work of friction, where the tectonic plates of real life rub up against a life imagined as real; my name is Everyman, and I went down to the beach today.

It is winter now. Ours is a temperate climate and though it is cool, there are days that feel as warm as a summer’s day in Europe. It’s not unusual for people to be at the beach at this time of year. I prefer winter to summer. Summer is all sweat and flies. It gets cold, usually in the late afternoon as the sun sets and then the hour before sunrise is the coldest time of the day. I believe that is true for everywhere. But there is something else, it is as intangible as air and yet, one senses it. It is like the bitter aftertaste of chocolate.

We’ve had a lot of rain and today has been the first day of sunshine in over a week, so I thought I would make the most of it. Make hay while the sun shines my father used to say. I thought of him today. He never saw where I live, where I migrated to. Where we are settled, dug in. My mind though has never settled. It tends to follow my body around but remains a trans-continental traveller.

It’s a strange word, migration. It sounds like a combination of migraine and nation. Migraine-nation, national migration, national migraine, the pain of a nation, nationhood migrates to pain?

…So anyway, I was down at the beach; not to swim but just to walk, watch the seagulls and the fisher-people casting from the pier. It is incredibly tranquil. I close my eyes and find there a smile which I release into the breeze. I hear the benign rumble of a car’s engine behind me. There are two young girls wearing hijabs, eating ice-cream and laughing while taking their sandals off to walk on the beach. Then a loud, aggressive revving breaks the day. A car full of young boys pulls up into the carpark and they shout at the girls this is Straya, go back to where you came from. They are laughing, slapping one another, having fun. One of them throws an empty coke can in the direction of the girls and then they accelerate away. The young girls put their sandals back on, one of them picks up the can, throws it into the bin and they get into their car and drive away.

Sometimes there are cormorants bobbing on the surface of the water and I time how long they go under water for. It’s usually anywhere between 5 and 8 seconds, depending on how hungry they are, I guess. There is a slight breeze, with a bit of a bite to it. That for me is the best sensation, feeling the heat of the sun on your face but, also the sting of cool air. I feel nostalgic, but I don’t remember what for. Some memory within me that’s been layered with time. On a day, some time in my life, the sun shone warm and there was an iciness in the air and I was happy, and the association has become embedded in my psyche.

Memory is a strange thing.

They say (whoever they are? Them that says a lot!) that animals have genetic memory. Mice in America were trained to fear the smell of cherry blossoms and generations of their descendants had the same fear without the experience. Pity humans don’t have that. We forget very quickly.

It has been a good day, for some. But, days end and darkness must follow. The world is old, and this has been its rhythm for aeons. Perhaps all of the inhabitants of earth have this rhythm too. We are made of the stuff that holds us as we go around the sun. We grow out of the ground of this spinning mass. Our mothers ate the roots pulled out of the soil, cooked and ate the animals that had eaten the grass growing in the soil, the earth. We really are just animated earth. We are what we are on. As our bodies carry our souls, so the earth carries us. We are the soul of the earth.

The days are getting shorter. Electricity does not diminish our animal instincts to withdraw in winter. It is done with relative ease and requires little preparation. We don’t withdraw entirely. Nights are cosy. The dogs sleep too close to the gas heater, I smell burning hair and make them move, I eat too many biscuits. Nights used to be quiet until those dogs started. Maybe they have always been there?

If they were, we never noticed because they were quiet, but something has breathed the fire of Hades into them. Every night it is the same thing. How is it that they always seem to come to life at midnight? How do they know? They’re as regular as a healthy bowel; those hounds that break the night barking. Those beasts who gnash their teeth and growl at everything: shadows, leaves scraping in the gutters, plastic bottles and empty tin cans rolling loudly on the tarmac in the wind, fighting cats, night shift neighbours, loud, drunk kids getting off midnight buses and goons burning rubber. But, to shout at the dogs in the dark only agitates them. They grow louder, more determined to fight. The only way to stop them is to go to them. I know, one night I tried.

They gather, God knows how? All is serene and then they are they are suddenly there. I approached where they were gathered. I became very afraid but, I thought, I am a man and they are just dogs. I must not show fear. As I walked up the driveway towards the gate that held them back they became frantic. They were biting at the fence. As I got closer they went into a frenzy of barking, snarling and yelping. They bunched at the gate, they began snapping viciously at one another. Then there was a high pitched howl. One of them was in serious pain. The pack’s attention turned to a smaller dog being attacked by a much larger one. They tore into it.

The victim of the attack snarled and yelped uncontrollably and then suddenly went quiet. Beneath the confusing mass of yanking, brutal heads shook away pieces of the poor thing. Blood was spraying everywhere. I felt warm droplets on my face. In a shadow cast by the garage wall a black liquid ran across the paving into the flower bed.

I think they were Marigolds, maybe Chrysanthemums? But, that could not be? Those are summer flowers, and this is winter. Perhaps they were sown late? How do seeds know what season it is if they have spent months on a shelf in air tight packets? I must remember to google that. How would I search for that … winter flowers in Western Australia? I must remember to do that. I never did remember to look properly at the flower bed and it would seem strange to go snooping around a house in daylight.

By now I was at the gate trying to see around the side of the house. One of them saw me move closer and bolted to the gate, not barking but baring its teeth. While it fixed its gaze on my face I slowly moved my right hand down to its chest that was up against the gate. I tried, cautiously to stroke the animal to calm it down. My fingers only slightly touched it. It leapt back as if electrocuted and began barking savagely, biting the dog next to it which stirred the pack into a new frenzy.

I quickly backed away. Their attention turned to the torn carcass behind them. They were sniffing and frantically licking up splattered blood, gnawing bits of sinew and cartilage. Gradually they began to sit and chew, eyes closed with satisfaction. The sickening sounds of tongues slapping, and licking grew louder. Their blood lust sated, they settled down to scavenge the yard for bits of the small dog. Bones cracked and split, cartilage that had once cushioned bone squeaked, and that was the last sound that poor dog would ever make.

By now I was forgotten, or at least ignored by the dogs (can we still call them that? Dogs.) and never taking my eyes off the gate, I backed away down the drive. Clear of them I felt a sudden wave of nausea and vomited into a full bush of lavender. I know it was lavender because the sweet smell of it was overwhelming after the smell and taste of iron that blood leaves in your mouth. I wondered what effect the vomit might have on the growth of the plant.

Regular Saturday evening sounds now filtered through the brutal gauze of night. A few neighbours gathered to investigate the ruckus. They stood close enough to the driveway to indicate concern but kept enough distance to avoid involvement. Their conversation rumbled and masked the echoes down the drive of dog’s tongues smacking.

There were, a few doors down, loud jovial voices saying good night, some laughter, one high pitched, a female laughing (I recall that I was irrationally annoyed at her for possessing such an awful laugh and wondered how by now—for she was clearly middle-aged, there was a husky, chesty cackle to the laugh—she had not realised that her laughter was horrible and at least tried not to laugh so heartily, so inconsiderately, so rudely…but how can one expect a person to cease laughing? What an awful predicament for a person to be in, I remember thinking and almost immediately forgave her for possessing such a grotesque gesture to indicate happiness. She ought to have been born sad. Maybe she was? Laughter, is after all as reliable an indication of happiness as a frown is of a death wish).

There were the sounds of car doors slamming shut the evening’s visit, which clearly had involved some wine, and across the road the staccato screech of violins from an open family room window reflecting Vincent Price in monochrome (I realised with dismay that I had missed the film I wanted very much to watch, The Last Man on Earth). A police helicopter flew in low over Merriwa, a searchlight limped through the sky.

I always say the world is a good place when, after the weather and doll bludgers, people say the whole world’s gone mad. We don’t live in the whole world mate, we live in bleedin’ Quinns, I say, and last time I looked it’s same as it ever was, it’s a good place ‘cos we’re good people.

© 2019, poem and illustration, Mike Scallan

Time Never Waits

Tired, sleepy, depressed, Saabir heaved himself out of the borrowed juted sleeping cot which was supported by four small wooden legs. There was no sheet or covering on it, making it easy to lie on in the hot and humid weather. Saabir rubbed his eyes, yawned a bit, and tried to make sense of his surroundings. Yes, he was in the same small compound that he entered some hours ago, after sunset.

He was exhausted after the long day’s work on the old workbench he had safely hidden in the nearby hut. After giving finishing touches to the design he would cover up everything with rough canvas pieces hoping and praying that no one would dare to steal or destroy or take away.

His food was scarce, one roti with some left over curry, water from the round clay pitcher that lay in the corner of the cordoned compound.

