Kelsey Review 40: Fall 2021

Please look below for the extraordinary art, poetry, fiction, and nonfiction created by the talented artists and writers of the Mercer County area!

From the President…

From the Editor…


Lauren Fedorko, “One More Month” (Cover art, above)
Dave Olson, “Two Sugars Please,” “Grouchy Moon,” and “Nothing Like that First Cup”


Michael Griffith, “Still (for Kathi Paluscio)” and “Naked”
Stevie Voss, “An Abecedarian Conversation Between Two Star-Crossed Lovers”
Amelia deGuzman, “I Was 19 Years Old When I Wrote My Mother’s Obituary”
Wanda Praisner, “That Wallenda Gal”
Carolyn Phillips, “The Roosevelt Memorial, Washington D.C.”
Lauren Stanzione, “Ama L’ignoto”
Elane Gutterman, “Dancing Out of Her Skin”
Lavinia Kumar, “Husband and Wife at the Bulkhead”
Nancy Demme, “Hobo Bound”
Dorothy Anna Timberlake Moore, “Traveler” and “Moonrise”
Lois Marie Harrod, “Clara, the Rhinoceros of Venice”
Harvey Steinberg, “Still Reading at Age 88”
Steve Smith, “Retired, I Read the Latest Scenic Artist Union Newsletter”
Lauren Fedorko, “Beach Musings”


Janus C., “Hysteria”
Lauren Stanzione, “I Am Meant to Be Here”
Karen Carson, “They Still Go to the Big City: Reflections on My New York Salad Days”
Ilene Dube, “The Bather”


Barbara Krasner, “Black Taffeta”
Paul Levine, “Getting to Carnegie Hall”
Judith Salcewicz, “Horsing Around”
D.E. Steward, “Pete”


Jacqueline Vogtman, “Book Review: Tidal Wave by Dennis H. Lee

From the Editor…

I’m writing this letter on Thanksgiving Eve (that’s a thing, right?), and I’m finding myself thankful for so many things. First, for the truly talented folks that surround us in Mercer County who generously submit their work to be published in the Kelsey Review. This year’s issue is filled with a variety of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction that can move the reader to laughter or tears, and sometimes both. I’m thankful too, for our readers: those of you in Mercer County and beyond, family, friends, strangers, who all love literature and art and the wisdom that can be found in these creative works. I’m also incredibly thankful to my fellow Kelsey Review editors: Robbie Clipper, Luray Gross, and Ellen Jacko, who always have such a good eye for picking out the best work for our (virtual, this year) pages, and who are such a joy to meet with each year. My gratitude goes out, as well, to Mercer County Community College, especially the Liberal Arts Division, the English Department, the Publications department, the President, and VPAA, who have all supported this project in some way. Thank you all! Often, in the face of overwhelming gratitude, it’s hard to know how to repay it. Well, in this case, I think the repayment is in the form of the poems, stories, and creative nonfiction in this issue. I’ll also leave you with a poem from the famous poet Mary Oliver, who always has such a clear voice of gratitude. This is a poem entitled “Messenger” from her book, Thirst.

My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird—
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,

which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.

I hope you take some time to enjoy the creative works in this issue, and everything else in life.

Take care,

Jacqueline Vogtman

Editor, Kelsey Review

From the President…

Mercer County Community College is delighted to share with you the work of many local writers and artists in the Kelsey Review, the College’s county-wide literary journal. This year marks Kelsey Review’s 41st issue, and it is a pleasure to see how this journal continues to serve the community by sharing the work of talented individuals who live and work in the larger Mercer County area. This journal is just one of the many ways the College highlights and shares the cultural wealth of our area.

MCCC directly serves thousands of county residents, and indirectly tens of thousands through its many ties to the community. Not only can county residents be a part of Kelsey Review, they can also enjoy the many other community offerings that MCCC has to share. WWFM broadcasts quality programming that listeners can enjoy in Mercer County and all over the world by listening online. Kelsey Theater stages a wide range of dramatic performances for county audiences, who also have access to the college’s Art Gallery. Our nationally-ranked MCCC athletic teams offer chances to root for stellar local athletes. Learn more about the college and Mercer County at

Kelsey Review is now available online, where it can be shared worldwide! To keep up with the Review year-round, please “like” the publication on Facebook.

Each edition of the Review presents professional-quality poetry, fiction, non-fiction, art, and photography that provoke thought and spark inspiration. Enjoy what you find here.  


Deborah E. Preston, Ph.D.


Mercer County Community College

D.E. Steward


Note well that seventy-five percent of the earth’s land now is significantly altered and that over eighty-five percent of world wetlands are finished and cleared, gone.

The short season in May of the high black locusts’ ivory blossoms drifting diagonally on the breeze is over in days

“This morning is drunk with spring sun”  (Anna Akmatova, tr. Judith Hemschemeyer)

The little blossoms themselves, wherever they land, remain for a week or so

Blown around in the sunny air

Under the fresh leafed-out hardwoods off above the lawn

Body flash whiteness in the low evening sun of a bird off the top of a high dying white ash beside one of the flowering black locusts

Gray kingbird, Tyrannus dominicensis, a southern bird only casual here

The only now and then like fish crows here, which are shinier, smooth-feathered, shorter legs and smaller heads than the universal default  

Much of the botanical, insect and reptile inventory of the subtropics, missing here in the temperate zone  

But in spring and fall migration there are ospreys now since DDT was taken off the shelf

Absorbed by the fish the ospreys eat and softening the shells of osprey eggs

That DDT poison chain was like the devastating plume trade in egret feathers

Off down here at twenty-six degrees walking Collier County’s white fine sand  

By Big Cypress and Everglades National Park off toward the Keys

Fish crow patrolled, osprey surveyed, magnificent frigate bird determined, brown pelican picketed, black skimmer defined

Red, black, and white mangroves, lignum vitae, on the estuary inlets and barrier coasts   

The ancient baldcypress loft all gone except for the few big trees preserved

They were part of the lost totality of the great pre-Euro settlement forest  

Taiga to the Gulf of Mexico  

Here now even the seagrape and button mangrove are generally bulldozed and burned for the Collier County’s golf resort hotel and retirement tract development

Fish crows in twos and threes checking everything below

“Particle is to beach as pebble is to real estate. / Reality is to reality as sky is to earth.”  (Paul Muldoon, “Recalculating”)

There were random fishing camps and cabin settlements here before  

Very few other than Calusa grandparents were born here

En los esteros

Having to do with this coast’s deep past

The same as the whole of the Americas  


Les Murray wrote that reading a “real” poem, “is marked by a strange simultaneity of stillness and racing excitement. Our mind wants to hurry on and have more and more of it, but at the same time it is held by an awe which yearns to prolong the moment and experience it as timeless.”

Murray’s “wholespeak” envelops all that lives, and all that has

He died the next to last day of last month

“You and I will sit for awhile in the kitchen”  (Mandelstam)

Gilder’s white

Bone white


“You can get the idea of Ashbery in two pages, almost everything after that is sludge.”  (William Logan)

Logan disparaged les Murray as well

“We have done as much damage to the fate of the planet and its ability to sustain human life and civilization since Al Gore published his first book on the climate than in all the centuries – all the millennums – that came before.”  (David Wallace-Wells)

Cambridge University’s current answers to the greenhouse effect are mass spritzing of seawater into the clouds so that salt crystals make them more reflective, rocket launched small reflective disks to create a sort of parasol to shade the planet, and orderly groves of machined metallic artificial trees to filter the carbon dioxide    

”Civilization now depends on self-deception. Perhaps it always has.”  (Ted Chiang)

Titanium white

Der Spiegel claimed that in Germany an average of eight hundred people a year throw themselves in front of speeding trains

Key West remains

There due south of everything else in the lower forty-eight   

Elizabeth Bishop, John Hersey, Marie-Claire Blais, Jimmy Merrill only to his friends, Earnest never Ernie after childhood and maybe not even then, and Tennessee’s bizarre

Like Stevie Wonder’s harmonica in Dionne Warwick’s “That’s What Friends Are For”

Too much Cayo Hueso for metropolitans   

Where an American crocodile thrives in the salt bonds by the airport

No Burmese pythons yet, no closer than on Big Pine up the Keys

Pigeon-plum and gorgeous gumbo limbo

Coco-plum, strangler figs, melaleuca that Australian import, saltmarsh, locust berry’s white to pink to crimson blossoms

Hammocks, mangrove swamps, canals

Coral reef and oolityic limestone base

Los esteros

Being the flat-water passages and ponds where black skimmers feed, full under-bite lower mandibles skimming the surface for tiny fish at low tide, dusk, at night  

Black skimmer defined

They walk and run well, at times fledglings left ashore charge into the shallows, lower mandibles extended, to ape the adults skimming by

They live long the three North American coasts, and across northern South America to Bolivia and northern Argentina (have seen them over the Iguazu River on the flat water upstream from the falls)

In Africa south of the Sahara, and all over South Asia to the Mekong

Running west on I-75 now, Alligator Alley, into white-sanded Collier County in the lowering beryl evening haze’s occlusive glare

Birds galore flaring up off to the sides of the interstate but driving too fast to generally identify

But black vultures circling, an American kestrel high on a wire, a night heron probably a yellow-crowned

Two wood storks for sure, their huge mandibles flying flat look a lot like skimmers’                                                                                               

Half a dozen unidentifiables from over the steering wheel while going seventy-five

Headed for a big Shanghai wedding on Marco Island and all that entails and implies

Missing the keen intensity of the father of the bride

He stopped by when he must have known that he probably soon would die

Again, “You and I will sit for awhile in the kitchen”  (Mandelstam)

We shared times like that for many years

I asked him once where he would live when he was an old man, the US or China

He looked puzzled and then answered politely that he couldn’t say

He died at sixty-four  

Still almost impossible to accept that Yu Dingwei is no more

And happy as a black skimmer skimming to be so much alive

In this deeply empty evening light

Carib Florída high humidity early evening haze

About the author
D. E. Steward
’s five volumes of Chroma, seventy-two months each, came out in 2018 from Avant-Garde Classics/Amazon. Chroma is a month-to-month calendar book, a further volume of months is accumulating of which this submission is one.

Paul Levine

The R/V Thompson

I spent the early part of my academic life dreaming of becoming an oceanographer.  Not the George Costanza marine biologist kind, but a real one.  A towering figure, with a grizzled and tanned look and unkempt beard housing sea salt, barnacles and icicles that could only result from sailing the seven seas.  It was an inevitable dream, having spent half my childhood growing up near the ocean in Rockaway Beach, Queens.  I could look out the window and see the Atlantic pounding the shore, and occasionally witness hurricane force winds cause the ocean to overflow the peninsula, and meet up with Jamaica Bay, only four blocks away.  We lived on the slimmest of land between the wind-driven waters. My childhood revolved around summer swims, boogey boards and bicycling along the boardwalk year-round. The views were always glorious. It was the only good thing about living in the projects, as the architecture had all the allure of another, nearby seaside community, on the other side of the borough.  Rikers Island. 

As an undergrad, I supported myself by working summer jobs and shelving books in the library while on campus.  But the best source of income was working on a small research vessel (R/V), the R/V Micmac, that was operated by SUNY Stony Brook. Several weekends a semester, we’d  load up the vehicles with all sorts of gear, electronics, rope, floats, and sampling devices and drive to the Micmac’s last berth, more often than not at the Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point or Fort Wadsworth, Staten Island, depending on our intended sampling plan.  We spent a lot of time “cruising” New York Harbor and taking samples of water, sediments and sludge. It was tough and physical work that was conducted in all types of weather, day and night. Though we completed several trips around Long Island, the East River was most often our intended target, as our research attempted to rectify the appalling water quality conditions that existed in the early 1970s.  The East River particularly was anoxic and unable to support marine life.  Failing wastewater treatment plants were discharging untreated sewage into the river and this research provided the data necessary to improve water quality within New York’s real gem.  The harbor.  Though my role was small, I still take a certain amount of pride whenever I look out at the harbor, knowing that I contributed to its improvement.

