f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: 04/01/2007 - 05/01/2007

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Monday, April 30, 2007

The Winner of the Daily Sacrament Short Story Contest

The big announcement has been made. The winner of the 2007 Daily Sacrament Short Story Contest has been named at Relief Journal.

Not only that, but we're pleased to announce that a second runner-up story has been accepted for publication in Issue 3 as well. Mark and I hoped that the contest might bring more than one story into the journal and I'm glad that came true.

Now...the only place you can read either (and they're both terrific stories) is by ordering your issue or your subscription to Relief. Your support will open the door to perhaps more contests, more events, more great writing in the future!

Congrats to both authors!

Friday, April 27, 2007

Stories of Merit

So this was a sample of the stories we received. 60+ total, I think . I wish I could post more but we'll finish up with this last one. And then next week on Monday we'll make the big announcement.

And if you're in Chicago consider the Relief event this weekend.

The Stain by Mary Grabar

Let me tell you, it doesn't begin the way most people think it does. You see, I was the one to hit him first. I did. I had a saucepan in my hand and would have knocked him out if he hadn't stopped me. My arm couldn't go anywhere once he held it, but when he let go after forcing the pan out of my hand I used my bare hands to pull his hair, scratch him, slap him. The sauce had splattered the wall as the pan had flung backward. It was sauce he made for our dinner on Sunday night, before I would have to leave early the next morning, going against traffic though, out of town. He let me go, but then right there was his bookshelf. I could not stop myself. Those were his books, some from college even. He had kept the textbooks on human sexuality and The Story of O. He bought hard-covers and was careful to set aside the dust covers while reading them. He would let me read them, curious tomes by scientists making order out of evolution, spelling the progress of humankind scientifically and socially, multi-chaptered recipes for human satisfaction and peace. He scolded me if I left one open face down; it would ruin the binding, he said.

They were the next thing to throw and I was still mad from his having said it. I started pulling the books out, throwing them. I threw them all over his apartment, at him, at the desk with the nude reproduction from the Getty, at the file cabinet from where he had pulled out the card, and his new laptop where he kept lists and notes and journals I was not allowed to see. I did not care if some of them were the books I'd given him with my inscription and signature, the Donne for our first Valentine's Day to be remembered for every Valentine's Day until one of us died, the Elizabeth Barrett Browning. I even pulled out the Peter Rabbit from the bottom shelf.

It was because he smiled as he said it. I was screaming, screaming at him you son of a bitch. He had to get me again to calm me down, pull me from behind, wrestle me to the bedroom, put his hand over my mouth. He threw me down on the bed. "You bitch." He looked down into my eyes as he said it. It was the first time he said it. And I was not used to looking so directly at his eyes. This time they remained steady, fixed on me, on my eyes. The brown-gold of them pierced me, rendered me unable to move more so than the hands digging into my wrists. You will say I am crazy but he said the word with love. Yes, love. Love and hate. It was always mixed up. I was crying, spitting. He was calm now. The light that had danced in his eyes as he had geared up to say it was replaced by an animal calm. He held me that way until I stopped screaming, until I was looking at him. He let go of my wrists, leaving brown marks I would wear like bracelets the next morning. "I like it when you get this way," he said, releasing his grip with satisfaction. "A blue-eyed devil." He was smiling a little. He rose from the bed and walked into his kitchen.

He started cleaning. He did not look at me, but worked methodically, putting Mr. Clean into a bucket and swabbing the red-stained wall with it. The sauce was all over the place--the light fixture, the glass-topped table, the Parson's chairs. It came off the cupboards and counters but not off the wall and chairs. I sat in the recliner like a naughty child while he cleaned.

"I should call the police," he said. "Andrew said I should break up with you before the police are called out here and they haul me away. You're lucky the neighbors didn't call the police." Andrew, the MSW he had started seeing in order to deal with his issues and me, was the final arbiter in such situations.

I offered to paint the wall.

I didn't dare bring it up to him again. But this is how it happened: I had said I told you I don't want you talking about her before my arm had raised itself with the spaghetti sauce in it. Her name had that effect on me and after the cards that he showed me, the cards that came while I was in the hospital, I could not bear to hear her name. And he had joked about her, one of his little anecdotes about something I did that reminded him of P. I will not write her name.

In the card she wrote that she was sorry to hear about our loss, but that it must now be a relief to him and that she was still as ever (as she was throughout the whole three months and more) available and waiting for him.

"I am not interested in her, didn't you hear me say it in front of your counselor. She's just a friend. Why are you so insecure.

"That's what he said after he showed me the card. I had torn the other ones up, the other ones that in fact were his, his property as Andrew said, property that should be respected by two individuals in a relationship and that what had gone on between the two of them had nothing to do with him and me.

But after it had happened Andrew had said well it was a good thing maybe after all, given how unstable this relationship is.

I couldn't leave after that. It would have been harder than ever to leave. I wanted to try again, to recoup what was lost and for many weeks I would be told how beautiful I was, how loved, how the love he had for me scared him and that was why. . .

But sometimes I'd come over and he'd find me in that little dining area, press his body, the body whose smell intoxicated me and that I loved even more because it had helped produce the little thing that I had loved and lost, and he'd press his body against mine, glance at that wall with the stain, turn my head toward it, hold it there, force me to look at it: "See what you've done? Hothead."

I had decided by that point not to paint it. I guess I wanted him to claim his part in it.

You are saying I should have been stronger or more virtuous. This is beyond help. Crazy. Leave.

I did. He would find me. Not with threats. But with an invitation to talk, dinner. He could not bear to lose me, plus what else we had lost. The error of his ways. Looking away. Not daring to meet my eyes. The drinks making him sentimental, his voice almost a crack. The stifled emotion later in the night as I was held by him again in the bed where we had made it in a moment of caution thrown to the wind and when he sounded the way he would sound only in the complete darkness, a little boy coming out and saying, "sometimes I think I love you too much.

"That was it. He couldn't handle it. And so he had to turn, turn the other way, back to the place he had been before, back to the way he had been before he first met me, the one who had made him want something permanent. But it scared him.

I do believe he was scared.

Have you ever known a love so intense?

There is the union that goes beyond the rational, that is whispered in the night, and denied in the day. That is what I have known.

He was smiling as he said it and that is what made my arm go up with the pan not caring if I had had a two-ton boulder in it. He had started already and had already mentioned her name and I had said as I had been advised by Andrew please do not say it, that name, it hurts me when you say it. It would have gone down on him and yet he had not struck me. It was the smile. The smile that had charmed me the first time, when he had seen me across the floor and said I could dance and led me, his feet sure, his shoulders and back strong, leading me around between all the others. He said I could do it. And because he said I could do it, I did.

He would smile at me and I would melt. And you see him before you now. He is not smiling. His mouth is turned down. I loved that turn down too.

**

It was the "Tennessee Waltz" for our first waltz and I should have known right then that it was a sign; it was not the "Lover's Waltz." He reserved that waltz (the first time I heard it with him after we had started dating) for Marla who would not speak to me. On that first night when I met him, I had seen him on the edge of the dance floor talking out of the side of his mouth with Rod and I could tell they were talking about me. At other times, when he wasn't being asked to dance or offering his outstretched hand he was by himself, a tall dark-haired man slightly scholarly looking with wire-rimmed glasses. He had the best body of any of them. But his face was scarred.

