The Driver’s Seat

Judith Salcewicz

 

At seven, I had a creative mind without a firm grasp of consequences and there was a monster in our basement.

The monster’s name was Maytag. His shiny white cubed body was elevated on four legs tapering down to tiny wheeled feet. I liked watching the colors of clothes swirl in the sudsy water of his belly. They would dance and have fun until life was squeezed out of them by the monster’s toothless and terrible turning wringers.

My mother fished out each sacrificial garment and fed it into the perpetually hungry rolling jaws. The clothes dove into the rinse water tub to be swished by hand. Then it was through the wringer in reverse and into the wicker basket balanced on her hip. She sighed at the occasional cracking sound that signified the need to replace another broken button.

I played with my dolls but was really watching each step of the familiar cleaning process. Mother smiled as I poured pretend tea and awaited my chance to be a hero. I knew she wanted to ask me to come outside but didn’t because I was having a nice picnic with my dolls.

Mom carried the basket of stiff, damp, lifeless laundry up the stairs to the pulley clothesline that ran from the back porch to the big tree on the other side of the driveway.

I had been told not to touch the washing machine, but not today. Today I was almost invisible. Mom was worried about my sister. Carol had the measles and was wearing a harness that kept her in bed. If she stayed in the darkened room until she got better, she wouldn’t ruin her eyes. Mom and I waited until Carol was asleep to do the laundry.

Mother was outside. Carol, my shadow, was asleep. I was alone. I reveled in the freedom to do what I wanted. I removed my doll’s dress, picked up some washcloths that I’d used as picnic blankets, and marched to the monster’s lair. He slept, but I knew the location of the lever that would bring him to life. I used both hands to move the bar and shivered with happiness as the monster awoke. I heard the mumble, the rumble, the whir as the monster taunted me with words I couldn’t quite understand but knew to be a challenge.

I accepted.

Waving a green washcloth, I moved closer and closer, lightly touching the turning cylinders with the fabric until they bit. The fiend was strong, but I was stronger.  I snatched the green square from the jaws of death.  I felt my heart dance. I tried again with a white washcloth. Victory, the hero wins.  I raised my arms above my head and kicked imaginary balloons into the air.

I picked up my doll’s dress, a pretty pink one with tiny white flowers, two snaps in the back, and lace around the hem.  The dress fit on my hand like a puppet, I waved my arm back and forth in tantalizing dance movements. Closer and closer I inched. I was teasing. I was twirling. I was testing. I was caught!

My fingers hurt. I screamed. My wrist. I’m being squished. I screamed louder. My elbow. The rollers spun round and round.

“It hurts, it’s hurting me. Mom, mom, mom!”

 Can’t she hear me? Why isn’t she coming?

 Mother heard and rushed to my sister’s bedside. Carol was still asleep. My screams reached a crescendo punctuated by quick hollow thuds of mother’s feet on the cellar steps.

She shrieked when she saw what I had done. She unplugged the menace.

“Oh no, oh no. What have you done? What have you done?” she said.

My screams became sobs. Mom pulled the release lever on the wringer, cradled my arm, and surveyed the damage. It wasn’t pretty.

My elbow bone stopped the wringer.  A friction burn from the roller, that continued to turn in place, created a patch of angry red mush on the side of my arm.

Still screaming, mother improvised. She tied my arm to a Sear’s catalog using diapers. This seemed to be the only idea she had.

When she completed this task, she just held my arm and made loud wounded cat noises.

She isn’t helping me. She needs to help me and she isn’t. I will never be like this.

 I stopped crying and put a finger on a tear on my mother’s cheek.

“Mom, it’s okay. Let’s call dad,” I said.

She did.

Although I was only seven, I climbed into the driver’s seat of my life and made a decision that formed my character.  I resolved to be calm.

 

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About the author:

Judith Salcewicz has lived in Mercer County for over forty years and is a retired teacher. She is on the Board of Trustees for Lawrence Historical Society and is a member of the Lawrence Writer’s Group. Her work has appeared in The Kelsey Review, Horse Network, and Women’s World Magazine.

 

Only the Seasons Change

Edith McGowan

 

You could always count us on one hand.
As usual I dressed with care,
saved two seats per high command,
my coat and pocketbook in their chairs.

The back room was small,
piped in music set-up for exactly forty people—
four rows of black linens, tables sat cheek by jowl.
Those used to privilege complained steadily, bitterly.

Tinny taps on water glasses to quiet the din.
Perfumes, colognes cloyed the night
as the lecturer went on too long, again.
When he finally came to an end,

I craned my neck, but no I hadn’t missed anybody—
only us three blacks in the room of forty.

 

___________________________________________________________________________________________

About the author:

Edith McGowan’s work has been published in U.S. 1 Newspaper Summer Fiction Issue three times and U.S. 1 Worksheets 2018. She attends several poetry workshops. Edith is retired and lives in Princeton Junction, NJ

 

Model Apartment

Marion Pollack

 

“You have to clean the toilet today, Marion.”

“Why me, I’m the worst at it and I hate it the most.”

“Tough cookies, Marion. It’s your turn. You can’t get out of it this time.”

 

At P.S. 36, the Bronx, as in every other junior high school in all the boroughs of New York City, girls in 8th grade had to take a class called Apartment. In the 1950’s we had to participate in this as part of a three segment series that included cooking and sewing. The boys had shop all year.

The wicked old maid marm who taught the class had a wiry hair coming out of the mole on her chin. She was always dressed in black and was anorexically thin. This woman promised to prepare us for marriage.

This was accomplished by teaching us all the intricacies of cleaning an apartment. It included lessons on the importance of cleanliness and the joys of neatness. I don’t know how this teacher was able to dirty the apartment for each class meeting, but it was always a filthy mess, the bathroom especially grimy.

Of the three segments, I liked cooking class best. I especially loved putting huge globs of mayonnaise in the tuna fish, egg salad and green jello molds. None of which I ever had at home. The aroma of delicious chocolate chip cookies was followed by stuffing as many as we could into our mouths before the bell rang.

“Those are my cookies, I know the ones I baked.”

“Yeah, yours all have weird shapes.”

“Now girls, they all taste delicious.”

I loved the little mandarin oranges peeking out of cool whip ambrosia. We hated cleaning up there too, but we giggled hysterically as we all pitched in. Not so when it came to Apartment.

The struggle to master the treadle sewing machine was almost as bad. Thread kept getting stuck and stitching was always crooked. It was impossible to get the rhythm of your feet on the treadle and the push pull of the wheel all at the same time. We had to make jumpers in preparation for making our own graduation dresses. Mine was a, not too ugly, green waffle patterned cotton which hung crookedly, with lumpy pockets and twisted bodice. My girlfriends and I decided to wear our jumpers all on the same day and suffered the raucous laughter of the boys.

When it came to the graduation dress I was at a complete loss. Mom bought me a few yards of beautiful white piquet material and helped cut out the pattern. The actual sewing was another thing entirely. I ended up with a torn, gathered up mess. Fortunately, when I came home crying, my mother took me and the dress upstairs to 5B to Mrs. Becker, the seamstress. At times like this I really appreciated living in our apartment in Parkchester. Our building held the wonders and talents of a hundred people.

“Oh boy, this is quite a challenge. But don’t worry, I can fix it.”

She tore the dress apart, pinned me up with what was left of the soft white cloth. In two days she made me a lovely, capped sleeved graduation dress. I proudly wore it on graduation day with several crinolines and felt gorgeous.

Back to the Apartment.

In the beginning I had no idea what “Apartment” was. It was in the basement of the building down a dark sinister hallway. It had an old dingy door which creaked when it opened. We were always frightened to enter, tiptoeing in the dim light. You were assigned to “Apartment” with nine other girls in order to learn how to clean house, not to mention ironing and proper dress.

On the first day we were given a lecture by our old, stiff necked teacher about how important it was, when dressing, to put your skirt on first and then your freshly ironed blouse, which had been on a hanger. After the skirt was on you could undo it and tuck in the blouse very carefully. We were all choking and gagging to squelch our laughter. A demerit here could mean detention.

I am dying to know if the curriculum was exactly the same in as far away as Brooklyn.

Each time we met in “Apartment” we had to decide among the group who would team up for kitchen, bedrooms (hospital corners), living room, closets and bathroom. Who would Hoover and who would dust. Somehow there were always old clothes in the closets and dirty dishes in the sink. Did someone actually live here?

You never wanted to get the bathroom with its rusty faucets and  rank odor.  In the corner stood a plunger to be used every time, for the stuffed toilet, bathtub and sink. Why were there always wads of hair stuck in the drains? Who actually used this bathroom? An old gray mop was used with Ajax cleanser for the floor.

Lucky for me I had one good chubby little friend who I could bribe to do my bathroom duty.

“Sandy, if you do it today, I will take you to the candy store after school.”

“I don’t know Marion, you only got me an egg cream, a pretzel and three marshmallow twists last time.”

