Tag Archives: Fiction

The Greenwich Village Literary Review Spring 2015, Vol. II, No. 1

TABLE OF CONTENTS

OUR COVER

Cocktails
W. Jack Savage

NON-FICTION

History –
Yip Harburg: A Lyrical Activist Against Social Injustice Leigh Donaldson & Ernie Harburg

Memoir –
Memories of Judson Samuel Bean
My Mother’s Kitchen Erica Miles

FICTION
Tribute Sarah Bates
Sweet Sixteen Magda Benigna
Three Boys V. Conejero
Fire Box 598 Joe Corso
The Reunion Henya Drescher
Two Voices: a Tale from the Ancestors Mindy Kronenberg
Consequences Ann Ormsby
Jack of Hearts Leslie Silton

HUMOR & SATIRE
The Original Survivor Man Bill Batcher
The Good Neighbors James Como
The Art of Sleeping by Tootie translated by Erica Miles

POETRY
Night Duty Mario Ascueta Aguado
Baalbek, Lebanon, Makawao Forest, Opening Night’s Doors, Wind, What the Sky Tells Us Marguerite G. Bouvard
Extra Padding, Sunrise/Sunset, Ute Carson
At the Eye Doctor’s Office, V. Conejero
Seasonal Utterances (Spring), Julie Lauton
If These Walls Could Only Talk, John Lysaght
The Cat, In Memory of a Well-Loved Dog, Richard Merli
The Goose Who Loved Golf, John F. McCullagh
Portrait of My Mother, Erica Miles
The Party, Mindy Ohringer
Untitled No. 2, Dave Rullo
Near Holly Springs: Good Friday, Jeff Streeby
The First Floor Apartment on 84th, Lorien Vidal

ART & PHOTOGRAPHY
Cocktails, W. Jack Savage
Fountain 1, Samuel Bean
Fountain 2, Samuel Bean
Skycrapers with Clouds, Kyle Hemmings

BOOK REVIEWS
Robert J. Cooney reviews Jacob M. Appel’s short story collection Einstein’s Beach House
Richard Merli reviews Gary Beck’s book of poetry Civilized Ways
Erica Miles reviews Steven Jay Griffel’s novel Grossman’s Castle
Ellen Schecter reviews Erica Miles’ novel Dazzled by Darkness

– CONTRIBUTORS’ BIOGRAPHIES –
Contributors – Current Issue 

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Tribute by Sarah Bates

Rath shuffles across the bar’s parquet floor, dragging his drums. The cymbals. The foot pedals. The amps. A Grateful Dead t-shirt grips his chest—bony ridges high above a soft belly like a baby’s—spilling over black jeans. Thatched hair, dry like flakes of mica. A cigarette hangs from thick lips. Drugstore readers perch on his nose. He puts his fists into the small of his narrow back. Arches. Flexes his shoulders. Old, he thinks, too old for this. The odor of spoiled beer. Stale tobacco. Dusty folds of purple velvet pulled tight against the half-moon stage reassures him. The silver fleck of his drum set beckons.

He slams the door to his dressing room, yanks his duffle onto a chair and starts rummaging through. Psychedelic t-shirts fly into the air, studded leather belts tumble out.

“Ah!” he exclaims, pulling a tangle of black leather from the bottom. His jeans fall to the floor, as he kicks and spins around the room, his skinny ass covered in goose bumps.

“Ah, yes!” he yells, wriggling into supple calfskin pants, then turns to check his butt in the splintered mirror on the door. Across one pocket, the precious Bowie signature glimmers in silver ink. His hands tremble, as he palms a cache of Black beauties, gulps them, his mouth pulling at a brown bottle. The taste of flat beer in his throat twists his lips.

“Tonight is mine,” he whispers and feels a jolt of euphoria so sudden and unexpected, his breath catches in his throat.

“Five minutes,” a muffled voice declares behind the door.

Rath preens again. His reflected image wavers and shifts, as his practiced gestures flail, then, glasses torn from his face, he strides toward the stage. Hearing memories. Voices chanting. Hands beating—the metronome of promise. He knows the sound; his heart responds. Gel filters flash rainbows, as he steps behind the drums.

“Can I sit in?” a soft voice calls from the black depths of the room.

A pin spot gleams above his head, turns his knuckles white, his blue eyes milky. He cups a hand over his eyes, peers into the shadows, and sees the glow of the cigarette machine, the neon Michelob sign that blinks Open.

“No amateurs here,” he says. A chair scrapes. He feels a shift.

“I’m good.”

“Heard that before.”

“I’m different.” The voice is soft, musical.

He peers intently into the darkness. Ash from his cigarette drops on the toe of his boot.

“Whadda ya play?” Drops of sweat bead his lip.

“Strings,” the voice says, floating up to him.

“No strings.” Rath turns his back to the darkness, his bony elbows work, as he settles the drums, adjusts their stand. Taps a pedal.

Tat-tat-tat.

From the darkness, he hears a crescendo so sharp, so sweet, his mouth waters.

“That you?” he asks, turning back to the darkness. A wave of hunger rises.

“Yes.”

“What kinda strings?” he asks, feeling a desperate need to hear that swell of music again.

“Harp.”

He laughs, rough. Coughs. Wipes his mouth with the back of his hand.

“No harp in rock.” Rath pulls drumsticks from his pocket, flicks the cymbals.

Ting.

The melody swirls from the darkness again, wrapping him—a perfect counterpoint to the sound of the fading cymbals.

“I’m good,” the voice repeats, insistent.

Why not? His wallet’s thin. The take from the set won’t buy gas for his truck.

“All right.” Rath hooks a thumb at the stage. He straightens his back, feels a rush of newness.

Beside his drums on the crescent of wood appears an apparition of such splendor, he stops to stare. A triangle balances on one delicate point, its body woven with golden strands. Poised to stroke its frame, a slender arm outstretches. Rath turns to see a girl, her fragile face uplifted. The muscles of his heart contract, and a surge of lightening flies through his veins, so powerful it arcs from his fingertips, flinging his arms in the air. He looks her way, nods, and with a dazzling flourish of wooden sticks, his hands crash to the snare drum.

Tat-a-tat, Tat-a-tat.

“For you, Charlie Watts!” he yells, ripping into Start Me Up. His head nods. Sees Watts’ alabaster skull, sharp eyes, lips pulled back in concentration.

Up. Down. Up. Down. Tick, tick. Three sticks to the snare. Two to the base.

Beside him, the harp casts notes so pure and bright, he smiles, eyes closed, and smells the audience stir in the darkness. Faces, vague like stones, illuminated by the footlights.

“For you, Baker!”  He slams into Toad, imagining Clapton and Cream and raggedy red hair, now white. Feels the tick-a-tick-a-tick drum solo roll from his hands, the stage and the beat, the beat, the beat, the beat, and the screams from the fans and the strings of the harp throb and sing and pulse then stop, and the darkness of the bar undulates toward him in waves of heat and cigarettes and booze.

From the fingers of the slender arm stretched across the golden expanse, the haunting strains of Pink Floyd begin. Rath’s face sags, his arms go slack.

“Ahh . . . Shine On You Crazy Diamond . . . .” he moans and slumps against his chair. He feels the leaden weight of his life. The bones in his neck chitter, as his chin drops. His sticks caress the cymbals gently, so softly they purr and hum, then break, a cascade of crystal, then crash and crash and crash.

“For you, Nick . . . ,” he whispers keeping time with the harp’s melodic coursing, its riffs, its true joyous notes, as it weaves through the music. As it ends, Rath’s heart thumps, and quiet descends.

“Old man, how ‘bout me? How ‘bout We Won’t Get Fooled Again?” a rasping voice calls from the dark. “You don’t forget The Who?”

“That you, Moon?” Rath asks, hand up over his eyes again, staring into the black past. A gelled red pin spot illuminates a hollow-eyed man, dead orbs peer beneath a shock of black hair. The face hovers, trembles in the abyss of audience.

Tat-a-tat.

“And me, you old fool! You don’ member, me an’ Booker T?” A spot light flickers blue on a black face, a mirage of angles.

Tat-a-tat. Tat-a-tat. Sticks beat out one bar. Time is Tight, then fade.

“Jackson. Them MGs, don’ sound the same without you,” Rath sighs. At that, the strings of the harp sigh, too. Soothing, like drops of honey.

Comes a snare, all rhythm, delicate, a riff, a rap, sticks on hide, dancing taps, evolving. It repeats, repeats.

“It’s the kid,” Al Jackson says.

“The young ‘en,” Keith Moon mutters.

Zeppelin,” says Rath. “Bonham, gone too young. Zeppelin . . . .” he whispers into the silence and feels the pulse of life lost. Nothing but drum beats, sticks from a darkened corner, escalating, rolling, staccato, thudding like his heartbeat. Like his heartbeat.

He rises to his feet, steps onto the apron of the stage, writhing to the beat, and flings his arms wide, as rainbows flash.

“You play too, Moon. Jackson? Bonham?” he says, “Me’n the harp don’t care. Play too!”

