Featured in ArLiJo Issue No. 95
Almost a Parade
Buddy and his lover Adam arrived at 2 pm,
Buddy to set up, Adam for cocktails.
Lin Quinton climbed the stairs at 3:30.
A redhead, he helped out
during Sunday’s beer busts.
At 4:30, Richard Cross—“Mother Cross,”
they called him—traipsed in,
the brace on his leg never a hindrance.
At 6' tall he towered over his lover,
Dean Morris, in tow.
At 4:45, lovers Mike Scarborough
and Glenn Green arrived
followed by over a hundred others.
At Geno’s Hideaway a few blocks
over, Roger Nunez and Allen Guidry
vied for an older man’ cash. Allen won,
tricked with the gent, and though Nunez
made $20 off the man just for looking
hot, he was pissed and took off
for the UpStairs—primed for trouble.
Copyright © 2016 by Jim Elledge.
The Cause of Death
Fire, that crazy bastard, left
bodies “fused together in a long
low pile against the windows
and outside walls.” Many burned
clean through to the bone,
finger tips and faces melted.
Firefighters brought bodies
down to the sidewalk
with a snorkel as three priests, who
appeared suddenly on the scene
like genii, gave the dead
EMTs gurneyed survivors
to ambulances that kept
coming and coming and coming
stirring the thick, noisy dark
with their screaming blue lights.
Copyright © 2016 by Jim Elledge.
About the Author
Jim Elledge has two books forthcoming in 2017: Bonfire of the Sodomites, poems about the arson of the UpStairs Lounge, a gay bar in the French Quarter, and The Boys of Fairy Town, a history of gay life in Chicago, 1843-1943. He’s received two Lambda Literary Awards, one for his book-length poem A History of My Tattoo and the other for Who’ Yer Daddy? Gay Writers Celebrate Their Mentors and Forerunners, which he co-edited with David Groff. He lives in Middlesboro, KY and San Juan, PR.
Featured in ArLiJo Issue No. 95
Ordinary Time is a reference to the liturgical calendar. Basically, ordinary time is the period between Pentecost and Advent and the period after Advent through Ash Wednesday. As a child I understood this best because starting with Halloween until New Year’s there was one holiday after another and come January time seemed to slow down until Easter when we usually had a week off.
One other note: Arne-Dag is pronounced Ar-nah D-awg
He heard the whistle. The ferry was about to leave. He was waiting.
I. One day
He was waiting by the dock.
Several thoughts competed for his attention. The heavy clouds and thick shadows passing over the water. The ferry slogging through the choppy waves. The fact that spring was late and Easter was early this year. He felt impatient waiting. It was on its way, out there on the gray horizon.
Arne-Dag smiled. Always the pastor, always thinking in metaphors. It was hard to escape.
The hull of the ferry yawned before him as the ramp lowered and car engines started up. A stream of cars exited. Slowly the queue he was in moved forward toward the ship’s cavity. Again it felt like death or another biblical allusion: Jonah in the belly of the whale. He was trying to alight on just the right illustration for next week’s Palm Sunday sermon. Christ triumphant entering the city. He lined up his automobile and parked. A cold wind blew so he stayed inside while other drivers got out to smoke. Palm branches waving. Many in his small parish were somewhere warm this week. They were drenched in short sleeve-sunshine and triumph. The ferry pulled away from the dock.
He scrubbed his face with his hands in an attempt to wake up. It had been a long day and he was in a hurry to get back to the church before his confirmation class showed up in the basement where a pool table and foosball table had been installed. They used to keep colas in the fridge but some of the parents complained (rightly) when their kids began putting on pounds. So, gone were the sugar drinks. Not so good for anyone. He was constantly weighing what was good and not good for his flock.
The ferry’s whistle blew to announce their approach on the other side of the fjord. Darting swiftly, headlights zigzagged on the steep roadway down to the dock. He had a fleeting thought: That’s how accidents happen. He waited with the other drivers in a smog of cigarette smoke and diesel fumes, in a kind of dull twilight for the door to drop.
He followed taillights until they turned off. The leaden clouds were about to release rain and people were scattering. But Arne-Dag kept going. Late afternoon and he could almost hear the lightweight foosball dropping into the socket and the kids jamming on the rods animating the players. The one kid, Magnus, always the loudest. SCORE!!! Arne-Dag, it seemed, was constantly asking him to sit down, to think before speaking. Here he smiled again to himself. To think before screaming—
Arne-Dag screeched to a sudden stop. His breath came out in ragged bursts as he pulled up the parking brake. “Christ!”
Around the bend a man lay in the middle of the road. A woman bent over him sobbing.
Arne-Dag scrambled as best he could for a big man, sliding his belly against the steering wheel, leaving the door open to reach the couple.
“What’s going on here?”
The woman was Asian but answered him in Norwegian. “I don’t know.”
A motorcycle had obviously skidded and was piled up by a snow drift at the side of the roadway. Arne-Dag was fighting to find a connection between all the pieces and people before him. “What is his name?”
“I don’t know.”
He wondered for a second if she was all there. Her black hair billowed in the wind and stuck to her lips and lashes.
“I just got here,” she said.
Arne-Dag looked around. From where? He assumed she’d been with him on the bike, but of course, not; she was wearing only a wool coat with no hat nor gloves. “Where did you come from?” he asked.
“I was out walking, clearing my head. I was walking here beside the road smoking a cigarette.”
Arne-Dag nodded. It was easy enough to see how the accident happened. The cyclist must have rounded the corner and come upon her and swerved to miss her. He tried to think—had he been on the ferry? He quickly dialed for emergency medical services. He supposed the man was unconscious; his cracked helmet was still strapped to his chin.
“Yes. Yes,” he answered into his cell. “Yes. I’ll check.”
Arne-Dag bent down. He now noticed blood seeping out from beneath the rider’s head. He touched his throat and that’s when he realized the driver was dead. There was no pulse.
The woman stared up into his face as he relayed the information. With the words, she lost all control. Arne-Dag threw down the phone to catch her before she walked over the side of the road and tumbled down the ravine. He held her for a long time. He was going to be very late for the confirmation class.
Later, back at the house, after a supper, kept warm by Anna, he was trying to relate the story to her, but nothing made sense and the whole time his wife kept asking, “What if a car had barreled around the corner and taken both of you?”
It had been his thought too, but with so many other things happening it had been hard to prioritize. He had to get the woman to calm down. He had to move his car out of the way. He made her sit in the passenger seat while he scooted off the road and then set up flares. Apparently folks knew the ferry schedule and were not in a hurry to get to the docks just to wait, so it was a good fifteen minutes before another car showed up and then that driver also got out to help. By then Arne-Dag had covered the body with a blanket from the trunk of his car.
Anna gazed at him. He could tell she was scared and afraid to say what was on her mind.
“You could have been killed.”
“Yes. But this time it wasn’t me. It was that young man.”
He steepled his fingers and sighed, looking off into the distance. He suddenly realized his Sunday sermon had been miles from his mind. That for the past three hours he hadn’t thought of it once. He heaved himself up from the table and went into his study. He would be there all night long, until Anna came to retrieve him, sitting in a fog.
II. A few weeks later
There was a knock on the door.
She wasn’t expecting company and cautiously peeked through the curtain to ascertain the caller. It was the big man from a few weeks ago. She stepped back lest he see her.
In the space of her small kitchen her heart beat loudly. She was almost afraid he might hear her standing behind the door. Icicles dripped into a bank of snow beneath the eaves. Every once in a while one broke off and impaled itself into the hillock. How did he know where she lived?