When I finish the design my innovation will be a big surprise for the world and for all in the art and design industry. It will be a sensation, a magnificent change, a new beginning, and, for me, the long awaited breakthrough that I have been working for. My life’s aim, my dream, my hope for my people, my country. Oh my Master, please help and guide me, guide me guide me…

So saying he raised his head and looked up at the night sky, expecting to see some stars, some bright and some not so bright. Oh, but what is this? The sky seemed so different, it was not fully dark nor reflecting any moonlight. No, these were not the nights of the moon, but what was the light visible in the western side? He managed to stand up and look a bit more closely. Soon he saw a dark shape all along the horizon spread out at the base and on the top side, shaped like a vehicle or more like a train, but how could a train be there?

Was he dreaming? No. He was not dreaming. He was now wide awake.

Saabir’s thoughts all crowded his mind. Confused, worried, and scared, he watched for a while until then he recalled a story his friend and coworker told him. His friend, Ahmed, was the only one he trusted in all the neighbors living close by. He shared information about what was happening in their town.

“You know Saabir, things are bad, wood is being taken away by the officials. New rules and regulations are expected to crop up any time, work will be very difficult, but nothing is for sure, but one can never say, as things have not improved over the last three years since the new council has taken oath. In fact things have become tight, you must try to finish whatever you have in mind. It is a lifetime chance for you. I am with you all the way and you can trust me.”

Ahmed continued in a low voice, “I also wanted you to know that people around were overheard saying that the path leading to the lake will be blocked soon and maybe controlled by armed personnel, so movement by citizens will be restricted. The Council is planning something big for this area and the time seems near.”

Ahmed grew pale as he finished. Quite apparently fearful, anxious and exhausted .

Saabir’s thoughts moved around the word “rumors.”  I hope they are just rumors.  The world is so uncertain these days. Takeovers. Enforcements. Mass shootings. Blatant killings. Suicide bombs. How many can one name? These are happening all around the world , even in educated countries.

Saabir had secretly kept a small transistor radio and would listen to the news and updates of events. Flashes of his own migration would visit him often and tonight he had a premonition. Something strange is going to happen.

The news came on soon. There have been a number of arrests and many armed personnel have been seen entering the city.  Clearly, something dangerous is about to take place. Saabir just sat speechless and numb.

He rubbed his skillful hands and looked at them and wondered, Will I be able to complete my work and my innovation, which will make this world a better place, an easier place, a peaceful place? Is time on my side or is it too late?

Oh! Never let go the rope of the Almighty, All Powerful.

My workbench? What about it and what about the creativity lying on top of it?

Great are the joys of creation but greater are the joys of the results, but would these unreasonable circumstances ever allow the new creation to emerge?

Torn between hope and despair, Saabir, sat back on the cot. He felt his heart beat fast and then sink a bit.

What could be done?

Sleep eluded him. He had to work three more days to complete and test the new design. It would be the best ever wood machine invented for making woodwork fine and easy. It would be like the zigzag brick design now accepted by many countries.


The brick kiln industry had manifested the change of production, best suited with environment and with white smoke let out from the kilns, no black pollution of the atmosphere. What a success! And now this mechanism would bring amazing results if , if…

Saabir’s eyes began to close and soon he had fallen in a sleepy stupor. No one knows how long he was in that state, not even Saabir himself.

His family, wife and two kids had long left him and travelled back to their ancestral village more than a hundred miles away. They could not cope with his workbench patterns, his timings, and his odd conversation.

He would say, “great minds have different thoughts and great inventors should never marry. Even great leaders with high aims in life should be away from homes, away from social life, so that they can pursue their noble activity on their precious workbench.”

His wife would quietly cry and feel helpless, though he was not strict with her. He just lacked the time to care. One day she decided to leave and took their children with her.

He saw flashes of his kids faces and their smiles. He missed their warm loving hugs and innocent laughter, giggles and funny antics. But then, as always, his mind shifted back to the great work he wanted to finish. Now he was nearing his great aim. And, by the Grace of the All Powerful, he would finish.

God had been kind to him and he wanted to return something worthwhile to God’s people. He wanted to make his life meaningful and to leave peace behind in his town and city and his native land. He wanted people to have full freedom to work and pray and for that he had sacrificed all he had and all that he held close. He never bothered about his health.

But let me go see if my hut is safe.

Saabir suddenly got up, a new energy entering his frail body. Things were too quiet. He felt for his slippers and finding them slowly made his way in semi-darkness towards the street where he had concealed his hut.

He had hardly gone a few yards when he saw the silhouette of an armed man. This time the figure had the complete dress of an army soldier. The helmet and the bayonet rifle could be seen clearly in the dark. Saabir stopped dead in his footsteps. He back up slowly and crept into the cordoned yard. His mind was tired but still he was thinking fast.

Could it be the enemy? Could it be the force that was being predicted and warned about? Oh dear! My workbench and my invention. 

Saabir calm down. Wait. Relax. It might be just another guard. It may be a normal patrolling party. 

Saabir tried to console himself, but deep down he knew that secret enemies had grown profoundly in the past months and some were on special duty to observe and keep an eye on him. Saabir had ignored the warnings. He had kept on with his work. He would never get another chance with his precious workbench that he had managed to build and work productively upon.

Oh Lord, give me the chance to finish my purpose for the good of humanity. You know what is in my heart and soul. I believe in you. I trust you.

Saabir lay quiet and soon he felt that dawn had started to break. Would it be the dawn of a lucky day or would it be a disaster? Why are people like him forced into difficult times?

Once he had attended a sermon quite by chance. There he’d heard, “the Lord tests all by giving and sometimes by taking away and those who are patient will be the better ones. The Lord will support them. They will neither be sad nor grieve nor feel depressed.”

Am I among them? Is the test coming on me?

Saabir again lifted himself, softly made his way to the curtained entry, and slowly looked out. Now he saw two armed soldiers right in the street where he had his workbench hut.

Now what? What is happening? What has happened during the night?

He must find out. If he wanted to reach the hut he would have to face the soldiers. There was no other way.

Oh no! An enemy occupation! Oh my workplace. My workbench and what all I had sacrificed to achieve my aim! Is it going to be an exercise in futility? Why people are so cruel? And greedy for land? And for money? And so heartless about human life! And for peace and progress. No one cares for humans or for human blood and then I must be an ignorant fool. Oh, let not these thoughts of desperation disturb and destroy me.

Saabir was still struggling trying to understand the situation when he heard hard footsteps approaching, within seconds the armed men were in front of him.

“It is all over, you have to come with us.”

“But wait! Wait! Where are you taking me? Who are you? Where are you from? How can you just…”

Saabir was pulled and pushed out and forced to walk towards the street.

“We have all the information and proof and we know what ammunition you have. We know what you are making. Just be quiet and keep walking till we tell you to stop.”

Saabir stopped as he heard the word, “HALT!”

And then he heard a loud blast. The street, his hut, his workbench, all exploded before his eyes. He felt the shock and collapsed on the road.

Workbench or life? Tragedies come without warning, and time never waits.

© 2019, Anjum Wasim Dar

Silencing the Thunder

“I’d like to purchase me one of those pistols, Mr. Armstrong.”

“One of these, here, son?”

“Yessir, that .41 caliber double action Colt on the right, to be exact.”

“Nice little piece, son. They call this model the Thunderer. Say John Wesley Hardin was partial to this weapon. Yep, a stone killer, that one. How old are you, son?”


“How old?’

“Well, almost nineteen.”

“How close is almost, son?”


“What was that, son? I don’t hear so good anymore. But I still see good as ever, and if you’re nineteen, I’m Rutherford B. Hayes. Now let’s try that again. How old are you?”

“Fourteen and a half. But I do a man’s work and carry a man’s load for my Ma and little sister and brother.”

“I don’t doubt that, son. Can see by those rough hands ya got there. Now, what would a hard-workin’ young man like you want with a gun made for…well, for killin’ other men.”

“I don’t know’s that any of your business. My money’s just as good as any other man’s and I don’t see you askin’ them so many questions. You gonna sell me that gun or not?”

“Rein in there, son. No need to get all tetchy. Just makin’ conversation’s all. I was just wondering what you wanted the piece for.”


“Huntin’, eh?”


“You havin’ a problem with some mighty big rabbits out there by the North Fork?”

“How d’you know where I’m from?”

“Knew your daddy from back in the old days.”

“You knew my Pa?”

“I did. He did some rangerin’ with my battalion after he come back from the War. I was told I was too old to join up and they wanted some veteran Rangers to stay and protect folks from Comanche and such while most of the young men were fightin’ back East. Sorry to hear about your Daddy’s passin’.”