He eases onto his stool, closes his eyes, rests the drumsticks on the snare as Bonham’s tempo lifts his wrists. The wood is satin between his fingers. His hands move like butterflies. They blur, they whir, sticks tumble in the air. Touching here, dropping there, the cymbals shudder, the base taps. Boom. Then Moon jumps in, his beats in time, strong in rhyme. Then Jackson, heavy, deep and soulful, and the harp, its music pure, its golden sound weaves through the air. A glittering net that draws them close.

Rath breathes in the sound. Through his brain it flows, his foot stomps the floor, feels its wood beneath his soles. Hears the harp, the snare, the cymbals clash, and crash, smells the audience, their sweat. Drumsticks fly, heads toss, hair snakes into light, flinging diamonds. Pin spots, spotlights, follow spots flash, top hats shudder, as they open and close, spilling red, blue, amber glows. And the rat-a-tat-tat, the boom, and the crash, the chorus of the harp lifts him and Moon and Jackson and Bonham, as the follow spot grows wider, embraces their frenzy, the rush of tapping and thudding rhythm and strings and the murmur of the audience, then gives way to scoops of white blinding light and electricity, crackling off the cigarette machine, smoke flickering from the Michelob sign, and, with a mighty swoop of wind the doors bang open, and the harp’s sweet piercing sound gathers them up. And out. And away.

Outside, a yellowed handbill pulls loose from its stapled corner on the door and flutters into the air. On it, in awkward letters, crudely scratched, the public is invited to a Tribute.

Sweet Sixteen by Magda Benigna

I had just turned 16. I was living in a small town in eastern France, not urban nor industrial, no longer rural or agricultural, a small town which had been bombed and partly destroyed during WWII and hastily rebuilt in the early 1950s, without charm or personality. A very functional town so close to Germany that it could have been German, except that it wasn’t at all cost. The left bank of the Rhine was definitely French, there was no question about it for the inhabitants of this small town.

Small French towns like mine had no high school; they were not important enough. For that, we had to travel by bus every day to the nearest city, or attend one of the quickly disappearing boarding schools. I was enrolled in the Lycée in Colmar, the nearest town for me, and I had to take a bus every morning at 7.10 a.m. together with my schoolmates from the village. Colmar doesn’t need to be introduced. It is well known in France and even further afield for its medieval streets and alleyways, its refined food and delicate Alsace wine. Beyond that, it is very proud to be the home of one of the great masterpieces in the History of Art: Matthias Grunewald’s 15th century Retable d’Issenheim. I learned to appreciate this amazing polyptych only years later. At 16, I found it dreary like many other representations of the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ or the suffering of the martyrs. I was more inclined towards the colors and lightness of modern and contemporary art masterpieces such as Matisse’s, also present in the same museum in Colmar. To live one’s teenage years in the company of Master Grunewald is not particularly uplifting.

My school took the name of another famous Alsatian: Gustave Bartholdi, architect and sculptor, better known for being the father of the Statue of Liberty, celebrated gift from France to the USA in commemoration of its independence from Great Britain in 1776. With him, I could dream of being somewhere else. By going to a Lycée bearing his name, the doors to America were mentally opened to me. In my girl’s dreams, I could take off to the New World, to another land embodied by a massive statue carrying a torch to enlighten the World. I was enlightened too. During the particularly dull classes of physics or biology, I could let my mind wander to faraway lands and break the imaginary walls. I would picture myself as a great traveler or adventurer, discovering places still unknown to me. From time to time, I was called back to reality by our teacher who was struggling to teach the biology of the human body to giggling teenagers.

Like many girls my age, I spent most of my time with my friends. They were the center of my emotional life; my parents, always busy with their own occupation, had become the background frame of my life, even if a reassuring frame. My life was simple with its daily routine: I took the bus in the morning, I attended the classes at school, I wasted time with my friends at cafés, I took the evening bus back home and did my homework. I shared all my concerns with my close friends, and I knew every one of my friends’ problems without reserve, including every single sexual experience they ever had. We were discovering sex and contraception and relationships in a navel-gazing vision of the World. For us, our own little world and problems were at the center of the universe.

When I couldn’t take the bus (generally on Saturday because of irregular service), I would hitch-hike into town. It was an easy and safe mode of transport, particularly in this semi-rural community where most people knew each other. But in my innocence as an adolescent, I couldn’t see that I was a fresh and attractive girl, full of life and enthusiasm, with the newly formed body of a woman. All the warnings about men using women as sexual prey were theoretical to me. I was so preoccupied by my own body and its imperfections that I couldn’t conceive that grown-up men would take me in their car for any other motive than that of taking me to my destination.

I had my first lesson while hitch-hiking on a plain Saturday afternoon to go to Colmar. The father of one of my school friends stopped at the end of the village to give me a ride. I knew him quite well mainly because he had the only clothes shop in the village selling Levi’s jeans, a highly praised item in my generation, so in addition to hanging around with his son, I would be an occasional customer as well. While hitch-hiking, I was always a little nervous that the wrong person would stop and I would find myself in a difficult situation, but in his car, I felt safe and secure. Along the way, we were having a friendly chat;  I remember very clearly his smiley face hidden behind a large beard which he insisted on keeping even though it had become out of fashion. I also remember, and will never forget it, that at some point in the conversation he put his hand on my thigh and asked me if I minded. It was the first time this kind of situation happened to me. In a flash, I understood the perversity of it, a mature man, about 30 years older than I was, trying to take advantage of me and my immaturity. The dark side of human nature was revealed to me in that instant. The evil side that Master Grunewald depicted so powerfully. For me, this man was a father, and as a father he couldn’t have had a sexual intent, at least not for someone my age. He was crossing a forbidden barrier. I suddenly understood that I was no longer a child or a young girl who grown-up people would try to protect, but with the recent change in my body, I had become a sexual prey. I was now a woman who would have to defend herself and make her own choices in that matter for the rest of her life. I was calm enough to take his hand and put it straight back on the gear stick. I asked him to drop me off at the next village where we had arrived and I got out of his car without saying anything apart from a brief and aloof goodbye. I never mentioned this episode to anyone, certainly not to my parents who would have had such an angry reaction that I preferred to let the matter drop. I had learned my lesson, a very important one, and I felt that was enough.

Stupidly or not, I continued to hitch-hike, the desire for freedom was much stronger than all the fears I could have. By now I felt strong enough to face other situations of this kind, I could defend myself as I just did. It was a lesson all women had to learn at some point of their life, and usually they learned it very young. Enlightened by Bartholdi’s iconic torch, I was back on my own road to liberty, still very limited in its restricted environment but nevertheless the beginning of my own free path. My previous lesson could not have prepared me for what happened that other Saturday, a beautiful sunny autumn afternoon, warm enough for a girl to forget that winter would soon be there and be as long and harsh as it could be in this eastern region.

That day, I was hitch-hiking back home from Colmar after having spent most of the afternoon roaming around town with my usual friends. It was 5 p.m., I was on the outskirts of town, my thumb up towards the cars passing by. I didn’t have to wait long until a washed red Renault four of the type still running in the 1980s, stopped by to offer me a lift. A dark-haired man probably in his thirties was driving. I told him where I wanted to go; he hardly looked at me, at least he didn’t take a frank look into my eyes when he told me where he was going. I jumped in but felt uncomfortable from the onset. He had a strange expression on his face I couldn’t decipher. On his legs, he had placed a woolen checkered blanket which covered him from his knees up to his waist. He was holding the steering wheel with one hand and had the other one on the gear change which in a Renault four was next to the steering wheel and the dashboard. Once he was in maximum fourth gear, he put his right hand under the blanket and continued driving with just his left hand. I felt something wasn’t right but I didn’t know what. It was a sentiment. I was trying not to look at him and his strange face but was instead focusing on the road ahead of us, while sneering sideways towards him from time to time. While driving, he was looking at the road, then looking at me, looking at road then looking at me, looking at the road then looking at me…..on and on for a while. I noticed his hand under the blanket was moving but I didn’t dare look at him. I was trying to understand why he would put a blanket on his knees; with my vivid imagination I thought he may have a gun hidden under it and could hit at any time. To reassure myself, I was trying to convince myself that maybe he was slightly disabled and needed a blanket for protection, but even that didn’t stand because of the strange atmosphere and odd vibes I could feel. The movement of his hand became more regular, he was definitely sliding his hand up and down his upper thigh in a very regular rhythm while continuously looking alternatively at my face and at the road. The intensity was such that it felt like it lasted for a very long time. Then everything suddenly became clear: he was masturbating under his blanket while looking at me for stimulation. I froze. I just wanted to get out and away from this sick man; a still young man who had the audacity or was so deranged as to masturbate in his car while driving a teenage girl.

I gathered my strength to ask him calmly to stop the car and let me out. He just asked why I didn’t want to go to my destination anymore. I didn’t reply, I just repeated that I wanted to stop there.  I didn’t care about walking the remaining 10 kilometers to my home, I just wanted to get out and breathe again. He did as I asked and left. I was so shaken by what I’d experienced that I was unable to talk about it for many years, not even to my closest friends. It wasn’t the sexual act that shocked me, so much as the madness of the human mind. The sight of a troubled man displayed so openly in front of my young eyes. The torch of the Statue of Liberty was trying to enlighten me again in a most obscure way, not showing me the path to a greater land, but putting light to the dark and shady corners of humanity. The evil side of humanity Master Grunewald had captured so skillfully.