I was elated to be accepted to the University of Washington’s Graduate School of Oceanography. And I was particularly excited to hop on board the R/V Thompson for my first “cruise” on a real ship.  Every student was required to go to sea after the first year, and I couldn’t wait.  The Thompson was an oceanographic research vessel, purpose built in 1963, for the UNOLS, the University National Oceanographic Laboratory System.  It was 1,200 tons and 209 feet in length; about two thirds the distance to the right field fence in Yankee Stadium.  It drafted 16 feet with a more than adequate cruising velocity, mid-throttle.  It was capable of carrying 14 civilian mariners and up to 30 scientists in rather sparse, close quarters.  Relative to the Micmac, it was an aircraft carrier.  Its deck was an obstacle course of hoists, hooks, tanks, cables, wires, dredges, bottles, flasks, pipettes, meters, floats, freezers, cores, rope, scuba gear, microscopes and sophisticated navigation equipment to support the multiple ongoing investigations.  There were bunks, well-fitted labs, and dining areas onboard.  A serious vessel.  If you looked close enough, you could spy the occasional, illicit fishing rod or two, smuggled on board for extracurricular activities and the freshest of meals.  The Thompson could venture out to sea for weeks.  The real sea. The sea where you couldn’t see anything but the sea. 

One year of landlocked studies, on all aspects of geologic, chemical, physical and biological oceanography was under my belt.  I claimed to understand the science behind tides, but I really didn’t.  Something to do with the moon. It was June, and loading the Thompson started at the university’s dock on Portage Bay.  We’d transit the Ballard locks, together with legions of salmon commuting from Puget Sound.  We were heading for the North Pacific; I couldn’t tell you where, but it seemed like a great, albeit undefined destination, in a big ocean. The voyage included more planning than the Skipper and Gilligan conducted on their ill-fated three-hour tour.  I left the navigation to the captain.  He seemed capable of reading all the dials.

Like all grad students, I was more or less surviving on canned tuna and PB&J sandwiches.  Our stipends, after deductions for tuition, housing and taxes, left little for food.  Food was a luxury and I was always hungry. You can imagine my excitement when I entered the galley.  There was a spread of cold cuts, rolls and pastries that I hadn’t seen since my cousin’s Bar Mitzvah years ago.  I couldn’t help but guzzle.  Turns out we had a prominent stowaway.  The chef, a navy vet, was the recently retired head chef at the Olympic Hotel, Seattle’s premier hotel, and quite coincidentally, the site of the original university.  He signed on to relive his younger days at sea and provide nutritional pleasure to the crew.  Even his coffee tasted better than anything I ever drank. Perhaps it was the Starbucks effect?  The upstart coffee house had just opened at the Pike Place Market, three years prior, and was developing a loyal following.  I felt like a Biafran refugee who lacked sufficient protein, but was instead given  his choice of limitless coconut cream pie or apple turnovers.  What to do? 

“Hold on there, son, “ chef cautioned.  “This is your first outing, isn’t it?  Pace yourself.  Everyone gets sea sick the first time out, and I’d rather you not barf my meatloaf over the side.  No sense feeding the fish.”

“Good advice,” I assured him, “but I’ve been doing oceanographic research for years in New York Harbor and Long Island Sound.  I think I have my sea legs.  Plus, I took some Dramamine, just in case.”

“Suit yourself,” he said with a knowing smile. “But don’t tell me I didn’t warn you.” I think I heard him utter under his breath, “Grad students. They’re all the same.”  He was right. We were all pompous.

By now we had passed the locks and were heading north, up the Puget Sound.  Seattle’s skyline was fading in the distance.  It was a rare, beautiful day in the Pacific Northwest.  Not a cloud in the sky. As we headed north, the Sound was increasingly choppy, as the protective barriers and islands opened more fully to the ocean, exposing us to wind, waves and currents. By the time we were nearing the coast of Vancouver Island, I realized this cruise was not my father’s Oldsmobile.  As we entered the Straits of Juan de Fuca, I started to feel the ocean beneath.  We were on the Pacific side of Vancouver Island now, on a bearing of 315 degrees, heading out to nowhere in the rough waters of the Pacific.  Not at all what I expected.

It was undeniable, I was sea sick and I made my way over to a secluded place where I could hide my embarrassment and expel, in projectile fashion, hardly digested chocolate chips over the side.  I’m guessing the fish enjoyed my sugary supplement to their otherwise bland and staple diet of plankton. 

There are only so many places where you can hide on board a ship. Chef was watching from a distance and came over.  He recognized the symptoms immediately. “Try to look at something that’s not moving.  Like the horizon,” he advised.

“Either I have vertigo, or the whole fucking world is moving.”  I felt no need to edit my speech.  Chef was navy and he’d heard worse than I knew.  “Hang in there.  You’ll be here for a while,” he encouraged while injecting reality simultaneously.  For sure, he was smiling when he turned back to the galley. It was an all-knowing smile.

I stayed outside for a long time.  Hours.  Days on end.  I couldn’t go inside; the air was stale and smelled of diesel only I could detect.  There wasn’t enough Dramamine onboard to ease my condition. The sight of food was a trigger; my apologies to the chef.  I wasn’t even hungry. I must have lost 10 pounds in seven days; it was better than Weight Watchers.  I was skinny then. But there was good news.  I became everyone’s favorite shipmate and learned to use most every piece of equipment on board.  Why?  Not because people felt sorry for me, but because I volunteered to take most every “watch.”  A watch being the time you were designated to take samples.  To the extent I didn’t have to go inside, I stayed outside.  It was only exhaustion that allowed me to periodically overcome the diesel fumes and get some shuteye, often wrapped in a blanket on deck.  They say the worst thing about being sea sick is that you know you’re not going to die. It’s true. I was drained as we headed back to port.  But I could proudly say that my name was associated with most every sample collected on that voyage.  I was hoping someone would name a submerged butte after me, at the very least.  No such luck.

We arrived back on land after about 10 days at sea.  We didn’t head all the way back to Seattle, but rather docked at the Neah Bay Indian Reservation, the far northwest corner of the state, where another crew replaced us.  I was the first to disembark.  Even the van ride back to Seattle remained uncomfortable, though increasingly comfortable after the last ferry ride out of Bremerton across the Sound.  Fortunately, chef never mocked me on the ride back; he remained on ship, preparing goodies for the next crew. Undoubtedly, he was scouting out the next newbie, who’d be wise to take his advice.

When we arrived back to Seattle, I thought long and hard about my future.  Oceanography was my life’s ambition.  How could I be an oceanographer if I got sea sick?  I transferred to the School of Forestry after several weeks on dry land and a new appreciation for PB&J.  I never saw chef again, though I often sat on the university dock on the bay to watch the Thompson sail on to its next adventure without me.  I visit the dock each time I return to Seattle.  It’s tradition.

I still cruise, but on ships with names like Ovation of the Seas or Norwegian Dawn, with 4,000 passengers, 1,000 crew, a pool, an endless buffet and onboard entertainment.  The ships are so big that you’re unaware that you’re riding on a buoyant, moving fluid.  If you do feel movement, you’re in deep fluid. Whenever I’m on such ships, I have an irresistible desire to throw a sample bottle over the side, retrieve a water sample, and bring one home as a souvenir from each port of call.  I still wonder what life would have been like had I been able to tolerate life at sea on a smaller vessel.  I’ll never know.

About the author
Paul Levine
is retired and is now filling his free time with combinations of day dreaming, telling fibs, and teaching an introductory class in sustainability at Middlesex College. Other hobbies include eating vanilla crème cookies from Aldi’s and pretending that he can do so as long as he attends spin class. He continues to be a regular at Nancy Demme’s writer’s group, exploring interests that have remained dormant for years. When not writing, he finds periodic solace in participating in current events and investment forums, demonstrating his lack of expertise in both. With the pandemic in the rear-view mirror, he will revisit and attend to his bucket list, so he can bring new stories to life.

Sharri Bockheim Steen

Fern’s Web

Oh what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practise to deceive!
—Sir Walter Scott (Marmion, 1808)

The Spider’s Role Was Overstated

At age fourteen, Fern discovered something even more extraordinary about Charlotte and her web:  they had simply been tools. Her tools. The medium through which she, Fern, had inadvertently projected her most ardent, pig-centric desires back at age eight.

And now? Now she could lie in bed with her eyes squinched shut, picturing a few select words in any spidery location. For example, if she chose the pantry, the very next morning “FERN IS AWESOME!!!” would appear above the dusty canning jars in the web of an anonymous spider.

The night before starting high school, Fern stocked her pencil case with spiders.

She used her newfound power crudely at first. A plain-looking farm girl, she willed “PROM QUEEN” with such ferocity that the web words over her locker were bold, underlined, and embellished with curlicues—an exact replica of the doodles in her math binder. Her classmates fell for it too, gawping like spring calves. Teachers, popular kids, smart kids, everyone was fooled by the words. Everyone, that is, except her brother Avery, who still called her Pig Girl and mocked her head-to-toe insecurities, from limp hair to size-eleven feet.

Fern’s confidence grew with every web. Soon she could laugh off Avery’s taunts. Her nightmares about exposure—about everyone at school pointing and jeering at gawky, grasping, little Fern—dissipated.

During her third prom coronation, Fern realized that, if she left the farm and her dyslexic older brother, she would be unstoppable. Because people really do believe anything they read.

Illiteracy: A Dog’s Most Endearing Quality

By age twenty-five, Fern had moved to New York City, broken ties to family, and adopted an adoring golden retriever named Beau.

She had also mastered the art of subtlety. She discovered that picturing words without first clearing her mind could produce subliminal messages, sensed rather than seen. And her skill was not limited to spider webs. She could weave words into a bowl of pasta, the wood grain of a table, or the leopard print of her favorite miniskirt.

She began wearing a complex matrix of carefully selected words the way Park Avenue ladies wore signature perfumes. Every night after settling onto the sofa-bed in her walk-up efficiency, she formulated tomorrow’s bright top notes like glamorous and musky base notes like sensual. Every day, admirers buzzed around her and hung, enrapt, on her every word.

Fern kept her admirers at a distance, both physically and emotionally. Being untouchable was the price she willingly paid to guarantee that no one would see the unremarkable farm girl beneath the remarkable words.

Besides, she had Beau. His adoration transcended words.

Fernbeau Entertainment Marketing LLC

By age thirty-five, Fern had discovered that her extraordinary ability could be extraordinarily lucrative. She became a sensation in the product placement industry, supplementing the beer bottle in an actor’s hand by inscribing its brand name into his constellations of boyish freckles. Her clients never noticed the words—only the surge in sales and the glamorous woman responsible for them.

“There’s something about her that says ‘successful,’” a pink-faced client mused to his older colleague over mid-morning martinis. “I knew it from the minute I met her. ‘Course it doesn’t hurt that she’s glamorous.”

His colleague, a bristly warthog of a man, grunted his assent. “That’s why I like how she insists on meeting face-to-face. I mean, damn right, I’ll share a conference room with that. Just me and her with the door locked. Heh, heh.”

Fern heard that very proposition later in the afternoon from a different client. She smiled demurely and stepped away with her usual noncommittal response. After work, she went straight home, as she did every evening, to lounge in the center of her silken bedsheets beside her beloved dog (now Beau the Second) and eat take-out while planning tomorrow’s conquests.

That night Fern dreamed of a crowded courtroom presided over by a ram with BOGUS written in the ridges of its horns. The creature pointed an accusing hoof at her and bugled with maniacal laughter.

She awoke, shaken. The bathroom mirror revealed a scrambling of the words in her skin tone: desirable had become see ribald; powerful turned into woeful pr.

