This work is an excerpt from her first novel, Cam & Beau.
March is long, wet and grey. Beau doesn’t see this firsthand but feels it out from the slush trailing in with Cam’s sneakers to leave salt stains on the green hospital tile, the weak light flooding through tall windows opening onto brick walls and white skies. He is in the hospital a lot, spending overnights breathing his way through big squeezing liquid pressure in what must be the very core of his bones but doctors say are just nerve endings, inflamed tissues responding to bad bad drugs. And the scans look fine, and the chemo has to run its course, so what can he do? He lies around feeling feverish and displaced, head light with assorted painkillers.
Beau has been at Toronto General for the better part of two weeks and he doesn’t feel good. He doesn’t feel like he has a handle on things anymore, whatever that means. As if this was ever something he had, a grip on these colossal shifts within his body. He knows things have been forgotten, irrevocably lost no matter what anyone says. He can see it in the moments of emotional static that fill him for no apparent reason, yawning out of ordinary conversations, opening up a pit of (what)?
He lies in his stiff starched bed in the fucking, awful blue open-backed hospital gown he hates, hospital robe and hoodie over top, and longs for weed. The drugs make him slow and stupid and he dreams of joints, big RAW paper wraps, blunts rolled from grape cigarillos, bongs, pipes, vapes, hot knives and their white ghost smoke so thick you could cut it. There is a single clear memory he can’t stop rerunning, Cam turning from the stove with the scalding hot butter knives held in oven-gloved hands, pressing them together just right so they make that tsss hiss and the smoke just plumes, fucking, piles into the two-litre pop bottle Beau holds and they both laugh so it’s hard to hold everything still, saying, as if it were the obvious thing: diiirty. He thinks of their cutlery drawer, black scorch marks left on so many of their butter knives. Beau knows this was a good time in his life, and misses it.
Cam is there a lot, pretty much all the time Beau isn’t lobotomized by painkillers that make him feel like he’s moving underwater, but internally so. He comes in wearing things that make it obvious he’s having a hard time, old plaid shirts that are definitely Beau’s, blue and yellow and navy and red crosshatched and too short for his arms, leaving his wrists exposed and somehow naked-seeming, vulnerable. He is unshaven and unrested, moving like he weighs a ton. He pushes Beau around in the blue canvas hospital wheelchairs, down the halls, to the lobby, upstairs to see the oncologist. Out into the parking lot for joints where Beau huddles in the chair in a jacket that is definitely his but feels big on his suddenly small body. He doesn’t have to turn around to know Cam has his shoulders hunched protectively, like he wants to hug himself.
Cam crouches down in front of him in the endless slush of the back lot and cups his hands over the lighter, shielding its flame from wind. With everything icy and wet and Beau’s haze of a hundred different drugs he looks, in his great intensity, like he’s about to propose. Instead he stands and nods, satisfied with the size of the cherry they’ve managed to spark despite all the wind.
Like he’s about to propose—this is how Beau puts it to himself, and later can’t get the words out of his mind, or the image of Cam down in front of him like that. There’s something romantic about it, though he couldn’t have said what. He thinks of upset drawers and missing objects.
Cam removes him from things. Watching the brilliant orange end-of-day light bleeding onto the far wall, he’s pulled back from vast interior ledges by Cam coming in breathless, gloved hands still hidden in his pockets against the cold, telling him to come on, get dressed, get your coat on, you have to see this sunset, man. Beau dresses painstakingly and with as much haste as he can manage given that he’s hooked up to not one, but two separate IVs, and full of drugs that fuck with his general sense of balance. Cam helps him into his coat and kneels to tie up his shoes.
Outside the light taints everything, colouring the white rectangles of snow topping clean-edged roofs and refracting in the panelled glass of surrounding buildings. It’s been a day of cold distant sun, the kind of sun that seems remote but can soften snow, its glare causing hungover walkers to lower their heads and shield their eyes, bring out their sunglasses. The snow is already shining, hardening into the ice-topped sheen it will develop as dusk creeps in and the temperature drops.
Cam wheels him up the hill to the legislative buildings where they sit together, Cam on a bench and him in the chair, watching the last of the sun catching the steel of buildings on either side of the canyon that is University Avenue, hospital alley, the wide six lane boulevard with a fantastic park marking its centre island, the trees now bare and strung with white lights.
