Fiction | ‘Mirror, Mirror’ by Sarah Jane Justice | LGBTQ+ (Vol I) – Issue 35

When Mirror’s face appeared beneath the flicker of my dreaming eyes, it was the first I’d seen of her in over a decade. 

I tell myself that I can remember every detail of her appearance, every line on her palms, and every static electric shock that ever struck me from touching her skin. After all this time, I know that her image must have been romanticised by the rough currents of my memory, but I relish the chance to hold it, just as it appears in my mind. I close my eyes to look at her, and there, I can wrap myself around the idea that the girl I am conjuring is Mirror herself, exactly as she once stood before me. 

I pretend that my mind can accurately reflect the shape of a jaw that clenched slightly as I reached it with my lips. I convince myself that I still know the pair of eyes that always seemed so captivating in their distinctive colouring. I have come to accept that those eyes must have been the same shade as every third set that forms the background of my daily routine, but it takes nothing away from their position in my memory. I remember them shining like no other colour I have ever seen, and I allow myself to accept that exaggerated idea as truth.

When looking back on the first blurs of youthful intimacy, the person who sparked them will always look special in the hazy reflection of half-forgotten years. Accuracy is easy to push aside when it comes to sparking the essence of nostalgic lust.

As teenagers, we are all clumsy webs of lust and limbs. Our growing feet kick us into a stumble as we stagger through the opening stanzas of romantic interaction, the foreplay for the very concept of sex. We trip towards the people who catch our eye, but rarely find ourselves falling into a comfortable land in their open arms. I have let time stretch the gap between me, my first love and the version of the self who loved her, but when I saw Mirror in my sleeping vision, I was immediately fifteen again.

With sparkling eyes and flame red hair that never quite matched the colour on the bottle, the legally named Miranda reached a level of rebellion that was always far above my own. She talked back to the adults lazily positioning themselves as authority figures and wore tank tops with slogans designed to ignite offence, layered under the worn leather jacket that defined her image. She hated the name her parents had bestowed on her and soundly rejected it, along with all the trappings of a persona that might have come with it. She insisted that she be called Mirror by all who came into contact with her, refusing to ever respond to the name on her birth certificate. To an adult, this might have looked like standard adolescent practice, a strategy of fighting back against control in all its forms. To my fifteen-year-old self, Mirror’s actions set her apart as a dazzling beacon of white light standing alone in a dry grass field.

The idea of being with another girl had barely appeared as a possibility before I started spending time with Mirror. I have been told by so many self-taught armchair psychologists that she was the one who placed the thought in my head, seducing my identity with the bold gestures she aimed in my direction. Girls press their way through the knee-high rushes of their defining years with constantly scribbled prescriptions informing them of the reasons for their own actions. They drown under dust-ridden books and glossy magazine covers that persist in the assertion that the balding faces garnishing their opinion pieces know the mind of a young woman better than any girl could possibly know herself. Even now, I struggle to see how many of the beliefs I have put forward as my own were once dictated to me in the shotgun judgments of passers-by. I still find it hard not to bend to the water cannon spray of ideas that keeps being fired at me, grappling to maintain the prevalence of my own internal voice. I still look to the memories I hold of Mirror, standing staunch and stubborn in her refusal to ever give in. To a girl who was slowly learning her own sexuality through tattered picture cut-outs hidden in a growing scrapbook, Mirror’s strength was nothing short of breathtaking.

In the years that have passed since knowing such a gravitational force as my first love, I have allowed myself to trust the person I became while standing by her side. I can remind myself that I know who I am better than the commentators who want to use my picture as bait for the self-satisfied rage of their readers. Still, when Mirror’s face fell unexpectedly back into my sub-conscious vision, I was jolted into that half-forgotten blend of inexperience, confusion and desire. I was removed from where I lay and placed in my awkward teenage body, feeling my sweaty fingers fumble with another pair of hands for the first time.

Behind my sleeping eyelids, Mirror addressed me as my current self. Fully grown, I stood before her as comfortably as I always had, wearing the mask of my remembered teenage body. 

I heard your news.

She spoke with her signature firmness, sending latent guilt rising in my throat with the sudden awareness that I had betrayed her. The scolding look in her eyes revealed that she knew I had reached a point of settling down, with a man no less. She glared towards the fingers that had once laced patterns across her youthful skin, now rubbing lotion into an abdomen that swelled with growing life. She saw that I had committed to the concept of reproduction, so dangerously unwelcome to our queer teenage selves. I had become a breeder, a role we had sworn away together in the blood oaths of our shared cycles.

I felt the residual impact of her stare burning me, even as I woke. I saw myself through the disappointment in her eyes, discovering the label on my chest that named me as a traitor to my own identity. The face of Mirror sat above me, playing back my most unacknowledged fears in the sound of her voice. Her ethereal form shouted accusations into a gust of dreaming wind, and my own voice fell back into my ears. Suddenly, I was living proof of the ideas I had once so angrily rejected. I felt myself boiling under the eyes of all the observers who had so vehemently insisted on recognising my desire as a phase. I felt their nameless faces staring down at my current happiness with gloating eyes, pointing to my swelling womb as evidence of the natural order. Evidence of what they had decided these half-forgotten girls would inevitably, truly want from life. The poster girl for teenage rebellion had become the perfect example of everything she was supposed to be rebelling against.

As consciousness began to drift back to me, I was able to remind myself that the fears stuck on repeat in my mind still came from the critics who had never stopped telling me what I was destined to represent. They claimed my happiness as their proof, while labelling me a traitor through a different set of vocal cords. In a world where the choices of individuals are used as swaying statistics regardless of the shape they take, I have always found it challenging to avoid the shame that comes with seeking a life that could bring me joy.

Slowly waking, I calmed myself with the touch of the warm body lying beside me, and the whispers of movement from the one still growing within. I looked fondly on the image of Mirror that was quickly fading out of my mind, and reminded myself of the principles that had always kept the fire in her eyes.

As a girl, my most sincere form of rebellion was living as the part of myself that I was told to reject. In growing up, I have seen womanhood as its own act of rebellion. Any step we take towards loving ourselves can be twisted into a betrayal, framed as treachery against whatever mould is currently being forced around our shapes. If I were to meet Mirror in whatever frame might now surround the spark I look back on so fondly, I know she would be unlikely to judge me for my happiness. The strongest act of protest a woman can commit is to stay on the path she has laid out for herself. 

My first love showed me that we live in a world that will always try to tell us what we believe. If I want to stay faithful to the picture of her that I still hold in my mind’s eye, I know that my most enduring love will be my most taboo. Self-acceptance will always be my greatest act of defiance.


Sarah Jane Justice writes lyrical poetry, whimsical character pieces, and thrilling genre fiction. Her poetry has been included in collections from The Blue Nib, Capsule Stories, and Pure Slush, and her short fiction has been published by Black Hare Press, Caustic Frolic, and Hawkeye Books. In addition to the written word, she is a celebrated spoken word artist, having won an array of competition titles, and performed at the Sydney Opera House.

Fiction | ‘The Girl Who’s Scared of Water’ by Amelia Brown | LGBTQ+ (Vol I) – Issue 35

You look at me when I shout, “Jump” at you. Your eyes change colour. You turn around, away from us, and look at the water which is deep and green and wet with sun. 

It’s not just my voice. Everyone is shouting it at you, the girl who’s scared of water. But you only turn around when Ralph punches me in the elbow and the word stains my tongue too. You turn. I can see your thumb scratching yellow nail varnish off your little finger, in a curled fist. You don’t look at me again, at any of us, before you jump in.

***

“Is this love then?” you say, as you hold my hand.

“Could be. How do we tell?”

“I think we’re just supposed to know.” You scratch your knee with your finger and take my hand with you.

“Maybe we should run away.”

“Where to?”

“Somewhere we won’t know anyone. Scotland. Antarctica.”

“I don’t like the cold.” You frown and the shape of your face changes. This is the first thing I noticed about you when we arrived here. As we were setting up our tent and mum was shouting at dad and dad was shouting at mum, I watched you walk to the taps and back. The weight of the water changed your face so completely I almost didn’t recognise you, which made me want to know you so well that I would always recognise you.

“Okay then. The desert.”

You laugh and move your hands up my skin. “You’d burn. You’d look like a pig.” You kiss me, then bite my lip. “Anyway, how would we get there?”

“We could just jump in at the jetty and keep swimming.”

You shake your head. “I can’t.”

“Sure you can. We could swim until we found an island of our own.” I roll onto my front and grin at you.

You shake your head again. “I can’t swim. The water it -” You let go of my hands and put your palms over my eyes. “What can you see?”

“Nothing.”

“That’s what I see when I look into the lake. I have this feeling that if I swam in there, I would never come out. Not that I’d die. I’m not scared of drowning. Just that I’d stop being anything.” You take your hands away from my eyes. “Get it?”

Our families all have their tents lined up next to each other. Ralph’s is the biggest, this alien-like green thing with extra compartments inside. Dad says our tent is vintage. It’s square and it’s only got a piece of canvas he’s sewed along the middle that you can drop to split it in two.  Between ours and Ralph’s there’s Elba’s (pink and yellow like a battenburg), Kurt’s (black and blue like a bruise) and Sonia’s (red and green like Christmas).

On the first evening, you walk past and I smile and you smile back.

“What you smiling at?” says Ralph to you. “Don’t you have any friends of your own?” You look away. He puts a marshmallow in his mouth and the sugar sticks to his lips. 

I copy him. The sugar is hot on my tongue. I feel my face go pink with the heat. 

Later that night I can’t sleep. I rustle out of my sleeping bag, unzip the tent and sit at the plastic table. You aren’t wearing shoes so I don’t hear you come up behind me. “The beach is perfect this time of night. You want to see?” I nod, and we follow your torch’s orb down to the edge of the lake. The moon is dead straight across like it’s cutting the bowl of water in two. 

“I can’t imagine water that black is clear,” you say.

“Who are you here with?” I ask.

“My dad. He likes camping. My mum doesn’t. It’s one of the reasons they stopped speaking.” You draw a circle in the sand.

“Are they divorced?” I ask. I place my fist inside the circle.

“No.” You shake your head. “They just don’t talk to each other.”

“One of them must have done something pretty bad,” I say, thinking about my own parents.

You shrug. “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?”

The question shocks me. I pick up a pebble and roll it around my palm, then throw it out to sea. We watch it sink. “I threw stones at someone,” I say. You look at me but I can’t tell what you are thinking. “I didn’t want to do it. Ralph can be very persuasive. He doesn’t like to hurt people alone.” 

You nod. “I slit my wrists at a summer camp. My roommate found me, which I hadn’t even thought about. She was 11. So was I.”

In the moonlight you look older, more grown up. The bones in your face come forwards. “Why did you ask me that?” I say.

“I think you can learn a lot about a person from asking a question like that. I know a lot more about you. Do you know me yet?”

I kiss you. It’s not something I’ve done before, and I don’t realise I’m doing it until my lips are stuck to yours. You taste of sand and mint toothpaste. You laugh. “I actually wasn’t expecting that,” you say, and then you kiss me.

The first time I see them making fun of you, I hide. You’re in a pink swimming costume and shorts and you’re lying on your front drawing pictures into the sand. The ball hits you in the thigh, not hard. You roll lazily around and throw it back from land – where you are – to water – where they are, but the wind pulls it away from them.

“Again,” says Sonia, holding up her arms. “Throw it again.” You shake your head. The ball’s on the edge of the water now, brought back in by a wave. 

Kurt’s closest. He swims towards you, drops to his knees, picks up the ball and turns. Then at the last moment he swoops back around, his arms like a basin, throwing water towards you. You don’t mean to, but you scream. They are quiet for a second, because screams, real belly-fear screams, are strange things to hear in the sun.

And then they begin to laugh. All four of them, teeth flashing in the light.

I watch you shrug to no one in particular, then curl back into the sand.

Later on, with your hair over my legs, I let you tell me about it and I never mention that I saw it too. You tell it differently to what I saw. When you tell it, you don’t scream. When you tell it they all looked mad with heat. 

“Loads of people can’t swim,” I say, as I plait three strands of your hair together. “I bet there’s lots of really important people who can’t swim.” 

“Snoop Dogg, Justin Timberlake, Oprah.” You count them out on your fingers. “Anyway, everyone’s scared of something.”

“Not me.” I hold my arms out wide. “Not anything.”

“Heights? Fire? Spiders?” I shake my head. “Death? Climate change? Parents?” I stroke your ear. “Ralph.” You say it quietly and we both stay very still. 

Eventually I say, “I’m not scared of Ralph.”

You hold my hand. You say, “You are. You’re scared to tell him about me. You’re scared to tell him that you’re – gay.” It’s the first time that word has hung between us. 

“No I’m not,” I say, suddenly aware that I never want to lose you, that I never want this summer to end, this summer where we are close. “Can we talk about something else?”

“Okay,” you say. “Okay.”

The time they nearly catch us is one of the scariest days of my life. My heart beats double speed for days afterwards. You are naked and I’m just in bikini bottoms. Light is pouring through the gaps in the trees above us and our bodies are covered in shapes. You are circling your finger around my nipple and telling me about what you want to do when school is done. We’re both only 15 but we both agree we can’t stop thinking about it. We are ready to be filled up by the world like vats. 

You hear them first. “Can you hear something?”

“No,” I say, because I am thinking about your finger and the circles it is making.

“Sure?”

“Stop worrying. No one’s here but us,” I say, which is when I hear them too. I scramble up. “Hide, hide, hide,” I say. I dive into a bush but you are still struggling to push your legs into your swimming costume when they come round the corner. Ralph is group leader. 

“I told you she was weird,” he says, to the rest of them as they all watch you put the swimming costume over your shoulders. “Didn’t I tell you? First she’s scared of water, now she’s getting naked in the woods.”

You don’t say anything. I stay more still than I have ever been, my arms across my bare chest, my face in the ground. I don’t look at you. I don’t watch.

You run. You’re faster than all of them. I know you are because you raced me along the beach one night and won by miles and on a good day I’m as fast as Ralph. I stay curled into myself in the bush for a long time after they have gone. I listen to them chase after you. I hear them lose you. I hear them pass not too far away in the direction of the jetty. I hear the wind pick up and die down. Then I brush the leaves off my legs and walk back to the tent. 

Elba is the one who tells me you are crying. I’m sitting at the plastic table between our tents, picking at the corners until I bleed.

“Thought you guys were all at the jetty,” I say, when she comes and sits down beside me.

“We were, but then that weird girl ran by crying and the others wanted to find her. You know how Ralph likes to take the piss out of crying girls.” I nod. “But I didn’t feel like it today.”

I nod again. I know Elba is talking about you. 

It takes me hours to find you, but you don’t look surprised when I do. You have been crying and your face is the colour of bruises. I sit down next to you but you don’t let me hold your hand. We sit like that and the sky changes and I watch your face change with it. 

“I love you,” I say.

“You left me,” you say. We sit, quiet again. 

I put my hand on your knee and you let me. “Sorry,” I say like I don’t mean it, even though I mean it more than I have ever meant anything.

Eventually you turn to me. You put both hands on my face like you are holding it up. Our foreheads are very close together and you look unlike I have ever seen you look. “Just promise me, promise me you’ll never do anything like that to me again.”

“Cross my heart and hope to die,” I say, and I kiss you everywhere I can see.

***

After the splash we all go very quiet like there isn’t anyone here at all. For a while all anyone can hear is the sound of you thrashing like that, before you sink. 

We do try to save you, I swear that to you. Ralph and Sonia and Elba and Kurt and I, we all jump in. We swim down and down into the lake that has no bottom. Kurt is sick, his lungs heaving with seawater. Elba gets out next, sits on the jetty. She wraps a towel around herself and shivers in the heat. I think Sonia is next, although I don’t see her get out. But I know that for a moment it’s just Ralph and me. For a moment he looks into my eyes which are red. Then he puts his arm around my waist and drags me to the jetty as I bite his wrist in two. 