Fern took her first sick day. She lay in bed with the shades pulled, fighting panicked visions of her new empire crumbling.

At six o’clock in the evening, her assistant called. No disasters, no angry clients, no exposure. A good day.

Fern took extra time over her bedtime routine that night. She chose her words carefully and began what became a lifelong sleeping pill habit.

She returned to work the next morning, as desirable and powerful as ever.

Fernfield Manors: A New Luxury Subdivision

At age fifty-eight, Fern, covered in accolades, made a concession to her break with family. Four weeks after her brother Avery died in a tractor accident—and two weeks after Beau the Fourth’s demise—she hired Avery’s daughter Jean and Jean’s husband Richard. They had written a long, effusive letter detailing how Fern’s success had made her a hometown hero and had inspired Jean’s career in public relations. The letter also hinted of their precarious financial state after inheriting the heavily-mortgaged family farm. Fern was happy to take it off their hands and put the property to good use.

Richard had courtly manners and soft brown eyes that melted with admiration every time Fern entered the room. He winked conspiratorially when Fern declined Jean’s barrage of dinner invitations and other attempts at familial intimacy.

Jean was the annoying one. She was an effusive hugger. Fern spent untold effort circumventing Jean’s relentless attempts to embrace her “dear Aunty.” She was also too liberal with exclamation points and smiley faces and too conservative with necklines and hemlines—irksome reminders of farm girl mannerisms.

Still, Jean did surprisingly well in the industry, compensating for her lack of flare and savoir-faire with a knack for forming close friendships with clients and colleagues. She performed all those cheek-pecking, arm-stroking, squeeze-hugging niceties that Fern spent her days evading. Fern learned to use Jean to her advantage, making untouchable celebrity-like appearances while Jean ran around pleasing everyone with puppyish zeal.

It’s As If They’re Begging to Be Exploited

At age seventy-two, Fern suffered a mild stroke. Jean sent Fern nearly a dozen heart-emoji-laden texts as she and Richard rushed to the hospital upon hearing of it the next morning.

“You see me as I am,” said Fern, with a regal sweep of her good arm to indicate the partial paralysis, catheter bag, and blue hospital gown.

“Charming and sophisticated, as always,” Richard insisted.

Fern relaxed and rewarded him with a smile. Charming and sophisticated were the very words she had discretely woven into the blue swirl pattern of her hospital gown the night before.

“Ooh, I’m sooo glad you’re okay, Aunty!” gushed Jean, reaching for Fern’s hand. “Come stay with us! Recover at our house!”

Fern pulled her hand away just in time on a pretense of touching up her hair. “I wouldn’t dream of imposing.”

Richard gave her a soft look. His liquid eyes once again reminded Fern of her long-gone Beaus. “We would be so very honored, dearest Aunt Fern.”

“That’s what families are for!” said Jean, smoothing the bed sheets near Fern’s leg.

Fern edged away (would the girl never stop trying to touch her?) but relented. After all, she could better manage the agency from an employee’s guest suite than from a rehabilitation facility.

The transition to Jean and Richard’s house went well, once Fern had dictated a furniture arrangement that kept Jean at arm’s length. However, Fern soon became aware that her physical recovery would be eclipsed by mental decline. Her short-term memory flickered. She was forced to let Jean and Richard handle more client accounts. She grew irritable at times, snapping at the hired nurses.

Jean’s gushing reassurances and attempts to stroke Fern’s hand never helped matters. It was Richard’s devoted ministrations that soothed her best. He would stand in her bedroom doorway crooning an old love song or offering gallant compliments. “You just rest and let us deal with life’s little frustrations, Gorgeous.”

Fern credited her new wig of long, curly hair that she filled with gorgeous each night before bed.

Only Jean’s gentle touch consoled the unfortunate nurse who tried to remove the wig during Fern’s nap.

When Words Fail

Two nights after her seventy-fourth birthday, Fern awoke after midnight with her heart pounding and her wig stringy with sweat. She knew with dread certainty that she had forgotten to do something before bed. But what? She had applied her face cream, used the toilet, taken her meds. For hours she hunted vainly through the ever-thickening cobwebs of her mind, rummaging through her girlhood bedroom, high school locker, first apartment, countryside estate. Every thread she clutched dissolved, forming a dense fog that left her dream-self blindly groping in bewilderment and desperation.

Fern awoke late the next morning, drained of energy and tightly wound in her bed sheets. Her room was filled with bright sunlight and hushed voices.

“I don’t care how or why it wrote ‘PRMO QUNEE’ over her bed,” Jean was saying in a shrill whisper. “Catch it and take it outside. It was so close to Aunty’s face! It could have bitten the poor dear.”

Richard shrugged. His eyes followed the attractive nurse attacking the web with a roll of paper towels. “Maybe spiders are attracted to old-people smell. I say it’s time to send her to Sunset Acres, where people get paid to deal with the constant demands and complaints.”

Fern shuddered as she lay wordless, helpless, and exposed. She squeezed her eyes tight against the intense sunlight and asked herself, How did I expect this to end?

“Richard, I can’t believe you said that!” said Jean with uncharacteristic outrage.

Fern felt Jean’s warm hand squeeze hers. For once, Fern didn’t—couldn’t—pull away. Only then did she discover the secret to her niece’s professional and personal success: not simply their shared power but Jean’s virtuoso wielding of this inheritance through touch. For, the moment Jean’s hand grasped hers, a girlish, looping script appeared before Fern’s closed eyes, written in the veins of her eyelids: “Safe, Aunty! Rest! XOXO!!! 😊😊”

About the author
Sharri Bockheim Steen
‘s publications include short stories in Kelsey Review (“Tag Sale at Area 51” in Issue 37), The First Line, and several summer fiction issues of U.S. Route 1. She lives in Rocky Hill, New Jersey, and she teaches biology at a private high school in Princeton.

Barbara Krasner

The Diaries

During the war, Dirk always appreciated inheriting his mother’s Aryan features. Not just the blond hair and blue eyes, but also the Teutonic nose, slightly broad at the base and the high cheekbones, the determined shape of the mouth.

From his Dutch father, he inherited the dimple just to the right of his mouth that popped when someone told a good joke.

Not that he’d heard jokes in the last few years, not since before the war. But now the war was over and Otto Frank told him a good one at the café last night.

Dirk now ran his fingers over his worn jacket pocket. What to do with the notebooks and loose pages that comprised Anne’s diary? Otto had said, “Hold onto these for safekeeping. These are her originals and her rewrites. I call them versions A and B.” He pushed his glasses back onto the bridge of his nose. “I’ve altered them in my own hand in version C. I tried my best to imitate her writing. Some things the world doesn’t need to know.” His voice choked when he said “her,” as if mentioning her name outright would conjure up unwanted images.

The pages made Dirk’s bones rattle. What was he to say to his friend? No, don’t give me your most prized possession, the sole remnant besides a few camera shop poses of your young girl?

He strode along the wet cobblestone to his flat and sat on the edge of his ancient iron-framed bed. The cockroaches and rats would soon be out for their nocturnal festivities. He hadn’t bothered to turn on the light for perhaps thirty minutes. He took the notebooks now into his hand, the rough texture of the paper reminded him of rough-cut diamonds—a precious gift with edges that could draw blood, even perhaps kill. Each of the three notebooks was a different size and then there was that first diary, the red-and-white checkerboard book with the lock.

He continued to hold the notebooks while he reached up instinctively to grab hold of the string. He pulled and a meager light shone on his hands. Clean hands, because only clean hands could handle the gems that were Anne’s words.

He had never actually met her. He only met Otto after the war in his capacity to resettle Dutch Jews. He wanted desperately to read her version and then read Otto’s, to see, to feel the difference the camps had made.

He could not keep Anne’s books here. But at the same time, he had to honor his friend’s request. Dirk knew enough about the vulnerability of paper to think about preserving the pages in an archival-safe container of some sort. Though it had only been a few years, the checkerboard had already faded to a pink and off-white. He could go to the museum and make up some story that perhaps the curator might believe. This way he would be able to get free advice. If the curator discovered the ruse, he would not be amused. Recovering the Rembrandts and Vermeers from the Nazi salt mine vaults had left the curator without humor.

Dirk would have to find a place to store the bag or box where he could easily retrieve it when Otto asked for it.

Now he dared to ask himself the question he had pushed into the shadows: What was it about him that led Otto to ask this favor of him?

He was respectable, yes. Reliable, hard-working. But he hadn’t treated Otto really any differently from others who had come to him from Westerbork and the DP camps. If he asked himself honestly, Dirk didn’t even know if he performed satisfactorily at his job. He could perhaps find his Jews homes and jobs. But he could not—and he was always clear about this—he could not help them find their lost ones. That responsibility belonged to the Red Cross. He could not help them recover their lost lives, give them back the years they lost at Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz.

He tucked the notebooks into an old scarf and placed it in the first drawer of his bureau. He prepared for bed and turned out the light.


With Anne’s multi-volume diary still wrapped, Dirk carefully placed the package into his briefcase and set out for the Rijksmuseum. The air was stiff as if the tram wires would snap if the wind exhaled.

He had an appointment with the curator at precisely nine o’clock. Mr. Hendrik De Groot, a short dumpy man with pocked skin, thin lips, and a bushy red moustache stuffed himself behind his mahogany desk.

“I hope this doesn’t take long,” he said, twisting the end of his moustache. “We’re preparing a new exhibit of recovered Rembrandts. There’s much to be done.”

“Yes, of course,” Dirk said. “I am here to inquire about the lockers in the basement.”

De Groot’s hands dropped to the desk’s surface. “Basement?” He considered Dirk and Dirk knew what he was thinking: How could a young man know of such things?

He leaned in toward the desk. “The basement.”

“Your father, of course,” De Groot said, puffing out his chest with his mystery-solving skills.

“I should like to use one.” Dirk patted his briefcase and licked his lips. His mouth had gone dry.

De Groot opened his mouth to say something, but instead ran his fingers over his moustache. “This isn’t anything illegal, is it?” he asked.

“On the contrary. It’s to keep Dutch arts and letters safe.”

“Something of those Jews of yours? They weren’t the only ones who suffered. All of the Netherlands suffered on their behalf.”

If Dirk said anything in response, he risked getting access to a locker. He shrugged off the comment. Every day he read in the newspapers and heard on the streets all these statements of how great the Dutch were and how grateful any surviving Jews should be.

De Groot reached into the top right drawer of the mammoth desk and pulled out an old-fashioned key. He stood and led Dirk down a public hallway. Then he turned left into a much narrower and cooler one. There at the end was a lift. De Groot used the key to open its door and then again to allow the lift to operate. They descended one, two, three floors below. The scent of mold and dampness caused Dirk to cover his nose with his handkerchief. He clung to the handles of his briefcase.

The lift came to an abrupt stop. Iron gating created small spaces in front of him, storage areas, he guessed. But along the back wall were the lockers. Anne’s diary would be safe from environmental factors within the confines of those thick walls.

“I’ll leave you to it,” De Groot said. “I’ll wait in the hall.”

Each locker held a key. Dirk opened one. He slid the locks on his briefcase to his combination and the latch snapped open. “You’ll be safe here, Anne,” he whispered.

Moments later he rejoined De Groot and then found himself on the Number 12 tram with so many others in the morning rush.

Otto came to see him around 11 o’clock.

“I found someone to read the book,” he said, “a historian to read my version. If she likes it, maybe she can recommend a publisher.”

He turned oddly silent and stared out the window onto the boulevard. Dirk had seen that look before. The look that said how did it come to this? How could I survive when my loved ones did not? Why was I saved?

Otto cleared his throat. “My friend, nothing is more important than the publication of Anne’s book. It’s my duty, my obligation to her, to Margot, to my wife.” Otto turned his head away again.

