Zac Jones, 2016 PSP participant, Jaimy Gordon and Stu Dybek workshop

Zac Jones has lived his whole life in Michigan, raised in Jackson and graduated Western Michigan University with a bachelor’s in Creative Writing.  He participated twice in the Prague Summer Program for Writers during his college career.  He currently works as a roundsmen at a restaurant in Ann Arbor, covering everything from sautée to waiting tables.  He lives in Ypsilanti, MI.

Innocence flies not just in the face of experience but in that of desire, and I believe this is a story that reflects that.  I first workshopped this with Jaimy Gordon during my second year with the Prague Summer Program, and afterward she told me, “This is nearly there… I don’t know why you’re not publishing.”  Which came both as a surprise and a bit of a slap to me: she was probably the first person to put the responsibility squarely on my shoulders, and in some small way it was also comforting to have the approval of someone whose work I respected.  I have submitted this, with little tweaks here and there, over the last two years but it hasn’t quite stuck anywhere yet, which I think may in the end be for the best: when I heard the PSP was starting Meluzína, my immediate instinct was to send this back in hopes that it would become a part of the program that has become such a prominent influence on who I am as a writer and indeed as a person.

Straw Hats

It was the hot kind of day when even the statue of Colonel Foster was said to bow its head in the sun.  Just beyond the sun’s reach sat Montana Sam, bare tanned feet resting on the banister of Monty’s Meat Market, with the spicy scent of jerky and sausage drifting through the screens of the open doors and windows, pushed out by the fans within.  It was too hot to bother running the asthmatic air conditioner, and flies buzzed drunkenly against the screens.

The boys rode their bikes down to Monty’s on days like these because Montana Sam, sometimes, might be in the giving mood and buy them a round of root beers from the cooler by the front counter.  They materialized out of the day, from the hills or the fields, somewhere beyond where the heat writhed over the asphalt of Main Street like a nest of snakes, whizzing past the park where Colonel Foster cooked slowly.  They skidded to a stop, and propped their dust-covered bikes against the lattice sides of Monty’s porch, then clomped up the steps to harass the man who dozed there under his straw hat.

“Hey, Sam!” and, “Montana!” and, “How’s it today?” rang around him as he stirred.

“Boys,” he said, sitting up and tucking his feet into a pair of flip-flops.  He cleared his throat and adjusted the cannula plugged into his nostrils.  He reached between the chair and the railing to adjust something on his oxygen tank.

“Hey, Sam,” Carter said.  “What’s up?”

“Just kickin’ back,” Sam said.  “Thinking about the big sky.”

They had all heard of the big sky before, but they let the man go on anyway; it might spur his generosity.

Sam cleared his throat again.  “Out there in the West, the sky opens wide and keeps time still, and it sits on the rim of the horizon like a bowl’a blue porcelain.  On a clear day the sun’d get lost in that big wide sky sometimes.  Sometimes you’d get lost yourself.  When there were clouds you’d watch ‘em roll off somewhere, didn’t matter where, ‘cause at high noon there was no north nor south nor east nor west, it was all just wide open and you’d wanna fall into it.”

“Were there birds?” one boy asked.

“Sure… but never at high noon.  The day got still, like today, and nobody or nothin’ moved ‘cause it was holy-like and it’d be a crime to leave your shadows behind.”

The boys looked across the street as if on cue; sure enough, there were crows along the crest of the roofs, on the wires, but none seemed to move.

They listened to Sam for a few minutes, hoping the moment would come when he would say, “Well, boys—” but his mind was on the blue skies above Montana, and their hope slipped off and evaporated in the heat.  The other boys went in to get their own root beers, but Carter stayed so the man wouldn’t be alone in the afternoon.

When they had gathered again on the porch, Sam said, “Boys, there were fires out there sometimes, and you could see it burning on the horizon like a second sun.  Sometimes it was north and sometimes it was south…”  The boys envisioned a land where two suns glowed, where men took to burning lines across the brush to keep the land from scorching.  They looked out on the street, where the windows of Mae’s Diner blazed white with reflected light.  One sun was bad enough.

After another few minutes of listening the boys danced the dance of impatience and Sam nodded.  “Y’all better get on, then.”

“Bye, Sam.”  “Seeya, Sam.”  “Later.”  They picked up their bikes and rode back to where they’d come from.

The next day the sun again beat down with its soft tyranny.  The boys gathered in the stillness of Hardy’s hay barn, listening to a tractor trundle somewhere far afield as a sourceless chaff drifted on the air, until Hunter arrived, pulling up short on his bike and letting it tumble in the dust.  He held his head as he ran, and only up close, out of the glint of summer, did the others see why: he had a straw hat on his head.

“What’s on your head?” Carter asked.

“It’s Sam’s hat,” Hunter said, sweating and red with triumph.

“How’d you get Montana’s hat?” they all wanted to know.

“I took it off his back porch,” Hunter said.  “He was sleeping in his rocking chair when I went to get Mom’s pan back and he had his hat sitting on the floor by his chair.  So I snuck up real slow and took it and ran.”

“…What about the pan?” someone asked.

“Huh?  Forget about it!”  They laughed.  “C’mon,” Hunter said.  They rode their bikes, cutting squiggly lines through the grass.  They stopped by the tree in Hardy’s field, an old magnolia thick with twisting branches and shade.  The hay had been baled the week before and the bales were all rolled up in webbing like giant cinnabuns, and one had been dropped in the shade of the old tree.

Hunter climbed atop and slapped the hat on his head.  “Now listen, y’all,” he intoned, trying to invoke Montana.  “This here’s the wide sky I been tellin’ y’all ‘bout.  It’s all big an’ blue an’ stuff.  I hauled it in, freight, with me from Montana.”

“That’s not Montana!” John said.  “Lemme try.”  The two switched places, and John put on the straw hat.  “You all—”

No!” the boys blatted at him, and laughed.  They booed him down from the bale as Hunter tossed a dirt clod.  John jumped down with a heavy wump.  Carter took up the hat and climbed onto the bale.

He dropped his voice low as it could go.  “Listen, boys,” he said, looking from just under the rim of the hat.  “Out there there’s a whole other sky y’all know nothin’ about.  It’s great an’ wide and keeps time in its watch…  At high noon everything just sits still on the land, shadows and sun and all that.”

“That’s Montana!” Riley said.

“He’s got it!” John said.

Carter grinned.  “That sky opens up on clear days, boys, an’ you’d swear you were lookin’ down, not up, and feelin’ like you’re fallin—”

“Yeah, well,” Hunter cut in.  “I took the hat, so it’s mine.”

“He’s just goofin’,” one of the boys said.

“Give it back!” Hunter yelled.  Carter didn’t move, so the other boy tried to climb up after him.  Carter stomped his feet where Hunter tried to grab the sides, until, fed up, Hunter said, “C’mon, guys.”  The three moved to the uphill side and started to rock the bale.

“Quit it!” Carter yelled.

“Give it back, then!”

The bale rocked, threatening to tip, until Carter lost his balance and fell to the side.  He held the hat as he fell, and clutched it to his chest as his back hit the ground.  It wasn’t a long fall, but the earth was firm and took the wind from him in a throaty wuhf.

Hunter tried to snatch the hat back, but Carter held on.  They struggled; the other two didn’t want to get involved in whatever this was as dirt sprayed around them and Hunter tugged on the brim of the hat.  They exchanged curses until they heard a rapid snapping and Hunter fell away with a plat of woven straw in his hands.  Carter looked down to the ragged edge where part of the brim had been.

As he scuttled back the boys stared with eyes wide at what was left of the hat.

“Here,” Hunter spat, thrusting the ripping toward him.  “You ruin everything, Carter.”  He threw the bit of weaving at Carter.  “C’mon, guys,” Hunter said in the lower register of disgust.  He tipped Carter’s bike over as he collected his own, kicked some dirt on it, and the other two followed after him, glancing uneasily over their shoulders until they were moving too fast to look back.

Carter sat on the bale for a while, fondling the broken hat in his lap and trying to think of what to do.  The straws were tightly woven, faded to the color of white gold, and the brim was almost smooth.  Except where it had ripped, where the edge was now jagged.  Carter picked at the odd ends and began pulling them apart.  He could never take it back to Sam.  When it was dismantled completely he dropped the stiff, lasagna-wavy straws in the dirt and spread them around with his toe.  He stuffed the plat deep in his cargo pocket, folded in half, where it pushed back gently against his thigh.  He picked up his bike, dusted off the seat, and rode away.

Carter pushed his bike through the heat, in no hurry.  He turned past the statue of Colonel Foster and glided to a stop in the dirt in front of Monty’s.  He leaned his bike against the lattice of the front porch and plodded up the steps, head hung low.

“Mr. Montana…”

“Since when any of you call me ‘Mister?’”  The man looked up from a bundle of stiff new straw as he took a handful and rattled it in a loose fist.  He sniffed and thumbed the stubble on his upper lip.  “You seen my hat, Carter?”

The boy winced.  He shook his head.

“Mm.  Wind must’a caught it up and carried it off.”  Sam had no hat on, and for the first time Carter realized how colorful the man’s eyes were, like the aquamarine of the Coke glasses in Mae’s Diner.  He was strikingly young, with smooth cheeks and only faint wrinkles and a clarion, mischievous glint in his eye.  Younger than Carter had always imagined, with the oxygen tank and all.  Sam asked, “Where your friends at?”