Amelia is a queer writer and creative, whose work is particularly concerned with queer experience, love and endings. She was a member of the 2018-19 Roundhouse Poetry Collective with whom she has performed her poetry at Hay Festival, Last Word Festival, Brainchild Festival and UniSlam. She is currently writing her first novel which was shortlisted for Penguin’s WriteNow mentorship programme, and longlisted for Mslexia’s Novel Award. Her short story ‘Heat’ was published in the anthology ‘Transforming Being’. 

Memoir Excerpt | By Geri Gale | LGBTQ+ (Vol I) – Issue 35

Rat-Gray Seattle Day in the Time of Corona

excerpt from a memoir: PK, Cancer & the Tragic Ruts of Time

It is a new month. These days crossing the threshold into a new month is an extraordinary, welcoming experience. Yesterday I heard projections from a University of Washington study: how many U.S. citizens will be killed by COVID-19 by the end of 2020. If ninety-five percent of Americans wear masks and social-distance—223,00 will die. If some social-distance and do not wear masks—398,000 will die. If everything reopens, no mask-wearing and no social-distancing—then 650,000 Americans will be dead.
It is a cold July day. Rat-gray Seattle day. This cold—PK and I think is the way Seattle used to be forty years ago. And my garden is gorge.
We are amid a world of catastrophizing, and I cannot help myself—I keep entering the state of making art. Today I read the New York Times has decided to capitalize Black but not white. The Atlantic has decided to capitalize both Black and White. I’m with the New York Times camp. I’m serious about white people bowing out for a while.
PK and I stride the alarms of social, political, and spiritual disorder as if we will be here tomorrow to tell our stories. She has an incandescent thinking about it—she carries a chalice of hope.
For my sixty-fifth birthday she gives me a book a day—one under my pillow, one in the medicine cabinet, today one under my keyboard. So far six books. She doles out books as if I will be here tomorrow to read all these books. For every book I now bring into the house, I take one book out and deposit it in the neighborhood church’s Little Free Library box on the corner (I love depositing my Jewish and queer books there). The church now has yellow-line strips on the sidewalk—a block long—so people will social-distance while entering the Assumption Catholic Church.
Today the Supreme Court passed a ruling that states can be forced to fund religious education using taxpayer dollars (goodbye separation of church and state). I’m not down with this. We must also defund powerful religious zealots.

🙢

The artmaking—the trajectory of my artmaking. Yesterday I learned that VW (Virginia Woolf), like me, loved to walk. Every writer has a central artery to a writer. Virginia Woolf is my writer. I read all her books and journals in my twenties. Periodically I open Mrs. Dalloway. Before writing, there was photography. B&W images. A darkroom. Dektol. Stop-Bath. Fixer. With the camera, I shot loneliness and my pictures showed an interest in outsiders. The art world around me detested photography as an art—their disdain of photography pushed me even further to see the world in black-and-white. The gathering of shadows. The necessity of contrast. The darkness of history outweighing PK’s chalice of hope.
She is the symbol of brutality and delicacy. Her struggles, her sufferings walk the edge of brutality and delicacy. We have always had a mistrust of people who make the rules—we have always fled from authority figures.
Is identity something you take on or is it a construct you pull apart or is it a persona you erect or is it a side you reveal, a laugh you express, a cry you exude, a fashion you wear?
The blood we keep spilling, the methods of slaughter that swell from age to age—I know them—I’ve read about them—I’ve witnessed some. Breonna Taylor. George Floyd. Iyanna Dior. Monika Diamon. Nina Pop. Tony McDade. Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells. Riah Milton. Oluwatoyin “Toyin” Salau. I’m not a historian but I see the repetition. The same repeating pattern as a villanelle—when the opening line (the beginning) is repeated as the last line of the second and fourth tercets; and the third line of the first tercet is repeated as the last line of the third and fifth tercets; and the opening line (the beginning) and the third line become the refrain (the beginning and the end) that is repeated in the last two lines of the quatrain.
The beginning. The end.

Underhum of Unrest and Unease

I stray away from favorites. But when it comes to writers, my favorite, which I have namedropped in this memoir, is Virginia Woolf, and my secondmost favorite is Toni Morrison. Today if she were still alive, I think she would be repeating her words from her novel Beloved—“Not a house in the country ain’t packed to its rafters with some dead Negro’s grief.”
My life and my memoir feel as if every hour were a festival of self-reinvention. Writing the past is an exercise of reinvention. The time. The characters who reside beside me. The historical chimes of twentieth-first-century-earthquaking news. The castes. The creeds. The colors. A sense of dread. A sense of near end.
I no longer make excuses for my fierce ability to stay alive among the rightward tilt of everything dear to me. Among the underhum of unrest and unease.
Yesterday I learned of an author who wrote ten memoirs. Who has the nerve to do that? Shouldn’t she be excommunicated from the canon? How self-indulgent is that to hammer the world with ten books about yourself? I imagine if there were a self-like key on Facebook, she would tap, tap, tap that button every day.
The immediacy of finishing this book increases with each summer 2020 day that passes. I don’t make apologies for writing this memoir—and I no longer say excuse me for my existence. Age is a reflector of history. A woman takes on so much horror and regurgitates its out—speaking bitterness, breathing lightness, irrigating the lifeforce. A memoir exhumes these buried feelings.

🙢

Fear and insecurity engendering in us create anesthetized members of society. I don’t want to be crossed out by this worldwide calamity. I don’t want to be erased.
The writer notices everything. I stare at everything. PK averts her eyes. It is disrespectful to look strangers in the eyes.

🙢

Virginia Woolf said about Leonard Woolf that he was the best husband. She called him Mongoose and said, “I have him every day.”
I see I have PK every day. Of course, it is true there are things we despise in each other. I must remember to include in these pages all the things I despise in her.
The only same physical trait we have is our eyes. We are both brown-eyed. I wear her clothes, but she never wears my clothes. She shaves my neck and cuts my hair. She is the ultimate groomer. She eats brown and white food—meat and white rice. I eat a plate of colorful vegetables and fruits. She doesn’t read books. She reads magazines and all things on the internet. I used to have a key on my diary when I was a kid. That keep-out mantra stayed with me, and I hid my journals from PK. PK has no desire to read my journals. She doesn’t even understand why I keep them.
Like Virginia and Leonard, PK believes in the work—like the Wolves, in times of sorrow, she returns to the work. Her father trained her. When she was a kid doing nothing, her father asked her, “What are you doing? If you have nothing to do, I have a list of things for you to do.” Sometimes I hide from her when I’m doing nothing, when I’m reading or writing.
PK’s conviction is a utilitarian way of life. The Wolves published books. Virginia and Leonard (Jewish like me) watched the Nazis gain power, and they each went to their respective spaces to write. It was privileged, but I would not be here writing she was my favorite, if Virginia Woolf had not gone to her writing shed to write her thoughts, the things she saw with her eyes—her horror. 

Story Swipe of My Life

Words climb on to me. The voice holding together my body and my life. The words tear open the windows of my soul and tunnel a pulse through my veins. I write on white paper with black pen. Today my left cheekbone rests in the palm of my left hand. My words are getting smaller and smaller—the size of the words an eighth of an inch. The solitary rails of my imagination are getting larger and larger. Big sweeps of loss of memory—who is the woman Charlene, I ask myself when I see her name on my list?

🙢

Isn’t a memoir a warped storytelling form? Isn’t it impossible to truly write someone’s life as it was? Or do we write as we wish it were—feelings once felt now feelings gone underground?

🙢

The story swipe of my life, an absoluteness of watching. I watch the words climb onto me. Barefoot they trek across my skin. I no longer hunt for them. I am a magnet of words. Other people have friends. I have roped sentences, knotted sentences, clasped paragraphs of atomic syllables, vowels enjambed into word-lines.
The story swipe of life. Its lore diminished. Its reserves exhausted by the memory loss of age. A bitter fidelity. The luck of one’s life. There is an immigration lottery of 15 million people who long to come to the United States. Only 100,000 are chosen. Our German friend, Kerstin Marx, was picked. How broken-hearted are the women and men, the other 14.9 million not chosen? Why are some chosen and some left to live the destined lousy swipe of life?

🙢

I am obsessed with plastic. I no longer—after the cancer—drink water from a plastic bottle. There is a chemical in the making of plastic that is cancerous. It has a scientific name: Bisphenol A (BPA). I use plastic folders for my words. My manuscripts and writings are placed in plastic folders and notebooks.
After the chemo, I usually wear a scarf around my neck. Any wind on my neck must be covered up. My neck, since the cancer, is like an Achilles heel. But he was a warrior. I am everything but a warrior.

🙢

Traces of thought come to me when I read books. Helen Macdonald is training a hawk in her book H is for Hawk. Helen forms a fist and feeds her hawk meat. She must become invisible. I, too, would choose the superpower of invisibility over flight if given the choice. The bond between hawk and woman will form if Helen feigns invisibility. The power to connect with the hawk is formed only by watching and feeding the bird with a leather jess over its head.
In my twenties, photographing through my camera lens, I was an invisible person with the Nikon pressed against my skin.

🙢

I survived anything the world threw at me. As does PK. We are survivors, not warriors. Our physical shells are different. I am the crab. I hide invisible inside my brittle shell. I can be stepped on at any time on the beach-sand of my existence, but my absolute hiddenness keeps me safe and faithful to the marrow of my love for PK. Her shell is the skin of a dragon, the stealth armor of a samurai. I lie—she is part-warrior.
The horseshoe crab has blue blood. Humans have red blood. The horseshoe crab has existed for 450 million years. We humans are a mere speck in time. Horseshoe crabs indulge in a sexual orgy tearing out each other’s eyes and arms, and we humans drain one-third of their blood for drugs like morphine and antibiotics. We source their surviving blood so we can live on and on.

🙢

On December 14, 2006, Charlene Strong’s partner, Kate Fleming, age forty-one, was killed in a flash flood in their Madison Valley basement, trapping her inside the house. At the hospital Charlene, was not allowed to see Kate, her partner of nine years, until an out-of-state relative gave the hospital permission. (PK’s acupuncturist, Sofina Lin, wants her patients, Charlene and PK, to meet. That’s why Charlene’s name was on my list.)
The day I learned I had cancer, I wanted to get married. I wanted PK to be with me as I navigated the medical system. That day—on December 6, 2012—after being together for thirty-four years—we were issued marriage license #357 in Seattle. 


Geri Gale is writing a memoir titled PK, Cancer & the Tragic Ruts of Time—a lesbian love story of forty-two years. She is a Jewish-American married to a Japanese-American and lives in Seattle. Her books include: Patrice: a poemella, Alex: The Double-Rescue Dog, and Waiting: prosepoems (Dancing Girl Press). Her poetry, prose, and drawings have appeared in ang(st): the feminist body zine, Sinister Wisdom, Poetry Pacific, South Loop Review: Creative Nonfiction + Art, Bayou Magazine, Under the Sun, and other publications. www.gerigale.com

Fiction | ‘The Mountain’ by John Mueter | LGBTQ+ (Vol I) – Issue 35

The drive up the ghat road took nearly two and a half hours. From the verdant plains, now lush and gleaming after the monsoon, the winding road rose steadily over 7,000 feet to the top of the Nilgiri Hills. Edward had not been up this road or back to South India in over twenty years, not since he graduated from the Anundur International School. The exotic scenery evoked a flood of memories, and the opulence of the vegetation amazed and delighted him once again, a profusion of eucalyptus trees, cypress and acacia, and the occasional blooming jacaranda tree heavy with its purple blossoms.

It would have been a lot cheaper to take the bus from Madurai, but Edward opted for the comforts and safety of a taxi. During the long ride he reflected on how his life had unfolded since he had departed as a young man ready to conquer the world. With some satisfaction he noted that he had done well for himself; a successful business in Chicago gave him the means to live a comfortable life and to travel now and then. 

He had arrived in Madras, now known as Chennai, ten days before. The main reason for the trip wasn’t really to sight-see, or even to visit his former school, but to spend some time with his old school friend Mack. Foremost in Edward’s thoughts were Mack’s most recent e-mails: their cryptic and despairing tone had alarmed him. Edward had thought of making this trip for a long while. His friend’s condition induced him to finally book the flight.

They had stayed in touch all these years. Mack’s real name was Roger, but somehow the nickname had stuck after an ambitious production of Macbeth in their senior year.  Mack had earned a teaching degree, then returned to India. He was now the school’s English teacher and in charge of the drama productions. He was good at that sort of thing. 

The taxi drove through the main gate of the school compound and stopped in front of the office. Since the school term had ended a few days before there was no one about and the office was closed. The driver, who had been quite chatty and amiable on the drive up, suddenly demanded more rupees, actually double the amount that had originally been agreed upon. Edward had been more than reasonable in their negotiations and had added on a generous tip, but still it wasn’t enough. He knew better than to attempt to reason with the man. With a wave of his hand and a few choice words, whatever he was able to conjure up from his now very rusty Tamil, he dismissed the irksome driver. “Nee kettavan!” he shouted, “tallipo! – You are a bad man, go away!”

He found Mack’s residence, a small bungalow, in an obscure corner of the compound. Mack was waiting for him at the front door.

“Eddie, old boy, varnakam–welcome!” They embraced and held each other for a few moments. 

“It’s been a long time. Just look at you, you’re as lean and athletic as ever!”

“India has a way of keeping us in shape; it’s the amoebic dysentery diet.” A look of genuine concern came over Edward’s face and Mack was quick to clarify. “Well, not really. I haven’t had a bout for a while–knock on wood.” He brought Edward through the tiny vestibule and into the living room. “You’ve put on a little extra padding, I see.”

“Life in the big city will do that to you,” said Edward with a sigh. “And I don’t have the Nilgiri Hills to run around in.”

“You’ve had a long trip. How was the ride up the ghat? Don’t tell me you were crazy enough to take the bus!”

“It was fine; not a thing has changed. Even the same chai stalls are still there. And the obnoxious drivers are as enterprising as ever. My taxi guy tried the old shakedown, but I told him to get lost–I still remember some useful words in Tamil.”

“Yeah, all that time we spent bumming around in the bazaar finally paid off!” They both laughed.

While they were talking Mack had taken Edward’s backpack and steered him to the guest room. “This is it. It ain’t much but I think you’ll be comfortable. It’s an improvement over the bunk beds in Eberling–remember those? The old dorm is still there, still in use, but the furnishings have been upgraded a bit. Did you know that we now have a computer lab?”

“Even at the top of a mountain in South India life doesn’t stand still, eh?” mused Edward.

They went back into the living room and Mack’s bearer, Murugan, soon brought a pitcher of frosted nimbu pani. Mack carefully filled two glasses. “To you, old friend!” he said, lifting his glass in tribute. “I’m so glad you’re here.”                                                                                                                                    

“Here’s to friendship!” countered Edward. He hadn’t had a glass of spiced lemonade since he left India. But there was a noticeable kick to the drink this time. The nimbus had been spiked. “Gin? Where did you get it?” Procuring good quality liquor was not easy in this country. Many states were dry and alcohol was almost impossible to buy legally.

“Oh, connections–someone who knows someone in the bazaar. Grease the right palms and you can get just about anything here.”

“Let’s hear it for good old-fashioned corruption!” said Edward with mock enthusiasm.

“So, how’s life in Chicago?” asked Mack.

“Well, there have been some changes,” he said, dropping himself onto the settee. “Since Janice and I divorced I’ve had to readjust to living alone again. Getting married was a mistake, the biggest of my life. What was I thinking?” He looked pensive for a minute, staring into space, then turned to Mack. “Maybe I should have stayed here with you.” 

Edward uttered that last statement so straightforwardly that Mack looked surprised. He said nothing in response, but allowed a trace of a smile. 

“And how are you getting on here?” continued Edward, attempting to sound as casual as possible. “Life must get pretty dull, especially when the term is over.”

“I always try to make the best of things, but it does get mighty lonely up here on this mountain. You ready for another nimbu?” Edward held up his empty glass and Mack doled out the last of the pitcher into both their glasses.

