Sunday
Apr242016

Overhead

I myself was under construction and a work in progress, while I worked toward health.

Photography Series by Ana Prundaru, Spring 2016

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Statement:

These photographs were taken during a hospital stay, aimed at addressing issues related to my Lyme disease. I was placed in the infectious disease department, which was mostly empty, save for two or three other patients, whom I could occasionally hear. I wondered how these patients dealt with the isolation.

For me, the act of taking photographs was therapeutic. The construction site on one side of my window and the local University building on the other, were the closest thing to being in touch with the outside world. I realized how I myself was under construction and a work in progress, while I worked toward health.

I would like to dedicate these photographs to everyone who is struggling with a life-stopping illness and especially chronically ill people, who often experience hardship in having their illness dictate the pace and substance of their lives.

*

Ana Prundaru is a visual artist and writer from Bucharest, Romania. Her photography and artwork are forthcoming from Thin Air, Merrimack Review and Seafoam Magazine. Visit her at www.anaprundaru.wordpress.com.

Sunday
Apr242016

A Day of Social Work Home Visits: San Francisco, 1968

I’m called to the stucco Sunset to meet Serena, just sixteen, blind from staring at the sun on LSD.

Poetry by Donna L. Emerson, Spring 2016

*

Let me go back to school, Ma, pleads Robert as his mother peels potatoes in their 1940s drafty Potrero Hill room. He’s my last of seven, she says, not looking up. Has to help me here.

A long row of unpainted clapboards, junkies next door talk loud. Widowed Mrs. Flannery can’t get all the kids to school. Eleven-year-old Robert washes dishes in a bucket.

I drive to a second-floor walk-up in Hunter’s Point: German shepherds and tall, thin men with shotguns meet me at the door. We sit in the kitchen on plastic red seats under Martin Luther King’s picture, next to Bobby and Jack’s, talk about Huey, Malcolm. Tyrone on my lap.

The aunties in Bernal Heights are still putting away their grits and bottles before they sit me near velvet Christ on the wall, next to Mary holding Jesus, and magazine photo cutouts of deer or buffalo, pasted on cardboard. Tacked up and crooked. They tell me to get Olin back to school. We know he’s running drugs for his father. And you know that can’t go on.

It’s my work: I visit homes. The San Francisco Unified wants me to evaluate one hundred twenty-five children on home teaching for more years than they can count.

Before lunch I go to urine-scented apartments in the Western Addition with shingled fronts that look like houses in the white suburbs for two years until they start to fall apart. Cornell has just swallowed the Drano again.

At noon I make a home visit to a gated brick façade home off Terrace: sculpted lawns, high hedges. A black maid minding white poodles escorts me to a drawing room. There a doctor and lawyer introduce their autistic boy, Benjamin. They want to send him away. Ben twirls his arms and stamps his feet.

I’m called to the stucco Sunset to meet Serena, just sixteen, blind from staring at the sun on LSD. I park two blocks away so I can walk near the ocean with her. She’s all in black. She grabs my hands and won’t let go. We smell salt, feel spray, hear wind in caverns. Will she agree to go back to school?

In a jangling Mission apartment, my nostrils full-to-the-brim with yesterday’s grease, Latin red and yellow singing lifts my mood, swish of skirts below brown knees. Click-click on the sidewalk; the Spanish interpreter adds her own take to what I just said. Juan wants to go to school today; he cries when I cannot take him. Music fills the eaves, the storefronts. The tires vibrate.

They let me in, these people who’ve never seen me before. The tall, white social worker from the school with her manila folders and miniskirt. They put blankets down on stained cushions, bring out lumpia or sweet potato pie, speak of Angela Davis and wear their hair like hers, notice that I wear mine like hers too.

I drive in my VW Bug to the edge of the city farmhouses, falling-to-the-ground barns, dusty eighteen-foot-ceilinged homes with women in holey housedresses, old fit men in jeans, the gagging smell of manure along the slimy ditch where I park, where Ryan can’t do chores anymore because of the cancer.

We sit on the floor in an airless square apartment downtown where voices on four sides whisper, then shout about school for the children, life as long as it lasts.

I take home Lebanese casseroles, smells of whiskey, the rest of Japanese lunch, sticky dirt on my skirt from sitting on the curb with Berte in the Western Addition. After we get Cornell to the hospital.

*

Donna L. Emerson lives in Petaluma, California, and her family homestead in New York. Recently retired from Santa Rosa Jr. College, Donna’s award-winning publications include the New Ohio Review, CALYX, the Paterson Literary Review. She has published four chapbooks. Her most recent awards include nominations for a Pushcart, Best of the Net, and an Allen Ginsberg (2015) award. Website: http://donnaemerson.com

Sunday
Apr242016

Meteor Shower

the place that created us.

Poetry by Clint Smith, Spring 2016

* 

Meteor Shower

*

Clint Smith is a teacher, writer, and Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University. His first collection of poems, Counting Descent, will be published by Write Bloody Publishing in Fall 2016. 

Sunday
Dec062015

Pasadena

The neighborhood ladies didn’t quite know what to do with me. Their discomfort over my job was apparent, but I was friendly, and I wore Laura Ashley dresses, pearls, and cardigans on the weekend.

Nonfiction by Kristin Lieberman, Winter 2016

*

The house we bought in Pasadena was not my first choice. It was small, overpriced, and had a tiny backyard, no pool. But it was charming, so when we went through our options, I remembered its garden and the lion’s head fountain in the postage-stamp yard. “Look at it this way,” I said to my husband. “It’s already renovated. We’ll stay a few years, sell it, and then move to a bigger house. By then we’ll have a family.” It was a perfect house for two people, maybe three.