“Probably at Hunter’s.”  Carter slid down the railing and plopped his butt on the porch.

“Why aren’t you with ‘em?”

“We got in a fight,” Carter said.  He sat Indian-style.

“What about?”

He hesitated, grazing his fingers over his pocket.  “Idunno,” he mumbled.  “Stupid stuff.”

Sam cleared his throat, sniffed, and adjusted something on his tank; Carter eyed him as he did.  Sam tapped a nail against the tank and asked, “I ever tell you how I came to have my trusty sidekick here?”

“No, sir.”

Sam chuckled a little.  “Sir, he says…  Jeez, kid.  When you want soda it’s all, ‘Sam! Mon-tana!’  What’s gotten into you?”  He smiled to himself, folding straws over each other in his lap.  Then he said, “Well anyway, I used to fight them fires I told you boys about, out in Montana.  Mean sons-a-guns, they were, hot as dragon spit.  Well, one time I went to clear some houses, make sure everyone’d gotten out, got caught behind the burn line.  I was running blind and hacking away with my Pulaski—that’s like a fire axe—and ran right through some burning ivy.  Singed my lungs.”  The straws rattled faintly in his lap.  Sam grunted.  “Lucky I ain’t blind.  Lucky I ain’t dead.”

Carter could see it all in his head: the man, the inferno.  But he couldn’t tell the man that for a moment earlier in the day he had seen the world as Sam saw it, with the great smiling sky.  He sat with Sam through the quiet hours of the afternoon as the man wove first the crown, then the brim, until they came together straw by straw.

“Breathing” by Caroline Smadja

Caroline Smadja, 2011 PSP participant, Stuart Dybek workshop

Caroline Smadja is a French-born author of North African heritage. Her poems, fiction and non fiction have appeared in literary venues in the US, Canada, France and South Africa, notably in CA Quarterly and in The Flying Camel and Where We Find Ourselves, two anthologies published by Seal Press and SUNY Press respectively. In 2014, her poems “Crépuscule” (Dusk) and “Désirs d’Afrique” (Lusting for Africa) won second and third prize in two French Poetry contests. More recently, “The Village Elder,” a flash fiction piece, appeared in Cactus Heart and her poem “Spooning” was just accepted for publication by So It Goes, the Kurt Vonnegut Museum & Library Journal. She holds an MFA in fiction from Pacific University and lives between Paris and in San Francisco, where she teaches literature.

I worked on “Breathing” under Stuart Dybek’s guidance at the PSP in July 2011. I’d already had the opportunity to work with Stuart on an earlier version of the same piece back in 2001. I was thrilled to have his support and positive feedback. I have since revised it yet again according to his suggestions.

Breathing

December 21st, 1995

My mother called me from Paris last night. “Come right away,” she said. My father is in the hospital with emphysema. She’s taking care of him after fifteen years of separation. On the flight from San Francisco, I mutter to myself like a crazed Orthodox, nose pressed against the Wailing Wall. Barouh Ata Adonai Eloheinou Meleh Ha Olam… I was brought up an atheist but on this dark, cramped plane that reeks of stale air, barely-eaten TV dinners and perspiration, I find no one to turn to but God.

I glance at my watch. Another ten hours to go. Why did I choose to live seven thousand miles from what used to be home? My hope flickers like the first Hanukkah candle I lit at sundown yesterday. Aside from Pessah, it’s the only Jewish holiday I celebrate. These are joyful holidays, stories of liberation and renewal. I repeat the prayer under my breath: Baruh Ata Adonai Eloheinu Meleh Ha Olam Asher Kedeshanu Be Mitzvotav Ou Tzivanu Lehadlik Neir Shel Hanukkah.

Before Ma’s call last night, I didn’t know how much I cared. Since I left Paris for San Francisco fifteen years ago, my father and I have spoken no more than twice a year. I call him for his birthday and he calls me for mine. He doesn’t like talking on the phone. Frustrating,  he says, when someone dear lives so far away. He’s written me once a year at most. “You know I hate writing letters,” he replied the few times I expressed the need to hear from him.

After I hung up, cut from my mother’s voice, my father in no state to speak, my sister tied to her life as a housewife on the outskirts of Paris, I felt like an orphan. I sat out on the patio and tried deep breathing. In and out, let your belly rise with each breath, your mind focus on each breath. Since I enrolled in a stress-management class at UCSF six months ago, breathing practice has alleviated chronic insomnia and rescued me from angst.

Not this time. I looked up at the sky pricked with stars until my head spun and a question shook me. How does one talk to God? I asked myself for the first time in my life. I was tempted to join my hands together and barely stopped myself. Jews don’t do this. How do they pray? What do they say to help the sick? I wished that I’d been brought into a synagogue as a child, that I’d been taught the centuries-old rituals that are my own. The Judeo-Arabic I’d heard around the house in Nice, my grand-mothers’ cooking, my parents’ childhood friends, had given me a taste of our native Tunisia. Now I wished I knew how to be a Jew.

At a loss, I launched into the Hanukkah prayer I’d recited earlier that evening, the only blessing I know by heart. It felt right. I caught myself thinking: my God knows only Hebrew.  After their victory over the Syrian oppressors, the people of Israel found in the Second Temple barely enough oil to last one day. Thanks to a miracle, the oil burned for eight days.  To see my father alive at least one last time is all I ask, Adonai. Please, please, I’ve never asked you for anything.

December 22nd

Paris stinks of cigarettes crushed on the asphalt. The smell of gas filters through the heating vents of the Metro. The air is saturated with particles of soot. Paris is wrapped in a blanket of smoke. But the grey suits this end-of-the-year season. I’m more than twice the age I was when my parents brought me here at sixteen. Uprooted twice in three years, from Nice to Jerusalem, from Jerusalem to Paris.

Through the glass doors of the Métro aérien that pulses above the city, the Eiffel Tower springs to the far right like a giant arrow of steel. The round, gold-leafed roof of the Invalides comes into view. Other domes zoom by, of different sizes and colors. Their sight jolts my memory. I didn’t remember Paris as a city with curves. In my teens, I saw it in only one dimension, flat, landlocked, with no blue water to shelter and set me free in the same breath, like the Bay of San Francisco or the Baie des Anges of my childhood.

The hospital lobby is flanked with a glittering Christmas tree that looks oddly cheerful in this intensive care unit. The temperature is suffocating. I take off my parka before reaching the elevator. On the threshold of the Lung Medicine Ward, a sign shows an oversized cigarette crossed by a red X. I walk along an interminable corridor, its walls a regurgitated salmon color, its floor, a bright green that calls to mind a field of psychedelic lettuce. Under other circumstances, I would laugh.

Room 5622 is tucked to the left at the end of the hall. “Promise me not to come, I’m all right now,” my father had told me on the phone before his condition worsened. The door is ajar. I pause to collect myself. “He’s changed so much it’s shocking,” my mother warned me.  What if I can’t bear the sight of him? In between incantations, I worried about this throughout the flight. What if he really doesn’t want me there? He might be furious that I came after all.  What kind of welcome will I get?

He’s lying on a narrow metal-framed bed, hooked to plastic tubes. My mother is seated by his side, like the dutiful wife she hasn’t been in over fifteen years. As soon as he turns his head to the door and sees me, my father cries: “Ma fille! Ma fille! Pourquoi, pourquoi tu es venue?” repeating words in the peculiar way of Tunisian Jews–My daughter!  My daughter! Why, why did you come?– his grave voice tinted with a trace of song. There is no harshness in it, only stunned delight.

I rush to the edge of the bed and take his hand in mine.

“Ma fille,” he calls out again.

I had eleven hours of flight to imagine his body turned to stone. But his hand is as warm as I remembered, square, fleshy, still capable of squeezing tight.

“I’m worried about you,” he says.

You’re worried about me ?”

“That you’d come all this way, juste pour ton vieux père, just for your old father.”

His voice is gravelly, his breath, raspy.

“Who would I do this for if not you?”

“Right!” my mother chimes. She’s sitting on the other side of the bed near the window that gives onto a row of tall apartment buildings grey with filth.

My father’s face breaks into a smile. In his thick lips cracked from dryness, I recognize my mouth. His pine green pajamas highlight the color of his bulging eyes. I notice the brown mole above his left brow as if for the first time. It looks like a smudge. He turns to my mother.

“Tell me, though, am I so ill she’d fly seven thousand miles to see me?”

“Don’t be silly,” my mother answers. “It’s her winter break. Of course, she’d come visit. You’ll be out of here soon.”

He gives her a wry nod. Since I last saw him, his thick salt-and-pepper hair has turned silvery white. His horse-like nostrils are deformed by the tube hooked onto one side of his nose. His cheeks, puffy from cortisone, are covered with white stubble.  I have never seen him unshaved before.

“You see,” he says with a faint smile, “with this beard, I look like Hemingway.”

His sleeves are pushed up. The right arm is hooked onto the IV. In the hollow of his left arm and on his wrists, I see bruises the color of prunes. And tenderness is what fills me, that he would find the strength to joke for my sake.

Exactly like him, Papa!”