“He didn’t just die. He was backshot by Cal Blandings.”

“Whoa, wait a minute. I heard he’s working on your Ma’s place. You say he killed your Pa?”

“Not just what I’m sayin’. It’s what I know.”

“And how’s that”

“Says he came upon my Pa after he was shot. But he’s a shady one and I wouldn’t believe a word the bastard says.”

“I’d have to say you’re a pretty good judge of character, son.”

“Yep. Few weeks later he comes to our door asking Ma if she needed a spare hand, what with Pa’s unfortunate dee-mise. That’s what he called it, his dee-mise. Then he gives me the evil eye, lettin’ me know he’s not to be trifled with. Told me my Pa never understood that.”

“If I recall, Blandings was right fond of your Mama before your Daddy come along and turned her pretty head. Mighty fond. Didn’t take it too well, now’s I recollect.”

“Yessir. And now he’s tryin’ to spark my Ma, convince her she needs a man around to protect her and the kids. Then he tells me how I’d best be careful when I’m out loopin’ strays. Says you never know, I could end up like my Pa if I didn’t watch myself.”

“So this here gun is to provide for your family, you say.”

“Yeah. Protect ‘em. He’s got Mama pretty mixed up right now. And the other night he…he hit her.”

“He didn’t!”

“Yeah he did.”

“So you want this Hardin gun to…”

“Do whatever needs doin’.”

“Well, young man, folks aren’t allowed to carry a gun on the streets of this town. That was established back when I was a deputy. Same rules as they even have up in such pits of wickedness as Abilene and Dodge.”

“Don’t intend to be carrying it around town.”

“I’d expect not, but let me give you some advice I heard from a lawman once about strapping a piece of iron like this on your hip. Or even picking one up in the first place.”

“Yeah, what’s that?”



“And if you ever do own a gun like this, you sure as hell don’t want to pull it. And if you ever have to clear leather, you better know what you’re doin’. Hell, even the lawmen in the cow towns, fellas like Earp and the Mastersons, only pull their guns to buffalo a rowdy cowboy on the gourd with the barrel. And these men are professionals who have faced down many a bad man with a gun.”

“That’s fine for those fellas, but I’ve got to…”

“Son, I want you to wait a few days to cool down just a bit. Then come back and I promise to let you have this gun if you still think you need it.”

“I need…”

“Trust me, son. You don’t want to do what I think you’re plannin’. Listen, I’m an old Ranger who’s seen what one of these can do to a man.”

“I seen men shot before.”

“I don’t mean the one’s what got shot, son.”


“Just trust me. Three days is all I’m askin’. Keep your powder dry for three days and then we’ll deal.”

“All right, I’ll be back Friday.”

“Good. You won’t be sorry. I’ll even put the Colt aside for you as a show of good faith. In honor of your Daddy. See you Friday.”

“Yessir. See ya then. Thank you, Mr. Armstrong.”

“Poor kid. Hey, Jack, come here! Put this Colt away for me, will ya? Should the Leakes boy come back for it, tell him you sold it. I got someplace to go.”

“Sure, Ben. You headed over to Doc’s again?”

“Nah. That horse is well out of the barn. He said nothing he can do for me anymore. Just a matter of time. No more’n a year. Actually, I’m thinking of takin’ a ride out near the North Fork. Visit Chet Leakes’ old place.” 

“Why you puttin’ on your old Colt just for a social call, Ben?”

“Oh, just gonna chase off some rabbit. Kinda like we did in the old days. I got to be quicker than the scruffy beasts. Hear they got big ones commencin’ to be a problem out there. Thought I’d lend Maddie Leakes a hand, just for old times sake.”

“Uh huh. You want any help? I heard over at The Imperial those varmints out at Maddie’s are said to be pretty quick. Quicker than most.”

“Well Jack, there’s quick, and there’s accurate, and there’s smart. I’ve always been at least two of those three on such occasions. Besides, what’s the worse he could do to me if things get sidewise? I already got my ticket punched.”

“You forgot one other gift you have over those damn rascals, Ben.”

“Oh? I must be gettin’ old. What might that be?”

“Frijoles as big as church bells, mi amigo.”

 “Hah. Well, maybe. Ain’t seen much of them since I acquired this here bay window. We’ll just have to trust I still got the sand should the time come for me to do…what’d the Leakes boy say? Oh yeah, ‘whatever needs doin’.”

“I kinda figured this would turn this way. I already saddled ol’ Fuego for you, Ben. You check your loads and I’ll strap my new Winchester on the saddle if you want. You know, in case you gotta take down this here jackrabbit from a distance. Like I said, I heard he’s quick, but also damn wily.”

“I thank you kindly, Jack. I’m hoping to look this old boy in the eyes first. See if I can make him blink, you might say. I’d rather chase him off than put him down. But not all that much.”

“I doubt the boy or that coward knows how you faced down Hardin in Gonzales and was one of the Rangers what finally caught him in Florida.”

“Yeah, well these damn things in the wrong hands or the hands of the wrong-headed are the Devil’s own poison, aren’t they, Jack?”

“Yessir, Cap’n.”

“An’ don’t let that boy get a weapon like that Thunderer. Hope to God he never finds out how much misery ripples out like a stone thrown into still water when someone pulls a piece with the intent to use it for what it was made. Like as drown the thrower as the catcher. Almost drowned me. It is a sour baptism that boy and his mama don’t need. No one, especially a civilian, really needs drownin’ anymore.”

“Yessir. Vaya con Dios. Go with God, Cap’n. Good huntin’. I’ll be lookin’ for you before Friday.”

“Good lord willin’. Be sure to douse the lights and lock up for me, mi amigo.”

© 2018, Joe Hesch

Wild Turkey Neat

This is a story about a guest I served and had a life-changing conversation with. It’s a story about gratitude, loss, and no regrets.

As soon as I laid eyes on the old man, I remembered him from last year’s Christmas party. Wild Turkey neat—that’s what he drank. As a bartender, I pride myself on remembering what each person drinks, but I was shocked and impressed that I still remembered this man’s preference. Waiting in the coat line, he stood out with his classic, custom-fit look. He wore a camel-colored cashmere overcoat and a light-brown fedora cocked to the side and angled just right. The fedora punctuated his confidence—what the kids today call swagger. After he checked his coat and hat he circumnavigated the room with his gaze. He was alone. Within moments people were washing up to him like the waves at Waikiki and wishing him Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. As he approached the bar, I immediately began to make his drink. Wild Turkey neat in the rocks glass. As soon as this gentleman arrived at my station, I presented him his drink.

“Here you go, sir,” I said. “Wild Turkey neat.”

His expression was priceless: ghostly shock. I told him I remembered his signature drink from last year’s Christmas party. He immediately shook my hand with a firm grip and introduced himself. “My name is Joe, and thank you for remembering my drink.”

I told him my name and said, “No problem, Joe.” He reached into his front pocket, pulled out his money clip, and began peeling off some bills. I couldn’t help but notice his well-tailored sports coat and pants. He was also wearing gold-plated cuff links. I noticed them while he was holding a twenty.

“Joe, this is an open bar; the drinks are free tonight.”

He then put the twenty in my tip cup and said, “That’s for you.”

Wow, I thought, and I shook his hand again. “Thanks Joe! That’s very generous of you.”
He just smiled and began talking to the other guests.
Joe appeared to be in his late eighties. His whole ensemble was impeccable. Even his silk pocket square, a rustic orange, made him look dapper.


When I saw Joe moving toward the bar again, I began making another glass of his signature drink. After he arrived at the bar, I handed it to him. His smile was bright and warm as he stood and watched me serve the other guests; I was on point that night. This was a holiday party, and everyone was in a great mood. Joe took out his money clip again, removed two twenties, and dropped both into my tip cup. I remember watching the bling reflect off his gold cuff link as the bills were slipped into the cup. I couldn’t believe how generous this guy was. Most people were tipping a dollar with each drink, although now then someone would give me a five. But Gentleman Joe had just given me forty, not counting the twenty he’d given me for his first drink.

“Thanks, Joe,” I said.

“No problem, my friend.” Then he asked how long I had been bartending.

“On and off for about eight years.”

“You’re a good bartender. I was in the business for forty years myself. You make great drinks. You have a good personality, and you know how to work a crowd. I’m a retired wine and liquor sales rep. I sold wine and liquor to bars and restaurants all over New York and New Jersey. I was the best in the business. Over the years I’ve met plenty of bartenders, but not many as good as you, my friend. It really impressed me that you remembered my drink.”

That was the best compliment I had ever received as a bartender. I was so proud and taken aback by Joe’s impression of me.