It was intended to be the city’s main commercial stretch, Cam tells him, shopping and restaurants and multi-level malls, but now houses the University Health Network’s various institutions facing off against one another across the street. They’re connected by fluorescent-lit institutional tunnels running beneath the busy avenue, constructed during the Cold War in fear of air raids, now used to move patients unobtrusively between hospitals.
How do you know that? he asks. Cam says that a lot of geography and urban planning students like to take theory courses. He wants Cam to tell him more about this, the strange history of this city that exceeds its own blueprints, tunnels echoing with the muffled rumble of traffic somewhere above, but doesn’t know how to ask. Cam goes on anyway, telling him that Toronto General was built in 1814 to house soldiers wounded in the War of 1812, and Mount Sinai went up in the thirties as an institution for Jewish doctors, who were legally prohibited from practicing in other hospitals at the time. Sick Kids is modeled on the Great Ormond Street Hospital in London and runs first screenings of Disney-Pixar films for little bald-headed children with rare terminal conditions. Princess Margaret is a world class cancer treatment facility with seventeen radiation machines housed in lead-lined basement bunkers, but they don’t talk about that.
As soon as Cam leaves he feels horrible, like starting to think the wrong thing for even a few moments might leave him lost, somehow off balance. The hypnotic names of prescription antidepressants (fluoxetine, sertraline) and their jarring disyllabic trade names (Prozac, Zoloft) surface in his mind unbidden, and he recalls the bitter tang of holding these beneath his tongue for too long. The shapes of the pills, the fluoxetine in its white and mint gel capsules, 20 mg, and the blue sertraline, pressed tabs that left powder on his fingertips when pushed out of their bubble packaging into his waiting hand. He wonders if maybe there is something fundamentally unstable within him that had settled, burrowed deep for many years, and now this illness has dislodged, rattled loose.
He drifts in and out of dreams of things that feel so real he’s sure they must have taken place but can’t tell whether these are fictions, or memories, or a bit of both mixed up in some way he can’t disentangle. They contain details too exact, too minute, too specific to have been made up. Getting lost in Quebec City, grey drizzle melting the last of the clinging snow, the world shrouded in cold steam as they drove past the St. Lawrence for the fourth time. The plastic chairs at the laundromat around the corner from the apartment—tangerine, or maybe aquamarine. The slant of light in the stairwell as they moved the old couch in, early morning or late afternoon. How can he know for sure? He wants to ask Cam but the questions leave him looking distracted, caught off guard, and Beau wonders if there isn’t something inadvertently cruel about them. He sets up two different piles in his mind: fact and fiction, memory and dream. He’s beginning to feel, more and more now, that some things are not either of these, or are otherwise beyond his ability to separate.
Or maybe I’m just remembering differently, he thinks. Maybe things look different after they’ve been put back in ways that make them catch the sun and throw shadows at totally new angles. When familiar things are made strange.
Cam brings Scrabble and chess and they play for hours, nurses peering in to shush them for their uncontainable laughter. Cam lays out ADMIRING and Beau retorts with CATS, Cam spells out INTONATION and Beau slaps a NOD on the end of that fucker so by the end of the game the board is crisscrossed with really impressive words hinging on really fucking, short ones. He finds chess challenging, hesitating over each move as its potential implications unfold on the board before him, the squares lighting up in Ls and diagonals in his mind. The game has gained a complexity he doesn’t remember it having, before. It had all seemed so straightforward, requiring little thought, its sequences occurring to him naturally and with ease, like mixing photo chemicals—nine parts water plus one part D-76 equals five hundred mills of developer, period. Now he makes moves reluctantly, recoiling in advance at the certainty that there is some possibility he’s left unconsidered and will be blindsided by. There are so many factors he hadn’t taken into account.
But Cam isn’t a very good chess player, and these fears seem unfounded. Sometimes Cam gets him into check and they both stop in a moment of superstitious hesitation (like, how?), Cam looking like he’s tripped some kind of wire, and Beau wants to ask: What? But the question is explosive and out of place, and also, what? He isn’t as good at chess anymore? He finds things newly strange? It all sounds so banal. Some kind of switch in his mind has been flipped and now he can’t un-see what he’s seen, and what he’s seen is different than what he saw before.
He sits still and patient, unnerved by the new jerky quality of his movements. Thinking, take it in. Take it in and let it go. Things said to him make it into his brain and get lost there, ricochet and die as vibrations disappearing into flesh, becoming dumb.