He would tell me about it, about how once his face became covered with pustules at the age of 15 the girls no longer showed interest in him. He could not wear a belt. Would not go skinny dipping.

He said it matter-of-factly, though. He offered more about his past than anyone else had. About how he had come to respect his philosophy teacher and write 30-page papers for him, in high school. We were a year apart, and we'd often compare notes: what were you doing in 1973? Remember the Jackson Five?

I would kiss the scarred chin, look up at the wattles starting to form on his neck, run my fingers up the back of his neck through his thinning hair, careful not to mention the bald spot forming like a yarmulke, revealing the baby pink of his skull. He would relax then. We had a private joke about head squeezing, a technique from one of his ex-girlfriends from a therapy workshop or something. I would squeeze his head when he would mention some man who he knew was after me, who had smiled when he danced with me. He would squeeze my head when I got upset about P.

I believe we were both crazy.

But I had never been so in love.

He drew me in. I don't know why. He says we are irrational creatures and that I am more irrational than most and that is part of the appeal of me. So when I would ask him have you been seeing her he would reply no, you're crazy. Crazy. A mental case. The red stain was our visible evidence. He did not paint over it.

He would mention her and I would ask why she called, could he not say please do not call.

"Is this the Grand Inquisition?" he would ask. I knew I wasn't acting the way I had been advised to, the way Andrew said healthy couples should act: allow each other space, privacy. Trust.

She kept calling because she regretted breaking up with him and he could not be cruel to her. It was my issue. I tried to believe. I would not be able to sleep.

So that day I had tried to stop him from talking about her. But, no, he had not struck me and I could have walked out.

But it is not easy to walk away from a voice and a touch and a smell. His ghost would follow me, reminding me of the emptiness that surrounded me. And he would call and reveal that he felt an emptiness too.

I don't know why he had to say it. But he did. And he said it with a smile: "She said she would have had an abortion so fast it would make your head spin."

And the pan went up with my scream that went through the wall: "it's already dead!"

"So maybe she would have. Why does that fact bother you?" Those were Andrew's words. He said it in his office with the little electric fountain trickling, the statue of Buddha beaming down from the bookshelf behind him, the degrees on his wall. I could not explain it.

Andrew waved his foot clad in a thick sock and Birkenstocks. She had offered to have sex with him, yes. Some people are freer with their sexuality. But Michael had refused, didn't you just hear him say it?

And he had been ambivalent. It is better to be honest about ambivalence.

What to do now?

Work on the communication and trust.

I did. I trusted.

I did not come into town to spy on him. It was not our night. I was going to surprise him. I had bought dinners and desserts and a bottle of wine, his favorite.

I put in the card key and the gate lifted. He had told me earlier that he was going to stay in, read and do laundry.

It was a pretty spring night. The dogwoods were in bloom and there was a tree right in front of his building. It had been blooming the first time I had found his building after his directions, when we had made plans to see "Wings of the Dove." I was about to turn in to the lot. I was going pretty slow because of the speed bumps.

I saw him. Then I saw her. She looked like her picture. She was smaller than I was, thin, in high heels and a short dress. She pulled it off in spite of her age.

No, he did not have his arm around her. But he was looking down at her, smiling at her the way he smiled at me.

I had no proof.

The path was clear.

Every cell in my body charged. A green rage started boiling within me. I felt like the incredible Hulk.

I do not remember exactly. That's right. I had no proof.

I had no right.

But I drove that car toward them.

And he saw me.

He put his arm around her.

He pulled her away and saved her.

That's when I hit the car.

If he and she were alone in this room with me they would be laughing at me. He told me how she would laugh about some of my rages. Hothead. He said that to me often.

He would say she did nothing wrong.

That's what he said to Andrew.

In writing she said she would sleep with him.

Still no proof. I admit it.

He saved her. He saved himself.

Always he said that it is important keep oneself in shape and about that he was good; he showed me how to use the machines at the gym. As he had showed all his ex-girlfriends. He was swift and strong and he pulled her away, looking at me first with alarm, then a little smile forming.

It was what he wanted. I realized it then. He pulled her in to him. At the same time he had been willing to go to the edge in order to pull me in. His smile shone even more brightly because his face was red from the exertion. The craters of his skin became more pronounced and that light beamed from his eyes.

**

This was what he had been working toward. My attempt to kill him. I became dizzy, as if on the edge of a deep pit, from the realization of what I had almost done, of how I had nearly fallen into the place he came from.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Four Feasts by Susan Fish

Running, unlike the classroom, was within his control. He ran in any direction that would take him away from the school. There was something satisfyingly defiant about pushing back against the gusts of wind as he ran. He loved hearing the wild boom of the surf as it crashed violently against the rocks. At first, his goals were simple: to make it to the next tree, to be able to pant bonjour to anyone he passed, rather than gasping cotton-mouthed as he staggered by. Eventually, he began to be able to run to the third tree, then the bend in the road, and to string these small goals together into something that could be called a run. Each day, he ended his runs by cutting across the beach to stand at the edge of the tide. On days when he was still thinking about school by the end of a run, he found release in throwing stones as far into the gulf as he could, with a grunt or even a yell. Other days, he pocketed pieces of colored glass.

He still wondered who lived in the little yellow cottage nestled along the shore. Despite its brilliant hue, it looked as though it had grown there. The mailbox said Lafontaine and the driveway curved into the cedars that surrounded the house so he could not tell whether there was a car or not, but some evenings he saw lights in the windows.

He was far up the road when he saw a figure carrying bags into the yellow house. The person emerged again as Jason drew closer. It was the artist who taught at his school -- Nathalie. He felt satisfied by this, that this was where she belonged: the house suited her. He waved as he passed and she waved back, although he was not sure she recognized him.

The air was so cold the next day that it sucked Jason’s breath from his mouth as he stepped outside his door but he decided to run anyway, to sustain this good habit as long as he could. Then he ran too far. Even with the scarf and the beard, he felt his face starting to freeze. Nathalie’s cottage was ahead, vivid yellow against the purple and blue shadows on the snow.
She opened the door, a large towel wrapped around her head, her red kimono around her body. She looked surprised. “Jason. Come in. Vite. Vite!”

He stepped inside and was enveloped in sensory bliss. A fire blazed in a preposterously large hearth, brown loaves of bread sat on the counter next to the stove on which something fragrant bubbled and steamed. Nathalie busied herself gathering small pots and jars on the table. “Sit. Please. My mess – excusez.”

Jason’s body was only beginning to believe that the torture was over. His face still stiff with cold smiled. “It’s a still life, Nathalie. My table has breakfast on it. Don’t worry about it.”

Nathalie smiled. She unwrapped the towel from her head, shaking out masses of damp, dark curls. “So, you come to accept my offer of supper?”

“No. I was jogging. And I got too – trop froid.”

“Your French improves. But, will you join me. I have a good meal ce soir – my grandfather’s soup, and bread I make myself.”

“It smells delicious.”

Donc –stay!” She stepped closer to him, unbuttoned his coat and unwrapped his scarf. She smelled spicy and woodsy.

“I’m interrupting,” he protested.

“I was in the bath, trying to delay the inevitable. I am a coward about the cold so I stay under the water until the bath feels as cold as the air. You have rescued me from the freezing with your timely knock.” She tossed his coat on top of her own on a driftwood tangle by the door.
“Would you desire a cup of wine? Du café?”

