Delmarva Review: Daybreak by Darien Gee

Share

Author’s Note: “While I was working on a collection of ‘micro narratives’ about my matrilineal line, my mother shared this story with me. Her memory of these small details during a chaotic and difficult time struck me as both poignant and powerful, but lingering in the background was a secret that travelled with her from China to Taiwan, and then eventually to the United States—the truth about my grandfather’s other family.”

The Communists are coming. On the boat, my mother is 11.
They have suitcases, trunks, crates, a Simmons mattress stowed
below. Money and jewels sewn into the folds of clothing, papers
declaring who they are. The Liang Family. Nationalists.
Kuomintang. They leave behind furniture, dishes, a piano⎯a
country. My mother steps onto a bridge that joins the dock to
the ship, holding her older brother’s hand, their mother pressed
close. Behind them trails a nurse with a young boy,
my mother’s half-brother. Her father, resplendent in a brown
western suit, waves them to their room.

My mother swallows a lungful of air, holds it in. Another boat,
the Taiping, was sunk two months ago—fifteen hundred people and
their gold lines the bottom of the Strait. For three days, they
drift over those bodies, those ill-fated treasures. On the fourth
day, the rise of a dark green mountain range set against an
orange dawn sky. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever
seen. Paddle boats idle as they pull into port. Hello, friends,
hello! The locals are selling bananas. In her pocket, my mother
fingers a silver dollar before tossing it to the man below. She
awaits, arms outstretched, for a first taste of freedom.

_____

“Daybreak” is the first of four of Darien Gee’s powerful micro narratives in Volume 11 of Delmarva Review. Gee, from Hawaii, is the author of five novels, published by Penguin Random House, and an award-winning book on writing memoir. She is a former Vermont Studio fellow and received a writing grant from the Sustainable Arts Foundation. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in numerous literary journals. Say hello at: dariengee.com.

Delmarva Review publishes the best of original new poetry, nonfiction, and fiction selected from thousands of annual submissions by authors within the region and beyond. The independent, nonprofit literary journal is supported by individual contributions and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. Obtain the paperback edition from Mystery Loves Company, in Oxford, and Amazon.com. An electronic edition is also available from Amazon.com. Website: DelmarvaReview.org

Delmarva Review: Saudade by Luther Jett

Share

Delmarva Review Editor’s note: The meaning of “saudade” is from the Portuguese and not easily translated into English, though it imports a feeling of longing, melancholy, or nostalgia. Poet Luther Jett explains that Portuguese “saudade” songs are ballads of intense poignancy, often incorporating images of the sea and of cities. He was intrigued by the concept and composed this poem.

Delmarva Review: Saudade
By Luther Jett

While the river overruns its banks,
I sit by an open window — The light
breeze carries salt and a memory
of tar, of small boats bobbing on the tide.

The cities we have left behind, the towns
we’ll likely never know, turn up their lamps
when twilight drifts across the green
as sighs of dying lilacs scent the air.

You were my first, my last, my neverending
road escaping over nameless hills,
my flight of arrows, my cascade of spears,
my brown wren weeping under the clematis.

Seas that have parted and seas which roar
between us, stars whose names no voice
will ever sing — These are the gifts I leave
behind with nothing in my pockets but my hands.

If you listen in the morning to the dew-
fall, you will hear the footsteps of my melody,
and in the evening the sky will burn red —
My blood is on fire for wanting you.
__________
W. Luther Jett’s poetry has been published in Delmarva Review, The GW Review, Beltway, Innisfree, Potomac Review, and Little Patuxent Review as well as several anthologies. His chapbook, Not Quite: Poems Written in search of My Father, was released by Finishing Line press in 2015. He is a retired special educator from Montgomery County, Maryland.

Delmarva Review is a literary journal of national scope, with regional roots. The nonprofit review publishes compelling new poetry, fiction, and nonfiction from authors within the region and beyond. It is supported by individual contributions and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. Visit the website: DelmarvaReview.org. Obtain the paperback edition from Mystery Loves Company, in Oxford, and Amazon.com. An electronic edition is also available from Amazon.

Delmarva Review: A Love Letter to My Sister’s Dog by Frances Park

Share

Mama had a dream last night, Jefferson. You were still alive but barely, your liver failing, your shaven belly mustard yellow, and the vets said there was nothing they could do, so we brought you home, and we gave you a bath where something biblical happened: the water washed away your jaundice.

As Mama told me about her dream, every cell in me stirred, because it was like her love for you. Powerful. Mine, too, though I know I’m just Mama’s sister whose visits were cameo appearances that began with a car beep. Baby’s here! You went nuts whenever you heard that, didn’t you? Howled your head off! And whenever I began to gather my things to go, you’d grow quiet. Disgruntled. Traitor…

You know, Jefferson, a person can’t count on many things in life, but as I’d begin to drive away, slowly, my foot barely on the pedal, the chance that you’d be staring back at me through the window was always excellent. I’d brake, and our eyes would lock like magnets, and we’d stay in that pull for a long time. In a way, that’s as deep as it goes. Famous friends, not like you and Mama—I’m not delusional, you two were twin-spirits roaming this plane, and the next, if there is a next, Mama and Jefferson forever. Though sometimes your attachment was extreme, and you’d become so glum we’d say Jefferson’s on suicide watch, because you’d lie in bed all day, not eating, not moving, just waiting for her to come home. Mama aside, when it was just you and me, we occupied a special space, a poetic place with your paw over my wrist. Didn’t we? By the way, Jefferson, when I say we gave you a bath—in Mama’s dream, I mean—she didn’t say whether “we” included me, but I like to think I was there, in dream life, helping to rinse death off you.