“Thanks, Joe, for saying that! It means a lot to me, especially coming from you with all that experience.”

Joe smiled, lifted his drink, took a sip, and said, “Salute.” I bowed my head and repeated the word. And then he said, “I shall return.”

There was something special about this guy Joe. I couldn’t put it into words, but he had a gravitational pull to him. When I was talking to him, I could tell I had his undivided attention. He was listening in an effort to understand and not forming his own reply. He had an intense, friendly, and relaxed focus to his eyes. It was apparent that he had seen a lot in his life. Joe had a sage-like presence, and I felt it.

At this point of the party the main course was being served, and everybody scattered to their assigned tables, which meant it was downtime for me. I was able to stretch and get some ice for my sink and restock my bar. After I was done filling my backup sink with ice I saw Joe in the distance heading toward the bar. I put the ice bucket under the beer cooler, grabbed the Wild Turkey, and started to pour it into a rocks glass. Before Joe reached the bar, I had his drink on deck. He glanced at me with his warm smile and said, “Outstanding.”

The DJ played some light Christmas music while everybody ate. Joe stayed at the bar and sipped his Wild Turkey. He turned his head to scan the other guests and then he turned back to stare at his drink. He appeared to be in deep thought. He glanced back at me, smiled, and went back to gazing at his drink. I wasn’t sure what was going on.

Still staring at his drink he said, “I lost my wife three years ago, and I really miss her, especially during the holidays.”

“I’m sorry for your loss, Joe,” I said with a heavy heart. I could the see the pain in his eyes.

“You know she waited for me; she kept her word.”

Joe seemed to read the confusion on my face.

“When I returned from the war, she waited for me.” He broke eye contact and once again set his vacant eyes on his signature drink. It was as if Joe were time-traveling to his past. The other guests were still eating, so it was only Joe and me at the bar. He finally lifted his eyes back to me and began to narrate his life.

“I grew up in the Depression. I fought in the war and later married the love of my life, my soul mate. I raised a family with her, and we had two amazing kids. I’ve watched them grow up and have families of their own. I have three loving grandchildren. All my kids and grandkids are in a good place . . .”

Joe paused to take another sip of his drink. Then he stared hard into my eyes and said the most realistic but stunning thing I ever heard while tending bar: “My friend, I had a good life: wife, kids, grandkids . . . The only thing left for me is to die.”

I was floored. Bartending school hadn’t prepared me for this. Who was I to give this military veteran, husband, father, and grandfather advice? Silent night was playing in the background made the moment even more poignant.

“As I’ve gotten older, Christmas music makes me sad,” he said. “I used to love it. Now it only depresses me. I’ve become a Scrooge.” And he smiled faintly.

“Well, you sure don’t tip like Scrooge!”

That made him laugh. He needed to laugh. I followed my instinct and changed the topic. “Joe, what’s changed about the bar business, in your opinion?”

“Ha!” he blurted. “Where do I begin?” He started in on the martini. “It’s made with gin, not vodka! And the men today don’t know how to drink; they order these weak drinks.”

While Joe ranted, a young man came up and ordered an apple martini. The timing was impeccable. After I served the apple martini, Joe and I waited for the young man to abandon the bar. Then I looked at Joe and said, “Drinks like that?” Both of us laughed hard.

By then other guests were rediscovering the bar, and I was busy serving them. Meanwhile, Joe talked to some guests. Finally, the night was winding down, and I made last call. I saw Joe approach the bar, so I reached for the Wild Turkey, but Joe put his hand up and said with a smile, “Not this time; just water.”
“No problem, Joe.” I gave him a large glass of ice water, and he thanked me again. Then he handed me another twenty, but I didn’t want any more of his money; he had already been so generous. But Joe insisted.

“Thanks, Joe. You carried this party with the way you tipped me. And Merry Christmas. It was an honor talking to you. Thanks for sharing with me.”

Joe smiled, shook my hand, and said, “It meant a lot to me that you remembered my drink, and you’re terrific at bartending. Merry Christmas to you and your family.”

I thanked Joe again and said goodbye. I watched him slip away from the bar and toward the coat check. He put on his overcoat and then strategically cocked his fedora to the right. The sharp angle gave him a larger-than-life aura.

I stood behind the bar watching Joe say goodbye to everyone and wish them a Merry Christmas. The warm smile he shared with everyone masked the sadness he felt at the loss of his beautiful wife. As he approached the door to leave, it felt as if he were riding into the sunset, secretly counting the days until he would be reunited with his wife. And I knew I would never see that man again. But I was lucky to have crossed paths with Gentleman Joe. Those were my golden moments in bartending. Nothing will ever compare. It was a simple conversation that changed my life.


That experience with Joe was well over ten years ago, but it changed everything I do every December as I approach Christmas and the New Year. I go to a bar and order a Wild Turkey neat. I sit by myself, slowly sip my drink, and think about the past year of my life—the ups and downs, the goals I’ve accomplished, and the goals yet to be achieved. I anticipate with excitement the approaching New Year. I also reflect in gratitude on my family and my friends. And it’s all because I drink like a gentleman to honor a gentleman. Salute, Joe.

© 2017, Anthony Vano

Meeting Poverty

Feeding America volunteers passing out food items to the poor.

She could not fathom how she had come to this, in a line with strangers, fall leaves a blanket on the ground beneath her feet. She was given an address to go to in an unfamiliar neighborhood. It was parking lot of a church. She could only think to put one foot in front of the other moving slowly forward.

Her destination was a rectangular metal building with a large sign announcing, “Food Bank.”  So many people! Each one with a story to tell and she could only think of her own. Was she selfish, uncaring and unfeeling?  No. She was numb; rather like pins and needles in her feet, except she couldn’t even feel those as she took advantage of this, the only option left to her.

She noticed that people knew each other, as though meeting here was a common occurrence, like leaning on a back fence to talk to your neighbor.  Conversations were mostly anxious and hopeful and centered on job searches. There were speculations about why they weren’t getting hired: not enough job experience, not enough education. What exactly bumped them out of the running, they wondered. She knew education wasn’t everything. She had a degree and still she was here, standing in line finding it hard to breathe.

The sun was shining but she felt cold as though the icy cold fingers of winter had settled into the fibers of her being, her breath woven with tiny icicles each time she exhaled. The time dragged.  It seemed the second-hand on the clock was refusing to move forward. Her thoughts drifted to another time.

Her children were in grade school. She stayed home to raise them. Her husband made a fairly good income but not enough to feed a family of seven. She took care of finances. Bills came first, then food, then clothes, not always new. But at some point, there just wasn’t enough money for basic necessities. They were, as sociologists would say, “food insecure.”  She hated the idea of asking for help but she had to think about the children. When a friend told her about a place to get staples for free, ask she did. To register for help, she had to bring proof of her husband’s income. If it wasn’t too much she could get cheese, rice, flour and dried milk for free. This could leave money for other necessities.

Later she would find out it was a Government Commodity Program that gave out these few items that were stockpiled in warehouses across the nation by the Commodity Supplemental Food Program. It began in 1933. It was called the Commodity Credit Corporation. It was created to help farmers acquire loans in exchange for crops. Out of this the USDA began storing surplus food. The idea was to keep prices down during the Great Depression. Over time the way to store food crops led to making “Government Cheese” and here she was, so many years later, standing in line to get a share for her family.

Another day. Another church. Another line. She still felt out-of-place but it was good to be there, to find a way to make her money stretch. Surely this was the answer and it did work until her husband got a small raise. She was told he made too much. Even though his income was just over the limits by a few dollars, she no longer qualified for food assistance. Who made the rules to determine who was poor and who was not? Her family would always do better than most, but she knew about money and priorities. She was fortunate. Still, it was hard.

She remembered how happy she had been to finally be able to attend college when her youngest daughter began school. She hoped this would make a difference one day but there was no crystal ball and no one to read Tarot cards. Life was a gamble and the only bet she made. She remembered one class in particular, a class on poverty. Her professor, a ministerial-type, had grabbed her attention but she wasn’t prepared for the day when he pointed out to the rest of the class that her husband was “working poor.”

She had never considered them poor. They had a house, a car, food on the table and her husband a good job. She didn’t work.  If she did all her income would go to childcare so it was pointless to try. To this day, she still feels the embarrassing sting of other students staring.

When she looked up from her memories, she found herself peering into the trailer. She was given a box full of food items that were either canned, boxed or bagged. There were no fresh items, certainly no government cheese. “Beggars can’t be choosers,” she thought. With a shrug, she took her box, put it in the car and drove home.