Tenderness. Not pity. Or sadness. I feel more light-hearted sitting in this stark hospital room than I’ve felt in years; elated at the sight of these two people without whom life wouldn’t have happened, reunited beyond bitterness. The weight of displacement–being a Jew in Catholic France, an alien in the U.S., a Sefarad from North Africa among my Jewish American friends whose ancestors spoke Yiddish and lived in the shtetls of Eastern Europe– has been lifted. I am at last in the right place at the right time.

Where I belong.

The apartment buildings across the street have grown into a dark mass barely distinguishable from the sky. My mother gets up from her post at my father’s side. “Don’t turn on the ceiling light,” I say, guessing what she’s about to do. “It’d be too bright for him.”  She complies begrudgingly–when I joke there’s never enough light for her taste, she replies she was raised in Tunisia–and switches on the lamp on the night-stand.

Every breath my father takes tears his chest apart. The constant glouglou of the oxygen tank sounds strangled. I find myself gasping for air. He lies limp, eyes half shut. Only this morning, he could nibble, chat with us, sit up on the pillows. He’s too weak to walk. His legs, once the legs of a volleyball champion, powerful enough to spring his body half-way above the net, have shrunk down to sticks, scaled like a crocodile’s. They gave me a shock when the nurse pushed off the covers. Three times since I arrived, he asked us to leave the room so he could pee in the plastic bottle attached to the right side of his bed. The indignity of it brought me close to pity.

“J’en peux plus,” he heaves. I can’t go on.

My mother and I exchange a glance across the tangle of tubes that plug him to life.

“Hang in there,” she says in her most cheerful voice. “You’re going to be okay.”

The young intern who could pass for a college student with her pony tail and smooth freckled cheeks, drops by to check on him. My mother and I step out in the hallway.

“We have the last X-rays,” she tells me. “His right lung is completely gone.”

“Gone?”

“Worthless, shriveled like a prune.” She clears her throat. “The doctors hoped the left lung would be in decent shape but . . . it’s half ruined.”

My mother’s new hair color, a shade of blond turned brassy, clashes with her olive skin. It makes her look sickly.

“Forty-five years of smoking,” she adds with a sigh.

She acts calm for someone I once saw crouched on the kitchen floor, in tears, hitting the tiles with her bare fists, in one of those unraveling-of-marriage scenes my sister and I witnessed as teens. My father stood by, powerless. We’d moved back to France then, after our failed immigration to Israel.

“He doesn’t know how grave his state is,” she continues. “We must keep it this way.”

“I don’t see why a patient shouldn’t be informed of his condition.”

“To spare him. It’d be cruel to let him know he’s so close to–”

“It wouldn’t spare me. Disease isn’t a taboo in the States. Patients are treated like adults.”

“You mustn’t say anything. He’d stop fighting. Besides, this is France, not the United States.”

Back in my father’s room, I notice the hyacinth bulb placed on the sill above his bed.  In the fake terra cotta pot above his head, some green has begun to appear, the promise of a leaf. I wonder what color the flower will turn out to be. If it grows healthy, it’ll be a sign, I catch myself thinking. He will be spared. I’m aware this is a little ridiculous. He would sneer, he who dismisses all religion and superstition as silly mumbo-jumbo. He, whose father used to eat ham on Yom Kippur. Yet, I want to believe in a force higher than any of us. Baruh Ata Adonai . . .  She Assa Nissim Leavoteinou.  Blessed are you Lord, who performed miracles onto our fathers.

December 23rd

“He’s got three weeks at most,” my father’s best friend, a reputable doctor who grew up with him in Tunis, warned us today. I’ve been bracing myself for this verdict. Every morning, I sit cross-legged on the floor, eyes closed, and practice deep breathing. I’ve added Hebrew prayers to this ritual. Invoking God comforts me. It makes me feel less alone. We Tunisian Jews have not been well-prepared to handle grief. I grew up hearing adults mutter Allah Kader, “May God spare you,” at the slightest hint of faltering health. When one of my mother’s sisters was bed-ridden with pneumonia in her youth, my grand-father instructed his four other children to tell visitors she’d gone away. Aside from illness, the paternal side of the family tends to push sorrow under the carpet like shameful dirt.

My sister and I have inherited this trait. We’ve just parked in the hospital’s gloomy garage, with its low ceiling and charcoal walls. Through the Bois de Boulogne, the congested streets sparkling with lights, we hardly spoke, though it was the first time since my arrival that we were alone. When I stayed over at her apartment last night, we were surrounded by her three children, the youngest one, an eleven-months-old baby I’d never seen before.

My sister opens the door of her beaten grey Renault. I try to do the same but my side is stuck.

“Wait,” she says. “It can only open from the outside.”

She struggles with the handle, I hear her muttering. Finally, the door creaks open. I slam it behind me but it remains only half shut.

“Piece of shit,” my sister growls.

Her swearing makes me laugh. It surprises me. Most of the time, she’s nothing like her old self. She’s turned so proper since she became a housewife. We’ve grown apart, and it isn’t only a question of geography.

I open the door again, slam it again. Again, it doesn’t shut tight.

“I’ll do it,” my sister says.

I have barely enough time to move over.

“Piece of shit,” she repeats under her breath.

She swings her leg back like a soccer player ready for action, and gives one strong kick in the door with her leather boot. The sight cracks me up. Soon, I’m howling. She is too.  When she bends over, her hair falls across her face like a curtain of dark waves. Our roars echo in the empty hospital garage that reeks of gas.

We bump into each other in our padded coats. I put a hand around her shoulder. We both have tears in our eyes.

“C’est dégueulasse, Yuck.” My father attempts to push his food tray away. I set it on the night-stand. My sister returned to her suburban life. My mother walked down to the cafeteria to grab a bite to eat.

“Do you want me to run and buy you something?” I ask.

Non.”

“Why not? I could be back in a few minutes.”

Non.”

“Why won’t you let me help you? That’s why I’m here.”

“I know.” His voice softens, I almost hear gratitude in it. “I feel bad that you’re spending your vacation in this hospital room.”

“Don’t. I’m happy to do it.”

He nods.

“Where would you find food around here anyway?”

His voice is tinted with disdain. I don’t know the answer. The closest grocery is at the Metro station five blocks away.

“You’ll find nothing.” My father. True to himself, even in this state.

“I have an idea! I can go to the Chinese restaurant down the street and get some take-out.”

“There’s a Chinese restaurant around? No way.”

“I pass it every day.”

“They don’t do take-out here. You’re not in the United States.”

“They will for a patient in the hospital. Trust me.”

His pout gives me pause. Is this what my mother and his mother before her had to endure? This man who says Non as a matter of course? Last time I was here, he refused to let me come up to his apartment. “I have no decent chair,” he declared. “I’m not a stranger,” I protested, deeply hurt.

I remember this as I sit next to his bed, careful not to step on the tubes snaking at my feet.

“You know what? Bring me an order of fried rice,” I hear over the glouglou of the oxygen tank.

His words sound like a gift to me.

“You got it. I’ll be right back.”

“Don’t kill yourself.”

As I’m zipping up my parka, he gestures to the drawer to his right.

“There’s plenty of money in there.”

“I don’t need any. I can pay for my father’s lunch once in a while.”

“Don’t argue with me or I’ll get sicker.”

His eyes are lit in a smile.

Mais Papa—“

“What a stubborn daughter I have! Do as I tell you.”

“Look who’s talking of stubbornness.”

I lean over and take out fifty francs from the night-stand drawer.

“You don’t have enough.”

“I’m just going a few blocks away to the—“

“Don’t tell me where you’re going.” He takes a strangled breath, as if our banter had worn him out. “I’m not stupid. But something could happen. You never know.”

I give in with a shrug, and pull out a two-hundred-franc bill.

“Let’s hope I don’t get abducted on my way there and spend it all on ransom.”

Idiote.” One of his terms of endearment.

As soon as I step out, the cold makes me feel lightheaded. I keep my eyes to the sidewalk smeared with dog shit. I pass a poultry shop where game, still feathered, hang by the neck from metal hooks. While I hurry back to make sure the steaming rice doesn’t get cold, I can think of nothing but the pleasure of serving my ill father.

“Here,” I say, back in his stuffy room. “I asked for soy sauce on the side in case you need some.”

My mother is seated on the edge of the bed, her back to the window, the line of high-rises covered with soot a now familiar decor.

“Do you want me to unwrap this for you?” she asks.

Her sweetness touches me. When I was ten, she carried me piggyback–Gribabes, she called it in Judeo-Arabic–around the house after I’d broken my leg. My father tries to do it himself, but his hands shake too much. He closes his eyes in exasperation, I know his pride is hurt, I imagine how debilitated I’d feel if I were no longer able to perform the smallest tasks.  My mother feeds him a spoonful of rice and for a moment, he acts like a docile child. As soon as he begins to chew, his mouth curves into a grimace. I try not to feel disappointment.

“You can keep your soy sauce,” he grumbles. “It’s too salty as it is.”

“What a spoiled brat! You can’t even thank your own daughter.”

In the small plastic pot above my father’s head, the leaf of the hyacinth bulb has unfolded. A stem is pushing through. My hurt vanishes.

“It’s all right, Ma,” I tell her. Toda, Adonai. Thank you, God.

December 25th

“I don’t think I could do it,” my sister says. I hear a sigh on the other end of the line.  “Spend all this time with Papa.”

This is her way of saying she’s impressed with me.

“The hardest part is to watch him suffer,” I reply. “And I can do nothing.”