“I met a nice British guy on the internet and we spent the winter vacation at a resort in Thailand. Since Bryan lives in Singapore it’s not all that far for him. He’s a stock trader––and you know those bastards are just swimming in money! He could buy friggin’ Singapore if he wanted to.” Pause. “Not sure if I’ll see him again, though.”

“And there’s nothing like a visit to the Taj Mahal once in a while to lift the spirits!” Edward’s touch of sarcasm lightened the mood. They were planning to travel north together in a few days. “By the way,” he continued, “how are the theater productions getting on? It was the thing you always loved the most.”

“Oh, they’re okay. It gives me something to do in the evenings, but my heart isn’t really in it anymore, ever since the incident last October. I wrote you about that, I think. I was the chaperone for that hike, you know. It wasn’t my fault, but still, I wonder if I could have done something different. It was such a freak accident…the boy…” His voice trailed off.

They finished off the rest of their drinks and went in to dinner. They chatted about this and that, how India was changing, how the town was overrun with tourists, how poor the monsoon had been. After a delicious meal of biryani, various curries, chutneys and sliced mangoes they moved back to the comfort of the living room. Murugan brought a pot of steaming sweet chai. His lanky frame was lost in the baggy, well-worn, white cotton trousers and jacket that was his unofficial uniform.

“Sahib is vanting anyting more?”

“No. Thank you, Murugan,” said Mack. “You can leave us now.” The old servant bowed and shuffled off.

Mack and Edward caught each other’s eye and chuckled, enjoying a moment of shared bemusement. Soon they were laughing uncontrollably and wiping tears from their eyes. Murugan had sounded like someone straight out of the Raj, like a servant in the days of Queen Victoria.

“He still calls me ‘sahib’–can you believe it?”  said Mack, with a renewed spasm of laughter. 

They relaxed in front of the fireplace where a blaze was now beginning to crackle with some liveliness. It warmed the room and scented the air with a hint of eucalyptus. The distinctive fragrance conjured up a rush of pleasant memories for Edward. The locals collected the fallen leaves from the surrounding forest and boiled them down to extract the oil. It was a scent Edward would always associate with Anandur.

The conversation turned to the theatrical productions they had been involved in. Both Mack and Edward had been avid participants in school theatrical performances. Mack had real flair and talent for the stage. He usually landed the lead roles; Edward was only too happy to play the secondary ones. 

Edward got up to examine the items on the mantelpiece. There was a Shiva Nataraja, a fine gilded Buddha in the Tibetan style, a hand-painted view of Anandur Lake, a color photo of  Mack standing next to a well-tanned young man on a palm-fringed beach, no doubt in Thailand. There was one other framed photo. Edward picked it up in order to examine it more closely. It was a cast photo from what appeared to be a production of The Pirates of Penzance. “Who’s the good-looking kid with the blue eyes? From the costume I would guess he’s Frederic. Am I right? 

“He was. Not much of an actor, but really dedicated. Very serious and quiet.” Mack went suddenly silent. When he continued his voice was barely audible. “David. His name was David. He was the one who died in the accident.”                                                                                                                            

“Oh, I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have brought it up.”

“No, it’s okay. I’ve never really talked about it, but I think of David every single damn day.” 

Mack got up and went over to the sideboard. He picked up a bottle of Scotch whiskey and two glasses. “Join me for a nightcap? It’s really good stuff, from the duty-free in Bangkok.”

After pouring the drinks there was another long pause. Then Mack went on. “I was there, you know, when it happened. We were hiking down to Pambar Falls, where the natural water slide is.”

“I do remember that,” said Edward. “It was always a fun place to go despite the knee-breaking hike to get there.”

“Right,” continued Mack. “It’s downhill all the way for hours. I was asked to chaperone for the senior class. We were about halfway down, hiking along a narrow footpath with a steep drop on one side. Everybody was ahead of me, I was bringing up the rear. I could see a few of the girls with David, laughing, just joking around. They had just turned to continue on and he was about twenty feet in front of me. I think he was waiting for me to catch up to him. David’s copper hair glistened in the sun; I remember that very clearly. For some reason he took a step back; I guess he didn’t realize how close to the edge he was. He teetered for a moment, grabbed some branches with his left hand, but they didn’t hold and he fell backward. It all happened so fast, but it was like in slow motion at the same time. I saw the look on his face at that moment. He looked surprised. Not scared, just surprised. I ran to him as fast as I could, but he had already hit the bottom, an outcropping of rocks. The girls screamed hysterically. I didn’t know what to do. It was almost impossible to get down there, but somehow I did. I think he must have died on impact. At least, I hope so.” Mack lowered his head for a moment, then continued. “You know, the strangest thing was that he had a smile on his face. That beautiful angelic face, and he almost looked happy. The rest is a blur. Cell phones don’t really work up here. We had to gather everybody together and hike back up to Anandur. I don’t even know how or when they retrieved the body, but they did. The entire school was in shock. David’s parents flew in from Kuwait where they were living. It was all too horrible, too fucking horrible.”

“I had no idea how it happened,” said Edward. “I can’t imagine what that was like for you.”

There was another long pause and then Mack went on, “The school didn’t want anything about it to be made public; that’s why you didn’t read about it in the alumni news. The accidental death of a student makes for really bad publicity. No school wants that.” He downed a glass of whiskey and poured another. “I have replayed that scene over and over in my head a million times. There’s another thing I remember: in that last second, before he went over, his right arm went up, as if he were reaching out to me to save him. But I couldn’t save him. If only I had been closer, if only I could’ve gotten to him in time, if only, if only…”

“You can’t torture yourself like that. It was out of your control. It happened. That’s all there is to it. I’m so sorry.”

“Yeah. It happened. I was a total mess after that. It took me months to get myself together again. When I wrote you I didn’t want to go into the awful details.”                                                                                              

They talked for a while longer, about more mundane things, like what they would do the following day. They agreed that Mack would give Edward a tour of the campus, followed by a hike around the lake. Edward took his leave and headed for bed. He slept fitfully. Sometime after midnight he became aware of odd sounds coming from the living room and got up to investigate. 

He found Mack kneeling in front of the settee, one hand clutching the framed photograph to his chest, and the other holding an empty glass. Mack raised his head, revealing cheeks streaked with tears. He looked utterly forlorn. Edward knelt down next to him, put his arm around his friend’s shoulders and kissed him gently on the forehead. Extricating the empty glass from his hand, he put it on the side table, next to the now empty bottle. 


John Mueter is a pianist, composer, educator, translator, and writer residing in Kansas City, Missouri. His short fiction has appeared in many journals, including the American Athenaeum, Lowestoft Chronicle, Halfway Down the Stairs, Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Simone Press Publishing and The Corona Book of Ghost Stories; poetry in The Bombay Literary Magazine, The Literary Nest and the Haiku Journal. His website is here.
 

Fiction | ‘Another Funeral’ by Jonathan Ochoco | LGBTQ+ (Vol I) – Issue 35

This is going to be my third funeral this week. I never knew I could grieve so much, but what else do you do when your friends and everyone around you seems to be dying? When I walk around the Castro district now only a few years into the ‘80s, all I feel is sadness and the fear of being the next one to die. You can almost imagine death trolling the San Francisco neighborhood looking for its next victim. Death is doing quite well for itself with an instrument better than a scythe. It now has AIDS. 

Of course, the Castro clones are still out there. Still cruising in their tight t-shirts and Levi’s showing off all of the goods no matter the weather. I guess no matter what’s going on, some guys will always want to get laid. I think the guys are going to the gym more and more to make sure they look healthy. It seems that if you even sneeze these days you might become a sexual pariah. 

I start getting dressed and put on the same black suit again. I had to buy it when guys started dying. I never needed it before that. I came to San Francisco after college, the year after Harvey Milk was in the news for getting elected as the first openly gay supervisor. I could have stayed in Houston with its little pocket of gay bars, but I just had to come here. I had to be a part of a city that could do something so amazing. That certainly wasn’t something that could ever happen in Houston. It’s only been a few years since Harvey was killed, and I’m afraid the exuberance of that time died with him.

I look in the mirror and adjust my tie. I brush my mustache a little and see the dark circles under my eyes from all the crying I’ve been doing this week. I run a comb through my dark brown hair and make sure the center part is perfect. I still want to look good at the funeral. 

My throat hurts a little more than yesterday and I feel even achier. Probably just the flu. It is October. 

Maybe I’m just tired from not sleeping much. Haven’t been to the bathhouses much. Haven’t gotten any action for a while. Too afraid and too busy going to funerals. I can’t have gotten it. Just can’t.

This is a special funeral too. It is for Miss Holly Jackson. Well, Harold, but he used to perform and host a show at The Elephant Walk bar as Holly. Sometimes her good friend Sylvester would stop by and perform some songs, except Sylvester would actually sing and not just lip-sync to Donna Summer and Ethel Merman.

When I get to the funeral home down in Colma, there is already a huge crowd waiting in the lobby outside of the chapel. Some of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence are there. They’re wearing sequined nun’s habits that go to their knees, showing off their hairy legs and black combat boots. They’ve got full white make up on with little red circles of blush on their cheeks. Their beards and mustaches are trimmed neatly. They look as fabulous as ever. Seeing them brings a smile to my face on such a somber occasion. 

This was not going to be an ordinary funeral. It was for Harold after all. 

 “Steve!”

I look around for the deep husky voice and smile seeing Sister Florence waving her beefy arm, making her necklace with oversized plastic pearls swing around her neck.

Florence could always bring a smile to my face. Out of drag, Sister Florence was Frank, one of the first people I met after moving to San Francisco. We had slept together once, and once was enough for the both of us. We had decided we were much better friends than lovers.

“Hi!” I say. I walk over to her and give her an air kiss on both cheeks. “What are you guys doing here? Was Holly secretly a Sister?”

“She wasn’t a Sister. She always said she couldn’t handle all of our outrageous makeup.” 

I laugh. “What does that mean? Her eyebrows were arched higher than your six-inch heels. And she loved all that glittery purple eyeshadow. I think being a Sister meant having only one outfit. Her closet must have had more of Holly’s clothes than Harold’s.”

Sister Florence laughs and then snorts a little. “Holly used to let us come and collect money at her shows for funerals and cremations.”

“Who paid for this funeral? Harold didn’t have very much money.”

“It was his grandmother. She’s already sitting inside.”

“I didn’t know he was in touch with his family at all. I thought they were all fundamentalist Christians who thought he was going to hell.” 

“Harold was lucky to still have someone in his family who didn’t totally reject him. I haven’t spoken to my parents since I left Wyoming ten years ago. What would they say if they saw me now.” 

Sister Florence raises her hands to the sides of her face and flutters her eyelashes that must have been an inch long.

“I’m sure they would think you look fabulous,” I say. 

“Right. If they don’t spit on me or try to beat the gay out of me first.”

I cough. 

“Oh no,” Sister Florence says. “Not you too, Steve.”

“It’s nothing. I think I just have the flu.”

“Harold thought he just had the flu, and after a month he was in the hospital with pneumonia, and now we’re here.”

“I’m fine. I’m sure I’m fine.”

“I hope so. I’m not sure how many more funerals I can go to. It’s starting to seem like something I have to do every day now. I’ve gone through so many tubes of white makeup for these funerals. I’m not sure I can afford it anymore.” 

I hear the murmur of the crowd around us get louder. This is the largest funeral I’d been to in quite a while. I guess that made sense since Holly Jackson had become quite a fixture of the local drag scene. It also helped that Harold was just someone that everyone wanted to be around. 

“I think it’s time to go inside now,” I say.

“Steve, I worry about you. I don’t want to lose you too. It’s spreading so fast, and they don’t even know what causes it. God, they can’t even tell you you’re sick until it’s too late, and even if they can tell you, you’re still dead.”

I wrap my arms around Sister Florence and pull her tightly to me. I whisper in her ear, “Frank, you’re going to ruin your makeup.” 

He pulls me a little tighter.

“I love you, Steve. Why didn’t we ever work as a couple?”

“Your dick was too small.”

“Bitch.”

We hold our embrace for another a moment. “Let’s go inside,” I say.

Sister Florence walks back to the other sisters, and I walk to the entrance of the chapel. Inside, all of the pews start to fill up. Some are in black suits like me. Some wear faded denim jackets. Pompadours and bouffant hairdos pepper the crowd. I see that some of the men had black lesions on their necks and faces. 

Death marks.

I take a seat at the end of one of the middle pews. Other people file in and take their seats. Some nod or wave when they recognize me. Up at the front, there is a large picture of Harold smiling. His cheeks are beet red in the photo and he’s been caught mid laugh. He looks so happy. The photo was taken at his birthday party last year when he turned thirty. He had been so upset about turning thirty. He was afraid he was going to be too old to ever find a lover. But we had had a great time at his apartment that night drinking and dancing. 

In the front pew on the right, there is an older woman in a dark gray jacket with a matching pillbox hat. She looks so out of place amongst all of the men in the room. In fact, she seems to be only one of a handful of women, not including any of the men dressed as women. She sits by herself in the pew. The Sisters walk in and stand along the wall on the right. 

After everyone is seated, it suddenly becomes eerily quiet. The seriousness of the occasion finally takes over a room filled with drag queens in garish makeup. 

The older woman stands up and walks slowly to the podium. She has a dark mahogany cane she uses for each step. Her gray hair is tied back in a chignon at the nape of her neck. She has a matching gray skirt and low-heeled black pumps. She looks so small and frail.

The woman speaks in a voice full of strength that belies her appearance.

“My name is Miriam Danvers. I know that most of you don’t know me, but I am Harold’s grandmother. Harold was born in Toledo, Ohio to my daughter and her first husband. He was such a good boy. Whenever he would come to my house when he was a little boy, he always wanted me to play my old Ethel Merman records. He just loved those old records. I couldn’t understand it then, but now standing here among all of you, I understand.”

Chuckles fill the room. 

“Harold came to see me before he decided to leave for San Francisco. He was afraid of leaving everything he knew and all of his family. I told him that he had to leave and find people like him. He was never going to find happiness in Toledo. By that time, Harold’s father had died, and my daughter had married a minister who idolized Jerry Falwell.”

Hisses fill the room.

“I am of a different mind than my daughter and her husband who abandoned Harold after revealing he was a homosexual. Harold was my only grandson, and I just couldn’t leave him alone.” 

She pauses for a moment, trying to fight back tears.

 “Harold wrote to me after he moved to San Francisco and told me about his friends and his first job at a camera shop. When he wrote about feeling like he had made a family of his own here, I didn’t understand. I look at all of you here today, and I am so happy that Harold had all of you in his life. When I found out that Harold had died, I knew that I had to come out here and see the place and meet the people that had brought him happiness. I want to thank all of you for coming today and being there for my Harold.”

Miriam walks back to her seat. She pulls a handkerchief from her purse and dabs at her eyes. I look around the room and see plenty of people rubbing their eyes, maybe remembering their own families. I wipe my own eyes. How I would have loved to have this woman as my grandmother. When my own grandmother found out I was gay, she told my parents that I needed to get psychiatric help. She said shock therapy would do wonders for me.

The Sisters then walk up to the front of the chapel. Sister Florence speaks: “Rather than do a prayer or sing a hymn for Harold, or as known to many of you, Holly Jackson, we are going to sing one of his favorites. I think it’s a fitting tribute to what Harold and Holly brought to our lives.” 

I think for sure they are going to do Gloria Gaynor, so I am surprised even though I shouldn’t be when they start singing “You’re the Top”. Miriam looks like she is enjoying the performance, even swaying a little bit. Maybe she remembers the Ethel Merman version rather than this one sung by a bunch of burly men dressed as nuns. There is a little bit of giggling at the line “But, baby, if I’m the bottom, you’re the top.” I’m not sure Miriam gets the joke, but I’m sure everyone else in the room does, especially if they had slept with Harold or had heard stories of Harold’s exploits.