Ester hesitated. Newspapers covered the couch and the ash tray on the low coffee table was overflowing with cigarette butts. She knew the air was stale as she hadn’t opened the door since she had run in after the accident. Quickly she lit a scented candle and then opened the door.
A rush of chilled air and sunshine poured into the room.
“Hallo,” he offered and Ester nodded in greeting, squinting in the slab of light like some kind of gnome used to living underground. “Hei,” she answered.
“I have driven past here many times and wondered— I’m sorry my name is Arne-Dag. I am a pastor and many times I have driven past here. You see I visit a gentleman from our congregation who is now bedridden. Every other Monday I come out and serve him Holy Communion.” Arne-Dag stopped, he realized he was rambling.
“How did you—”
“I thought since you were obviously on foot, out for a walk, that you must live nearby and this is the only house along that stretch of road.” He was careful not to mention the accident. It had been haunting him since that night.
“And I wondered how you were holding up.”
Ester opened the door wider. “Come in, please.” She pointed with her yellow-nicotine finger. “Would you like to sit down?”
“Thank you.” Arne-Dag moved a newspaper and folded it up. He laid it on the coffee table cluttered with empty glasses and sprinkled with ash.
“I have water or fruit juice, if you are interested,” the woman mentioned.
“No thank you.” Bits and pieces of sunlight wavered in between cracks in the curtains. Other than that the room was dim. “Very cozy.”
“It is just me.”
“I don’t want to take up too much of your time.” From a quick glance he fully understood that the lonely woman before him had nothing else but time. “So forgive me for stopping in without first calling.”
“I rarely have guests.” She sat across from Arne-Dag in a red upholstered chair that had been her father’s when he was alive. She sank into the cushion. “What is it you came here for?”
Actually he was unsure. After the accident, after emergency services had taken away the body and taken both his and the woman’s report, he had turned and she was gone. He’d never had a chance to get her full name.
“What is your name?” he asked.
“My name is Ester Haug. My father was Oscar Haug.”
Arne-Dag sat up. “I’ve heard that name was he—”
“Yes, he was the pastor at Immanuel some years ago.”
“And you are his daughter.” He said it not as a question but rather as a statement. Still Ester seemed to take offense. He went on quickly, “I only mean I knew the man. Just after being ordained, the Bishop was in Stavanger, and Rev. Haug and I met at a conference. I believe he died not long after the meeting.”
“Perhaps. I’m not sure of what conference you are talking about. There were so many.”
“I’m sure.” Then he chuckled, thinking of course, altogether way too many.
“My parents adopted me when they were missionaries in Seoul.”
Outside a car passed, the tires making sizzle noises on the wet asphalt. Spring was coming and melting snow rivuleted, following gravity, down the hillside and eventually into the fjord below. “I’m surprised we never met,” Arne-Dag mused.
“As a teenager I wasn’t active. My father and mother were liberal and let me choose if I wished to participate in the church.” Ester now lifted her head. “I chose to go out with boyfriends and ride in their boats.”
For a split second Arne-Dag envisioned Magnus. It was discovered that he’d been hiding bottles of beer under the couch in the youth activities room, the place nicknamed The Cave because of the blacklights and posters on the walls. Magnus was required to complete twenty-five hours of service at the church, helping out cleaning and taking out the trash.
“Many of the youth begin their Christian life as renegades,” Arne-Dag spoke as if narrating a film, “but eventually they come back. Do you have children?” he asked Ester.
“A daughter, but she wants nothing to do with me.”
Arne-Dag nodded and waited.
He started up. “After the accident, you left and I didn’t get a chance to,” he paused, and Ester again seemed tense. Arne-Dag finished, “To speak with you.”
Ester looked down at her hands resting on her knees. “I was scared.”
He again scanned the room where they sat. He had a notion that Ester might be an alcoholic. The place had that look he’d come to recognize from visitations to the elderly and shut-ins, of quiet desperation, of terrible pain and secrets.
“Ester I will tell you why I’m here. I wanted to talk to you about the accident.”
Ester would not look at him. He waited.
“It should have been me dead on that road.”
“No, Ester. You are a child of God.”
“The Haugs were good people, but. . . .” She lapsed into silence.
Arne-Dag suspected it hadn’t been easy for her as a child, an obvious immigrant. Things were much different these days. Members of his church had adopted children from all over the world. Mali, places in South America. The Kreggs have the cutest daughter whom they adopted from Gabon.
“I dropped out of school at age fifteen. That’s when I had my daughter.”
The block of sunlight had moved, climbed the wall. The ferry would leave from the dock below in fifteen minutes. After that it would be one hour before the next boat. Arne-Dag got up, still wearing his coat, and went out to the car. He returned a moment later carrying a box. “The elements,” he said.
He unpacked the chalice and the wine. The bread was kept in a Zip-loc. He unfolded his stole, hand-embroidered by Anna when he was ordained. It was his travel vestment, and draped it around his neck. He laid out the bread on top of the newspaper and poured the wine into the cup. He handed her a piece of the bread.
“Ester, this is Christ’s body broken for you, do this in remembrance of me.”
She held the bread. The ferry was leaving if it hadn’t left already.
Ester raised the spongy square to her mouth and kept it there before parting her lips. Little by little she pushed it inside. It stayed on her tongue going nowhere until she tilted her head back as if to ingest a pill and swallowed. Tears caught in her throat.
“Ester this is Christ’s blood spilt for you.”
She took the cup by the stem. Her hand was shaking.
“Do this in remembrance of me,” Arne-Dag intoned.
She thought of her father and how he used to hold the chalice up with the sun behind him streaming in through the colored panes of glass, casting rainbows on the carpeted altar. This is how she remembered him, standing inside a ring of purple, gold, and reds.
Her voice quivered. “Thank you. I feel much better.” Then, after a few moments. “I’m afraid you’ve missed the ferry.”
“No problem. May I come again and offer you Holy Communion?”
Ester nodded. The room was completely shrouded, the sun extinguished behind the giant fir tree outside her door.
III. About a month after that
The next time he visited he brought along Jan-Magnus or Magnus as everyone called him. The teen was almost done with his extra hours at the church and after confirmation, scheduled for the last Sunday of the month, Arne-Dag expected to see way less of him. It seemed more and more that confirmation was something the youth did to please the parent.
“Where are we going?” Magnus broke into Arne-Dag’s thoughts.
“To visit old Mr. Haroldsson.”
Magnus rolled his eyes.
“Let’s just say you are my buddy today to run some errands.”
“I don’t want to be late for The Cave tonight. Is Ingrid coming?”
Ingrid was Arne-Dag’s youngest daughter. He hesitated before replying, “I believe she is planning on it.”
“Nothing. We’re all going out this weekend to the Skate Hall. Immanuel is bringing in an American skateboard master for an exhibition.”
“Yes, Ingrid told me about it this morning. I guess the whole bunch is going.”
“I don’t like the Skate Hall. I used to go all the time. Then they started making me wear a helmet.”
“I thought it was required.”
“Yeah, but only the one guy seemed to care and then all of a sudden, the staff, made a big deal. So I stopped going.”
“I heard you were very good.”
“Not so much anymore. I free skate sometimes down by the waterfront, along the wall.”
“The wall by the library.”
“No. I like the steps at the library. But I got kicked off of riding down those.”
“You get kicked out a lot.”
“So now I skate along the waterfront, along the breakwall.”
Arne-Dag by reflex was about to say be careful when he got to the bend in the road. As they passed he said, “Two months ago I drove by here and there was an accident. A motorcyclist was killed.”
“He hit his head.”
“Was he wearing a helmet?”
“Yeah.” Arne-Dag got where this conversation was going.
