Friday, November 12, 2010

Double Plan by Maureen Pilkington

The four of us stood on the corner near Larchmont Shore Club under a Magnolia near Lynn and Jay’s house. Lynn and Jay Wyeth were brother and sister. I was going to be with Jay, and Lynn was going to be with Jay’s friend Fletcher Dunne. Fletcher stood there with us, too, his bottom lip hanging just enough so you could see the jail on his teeth, but all I could think of when I looked at him, any time I looked at him, was his blind father and dead mother.

Jay, with all his smarts and calculations, was figuring out how we could get into Fletcher’s basement without interference. This was one of his words. Jay stood there with his collar up under a bomber jacket that later would teach me the smell of a boy. He went over the plan again and again with us until we got it straight, using his hands as if he was a man on a podium, but he never once looked me in the eye while talking strategy.

Fletcher stared out into the street at nothing with a blank expression while Jay strategized, and I figured this look was passed down to him from his father.

I heard that Mr. Dunne had a decent job that allowed him to work from home, probably with Braille and tape recorders. Jay said this fact had never been verified.

Fletcher never uttered a word to anyone about his blind Dad, or his dead mother, not even to Jay, so we all had to rely on rumors, especially how his dad became blind in the first place. Jay told Lynn and Lynn told me that the events leading up to the fatal accident with Fletcher’s mother that caused the blindness were horrific.

Jay was so deep in thought of our double plan the powerful whacks of the tennis balls from the club never disturbed his concentration. I felt them in my chest, and couldn’t help but look in the club’s direction, with the green canoes piled high up against the fence, fitting in each other like empty clamshells.

“What’s the big deal?” I said, immediately realizing that I could not explain what I meant in front of Fletcher.

Everyone stopped and looked at me. Jay was checking his watch, following his own advice to synchronize.

“Never mind,” I said.

It was so much easier to kiss Jay than to talk to him. I’m not sure we ever talked, except while kissing, about the kissing. He was teaching me and he said it might take us several Saturdays to perfect it.

We all started to walk and I hung back. Of course, Jay noticed, but I was surprised that he slowed up and walked next to me.

I kept my head forward and said, “All we have to do is sneak in the Dunne’s basement. Mr. Dunne might be able to pick up the vibrations in the floor, but he will never see us. We’re lucky he doesn’t have a dog. The seeing eye kind.”

“He will never be able to verify our identities.”

This was our first real exchange.

Jay yelled up to his sister. “Elizabeth made a good point.” He ran ahead to catch up to her, but Lynn was kicking dead leaves aside with her feet, making a path, looking like getting into a basement to make out was the last thing on her mind.

We started walking through the well-worn trail of Palmer Woods and I was the last in line. I followed Lynn’s skinny legs. She hopped on stones, jumped from each side of the littered stream the whole way, and motioned to me with her hands behind her back to hurry. Her agility reminded me of the way she did math, scratching her way down the sheet of problems without hesitation.

“Lynn. Lynn!” I had to say her name several times to get her attention. “Fletcher’s Dad will never see us.”

“Oh really.”

“What I mean is—why is Jay making such a production out of it?”

“He makes a production out of everything. Besides, if that doesn’t work, why don’t we just go to your house? No one’s there either.”

When we came out of the woods we reached New Rochelle, and Fletcher took the lead. As we approached the Dunne house everything about it said ‘blind man lives here.’ The shades were drawn, three cats by the front door acted hungry, the bushes were all straggly, not like the ones at the Wyeth house that were carved into clubs and diamonds.

We followed Fletcher through the driveway, passed a Weber grill, and he made an effort to walk around the huge black stain on the garage floor. Jay poked his sister and pointed. The look on his face was talking evidence, as if this stain had something to do with everything. In seconds we were in the basement, spinning ourselves in chairs that looked like barrels.

Fletcher got up and went into the bar area to hunt for sodas. I went with him because I always felt like the odd-man-out whenever I was alone with Lynn and Jay. They had their own language and never shared the definitions—like the word ginge. What’s the ginge, they would say to each other, right in front of me. I know they made it up as some kind of signal.

“So,” I said watching Fletch, surprised that he wasn’t concerned with the racket he was making, “at least we can use your house, I mean, seems like no one is home.”

“Like your house,” he said, in his usual blandness.

I wanted to say that I didn’t have a blind man hiding upstairs, but I didn’t have the heart.

“You don’t have to pretend with me,” Fletch said, standing on an upside down Dewars crate, looking up on a top shelf, the seat of his jeans appeared empty. “I know all about your mother.”

I was such a jerk, so afraid to upset him, and here he was, handing me a soda like he already forgot he was out of line. He should have known something about what it felt like. My mom wasn’t in a horrific accident, she just floated away.

“Here,” he said, “carry these.”

“Thanks a lot.”

He gave me the once over like he was checking me out, but I knew this couldn’t be. Everyone liked Lynn better.

I walked to the other side of the basement and held the can of soda over Lynn’s head waiting for her to take it. She had fallen off the barrel laughing and I wondered how anyone could kiss a boy with her brother in the room. She grabbed the bottle of coke and immediately chugged.

Jay stared at me now for the first time all day. I feared my embarrassment accentuated the apples of my cheeks that were bigger than anyone else’s, for which I was always self-conscious. I had not cut my hair in so long to hide them, and it seemed that I was growing into the name Jay teased me with, when we were alone.

“Hey, Pocahontas,” he said coming over to me on his hands and knees.

I could not believe that Lynn and Fletcher were already going at it on the couch, their heads bobbing. Jay and I always had to work up to it.

Jay put his head on my lap and looked up at me, but I couldn’t look down, not with those slurping sounds. He didn’t seem to hear it, his intensity shifted in my direction. I focused on the framed print over the fireplace of kittens crawling out of a basket.

My hair was in front of me and Jay took a lock and studied it. At first I thought he was looking for split ends. He began to use it like a soft paintbrush, brushing his lips first, and his eyes that were now closed.

He sat up and held my face, his two strong thumbs pressing into my heated cheeks and kissed me. My nose pressed so hard against him that I tried to maneuver my head so I could breathe. He stopped and looked at me. Then he put his hand on my chest, on top of my shirt, and began to outline with his finger, the form he felt underneath. All I could think of was the blue and pink flowered bra I was wearing. My father had to pull up outside the door of John Wanamaker’s so I could run in and buy one, while he sat in his car and smoked a cigar.

I felt a warm gush in my underwear. Great. I had white jeans on.

“What’s the matter, Poke,” he smiled, looking at me carefully, taking his hands away, assuming he did the wrong thing.

I noticed our hair was exactly the same brown-black, but his eyes were light blue.

“I really have to go to the bathroom.”

“Hey—Fletch,” he said twisting his neck but keeping his body in the same place. “Elizabeth has to go. Fletch. Fletch. Oh Fletch,” he said, dragging out the “oh.”

“Gotta go upstairs,” he responded with Lynn pulling him right back down.

“What about Mr. Dunne?” I whispered in Jay’s ear, my lips touched his soft lobe by mistake.

Now he was talking into my ear, his lips very deliberately on my lobe. “Sounds like no one is up there. And, look at Fletch here. Does he seem worried? Besides, we would have heard discriminatory sounds by now.”

“Well, you don’t hear too much when you don’t want to.”

“Only when I’m fixated.” He pulled me to him and we were back in his warm mouth.

When I got up, the taste of him was familiar like I had known it my whole life. And, I felt something genuine from him for the first time. He was looking at me directly in the eye.