“Okay,” he said. He looked down at the floor. He gave in too quickly. He was silent. It was not the way a lawyer—a big lawyer like he was—makes an important decision.

“What is it?” I asked

“Nothing,” he said.

“Can we afford it?”

“Yes,” he said.

Something wasn’t right, but I didn’t push it. All I thought was this—the houses along the street were lovely, the yards plush and flowered. Jacarandas lined the street—their purple flowers blossomed, and when they fell, the sweet, sticky petals twirled like lilac snow all along the road and in the yards.

I remember sitting cross-legged in my faded jeans and crisp white linen shirt alone on the cold brown Mexican tiles in the family room, waiting for the moving van to arrive—the wall of French windows where outside the lion’s head fountain spilled water into the koi pond—the quiet sound of trickling water, and the deep breath I took in the January air. I knew—I just knew because of that room—I’d be happy there. I was hopeful then.

In 1991 you were an acceptable resident of Pasadena if you were a professional or the senior executive of a prosperous corporation. You were welcomed if you were a Catholic or Episcopalian. You were embraced if you were conservative or Republican. I was a liberal Democrat, but I was a lawyer—I drove a BMW. I had joined a local Episcopal church. The neighborhood ladies didn’t quite know what to do with me. Their discomfort over my job was apparent, but I was friendly, and I wore Laura Ashley dresses, pearls, and cardigans on the weekend. I was expecting a child.

I didn’t know my life was suspect. I was happy, busy, about to become a mother, and I was the newest partner in a successful law firm. I was oblivious—I was a fool.

I was tanned, in my thirties, and happy. During the week I wore sharp business suits in navy, camel, and black. I walked among the beautiful gardens and library of The Huntington; lunched at Julienne, the gorgeous café on Mission Street; gloried in the sumptuous Sunday brunch at the stately old Huntington Hotel; and enjoyed gracious Lacey Park, all within walking distance of my little house. My house was only a place to sleep, a place to have parties, and a safe neighborhood for my hypothetical children. Moving to Pasadena was not a political decision. There was no ideology to my geography.

On a Sunday afternoon when our son was one month old, my husband came to me in the nursery. “I have something to tell you,” he said. “I was convicted of intentional failure to file my income taxes in January. It’s a felony conviction, and I’ve been placed on parole. I have to pay a fine and pay the last seven years of my taxes with interest. I have to perform community service.”

“How did you keep it from me?” I asked. If the entire house had fallen down around us at that moment, I couldn’t have been more shaken. I couldn’t have been more surprised.

His hands were in his pockets, and he paced the room. “I had all of the documents sent to the office, and I placed all of them in a locked drawer. What came to the house, I put on top of the refrigerator where you could not see it.”

He told me that his felony conviction was reported to the bar, and they had chosen to suspend him. The law firm found out, and there was a meeting scheduled at the firm, and he thought, correctly, that he was going to lose his job tomorrow. “That is the only reason I’m telling you now,” he said.

“Why didn’t the other partners tell me anything?”

“I told them not to tell you. I told them that I was working it all out.” He added, “Also, I haven’t had any money in years.”

I thought that this had to be a joke—because he made so much money as a named partner in a lucrative law firm—but the joke was on me. We had always kept our finances separate; I had always filed my taxes alone. I checked all of my accounts. Checks I had not written had been drawn on each account—small sums, just enough to cover a credit card bill or make one mortgage payment, but consistently, for as long as we had been married.

Each day I encountered another lie, another hidden debt my husband had accrued. Someone said that he was a gambler—I never knew the truth. The warm, generous, responsible man I thought I knew was someone who kept a secret life away from me. I was numb, not at all certain I could stay in this marriage—it didn’t feel like a marriage anymore. I locked up my checks and credit cards. I put passwords on all of my accounts, and I made an appointment with a divorce lawyer.

I took the rest of my vacation time because I was told I had no more maternity leave by the firm, and I cried for the entire week, rocking my son in my arms, while my husband paced the floors downstairs. On Monday, with shaky hands, I put on my sunglasses and returned to work.

The neighborhood ladies invited me for breakfast shortly after I returned to work. I welcomed their company—any solidarity or friendship was a comfort because I felt so lost, so overwhelmed. We met at the local café, and as I sat down, I knew something was not right. They told me that it was time for me to stay home with my child. I reminded them that I was a working mother and that I had responsible childcare. “Maybe your husband should stay home for a while. Someone needs to bond with this child,” one finally said. She said it to be cruel, and my heart closed up.

“Maybe he should,” I said. I knew that by saying that I would no longer be invited to lunch, tea, or to baby showers, or even greeted in the street, but I did not care. I could not let them know what I was going through. I was vulnerable, and my trust had already been breached.

I left some money for the check, and I drove to work. I thought about their intentions. Did they want to steer me in that direction for their own comfort or to shepherd me into the herd? Charity work, volunteering for schools, hosting dinners, and child-rearing were the only proper callings in life for a Pasadena matron. This was never the life I intended for myself. I wondered for the first time in three years why I had moved there.

I didn’t have much time to wonder or make alternative plans either. Two months later I was admitted to the hospital for brain surgery. After suffering from headaches, balance issues, and finally one-sided weakness, I discovered that I had a congenital midbrain cyst grown to the size of a golf ball paralyzing my right side. A day after surgery I had a hemorrhagic stroke. I was in speech, physical, and occupational therapy for the next year. When I recovered enough to walk, talk, and care for my 18-month-old child with help—when my husband had finished his community service, his suspension was lifted, and he had another job—I told him he could go.