“How about I add to that four chocolate jelly rings and a coffee ice cream cone.” I calculated it would all come to fifteen cents. So worth it.

“Ok, Marion, but don’t ask me ever again, or else I’ll tell on you.”

 

We have come a long way, baby! Can you imagine our daughters ever actually taking a course in house cleaning? It is, of course, obvious that they haven’t.

It makes me feel very old to think that we were segregated and subjugated in that way without complaining. We did have an inkling that this was ridiculous, causing lots of joking and laughter.

We wondered too, what went on in the awesome, brightly lit wood shop where the boys made birdhouses and bookshelves, and sometimes came away with bloodied fingers. They would show their wooden objects and war wounds with pride. We never even thought to even ask if we could try it.

 

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About the author:

Marion Pollack is a memoir and poetry writer. She is a therapist at Aroga Behavioral Health. Marion lives in Lawrenceville, NJ with her husband Bob. She has two grown children and six grandchildren.

 

Apparently Invisible

Ayesha Sultana

 

Look how she’s oppressed and abused
Stuck behind walls how could she refuse
Smothered in the heat, not at all amused

The poor thing silent and ugly
Left without a voice after being treated so roughly
Left without a choice
A weak terrorist acting toughly

A stain in the crowd, a menace to society
Look how she smiles horridly
What plot is she scheming as she passes so calmly

It seems as though Halloween must’ve come a little early
As the children scream monster and point horrifyingly
Adults burst with laughter or anger as they glare accusingly

Demonized by the very journalists who were supposed to show sympathy
Reveal the truth and leave aside all mockery
But they used freedom of expression to spew hatred and agony
When it was only supposed to be used for spreading compassion in humanity

She’s right there but they can’t see
Not because of the veil she wears but because of the ignorance they adopted blindly
Refusing to question, or hear her side of the story
Dumbfounded when she speaks, that’s not her voice in reality!
She is supposed to be silent so her voice is just imaginary
Warned about her kind in the news so she is more than what she seems apparently
It’s only a lie, look how she tries to prove otherwise so cunningly

It’s the 21st-century, must she be so backward?
Publishing fake stories claiming to free the caged bird
Only harming humanity in the name of moving forward
Too headstrong to check for facts
Too brave of a coward

It’s not your fault, forgive me, I’m sorry
Apologies for not being there to explain
When the media bashed my cause with disdain
I forgive them for the animosity they could not contain
And from the fear-mongering from which they could not refrain
I’m sorry you had to hear everything that was wrong
And took it to heart as you sweared at me but for God, I stayed strong
I made excuses for you because it’s not your fault
I’m sorry you were fed with lies that surrounded you like a vault

You couldn’t escape what you were surrounded by,
As your glares dug deep, though I know you didn’t try
Like innocent lambs, you conformed to the news of the wolves and silently you stood
As she was stabbed to death and her scarf portrayed red riding hood
In a world screaming for justice how sad was her fate
But the continuous ignorance is an even sadder state

The very platforms that were supposed to raise awareness against hate crimes made them go viral
Now many hide their faith only for survival
Like Aasiyah (Upon her be peace), the true believing wife of Pharaoh
Who rescued baby Moses (Peace be upon him)
Her life was an example
As she stood up for the truth and refused to be trampled

I hold no grudges nor do I blame
I speak for every woman who chose modesty as her name
Who chose to let her intellect speak before her body
Who decided to break free from the immoral shackles of society
And live a life that was inspiring and Godly

Let go of the false notions I plead
In a dark world, only the enlightened one will succeed
Ignorance is truly the greatest cancer
Just walk up to her and ask her
So respectfully she will give you an answer
That will free your tortured heart from its anger
And perhaps save another life in danger
Another beautiful stranger

I will stand with you to condemn, mourn, and share the pain
I refuse to apologize for every demon who uses my name
Who uses Islam to shame and defame
A plague on the earth about whom our Prophet Muhammad (Peace and blessings be upon him) warned and prophesied
Informing that he who stands against them would have surely done a great deed
Your concern is mine so please take heed
And every time evil things on the news you read
Just remember, that we share the same needs

Believe me or not I wear this veil independently
To preserve my dignity
For my God loves a modest lady
Those who follow in the footsteps of Mary (Upon her be peace)
The mother of Jesus (Peace be upon him),
They tried to tear her to pieces
Attacking her chastity
While she was the pinnacle of piety

Khadeejah (May God be pleased with her), the wife of Muhammad (Peace and blessings be upon him), the epitome of faith and loyalty,
A lady of nobility
Beautiful and brave she sacrificed everything she had for God willingly

Fatima (May God be pleased with her) daughter of Muhammad (Peace and blessings be upon him) who gave precedence to others over her own life
She remained patient and grateful through every strife
The perfect daughter the perfect wife
She donated her only bread for the next beggar at the door
And she continued to give every time she received more

Women so beautiful and selfless
A reminder for those so selfish
Women remembered for their beauty but whose actions made the world prouder
So applaud them and the through your actions applaud louder

Now Forgive me if I chose role models who were not plastic
Over airbrushed models with lifestyles so drastic
Whose actions and features weren’t edited and painted
Pioneers of women’s rights
Pushed behind the unrealistic models that are tainted
And teen prodigies who forced girls to conform to body images that out of starvation they fainted

Accept me for who I am and not for what you’ve seen on the news
So what if it hits one billion views!
The millions watching a movie doesn’t make it real
Hear my story from me, for I endure and I feel
I will never be defined by the expectations of society
For I will always give the Lord priority

Empowered to spread light even in the bleakest of times
He granted me freedom to live as I choose in a world that’s not even mine!
I hope that my message will not go in vain
And as I continue to speak up for all those in pain
I pray my determination will never wane

Let the world hear
My voice so loud and clear
That I am free
This is me

 

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About the author:

Ayesha Sultana wrote her poem as an autobiographical spoken word piece based on her own real-life experiences growing up as a veiled Muslim woman in the United States. The poem is meant to raise awareness about the false images and misconstrued ideas that surround Muslim women and their roles in Islam. This is the full-length version of the poem, and a condensed version of the poem was published in the print edition of Kelsey Review 37.

Tag Sale at Area 51

Sharri Bockheim Steen

 

Not one among the thousands standing in the rain that day looked surprised to find the Nevadan desert sodden and gray. After all, this was Area 51 and these were conspiracy theorists. The unexpected was—as a matter of course—expected.

They were here in response to a classified ad:

Tag Sale: Groom Lake Test Facility. Fri 9am-2pm.
Parts electronic and otherwise. Parking $5. No early birds
.

Of course, they recognized Groom Lake as Area 51, that infamous repository of government secrets. And, of course, they arrived early. Days early. They camped along the roadways in RVs rigged with satellite scramblers and filled the registers of Las Vegas-area motels with pseudonyms and pseudo-addresses. They had parsed the ad for hidden messages, argued over possible anagrams, but only agreed on two points:

  1. The government must think they’re idiots to try charging $5 to park in an empty desert.
  2. All vindication and validation hinged on the word “otherwise” in “parts electronic and otherwise,” though they disagreed on what it signified. Props from the Apollo “moon landing”? Alien skeletons from downed U.F.O.s? Invisible spacecraft?

“Weather machine!” insisted the wild-eyed little man standing too close to Arthur in the crowd outside the gate. “Global warming? Propaganda! The Establishment’s stupidest cover-up yet.”

Arthur hadn’t expected his casual remark about the rain to trigger a spit-spattering tirade about top-secret weapons responsible for rising sea levels and violent weather. But then he looked around and realized he might be the only attendee not plotting to expose a bureaucratic lie or substantiate a pet theory. His only objective was to make it through his first adventure without Marcy.

Before retirement, she had always set their itineraries—and set them at full throttle. She rented the Ferrari to race along the Amalfi Coast; he sat in the passenger seat with a grin plastered to his face. That’s how he’d pictured their retirement: an exhilarating ride with Marcy at the wheel.

But something changed last October when she retired. No plans materialized to hike the Himalayas or sail the Seychelles. Marcy spent her days watching television in the living room of their North Las Vegas home. Her only regular outing was a nail salon two blocks away.

“Isn’t this nice,” she would murmur when Arthur joined her on the sofa. She would snuggle closer and sometimes fall asleep on his shoulder. She was always tired. (Heart trouble? Depression? Cancer?) He would put an arm around her and hope he radiated serenity, not anxiety. Or restless discontent. Or shame about his restless discontent.

 

Arthur checked his watch. 8:32AM. The wild-eyed little man—who reminded Arthur of his terrier Bailey launching himself against the front window at the mail carrier—stepped closer and thrashed his arms. “Tornados! Hurricanes! Floods! Whatever it takes to scare the populace into submission!”