Du vin, s’il vous plait.”

Nathalie gave the mass on the stove a quick turn before moving to the cupboard, taking two glasses, opening the bottle on the counter and filling them with ruby liquid.

“We missed you at school on Thursday,” he said as she handed him a glass.

She shook her head. “My grand-mère, she is sick and I am bringing her the things she needs in the hospital. This is her house.”

This explained the mailbox. “I’m sorry. I hope she is better soon.”

“She is 90 years old,” Nathalie said. “I hope so too.”

Santé!” Jason offered. “To health!”

“And warmth!” Nathalie said.

They ate at the table covered in shards of pottery and sea glass. After he had eaten, he reached a finger to touch them.

“They’re beautiful.”

Beau.”

Beau?”

Oui! You have it!” Nathalie clapped her hands in the firelight.

He watched her pull small pieces from her bread and run them around her empty bowl before popping them into her mouth. He took a large gulp of wine and decided to take refuge and risk in French.

Tu es beau.”

Nathalie’s eyes danced. “Moi? Non, a woman is belle.”

Belle?”

“I am female.”

“I hadn’t noticed.”

Nathalie threw back her head and laughed. As she reached for her glass, her robe slipped from her shoulder, then fell back into place as she drank the wine.

“How – how do you say – I want to kiss you.”

Je désire te baiser.” Nathalie leaned over. Her kiss tasted of sweet wine. “Now – you try again.”

Jason repeated the phrase nearly correctly.

Nathalie wiggled her head. “Almost,” she teased.

Je désire–” and then he stopped, desire mingled with guilt, confusion.

Qu’est-ce que c’est?” Nathalie asked, biting her lip.

“It’s not you. Je désire – but …” He flexed his hands, lost and confused.

“Then go home. Va. Pense.”

“I owe you dinner. I’ll cook Toronto food for you – whatever that is.” He retreated into jokes. “I should go. But – I’m as bad as you getting out of the bath – is it always like this in the winter?”
She wrapped her arms tightly about herself. “No. In the winter, it gets really cold.”

He wrapped his scarf three times around his face and turned to Nathalie who stood small and dark in her crimson kimono. He could not quite meet her gaze.

Merci. I’ll see you – vendredi,” he said.

“Stay warm,” she said. “Go home quickly.”

The night was so shockingly bitter that he nearly gagged as he hit the cold air. He broke into a lope across the deserted road, over the ridges of the lone snowmobile tracks. The bright, frosty sky above him was silent, but he could hear a melancholy train whistle in the distance.

***

Most of the people had gathered near the front of the church and he soon saw why – there were electric heaters just below the pulpit. He left his seat near the window and inched cautiously forward, staying behind the rest.

He found himself confused and distracted as the congregation sang. He tried to join in, but just when he thought he had the tuneless tune, it would rise or lower unexpectedly. He could not find his place in the burgundy book they had given him, despite the page numbers listed on a large sign at the front of the church. He found the words foreign and dense – he couldn’t focus on one before another was coming at him.

Then the minister said something about peace and everyone stood up and began greeting everyone else. Jason followed their example although he didn’t think the service was over. Three people shook his hand. Then everyone found seats again and he tried to keep pace.
The Lord’s Prayer was said, and here Jason was thankful: he knew this part and could recite it without thinking. The preaching jangled like a foreign language in Jason’s ear: though he understood the individual words and strained to grasp the meaning of the whole, he could not.
The next thing he knew, the crowds were lining up at the front. When in Rome, thought Jason as he joined the line, wondering if you had to be a regular at the church to take communion. He made it to the front of the small church, standing in line, shifting from one foot to another. He found himself distracted by dandruff on the collar of the man in front of him waiting to take communion. It was funny, you didn’t see people with dandruff as much as you used to. Maybe people washed their hair more often, or maybe shampoos had improved. It was hard to say. And then he was at the front of the church and he knelt on the steps where the minister stood holding a silver chalice of wine. A woman handed him a wafer, giving his shoulder a slight squeeze as she passed.

As the minister held out the cup for Jason to dip his wafer, Jason suddenly knew he could not put the wafer in his mouth. There were no napkins at communion, nothing you could slip a wafer into. The dandruffed man had moved back to his seat. Jason was conscious of the need to dispose of the evidence. He raised the wafer toward his lips, maybe he could, and then, he could not. He slipped the wafer into his breast pocket, rose to his feet and returned to his seat.
An hour later, the wafer was still there. The wine had left a slight crescent of a stain, like a minor bullet wound over his heart.

***

Flames were licking the sky as he made his way to the beach. A crowd of people was already gathered around the fire, some holding hot dogs or marshmallows on sticks. The moonlight made everything look like a black and white movie, dense furry shadows and overexposed whiteness. A flock of snow geese flew overhead, their wings beating the air so that Jason could hear it.

The spring low tide was just before midnight. Jason’s heart quickened at the idea of walking on the tidal floor, where people were not meant to walk, of actually touching the rock that normally was surrounded by water.. Nathalie emerged from the shadows, small and dark, and was standing silently next to him almost before he recognized her. He had run past her house each day, a knot forming in his stomach when he thought of talking to her. Now, he wondered how to begin the conversation. The moon was bright and the tide had receded so that a sandbar curving toward the rock was visible.

Allons! Allons!” someone called, setting off.

Jason felt an ambition to touch this rock. Wordlessly, he gestured to Nathalie, who fell into step with him, her hands dug deep in her pockets, a gulf between them.

“I have never told you about Steven, did I?” she said suddenly.

He shook his head.

“Steven was a professor of sculpture at Dalhousie. I modelled for some of his classes in my first year to pay for the second year. I listen as I stood there – it was very boring, you know, to be standing so long in one position. But Steven was fascinante – he was older and all the girls adored him – and powerful. In my second year, I change my major to fine arts and then in my third année, we moved in together. I look back now and–” Nathalie shook her head vigorously, her face in the shadows – “but at the time, it was, it seems very natural and beautiful. We lived together in Halifax for five years. I graduate, get a job in graphic design, go to openings with Steven. But he will never come here with me, and he is always angry when I speak French, when I call my mother or my grand-parents. I was happy maybe two years with Steven and then–”

She paused as they negotiated their way across a series of slippery rocks. Jason wondered if she hoped he would let the matter drop. Boule Rock loomed ahead of them now, black even in the moonlight. He let the silence enfold him, feeling the ripples of tide-crests of sand under his feet, and the squelch of icy seawater seep into the holes of his canvas running shoes. He wished he had worn boots as Nathalie did. She wrapped her arms around herself as she walked.

Un jour, a woman called the apartment and I knew. It was only one phone call but I was sure. It was a beautiful day in October. I was making a soup and des petites biscuits, my grand-mère’s receipt. I made a salade too, after the phone call – a spinach salade with little oranges and slices of onion.

“It’s funny what you remember. I remember pulling the spinach apart – it felt like a paper towel, heavy and wilted. Everything was very clear. I had a tisane – peppermint – and I kept boiling the water and drinking the tea so hot it was hurting my mouth and I wanted to feel it go down my throat, because then I could swallow, peut-être, what I had known, what I knew.

“I made my salade and I thought about holding the secret. I thought about my life, my English life. I had started to feel a bit at home in Halifax. And Steven. And I was very, very afraid and the tisane did not help and I arranged the salade and I took one spinach leaf and I squeezed it between my hands until green juice ran between my fingers and my hands were covered. And then I took more and I ruined the salade and I leave the whole crushed mess in the sink and I put my head in my hands and I cried. And I could smell the good spinach and the onions and the orange, and I feel like I have not smelled anything in years.