Thirty years later, I still go back to Colmar to see the Master, and I don’t find him tedious anymore.

Three Boys by V. Conejero

It was that time in early fall when late-afternoon colors arrived, accompanied by a chill in the air.

Jessica Lorenzo had permitted herself to enjoy a few days by the shore. She was in her mid-fifties and had worked with diligence all year round, editing and publishing other writers’ work. Hardly ever had she found the time to write down the many stories that sprouted in her own mind.

Seated on the edge of a deserted boat landing, feet dangling several inches above the water, Jessica filled up a handful of pages from a yellow legal pad with the opening of a new story. She could already predict that it would become one of her very best.

Engrossed in her writing, Jessica took no notice of either her surroundings or of the passing of time. It was only when daylight began to fade, and a light, cool breeze blew in from the northwest, that she capped her ballpoint pen and opened her canvas briefcase.

At the moment when she was about to toss her writing tools into her bag, a strong, dark-skinned hand appeared from her left side and snatched her yellow pad from her.

“Hey! Lemme see what you’ve gotten there!” A young, male voice said, high above, behind her back.

Jessica did not dare to move. Her throat felt like parchment paper. She took a swift look in all directions. There was nobody at the shore. There were no boats in sight.

She heard the young man’s voice attempt to decipher her jottings and insertions:

“…Er…Mon…Monique had…malked?…walked!”

“Hey man!” another masculine, adolescent voice snapped, accompanied by quick, heavy steps. “What’re you doing there, reading?” He chuckled. “You, reading? Ha ha ha!”

“Hey guys! Let me take a look!” A third teenager yelled, a few feet behind Jessica. “Don’t forget I’m the intellectual among us!”

An explosion of raucous laughter preceded what sounded like a playful scuffle:

“Watch out, man!”

“Nah, man. Let go! I don’t wanna mess with you!”

Jessica perceived the sound of skidding sneakers; she was afraid to turn around.

There was a noisy splash and a scream, quickly followed by two more splashes and loud gasps for air.

Jessica finally turned toward the west. Three animated figures were silhouetted against the setting sun.

“Help!” One of them yelled.

Jessica hesitated for an instant.

     What if it’s all staged? Some kind of male game to lure me into the water and…? I’m not much of a swimmer. Plus, I’m not about to risk my life, least of all, to save three idle teenagers. My entire afternoon’s work is lost, because of their stupidity! Would they have dared snatch my papers away, had I been a man? Of course not!

Standing up, she peered into the ocean, shading her eyes with her hand. Her scribbled-up legal pad was drifting toward the darkening horizon. She grimaced and stamped on a wooden plank. Her story was still going through her head and she was eager to work on it.

“Help!” Two of the teenagers shrieked, in an almost perfect unison.

Their clamor jolted her back to the present moment. She took another fleeting look around. Again, the desolation of the place sent a shiver through her.

     What should I do? Seek qualified assistance, of course—but, first, get out of here fast! Just in case these clowns should jump out of the water and chase me!

She took long, rapid steps over the boat landing and along the sandy shore. Her small hotel was not too far away.

     Once I get there, I can report the incident. But will the boys still be alive by then? Hmmm. I doubt they’re in any real danger, to begin with. Guys that age tend to be proficient swimmers—all-around sportsmen, in fact! More so, if they’re beach community residents. Yes. It’s all a silly male game, of course. But, what if it isn’t?

There were many tourists crowding around the hotel reception desk; it was futile to wait. Jessica was not the type to run in, screaming her news, either. She rushed up the stairs to her second-floor room. She went directly to the telephone and dialed the hotel operator. The line was busy. She dialed 911. It was busy too. She continued dialing both numbers for a while.

With a snort of impatience, she returned the telephone to its cradle. Remembering her briefcase, she opened it and looked inside. There were a few more fresh writing blocks in it. She took up pen and paper again and began reconstructing her interrupted story, from the beginning.

It was close to ten in the evening, when the rumblings from her stomach forced her to put down her writing tools and look for nourishment. She remembered the hotel information card on the desk had stated the restaurant would be open for almost two more hours.

Jessica splashed some water on her face and brushed her hair. She was about to go down, when the image of the three boys flashed through her mind.

     Oh. I never got around to reporting the “drowning” incident!

She caught her guilty reflection in the mirror by the door.

     Hmmm. What if someone spotted me on the boat landing this afternoon and…accuses me of “abandoning the scene of an accident?” Assuming that those young guys actually drowned, that is? Better not take any risks and just order room service!

Some thirty minutes later, there was a knock on her door. A smiling black woman appeared. She announced: “Here’s your sandwich…fries…apple pie…and Coke, Ma’am.  Enjoy!”

Jessica paid and tipped the maid and locked the door. She tuned the radio to the classical music station and settled down at the small, round table by the window. She gulped down her food and called for someone to take away the dishes.

Once the maid was gone, Jessica turned on the television set to the local channel. The evening news program was starting. She watched it all the way through to the end. There was no mention of either missing adolescents nor of bodies being found anywhere along the Long Island shore. For Jessica, the temptation to dismiss the incident involving the three teenagers as a mere prank was very great.

     But what if their families are not aware of their absence yet? It’s only 11:30 in the evening—hardly late for a group of adolescent males to be out. 

Brushing her teeth, she remembered that the law required a twenty-four-hour wait prior to reporting a missing person.

     Not a very intelligent law! By that time, a victim of a kidnapping could be on another continent and a murderer far away from the scene of his crime!

She caught her image in the bathroom mirror and paused.

     But I have not committed any crime! I didn’t push any of those boys off the landing! Why should I feel so afraid? Well, technically speaking, I “abandoned the scene of an accident” and failed to report it. If those teenagers really drowned, I could be blamed for it!

She brushed her hair and walked out of the bathroom.

     Maybe I should return to Manhattan–or travel somewhere else for the remainder of my vacation.  If I stay here, I won’t find any peace or be able to produce anything worthwhile.  

Jessica returned to the desk and stared at her evening’s writing. She slapped the desk and cursed.

     I will definitely never sit on any boat landing again!

She looked at the framed picture hanging above the desk and sighed. It depicted a white clipper, sailing in a serene, bright-blue ocean.

     If I stay in this town, I won’t settle anywhere to write. I will forever be looking over my shoulder. Darned boys!

She shook her head and sighed, yet again.

     Isn’t there anywhere where a solitary woman can have her privacy respected?

Her ruminations were interrupted by a loud knock on her door. Jessica hesitated for a moment. It was rather late to open the door to a probable stranger.

     It’s almost certainly a case of “Wrong room—sorry!” But, what if it’s the police? To arrest me or, at least, to interrogate me?  

There was a second knock, followed by a third and a fourth, in increasingly quick succession. She rose from the desk chair, ironing her clothes with her hands.

     If it’s going to happen, let it happen here, in a place where no one knows me—rather than at my co-op in The Village.

She swallowed and asked, through the closed door: “Who is it?”

“Lucy! It’s me, Jeff!” A man answered, with a smile in his voice. Jessica shouted back: “You won’t find her here—wrong room!”

“Oh! Sorry!”

She heard the man try his luck next door, then on and on, all the way down the corridor. He repeated his search on the other side of the hall, calling out: “Lucy! Lucy! It’s me, Jeff!”

A door opened across the hall and a gruff male voice snapped: “Hey, man! ‘Lucy’—if that‘s her real name–doesn’t want to see you—get off this floor!”

“But…but…she told me she wanted to spend the night with me!”

“She lied to you, pal!” Another male voice laughed out, two doors to the left of Jessica’s. “Scram, buddy—before Security shows up!”

Jessica heard the man stumble through a nearby exit door. She exhaled and raised her eyes to the ceiling.

     Phew! What kind of a hotel is this, anyway? It all looked so peaceful and welcoming on the web page! Huh! 

She began gathering her belongings with alacrity.

     I better leave this accursed town in the morning. But where can I go? What if the police find the kids’ corpses and track me down at home? How could I ever again face my neighbors and my building staff? 

She sank down at the desk.

     Better have it all out here, where no one knows me. I should wait one more day, to give them time to discover the bodies and interrogate me.

She turned the television set on and searched for CNN. She left it on and listened from bed, for any news of teenage drownings in Long Island.

     I’d better not bother changing into my pajamas, just in case they come to arrest me.

The news was the usual kind—i.e., senseless wars, unspeakable crimes, corrupt politicians, and so on.

Jessica started to doze.

     Yeah, politicians. They can get away with anything—but, not me, of course.

The sound of her own voice woke her up with a start.

     Of course–the political angle of the incident! That is the underlying reason for my fear.

She was now fully awake again.

     If I’m arrested, I stand no chance of justice!

Her heart began pounding fast, as she continued her reasoning.