The man’s breath smelled of celery. Arthur stepped back. He tried to appear interested, but the man’s intensity embarrassed him. Or perhaps he was embarrassed by his own inability to match the crowd’s fervor. Despite the dreary weather, the gate area outside Area 51 was festive. One bushy-bearded group sat in camp chairs under a tarp swapping tips for living off the grid. A couple in matching camouflage jumpsuits marched past sharing a packet of freeze-dried venison. A fistful of young men in combat boots argued passionately about the role of Freemasons in the New World Order. Ladies with lime-green beehive wigs hustled through the crowd hawking “J-Rod for President” t-shirts depicting an egg-headed alien with beady black eyes.

Arthur imagined whispering to Marcy, “Compared to these characters, we’re the aliens.”

She would have laughed.

 

8:40AM. The weather man’s diatribe ground to a halt. He glared at Arthur with fierce disgust and then huffed off, likely in search of a more excitable audience.

Arthur was left alone with his damp shoes. Uncomfortable, but he was still glad to be there. He hadn’t made up his mind until early that morning after a long night of indecision. A government tag sale a few hours from home, he finally concluded, was tame enough to attempt on his own yet adventurous enough to appease his restlessness. And not exotic enough to seem disloyal to Marcy.

While following Bailey’s waddling backside on a shortened version of their morning walk, he had dithered over what to tell Marcy, if anything. Maybe he should say outright how much he missed their adventures. But then she might accompany him out of a sense of obligation. Maybe it would be better to first show her the newspaper ad and gauge her interest. Or would that make it more awkward if she wasn’t interested and he went anyway? An invitation might even prompt her to sit him down and reveal some terrible medical prognosis.

Better not to know.

To his relief, there was no need to decide. By the time he and Bailey reached home, Marcy was engrossed in a recording of yesterday’s Today Show, her most concerning preoccupation. (Early-stage memory loss? Dementia?) She acknowledged his return with a cheery wave of her lavender nails. He left a note and fled before he could change his mind.

Why lavender? She had never been the pastel type. Why nail polish at all? She had never been the manicure type. Or was he reading too much into this harmless new interest? Maybe she simply never had time before.

 

8:51AM. Arthur looked up. The carnival atmosphere outside Area 51 had vanished. People pressed toward the entrance, gazing into the gray distance to appear nonchalant while jockeying hard for position. They were no longer comrades; they were competitors.

Arthur joined the crowd at the chain-link fence and flimsy tollgate. Las Vegas had cheap apartment complexes with better security. But the two armed guards in their dust-colored fatigues were impressive. In their mirror sunglasses they looked impervious to the incongruities around them—the rain-soaked desert, the crowded wilderness, the inconsequential gate protecting immensely consequential (allegedly) state secrets.

 

9:00AM. If there was a signal, Arthur missed it. The crowd surged forward, and he found himself shuffling among the crush and jab of shoulders and elbows, backpacks and handbags.

The tag sale had begun.

Armed guards directed the swell of people through the jet-sized doors of a hangar set apart from the other buildings. At the sight of the laden tables, attendees dropped any remaining restraint and sprinted down the rows.

Eventually Arthur was swept into the back of the hangar, where the crowd was sparse enough that he could inspect the merchandise. The nearest table held scrap metal pieces. Unrecognizable but nothing to excite speculation. Other tables were piled with office electronics: obsolete computer monitors, printers, and rotary phones.

Arthur wasn’t the only one disappointed. The people around him stopped shoving. Individuals melded into groups, and groups huddled between tables, muttering.

Where are the disassembled U.F.O.s and reverse-engineered spacecraft?

The technologies that control people’s minds through digital television?

Proof that human-alien hybrids are running America?

An acne-pocked young man in a black trench coat approached a guard. “Hey, what’s all this stuff supposed to be? Where’s the good stuff?”

The guard’s face remained expressionless behind his sunglasses. “This’s it. Take it or leave it.”

The questioner turned to those watching. “Can you believe this junk?”

“Yeah,” a woman yelled out. “Why’d you let us in if you don’t have anything good?”

The crowd’s murmured agreement was broken by a gaunt, shaggy-haired man with a shrill voice. “Oh-ho, I know why. It’s a ploy! These are all parts of something huge—let’s call it X—that They’re trying to hide. So They busted X into a million pieces, disguised the pieces as boring stuff, and are selling ‘em off, one by one. Once X is scattered, no one can prove it ever existed!” He looked around in triumph. “They want to use us to hide X!”

The audience quickly found truth in this. “Aha!” “I knew it!”

The young man in the trench coat swept aside a box of battered staplers and stood on a table. “Wrong! I’ll tell you what’s really going on. They know we figured out what They’re up to, so They lured us here to get rid of us. I, for one, won’t be surprised when the floor drops out and we’re buried alive with all this junk in an underground nuclear missile shed!”

The audience gasped. Someone screamed.

“Ha!” countered shaggy-hair man. “Where’s your proof?”

“Proof!” scoffed trench-coat man. “As if anyone here needs proof.

The crowd rumbled. The guards stiffened and began muttering into their walkie-talkies about “Code Jaundice” and “Situation 51.”

Arthur, whose general policy was to avoid conflict, moved toward the nearest door.

A guard stepped in front of him. “Exit’s that way,” he said gruffly, pointing his chin toward the open hangar door at the other end of the building.

“Bathroom,” Arthur replied, watching his own earnest reflection in the guard’s mirror lenses.

The guard paused, distracted by the warring factions forming among the tables. (“They’re using us!” “They’re after us!”) “Left, then down the stairs.”

 

The restroom was truly restful after the scene upstairs, but Arthur added its institution-white walls and fixtures to his mental list of Area 51’s disappointments. However, while washing up, he noticed a pair of mirror sunglasses nestled among the balled-up paper towels in the trashcan. One earpiece was bent, but they fit. The bathroom mirror showed a Man of Mystery. A Man of Adventure. A man of baldness and slight paunchiness but one capable of finding his own way out. Doing his own reconnaissance. Arthur straightened the sunglasses on his nose and soundlessly opened the door.

Outside the bathroom, guards shoved past, ordering use of the hangar’s sprinkler system to quell the growing upheaval. Arthur, hurrying in the other direction, wondered what the wild-eyed man with the weather machine theory would make of this method of crowd control.

The long underground corridor was silent except for the squelch of Arthur’s shoes and the chill buzz of the fluorescent lights. He shivered. Government ploys seemed more credible down here. What if the guards were alien hybrids hiding their glassy insect eyes behind mirror sunglasses? And what if the owner of the bent sunglasses wanted them back…and wasn’t far behind?

Arthur’s sense of adventure vaporized. A door up ahead was open a crack. He would turn himself in.

His knock pushed the door open further.

“Hello?” he whispered, only half hoping for a response.

The room was dimly lit, made dimmer by the sunglasses. He could make out a large space with a shiny linoleum floor. In the center stood a beige, closet-like structure with an open door.

Arthur circled it cautiously. “Hello?”

The structure was dark and empty. It looked ordinary enough, but—after watching hours of cable television movies with Marcy—Arthur firmly believed that one should never enter a dark, empty structure. Never. Which is why he was shocked to find himself bolting into it after hearing a faint noise in the hall: a drip or a blip or a footstep. Or nothing at all.

The latch clicked shut and an overhead light blinked on. Arthur yanked at the door handle, frantically, vainly. He was standing in a cramped space constructed of molded plastic, reminiscent of an airplane lavatory but without the emergency exit instructions or service call button. He was desperately skimming the long list of posted restrictions (“No smoking. Not for use by pregnant women. Do not operate while intoxicated.”) when the whirring began.

 

A female voice overhead, tinny and distant, startled him. “Hello? Is someone in there?”

Arthur froze.

A second voice, this one booming and male, joined the first. “What the heck! This’s my mission!”

“I— I’m sorry,” said Arthur. “It was an accident. I wandered in by mistake.”

The female was quick to soothe. “It’s okay, it’s okay. We’ll talk you through it. You activated the next E-NOW mission.”

My E-NOW mission!” The intercom crackled with the man’s outrage.

“E-NOW?” Arthur desperately needed to sit but didn’t dare so much as brush against the structure’s sides.

“Expansion of a Naturally-Occurring Wormhole, moron,” snapped the man. “You know. Time machine.”

“But don’t get too excited,” said the woman. Her chuckle soothed Arthur. It reminded him of Marcy’s imperturbability. “It’s been classified as experimental for decades. Probably always will be. Too many paradoxes. And potential abuses. Right, Mike?”

The man—Mike—made an odd croaking sound that triggered in Arthur’s mind scenes from a laughably bad cable movie he and Marcy had watched one dull afternoon. Frog People wearing colander-like helmets emerged from underground tunnels to take over the world. Their croak-laugh after tricking the hero into their trap sounded like Mike’s noise.

Arthur stared at the door latch. What if he threw his weight against it?

The female reached the end of a long explanation. “So that’s why we’re studying it. We only have clearance for small hops back in time. Then we check that nothing substantial changed.” She paused. “Are you okay?”

Arthur nodded numbly at a chin-level aperture that might be the camera. Hops? He tried not to picture the two speakers as having moist, green skin and wide, lipless mouths.