“Do you want me to go with you?”

“No, its OK.”

“I am lying-in-wait then.”

I began up the stairway. It turned a corner, leading to the next floor. I tiptoed up the steps and opened the door slowly. I could partially see the living room, with furniture positioned around the perimeters, as if the middle was left for dancing. I heard the hum of the refrigerator and the ice cubes dropping from the icemaker into the freezer bin.

The room next to the kitchen had its door closed, and this is where bathrooms are usually located. I crept down the hallway, thinking I really did look like Pocahontas with my hushpuppy slip-ons, and my shirt with the fringe. Now the creeping.

I used the bathroom, and washed my hands with cold water. There was no soap in the soap dish, and the towel was damp. My face looked flushed in the mirror. When I came out I walked freely.

“You’re not Fletch.”

I stopped. I saw the figure of Mr. Dunne sitting at a desk in front of the window in the living room. I was sure he was not there before.

“No, Mr. Dunne.”

“Ah, one of Fletch’s girlfriends.”

“I’m just a friend,” I said, wanting to make that clear, and lucky he couldn’t see the disgust in my face. “I’m sorry, I had to use the bathroom.”

“Don’t be sorry. If you have to go, you have to go.”

Mr. Dunne stared out the picture window, seated at the empty desk. He was lanky like Fletch, unshaven, in a wrinkled dress shirt, the cuffs flopped open. I wanted to ask him about all the things a blind man can’t do, and I could count a few just by looking at him.

“And, you are…”

“Elizabeth. Elizabeth Pearly. Lynn Wyeth’s friend,” I quickly added since that is how I was referred to. The Wyeths had me practically living at their house, thinking they were helping my father.

“Yes, I knew your parents from the Shore Club.”

A cat appeared at my feet, surprising me. I pet it and its scratchy meow frightened me.

“That’s Tiger. He was one of the kittens.”

He was talking like they were famous or something.

“What kittens?”

“One of the survivors.”

He must have been talking about the horrific accident. God, I didn’t want to know. I started to back up. Maybe he was referring to something else. How could a kitten be involved?

“You haven’t heard this? Fletch hasn’t told you?”


“Knowing Fletch, he was trying to spare you. He knows you have had your own troubles.”

“Yes, he’s kind that way,” I answered, pleased he couldn’t see me rolling my eyes. I sat down in the spot I was standing because my legs were getting rubbery.

“There were three new litters and the basement area near the garage stunk,” he began. “My wife couldn’t stand it, said our house smelled like a shanty with all the cats and litter boxes.”

I looked around to see if I could sneak away.

“There must have been eighteen. I had a solution in a tin can. No label on it. I doused the cement floors thinking it would clean and disinfect. My wife came in finishing a cigarette. She had a habit of tossing and stamping. Then, the explosion. She was my last vision. Now she is my only vision.”

“Smoking a Winston,” he added, like it was the best part.

“Oh.” I said, feeling something similar. All this time, since Mom died, the things I saw in my head--I never thought they were outside of me, they were just a part of me. “I see things, too.”

It was as if he was staring at my forehead.

“What do you see,” his voice lower than before.

“I mean, I’m not sure. Sometimes I see my mother dragging the canoe on the beach. The green one. Then she’s hopping in, floating out past the Clubhouse. It’s foggy, then I lose track of her.”

He turned back to face the window and rubbed his chin. Maybe he forgot I was there. I managed to get up trying not to make a sound, realizing his remaining senses must be more acute now.

“Come to the window here.”

I felt as if he was pulling on a rope tied around my waist. The room smelled like fireplace ashes. The window looked out onto the street and it was getting dark.

“Look,” he said. “You can come anytime and see your Mom.”

He must have been off his rocker, and Jay would love to know this tidbit. Now I was the only one who knew the whole story, the real story. I wasn’t even sure of my own.

I could see his face and he didn’t look sad, or blind. Just kind of mesmerized.

“What is your wife doing now?”

“Still smoking,” he said. “In her way.”

Maybe he was nuts, but I couldn’t help myself. I walked to the window. Beyond the street, above the houses in front, I could see Mom in her canoe, her dark hair in a long unraveling twist down her back, paddling on one side in the air, then the other. “Mom,” I called, and waited. She didn’t hear me.

I walked downstairs with the image of my mother with me. I moved in a trance, worried that I was like Mr. Dunne. We lived in our own kind of double plan. But I got to see my Mom and that was all that mattered. I loved seeing her long delicate arms again, arms she used to put around me. I would keep that for myself.

When I entered the basement area Lynn said, “We stopped sucking face because you took so long. We were about to come up and get you. Look at her Jay, she looks mal.”

Even Fletch didn’t know what that meant in the Wyeth language. I wondered, if he knew what his father was up to up there. Hardly a decent job with Braille.
Fletch looked up at me for quite a while and we were in a stare contest. Jay was riveted.

I waited for a remark from Fletch, like ‘Is your father any good at conjuring up your mother?’ He stood up on top of a footstool and made his announcement: “Yeah, she’s mal alright. Whatever the fuck that means, she’s it.”

Lynn jumped up and gave him an exaggerated karate chop in the back of his neck and when he fell back on the floor laughing, I noticed his lips were red and raw. I was sure I could see his tonsils dangling like punching bags.

Jay got up and put his arm around me, maneuvering me over to the bar area where we could be alone. He put me up on the high stool and sat on the one opposite, so our knees could interlock. All I wanted to do was go back upstairs. It was better to be with the crazy and the dead.

“Do you know what happened to my mother?” I asked him.

The detective look returned to his expression, as if he was coming upon the ultimate evidence that would close his case.

“Do you?” I repeated, feeling my throat close, knowing that I would never be able to ask again.

“Well,” he said, stamping his lips on mine as if he was transferring a discovery that he had kept hidden all along. He pulled away, his gaze now on the floor. “I heard she did like the Indians do.”

I pictured Mom in the canoe, placing her paddle inside, next to her feet. I pictured her rocking from side to side, going faster and faster until the flimsy canoe tipped over.

“You mean.” I was never able to say the word that was worse than death, more than death.

“Yes.” he said.

I watched him pick up my hand, but I didn’t feel his touch. He had more to say, he always did.

“But, I’m not gullible like everyone else in this town,” he said, finally looking up at me, “I’m sure its only hearsay.”

Dog Days by Jen Michalski

We are so bad that our mother takes away our video games, our phones. She throws our DVDs in a trash bag, stuffs them into the trunk of her car, and slams it so hard we hear some of the plastic cases breaking. She unplugs our computer monitor and takes it to work with her. We watch her heave it into the back seat, where it sits like a fat, sad baby when she drives away.

We are so bored that we decide to go with Sandy to the baseball field. After lunch we push each other in his room as Sandy stuffs his bats and balls and glove into a New York Yankees duffel bag.

“What am I gonna use for a glove?” Jeremy asks. He’s younger than Sandy and I am older.

“I don’t know. Your fucking hands,” Sandy answers and slings the duffel over his shoulder. For the only one of us who plays baseball, Sandy is kind of fat. Which is funny, since so is his idol, fat fuck Roger Clemens.

“We can share the glove,” I offer. Being the oldest, I feel it’s my duty to make suggestions. I get credit from our mom for all our ideas, good and bad, anyway. “Whoever’s in the field uses it when the other ones are batting and pitching.”

“You know how much I paid for this glove?” Sandy waves his black Rawlings pitchers mitt. “You know how many papers I delivered for this?”