     I’m a financially prosperous white female; those three boys sounded to me decidedly lower class and, at least two of them were black. Hmmm.

She could hear her heart racing. She rose and walked to the bathroom.

     Sheeesh. The authorities might also take an anti-female stance. Certainly, in the eyes of our society, the life of a fifty-something, single, childless female is pointless.

Elizabeth’s voice blared in her head: “You should’ve dived into the water and saved those poor guys!”

     Sure! That would have been foolhardy! A middle-aged woman dragging three strapping male adolescents out of the ocean! It might be feasible for another type of woman–but definitely not for me!

Her young co-worker’s reproaching voice continued to drone inside her head: “How? How could you have allowed those three young men to drown? Three young lives, full of potential? You have lived enough! You should’ve given them a chance to live on! Why didn’t you? Why? Why? Why?”

Elizabeth’s voice drowned in the toilet’s flushing water. Recalling her brief yoga training, Jessica shut her eyes, took a deep breath, and exhaled slowly. On her way towards the large armchair by the window, she noticed the time on the bedside table clock; it was only one ten in the morning. The television set was still on, delivering the litany of the day’s news. Jessica sat back in the armchair. In time, she fell asleep.

“Oooooh!” The black woman standing near her screeched and covered her gaping mouth with both hands. “Are you okay, Ma’am?”

Jessica peered at her through half-opened eyes. Relief quickly replaced fear, as she noticed the woman’s maid uniform and asked her: “What time is it, please?”

“Oh! Good! You’re alive!” The woman advanced towards her, and Jessica repeated her question.

“Oh! The time! Sorry! Yes, of course!” The hotel maid looked at her wrist and announced: “It’s five past nine, Ma’am! Are you all right?”

“In the morning?”

“Yes, Ma’am—in the morning.” The maid continued to stare at Jessica and asked:

“Are you ill, Ma’am?”

“I guess I’m all right. I just fell asleep in this armchair.”

“Oh. I hope you didn’t miss your flight or something, Ma’am!”

Jessica shook her head and yawned. “Excuse me. I guess I need a lot of rest. I work too hard all year.”

“May I send someone with your breakfast, Ma’am?”

Jessica sighed. “I’ll need a shower, first.”

“Oh. A while later, then?”

“No, thanks. I’ll go down, myself, when I’m ready.”

The woman puckered her lips and shook her head: “There’ll be no breakfast left by then, Ma’am!” She looked Jessica straight in the eye and stated: “I’ll order you breakfast right away and you can take your shower later, Ma’am.”

Before Jessica had a chance to respond, the maid dashed towards the door, adding: “Stay in your room, resting all day, Ma’am. You look like you really need it!”

     Good. Now, I have an official excuse to remain secluded all day, away from public scrutiny.

Jessica stretched her limbs and rose from the armchair, strolling in the direction of the bathroom.

When she came out, she discovered her breakfast laid out in covered, white bowls, by the window. She ate at leisure, taking her time to deliberate on her current predicament.

Once more, she waited until the maid had cleared her table, to look for news on TV.

     Nothing! No reports of drowned teenagers! Most likely, nothing happened, after all. But let’s play it safe and stay here until the morning.

The rest of her day was spent in tranquility, alternating between writing and checking the news. She kept herself awake and alert, with Coke from the vending machine in the hallway.

When a siren broke her late-afternoon torpor, Jessica’s heart burst into loud palpitations.

      This is it!!!

She sat up straight in her chair and waited.

Someone was at her door.

     The police? Ok, I’m ready for them!

Jessica walked with firm steps towards the door. As she approached it, she recognized the voice on the other side.

“Ma’am?”

     The maid! Is she coming with them?

Jessica swallowed and opened the door.  The smiling black woman in her black-and-white uniform was standing by herself outside her door. Jessica stuck her head out and looked both ways; there was no one in the hallway. She sighed.

“Good evening, Ma’am! How are you feeling?”

“Still a bit tired, thanks.”

“I’m about to leave for the day, Ma’am. Is there something you need? Dinner?”

“That would be nice! Er…what was that siren all about?”

“Oh, that was the ambulance. Someone suffered a stroke.”

“Oh! How sad!”

“That sure is, Ma’am!”

Jessica turned around, pointed to the trash bin by her desk, and asked: “Would you mind emptying my garbage?”

“Oh, sure, Ma’am! That’s no problem!” The woman assured her and entered the room. Noticing the many handwritten pages, strewn over the desk, she exclaimed:

“Oh! You’re a writer!” Without waiting for Jessica’s response, the maid continued: “My son Jamal is now fancying himself a writer…only that he isn’t!”

Jessica‘s eyebrows went up. The woman proceeded:

“Yesterday, he dashed through the door with a wet pack of papers and locked himself into his room for an hour!”

      A wet block of papers?  Hmmm.

“And, did he come out with a finished story or poem?”

“Not really! He said that his papers had fallen into the water and he had to wait for them to dry up.”

     Aha! Could he be one of the three boys? I must find out!

Jessica said to the maid: “Bring Jamal’s script to me, tomorrow; I have a good position as an editor at an important publishing house.” She paused and added: “If your son has talent, I can help him get published.”

“Oh!” The maid’s eyes widened. “But I don’t think my boy is up to that!”

“He may not be, but I can tell you if he has talent and can help him develop it further.”

“Oh, Ma’am! You are so kind!”

“You’ve taken good care of me, and I appreciate it.”

“Oh, but I was just doing my job, Ma’am!”

“Just the same. Bring me your son’s script tomorrow.”

“I’ll sure try! Good night, Ma’am!”

Jessica listened to the maid’s receding steps.

     Hah! It looks like I was right all along and no one drowned! What a relief! If “Jamal” is one of those three boys, which one would he be? The one who snatched the pad from me? Or the one who claimed to be “The intellectual” of the group? Or the other one? Huh! Interesting possibilities!

Shortly after her dinner dishes had been cleared away, Jessica thought she heard a knock at her door. She lowered the volume of the television set and listened. The knock was louder this time. She approached the door and inquired: “Who is it, please?”

There was silence on the other side. A few seconds later, she heard a hesitant, but familiar voice: “Ma’am…?”

     The maid? At this time?

Something about the woman’s tone of voice and unaccustomed diffidence made her pause. Jessica called back: “Is there something wrong?”

“Er…not really, Ma’am. We’ve got something to give you. Something that you asked for.”

     “We?” Who was she with?  Her son? Hmmmm. Will it be safe for me to open the door?  God help me!

The tall, young man outside her door said: “I believe this belongs to you, Madam.” and handed her a wrinkled, faded writing pad.

     “I believe…” Aha! That surely must be “The Intellectual!”

Jessica took the papers and thanked him matter-of-factly. He lowered his eyes and started to go, but his mother—now clad in a flowery dress—stepped forward and nudged him. Head down, he turned back to Jessica and mumbled: “I apologize, Ma’am….” and walked away fast.

His mother looked at Jessica and nodded a silent farewell. Her habitual effervescence was gone. In place of her accustomed broad, white-toothed smile, her lips were tightly closed. Her eyes bore traces of tears. Her brow exhibited a deep frown.

Jessica nodded back and closed her door. It was not difficult to imagine what must had transpired between mother and son.

Jessica leafed through the water-stained bunch of papers. She shrugged and stashed them away in her briefcase.

     Well, I might be able to make out some of it, later. Some of my original phrases may prove superior to my hasty reconstructions of that unfortunate evening.

She threw her suitcase onto the bed.

     The important thing is that this strange ordeal is now over!

She shook both fists up in the air. Humming to herself, she began to pack.

The following morning, she was first at breakfast. By the time the hotel maids started their rounds, Jessica Lorenzo was already miles away in her comfortable, two-passenger car.

Dock_David-Ehrlich

Photo credit: David Ehrlich

Fire Box 598 by Joe Corso

October 17, 1966 was one of the darkest days in the history of the F.D.N.Y. On that day, twelve members of the New York City Fire Department were killed in the line of duty. The following account is one man’s personal experience on that tragic day: the mixed emotions that bombarded him, the final crushing realization that twelve of his brother firefighters had died,  and that every man’s life is irrevocably tied to another’s.

I got to work at 5:15 in the afternoon. Another Tuesday, no different from the other six days of the week, to a man in my occupation. I opened my locker and carefully hung my suit in it, replacing the blue chino trousers and blue shirt: the work clothes of a New York City Fireman. It was all so automatic. I had gone through those motions hundreds of times before. Just as hundreds of times before, I had left my family in my home in Patchogue, Long Island, to commence the uneventful hour-long ride to Engine Company 24.

THE MEN OF E. 18

When I descended the stairs, it was 5:48 and the bells were sounding. It was nothing new, but the adrenaline started motivating the body of every man in the firehouse. No man ever grows completely indifferent to that sound, no matter how long he’s responded to it. Box 539 clanged in and we rolled to Jane and West Fourth Streets just as Engine 18 pulled up with little Jimmy Galanaugh in the seat. Jimmy was the type of kid you instinctively wanted to protect because of the impression he gave of being frail. He looked so damn out of place in the seat of that huge fire engine. He had the blonde good looks of a college kid, and wasn’t at all the average New Yorker’s idea of what a fireman should look like. It was just one more example of how appearances can be deceiving. He was good at his job, which was what really counted.