It wasn’t until five years later, after I had divorced and remarried, and my new husband and I wanted to move with my son into a new house, that I found out that the tax authorities still had a lien on my house in my ex-husband’s name. It took five years to sort it out and to remove the lien. By then the housing market plunged, and I was diagnosed with leukemia. We enrolled our children—along with my son we had our own boy-girl twins—into private schools and bided our time. When the oldest graduated from high school, and the housing market rose, we decided it was finally time to move.

I lived in the same house in the same neighborhood for twenty-two years, and I survived it. I can count the things that I miss about it. I miss breakfast at Julienne, martinis at Smitty’s, dinners at the Arroyo Chop House, and lunches at the Parkway Grill. I miss the Pasadena Playhouse, the Norton Simon Museum, and the Pasadena Symphony. I miss the eclectic shopping along Colorado Avenue and the Rose Parade. I do not miss the mute neighbors or the parent cliques in the expensive private schools that my children attended. I do not miss being the sick, awkward mom, getting sicker. I do not miss Gucci, Louis Vuitton, or Armani suits. I definitely do not miss Chanel bags.

In the end I was never part of the clan. I wore pearls, but I was through wearing pearls. I was tired of dressing up. When my husband was offered a good job out of state, I said, “Yes. Give me Oregon.”

I visited Oregon only once before I came to Corvallis to choose a new home. I had flown to Portland with my oldest son on a college visit two years before. He had liked the college, and the meandering branch of the Willamette River beside our hotel made him smile. “You and Dad should move here,” he said. “I think the twins would like it.”

I laughed. “I can’t see Oregon happening in my life.”

I couldn’t see it happening in my life until it did.

I endured two painful surgeries within one month before my husband was due to start his new job in Oregon. “It will be two hard months. Will you be okay?” he asked.

“I have to be,” I said. He kissed me and held me close. I was shaking—I wasn’t sure I had the strength to survive so long without him. Day by day I went about my business—I drove the twins to school, I went to the grocery store, I directed the stripping and staging of my house, and I interviewed and hired our movers. I sorted through photos, clothes, furniture, and every item of our collective lives. I threw out some, gave away more, and kept the cherished items. During this time I couldn’t bend or lift. Sitting for any length of time was almost unbearable. It took a full month for me to sit upright comfortably and to eat solid food again. I kept moving forward to Oregon and my new life. I found strength in leaving that I had not known in staying.

I found a secluded sofa where I rested while the house was being shown, inspected, and finally sold. At night I took pain medication, chemotherapy pills, and whatever else my medical team prescribed. After homework was done, the dinner dishes were put away, and the twins were showered and safely tucked in bed, I slept and dreamed of cool Northwestern summers.

We remained in our house in Pasadena until June, long enough for my oldest son to come home from college in Connecticut to say good-bye to the only home he had ever known. I said good-bye to the medical professionals who knew me, who had seen me through years of therapies, surgeries, titrations of medications, and all of the intrepid clinical trials. I said good-bye to my true community and four real friendships I had forged or serendipitously come into over the years. I would miss them, but it was not heartbreaking to let go. I just let go. I had learned that life and love were centered in just letting go.

The day I left the house in Pasadena for good, I sat cross-legged in black yoga pants in the family room on the same cold tiles after the movers had left. Our children were running from room to room, checking out the empty house one last time. I stared out at the old lion’s head fountain, and the tired, sick woman I had become spoke to the hopeful, foolish girl that had moved here so many years ago. “You survived,” I said.

I’ve ended up in the kind of town I grew up in in rural California. It was a community graced with cherry groves, cattle ranches, and swaths of fields peppered with poppies, perennials, shrubs, and trees. Apricot, plum, and persimmon trees surrounded our white cottage of a home. Mint grew by the dripping water faucet in the backyard, stalks of rhubarb, and rows of grapevines tangled into one other, avocados and lilacs, and roses of every variety and color. A tall elm tree regally shaded me from the hot sun, and I practiced my saxophone with a makeshift music stand under those enormous branches. On Sunday mornings the white church across the way rang its bells loudly while I turned over stones looking for bugs in the green grass yard.

Everyone in that small town knew each other. People worked hard and helped one another as best they could. Many of my classmates were content to stay in this town for good, or find another small town somewhere else, while a few of us ventured out to the city. I bounded off to college and beyond, to the noise and excitement of everything a small town didn’t offer me. I lived in one city after another until I married and planted roots in the cracks of suburban cement in Pasadena.

Along the rural highway leading to the Northwest forest where I now live lie acres of grassland, bales of harvested hay, forested mountains, horses, and sheep. Next door to me there is an old farm, grandfathered into the gentrified neighborhood. The farm raises alpacas for their wool and goats for their milk and cheese.

A slight breeze fans and sways the trees—strange trees I have never seen before. While we had a postage-stamp backyard in Pasadena—we now have two acres of land surrounding our house, an outside fireplace, and a covered wooden swing. I watch a small herd of white-tailed deer amble through our backyard in the morning, and I receive an email warning of cougar sightings and slaughtered fawns and doe. Owls hoot in the trees late at night.

The days are longer, quieter, and the northern light is brighter in summer, and Oregon grass awakens in early autumn rain. Every green grows greener, and all of the trees, the various trees—deciduous or coniferous—acquire a slippery sheen as the water lubricates their trunks and branches. In October it rained hard. Thunder and lightning ripped through the sky for hours. My children came home drenched in their tennis shoes and sweatshirts. They laughed, astounded by the downpour, and went to their rooms to change.

I watch through the front door window as cyclists, wearing muddled raincoats, nylon pants, and helmets, pedal up a steep road in the rain. I wonder for a moment where they keep their rain gear and why they are riding in the rain. Then I realize that, even on a cloudless day, they must be prepared for an unexpected storm. They do not let rain, thunder, or even lightning keep them from getting to their destination. I know then that I am like them and that I will grow roots here, deeper than any I grew in Pasadena. I will pedal insulated with warmth and good humor through the rain of medication, infusions, and time. Sometimes the sun will come out, and I will bask under warm and cloudless skies in this wild and tender land.