“So I rinse it away and there is no salade that night, but I sat at the table with Steven and the soup and the biscuits and every time I took a bite I could smell that oignon and the fresh spinach and it strengthened me and I asked him.”

They were completely in shadows, with the others at the monolith, which seemed so insignificant from shore, but which dwarfed them now. The rock was covered with seabirds, still squawking deep into the night. Jason reached a hand out to touch the rock. It was slimy and pungent with seaweed and guano. In the darkness, Nathalie put her hand on his. The rock echoed with the sounds of hooting revellers and birds.

“He told me everything as if I am his priest. Not guilty. Not bragging. Like I am the lucky one to keep him for a while.”

***

He had opened all the classroom windows and the scent that wandered in was the promise of warmth to come. The students felt it too, though where the breeze soothed and settled him, it energized the students. Jason found himself responding to their collective shiver of life. He felt a strong current of satisfaction as he surveyed the students clustering in groups to study for the exams.

After school, he stuffed his jacket into his backpack and set out walking down the hills toward Nathalie’s house.

She was sitting curled up, deep in thought, at her desk and did not notice his approach. The door stood ajar and he gave it a quick knock as he leaned his head inside.

“Where does a guy go to get some good ice cream around here?”

A smile replaced the look of concentration on Nathalie’s face, and she gathered her papers into a stack on her desk.

Three minutes later, he sat beside her as her old car doggedly climbed the hill to the highway. He had his feet propped on the dashboard and his arms flung open, one behind Nathalie, the other hanging out an open window. As she drove along the curve of highway high above the river, he watched the water idly, solid marine blue, with only tips of white waves far out in the river. He glanced over at Nathalie who had sunk once again into thought. He wondered what she was thinking and whether he should ask.

“I’ve never been here before,” he said as she pulled off the road at Baie de Sables.

Jamais? It is only a small hop?”

“If you have a car. I can see its lights at night. So where is this ice cream?”

“Can I take you first to one of my favorite places?”

“Of course.”

She drove along a small parkway past a sturdy church with its dull pewter-coloured roof and siding-clad cottages. There were few trees and very few places of evident business. He noted this with surprise: he had imagined the lights he saw to be those of cozy restaurants and bars, but this place was spare.

Then, as Nathalie pulled in front of a house facing the water, he was forced to entirely re-evaluate his assessment of the town: most of it was spare, but this one house made up for it, as if any ornament or decoration from the other houses in the community had been magnetically pulled off by this house. He was put in mind of a gingerbread house.

“It’s une musée,” Nathalie explained.

“A museum of what?”

“Of art.”

Jason stuck his tongue out behind Nathalie’s back as he followed her to the house.

“It looks like it used to be a house.”

“It is a house. Raymond lives within his creation.”

He followed Nathalie through the narrow passageways in the house. She explained as they went that Raymond had made everything from materials he had found on the beach across the road from his house. There were faces made of dented hubcaps, driftwood geese, mosaics of sea glass, gargoyles of old bicycle wheels and twisted metal grids. The effect was overwhelming to Jason who could not imagine living in such a place – it would cause perpetual indigestion, if not nightmares. Nathalie, however, looked around fondly with interest.

“Do you like this stuff?” he finally asked. The art was so different from Nathalie’s art and her own mosaics or even the driftwood tangle she kept on her porch. “You aren’t going to end up like this in twenty years, are you?” he teased.

Nathalie looked up. “Moi? For me, it is about twenty years ago. My grandfather used to play cards with Raymond and sometimes when I stay with my grandparents, he will bring me along. I never like the smell of their pipes and M. Raymond, he always tell me ‘Va en haut!”, “Va en haut!” and I would prowl up here, looking at it all. It wasn’t a musée then. M. Raymond was the first artist I knew, and the first to show me I didn’t need to follow some style, I could just go to the sea to make something. Quelque chose beau.” She spoke as in reverie. Jason could not resist – in the yellow light of the dusty landing, he kissed her. She smiled then bit her bottom lip thoughtfully before leading him down a flight of stairs hidden behind a tall cabinet.

As they descended, he began to smell a pungent odor. The stairs wound into a small, dark kitchen where a man stirred a pot on the stove in the shadows.

M. Raymond. C’est moi – Nathalie Dubé.”

The small man, remarkably normal in his plaid shirt and work pants, responded with a torrent of French and almost a jig. Nathalie reached for his hand.

Mon ami, Jason Ward – un professeur. Il est anglais.”

Raymond shook Jason’s hand. Wizened raisin eyes shone brightly in the man’s face.

“It is my pleasure.” Raymond said, forming the English syllables carefully.

Votre art,” Jason attempted, “C’est, c’est merveilleux.” He was conscious of Nathalie’s smile.

Over the next few minutes, Jason, Raymond and particularly Nathalie engaged in a round of conversation, with Nathalie running translation and commentary both ways, while Raymond stirred pots like a wizard.

“He is inviting us to share his supper.”

“What is it?”

“Soup. Dandelion greens.”

Les premiers de printemps,” Raymond said proudly, thumping his chest and making muscles with his arms. “Pour la fortitude.

“It’s not seaweed, is it?” Jason asked dubiously.

Nathalie rolled her eyes and they followed Raymond to a small table. As Raymond ladled out bowls of steaming green stew, Jason was conscious of meals he had not finished, and those he had not even started. He looked at Nathalie who was crossing herself and then at the soup. It did look curiously like seaweed, like something harvested from the depths. Seeing Raymond watching him, Jason raised a spoon to his mouth. The soup was curiously bitter and the pumpernickel bread was dense and chewy, but Jason was conscious of this man whose strange hospitality lay before him in the bowl. He swallowed, smiled and took another mouthful as he watched Nathalie gesture, explaining to Raymond about a painting she was working on. He became used to the strange taste of the dandelions, enough to ask for a second bowl, and felt its freshness move in him like new life after winter. Nathalie was pleased as she danced between languages and her colliding worlds. Sometimes she forgot to translate but Jason did not lose his place in the conversation.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Author Website Contest

Relief Journal is hosting an event this weekend in Chicago. (If you're around, be sure to check out the details.)

But regardless of whether you can attend, if you have an author website, think about entering their "Author Website Contest." Winner will get a nifty T-shirt and a mug, but considering that entering consists of sending an email and might get you some nice publicity for your site....why not?

Details at the end of this post.

Dark House by Renee Ronika Bhatti-Klug

Let him who walks in the dark,
who has no light,
trust in the name of the Lord
and rely on his God.
But now, all you who light fires
and provide yourselves with
flaming torches,
go, walk by the light of your fires
and of the torches you have set
ablaze.

–Isaiah 50:10b-11


In archways, I’ve always wondered what to do with myself. But in his archway, the one I had known since I was a girl, I knew to touch the highest point of the arch with the tips of my fingers before passing through. It was a rite my brothers and I performed to initiate the warm afternoons. Our mother would scold us for being impolite at someone else’s house, but what she meant was her in-laws’ house—the house my grandparents had been saving to buy since they came here from India before our dad was born. Our father didn’t mind our entrance ritual. I think he saw it as his father’s gift to us. All my brothers and I knew was every Saturday, while at our grandparents’, it became easier to reach the arch. After a while, we didn’t even have to jump.