“He complained to me on the phone, about these new pains in his back.”

“Yesterday was a nightmare. His chest hurt too. He moaned from after lunch—“

“Did he eat?”

“Almost nothing–to past nightfall, when I left. We hardly spoke.”

“Poor you!”

“Poor he, you mean.  But it is . . . hard to watch. Very humbling.”

There’s a pause, that tells me my sister thinks no one should be humbled so.

“I couldn’t do it,” she repeats. “I have no clue what I’d talk about day after day.”

“When he’s well enough, it isn’t a problem.”

“Really? What do you talk about?”

“Tunisia.”

I’ve gotten greedy with God, like in those stories where the hero keeps asking for more wishes from the good Genie. Now, I want my father’s story. The thought that it could end with his life has begun to haunt me. I want him to share all he’s got of the native land I left too early to remember, a gap that begs to be filled but can never be. There are so many questions I never thought to ask, so many questions I didn’t know were there. Tell me is all I really want to ask. And it isn’t even a question.

“I started playing volleyball when I was sixteen,” my father is saying, his eyes shiny, as I’ve noticed they get as soon as he reminisces about his youth. “There was an empty lot behind the apartment building where I lived.”

“Avenue Carnot?”

Oui. After the liberation of Tunis, there were a lot of GI’s left behind. They taught us how to play baseball, but we also played volleyball. Every day.”

He closes his eyes. I lean over him.

Ca va, Papa?”

“Not too well.”

“Is there something I can do?”

“What can you do, ma fille?”

“I don’t know.  Bring you a glass of water?”

“I need air, not water. . . Later, I played for the Alliance Sportive de Tunis. I became a champion.”

He breathes as deeply as he can into the plastic tube.

“You didn’t smoke?”

He looks at me with reproachful eyes.

“We played all across Tunisia, in Nabeul, Sousse, Gabes in the South.”

“Did you smoke then?”

He lets out a grunt.

“I didn’t start till I was twenty-three”

“Did you play overseas?”

He nods.

“At that time, the team of Montpellier was champion of France.”

“And then?”

“In 1948, I went to Lyon as a student. A few days after I arrived, I tried to join Lyon’s Federation of Champions, the FCL. They turned me down.”

“Were you not good enough?”

He gives me a funny look.

“Jews weren’t allowed.”

“What? How could they? Right after the war and–”

“Precisely. Pétain’s government had fallen, but anti-Semitism was still very strong.”

Is. This country has nothing to be proud of.”

He nods. “Let me finish, there’s more to this story.”

I pull up my chair closer to the metal bar of his bed.

“No one would have me, so I joined one of the shabbiest teams you could imagine, led by a Russian émigré, they hadn’t won a game in eons. Everyone in the FCL laughed their heads off.”

He heaves.

“Papa, maybe you should stop. This tires you.”

“Leave me alone. Who’s the parent here, you or me?”

I shrug.

“By that time, I’d been a champion for several years.” He glances down at his shrunken legs that lie inert beneath the blanket and gives me a crooked grin. “I could jump higher than anyone. And I’d been the captain of my team in Tunis. So we became the best players in all of Lyon. And you know the best part? The same jerk who’d refused to let me into the FCL came to tell me they’d reconsidered.”

I gasp.

My father smiles with satisfaction.

“I told him to shove it.”

I clap like a child.

“In exquisitely polite language, of course. I didn’t want to give him the opportunity to think Jews are coarse.”

December 26th

The snow on the ground hasn’t yet turned to slush when I walk out to the boulangerie.  I pull my scarf up to my nose to avoid breathing in the frost. But as soon as I’m back in my mother’s apartment, I strip down to my camisole. We’re seated at the plastic table that takes up more than half her kitchen space. My mother tears into her croissant after dipping each bite in maple syrup. I can barely watch her. The rich smell of coffee and buttered pastry nauseates me.

“What’s the matter?” she asks.

“There isn’t enough air.”

“It’s below zero!”

“Outside.  But it’s boiling hot in here.”

“It must be your nerves giving in.”

“Maybe.”

“Listen, worrying doesn’t change anything. We need to be strong.”

“I’m doing my best.”

“Do you remember what I used to tell you? What Ronsard wrote?”

“How could I forget?”

Cueillez dès aujourd’hui les roses de la vie. The sixteenth century version of seize the day. My mother’s motto.

“I’m worried too,” she goes on. “Beyond worried. But we need to keep our head.”  She slurps some coffee. “Our hope especially.”

She can be so brave when it matters most. The day I left for the U.S., she hugged me goodbye with the brightest smile, though she knew then I would not come back. But the night before my departure, I found my father prostrate at the kitchen table. He didn’t hear me come in. When he looked up, I saw his cheeks glisten. I stood in shock at the door, then tip-toed back out without a word. The next day, my mother and sister took me to the airport. He stayed behind.

“Come on.” My mother licks a glob of maple syrup from a tablespoon. “You must keep your spirit up. Up !” She repeats the last word in English.

I shake my head as if she were an incorrigible child.

“Ma? I want to thank you.”

She leans eagerly over the table.

“For giving me joie de vivre.”

Her small chestnut eyes light up, pink comes to her cheeks.

“If that’s all I ever gave you, I succeeded.”

“You did. In spite of all.”

Her face falls. “Of what?”

The word suicide hangs on my lips but I only say: “How I felt last year.”

“You never explained.”

“I tried.”

I’d wanted to tell her about the daily sensation of being dragged into a swamp. But I feared she’d only say “You’re exaggerating.” For the first time in my life, I’d broached our immigration to Israel when I was fourteen, waking up foreign in a land with no landmarks, stripped of past and language. “Why stir up all this now? Water under the bridge,” she’d replied.

“You never explained,” she repeats, her mouth full of croissant

“It no longer matters.”

I raise my cup and clink it against my mother’s coffee mug, the one I brought her years ago, that says I love San Francisco.

“Lehaim,” I say. To life.

December 27th

The salmon walls of the Lung Medicine Ward remind me of vomit. I pass several rooms, doors wide open, where patients lie hooked to tubes. Cigarettes. I was taking a break in the underground cafeteria yesterday when a group of young men and women drew my attention. They all wore white blouses, all of them smoked. I recognized the freckled intern who takes care of my father and felt like barking How dare you? at her face. Instead, I watched in disbelief as she blew nonchalant puffs toward the non-smoking section.

Farther down the hall is a man that illness has stripped of age, his hollow eyes filled with death, his face so gaunt the word Shoah jumps at me. His burgundy pajamas remind me of spilled blood. He has no visitors. The sight breaks my heart. Oddly, I’d like to dwell on it as much as escape it

Bonjour Papa, comment vas-tu?” I ask as soon as I walk in.

“Bonjour, ma fille,” my father answers in a shaky voice.

It will be night before we say goodbye. Last time we’d spent days together, I’d just turned sixteen. We lived in Jerusalem. He lay all day on his velour dormeuse, unemployed. I was attending the Lycée Français and had one month to prepare for the French literature orals of the Baccalauréat. He offered to help me review, a completely unexpected gesture on his part. He’d never been the care-taker type.

Each morning, he called me from the living room in his booming baritone. I found him stretched on his dormeuse, elbows sunk into the armrests, careful not to knock the ashtray balanced to the right. At nine in the morning, I was already sweaty from the heat; he was already drawing on a Camel.

“Go get your books and hurry back here. Allez, vite !”

I’d feign resignation at his fake grumpiness. Even cramming for a comprehensive exam couldn’t spoil my delight at having my father for a coach. Racine, Corneille, Molière, he made them all come alive. Our study of the eighteenth century philosophes remains my best memory. He praised Voltaire, his favorite author; marveled at his enlightened, near-secular view of the world, and relished his railings against the church and his arch-rival, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. “Rousseau’s a cretin,” my father declared. I found myself defending Rousseau as best I could–someone had to take his side–but my father only scoffed. “He believes that trees have a soul.

In the small plastic pot above my father’s head, the hyacinth bulb has grown pale curls, so small I cannot distinguish which color. I begin to recite the Hannukah prayer again in my mind. I’m leaving in a couple of days. By then, Adonai, you will have turned them into fragrant clusters. Shehe’heyanou Vekiyemanou Vehiguiyanou Lazman Haze. You who gave us life, sustained us and brought us to this day.

“I was fourteen when the Nazis occupied Tunis,” my father tells me as if this sudden statement was a follow-up to a previous conversation. As if he’d guessed I need to know as much as possible about his past, no matter the chronology. “The Kommandantur chose the building across from ours as their headquarters. So we moved into my aunt’s place, near the big synagogue, fourteen people in a basement.”

I put my feet on the metal bar of his bed and sink my chin in my hands.

“The occupation lasted a whole year. In the beginning, the Nazis rounded up a bunch of Jewish men off the street. Some were shot on the spot, others put in jail. My uncle Nahoum was among those. Afterwards, men avoided going out at all. My father put me in charge of opening and closing his store that served as Bureau des Otages Juifs.”

“What was that?”

“An office set up by the Jewish community, where the families of the men who’d been taken hostage could exchange news. My parents had me wear shorts. I wasn’t very tall then, I grew tall later, so I could pass for younger. The Nazis weren’t as suspicious of boys.”

“What happened to the Jewish hostages?”

“They were released several months after their arrest.”

“Baruh Ha Chem,” I mutter.