On the back step of 18’s pumper were Kelly, Tepper, and the “probie,” Rey. More faces I had seen innumerable times before and taken for granted, for the simple reason that people tend to believe their relationships with each other are continuous and without end. Engine 24 had worked with 18 many times before. Our men, working alongside their men, was an inevitable fact of all our lives. An integral part of many operations; an integral part of a pattern we call “procedure.”

Kelly had been assigned to our company during most of last year’s subway strike. He was never without his pipe, his books (he was always studying for the next Lieutenants’ test) and a ready smile. Kelly always smiled. Not just most of the time. Always.

Tepper was a man whose face had no age stamped on it. I could never reconcile myself to the fact that he was forty-one, and not just on the threshold of his thirties. He was just perpetually young. They were both, like Jimmy, two guys a person had to like.

I had only seen the “probie,” Rey, a few times, but his face was familiar nonetheless. All probies wear that same expression of loneliness, mixed with a tremendous eagerness. I had experienced the feeling behind that expression myself, just as every man in the department has. And that includes my buddy Toby Vetland, who was working with me that night and reading my mind. We had the simultaneous desire to make Rey feel more comfortable, so we went over and spoke to him. Small talk and jokes. He laughed with us gratefully—but he was waiting all the time.

He was anticipating his “big fire.” All probies do. They feel that once they’ve gone through it, and proved themselves to the men they admire, they’ll finally be accepted. He had no way of knowing that every man there always had one eye on him for his sake, not their own. They’d break him in and watch over him at the same time, until he was capable of taking care of himself.

When I was in Japan, the people had a saying about their mountain. “He who doesn’t climb Mt. Fuji once is a fool. He who climbs it twice is an even bigger fool.” Only a fireman can understand the logic behind that and apply it to his breed. Each one anxiously awaits that first big fire, and when it’s all over, he prays that he never sees another one. This fire had been a small one and we returned to our respective quarters when it was out.

EVENING LOOKS ROUTINE

At 7:15, a complaint came in. Since I was scheduled for the detail, I signed myself out to investigate it. Combustible rubbish in the hallway at 71 Barrow Street. It turned out to be a valid complaint, so I issued a violation order to the super of the building. He was to remove the rubbish immediately.

I was on my way back to the firehouse, when a civilian called to me and pointed out an open electrical box located in his building, with the wires exposed. I would have issued another violation order except that super of that particular building lived just a few doors out of my district, so I called Engine 18 through headquarters. Kelly turned me over to the Lieutenant Priore, who told me that he’d send a man out on it right away.

When I signed myself back in quarters a few minutes later, it appeared that the evening was going to be a quiet one. A lot of routine. Not that any one of us had ever been guaranteed a completely routine evening; there are no guarantees in this job. But the overall mood of the firehouse was a quiet one.

We began our evening meal at 8:35.

E. 24 RESPONDS TO 4TH

At 9:36, Box 598, the “All hands” came in, which meant that the companies that responded to that first alarm had a fire and were hard at work. We checked the response card. Engine 18 was scheduled to respond on the second alarm and we had to go on the fourth. It didn’t necessarily mean that there would even be a second, third, or fourth alarm. But we stood by.

It was 10:06 when the second alarm came in.

We heard the third at 10:37, and the calm that had prevailed up until then was obscured by a tense, busy, silence as every man prepared himself for a big one. I remember climbing the 101-year-old spiral staircase, telling myself that we had a good crew on tonight. That wasn’t just blind reassurance. It was a good crew. I took the long staircase up to the third floor and put on some heavier clothes. There was a cold wind blowing out there. With an extra pair of socks in my back pocket, I checked for my hose strap and spanner and then went down to wait with the rest of the men on the apparatus floor. All our gear was on the rig.

When the fourth alarm came in, we were ready.

I was cold when we left quarters. Nervous cold. Every man in the crew was feeling that same chill and we remained silent as Bill Miller drove out. Our regular chauffeur, Vic Bengyak, was on vacation and I recall wishing that Bill was on the backstep with us. Every man was evaluating the crew, assuring himself that it was a competent one.

An entire group of stores was burning. It was a big one.

We reported to the Chief in charge and were ordered into a bookstore on Broadway, between 22nd and 23rd Streets. I had the nozzle. Toby was behind me, followed by Joe Tringali–more reassurances.

When the Ladder Company forced the door open, we had our water and were to initiate an operation that we had executed many times before. We went in with two lines; Engine 24 to the right and 13 to the left. As we moved in together, 13 caught a large body of fire to her left. Straight ahead of us was the orange glow of still another body of fire. The heat was insane. There were obstacles in our path no matter where we turned—boxes of books, bookcases, and all sizes and shapes of debris.

Toby jumped onto a crate and I passed the line up to him just as 13’s Lieutenant was yelling for his line. A wall to his left had dropped and, when it did, we discovered that the floor in the next store had collapsed.

Both companies were on top of it immediately, hitting the fire together and pouring water directly into the cellar. It had never occurred to any of us up until then that this fire, which was raging so fiercely all around us, was also burning right below us under the very floor we stood on. Suddenly, the Lieutenant was ordering us out. The floor near the doorway was getting soft and it didn’t take us long, once we heard that, to get out. When our last man was out on the sidewalk, the entire floor that had supported us just seconds before gave way. An overwhelming sense of what could have been passed through me, accompanied by a deep feeling of relief.

There wasn’t even time to talk about our close call. The spectators across Broadway were gasping in unison, and when we heard the ensuing shouts, we directed our eyes upward. There were still companies scrambling to get off the roof of the doomed building and the fire was lapping dangerously close to the aerial ladder that was their only means of escape.

No one had to order us to open our lines. We shot water at a ninety-degree angle up towards them, to shield them from the outstretched hands of the blaze that was slapping at them persistently. We held that stream steady until the last one of them was safely off the roof.

When the building came down, every company was engulfed in smoke and bombarded by debris. When it was all over, the outside walls stood firmly—a monument to something that no one was sure of yet.

MEN MISSING!

The fire had apparently burned itself out and we were all sure that the worst was over. But it was about that time when the rumors started to circulate: missing men! I don’t know who near us first spoke those words, but I remember that we were all tight-lipped. Every one of us was outwardly rejecting the rumor, and inwardly praying that we were right—that the reports were false.

The head count seemed to take an eternity. When the results got back to us, it was difficult to believe. There were twelve men unaccounted for.

Our company was all together and so was Engine 13. “Who’s missing?” I was asking, as was every man at the scene who had heard the rumors. I wasn’t even sure at that point exactly how many companies had responded to the alarm. There were finally some whispers of some of the chiefs and their aides as possibilities. Then someone mentioned Ladder 7. I didn’t want to believe any of the talk, but the next bit of news was even harder for me to believe. Someone said that they couldn’t locate Engine 18. I can still hear my own voice insisting, “You guys better get your head count straight.” There was no basis for my doubt, just pure obstinacy. I refused to believe what, by that time, everyone was sure of. I had just been with those men earlier in the evening. Their faces flashed vividly through my mind. I had contacted and spoken to them about that violation. They couldn’t have just disappeared since then.

I released my breath in relief when I saw John Donovan of Engine 18 approaching us. We were all thinking the same thing. See, there’s someone from 18. They must have been located. It was all a rotten mistake.

But then, as he came closer to where we stood, his face became visible. It was masked with horror. He was nearly incoherent when he spoke to us, trying desperately to relate what had just happened to him. He had been dangling; swaying over the inferno after the floor gave way. He was hanging onto the handle of the controlling nozzle by just three fingers. His rubber coat had started to burn and he was slipping, sure that there was no hope, when a hand reached out and grabbed the rescue loop on his Scott Airpak. Then there was another hand and another. . . .
He had been the man who was sent out on my complaint, so he hadn’t been with 18 when they responded to the alarm. He had gone with another company to search for them when they were reported missing.

Manny Fernandez, 18’s regular chauffeur, appeared out of the night, and there was a lot of confusion as everyone started to ask questions. He had been changing when the alarm came in, and Jimmy Galanaugh had offered to drive.

Engine Company 18 and Ladder Company 7 had perished when that third alarm had come in, before we even arrived at the scene. There was no time to grasp that terrible fact because we were being ordered around the corner from where we had been operating.

When we turned the corner, I, for one, could hardly believe my eyes. I just wasn’t prepared for the sight before us. There was smoke and flames everywhere and we were sure that it was another 5th alarm of similar magnitude. But there, staring us in the face, was the same fire that we thought we had extinguished.

SILENT PRAYER OFFERED

We were told to stand by until ordered to take our line into a haberdashery store. We waited, feeling the cold and dreading the fire. As we stood by, we became increasingly aware of the commotion in front of the burned out drugstore. They were carrying out bodies, two of them in body bags. I didn’t know who they were. And I wondered, as we removed our helmets to say a silent prayer, if every man felt as sick as I did at that moment. Something that John McCole, a man in my company, had once said came back to me instantly. He had been referring to the Times Tower fire that he had been to a few years back, and the feeling he had when they carried out two dead firemen. “You’ll never know how it feels until you see it with your own eyes.”