“Good. Actually, this is a great opportunity!” A moment’s static couldn’t disguise the brightness in her faraway voice. “I’m convinced the E-NOW could spawn a revolution in work-life balance. I work a ten-hour day in thirty minutes! And it’s connected to the HVAC, so commuting takes seconds. So once you try it and see how great it works, you could tell the other guards and then all of you would benefit.”

Guard? She thought he was a guard? “Wait! Stop! Please! I’m sorry but I’m not—”

“Let me guess,” Mike interrupted with nasal sarcasm. “You’re not familiar with the HVAC either? (…bunch of idiots guarding this place…).”

“It stands for High-Velocity Alternative Conveyance.” Her voice cut in quickly, perhaps to cover the male’s rudeness. “You know, the underground train system with entry points across the globe? It’s not well-maintained these days, but it’s still a great system. You wouldn’t believe the places I’ve visited between projects. And at a moment’s notice. Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat, sunrise in Patagonia, sunset in Zimbabwe—”

There was a cheerful “ping!” like a toaster oven. The door unlatched.

“So now what?” Mike sounded sulky. “I suppose you’re going to let him do my mission?”

“He might as well. It’s straightforward enough.”

Not knowing what to expect, Arthur decided to throw in his lot with the maybe-Frog People, at least until escape was possible.

He had to lean forward to hear the female’s instructions over Mike’s mutterings. “Now, when you open the door, you’ll find yourself at a press conference that happened yesterday. Earlier today, one of our agents visited the scene and accidently knocked into a big vase.”

“Nudged,” said Mike. “’Knocked’ makes it sound like the vase fell over. It just got nudged a little. Barely moved.”

“Still, the motion was caught on camera. And our mandate is to not take any chances with recorded footage of the past, no matter how minor. All you need to do is stand behind the vase—the one to the left of the stage—and hold it steady without being seen on camera.”

“Just stand there?” asked Arthur. “Like a normal human? I mean, like I belong there? Will anyone—any… being—be able to see me?”

“People at the press conference will see you, but that’s fine as long as you’re inconspicuous and stay out of the cameras’ views. That’s all Mike was supposed to do on this mission.”

As Arthur adjusted the volume knob on Mike’s complaints, he grinned at his own silly fears. Mike couldn’t be a Frog Person, because a Frog Person wouldn’t be inconspicuous at a press conference. Besides, who ever heard of a frog named Mike?

He had to increase the volume when the female voice returned. “It should only take four minutes. When the speaker says ‘This is all a conspiracy,’ that’s your cue to return to the E-NOW through the door marked HVAC. I’ll take it from there. Okay? Ready?”

“I think so,” said Arthur cautiously. “I mean, it sounds easy enough.”

“Great! You’ll do fine. After your visit, we’ll review the footage to see that everything is back to normal, okay? Now. Take a deep breath. When you’re ready, open the door.”

“And don’t interfere with anything else, or you’ll cause real problems,” Mike added. “Just hold the stupid vase still.”

Arthur took a deep breath and opened the door.

The brightly lit room was crowded with people. Regular human people, mainly reporters with cameras and microphones. They were facing a stage, on which a large man with a graying crewcut and navy suit was saying, “I deny all allegations of embezzling government tag sale proceeds.”

The scene looked vaguely familiar. Had he seen this on last night’s news?

Arthur straightened his sunglasses—grateful for the disguise—and located the waist-high ceramic vase filled with dried flowers. Avoiding cameras, he circled the crowd and—with a growing appreciation for his own inconspicuousness—stationed himself behind the vase. He gripped its lip with one hand and wedged a hip against its cool ceramic side. The dried leaves and flowers scritched against his raincoat to the beat of his pounding heart.

As the speaker, addressed by reporters as “Senator,” expounded on his devotion to American principles, Arthur took in the bewildering situation from his hiding place. If this event took place yesterday, what happened to today? Was it possible to be both here and home watching this on tv? If the news cameras panned over the vase, could he—if he had been sitting on the sofa beside Marcy yesterday (today?)—have glimpsed the rain-coated elbow or damp shoe of a certain Man of Mystery? Or would that count as being seen on camera? He pulled in his elbow and foot.

Suddenly, Arthur was knocked from behind with such force that he barely managed to keep the vase still. His head was thrown forward, and the sunglasses flew off and landed among the dried flower stems.

Arthur stifled a gasp and reached through the stems to retrieve his glasses.

His fingers closed instead on an envelope. It was marked SENATOR in block letters. It hadn’t been there a moment ago.

“This is a conspiracy!” shouted the senator.

His cue! Arthur frantically groped for the sunglasses. From deep in the vase he heard a gentle clink as they settled on the bottom. Now what? He stuffed the envelope in his raincoat pocket and scuttled toward the door marked “HVAC.”

As soon as the latch clicked shut and the overhead light flicked on, Arthur regretted his spur-of-the-moment decision to take the envelope.

“Hello?” he said, panting into the camera. “I think I made some mistakes out there. Some changes.”

A moment’s static, then the female voice returned from its tinny distance. “Oh my word!”

“I’m sorry. My sunglasses fell deep in the vase. And I took something.”

“You aren’t a guard! I thought you were a guard!”

Arthur touched the bridge of his nose in surprise. The mistaken identity had slipped his mind. “The sunglasses. I meant to tell you. I found them. I came for the tag sale and then needed the bathroom and…” He stopped. It was hard to explain.

“I’m sorry, I—” They both spoke at the same time, then broke off, leaving a silence that seemed to stretch eons.

“Look,” she finally said. “If I had known, I never would have sent you out there.”

“No, no. It’s fine. It’s good. In fact, it’s exactly what I needed.” Arthur felt the truth of this statement as he spoke. He had felt alive out there. Energized. Adventurous. Worthy of mirrored sunglasses.

“Well, it’s very kind and accommodating of you to say that, considering how much you… Considering you aren’t the type to…”

The aura of the sunglasses slipped away. Arthur grimaced in self-deprecation. “I don’t exactly look like a Man of Mystery and Adventure, do I. But I’m great at being inconspicuous.”

She laughed uncomfortably. “Well, that was exactly what we needed. Someone inconspicuous. You did great, by the way. Really great.”

Arthur’s blush spread to his ears and throat. He felt himself straining toward the warmth of her voice.

The E-NOW’s whirrings were the only sound for a few moments. It struck him that Mike hadn’t chimed in.

“Where’s your co-worker?”

“Mike? Oh. Bathroom. Meanwhile, I’ll say what he won’t: thanks for undoing his error. You probably already figured out he’s the one who knocked the vase in the first place.”

Arthur held up the envelope. “Then is he also the one who hid this in the vase? I hope I didn’t cause more trouble by taking it.”

“No, you did the right thing. Quick thinking. Great instinct on your part. Leave it in the machine, and I’ll take a look.” She made a sound that might have been a sigh. “I did suspect. He’s so cagey and possessive about his trips. Guess I should revisit the scene and see what else he’s been up to.”

The whirring changed to a whine. Her distant voice brightened. “Well. Guess I’m going to be short an employee. Ever consider this line of work?”

Arthur smiled at her joke. Wait. Was she serious? “I can’t!” he sputtered.

She laughed. “Just kidding. You’ve probably had enough adventure to last the rest of your life.”

“Oh, no. It’s not that. I was craving adventure. I need it in my own quiet way. But my wife. She needs me till she gets back on her feet. Then I’ll—we’ll—be off. She’s the leader of our adventures. She’s amazing. Fearless. She’s…”

Arthur blushed again and pretended to be interested in a glowing knob near his elbow. Why was he telling this stranger about Marcy?

“Well. You’re just full of surprises,” she said after a moment. “If you like adventure that much, want me to send you home by E-NOW? I can get you there before you left this morning.”

Grateful for the subject change, Arthur thought back over his morning: the drive, the drizzle, the dissension. It seemed like a different world—a bland world—compared to this one he had stumbled into. “Yes. Please.”

“Great! And, hey, I’m really sorry about the misunderstanding. I guess I… Well. I shouldn’t make assumptions.”

 

This time when Arthur stepped through the E-NOW door, he found himself outside in cool morning air. Bailey glanced up from leisurely sniffing a nearby utility pole.

Arthur shut the door behind him. On its exterior was stenciled, Glitzy Nailz HVAC Access. He was behind a strip mall two blocks from home.

He looked at his watch. 6:05AM. He would leave for the tag sale in ten minutes. Except he had already been there. What does one do with a morning the second time around? Maybe nothing. He was exhausted.

When Arthur arrived home, Marcy was, once again, sitting on the sofa watching a recording of yesterday’s Today Show. This time, Arthur collapsed beside her.

She squeezed his hand. “So. Did you buy me anything?”

Had he been supposed to pick up something for Marcy while walking Bailey? It was confusing to keep track of time the second time around.

He looked down at her hand on his. Marcy’s nails were bright coral. Hadn’t they been lavender before?

“You got your nails re-done?” he asked.

“I was at Glitzy Nailz anyway.”