Wherever you are, I want you to know I’m writing this on a gray January morning, spheres removed from that dreamy day when your parents and brother picked you up at the airport and brought you home in a puppy crate. You were something called a golden doodle—your brother had allergies, and, well, it boiled down to a poodle, a doodle, or nothing. Our family had been dog-less for a quarter century, which was fine with me—confession: I was never a true dog lover, always thought they were a bit of a bother—but after work, the summer sky still light and bright, I stopped by just to catch a glimpse of you. A what doodle? A decade ago, that’s all you were to me. Not that it was love at first sight for you, either.

So there you were, and will always be, a beautiful little lamb, a red-collared pup on all fours, refusing to face us. Wherever we set you down, on the grass, on the floral rug, you’d make an about-face, taking orders from your instincts. Paralyzed. I guess if I were plucked from a peaceful farm in Oregon and took a loud scary plane ride for five hours, I’d turn away, too. But I also think that’s how God made you. Introverted. Stony to strangers.

Your love, once bloomed, was reserved for us, your family. That drew me in; made you and your love more special. Some things I found so fetching: the way you’d position yourself so my hair would fall on your face whenever Mama trimmed my ends. The way you growled whenever my husband hugged me—Hands off my Baby! You were a thinker, like my long-gone dad, and call me nuts but were you trying to tell me something with those soulful brown eyes? Oh, if paws could write… Spiritual, too, in a doggy way. Sometimes you broke into a crazy—okay, I’ll just say it—possessed bark, and if I didn’t know better, I’d swear you were barking at ghosts dancing around my head.

Granted, you could be dogs-just-wanna-have-fun, too.

Give me treats!

Hide my tennis ball!

Take me to Hidden Pond!

Ah, Hidden Pond. Granted, you loved your home, especially your spot by the big lumpy elephant-gray sofa, but mention Hidden Pond, and everything flew out the window. It was your favorite place in the world, where your soul became one with every enchanting rock, trail, stream, and falling leaf. Hearing Mama say Let’s go to Hidden Pond! could awaken you from your deepest sleep. Well, almost.

I’m regretting something right now, Jefferson. I rarely went to Hidden Pond with you, just a couple of times, and always opted for the easy trail, otherwise known as the Orange Path, which cheated you, a little. The Green Path, your trail of choice, was too long and treacherous for me. Believe it or not, I started out life as a tomboy who could outrun and outjump any boy in class, a skateboarding fiend, but then I got all poetic and lost myself in words, not woods, and emerged a rock in some ways yet a delicate flower in others—ugh, I agree. Maybe Mama can hop over steep rocks while eating gummy bears, “but I’d fall into some crevice and never be heard from again.

By your tenth birthday, you could still pass for a fluffy puppy but then, abruptly, you slowed down. The staircase was a struggle, each step a crawl-hop. Once, after a long walk in Hidden Pond, your legs gave out, and you had to be lifted into the car. Born with hip dysplasia, you had surgery early on, but here it was, back to haunt you. Oh, you were such a good boy at the vet acupuncturist office last summer, model-still with all those needles sticking out of your doodle fur. But it was worth it because your breed’s lifespan is fifteen years. Miraculously, the acupuncture worked.

Back to Hidden Pond!

With a spring in your step!

True, your walks were abbreviated now. That majestic tree, the grandest in Hidden Pond, standing like some ancient tree of life, now marked the end of your journey. Time to turn around.

But damn it all, one day in mid-December, you stopped eating. The following afternoon you were admitted to the animal hospital—your bilirubin levels were high, pointing to liver disease. The next night, Saturday night, Mama and I went to visit you, though she’d been in and out all day. The hospital staff and décor tried to be cheery but failed miserably; frankly, I had bad vibes as we waited in a room with a maroon rug for an eternity, you weren’t going to get well here. Finally, a nurse walked you in. You plopped down, your shaven belly and ankles and the whites of your eyes all yellow. Worst, your expression was gone.

Where were you, Jefferson?

Just before we left, you perked up in a pup-like way only because you had to pee bad, really bad, so Mama leashed you and the two of you charged out of the room, through the hospital lobby and automatic front doors, leaving me in the dust. Suddenly, it was like it always was, Mama and Jefferson together forever, and what I’m about to tell you will break Mama’s heart when she reads this: something about the starless vision of your silhouettes running into a pitch-black night shook every molecule in me, and all I was thinking was, Run you two, keep running, somewhere, anywhere, don’t turn around, even if it means you never come back because if you come back, Jefferson will never get out of this deathtrap alive and the dream will be over.