More than anything he wants to go home. He smells it on Cam and his clothes (fucking, street clothes) carrying in the wet afternoon air from slick grey sidewalks that breathe cold into everything porous. Leaning over the hospital bed or taking off his coat Cam exudes pot and cooked pasta and sleep, deep sleep. Beau imagines he must go home and sit in the kitchen, smoking a bowl in the dark before passing out on the couch or his never-made bed. He sees Cam sitting in the rusting folding chair closest to the fridge, leaning forward in the warm dark space, resting his face in his hands to watch smoke curl away and disappear.
More and more he tries to imagine Cam, to feel him out because he’s realized, as Cam sits by the bed hunched over his big blue course readers the thickness of bricks, that there is something about him he doesn’t get. It’s in his exhaustion, his intensity and his face, so open, always changing with something happening just underneath.
Like, what is he thinking in there?
Cam is new, different than he remembers, and Beau wonders who, between the two of them, has actually changed. These distinctions seem increasingly difficult to make.
Beau thinks: If there’s a drawer of shit that’s been arranged just so, and then you fucking, upend that drawer all over the floor and the shit goes everywhere, how can you guarantee it’ll all get put back just the way it was? Further (another academic word Cam is always dropping in his papers), how can you be sure that everything’s been put back in the first place? That nothing’s been lost? He thinks of film canisters he’d dumped out of his pockets by accident and tried to find for weeks, one day lying flat on the floor to pull his phone from under his bed and seeing them all there where they’d rolled, half a dozen lost at different times, little plastic containers choked with strings of dust. And developing the film, amazed at its contents as he held the newly dry celluloid strips of negatives up to the light.
It occurs to him that you can’t know what you’re looking for if you don’t even know what you’ve lost.
Copyright © 2018 by Mari Cichosz.
About the Author
Maria Cichosz is a novelist and scholar of art, theory, and the history of ideas. She is currently a Ph.D. Candidate at Stanford University, where she is writing a history of allegory after modernism. Her fiction has appeared in The Puritan, The Armadillo (a Descant anthology), Shameless Magazine, and on the CBC Literary Awards Shortlist.
Rochelle Distelheim Winner of the 2017 Gival Press Short Story Award
More Cousin’s Club than Country
Photo by Lisa Barron.
2018 The O. Henry Prize
“In More Cousin’s Club than Country, Rochelle Distelheim deftly lures readers into a world that is at once intimately specific and universally resonant. Each of her characters is vividly drawn with dimension and agency. The narrator, Russian, Jewish and a woman, charms us with a voice full of vulnerability, wit and compassion. Set in Jerusalem in the early 1990s, the story explores the unsettling experience of leaving behind an oppressive culture and adjusting to a new but imperfect home. More Cousin’s Club than Country is grounded in history, imbued with humanity and threaded with that universal theme—hair.”
—Elaine C. Ray, judge
More Cousin’s Club than Country
My friend lost her hair many years before I lost my country. In both circumstances, I do not say lost, as one says when something has been misplaced, but lost as in someone has stolen something.
We met when she rang my door bell. Her daughter, five, six years old, eyes like black buttons, hung onto her mother’s skirt. On the other side of the screen was a woman my age, just below fifty, more or less; short, wide, her skin the color of honey, as if the sun was her close companion, wearing a black caftan that swept in folds to the floor, a flowered scarf wrapped close around her head down to her eyebrows. Two big, bright black eyes keeping watch below.
So, here was a stranger who looked like we lived on opposite planets, and I was not a drop surprised. My daily dress was not a dress, but dark cotton pants, a sweater or blouse, sometimes both. My hair I cut short, parted down the middle; not severe, yet not something to be called fashionable.
I had brought to Jerusalem a trunk full of silk and velvet gowns, and long, ready-for-the-opera gloves, also sequins sewn on silk purses. Clothes for a fancy life in St. Petersburg, Russia, a life lived by some, but very few Jews: doctors, professors, like Yuri, my husband, or musicians, like myself, while every day one took caution to hide any scent one was Jewish. These beauties now lived inside my suitcase, while we followed a quiet, not yet feeling-at home-life. In Russia we spoke only to long-known friends. Who knew what friendly acquaintance could be a government agent?
We had been living since six weeks in Jerusalem, and I was already on good terms with surprises on every street: little boys wearing keepas, skull caps, fringe from a prayer shawl floating out from under their shirts, their hair cut close, with a fat curl combed over each ear, running in the streets, kicking a ball, like they never thought that skull caps, curls and kicking balls didn’t go together.