Dirk had become accustomed to seeing that, too. He tried not to put more pressure on Otto by staring at him. Instead he chose to focus on the Montblanc fountain pen laying on his desk blotter. He remembered the birthday when his father, an art historian, gave it to him. He’d been twelve.

What had Anne written with? What had Otto written with when he took her edits and combined them with his own?

In his mind’s eye, Dirk visualized her ink scratchings with pencil edits just in case she changed her mind later. He should have paid more attention to this when he had the actual pages in his hands. He tried to remember. Did blurts of ink stain the pages? He could just imagine Anne’s fingers covered in ink.

“She wanted to publish the diary herself, you said,” Otto said. “She heard a radio program once in 1944. Someone, the minister of education, art, and science, I think, asked for diaries and memoirs written about the occupation. Anne decided then to edit her own material for publication.”

Without the war, Anne could have gone on to university, then maybe become a famous writer or editor. Or a famous movie star. Dirk stifled a chuckle. He wished he had known her. She had gumption. That wasn’t a typical Dutch trait or at least he didn’t think so. But then Anne hadn’t been born Dutch.

“Her diary is in a safe place?” Otto asked.

Dirk nodded.

“I’ll give this historian a few weeks to determine the manuscript’s possibilities. Anne’s book, my book.”

Otto stood and extended his hand. Dirk took it and shook, strong and firm.

There were versions of the truth, Dirk conceded, just like walking into a store with multiple clocks, each confidently asserting the correct time, although they could be seconds or minutes off.

Otto constructed different versions of the diary. He’d admitted it. Which version or versions had Dirk locked up in the museum? He tried to put it out of his mind. He had more important matters to tend to. But every time the bell tower clock across the street chimed, it murmured: truth, truth, truth.

One morning, a bleak Tuesday, he sauntered past the curator’s office to the archival catacombs. He opened his box and pulled out the various journals and loose sheets. He took the checkered journal into his hands and turned to the first page. This he knew was Anne’s original first volume. He read as long as the light held out. Turning the last sheet, at dusk, he sighed.

Dirk did not know what Otto changed or deleted. While he read, he could picture everything: the swiveling bookcase, the annex, the family gathered to hear radio broadcasts, the disagreements between Anne and her mother. He sighed again. Anne had most likely regretted what she said about her mother by the time she reached Bergen-Belsen. A once vibrant girl, who could have made her mark on the world, snuffed out. Otto was right to push for the diary’s publication.

Dirk replaced the papers and left. Out on the street, under a light flurry made visible only by the street lamps, a strange sadness came over him. Why had a Dutch citizen turned in the Franks? Why didn’t the Dutch, like the Danes, protect them? He’d also heard the rumors that another Jew betrayed them. To Dirk, Amsterdam had become a black and white city. Even blossoming tulips seemed gray. He knew why: The Jews were missing. Jews had lived and prospered here for hundreds of years. Without knowing, those who betrayed them gave up parts of themselves that could never be restored.

Newspapers published photos of the death camps. Dirk thought of Anne behind the barbed wire, her emaciated body, dark circles under her eyes, a body already dead. He found himself outside Otto’s old factory on the Prinsengracht. It was quiet except for the water of the canal slapping against the sides. In his mind’s eye the black sedans rolled along the cobblestone, eager to gobble the Franks and take them away. He entered the building and spotted the bookcase. Anne had been precise in her descriptions. The bookcase did indeed swivel. He broke through the cobwebs that now clung to his face and hands and climbed the stairs to Anne’s annex. Then immediately he knew. This space had to be preserved. The diary was not enough.

It was then he noticed the Condemned sign on the building. He didn’t know how he had missed it before. He would have to act fast.

The next day in the office, Dirk phoned Miep Gies at home where Otto was living temporarily. Naturally they would be the first people with whom he’d need to share his vision of turning the annex into a museum, a space that commemorated Anne’s life, not her death.

“He’s gone, Mr. Vandenberg,” she said. “He has moved to Switzerland. His family is there, you know. His mother, siblings.”

“Did he leave anything behind?”

“No, he had very little to take. I have his forwarding address. Would you like that?”

Dirk scribbled it down. He needed to keep in touch with Otto. He needed to know the progress of the book. It had to be published for his own redemption. As he leaned against the bank of his chair, he let himself remember what he had pushed into the shadows of his mind years ago.

His father was still working at the museum, but he seemed to be on the telephone constantly while at home. He’d been speaking more German, smoking more cigarettes. Dirk knew a little German but didn’t bother to pay attention. All he overheard were artists’ names—Rembrandt, van Gogh, Vermeer.

It wasn’t until after Germany’s defeat that his father, no, he had to go back farther than this. He had never suspected his own father would lie. His father said the museum would loan the works of these Dutch masters to the Nazi Reich. Dirk, in gymnasium in 1938, didn’t question him. It would have been impolite and disrespectful.

One night after the family’s evening meal, a man wearing a red armband and swastika called on his father. Listening in from the hallway, Dirk reasoned, was far more interesting than doing logarithmic calculations with a slide rule.

“We’ve commandeered additional works from Jewish homes,” his father said.

“They don’t need them,” the guest said.

Dirk had assumed the paintings would be on loan from the museum. Some of the most famous ones were there. Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch,” and Vermeer’s “The Milkmaid.” He had not considered the loans would come from private owners, private Dutch citizens.

After an hour, the guest left. Dirk’s father poured himself a shot of jenever.

“You lied, Papa,” Dirk said, inching closer.

His father took his glass and sat down in the tufted leather chair. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“The paintings. You told me the Rijksmuseum would loan them. But you’re stealing them from our own Dutch people.”

His father sipped the jenever and smacked his lips. He did not make eye contact, which just brought Dirk to the arm of the chair.

“Jews are not Dutch,” his father said. “They are Jews.”

“You’re wrong. Pieter is in my class. He’s going to university like any other boy with high grades in Holland. He’s Jewish.”

His father took another sip. “The world is changing, Dirk. It’s best not to be so naïve.”

“But you’re lying. Haven’t you always told me to tell the truth?”

Now his father looked at him over his wireframed glasses. “There are different truths, and we have to live with them all. Art is changing. Holland is changing. Europe is changing. We must change with it to survive.”

Dirk wanted to slap the glass out of his father’s hand. But he couldn’t. His father’s furry gray brows knitted together. His teeth clenched. This was an unwanted discussion, Dirk could see that now.

“Go back to your schoolwork now,” his father said.

As Dirk sat on his bed, he didn’t realize he’d placed his head in his hands. Papa was in the business of bodies, not art. He was in the business of exchanging Jews for protection. Dirk’s tongue pressed against the back of his teeth. His father had become despicable.

Dirk opened his chemistry book, but images of Jews—he knew a few from school like Joop Opperman and Arthur Geismeyer—replaced the elements of the periodic table. He was not going to follow in his father’s footsteps. Instinctively, he knew he’d have to erase the footsteps and establish a new legacy, no matter how long it would take.

Jopp Opperman disappeared from school. So did Arthur. At first it seemed like nothing. An absence here or there happened. But after a month, Dirk sensed something was wrong. Then the Nazis overtook the country. Food and tempers ran short. Small children openly begged for bread on the streets of Amsterdam.

One night at dinner, Dirk counted how many slices of bread were in the basket on the table. They had to have come from a whole loaf, with caraway seeds. And yet he didn’t want any. Papa took a piece, slathered it first with butter and then swiped up the gravy from the roast goose.

“How was school today?” Papa asked, his mouth full of fatty goose flesh.

Without looking up, Dirk said, “Good.”

“Just good?”

Dirk did not want to talk to this man. What happened to the father he knew? The one who taught him how to skate on frozen canals, how to tie a tie, how to compliment a young lady. An imposter—a Nazi imposter—had replaced Pieter Vandenberg.

That night, Dirk sneaked into the kitchen and took the bread from the breadbox, along with a jar of congealed goose fat. He padded to the front door and strode to the last place he had seen the begging children. One girl, maybe about eight years old, stood there, shivering in her thin dress. She rubbed her hands. He returned home empty-handed.


Maybe it was 1947. Dirk was reading the newspaper and came across a book review of The Annex, Anne’s book. Or was it Otto’s?

So Otto did what he set out to do. Would he come back for the originals?

Dirk had made lists and lists of Dutch Jews and their resettlements. He did not come across Otto Frank’s name. He wanted to forget. Forget the war, forget Otto, forget Anne, forget the Annex.

But the dead could talk. He phoned Miep Gies. Now he told her about the museum, surprised that no one else had come up with the idea since that day at the Prinsengracht.

“You’ll need money,” Miep said. “And there’s going to be a lot of red tape, especially if you get the government involved and it will need to be involved.”

Dirk knew she was right. He thought about contacting Amsterdam officials, the park commissioner, the Red Cross. He didn’t know which were appropriate. Maybe the first thing would be to pull together people who would care. He’d need Otto, Miep, and then he had another idea: His own father. Although now ailing, he still had connections that could prove useful and maybe working on this idea with Dirk would redeem him in some way.

On the day of the committee meeting, Dirk noticed the tulips in bloom. His favorites were the variegated ones, because life was never all one color. Even in darkness, there is light; in light, there is darkness. He wanted to pluck one that reminded him of the flesh of a plum. He wanted to twist the stem through the buttonhole in his lapel, but it was an offense to deface public property. He hurried to the meeting, although he knew he was at least fifteen minutes early. The Minister of the Interior would be there, but Dirk was more nervous about his father. Would his collaboration with the Nazis in looting art leak into the conversation?

He strode to his office and laid his briefcase on his desk. He waved to his secretary to meet him in the conference room. He hoped the coffee was good and strong. She handed him folders of the agenda and the proposal to be distributed. Dirk had worked day and night to estimate the costs and the investment required. They would need to set up a foundation. He had the forethought to invite a lawyer and an accountant. He also invited Amsterdam’s leading scientists and intellectuals. His father had recommended them.

He laid out the folders on each seat while the secretary opened the blinds and one window. He smiled at her. This meeting required fresh spring air and maybe with a little luck, the scent of tulips would weave its way in. It was fitting in a way that Dirk did not pull the tulip out of the ground. That action would have killed the flower and today’s conversation was about life.

Everything was ready. Dirk could be a powerful negotiator. He had learned from his father.

It wasn’t that Dirk’s father took control of the meeting. He didn’t. But when Pieter Vandenberg spoke, despite his now raspy voice from too much smoking in his youth, he captured his audience with his authority and conviction.

“I know,” he said, “that a foundation given the mission of commemorating Dutch Jews, and Anne Frank in particular—”

“Although she was born German,” the Minister of the Interior was quick to point out.

“Yes, but she represents Dutch Jewry and her diary has appeared first in Dutch,” Papa continued. Dirk instinctively knew where his father was going with this. This foundation, this museum, was bigger than Anne.

“The museum, while not for profit, will add significantly to the city’s tourism revenue. If you turn to page twenty-eight of the proposal,” Dirk added. They were working in tandem now as if their relationship had turned prewar when Dirk was just a pre-gymnasium pip and his father a statue of greatness.

“Mr. Frank, what is your opinion?” Dirk asked.

Otto looked up from his papers and stared out the window. “Good,” he said, “good.” He took out a worn handkerchief and dabbed at the corners of his eyes. “I wanted to do this before, but I lacked the funds.”

They would raise money through grants and private donors.

“What about a black-tie fundraising gala?” the Minister of the Interior asked.

The accountant immediately shook his head. Otto said, “No, this would not be good. It is not the right way to honor those who perished.”

“Of course,” Papa said. “I have prepared a list of private donors.”

Dirk almost laughed when he saw Papa’s name topped the list, followed by many German surnames. Guilt money, as if now donating would render them rein of their heinous duplicity. But money was money and Dirk had to be practical. Collecting from these men would certainly be less arduous and time-consuming, more efficient than writing grant proposals and waiting sometimes a year or more to hear whether the proposal had been accepted.