Magnus turned to look out the window, as if to say he’d made his point.
Yet, what Arne-Dag took away was that bad things happen to good people. Theological books are full of such stuff. For Confirmation Sunday he was in fact devising a homily around this concept, to give the young members something to chew on. Sadly, he knew the lesson would be lost on this particular group of confirmees. Best to cast his net into other waters and come up with something else for them.
Magnus continued staring out the window. “My dad is coming into town for my confirmation.”
Arne-Dag waited. He suspected there was more.
“He’s bringing his Finnish girlfriend.”
“Do you have plans for the summer?” Arne-Dag asked.
“I guess so. Dad’s invited me to Oslo.”
“My wife has a cottage on the island where her mother grew up.”
“Yes, Ingrid told me. She says she goes every summer. That she likes to go out on the boat.”
Arne-Dag slowed as they passed Ester’s bungalow. Ester had been doing better. Twice a week she got picked up and brought down into Sandnes for AA meetings. She’d earned a month pin and showed it off to Arne-Dag the last time he’d been to her house to serve communion. It was enough. The best that could come from such a tragedy.
“I’d like to stop here on the way back. You will help me serve communion,” he said by way of an order.
“What a dump,” Magnus commented on Ester’s ramshackle house.
He couldn’t quite put his finger on it, on why he disliked the boy so much. Not really a boy, more a young man with the faint outline of a mustache above his upper lip.
“Not everyone has the good things you’ve grown accustomed to.”
Magnus screwed up his forehead. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Just that some people have it harder than others.”
“Yeah. So? I know that.”
“God forbid that someone try to tell you something,” Arne-Dag blurted. Then, in a way backtracking, “Good thing your head is so hard. Next time you fall, that is.”
“I’ve fallen plenty of times. On my head, too.” He crossed his arms, looking angry. “I don’t know why I’m always getting into trouble.”
Arne-Dag sighed. He had seriously been contemplating letting the junior pastor Tomas Kregg take over confirmation next fall. He was tired of the long Norwegian winter. At the coast it either snowed or rained eight months of the year and half of that time in near darkness. He hardly ever allowed himself to dwell on these bleak thoughts. He’d had a grandfather that had killed himself while in seminary. Though he suspected that mental as well as spiritual depression contributed to his grandfather’s rash action, and that nothing justified one taking his own life, yet he understood such desperation. The past couple of years he had seen the flitting edge of acedia lapping at his soul and at times he was overwhelmed by waves of despair, where he asked himself, What’s the use?
Like right now, with Jan Magnus. What would knock some sense into his thick skull?
“So you will go back with your father?”
Magnus, still with his arms shielding him. “I didn’t say that.”
“Jesus!” Magnus just as well shouted.
“No one ever listens.”
Taking a deep breath. “What is it you want to say?”
Arne-Dag glanced over. Tears were trebling down the boy’s face, dripping into his lap. Arne-Dag pulled over. They were high up and on the east side of the zigzagging road, on the side constantly in shadow where the snow nearly covered the fir trees, where the snow stayed until the middle of July, until well after the solstice. It wasn’t really a good place to pull over.
They sat in the car for a long while before Arne-Dag spoke. “It’s shit, isn’t it?“ He looked about at the purpling shadows and blanketed landscape.
The boy sniffed and shrugged. “I guess.”
“The young man who died,” Arne-Dag began, referring to the motorcyclist. “Maybe only twenty-three, twenty-four. He was a student at the university. He had his whole life ahead of him, and in a moment it disappeared.”
Wind blew and swept a dusting of snow across the asphalt roadway.
Arne-Dag cleared his throat. “We have to get going.” He shifted back into drive, but still remained at the side of the road, with his foot on the brake. “But first I wanted to say, that if you want, you are welcome to join us in August at the cottage.”
Magnus nodded and Arne-Dag pulled out. He noticed as they neared old Mr. Haroldsson’s in the window box on the south wall of the house that a row of yellow daffodils swayed in the evening breeze. A harbinger of things to come.
IV. Then a few years later
They were having glorious weather. The summer before had been horrible and rainy, with temperatures rarely making it above 15̊ºC. So far only two of the kids had managed to make it to the cottage for their holiday as their oldest girl was in America studying and their son was in Madagascar, posted to his first foreign missions. Ingrid, after having graduated from high school, was finishing up her first year at nursing college. She’d been at the cottage for a whole month and Magnus was expected for the last two weeks, as was now his routine. He and Ingrid had settled on waiting until she was done with her training before getting married.
Sometimes Arne-Dag waxed wistful, wishing the kids could be around more. All those years of raising them, getting them confirmed and through high school and then—poof—time slips away.
On the island Arne-Dag laid out on top of the boulders warmed by the sun. He moved his mat this way and that in order to get comfortable. Even though he went to bed exhausted each night, he was having trouble sleeping. The first hour he waited for Anna to come to bed and when she climbed in beside him (the rickety bed creaking beneath their combined weight) he couldn’t fall asleep with her next to him. Her presence seemed intrusive, so he’d get up and move to the couch in the living room where he listened to the waves wash the shore in the distance. He’d lay there holding his stomach.
For the first time as an adult he was losing weight. Everyone said how good he looked. Finally he had cheek bones! But he wasn’t feeling the best. After every meal he was experiencing tummy trouble, severe gastritis.
Along around 5 a.m. when the sun was peeking over the horizon he’d get up and make some coffee. Ingrid and Magnus were due to drive out to the island using the new tunnel. New in the sense that it hadn’t been there when his mother was growing up or when he visited the island as a lad for holidays. The convenience made him happy and sad because all at once it reminded him that things change. People come and go.
That past spring Mr. Haroldsson had passed away. The church had hired Ester last fall to come in three days a week to clean. She drove perilously slow down the mountain, all the while cars behind her honking, in a hurry to make the ferry.
Arne-Dag gazed out the big living room window out at the sea. Already a flock of noisy gulls were squawking as they followed a trawler.
The kids pulled in right at dinnertime. Arne-Dag was at the grill ruining a cod fillet. He told Anna to bake it but she’d have none of his grousing. He better pull out some hot dogs just in case this whole thing turned into a debacle. “Hei!” He greeted Ingrid and Magnus as they climbed out of her rusty SAAB. She bounced over and planted a kiss on her father’s cheek. Maybe it was the lack of sleep, but the gesture almost brought him to tears. He hugged both she and Magnus.
After dinner on the back patio, they sat around in pale sunlight with a bottle of wine made from berries grown on the island and fermented. The sweet liquor coated his lips, and even with the film of sleeplessness blunting the sensation, he felt flooded. Swept along by a current of goodness is the only way he could describe it.
Later all four of them took a walk along the pebble beach. He got caught up with what Elin was doing in the USA. Out on the island there was no WiFi so Ingrid brought the latest news. She was seeing a boy.
Arne-Dag’s stomach did a somersault. Nerves, he imagined, and not just the burnt fish. He didn’t know if he could manage having a child living so far away.
They returned to the cottage for ice cream; Arne-Dag didn’t feel up to any and said he was going to bed early.
The next day he didn’t feel any better. After a few more days of intense pain, Ingrid drove him into the mainland to a clinic. From there he was referred to a specialist for tests. A decision was made to cut the vacation short. At the hospital in Stavanger he Skypped Elin. Her pretty fresh face appeared on his screen. “Hei!”
“Dad are you alright?” she asked.
“We’ll know soon.” Concern riddled her brow. “I’m sure everything will be okay. What’s going on with you?”
“Ingrid told you, I guess. He’s really nice.”