*

Kristin Lieberman received her MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles. She is a two-time Pushcart nominee.

Image Source: AdamKR

Sunday
Dec062015

The Last Mission

Ignacio didn’t tell me the details. He never talks about the gore of battle.

Fiction by Barbara Mujica, Winter 2016

*

Only nine days left. Lt. Ignacio Montez would be leaving Iraq in a little more than a week, and he still had a lot left to do. There was Akram the carpenter, for example. The son of a bitch had hidden a bomb in a quiet intersection where kids liked to play soccer. It exploded and killed six innocent ten-year-olds. Then, there was Mahmod the sweeper. Barrel-shaped and soft-featured with the smile of a cherub, he looked like your favorite uncle, but he had gunned down a popular sheik in cold blood because the guy refused to cooperate with Al-Qaida. And what about Yazen the medic? The one who stuffed corpses with dynamite and then left them at the entrance to the souk or some other well-trafficked area. When a curious crowd—or better yet, a couple of American soldiers—gathered to examine the victim, Yazen would detonate the explosives. These were evil men, men who deliberately killed noncombatants. Montez had vowed that he and his marines would catch them and bring them in, but so far the thugs had eluded them. And then, there was Rahim the jeweler. Montez had to get to him, too. Montez glared at the calendar and bit his lip.

Akram was almost never in his carpenter’s shop, but neighbors saw his wife, Noora, at the market, and she seemed to have money. No one was hiring Akram to build fences or ceiling moldings because no one was about to invest in property that might be blown up any moment. Besides, cash was tight. Lots of people were out of work. If Noora was parading around with fancy sandals and spending dinars on meat, Akram had to be getting cash from somewhere. Obviously he was working for Al-Qaida, but the marines didn’t have much intel to go on. Even those people in this tight-knit little corner of Ramadi who hated Al-Qaida weren’t willing to talk to the Americans. Al-Qaida was brutal, they thought, but the Americans were foreign occupiers.

Montez thought the deaths of the ten-year-olds might change things.

“I think folks are going to start talking, sir,” Ken Pitney told Montez. “They’ve had it with the violence. They’re not going to stand by while these motherfuckers murder their children."

Pitney was a thirty-seven-year-old staff sergeant with twenty years in the military. A bulky black man with sharp perceptions and a fast draw, he had won six or eight medals for pulling marines out of burning trucks or pushing them out of the line of fire. Montez felt ridiculous every time Pitney called him “sir,” even though that was what military protocol required.

“I felt like I should be calling him ‘sir,’” he once told me. “I was only twenty-four years old. He was the one with the experience, sometimes the only one who knew what the hell was going on.

Pitney was perpetually optimistic.

“The joy of the Lord courses through my veins,” he told Montez, “especially when I’m about to go out on a raid.”

“Well, we only have a week to catch Akram.”

“His neighbors hate him. Someone’s going to turn him in.”

Montez thought Pitney might be right. Al-Qaida’s diabolical tactic of killing children to coerce their parents’ cooperation was becoming counterproductive. Sometimes the insurgents decapitated the kids and sometimes they shot them. Until now, parents had been so terrified they gave the thugs whatever they wanted—money, food, a place to hide men and supplies. But now, the buzz on the street was that a rebellion was brewing.

Akram’s job was to plant bombs in places where youngsters gathered: streets where they played soccer or marbles, storefronts with television sets. Neighbors whispered that his mission gave him some kind of personal catharsis: he took out his anger against Allah for giving him only daughters by killing other people’s sons.

As usual, Pitney was right.

“He’s going to go home tonight,” he told Montez. “That’s what they say.”

“Who says?”

“Bab the clothier. The one who sells kaftans. You know, the one with pustules.”

“The guy with a face like a potato with eyes sprouting out all over it?”

“Yeah. Bab overheard Akram’s cousin say something. Bab lost a nephew to one of Akram’s bombs. That’s why he told me. Like I told you, sir, people are fed up.”

At 3:00 a.m., Montez and his team were creeping through the shadows to the modest house attached to Akram’s shop. A gloomy moon offered feeble light, but darkness was a blessing. If the marines were lucky, they’d catch the carpenter in his sleep. Pitney would be in the most danger because he was in the lead position. Akram was surely armed, and if he was awake, he’d fire at the first moving silhouette he saw. He probably had armed guards. If so, they’d pull the women and children in front of them to prevent the marines from firing. It was also possible that Noora would have a pistol as well.

Revolver drawn, Montez kicked in the door as noiselessly as possible.

“The first split second is always the worst,” Ignacio told me. “You never know what to expect. It might be a barrage of fire. It might be a lone gunman.”

Ignacio held his breath. Pitney was already inside. One by one, four other marines followed. They met no resistance. That could mean Akram and his guys were waiting for all of them to enter the house to mow them down, or it could mean the house was booby-trapped and would blow up any minute.

Pitney turned on a low-beam flashlight. Four little girls appeared to be deep in slumber on the floor, each on a mat.

“They looked like angels,” said Ignacio, “their hair spilling over their shoulders, their tiny noses spreading and contracting, their delicately arched eyebrows, their ears like perfectly tied bows. Please, God, I thought, don’t let anything happen to these children.”

Pitney looked around the room. No Akram. No Noora.

He signaled two marines to follow him and went to check out the rest of the house. Ignacio and two others stayed by the entrance guarding the girls. Pitney examined the walls for false doors leading to rooms where a person or weapons could be hidden. He checked the perimeter. Nothing.

Ignacio closed the door carefully, and they left.

“Well, that was anticlimactic,” he muttered.