Ravi, who was born a year, a week and a day before me, on a Sunday, had fourteen pimples on his cheeks and our grandmother kept reentering the living room to tell him she found another. “Ravi, look! There is now one growing from your ear. Give it to God, boy, otherwise you will have spots.”

Ravi slumped into the couch and gripped the Atari controller, steadying his glare on the fuzzy TV. Sim, who was almost out of high school, smirked. “I guess we know who lucked out in the gene pool, hey Rav?” Ravi’s animated frog hurled itself under an oncoming car. Sim leaned over the couch and untied a ribbon on my braid. I scowled and huddled closer to Ravi, who I knew wouldn’t give me any trouble. Ravi didn’t give anyone trouble. He was our grandfather’s favorite and, if it weren’t for all his pimples, he would have been our grandmother’s favorite too.

He was my favorite. Sim was too old for me. What did I care if a Lamborghini could outrace a Testarossa? Ravi would follow Sim around the house, holding up sketches of different cars he had drawn. Sim would turn around, snatch them from Ravi, and evenly state, “Testarossas don’t come in that shade of red.” Ravi would find the right shade and redraw the car until Sim was content.

I was content staring at my movie posters of American and Indian actresses. Nancy McKeon was my favorite American celebrity and Rekha was my favorite Indian star. When Rekha danced, her black hair wisped in waves across her shoulders. My hair unraveled in strings of muted dark brown. Mom hated that I adored Rekha, who she claimed was a professing witch. Mom was a professing Catholic who believed witches belonged on one side while saints belonged on another. On which side of what she didn’t specify.

Dad was hardly around. He was a pilot and had six fingers on his left hand. He said the sixth, which was just an extra pinky, was for luck. Our father, to our mother’s dismay, was without religion. Our mother, to our father’s dismay, was without faith. He couldn’t agree with the stoicism of the Catholics, or any other religion: Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, Buddhist. “The mindless chatter of chants and rehearsed reading of scripture is not what God intended.” He didn’t say what it was that God intended, although Dad was content with the religious watching of Bollywood movies (for which I was content). On the weekends our Dad was home, he piled a stack of movies on the Beta and we would search our way through them, circling our eyes around the gilded love songs and recycled plots.

Ravi and Sim, like me, avoided religion altogether. Our grandfather didn’t push it, so Ravi didn’t notice it. Sim was too good for it and I had no clue what to make of it. There were so many religions to choose. My friend Rebekkah said God chooses us so it was easy for her to believe in Jesus. My other friend Mara was Jewish and said that was only because of her family. “Even though I’m getting Bat Mitzvahed,” she said, “when I turn eighteen I’m not going to be Jewish anymore.” When she was eighteen, Mara hit an oncoming truck while driving in her hatchback and spent the next four months in a coma before finally passing away.

But when we were twelve, everything seemed like a grandiose choice. Even Rebekkah savored the opportunity to select from sticky or rock candy when she came to my house for sleepovers. It didn’t matter that she believed in Jesus; I in Rekha; Mara in turning eighteen. We knew to survive seventh grade, we would have to rely on our ability to be arbitrary just to avoid getting crushed.

For the fall formal, two boys asked Mara to the dance, one asked Rebekkah and I ended up asking Sim what I would do if no one asked me. “You crawl in a hole and die, kiddo.” For Sim—a Michelangelo effigy of obdurate muscles and sienna skin—the extent of conflicts in his pretty world was whether to splash on Drakkar or Polo before going to the football game.

When a boy did not ask me to the dance, I approached Henry Wheeler—the fattest kid in school—and asked if he wanted to go. “Can’t dance,” he mumbled under his raspy breath, and I didn’t press him further.

I cried in a lump on my bed the entire week before that Thursday night. I wouldn’t go to my first dance. This was something I saw happen in John Hughes’ movies to ugly, smart girls or geeky, frizz-headed boys. I was a cute kid. Our parents let me take my braids out after sixth grade, so I had long hair that landed just above my waist that I sometimes pulled back into a side ponytail. I had deep set almond-colored eyes, like our dad’s, a normal nose and only one crooked tooth. I was average height and I wasn’t too chubby. I got mostly Bs, some As, one C. I just didn’t get asked to the dance.

Ravi came into my room that Thursday after school and I asked him if Talia, the girl he asked to the dance, said yes. He nodded and sat on the bed. “I don’t think she would mind if I cancelled and went with you, though. Ryan can take her.” Ravi’s eyes counted stray strands on the olive shag carpeting.

“You would do that?” I asked, readjusting my head on the down pillow.

He shrugged. “She’s not my girlfriend.”

“I’m your sister.”

He looked over to me and smiled, “Yeah, I know.”

“Your face looks better.” He had started using a new medicine, some sort of industrial strength cream, that school year. Although he was darker than Sim, and had a baby face, I knew Ravi would age into a stunning and unassuming beauty. I hoped to turn out the same way. He didn’t seem convinced there was hope for either of us. “I’m serious, Rav. There are hardly any pimples left.”

“Yeah, but I bet you on Saturday Bibiji will still count the spots.”

“And then Dhadha will come to your rescue.”

On Saturday, as Ravi and I stretched to touch the arch and Sim thumped it with a finger, the dance was behind us, behind me.

It didn’t take clever convincing to sway Ravi into keeping his date with Talia, and then he had the brilliant thought to ask Ryan to take me instead of pawning off Talia. The four of us must have looked like a misguided rainbow walking into the crepe-dripped gymnasium. Ryan had dark blonde hair that stuck out like bird feathers; Talia’s hair was Garfield orange; Ravi’s hair was jet black; and I had my gloomy mess of string. When Rebekkah and Mara joined us with their dates, we danced and danced—forgetting any of this was ever an ordeal.

**

Ravi charged to the back room of our grandparents’ house, where he woke Dhadha from an afternoon slumber. The rest of us convened in the dining room, salivating over the scent of Bibiji’s aloo rotis—spiced mashed potatoes, onions and peas spread between homemade whole wheat Indian bread. We loved Bibiji’s Saturday treats and looked forward to them after a humdrum week of bologna sandwiches for lunch and whatever our mom would defrost or reheat for dinner. Unlike Bibiji, Mom didn’t see cooking as her gift. She worked at a law firm, typing depositions and answering calls, and wanted to recline in her La-Z-Boy and watch “Wheel of Fortune” when she came home. Once Sim could drive, we ate a lot of fast food and pizza.
Mom, like Dad, was a first generation American. I can’t remember her parents, but she said they were Guyanese Indians who wanted to check out entrepreneurial pursuits in the States. Our parents met twenty years later, the only two Indians at the state college. They traveled as hippies for a while, surfacing for funerals and Sim’s birth. Once he arrived, our parents moved into this house with Dhadha and Bibiji. They moved out once they had Ravi.

**

“Nina, beta, go get the yogurt from the refrigerator,” Bibiji turned to look at me after laying out placemats. “No more hamburgers for you. You will become plump.”

Our mother chuckled. “Panji, she’s a healthy young girl—slender even.”

“Yes, now,” Bibiji mused, “but in two years she will thank God for her Bibiji’s sound advice. Right, beta?” She pinched Sim’s chin and he nodded. “My beautiful Simjit. See? He does not eat high-flying American food too much and he is spotless and slim.”