After the song is over, other people walk up and tell stories. Funny stories, heartwarming stories, but mostly stories that make me think that a really good person has been taken away from us far too soon. I feel a little warm, and I feel my forehead moisten. I wipe my brow and then walk up to the podium to take my turn.

“Hi everyone.” I stop for a moment and take a deep breath. “I met Harold working at A Different Light bookstore. His first day, he came in wearing a denim jacket with rhinestones all over the shoulders. I asked him why he had those rhinestones there, and he said in that high-pitched midwestern voice of his, ‘I love to sparkle.’ After that we became fast friends because who doesn’t love to sparkle? We had a lot of good times together, and also a lot of dramatic times because you know how Harold could be with each new boyfriend who didn’t live up to his expectations.”

I stop and lick my lips. 

“Last year Harold turned thirty and at his birthday party last year, someone played a record by Madonna. Harold hadn’t heard of her before that for some reason, and the first thing he said upon hearing her was ‘Girl can’t sing. Last we’ll ever hear of her.’” 

Laughter fills the room. 

“I feel really sad today but also really mad because we’ll never get to hear more from Harold. I’m really mad he’ll never lip sync ‘I Will Survive’ to me again. I’m mad he’ll never make me laugh again. I’m mad that some stupid disease killed him and is killing my friends and no one seems to care but those of us dying.” 

I hear a few amens and uh-huhs from the crowd. Then I start coughing for what feels like an eternity. When I finally stop, I see the crowd staring at me with fear in their eyes. Frank gives me a worried look from the back. God, I hope it’s only the flu. I’m not ready to die. I know Harold wasn’t. None of us should be dying so young.

I look down at my trembling hands and then over at Miriam who gives me a nod of approval and a smile of encouragement. Tears stream down my face as I continue. 

“I hope we all remember how much Harold loved life and how much he loved bringing joy to people. None of us know how much time we’ve got, and now it really seems like we don’t know. It could be sooner than we ever imagine. I know it was for Harold.” I pause to see crying faces. “I hope that with whatever time we all have left that we live our lives with as much panache and freedom as he did.”

I wipe away my tears, put my left hand on my hip and raise my right hand to the ceiling into Holly Jackson’s favorite pose. “Like Harold always said, ‘Sparkle, darling. Sparkle.’”


Jonathan Ochoco was born in the Philippines, grew up in Houston, Texas but has called San Francisco home for over 20 years. A lawyer by training, he works as a compliance officer for a global investment management firm. He is a Pushcart nominated writer with stories published in The Arcanist’s Ghost Stories, Descansos: Words from the Wayside (Dark House Books), Gathering StormEllipsis Zine: Four, and several anthologies. He is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley and UCLA School of Law. He lives in San Francisco with his husband and two dogs and enjoys curling (the ice sport) in his free time. Follow him on Twitter @mrochoco.

Fiction | ‘The Pugilist’ by Robert Perron | Issue 34 (Sept, 2020)

As the rear door clicked behind him, Carlos shook off an assault of cold night air. Early fall in New England: pleasant days but chilly nights. His wife sat in front of him on the edge of the cement stoop, feet planted on the second step, a green cardigan draped over her shoulders. Linda from the adjacent townhouse sat to the left of his wife wrapped in a dark blue blanket she’d carted over. Linda Snoop sat on a stoop minding her neighbor’s poop. Along came—Carlos blanked on his wife’s name, always hated when that happened, feared uttering the wrong name, that of an old girlfriend or a current fantasy. Ana, that’s it. Along came Ana who plopped down beside her. Hmm, but didn’t scare her away.

Beyond the two women lay a non-bucolic panorama. Short patches of lawn, a line of cars parked head in, and across the parking lot were two dumpsters, brown and green. Past the parking lot, hardwood trees and scrub pine, silhouettes in the current darkness, strewn with paper cups and plastic wrappers in daylight. Above the trees, a scattering of stars, those with enough radiance to break through the haze of the overhead street lamps.

Carlos shook off a second stab from the night air. “What are you doing?” he said.

Without turning, Linda from next door said, “Shh.”

Ana leaned back with an upturned face and whispered, “Listening to the fight.”

Now that Carlos knew, he realized he’d been hearing an altercation since he had stepped out, its venue two units to the right. The combatants were Gabe, a big guy older than Carlos, and his wife Joyce, who was younger than Carlos and had raven hair; a hot number. The wife and husband exchanged insults with fervor, soprano versus bass, but Carlos couldn’t discern the words that Ana and Linda leaned forward to pluck. Non-vocal sounds entered the fray—breaking dishes.

“Should we call the cops?”

“Shh,” said Linda.

Ana again leaned back with her upturned face. “Don’t be an ass. It’s just getting good.”

Another shiver. Carlos reversed his direction, opened the back door, and stepped into his kitchen of red linoleum, silver appliances, and a breakfast counter that jutted toward him from the opposite wall. Three stools ran the length of the counter, and one anchored the short side. Carlos leaned against the one on the short side with his left hand and adjusted his ears to the interior of the house: all quiet. He considered checking on the kids, but … best leave them alone. He’d tucked them in with the Berenstain Bears—Carlos eyeballed the digital clock on the counter—a while ago. He’d waited, checked, waited, and checked again before igniting a stogie of sinsemilla cannabis and taking two deep hits, his goal a mild buzz, not a blitz. So much for good intentions.

Twisting and placing the small of his back against the counter, left hand still on the stool, Carlos hoped his mother wouldn’t call. The kitchen lay in twilight, its lights off, the only illumination drifting in from a lamp on the living room end table and a 60-watt bulb in the overhead hallway fixture. He hated when his mother called and he was high. She’d say; Carlos, is everything okay? You don’t seem yourself. Is everything alright with you and Ana? Carlos, talk to me. Are you there?

What was happening outside? Must be cold—Linda Snoop-de-doop had a blanket wrapped around her. Oh, right, Gabe, and his hot wife, Joyce, were going at it again. What if it really got out of hand? What if he started whacking her? That angered Carlos, Gabe beating on Joyce, and Carlos imagined himself intervening. 

As Ana and Linda screamed and dialed nine-one-one, Carlos strode across the intervening backyard, mounted Gabe and Joyce’s rear stoop, and pushed their door open without knocking. Joyce cowered in the far corner of the kitchen, while Gabe turned to confront Carlos. Gabe had him on height and muscle, but Carlos didn’t care, he raised his fists and danced in front of the heavyweight. Gabe advanced, left fist up and the right cocked. Carlos jabbed with his left, catching the cocky giant under the eye, feeling the blow to his elbow, knowing that if the punch hurt him, he’d done damage to his opponent. Gabe backed off a step with a stunned gaze, then bared his teeth and stepped forward only to meet another jab, this one to the nose. Fury engulfed Gabe’s face as he set himself for a charge. Carlos faded sideways, and then stepping forward, buried his right fist in Gabe’s midriff. Oomph, said Gabe as his knees buckled, but the murder in his eyes told Carlos that the fight was far from finished.

Carlos danced backward on his toes, scissoring his legs, fists up. He lunged forward, still scissoring his legs, and jammed his right knee on the breakfast counter end stool. Dropping his boxer’s stance, Carlos bent from the waist and grabbed the top of the stool with both hands. For a second, the high seat, tilted on two legs, held, but as the center of gravity shifted, it fell sideways, throwing Carlos butt down on the red linoleum.

The kitchen door flew open. Carlos, on the floor with splayed legs and a tumbled stool, observed the advancing knees of Ana’s khaki culottes. He raised his eyes to her face.

“Carlos, what the fuck are you doing?”

While Carlos pushed on the floor with his right hand in a futile effort to rise, Ana bent over, grabbed the stool, and set it back on its legs.

“Have you been smoking?”

As a prelude to the second attempt to rise, Carlos rolled sideways to his hands and knees.

“Jesus,” said Ana, “we don’t have to listen to Joyce and numb nuts. We’ve got it right here.”

Using the stool for leverage, almost upsetting it again, Carlos dragged himself to his feet.

“It’s a little embarrassing, you know,” said Ana. “Linda’s out there laughing her ass off.” Ana walked past Carlos into the hall, turned, and returned. “It’s a wonder you didn’t wake them up.”

Carlos wanted to provide an explanation but couldn’t gather his thoughts, much less piece them into a coherent discourse. As he struggled for an excuse, he noticed Ana had disappeared, that the outside door had closed and clicked. Carlos turned, banged again against the end stool, and grabbed the counter for support. He had to evacuate this dangerous place, this minefield. With slow,  deliberate steps, stopping only to snag a 4-ounce bag of Fritos Original, Carlos changed his environs from kitchen to the living room. There he slumped onto the end of the sofa away from the lamp. On the positive side, the kids were still asleep, and his mother hadn’t called. And Ana would get over it. He pulled open the mustard and red bag in his hands, placed a chip on his tongue, savoring salt and corn, and drew it between his teeth. Crunch. Mmm.

His imagined bout with Gabe, Carlos now realized, was phony; and how unrealistic. He would never beat that giant in a fight. He might prance around him and get in a jab, but one blow from Gabe would crush him. Carlos saw himself on their kitchen floor, blood dribbling from his lower lip, Gabe above him with balled fists. And Joyce … and Joyce dropping to her knees, her right arm over his prone body, her left hand held in the air against Gabe. Get out, she yelled. Look what you’ve done, get out. And Gabe … and Gabe was yelling back, all right, bitch, I’m out of here.

The kitchen door opened and closed. Carlos heard a motor, the clashing of gears, the squealing of tires. Oh my God, said Joyce, holding Carlos with both arms, let me kiss that blood away. As their lips met, Carlos slipped a tentative right hand under the back of her blouse and touched the clips of her bra strap. It’s okay, she said with a slight separation of their lips, I want it as much as you.

“Carlos.” A loud whisper came from between the kitchen and the living room; Ana, outlined by the overhead light from the hallway. “What’s the deal? You coming to bed tonight?”

#

Carlos wasn’t sure which hurt more, the high pitch of his three-year-old daughter’s voice or its excessive volume. “Mine!” she screeched.

His son, two years older, retorted an octave lower but with equal volume. “It is not yours. It is a family bowl.”

“The pink bowl,” Carlos began to say, but a remonstration from the bathroom cut him off.

“Carlos, can’t you deal with them for ten minutes?”

“Mine!”

A quarter of an hour later, Carlos walked out the back door, hastened down the walkway, and moved the car seat and booster seat from his ten-year-old Hyundai to Ana’s SUV. Her day for transport. Carlos settled behind the wheel of the Hyundai with a straight-on view of his rear stoop, and, as he turned the ignition key, saw Gabe stepping out onto his stoop. The motor started with an elongated chirping noise. Gotta have that looked at.

What’s this? Gabe, instead of heading straight to his own car, was walking diagonally across the narrow patches of rear lawn toward Carlos. For seconds, Carlos denied the reality of the behemoth’s advance. What could he want? Last night Carlos had imagined fisticuffs with Gabe, but they didn’t occur in real life. Last night, Carlos had imagined fucking Gabe’s wife, but—. He must have seen Ana and Linda sitting on the stoop snooping, that’s it. Maybe he even saw Carlos.

It struck Carlos that not only was Gabe older but of a different generation. Ten or fifteen additional years with deep creases to his face, horizontal on the forehead, vertical about the cheeks, and more bounce to his midriff. And of a different class, a street-wise blue-collar grunt, jeans and yellow work boots.

At the driver’s side of the Hyundai, Gabe twirled his finger like an old-time window crank. To himself, Carlos said, fuck me, then lowered the glass that separated him from Gabe. Gabe pointed a thick, hairy finger toward the front of the car and said, “Pop the hood.”

“What’s that?” said Carlos looking up.

“Pop the hood, buddy, and kill the motor.”

Carlos obeyed, pulling the hood release and turning the ignition key counter-clockwise. Gabe looked around from the raised hood and beckoned. Again Carlos obeyed, opening the driver’s door, stepping out, forward, and facing his neighbor over the exposed motor of the car.

Gabe flicked Carlos on the chest with the fingers of his right hand. “What the hell?” he said.

Carlos wet his lips.

Gabe pointed toward the motor compartment. “Jesus Christ, buddy, look at that fan belt.”

Carlos stared into the cavern formed by the raised hood. Gabe was pointing at a black, serpentine cincture to the front of the motor. “Not gonna last another hundred.”

Carlos lifted his eyes from the mystery compartment. “Yeah, I’ve been meaning to—.”

“Look,” said Gabe, “grab one today. We’ll throw it in tonight.”

Carlos said, “I couldn’t—”

“Won’t take twenty minutes. Target. Down the street.”

“What’s that?”

“Target. Go to the auto department.” The cavern disappeared as Gabe slammed the hood shut. “You’re Carlos, right? What’s that, Rican?

Carlos nodded.

Gabe pushed his finger into his own chest. “Fucking Greek.” He lifted his chin toward the back door to Carlos’s house. “Old lady and kids, eh?”

“Yeah, two.”

Gabe lifted his chin toward the back door of his own house. “None this time around. Just the old lady.” Gabe laughed. “That’s enough. What’s her name again, your old lady?”

“Ana.”

“Nice looking. You ever wanna swap some night, let me know.”

What the holy fuck?

Gabe balled his right hand into a fist and punched Carlos on the left shoulder. “Just joking, buddy.” He laughed. “Should see your face. Tell me, you ever get into it with her?”

“We’re okay. Yeah, I mean, sure there’s an occasional argument.”

“Mine, Joyce, she can really push your buttons. Last night … I’m surprised the cops weren’t over. Or that nosy broad the other side of youse, what’s her name?”

“Linda.”

“Yeah, what a piece of work.”

Carlos pointed through his windshield. “Look, I have to—”

“Yeah, me too.”

Carlos stepped toward the door of his car but found his chest blocked by Gabe’s right hand. Gabe released the hand but raised its forefinger.

“Don’t forget the belt.”


Robert Perron lives and writes in New York City and New Hampshire in the US. Past life includes high-tech and military service. He is the author of the novel The Blue House Raid, a story of the Korean DMZ, released this October by The Ardent Writer Press. His short stories have appeared in STORGY Magazine, TIMBER, Lowestoft Chronicle, and other literary journals. Please visit his website at https://robertperron.com.

Fiction | ‘Amy Doesn’t Live Here’ by Minal Sukumar | Issue 34 (Sept, 2020)

The colour green has been maternal to me over the years. Or maybe soothing things are often some shade of green; things that know how to wrap bones in their unconditional affection. I think it probably started feeling that way to me on my second birthday when an aunt bought me a stuffed toy that soon became my best friend: a neon green monkey with floppy limbs and velcro palms that were designed to hold me. I named him Lion, and Lion the monkey still hangs from my curtain rod. As time scurried on, there were other such treasures in moss, sea foam, mint, but the most significant of them all is the forest green lake babbling in the heart of this city. I grew up in the embrace of the lake’s tranquility, often found on its embankments seeking advice from the water. I like to believe there is love between us. 

Today though, its glossy skin looks different to me as I sit here with my feet in the water. A sad tune floats to me from beneath the pensive surface. If I listen close enough, I can hear hope and farewell in the refrain. 

At the bend of the lake, a little girl is crouched in the dust drawing patterns with a stick, pigtails hanging lopsided behind her ears. She tilts her chin up and her sharp eyes lock with mine. I give her a small wave. Caught off guard, she hesitates for a second before returning the gesture with frantic enthusiasm. 

“Amy?”

The nickname scrapes against the scene in front of me, tearing into it as if it were a paper poster. I drag my gaze away and to a rigid face. The name, as well as the mouth uttering it appear to be pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, with grooves that are all wrong for these spaces. He sits down next to me and takes my hand in his. I never got around to telling him how uncomfortable holding hands makes me. It’s probably too late to mention it. 

“Amy, are you okay? We should head back.”

“I was thinking,” I say, “you could call me Amrita from time to time. I get why Amy is more comfortable for some people back in London, but not necessarily for you, right? It is a simple enough name around here.” 

“I could,” he agrees, justifiably confused. “I didn’t know it meant that much to you and I thought you fancied being called Amy.” 