I was wrong. You came home on Monday, the same day I developed a cough, easy to ignore at a time like this. The hospital vets said there was nothing more they could do except give you meds and let’s see what happens. Uh, five thousand dollars later and let’s see what happens? What happened was an emotional rollercoaster: one hour you were walking around the block, the next hour your legs buckled; one hour you were barking at the television, the next hour one breath from death. Jefferson, I’d say, knowing you’d come to life if only for a split second, you’ve got to get better so we can go to Hidden Pond.

What happened in the end is that on Friday, December 23 at ten in the morning, eight days after you stopped eating, the in-home euthanasia vet arrived with his assistant. I’m telling you this because I’m not sure how conscious you were, lying on the floral rug, Jefferson. You seemed at peace, even ready to leave us, but when I later learned you were doped up on morphine, I wasn’t so sure of anything anymore. Maybe you were in some drugged-induced state, dreaming of Hidden Pond. All I know is that you surrendered to the vet’s needle without a stir. In case you weren’t aware during those last moments, your grief-stricken Mama was sobbing Mama loves Jefferson, Mama loves Jefferson, petting you so feverishly no doubt you’ll feel her love forever. When you were gone, she collapsed on you, and I, her sister shadow, collapsed on her. You know, Jefferson, I never got to say good-bye to my dad—he was here, then gone forever. So, despite the tragic hour, I’m grateful I could say goodbye to you.

Her next blink, your inconsolable Mama began lamenting Where is Jefferson now? I need a sign he’s OK…

I’m not a religious person, not by a long shot, and only in dream life could a baptismal bath wash away your jaundice. But signs of afterlife, I’ve had a few, and I’m not talking about when someone’s thinking about their dead friend Mike, and then a Michael & Son truck happens to drive by. God, no, that’s not what I mean. I mean something tangible and magical when you least expect it. Yet poor Mama couldn’t wait—Baby, I need a sign he’s waiting for me now. I could believe she might get her sign from you someday but not today, not this soon.

On Christmas—two days after you left this earth—your parents and brother went to Hidden Pond in your honor. I would’ve gone, too. You know that, Jefferson, but by now my cough had progressed to bronchitis. Their original plan was to walk the Green Path trail to the majestic tree, scatter some of your ashes along the way, but Mama couldn’t bring herself to give any of you away, and I don’t blame her.

When your family reached their landmark, they discovered something that wasn’t there last time, something uncanny. On a bed of leaves in the crook of the tree’s hollow, nestled if not deeply rooted, sat a tiny pup with a red collar—a figurine, of course, too sacred to touch, of ancient thistle or twine, Mama guessed. The figurine, Jefferson, was you. At least the image of you just out of your crate one long-ago summer day.

Now, if that wasn’t Mama’s sign from beyond the universe, then signs just don’t exist.

Well, Jefferson, under cursed skies, my little ode to you comes to a close. It’s still January, and I’m still coughing here—that’s how fresh your loss feels. However silly, a part of me wants to hold onto the cough as if otherwise your memory and a bewitching figurine will fade into a dream or a myth. No…not a chance. Maybe I’m not Mama, but I cried writing every word of this, and I’ll be looking for you in the window for a long, long time.

_______

Frances Park is the author of ten books including novels, memoirs and children’s books. She has been interviewed on NPR, The Diane Rehm Show, Voice of America, and Good Morning America. In addition to Delmarva Review, one of her essays earned a spot on The Best American Essays 2017 Notable List. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia.

Delmarva Review is a literary journal of national scope, with regional roots. The nonprofit review discovers compelling new fiction, nonfiction, and poetry from authors within the region and beyond. It is supported by individual contributions and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. Visit the website: DelmarvaReview.org. Obtain print or digital editions at Amazon.com or Mystery Loves Company, in Oxford.

Delmarva Review Fiction: American Dream by Mark Jacobs

Share

Nothing that happened the night Nelson killed the raven was funny. Especially not what happened to me. Started happening, I should say. The mystery was why I kept laughing. I thought if I figured that out, I would know what I was supposed to do. For the record, Nelson did not mean to kill the bird.

Nelson Pacheco was the Hilltoppers’ catcher. He was having a terrific season, batting .285 and making some killer plays at the plate. Somehow he managed to connect with a vicious curve ball delivered by the opposing pitcher. The ball popped up over the third-base dugout at the exact moment the bird happened by. They collided, the bird came down dead, a few morons in the stands laughed, and the ump called a time-out. Everybody thought it was a crow, me included. But there was some sort of professor at the game that night. He recognized the dead bird for what it was. Eventually the play-by-play guy announced it wasn’t a crow, and the ump hollered play ball. Our guys went on to win by a run and hold on to second place in the standings.

From what I read, later on, we didn’t have all that many ravens in our area. Knocking them off with foul balls couldn’t help.

I loved baseball. I loved our stadium. It sat on a hill on the west edge of the city, and from just about any seat in the place you had a knock-out view of the Blue Ridge mountains in the distance. Summer nights, the sun going down softened the scenery. It glowed, and the glow made you feel like you had stumbled into a significant moment. You sat there sipping a cold brew as your eye swept from infield to outfield, over to the scoreboard and up over the fence to the trees, and finally to the mountains in the distance. You wished you could stop time because there it was, right in front of you, the American Dream.