Once in her kitchen she unpacked the box. She found there were many items she could use and some items that were new and strang. She wondered if they were food at all. She picked up a can with a picture of a cow on the label, nothing else. She was dumbfounded, as though everything as she knew it had suddenly been tossed into a storm of kaleidoscope colors that had faded to black and white. She was looking at her first ever beef in a can. She couldn’t even imagine opening it, much less eating it. She put it in the cupboard and decided it would remain unless her choices simply ran out. When day she moved, she left the can behind, still believing that someone else would need it more than she. And yet, even after the move and passage of years, instinct told her that she would one day find her elder-self keeping company with poverty once again. And, sure enough, here she was on line at the food bank.

© 2017, short story, Renee Espriu; photo credit, Sterling Communications under CC BY 2.0 license.

Walking Along the Edge

Walking Along the Edge
Can you ever change and do what’s right?…
–from Jeremiah 13:23, CEV

The Anchorage Correctional Complex lay at the end of a short spur off 4th Avenue. Like the rest of the downtown, its parking lot was still bogged down in snow and icy ruts that passed for driving lanes. This less-than-hospitable environment was the end of the line for the three young men exiting a van from the Point McKenzie Correctional Farm in the early hours of a February morning. They were returning from the low security prison out of town to the municipal jail’s parking lot, ending the journey where they had begun. Each of them rummaged in his plastic bag of clothing for the layers appropriate to the temperature and whatever walking or transport lay ahead of him. Billy, the youngest, unceremoniously stripped to bare chest and re-attired himself in a fresh tee shirt, button overshirt, and a heavy hoody. No scarves, gloves, or hats for a one of them. Pure elation, sparked by freedom, warmed them well enough. Besides, should they choose, they could find what they needed at Bean’s Café and Rescue Mission around the corner. It was with some calculation that the driver had delivered them to this particular juncture.

“Hey.” Thomas’s farewell was curt. He hoped he’d never see these jokers again. Though he could fend for himself on the streets of Anchorage pretty well, his dream was to return to his village to hunt and fish with his uncles.

Thomas walked carefully within the compressed tire tracks to what he hoped was the snow-covered crosswalk. As he waited for a break in traffic, he tapped the envelope of family photos in his inside chest pocket and smiled. Life would be good again.

The farm was behind him, forever, but at least they had kept him busy there. He’d spent the summer in the fields, or in the barn, fixing and then running large machinery. When the season ended, he’d used their computers to complete certifications designed to make him more employable. And he’d written a few letters home. That was the least he could do. He’d caused enough worry.

Thomas crossed the intersection and walked down the block to the Mission, looking for a familiar face in the line of stragglers at the kitchen door.

“Thomas, is that you? Quyana!” The stained teeth and sideways grin of his sister’s husband lifted his heart. The village had come to him.

“It has been a long time since I heard the language of the village, Charlie. Ain’t you a sight for sore eyes.” He embraced his brother-in-law and shared a breath with him in the old way, nose to nose, before he let his arms drop to his sides.

Charlie clapped him on the shoulder, “How’s your dad?”

“Pop’s fine. I got a letter from him last week. He and his brothers are mending the boats, dreamin’ of all the seals they’re gonna catch.” Thomas wasn’t as close to his dad as he was to his uncles but he kept in touch. His dad had moved away from Thomas and his mother when he was still a kid.

“My lovely Martha is visiting your Auntie Marie in Bethel. That girl been goin’ stir crazy in the village this winter. Missing you, I reckon. You two always had a special connection.” Charlie noticed Thomas recoil slightly and changed the subject. “You know, we dun have to stay here. I was just waiting for you. Let’s hike up the road and get you some breakfast at Stella’s Place. She cooks real good.” Thomas knew Charlie meant that she used Crisco and wasn’t shy about serving fish for breakfast. He knew Stella’s. His mouth watered.
They walked through the icy hillocks and berm along L Street until it turned into Minnesota, then veered left at the sign of Romig Junior High’s ten-foot-tall Trojan and entered the low-rent neighborhood known as Spenard. Stella’s was a hole-in-the-wall café next to Mama O’s and the movie theater. They slid into the large booth that rounded a back corner and studied the menus out of habit. They always ordered the same thing.

“Two fish ‘n chips, extra tartar sauce, and black coffees?” The waitress smiled and winked at both of them in recognition. They nodded and watched her sashay back to the kitchen. Some things didn’t change much, thought Thomas. Right now that was a comfort. Sixteen months out of circulation and he picked up where he left off. He cautioned himself to pay attention; some things needed changing and they were totally within his purview. He could start by choosing better company than the Farm had provided him. He shook himself like a dog shedding rain and scanned the dining room.

February’s Fur Rendezvous, or Fur Rondy as the locals called it, drew together a mass of unlikely people to the city of Anchorage: sled-dog racers, fur traders, jewelry artisans, ivory and ice sculptors from the North Slope to Sitka, tourists, and the glitterati of money lenders and office holders who came for the Miners and Trappers Ball. It was a circus. It was a party. Mostly, it was a circus. In this context, the predominance of fur ruffs did not indicate extreme weather as much as photo op or fashion statement, and they graced the heads and necks of native and non-native alike.

Thomas growled to himself when he caught sight of Terry, one of the guys he’d left in the parking lot just an hour or two ago. Trouble. He didn’t need any trouble. He sucked air between clenched teeth, hissing, as Terry made his way toward their table.

“Mind if I join you?” Terry didn’t wait for a response but slumped into the vacant end of the booth.

“I’m not sure that’s such a good idea, Terry.” Thomas glared at him.

“You guys know each other? Small world.” Charlie gave the well-muscled man a look-over and held out his hand. “My name’s Charlie. Pleased to meet you.”

Terry shook Charlie’s hand and flashed a grin of relief. “Terry, my name’s Terry.”

Charlie discounted Thomas’s resistance as momentary on account of his just getting out of prison. Native hospitality was engrained. It wasn’t Thomas’s true nature to be unkind, just a shadow he was living with for a spell, a shadow Charlie recognized. He missed his daughter something awful but he kept the expression of his grief within the circle of the village and his immediate family.

“Hey, Tom,” Terry nodded a curt greeting, “it’s just that with Fur Rondy all the tables are full and my plans to head south are fucked for the same reason; all the flights to Ketchikan are booked.” He shrugged off his jacket and continued his appeal, “Not to mention half the people I need to see from down home will be on the streets of Anchorage for the week.”
Thomas gave him a grudging nod. They were in the same boat, weren’t they? Most of his own village would be here, too, for the crafts or the dogs. He looked away from Terry to scan the room–what the heck?

“Tom, Terry, can you slide over? This place is really packed!” Billy nodded to his fellow “farmers,” previous inmates at Point McKenzie. He, too, realized their common dilemma. “We gotta survive a week of partyin’ with this mob before we can get on with our lives–is this some kinda test or what?”

Resignation and its twin crow, Foreboding, parked themselves on Thomas’s shoulders for a visit. His precious little inner space was getting overcrowded real quick. He looked to Charlie who was methodically drenching each fry in a puddle of ketchup. “Hey, Charlie, you got a place to stay?”

“I ain’t checked yet, Thomas but I stayed at the mission last night so I could meet you at the drop-off. I was planning to call your auntie. You know, the one that lives off the bike trails at the south end.”

“Yeah, but…” Auntie Julie had a nice place. Thomas had crashed on her couch before. He turned to Billy and Terry whose faces had suddenly turned hopeful. Was he really obliged to bring them along? Yeah, he reckoned he was. His auntie would kill him if she found out he left them stranded. “Guys, you gotta know up front Julie don’t tolerate no drinkin’. She’s pretty fierce about that. You dun wanna cross her.” He stared at the two of them until he was sure they had heard him. “And no coarse language, neither.”

“It’s alright, bro, I hear ya.” Terry nodded his assent. “We gotta stay clean anyway cuz there’s no way I’m goin’ back to jail.”

“You got that right,” Billy chimed in.

We’re all in agreement; that’s pretty remarkable, thought Thomas, because they didn’t agree on much before now. Terry was a body builder who got caught using steroids; he just craved putting on more mass. It juiced him up somehow, and it made him mean which was a problem because he had the physical power to be quite “expressive.” Thomas had the memory of a lump or two as evidence.

Now Billy, he was another story. He just did stupid stuff, like swiping his brother’s four-wheeler and taking it for a joy ride across Merrill Air Field—could’ve decapitated himself on a Cessna’s tie-downs, pulled the wing off its struts instead. His brother just laughed, but the owner of the Cessna wasn’t as forgiving. Billy had served eight months at Pt. MacKenzie, just long enough to mourn the loss of his dogs—his ex-girlfriend took the pair of mutts to Palmer–and his other “dogs”, ten pair of Adidas he’d left in storage at his brother’s. Thomas had never known anyone to carry on so much about his footwear.