“God has nothing to do with this. They were simply lucky. We all were. If the Allies hadn’t liberated North Africa in ’43, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Concentration camps were being built. The Nazis had no time to . . .”

The rest of the sentence hangs on his lips, as always when words are too painful to voice.

It’s past midnight. I’m staying at my father’s apartment, in the room where my sister stayed once I’d left for California and she’d sunk into depression. She couldn’t bear living alone. She finds me weird. After a week of non-stop family time, I craved to be on my own. My mother sulked when I told her I needed breathing space. My father would understand.

Insomnia has given me no respite since I went to bed hours ago, and now, the couple next door are getting it on. The man’s groans respond to the woman’s moans, bedsprings creak under their tangled weight. On another night, I might envy them. Tonight, I can’t bear the panting on the other side of the wall. The very thought of pleasure strikes me as obscene.

The ceiling light is too bright for my eyes and mood. I find a thick white candle in the second drawer of the kitchen cabinet–my father always stocks candles there in case of a power outage–grab a saucer, pick up his lighter that’s remained on the dinner table since he was rushed to the hospital and go back to the room. The sight of the flame soothes me at once, as it used to on the sleepless nights that began after our move to Jerusalem. Alone in the dark, I’d watch the melting wax until I reached a hypnotic state. It looked like tears.

It occurs to me that this is the last night of Hanukkah. The burning candle takes on new meaning. Never mind that there is no Menorah here, that dusk is long gone, that I don’t know which prayer should be recited on the last night. God has provided solace for a week now, and I’m not ready to let go. The floor is covered with the red carpet bordered with black and white designs my father inherited from his parents, one of the few relics of their life in Tunisia. Though it isn’t thick enough to cushion me from the hardwood floor, I settle in the lotus position and begin to pray and breathe deep, slow breaths, lids clutched together. In and out. The couple next door have grown silent.

December 28th

                  The light of Paris is so subdued that early afternoons feel like evenings. My father can’t lie flat on his back, “not enough air,” he complains, or sit up, “I feel cut in two, like I’m choking.” So I tap the pillows as best I can and position them half way.

“How is it now?”

I sit beside him on the edge of the bed. He shuts his eyes, in pain or frustration, I’m not sure, and tries to yank his right arm away from the IV.

“Don’t pull on it.”

“What’s the point?”

“What do you mean?” I know full well what he means.

“All this.” He opens his eyes again. “Look at me.”

He raises his arm, then lets it fall on the sheet with a thump.

“I’m of no use now. Sometimes, I just want to end it all, the suffering . . .”

The rumble of the oxygen tank fills in the blanks. I’m more aware than ever this is what makes the difference between his living and dying.

“Don’t talk nonsense.”

“It isn’t nonsense and you know it.”

“I do.” My voice is low. Ma wouldn’t approve of my truthfulness.

“So what’s the use? I don’t have the strength to . . .  I’d rather . . .”

I empathize completely. I’d hate to be a burden to others, to know they’re spending all their time on me. But another feeling kicks in, that overrides all others.

“You’re of use to me, Papa. If not for yourself, you must fight for me.”

I’d never imagined I’d say this to him. He looks away, but I can see he’s shaken.

“I have only one father.” I keep my voice steady. “And I’m not yet ready to lose him.”

His tired green eyes brush mine as if to consider the point.

“Tell me something.”

He stops to breathe into the tube like a diver ready to scuba. I prick up my ears.

“What did you have for dinner last night?”

“What? Euh . . . Nothing much, I stayed at your place. But I had lunch at Maman’s.  And you know her, a slice of ham and ready-made purée is her idea of cooking.”

He stops short of laughing; it hurts him; too much strain on his thorax.

“Papa?”

Oui, ma fille.”

“There’s something I want you to promise me. When you come out of this hospital.”

If.”

I roll my eyes and dislike myself for the charade.

“All right. If you come out of here, promise me to never smoke again.”

“I can’t.”

“You can’t?”

“This is one thing I can’t commit to.”

“This is unbelievable!” I gesture to the tubes that hook him to the oxygen tank.

“Would you prefer I lie?” His voice is weak but sharp.

“Of course not.”

I feel shattered, like a vase dropped onto a tile floor. Then I hear myself say, “If you did this, you’d never see me again.”

My words shock me almost as much as his did moments ago.

He nods. “I’d give it a try.” He inhales into the plastic tube, then exhales. “But I can’t promise.”

December 29th

My mother is sitting on my father’s bed. I’m on the chair to his right, back to the door, as usual. My sister is on the chair to his left near the window. The last time I recall the four of us in the same room was after the birth of her son twelve years ago. There’s a picture on my refrigerator that shows us together on her couch. My mother wears a bandanna around her forehead, a headache remedy among Tunisian Jews. My father attempts a smile, a cigarette between his fingers. My sister looks away. I have dark circles under my eyes, which make me look old and sad.

The only other picture of us as a family was taken in Nice, in front of the villa where my sister and I grew up. I am seven, she, eight and a half. Papa stands lean and tall, his bare torso a near-perfect triangle. A cigarette hangs from his smiling lips. My sister and I each hold on to one of his legs. Ma hugs him from behind. We’re brown from the sun, we look radiant. A few years ago, my sister sent me a reprint of this photo. “I thought you’d like to have it,” she wrote. It made me weep.

My father’s state is getting worse as the day wears on, yet I feel no sadness. Oddly, I feel close to jubilation. Who would have known that this hospital room giving onto buildings covered with grime would feel more intimate than any holiday celebration?

My mother passes a hand over my father’s forehead, though he isn’t suffering from fever. “How are you doing?” she asks.

My sister purses her lips. “This is a superfluous question,” her face is saying. His every breath sounds like a moan. His eyes are glassy, only half open, the same as on the evening of my arrival. I return to San Francisco in a few hours.

Slowly, my father turns his head toward the dark rectangle of the window.

J’ai peur,” he whispers. I’m scared.

Ma pats his hand, “Don’t be, you’ll feel better soon,”but she gives me a knowing glance from across the bed. “Well, today wasn’t too cold,” she goes on.

I wonder how she can carry on like this. I don’t believe it helps him.

“Papa,” I call out softly as if to wake him.

He doesn’t move his head. His eyes are shut, his mouth open.

“I’ve been wondering about that song the Allies sang at the liberation of Tunis.”

“He can’t answer you,” my mother says.

“How does it go again?”

She gives me a not-now look.

“You used to sing it to me when I was little.”

His head rolls slightly to my side.

“I have it on the tip of my tongue.”

I only hear the loud gargle of the oxygen machine in reply.

“It’s a victory song,” I insist.

For a while, he just lies on the pillows, eyes closed, lips apart, breathing in and out, in and out, so painfully that my throat contracts and my lungs almost hurt. Then, in a frail, cracked voice, a faint smile on his worn-out face, he begins to sing.

“It’s a long way to Tipperary,

It’s a long way to go . . .”

“Isn’t it ‘it’s a long way back home ?’” I ask.

 

“El Cruce” by Wendy Shoua

Wendy Schoua (2009 PSP participant)

Wendy Schoua is Argentine, bilingual and bicultural. She attended a British school in Buenos Aires, and began writing as a child. She is an avid reader, theatre/opera enthusiast, film connoisseur, traveller, and a teacher of English at all levels. Wendy was the first Latino Advocate for the City of Evanston, the position she is the proudest of in her long public career. She has an M.A. in Public Administration from the University of Illinois, and an M. A. in Creative Writing/Fiction from Northwestern University. Her forthcoming book is Immigrants and Other Aliens, a short story anthology by many writers, some well-known and a few neophytes like herself. “El Cruce” will be featured in this forthcoming book.

El Cruce

Lucho was grateful he did not throw up. The pill he swallowed this morning had stopped the uncontrollable churning in his stomach. He was working on his last construction job in Zacatecas, Mexico. He was on a ladder painting the wall for the new grade school. Lucho had already paid the coyote half the fee. He had made most of the money in Chicago doing the same type of work, but in dollars, a living wage. For six gritty years he had risked deportation, sharing an apartment in Cicero, Illinois with five other guys, returning to Mexico each Christmas to see his parents, and now his young wife and infant son. This time he could not go back to the U.S. without Melina and little Javier.

One of his housemates in Cicero was Alberto, an Argentine in his forties from Tucumán. He and Lucho became friends working for the same construction company on the day shift. Their shared passion for soccer and their curiosity about each other’s culture, the differences and similarities between Argentina and Mexico, drew them together. They liked to work to the blare of Country and Western music, especially old Johnny Cash tunes blasting out from a now paint-spattered radio they had bought at K-Mart. The stories in the songs reminded them of the tangos and rancheras they had grown up with, sad and plaintive.

The Sunday before his return to Zacatecas, as they were sitting at the kitchen table in the otherwise empty apartment listening to their favorite C and W station, Lucho told Alberto that he had begun to experience panic attacks. And after many pauses, he described his fears about what in his mind he called his final cruce.

“I’ve lost my nerve and I don’t know why.  Maybe because it’s forever,” Lucho said. “Because even if we make it, I’m not sure that we’ll ever be able to go back to Mexico or see our families again. If Melina knew how frightened I am, she wouldn’t trust me to get them both across.” And he started to sob while gasping that he was ashamed about his lack of courage.