“But isn’t that the damnedest thing?” murmured Pitney. “We searched the whole house and those little girls never woke up.”

“Too bad Akram wasn’t there.”

“We have eight more days.”

“We have intel that Mahmod the sweeper is hiding in the mosque.”

 “Crap,” growled Pitney. “I hate to go into the mosque.”

“Yeah, me too. It’s their sacred space, but we’re going to have to. I just hope we can find Akram and Yazen within the next couple of days. And then there’s Rahim the jeweler.”

“Rahim isn’t so important.”

“Yeah, he is. It’s a personal thing.”

The moon was dying. They had to check out the mosque and get back to base by daybreak. Montez imagined he would be busy all day getting their quarters ready to turn over to the next battalion, and of course, they had to train the new men.

“None of us have slept for thirty-six hours, sir. With all due respect, I think you should forget about Rahim.”

“You guys can sleep a couple of hours when we get back, Pitney. I’ll visit Rahim.”

The mosque operation turned out to be easy. They found Mahmod the sweeper prostrate in prayer, alone and in full view.

“He just shot an innocent man, a sheik that the whole fucking neighborhood loved,” hissed Pitney. “For sure, God is going to tell him to piss off.”

“Who knows what God is going to do? Surround him, but let him finish.”

The minute he lifted his head, Mahmod knew it was all over. He didn’t even reach for his gun. Ignacio handcuffed him and threw him into the truck. He followed Ignacio into the interrogation room like a lamb waiting for the knife.

“Not so bad,” Montez told Captain Bari, the commanding officer. “One out of three. And then, of course, there’s Rahim.”

“Forget Rahim,” said Bari. “There’s no time.”

“I’ll make time for Rahim,” said Montez, tightening his jaw. He began to write up his report on Mahmod.

At 3:00 a.m. the next morning, Montez’s team was on its way to an abandoned shack on the outskirts of Ramadi. That was where Yazen the medic brought the corpses to perform his gruesome operation. He slit the bodies from breastbone to pubis, removed the guts, and filled the cavity with explosives to be detonated at the moment when they could produce the most horror. He had a bunch of assistants, seasoned killers known to be crack shots. Montez brought a bigger team with him than the night before.

“They’re heavily armed. Guns, RPGs, you name it,” Pitney told Montez. “We might need air cover.”

Yazen’s men had either been tipped off or seen them coming. They fired the first shot.

Ignacio didn’t tell me the details. He never talks about the gore of battle. All I know is that the firefight lasted more than four hours. Yazen had more men with him than Ignacio had anticipated. I can imagine the screaming bullets, the flying debris. In my mind, I can smell the sweat and the burning flesh. In the end, Yazen lay dead over one of his cadavers. Most of his men met the same fate. A few were captured. One of the marines caught a bullet in the shoulder and another had his hand blown to dust. By the time Ignacio attended to the injured and handed over the detainees, he’d slept less than five hours in two-and-a-half days. The computer, the printer, and the paperweight on his desk all seemed to dissolve into each other. It was like watching ice sculptures melt in a desert, he said. He put his head on his desk and slept.

It was only a catnap, but that’s all he had time for. Twenty minutes later, he was off to patrol the souk with Shem the interpreter and three marines.

“We’re going in here,” he said, when they reached the shop of Rahim the jeweler. 

Rahim, by all accounts, was a gentle man, good-natured and big-hearted, but no friend to Americans. He stared warily at the four heavily armed infantrymen entering his shop. 

“Wait outside,” said Montez to the marines. “I’ll stay here with Shem.”

As-salām ‘alaykum,” said Montez to the jeweler. 

Rahim’s eyes grew large and seemed to spin like pinwheels.

“Tell him I’d like to buy a necklace,” Montez said to Shem.

He removed his helmet so the jeweler could see his face. Then he put down his guns, his knife, his rucksack, and even his flak jacket. Now he was just a man, not a solider.

“I’m leaving in a few days,” he explained, “and I want to buy a present for my mother.”

Without taking his eyes off Montez, Rahim took out five gold necklaces and laid them on a black velvet cloth. Exquisite pieces. Delicate gold filigree, teeming with intricate twirls and arabesques.

Montez made his selection. He knew he was supposed to haggle, but he didn’t have much time.

“I wish you peace and happiness,” Montez said after they had decided on a price and he was getting ready to leave. Rahim’s features softened. He could certainly understand a young man’s affection for his mother.

“I wish you the same,” he said.

Ignacio gave me the necklace for Christmas, when he told me this story. It was hard for me to hold back the tears—to think that in the middle of a war, he had remembered to buy his mother a Christmas gift.

“Did you get Akram?” I asked finally.

“Unfortunately not,” he said. “But at least I got to Rahim.”

*

Barbara Mujica is a novelist, short-story writer, essayist, and professor at Georgetown University. Her novels include Frida, an international bestseller that appeared in seventeen languages, Sister Teresa, adapted for the stage at the Actor's Studio in Los Angeles, and I Am Venus, a Maryland Writers' Association prizewinner. 

 

Sunday
Dec062015

Uncle Sam's Pool

I went to the washroom and washed my face. Reapplied my kohl, the black eyeliner Indian women wore. My strange, green-black eyes accused me from the mirror. Hours before I had thought myself so clever, so mature. But I knew nothing of this world.

Fiction by Kelly Watt, Winter 2016

*

I met Jeremy at the American embassy in Delhi, India, when I was only seventeen and wild and free in a foreign land. It was 1977 and I had just graduated from missionary high school in the Himalayas and longed to lose myself in the enchanting chaos that was India. The annual Fourth of July celebration was legendary. That night every Injie foreigner in the city who could wrangle an invite was at the embassy. I was crushed against the bar when these two guys sidled up beside me: one tall black dude and a skinny white guy with butterscotch for hair. Despite the occasion I had refused the free American draught to drink Indian beer. When the bartender returned with my Pink Pelican, the skinny guy said: “So our American beer isn’t good enough for you? That’s hardly patriotic.”