The doctor came out to the waiting room and was signaling for him to follow. “I’ve got to go, but will write later. “Love you!”
Arne-Dag barely had time to sit down before the doctor said, “I’ve taken the liberty of calling Anna. She’ll be here momentarily.”
“I see,” said Arne-Dag soberly. He didn’t see. He didn’t understand. What was happening? Suddenly he felt as if he were still Skypping, the scope of his life the size of his tiny laptop screen. He didn’t want to see beyond the borders, only what was right before him. Anna walked into the room, flushed as if she’d been rushing about.
“Thank you for coming,” the doctor said, half-rising. “Have a seat.”
Arne-Dag drew in his breath loudly. Here it comes, he thought. Anna grasped Arne-Dag’s hand. “We will fight this,” is all he said.
V. A matter of months
Advent was approaching.
The treatments were going as good as could be expected. He felt like a fish on the grill, his skin and insides scorched by the radiation. After each session he threw up and went down a kilo. He lived in sweat pants now too big and felted house slippers. Some days he never left the parsonage. Ester would run over from the church with his mail. While she was there she’d tidy up around his bedside, where he liked everything handy.
“Tssk,” she muttered. “Like a rat’s nest.” She moved a stack of commentaries back onto the bookshelf.
“I was reading those.” She moved them back with a huff.
“You don’t have to do this.”
She glared at him, her hands on her hips, elbows akimbo. “Pastor! You cannot be reading three books at one time.”
“Did you see bookmarks in all three?”
“Then I was indeed reading all of them at the same time. I’m trying to come up with just the right analogy for next week’s advent sermon.” The junior pastor had been stepping in until Arne-Dag felt better, but for the last Sunday in Advent, Arne-Dag had a homily in mind. He was searching, though, between the three texts for a certain image.
Truth be told he was losing words. A side-effect of the radiation he supposed, but it struck fear into his core. How could he minister without the appropriate word? He could see it; sometimes in the middle of a sentence he’d stop and slice his hand through the air. Or he’d drop his pen and clasp his hands together in an effort to squeeze a thought out.
The latest news from the doctor was both good and bad together, like a fallow field holding the promise of a new crop—if only it were planted and cultivated. He worked very hard to give the appearance that he’d be here next spring.
Again to Ester, “So please I need those books back. Right here.” He swept a pile of papers onto the floor. Damn! “Okay leave those there and bring me my lap table. I’ve got to get the sermon done.”
Ester backed away.
He wasn’t sure—had he barked at her? “I’m sorry,” he said anyway. He felt so confused and jumbled up inside. “Anything else?” he asked.
“I’m going to have to be going.”
Her eyes narrowed.
Ester reached for her stocking cap and scarf, and handed him his ringing cell phone.
He took it; still not sure of what just happened. “Hello! Anna, fine, fine.” He nodded at Ester and whispered in her direction. “Thank you.”
Long after Ester had left he was flipping between the three volumes before him, spread out on the duvet. There was something out there on the horizon of his mind, like the colored curtains of the Northern Lights, eerily fluttering back and forth. Just as he would reach out to grasp the hem, it parted, flew away. He lay back in the bed. Yesterday—or was it the day before, possibly last week—he’d gone to the toilet and couldn’t get up. Anna had called Ester to come over. Picture it! These two women lifting him! He actually didn’t want to relive it. It frightened him. So since then he’d been holding his bladder and now his kidneys hurt. That whole area down there was painful to the touch. Again he batted his hand in front of his eyes.
Anna came into the room and sat on the side of the bed. “How’s it going?” she asked.
He sighed, letting silence creep in between them.
“What are you thinking?”
He didn’t know. There were so many things.
He remembered going out to his mother’s cottage as a boy. Riding at the front of the ferry, salt sea spray in his hair, stiffening it like a helmet. There was on the island a collection of rocks, old as the earth, and on these rocks ancient writing, runes. The state department of conservation had been out and discussed with the family how to preserve the features, but back when he was a boy he simply played around on them, imagining himself a Viking pirate come to pillage his mother’s larder, steal her berry wine. He laughed aloud and Anna held his hand.
She crawled into the bed beside him. The books poking into her side, her body bending back pages.
“Take care!” He screamed, but the words only came out in airy puffs.
He closed his eyes and rounded a curve in the road. It was familiar and yet he couldn’t place it. Damn his memory. This is exactly what he was talking about. There one minute and gone the next. Frustratingly out of reach. He took a calming breath. It would come to him.
He saw an Asian woman bending over a body in the middle of the road.
Arne-Dag sat up, startled. Anna placed her hand on his chest and he returned to his refuge of pillows.
The woman stood up, the most horrific look on her face, her coat smudged with blood. He knew she was guilty, had somehow been responsible. He cried out.
Arne-Dag was overwhelmed and hid his tear-lined face behind his big hands. He had told the policeman that day, after the emergency medical team had arrived on the scene that he and the woman had come upon the body. Skid marks, the officials later determined, were consistent with a motorcycle going out of control, possibly at high speed. Arne-Dag didn’t know why he’d lied.
“We must hurry,” he whispered to Anna.
She cleared her throat. “Yes?”
“Church. Communion.” He parsed the words. “I have to serve.”
Always they sang—in his head he could hear the tune. When our hearts are wintry / grieving or in pain . . . Love is come again / like wheat arising green. It was an old song. They sang it while waiting for spring, during the time of Lent. At the old wooden kirke in the center of the island, where the wind and sand had scraped the land bare and there was only exposed rock. Where in the cracks long grass, green moss, and yellow bracken pushed up.
He heard the whistle blow. The teakettle in the kitchen.
Ingrid and Magnus were coming, Anna told him. Also Elin. Their son couldn’t make it from Madagascar. Sadly they’d have to celebrate Christmas without him.
The whistle continued to shriek.
The ferry was about to leave. He was waiting.
Copyright © 2016 by Jane Hertenstein.
About the Author:
Jane Hertenstein is the author of numerous short stories and flash. Her work has been
included in Hunger Mountain, Word Riot, Flashquake, and Rosebud as well as earning an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train. Her literary interests are eclectic, evident in the titles she has published: Beyond Paradise (YA), Orphan Girl (non-fiction), Home Is Where We Live (children—s picture book), and a recent ebook Freeze Frame: How to Write Flash Memoir. She lives in Chicago; she blogs at Memoirous (memoirouswrite.blogspot.com/).
Featured in ArLiJo Issue No. 95
It is done—
From hemlock shavings
Come wisps of white smoke,
A puff of orange,
Around the kindling.
With our boots
To the woodsmoke,
Those little gas-fed backpacker stoves
May be ecologically correct,
But they cannot begin to match
The crackling ambiance
Of a good old-fashioned
What is it
That binds us so tightly
The spark of some
The gene that reminds us
How dreadful it was
When the dark was never light enough
At the back
Of the cave?
Copyright © 2016 by Emory Jones.
Bones Die Hard
They killed them in the shower rooms,
Gassed them with Zyklon-B
Through a grate in the ceiling
At Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Treblinka—
When they opened the metal doors,
They found them in a naked pyramid.
Sonderkommando pulled them out,
Piled them up, and put them in ovens—
The crematoriums smoked night and day
With clouds of souls escaping toward heaven
Leaving their bones,
Skulls in the ashes.
The ash still floats down like ghosts,
Settles on our shoulders
As we remember
Bones die hard.
Copyright © 2016 by Emory Jones.
About the Author:
Dr. Emory D. Jones is a retired English teacher and past president of the Mississippi Poetry Society, Inc. He has over two hundred and thirty-five publishing credits including publication in such journals as Voices International, The White Rock Review, Free Xpressions Magazine, The Storyteller, Pasques Petals, The Pink Chameleon, and Encore: Journal of the NFSPS. He lives in Iuka, Mississippi, with his wife, Glenda.