Unfortunately, we know how many papers and how many dollars, all 4,211 and all $177.98.

“Then I don’t wanna play.” Jeremy throws himself down stiff on Sandy’s bed. He’s skinny and dark-haired like our father and might be an asshole like him too when he grows up.

“Stay here by yourself, then.” Sandy shrugs, pushing his Yankees cap down over his eyes. Sandy looks kind of like Mom, red-haired and a soft face like a sundae with jimmies. They both needed to wear a ton of suntan lotion or otherwise they’d burn. But Sandy thinks suntan lotion is for pussies, so from late May to late September he looks like a redneck pig farmer.

Jeremy jumps off the bed because he actually is a pussy about the dark and being alone and shit, and I lock the door to the house (although it seemed like Mom took everything of ours worth stealing). Then we head a few blocks over to Patterson Park, Sandy carrying the duffel, me carrying the big water bottle full of ice and water, and Jeremy running up ahead of us, running up to breaks in the pavement before shooting into the air like a long jumper. At the park there’s three or four diamonds usually filled up with a bunch of yuppie fucks playing kickball or touch football or whatever their lame asses do, but that usually happens on the weekends and this is a Wednesday afternoon, so we have our choice of diamonds. Jeremy stands on the bench on the first-base side and takes his shirt off. He waves it around like a flag before tying it on his head like a du-rag. Ever since Jeremy turned 12 he’s been showing that concave bird chest every chance he gets. Maybe he does it to make Sandy jealous since Sandy’s 14 and has fucking man-tits. I’ve got pecks that came in real nice when I turned sixteen and hair in my armpits real thick and dark. But I keep my shirt on because it’s Tommy Hilfiger and I just bought it and it looks fucking sweet.

Sandy tosses some of his baseballs toward the mound, leaves a few behind home plate, and leans a couple of aluminum bats against the backdrop. Then he pulls the Hope diamond out of his bag, his Rawlings pitchers mitt. For six months Sandy got up at 5:30 every morning, even weekends, and delivered The Baltimore Sun to our Patterson Park neighbors. He kept his money in a little fireproof safe he got for his birthday and counted it every night before bed like some people read the Bible. Sandy was going to be an accountant when he grew up if he couldn’t be a pitcher.

“Who wants to bat?” Sandy asks, but he doesn’t really have to, because Jeremy is already standing at the plate, pounding it with one of the bats, his shirt falling on the back of his neck like he’s a sheik. Sandy, being a fat fuck Roger Clemens wannabe, will pitch to us all afternoon. He could pitch every breathing moment of his life when he isn’t watching baseball on television or doing fantasy baseball stuff on the computer. I trot out to center field, taking the water bottle with me because I figure I’m going to be running more than either of them.

“Come on, Sandy.” Jeremy cocks the bat. Sandy kicks the mound like he’s a dog looking for a good place to pee. He keeps kicking with his foot for what seems like forever before he bends toward Jeremy, his glove behind his back. It is a sweet glove, I have to say. I can’t imagine me or Jeremy owning anything so nice. We probably never will. Even the bikes our mom got us for Christmas were second hand from some guy at work whose sons had outgrown them.

Sandy looks off the nonexistent base runners before kicking his stumpy leg up high and throwing a ball that arcs about two feet left of the plate.

“What the fuck was that?” Jeremy retrieves the ball from the back of the cage and throws it back.

“Trying a new slider curve,” Sandy shrugs, spitting into his hands and rubbing them.

“Well, throw a fucking fastball so I can goddamn hit it.”

“I’ll throw a fastball when I goddamn feel like it.” Sandy sets his feet and repeats his windup. But he throws a fastball, straight down the plate, and Jeremy whiffs. Mom always has to go to school for Jeremy. If it wasn’t his acting out in class it was his doing poorly in class. Sandy and I weren’t Mensa kids, but making Jeremy sit and do one thing for five minutes was a goddamn miracle. It almost seems like he has too much energy. Whatever it is, it makes him uncoordinated as fuck. Even if he wanted to play sports, he would suck big time.

“I wasn’t ready,” Jeremy explains, putting his palms face down in the dirt around home plate and rubbing them together. For good measure, he spits in them and rubs them some more. I look around the park. There’s a bunch of other baseball diamonds that are empty except for the bum sleeping on the third base side bench of the diamond behind us, tennis courts where the retired people play in the mornings, and a basketball court, where there always seems to be a pickup game of like 50 people. No girls. Maybe the occasional runner, although you know she’s a yuppie with a boyfriend and a nice rowhouse south in Canton or west of the park in Butchers Hill.

I had a girlfriend a few months back, Erica, and I had dreamed of all the great things we would do this summer, like get ice cream on Eastern Avenue and walk along the harbor, drinking forties that Little Ra bought for the kids from the liquor store on Fairmount for a tip. But then Erica grew pretty and I stayed ugly. Now when I’m not working at Santoni’s stocking shelves I’m keeping an eye on Sandy and Jeremy. More like Jeremy, though. When Erica and I were watching TV at our house a few months ago, when our mom was working nights, Jeremy almost set the whole building on fire burning his old Matchbox cars. I guess we weren’t paying him much attention, or least I was paying more attention to Erica’s tits when I smelled a horrible smell like burned steel. Our landlord, Mr. Caretti, almost threw us out then. But I made a special promise I would keep Jeremy out of trouble. We couldn’t afford to leave, not after Dad left and we lost the house on Conkling Street last year.

“Fuckwad, what are you doing?” I look up at fat-ass Sandy staring at me, his hands on his hips like a girl. “You gonna get the ball, or are you gonna stand there all day and jack off?"

“Fuck off, fat ass.” I give him the finger and then scan the field for the baseball. It's near the third base line in left field. Out of the corner of my eye I see Jeremy trotting around the bases. I pick up my pace, grab the ball, and fire it to Sandy, whose glove swallows it up like a dust buster. Jeremy is still rounding third, but when he sees Sandy has the ball he speeds up. Sandy blocks the plate and braces for Jeremy, who is screaming with his head down, arms waving. They meet with a smack at the plate, Jeremy leveling Sandy like wet cement. But that glove is a black hole, and Sandy holds onto the ball.

“You’re out!” Sandy cries from on his back. Jeremy grabs with both the wrist that is attached to Sandy’s glove and shakes it violently, trying to dislodge the ball. Sandy hits Jeremy on the chest with his free hand.

“Stop it Jeremy, you're out.” I jog in from third base. “Get off him.”

“Fucker.” Jeremy gives Sandy one last shove before he stands up.

“First out.” Sandy walks back toward the mound, digging the ball out of his glove and spinning it in his hand. I jog back toward center field. Sandy rears up again, throws a sweet-looking ball that bends right over Jeremy’s bat and into the backstop.

“Sw-ing!” Sandy punches the seat of his glove with his hand. “How do you like that knuckle curve, retard?”

“Rob, tell Sandy to stop calling me names!” Jeremy heaves the bat toward the mound, but it only makes it halfway there before it craters into the dirt.

“Come on, Sandy. Play ball.” I take a swig from the water bottle. Jeremy is super sensitive and Sandy is like a rain man sometimes. Jeremy takes the other bat from the backstop, leaves the first on the path to the pitcher’s mound.

“Put my bat back, you ‘tard,” Sandy says as Jeremy chokes up on the new one.

“Come on, pitch!” Jeremy answers, but Sandy digs at the mound with his foot. “Pitch the ball, fat ass!”