Thomas saw his own craziness as another flavor entirely, born of shock, grief, and guilt. His niece had drowned on his watch—he had jumped in to the cold water to save her but the current was too strong, too fast. The accident, which he had replayed over and over in his mind the last several months, had shattered his vision of his own goodness. He’d drunk and brawled as if in retaliation to himself. Thomas was slowly putting the pieces together but dark emotions still threatened to pull him under. He shuddered involuntarily and brought his attention back to the table.

“Billy, you gun’ call you brother?” Thomas looked up from his plate, and speared another bite of fish, still carrying a hope of freeing himself from his companions.

“Naw. He’s on the slope till the end of the month and his ol’ lady’s a bear; she don’t like me much. I’ll get my stuff when Ray’s home again.”

“Terry, how ‘bout you? Got any people to help get you through the week?”

“Not sure, but I’m goin’ over to the gym when we finish here. The manager will usually spot me for a few bucks; I’m good for business.” For emphasis, Terry flexed a bulging bicep which happened to be attached to the hand holding his forkful of omelette.

“Easy there, Terry.” Thomas fended off the fork. “Charlie, you gotta phone?”

Charlie handed him his cell. “Your Auntie Julie’s goin’ be happy to hear your voice, Thomas—“

Thomas grunted and excused himself, retreating to the parking lot for quiet and a little privacy to make the call.

“Aieeee! Is that you, Thomas? Been too long, eh? When can I see your face?” Julie’s voice was like a song to Thomas. He pushed down the jumble of feelings stirred to life by his auntie’s voice and murmured into the phone.


Thomas returned and stood at the mouth of the booth. “We’re all set. Julie says she’s ready for the challenge. We got exactly one week. Next Monday morning, we gotta scoot. Everyone in?”

Thomas nodded to a chorus of “yeahs” and reached to swig the last of his coffee, tepid and bitter, but a good foil for the grease of fried fish. Though it wasn’t the grease making his stomach flutter.


For once, the city didn’t have to import any snow for the dog races; downtown yards were waist-high in the white stuff. Snow removal, slow as it was, left plenty at hand for the sled dogs to get a good start. Thomas threaded his way through the crowd at the end of the street, looking for Lucy or Jack who, together, were handling a dog team out of Nome. He wasn’t sure who was running the team today, but he expected to find their familiar faces somewhere on the deck.

The street was cordoned off to accommodate the two dozen kennel campers fitted to every kind of pickup truck. Shutters or flip-up windows lined the sides of the camper shells, two- kennel-high to fit the whole team. Inside each, a honey-comb of kennels, stash of cold weather gear, extra tack and rigging. The sleds transported on the camper roofs were on the ground now, runners and brakes checked, gear stowed. Racers and family lined up the ganglines and hooked up the teams—the raucous noise of excited dogs bouncing off the towers of the Captain Cook Hotel.

The racers were easy to spot as they were dressed for wind and cold, head to toe. The swish of Gortex and flash of numbers and sponsor logos also helped them to stand out in the crowd. Thomas spotted Lucy leaning over to talk to her lead dog. She was wearing royal blue and the number “59”—he made a mental note so that he could find her in the TV footage later.

“Hey, Lucy!” Thomas carefully stepped around the team of dogs to avoid any sniping. The dogs were generally motivated as a team to run as fast and far as possible, but that didn’t mean they didn’t have issues with one another, territory and supremacy, the top two. Kind of reminded him of prison: the inmates at the farm had their peculiar pecking order, too.

“Thomas? Quyana! I thought you were getting out soon. Stayin’ to watch the start?”

“I was hoping to find you and Jack. Did he come down to help you out or is he back home?”
“He’s home. Tryin’ to save for a new 4-wheeler. We need it for haulin’ stuff to the cabin. I ain’t carryin’ no hundred pound sacks o’ feed no more!” Thomas smiled. Lucy was lean and fit, but older than some of the other racers by maybe a decade. The woman’s experience had taught her what her frame could handle. And she listened to it. Now that was wisdom.

“Mind if I hang out with the team for a while? I could help you get ready–”

“Sure. We got at least an hour before the start.” Lucy was all business now. “Check the booties for me—Ma packed them in the duffle behind the seat. Just make sure I got at least two dozen pair and pack ‘um in the sled. Thanks, Thomas.” Lucy continued her rounds with the dogs, tightening collars and adjusting the harnesses, talking low to her favorites.

Thomas climbed into the pick-up, grabbed the duffle from behind the seat, and unzipped it. Before he started counting, he glanced at the dash pebbled with nicks and one long landscape of a crack that ran from side to side. Given the roads and distances traveled north or south, it was no mystery. Just another Alaskan windshield.

Unlike the Iditarod or the Yukon Quest, the Fur Rondy race offered three days of ninety-minute sprints. Thomas knew Lucy didn’t expect to win because her huskies were bred for the longer races, but she and the dogs would learn more about functioning as a team, tuning out the distractions of spectators and testing the variety of trail conditions—roadways, park trails, and walking bridges. It was a rush to run for speed, even if you weren’t the best.

Thomas felt some of the same tease, a quickening of his pulse, in the rush of finding friends from back home. It made him more anxious to get through the week. It made his heart glad. These were the real people, not because they were native, but because they were family, his family of choice.


“Now Billy, if you want to eat, you have to help me cook.” Julie handed the boy a five pound bag of russets. “The cutting board’s behind the toaster. You’ll find a sharp knife in the drawer by the stove.” Julie waited until he had the tool in hand. “Now quarter the potatoes and toss them into this pan. Let me know when you’re done.” Julie wove a path around her “volunteer” and dragged the cast iron skillet to the stove where she browned the stew meat, onions, and garlic. Then she added chopped carrots and celery. Moose stew and mashed potatoes—a proper feast. She had used the nose meat in a soup last month, but the aroma filling the kitchen told her the stew still had plenty of flavor. She would leave it to slow-cook on the back burner till the troops gathered. She figured they were living hand-to-mouth during this transition. She would offer what she had and, in return, they could shovel snow from the driveway and the back deck—or so she hoped.


Billy had arrived mid-afternoon, cold, tired, and hungry. He came back to life when she fixed him a chili dog with chips and a glass of root beer. He was about to crash in front of the TV when she pulled out the sack of potatoes. While he continued chopping, she searched the closets and garage for sleeping bags and extra blankets which migrated from one spot to another with the influx and departures of family. Her place was a portal for kin traveling in from the bush. By the time she got back to the kitchen, Billy was asleep on the couch with a hoody for a blanket. She draped a warm down bag over him and stepped onto the porch to call Charlie.

“Charlie? Oh, good. So you’ll be back here in about an hour? And what about Thomas? That sounds great. I’m sure he’ll be along soon after.” Julie could see her breath escape in little puffs of white clouds. The temperature was dropping fast. She looked at her flower beds in the twilight, each raised bed, a labor of love. In three or four months those peonies would thrust through the crust of dirt and nothing would be able to stop them—such a glorious blossom! Her backyard was a testimony to her singular love of peonies, every bed full of them.


“Hey, Tom, is that you?” Terry trudged toward C Street from Arctic Boulevard at the Fish and Game building, peering into the twilight at the figure across the road.
“Hey, Terry.” There was no mistaking that hulk of a figure, thought Thomas. He was actually glad to see him. Working with the dogs had calmed his spirit; their needs were easy to comprehend—food, warmth, praise—his needs weren’t so different.

Terry stepped out to the edge of the road. Thomas crossed to meet him. They walked along the edge, wary of traffic, but happy to be out of the deeper snow.

“So what are we going to find at your auntie’s? Think she’ll feed us?”

Thomas laughed. Terry was always ravenous after a workout. “Oh yeah, she’ll feed us, and it’ll be good food, too.” They let the conversation drop as they creaked and shuffled across the frozen surface, Terry’s over-sized zipper pulls jangling a tune, Thomas’ jacket sleeves swishing in response. The thought of warmth and food occupied both of their minds comfortably as they navigated beyond the glare of street lights and into the dimmer light of reflected snow.

As they rounded the corner to Ptarmigan Place, they heard the rhythmic scraping of a snow shovel, or was it two? Charlie and Billy were widening the narrow channel of access which was Julie’s drive. Julie was stepping out the door just as they approached.