S. M. Parker
Featured in ArLiJo Issue No. 95
My nails don’t break
they grow on an on
compiling the proteins
of my life story
into dull ovals
My loose left index
is from when it attempted
to rip off my hand as I reached
for the final touchdown
in my 6th grade gym class
but when I fumbled the catch
and watched the blood drip
on my maroon shorts
I realized mother was right
Girls can’t be on the football team
The putrid yellow tips
on my left hand reign
from when they clawed
down my throat to push
the emergency evacuation button
to empty myself into a smaller person
my mother could love
The divot on my right pinkie
is from all times it races across my canine
waiting for the moment
I will succumb
and reach for control of my life
in the back of my throat.
Copyright © 2016 by S. M. Parker.
Seeds of Doubt
I heard that you are a mortar
and I am a pestle
at night we come together
dust it on the earth after fresh rain
and grow birds of paradise
I think we are broken;
We love either too hard
or too soft
or too slow
or too seldom
We make ashes
you spill your shame in me
the seed takes root
it oozes out of me when I can’t claw it out
a dying bird choking on placenta
its eyes white
throat gurgling for attention
with its feathers nonexistent
you tell me to throw it down the trash chute
throw it down the Winooski river
throw it down on the cracked tile
and grind it to dust with the palm I hold it in.
Copyright © 2016 by S. M. Parker.
I Want To Stop Talking but My Father Taught Me English Through Metaphors
The need for silence to trample the room
Elephants carry grudges
they destroyed a town because one of their trains
murdered one of their babies.
I am an elephant.
Not the one who tramples
but the one who had no concept
of looking both ways before crossing the railroad tracks.
Copyright © 2016 by S. M. Parker.
My love made me sterile,
al pedo como teta de monja,
I hate my punani.
My womb is a cactus planted in a rainforest
it screams in desperation
I reach in and uproot it, leave it on the table.
Seabreeze will be salty, Seabreeze will stay bitter.
Soaking walls trap me here
under a dirty skylight:
Evolved like the dodo bird
cerrado como culo de muñeca.
I will pray that I get a job abroad
so I can leave him behind with no guilt.
I want to see the streets of Tokyo,
chords of black road
dotted with silver gecko tails.
The smoke from the burnt rubber
envelops you in thick cloud
that agitates the eyes
and fills the lungs.
Stank from the burnt rubber
dominates your nostrils
the taste of douchebag drifters
will never leave the tongue.
Vin Diesel would have done better in Tokyo.
Vin Diesel was terrible in Tokyo.
I’m doing terrible here
Copyright © 2016 by S. M. Parker.
About the Author:
S. M. Parker studied creative media at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont, which has allowed the study of poetry, fiction and art. Parker is currently working on fantasy novels, oil paintings, and applying to grad school.
Winner of the 2016 Gival Press Short Story Award
2017 Glimmer Train's Short Story Award for New Writers
2017 The O. Henry Prize
Praise for Pidgin:
“In fewer than twenty pages, Pidgin sketches a world of its narrator of color’s post-colonial migration, political activism, and imprisonment within the choices offered him by history. At the same time, it’s a narrative that seems shaped by mysteries that transcend and yet throw into sharp relief its political moment, the chief one being the brilliant voice of its narrator, who is at once mercilessly exposed and utterly enigmatic. Elaine Ray is a writer who plays by her own rules, and is a writer to watch.”
—Thomas H. McNeely, judge and author of Ghost Horse
by Elaine C. Ray
Our youngest daughter, 10-year-old Desiree, comes into the bedroom, urinal in hand. “Good morning, Daddy!” She smiles and lands a kiss on my forehead. She is wearing a black leotard and pale pink tights. It must be Saturday.
I offer her no pleasantries. The occasion does not call for it. She helps me sit up; waits patiently while my shaky hands undo my fly. Then, without fanfare, she scoops my privates into the urinal. She’s oblivious to the fact that she has no business doing this. She’s oblivious to the fact that the metal is cold against my manhood. Her eyes are on the urinal, thus my penis, but she is not really looking, her mind is someplace far, with those imaginary friends she consorts with. She’s humming. Some lighthearted show tune.
I fix my eyes on the yard outside the bedroom window. Green leaves are beginning to poke out of the branches of the apple tree. Soon scoundrels will be jumping the fence to snag the fruit. Edith, my wife, will tell them to come to the front door; that she’ll give them as many apples as they want. That way no one gets hurt.
“If they break their necks, more pies for us,” I’ll say.
“You don’t mean that,” Edith will say.
I do, but then I’m not sure who would bake those pies if we had more apples. Edith is no cook. The only one of my daughters who has shown any interest in cooking is this one—Desiree. But interest is one thing; ability another.
I relieve my bladder.
“All done?” Desiree chirps. She pulls the urinal away, letting my privates flop unceremoniously.
“Where is your mother?” I ask, my voice raspy with sleep.
“Kitchen. She’s making waffles for Rita Jean and I before we go to ballet class,” she says, fidgeting excitedly. I worry that she is going to spill the contents of the urinal on me.
“‘Me,’ not ’I,’” I say.
“Rita Jean and me,” she says, dutifully, but with a slight roll of the eyes. My children are accustomed to me correcting their English.
“You should learn to make breakfast,” I say.
“Mommy says she will teach me once we get a new stove,” Desiree says as she takes her leave from the bedroom, the urinal sloshing. I hear the toilet flush and her stockinged feet bounding down the stairs. She is still humming.
I readjust myself into my pajamas.
I have asked Edith repeatedly not to send our daughters to do this.
“There’s no dignity in peeing your pants,” she says, reminding me that I am the one who fired the nurse who took care of this sort of thing.
Marsha, our eldest daughter, is 15. I assume she is still asleep. When Edith sends her to help me take care of my business, she knocks first. And only when I answer does she open the door. She asks if I need help walking to the bathroom. Then she waits patiently outside the closed bathroom door until I am finished or ask for assistance.
“Is there anything you need? The newspaper?” Marsha asks as she helps me back to the bed.
Twelve-year-old, Diane, the middle child, tells her mother she wants no part of this bathroom business.
“You do it,” she says. “He’s your husband.”
She is my favorite.
I can smell bacon burning. My stomach growls.
Edith, as I mentioned, is not a cook. She once got hired as a baker for a white family in Philadelphia, her hometown. It didn’t take long, however, for her lack of skill to become apparent. I can just picture her standing in the center of a huge, fancy kitchen, flour dusting her face, arms and hair, producing bread that wouldn’t rise, cakes that fell flat, and a pie overflowing with cherries that still had their pits.
To Edith, who tells this story often, it’s meant to demonstrate to the children the lengths she had to go to pay her way through college. The man of the household fired her, but gave her money for her school fees when he found out why she had taken a job she was not qualified for.
“It sounds like something Lucy would do,” Desiree says.
Lucy is Lucille Ball, my youngest daughter’s favorite TV character and also the name of her longstanding imaginary friend.
“Only my friend Luci spells hers with an ’i’ at the end,” Desiree informs anyone who will listen. It does not phase her that most people, including Edith and especially our other daughters, have judged her too old for pretend companions.
It is difficult not to be a superstitious man.
Lucille is the name of my first wife.
I grew up in Barbados. My mother spent every cent she had to send me to an Anglican school, where they flogged us for speaking any kind of slang or dialect.