Sandy rears up and plants a fastball into Jeremy’s left side. Jeremy crumples over, holding his ribs and howling. Sandy watches from the mound, and when he refuses to move, I jog out to home plate.

“You all right?” I put my hand on Jeremy’s back. “Why don’t you walk it off?”

“Fuck you, Rob.” Jeremy spits into the ground, and I grab him them minute his body moves toward the pitcher’s mound.

“Sorry.” Sandy is inspecting the stitching of his glove, ignoring him. “New slider curve.”

“Sorry, my ass.” Jeremy pushes against me, but I’m pretty tall, nearing six feet, and kind of strong from stocking shelves at Santoni’s, so he doesn’t go anywhere.

“We’re going home.” I let Jeremy go when I sense he’s calm, grab the bat. “I’m tired of this.”

“I need to work on my pitches.” Sandy whines. “You can go home, but I’m staying here.”

“You can’t stay here by yourself,” I say, still holding the bat. Nobody says anything about the last time Sandy came up alone and got the crap kicked out of him by some gang boys on bikes. Jeremy stomps over to the bench and lies down his back. He pulls his shirt turban down over his eyes.

“You hit,” Sandy says as I pick up the other bat. “Come on, gimmee a few pitches, Rob.”

“All right, fine.” I weigh the bats in each hand before deciding on the longer one. Sandy digs into the mound as I tighten my grip. The first pitch drops off in the dirt; somehow, I manage to lay off it. I lay off the second, too, which starts off fat and high but spins away low to the other side of the plate. Finally, when Sandy gives and goes for the fastball I’ve been sitting on it the whole time. I cock my bat and shoot a laser into left field.

“You’ve got good plate discipline, Rob,” Sandy says.

“You’ve got good movement, San,” I answer, tossing him one of the other balls that lay around the perimeter of the backdrop.

“I’m going make varsity when I’m fifteen.” He nods, tugging on his Yankees cap. As if no one in the household hasn’t known this for the past two years. That and his plan to get a baseball scholarship to Stanford. Sandy’s goals are singular and long-sighted; Jeremy’s desires seem multiple and conflicting. Which is why it’s not surprising to see him, out of the corner of my eye, playing with what looks like a stray dog. It’s medium sized, gray and black, some kind of terrier mix, and man is it matted.

“Check out this dog!” Jeremy has it in a stranglehold hug. “Isn’t he awesome!”

“He’s dirty,” Sandy answers. “But then again, so are you.”

“Do you think Mom will let us keep him?” Jeremy jogs over to the backdrop and grabs one of Sandy’s baseballs.

“Not my baseballs, fuckhead.” Sandy cocks back is arm as if to bean Jeremy again, who tears up the first base path and off into center field, the terrier flying after him.

“Let him have it.” I put my hand up, tap the plate with the bat in my other. “Come on, throw me something.”

Sandy looks off the batters and then throws a changeup. I’ve been waiting on fastball and its slower speed makes me whiff. Out in center field Jeremy holds a ball over his head while the terrier mutt jumps for it.

“Having a dog wouldn’t be the worst thing that happened to Jeremy.” I pick up the missed pitch and flick it back to Sandy.

“Until he gets bored with it.” Sandy’s glove gobbles the ball with a smack. “Remember his goldfish? His gerbil?”

“Jeremy needs something with just as much energy as he has,” I answer, knocking some dirt off my shoes with the bat.

“Yeah, but when it needs to get walked at night and Jeremy is watching TV, you or me is gonna get stuck walking it.” Sandy looks over his shoulder at Jeremy, who fires the ball across the outfield. “That’s even assuming Mom will let us have a dog.”

“Well, he needs to learn to be responsible,” I say. I don’t say it, but I imagine the dog being good for Sandy, too. Sandy, who thrives on routine, stability, wouldn't complain about taking care of a dog any more than he complained about taking care of Jeremy’s gerbil Pokemon when Jeremy grew bored with it. He even made Pokemon a ninja suit out of an old facecloth for Halloween that year. In fact, I swear that was the only time Sandy cried, when Pokemon died. Not when Dad left or we lost the house or when Grandpa died and Sandy lost his full-time practice catcher.

Jeremy runs back in from the outfield, pulling his shirt across the front and back of his body like a towel. He flops down on the third-base bench, burying his face in the same shirt. The dog sits on the ground near the third-base bench, wagging his tail, watching him.

“He likes you,” I say.

“His name is Fred,” Jeremy corrects, his face still hidden by his shirt.

“How do you know?”

“He told me.”

“Whatever.” Sandy smacks his ball against his glove. “Mom's not letting you keep that thing.”

“Shut up.” Jeremy sits up, takes the terrier in his arms. It struggles a little but then licks Jeremy’s upper arm. “I’m his owner. He’s mine.”

“We could give him a bath when we get home, clean him up,” I agree. I’m liking this Fred idea more and more. Not just for Sandy and Jeremy, but for me. If their attention is on Fred, then my attention could be elsewhere, like trying to win Erica back. Instead of coming right home from Santoni’s after work maybe I could slide by the Northeast end of the park, where the girls, including Erica, sometimes hang out on the corner, eating popsicles, smoking cigarettes.

“You guys can give him a bath,” Sandy says. “Come on. I need to pitch.”

I settle back at the plate. Sandy makes some good pitches, but I connect on some of them. Fred grows bored of sitting with Jeremy and begins to fetch some of the balls I’ve hit. At first he takes them to Jeremy, who is still lying on the bench like he's dead, but then he brings them to Sandy, who pats him on the head before wiping the ball, wet with dog saliva, on his pants. Fred runs circles around the mound until Sandy tosses one of the balls into left field. Jeremy sits up and whistles, and Fred goes over for a pet. Sandy winds up and I foul it down the first-base line. I’m getting in a good groove hitting, and I wonder why I never went out for any sports. I’m hitting stingers all over the field, Fred is chasing them, and Sandy is getting frustrated, slapping his glove. He studies the seams of his baseball, trying different grips before deciding on one. Then he winds up.

It looks like his new knuckle curve, and it is moving around fast. But I’m able to reach down low and cue it off the end of the bat. It spins hard and low between the pitcher’s mound and first place and is headed out to right field. Except that Fred is there. The ball smacks him squarely on the side of the head, and suddenly Fred is still on his side.

“Fred!” Jeremy flies off the bench like it is on fire. He practically lies on top of Fred as Sandy and I hover. “Fred? Can you hear me?”

“Come on, Fred.” Sandy takes his cap off, wipes his forehead. “Walk it off.”

Jeremy strokes Fred’s head. Fred’s legs twitch a little but then he is still.
“He better be okay, Rob!” Jeremy cries. I squat near them and put my fingers on Fred’s neck, feeling for a pulse. I’m not really sure what I’m looking for except that I don’t feel anything. Not breaths, not heartbeats. There is a bump on his head from where the ball has hit him. I pull open an eyelid, but Fred does not look at me.
“Maybe you should do CPR.” Sandy crouches down over us.

“I don’t know CPR,” I answer.

“Just blow in his mouth or something.”

Jeremy rocks back and forth on his knees, his eyes a little watery, so I carefully open Fred’s mouth, push his tongue to the side, and blow in. Sandy presses on Fred’s chest.

“Blow harder,” Sandy instructs, and I pretend I’m blowing up a balloon. Sandy rubs Fred’s side like he's trying to keep him warm.

“Keep going!” Jeremy demands, but we've been blowing and pushing for a good minute, and Fred is not waking up. I place his head gently on the grass.

“I think he’s dead,” I say.