I was feeling it then.

We were the next company to enter the building and, with the previous scene still fresh in our minds, I wasn’t the only one who was experiencing a fear that was brand new.

We were to put a distributor to work in the haberdashery. It would enable us, we hoped, to pump a large volume of water into the fire below us through a hole that one of the ladder companies had chopped in the floor. Ladder 17 was working with us, but we hadn’t even begun the operation when our Lieutenant was ordering us out. His judgment was sound, for as we backed away, about eight feet of the floor in front of us dropped like a bar of chocolate in one and two foot sections. We watched from the doorway as the semi-circle widened.

We asked the Chief if he could get a company to cut a hole in the floor near the door so we could at least get to some of the fire. “No, back away,” he quickly replied. “That floor isn’t safe. No one is to enter that store.” One of the men asked the Chief if we could just walk over to the existing hole and drop a distributor into it. Again the Chief responded with a quick and firm “No.” Just then, as if in affirmation of the Chief’s decision, the entire floor collapsed into the cellar. The man who had suggested walking over to drop in the distributor looked slightly sick; his self-confidence suddenly gone. He was just thankful that he hadn’t been allowed to take even a few steps toward that hole.

FIREFIGHTING GOES ON

We were relieved by another company for a few minutes, and the events of the evening were temporarily replaced in our minds by the hot coffee we smelled and tasted. The damp cold night had penetrated my body to the bones, and I had never appreciated a cup of coffee more in my life.

The Mayor was there, viewing the continuing disaster with a look of repressed anxiety on his face. And he was only seeing it from the sidewalk.

We were then sent into another section of the building. We were to take our line up a staircase. The men who were coming down, as we were going up, warned us that the staircase was listing. We had advanced up two flights when the Chief in charge of the fire ordered us down. We could still see the fire raging at the top of the stairs and by this time we were striking at it in anger; hitting it from where we stood at the bottom of the stairs. That fire seemed like an enemy, more hated than any enemy in war or peace had ever been. It was as if it had taken on a distinct personality. We were frustrated at not being able to defeat it yet.

A LIFETIME’S EMOTIONS

We set up a multi-versal nozzle, which develops a large caliber stream, and kept hitting it from below.

Another break. Hot broth this time. The cold that gnawed away at us was becoming almost as much of an enemy as the fire.

We were needed at the drugstore to assist in the search for bodies. As we lowered the men of Ladder Company 24 into the gaping hole, their Lieutenant told us to be extremely careful. He immediately set about the task of inspecting a wall next to the area where we were working. After a careful examination, he found it to be sound and we continued our grim assignment. By then, we were suspicious of every last piece of material in the building. It was all heavy stuff, not just plaster board. However, all the officers on the scene were well aware of the dangers involved and were determined that there would be no further fatalities. They quietly and efficiently examined all the standing walls and beams, making sure that there would not be another collapse.

Toby was holding the rope as we lowered them down and we formed a chain, passing the debris along from the bottom until it found its way onto the sidewalk outside. Fifteen minutes or so passed and we heard a rumbling sound. I thought that I was the only one who had heard it, but when I turned to ask the Lieutenant about it, I saw that he was returning from another area. He too had heard the noise and had immediately investigated it. It turned out to be just another company doing some drilling. We were reacting to our own fears.

Soon after that, one of the chiefs gave the order for us to move out. We were being relieved.

I realized for the first time that it wasn’t night anymore. Where had all those hours gone? Where was the fatigue I should have been feeling? I had to get a call through to my wife. She must have heard about the fire on the news, I thought, as we were leaving the building.

Suddenly, I was completely captive to a strange, indescribable sentiment as I caught sight of the off-duty members of Engine Company 18 arriving at the scene. They had come, true to fire department tradition, to join in the search for their lost brothers. One thing was certain. No one would carry the bodies out but them.

It was the saddest, blackest night in the 101-year history of the New York City Fire Department, but I was experiencing a renewed pride in being a small part of what no one can deny is the greatest fire department in the world.

I had experienced an entire lifetime’s worth of emotions in those hours. Panic, self-control, fear, relief, defeat, pride, all running into and over one another. Sadness and a sense of personal loss for real men I worked with and liked, who were now just memories. Sorrow for their wives and children, and an indirect anger because twelve men had to die to extinguish a fire. Love for a wife who was beside herself with worry, until I finally reached her by phone a short while later. And for my children—my five-year-old daughter who had asked if her daddy had died. I never realized that I could miss four kids so much.

The most distinct emotion—one that I’m experiencing still—is a true, undiluted awareness of living and breathing and being able to feel in so many different ways. Every second of that is sacred to me now.

The Reunion by Henya Drescher

 August, 1977  

In the hours before meeting Jamie, I readied myself in the same concentrated way I used to prepare mentally for a party, and when I walked in through the doors of Brewery’s, I heard Jamie say, “Oh, wow.” Like a whirlwind, she rushed toward me, her tall and full figure straining against faded and torn jeans. I hurried to her open arms, and she surprised me with a kiss on the mouth. Then she placed both hands on either side of my face and gazed at me for a long time with a searching look. I gazed back at her, falling deeply into the brilliant pools of her brown eyes. Time stopped in its tracks.

“You are beautiful!” she said.

Next to her stood a short woman who appeared to be in her late twenties. “This is Mindy, my wife. We got married two years ago,” said Jamie. I gave Mindy a smile I hoped was convincing. She held her white arm out in front of her and I took her hand. It was limp, as if the life had been drained out of it. I felt hollowness in my stomach, a painful circle of void.

Once we were seated at a wooden table, Jamie set her eyes upon me, and a big smile spread over my face. There was something exciting about her company—the rich voice that came out of smiling lips, the warm brown eyes with the twinkle in them. She was twenty-eight and went about life with certainty and straightforwardness. She was most comfortable in jeans, army boots and tees, too preoccupied with other matters to care what she looked like. If not at work, or fixing her car, or repairing something around the house, she read incessantly, classic novels mostly.

She returned my smile with one that was at once worldly and enigmatic, a hint of amusement in her eyes.

Sitting across from her and Mindy at Brewery’s, I listened to Jamie’s account of her new life, of her job at the mines in New Mexico. Intrigued by what seemed to me a non-conventional occupation for a woman, I asked her about it. Jamie reflected for a moment.

“Well, there’s so much to tell, really. It is exhausting. We have to use a drill. The damn thing is so heavy. It weighs about one hundred and twenty-five pounds. . . .”

“One hundred and ten pounds, honey,” interrupted Mindy. She was a dirty blonde. Her voice, dull and sexless and remote, went straight to the pit of my stomach.

“. . .and that takes a lot of doing,” continued Jamie without missing a beat, her arms flaring out like the wings of a butterfly. “And we use conventional mining methods.” I looked at her blankly. “In conventional mining, the coal seam is cut, drilled, blasted, and loaded into cars,” she explained. “We have to use a hand drill to prepare a hole for placing the explosives to loosen the coal.”

“Wow,” I said for lack of another expression. They were speaking of drilling and coal mining, so I was left out of the conversation. But we sat companionably on wooden chairs, sipped our drinks, nodded our heads, and smiled.

The waitress arrived. She stood, patiently waiting, while Mindy ordered a sandwich. “Are you sure you’re not hungry?” asked Mindy for the third time. I shook my head.

“They tried to kill us a couple of weeks ago,” announced Jamie, once the waitress had left.

A paralyzing fear clutched at me. “Who?”

“The guys at the mine,” Mindy said, crushing an empty beer can with her right hand and tossing it to the side. Apparently, almost immediately after their arrival at the mine, there was some rumbling and grumbling from the miners.

“They don’t like having us work with them down at the shaft,” Jamie said.

Rumors spread that they were lesbians. A storm was rising and private meetings were called, and that’s when the threatening notes began to appear in Jamie and Mindy’s mailbox.

“Hell, that won’t deter me from doing what I want to do, and being where I want to be.”

Mindy shook her head sadly. “It’s true,” she said. Jamie chuckled. “I knew that there was danger involved with this job, but not to this extent.”

When I expressed my concern, Jamie said, “I have to live my life to the end until death comes. Yes, indeed, I need to fucking seize it and hold on to it with all my strength.

“But what made things worse was when they found out,” Jamie continued. “We tried to keep our love life a secret.”

Mindy, pale as wax, suddenly became animated. “Yes. They saw us in the car together.” She turned to face me, assuming an expression of self-deprecation. A gleam of pleasure radiated from her. I looked at her, wondering if I should pretend that I didn’t have a clue, or if I should return her smile in conspiracy. Instead, I shrugged my shoulders, leaned back on my creaky chair and listened to the background country-western music. I sat there for a while at a drunken angle. Eventually, there was some talk about leaving the bar and going to The Billiard Room.

The three of us walked out to the parking lot and climbed into Jamie’s yellow Impala. It had a big dent on its front bumper, and someone had painted the word “Ouch” on the afflicted area. We packed ourselves into the front seat with me in the center.