Nelson, the catcher, was living in our basement, in Pete’s old room. Single A ball did not pay much, unless you had a signing bonus. In that case nobody expected you to stick around longthey bumped you up to a Double A or even a Triple A club pretty much overnight. One way the players got by was living with families when they were in town. Most of the host families were pretty well off. Realtors, car dealers, that kind of person. The guys who stayed with them had a good thing going. A big comfortable room of their own, sometimes a private apartment. Nelson did not have it that good, staying with us. I was a welder. My wife worked at Big Lots. Luck of the draw, Nelson’s and mine. Ginny Elizabeth and I tried to make up for not living in a showplace by feeding the hell out of our ballplayers.

We had been hosting players a long time. We got free season tickets out of the deal, but that was not the reason we did it. My wife liked baseball, although not the way I did. It had something to do with the solid feeling you got, making a contribution. In my experience, most people like doing something generous. No one puts a gun to their head to force them to do it.

The night Nelson killed the raven, Ginny Elizabeth was out playing spit-in-the-bucket with her friends, but our daughter, Carrie, came with me. That surprised me, her wanting to see the game. From Carrie’s point of view, baseball was nothing but embarrassment. It meant a strange guy staying in the windowless room her brother fixed up for himself in the basement back when he was a teenager and wanted to get away from us. She knew how the other host families lived. But she was a month away from turning eighteen, and there was not much I understood about her, so when she said she was coming with me, all I said was Great. In the bottom of the second inning, she got a text from a friend on the other side of the stadium and moved away to sit with her.

After the game, I went looking for her. Found her where I did not expect to. She was down on the field staring at Nelson. He was swinging a bat with a doughnut on it like he was warming up. He was staring back at her.

That was all it took. What made fathers so dense? My daughter was growing into her looks. She was not the kind of girl you were going to see on a magazine cover, but there was a freshness about her. Ginny Elizabeth said Carrie was earnest, and earnest was attractive. After a three-month bout with blue, she had let her mother’s wonderful auburn hair grow out again the way it wanted to. The pouty air she had been cultivating through her senior year bugged the hell out of me, but I knew better than to make a big deal out of it. And I was not naïveI also knew it had something to do with sex.

“You going home with me?”

I was talking to both of them. I guess this is the place to say that Nelson was from the Dominican Republic and spoke English with a pretty heavy accent. And had brown skin. People are going to climb all over me for mentioning that. All I can say is, it was relevant.

“Thanks, Mr. Boggs,” he said. “I’m going out with the guys. Home later.” He dug in his pocket and brought out a key ring with a neon orange fish head, held it up. Ginny Elizabeth had given him a house key once we decided we trusted him.

He smiled. It was a smile you could imagine seeing on a baseball card some day. He was handsome in a sports-hero way.

The ride home with Carrie was not one of my finer moments.

“I know what you’re thinking,” she said.


“What am I thinking?”

“That me and Nelson are going to…do something.”


I won’t repeat everything we said. My part came down to, Nelson was too old for her and wasn’t going to be around anyway. Her part was accusing me of being a racist.

“He’s living in our house,” I said. “He sits at our table. Tell me what’s racist about that.”

She pounded the dashboard in frustration. It was her way of telling me I didn’t get it. At home she flounced off, made herself scarce. I watched a little TV then went to bed. Six a.m. came early. By the time Ginny Elizabeth came to bed, I was sawing serious wood.

It must have been fatherly intuition that woke me in the middle of the night and sent me to the window. When I looked out, there was my daughter dancing with Nelson on the flagstone patio I’d laid myself three years ago. Dancing, and no music. There wasn’t much light, either, just a couple of lanterns on the picnic table.

Ginny Elizabeth sat up in bed and said What’s wrong, Patterson? I didn’t answer. I tore downstairs and outside and broke up the dance party. To his credit, Nelson knew he had crossed a line. He hung his head. Meantime, Carrie was furious, spouting every kind of nonsense about me not trusting her and her having the right to live her own life and…fill in the blanks based on your own experience.

“Get out of my house,” I said to Nelson.

It was two o’clock in the a.m. He had no car. There were no buses in our neighborhood. He might or might not have had enough cash on him to cover a hotel room. But he went.

“You’re mean,” my daughter moaned when he was gone. “You’re a racist pig.”

Well, I was mad, but I took it. What choice did I have? Harder to take was Ginny Elizabeth’s analysis of the evening’s events. She said I overreacted. After a while, I put a pillow over my head and did my best to sleep.

At Cushman Machine & Welding the next morning, my head was pounding like it used to when I drank too much and got hangovers. Not enough sleepit brings out the darkness in a new day. My friend Randy Bullock and I were working on a rush job for the foreman. The customer had invented a machine for sorting gravel by size. The novelty was how the shaker connected to and moved the sorter tray. He needed a working model to try and sell the idea. It was a kick-ass concept, and normally I would have enjoyed working on it. But the incident with Carrie and Nelson had me rattled.

“It’s simple,” said Randy.

For Randy, everything was simple. He spent way too much time listening to the hotheads on talk radio. There was gray in his beard now, and he’d been walking with a limp since he took a spill on his brand-new Yamaha, taking a curve on one of those mountain roads meant for scenic cruises, not daredevil bikers past their riding prime. He lifted his mask and prepared to lecture me.