“We have a plan then,” Dirk said. They would have a foundation. Dirk was to serve as Executive Director. That was the plan, but not the reality. It took years for the Anne Frank House to become real. The city introduced one obstacle after another. The Americans got involved, who knew why. It all seemed so much simpler that spring day in the conference room.

In the meantime, Dirk married, took his bride to Curaçao. She liked it there and they stayed for ten years until matters with Anne’s house resurfaced and the city finally consented with a certificate of occupancy.

Just the thought of that made Dirk break into laughter. Otto and his family had no certificate of occupancy in the annex, Auschwitz, or Bergen-Belsen. Why did it matter so much now? Dirk journeyed back to Amsterdam in May 1960 and witnessed the dedication of the Anne Frank House. He hurried to the Rijksmuseum and rushed past the curator’s office, long emptied of Hendrik De Groot. He clambered down the narrow stairs. Once again, he held the papers in his hands. He thought he should be wearing archival gloves. He had learned enough from his father to know the kind of care such delicacies required.

An hour later, he presented them to the curator of the Anne Frank House. He had done his job. And there in the crowd, white-haired with a moustache, stood Otto. Dirk tipped his hat.

About the author
Barbara Krasner
is Director, Mercer Holocaust, Genocide & Human Rights Education Center, housed at Mercer County Community College. She teaches in the Liberal Arts division at MCCC and in the Holocaust & Genocide Studies program at The College of New Jersey. She holds an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and a PhD in Holocaust & Genocide Studies from Gratz College. She is a frequent contributor to Kelsey Review.

Kevin Kowalski


It had been a week since Joan’s dad died. We were in the garage of his home, the house where Joan grew up, going through his possessions, when Joan’s mother walked up the driveway carrying an armful of receipts, some of which were over 40 years old. She surveyed the garage’s contents like a hunter scanning prey in the woods. Sylvia would engage in conversation later — now was time to focus. Processing the inventory, she sprang into action, taping each receipt to its matching object as an ever-present cigarette remained in her mouth. It was difficult not to admire the efficiency with which she worked. When finished, she waited for a response. Craved it, actually.    

“Can someone help me carry these to my car? I don’t think all of them will fit, but we can try.”   

It’s what she felt she was owed. After years of a brutal marriage, she believed she had it coming. She got the shore house in the divorce, 10 years ago, but she no longer liked living there. Too cold, too small. She needed more. Always more.      

“I’m not helping you with anything. None of this belongs to you. I could call the police,” I said.   

This wasn’t the kind of thing to say to her. It wasn’t worth the trouble. Humoring her was basically the family rule, and the easiest route to take. I wish I could go along with this, but I just couldn’t.   

This wasn’t the first time I’d threatened her, but she acted like it was. Her practiced facial expression was not unlike the ones favored by an actress from one of her beloved 50s movies, after being slapped across the face by the male lead.   

“But these are MINE, Kyle! I have the receipts!” she screamed, pointing to the garage as she rose on her toes. She held them aloft with the conviction of Moses hoisting the Ten Commandments. She looked more at Joan than me, with Joan looking even more exhausted, as if that were possible. She began ramming the items into the trunk of her car, sighing from the minimal physical exertion, until Joan went over to help with the last few things.    

We would wind up going out for Chinese food later – it was always Chinese food, or she would refuse to go – like we always did when she was visiting.   


Joan is an oncologist. Many professionals of this ilk, i.e. surgeons, academics, etc., in my experience, are also professional assholes. Because they do such important, lifesaving, respected work, they also feel obliged to hold forth on any topic under the sun, particularly if said professional is male. This decidedly was not Joan. She cared about three things in life: work, helping people, and her family, and not necessarily in that order. She possessed a remarkable ability to put people at ease and feel better about themselves. She somehow knew how to put difficult people in their place without being confrontational or emotional. We have been together for five years, and her ability in this area still astonishes me. She is as close to a real-life celestial being as I have ever met, which makes me laugh when I think of it, since Joan is an atheist. Her empathy and social skills have always been a source of bewilderment to her mother. She couldn’t understand why Joan would devote so much energy to such things.    

I am Kyle Cunningham, a high school gym teacher and basketball coach, a profession that, to Joan’s parents, was on the same level as coal miner and portable toilet cleaner. They were aghast when Joan and I began dating seriously. It got worse when they found out I lived in a rented one-bedroom apartment and drove a Corolla with more than 200,000 miles on it.  Such a man would simply not do, they told her. That is, until they discovered I was rich. Filthy, stinkin’ rich. Rich enough to do pretty much whatever I wanted in life.   

My mother was a cook at a side-of-the-road Jersey diner who created something called the Faux-burger, the first veggie burger that people actually wanted to eat for the taste, like actual juicy, Grade A prime beef.  It was so good that it sold everywhere, regardless of geography or tradition. That’s right, even in Texas. Every backyard cookout included at least a few Faux-burgers. After a while, people didn’t even think of them as meatless burgers, just that the things were friggin’ amazing. Of course, some diehards refused to try them, but the product took off regardless. Mom was worth millions. It was also the reason I became tolerable to Joan’s parents.    

I was thirteen when Mom’s business started to take off. Before it did, we could barely pay the electric bill and subsisted mostly from diner food that Mom took home from her job. Scouring for loose change for the laundromat, having the electricity cut off now and then, going to Goodwill for clothes — all of it was part of our reality. My dad died in a car accident when I was 3. None of this happened so long ago that I don’t remember what’s it like to have jack shit. So don’t get me wrong, I know how lucky I am to be rich. It’s a hell of a lot better than being broke and wondering how you’re going to pay for groceries this week. But life wasn’t all that bad before Mom hit it big. I was loved, had a roof over my head, and good friends whom I bonded with over basketball. It was all I knew, and it was good enough.    

Mom liked to listen to NPR in the car, and she particularly enjoyed listening to a show called “Voices in the Family,” hosted by a guy named Dan Gottlieb, who was a psychologist confined to a wheelchair after being involved in car accident. Dr. Dan hardly ever talked about his accident or his condition, but I found it fascinating he could still do everything he did. His voice had an exhausted quality to it, like he probably should’ve been taking the day off but felt he needed to host the show anyway. Sometimes parents would call him with concerns about their child, and many of the concerns were pretty common, but Dr. Gottlieb always would answer them patiently. One day a mother called and was extremely distressed over her son’s debilitating shyness. He had no friends and rarely left the house, other than for school. Dr. Gottlieb responded with this: “If your child is shy, there’s nothing you can do it about it. But if he or she has that one thing and that one person, then they can do anything. They can win the Nobel Prize.” There was something in this comment, about being willing to accept a child for who they are, that always stuck with me. I wasn’t going to win a Nobel Prize, but I had teaching and coaching, and I had Joan. I didn’t need much else.    

Simplicity, however, was not something Joan’s mother appreciated. Someone in my financial position should be investing in real estate or overseeing multiple businesses. Sylvia believed that physical education shouldn’t be taught in schools and that sports were a waste of time. She certainly didn’t believe they were things you should make a career out of. She thought it was a disgrace that I would sometimes not get home from away games until 10 pm or so.    

Initially, I just tried to smile and ignore my way through all these comments. I eventually learned, however, that this was a sign of weakness to Sylvia, and it meant that she had the freedom to turn up the heat. She would apply verbal pressure until she got what she wanted, which left me with two choices: 1. acquiesce to whatever she wanted, or 2. fire back at her. After a while, I felt I had no choice but to choose No. 2. It was exhausting, and there were times when I was thankful for the rigors and time constraints of basketball season that allowed me to stay away from her.    

I met Joan when Mom was one of her patients. It was hardly love at first sight. I wasn’t exactly in a romantic mindset during those office visits, and Joan didn’t seem very approachable. She only addressed me if absolutely necessary, and even then she barely threw a glance in my direction. Until then, I had only dated other teachers. After college, I didn’t really know how to meet people outside of work, and it was pretty common for teachers to date each other. We teachers have to rely on each pretty heavily, more often than colleagues in other professions, so it was only natural for some hooking up to take place now and then. It could get sticky, of course, if things turned sour, but we’re all adults, and it’s a hell of a lot better than the cliché of the young gym teacher taking advantage of the popular cheerleader.    

But after a number of visits, I could see that Joan truly cared about her patients and was thoroughly dedicated to them, including Mom. She also seemed lonely to me, like after so many years of dedicating herself to her career, she hadn’t really taken the time to devote herself to much else. One day I noticed her walking with a slight limp and asked her what happened. She told me had competed as a pole vaulter her first year in college and had broken her ankle from a nasty fall. Sometimes the ankle still acted up on her. I had guessed she may have been a swimmer, with her broad shoulders and long arms. After she told me about her pole-vaulting days, I easily pictured her achingly beautiful image soaring over the bar, gracefully falling to earth as if from a cloud. Mom was her patient for more than two years before she finally succumbed.   

After Mom’s death, there wasn’t much of a courtship, really. We just continued an ongoing conversation that we had developed, and it quickly turned into love. We’ve been together ever since, and now, god help me, Sylvia was the closest thing I had to a mom.    

The annoying mother-in-law has to be the worst cliché of all. How many creatively exhausted, harried sitcom writers have sat down to write a script and resorted to the tired mother-in-law scenario. But years into an otherwise happy marriage, here I was, living a hackneyed nightmare of not only annoyance but manipulation, bullying, emotional abuse, and with a little embezzlement thrown in.   

The embezzlement occurred when Joan’s dad was dying and on hospice. Though they constantly professed their hatred for one another, Joan’s parents still had spent a significant amount of time with each other, mostly because no one else would. It had been the oddest and most dysfunctional of relationships. It turns out right around the time Joan’s dad had lost most of his lucidity, Sylvia logged in to her ex-husband’s savings account and helped herself to $40,000.   

Sylvia came clean to Joan shortly after her dad’s death, not so much because her conscience was getting the better of her, but because we were bound to find out eventually. When Joan asked her why she did what she did, Sylvia responded as if the answer couldn’t be more obvious: “Well, because I wasn’t getting any money.” I initially said something about contacting the police, but I didn’t really mean it.  I knew Joan would overlook it, like everything else. Going to the police wasn’t really something I could do on my own.    

“You two have no clue how hard life can get, what it’s been like for me. I had nothing growing up, zip. My dear, departed husband was a miserable prick, but I got what he needed from him. And I worked all those years. Joan, I paid for your education, goddammit. You two don’t understand and you never will.”    

Joan, as usual, was able to shrug it off. 

“She just, you know, doesn’t think about what she says sometimes,” Joan had said.    

A typical night with Sylvia involved watching a 24-hour news channel, even though I don’t like television news. It didn’t matter what anyone else liked when Sylvia visited; she liked television news, and it wasn’t worth the drama and damage to our mental health to spend the night fighting about it. Sylvia was never more in her element, in her comfort zone, than when she was watching the news. Her reactions to the day’s events were rarely more than a few words, but what they lacked in length and analysis, they made up for in stridency and repetition.    

“Bully for you, Obama!”   

“Obamacare! Obamacare! More taxes!   

“They’re going to take over! They’re going to take over!”    

“India! China!”   

“Oh, what do you know?”    

“Aahh! Aahh! Oh!”   

Every now and then she would take a break and acknowledge us after one of the news reports supported, albeit usually flimsily, one of her worldviews.    

“You know I was right about (fill in the blank).” The comment came with her patented smirk and several head nods.    

This is how it went, every time she came over, which was several nights a week. I would often cook dinner while Joan and Sylvia watched the news. My mom taught how to me to cook everything she made at the diner. She thought it was important that a man know how to cook, and she would stand with me in the kitchen on her days off and impart her wisdom. She would play Motown or jazz and sing, laughing and kidding with me if I used the wrong ingredient. I would make faces at her musical selections or at her off-key singing, which would make her laugh even more. She was always so patient when teaching me, no matter how exhausted she may have been. When I started to get proficient with a certain dish, she would step back, smile, and let me finish up without her help. We would then sit at our little kitchen table to eat, discussing anything and everything. Each other was all we had, but it was good enough.  