Jamie nosed out of the parking lot and headed toward the freeway. A long silence ensued.

“Why don’t you light up?”  Jamie said to Mindy.

“Damn, I rolled up a rotten joint, babe.” Mindy’s face twisted with disappointment as she examined the crooked joint.

“Don’t care,” Jamie said. Her hand brushed against my thigh. It reminded me of old times, the hysterical laughter that used to send us into a frenzied dance. She had made me feel beautiful, dropped everything to comfort me whenever I was unhappy.

Jamie cranked up the volume on the radio, where Jackson Brown was crooning the last words of “Running on Empty.” The memories wove themselves tighter and tighter inside my skull.

I thought of my life-changing adventure, how I’d met Jamie at a diner in West Hollywood three years ago. The rain was dripping off her raincoat. Brown haired Jamie, full-figured, with silky skin. This had always been our favorite story, how we crushed into each other, Jamie on her way out and me coming in. We held on, forgetting to release ourselves from our embrace for a long minute. And that’s when it happened. That moment, which lingered and strengthened over the following year, was my first sexual feelings for a woman. Eventually, this memory reinvented itself as a distant recollection, fading gently away. Until, unexpectedly, I got Jamie’s phone call two days ago.

I never blamed Jamie for leaving. She knew I was trying to rationalize my love for her, that I couldn’t accept the idea that two women could love each other, that my own religious upbringing prevented me from accepting it.

Mindy dragged on the joint, and glanced over at me. “Well, how about it?” she asked, exhaling a little gust of smoke with each word. I watched them pass the joint for a few long minutes, before I seized it, brought it to my lips and inhaled hard and long. As the pot traveled down my lungs and back into my head, I felt a familiar, welcome contentment. Mindy’s left arm hugged the seat behind my back, and I passed the joint back to her. At that moment, time seemed ephemeral. The three of us drew a curtain around ourselves, and for a short while, we were silent.

The traffic was moving without the usual stop and go that was so typical of Southern California. Not that we would have cared. In the confines of the smoky car, our senses were dulled, and our minds slipped away into the fog. After a while, conversation in the car was chiefly limited to remarks that sounded like, “Man, this shit is good,” and “I’ve never been sooo high in my entire life.”

My hips were pressed between Mindy and Jamie. I glanced at Jamie. When she had held the car door open for me after we walked out of Brewery’s, I’d wanted to press myself against the length of her body, thinking in images instead of words, because words were too feeble.

When we finally reached the Billiard Room, I felt a quick sharp pleasure. It lingered full of color and air; then, like smoke in a breeze, the pleasure shifted and dispersed—and I felt a deep sense of nostalgia.

The Billiard Room, which Jamie and I used to frequent, was set in a run-down, largely abandoned shopping plaza with a rusting marquee that listed the few remaining stores along with the vacant ones. The place was dingy, and that was one of its main attractions. A dingy place attracted dingy people, or those who wanted to be dingy for one night.

The night air was heavy with impending excitement. “Let’s see if we can get a little action around here,” Jamie said.

We followed the crowd toward the gaping entrance of the Billiard Room on unsteady feet, trying to look cool, past Bobbie the bouncer. He stood there with his arms folded over his massive chest.

“Hey, Bobbie.” I tried to sound jovial. He blinked and said nothing. Bobbie took his job seriously. Often, I spotted the bodies of overdosing patrons by the dumpster outside the bar, encircled with vomit and blood.

I haven’t a clear recollection of how the evening passed, aside from the fact that once inside, it all felt familiar to me. The brown tinted walls bore pictures of musicians. And on a floor covered with peanut shells, the drug-consuming drinkers crashed from table to table with beer bottles in their hands. Their faces glistened in the overhead lights; a cloud of cigarette smoke billowed around them, tearing at my throat and eyes.

“Hey hon, where have you been?” Armando looked pointedly at me and then at Jamie. Three years had passed since Jamie and I had been there, and Jamie was overjoyed at seeing a familiar face. “Armando!” she called out loudly.

“Well, well, the two of you again.” He winked, wagging his head up and down and grinning, as though the supreme moment he had long been awaiting had finally arrived. He had a pink boozer’s face adorned with a sinister goatee and wraparound sunglasses. The fact that the room was dark didn’t seem to faze him.

“It’s nice to see you again, Armando,” I said, unenthusiastically. He held out his right hand, palm facing up, and said, “It’s pure shit, man, it can send you to infinity.” He seemed to glow with inward laughter, his face as yellow as the pills in his hand.

“No, thanks,” I said.

Meanwhile, Jamie was trying to explain something unexplainable to him. “Yeah, Mindy and I live in New Mexico. You know. We work for P&M Coal Mining Co. Underground-mining, man. We are down in that shaft five days a week. It sucks, but the pay and the benefits are good.” A big smile covered her face. “They tried to kill us . . . put too much dynamite in the hole and forgot to tell us to clear the area. Imagine, we could have been blown to bits. And you know what? They would have called it an accidental ignition of methane.” Jamie had a brief coughing spell. When it was over, she said, “Lucky we got out of there just before the explosion. One day I’ll get my hands on these bastards and teach them a lesson. You’ll see—I just might do that.” Her dark eyebrows contracted, as she closed her lips around her bottle and threw her head back, then said, “I just might get the chance to do it. Yes, indeed. Yes, indeed.”

“Take it easy, babe, take it easy,” said Mindy.

Jamie turned to her. “I will not take it easy, man. Why should I? They tried to kill us!”

“Damn.” Armando sounded impressed. Jamie gave him a friendly pat, and he walked away, shaking his head.

Then she turned to face me. “I get excited talking about it,” she said, and tried to laugh at herself. “Another drink would do me good.” Her face was fiery and her voice was strained.

“I could use a drink too,” said Mindy. Jamie and I turned completely around and watched her walking unsteadily toward the bar.

“I think I might be freaking out,” said Jamie to no one in particular, her face creasing into a troubled expression. She put her arm through mine, and together we moved toward the far wall of the bar.

“Man, she always wants me to reassure her that I won’t leave her.” Jamie’s breath was hot in my ear. “It’s exhausting. Too much of a burden … too clingy, like a shadow,” Jamie murmured. We sat on the floor, and she pulled her knees close to her chest and draped her arms around them.

Mindy had meanwhile spotted us. She advanced in small, uneven half-circles, a slack body on unsteady legs. Drinks nowhere to be found. “Oh, man,” she said, “I’m totally wasted.” Then she walked backwards, until her shoulders crashed into the wall next to us, landed heavily on her backside, and passed out.

“Whaddaya have?” This was what it sounded like, carried over waves of a drumbeat. I looked up from my position on the floor. A pair of black suspenders supported worn blue Jeans. A snake snarled on a hefty bicep. Underneath it, in bold letters: I Love Richard.

“What?” I mumbled. The lights were dim in the bar, and the place was hopping. Almost everybody had to work the next day and it was 3:00 A.M. but the crowd was still dancing, spinning, and gliding, on wild shaky legs.

“Two beers,” said Jamie, after glancing at the dancers and then at Mindy’s body sprawled by the wall. She looked up at the waiter. “Can we have a couple of glasses?”

“They’re on back order.” He rolled his eyes, threw his hands up in the air, and walked away, muttering, “Glasses. Ha!” and turned his head again to shoot a brief, irritated look at us. A few minutes later, he returned with the beer and some peanuts that looked like they’d been recycled from one unwanted table to another.

Mindy started to get to her feet, seemed to remember something, gave me a dark uneasy look, sat back down again.

And so we sat there on the floor—shoulder to shoulder, backs to the wall—in the darkness of the bar, nursing our bottles. With each swig, beer oozed into our throats and some spilled down on our breasts. It felt good to sit next to Jamie.

“So how have you really been?” I asked. She shrugged, tossed a peanut into her mouth. “I’m always checking to see how I feel about my life, man, and my marriage,” she said. “I’m always asking myself if it’s good enough.” She was silent for a couple of minutes. “I have to admit, I may hate sharing my space with anybody, but late at night I’m always happy to be next to a warm body. But is this alone a good enough reason? Shit, it’s just too complicated.”

From the speakers, a wildly popular song called “Boogie Fever,” by The Sylvers, sounded loudly. People continued to convulse on the dance floor. “The beat is just so good that it makes me want to get down and groove!” Jamie paused for a moment and said, “It reminds me of the good times we used to have together.”

“Are you planning to go back to New Mexico?” I already knew the answer.

“Do you think of me?” she asked, looking straight ahead. I was not very high, not high at all, it seemed to me. A monotonous drumbeat moved through the darkness. Beams of spotlights wove between the exposed pipes in the ceiling and shone like a limpid green-red wash upon Jamie’s face. I felt at home in the obscurity, and there was no point beating around the bush. As I looked at her, words yearned to slip from my mouth.

Jamie finished her beer and looked at me. Our eyes lingered. She looked away again. In the intervals of complete silence, I could hear my heart beat.