“This country was started by guys with names like Patterson Boggs and Randy Bullock. Am I right or am I right? They’re turning it into a country that caters to guys with names like Nelson Pacheco and Ali Baba. They sneak over the border and look for a sign called Easy Street. They park their ass and stick out their hand. Before you and me are in our graves, they’ll outnumber us, and the whole thing is over.”

My friend’s immigration theory did not make me feel better. I did not regret throwing Nelson out of the house. He had betrayed my trust. But I liked the guy. And now it was going to be hell, getting through the rest of the summer with Carrie. In the fall, if everything went the way it was supposed to, she started college. To make that happen, Ginny Elizabeth and I were taking out a humongous loan. Which, be it said, we were more than happy to do. I didn’t give a shit what she studied as long as she studied.

After work, I drove to Hilltoppers Stadium and hunted up Will Abbott. Will handled community relations for the team, including which players stayed with which host families. I found him in the grass outside his office having a smoke. He was a long drink of water with hands like grandma’s spaghetti bowls. Way back when, he used to play third base for the Richmond Flying Squirrels. Never made it to the big leagues but handled defeat better than most of them. He was leathery now. The baseball life will do that to a person’s skin.

When I filled him in, he shook his head, let out a mouthful of smoke. His voice rumbled like a gravel sorter. “Too bad. Pacheco is a decent kid. But they know the rules. No fraternizing. Never mind, I’ll find someplace for him to stay.”

“Ginny Elizabeth and me, we’re happy to take another guy.”

He shook his head. I didn’t know what that meant. He told me, “‘Course, you hear this all the time.”

“Hear what?”

“Guy’s got a future in the game.”


“You got scouts looking at him?”


He wouldn’t say much more. Team management held that kind of information pretty close to the chest. They had their reasons. But it stabbed me in a soft place, thinking about Nelson moving up. He had a consistently hot bat, he had the command of the field of play a catcher had to have. It would be sensational to watch a ball player who had eaten your meatloaf and mashed potatoes rise through the ranks. Nobody that stayed with us ever got beyond Double A. The best was, one time a guy they called Skinny Pockets hit a grand slam in a playoff game while he was with the Binghamton Rumble Ponies.

Driving home, I kind of wished I hadn’t kicked Nelson out of our house. Not so much because he might make it to the bigs but because, as a person, he was one of the nicest we ever hosted. Polite, soft-spoken, and you got the impression he didn’t mind a bit staying in a welder’s basement. But by the time I pulled into the driveway I was facing a fact I did not particularly want to face.

Think of it as a movie trailer, and here’s the plot: Dominican kid makes it to the majors. Bam, he’s a star, a fence buster with a slugging percentage to die for. The baseball world gushes, look at those XBH numbers. Cameras follow him home, where his young wife is waiting to hug him. Welcome home, sweetie. She’s got stunning auburn hair. A couple of kids are horsing around in the yard. They’ve got light tan skin, a color a lot of people considered cool.

Watching the trailer, feeling a twinge when the ball player’s wife hugged him. Did that make me a racist?

The team was away for a three-day series against the Mosby Raiders. At home, we managed to keep the peace by talking about anything that wasn’t Nelson Pacheco. Carrie went around the house looking like I had run over her dogon purposebut if I asked her a question she answered, and I figured time would smooth things out.

Wrong again.

The next home game, I told Ginny Elizabeth I’d meet her at the stadium and went early. I had no plan, only a hunch. I ate a hot dog and watched the team warm up. There wasn’t much of a crowd. The weather was hot and muggy, and our guys were playing the team in the cellar, who played like ice hockey was their sport. Not much drama.

My brain took notice of the atmospheric conditions. It slowed down, the way you imagine a bear’s brain does in hibernation. Ginny Elizabeth texted me that she was taking an overtime shift at the store. In all the years we’ve been together, neither of us has ever said no to overtime. That’s part of the American Dream, too, but don’t ask me to explain how, it just is.

So I watched the game by myself. Nelson had another good one, smacking a three-run homer. He also made an impossible catch at the plate, body stretched out like a ballerina’s, foot on the bag. Out. It felt strange, cheering my lungs out for a guy I had booted out of my house. Live an adult life long enough and you’re guaranteed to feel something similar.

After the game, the guidance from my slow brain was to stick around and spy. Aye-aye, Captain. I stuck. What I spied was Nelson getting into Carrie’s car and the two of them driving off laughing like a couple of hyenas. He’s only nineteen and a half, she had huffed once in a moment of exasperation. Meaning not too old for her.

I could have followed them. I didn’t. Not because my noble nature stopped me. Hill City was small by anybody’s yardstick.

First time Carrie looked in the rear-view mirror, she would see my F-150, which was both old and purple. Also, I thought I might do something stupid if I caught up to them. If I was going to do something stupid, it needed advance planning.

All the planning I was capable of that night was getting smashed, something I had not done in maybe ten years. That was the one drawback to Ginny Elizabeth’s overtime shift. It left me alone. I found the bottle of Jack we kept for company and did some major-league damage to it. I fell asleep on the couch. When Ginny Elizabeth got home from work, she shook me awake and told me I smelled like a brewery. She meant distillery. I didn’t correct her.