These memories came easily to me as I cooked, that is until they were interrupted by Sylvia’s shrieking at the television. Sylvia always ate whatever I made. She would usually complain about it before eating, casting aspersions at its nutritional value, but she never complained after she was finished. The absence of any form of criticism from Sylvia was the equivalent of anyone else doing a backflip. I so wished I could tell Mom about how oddly satisfying I found this little dynamic, and then we could sit at the kitchen table laugh about it together.    


It got to a point, however, where I knew I had to do something. It wasn’t any one thing that led to my decision. It wasn’t even about Sylvia’s comments, or the way she hurt Joan and that Joan felt powerless to do anything about it. It was the fact that no one ever did anything about it. We all figured it wasn’t worth the effort or the energy to do something about such behavior. She was old and ignorant, didn’t know any better. At her age, she may not be around much longer anyway, right? But I knew better. She still had so much more to complain about, so much more to hate, so much more to be outraged about. She could very well outlive us all.  

I was tired of hearing I needed to accept the things I can’t change. Mom wasn’t coming back, people would tell me, she was in a better place now. I couldn’t accept this, just flat-out refused. I was going to do something, and I was going to figure out how to get away with it. This would be my little contribution to the world. No, life was not fair, not even close, but, just this one time, I was going to make things a little less unfair.    

It would have to look like an accident, which meant it would have to happen at the shore house. Accidents happened at the shore all the time: boating accidents, drownings, drunken driving. It would be just another mishap. I just had to figure out how to get her on a boat. She didn’t do much of anything anymore, not that she ever really did. She may go to the beach for 20 minutes or so and complain about the weather and the people before leaving. I had to get her on a boat, but it couldn’t be a scenic cruise or anything similar. It had to be just the two of us.    

I remembered that Joan once told me that Sylvia and Joan’s father would occasionally rent a boat and spend a couple of hours on the bay. Almost all relationships have some positive moments in the beginning, even horror shows like Joan’s parents’ marriage was. I could picture them out there many years ago, enjoying a couple of hours of contentment, maybe even smiling and laughing together. They were young and had no idea how bad things would get, the vileness each of them was capable of.    

It was worth a shot. Sylvia wasn’t the most perceptive person. Whenever someone offered to do something for her, she responded with her typical sense of entitlement, as if it were about time someone did something for her.    

One Saturday morning, Joan was called away to see a patient. She dutifully responded with her typical alacrity after kissing me goodbye. Usually I would’ve left, too, back to our townhouse, fleeing the eventual awkwardness and agitation that came with spending more than fifteen minutes with Sylvia. Instead, I poured another cup of coffee and pored over the newspaper while Sylvia stared at the TV, waiting for something to scream at.    

“Have you ever noticed those pontoon boats over in Holgate?” I said.   

“What’s a pontoon boat?”    

“You know, it’s kind of like a small fishing boat.”   

“I don’t know anything about fishing.”    

“Right, I know you don’t. A lot of people like to take them out for rides in the bay. It’s kind of peaceful.”   

“It’s pretty peaceful here, too.”   

“I guess. But maybe we could try it.”   

“You’re not going back to the townhouse?”   

“No, I don’t feel like driving back right now.”   

She turned her gaze back to the television.   

“I haven’t been on a boat since before Joan was born, when I was first married to her father.”   

“Yes, I remember Joan once saying something about it.”   

Her face softened and she tilted her head slightly upward and gazed at the ceiling.   

“OK, fine.”   

She walked to her room and came out wearing sneakers that I had never seen before.    

“Well, are we going?”   

Easy enough. Everyone, even Sylvia, likes to get out of the house occasionally. I drove both of us the ten minutes to the dock. Neither of us spoke, except for Sylvia giving me directions on how to get there, even though she knew I knew exactly how to get there.    

I paid for the rental and we were escorted to a boat.    

“This is so small.  Is this all you have?” she asked the man who rented us the boat.     

“Well, yes, they’re pretty much all the same size.”   

“Well, fine fine!” she said, throwing her hands in the air.    

I helped her in. It was sunny but still early enough in the season so that there weren’t many boats in the water. Before long we had a little piece of the bay all to ourselves.   

We eased out over the water as I struggled to control my shaky hands. We kept easing out over the bay, wordlessly, before I cut the engine just as we were out of sight of anyone else. I forced a smile to make it look like I was enjoying the peacefulness. I began thinking of the players I coached and how some of them would get so nervous before games they would throw up in the bathroom.  I would have to remind them it was only a high school basketball game, not life or death.  

Sylvia turned to face me. Her countenance lacked the permanent scowl I had come to hate over the years. She took a deep breath and looked me directly in the eyes.  

“I haven’t told Joan yet, but I have been diagnosed with cancer. I guess that’s what over 50 years of smoking will do to you.”   

I took my own deep breath and waited for her to continue. She had said the words calmly, thoughtfully, even sage-like. I had never seen her like this before. She was nearly unrecognizable. Up until the very end, Mom remained hopeful she could recover. One look at Sylvia and I saw she had already had enough. She knew full well how wretched the rest of her living days would be.  

“I am not like your mother, Kyle. She was tough and strong. Somehow, she was strong enough to turn her pain into love. She saw beauty in everything. I have been in pain for as long as I can remember. I don’t know any other way to be. I’m tired of hurting, and I’m so tired of being alone.”  

There were still no other boats anywhere in sight. As I stared at her, I realized how much she must have looked like Joan when she was a young woman. How she was once beautiful, completely in love and brimming with life.  

She looked down and then toward the water before springing off the boat like she was suddenly possessed. I had never seen her do anything remotely athletic, and the shocking swiftness of the movement paralyzed me. She started flailing upon hitting the water, breathing hard but mostly silent. I scurried to the edge of the boat and reached out, clutching a handful of silver hair. I pulled like a spastic one-armed rower as I steadied myself. Sylvia was screaming from my hair-pulling; it was long and terrible, and her face was no longer soft.  

“Do something, Kyle! Oh god, do something. I need help!” 

I thought of Mom and wished she could be there to guide me. I needed her to tell me the right thing to do. I suddenly felt bad about pulling Sylvia’s hair, but it was all I could grasp. Sylvia’s eyes met mine as I pulled her close enough so I could grab the top of her sweatshirt with my other hand. She breathed so deeply I thought she was having a heart attack. I got her back in the boat as carefully as I could. Her trembling disturbed me so much I wanted to slap her to get her to stop.  

“Oh, god, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. Don’t tell Joan I did this. I’ll tell her about the cancer, but don’t tell her about this. She doesn’t need to know.” 

I again was paralyzed, this time by her words. I had never heard apologize for anything before.   

“I won’t. I won’t tell her about any of this. It’s, it’s OK.” 

I didn’t believe it, of course. Nothing was OK. But I didn’t know what else to say.   

Eventually, slowly, she calmed herself enough so her body was shaking just slightly. I gently placed on my hand on her shoulder and kept it there for a few seconds as I smoothed her hair. She remained slumped over, staring at her feet, not acknowledging my touch. I removed my hand, started the boat, and began to bring us both back to shore.   

About the author
Kevin Kowalski
is a resident of Robbinsville, NJ.

Ilene Dube

Forever Vacation

After removing my laptop, gels and liquids, and setting them in dirty gray bins, I placed my backpack on the conveyor belt and stepped onto the yellow footprints, assuming that unbecoming straddle.

“Anything in your pockets?”

“Just my boarding pass.”

“Nothing can be in your pockets.”

I took out the thermal-printed piece of probably-not-paper and held it as my body got scanned, then watched as my backpack got diverted into the chute of rejected parcels. Barefoot, balancing my laptop and liquids and shoes and jacket, I found myself surrounded by four TSA officials.

“What’s going on?” asked Logan, fumbling to put his belt back on. I pumped my hand, gesturing: stay calm.

The female officer had pulled my backpack onto a metal table and was unloading everything, haphazardly. When she pulled out my jar of psyllium fiber her face brightened, as if this is what they were looking for all along. Putting on blue rubber gloves, she swabbed it, then opened it, examining the whitish powder.

The drug enforcement team gathered. “What is this?”

“I use it to lower my cholesterol.”  

The team captain spun it in his hand. “It looks like a laxative.”

“It has that effect too.”

He handed it off to the female officer who patted me down again, this time over my entire body—she warned that she needed to touch some private parts, and offered to take me to a secluded area, but added that could add an hour to the process and she couldn’t guarantee I would make my flight.

When they concluded I was not smuggling narcotics they allowed me to repack my belongings.

We were off – vacation!

We boarded the flight to Arizona. The Grand Canyon had not been on my bucket list, but Logan had reached the point in life where he was feeling he wouldn’t be complete without such a trip.

After getting our rental car, driving to our hotel, and changing into more weather-appropriate clothing, I observed the Grand Canyon was exactly what I had expected: busloads of tourists with selfie sticks. We went to the Watch Tower, and I was impressed that the architect incorporated the designs of indigenous Americans and employed them to work on it. She also designed the Bright Angel and Hermit lodges in the park.

We managed to find a few off-the-beaten-path trails, but after two days I’d seen enough. Logan had us booked for four. Fortunately, the El Tovar Lodge had porches with rocking chairs. Tourists vied for the chairs midday, but in the morning and late afternoon we could read and nap in their comfort. When the porch became too crowded, we settled into the leather sofas inside, sketching the moose heads hanging from the log-covered walls.

One afternoon the only seating available was a bench overlooking the rim. We settled in, and I was perusing a book I’d found at the ranger station about edible and medicinal plants of the Southwest. A couple asked if they could join us on the bench. “Of course,” I said without looking up.

Soon the man was asking about the book. “I work for a company that sells a medicinal edible plant,” he said. I looked up, and he spread out the front of his bright yellow T-shirt so I could read the letters: FOREVER, in bold caps on the top line; the aloe vera company in smaller letters below.

Without any indication of interest on my part he began telling me about the benefits of aloe vera: everything from reducing dental plaque and lowering blood sugar to improving skin and reducing constipation.

I’d seen aloe vera juice on the shelf at Trader Joe’s, but noticed it contains a lot of sugar to make it palatable.

“At Forever Aloe Vera, we sell only one-hundred percent pure aloe vera juice,” the bench sitter said as if reading my mind.

“But how does it taste?”

“I like the taste,” said the man, and his wife added that she sometimes added tulsi. “We drink it every day.”

“It’s loaded with vitamins and minerals, and it helps control weight gain,” added the wife, herself on the chunky side. “It flushes toxins from the body.”

I was getting the nudge from Logan that usually came when he thought I was about to buy something. “It was nice meeting you,” he said, standing up.

The man handed me his business card. They had just come from a Forever conference  and were now touring the Grand Canyon with their group.

“Do you work for the company as well?” I asked the wife.

“I’m helping him,” she said.

I looked at the card. “You’re from Mauritius?”

The man nodded. “If you’re ever in Mauritius, please look us up. We’d love to take you around.”

“Bye now,” said Logan, taking me by the hand, pulling me into the El Tovar. “Can’t you see, it’s a pyramid scheme,” he said in a whisper I felt was a bit loud.

“So what? I’m not getting involved. I was just curious. Isn’t it interesting to meet people from exotic places? You need to be less stodgy and taste the flavor of things. How often do you meet people from Mauritius?”

“They’re just trying to hook you into buying a business from them.”

“But I’m not buying anything, what are you so freaked out about?”

I was trying to remember who it was who told me they’d met a couple from Mauritius who’d invited them to come and visit, and then provided them with their own house in which to stay for an unrestricted time period. It sounded like a tropical paradise.

The Forever couple appeared again in the lobby. “Would you like to visit our room?” he offered. “We can give you samples.”