“I do. Sometimes.” 

He contemplates this and says, “I could even call you Ami.”

“No, not that,” I reply quickly. 

Ami is what my parents and siblings call me. Again, it is something that conjures a wholly different world than the one he comes from. I cannot explain this in any comprehensible way so I say nothing further. We sit in silence, watching workers prepare the gazebo across the lake for a wedding. The idyllic alcove with its stunning view of the water is held up by four intricately carved stone pillars and is a popular spot for wedding ceremonies. In high school, my girlfriends and I would come to gush over the decorations and if we were lucky to catch a glimpse of it, the bride’s finery. Now that memory is akin to something from a movie I may or may not have watched at some point. I try not to think about it that way, and instead recall the lick of a metal bench on thighs left exposed by a cotton uniform. 

“I am so happy we’re getting married here,” he says stiffly, tugging me away from the reminiscence, making me acknowledge that this time I will not arrive in a pinafore to admire the mandap from a safe distance, this time its fire will blaze at my feet.

Almost two years ago, I convinced my parents to send me to London to study art, a feat that still amazes me. Girls in my family do not leave home until marriage. It is simply not ‘a done thing’ as my mother would say, which is why there was a condition to my education abroad. And that condition is here sitting next to me. The right amount of tall and handsome, brought up in England in a wealthy Indian family and with a degree from the London School of Economics to boot. My father had him picked out even before the university orientation. 

The year after that galloped along in the fabulous whirl that London is famous for. He met my friends and accompanied me to art shows. The relationship was nice enough; we could laugh together on occasion. Back then, while alone and blissfully painting on the cramped balcony protruding from my kitchen, I often believed the deal had been worth it. I enjoyed being Amy, it was easy on days like those when I could come home to my studio flat and be anyone I wanted to be. And then, all too soon, the morning of my graduation rolled in with an opulent ruby set in gold. 

His proposal, and my acceptance, were both formalities dressed in romance. We found a bigger apartment, with marble countertops and a glass dining table. Our front door already has a mosaic sign that says Abhi & Amy. The wedding is tomorrow. 

“Amrita?” he draws out cautiously. 

“Abhinav.” 

“This place is as beautiful as you said.” 

“Isn’t it? I grew up here. Once I failed an exam at school and didn’t want to tell my mother so I came here after class and hid in the hollow of that tree over there.”

His laugh is stunted but sweet. 

“Were you discovered or did you go home yourself?” he asks. 

“My parents called the cops and they found me. But it still worked, they were barely angry about the exam,” I say. This time we both laugh, whole-hearted and easy. 

I have many stories that I would like to share with him while we are here and I can still find the words for them. Stories about this lake, these criss-crossing streets, the brightly coloured houses; they hold all the hopes I once had and the few I still have. There are so many stories he needs to know. 

“We should go. There’s a lot to get done and then the family dinner later. Mum tells me she has a present she wants to give you for tonight.” He stands up and offers his hand to me. Concealing my disappointment, I let him pull me to my feet and turn around to see the girl artist from before standing right in front of me.  

“Your mehendi is good,” she says to me in Kannada, pointing her stick at the intricate henna patterns covering my arms. She is wearing a frock, shabby from probably being in the heat and dust too many days in a row. Her curly hair is restrained with a yellow ribbon. 

“Thank you. Where are your shoes?” I ask her.

She peers down at her bare feet and shrugs as if she couldn’t be bothered to keep track of the immaterial things. There are more important matters to discuss. 

“Aunty,” she begins, wounding my ego, “do you want to play a game?” 

From the corner of my eye, I catch him impatiently shifting his weight from one foot to the other, his neon sneakers looking strange against this terrain. 

“Not today. I have to go home,” I explain gently.

“I had to go home one hour ago,” she says, surprising me with her blatant mischief. 

“What does she want?” he asks. I realize he doesn’t understand the language. 

I translate and his lips fall into a flat line. “Did you tell her we have to go?”

“Yes.”

“Then let’s go.” He doesn’t waste a second, promptly striding away in the direction of our car and driver. I hurriedly root around in my purse for a chocolate bar and hand it to my new pal. 

She examines the foreign branding, mouth ajar in wonder, and snatches it from me. 

“Thank you, Aunty,” she says, giving me a grin.

I search for Abhinav, locate him as he turns off at the end of the path. It’s unclear if he is aware I am not in tow. 

“You don’t have school today?” I ask, deciding to indulge her a little longer. 

Her face falls and she shakes her head. 

“No school.”

I mentally kick myself for the question, guilt splashing in my veins. 

“What game are you playing today?” The attempt to distract is weak, but she perks up. 

“Drawing a house,” she replies. “What game do you like?”

I have to think about that; games have been a thing of the past for a while.

“I like swings,” I say, hoping it qualifies as a game. 

Her fingers curl around imaginary ropes and she moves them back and forth.

“Yes,” I confirm, laughing, “but there are no swings here.”

“I can show you. Do you want to go, Aunty?” 

“Maybe next time.” 

“It’s close by and there are two swings. We can both play.”

“I can’t come now. They’re waiting for me,” I insist, but she has already taken off to the lake’s wired fence, holding a sliced bit of it open. 

“Shortcut,” she calls out in English, brimming with pride. When I don’t budge, her fingers drop the rusted metal, shuttering the secret gateway. Dejected, she gazes down at grubby toes and waits for me to leave.  

“Shall we go in the car?” I blurt out, the idea recklessly somersaulting into my mind. “I’d like to see your swings. But only for ten minutes.”

The impish grin reappears and she rushes to take my hand in hers. 

“Amy!” The two of us turn to the sound of my name. Abinav is back in sight at the top of the path, upturned palms seeking explanation, eyebrows furrowed and seething. 

I can’t remember if he’s ever looked like this before. 

“Is that your husband?” she asks. And something hasty and compelling comes over me. 

“Run,” I tell my companion and she does not stop to wonder. She kicks up dust as we dash to the fence and squeeze through the gap in the fence. On the other side, there is a patch of stone and mud that tapers into a narrow lane. It leads to the village behind the lake, integrated into the city many years ago but still unapologetically itself. 

Together we hurtle into its maze, my heeled sandals rattling behind the thump of her soles. Shopkeepers stretch their necks out of shutters to watch us go by. We race past a lady with a vegetable cart, a series of run-down hardware stores, a cobbler sitting on the edge of his boxy metal workspace who, as soon as he registers the odd sight of us whizzing by him, jumps up and shouts, “Chaitra!” 

“That’s my father!” she yells over her shoulder, but doesn’t slow down. We keep running, around corners, up alleyways, past two modest temples and a church; running, running, running. Finally, she stops at a dead end. The ragged tar slides into dirt, the road has transformed into a sort of playground with two tire swings hanging from stout trees and a rickety see-saw. The place is deserted except for an elderly man selling ice gola from a cart. 

She folds herself into one of the swings, panting and sniggering at the same time. I do not have the oxygen required to laugh but I want to. 

“So this is the place,” I say after a few minutes of holding my knees. 

“Is it nice? Different swings,” she states.

“It’s very nice,” I assure her. “Thank you for bringing me.” 

Her sunken cheeks flush. Conscious, she spins her tire swing away with great skill. 

“Do you want gola?” I ask her arched spine. This piques her interest and the tire slowly rotates back. I buy the colourful crushed ice in plastic cups. She holds both as I climb through the gap in the second tire. It isn’t too much of a struggle for me and I am rewarded with an impressed bob of the head.  

“Your name is Amy?” she asks as we sit there slurping at the dripping flavour. She pronounces it carefully, balancing the peculiar sound of it on her tongue, offering special scrutiny to its extended tail. 

“Amrita,” I tell her. She brightens at this. “And you’re Chaitra?” 

“Chaitra,” she confirms. “But my mother calls me Cha.”

“You know, when I was younger, we used to stand on these. Can you do that, Cha?”

She smirks. “That’s easy. Can you still do it?” 

The challenge hangs between us. We discard our cups and hasten to uncurl ourselves from the swing, regarding the other warily in a moment of childish competition. To my surprise, I find I want victory. I fling my shoes off my feet before first balancing them in the cavity and then gingerly on the top curve, digging my toes into the ribbed exterior. Looking up, I come face to face with a wobbly Chaitra and chuckle. She beams back, swaying a little. 

“You don’t have to hold on so tight,” she says with unmistakable authority. 

I loosen my grip, easing my body away from the rope. My feet get reacquainted with the ring underneath them and I giggle in delight at the ground shifting below. For the moment, this could very well be the top of The London Eye. 

Chaitra pushes herself toward me and grabs my dupatta as her swing starts to slip back. It goes with her, leaving my neck naked. Without a second thought, she sends the cherry chiffon gliding through the air and onto a family of flat pebbles. The sun brushes against my collarbones. I have resolved myself to not checking my phone, so it is the only indication I have of time, everything else here seems to be unaffected by the minutes scurrying along. We stay where we are until the sun starts to dip, bundled in broken conversation. 

After we’ve polished off another gola each, she peeks at me with a satisfied smile and asks, “Why do you like this game?” 

“It feels like flying and that makes me happy.”

“Me too.”

She places her leg on the frame and pushes off, launching her tire into the air. 

“Flying,” she calls out. “Happy.”

I think of happiness and the glass around us cracks. 

“I should go. I’m getting married tomorrow.”

She slows down to stare at me, expressionless.

“And then I have to go back to England.”

Features remain passive, but she asks, “When will you come back?”

“I don’t know,” I say quite truthfully, my mind wandering to semi-packed suitcases patiently lying open in my childhood bedroom. 

The heavy silence between us presses against me. 

“When you do, will you come to see me? Our house is behind my father’s shop.”

“I will.” 

She registers this with a blink of long eyelashes.

“And I’ll bring you more chocolate.” 

“From there?” 

“All the way from there.”

Later that night I stand in front of the dressing table tying a gold saree around me when my mother knocks on my bedroom door with a velvet box in hand.

“Abhinav’s parents sent this for you,” she informs me. 

Inside lies a set of diamond drops hanging from a thick chain. 

“I hope your last minute shopping trip today wasn’t for a neck piece,” she says with an edge to her tone. Her eyes avoid meeting mine. 

“Shopping trip?”

“I told Abhi he shouldn’t have let you go off by yourself but he said you insisted.” 

I offer nothing in explanation, busying myself with lifting the jewels out of the box to place around my neck. She comes up behind me to fasten the clasp, her poker face studying mine in the mirror. I am struck by how alike we look tonight. 

“Well, you’re here now,” she says, content. 

The next day, I unhook Lion from his manmade branch and wrestle him into my luggage before marrying Abhinav in the gazebo on the lake, with lavish decorations, glittering finery and a sun setting over the last traces of green. 

 


Minal Sukumar is a writer, poet, and storyteller from Bangalore, India. She holds an MA in writing from the National University of Ireland Galway and currently works as a content writer in her hometown. Minal was eleven when she decided to get into the business of writing stories, a ‘phase’ some are still waiting for her to outgrow. In 2017, she co-founded the literary collective Mouth of Word to give more performing writers a stage. Her own work is often a portrayal of the exquisite and resilient journeys of women in India.

Fiction | ‘The Evening Walk’ by Aditya Venkataraman | Issue 34 (Sept, 2020)

I

The story of how Francisco ‘Frankie’ D’Souza and Krishnamoorthy ‘Krishna’ Iyer became the best of friends in their twilight years is improbable everywhere but in modern India’s latest attempt to cram in more people than ever into its overcrowded cities: the IT Township. A walled-off cluster of sky-high towers overflowing with apartments; the Township also included a pharmacy, a supermarket, two tennis courts, a library, token green spaces, and even a community hall for hosting the residents’ birthday parties. Originally intended for the IT boom’s nouveau riche, the township now housed every strata, color, smell, hairstyle, and car model of urban life.  As the original IT crowd began to immigrate to the occasionally welcome shores of Australia and the US, their apartments began to fill up with their aged parents, ‘the FaceTime grandparents’, who had every Apple gadget but their grandchildren rarely connected with them.

Concrete and mud walkways snaked around and through the township. Every evening the towers’ aged residents, sporting ill-fitting tee shirts and slacks, would descend upon these serpentine tracks for their daily walk. In the township, walking was a communal affair. The walkers, mostly well-known to one another, would quickly coalesce into their usual cabals and each crew would begin its slow circuit around the township to the accompaniment of laughter, gossip, and non-veg jokes. The women had their own cliques too – each one with riveting internal-politics. Lastly as in any social structure, there were the stragglers: group-less, gossip-less walkers, often sporting earphones (or AirPods that jutted out perilously) and these were the only folks actually trying to walk for exercise.

The day after he moved into the township, Krishna found himself a straggler: in life and in the evening walking scene. Janaki, his wife of 40 years, had gone to bed six months ago and never woken up. His son, Ambareesh (or Ambi as he wanted to be called now, that’s Ambi like the Ambi in Bambi) flew in from the US to attend to her last rites (“Sorry, Suma and the kids cannot take off from work and school in this time of the year.”). After the thirteen days of mourning, Ambi wondered aloud why his father had to struggle with managing his large, independent house, with a vast garden. Before Krishna could emerge from the daze of his wife’s demise, urgent meetings were had, hands were clasped, paperwork were signed, possessions were packed, flight tickets were booked, and Krishna found himself all alone in a strange new 1 bedroom apartment on the 6th floor of ‘Ecstacy Sumanta’, the IT township. (“Appa, can’t take any more days off work. Hope you understand.”)

In his second week at the township, Krishna finally mustered the courage to enter the evening revolutions of his neighbors. He slipped into his pair of Bata slippers, Janaki had always selected his footwear, and descended into the bustle.

“Sita, did you watch yesterday’s episode of Rama’s Sita’s Lava Kusa? Isn’t Lava so…”

Arrey, I tell you, there has never been a better spinner than E. Prasanna but these two-bit millennials…”

“HAHAHAHA, abey yaar Pandey, what will the missus say?”

Conversations floated all around Krishna but he couldn’t find a place to dock in any of them. His feeble attempts at making eye-contact with a few turned futile. Circling his block he hurried back home, resolving to never try this again.

And yet a week later, Krishna tried it again. And failed once again. Just as he was about to turn into his block, a voice boomed behind him, “Hey-O! You look new. Hi, I’m Frankie, what’s your name?”

Krishna swiveled to find a tall, wiry man, with balding white hair and a fashionably tailored tee shirt, extending his right hand. He clasped the hand and asked, “Frankie…? Like the roll?”

“Hahaha… you are too much! I was Frankie long before those darned guys started selling paratha rolls as Frankies. Francisco D’Souza – Frankie. Now tell me your name.”

“Krishnamoorthy,” said Krishna, shaking the man’s firm hand. “Sorry, I didn’t mean any offense. I misheard you with all the noise around.”

“I know right? When I came to examine the property as it was being built, the builder sold it to me as a place of serene reflection surrounded by the chirping of birds and flowing water. Since the crowd moved in, it is like the crossing of the wildebeests every evening!”

“Wilde.. what?”

“Wildebeests. They are these cow-like deer in Africa. They breed a lot and once a year the entire clan migrates across the plains in one big thundering herd. Wave after wave of the beasts. The lions and hyenas have a field day picking off the slowest, but most of the herd survives. Strength in numbers sort of a thing. I saw it on National Geographic.”

“So are we the lions among these wildebeests?” Krishna asked coyly.

“Hahaha, so there is some steel underneath after all! Come, let’s grab some coffee at my place.” He grabbed Krishna’s arm and guided him towards his block.

And that is how Frankie came into Krishna’s life – breezy but with a hint of coercion. He was a widower too; he had lost his wife decades ago. Childless but with a child-like spirit, he fancied himself the consummate gentleman.

II

‘Krishna, do you know those young girls who stay across my flat?” Frankie began on one of their daily walks around the township.

“Yes. I have seen them around.”