I paid for it, next day at work. Randy and I were really pushing to get the gravel-sorter done on time. That morning, however, I did not hold up my end. Which Randy found highly entertaining. His color commentary made my head pound worse. He kept yakking on that I had to have it out with Nelson. The kid had to know there would be consequences if he didn’t leave my daughter alone.

“What about Carrie?” I said.

“Ginny Elizabeth is talking to her.”


“What makes you so sure?”


“What makes you so dumb?”


Everything was worse because I had drunk the Jack with Coke. On the rocks would have been smarter.

That was when I started laughing. I had no idea why. Randy gave me a look like I was going soft in the head. When we pulled our masks down and went back to work, I was still smiling.

I laughed when Ginny Elizabeth told me Carrie was AWOL.

“What’s funny about that, Patterson?”


We had been together a long time, since two years before we got married. We sagged more than we used to. We told old stories. We saw more yesterday than tomorrow in each other’s faces. None of that was bad, it only meant we had to be deliberate in the way we touched each other.

She asked me again what was funny.

“The situation, I guess.”


She shook her head. I didn’t understand me any better than she did.

Carrie was working at the Sonic on Ward’s Road for the summer. She left a voicemail on our land line saying she was calling in sick and, by the way, she was thinking about taking a year off before college. Rich kids did it all the time. They called it their gap year. There was no law said you had to be rich to do that, was there?

The message hit both of us hard. At that point, we’d have broken our arms and legs and whistled Black Sabbath tunes in a nudist colony if it meant she went to college. We were devastated. And she wouldn’t pick up her phone, she wouldn’t answer her mother’s texts. The night was long.

“She’s in Keysburg,” I said.


“Not necessarily.”


“Count on it.”


“Then why are you laughing?”


“I’m cracking up. In a good way, maybe.”


The Hilltoppers were playing an away game against the

Keysburg Mighty Mice. A two-hour drive. The question was whether Carrie came home that night.

She did not.

Next morning at work, Randy told me it was time to play hardball.

“He’s a catcher,” I pointed out.

“But is he a U.S. citizen? Call the border cops. ICE, they call ‘em. I seen it on the backs of their jackets on the news. If he ain’t a citizen they can deport his ass right back to Taco Land.”

“You’re a piece a work,” I told him.

Which was objectively true. My friend and workmate was three times divorced. He believed he was sexy, down to the Colt .45 tattooed on his butt. He drank too much and thought too little. His favorite sport was telling me how to run my life.

The upshot of Randy telling me I had to do something about Nelson Pacheco was I spent the rest of the day building up a scenario in my mind where I had it out with the guy. You know how you can get carried away with an idea? I got lost in mine. Sometimes the scenario ended in violence. Sometimes it ended in tragedy, and sometimes it was black and bitter. But no matter how it played out, the scenario had me stalking the kid, tracking him down.

So it threw me that afternoon when he showed up at Cushman. Lisa, the secretary, strolled out to the work floor to tell me there was a Spanish guy outside wanted to see me. This was no sacrifice on her part. She came out on the floor on any flimsy excuse so the guys had ample opportunity to ogle her in her clean dress, her red shoes, sashaying across the crowded space where we did our dirty work.

“Now’s your chance,” Randy told me. He was looking up the ICE phone number on his phone.

“Forget it,” I told him.

“What do you mean, forget it? And what’s so funny?”


I found Nelson in the parking lot leaning against a red Hyundai he had borrowed from somebody. He was calm and cool, just like an innocent man. I asked him what he was doing there.

“I want to explain something.”

“I don’t give a damn what you want,” I told him, which was a lie. I really did want to hear what he had to say. I thought for a second about pleading with him to leave my daughter alone so she would go to Lynchburg College like she was supposed to. But the picture in my mind of me begging him was so pathetic I couldn’t open my mouth to try.

“It’s me, isn’t it?” he said.

“What’s you?”


“The way I look.”

“You look like a catcher. You’ve got the ideal build to play the position.”

He shook his head. “That’s not what I’m talking about.”

“The end of August, Carrie goes to college.”


“I know. She wants to study Spanish.”


“That’s news to me.”

“I don’t get why you’re laughing,” he said. His tone of voice was respectful. “It’s like you are full of anger and laughing at the same time.”

I was beginning to understand why that was happening. He was the last person I was going to explain it to.

“Last night,” I said.

He waved at me, not like I didn’t matter but like he was giving me his blessing, which of course he had no right to even think about doing. But that was all it took. It came to me on a silver plate, shining and new. From here on out, I had no control over what my daughter chose to do. That part of our life together was over.

“I won’t talk about last night, Mr. Boggs.”

I had two choices: tell him to fuck off, or turn around and go back to work. I turned around and walked away.

“Wait, please.”


I stopped. I waited.


“I grew in a place called La Vega.”


He meant grew up; that was okay.


“We played a lot of baseball. Two years ago, a scout showed up. His name was Moseley. He brought me here.”

“So?”

“Before I got on the airplane, he told me something muy importante.”

Saying the Spanish words was like taunting me. That was okay, too.