“Sure!” I said, Logan scowling. At first he said he’d wait for me in the lobby but then decided to join me, I guess to made sure I didn’t get hooked into their scheme.

We walked through a maze of hallways and stairs, a route I wasn’t paying attention to because I was listening to the wife. “If you come to Mauritius you will want to visit the Pamplemousses Botanical Garden,” she said. “I know you like plants. You will want to see the giant water lilies, and of course the section on edible and medicinal plants. We don’t live far from there, and we can put you up in our guest house.”

I looked again at the business card. His name was Satish. “What is your name?” I asked her.

“You can call me Marie.”

Their room smelled like incense, and there were little statues of Shiva and Ganesh on the dresser. There were boxes labeled “Forever.” The closet door was slightly ajar, and Satish nervously slammed it shut.

“Don’t suffocate her,” Marie said, opening it a crack.

Satish took some white washcloths from the bathroom and spread them on the table, then unwrapped the plastic cups from the ice bucket and lined up four.

“Who’s suffocating in the closet?’’ we wanted to know.

“It’s Ponzie, our intern,” said Marie.

“Your intern is actually named Ponzie,” Logan blurted.

“Well, we didn’t name her. Would you like to meet her?” Marie opened the closet door. There was a sheet of Plexiglas enclosing the space. Inside was a young woman of indeterminate age, sitting on the luggage rack. There were breathing holes punched at the top of the Plexiglas. She had a few warts and moles on her face, and seemed to have a nervous tic.

“Why is she in there?” I asked. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Logan headed for the door.

“You know interns,” said Marie. “After a while they get a little power hungry.” When I stared at her she continued: “First they ask to be paid. Isn’t the training they’re getting enough? Then they want their name on the newsletter. Grant them that, and they want a bolder font. Garamond, for example.”

“Garamond isn’t even that bold,” said Logan, ever the copyeditor he’d been before retirement. “I’m surprised she didn’t request something like Braggadocio.”

“What gives an intern the right to have an opinion on a font for the newsletter?”

Logan was trying to open the door, but it appeared it was locked from outside.

“Don’t be in such a rush,” said Satish, pouring a clear liquid into the plastic cups. When all four cups were filled he handed one to his wife, then took another for himself. “No pressure,” he said, leaving the other two on the washcloth. I watched our new friends lift their cups and empty them ravenously, licking their lips. I lifted the other two cups, handing one to Logan.

“This is so bogus,” Logan said, embarrassing me with his rude behavior—I gave him a look that said so. Our hosts were being gracious to us, if not Ponzie. I lifted the plastic cup to my lips, then sipped knowing it was going to be a taste I would need to acquire.

 “Citrus-y,” I said. It was bitter, too. “Is Forever based in Mauritius?”

“It’s an American company, based in Scottsdale,” said Satish.

I like to hydrate with 64 ounces a day, so I continued sipping until my cup was empty. I’m often having to remind Logan to hydrate. “Drink up,” I said to him. He held the cup in one hand, and his other still attached to the doorknob.

Through the Plexiglas the intern began naming all the benefits of aloe vera, citing references to medical literature.

“Bogus bogus,” said Logan. “You can’t prove any of this stuff. There’s no scientific evidence for any of this.”

“You have to learn to harness the power of the placebo effect,” were the last words I recall hearing, as if an announcement at an airport.

I’m not sure what happened after that, but the next thing I knew, Logan and I were sleeping in the hotel room bed. The lights were out, Satish and Marie were gone. I looked at the clock; it was 3 a.m. Logan was on his back, snoring. I shook his arm. “What are we doing here?” I asked.

He startled awake, looked around, then hopped out of bed, turning on the light. “What’s going on? This is not our room.” He was as confused as I was. Then he remembered. “You drank that drink,” he said. “Why didn’t you listen to me. I knew those people were a bunch of crooks.”

“Crooks? Check your wallet.”

He did, and nothing was taken. “Do you have your phone?”

I checked my backpack; I seemed to have everything I came with. “OK,” I said. “They weren’t crooks.”

Remembering Ponzie, Logan opened the closet door. It was just an ordinary closet, no Plexiglas barrier. The luggage rack on which she sat was empty.

In fact there was nothing in the room—no boxes emblazoned “Forever,” no luggage, not even the empty cups.

“Did you drink the juice?” I asked Logan.

“I had to,” he said, then went to the door. Thankfully, the knob turned. “Let’s get out of here.”

We were still fully clothed, and our shoes were neatly lined up in the hall. We tied our laces and made our way back to our own room.

We still had one more day before our flight, so we headed out of the park to visit Indian ruins. “If we see that couple,” said my husband, “we’re heading the other way. Non negotiable!”

At the ruins, I enjoyed seeing the re-created garden and reading about the various medicinal plants. Then I remembered that, in all the commotion of waking up in someone else’s hotel room, I’d forgotten to take my psyllium fiber. I felt my phone buzzing; I was getting a text: “Forgot to tell you: At Forever, we offer a premium strain of psyllium.”

So they had taken something from us—our phone numbers!

“Just don’t respond,” Logan advised. “Don’t play into their game.” He was getting their texts too. They seemed to know that he was taking meds for high blood pressure, and Forever had a plethora of products to treat it.

We took our flight back to Philadelphia, and once in the car I set the GPS to get us on the turnpike home. The bitter taste of aloe juice remained in my mouth.

Logan tuned the radio to an oldies station. They were playing Beatles music. He sang along: “Aloe aloe, I don’t know why you say good-bye I say aloe.”

Our phones were buzzing with new texts. “By now I’m sure you are craving Forever. We ship anywhere.”

When I woke the next morning, everything seemed smaller. Our bed, for example, was a double. “Didn’t we used to have a queen-sized bed?” I asked Logan.

“I thought we did.”

“Maybe we got spoiled by the king-sized bed in the Forever room.”

I went to the hall closet and checked our sheets. Sure enough, they were double sized. I could have sworn we had a queen-sized bed.

Logan was in the bathroom. As I stood outside the door I heard the toilet flush, the water run, the doorknob turn. When he emerged and saw me standing there, he asked, “Why didn’t you use the hall bath?”

“Because we no longer have one.”

He went to check. “Are we in the right house?”

Both of us recalled having a five-bedroom colonial before the trip; now we were in a two-bedroom cape. We made coffee and took our mugs to sip on the front porch, but there was no porch. The street looked shabbier than I’d remembered.

Back inside, the kitchen seemed smaller than the kitchen I remembered. There were our appliances—well, at least some of them. I opened the cupboards. The dishes were a chipped set we’d replaced years ago. And what happened to the granite counters?

I looked out the window at our small lot. I couldn’t see the trees, the garden beds, the woods.

“Didn’t we used to be richer than this?” Logan asked.

I remembered all the non-profit boards Logan and I used to serve on.

That’s when we started hearing noises in the basement. Knocking noises. Our bodies tensed—was there an intruder?

“Let me out of here,” came a muffled cry.

Logan opened the basement door. There was Plexiglas covering the opening, just like in the Forever room. Appearing on the other side of the Plexiglas, like an apparition, was Ponzie. “Help me,” she implored.

Logan went to the garage, then came back. “My tool shed is gone!”

He was carrying a dirty spade. “Stand back,” he instructed Ponzie, who obliged. Logan hoisted the rusty implement and began banging, futilely, on the Plexiglas.

“You need to use a hacksaw,” Ponzie said calmly, as if she’d been through this before.

“Poor sweetie, you must be starving.” I was getting a text: “She needs to drink aloe juice, she’s addicted to it.”

Logan went back out in search of some tools, and then to the next door neighbor to borrow a hacksaw. At least our neighbor was still the same man, although he, too, seemed sartorially downgraded from his former self. He graciously came with the hacksaw.

I was a little nervous about him seeing Ponzie locked up down there—I didn’t want him to think we were her captors. But Ponzie had wisely retreated down the steps and wasn’t visible.

“Why’d you close it up?” asked our neighbor.

“You don’t want to know,” said Logan, trying to figure out how to make his first cut.

“Let me go back for a drill,” said our neighbor.

While he was gone, Ponzie re-appeared, crying. “Even if you get me out of here,” she said, “they’ll still find ways to mess with our lives.”

“Where are they?”

She looked up. “Everywhere.”

I asked Ponzie point blank: “Did the aloe juice change our house, or just our perception of our former lives?”

“A little of both,” she answered, then quickly disappeared when our neighbor returned with his drill. Plugging it in—the better outlets we’d recently had an electrician install were, of course, gone, so he had to use that old outlet down the hall—our neighbor inserted the drill into one of the little breathing holes. He turned on his drill, but the Plexiglas was too tough to drill. He was making no progress.

There was a knock at the door, and I went to answer it. No one was there, but on the front stoop, where there’d once been a porch, was a Fed Ex envelope. It was from the El Tovar. I opened it and saw a bill for the Forever room. I felt my phone buzz: “If you order 36 crates of psyllium today, we will waive the shipping.”

Back at the basement door, my husband was banging on the Plexiglas. Our kindly neighbor was now trapped inside with Ponzie. “Free me,” she said, “and I’ll grant three wishes.”

“She’s a bottle imp, don’t believe her,” said our neighbor.

“We have to get out of this place,” I said to Logan.

We took one last look at our neighbor. “We’re going for help,” Logan told him.

We piled into our Volkswagen Beetle—we’d had a Tesla before all this—and stepped on the gas. “Where are we going?” I asked Logan.

“Our dream vacation destination.”

I looked at him.


“From your bucket list or mine?”


I tried to think.

He ended the suspense. “Mauritius.”

Excited by the prospect of the Pamplemousses Garden, I opened Google maps to enter the coordinates, but it was already programmed.

About the author
Ilene Dube
is a writer, producer, curator, and artist. Her short fiction has appeared in more than a dozen literary journals and anthologies. Kelsey Review has published eight.

Marge Dwyer

Keeper of the Keys

Madge Outerbridge crouches under the desk in the dark, a plastic water bottle and some peanut butter crackers at her side, a German Luger stuffed into the elastic waist of her L.L.Bean jeans.  It is an unlikely place for her to be, given her age, 64, and her patrician bearing.  The gun was a war souvenir of her husband’s and probably hadn’t been fired since l942.  No matter. It would serve its purpose.

For the past twenty-five years Madge has walked proud and determined across the street from her home in the village, over the playing fields of the Rockleigh School, named for the hamlet surrounding it, to her office in the Field House where she attends to a variety of clerical duties, one of which is arranging transportation for the many teams that play games off campus. She takes her job seriously.

On a board next to her large wooden desk are hooks that hold the keys to the fleet of l5-passenger Dodge vans.  The faculty members who double as coaches have keys to the Field House and the outer office where there is a pigeon hole called the van key return slot. When a coach has a game he or she comes to Madge for the key to the van and at night after Madge has gone home, returns the key to the slot.  Under this system one who needs the key first thing the next morning would find it in the proper place without having to wait for Mrs. Outerbridge to arrive in her office at 9:00 a.m.

She tries to run this part of the department with the same cool efficiency with which she runs her home. For instance, if she is having dinner guests on Saturday, the table is set, silver polished, food purchased by Thursday night. On Friday night she cooks what she can in advance and arranges the flowers. This means, she is fond of saying, that should she die in the night the party can continue with a minimum of fuss.  If she is still alive on Saturday, she can devote that period to looking good.  Preparing her clothes, washing her hair, taking a power nap.  She believes in the economy of time. She thinks rushing ages a person. Now that her children are out of the nest and her husband has slowed down, she leads the orderly life she has sought since her youth.

In a more perfect world she could bring the same order to the Athletic Department, but that lack is a constant source of frustration. For some reason, (and only God knows how hard she’s tried), she cannot break through the academic inertia and reach the consciences of some of the faculty. The old guard are unable to learn new rules and the young ones simply have no sense of responsibility. This ongoing dilemma makes her weary and yearn for retirement but, until then she must persevere.