“Last Friday they had a small shindig at their place. Some boys and girls, food, music, drinks too. They weren’t making too much noise so I didn’t mind despite the late hour. In fact the food smelled so good, I was wondering if I could pop in for a bite. But the music stopped suddenly and I heard some shouting. When I opened the door, Mahadevan… you know Mahadevan, the association president, him and some security guards were screaming at the girls.”

“Screaming? Why?”

“They were waving a notice around that said unmarried girls are not allowed to have male guests after 9 pm. Those crazy guys were demanding the girls throw out their male guests.”

“I mean, with these bachelors… you know…” Krishna sighed.

“What bachelors? Don’t behave like a Neanderthal. These girls are majors and if they want to have their boyfriends over in their own homes, that is their business and nobody else’s. Least of all, that stuck-up Mahadevan’s! He was threatening to call the girls’ landlord in the US and have them ejected for public indecency. I tell you what is indecent? It is Mahadevan walking around the township in his dirty lungi and bare chest. His chest has more foliage than the township.” Frankie fumed.

Krishna chuckled at the image of Mahadevan’s hairy chest. Krishna was known for his chest hair too, but even he had to concede to the association president’s hirsute gifts. 

“I know Mahadevan can be assertive, but he has a tough job. Youngsters can easily get carried away and that gives the township a bad rep. Youngsters these days have no discipline.”

“You know who had no discipline? Our generation. My brother was married at 19 and by 25 he had had three kids. Not a penny to his name, but every year another kid to take his name. Things got so bad that my mother had to make him and his wife sleep apart. What about you Mr. Youngsters these days? Didn’t you get married at 20?  I’m sure you were no Sadhu back then. It’s the age, Krishna! It’s their age to fall in love, make mistakes, drink too much, and get hangovers. We elect association members to keep our gutters clean and lawns mowed but they assume they are the guardians of the township’s morality.”

Krishna flinched at Frankie’s full-frontal assault at his youthful escapades. He knew it had been a mistake to share such intimate details with him, but Frankie was skillful at inviting confidence and liberal at dishing out his own life’s savory details. But Krishna wasn’t willing to concede this point.

“If the girls were married, nobody would have a problem, least of all, Mahadevan.”

“Who is Mahadevan to care whether the girls are married?”

“He is the association president! He cannot be a bystander to indecent activities in his township. Lots of families live here with kids and elders, what if they see this kind of behavior and…” Krishna stopped mid-flow when he saw Frankie turning a darkest shade of purple. He sensed an outburst.

“Outside in the streets, we have democracy. Inside the township’s walls we have a junta. From the decibel levels in our living rooms to the hanky-panky in our bedrooms, from the cooking smells in our kitchens to the cleaning schedules in our toilets – the association pokes its nose into everything. License Raj may be dead outside, but it is alive and kicking within these walls. From hiring a new maid to keeping your shoe rack outside your door, you need to get permission from the association.”

Pausing for breath, Frankie continued, “I remember a Sunday some time ago. A few college kids were shooting a dance video on the lawn. There wasn’t even any music. Sundaram, that other association coot, saw this from his balcony and screamed down at them threatening to call the cops and demanding a written consent letter sanctioned and signed by two association members. Who the hell does he think he is? Under what law is it prohibited for a few kids to take a harmless video in their own backyard? Do you know what’s the source of their power? Apathy. Nobody wants to deal with the malfunctioning CCTV cameras, the leaking pipes, and the broken gutter lids, so they hand over their autonomy to these goons.”

As quickly as the outburst began, it subsided. 

“It’s time for a change,” Frankie said softly. “Mahadevan and his buddies have to go. Time for some new blood.” Frankie stopped mid-stride, looked into the distance and announced, “I am going to contest for the post of association president.”

Krishna grinned at his friend’s solemn pronouncement and burst into laughter. “Have you gone crazy? You probably know five people in this township. Who will vote for you?”

“The youth. That’s who. I will be an anti-establishment candidate. Down with the stodgy relics from the past,” said Frankie raising his fist in the air.

“You are a relic from the past!” Krishna exclaimed.

“Age is a function of the mind. I connect with the youth, I tell you.”

“First of all, nobody calls it the youth anymore…”

“Hush! We have to strategize, and plan. You will, of course, be my campaign manager. We need to reach out to the young and bring them to the voting booths. The problem with elections these days is that only the old vote, and they inevitably vote for a fellow ancient: by age or by thought.”

Krishna silently shook his head and continued walking. He knew his friend’s mind was set and there was little he could do to budge him.

In the month that led up to the election, the duo began a door to door campaign, visiting every one of the township’s eight hundred apartments. From arthritic uncles to soap-opera obsessed aunties, from workaholic middle managers to free-loading relatives, from school-hating children to college-hating youths, the campaign appealed its case. After a few mishaps, Krishna talked Frankie out of his newfound habit of lifting every baby he encountered and kissing it sloppily on both cheeks. Despite his initial reservations, the electoral fervor quickly caught hold of Krishna too and he bloomed into his role as the campaign manager.

“You have to win me the lady vote. Only you can convince the women.” said Frankie one day.

“What is that supposed to mean?” Krishna asked.

“You are religious. Organize a sloka chanting session on Saturday morning, talk me up. I am hosting a Friday evening party for young voters so don’t expect my attendance.”

“So you get the young crowd and I get the old ladies?”

Leaflets with Frankie’s balding head in smudged blue ink were printed on cheap pink and yellow papers; below his head was his election motto in bold ink, ‘Change. Hope. Youth.‘ Krishna was assigned the pre-dawn duty of intercepting the morning milkmen and attaching one leaflet to every packet of milk.

Frankie began attending every association meeting and badgering his rival Mahadevan for a debate. He even attempted to have it televised by the local news channel but his fervent calls and mails went unanswered. A high-schooler from Block B became the lone member of the campaign’s IT cell and was tasked with the role of sending ‘Good Morning’ and ‘Good Night’ messages to every resident along with a picture of a beaming Frankie flashing a thumbs up. Soon followed video clips of Frankie helping out fellow residents with carrying groceries or playing cricket with the township kids that always ended in a freeze-frame of a smiling Frankie and the campaign slogan. A Facebook page was created on which a daily video series debuted, ‘If Frankie were the president, he would…’. Text messages flurried to encourage residents to follow his Facebook page.  

When Krishna wondered aloud whether this might seem too intrusive, Frankie demurred, “Scorched Earth, Krishna. We have to get our message out at every opportunity. B When was the last time Mahadevan said as much as a good morning to anyone? Since we started this, he suddenly bent over backwards with best wishes for everyone. The ruling elites are shuddering in their shaky thrones, my friend.”

On the day of the election Frankie procured a handheld loudspeaker and beseeched the residents to vote, “Voting is your birth-right. Vote for me coz that’s right!”

The voting booths were in the community hall. The lines seemed unusually long that year. Even some of the oldest residents in wheelchairs had come to vote. Even as the day was winding down residents trickled in to vote, stopping for a moment or two to talk to the candidates who waited outside. When voting ended, the campaign observers, including Krishna, gathered the ballots and huddled inside to begin counting. A smattering of idlers assembled outside to await the results. Someone started an FM radio and Mohammed Rafi crooned, ‘Aisa Mauka Phir Kahaan Milega…’.

“Frankie sir, I voted for you. All the best!” said someone. 

Frankie smiled weakly, too hoarse to talk. From the corner of his eye he noticed Mahadevan who nodded grimly at Frankie. The results were expected any moment now. 

Krishna emerged from the counting room, shaking. Frankie moved expectantly towards him; he tried to suppress the uneasiness inside. Tightly gripping the bannister Krishna descended the two steps from the hall and whispered, “We won. By a landslide.”

Visibly speechless, Frankie hugged his friend and smiled, tears welling up in his eyes.

III

“Sambar is truly in the Goldilocks zone of South Indian cuisine,” said Frankie one Sunday morning, wiping his plate clean off sambar with the last morsel of a dosa. “Simmer it too less, you are left with watery rasam. Simmer it too much, dal is all you get. Simmer it just right and you get sambar.”

Krishna generally avoided engaging with his friend during his meal soliloquies, but sambar was too close to home. “Sambar is as different from rasam as Goa is from Delhi. The spices, the vegetables, they are all different. Considering the number of times you have eaten my sambar and rasam, either you are an ignoramus or you are being frivolous,” lectured Krishna, waving the dosa flipper like a teaching stick.

“You really are a fantastic cook, my friend. I have never eaten better South Indian food. What’s your secret ingredient? Love?” Frankie grinned.

“All credit goes to my grandmother and mother. As a kid in Kumbakonam I would spend hours in the kitchen watching them grind the spices, boil the herbs, and prepare the finest delicacies one can imagine. No recipe books, no measuring cups, nothing. Everything was done by instinct, and backed by generational memory. Such cooking has been lost, I tell you.”

“Why so?” asked Frankie, waiting at the dining table for another dosa.

“People think traditional cooking takes too much time and it puts on too much weight. I don’t know what gives them that idea. My mother would wrap up cooking by 8 am sharp and my grandfather lived till the age of 102 and was reedy like a needle in a panjakaccham. I advise Ambi and Suma to expose the kids to our foods, but it’s always salads, pastas and sandwiches. Can you even imagine that?”

“Ghastly,” shuddered Frankie, even though his own dinner at home prominently featured sandwiches and salads.

“It’s such a pity. The kids don’t even know their own foods, or the variety and unique tastes they offer. If parents don’t take the initiative to teach their kids about their traditions, who will?” asked Krishna, placing a crispy hot dosa on Frankie’s plate. “Take more chutney, there’s plenty.”

“Why don’t you?” quizzed Frankie, tearing into the dosa.

Krishna snorted, “As it is I have to beg and bribe the kids to talk to me for a few minutes before they run into their rooms.”

Frankie scooped a liberal dollop of chutney into his mouth and said, “The problem is the medium. Nobody wants to listen to a lecture over FaceTime. I am sure if you can package your message in some other way, they will listen.”

“Medium? Like cinema?” Krishna sat down beside Frankie, “Pass me the sambar.”

“Perhaps. Or maybe, YouTube? Kids are always on their smartphones watching YouTube.”

“I don’t know how to operate that.”

“You don’t worry about all that. I can be your producer and cameraman. You just worry about the content.”

“But what will I talk about?”

“Didn’t you just tell me that this generation doesn’t know about traditions. Talk about traditions.”

“You can’t just talk about traditions in the general. It’s always as a part of other conversations that you segue into traditions.”

“Figure it out man. What are traditions? Stories, cooking, habits, etc. Talk about each and every one of them. Or may be just one. You are an excellent cook, why don’t you talk about the recipes for your traditional items?”

“I am not starting a cooking channel. That will be strange.”

“What’s strange about it? Because you’re a man?”

“No, no, not at all. Why would anyone watch an old man cook?”

“My friend, you and I are at an age where anything we do starts looking exotic. Oh wow! Look at that old gentleman running a 5K! Oh wow! Look at that old gentleman riding a bus. Oh wow! Look at that old gentleman wearing a suit. Once you reach a certain age, the world expects you to be helpless, so anything you do, even something you have done every day for the past 50 years, starts looking refreshingly exotic and worthy of praise. If you start a cooking channel, trust me, people will watch.”

“You think so?”

“What’s the harm in trying? I can shoot it on my phone. The most important thing is finding a suitable name for your YouTube. Branding is everything.”

“Krishna’s YouTube channel?”

Frankie groaned, “Think bigger, my friend. The name has to excite people into watching. I presume you will be cooking your traditional Iyer foods. Perhaps something with Iyer in it? Iyer Recipes? Iyer’s Kitchen?”

“I think the name could convey that it is an Iyer man doing the cooking.”

“Good point. How about Krishna Iyer’s Crazy Kitchen?”

“I am not crazy about the Crazy. Krishna Iyer’s Kitchen sounds better.”

“Deal. Krishna Iyer’s Kitchen, it is. I want you to come up with a list of ten recipes by tonight. We get the groceries tomorrow and start shooting from the day after. We can shoot in your kitchen, but it could do with a good scrubbing. So get started with that.”

“Could we start from Friday? It’s an auspicious day.”

The next Friday, Director Frankie emerged with a borrowed tripod from a kid in the township. The kitchen was rearranged to make for a more pleasing frame and the first episode of Krishna Iyer’s Kitchen was shot with the chef preparing his delectable ginger chutney. What would have normally taken him twenty minutes took them over three hours that day.

Midway through the first take, Frankie yelled, “Cut! Cut! This is terrible. You are talking into the dish. You have to face the audience, and keep talking to keep them engaged.”

“But I have already described that I am about to peel the ginger! I can’t keep repeating it while I do that.”

“Obviously not. Talk about something else while you peel. We are shooting in real time, so you have to fill in the spaces with conversation.”

“Do you expect me to lecture about Ramayana when I am peeling ginger? It’s ridiculous.”

“How about I carry a conversation with you from behind the camera? The audience doesn’t have to see me. I will assume an Iyer name too and feed you with conversation. Look at me while talking and it will appear like you’re talking into the camera.”

Krishna broke into laughter, “I have heard that directors go crazy with time, but you are a little ahead of the curve.”

“Just humor me. Give me an Iyer name.”

Krishna shrugged, “Okay, how about Ramamoorthy? We can be Krishna and Rama.”

And that is how ‘Krishna maama’ and ‘Rama maama’ – as they would be affectionately called by their millions of future viewers – were born.

Scene

Krishna maama peeling the ginger.

Krishna maama: “It is important to peel the ginger skin thoroughly to avoid any bitterness.”

Rama maama, from behind the camera: “Is it true that ginger boosts immunity?”

Krishna maama: “Yes. As a kid in Kumbakonam, my paati would make us drink a glass of hot water with ginger on winter mornings to prevent colds. It is a miracle food!”

Rama maama: “The biggest miracle in that story is that Kumbakonam once had a winter.”

Krishna maama: “Frank… Rama, you are too much. Now that the ginger has been peeled completely, dice it into small bits. The consistency doesn’t matter because…”

The second recipe, Arisi upma for which the ginger chutney is a fantastic accompaniment took less than an hour. The crew broke for lunch after and dug into the prepared delicacies.

The views trickled in. Two in one day, three the next, four on a Sunday. Dejected, Krishna wanted to quit, but Frankie pushed on. “Let’s try ten videos before calling it quits.”

Every two or three days the team would come together to shoot. For Janmashtami, Krishna came up with topical dishes appropriate for the festival. 

It occurred around then; the event. Frankie forever came to call it the ‘The Great Sambar Miracle’; unclear about their exact clientele, Krishna suggested a quick-fire Sambar recipe that might be useful for office-goers. And hence was born the video that Frankie named ‘Krishna Iyer’s Sambar In A Jiffy’. The views galloped in almost immediately. Every time Frankie refreshed the browser, the viewership ticker would climb up a little more and later a lot more. The video soon made it into the WhatsApp forwards circuit. By Thursday, it had come home, to Frankie’s own phone.

The comments began to pile up:

“Both maamas are so cute! Krishna maama reminds me of my grandfather.”

Maama, where is maami?”

“Now sambar isn’t the only thing you can make in a jiffy! Earn Rs. 5000 per hour, call Susie at 99111 12123. ”

“Tried this recipe today. Was reminded of my mother’s cooking! Thank you maama!”

“Rama maama is so funny. We want to see his face.”

The viewers came for the sambar and stayed for the other dishes in the channel. Ginger chutney had a field day. Mango sadham emerged a late bloomer. Semiya payasam became sweeter with time. Ambi discovered the exploding channel when his kids stumbled upon it. The desire to be acknowledged as relevant, is strong in everyone, particularly in the aged. Under this newfound attention, Krishna’s spine became more erect, he began to laugh more easily, and to stand up for himself. He no longer had time to pine for Ambi’s or Suma’s phone call. His viewers demanded more of him. Live sessions and Q & A clips began to appear on the feed. And then the cheques started arriving; every month a bigger amount. 

“YouTube ad money!” gushed Frankie excitedly. 

And then the marketing managers started calling, “Namaskaram maama. Could you endorse our brand of Ayurvedic soaps and shampoos? For some remuneration of course.”