Among other surprises was something not on the streets, but in the buses. Enter any Jerusalem bus on a raining day, and, if you are not carrying an umbrella, in the first five minutes someone, a woman, will ask, whispering in a voice everyone hears, “ Do your children know you have left the house without an umbrella? ” And, if your stop is her stop, she and her umbrella will walk with you to where you are going.
Do not refuse. Do not protest, do not pretend to love walking in the rain. She will not allow. Israel will not allow. A lesson that taught me we had come to a place that was more cousin’s club than country. The problem that remained for us was this: in this cousin’s club we had no real cousins, Yuri and I. We were a minority of three, two adults, one daughter, tucked inside a country that is in itself a minority.
Back to my neighbor and her child. She asked, was it too early, did she interrupt? I knew who she was: Nachoma Chochani, from downstairs; husband, Yossi, from Morocco — this information in ink on a white card pasted to their mailbox. I had seen her large, noisy family everywhere: four boys, very tall, very muscled, wearing black leather, somethings, who came and went on motorcycles, great, throbbing machines, at all hours of the day or night. She had also three quiet, thank God, graceful girls of assorted ages, including the one peeking out from behind her mother in my house at that minute.
The husband: short, square, with a moustache that crossed his face from ear to ear, and curled upward at the endings; also, a first-time sight for me.
I invited her in. Yes, yes, I was alone. Yuri was in synagogue, his new, every morning routine. Galina, my daughter, was at class in Hebrew University. My guest looked around, as though seeking proof that I was telling the truth. “Do you want my husband to be home?”
“Why would I want for your husband to be at home?”
This woman had just turned into someone interesting. ”A cup of coffee?“ I knew this much about Israeli hospitality; it comes with food, something sweet, if possible. Mother and daughter followed me into the parlor. “Please,” I said, “sit.” She smiled, she nodded, and picked the almost-white sofa, just short of being two weeks old, my favorite new piece of furniture, and sat, her little girl on her lap.
Brewing the coffee in the kitchen, I listened for sounds from the parlor. Silence. She could not be picking up and putting down the painted mamushka dolls, the gold-inlaid lacquer boxes, my French porcelain ballet dancers. Those objects would tinkle or clink. I stacked the coffee pot, the cups, sugar, cream, and a plate of cookies on a tray, remembered milk for the child, and went back to the parlor.
The little girl, Avital, her mother called her, took charge of the cookies, munching and catching crumbs in her cupped hand, peeking out at me from between her fingers, her black eyes puddles of curiosity. I sat down on the new sofa next to my guest, who sipped, turning and twisting for a better view of the piano, the nest of small wooden tables, the plants that feathered all the corners. Then she turned to me. “Your home does not look like the usual Israeli home,” she said, in her terrible Hebrew.
There we were matched. My Hebrew was at a low level, even after six weeks in an ulpan, a school where you live, while women with endless patience teach the language between talks on how much you will love Israel, plus how lucky you were to be in Israel. Gargles and scrapings came from the back of my throat, mixed with a lot of humming. Confusing the word for furniture, reheat, with reheetem, to sing, and starting all over, I explained that my hope for the furniture was not to look like an Israeli home: dark, khashookh, or heavy, kaved.
She nodded to show that she understood, but there was no smile, no look of
agreement. She put her cup down and, probably thinking that most people in Israel were a little strange, so why not her neighbor, said, “I have been watching you.” Then she leaned back onto a sofa pillow, waiting for that information to sink through my head. “You are not a usual looking Israeli, your house could not be a usual Israeli house.”
I was not happy to hear this. Watching me? This smelled of Russia, the KGB. Like a sponge, she soaked up my discomfort. Putting her hand over mine, she said, could she please— her complexion moving toward rosy now—could she ask from me a favor? “In my country, no one asks a stranger to do for you a favor. If you fall down in the street in Rabat, first they pick your pockets and take over your purse, then they pry out your eyes, and then, maybe, they would call an ambulance. But, I thought, that lady looks like someone I can trust, and . . . ” She hesitated, raising her shoulders in a “Please-think-kindly-of-me” look.
Good and bad news. Always nice to bring up trust, but a favor, what kind? Avital was making wiggling motions I recognized. “I think she wants the toilet,” I said, grateful for time to think before facing her favor. I pointed. Mother and daughter went into the bath-room, and I cleared up the dishes, trying to decide which way I would go. No, if the favor put me in the company of the people who my daughter and I called The Men in Black, the super religious. From day one in this place I knew that to mix me with them was mixing fire with boiling oil.