“You asshole!” Jeremy's fists begin walloping on my back. Sandy lunges for Jeremy and pins him to the ground.

“Stop it, Jeremy. It was an accident.”

“He was my dog.” I hear Jeremy cry from under Sandy. “He came to me.”

I sat back on my heels, run my hand through Fred’s fur. He would have been a good dog, I could tell. Of course, maybe he wouldn’t have been. Maybe he was a stray for a reason.

“At least he died happy,” I say finally.

“Should we take him to vet or something?” Sandy wonders, leaning back on his heels, too, now that Jeremy has been subdued.

“I don’t know.” I wipe my palms, which have gotten sweaty, in the dirt. “You think they’d charge us or something?”

“He was my dog.” Jeremy says. He drapes his shirt over Fred’s body. “We should bury him.”

“Where?” Sandy stands up and scans the field. “We can’t bury him here.”

“We can bury him at home.” Jeremy bends over and scoops Fred up. He's a little big for him, and Jeremy staggers backward against the weight. “In the garden.”

I don’t mention that our garden in the back is teeny, that it’s filled with Mom's tomatoes, and that Mr. Caretti would never go for it. But I figure we can at least take him home, call the pound or something. I gather up the balls and water bottle and Sandy stuffs the bats into his duffel bag while Jeremy watches, cradling Fred in this thin arms. Then we walk home, Jeremy first, me second, Sandy third. I didn’t have time to think about all the things I wanted to think about Fred, like picking out a collar and toys, deciding what blankets were ratty enough to be used for a bed. But I also didn’t have time to think about all the other things, like vet bills and dog food. Things we probably couldn’t afford. Things Mom would have pointed out after Fred had already scoped out the house, picking his favorite sun-lit corner, by the living room window, for a nap. After Jeremy’s heart had opened and Fred had settled into it.

At home Sandy throws the duffel on the floor with a thud and we follow Jeremy out into the yard.

“It’s too small,” I say of the garden plot. The yard is all concrete, even the five-foot walls encasing it, except for a little three by eight plot of dirt where someone, maybe Mr. Caretti, had broken up the concrete and walled it off with stones. “Too shallow.”

“How deep do you think?” Sandy pulls a small shovel from the rubber bin that Mom keeps her tools in.

“Well, three feet, at least.” I walk toward the garden. There’s really no place to dig, only a foot between most plants. “There’s nowhere to put him.”
Jeremy places Fred on a lawn chair by the back door, the one that Mom sits on to smoke her cigarettes, and begins digging between the last plant and the garden wall with his hands. Sandy joins him with the hand shovel.

“You can’t put him here,” I say. “And you need a bigger shovel, anyway.”
Sandy and Jeremy don’t listen. Dirt flies around them, but their progress is slow. I dig through Mom’s tool bin and come out with a hand rake, which I give to Jeremy. After awhile Sandy goes into the house and returns with his glove. He spears it into the soft dirt and emerges with a mound of soil, which he flicks out onto the cement before jamming the glove back into the dirt. His prized mitt is getting pretty dirty, but Sandy doesn’t say anything, so I don’t, either. I sweep the dirt they’ve dug into a pile.

“There.” Jeremy stands up after they’ve dug a shallow grave, maybe two by three feet. “Think that’s good enough?”

“No.” I take rake from him and begin stabbing the dirt in the bottom of the hole. But the dirt is getting harder, more claylike, and my hand hurts. Mom will be getting home soon, and we’re halfway through the job.

Jeremy stands over me, holding Fred in his arms. I have a bad feeling about the whole thing, but since I killed Fred, I don’t want to say anything. Maybe Mom won’t notice. I can water her tomatoes, get the dirt back in shape. Maybe Fred will be good fertilizer. But maybe Fred will stink, too. Jeremy lays Fred carefully in the grave, crossing his paws over each other. He looks like a stuffed animal that was left out in the rain and then dried. Sandy shifts dirt over him, just a little at first, as if he’s giving him a last chance to wake up and tear around the back yard. Then he and Jeremy grab handfuls of dirt from the pile I’ve made and throw it on top of him. When Fred is covered, they pat the dirt, but the mound is sitting above the garden rather than level with it, the way graves look in cartoons. The hole isn’t deep enough.

“Say something, Rob.” Sandy wipes the sweat off his brow with his forearm. Jeremy mops his face with his shirt. They look like little miniature men, tough and sweaty, shirtless, like the ones I saw in my history textbook on the chapter about the Depression. Except Sandy is too fat to have lived in the Depression. But their faces are sad, tired. Old.

“Say what? Like a eulogy or something?”

“Yeah. Something nice about Fred,” Jeremy agrees. “You’re the one who killed him.”

“Now…we lay our beloved dog Fred, pet for one afternoon in July in the year 2008 of our Lord in Baltimore, Maryland. Fred was the beloved dog of Jeremy, Sandy, and Robert Bartos. He loved to chase baseballs and run around the park. He will be sorely missed.”

Jeremy and Sandy make some kind of gesture of blessing themselves, Fred, but it’s clear they haven’t been to church in years. Sandy makes a backward cross, and Jeremy puts his hand over his heart like I’ve said the pledge of allegiance. Then Jeremy goes to get the lawn chair. He closes it and lays it across the grave before standing on top of it.

“That’s not going to do anything.” Sandy makes a face while Jeremy bends at the knees and grunts trying to flatten the mound of dirt. He looks like he’s surfing.

“I told you that it’s not deep enough,” I say. “We’re going to have to dig it deeper.”

But just then, we hear the back door open, and Mom shuffles through, a suspicious look on her face. She used to be pretty, but we have turned her into a barking gnome, hutched over, face squeezed if as if in perpetual pain from the blight her sons have put her through, hair slipping out of her bun. She still has her bus driver’s uniform on, her keys in her hand.

“What are you doing with my lawn chair, Jeremy Stephen Bartos?” Mom has skipped the pleasantries and gone right to middle names. I walk toward her, figuring I can at least give Sandy and Jeremy a running start through the back gate.

“Wait,” I say, sticking my arms out like a point guard, trying to block her view.

“What have you done to my garden?” She, being five foot nothing, peers underneath my armpit at the gravesite. “What is that?”

I turn around, try to see Mom’s tomato patch as she sees it. Not only is one of the plant stalks broken, bent over from where Jeremy tried to make more room between the wall and the first tomato bush, but you can clearly see a gray-black furry paw sticking out of one end of the dirt mound. Sandy looks at his dirt-stained mitt, and Jeremy squats on his haunches, looking at his knuckles.

Mom stands in front of the garden, her head about to blast off her neck, her crooked red frown face, her mouth open, but her questions don’t come. Sometimes we even leave her speechless. But we know what we have to do. We dig up Fred and wrap him in Jeremy’s old Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles beach towel. Then, after mom calls and animal control comes to pick him up, we each go to our rooms and stay really, really quiet for the rest of the night, reflecting on the nature of our sins, praying for Fred’s rapid ascent in the afterlife, and wondering whether another gerbil isn’t the way to go moving forward.

Two Poems by Miriam Kotzin

The Web

Even in January she goes bare-armed,
her hands heavy with silver
spiders and snakes and hollow-eyed skulls,
her wrists weighted and bound
by leather and chains.
On her throat under chains,
a pale scar gleams the width
of discrete surgery, of a slim blade.

She is barefaced and trembles.
And the fine bones of her face
are contradictions.

And even in January she goes bare-armed,
her arms untracked,
but her wrists,
what of her pale wrists?
Under the chains and the leather
do pink lines map the path
of an old flight?