“It’s alright. You don’t need to suffer, Viejo,” Alberto said, getting up and putting his arm around Lucho. “There are pills for that. When you get back to Mexico you can get them over the counter. It’s going to be okay, you’ll do what you have to do.”

Alberto then told Lucho that most Argentine males were not ashamed of seeing therapists or telling their loved ones about it. Lucho stared at him in disbelief, until Alberto showed him an article in the Sunday edition of El Clarin, which he bought every Tuesday.  The article claimed that in proportion to its population, Argentina had the highest percentage of psychologists and psychiatrists in the world.

Lucho followed his friend’s advice. No one but the pharmacist in Zacatecas knew.  He gave Lucho sixty U.S. one-milligram pills called Clonazepam for his nerves. The pharmacist told Lucho not to take more than two a day, and to avoid alcohol.  The pills were green and inoffensive-looking, but they worked. He had taken one in the morning and the anxiety that was roiling in his stomach had stopped, allowing him to finish the job today.

He came down the ladder and wiped his face with the old blue kerchief that he always wore tied around his forehead to keep the sweat out of his eyes. He took a deep drink from his water canteen, hosed off the tools, and put them away neatly in the shed.  Then he walked over to the boss’ trailer to pick up his last pay envelope.

They hugged without a word.  They had gone to the secundaria together, and except for Lucho’s ponytail they looked alike, short, dark and compact. Francisco finally spoke. “I’m sorry to see you go, cabrón.  It’s been great having you back for a while. If I didn’t have five kids, and my mami, I’d go with you. I’m sure I’d make more money doing the same work.”

“I know man, and I wish you could come. Tell you the truth I’m scared shitless of crossing over with my wife and kid. I’ve usually gone alone, or with a bunch of guys from the ranchos around here.”

“But I remember that one time you took your cousin Marisol,” Francisco said.

“That was scary enough going with a woman, being responsible for her, never mind also taking a baby.”

“Good luck, Lucho.  Call if you can.  If not, I’ll find out you’re safe from one of your brothers.”

Lucho’s oldest brother Juan drove him, Melina, and little Javier northeast to Nuevo Laredo in his new red pickup to meet the coyote.  No one made a sound during the two-hour drive except the baby, who whimpered in his sleep.

While she held her baby, Melina looked straight ahead and tried to imagine what their life with Lucho in Estados Unidos would be like. Had she been too impulsive? She had been unable to imagine a future for herself in the village, marrying some field worker and bearing children until she dropped. She had seen Lucho at a wedding in her village outside Zacatecas last December, and had surprised herself and her girlfriends by asking with great urgency who he was. He did not look or carry himself like the younger men who had courted her without imagination or success.  Except for his silver and turquoise belt, he was dressed in black. Ignoring her friends’ shocked whispers at her forwardness, she had stared at him until he had come over and asked her to dance. Later, during their hurried courtship he had thrilled her—she had been a virgin—not only with his assured lovemaking, but also by telling her that if she married him they would live in Chicago. They would have their own house like the gringos. She could learn English; she could continue her education and he would take care of her. No one close to her had ever crossed. Her mother and her younger sisters had begged her to wait, but Melina’s physical passion for Lucho and his promises for a different life had overcome their objections. They had a New Year’s Day wedding and she was sure that their baby was conceived that night.

Nuevo Laredo sat right across the Río Grande from Laredo in the U.S.  You could cross the one hundred-meter length of the bridge spanning the river in less than fifteen minutes by car if you had the right documentation.   At either end and in the middle, there were checkpoints with armed guards and drug-sniffing dogs. The official crossing was less than a mile from the widest part of the Río Grande where coyotes had built a thriving business getting the most determined Mexicans across the river.  The precise

spot of the crossings changed daily to deflect the U.S. river patrol and their limited numbers and capabilities.

Everyone on both sides of the river knew about the compuertas under the bridge. Built and maintained by both governments, their purpose had never been made public. They were a system of metal and wire portals that could be opened and closed. When the portals were open, which was most of the time, the river waters flowed freely under the bridge.  When closed, and the water drained, whatever was trapped under the bridge could be seen clearly. Every few months, when enough families on the Mexican side filed police reports of relatives who had “disappeared” and paid hefty sums, the compuertas were closed, and the horrors under the bridge were revealed.  The watery communal grave held dozens of bodies, mostly male, some without arms or legs, perhaps eaten by crocodiles, drowned while attempting to cross or murdered by their coyotes and then thrown back in the river. The terror etched on some of their bloated faces was horrible to see.  Those who had known they were drowning often died with their mouths opened as if in a scream of soundless despair, their eyes bulging, staring at the pitiless darkness of the sky above and the river around them. Some of the bodies were claimed and buried by their families. The others were trucked to a nearby cemetery on the outskirts of Nuevo Laredo and buried in a mass grave.  Although a priest always came to bless the dead, the people of Nuevo Laredo felt it was the saddest way to go.

The brothers settled Melina and the baby on a park bench across the street from La Buena Estrella, the bar where they were appointed to meet the coyote.  Lucho hoped the name of the bar was a good omen for the crossing but he did not tell Juan, because he was reluctant to show Juan how frightened he was. Despite an early morning dose of Clonazepam, Lucho’s breakfast was churning in his stomach.

They walked in and looked around.  The coyote rose from a small table in the back to meet them, and they sat down. Lucho blinked. Dressed in American clothes, with short hair, and average in size, she did not look tough until the conversation turned to money.

“The baby is the same price as you and your wife,” she repeated firmly. “The risks are the same for me and my guys.  I’ve got to pay people on both sides of the river, you know, and maintain two safe houses in Laredo and San Antonio.  You came to me because your concuño, your cousin Rafael told you I was gentle and treated people right, no?”

“Yes.”

Juan spoke for the first time.  “We’ll pay you three quarters now and the final amount when he calls us from San Antonio to tell us they’re safe.  I’ll be waiting right here for the phone call two days from now.  I’ll wire the money from the Western Union down the street the moment I hang up the phone.”

“I can deal with that.  I’ve done it that way before,” she answered, giving the big man a good look for the first time.

“Oh, and don’t try to put someone else on the phone, because I’ll know it’s not him right away.”

“How will you know?”

Lucho tried to speak, but Juan put a meaty hand on his arm to silence him.  “I’ll know,” he said looking hard into the woman’s eyes.

They waited for nightfall near the river in a large van without air-conditioning.  The hot air outside the van’s open windows was still and unrelenting.  Two young women, sisters, were in their group for tonight’s crossing. Their names were Cata and María. Before he could chastise himself for the thought, Lucho noticed that neither was as light-skinned or as delicately featured as Melina and his baby. Cata, who was tall with short hair and looked like the older sister, told them that she was making the crossing because after twelve months of discussions, María had agreed to come with her.

“I’m luckier than Cata,” María said, “I have a job that I love as a teacher assistant in Nuevo Laredo, and I was going to be married, that’s why I didn’t want to come.  Then last month I broke my engagement, and there didn’t seem to be a reason to stay. I never wanted her to do this alone anyway.”

The sisters cooed at little Javier, and Cata asked if she could hold him.  As she rocked him in her arms, she looked so at ease that Melina said, “¿Me parece que tú quieres un niño tambien, verdad?”  I think you want a baby too, right?

       “O, sí,” Cata replied blushing, “I do want one of my own. But first I need to find a decent job, and a good Tex-Mex or gringo husband.”

Lucho snorted and the three women laughed.

After Lucho fell asleep, they spoke a little in low voices and halting sentences about their fears about making el cruce and their hopes if they reached the other side.  María and Melina braided each other’s hair with the rubber bands they had brought around their wrists, and then pinned it up with the bobby pins that Cata had slipped inside the coin pocket of her jeans. They took turns sleeping in pairs while one held the baby. When Lucho woke up, they drank bottled water provided by the coyote’s driver and ate the food they had brought, cold chicken, ham and cheese sandwiches, tortillas, bananas and apples. The air was sultry and it began to rain hard.  They had to close the windows almost to the top.  It was suffocating inside the small space. They kept moistening their necks and faces with the remaining water, but the relief was very fleeting.

When it was dark and the rain had stopped, the driver started the van and drove further west from the bridge to a part of the river where the rest of the team was waiting sheltered in another van.   He asked them to step out. Then he patted them up and down. They knew they could carry nothing at all, even a wallet. If they had money on them they might never make it.  They had been warned about unscrupulous coyotes killing their own customers. Lucho, anticipating it was probably useless because the river waters could reduce them to a paste, had packed the small plastic pill container inside his tight cotton briefs. He passed muster. Now he watched when it was Melina’s turn.  The night before she had hidden the last of their money in a small bag made of oilcloth and stitched it into her bra. Satisfied, the driver handed them over to the four other men.

It started to rain again.

The men in the other van hauled out four inner tubes, black and inflated, and showed Lucho, Melina and the sisters how they would sit in them.

“You’re going to put your backside in the middle and then lean back all the way,” said the leader.  “Each one of us is a strong swimmer, so we’ll be pushing you from the back until we get to the other side.  You, Melina, will hold the baby tightly in your arms with this toy salvavidas around his waist.   It’s the only way to cross him.  I don’t like taking babies.  I’ve got a couple of my own.”

“We know,” Lucho whispered, “but this is our only chance.”

Nobody said another word while the group crept towards the bushes on the bank, until Cata asked, “How long will it take?”