“I sleep with you almost every night,” I conceded. She placed her hand on mine, squeezed it gently, and went on glaring straight ahead of her, toward the dance floor. She didn’t say anything, didn’t even cast a sidelong glance. I sat there quietly, waiting, when a feeling came over me, slowly, that was how it felt, sinking and sinking, past the murky bottom, looking up at the surface, looking up into the thrashing limbs of a drowning person. I felt entombed by this wave of silence.

I considered gathering Jamie up in my arms, but it seemed too arduous an undertaking.

Two Voices: A Tale from the Ancestors by Mindy Kronenberg

     He:

If I can leave this world with any bit of wisdom, anything to impart to future generations in need of a maxim to guide them through their confounding lives, it would be this: “Never marry your landlord’s daughter.” I’ve been a successful grocer, though not a standout on the now-crowded boulevard of bodegas and small markets that have grown in this modest neighborhood in the past few years. I’m a father, though with one son incommunicado and the other a fugitive after killing his brother, I cannot claim any great knowledge in parenting. I’m a husband, but that’s where much of my troubles began. She’s the pleasure and pain of my existence, and even though she thinks she’s smarter than me (and perhaps she is), she still doesn’t know what makes me tick. Or how furious I was with her for defying her father. It nearly cost us everything.

I remember being exhausted early one morning after a night of strange dreams, one in which I was buried up to my neck in dirt and suctioned, like an obstinate cork, from the dusty ground. My life, to that point, had been in limbo, and I had only recently moved into my pleasant homestead. I was a caretaker of sorts, with a run of the estate and the irresistible offer of living off the land in exchange for some landscaping, weeding, and keeping the harvest in check. The place was like paradise—an abundance of fruit trees and flowering plants, a river–and since I had all the privacy in the world, I could walk around in the altogether and not be concerned about offending or alarming anyone. I must admit, I rather enjoyed being so unencumbered. I had the  run of the joint, with just one caveat: not to touch the apple orchard, something to do with an agrarian experiment. My landlord rattled on about it in that sanctimonious tone he gets, but my mind wandered, as it was apt to do.  I took it in stride (back then I couldn’t tell you the difference between a Winesap and a Honeycrisp; you’d have to ask my wife, whose knowledge of apples is only exceeded by her research as a herpetologist) and stuck to pruning leaves and raking up fallen fruit. Anyway, I had plenty to fill my belly and please my tongue.

My landlord, an elusive but cantankerous sort, checked in on me now and again, and during one of our exchanges, expressed that he wanted to increase the value of his property by adding some livestock and “exotic animals.” It struck me as odd but I welcomed the idea of having living, breathing company, even with fur, feathers, and scales. My landlord asked if I wouldn’t mind tending the animals along with my garden duties, and frankly, I welcomed the prospect of diversifying my tasks. My mind would grow restless in the languid afternoons and the sound of the animals rustling, playing, and singing their bestial songs provided hours of entertainment. I’m no Tarzan, but I gave them all names (“Morty,” “Otis,” “Homer,” “Shirley”) and this made the whole experience a bit more personal and amusing. One fateful day, after another peculiar dream (I was lying in an operating theater in a fog and became aware of a great pain in my side), my landlord called with the news that his daughter would be joining me as an “intern” to help take care of the place. I admit I was taken aback—then resentful. I had the garden in tiptop shape. The animals were watered and fed on a regular basis; the apples were large and plump, and glistened in the sun untouched. What was he trying to tell me? Who needed this?

     She:

Looking back on it, I’d do it all over again. Would I have had a choice? I know my husband likes to blame me for everything—financial hardships, our children’s failures (though it’s still too difficult to talk about), my father’s controlling manner, my love of reptiles—and he still thinks that he could have gone it alone. Hah! There were weeds in those perfect fields of his, a touch of mange on some of those beasts. He had clearly been sitting in the sun too long. But make one gentle suggestion about moving this bush here or cross-pollinating the plants over there, and he’d grow sullen and silent.

I admit he was a looker when we were first introduced. It doesn’t hurt to be a caretaker and have spare time to run and romp and build up those abs (though to this day he still insists he was a “landscaper,” as if he’d planted everything from scratch, propagated new plants, did the math on genomes and generational varieties. “It was the precursor to my life as a grocer,” he would later admonish me in tense moments, “the grocery that paid for your graduate studies in those wretched vipers and serpents!”).

I was a bit concerned about his dreams—a disturbing subterranean vortex of anguish; he seemed perfectly sane but somewhat distracted. He was passive, for certain. He also seemed to resent my presence, but I expected that. Men need to feel they are in control.  I was in a dream-world myself, more concerned with my father’s approval than with my own growing desire to study reptiles. “Not a good career choice for a girl” he would say in that stern voice of his. What then? I had few friends and even though we were more than solvent, I felt an emptiness growing inside of me. I hate to admit it, but in a very palpable way, my life began in that damn garden. It wasn’t glamorous, and I wasn’t a fashion plate. He was inconvenienced by my presence, no doubt, but I am morally certain that the tension made us both more productive—his leisure took on more determined proportions and I was able to wander, take soil samples, and inspect the flora and fauna (and I thought it cute of him to name all the animals—perhaps he had a sensitive side, after all). He did have an aversion to snakes, which I found less endearing.

And if he had no true curiosity, why should I quell mine? How can one make discoveries without making trespasses? He was sawing wood in his sleep and I was enjoying the sinuous pulse of a small snake gently wrapping my arm as I inspected the largest tree in the orchard. The snake’s pink tongue darted in and out of its mouth in an endearing rhythm, and it hissed (am I projecting this?) as if to catch my attention. I was mesmerized by its glittering skin and grace. It slithered from my arm up to a lower branch. The apples on this particular tree (“Northern Spy?” “Staymen?” in those days I knew little about them) were robust, smooth, and fit in the hand with a pleasurable heft. One looked as if it were hanging by a thread, and my touching it made it come loose. In the immediate distance, my husband snored and rocked gently in the breeze. We were two, young, healthy people.  I had a naughty thought and brought the apple over to him.

“Hey,” I whispered into his ear, “want to taste something good?” His mouth moved slightly and he mumbled. I bit into the apple (tarter than I had hoped, but juicy) and drizzled some of the juice onto his lips. He smiled and I bit off a tiny piece and placed it in his mouth, which he swallowed. He couldn’t recount the broad smile that curved his lips before he bolted upright to accuse me. “Are you crazy, woman?” I remember him saying. Then he stormed off toward the river, leaving me alone with my bitten apple and my snake.

Even today, when business is slow and he watches the rain as customers head toward the newer grocers up the block or toward the river, he mutters about the garden under his breath. What he doesn’t say, doesn’t seem to remember, is that when I found him later that day by the water’s edge, pacing and cursing, and when he turned to look at me, there was no going back. We embraced and melted into one another and I had the odd sensation that I was home for the first time. 

     He:

Well, she got me good while I was asleep. It wasn’t uncommon for me to take afternoon naps. Fresh air has a way of tiring you. My landlord made fewer and fewer calls, and everything seemed under control. She seemed so content with inspecting her plants, collecting specimens, babbling on about her theories of cross-pollination. I grew weary and yet also desirous. I found it easier to watch her mouth than listen to what came spilling out of it. I paid little attention to her forays into the orchard, and after a morning of checking the animals and giving a once-over to the garden, I relaxed in the breeze in my hammock. I was in a blissful, dreamless state. Until her voice wavered into my consciousness. I was suddenly puckish, and when I felt something on my tongue, I relished it. But it didn’t go down the right pipe and I felt a choking sensation. She may have told you otherwise, but I shot out of the hammock and ran to the river to get a drink of water. She was mocking me—an apple in one hand and the snake in the other. Did she think this was funny? When my coughing died down, a bolt of panic went through me. What would my landlord say to all of this? I had just splashed my face with water when I saw her reflection beside me. I was filled with anger and an energy I couldn’t contain. And an urge to pull her down on the ground, which I did. It was the beginning of the end.

     She:

My father wasn’t pleased, to say the least. And truth be told, I was preoccupied with other things. My husband managed to stand up to Dad when it was discovered a few days after our tryst that the orchard had been picked through. Dad protested loudly that we were selfish and spoiled—he wanted the orchard pristine and untouched–was that too much to ask? Anyway, we had both made up our minds by then that we needed more land. Wanderlust took hold of us (I think I can safely speak for us both) and frankly, I needed a change of scenery. Who needs money when you have love? I managed to pack the snake in a box with my notes. It would come in handy later for my research, and amuse the kids as I toiled with my dissertation.

     He:

It was probably time to move on, but we had it good—really good. I never had to worry about inventory, weather conditions, rotten fruit, cooking the books. Those first steps away from the garden smarted. But I suppose the risk of nostalgia is that it makes the past a rosier place.

Like I said, that woman is the pleasure and pain of my existence. Once she makes up her mind, run for your life. If she didn’t abide by her father, what made me think she would listen to me? It became a moot point. To this day, with all we’ve been through, she gives me that look of hers and I forget my name—the way I wish I could forget my landlord’s voice the day he threw us off his property.

     She:

And they say the rest is history–