Too many prayings by these men to thank God He had not made them a woman. A difficult way of thinking, or, perhaps I mean of believing. The two are not the same. Plus, with the deeply religious, so many small, everyday things. Is this or that food treif; not clean, not kosher? Are you using a bus or a trolley to take you around on Saturdays? Yuri and I agreed, we would be Jewish in our new home, but not too.
Mother and daughter returned. I gave Avital a packet of cards with pictures of animals, and the mother described the favor she wished for. “Hair. I want to buy new hair.”
“You don’t have?”
She untied her head scarf. Her hair, rich in the color of dark chocolate, hung in ragged bits around her face. The back was worse. I diagnosed that it was cut away by someone with blunt scissors in a dark room. Avital patted her mother’s bare neck. “Before my wedding, my hair was my blessing, heavy . . . ” Nachoma rubbed her fingers together. “ . . . down to here. ” She pointed to her elbow. “The women in the mikva cut the day before my wedding. Nobody asks how high, how low, just cut. Now I . . . “ She scissored the air with two fingers. “ . . . when it needs. ”
I asked how she could do this to herself, what was she thinking? She smiled a smile that was much more a promise she would soon be crying, and called it having bad luck in men. First, a father who pushed her to marry Yossi, who said he was rich, but was the opposite, and insisted on a marriage wig, which she managed to misplace these many years later in the move to Israel. Second, a husband like Yossi. “And now . . . “ She laughed, a dry, sad hiccup, and Avital offered her mother a cookie. ” I can’t go out with my hair, I can’t go out without my hair.”
A puzzle, I agreed. “ But why now? ”
“I see in the movies . . . “
“Movies? ” Nachoma and Yossi at the movies, munching popcorn, chatting with strangers in the audience during the intermission, always an intermission, and, an Israeli thing to do, talking with people sitting nearby about what you have just seen. What do you think he meant when he said such and such at the end? Or, arguing, another strong Israeli custom: Did you find that automobile chase funny? Did you believe that girl when she said she doesn’t love her sister’s husband?
Yossi, she said, loved French gangster stories, snarling, dangerous men who took advantage of three, four naïve women at a time. If these heroes resorted to murder, well, a movie wasn’t real life. She loved any film that had beautiful women with beautiful hair. “Their husbands run their hands through it.” She clasped hands to chest in a show of ecstasy. Avital, now sitting on her mother’s lap, spilled her milk and whimpered.
“Religious women?” I soaked up the spreading white puddle with a napkin.
“Why not religious? God loves beauty. ”
I huffed skepticism.
“You don’t believe?”
“God doesn’t love milk with roasted chicken. He doesn’t love cheese on a turkey sandwich. Who’s to say how He feels about beauty?”
I must admit, and not with pride, my new friend looked startled. For one moment I wanted to repeat for her the conversation I had with Yuri that day, six months ago, when he came home— when our home was in St. Petersburg —and told Galina and me he wanted to live like a Jew. Me, I wanted to find a way to go on living as a human being.
“Why now,” I’d asked, “and how?”
In Russia, being Jewish was treated as a birth defect. The less Jewish a Jew was, the safer he was. Deny, deny. We became survival artists. If we talked about anything Jewish at home, we turned on the radio to shut out the neighbors’ ears. Our work papers— Yuri was a mathematician at the Academy, I was a piano teacher— carried false gold stamps bought with enough rubles to buy a new automobile. But this was now 1993, the old Soviet Union was dead. Yeltsin, when he was President, was too drunk to bother with Jews and, after him came Gorbachev, a sweet man, but too soft to survive, who preached perestroika, openness, and, miracle of miracles, told Jews, go, go, if you want.
Yuri wanted. For him, living in the new Russia was not a happiness; he wanted to live among Jews in Israel. For me, the question was: how does one live like a Jew? One must have precedence, one must have instruction. More complicated: one must have feeling. For now, we were olim, new Israelis, but olim does not evoke the sensation of caviar beads crushed against one’s tongue, or sour cream over cinnamon-scented blinis the size of a thumb, steaming Black Crimean tea, sipped while seated at the stained-glass windows of Café Novotny, overlooking the lights edging the Neva River embankment.
I could not express this unreasoned longing to a woman I had met one half hour ago. Instead, I asked how could I help her to get hair, and stopped mid-sentence, realizing, suddenly I was a bus lady offering help to another woman, a strangely happy feeling, even though on most days being happy in Israel had not yet caught up with me.