As Arthur thought this through, the newscaster said, “Let’s go live to a press conference where Senator Jay Rodman is addressing allegations of government tag sale fraud.”

“I need to watch this,” Marcy said. “But, hey, want to come along tomorrow?”

“To the nail salon?” Arthur asked cautiously.

“For starters. But you’ll need these.” From the pocket of her quilted housecoat, she pulled out a pair of mirror sunglasses with a bent earpiece.

 

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About the author:

Sharri Steen lives in Rocky Hill, New Jersey, and splits her work time between medical writing for local pharmaceutical companies and teaching high school biology at The Wilberforce School in Princeton Junction. Her publications include short stories in The First Line and U.S. Route 1.

 

 

 

The human experiment has ended

Carolyn Phillips

 

finches search for wild seeds
backyard feeders are empty now
the maple and the oak breathe deeply again

at the landfill kudzu enshrouds
the dross in orgiastic green,
tendrils lashing cell phone
and laptop together
in incestuous embrace

silent messages clog coaxial cables
the words piling on each other
in a jumble of unheard cries

and leaf-cutter ants march along
carrying the precise shapes needed
for their underground nursery
as they have always done.

 

___________________________________________________________________________________________

About the author:

Carolyn Phillips is a resident of Lawrence Township. She has taught English and now convenes a poetry appreciation group at the Lawrence Senior Center, where the members continually remind themselves of the strength and beauty of poetry and its ability to enrich their lives.

 

 

 

Word of Mouth

Nancy Demme

 

They were babies, not chronological slap-them-on-the-bottom babies, but babies all the same. They had been wiped clean, blank slates.  They had full use of their musculature, could wipe their noses, empty their bowels, but during the wipe process their speech centers had suffered a minor catastrophe.  Normally they would have been exterminated.  It had been such a costly mistake that the Halls of Reckoning had no other recourse.  Speech was to be recovered manually.

The long line of neonate adults, their skin glistening, their eyes bright, were perfectly capable of speech.  During the wiping process memory had been severed from language.  They had no prior experience that linked speech to favorable or unfavorable events.  Corporal RT3 would see that this was so.

He looked over the infant speakers as they lined up before the feeding station, a large compartmentalized glass wall like the historically famed Horn and Hardarts.  All vestiges of culinary delights, from chicken salad on rye to gelatinous fruit salads arrayed themselves before them.  One word was all it would take to open the doors to the glass-enclosed treats. Some of the neonates salivated, others opened and closed their mouths, puckering like newborns, others wore angry or fearful gazes.  It was these latter that Corporal RT3 watched most carefully.

These neonates were to become the new scholars to replace those that had been liquidated, those that had had memory, had indulged in rebellion.  They would provide counsel that was not tinged with emotion, with memory.  Their advice would be factual, flat, and statistically correct.  Their severed memories would not stir them to rebellion as they sought a way off this dying planet. They would lodge in the Hall of Reckoning.  The Corporal’s was an important post.  He had looked on as the previous scholars combatted their way into infinity and he was not necessarily in agreement with what had been done, but he would tell this to no one.

The modifications, the reinforcements, were primitive but they produced results.  Like a slot machine, he thought grimly, the ball bouncing, the words tumbling.  One word elicited another until in a matter of weeks the bearer of words was complete with a litany of words.  Those with lisps, stutters, or other impairments were deemed too distracting and culled out of the selection process.

They were to become an army of scholars versed in the great thinkers, Socrates, Homer, Newton and tempered with humor, Johnathan Winters, Don Knotts, and Flip Wilson.  Those who uttered “coup” or “counter intelligence” were immediately removed.

Corporal RT3 had been at this for three days and he watched the neonates with a kind of wonder.  A woman, hungry looking, who had refused to speak during this time, had pushed her way up the line.  They went unfed between sessions, water yes and nutrients but no solid food.  She had a starved look and the Corporal glanced at her tattoo.  Babylonian History, tongue: Aramaic.  She pushed her way to the front of the line staring at the microphone he held in his hand.  She remained mute, her stark intelligent eyes now staring into his.

Normally he would have removed her because of her aggressive glare.  He was trained for such eventualities.  She was used to starving.  He could see from the scars on her back she had been reduced to menial labor.

“Speak!” he cried as pushed the microphone toward her mouth.

She padded around on her bare feet, cupped her hands around her mouth and whispered,

“Noise.”

He smiled.  “Good!  Another!” he said his voice sharp and unrelenting.

He delayed releasing the food.  “Another!”

“Angel!” she shouted, her head swiveling on her shoulders as if looking for someone in the line of bodies.  A tremor rose among the waiting neonates, like an unexpected wave.

He didn’t know the meaning, thought perhaps it was part of her knowledge of Babylonian history, but it unnerved him.  He felt perhaps it was something argumentative.  Corporals, and there were many, were ever on the alert for anything smacking of political heresy.

“Very good,” he said sighing deeply and he pointed to the glass wall.  She pressed her face against the wall, her lips leaving saliva on the glass.  He opened the door and extracted an egg salad sandwich.

The sandwich was wrapped in cellophane and he gingerly handed it to her and asked her to step aside.  She quickly had it open and again he motioned to her to move.  She looked squarely at him and offered him half of the sandwich   He shook his head vehemently, and pushed her aside.  As he began another reprocessing, a childlike man in his twenties, he watched her from the corner of his eye, saw the gobs of creamy egg salad, mayonnaise smeared across her lips and mouth.

“You there!  Z40B!  You can’t eat in here,” and he pointed to a doorway at the end of the hall.  “In there!” he cried as she stuffed the rest of the sandwich into her mouth, her cheeks bloated.  She smiled brokenly.  Normally he would have called her out for restructuring, but the line was long and people were hungry.  He had words to get.

The process of restoring language took about 8 weeks.  It was a slow process eliciting just a trickle of words at first, “to be, “friend”, “mending.”  Later the words would flow into themselves like a symphony. Paragraphs, essays, stories would come tumbling out.  At times the Corporal would have to force them to stop.  The more words they knew, it seemed they no longer hungered for food. The Corporal, however, was not alone in his work.  There were many corporals all working to restore words.  At times, too, the work seemed dangerous.

Once in a while, a great while, the corporal thought, a word would flower and die in anguish.  Tears and shouting would occur and the neonates would be briskly escorted away back to the mines or fields or laboratories.  Sometimes the sensory memories were not severed completely and he would have to look up and down the line looking for neonates that seemed to be practicing their words.  Sometimes the neonates were explosive though naked and without weapons.

Their future role as sterile, objective counsels to generals and the oligarchy, required precision.  One misstep, one sad or angry neonate could bring the whole universe that had been carefully constructed tumbling.  Corporal RT3 took his job seriously.

 

The next morning he found himself looking for her.  It was hard to distinguish features.  Their heads were shaved and their torsos were all sunken.  It was through some miracle that he remembered her tattoo.  Z40B.  Babylonian History:  Tongue Aramaic.  The tattoos were emblazoned on their arms just beneath the shoulder.  He looked for her as he strutted up and down the line.  He had an unbidden moment of regret thinking she had been whisked away during the night after the patrollers, the secondary patrol, language experts, studied their spoken words.  What had she said?  Noise?  Noise was benign or at least he thought so and then he saw her leaning against the glass wall.  He thought she might faint, her look was so dire.  He took her arm to reveal that she had been standing before a steaming bowl of soup, cut off from her by the glass window.

“Word?” he said.

For a second time she looked at him and smiled, revealing newly missing teeth.

“Pho,”  she said, cupping her mouth as if revealing a secret.  “Pho.”

Every hair on the back of his neck stirred unpleasantly.

“Again?”

“Pho.”

He knew the meaning of ‘faux.”  Though not a good word, it was not entirely inflammatory.

“Again?”

“Pho,” she said, slipping her arm onto his shoulder, pointing to the glass window.

But ‘foe” was entirely wrong.  He brushed her hand off his arm and took her by hers, the tattoo obliterated by his grip, when the Arbitrator implanted in his wrist started flashing.  He called it his purity button.  It measured sexual arousal and as they walked the length of the room, he waited precious moments before he pressed the flashing light, privately enjoying what was going on between his legs.  As they reached the sentry at the exit door, the door back to ignominy, he pressed on the flashing light and received the first warning electrical shocks, mild at first, and then greater until his body succumbed.

She was struggling now and shouting. “Pho!  Faux!  Foe!”

 

_______________________________________________________________________________________

About the author:

Nancy Demme has been a Children’s Librarian and facilitated creative writing groups for adults, teens and adolescents for 25 years. Her work has been published in US1, Confrontations (LIU’s literary journal), Kelsey Review and Foliate Oak Literary Magazine. Her novel The Ride made the short list for 2015 Sante Fe Writers Project Literary Award and was runner-up for the 2015 Howling Bird Press Fiction Award. Fish Factory Fiction, a one act play, underwent a reading at the Mill Hill Playhouse in Trenton, NJ. Active in the Garden State Storytellers League, she also teaches Writing in English to ESL students and creative writing to teens, adolescents, and seniors.  She continues to take courses in everything from playwriting, children’s literature, song writing, drawing, screen writing, fantasy and storytelling.