“We are selling Deepavali lekyam in powder form. Could you try it and talk it up if you like it?”

Strangest of all, Krishna found himself approached by frantic parents trying to find a bride or groom for their children, “My son has done MBA in the US and is working in Chicago. We have been trying for two years to find a girl. Could you please help through your contacts? Thank you maama. Namaskarams.”

“How can I find boys and girls for all these people?” mused Krishna.

“Krishna, my boy, you are now a pillar of the community.” chuckled Frankie.

IV

Initially, it was just a lapse of concentration. The camera was rolling, Krishna was answering one of Rama maama’s questions when suddenly he stopped mid-sentence and stared into the camera. An awkward moment later, he resumed. A week later, it was a slip in his step; Frankie held him before he fell. The next day Frankie noticed the tremor in his hands as he held a ladle. The slurring in his speech was also getting more pronounced.

Hospitals and doctors; the verdict was unanimous – Parkinson’s. Krishna forbade his friend from disclosing the condition to Ambi. 

“He will put me in a hospital. I don’t want to go there right away.” 

So Frankie moved into his friend’s apartment and the two became the oldest roommates in the township. The YouTube channel began to dry up, ‘Where are you maama?’, ‘We are missing you!’, read the comments now.

The friends kept their tradition of evening walks alive. When Krishna could no longer step into the elevator comfortably, they walked up and down the corridor gabbing as usual about meaningless nothings. 

One day, Frankie came home with two walking sticks, “I got you the nicer color.” he said. When walking through the corridor became too difficult, they walked up and down their living room, listening to music on the radio. 

And then Krishna fell. Ambi arrived shortly after, followed by a male nurse who became their third roommate in that tiny apartment. When Krishna could no longer leave his bed, Frankie arranged for a chair beside it to give company during his long days and longer nights. 

A few weeks later, a few men heaved a huge box into Krishna’s room and began unpacking it. Inside were strangely shaped equipment in black and grey, that they assembled into a treadmill that faced Krishna’s bed. Frankie beamed by the door, “I was missing the evening walks. Miracle of technology! One can now walk where one stands!” 

Once the men departed, Frankie switched on the treadmill. Slowly walking towards Krishna he said, “Remember that time we ran for the township association?” Rendered mute by now, Krishna raised his fingers to acknowledge his friend and smiled. 


Aditya Venkataraman is a software engineer at Apple Inc. in California. He is a graduate of National Institute of Technology, Tiruchirrappalli, and a post-graduate of the University of Wisconsin – Madison. While his day-job revolves around computers, his passion lies in the world of letters. He enjoys reading and writing fiction and is currently working on a short fiction collection centered around the immigrant experience.

Fiction | ‘Journey’ by Mita Bordoloi | Issue 34 (Sept, 2020)

That day I had gone to fetch my mail down the driveway when I found my neighbor’s letter in the mailbox. So, I walked to the house next door to give the letter erroneously placed in our box. When I rang the bell, I noticed through the glass panel, a young boy in shorts and short hair descending the stairs to open the door. I was mistaken. A lady instead opened the door and introduced herself to me when I handed her the letter and explained about the mishap.

“I am Michiko Mizutani,” she said.

“I am Reena,” I said. “Reena Bora, your next-door neighbor.”

Hajime Mashte pleased to meet you. Come in, please, I’ll make some tea?” she said, making an inquiry of a statement, in the way we Asians sometimes seem to speak.

I, delighted in the chance meeting with my gracious Japanese neighbor, followed her inside the house. Taking my shoes off to slide into the guest slippers, I had an urgent feeling, the kind only gut and instinct were capable of ensuring, that I was at the beginning of an incredible journey. It was no secret that I was steeped in Japonisme for a while. 

“Are you from America?” said Michiko.

“Yes, I am,” I said. “But I came from India to be an American. My husband is a professor here.”

“Good. Very good. I come from Japan. I join my husband here. He works for Sony.”

I knew about her husband as one of the guys who lived in that house for almost five or six months before the arrival of the wife from Japan a month ago. I could see from my kitchen sink the men drinking beer on the deck, chatting and laughing as if the house were a chummery for the company employees. 

Michiko got up, apologizing and running in small steps, to put the kettle on the stove. My gaze scanned the surroundings. The room was sparsely decorated with plants, and groupings of a Native American ceramic collection. 

“These are so beautiful, Michiko,” I said, pointing at them. 

“Wherever I travel, I look for them. I want to buy pieces from all the different tribes.”  A golf bag stood at the corner of the hallway in readiness. 

Michiko brought tea and cookies for both of us and I suddenly realized that even though I mistook her for a young boy at first, she could have been an older woman, much older, for her two sons, she told me, had already got admitted to Adams High School that morning, alma mater of Madonna. I had no children. 

“Do you work, Reena?”

“Only part-time, at the university. I am pursuing a PhD in Asian Art History. Japanese Art fascinates me.”

“Then you must know more about Japan than me,” said Michiko, smiling.

“I know only a little about your art, but I love your gardens too, and Zen aesthetics enthrall me.”

“We’ll be good friends, then. I’ll show you Japan when you visit and be your guide.”

“Thank you. I’ll appreciate that very much. But now let me introduce you to our city.”

After tea, I took leave of my new neighbor and offered to take her to the library the next day so that she could get familiar with our town, and the community. Of course, she knew many Japanese people in that northern Michigan suburb, but when I offered to drive her to the library she gasped with visible delight. 

The next day I pulled into Michiko’s driveway. She came out immediately, as if she had been waiting for me for a long time. She wore a knee-length dress in a dark-blue and burnt- orange flowery print that matched the fall colors of the Michigan autumn. A navy-blue cardigan completed the ensemble over her supple body. 

“Let’s go to the library first, and then to the Old Cider Mill Park and enjoy some fall colors and hot cider.” 

“I’d love that, Reena. Arigato, thank you.”

Michiko smiled with glee entering the library. Taking in the vibrant atmosphere of the library she said, “Do you come here often, Reena?”

“For my course work I usually go to the university one, but I love the hustle and bustle of this place and love the different kinds of people making use of this lovely space, the old, the very young and the people in between,” I said.

“That’s wonderful. I will come here many, many times,” she said.

“Let’s get you registered so that you may borrow some books today.”

“You’re so kind, Reena. Domo Arigato. Arigato gozaimas. Thank you, thank you.”

“No problem, Michiko.”

“No problem?”

“Oh, that’s an American expression. It’s like when the English say, no mention, when you say thank you.”

“Umm. I think I’ll just take only American English class, eh? I am also volunteering at the hospital. I make good origami. I can teach origami to children too.”

“You may be able to teach them here at the library itself. Let’s go find out from the lady at the desk.”

Loaded with books afterwards, Michiko and I drove down to the Cider Mill Park. We walked and admired the colors of the leaves that Michiko’s outfit mimicked so well. When we drank the freshly pressed hot cider, she thanked me again and again for giving her the rare experience.

Soon Michiko got busy with volunteering at the hospital and teaching origami at the library. At other times, she went out with her Japanese friends. Sometimes she and I got together at each other’s houses for tea and conversation. 

***

One spring afternoon Michiko came not with her usual bubbly self but with a frown on her face and eyes that looked far away. Detecting something serious, I hurried to brew up her favorite Assam orthodox tea and sat down beside her while the water boiled in the kettle atop the stove. 

Michiko sat crossing and cradling her arms in front of her. Her eyes stared at the ceiling above. Her legs stretched out, crossing at the ankles. 

“My husband is again leaving for the golf meet in Tennessee. My sons are busy with their baseball games and school events. And I have nothing to do and nowhere to go,” she whined.

“You know what? My husband also took off for India. I have to work on my research, but not all of the time.”

“Then, let’s go somewhere. But where?”

” Mackinac Island? Toronto? Niagara Falls?”

“No. Let’s make a long journey. How about Las Vegas?”

“Are you serious?”

“Why not? You give me the guts to try,” said Michiko.

I couldn’t let my friend’s faith in me waste away. “So,” I said, “When do you want to go?”

“Tomorrow,” said Michiko.

Excited by the prospect, it took me no time to make the reservations for a four-day trip to Las Vegas. We had the frequent flier miles that my husband always accumulated and used for his summer trips to India. I decided to steal those miles for my own getaway with Michiko. We would share our expenses and resolved to give ourselves a good time.

***

As our plane descended Michiko cooed looking down at the strip of the Sin City, from her window seat.  “Domo. Domo arigato! Thank you so very much!”

We saw famous landmarks of the world congregate beneath us, appearing as if a child’s diorama project shifted to the desert section. We saw the Eiffel Tower, the Sphinx, and I imagined being serenaded in the Venetian’s canal later in the evening.

We rented a car and arrived at our hotel just before four o’clock. The clerk said, “The only good room we have left has a king size bed, do you mind”? Michiko and I looked at each other and said in unison, “We don’t.” 

As soon as we arrived at our posh room, I made myself some coffee and pored through the brochures, but Michiko just made a phone call and started speaking rapidly and happily in Japanese. Putting down the phone she said, “Want to see the Elvis Impersonators’ Show? My school friend from Japan is one of the performers and he’ll be happy to arrange for the best seats for us.”

“Really? Why not?” I said, impressed with Michiko’s resourcefulness. “I have never been to such a show in my life.”

“I haven’t either. But my friend said he’d be honored if we go to his show.”

“Let’s go honor him then,” I said.

Michiko and I changed into our Las Vegas clothes, what we thought would be appropriate for Las Vegas. She wore a tight, black, high-collared dress that Yoko Ono would wear, and I put on my black skinny pants with a silver top. We strutted out of our room in our stiletto heels. 

When we arrived at the venue of the show, a gentleman came forward and ushered us in. He said Mr. Nieshio had instructed him to spot the two Asian ladies and seat them in the VIP section. Feeling like princesses, we sank down in our opulent chairs. 

One by one, the multiple impersonators of the King of Rock and Roll serenaded and swept us off our feet. The audience cheered and clapped and tapped their feet at the rhythm of the oldies. Even though it was not my thing, I enjoyed it all the same because I knew it was a rare experience I wouldn’t have again in my lifetime.

And, then, came Mr. Johnny Nieshio, flamboyantly, crooning My Boy in white Elvis regalia, the sideburn and sunglasses in place. During the rendition, we easily forgot that the man behind the fake Elvis once sat on the same bench as Michiko in school, and I imagined, had bento box lunch of sashimi and sushi wrapped in seaweeds.

Mr. Nieshio was a sensation that night and to our delight he won the prize as the best impersonator of the year. People cheered all around and I could see that Michiko was ecstatic as she jumped up and down and clapped constantly in sheer delight. Nobody would’ve guessed that she had two high school boys back in Michigan or a husband practicing in the picturesque golf-links of Tennessee. Nor, for that matter, that I too had a hubby tending to my aging mother-in-law in India. 

Michiko and I went to congratulate Mr. Nieshio. Michiko shook hands and spoke swift Japanese during which the former classmates bowed to each other endless times and then she said in English, “This is my friend Reena. We’re neighbors in Michigan.” I noticed that even though Mr. Nieshio impersonated Elvis flawlessly, he hesitated to speak English. 

Feeling like a bone in the kebab at the reunion of old friends, I excused myself and said, “If you want to catch up, I’ll take a cab and go back to the hotel.”

“You stay, Reena, please?” said Michiko. 

 “No, you two have a lot to talk about. I’ll wait for you at the hotel,” I said.

I knew Michiko wouldn’t need me and I wanted to go back and relax on our first day of our spur-of-the-moment getaway at our own hotel. 

At the hotel, I went to the restaurant instead and sat outside by the garden waterfall. I ordered a glass of Chianti and took stock of the last two days, since the time we decided to take the trip to Vegas. Did Michiko know all along that Mr. Nieshio would be here performing? Was this going to be an affair? Were we going to let our respective spouses know about it? 

Just then when my dinner arrived, Michiko came trailing behind. 

She said, “I knew where to find you. I am starving. What did you order?”

“Just some seafood. I thought you would dine with your friend?”  I said. 

Michiko sat down opposite me with a thud and gestured the waiter to bring her the menu. 

“No, just talking was enough. You have to know when to stop. Dinner is risky. It will mean giving hope which is not what I want,” she said.

After her glass of wine arrived, we clicked our glasses.

“To our friendship and our secret trip,” she said.

“Certainly, to our friendship, but a secret from whom?” I said.

“From our husbands,” she said. “We don’t ask what they do in their trips.”

I saw a flicker of bitterness surface on Michiko’s lips as she said this, but she masked a smile over it. It convinced me that my friend was not ready, yet, to take our friendship to the next level. She said in Japan husbands always combined business and pleasure with their colleagues and the wives took care of themselves too if they found the right opportunity.

Geishas and Comfort Women of the Second World War came to my mind. I said, “Michiko, what do you think of the Comfort Women?”

“You mean from the World War?”

“Yes!”

“What do you want to know?”

“Do you approve of it? Is it right?”

“No, it’s not right. How can it be right? But in Japan the male is very powerful. The woman is a servant. You know that, don’t you?”

“How do the women feel?”

“They learn to make adjustments. I don’t know about other Japanese women, but I can tell you with confidence that my husband will not find a comfort woman.”

She then told me how glad she was that I was her friend and bold enough to undertake the journey. Flattery won me over and I became her facilitator of entertainment in the city of temptation for the next three days. It became clear to me what Michiko meant by making adjustments.

“After we finish let’s go dancing before we go to bed,” she said.

“You don’t want to gamble?”

“I don’t like casinos and gambling and I know from knowing you for a year, Reena, you don’t like them too,” she said.

Michiko was certain about that. I was least the gambling type and enjoyed more the shows and the architectural ambiance of the city. We shook our legs with nonchalance at a night club and returned to our hotel room exhausted. 

I changed immediately into my pajamas and browsed through the brochures for our next day’s adventure. Michiko went inside the bathroom.  When she came out, she had a mask on her face and just a robe on her body. She slipped out of it, naked, and then got under the duvet cover. “I am used to sleeping like this. I hope you don’t mind,” she said turning toward the wall and revealing her back to me. I was stunned. “Michiko, you never told me!” I slipped into the bed, beside her, to admire closely the exquisite piece of art covering the back side of her body. Blooms of pink camellia and magenta peony filled the small back of her waist, just above the swell of her shapely hips, interspersed with green foliage. A pair of grey herons leapt diagonally toward her left shoulder.  

“I have read that some of the ukiyo-e woodblock artists were also horoshi, or tattoo artists in the Edo period, but this is modern and so lovely, Michiko.” 

She got up to face me. “Thanks, I knew you’d like it,” she said, covering her breasts with the sheet.

“Please lie down. I want to see it again. This is so cool,” I said.

My fingers hovered the horimono’s outlines like a dragonfly. Michiko said, “The horoshi was getting old and not keeping well. So, we flocked to his studio, before he took his art away with him. My husband wears a Hokusai on his back.” 

“I must get one when I come to Japan,” I said. 

“Really?”

“Why not?”

“You surprise me, Reena, what will your people say?”

“What did your people say?”

“They don’t know.”

“Well, my people don’t have to know either, but instead, I would like to shock them and see the expressions on their faces,” I said, and we both laughed.

When we slept with our backs to each other in our own designated spaces a vivid scene from my childhood made a comeback. That summer our aunt had made us sleep with our uncle in the afternoons in the pretext of taking advantage of his outstanding story-telling skills. Slowly the story time with our uncle became a dreaded prospect among the children, and each ran to hide before getting trapped in his net. The uncle’s fingers would scratch our back at first, and then, while cajoling us into the story, linger in spots where it didn’t feel appropriate even at a young age. Another realization saddened us when we grew up. Our aunt was seeking respite from the groping fingers herself by sharing their assault with us. The gust from the remote past surprised me which was nothing beyond tactility; yet, the detachment on the hotel bed further heightened our own sexuality. 

In the remaining days, we took in shows, spa treatments, fine-dining and even slot machine gambling, but Michiko insisted that I should not pay, not even for my hotel stay or anything at the sin city. I ended up getting my only free plane ticket from free accumulated miles. 