“Sorry, I’m Canadian,” I laughed. “Besides, we’re in India. Shouldn’t we be drinking the local brew?”

“Right you are,” the red-haired one said and clinked my bottle. “Cheers.”

It was the week before the annual July monsoon, and the sense of impending deluge, of something close to breaking, hung heavy in the air. It was so hot it hurt to breathe, let alone stand in the sun for even a minute. I could feel the sweat trickling down my thighs under my skirt. There was a swimming pool, but it was cordoned off in honor of the occasion. The Indian waiters scuttled about in white, starched jackets, sweating, looking penitent and underfed next to the corpulent expatriates.

I had been crashing all week at a friend’s diplomatic digs. I’m ashamed to say I hardly remember her name. Terry something. I had pretended to like her more than I did so that I could stay at the American compound. Her dad was away so for a few days we had the place to ourselves. It was a pampered life in a gated community: clean sheets and air-conditioning. The commissary sold Marlboros and macaroni and cheese. We spent our days by the pool, slurping nimbu panis, Indian limeade, served to us by white-coated bearers who called us memsahib. At night we put on our silver bangles and went out on the town, careening dangerously through the New Delhi crowds in rickshaws that narrowly missed the sacred cows decorated in marigolds, roaming freely through the traffic roundabouts.

I was in love with India. Bharat Mata. Her stench and perfume. The smell of hand-rolled bidis and urine commingling. The leering men with bare feet and the luscious young women with dark eyes who came out in the evenings to sell garlands of jasmine out of white buckets on the street. I never wanted to leave.

Then Terry’s father, the diplomat, came home. He insisted we join him at the embassy reception that night. It was only two years post-Vietnam, so that year’s celebration was embarrassingly lavish. Thousands of dollars had been spent. There were real deli hot dogs and apple pie with ice cream—although the latter melted to slush in seconds in the July heat. There was a hot air balloon. Free rides on an elephant, garishly painted in red, white, and blue. I was sure the party alone could feed the state of Bihar for a month, maybe more. The disparity between rich and poor in India filled me with despair, even though I lived a privileged life there. I loved the comforts of my friend’s embassy apartment but hated colonialism and capitalism. I was young then and full of rage and ideas.

For the first hour Terry and I slouched among the tents and dignitaries, swilling beer and sneering through the interminable speeches. Then Terry went off to join her father while I drowned my cynicism at the bar. That’s when Jeremy introduced himself. He was from Virginia, he told me. His buddy, Moses, was from Alabama.

“Pleased to meet you, Virginia, Alabama,” I said.

“Have you seen what they’ve done to the elephant?” Jeremy asked. He rolled his eyes. That’s when I knew we would be spending the night together.

A disc jockey appeared and people began dancing on the open-air dance floor. We shouted at one another over the music and danced. We sang, “Bye-bye, Miss American Pie”—the whole crowd linking arms to sing the lyrics in unison. Oddly, the song was not about the death of some promising musicians anymore, but the deaths of all those boys in uniform in a country far away. The crowd was full of soldiers. I spotted an empty shirtsleeve dangling. A wheelchair. Uniformed men strolled everywhere, spines erect, eyes defiant, medals jingling; their uniforms still crisp and tailored-looking after hours in 110-degree heat.

“Why are you guys here?” I asked my new friends.

“Ex-military,” Moses explained.

“Why aren’t you in uniform?” I asked, surprised.

“Ex is the operative word,” Jeremy said, looking around nervously. He gulped his beer.

“We’re civilians tonight,” Moses explained. “The war is over.”

He put a fatherly hand on Jeremy’s shoulder. I was stunned by the protectiveness of this gesture.

“We’re just here for the free beer,” Jeremy said, laughing, offering to get me a fresh one. He rushed down the bar, shouting to get the attention of the bartender.

“How long have you known each other?” I asked Moses when Jeremy had left.

“Long enough,” he said, towering above me. “We hooked up in Nam. Any friend you make there is a friend for life, man.”

I felt I had wandered into an America I had never known. Happened upon some secret inland sea. War was only something I’d seen on TV.

After dark there were fireworks. The national anthem. As soon as the dignitaries left, the party turned rowdy. Terry reappeared to urge me to come home with her, but I refused to go, so I was left on my own. Solo. A wild child in a foreign country without a chaperone.

At midnight Jeremy and Moses stripped down to their jockey shorts and cannonballed into the pool. People cheered. We’d been perspiring all night, dancing beside a closed swimming pool. The water swayed and blurred. Before I could stop myself, I stripped down to my underwear and jumped in too. The water was a rude slap, then gloriously cool. I dove down to touch the silent, gritty bottom, then arose for air. When I popped up, I saw security closing in.

“Hey, you there,” a soldier said, medals flashing in the darkness. “The party is over, Private,” he shouted. “Get out of the pool!”

He was yelling at Jeremy. Moses and I began swimming toward the ladders in obedience. The last stragglers on the dance floor backed away.

“Hey, it’s okay, man,” Moses said, “we were just cooling off. We’re getting out now. Come on, Jeremy, let’s go.”

But Jeremy was stubborn. He began doing laps, arms flailing, legs splashing in thunderous defiance.

“That’s Sergeant,” he shouted, “I’ve got as many medals as you do. This is my Fourth of July too. I’m going to damn well swim in Uncle Sam’s pool if I want to.”

“Who is Uncle Sam?” I asked Moses.

His eyes widened in disbelief.