A friend had told her of a wig genius, whose shop was in her apartment near Zion Square, not far. Her friend couldn’t accompany her; bad blood between her and the wig maker about money. “Would you come with?” She took a folded newspaper from her purse and held it out to me. “I want to look like this.”
I recognized the woman in the newspaper. “Leah Rabin,” I said, “the Prime minister’s wife. A beautiful woman, I saw her on the television. ” I studied Leah Rabin’s picture. Sun glasses, dark hair brushed into a smooth pageboy, a special looking suit, the ribbon trim, the buttons, anyone could see how expensive. Plus, a shoulder bag with chain links, an armful of bracelets, an easy, confident smile, a woman sure of who she was, surrounded by admirers. How did she, I wondered, live such a free-looking life among those men in black? She knew a secret. Maybe. She knew a special way to be true to herself and to the rules.
I looked at my new friend. No wig would do that for squat, round Nachoma, but everyone, even a woman with too many pounds and not enough beauty, was entitled to have dreams. And this, not easy to admit, but with me the truth always has to come out. If I could be help to Nachoma, and this includes not meeting with Yossi, I could make my own small strike against one small man in Black.
The following afternoon, Avital in day care, Nachoma and I walked fifteen minutes to the Zion Square neighborhood where, on the second floor of a white stucco building, above a jewelry shop, an antique dealer, a travel company, the wig lady lived. The sign on her door read, “Hair Creations Made to Order. Enter To Be Beautiful. ”
She was waiting, a wisp of a woman, all energy and sharp elbows, piercing blue eyes, a pointing chin, pale brown hair pulled back in a complicated knot. She wore what is called a hostess robe, blue mixing with purple dots, enormous gold hoop earrings. I had seen such unusual looking women in Russia, but usually in a fortune-telling booth, or at a carnival reading from a crystal ball. “Chana Lipkin, from Latvia,” she said, like it was all one long word, beckoning us in.
The furnishings were too little for the big space. We were pointed toward a long white dressing table built against a mirror wall, and opposite, glass shelves holding heads, each one wearing a wig —short, long, red, black, gray; wigs with bangs, with headbands, with sequined veils, all the heads staring at us out of blank eyes, their puckered lips waiting, I thought, for a lover’s kiss.
Chana waved at the display. “Plenty choices, something for everyone. Sit.” Nachoma sat down at the dressing table, I pulled up the chair next to her. Chana offered a wig of tight yellow curls, looking like a dust mop. Nachoma turned terrified eyes to me.
“Mrs. Lipkin,” I said.
“Call me Chana.” Her mouth, not her eyes, smiled. “My customers are my friends, my friends are my customers.”
“Mrs. Chochani wants a wig to match her hair.”
“Certainly, but sometimes it is fun to have a little something extra, to surprise.”
“Surprises cost, my friend is on a budget.” I turned to Nachoma. “Show her.” She removed her head scarf. The heat had plastered her jagged hair behind her ears, against her forehead. She lowered her head and shook it, hard. The jagged hair sprung up into the shape of damp broom ends.
Chana closed her eyes, tapping her finger against her forehead. The eyes opened. “Ladies, ladies, what was I thinking? I have just the one, perfect. ” She disappeared behind a curtain hung over an alcove at the end of the room. We heard her pulling out boxes, dropping boxes, murmuring, “Lo, lo.” No. Out she popped, clutching a curly, dark brown wig. Not a dust mop, more a silky feather boa.
“You like?” she asked Nachoma.
Nachoma looked, then whispered to me: “Pretty, but too curly.”
“Not a problem,” Chana said. “What is curly, I make straight; what is straight, I curl. Better than God. ”
“Also more expensive,” I said. Her smile slipped. She settled the wig onto Nachoma’s head, arranging it over the jagged, shorn ends. “There . . . ” Stepping back. “Ladies, ladies, ladies . . . ” flashing a smile at the mirror, then onto Nachoma, who was sitting in stunned silence. I admit, and even now I remember like it was yesterday, she looked like she was swallowed up by the collection of dark curls falling across her forehead; two eyes, a nose, a mouth showing up on her face, but all, even together, not a competition for the hair.
Nachoma looked at me, at Chana, then back to the mirror, disappointment and sadness written up and down her face. “Is it possible, a little less . . . no, a little more,” she said.
My one look told me the whole story, no second chapters needed. “My friend wants simple,” I said, her husband doesn’t like . . . “ Nachoma’s eyes were squeezed shut. Chana tapped her foot. “He doesn’t like . . . “ I shrugged my shoulders to suggest that Yossi was, after all, only a man. “ . . . too much drama.”