When we returned to Michigan, I was guilt-ridden and crammed with the weight of the surreptitious trip. But when my husband returned, I could not find the right opportunity. Our memorable journey stayed inside me. 

One day Michiko called me and said if I could join her for tea in the afternoon. I enjoyed afternoon tea with my neighbor especially on my way back from the university. I bought some croissants on my way. 

As we sat down with our steeping cups she said, “We’re going back to Japan in two months. I am going to miss our friendship, Reena.” 

“Me too, this is such a surprise, Michiko.”

“I know. My husband is wanted back in Japan. I am so grateful to you Reena, for coming with me to Las Vegas.”

“Don’t be, I enjoyed the trip just the same.”

“Still, I have to tell you something. Remember, the Hokusai horimono that I had said my husband had on his back? It was not true. When I went to get my horimono I didn’t go with my husband but with Nieshio. It’s him who wears the Hokusai and is the father of my son Yasujiro.”

“I don’t know what to say, Michiko.”  I felt somewhat betrayed that the Las Vegas trip had much more to do with Nieshio than our friendly getaway. 

“Don’t say anything. Life is a journey. You choose what your think is right for you at that moment.”

Then, abruptly changing the subject she said that Yasujiro would stay back and join the University of Michigan and Kenji would finish school and try for Tokyo University next year. Before I could retain the spate of mismatched information doled out by Michiko she spoke again.

 “I have a sayonara surprise for you, my friend. My husband’s boss’s wife is a tea master. We are going to honor you with a tea ceremony.”

“I am speechless, Michiko, thank you so much,” I said, dazed, thinking, is she paying me back for enabling her reunion with her ex-lover?

The day of the tea ceremony Michiko and I went to Miyoko’s house in the afternoon. Miyoko, a petite and a slender lady in a lychee-flesh colored kimono greeted us at the door. After we took off our shoes, she gestured us to follow her to the formal living room. Michiko and Miyoko’s friend Keiko were already waiting. Our hostess Miyoko was trained in the Urasenke tradition. Her tea paraphernalia was arranged in order. The Tokonoma, or the focal point, featured a gorgeous bloom of orchid, its hue in a shade of pale pink, blades of green grass anchoring and reminding one the irises under the Yatsuhashi Bridge.

We sat on the floor, our legs folded on our knees, in the yoga pose of vajrasana. My heart felt obliged by the honor but also unnerved with Michiko’s recent pronouncement. Just then Miyoko started the ceremony assisted by Keiko. She un-tucked the shrimp colored handkerchief from the waist of her kimono, folded it ceremoniously, and then, proceeded to wipe the utensil. She poured water into a bowl, swirled it and then discarded it. She wiped the bowl clean and then poured green tea into it. When she whisked it with a wooden whisker in the tranquil ambiance of harmony, purity and respect, it annoyed me momentarily that the tool reminded me of my grandfather’s tattered shaving brush. Finally, she scooped boiling water from the kettle with a bamboo ladle to fill the bowls. After Miyoko passed the bowls of tea to us and Keiko placed the sweets on the side, we bowed and proceeded to drink the tea. Miyoko showed us the right way. She turned the bowl thrice clockwise before drinking it. She did this so that the front of the exquisite bowl faced the guest when she drank from the back side as a sign of respect. After the ritual was over, we all laughed heartily to break free from its rigidity and appreciated the ceremony with a final bow.

***

Michiko had about a month left in the U.S. when one evening she invited us for dinner at her house on Sunday. My husband and I were greeted by Mr. Mizutani himself at the door. He waited as we changed into house slippers and then he led us into the living room. Michiko and the boys came in greeting and smiling, Michiko wearing an apron, indicating her important culinary work in the kitchen.

“Mr. and Mrs. Bora, we welcome you to a Japanese dinner tonight. Let’s start with some Saki and Michiko’s tempura. Our big boy Yasujiro will play the guitar,” said Mr. Mizutani.

While we sat down around a square coffee table with Mr. Mizutani, Michiko went back to her cooking while Yasujiro strummed the guitar. Michiko kept bringing servings of food and bowls for us. My husband and I ate with both chopsticks and forks. Kenji the younger son helped his mother, sat with us or disappeared for a time. The boys asked many questions about America and the U.S. university system and my husband satisfied them with erudite answers. Between her dishes and cooking Michiko joined us for a while and with each glass of saki we shed a bit more inhibition and talked like old friends. 

Mr. Mizutani said, “How long are you married?”

“Five years,” said my husband.

“No babies?”

“Not, yet, maybe soon, after Reena defends her dissertation,” said my husband.

“We’re married for twenty years,” he said. “How did you meet?” 

“We met in college,” said my husband.

“You must know this. This is interesting. I had a competitor for Michiko’s heart. If Michiko had chosen him, his name was Johnny Nieshio, I would not be sitting here with you today,” said Mr. Mizutani and laughed with gusto.

My husband cupped my waist and gave it a squeeze. I looked up at Michiko who smiled back at me, winking, and stir-frying still some udon for the last of her offerings. From six o’clock to about ten we tasted Michikos’s delicious dishes of exotic food brought to us with fresh bowls and chopsticks.  We never moved from the coffee-table, and by then, like Mr. Mizutani we sat on the floor and downed cups after cups of warm saki

I knew then why Michiko chose Mr. Mizutani and not the Japanese Elvis. What would she do when the singer would be touring and competing and dealing with instability? Mr. Mizutani at least gave her a home with children and only indulged in golf outings. Was that so? Why did I glimpse a twitch in her lips then?

We took the Mizutani family for dinner at a restaurant just a few days before their departure. Michiko came to my door before leaving for the airport.

“Reena, I come to say sayonara,” she said. 

We hugged and said we would write to each other.

“Don’t forget to make your trip to Japan. Remember, I’ll be your guide and take you to Kyoto, you so much love,” she said.

***

A couple months after Michiko left, I became pregnant with a boy. Michiko sent me packages after packages of gifts. Even after my son was born, she sent me origami or other little nick-knacks for him in letters or in parcels. I finally defended my dissertation and we moved from Michigan to Texas, and still, Michiko kept in touch with me. She sent me pictures of her boys who got married to beautiful brides and kept writing every year, during the new years, and I did the same. 

One day, my husband and I, two foreign film buffs, were watching Okuribito or Departures, a Japanese movie. The movie was about an out-of-job cellist who took up work of a Nokanshi or an undertaker. In the movie, the Nokanshi’s boss who was a seasoned embalmer dined after his work in his courtyard garden with insouciance, a stark contrast to the job he underwent before it. The scene transported us to the night of the dinner we had with the Mizutani family. 

I said, “Do you remember the night we had dinner at the Mizutani house?”

“Yes, the food was awesome, just like in the movie.”

“Yes, it was,” I said, remembering my friend’s tasty tempura. “Remember, Mr. Mizutani said that he had a rival for Michiko’s heart?”

“Yes, what about it?”

“Will you believe me if I tell you that I met him?”

“Where? How?”

“In Las Vegas, with Michiko.”

“When did you go to Las Vegas?”

“The summer you went to India to see your mother.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I didn’t get a chance. Wait, actually I did want to tell you, many times, but as time passed, I enjoyed sharing this secret with Michiko.”

I filled him in with the details of our journey to the sin city and my husband just shook his head in disbelief and teased me for making-up such a grand story. I thought, not bad, I could go on adventurous journeys of my own and the fella wouldn’t even know. Of course, I didn’t tell him about sharing the bed with Michiko and glimpsing the horimono on her naked body.


Mita Bordoloi writes stories for adults and children. She has a BS from Washington University in St. Louis and an MA from Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville. She has lived and worked in India, China and the U.S. Born in the Valley of the Brahmaputra River, she has been residing in the land of the Mississippi River most her life. Her website is www.mitabordoloi.com.

Fiction | ‘A Black and White Answer’ by Terry Sanville | Issue 34 (Sept, 2020)

Charles pulled their 2051 Toyota Icarus into a parking stall at the Minneapolis Pediatric Clinic and turned off the AC. He opened his door and a hot May wind filled the car.

‘For God’s sake, shut the door,’ Janet, his wife, ordered. ‘I’m twenty minutes early for my appointment. I don’t want to die of heat stroke before then.’

‘All right, all right. Jeez. I just thought they might be able to take you early.’

‘Are you kidding? It took us ten minutes to find a parking space. I’m sure a lot of women are here for the same reason, and I still need to put on my make-up.’

Janet pressed a button on the car’s center console and the AC came on. Another button lowered a sunshield that turned into a mirror. She applied beige concealer to her face, scarlet lipstick, and dark eyeliner around her blue-green eyes. After a quick brush of her blonde mane, she clutched her purse in her lap and drummed her fingers.

‘Relax, hon,’ Charles said. ‘The doctors told us it wouldn’t take long, wouldn’t hurt that much.’

Janet scoffed. ‘Easy for you to say. Nobody’s sticking a needle through your belly into your unborn child.’ She rubbed her swollen abdomen slowly and stared outside at the jagged Minneapolis skyline baking in the sun. 

‘Sorry, you’re right. But the clinic’s had great results. We want the best for our daughter, don’t we?’

‘Of course. The Andersons went through it five years ago. Their son is such a beautiful child.’

‘And they got Erick into Stanwood Academy. You know how hard that is?’

‘You don’t have to tell me,’ Janet said, ‘Shirley’s been bragging for weeks: “Stanwood only takes kids that are smart, healthy, and will…will fit in”.’

At ten minutes before the hour, the mechanical voice of the car’s calendar reminded the couple of their 2 PM appointment with Dr. Shultz. After donning sunglasses, gloves and hats, they left the Toyota, crossed the parking lot, and entered the concrete and steel high-rise. On the fourth floor they registered at the intake counter.  

Finding the last vacant seats in the waiting room, Janet streamed short videos on her iPhone-45. Charles studied the colorful posters on the walls, old ones about global warming, ozone depletion, and how to detect various forms of skin cancer. 

All very cut-and-dried, Charles thought. What they don’t show is the increase in skin cancer deaths among white people. My own sister…but you can’t stay inside forever.

In a few minutes, a beautiful black nursing assistant with Nubian skin called Janet’s name. Charles kissed his wife and whispered in her ear, ‘It’ll be over soon, honey.’  

She disappeared through a door as men and lesbian partners entered another, on their way to recovery and a reunion with their wives. He thought about the procedure Janet would endure. It made his stomach ache. He tried to remember what he’d read online and what Dr. Shultz had told them – something about modifying DNA strands that control the production of melanin and melanosomes by injecting a carrier virus that attached to certain cells. Charles didn’t understand the complicated chemistry. But it didn’t matter; all he cared about was the result.

In less than an hour, a nursing aide escorted Charles to the recovery room where Janet lay, looking tired but happy.

‘God, I’m glad that’s over. This place is a factory.  I barely got my dress off when the doctor stuck me with a humongous needle and injected the…the whatever the hell they call it.’

‘Ouch! Are you okay?’

‘Yes. Just get me outta here.’

Back in their car, they traveled in silence. Charles thought about the path ahead for his soon-to-be expanded family: taking on more legal work; outfitting the spare bedroom as a nursery, then as a home study site with all the latest gadgets; filling out applications to the best schools; teaching Sarah–they had already named their unborn daughter–the ways of the world, at least America’s version of them. 

‘What are you grinning about?’ Janet asked.

‘Oh, just thinking.’

‘Me too. Things are going to change. I’ll be a…a mother.’

Charles leaned over and kissed Janet’s cheek, his lips leaving an impression in the thick makeup. They held hands as the self-driving Toyota steered them toward their suburban.

***

Janet’s pregnancy continued without complications. After eight hours of labor and a natural birth, little Sarah lay yawning in Janet’s arms. Charles stared at his brand new daughter, at her scrunched-up little face, tiny fingers and toes, mottled pink and white skin, blue eyes, with just the hint of sandy-brown hair. Thank God, nothing’s out of place…she had all her fingers and toes, but… 

‘I know what you’re worried about,’ Janet said, placing the child against a breast.

‘What? Do I look worried?’ 

‘Just relax. The change takes time. In six to eight months we should know…’

‘Just what we need, more waiting.’

Charles busied himself putting the final touches to Sarah’s room. His workload doubled their finances were good. Janet took to motherhood like an artist to an exciting new painting, every day becoming a parenting adventure for both of them.

Sarah’s cries and giggles filled their home. At a little over eight months, she crawled everywhere and pulled herself up on furniture to wobble in thin air before plopping onto the carpet. Their cat, Jerkums, kept the baby company and egged her on, to reach for the stars, to learn about that strange world around her.

On another stifling May day, the entire family, minus Jerkums, visited the clinic and Dr. Shultz. The aging physician wore a quiet smile that portrayed sympathy rather than satisfaction.  

Janet nursed Sarah while Charles sat with jouncing legs, waiting for the doctor to speak.  

‘Thank you both for coming in,’ Shultz said. ‘I’ve examined Sarah and have the results of her lab tests. All things are within normal ranges. She’s a perfectly healthy baby.’

The doctor paused, as if trying to find just the right words.

‘But?’ Charles said in exasperation. 

‘But the gene alteration therapy didn’t work.’

And there it was, the answer Charles and Janet feared hearing, now after months of building up their hopes.

Janet stammered, ‘What do you…I mean…are you sure?’ 

‘I’m afraid so,’ Shultz said. ‘The tests show a low level of melanin and melanosomes in Sarah’s body. And those levels haven’t changed since birth.’

‘Could it take longer?’ Charles asked.

‘In very rare cases, it can take years before pigmentation changes become apparent. But in your daughter’s case, I doubt that will ever happen.’

Charles’s shoulders slumped. ‘What you’re telling us is that our little Sarah will…will never be dark.’

‘Yes, I’m afraid so.’

Janet’s quiet sobs filled the room. Charles stared unseeing into the doctor’s face, only half-hearing what Shultz said as he droned on.

‘You know white people are many times more susceptible to skin cancer than black people. With the ozone layer recovering so slowly and temperatures increasing due to global warming, all whites are exposed to more and more harmful UV rays, something that dark-skinned people can tolerate much better.’

Charles nodded dumbly. Janet’s sobs grew louder.

‘Look, folks. You have a beautiful daughter. She’s absolutely healthy – but you’ll have to help her avoid UV poisoning and cancer. No prolonged outdoor play. And when she is outside, make sure everything is covered, including her hands, eyes, and head. And I recommend using a sunscreen with an SPF of 75 or more for areas that cannot easily be covered, such as ears and the neck…and no barefoot play on the grass. I’m so so sorry.’

They drove home in silence, Charles choosing to pilot the Toyota to give himself something to focus on other than what the future held for their permanently white daughter. As they approached an intersection, an electric tram carrying students from Stanwood Academy passed before them. A row of smiling ebony children, some with blonde or red hair, waved happily, with not a pale face among them. 

***

In the years that followed, Sarah grew more and more beautiful. She attended public schools, one of a handful of white children in her class, made fun of, bullied, pitied, excluded from most social activities. But she succeeded scholastically and as a musician. In college, she became President of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of White People (NAAWP). Sarah passed the bar exam and became an outspoken civil rights attorney in the Minneapolis area. But at thirty-eight, melanoma cut short her life during the month of May, when the eye of heaven shone too bright on such a wan spirit.


Terry Sanville lives in San Luis Obispo, California with his artist-poet wife (his in-house editor) and two plump cats (his in-house critics). He writes full time, producing short stories, essays, poems, and novels. His short stories have been accepted more than 400 times by commercial and academic journals, magazines, and anthologies including The Potomac Review, The Bryant Literary Review, and Shenandoah. He was nominated twice for Pushcart Prizes and once for inclusion in Best of the Net anthology. His stories have been listed among “The Most Popular Contemporary Fiction of 2017” by the Saturday Evening Post. Terry is a retired urban planner and an accomplished jazz and blues guitarist – who once played with a symphony orchestra backing up jazz legend George Shearing.