An aura of correctness envelops this dainty, small-boned woman and is evident in her office, with fresh flowers and candy on her desk, newly sharpened pencils in the cup, her crisply ironed blouses and dark gabardine skirts with the tasteful just-below the-knee lengths. Her medium brown hair, shot with gray, is softly permed and, appropriately for the business world, does not dare graze her collar. Everyone agrees she’s a nice lady. The nameplate on her desk says Mrs. Outerbridge. Nobody calls  her Madge.

Mrs. Outerbridge’s phone rings constantly from September to June. Many of these calls are from parents, athletic officials or fans.  They often have one thing in common. They want directions to the school, and she has to bring them across the state or across the country.  It seems that nobody uses a map and many are unaware of a GPS. These conversations often occur when some kid is pacing back and forth in front of her desk waiting for a lost locker combination or a coach has suddenly popped in for reimbursement of an unexpected meal on the road, both of whom are pushed for time… a fact that plays heavily with Mrs. Outerbridge’s supersensitive antennae causing notorious waves of heat to crash willy-nilly through her body. Nevertheless, before attending to them, she cheerfully gives the intricate directions and ends up having them take “95 toward Pennsylvania and get off at exit 14A. Turn right, go one quarter of a mile, bear left and take the first left onto our campus.”  She utters these words perhaps fifteen times a day.

Several things about this job conflict with her desire for order, but nothing so much as the problem of keeping the van keys straight. Every third day or so a coach will come in early for the van key and it won’t be back because yesterday’s coach forgot to return it. Mrs. O has spent the whole morning tracking down the coach only to find he/she is in class or otherwise unavailable. It is abhorrent to her to use a duplicate key.  This offends her sense of rightness. She does not feel it is good business to let people “get away with things.”  When she is forced to release a duplicate key rather than cancel the game she does so with suppressed postmenopausal rage. Often she can’t sleep because of this great frustration in her life. The keys and the faces of the offenders whirl about in a hide and go seek frenzy leaving her exhausted by morning. She finds herself losing her pleasant office demeanor after such a night. Why just the other day she was quite harsh with the new softball coach who wandered in at ll:00 am with a missing key.

“What do you think we would have done if the Art Department had scheduled a museum trip this morning?” Her words shooting out like bullets.

“I didn’t know they had a trip.” The coach stared at her blankly. No show of remorse.

“They didn’t have a trip,” Mrs. Outerbridge grew increasingly impatient, “I’m saying what if they had?”

“Well, yeah, I know.” The disobedient coach scanned the posters on the wall on her way out.

“No, you don’t know, because if you had you would have returned the key! That trip would have been canceled because of you. These keys MUST be returned immediately after you use them.” She stood to make her final point as she watched the coach’s back fade-out through the door. “This is school policy!”

Over the twenty-five years of her employment, almost everybody has blown it with the keys at least once, and nobody wants to “incur the wrath of Madge.”

It’s a joke around campus. But for all the carrying on, the keys continue to be a problem. New faculty are hired, the athletic schedule increases, more vans and busses bought, and Mrs. Outerbridge struggles valiantly to juggle it all without perfect success.

Alumni Weekend was the mere feather that toppled the tower of her frustration. When she left the office she taped, as usual, a neat list on the van key return slot indicating the destination of each van on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. She placed the keys there and went home.

On Monday her boss updated her with all the catastrophes that happened over the weekend. The maddening thing was that the keys were brought back to the box late Friday afternoon, (the coaches swore it), but on Saturday one of the keys wasn’t there. Her boss was called at home, roused from the shower and had to come down to the office to dole out a duplicate. By then the team was late and fussing and generally out of sorts over the delay.  Because of the slow start they didn’t warm up sufficiently when they arrived at their destination and as a result, they said later, lost a game they should have won easily.

She does not like to learn that her boss has been inconvenienced because of a matter concerning the keys, HER domain, but Mrs. Outerbridge has long made it a habit to not let the telephone dictate her life at home. A machine takes the messages and she determines when and whether to respond to them. By dusk she is usually enjoying a demulcent scotch and soda with her husband at the beginning of the inviolate dinner hour which often stretches from two to three hours, during which time calls are NEVER accepted.

The problem of injustice, though, continues to rankle. Someone is taking the keys without permission, and she has now devised a secret plan to find the audacious, irresponsible, selfish little s.o.b. who is so self-absorbed as to not give a hoot for the rights of others. Naturally she doesn’t use this kind of language, but she thinks it. Her plan is to lie in wait to gather evidence. She has already done it once before, hidden under the desk in the outer office at night, lurking in the dark, and has seen one person cavalierly take a key and walk out without skipping a beat. She knows he never took the time to read her careful instructions in red ink that say “Do not remove keys without proper authorization.”

It was the new young basketball coach Tommy Sullivan. She should have known it was him, winking at her playfully every afternoon as he bends to take one of her candies, forcing her to blush, melting her Episcopalian reserve with that wide, dimpled smile. He’d try anything, that one. She is not surprised that all the girls are crazy about him. It’s always that way. The beautiful people get everything without any effort, while the others slave away for the most meagre satisfaction.

The next day she does nothing. She needs to know if this is a random occurrence or if he does it regularly. She’s glad her husband nods off by nine o’clock and doesn’t miss her.

Mrs. Outerbridge has been staked out under the desk, her fine bones folded like an accordion in the kneehole, for three nights now since she first saw Tommy and hopes someone comes soon. Her slender legs are getting stiff and she can meditate only so long. Can’t risk reading even with a flashlight. This night she is getting discouraged and begins to wonder whether the solitary quest for the delinquent keys is worth the discomfort she feels in her arthritic joints. She begins to think maybe she should just get five duplicates for each van and give them out till they all get lost and duplicate them again. She laments that this laissez-faire attitude is not in her nature. Then she hears footsteps outside and the key in the lock. Tommy flicks on the light and, whistling jauntily, ambles to the box, takes a key, slips it into his pocket and turns to leave.

“And just what do you think you’re doing?” She has just managed to stand though her thin bird legs are shaky from the cramped position she has held for the last hour. Her hair is askew, pale eyes narrowed from the shock of the fluorescent light overhead.

“Jesus!” Sullivan falls back a foot when he sees her disheveled appearance. He has never seen her in jeans before and what’s more, she’s wearing a sweatshirt that says Co-ed Naked Lacrosse, a leftover from one of her kids. He squints and thinks maybe the beer he had earlier has clouded his vision.

“Mrs. Outerbridge! Is that you? Holy Christ, you really scared me.”

She is not in a mood to be conversational.  “Just where were you going with that key?”

He regains some composure. The corners of his mouth hint at a beguiling smile when she suddenly whips out the gun from her waist band, hidden till now by the hang of the large sweatshirt.

“Don’t try to sweet talk yourself out of this,” she says, her small aquiline nose held high. “I want to know what you’re doing with that key.”

“Well, cripes, I’m just going up to Dover with some guys for a beer. Are you nuts or something?”

His large blue eyes blank out in fear or anger, it’s hard to know which. His heavy lids drop slightly. There’s petulance in his voice. “What’s the big deal anyway?”  He shrugs his shoulders in an act of supplication. “Put that thing down, will ya?”

“No, the big deal is that you think you can have it all.” She shakes the muzzle in the direction of his face, still keeping a safe distance. Her indicting voice pierces the eerie silence of the empty field house. “What makes you think you can come in here and TAKE what you want. And you’ve done it before! I’ve seen you!”

“What do you do, live in the locker room or something?”  His handsome face is flushed and perspiring. “What do you want?”

“I want you to put that key back….NOW.”

He quickly throws it in the slot. “There, it’s done.”

“You know I should call security on this.” Arms akimbo but with a tight hold on the gun, she moves closer. “I’m not going to, but you listen to me, and listen hard.” Her voice drops to a menacing whisper. “If you ever come in here again to steal a key, I’m going to shoot your fucking balls off. Do you hear me?”

“Okay, okay.” He backs off, hands up, palms facing out in an air of surrender. “I swear, I’ll never do it again.”

She points the Luger toward the door with the authority of a general ordering a charge. “Get out!”

Driving home, Mrs. Outerbridge is quite satisfied with the success of the evening. Back at her house, her husband is still dozing in front of the TV and nobody had seen her coming or going. She is sure Tommy raced home as fast as he could and is at this very minute having a little nip to settle his nerves.

The next morning when she arrives at the office in her correct navy blue skirt, white crisp blouse and polished leather pumps, she smiles a cheery hello to her boss and unlocks her desk.

“Oh, Mrs. Outerbridge,”  her boss inquires immediately as he walks in and sits down in the leather chair reserved for visitors in front of her desk.

“Yes.” She nods slightly toward him, eager to please.

“Were you by any chance here last night?”

“Here? Here in Rockleigh? Yes, we were in last night. We didn’t go anywhere.”

“No, I mean here in the office?”

“Oh!” she laughs. “No, whatever for?”

“That’s what I thought.”

“Is there some problem you want to share with me?” She looks genuinely concerned.

He shakes his head. “It’s about this young Tommy Sullivan.”

“Oh, yes. The new basketball coach. Quite a charming fellow.” She smiles. “He seems to like the root beer barrels.” She points to the candy dish.

“Yes…well…something strange happened last night. He called me at home about ll:00 p.m. He was very disturbed. I think he’d been drinking.”

“Oh, dear.” Mrs. O strokes her chin thoughtfully.

“It seems quite silly, but he said that he came in to borrow a van key from the key slot and that you confronted him with a gun.”

Mrs. Outerbridge moves her hand to her mouth to suppress a giggle, her eyes wide with surprise. “A gun?” She continues to laugh, “My, that really is funny. Can you imagine me with a gun?”

Her boss joins in the laughter, his round belly shaking, shoulders heaving. He raises his hand toward her, sputtering, “That’s not all. He said you were wearing jeans… and a sweat shirt that said…that said… Co-ed Naked Lacrosse on it.”

They roar companionably over the absurdity of this till they both tire themselves out and are left finally with nothing but the hum of the electric typewriter.

“Oh, dear!” she sighs, attending to a loose thread on her skirt.

“Well, back to work,” her boss teases as he gets up and heads for his office. At the door he stops as if a sudden thought has occurred. He turns back hesitantly. “Mrs. Outerbridge, have you ever by any remote chance used the ‘f’ word?”

She looks stricken, her mouth forming an ‘O’ of surprise. “Well,” she pauses a while, looking away. “I have to admit I was very angry at my son who was visiting last week and I said ‘For God’s Sake will you please pick up your clothes from the floor?’  Is that what you mean?”  She looks at him imploringly. “I don’t think I should have to do that at his age.”

Having reassembled her pencils in the cup and smoothed the papers on her desk, she looks up again. “Nevertheless, I felt badly about it…losing my temper that way. He only comes home twice a year, you know?”

“I understand perfectly,” he says, a sympathetic smile gracing his loose pink jowl. As he turns to enter his office he adds, “Anyway, Sullivan’s on medical leave. I guess he has quite a little drinking problem. Could’ve fooled me. We just can’t have that around our young people.” He leaves shaking his head and heads for his desk.

“Of course not. How sad,” she speaks to the air as the phone rings. Picking up the receiver, she swings her chair around toward the window noting the keyboard is in order—all keys in and accounted for.

“Athletic Department,” she answers brightly.

Then, after an appropriate silence during which it can be imagined that the caller is requesting directions from such a remote spot as Peoria, Mrs. Madge Outerbridge assumes her finest school representative voice. Cheery. Helpful.

“It’s not really hard,” she starts in. “We’re just off route 95, Exit 14 A.”

About the author
Marge Dwyer
is a long-time resident of Lawrenceville and has appeared in Kelsey Review before. She’s an accomplished fiction writer and works diligently at the craft.