Nevertheless, that formal education served me well. I scored high enough on my school examinations to earn a scholarship to secondary school. Still, the opportunities for someone poor and so purely black to attend university back then were slim to none. At 17, I got a job working as an apprentice to a printer and then took my skills to Bermuda, where I worked in the composing room for the Colonial Gazette.
I was happy to have a job, any job, but the workers there were not so grateful. They complained about everything: the noxious fumes, inadequate ventilation and the dangerous machinery. The newspaper’s owners were unsympathetic. If we didn’t like working for hours with no breaks, there were plenty of others who would. I didn’t want to be labeled a scab, but I was no rabble-rouser. I set my sights on America. It would have been an embarrassment to go back home.
I landed in New York from Bermuda in my mid 20s filled with the strong scent of the sea and an even stronger sense of myself. Speaking the King’s English set me apart from the average American Negro, and being from Barbados gave me an in with the West Indians in the city. No, the streets weren’t paved with gold, and I was still a black man in a white man’s land. But I had made a vow to my mother that I would make her proud, and I was determined to make good on that promise.
My plan was to land a job at one of those big Negro newspapers. But first I had to put in some time with Oliver and Olivia Burns, a couple with ties to the printer I had worked for back home. Mr. and Mrs. Burns owned an establishment that printed invitations, birth announcements and funeral programs. They had clients who fell into three categories: The well-heeled customers they received in the front parlor of their shop with the curtains open— most of them were white or Negroes who could pass for white, like the Burnses themselves. In the second tier were those who were welcomed in the shop, but with the curtains drawn. They were mostly prominent, but browner-skinned Negroes. At the bottom rung of the Burnses’ pecking order were those who brought in most of the money. They tended toward the darkest hues, were working class or poor, and were not welcomed in the shop at all. Those are the ones I was hired to call on.
That’s how I met Lucille Braithwaite, an enterprising Trinidadian who had worked her way into a comfortable living in the ten or so years that she’d been in New York. By night, she toiled in a government factory in Tarrytown. By day and on weekends, she made extra money doing hair, managing a rooming house and hosting gatherings — rent parties, recitals and receptions— in the upstairs parlor of her Harlem brownstone. She was known to pack a shotgun, lest anyone bring trouble or think about coming between her and her money. She was unmarried and had no children, but kept a parrot named Scarlet whose first language was Pidgin English.
Scarlet was a master of impersonation, picking up accents, inflections and languages with impressive precision.
“Who did you say sent, you?” Lucille asked the day I knocked on her door. At first glance it was hard to tell who was talking: the woman or the bird that stared from atop her head. Both gave me the once over.
“Mr. and Mrs. Burns. You wanted to order some leaflets?” I tipped my hat—a straw cross between a pith helmet and a fedora. The bird snatched it.
“Don’t be rude, Scarlet,” Lucille reprimanded, a touch of amusement around her eyes. She opened the door wider and handed my hat back.
Had it not been for Scarlet’s antics, Lucille, whose hair was wrapped in a brightly colored scarf, would have looked like she was wearing a piece of intricately constructed millinery festooned with bright red, blue and yellow feathers.
“Where are you from, Mr. Clark?” Lucille asked.
I did not realize how ridiculous I looked until I was reflected in Scarlet’s marble eyes— a dark, diminutive, bespectacled figure in navy shorts, a starched white shirt, navy blazer, knee socks and leather sandals.
Lucille was tall, slender, and the color of strong tea. She had a beaklike nose and full lips. When she listened, she stood with her torso thrust forward and her hands on her hips, her elbows taking on the shape of wings.
“Barbados,” I said.
“That must be how you know the Burnses,” Lucille warmed. “Come in.” She led me into a spacious sitting room with two matching upholstered chairs, also bright with color, with a coffee table in between. There was a card table with four folding chairs in one corner and a large wicker birdcage in the other. The place was neat as a pin.
“I don’t allow men in the kitchen when I’m doing hair,” Lucille explained, directing me to one of the upholstered chairs. “The women don’t like men to see them with their hair standing all over their heads. Would you like some ginger beer?” she asked. “It’s homemade. The first glass is free.”
“Him stick out like a sore thumb,” I heard Lucille half whisper in Pidgin to the woman whose hair she was preparing to wash and press. “Way he talk, yuh tink George the Fifth was him faddah. Not bad, working for de Burnses doh,” she continued. “Their work good. Good price. You should talk to him about your wedding invitations.”
Lucille came back to the sitting room and handed me a napkin followed by a tall, glass of ginger beer, icy sweat running down the sides. Scarlet was still on her head.
“You gwan put dat pigeon in the cage before you touch me hair?” her client called from the kitchen.
“Scarlet no pigeon. She a parrot, a beautiful parrot,” Lucille protested.
“Scarlet shit on yuh, yuh be blessed,” the bird squawked, clearly miffed.
“Rude, Scarlet,” Lucille scolded, putting the bird in her cage. ”Rude.”
“Him stick out like a sore thumb, Aww!” the bird mocked, fixing her gaze on me. I stared back as long as I could, then averted my eyes.
When Lucille spoke to her clients in patois, I felt both left out and superior, the lessons of those stern Anglican schoolmarms flooded back. But I began to appreciate the music and the rhythm of it. Besides, there was good money to be made in that brownstone.
I saved up enough to buy a box camera and started offering to take pictures of Lucille’s ladies after their hair was perfectly coifed. I’d develop the portraits and take them up to the shop, where Lucille would display and sell them, taking a cut, of course. Like her, I had several jobs. I worked for the Burnses. I set hot type for the Harlem News. And while shooting photos during my visits to Lucille’s, I developed my reporting skills, gathering gossip for the paper’s columnists.
“You’re a regular Jack-of-all trades,” Lucille liked to say.
It was from Scarlet that I learned that Lucille had taken a liking to me.
“Gwan marry dat Henry Clark one day. Awwwk!”
“Shut up, Scarlet,” Lucille blushed, shushing the bird with a wave of her hand.
“Shut up, yourself, dammit,” Scarlet squawked back.
Lucille and I married April 6, 1949.
“The plaintiff, Lucille Clark, and defendant, Henry Clark, are residents of the City of New York,” the initial divorce complaint stated. “During about October and November 1952 at 370 West 120th Street, the defendant committed adultery with a woman unknown to the plaintiff.”
That was all a fabrication. I had not committed adultery, though looking back on it, that might have been a more honorable course. But I had no intention of challenging the veracity of the court document. Besides, by the time they served me the final divorce papers, I was in Pittsburgh and well on my way to my second marriage.
I first noticed Edith Greene on the 82 Lincoln bus in Pittsburgh, or more accurately, she spied me. In many ways, my two wives looked like they could have been sisters. Both were endowed with long, beautiful legs and their skin color was almost the same, give or take a shade.
Of course, Lucille, who was a good ten years older than my second wife, would not have been caught dead in a pillbox hat or a pair of white gloves—Edith’s signature accessories. Edith did not like animals of any kind and probably would have served Scarlet for dinner.
“Are you Henry Clark, from the Courier?” Edith asked one day when she sat next to me on the bus. “You’re quite a writer. You were pretty tough on Paul Robeson and Langston Hughes for their support of Stalin.”
I nodded with modest appreciation, looking around to see if anyone was listening. I had been living under the illusion that no one in this town knew me, who I had been or what I was capable of.
“I’ve been following you for a long time,” Edith said, admiringly.
I’m sure she was referring to “following” my columns, but once you’ve dealt with the authorities, that word takes on a different meaning.
I got off the bus and walked the rest of the way to work and tried my best to avoid Edith after that, but she was everywhere.