I wanted to tell Bibiji that Mr. Spotless and Slim has pimples all over his back and in five years would be fat because he was the one who took me to burger joints. Instead I said, “Bibiji, Ravi’s face doesn’t have spots anymore.”

She snorted. “If he continues to surround himself only with your Dhadha, and refuses to listen to me, the spots will return.”

I think Sim was glad to hear that, but it made me want to leap at Bibiji and whack her with a flyswatter. I was also mad at Ravi for abandoning me with Sim and Bibiji; at Mom for her neglect; at Dad for his absence; at Dhadha for loving Ravi so much he couldn’t see me.
I wanted to know what they did together so, that day, I excused myself from the table, pretended to enter the bathroom, and detoured down the hall to crouch in front of Dhadha’s study. I could hear him speaking, his voice inflected in subtle rhythms of wheezes and accented words, “Ravi, you must learn to be quiet, even when you are in pain. Another’s life must come before your own. You must not let the corruption of other men influence you to do what is not right.”

Ravi asked him then what was not right.

Guilt, like a plague, passed over me and I stood to run down the hall. Once I turned, I gasped when I plowed into a shaded figure.

“Spying?” Sim was grinning in that dark hallway.

“Shut up, Sim. I was just going to tell them lunch is ready.”

“So why didn’t you tell them?”

I rasped against the door. “Lunch is ready.” I faced Sim. “You were spying on me, so don’t think you’re so great.”

Sim walloped me on the head and walked toward the dining room. I waited for Dhadha and Ravi to emerge from the room. After a while, they still hadn’t appeared so I burst through the door and threw myself onto Dhadha’s lap. He flung his head back in laughter and hugged me as I plopped on him in the plushy recliner. Ravi stood and pressed the chair so it tilted, while the attached ottoman sprung out. At that, the chair tipped back, leaving the three of us sprawled on the carpet—groaning through giggles—as we made sure each of us was unharmed.

**

For the next five years, on every Saturday our fingers would smell of wrought iron and our evenings would end with the three of us laughing.

By then, Sim had gone off to college, graduated and married a girl he got pregnant senior year. They moved into a four-bedroom house on the opposite end of town, where he found a job as a senior accountant for a local company.

His son was born that fall. Little Simmy was a wonder to Bibiji and she offered to baby sit regularly. Sim’s wife Natalie resented motherhood—and Sim—and allowed Bibiji to have the time she offered with Simmy.

Ravi packed for college the week before I began senior year of high school, where I would serve as Student Body Treasurer. In their days, Sim was President and Ravi was Historian. I stood in the doorway of his bedroom while he paired socks. “Are you ready for a big city?” I asked, peering over his shoulder to glimpse his face.

“I think so.” He turned to me. “You should consider applying next year.”

I chuckled. “Sim went Ivy League; you’re going Big Ten; I’ll probably end up at some state college with a degree in marketing.”

“Well,” he gestured with his hand, “what do you want to do?”

I puckered my lips and shrugged.

“Yeah, me too.” He finished packing his socks and faced me. “Just don’t go getting yourself knocked up and married.”

“Aye, aye.” I reached to lift an old lantern Dhadha had given Ravi for his thirteenth birthday. “Does this thing work?” It had tiny jewels in deep shades fastened to the base.

He looked over his shoulder. “Needs oil.”

I set it back and reminded Ravi to pack it. “I know,” was all he said.

Our grandfather had the second in a series of strokes that winter. Ravi was going to college with one foot planted here. Dad and Dhadha urged Ravi to pursue his dream of becoming an architect, despite Dhadha’s fading health. Even Sim spoke to Ravi about not feeling guilty by going away. Ravi must have implied that Sim wouldn’t understand his apprehension since Sim wasn’t as close to Dhadha, because Sim refused to come to our grandparents’ house the last Saturday Ravi was here.

“He is busy,” Bibiji argued, “a man of his position is occupied even on Saturdays.”

But Dhadha, Ravi and I knew it was because Sim didn’t mind admitting Ravi’s absence wouldn’t cause him much grief.

Ravi departed the next day, Sunday, and left the lantern on my dresser with a note tucked beneath: “Take care of this while I’m away.”

I moved the lantern to my nightstand and pictured Ravi when I looked at it. If I stared long enough, my mind’s image of Ravi juxtaposed with a shadow of our grandfather. They had the same eyes: round and devout. Ravi’s emotions were betrayed by his eyes, and Dhadha’s eyes misted often.

The lantern was antique brass, brought from India, and it was uniquely ornate and simple. The intricacies of the jeweled base contrasted with the dim glass of the hurricane-shaped body. I could fall asleep calmly, without waking, knowing it was by my bedside.

The Saturdays of my senior year were spent at the hospice, where our grandfather laid in a coma after a third stroke. Ravi called at two on those afternoons and we talked to him on the speakerphone. Little Simmy would add new words to the conversation as the months progressed.

Ravi came home the following summer and virtually slept in the hospice room. His eyes were bloodshot by day and melancholy by night. Bibiji brought food; our mother brought in a TV; our father stayed up with Ravi to discuss the school year; Sim brought Simmy by to divert Ravi’s attention away from our grandfather’s body attached to tubes and bags.

I came and went according to the mood I sensed from Ravi. Sometimes I could feel his loneliness as he watched Dhadha, so I stayed. When Ravi spoke to Dhadha, I waited outside and tried not to eavesdrop. Ravi had met a few girls, none of them very charismatic: some had obnoxious giggles; others relied too heavily on finding a boyfriend. Ravi was dissatisfied with his math professor, who was obtuse; but he loved his linguistics instructor, who also taught his Faulkner class. I smiled as Ravi gushed over Absalom, Absalom! “I struggled, but it was an eye-opening course. Most people thought I was crazy for taking it my first year. Dhadha, this author is really something.”

He was even taking a theology course and wanted our grandfather awake so he could share discoveries. “Dhadha, you’d be amazed.”

I remembered Rebekkah, whom I still saw but not as much. She joined the newspaper and while she was at staff meetings, I was planning events or decorating the gym. I thought of her whenever I heard the word “amaze.” She liked that word and used it when she discussed her beliefs.

I jerked my head back from the door when Sim arrived in the hallway with a squirmy Simmy. Natalie peeked in the room to say hello and hug Ravi, then me in the hallway, and dashed out the back entrance before Sim could object.

When I joined my brothers in the room, I noticed Ravi’s shoulders had broadened beyond Sim’s. Sim slouched while Ravi leaned forward, monitoring Dhadha’s breathing, pressing his wrist for his pulse. Simmy crawled on the floor so I swooped him into my arms. “Sim, I’m going to take little one here downstairs for a snack.”

“You should go with her, Ravi. You need a break.”

Ravi did not divert his eyes from Dhadha. “No, he looks better. He actually has some color.”
Sim offered Ravi his clunky cellular phone. “Look, I’ll call you from here if he wakes up. Go—get something to eat.”

Ravi glanced at me. “Will you bring me back some soup?”
Sim fumed. “For crying out loud, Ravi, when are you going to get over this obsession? He’s our grandfather too.”

I stepped forward. “Sim—”

Ravi stood. “No, Nina, that’s alright. You’re right, Sim. I’ll give you some time.” Ravi tucked the phone into his hand and ushered Simmy and me downstairs. We sat for a while, alternating between sprinkling crackers into soup and feeding bits to Simmy.