“Hey, you two! Take this leash. Coot needs at least a walk around the block.” Julie handed off the black lab to Terry and gave Thomas’s arm a squeeze before she turned back to the house, stomped her boots on the porch, and stepped inside.

Julie believed that everyone should contribute something before they sat down to eat. It made them more grateful and deserving for what they had. She was pleased that all three of the young men had made it back to the house without incident. Ten hours of freedom and they were still in the clear. It all counts, she thought to herself, every minute of success counts, no matter the fall that might come later. This is a moment we can celebrate. And Thomas needs this.

Alone in the big kitchen, she set the table with large open bowls of stew, mashed potatoes rising like floating islands in the center of each. She filled the water glasses and lit the candle. It had been almost two years since Thomas’s niece had drowned at the edge of their island community. Only six years old and gone faster than a shooting star. Thomas had struggled with his survivor’s guilt and made some bad choices—mostly drinking and fighting— but it wasn’t anyone’s fault. He just needed to be around family again to let the healing happen.
Julie slid the candle to the center of the table and carefully guided the hurricane glass over it. She could hear the guys in the entryway, shedding their boots and jackets. She watched them file in, sock-footed. First Terry, then Charlie and Billie. Julie frowned. “Where’s Thomas?”

Charlie signaled with a thumb over his shoulder. Julie walked to the entryway where she found Thomas, one boot off and leaning against the door jamb, his head bowed. She moved forward, quiet as a prayer, and stood in front of him. He looked up, his eyes glistening. She nodded. He took a deep breath and they walked inside together.

© 2017,  Rachel Barton

Señora Ortega’s Frijoles

flores de la frijoles
las flores de frijoles

Her fate was set when she fell under the spell of his kind eyes and bigger than life personality. For his part, he loved her gentle ways, the fluid dance of her hands at work, the sensual swing of her hips as she walked to the market with basket in hand.

And so it happened that in 1948, with her father’s permission and her mother’s tears, they were wed in the old adobe iglesia where uncounted generations of her family had been married before her. Not many months after the wedding, she kissed her parents and siblings goodbye, took a long loving look at her village, and she followed her new husband north to los Estados Unidos de América. She was already pregnant with Clarita.


As the days and years passed, they settled into their routines. Sunday mornings were her husband’s quiet time. He stayed at home while Señora Ortega and Clarita were at Mass. In their absence he would occasionally put down his newspaper and stir his wife’s frijoles simmering fragrant with pork, a few bay leaves, onions and garlic. Last night: their Saturday ritual, she and Clarita had sorted and then washed the dried beans in cold water and left them to soak until morning. The child – fast becoming a young woman – took the time and care to do a good job of this. El trabajo es vertud. Work is virtue, Señora Ortega encouraged.

In the tradition of Señora Ortega’s own madre, la cocina was a place of teaching – about food, about life, about being a woman, about being human. “!Ten cuidado, hija!”  Be careful, she would say as she demonstrated her almost sacramental sorting of the dry beans. It was an opportunity to teach Clarita the dichos, the proverbs, of her mother and grandmother and all the grandmothers before.

“Los frijoles son nuestra fuerza.” We get our strength from los frijoles, she taught Clarita just as her own mother taught her. Certainly the beans give the strength to our bodies, but also the strength to our character.  There are lessons. “¡Aqui!”  Remove these. Remove the wrinkled, the broken, the discolored or malformed. Remove them as you should remove flaws from your character. One bad frijole will ruin the whole pot.  Taparse con la misma cobija.* … You will be judged by the company you keep. Be cautious in your choice of friends.  Even the norteamericanos have such a saying: one bad apple spoils the bunch.

“Mama,” said Clarita, rolling her eyes after her mother’s latest speech. We are North Americans.” Señora Ortega’s brow furrowed when she heard this. She was given to worry about such reactions from her daughter. What of the child’s values?  It is true after all. My daughter is American. What does this mean for her future, for our relations, and for us as la familia?


Soon Señora Ortega had to put her concerns aside. It was springtime. Easter was upon them and with it a visit from her husband’s sister with her two small children. Señora Ortega and Clarita were busy with preparations. The air in her house smelled of poblanos roasting and cookies baking. They put fresh linens on the beds in the guest rooms. They picked flowers from her garden and set them in vases around the house. She gave in and bought chocolate Easter bunnies too, the silly convention of this country, but the children loved them and looked forward to them each year.

Finally the honored guests arrived and the house was filled with the cheerful noises of los niños. The boy and girl were now old enough to learn to prepare beans and, on the eve of Easter Sunday, Señora Ortega gave Clarita the task of showing the children how to sort los frijoles for cooking.  She looked on as Clarita explained the process. “!Ten cuidado, mis primos. Aqui! Remove these. Remove the wrinkled, the broken, the discolored or malformed.  Remove them as you should remove flaws from your character. Remember one bad frijole will ruin the whole pot. Be cautious in your choice of friends. Taparse con la misma cobija. You will be judged by the company you keep. “Los frijoles son nuestra fuerza.” Los frijoles are our strength.


At some point, Señora Ortega’s husband had come to stand by her side. She realized he was watching her as intently as she watched their daughter. He put his arm around her and held her close. “You see, mi querida, she is a good girl and you are a good mother. It’s gonna be okay …”

“Am I that transparent,” thought Señora Ortega, but she sighed gratefully. All will be well. My mother was right. “Los frijoles son nuestra fuerza.” 

Taparse con la misma cobija – literally: to cover yourself with the same blanket, i.e. likely the same meaning as our expression “birds of a feather.”

– Jamie Dedes

© 2012, short story, Jamie Dedes, All rights reserved. This story is a fabrication and not meant to depict any specific person or persons living or dead.

Photo credit ~ Schnobby via Wikipedia under Creative Commons Share-Alike 3.0 unported license

Waiting for Betty

Right now, at this moment, Joe is a lonely guy.

Lonely is a strange sensation because Joe is rarely a lonely guy. Convivial is more like it. Jovial. Happy-go-lucky.

But that was before Betty left.

Betty, the light of his life, brighter than the brightest ray of sun. Like the sunbeam slanting through the plate-glass window to his left, casting a backward “Fluff & Fold Laundromat” shadow on the dull linoleum floor.

Lonely Joe sits in a hard plastic laundromat chair, waiting. Waiting for Betty to return. Today was the day. She had made a promise. He was unsure exactly what time, so he waited. It was all he could do.

The laundromat was a really dull place to wait, but he did it anyway. There was nothing to tempt his senses but an off-balance washing machine dancing a jitterbug and a merry-go-round industrial dryer humming blandly, exhaling “springtime fresh” air.

He got lost in his head, which was a dangerous neighborhood. He was thinking about Betty and aching inside. Soon, he knew. Soon. He couldn’t let himself think for even one moment that she wouldn’t keep their date. It was too much to consider.

No, he’d done his time. Four days in exile from what he wanted the most.

Four days without her had been like torture. He couldn’t sleep right if she wasn’t tucked in there at his side. He kept waking up, reaching out for her, crying out into the inky darkness. All that replied was emptiness.

A big empty.

In the four days, he’d tried others, sure. Picked ’em up, held them to his side and tried to pretend it was ok. But none of them fit. Too big, too small, too different. None had the “yeah, that’s the one” just right feel he had with Betty and Joe was left with an aching in his chest.

The plastic Laundromat chair grew more uncomfortable as he waited, so Joe shifted his legs. He could physically feel the lack of her in the core of his body. He watched the clock. An old-fashioned cuckoo number, with two tiny rail workers, tapping alternately with tiny sledgehammers, keeping time.

Tap. Tap. Tap. The soundtrack of his utter isolation. The seconds ticked as the long hand dragged its way around the face, swimming through molasses.

He gave over to memories. He couldn’t help it. Without her physical presence, memories were all he had.

Like the day they first met. Christmas, just a year ago. Hard to believe he’d grown so attached so soon, but he had. He’d been wolfing down a breakfast of eggs and a cinnamon roll when she appeared. His own special gift. He couldn’t take his eyes off of her. She was shiny and new and lit up the room.

He felt shy at first with this enigmatic new creature, but he was interested. Oh was he interested, but he fought it.

There was one before her. Joe was a loyal guy but he had to admit things with that other one hadn’t been as fun. The luster was off the finish. The bloom was off the rose. Betty showed up just when he needed her most.

Joe didn’t realize how ripe he was for the picking until Betty entered his life-like a firecracker on steroids. She wore a simple red dress and her deep coffee-colored eyes sparkled like a lake under a full moon. As much as he tried to set Betty aside and stay with the one he was with, she became impossible to ignore.