 

 

My Mother’s Hands

Vida Chu

 

Her red manicured nails
used to dance across the keyboard.
Fingers adorned with sapphires and diamonds
pulled my hair into braids.
We sisters rushed home after school
for a dish of Mama’s mango ice cream.
One day she put a match to her old letters,
lifted her suitcases and slammed the door.

Now the nails are cut short,
the knobby arthritic fingers bare.
An age-spotted hand twists
the leash of her faithful Welsh Corgi
while the other gropes the empty mailbox.

 

____________________________________________________________________________

About the author:

Vida Chu grew up in Hong Kong, came to America for college, and stayed. She has lived in Princeton for over fifty-three years. Her poems have appeared in Kelsey Review, Princeton Arts Review, US 1 Worksheets, and The Literary Review. She has children’s stories in Cricket Magazine and Fire and Wings.

 

 

Family Prayer

Laura Tahir

 

For many years my dad drove an orange juice tanker from Florida to Ohio and back, and that’s how he met Colleen, my mother. She worked at a chicken plant in Ohio that shared a huge parking lot with the bottle factory on my dad’s route. He found her there twisted halfway into her red Nissan Sentra as if she had been wrestling with the metal machine and defeated, frozen into that grotesque frame I hold in my memory. Her chin and elbows wrapped around the seat’s edge. Her fingers clawed the steering wheel. She tried, but her arms could not pull her body into the car. One knee was beneath her stomach on the side of the seat and her other leg stretched straight out onto the graveled ground. Her uniform was torn and she wore no shoes. She raised her head, turned her blank face to him. It was depleted even of fright and agony. I often think of this image when I see large coiled roadkill in New Jersey ditches.

Dad rescued her, let her ride with him in the tanker. Her ideals had been trampled on and she was broken, but he was kind and his world was a place she could slip into with ease. When they weren’t on the road they lived in a mobile home in Florida, and I imagine they were happy in the beginning. But then I came along.

Colleen hated the heat down south and she got depressed as hell, so we moved up to the outskirts of Cayesville, New Jersey where my paternal grandfather had a big old farmhouse with a huge kitchen and lots of little rooms. Grandpa was a generous and indulgent African American. His wife, my dad’s mother, was German and died when my dad was a boy. Grandpa said she loved apples, but other than that no one said much about her.

Grandpa was a retired Army Captain, but nothing like you would expect a military man to be. Maybe it was because I’m a girl, but he wasn’t harsh or strict. He listened to me, and even when I asked dumb questions he made me feel like I was smart. He’d say, “You know, Taylor, I never thought about that.” My dad was away a lot driving and Colleen often travelled to Ohio for court or spent days at a time in mental hospitals in New Jersey, so Grandpa was the one who was with me most of the time. He tutored me at home because he said school wasn’t a good idea for girls with my background. He taught me to read and do number puzzles. Sometimes Colleen went with us when we did things outdoors, like fish or swim. Grandpa always made it seem like everything was going to be alright. I loved him as much as or more than I loved my dad, if that’s possible.

When I was seven Grandpa died suddenly while raking leaves. That was a sad and crazy time for all of us. Colleen took it the worst. She said she couldn’t stand being inside all day, that she had to get a job. She went on tons of interviews but I don’t recall she ever got a job. After Grandpa died my dad stepped it up with the prayers. Morning, noon, and night.

I had to go to a real school after Grandpa died and I hated it. They put me in third grade because I was ahead of the kids my age who were in second grade. Grandpa was right about how I wasn’t going to fit in. It was the first time I heard the N word, and it was the first time I heard fuck, but they pronounced it fock. They sang my name in a snarky lilt: Taylor Cruz, The Mestizo Girl. It got so I didn’t care anymore. After a while they called me Whitey and got friendly with me. Right around that time Colleen got some psychotic notion my dad’s skin was going to turn white. “After all, Sammy, you’re fifty percent there already,” she kept saying. I didn’t want him to be white and it scared me when my mother talked crazy. I can’t believe how confused and ignorant I was.

Dad prayed every morning. It sounded like mumbling unless you got close to him, and then you could hear what he was saying. Colleen didn’t like that he prayed so much. “It’s over-the-top, Sammy. You could be talking to me some of that time.” She said that often, but he kept praying. I know how annoying it must have been for him because until recently I too couldn’t stop myself from praying. The only one I ever told about it was my shrink.

I was in fourth grade when Colleen told us she didn’t have to go back to Ohio anymore. She also stopped looking for a job. I suppose she figured she needed to be home to take care of me, but that was not great for her mental state, nor for mine. At my dad’s request she reluctantly went to see his shrink, Dr. Kehoe. She went once and that was it. “She can’t get you to stop praying, Sammy, so how do you think she’s going to help me with anything? And how am I supposed to talk to some white chick about my problems?” This confused me because Colleen is as chalky white Caucasian as they come.

As far as I know, Colleen did little all day but sit outside on a beige plastic lawn chair in our backyard. Grandpa had always done our yard work, and after he died the place looked awful. In the summer Colleen looked as dreary as the tawny weeds and drooping dandelions around her. She sat out there even in winter, in her old navy blue pea coat with her legs wrapped in blankets and scarves.

Cayesville Elementary School was a mind-numbing hellhole for me. My most hated class was fifth grade Social Studies with Mr. Palochik. I have no idea why, but everyone called him Chicken Penis. He had gray skin and gray hair and all he did was tell us to copy stuff from old textbooks he handed out at the start of class. There was gray dust on the computers stacked on a table in the back of his classroom. I often cut Social Studies. I could walk into town and be back in time for the next class.

One winter day I cut classes early. Cayesville’s streets were lined with dirty plowed snow and the sidewalks were icy. It was too cold to be outside so I went home and chanced it that Colleen wouldn’t get upset with me. I let myself in the front door and went straight to the kitchen table where Grandpa used to sit, by the window but close to the radiator where it was nice and warm. Colleen was out back, slowly swaying from side to side on her beige plastic chair. I lifted the sash just long enough to yell out: “Hey Colleen, it’s only me in here. Everything is OK.” I think she heard me because her head bobbed a few times. I made myself hot tea and looked through our National Geographic magazines.

Eventually Colleen got up and walked around to the side of the house. It took her forever to get to the garage. I heard her kick snow off her boots. She slowly opened the kitchen door and shuffled over to the table. She looked like a zombie with all her head gear.

“You want some tea, Colleen?”

“No, thank you, baby.”

She sat down across from me and took off her ear muffs and hat and scarves. Her eyes looked glassy from the cold, or maybe she had been crying. She rested her gloved hands crosswise on her shoulders as if she were hugging herself. Colleen was too despondent ever to be nasty, and that day she was even pleasant. She didn’t question me about being home from school. Instead, she told me to sit down so we could talk.

“I’m already sitting, Colleen.”

“Taylor, I wish I could love you like a mother should love her daughter, like your daddy loves you.”

Colleen’s smile always confused me because on her face it looked like a mistake. She told me what happened at the chicken plant in Ohio. She shivered, even with her coat on. She told me how much she missed her job there. Seriously? I forgot everything she said that day, until it came back to me in therapy.

About a year later Colleen left us. That’s when my dad had to quit his dream job and take care of me. He loved driving the tanker, but what could we do? Grandpa was gone and I was just a kid, so Dad got a 9-to-5 job in the tool section at Lowe’s Home Improvement selling drill bits and screw drivers. Dad and I had the next fifteen years together. I learned to compulsively pray thanks to that.

Every few years I would hear my parents talk on the phone. Dad told Colleen she was welcome to come back home anytime, and I was always relieved when that never happened. He handed the phone over to me once, and I had no idea what I was supposed to say. I was in high school at the time, so I told her I wanted to go to Rutgers and major in Sociology. She cried. That was the last time I spoke with her.

Dad died of a heart attack three years ago, same as Grandpa, raking leaves out in the back yard. It could have been worse. Colleen could have stayed with us all those years. Sometimes I’m sad for her. How could she not be messed up after what happened?

*  *  *

I’ve had bouts of depression and lots of OCD for as long as I can remember. Some days I’ve felt so weighted down with hopelessness that I can’t get out of bed in the morning. My OCD is the same for me as it was for my dad. I can’t leave the house if I don’t recite a long prayer each morning. I can also get obsessed with counting things, like license plates, or windows on buildings, but that doesn’t bother me much.

I see the same shrink my dad went to for years and Colleen went to for one session. The therapy is called ACT, which stands for Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. ACT is supposed to get you focused on what you value in life so you can move toward what you want instead of getting fused with weird-ass thoughts and feelings that hold you back. The idea is that you can’t push those thoughts and feelings away, so you may as well accept them, like rapscallions on the bus that you’re driving through life. Eventually they get off your bus. If you haven’t crashed into a building or driven off a bridge. ACT is a talk therapy. Dr. Kehoe mixes in her own interpersonal style, and sometimes we veer way off the topic.