And even in January she goes bare-armed,
on her left shoulder tattooed a blue web,
darker than veins,
a fat red spider,
brighter than blood.

The web spreads wider than my palm,
wider than my fingers can stretch.
I examine my palm, the lines webbed.
I sort out old scars.
I read the lines.
I listen to an octave
beyond my reach.

E Train

“Do not pass between cars while train is in motion.”

We hurtle through darkness.
The broken door slams back

in its track. The tunnel air
enters the car, an uneasy spirit.

The lights flicker. I stare at signs,
faces, fading stains on the floor.

I slip off my shoes, leave my purse
on the seat and move to the door.

I straddle the gap between cars, stand with
my hands raised, cold metal under bare feet.

The train twists my body, opens
me wider. Wheels scream.

I am a living X for a moment
of perfect balance on this last ride.

Dear Mrs. Wei Wei by Charles Lowe

I first discovered Mrs. Wei Wei in a box of newspaper clippings in a dresser that had been picked up at a flea market. Mrs. Wei Wei was my wife; or rather was the pseudonym that my wife had once borrowed for her advice column, a 2 by 12cm feature with a black and white wedged in its upper left hand corner. The photo was not especially well taken, and I could not claim to recognize my wife at all—the outward lines, perhaps: the skin with rich curves like a porcelain plate and the lips puckered up just so as when in an early column, Mrs. Wei Wei advised how to survive when living with your husband’s family for the duration: always smile, not too much. That can cast suspicion, be more like a dumpling, thin lips squeezed out by the index and thumb. If you need, practice before a well scrubbed kitchen window. Make sure the window is closed first.

How Mrs. Wei Wei came to hand out such useful advice at the only major paper in the third largest city in China, Li could not be certain. Mrs. Wei Wei’s place on the Health & Technology Page had predated Li’s arrival at The Tianjin Daily. And Mrs. Wei Wei was a regular bottom feeder at the daily, so no one on the otherwise all male staff would have bothered with her history: certainly not the previous occupant, who had nailed down the position after finding the bad side of a senior editor, this old Mrs. Wei Wei taking every chance to vent his displeasure over receiving another complaint from another immigrant in trouble. So much so that the each staff member of the Daily took every step to avoid the good auntie. Li the one exception, having good reason to help the old Mrs. Wei Wei reply to some of the more troubling questions. She was that desperate. First, there were the dust storms in March.

Li worked on the business page, a job that required her to meet various supervisory personnel at textile and elevator mills (Tianjin’s main industries) spread around the city’s periphery. For that purpose, Li used a bike, which during the March storm season, became immersed in the cindery dust from the northern plains that filled the entire Goubuli District—crawling inside Li’s mouth and throat, inspiring Li each night to sleep at an arms’ length from her first husband, unwilling to touch his leathery skin, fearful that the cindery dust would pierce his self-composure.

Second, there were the Goubuli dumplings. A Goubuli dumpling is a steamed doughy wrapper, containing tofu and vegetables and sometimes shrimp or pork, each dumpling shaped like an oblong football and when prepared with an expert hand, has a lip that is completely sealed. During the March storms, the cindery dust, in addition to violating Li’s vocal chords, also inhibited her ability to taste the dumplings lined with Bok Choy, a leaf that was purplish blue and therefore was more wound than leaf. So when the old Mrs. Wei Wei became promoted after becoming engaged to a daughter of a Party boss, Li immediately put in to be the good auntie of the Goubuli District, a position that no one else on the otherwise all male staff had wanted but a position that provided Li a shelter from a cinder storm—which as Tianjin grew, seemed to grow in intensity.

The convergence of the old Mrs. Wei Wei’s engagement with a particularly harsh dust storm was indeed a fortunate occasion for the daily as once Li took on the part of Mrs. Wei Wei, the good auntie skyrocketed from her secondary position to becoming a front page regular, a crowd gathering each early afternoon in front of a sketchily stained board anchored by a dilapidated pair of sticks. There, at the back end of a park near the intersection of Pu-Yin Avenue with a brief alleyway, Mrs. Wei Wei’s many fans would argue sometimes heatedly over Mrs. Wei Wei’s latest recipe for self-correction. For instance, when a teenager worried about the non-arrival of her period, I am seventeen and all my friends bleed, and Mrs. Wei Wei advised a visit to an herbal doctor to acquire a medication that makes the body temperature just balanced, not too intense or too weak hearted: some of the residents a guy hawking yams the most vociferous, felt that ginseng presented a more suitable remedy. But when Mrs. Wei Wei replied to a migrant seeking a temporary residence permit for her and her kid by itemizing how to bribe a bureaucrat with steamed Goubuli dumplings: make certain to cook the Bok Choy so that the leaves are not chewy and are not overly malleable as well—the response of the bulletin board crowd was unanimous and could be summed by Li’s own auntie who incanted in about as religious a monotone as a member of the Party in good standing could muster, “That Mrs. Wei Wei.”

But what might have cemented Mrs. Wei Wei’s standing in the community were the sharp sayings cornering off Mrs. Wei Wei’s return correspondence, a favorite being that you should get a husband for family but a dog for affection: another that the key to a good marriage had to be to keep your husband in the dark. For instance,
Dear Mrs. Wei Wei, my husband and I have been with each other for 6 ms still no signs but the in-laws give us bed at night though my mother-in-law now complains
I’m defective, want bed back, what should I do, am worried.

For the needed background, Li waited until an evening when she was preparing a weeks-worth of dumplings: my wife always prepared dumplings for the long haul. First, the letter writer resided with her in-laws, and two of them had given up the only bedroom so as to have a grandchild. The District prepared a harsh fine to couple having more than one child. But more important, when there was no kid, the wife’s plumbing gets the blame, Li adding, “No one sees anything as the man’s fault, ever.”

“What recipe did Wei Wei offer?” I asked.

“Simple,” Li paused, “The good auntie advised finding a broom: then find a time when there was very little bathroom traffic: then, lock the door.”

Li studied my mouth, which was somewhat wide open, before she continued to shower the flour on the cutting board, more than a few speckles reaching the brief counter of our rental unit: “Once undisturbed, test if there is blood, make certain to be very gentle, a broom can splinter, but check. And always, the girls write back, they’ve been untouched.”

“What’s next,” I asked.

Li lined the wok with a film of cool water, “Tap enough so that there’s blood, then collect a reasonable sample. And when no one’s awake except you, hide the remains within reach of the marital bed.

“In the night, dig your fingernails just so,” here Li put her nails into the dough that she was kneading so as to leave a pair of eyes in the flour, before refashioning the dough so that the dough had its typically un-pierced feel: “then move him so that he’s just over you. Then, scream or do something to let him know that you are alive. When he’s done, make sure that you are shaking, shaking like a dog that’s been left out in the cold too long, and when he’s fallen asleep or feeling happy or at least feeling he should be happy, pour a few drops of blood, not too much on the sheets—making certain in the morning to give your mother-in-law the chance to inspect the work.

“She’s only one who counts in the matter.”

“Does it work?” I asked.

Li did not respond, instead surveying the rows of dumplings: each shaped like an oblong football: the lips completely sealed with thick doughy indentations. The dumplings I tried my hand at (I didn’t always watch) had small bits of filling invariably leaking out. If my dumplings were boats, the vessels crafted by a foreigner would be sunk by now, but her domestic variety became perfectly sealed containers, the scallions laced evenly: the pork or shrimp or tofu in small slices forming square tiles within a doughy wrapper.