I was standing by the pool, dripping wet, wrapped in my shawl. My skin smelled of chlorine. The disturbed water glowed an eerie blue. I had never been anywhere before coming to India. I had managed to escape the clutches of the missionaries, Terry’s father, and now this. I felt as green as an American one-dollar bill.

There was an argument at the edge of the pool, but Moses restrained the officer and had a quiet word with him. The music shut down. The last dancers drifted off. Bearers began dismantling the speakers and stacking chairs, tidying up the bar. Except for the clinking of glasses, it was deathly quiet. Whatever Moses had said had been enough to make the military man back down.

“I’m coming back in five minutes. If you’re not out by then, there’ll be hell to pay,” he shouted over his shoulder as he stomped off.

* * *

We laughed about it afterward at Danny-Ji’s Disco, the lights pulsing, the beat thumping along the floor, massaging our feet. We quaffed masala chickpeas and clinked beer bottles, laughing, congratulating ourselves on our audacity.

“Who the fuck did that guy think he was,” Jeremy said, “kicking us out of the pool? I served my country. I have as many medals as that asshole.”

It was comical the first time, but on the third repetition, drunk as I was, I knew something was strange.

“It’s cool now, man,” Moses said, shushing Jeremy in a gentle voice, like a parent would hush a frightened child. “It’s over now, man, you got your swim.”

“Yeah, I showed him.”

“Yeah, you showed him.”

They made fists and bumped them.

I had ditched my sopping panties in the washroom, so I was naked now under my skirt but I didn’t care. It was dark in Danny-Ji’s anyway. You could go anywhere in India as long as you had rupees. I still had the feeling that I’d waded into a new country, a lowland full of swampy lagoons with watery depths I couldn’t see.

“You were in the war?” I asked.

Jeremy took a gulp of beer and squeezed my hand.

“Did I tell you, you were beautiful, baby?”

I leaned into his body. Felt the jumpy electricity that coursed through him.

“Jeremy saved my leg, saved my sorry life for that matter, in a miserable jungle shithole that I hope I never see again,” Moses said in a measured voice.

Jeremy looked down. Peeled the label off his Pink Pelican beer.

I was tired of treading water; I wanted to feel solid ground under my feet.

I put down my beer, turned to Jeremy, and asked: “What did you do in the war?”

His eyes went vacant. His stare fixed on the wall for a few interminable seconds. He had left us. Was no longer here with us in the present. I understood then. How naïve I’d been. The swamp was full of crocodiles, and I had dropped a bloody fish. When Jeremy returned, he looked around like a lost child, not sure where he was or where he had been. He turned to Moses, who put a big palm on his shoulder again to calm him.

“Steady,” Moses said.

Jeremy shrugged him off, bolted onto the dance floor. He began flailing to the music, leaping like a man on fire, dancing alone with his torment. I was shocked and guilt-stricken.

“Holy shit,” I said to Moses, “what just happened?”

“Jeremy’s a little messed up about the war,” Moses said, eyeing me critically now. I could see the soldier in him judging whether I was friend or foe. I thought of Terry back at the compound. I saw that Moses was a more loyal friend than I had ever had or been to anyone.

“He was a medic in the war. A lot of boys got blown up pretty bad. We were in the jungle for months. He was running onto the field, bombs going off everywhere, body parts flying, and it was his job to collect them all and put those boys back together. We were there those last weeks when we were losing the war and everyone was dying. You can’t blame him for being a little messed up. He’ll be okay in a bit.”

I looked over at Jeremy on the dance floor, jerking and flailing, a marionette with tangled strings, a soul possessed. I felt something like love for him. A humid tenderness that was somehow one and the same as the monsoon and the mad infatuation I had for India. A door opened and I smelled jasmine and diesel.

“He sure likes you,” Moses said.

“I like him too,” I answered.

Moses smiled. “Any friend of Jeremy’s is a friend of mine, man. If you want my advice, don’t ask him about the war for a bit. Most of us just want to put it behind us. Have a good time, you know what I mean?”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t know.”

I went to the washroom and washed my face. Reapplied my kohl, the black eyeliner Indian women wore. My strange, green-black eyes accused me from the mirror. Hours before I had thought myself so clever, so mature. But I knew nothing of this world.

I went out onto the dance floor and began flinging myself about, mimicking Jeremy’s wild abandon, my bangles jingling, hair flying, my bare feet pounding the floor. The rhythmic strobe lights captured our courting ritual in staccato moments. He reeled me into him. Sinking his face into my neck, he whispered: “My Angel, finally I’ve found you.”

When Danny’s closed we tore around Connaught Place in a Pink Pelican delirium, the three of us in the back of a rickshaw, me sitting on Jeremy’s lap, while we motored from cheap hotel to cheaper hotel, looking for a pukkah room with a shower and a single next door for Moses. Moses had to be right next door. On this Jeremy was adamant. Finally we found two adjacent hotel rooms with double beds and showers. Ancient bamboo fans right above the beds. The guys joked that the diplomat would send out the Indian Police Service to look for me by morning. But I knew my American hosts would be relieved to be rid of me.

Once we were alone, I let Jeremy, crazed Jeremy, undress me. I stood under the bare bulb as he carefully unwrapped me as though I were a prized Christmas gift. He kissed me everywhere I’d let him. Then we ravaged each other on the double bed, the springs creaking, the fan thumping in rotation, the two of us sliding over one another, slick with sweat. Somewhere in the midst of our carnal desperation, I heard the thunder. The sky clattered and there was the sweet release of rain and more rain as it pummeled the roof of our little hovel. The monsoon had come. Finally.