I always sit on the wing chair near the heating and A/C unit in Dr. Kehoe’s office. I imagine the ergonomic honey-colored leather chair she sits on all day is the same one she sat on 20 years ago, struggling to help my dad with his scrupulosity problem. She rotates a few inches slowly right and left. For someone as dowdy as Dr. Kehoe, she has some nice things in her office, like devices that work as humidifiers and dehumidifiers, several air purifiers, a weather station, a solar-operated generator, a Purell hand-washing dispenser, and a battery-operated waste basket that snaps up and scares people the first time they get near it.

Dr. Kehoe has big dark eyes and glasses with round red frames that maybe she wore when she was my dad’s shrink. The rest of her is pretty non-descript, kind of a generic 60-something health care professional look. I don’t know everything, but I think there are two types of shrinks: the narcissistic know-it-alls and the ones who try to pretend they don’t think they know it all. Dr. Kehoe is the latter type, so she doesn’t have to worry about how she dresses or how she looks, as long as she comes across as humble.

What happens in talk therapy? We talk. We reminisce.

God the Father with gratitude I walk on your Earth. I beseech you to pardon my sins and wake in me the good. Protect my family, my baby girl Taylor, my wife Colleen, and my father here on Earth. Protect me from any spirit that would annihilate them or cause Satan to enter our beings. Oh Lord bless our bodies and keep them clean. Protect us, Holy Father, in travel, and in daily discourse that we may hear and speak your truth.

Dr. Kehoe smiles. I tell her more of what I remember:

He put the cup to his lips. But only after he said the prayer, when he was free of contamination.

He was called Daddy. But the first word I learned was cup. Then Daddy. Then Mommy. New words poured in like a flood, even though I didn’t know back then what a flood was. But I had the idea of what a flood was. I said the words with my own mouth and thought they were me. I thought I was a cup. My right ear against his smooth warm brown chest, I was a cup. Where had that memory gone? Where did it come from? When did she tell me to call her Colleen instead of that word that means she is my mother?

*  *  *

The following Saturday morning I sit for three hours on my living room couch. My thoughts race. Dr. Kehoe says to focus on the present, where I am, what’s around me. Focus on sensations. What do I see? What do I hear? Wooden spool coffee table. Book cases. Rug with wine stain I should have cleaned. A dog barks. I push air from my lungs. And wouldn’t you know it, it comes right back in through my nose. The rhythm keeps me safe.

I go to my afternoon appointment with Dr. Kehoe.

“So what’s been happening with you this week, Taylor? Oh, before we start, how’s the temperature in here?”

“I’m good,” I say, annoyed at her obsession with room temperature. Doesn’t she know that once we start talking I probably won’t notice if the earth’s crust breaks along some fault line right outside the window? She looks at me a few seconds to see if I might change my mind, and when it is obvious that I have said all I want on the subject she opens the blinds with the small remote control that seems to appear magically in the palm of her left hand. The view beyond the ground floor office is a small asphalt lot full of potholes and a few cars. Dr. Kehoe sits down and does her slow swivel and fools with the armrests on her fancy chair.

“Everything is about the same,” I say, ignoring the most important piece of information I could possibly provide. Maybe I’ll keep it to myself to avoid the possibility of her taking credit. But I cave.

“Well, actually I need to tell you something. I haven’t been sleeping well since I saw you last week. Too many images run through my head. The praying’s been the same, except for this morning. I sat on the couch to pray, but instead I heard Colleen’s voice. I closed my eyes and it was like a dream, and it stayed up there in my head. It was what she told me that day I came home early from school, and it made me want to tear my skin off. All I can remember is that I breathed. I didn’t pray.”

“You accepted the anxiety and chose to let it go,” Dr. Kehoe says.

“Oh, yes, I have that privilege.” I am barely able to talk. “Do you know what he did to her, Doc?” Dr. Kehoe nods right before I put my face in my hands.

“Put it into words, Taylor. What’s going on now?” Whenever I cry uncontrollably Dr. Kehoe tells me to find words for what I’m feeling.

“Now I know why she hates me. No way she could accept and choose.”

“I see,” Dr. Kehoe says.

“And no way praying can undo that. Such a waste of words. Over and over, talking. All that repetition. You can’t change the past.” I wrap my fingers around my upper arms and squeeze. I think my teeth are going to crush inside my mouth.

Dr. Kehoe says something about dropping an anchor to ground myself, to be aware of my breathing and of her voice. I breathe, and I hear her describe religious scrupulosity to me once again.

“Taylor, it’s a form of OCD. A person can be overly concerned that something he or she might say or do would be considered a sin or a violation of some moral code. People with this disorder have excessive concerns with morality, blasphemy, sin. The obsessiveness becomes so painful that sometimes the only way to relieve it is through ritualized prayer, or trips to confession. Or repetitive cleaning. It’s a way of undoing what one perceives to be evil.”

I recite to her a new prayer:

God the Father, with gratitude I walk on your Earth. I beseech you to pardon my sins and wake in me the good. Protect my family as they collect the chickens for execution. They stun them, hang them, stab them.

I think Dr. Kehoe looks uncomfortable so I want to interject something sweet. “My dad looked like Al Jarreau. He had that voice too. Don’t you think so?”

Her face changes. She looks younger. “Yes, Taylor. He was handsome. His voice was distinct.”

She should say he sounded like Al Jarreau. I get annoyed.

I tell her about the people at the chicken plant. The workers were mostly from Central America. The bosses were white people. They liked Colleen and made her a boss.

And god bless the boss of Colleen. Lord, I admit with sin in my heart I wanted to kill him but instead I took her away. Protect the bosses from any spirit in me that would annihilate them to keep them from the path of Satan. Protect the Guatemalans. Oh Lord bless their bodies and keep them clean.

I’m a little shaky, but I have to say it.

Headless, they are shackled to the line that runs them to the chute where they are scalded and metal fingers pluck the feathers from their skin. Hooks puncture and rip out the gizzards and hearts and livers to spin madly and then twirl in a freezing bath. A machine will soon replace the immigrants, but for now, Almighty God, bless those who saw the birds in half and remove their bones, for their flesh too is soft. Protect the people and the chickens, Holy Father, those who eat and the eaten. And in daily discourse help them that they may hear and speak your truth.

I remember what Colleen told me about Cruz, how the boss was going to have him deported. The gangs apparently found out Cruz was in Ohio and the boss was afraid of trouble. He would surely get killed if they sent him back, and that broke Colleen’s heart. She never spent much time with the man, but she spent hours on the phone with his girlfriend in Guatemala to find out everything she had to know to marry him. It was the least she could do. What the boss did to Colleen was unspeakable, and yet she told it to me, and I can see how my mother got sick, why she didn’t want to be my mother.

“Colleen watched them slit the throats one last time,” I tell Dr. Kehoe. “She told me about it. She wouldn’t look at me. She stared out the kitchen window at the snow. The bird comes toward the stunner and is so calm, she said, she who had been a virgin until the boss raped her. He took her shoes when he was done.”

I look down at my hands that are as light as the teeth of my brown father. We are light bright white, she says. I hear Colleen tell me we will never look like Sam, that Sam is too good for us, that we are Irish. I tell Dr. Kehoe how it happened:

“Don’t tell me that’s human cruelty, the boss told her. Because they are not human. You are like me. You, for God’s sake, are Irish. You called OSHA on us for giving those filthy undocumented animals a nice place to live? He shook his head and laughed at her. You don’t think we know you married that fucking dirty wetback so he could get his green card? You want a visit from the police?”

I grab tissues, but I don’t feel like crying anymore.

“What I hate is myself because I am from that boss. Sam loved me like crazy so he could undo that act. Isn’t that right, Dr. Kehoe?”

“Taylor, Sam loved you more than anything, as much as he loved Colleen. There’s no need to reduce love to a compulsive act. That’s not why he loved you.”

“But that’s why she hated me, isn’t it? I’ve been coming to see you for two years. You never told me what she must have told you. My dad must have told you.”

Dr. Kehoe says nothing.

“The floor was slick with water and wet bird parts. He pushed her down and pinned her there and threatened to kill her family if she told anyone. She felt bloody chicken bones beneath her as he pressed her into the floor. He ripped the clothes from her body like he was defeathering a bird, and he plunged himself into her. That is how I was conceived. That’s what she wanted me to know.”

“Keep talking, Taylor.”

“You knew this. Why didn’t you tell me?” I feel desperate. Something this horrible I must have made up. “Tell me this didn’t happen, Dr. Kehoe.”

“It’s your story, Taylor. Your mother told you her story and now it’s your story. I couldn’t have told you that. It wasn’t for me to tell. Sam certainly wanted you to know, but he must have thought the time was never right. You know more about your story now, Taylor.”

“Is OCD genetic?” I ask Dr. Kehoe.