“Well, does the recipe work?” I took out the bamboo steamer and placed the three tiers on top of the wok shielded by a line of cold water as well as by the layers of grease from yesterdays’ feasts.

“Do you think,” Li said, “Mrs. Wei Wei would mislead her little nieces? They’d send me photos of the babies, one of them named a baby after me.”

Li showed me another black-and-white. It was of a baby, having the same intense look as Li, a small curl drooping across her eyelid. Understandably, Li was proud to be the helpful auntie to immigrants hungry for advice from back home—which led me to ask a question that invariably arose whenever I heard a story beginning with, “Dear Mrs. Wei Wei.”

“You must have loved your husband?”

Li studied the tray on our brief counter before inspecting my lips as if they were the lips to one more dumpling in need of readjustment.

"You left a job that you were born for,” I said.

Li added, “For a marriage that was not working.”

Li didn’t go on. She didn’t need to, having told me the story first on a second date when powder all over her hands, a green plastic container containing finely cut Bok Choy intermixed with pork and scallions and while intently prefiguring a narrow interior, she said without a smile: My husband caught me in the arms of Mrs. Wei Wei.

Li was never clear in this story or in the others that followed what led to her being in such a compromising circumstance—alone with another man in her and her husband’s apartment. But Li was vehement that the cause for the meeting was not romantic: that the old Mrs. Wei Wei was unsettled—more than usual, and was following the new Mrs. Wei Wei down Pu Yin Avenue in the midst of one cindery dust storm that turned the scholar trees lining the Avenue into red candelabras until the two Mrs. Wei Weis (at one for the duration of a seasonal dust storm) reached a basement apartment at the corner of an alleyway.

“You can imagine,” Li said, “how reluctant I was to let him in, but Shen was mostly at school at that late afternoon hour, so offered some tea, pouring the green leaves out three times till the water had no cloudiness and waited for him to recover so as to get out should my husband stop to snag a few dumplings on the way to the library when suddenly, the old Mrs. Wei Wei grabbed me and squeezed me like I was sponge, soaking my dress with tears, when my husband walks in. Well, you can imagine.

"Old Mrs. Wei Wei falls off right away. He’s got a butcher’s fat hand but not the strength from having to cut with a knife and is worried my husband will throttle him with a Prince racket, but my husband leaves, refusing to put on a show for the two Mrs. Wei Wei’s. So I chase after him, and he goes directly to his mom’s house: a good choice. My mother-in-law hates me, she thinks reporters are sluts, calls us roses of Tianjin—who else would interview a manager in private, she was not alone here, the whole neighborhood could not believe in any other reason except my mom and maybe Shen, and my mother-in-law says I am a rose of Tianjin a number of times, what can I do. Deny who I am—which is what I do, pounding on her door, saying I am not a rose that a manager would want, I’m Mrs. Wei Wei, the good auntie of the District but Shen doesn’t open his mom’s door—ever, and my hand grows cut from the sharp gold enamel on the door that shows a dog with a tail straight up. The old witch was born in the year of the dog.”

Then, Li showed me the scars that made for several chain links across her knuckles. I reached out, figuring if those scars were covered, that would be for the better, but she pulled back, her face a cindery red: which I discovered later was a rare condition in my wife, who preferred to show little emotion.

“Well, you have to understand, by now the whole alleyway must believe that I am a rose, not that I think Shen really believed that, but I had humiliated him, and every time I tried to explain how I could not be on romantic terms with the old Mrs. Wei Wei, Shen would leave for his mom’s dog cut door until we pretty much were a pair of tight-lipped dogs except for the basic household stuff, which was as far away from the subject of a rose as I could safely find, I being afraid that he would disappear, though I wasn’t surprised—really, I expected that when we reached the States he would find a younger student type, someone like me, but without a past. You see I am closer to her bulletin board crowd than Mrs. Wei Wei, which was the secret to my being a wise auntie to the hungry immigrants to the Goubuli Distict so did my part as his wife, giving up what I was born to do, knowing what would happen, which was four months into the part of my immigrant part, what I was afraid would happen did happen. He found a young, maybe had a rose color though I never did see her face, not from a distance, but a foreigner who couldn’t be the rose of Tianjin, of course—so one evening, when I got home, doing my part-time maid work, I was good at that job, Shen emptied our bank account onto the kitchen table, giving up half, the coins also. My first husband was a very fair man.

“I didn’t say anything. What could I? I smiled, a sealed dumpling, and packed up. Don’t think I didn’t want back at my mom’s apartment, my stomach tightening till I almost collapsed, inhaling mom’s Bok Choy lined dumplings, the steam clotting up a kitchen window, but I am Mrs. Wei Wei and would never go back to China for a man, maybe a dog but not a man, so I take a backroom of a house owned by a couple of Born Again’s, so here we are.”

And here we were—I in the company of Mrs. Wei Wei in a kitchen whose counter space was clogged full of dumplings, the steam painting a brief triangular window with steady crystalline spots, and I expecting to finish a dumpling date which she had invited me on flirtatiously. But instead of driving off from our second meeting, I felt Mrs. Wei Wei’s fingernails digging in my knuckles—guiding me to the back of the house to a cell somewhat barren of material possessions except for two photos on a wooden dresser picked up at a flea market, one photo of her first husband showing Li how to grip a Prince tennis racket, and the other opposite Li’s pillow, showing Shen using the same forehand to grip Li’s hand on a honeymoon cruise down the Yangtze River. Li smiled, looking like her natural self. I mean the self that I imagine I would have married had I been the first, not the eventual second husband. Shen, though, did not smile at all, appearing instead to be curious as to what I was doing in his ex’s bedroom, which was why I imagined that my Mrs. Wei Wei again dug her nails this time into my lower back before turning off the lights.

But of course, I wasn’t satisfied with a sampling of a few photos. I wanted to meet Mrs. Wei Wei’s first husband and, after several months, gathered the courage to find him, a fairly simple task considering that Shen was a fellow doctoral candidate and with a more consistent routine than I have ever shown. Around 7 each morning, Shen visited the lower cafeteria in the University Center, not where I went for overpriced pastries but where the eggs were micro-waved, and you could pick up breakfast for less than a buck. There, he read a paper whose pictographs I could spot from across the oblong shaped room before leaving a few minutes before 8 so that when the library doors opened, he was immediately inside, stopping at the basement to search through the card catalogues and the computers before climbing to the twelfth floor where all the translations were kept. And very quickly he’d have a stack of them up to his nose and be working there until 12:30 exactly where he’d take one break, to go to the graduate lounge where he and his friends, all foreigners—a couple of Indians plus one Iranian chick though I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the one that he dumped Li for. The two of them seemed pretty distant, would talk, laugh, have coffee until 1:30 exactly as if wired to be an egg timer, Shen slung his leather pack over his shoulder and within fifteen minutes, was back in his small cubicle. I had been assigned one of those but couldn’t work there. There was no sunlight, just the dry smell of well bound books—until around 10 at night. Then, Shen walked to the pond in the center of the campus, fed the ducks and a swan the leftovers from a snack that his new girlfriend had no doubt prepared (Li said Shen never cooked) and disappeared into the graduate housing near an open parking lot where if I continued to trail him, he would certainly have spotted me if he hadn’t already, so I stopped.