“It’s been raining hard for days — the river is really high.”

The group turned to look at the swollen, brackish waters licking the river bank.

“Takes twenty or thirty minutes when it’s normal.  Tonight I don’t know.”

Lucho threw up his dinner in the bushes.  The man who was to swim behind him laughed, not unkindly.  “Hey, hombre, it’s probably better this way.  You won’t be as heavy to push.”

The four coyotes dropped about three feet into the swollen river and then grabbed the inner tubes from the bank.  “Jump,” they urged their charges.

“Jump now and we’ll help you get on.  I will hand you the baby when you’re afloat, Melina,” said the driver who was behind them on the bank.

Melina hesitated, and looked at Lucho who nodded.  She showered Javier’s head with kisses, inserted the pacifier in his mouth and then gave him quickly to the driver.   With her eyes closed tightly, she dropped behind her husband into the oily black water.  The coyote caught her and put the tube over her head.  Melina grasped the sides firmly and pulled herself through it to a sitting position.  She blinked the water out of her eyes and immediately focused them on her baby.  The man pushed her a few meters towards the bank, and Javier was lowered into her arms screaming. She held him fast. The pacifier floated away.

Lucho put out his arm and touched them both once more, before he felt his tube being propelled swiftly to the front of the group.  He could not hear Javier wailing any more. Lucho clenched his teeth and slammed his eyes shut when he realized he would not see his wife and child until they made it to the other side. He didn’t want to think about the pungent stench of the water, the alligators, the pelting rain, the chunks of bark and trees floating around them, and the possibility that his son could be snatched from his wife’s arms by the strong currents tossing him back and forth. He wished they had waited a few more days until the rain had ceased.  Then he stopped thinking and concentrated on grasping the sides of the tube as tightly as he could with his wet hands.

The night was pierced abruptly by a scream.  Lucho tried to twist around to see if Melina and Javier were safe, but the coyote growled for him to stay in position or they would both go under.   As the man pushed him harder and faster, Lucho could hear María’s cries coming behind him in agonized gasps, “¡Sálvenla! ¡Por Dios! ¡Salven a mi hermana!  ¡Cataaaa, Cataaaa!”

Then there were only the sounds of the crashing waters and the hard rain slapping Lucho’s face. He closed his eyes tightly and for the first time since his Holy Communion,

he prayed to the Virgin of Guadalupe. He implored her to let the remainder of their little group survive the river.

When he stopped praying, Lucho could still hear the rushing water, the colliding chunks of bark, and the heavy breathing of the swimmer behind him.  But the rest of the journey was eerily silent of human voices.  He lost his sense of time, until he opened his eyes and saw that the river bank on the opposite side was close.  The coyote pushed him with one final, almost breathless effort. Lucho swiveled around to look for his wife and child.

They were right behind him.  And so was María, but not Cata.  Lucho’s eyes turned back to the coyote who whispered that she had probably drowned.  After the fourth coyote climbed on the bank empty-handed, he told them that a huge wave had crashed over them. Cata had fallen off the tire.  She had been swept beyond his reach by the current and then swallowed by an immense vortex of black water.

Wet and shivering, Lucho, Melina, Javier, and María were lifted out of the river by another group of men, who gave them some towels and herded them into a truck.  Melina handed the baby to Lucho so that she could hold María, who clung to her weeping and shuddering.  Javier also began to cry, so Lucho rocked him and put his thumb in the baby’s mouth.

They drove through muddy back roads. Melina and María sat together holding each other tightly, while Lucho was in the front seat next to the driver cradling Javier.  The driver had turned the radio on to a country and western station. In the distance, they could see the bright lights of Laredo. To Lucho the soft sounds of Willie Nelson and the reflection of the city lights he glimpsed through the windows felt like heaven, and for the first time almost like home. He thought this might be because he was not alone. He wondered how it would be for Melina, if she would regret it.

They stopped at a shabby trailer park and entered a large trailer in the back of the enclosure. The woman who received them asked them to peel off their filthy clothes.  The trailer was air-conditioned, so they sat shivering in their underwear clutching their damp towels until Melina, eyeing the small stove and a box of teabags next to it, asked the woman if she could make some tea for María, Lucho and herself.

The woman assented. While Javier slept in a laundry basket, they cradled their mugs of hot tea in silence, grateful for something to do for the next hour. They watched as the woman tossed the clothes in a washer with plenty of detergent and then dried them. When she handed them back they were stiff and scratchy, but clean.

“Tomorrow,” she said, “we’ll buy you some new clothes at a discount store in Laredo so you can blend in with the other Mexicans on this side.  But now you’d better sleep while you can.”

Melina took Lucho aside and said, “Tú duerme con el niño.  Yo me encargo de María.”  You sleep with the baby.  I will take care of María.

Lucho just nodded, but as he picked a corner of the room for Javier and himself, he marveled at her composure.  She was only twenty years old to his thirty, and he knew she had never been away from her family or her village. A sharp twinge of gratitude ran through his body like electricity.  He took the sodden pills in their plastic vial out of the

pocket of his clean pants and debated whether to throw them into a small garbage can in

his corner. As he put them back in his pocket he decided to continue taking them as they were until he could get some more at their final destination.

In the opposite corner Melina prepared herself for a long night. She felt María’s pain like a physical ache. She had never lost a sister or even a cousin, but now that she had Javier and Lucho, she felt more vulnerable to the abyss of sudden loss. They held each other rocking and speaking in weepy whispers for hours. When María fell asleep, Melina detached herself gently and closed her own eyes. Lucho’s soft, regular snores reassured her like a lullaby.

They slept.  In the morning, the woman made them coffee and fed them scrambled eggs and tortillas.  They put on their new clothes, t-shirts, cheap jeans, denim jackets, and

sneakers.  The baby wore a pale blue sleeper and was wrapped in a yellow baby blanket.

“This is the easiest part,” the woman told them. “There’s another checkpoint half an hour from the city, so we’ll get out of here without crossing Laredo.  It’s a bumpy ride, but then we’ll travel on the highway to San Antonio.”

“What happens after that?”  Lucho asked.

“I take you to the safe house, and the rest is up to you and the people in the house, whatever you arranged.”

In the early, clean morning air they drove away from the trailer park in a dusty pick up. Melina and Javier sat in front with the woman driver. Lucho and María were less comfortable on the truck bed under a dusty and heavy tarpaulin that smelled of cattle dung. They had to be silent and still, the woman told them, so as not to arouse anyone’s curiosity. They had bottles of water to sip. It would get very hot before they got to the San Antonio highway.

After miles of gravelly, bumpy roads they began to travel on a smooth surface. Under the tarp Lucho and María signaled their mutual relief, imagining that they were already on the San Antonio expressway. The truck came to an abrupt stop. Lucho put a steadying hand on María’s shoulder, and they held their noses so as not to sneeze. They heard a conversation between the woman and a male with an American accent.

“Why are you stopping us?”

“The Laredo checkpoint is closed for repairs. So this is the new temporary checkpoint before the San Anton express.  Where are you going, ladies?”

Lucho could barely breathe as he listened, hoping that Melina would not speak. Her poor English and her accent would betray her.

“My daughter and I are from Laredo. We’re going to visit her mother-in-law. My girl was pregnant with another child, but she lost her baby yesterday. She’s barely awake now. We need someone to care for this other precious one.”

“I’m sorry Ma’am. We’ll do this as quickly as possible. Driver’s license?”

There was a short silence.

“Anything else in the pickup?”

“Nothing, except some fertilizer I haven’t had a chance to unload yet with all these troubles.”

“I have to take a look in the back, Ma’am.”

Heavy, booted footfalls approached as María and Lucho sweated and shivered at the same time. They clung to each other in silence. The tarp so odorous, dense and annoying when they got in, now felt as insubstantial as a cobweb. They heard the back gate of the pickup open with a loud click. The fetid air under their covering was altered slightly by the aroma of Polo Blue. Lucho started to lose control of his bladder.

“Ugh, I see what you mean. And with the sun…”

The gate was clicked shut, and the footsteps moved away.

“You’re good to go, Ma’am.”

“Thank you, Officer.”

Four hours later, when they got to a small, barely-furnished house on a quiet street in San Antonio, Lucho called his brother from the grubby kitchen phone attached to the wall.

“How’s your mother-in-law, Juan?”

“She went to the doctor, you know.  You heard she’s having surgery, Lucho?”

“Yeah,” Lucho responded, “in the head, next month.”

Juan laughed with relief.  “Let me talk to the guy in charge, Mano, so I can keep my part of the bargain.  Remember he’s supposed to take you to the bus station and put you on the bus to Illinois. I’m sending enough money for the tickets.  Give my love to Melina and Javier.”

“Thank you, Juan.  We’re going to be all right now.  I’ll also give your love to Elena, and I’ll call you again when we get to her house.”

It was night when they arrived at the bus station and were finally alone.

At the convenience store in the station, Lucho who spoke some English bought a package of Pampers and American baby food in a jar for Javier and sandwiches and bottled water for Melina and himself.  Melina, standing next to him holding the baby reminded him they also needed a comb and a box of tissues. The lady at the counter smiled at him when she glimpsed Javier and added some plastic spoons for the baby food and a handful of paper napkins to the bag with his purchases.