“You think he’ll be okay? The doctor said if his color returned he could wake up.”

Ravi looked at me. “He’s going to die.” He clambered out of the booth and rushed upstairs. I snatched Simmy and followed.

When we reached Dhadha’s doorway, we could see nurses huddled around the bed. One yelled for another to call the doctor and Ravi surged forward. I followed, panting with the weight of Simmy, and gasped when I heard the flatline shrill of the monitor. Ravi kicked the chair he had been sitting in and looked around for Sim.

Sim stood motionless in the corner—dulled by the white walls—staring at Ravi, whose chest began to heave until he asked, “What happened, Sim?”

Sim shook his head and glanced at me.

“Sim?” I repeated. Sim snapped out of his trance, lurched for Simmy, and bolted to the parking lot, running Ravi’s and my shouts into echoes.

**

The house was hollow when I approached it that afternoon, not bothering to touch the archway as I stepped onto the porch. I entered our grandparents’ house and found our father, mother and grandmother sipping tea in the dining room. I halted. Tears, in blades of fear, gouged my cheeks. “He’s gone.”

Our father stood. “Was Ravi there?”

I shook my head. “Just Sim. We had gone to get something to eat.”

Our father groped for his chair and our mother leaned to adjust it. Our grandmother covered her mouth with her chuni as it draped her head and torso.

Mom and Dad held each other while Bibiji wept. I stood still on the step where the rooms met. I didn’t know where Sim had gone, or why he left so suddenly. I wondered if Ravi was still in the hospice room with Dhadha, void of color and strength.

The walls felt lopsided and the carpet groaned. It seemed as if a hundred years had passed when the hospice called for our grandmother. She asked to speak to Ravi and, after prolonged moments, they reported he was not there.

Our mother kept calling to Christ, who I think heard her because she fell asleep shortly thereafter, perched in grandfather’s chair.

Rebekkah once said the shortest passage in the Bible was “Jesus wept,” after Lazarus, whom Jesus later brought back to life, had died. Rebekkah said Jesus wept not because Lazarus died but because people didn’t believe Jesus could resurrect him. My mother worshipped a man on a cross who wept when his followers denied his power. Yet Jesus himself did not weep while he was on that cross. He looked asleep whenever I observed crucifixes. Although my father forbade them in the house, I noticed them in hospitals or friends’ houses. Rebekkah wore crosses absent of the slain Jesus. She said she refused to carry around a corpse when the Jesus she worshipped was still alive.

Everything I knew was dead. I called Natalie and she listened as I cried. Sim came home and, when Natalie put him on the phone, I could hear his languid breath. I waited for Ravi while our parents and grandmother finalized paperwork at the hospice. I went home to a bleak room, not knowing where Ravi was, and fell asleep—without changing my clothes or washing my face—alone in my bed, in my damp and empty space.

I woke up the next morning and wondered if God was there. I could not feel Him; I had never heard His voice and yet, within me, I needed a reconciliation between life and death. My entire life it felt as though Sim were death and Ravi, life. Yet they were both my brothers. I couldn’t depend on one, and the other became my salvation. But now he was not there. Ravi had vanished and my indignation blazed because Dhadha was my grandfather too. I had lost him too.

I dragged my arm across the bed to brush the lantern on the nightstand. It felt cold and I wrapped myself into the comforter. I lumbered throughout the house that day, waiting for the phone, wanting someone to step through the front door. Trounced in silence, my thoughts began to ricochet against the floorboards. I pulled on Ravi’s college sweatshirt, slipped on my sneakers and twisted my hair into a tight bun.

After driving around, I mingled mindless tasks with errands I had been postponing: I bought a cup of coffee; I peered into a bookstore; I picked up a hammer at the hardware store; I stopped at a candle shop.

I somehow steered myself to our grandparents’ house, where I saw Sim flailing his fist against the door. I bounded from the car and barreled toward the porch, halting in the archway as Ravi flung open the door.

Sim drew back as Ravi lurched forward. I shouted and Ravi jolted, recollecting himself, looking at me. “Do you know what he did?”

I couldn’t find words, so I searched the yellow mums in the flowerbed and imagined clouds shaped like question marks. I shook my head.

Sim turned to me. “Dhadha woke up while you were downstairs.”

“Why didn’t you call us?” I specifically remembered Ravi taking that hideous phone. “Did Dhadha say anything?”

Sim cowered his head. “He asked for Ravi.”

Ravi slid to sit on the doorstep. He buried his fingers in his rumpled hair. “Tell her what else was said, Sim.”

Sim stuttered through a disjointed sentence.

“Sim?” I leaned against the gate.

“I told him Ravi didn’t want to see him.” Sim closed his eyes. I could feel the air evaporate from the neighborhood. Sim looked to me in the archway and then at Ravi on the doorstep. “I don’t know what I was thinking. I was—”

Ravi stood. “You were out of your mind, Sim. You know how important it was for me to see him one last time.”

“And it wasn’t important to me?”

“Sim, don’t be a jerk. You deliberately made sure I wasn’t going to be there.”

“Ravi, how was I supposed to know he’d wake up? If you think I’ve got that kind of power, you have a lot of growing up to do.”

“Quit your condescension, you—” Ravi gripped the doorframe. “Never mind. He means more to me than this—you’re not even worth it.” He went inside the house and closed the door.
Sim scraped past me and I wanted to shout at him, but words wedged within me as I watched him squeal off in his car. I squinted as he pulled away from the curb.

In the house, Ravi had turned off all the lights.

Outside, I was still in the archway when I remembered my bag and felt through its contents. I knocked at the door.

Ravi answered it after I had left and, sometime later, he told me he was grateful I had returned Dhadha’s gift. There in the doorway, after an eternity, Ravi kindled a flame.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Stories of Merit - Daily Sacrament Contest

The latest short story contest is in the books. This year the terrific people at Relief Journal (who've announced their roster of authors for Issue Three) were kind enough to lend a hand and will be publishing the winner of the Daily Sacrament Short Story Contest.

I'll be posting some of the other stories that I found interesting here over the next couple of days. Next Monday we'll make the big announcement.

Thanks to all who submitted.

Smith and 9th by Elizabeth Ann Osborn

White ceramic pieces are set against square aquamarine tiles. These tiles make the station logo. It reads SMITH 9TH ST. More tiles, these ones rectangular and mint green, border the sign. Parts of the mosaic are chipped, as if bullets hit them, and the glaze on some of the lower tiles is peeling off like the kind of nail polish I used to get at the toy store, in those safe-for-kids cosmetic kits.

The cast iron platform is rusting, and the whole thing might look better if the weather would just finish stripping the white paint off of it. The electrical piping is rusting; the white chain link around the otherwise open, glassless windows is rusting. Even I’m rusting, just standing here, waiting for the train.

You’d think with the Ikea store that just opened in Red Hook, this old train station would get a little bit of love. But I guess that’s not how things work. Maybe if Brooks Brothers and Saks and Cartier decided Red Hook was the place to be and moved their stores to this old shipping section of Brooklyn, maybe then this station would get a scrub-down.

But if that happened, the locals would gripe. We don’t mind the hike to the station, or the two flights of stairs and two escalators from the mezzanine to the platform. We don’t care that these long, almost-abandoned platforms feel as if they’ll tumble like Jericho if the right wind comes off New York Harbor. We all belong to this station, and this station belongs to us.