Chana nodded. “Of course, a little shaping.” Tugging at Nachoma’s head, she gathered the wig in her fist. “And styling to suit your face. Look, here. . . ” Holding the wig inside-out. “Everything is real hair, from Russia, from Poland, Ukraine, Yugoslavia; Israel, as well. Strong young girls, healthy girls, I pay top dollar. Look.” Nachoma looked. “The linings, silk, the hair knotted exactly. You think this kind of work grows overnight? ” She waggled the wig under Nachoma’s nose. Nachoma sniffed. “Not a ripple of an odor. Perfume, you smell, the sweetness of soft, young skin, you smell. ”
I smelled a high price about to be delivered. I leaned over and sniffed at the wig. “Smoke. Cigarette smoke, I smell. ”
Nachoma pulled the newspaper clipping out of her purse. “This.” Chana studied the photograph of Leah Rabin. “Is it possible?”
“Anything is possible, if . . . ” Chana’s chin grew pointier. “ . . . if someone is willing to pay. ” I tried to imagine this woman on a bus, offering to walk with you out of the rain.
Nachoma pulled a clutch of paper money from inside her dress, somewhere in the direction of her brassiere. She looked at me, her eyes overflowing with what I could feel was her hope. “Here” she said. I took the bundle from her.
“One thousand, five hundred shekels,” Chana said. “A bargain, ask my ladies.”
“Nine hundred and fifty,” I said. Nachoma stood up, a mountain of chopped off ends, her face a mountain of misery. Chana, her hands on Nachoma’s shoulders, eased her down into the chair. Then she click-clacked across the room, opened a closet and reached inside. Flipping pages, she brought out a scrapbook. “Look.” A wedding scene, the mother of the bride, the mother of the groom, the bride, the bridesmaids, all wearing wigs; short, curly, straight, long.
“This bride, this groom, are they still married?” I asked.
“I know hair, not sociology. These days the young girls, not like in our time.” Chana snapped her fingers. “Easy go, easy come.”
“So,” I said, “they’re divorced.” Anything to force a cheaper price.
“Not important. My wigs are made to last two, three weddings.”
Nachoma had her fisted hands tight against her closed eyes. “Nine hundred shekels,” I said, “our final offer.” I heard a heavy breathing.
Chana tapped her foot, as though signaling to someone in the next room. “You are a hard woman.”
“But fair,” I said.
Chana lit a cigarette, inhaled, pondered. I felt her sharp edges softening.
“Also, God sometimes has specials,” I said, “for special Jews.”
“You don’t say. ” She squeezed her cigarette against a china dish. Nachoma buried her face in her handkerchief.
I whispered over Nachoma’s head. “My friend’s husband is a special person, descended from a famous family of important people, Ethiopians.
“Ethiopians,” Chana repeated, “what is so special, and where is this Ethiopia, I’m not familiar. I know most things, but I stop with Ethiopia, you should excuse.”
“Ethiopia is a very special kind of Jewish,” I said, pushing to remember something I’d read in the newspaper. “Like a gift from God, lost Jews, no one knew they were there . . . ” Some things sounded more true as you spoke them out.
Nachoma sent me a look of terror peppered with despair. Chana tapped her foot and puffed. “ . . . until someone came upon them in the desert,” I went on, “wandering. The President of Israel flew there special to bring them home to Israel. Surprise, surprise. It was in all the newspapers.”
Nachoma uncovered her eyes and looked out at us. “Surely,” I went on, “you have read of these people. Everyone honors them, they have come through so much, imagine, just imagine . . . ”
Chana grounded her cigarette into a small dish. “I get your intention.”
“And this includes the shaping up,” I said.
“This includes you don’t cut the price after.”
“Nachoma,” I said, holding the money out. She nodded, barely. I counted out five hundred shekels. Turning to Chana: “This now, the other money after delivery.” Nachoma pulled in her breath. “In one week,” I added, “my friend has a wedding to attend.” I heard Nachoma’s breath come down.
“You are a hard lady,” Chana said, and folded the money into her small leather purse.
“Not at all. My friend gets her beauty, you get a generous price. ”
Chana harrumphed. “You came, I never got maybe references.”
“References? From who, about what? You see me here, you see my friend, her hair. You see what must be done . . . . “ Chana put a match to yet one more cigarette, and looked what I would call the evil eye. At me, especially, but also at Nachoma. whose face was one big smiling. A Russian from Russia is a specialist in recognizing evil eyes. And yet, and yet . . . . Her face crackled with suspicions. Poor Chana, I thought. So talented at making business, so barren of the meanings behind everyone’s frightenings.