“Moseley was black. African American. He told me here in this country you have to go into every situation expecting to be treated bad. But at the same time, you must keep an open mind.”  

“An open mind about what?”

“There might be a situation where the color of your skin don’t matter. If that happens, you take advantage of it. I just want a shot, Mr. Boggs. If they give me a shot, I can make it.”

That was it. All there was to say on both sides. He was behind the wheel of his borrowed car before I was halfway across the lot. Then I had to put up with more of Randy’s foaming nonsense. He had the ICE number up on the screen of his phone. His thumb, the one with a mangled nail thanks to a claw hammer and too many schnapps, was poised, ready to punch it. There was more like that until we finished the shift, lots more. But I had the laughing figured out.

I went to the next Hilltoppers game by myself. Since Carrie had come back from Keysburg, there was not a lot of conversation going on around home. Ginny Elizabeth had already figured out what took me longer to tumble to, that the girl was making her own decisions. But at that point none of us could take on a conversation about what came next.

We were playing the James City Night Hawks. The two teams had been neck and neck all season. This game mattered. If we beat the Night Hawks, we elbowed them out of first place. And there was another reason the game was significant. Scouts.

There were half a dozen of them in the stands behind home plate with their clipboards and velocity guns, their ground-out- to-fly-out ratios, their bequeathed runs scored numbers. I had mixed feelings about those guys. They were an important cog in the wheel of baseball, sure. But they were guessing, just like you and me. They had a certain power of death and life when it came to signing bonuses. Their recommendations to management carried weight. But often as not, they guessed wrong.

The Hilltoppers played a terrible game. By the end of inning four, they were trailing five zip. And Nelson’s game was horrendous. He whiffed every time he stepped to the plate, and behind it on defense he played like a Little Leaguer under psychological pressure from his asshole father yelling at him from the stands.

I felt bad for all concerned, but more for Nelson. Okay, it was not the only game where scouts showed up. And they had his stats. They knew good players had bad games. But if I had been one of those judges in short sleeves, I probably would have put a line through Nelson’s name and moved on to the next prospect.

I toyed with going over to where the scouts were sitting, engaging one of them in conversation, casually talking up the Hilltoppers catcher. But I was a nobody, and nobody was going to give me the time of day.

The game ended worse than it began. A botched double play in the eighth inning brought in three more James City runs, and we were humiliated, as in skunked. The scouts left at the end of the seventh, which I guess was some consolation. They didn’t see that double play disaster. On the other hand, they didn’t have to.

The stands emptied out, but a feeling of gloom kept me sitting there. I was done laughing for now. It turned out I had not been laughing at the situation after all. I was laughing at myself. Why? Because I was a crusty old dude with a bad attitude and no imagination. Because I’d been listening too hard to Randy Bullock for too long. Because I felt a chilly hand squeezing the secret space around my heart and decided the world was coming to an end. Because I didn’t know how to let my daughter go. Who wouldn’t laugh at a guy like that?

Eventually I stood up. I made my way to the parking lot, which had quickly emptied out. There was Carrie’s blue Focus, parked a couple of rows away from my truck. She was standing alongside the car, facing off against Nelson. I couldn’t not go up to them.

When I did, I saw tears in Nelson’s eyes. They were the tears of desolation. He knew exactly how bad he had looked to the scouts.  

The sun was going down over the Blue Ridge in a pale gleam that seemed like a promise, although I could not have said a promise of what.

Nelson said, “It’s over, Mr. Boggs.”

A squad of crows started up from a pine tree and flew across the parking lot in saw-tooth formation. At least I was pretty sure they were crows. As it happened, I had two twenties in the pocket of my jeans. I dug out the money and held it out to him.

“Buy Carrie some dinner.”

That was worth doing if only for the look of amazement on my daughter’s face. She said something that did not quite come out in words. The sound was like gargling with salt water. I was prejudiced, of course, but she was beautiful just then. The pouty look was gone.

Nelson cautiously took the money. “It was the worst game of my life.”

I nodded. No use pretending it wasn’t.

“It’s all over for me.”


But he was wrong about that, and I told him so.

“What you need to see, Nelson, is that it’s only beginning.”

I hoped he understood what I was driving at. Because what I had in mind was, you might say, muy importante. 

 

In addition to Delmarva Review, Mark Jacobs has published 133 stories in magazines, including The Atlantic, Playboy, The Baffler, and  The Iowa Review. His stories are forthcoming in several magazines, including The Hudson Review. He has published five books. Among them are A Handful of Kings (Simon and Shuster) and Stone Cowboy (Soho Press). Website: http://www.markjacobsauthor.com.

Delmarva Review is a literary journal of national scope, with regional roots. The nonprofit review discovers compelling new fiction, nonfiction, and poetry from authors within the region and beyond. It is supported by individual contributions and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. Visit the website: DelmarvaReview.org. Obtain print or digital editions at Amazon.com or Mystery Loves Company, in Oxford.