Then they headed to the ticket booth and bought three tickets to travel on the Tronador, the legendary express bus that would take them from San Antonio to Waukegan, Illinois.  His older sister Elena would be waiting at the station.

While Lucho sat on a bench outside the ladies’ room holding Javier, Melina went inside. Once she was alone Melina took off her t-shirt and her bra.  It still had the dank smell of the river.  She ripped out the small package of money that she had sewn inside one of the cups, and shoved the bills in the right front pocket of her fitted jeans.  She threw the bra away in a tall garbage can outside the stall.  Then she locked the door again and sat down on the toilet.  For the first time since leaving home, she broke into loud, wet sobs.  Melina made the sign of the cross and prayed that she could be a good wife to Lucho and adapt to her new life. Outside the stall, she washed and dried her face and ran the new comb through her long wavy hair. She hoped her sister-in law Elena would like her and love Javier.  In the mirror she practiced the wide smile she would bestow on her husband and child when she emerged from the washroom.

As he rocked the sleeping baby, Lucho allowed his thoughts to wander for the first time since crossing the river.  Now that he was by himself he felt a pang of anxiety. It could get worse, he knew. The panic could start gnawing at him and unman him like before. There was the question of the pills. What would Melina think if he told her? Would she feel, and rightly so, that she had made a mistake not only to come with him but also to marry him?

He felt like a gambler with his last chip, afraid of making the wrong bet. Then he remembered how her composure had surprised him.  Perhaps he could tell her the truth and she would understand.  He could not make up his mind.  The bus trip was forty hours long.  There would be plenty of time to talk. Telling her, he thought, might be  another sort of crossing altogether.

“Surprise” by Lynn Lipinski

Lynn Lipinski (2010 PSP participant, Robert Eversz workshop)

Lynn Lipinski graduated in spring 2018 from the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program at Mount St. Mary’s University in Los Angeles. Her work has been published in the Los Angeles Times, UCLA Magazine, Trojan Family Magazine, and several small literary presses.

 “Surprise” was inspired by my time in the 2010 Prague Summer Program. Like most tourists, I found myself lost in twisting neighborhood streets in Prague, struggling to find unfamiliar street names on a map as I panicked. A few years later, I wrote this story as part of a prompt in a short fiction class, drawing on the emotion and wonder of being lost and then found.  I played around with using Czech phrases in the story, using the phrasebook I had bought to help me navigate the city. The story was published in Summer 2015 in Manuscript 50, the literary magazine of Los Angeles Valley College. Link: https://lavc.edu/english/manuscript50/styled-5/index.html

Surprise

Trena was lost in Prague. She had left the familiar people and language of the conference she was attending in the large hotel near the Vltava River to purchase allergy medicine she should have remembered to bring with her from Los Angeles.

The escape for allergy medicine was in fact a pretext for getting out for a walk. The hotel gift shop sold the medicine, but in small quantities and for too many korunas though the truth was her company would reimburse her for the cost if she chose to put it on her expense report.

She wanted to be alone and drift into her real self. To shut down the part of her that had to smile and network and look for business opportunities. And to do that, she wanted to immerse herself in Prague.

She started the walk bravely, long strides heading confidently through narrow streets lined with sandstone buildings. But after only a few minutes, she felt like an interloper, locked out by hundreds of closed doors, drawn curtains and rushing passers-by, and denied any intimate knowledge of their lives or the city.

Thirty minutes later she was no closer to a pharmacy than when she started, and the time spent wandering had evoked the opposite reaction she’d hoped for. Instead of feeling the pleasures of an adventurer, she felt only loneliness. She was ready to give up and buy the antihistamines at the overpriced hotel boutique, but after all the twists and turns of her afternoon walk, she wasn’t sure what direction to go. Her pace quickening, she turned onto the kind of broad avenue where a taxi might be. Though she’d been told to avoid Prague taxis as they were known to overcharge tourists, Trena was so tired, she didn’t care how much it cost. She just wanted to stop walking.

But her relief evaporated as she saw the trash-strewn asphalt, devoid of traffic though the biting odor of diesel gas lingered in the air. This larger ulice, called Dlouha, seemed to be closed to automobiles, at least temporarily. The faint, fading oom-pah-pah of a marching band and loose groups of spectators deciding on where to go next led her to realize a parade had recently passed through the street.

A mockingbird in a tree taunted her with another bird’s song. She hunched over her map of the city, eyes blurry with tears.

A man brushed by her, a blonde child in a pink dress sitting on his shoulders. The man held hands with a sparrow-like woman, who held hands with a brown-haired boy of about five years old. The boy leaned over to pick up bits of shiny confetti off the sidewalk.

Trena wiped the tears away with the back of her hand, folded the map and took a deep breath. She looked left and right. Was she at the start of the parade route or the end? Anxiety bubbled up in her throat like a gas. No way to know, she thought. Go left.

The little boy began to jump up and down, shouting and pointing. “Prase! Prase!”

Trena followed the boy’s stick-straight arm to the object of his excitement. In the middle of the street stood a huge pig.

Trena blinked twice. There was no reason for a pig to be on a parade route in Prague. But there it was. The pig stood in the street, utterly alone, no handler or owner in sight. Two tourists took photos of it with their smart phones.

The pig must be as lost as she was, Trena thought. But, unlike her, it seemed perfectly comfortable standing in the street. It was enormous, six-feet long and pink, thick flesh pulled over a dense frame, its chin raised proudly, almost defiantly. Its flat snout pointed to the sky as though sniffing for rain.

A circle of spectators formed loosely around the pig, each holding smart phones at eye-level. Why can’t people just experience the unusual firsthand anymore, Trena wondered. She stepped past the family on the sidewalk and into the street to get a closer look.

The pig, with a slow turn of its massive head, trained its onyx eyes on her. One pink ear folded down on itself but the other stood upright, giving it a jaunty air that brought a tiny smile to her lips. A beam of late afternoon sun gilded the fine blond hairs covering its flesh.

Ke mně, ke mně!” called a thin black man dressed in a tracksuit, squatting on the street. The pig ignored his command to come, and kept watching Trena.

Trena slipped around a stooped, grey-haired couple who spoke to one another in quiet voices, their eyes fixed on the pig. She was close enough to the pig to catch a whiff of its barnyard scent of sweet grasses and manure, which tickled a sneeze out of her already hypersensitive nose, and transported her back to day trips to the county fair as a child. A long piece of yellow grass hung from its snout. Up close, its eyes looked kind, not beady as they had from the distance, with wrinkled skin around them mimicking the expressiveness of eyebrows.

When she was near enough to lay her hand on the pig’s thick neck, it turned its head away from her to gaze at a point down the road. Then, with a lightness and grace she did not expect, the pig began to walk down Dlouhá ulice.

The pig’s thick hooves tick-tacked on the pavement. Several people in the crowd fell in behind the pig, as did Trena.

A woman stood in the doorway of a cell phone repair shop, her oval face framed by a black hijab. Her fingers flew over her smart phone screen while her wary eyes followed the pig’s progress. The smell of cherry vanilla tobacco puffed out of a hookah bar.

Two policisté in crisp light blue shirts with dark epaulets and matching pants did a double-take as the pig and its entourage reached the doorway where they stood talking. The taller one poked a long finger under his blue beret to scratch his head, while the younger one pulled his radio receiver to his mouth and spoke into it. They fell in behind the pig as well.

Trena’s loneliness dissolved into wonder. Where just five minutes ago she’d felt like a latecomer to a celebration, now she found herself at the center of an impromptu parade led by a pig. From the sidewalk, a small girl in a pink tutu waved at her and the pig, and Trena smiled and waved back. A half-eaten cob of corn someone had dropped in the gutter beckoned to the pig, and it dipped its head to investigate briefly before moving on.

They came to an intersection and what Trena supposed must have been the end of the parade, for marching band members in green capes milled about with their instruments still in hand. A tall clown with a tiny yellow hat perched on a green fuzzy wig ran into the street to try to pet the pig.

The tuba player blew oom-pah-pahs in time with the pig’s steps, but this did not go on for too long before the pig stopped in front of a babička wearing a simple cotton housedress and thick-strapped sandals. Tight grey curls framed the old woman’s wrinkled round face; her eyes were dark and piercing like the pig’s.

Hodný prase,” she said, her hand extended to the pig. “Ke mně.”

The pig lowered its head and walked to her, rubbing its snout against her legs. She scratched the back of its neck. The crowd fell back, but Trena stayed with the pig and the old woman, trying to bring the right words out of the dim ether of her memories of speaking Czech to her grandmother as a child.

To je vaše prase?” Trena said. Do you own the pig?

Ano,” the woman said with a curt nod. The rapid fire Czech that followed was a mush of sounds that Trena could only discern a few words. Statek for farm. Nákladni auto for truck.

A weather-beaten man in a grimy yellow coat approached the woman, and pointed back to a livestock trailer affixed behind an old green Soviet-looking truck, parked fifty feet down the side street. The pig and the woman both looked at the truck. The man pivoted sharply on his heel and walked to it, and at nearly the same time, the pig and the babicka followed him.

Behind the truck sat an orange and white taxi. Trena took a deep breath and lifted her hand to wave at the driver, but stopped herself short. The urgency of her loneliness had long passed. She no longer wanted to be locked in the cocoon of her hotel room. Instead, she wanted to be out walking some more, the leader of her own parade through Prague, just like the pig.