“We will come back in one week for my friend’s hair,” I said, gathering my purse, my scarf, then turning toward the door, stopping suddenly to look back at Chana. “Think of this like you were a lady on the bus in the rain, and you helped out another lady, a Jew, who knows, who could maybe be a cousin to you . . . ” I helped Nachoma into her coat. “ . . . a cousin you never knew you had.”
Copyright © 2018 by Rochelle Distelheim.
About the Author
Rochelle Distelheim has published in North American Review, Ascent, Other Voices, Descant, StoryQuarterly, Sequestrum, Nimrod, JewishFiction.net, PersimmonTree.org, and Press 53 Anthology, Everywhere Stories. She has received The Katharine Anne Porter Prize, Illinois Arts Council Literary Awards and Fellowships,The Ragdale Foundation Fellowships, Glimmer Train Second Place, Emerging Writers, and nominations for The Best American Short Stories and The Pushcart Press Prize. Her debut novel Sadie in Love (Abade Publishing) will be released in early May 2018.
Abdourahman Waberi Featured in ArLiJo Issue No. 106
enraptured narcissus petals bend
in search of their own reflection
the diurnal round spins
in search of its other half
Majnun’s lonely eyes
trace all of Layla’s tracks
the wolf dozing in me
sleeps with only one eye
Copyright © 2018 by Nancy Naomi Calrson.
Translator’s note: Majnun and Layla were star-crossed lovers in a story written in 11th century Arabia.
les pétales éperdus du narcisse s’inclinent
en quête de leur reflet
la ronde diurne bascule
en quête de sa moitié
les yeux esseulés de Majnoun
balisent toutes les traces de Layla
le loup qui sommeille en moi
ne dort que d’un oeil
Copyright © 2018 by Abdourahman Waberi.
what is true
bloomed among new nascent buds
from this moment able to breathe
like the doum palm’s seed
the sap that drives an ecstatic rite
where it’s Sunday every day
the aorta’s clot
the slight sidereal wind
the atom’s unctuous birth
the élan vital that knocks over all in its path
cornered, it opens the way that can’t be denied
the unmapped trail
for the green snake that slithers ahead alone
further still from its molted skin
to the solar star’s great dismay
no longer poised to instantly imbue it with life
Copyright © 2018 by Nancy Naomi Calrson.
ce qui est vrai
éclos d’entre les frais bourgeons naissants
dès cet instant capable de souffle
comme la graine du palmier
la sève qui pousse une noce de transe
où il fait dimanche tous les jours
et le caillot dans l’aorte
le zéphyr sidéral
l’atome des origines onctueuses
l’élan vital qui bouscule tout sur son passage
dos au mur ouvrant la route indéniable
le chemin non tracé
au serpent vert qui avance seul
toujours plus loin de sa mue
au grand dam de l’astre solaire qui ne peut plus
la féconder sur le champ
Copyright © 2018 by Abdourahman Waberi.
About the Author
Abdourahman A. Waberi is a critically-acclaimed writer born in 1965 in what is today the Republic of Djibouti, a tiny country squeezed between Ethiopia, Somalia, and Eritrea. His work has been translated into a multitude of languages. A current columnist for the French newspaper Le Monde and the Samuel Fischer visiting professor at the Szondi Institute of Berlin's Freie Universität in Fall 2016, he teaches French and Francophone Literature and Creative Writing at George Washington University in Washington DC. In recognition for his commitment to multiculturalism and linguistic, ethnic, and religious diversity, he won the 2016 Words to Change Prize. This selection of poems and their translation come from "Mon nom est aube" (Naming the Dawn), forthcoming from Seagull Books (distributed by the University of Chicago Press) in spring, 2018.
About the Translator
Nancy Naomi Carlson, poet, translator, editor, and essayist, has authored seven titles (4 translated), including Hammer With No Master by René Char (Tupelo, 2016), which was a CLMP Firecracker Poetry Award finalist. She received a grant from the NEA to translate Abdourahman Waberi’s first collection of poems, The Nomads, My Brothers, Go Out to Drink from the Big Dipper, which was a Best Translated Book Award finalist for 2015. She has three new books forthcoming from Seagull Books this year, including The Dancing Other by Suzanne Dracius (co-translated with Catherine Maigret Kellogg), and Infusion of Violets, her second full-length collection of poems.