My column for the Courier was mostly about the social to-ings and fro-ings of Pittsburgh’s Negro elites, a circle Edith was working her way into. If there was an afternoon salon, Edith was one of the hostesses. If there was a charity event, Edith’s YWCA teens were the helpers. If there was a concert or theater performance, Edith was there in her white gloves. All she needed was a husband, primarily to allay the fears of her married counterparts that she was trying to steal theirs. That’s where I came in.
I’m not sure if I was smitten or just impressed with the way Edith, a laborer’s daughter with no apparent pedigree, managed to maneuver her way into Pittsburgh’s fancy Negro social life. She worked hard at ingratiating herself to that crowd. (I learned after we were married that her Pendleton suits were hand-me-downs from the white women her mother did day work for.) She had added an “e” to her last name, Greene, to make it “more distinguished.”
When I asked her to marry me, I offered to restore the “e” I’d dropped from “Clarke” when I’d arrived at Ellis Island.
“Don’t be silly,” she said coyly, but I’m certain she considered it.
Edith is still beautiful. Even after three pregnancies, she has not lost her figure. Around friends and neighbors, she is full of cheer and practical advice. But at home, she is tired and overburdened. The way she harangues our daughters, you would think she is preparing to marry them off into royalty.
“The spoon is for stirring, not sipping! No elbows on the table!” she insists.
She tries to sound playful when she calls them “Dumb Dora” and “Calamity Jane,” but I can’t help wondering about the true meaning of her words. When she calls them clumsy, I think she is projecting on them the anger she feels toward me. When she barks, “No slouching!” “Stand up straight!” “Pick up your feet!” “Hold your head up!” I take it personally.
Edith drags the girls all over the city on the bus to ballet classes and French lessons and piano instruction. She insists that they listen to Mozart and Bach and dismisses the blues and Motown as “beer garden music.” As far as she is concerned, Marian Anderson is the great almighty and that child prodigy Philippa Schuyler, the daughter of my former Harlem News colleague George, is the second coming. The piano in our living room is a shrine to them.
Edith insists that the girls eat whole grain bread and refuses them candy and Kool-Aid. Popcorn is their only pleasure.
“I draw the line at raw meat,” I tell her. “I don’t care what George Schuyler’s crazy wife feeds that girl.”
“If eating raw meat and vegetables makes you that brilliant and beautiful, I’m willing to try it,” Edith retorts. I worry that if something happens to me she will try it, but Edith’s problem is overcooking rather than undercooking our food, so I don’t lose too much sleep.
Edith sleeps with a baseball bat under the bed. She thinks I don’t know. It’s for protection. I am not up to the task of defending her. I am no longer a man.
“You are a man,” she insists. “You have a family that loves you, including three beautiful daughters. And you have a great mind, which is what I fell in love with in the first place,” she adds. She wants me to get up and go out, take walks around the neighborhood with her. “Don’t be so proud,” she says. “I did not marry a quitter.”
Edith is right that I have nothing to be ashamed of, at least in this instance. I should not be embarrassed by an affliction over which I have no control. Our neighbor, Johnny, stumbles home to his wife and children in a drunken stupor every single night. A neighbor across the street, the pharmacist with the maid whose only job seems to be dressing the windows, beats his wife. And then there is Frankie, the shell-shocked Korean War veteran who wanders the neighborhood muttering to himself. These people probably wouldn’t even see me as being anything out of the ordinary.
When we bought this house a decade ago, it was because it was in a nice neighborhood, but even the well-to-do, and those striving to be so, have skeletons, and not always the kind buried in the back of the closet. And Pittsburgh being a city where Negroes—those of means and those with no means, the educated and the illiterate—are forced to live in close proximity, the crooks are never too far away.
The neighborhood junkies tiptoed through the dining room window, crawled across our table and sauntered out the front door with our television last summer. I heard their whispers, the creaking floor, but could do nothing. If they had come upstairs to kill me, rape my wife and daughters, hold all of us hostage, they could have. There is no power in my body to stop them. They probably know that.
I did not wake Edith while that transaction was taking place. She seldom sleeps soundly, but that night, thankfully, she was snoring. She might have tried to intervene.
After the thieves invaded our home, I dreamed they had come upstairs to taunt us. There were three of them—jeering, squawking—their dark beady eyes were laughing at us.
I am not a superstitious man. But ever since my marriage to Edith, things seem always a bit off kilter—especially me. Our girls are a blessing. Their health is generally good. Still, every one of them was born with some minor affliction. The eldest, Marsha, was born with a lazy eye. The middle child, Diane, is stricken with frequent nosebleeds. The youngest, Desiree, breaks out in red rashes at the drop of a hat. Some days I long for a son, but I’m sure he’d be born with twelve fingers and a dozen toes. It is for me that Lucille has reserved the most severe punishment. Parkinson’s disease.
I can hear Desiree outside the door. She has walked home from school for lunch. I have fallen trying to get to the door. She is crying. I can picture her crumpled face and wide-open sobbing mouth. She shakes the doorknob so hard, I fear it will fall off. I am on the floor, trying to right myself, but nothing that is reachable is solid enough to bear my weight. There is an end table nearby, but one of its legs is already wobbly. The piano is the sturdiest piece of furniture in the house, but it is just out of reach.
“Hold on a minute,” I call back in as strong a voice as I can muster. “I think I might be able to get up.”
I drag myself a foot or two across the floor and grab a piano leg. I will my shaky hands to hold on and push myself up far enough to take a seat on the piano bench. Somehow, I am able to scoot the wheeled bench to the door, reach up to unlock it, then scoot back enough to allow the door to open and let Desiree in. Her face still covered in tears, she is trying to catch her breath.
“Are you going to tell Mommy that I forgot my key again?” she asks, wiping her snotty nose with the heel of her hand.
“Let’s keep this our little secret,” I say. “From now on, we’ll leave a little crack in the dining room window, so if this ever happens again, you can open it and climb through.”
By the time I have calmed her down; it is time for Desiree to go back to school. Still, she takes a few minutes to make me a cup of tea, which she places on the wobbly end table. She brings me the urinal, but I wave it away. She puts it next to me on the couch and kisses me goodbye.
Edith is at work. At a substitute-teaching job somewhere on the other side of the city. She comes home animated with stories about ill-behaved schoolchildren and insists that she has no tolerance for such behavior in her own house.
I hate the fact that Edith is working again. I was to be the provider, she the caretaker of the children and of me. She was still working at the YWCA when we got married and she got pregnant, not necessarily in that order. “You belong at home,” I insisted. She was not happy, but she quit the job she loved so much. Perhaps this is her payback. I still believe it is Lucille’s.
It is Easter Sunday. I would like to go to church, but not to what has by default become the family’s place of worship. Edith, who was raised Baptist, has taken the path of least resistance, or perhaps the path toward upward mobility, to the Lutheran church around the corner. I dislike that church. The minister mangles the English language and his sermons are incoherent.
“Not one member of that choir can sing on key,” I complain.
Edith has stopped asking me to go with her.
Holy Trinity is the only Episcopal church in the city where Negroes are welcome, but it’s on the other side of town. The last time I ventured there, I ended up in jail after tripping over my own feet and falling face down in the snow. The cops mistook me for a drunk. I would not suffer that humiliation again, not even for God.
After one too many of those falls, Edith insisted that I see a doctor to find out what was wrong with me. The doctor has prescribed a new experimental drug called Levodopa, but the side effects are sometimes worse than the disease. I have wild dreams if I sleep at all, and I get confused and disoriented. This disease has put a damper on my sexual prowess, but the pills heighten my desire—quite a frustrating combination. One doctor recommended things my wife and I—mostly my wife—could do to ”satisfy my urges.” But even in the free-love 60s and after 16 years of marriage, Edith is not the kind of woman who talks easily about such things. That is why I had to get rid of the nurse. Not that she did anything improper. But even the slightest touch can arouse me.