This stretch of the IND, all the way down to Coney Island, is aboveground, but it’s considered the subway. This station is 91 feet above street-level, and is the highest point on the IND. It was built in the 30s. The reason it’s so high up is because the Gowanus Canal passes under it, and the Gowanus Canal is a tall-mast shipping route. The Gowanus Canal stinks to the highest of heavens because the sewer treatment plant overflows on a regular basis, and the combined sewer outlets, when overworked, pour into the canal. One of my friends grew up down here, and in the summers, when the heat made the stink stink so bad that his breakfast threatened to make an encore appearance all over his secondhand Air Jordans, he would run as fast as he could to get from one side of the canal to the other without inhaling.

I’ve learned to breathe out of my mouth when I’m up here, and I don’t really remember what the canal smells like. Just that it’s awful.

You feel the train before you hear it, and you hear it before you see it. And the big, lit F with a circle around it screeches its brakes and you wonder if the train ever wishes it had wings so it could flap backwards the way big birds do when they’re landing too fast.

The doors fake me out every time, by starting to open, then not opening, then a second later opening for real. In the summers I like to stand close to the doors to feel the cool blast of the air conditioning, but on a temperate day like today it doesn’t really matter. Two people get off. I get on. This car is almost vacant: just a little girl, maybe three years old, with short cornrows, sucking her thumb and hanging onto her mom’s arm, and her mom can’t be much older than me, maybe twenty-four or twenty-five. Mom has cornrows that are neater and tighter and longer than her daughter’s. It’s them and me, and a middle-aged Latino man in a rumpled blue jumpsuit whose head lolls and eyes flicker open, only to close again before I even sit down.
I find an ugly orange seat just like all the other ugly orange seats. On the F train, and some of the other lines, there are seats that face forward and backward, not only lining the sides of the trains. I’m a traditionalist, so I choose one of the seats facing a window, and then I put my bag down in the seat next to me.

“This is da Queens-bound F train. Next stop Carroll Street. Stand clear a’ the closin’ doors.” The conductor sounds adequately bored. “Stand clear a’ the doors.“ The doors half-close, then open up, then half-close, then open up again, then close for real. I sink a bit more into my ugly seat and the train rocks into motion. I close my eyes until my cones or rods or whatever it is that tells me that it’s light or dark, even with my eyes closed, tells me that it’s dark. That means we’re underground now, and about two minutes later the train stops again.

At Carroll Street, a few older women with big bags get on and spread out around the car. One pulls out a crossword book, another pulls out a magazine, and the third runs her thumb around the smart dial of her iPod while her other hand messes with the thin white wires trailing up to her ears. This appears to be an old habit, but earbuds haven’t been around too long.

A Hasidic Jew got on at Carroll Street, too, and remained standing, leaning against the car’s end rail for support as he read a newspaper. I didn’t look at him, but I made out his black felt fedora, his dark suit and his rekel all out of the corner of my eye.

“This is da Queens-bound F train. Next stop Bergen Street. Stand clear a’ da doors. Stand clear.”

And we’re moving again.

The little girl with cornrows is crying.

I have no idea why.

Mom moves her purse from her lap and pulls Girl into its place. She wraps her arms around the little thing, and the little thing keeps her little arms close to her own chest, but burrows her head in her mamma’s shoulder. The little shoulders jump when the little thing gulps air into her little lungs. Mom strokes Girl’s nape, the soft, sable patch of skin just above the zippered neck of Daughter’s khaki sundress. She strokes the one spot with just her fingers moving, just her fingertips massaging the girl. She’s as aware as I am of her manicured red nails with the rhinestone stickers, and she doesn’t want to scratch the little thing.

I am not the only one watching this.

The lady with the magazine reaches into her bag. I hear the rustle of plastic over the sound of the train, and then the sound of plastic tearing. The lady pulls out her hand, then moves her bag and stands up. She grabs hold of the steel rail above her and takes a few steps toward the pair.

“Hi, baby,” she says, and her accent is strong and southern, but not southern like you find down by the docks. Real southern, like Georgian or Carolinian or something.

The little thing doesn’t look up. That doesn’t put the woman off. She holds out her hand, opening her fingers for Mom’s inspection.

Chocolate.

“It’s like oil, for annointin’,” the woman says. “Whatever the matter is, it won’t be quite so bad, at least for a bit.”

Mother laughs. “She’s got a sore throat, and we gotta go to the clinic. She ain’t happy about it.” She pulls the little thing away from her, but does it so gently that I’m stuck wondering if anyone was ever that tender with me when I was a little thing. “Rikiya, look. The lady’s got something for you.”

Rikiya rubs her big, pretty eyes and turns her tiny, pretty face up to the lady. She recognizes the gold foil wrapper, then sniffs and puffs and smiles. “Thank you,” she says clearly, and takes it.

She takes it without hesitation.

She doesn’t feel guilty about taking something offered by someone else. Even if that other person deserves it more.

She doesn’t think it’s frivolous or immature to accept something nice.

She doesn’t worry about the calories or the cavities.

She just smiles and takes it.

Her mother unwraps it and hands it back to her.

The lady sits back down and returns to her magazine.

Rikiya doesn’t cry again. They get off at Jay Street-Borough Hall, and I’m left thinking about healing and receiving and letting other people be kind. I think about these things in the tunnel under the East River, and through all those stops in Manhattan, and then back across the river to Queens. And I don’t once chide myself for taking the local and not the express.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Daily Sacrament Story Contest

For those seeking an update on the story contest...here you go.

All the entries have been read. A final decision has been made. No gauntlets were thrown nor were any challenges to duels offered between Mark and I. (To his great disappointment, I'm sure. He has quite the gauntlet collections to go with all those ascots and monocles.)

I'll likely be posting some of the "honorable mention" stories here the week of April 23rd. I think Relief will be making the formal announcement of the winning story either at the end of that week or Monday, April 30.

And likely I'll be posting some reactions to the stories in general and the contest overall in the days afterward.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Pop Culture Snipes Back

Stephen King has an opinion column in EW this week (Harry Potter on the cover) that's worth reading if you have access, though I can't seem to find it online.

In it, he praises a new novel called Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski but absolutely blasts its publisher Farrar, Straus, and Giroux for how it's handled the book--what King calls a kind of "elitist" publishing which includes refusing to put "popular" looking covers on novels, using portentious titles, etc. PW writes up a little article on FSG's response, which seems to be: "Errrr....thanks?"

Having just returned from Mt. Hermon, I've spent five straight days hashing over a side of these issues, so I'm not going to jump in once more.

I agree with King that the cover does little for the book. (Though the ARC cover featured in the PW article is no better, and perhaps worse.)

Elitist publishing is an interesting notion because in a lot of ways it goes against all practical business sense. How can a book cover be "popular-looking"? Isn't that the point of a book cover? Is there really a "right" kind of reader you want for your book?

That said, I'm sure the fine folks at FSG (who really do publish some of the finest fiction in the country) would say that their "core" audience--the ones that they need to pick up their books--have an aesthetics and a formal design taste that eschews common cover treatment. (And a recent foray into popular cover design failed atrociously.)

What King seems to want is just an acknowledgement from a cover that, above all us, "This story will be entertaining." FSG wants its covers to imply, "This is important to read." And right now, even when a book is both entertaining and "important" it seems ne'er the two will meet.