It wasn’t just Joe who was drawn in like a moth to Betty’s flame. He saw his buddies look her over plenty. In fact, not long after Joe and Betty had become inseparable, Joe’s own best friend David had the sheer audacity to walk right over and touch her. Looking at his girl was one thing, but to lay a hand on her?

Joe flew into a rage and gave David a hard shove. The two tussled at it. David bloodied Joe’s nose. Joe kicked David hard. When they were finally separated, the fight and the friendship were over. Because of Betty.

She was worth it.

And so he waited. Waited for his very heart to return.

It had all gone crazy four days ago. Some stuff hadn’t gone right earlier in the day. He’d gotten called out for something that wasn’t his fault, and he came home in a temper. He said some things. He did some things. It’s easy to take out all the frustrations on the one at home. The one you know won’t leave.

Only she did. She left.

Well, she was taken away, actually. She would have stayed if it was her choice, but no. Meddling parties like to think they know what’s best. They made Betty leave.

Joe hadn’t cried since he couldn’t remember when, but he cried. He shut himself in his room and lost it. Betty was his true north. Without her compass guide, he was lost and drifting.

Four days was the sentence handed down. The words repeated in his head, “Four days, so you’ll learn respect.

Four of the longest, most agonizing days of his life.

On the fourth day, Lonely Joe waited, watching the clock. The tick tock tapped the rhythm of his suffering.

Joe looked down at his shoes with unseeing eyes. He was staring through the floor, willing time to pass.

Lost in memory, thinking only of her, a voice cut through the fog.

“Hey Joey! Baby, come here.

His head snapped up. He leapt up and ran over to the open door of a cavernous dryer where a woman stood holding his precious Betty roughly by one arm.

“We’re leaving in ten minutes,” his mom said.

Joe nodded as Beatty Bear slid into the crook of his arm. He buried his face in the space between her ears.

– © Karen Fayeth, 2015

Out of the Box

At the end of your life, what will you have to show for it?

The question hurtled across the dark room and caught a ray of light as it passed the door that someone had left ajar. Institutional light.

What’ll you make of yourself? The words howled down the corridors of a time past when she had allowed other people to define her life.

She pulled the ratty shawl she’d knitted tight about bony shoulders covered by a layer of crepe-like skin and rued the dropped stitch she hadn’t bothered to catch as it slipped yet another row towards the mustard-stained fringe.

At the end of your life, when death draws near . . .

The question bounced around in her skull like ping-pong balls in a Lucite box smeared with little kids fingerprints. It was powered by air, she recalled—a project at a science fair that demonstrated random molecular movement? Yes, that was it.

The box was broken now. Molecules split to atoms to neutrons, protons and electrons. And more recently, quarks—whatever the hell they are.

The shattered box of her beliefs, strewn about and discarded like clothes too tight and out-of-style. Like toe-crushing shoes.

She fingered the blanket, threading her fingers in and out of woven sterile cotton: institutional warmth, or lack thereof.

The conundrum chased her around the corners of decades. It unfurled and breathed heavily on the nape of her neck–raspy, persistent. Or was that her roommate once again in respiratory distress?

Her hands lay before her. They were still now—old, used hands with see-through skin. Gnarly knuckles that appeared warped and disfigured like twigs from the oak tree in her backyard. (At home, not in this place).

Hands that had touched, caressed, soothed. Healed even. And sometimes caused pain.

Her distended veins bulged: rivulets crossing the map of her life. She pushed back her skin, stopped the flow, released, and watched dark corpuscles stream back in, carrying life-giving oxygen to her cells. One more day of life—or at least a part of one.

Good-looking veins, she thought, but deceptive like her life had been. Stick a needle in that fat one and it’ll blow or roll.

That’s what fifty plus years of nursing did for her. The knowledge of veins, arteries and blood. And shit, piss and vomit. And worse—much worse. At the end of her life, what would she have to show? That she could read blood vessels?

Service can pass for love, she knew.

If she were her own patient, what would be her diagnosis of herself. Her mind clicked into scientific mode and she began to reflect.


There was the hard, hard heart she carried in a steel box inside her hollow, hallow chest. This woman can’t afford to feel in the face of so much loss: dead babies, dead everyone. Nope, too dangerous look at the subjective. Think it’s better to pass on that one.
A cool breeze blew in from nowhere, walked down the juts of her vertebrae and settled at the base of her spine. Fanning out, the chill expanded and squeezed about her body to embrace the emptiness.


Well, these were the facts. Two dead husbands; one dead daughter; a son gone missing; a divorce. Six dead dogs, one cat still alive. Not much money in the bank; a vacant, paid-for house, watched over by a neighbor (along with the cat, of course). A 12’ X 7’ cubicle in a room of three old ladies, surrounded by beige curtains—a hiding place, a box. 13K plus change in credit card debt and no one to leave it to. Ha-ha. A mind that bounces from here to there, imprisoned in a withered body; layers of skin that hang like empty sacks; lost promises.

A memory tossed her into the past: the day they’d painted their house a bright yellow with white trim: the happiness of the color and the joy of standing hand-in-hand with her second husband—the one she really loved because he loved her, too.

She shooed that thought away. Can’t afford to feel, remember?


The box is smashed and fragments of a life that could have been poured out. The diagnosis is clear: Altered reality; meaning deprivation related to . . .” To Nothing.

She’d read an obituary that morning about a woman who had it all wrapped up and tied with a bow, it claimed. Died in profound peace, it said. This mother, wife, friend knew where she wanted to go and went there, or something to that effect. They outlined it for the obituary readers: died surrounded by loved ones who would attend the funeral in the church, it promised. Neatly placed in her box. Amen.


That’s what she needed: the answer to the question, she decided, wasn’t in this place. She knew it wasn’t this—not a box-room filled with white sheets, white blankets and a white commode chair. Not the sickly smell of urine and dirty dentures and not a hand-knitted shawl with a dropped stitch and a mustard stain on gray yarn.

She needed a plan with color.

Dragging her legs, numb with cold, to the edge of the bed, she reached for her walker and grasped the rubber handles encrusted with grime—particles of food and feces—and hauled her ass into a standing position. She shuffled slowly into the open corridor with its fluorescent white sheen. Her droopy butt lay bare for all the world to see beneath the open back gown of flimsy gray and pink cross-hatched fabric bleached almost white.

She crept along the hall, stopping briefly at the crash cart that reminded her of OPI “Big Apple Red” nail polish. She palmed the vial of potassium chloride from the unlocked drawer of the cart, concealing it along with a 22 gauge, 1” needle and 5cc syringe. A scarf would do for a tourniquet, she figured and alcohol was academic, wasn’t it?

Approached by the evening shift nurse she requested an AMA. The LPN called the social worker but patient rights won out. As she signed the papers discharging her Against Medical Advice, the team called a taxi and the MD then helped her box her few belongings.

The plan was coming together.

At the end of your life, what will you have to show for it? The phrase rattled in her tin box heart as she slipped the key into the lock of her front door.

Musty odors of cat litter and un-lived-in, unclean linens overwhelmed her.

Purty, her cat mewled with excitement, threaded between her legs, stroking her back to life. Exhausted, she plopped into the overstuffed chair in the front room. A burst of dust enveloped her, but she was home.

She sat there till the early morning sky allowed light to slither around the edges of the curtains.

Purty curled up in her lap and purred and purred. Reaching over she pulled the blinds allowing sunlight to fill the room. Yellow sunlight bounced off yellow walls in her yellow house. It was still there, the yellow she remembered. Joy slipped in.

She thought about the drug stashed in her purse with the syringe, but let it be for the moment. Stretching out her weary limbs, she stood as Purty leaped to the floor.

I need another day she thought and decided in that moment it might be wise to reevaluate her plan. Instead, she wandered through her house in search of color and meaning. Purty, her calico cat, followed her everywhere.

At least have time to find something to show, she told herself, smiling that the last words on her chart were AMA, not RHC. Respirations Have Ceased. Smiling that she was, indeed, OOB.

No, not Out Of BedOut of the box.

As a nurse, I spent much of my time working with the elderly. This fictional account imagines how a retired nurse could feel about her life…if she didn’t have something to turn to–like writing! A bit of an explanation: in nursing, we applied the scientific method to patient assessment using a method called S.O.A.P–that’s what the Subjective (How are you?) Objective (What the nurse can notice) Assessment (Making a nursing diagnosis) and Plan (What to do about it) refer to. Don’t know if this is how it’s done right now…but it’s a good way to problem solve in any life situation. Try it with a problem you’re facing!

– Victoria C. Slotto (Victoria C. Slotto, Author)

© 2011, short story, Victoria C. Slotto, All rights reserved