When we began to reek, we showered and soaked the sheet, then laid it over our craven bodies, drying it with our body heat. No man I knew made love like Jeremy. He was relentless. He was slogging through the jungle, collecting my body parts and putting them back together again. I felt plundered and saved all in the same evening.

In the morning we awakened late. There was a note from Moses under the door saying he’d gone out. We stumbled outside, eyes blinking. Delhi was changed. The streets were flooded with water up to our knees. We rolled up our pant legs to walk to breakfast. When the street became a river, Jeremy carried me across the torrent to the restaurant. While we ate chili omelets, children swam in the street, their brown faces shiny with rain. It rained in hot, heavy sheets, at times so dense it was hard to see. But no one complained. People laughed and sprinted gaily, holding black umbrellas, lifting their pant legs or saris.

“Everyone is happy when the monsoon has come, memsahib,” the waiter told me. “The rain is good for the crops, and the heat is less now, isn’t it?”

“Let’s make love all day,” Jeremy whispered when the waiter had gone.

“Whatever you say, Doctor,” I said and kissed him.

“I’m not a doctor,” he hissed angrily. “I was a medic. Just a combat medic.”

“Okay, okay,” I said.

* * *

We shacked up for three days. There was a rickshaw ride back to the American compound to make my apologies to Terry’s family and pack up my things. The damn putt-putt kept stalling as the rain flooded the engine. When the driver turned the corners, water would rush in over our feet.

We played all day and danced all evening, crawling back to our room in the wee hours of the morning to dissipate each other again. Afterward we lay naked under the fan, delirious but happy.

Still the end hung over our new love from the very beginning. My return ticket had already been bought. My parents expected me home. I was supposed to go to university in a few months. There was a tearful international phone call, an argument, threats. I couldn’t get out of it, or I would end up penniless in India. Jeremy begged me to stay, promised to look after me, but he could barely look after himself.

The day before I was to leave, we lay together, sweaty and spent, holding hands.

“Tell me,” I said.

“What? Tell you what?”

“Tell me everything,” I said. “Tell me about Jeremy. Who is Jeremy really?”

He stared at the ceiling. Thump, thump went the fan.

“You can’t think for the noise,” he said. “I don’t know how many died in my arms. Crying for their mothers. I did everything I could, but sometimes there was nothing I could do to save them.”

“You saved Moses,” I said.

He rolled into me then, his legs curling into fetal position. I held him while he cried. I kissed his tears. When he was finished, he said, “Marry me, Angel. Come with me to Virginia. We’ll live in the country. Have a garden. Don’t leave.”

* * *

For our last night we got a case of Budweiser from the embassy. I teased them that American beer tasted like piss but it was cheap. Jeremy and Moses took turns carrying the two-four on their shoulders while we waded through the streets. A tribe of children swam after us, holding out their hands, begging for baksheesh. Jeremy tossed paisa coins after him, which sent them shrieking and diving with glee.

We sat in our hotel and drank beer after beer. Moses showed me his scar. Told me how Jeremy had put a tourniquet on his leg, just above where the shrapnel had ruptured the artery. I looked at the puckered, ruined flesh. I had not known how much the body could suffer and still go on living.

When we ran out of beer, we did the rounds of all the hotel bars: the Intercontinental, the Oberon, the Hyatt Regency. Our drinking was always out of control, but on this night it took on a special desperation. We smoked joint after joint of Hindu Kush. Indulged in dangerous powdery substances we would never have touched any other night.

At Danny-Ji’s Disco Jeremy went into his wild man’s trance once more on the dance floor.

“He’s dancing to forget,” Moses said.

“I know,” I answered.

“You know the last guys to escape during the fall of Saigon were airlifted by helicopter off the roof of the embassy,” Moses told me. “One of those guys was there that night.”

“At the Fourth of July party?”

“Yeah. He was the officer who kicked Jeremy out of the pool.”

“No way! Why would he be here in Delhi?”

“After the evacuation the last guys out went to either Thailand or India,” Moses said. “They sent them where there was cheap booze and easy women, present company excepted. The best R and R. Hoping we would forget after a few weeks. Wake up one morning well-adjusted. Of course it doesn’t really work that way. In our case a few weeks turned into two years. Bangkok’s where the guys usually go.”

“But you guys didn’t go there.”

“No, we came here. Jeremy likes India.”

“He had to come here to meet me,” I said, “and now I’m going to go away and break his heart.”

Moses didn’t smile or nod; his brown eyes remained level with mine, giving nothing away. I swallowed, unsure.

* * *

I promised to write. Took Jeremy’s latest hotel address. But we both knew if I got on that plane, we would never see each other again. When I got to the airport, I was bedraggled and drenched, my black kohl running in rivulets down my face. I was drunk and high and had been up for thirty-six hours straight. The American customs agent took one look at my sitar and asked: “You got any drugs in that thing, little lady?”

“No,” I told him, “go ahead, check.” I laughed but my laughter kept coming in waves until I was sobbing, and tears were breaking onto my face like the monsoon rain.

The customs official frowned.

“He asked me to marry him,” I explained. “I said no when I wanted to say yes.”

The official nodded. “You still have half an hour, if you want to go back through security for one last good-bye.”

But I knew what I’d find if I ran through that terminal—I could see Jeremy’s tousled red hair, the cuffs of his white pajama pants, still folded and dirty from walking in the rain. He would be with Moses at the airport bar, was probably already there now, buying drinks for the next blonde angel.

*

Kelly Watt completed her last year of high school at a missionary boarding school in India. She has lived in Canada, France, India, Mexico and the United States. Her award-winning short fiction has been published internationally, and long listed for the CBC Radio Short Story Award (2015). She has published two books—the novel Mad Dog (2001) and the travel memoir Camino Meditations (2014). She lives in the Ontario countryside and is currently working on a novel set in India.

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