This routine of mine went on several months until Li suggested that I and her first husband meet for lunch at 12:30 at the graduate lounge at UMASS. As far as I knew, Li didn’t know I was stalking her first husband. The ostensible reason was that Shen had found a job at U. of Missouri and was calling to convey the good news when one thing led to another, and when I asked whether Li wanted me to go, Li didn’t offer her counsel, returning instead to line our brief counter with trays of uncooked dumpling, but even with this relative lack of direction, I assumed that since she brought up the matter, she meant for me to take the plunge. Still, I was honored to be replacing Mr. Wei Wei’s three regular lunch companions, including the Iranian chick, and agreed to the meeting, arriving 10 minutes early so as to carefully position my back against the back wall of the graduate lounge like a gunslinger in a Western. But I became distracted by the art on the wall, the lounge regularly exhibiting paintings by graduate students, this collection of the extreme Rorschach type—which was why I failed to notice that Mrs. Wei Wei’s first husband was standing in front of my semi-circular table, holding out a coffee and a fancy pastry.

I offered him a seat, which he cautiously accepted, and while he was carefully adjusting his chair, which as a result, cut off the one exit in the oblong shaped lounge, I considered how he could have happened on my preference for overpriced desserts. Here I pictured my eventual wife complaining to her Mr. Wei Wei: three dollars a shot. A prince, we'll never save a dime, to which Mr. Wei Wei gave advice mirroring a cost-benefit analysis, ending with a favorite saw, that Western poets were known to be the impractical type, but what could you do. Of course, the conversation could have taken a different tact: Li bragging to her old husband about her new boyfriend’s high class taste for overpriced pastries, a hypothesis that at first was appealing. But then, I would have to live up to whatever expectation my wife had cooked up, and what if our meeting was an extension of a prolonged marital dispute, and in fact, my presence proved a point in Shen’s favor, though what that point was, I wasn’t altogether certain, only that it had something to do with the relative positions of our careers, the balance decidedly in his favor.

So, when Shen asked how my book was coming, I assumed that the question was intended to drive home the above point, so naturally I said that the work was “highly promising,” though of what I never explained, instead swallowing his overpriced pastry and sipping on his fresh ground coffee, while considering a more obvious possibility. Mrs. Wei Wei’s ex was exhibiting a genuine interest. After all, we did have a great deal in common. First, we were members in good standing of a doctoral program, and though his progress might appear to be effortless, Shen might be sympathetic to the extremely measured nature of my progress and as he had left Li in precarious circumstances, might wish for her and my success. It was then that I noticed the other features that had inevitably escaped my Li's stories of their break-up. Shen had an appealing smile, not at all tightlipped like a dumpling but warm and inviting and his hands were soft, not at all like a butcher’s, which led me to recall something else that Li had mentioned, that her first husband relaxed by playing a piano and also had sung with the neighborhood choir along with Li’s father. Shen did have a soft voice, a little high pitched for a man, but according to Li, he could definitely hold a tune. And though Li didn’t say, I could tell this quality of steadiness appealed to her. I was also aware that he enjoyed writing stories, had a few pieces published in some minor journals, though he had given up on fiction until he could find gainful employment.

We stopped talking shop and switched to baseball. It turned out that he was a fan, and I couldn’t really hate him there either. I was hoping that he would be a Yankees fan. That was what I expected, figuring Yankees fans to be front runners, but he was for the Red Sox, experiencing the typical Spring fever high and had even expressed a preference for the Bills in football, which I couldn’t figure out as he said that he hadn’t been to Buffalo. To be honest, I actually liked the guy when he said that he had to go back to the library. He was preparing for his defense next week and even parted with some advice on writing, which since I found beneficial, which was just to try to write a paragraph a day and see what happens.

I actually wished that we had met earlier. I felt like we could be friends. I hadn’t been very close to my older brother and imagined that even though he might have been a few years younger, he could have played the more mature sibling; of course, that was absurd. Li might want me to get to know him a little, but to be close friend with an ex that had dumped her for a younger rose, well that would be very awkward. So, I walked with him to the library, went back to the convenience store in the University Center, bought some chips and fed the ducks and a swan before returning to our apartment—Li and I were living together by that time—and settling my pack on the floor in the bedroom. Li was already showering and shouted from the bathroom that she was in the mood for a movie and had read about one playing at the Academy that might be interesting.

I waited for her to ask me about my date with her ex, but either she wasn’t biting or Shen had already called in the details, and Li started preparing some dumplings, the steam carving up the triangular kitchen window with a steady pointillist rain. Then, in a tone that must have been Mrs. Wei Wei’s when advising young immigrants in trouble, offered up the random trivia that the phrase for Goubuli dumplings had many different meanings in Chinese, one of which was to be a silent dog. Then, she served me the dumplings, and I was silent.

Later, I drove her to a flea market in Hadley where she bargained with a dealer before purchasing some bridge chairs that she figured could be transformed into a kitchen set and tied the chairs to the roof of my Volks, and while holding her finger to make sure the knot was secure, advised me to start again, and we crossed the Calvin Coolidge Bridge in the middle of a rain storm that quickly abated by the time we got to the back parking lot nearby a Greyhound station. I noticed that Li’s fingers were almost the color of a rose when she gripped my hand as we climbed a closely wound metal staircase, reaching the back of a park named for a Polish war hero when we or at least I spotted her first husband walking beside his new girlfriend whose hand nearly brushed against his. At least, I assumed that it was his girlfriend, sharing Li’s outlines: slender, almost willowy, a strand of her hair bleeding into the side of the lips.

I started to wave at the two of them, but before I could get any further, Li dug her nails into my knuckles, then, lower back; when following a recipe passed down from a string of good aunties all with lips flavored with Bok Choy, pulled me behind the statue of war hero until the two of us disappeared entirely.

Two Poems by Arlene Ang


"Do you think I don't know how love hallucinates?"
Mona Van Duyn

The disposable lighter ignites his face
into sunset. We are separated

by my left eye shutting as it swells
like a life jacket. On my cheek, his breath

tenderized by alcohol. He sobs
in the bruises wrapped around my torso.

I call him by name across the blood.
The resemblance is most uncanny.

Once, I opened the grandfather clock
and kissed the pendulum.

He is most beautiful when
he promises it won’t happen again.

I am his reflection every time
he looks down the wishing well.

A fist is a coin amplified. Out here,
we are all burning furniture—

once a woman’s left sleeve catches fire,
this is how wildly a heart can beat.

Still Life with Molar

In this child’s drawing,
the molar is larger than the apple.
I caught it, he said, with a string—
as if it were a fish that would never die,
never float in water—
but the string is only for appearances.
His whisper marks
a territory, A fist did it, you see.
And my face as it hit the table leg.

The apple is so red
it almost disappears into the red tablecloth.
I didn’t know what to use
on the tooth, he said,
so I made this outline and colored
around it. Under his nails,
the smell of crayons grew its own family.

On the molar, there’s a drawing
of his father as he appears
to him in really bad dreams: a study,
perhaps, on safe distances.
How did the whale feel after it spat out Jonah,
he wanted to know. Did the whale
die from the sudden emptiness inside?

Monday, August 2, 2010

Call for Submissions

Welcome to The Patapsco Review. The Patapsco Review is named after the Patapsco River, one of the tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay (which runs through the town where I grew up in Ellicott City, Maryland).

I'm looking for the following:

Fiction--any length is acceptable, though shorter works under 2,000 words tend to work best online.

Essays and reviews. Surprise me.


Send away to:

Please send all submissions in the body of your e-mail. Thank you. Please include a brief bio.

Deadline: Sept. 15th.

Looking forward to reading your work.