She goes on talking. Something about how genetics isn’t always a basis for connection, about how Colleen used the Cruz name to make the marriage look real, about how much it cost Sam in legal fees when Colleen sued the boss for rape, and about how the judge let the boss win in exchange for ignoring the marriage fraud. I hear words, from somewhere. Can one act erase another? The judge’s power to make crimes fungible was a travesty of justice, even more unworthy than the hours my father and I prayed to foil a future injustice. Our lame apotropaic rituals could never make up for what went on in that chicken plant, nor prevent it from happening again.

“Some of this you’ll never know for sure, Taylor. Remember what you can. And know what’s most important is to hear and accept the stories you tell yourself, but don’t let them rule you,” Dr. Kehoe says.

I leave there that day, aware of the venom I think I inherited from the white boss. For months I would direct that confused loathing toward Dr. Kehoe. Looking back on it, her acceptance of that hatred is the same thing I do when I am at my best. Accept it for what it is, a thought, or conversation, or story, or feeling. That’s when I get relief from the depression and the mad acts and habits that try to rob me from having a decent life. Sometimes it works. And sometimes I think one day I’ll find Colleen and tell her everything will be alright.

 

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About the author:

Laura Tahir lives in Mercer County and practices as a psychologist in Allentown, NJ. She has published articles and chapters in academic books and magazines.

 

Candlestick Cousins

Barbara Krasner

 

As I drove into Brooklyn this May day in 1993, I also drove into my grandmother’s past. I rang the bell at Apt. 7F and when the door opened, I faced my grandmother’s 90-year-old first cousin, Evelyn. The confident tone of her voice put me immediately at ease, as if I had known her my entire life. She ushered me into the living room. Light poured in from the ample windows.

“I remember the day your grandmother Eva arrived from Europe,” Evelyn said. If her father hadn’t come to America, Evelyn could easily have been one of those women in our mutual ancestral shtetl, Kozlow, (once Poland, then Austria-Hungary, and since 1918 in Ukraine). She could have covered her head with a kerchief in a pattern that clashed with her dress and oversized sweater. She might have sported lavender anklets squeezed into backless slippers that flapped against the floor. Her home would have lace curtains to let in as much light as possible. But, Evelyn was born and raised in America, New York City, to be exact. She had reddish-blond hair curled away from her face, was a bit plump and perfectly amiable. But there was more to her than that. I studied her, watched her movements. In her younger days, she must have vacillated between proper young lady and cheeky vamp. Everything about her was symmetrical: hair parted in the middle, perfectly spaced eyes and eyebrows. But her lips smirked a bit as if to suggest she had a secret and wouldn’t I like to know what it was.

It did not occur to me as I sat on her sofa in the soft daylight that one hundred years before, Evelyn’s father, Benzion Zuckerkandel, arrived in America at age nineteen in May 1893. I did not know as Evelyn busied herself in the kitchen pouring me a drink that a surprise awaited me on her father’s ship manifest. Only now in 2018 as I checked his immigration record in the Ellis Island database did I find it. Right below Benzion’s entry was one for Henoch Zuckerkandel, twenty-nine years old. That’s my great-grandfather. I never knew he came to America. His passage occurred just about a year after Eva’s birth. I imagine he was scoping out the place before he brought the whole family, which was to have a few more additions before the time my grandmother emigrated. He must have returned to Europe. Maybe he couldn’t make a go of it. Maybe he couldn’t convince my great-grandmother to leave Kozlow, maybe she was pregnant again. The horrors of the Holocaust could have been avoided if only they’d all have come to America.

Evelyn told me how my grandmother knew no English. How exciting it must have been for Evelyn to meet a first cousin from the Other Side of the Pond when she was ten years old, someone who shared a Yiddish name, Chava, with her. I imagine Eva would have used Yiddish with her uncle. She must have been scared, too. She would not have remembered him from Kozlow, having only been a baby when he left. Now she was meeting him as a family man, meeting his wife and daughters.

“Eva stayed with us for years at Lynch Street in Williamsburg,” Evelyn said. “It was like having an older sister.” Eva was ten years older than Evelyn. How strange it all must have felt for my grandmother. No goats or chickens in the backyard. No thatched roofs. Maybe even little Yiddish.

Uncle Ben probably had more room and more money. He had sponsored Eva’s journey. But a widowed aunt on her mother’s side offered her more comfort on the Lower East Side. Here my grandmother could relax with an aunt and cousins she already knew, with people inside and outside the home she could converse with completely in Yiddish.

Perhaps it had been a plan to send Eva to America first and then her siblings would follow. Eva Zuckerkandel was brave to come to America alone. I could not imagine the strength she had to muster to leave home, her parents, and seven siblings. She must have thought she was off to a great adventure, the whole world open to her in a way Kozlow, a shtetl of 700 people, could never be. Uncle Ben paid for Eva’s wedding to my grandfather in May 1918. His Zuckerkandel family home served as her first home in her new country. He had a reputation, so Evelyn told me, of paving the way for family members to come to America. But when Ben sponsored a younger brother, he got more than he bargained for. The seventeen-year-old brother didn’t want to work, although he had been a tailor in Kozlow. After just a few months, he wanted to return home. Ben wouldn’t pay his way. The brother stayed, became a gambler and ne’er do well, and never married. He legally changed his name. “We saw him frequently,” Evelyn said. “But my father refused to talk to him.” Eva would have known him, since he was only ten years older than she was. What she thought of him, I couldn’t say, and my father did not recall him at all.

“I want to leave you my candlesticks,” Evelyn said. “They were my mother’s.” I nearly cried. I barely knew her, and here she was giving what was to me her prized possessions. I knew from my genealogical research that female immigrants left home with two treasured items: a featherbed and Sabbath candlesticks. I also knew as the youngest of four daughters, I would never inherit my mother’s set. Evelyn’s candlesticks witnessed my grandmother’s first Sabbath in America just a few days after she arrived on a fair, warm September Monday in 1913. Perhaps Eva helped her aunt light them. Perhaps she wondered what her own mother and sisters were doing that same Shabbos in Kozlow. Perhaps she recited the ancient Hebrew blessing, uniting her with her non-Yiddish speaking cousins.

But why give the heirloom candlesticks to me? Why not give them to a more immediate family member? As I now think about it, the candlesticks formed a bridge between the Old Country and here, between the immigrant and the American born. Maybe no one else in her family cared about family stories or the past. And then here I showed up, as interested as if I had been one of Evelyn’s contemporaries. I felt at home here, speaking about people long dead but as if I had personally known them all, as if I could see them now milling about the apartment. I was open to the idea of ghosts. They already knew all that I wanted to know about my family’s history. I was connected to them through my DNA and my research, which now served as collective memory.

I needed visual images to make that memory more visceral. Evelyn gave me a snapshot of a pregnant Eva, circa 1924, my five-year-old father standing in front of her, their fingers touching. She’s holding my uncle Harry, the baby, and it looked like she was ready to give birth again. The only photos my family had of Eva were at my parents’ 1946 wedding. Now here she was, proud mama of two boys. I wondered what dreams she might have had then. Did she think about bringing over her brothers and sisters, her parents? Was she already contemplating investing in real estate around town? Or did she worry about how she would run the family business while being a mother? She could not have known that she would develop diabetes and cancer and die far too young. Evelyn also gave me an 8×10 photo of her younger self and a 1957 photo of Ben Zuckerkandel with a great-grandchild.

Evelyn and I continued to write for a few more years. Our letters were filled with news of current family, weddings, and bar mitzvah celebrations. She looked forward to attending these, because otherwise she was bored. No spouse, no children, no sisters. One of her nephews would pick her up and take her to these events. She had become the dowager aunt. In 1996, at the age of 96, she was still living by herself in Brooklyn. Then the letters stopped. I assumed she passed away. Her nephew called me in 2004 to inform me of Evelyn’s death at 101. He knew nothing about the candlesticks. He and I lost touch.

Visiting with Evelyn that May day in 1993 placed me shoulder to shoulder with my grandmother’s America-born first cousin. She gave me her warmth and whatever memories she had. She made me feel my grandmother’s arrival in America. But I still didn’t know the woman who had never held me, never combed my bangs to the side and fastened them with a barrette. She never praised my latest drawing or felt the tingle of my fingertips in hers. Eva never sat with her grandchildren on her knee or celebrated their milestone events. She never got to attend two of her sons’ weddings. No matter how hard I tried, the realization slowly sank in that I would never really know Eva.

KR 37 KRASNER EVA

My grandmother, Eva, with my father in front of her, ca. 1924.

 

kr 37 krasner evelyn z

Evelyn Zuckerkandel in her heyday.

 

KR 37 KRASNER BEN

Ben Zuckerkandel with his great-grandson in 1957.

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About the author:

Barbara Krasner holds an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and teaches composition and history at Mercer County Community College. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The Smart Set, Jewish Literary Journal, The Manifest-Station, Poor Yorick, Minerva Rising, and other publications.