I have frequent wet dreams. Sometimes they involve strangers; sometimes they feature Edith. But the most vivid ones feature Lucille. Those are the ones from which I awake sweating and flailing. The doctor says the trembling is most common when the body is still—they call them resting tremors. But this shaking is from fear, pure and simple.
I am awakened this morning by the smell of pink. Of flowered lotions, powders and perfumes. Our house is fresh with my wife and daughters, who are dressed for Easter. Edith, radiant in a deep green sheath and yellow high heels, gives me a shave then guides my stiff body down the steep stairs for a change of scenery. I worry that we both will tumble, but her body and her perfume give me comfort.
“What beautiful swans you are,” I say, as the girls, waiting in the living room, catch my eye. Marsha is wearing a solid, deep pink dress. Her hair is styled like that model Twiggy. Diane’s dress is white with pink flowers, and Desiree is wearing a slightly smaller opposite version—pink with white flowers. They hold their bonnets in their gloved hands.
“Do you like my Shirley Temple curls?” Desiree asks, twirling her head.
“How I wish I still had my camera,” I say as Edith lowers me to the couch.
“It looks like rain. Get your rain scarves,” my wife says to the girls. ”But hurry, we’re already late.”
“Happy Resurrection Day, Daddy,” Desiree calls as she waves from the door.
I did not commit adultery in 1952 with a woman unknown to my first wife, Lucille, as our divorce papers say.
I like to think of myself as an honest man, a good husband, then and now.
I did not commit adultery. I did commit a vile infidelity. But if Lucille had told the judge the real reason our marriage dissolved, she would have implicated herself.
Some of the gatherings Lucille hosted before and after we were married were political in nature. We signed petitions for jobs for Harlem residents, better wages and working conditions in factories in New York and elsewhere, and petitioned our congressmen to support anti-lynching legislation in the South. We had friends who were card-carrying Communists and many more who were sympathizers. Who didn’t in those days?
But after a few years of marriage to Lucille, I grew weary of it all. I wanted a wife who was devoted to me. I wanted a wife who needed me. I felt more like an appendage than a husband. I felt abandoned.
Lucille was at that factory job all night, and she stayed on many days to help organize the workers. On Saturdays, there was a steady stream of women getting their hair done. On Sundays, there were more political meetings. We were never alone.
“Lucille,” I would say. “When are we going to have children?”
Scarlet would answer for her.
“No chil’ren comin’ outa here, Henry Clark. Baw!”
Many times, I thought about killing that bird. Instead, I made her my comrade.
When Lucille was not at home, Scarlet and I talked. I had her recite names and addresses of the people who came to our house for meetings.
“Miss Gwendolyn Bennett of Jackson Avenue.”
“Mr. Hughes, Manhattan Avenue.”
When Scarlet greeted our guests by name, some visitors were amused. But when she started adding “Communist” after some of those names, some got nervous.
“You and your wife could lose everything,” the FBI investigators told me when they came to my job with questions about our activities. “We know how much you value your American citizenship, Mr. Clark. If you help us, you and your wife can avoid the humiliation of having it revoked.”
“I’m not afraid of those red baiters,” Lucille would say. “Tell them if they have questions, talk to me.”
The authorities knew Lucille would go to jail herself before she’d give up any names.
They knew who the weak one was.
“Talk to that bird,” I told them. “Scarlet knows everything.”
Edith and the girls leave the TV on for me. Lucy is mocking Ricky Ricardo’s Cuban accent. The rainfall outside lulls me to sleep. I dream once again that I am with Lucille. I am begging her for something. I am not sure what. Forgiveness? Marriage? Children? It is not clear. She is laughing. Her naked body is tempting me. Her hair is on fire. Her laughter is at first distant, then it becomes louder, like thunder.
The dining room window rattles, and I realize that this is not a dream. It is not Lucille’s hair that is ablaze, but our apple tree, which has been split in two by a zigzagging blaze of lightning. The tree is swaying first toward the house then away, as if in a seductive dance. My first impulse is to will myself off the couch and out of the front door, but I am calm. For once, my hands, my limbs are not trembling.
Copyright © 2016 by Elaine C. Ray.
About the Author:
Elaine C. Ray, a journalist and fiction writer based in Stanford, California, grew up in Pittsburgh, where she had many imaginary friends, characters. She has spent most of her career as a journalist, working for many years as an editorial writer for the Boston Globe and as an editor and writer for Essence magazine. She is currently a communications director at Stanford University.
Her blog: My Father’s Posts, is a collection of her own commentary and the writings of her father, who was a journalist in Harlem from the 1920-1940s. She recently completed the online novel-writing certificate program offered by Stanford Continuing Studies and is working on the final draft of a novel titled Wanted.
Featured in ArLiJo Issue No. 95
—for my brother
You lost all your jobs
while you lived on that pleasant street,
sturdy with cottonwoods and children.
Morning, noon, afternoon, and night, you unwound on your stoop,
chatting with everybody, quaffing jugs of wine
and jiggers of rye.
Nothing we said made any difference.
You stumbled down the block
once too often and neighbors finally
found you, down for the count.
Now we are here burying you, engulfed
by your drastic life. I hate the whole place—
cornfields, cattle, that horizon.
I hate church spires reaching for infinite sky,
tornadoes. I used to want you back. Now I want away
from your easy laugh, your prairie.
Clearing out your house
is like spitting at a fire. Your animals—tabby cat, snowshoe,
Siamese, calico—leap softly to the porch,
wander like love through the rotten front door,
sniffing for you, whimpering
Copyright © 2016 by Karen Sagstetter.
By the Potomac
Who knows whether worry
or joy stopped the wild river
but all ripples have vanished.
Images of great morning clouds
are etched perfectly
on a flat mirror of water.
No rapids, no drifts.
No eddies. Radiant glass,
utterly still. Except
for the mallard and six ducklings
gliding in formation midstream.
Their tiny wake rolling tenderly to shore.
Copyright © 2016 by Karen Sagstetter.
Morning in Rock Creek Park
I wandered along the creek the morning after
a terrible day
I don't remember breakfast
or much about straying into woods but I know
I slipped on a shiny boulder and my ankles got wet
News of snipers, starlets, bribes
flickered in my mind but I lost track
I saw a stone bridge that seemed rustic
but I couldn’t be sure
Really I was in a plain old stupor
Suddenly, a tall man in pinstripes
and a red cape popped onto the trail
He stepped my way and offered
a bouquet of peach-colored roses
Thank you, I said
Don’t mention it, he replied in a Latin accent
Well, I liked that!
I rolled my face in the delicious flowers
I let my eyes roam around the trees
and guess what! A red panda was clinging
to the branches of an old willow!
I tell you it was not a raccoon,
not a dog, but a red panda
Butterflies, too, flitted through crazy leaves
Gracious, I exclaimed
Also, there were dozens of rabbits
munching clover and carrots and performing
remarkable hops across green meadows
My forest turned out to be dense
with sugar maples and dogwoods
and foxes crouching among rhododendrons
but they were not trying to eat the rabbits
and I was no longer trying to forget anything
Copyright © 2016 by Karen Sagstetter.
About the Author
Karen Sagstetter has published poetry and fiction in numerous literary journals, two chapbooks of poetry, two nonfiction books, and The Thing with Willie, a collection of linked stories. She studied in Japan as a Fulbright journalist and worked as senior editor for many years at the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries and at the National Gallery of Art.