 

Delmarva Review: Cotton Mouth by Holly Karapetkova

Share

“And the field for cotton goods, that is every day enlarging, as
the East is answering to the impatient calls of commerce, gives
no prospect of a speedy check to this vast power of the produce
of the slave.”
⎯ A Carolinian, Slavery in the Southern States, 1852

Luck is a field
white as stars
in a sky of jade

harvest season
heads full of cotton
hands full of cotton

we dream of buds
aching green with envy
flaring their white

blossoms open at dawn
pink by sundown
then red

withering until
the bolls beneath
crack open

foaming white
this high cotton
we’re rolling in

our mouths
so full we choke
on our own spit

 

Holly Karapetkova’s poems and translations from the Bulgarian have recently appeared in Prairie Schooner, Alaska Quarterly Review, Poetry Northwest, Delmarva Review, and other publications. Her second book, Towline, won the Vern Rutsala Poetry Contest and was published by Cloudbank Books. She chairs the Literature and Languages Department at Marymount University. Her website is www.Karapetkova.com.

Delmarva Review is a literary journal of national scope, with regional roots. The nonprofit review publishes compelling new poetry, fiction, and nonfiction from authors within the region and beyond. It is supported by individual contributions and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. For copies and information, visit the website: DelmarvaReview.org.

Delmarva Review: On Being Enough (or Paris M’a Libéré) by Abigail Johnson

Share

The morning dawned early and clear over the grey cobbled streets of Paris. Rosy golden sunlight crept over the tops of sleepy Parisian eaves, as I lay awake in my bunk, aware of the cold chill coming through my open windows. The pleasant noises of a city just were beginning to wake filtered through those windows. However, I had been woken up precisely at 6:55 a.m. not by those sounds, but by my iPhone softly playing one of my favorite folk songs, a tune laced with what I thought were the echoes of the most beautiful sorrow. A few minutes passed as I took in the beautiful chorus of a Paris morning, a smile reaching all the way down into my soul. My alarm suddenly sounded again, its biting yell worming its way through the haze of sleepiness coating my mind. Relinquishing any hopes of more sleep, I rolled over to shut my phone off. The time now read 7:00 a.m.

My sister Eryn stirred in the bunk above me, making the entire bunk sway and creak with a seemingly ancient groan. I slowly rose from my bed, shivering as I pushed aside my cozy blankets. Goosebumps stood sentry on my arms and legs as I ambled over to our small table in front of our tall, French-style windows. Truly, it was a sad little black folding table with brightly colored plastic stools, one grape purple and one bright red, but to me it had begun to stand for so much more. That table had quickly become my favorite place in the entire hostel. I’d lost track of how many times I’d sat down at that table in our wonderfully dinky little room and stared out at the narrow streets, savoring just being in the City of Light. I’d never been so far away from home before.

Thunk! I was broken out of my dreaming. Time and place came back to me as I turned to see Eryn jumping off of the bunk bed’s ladder.

“Morning!” I said with honey in my voice. She threw me a sort of good-hearted, pained grimace.

“How are you?” I tried again.

She gave a quiet chuckle and smiled, saying, “I cannot believe that you’re making me get up this early to go do this.”

“But it’ll be fantastic!” I promised.

“But it’s soooooo early, Abby,” she laughingly complained with a twinkle in her eye. “You really wanna do this? Like, it’s something that will break your heart if we don’t?”

“Yes!” I declared dramatically. “My heart will shatter into a million bloody fragments if we don’t!” I put a hand to my forehead and gave my best Oscar-winning sigh. Eryn shook her head and gave a good-natured groan.

“Hey,” I said, “Remember, it’s an experience.”

Her eyes started to glow. Got ya! I knew that my sister valued experiences above all else. The chance to experience something brand new always piqued her attention. Defeated, she grinned and rolled her eyes. “It’s a good thing I love you,” she said as she quickly grabbed her towel and clothes, heading off to lay claim to the bathroom before another hosteller could take it.

“Love you, toooooo,” I called out after her, turning my attention back to the waking city just outside of my window. Still mesmerized by its beauty, I happily sighed and reached for my clothes and makeup, relishing the day to come.

Twenty minutes later, dressed and freshly perfumed, we headed downstairs, grabbed croissants, said goodbye to the hostel cat, and flew out onto the street. The city welcomed us with open arms, calling out to us to come and see all of the little treasures hidden in her depths. Alas, time had a different plan.

“Eryn, it’s 7:23. It starts at 8…think they’ll let us in if we’re late?”

“I would hope so!” she giggled.

I tried to laugh along with her, but I couldn’t help but think about how crushed I’d be if we didn’t make it. We were still at least a half-hour metro ride away from our destination, after all. I walked faster, feeling the icy fingers of the cold stabbing through my thin sweater. My god, it felt like Christmas was in the air! There was a certain magic to this feeling, and I did indeed feel as though I was a child on Christmas morning. The feeling of the clock running down, however, lingered in my mind and propelled me forward.

We hurried through the streets to the metro, joining the friendly bustle of the city. We walked out of our home neighborhood, Montmartre: the historic artists’ district. We passed Parisians outside of warm cafes and bakeries, sipping espresso and munching pastries. We saw small grocery stores opening and women on their way to do their daily shopping. We saw young professionals, smartly dressed and braced for the cold, hurrying to work. Kids riding bikes passed us on their way to school, and cars cruised down narrow streets. People called out to each other, and friends walked the streets gossiping,

“Bonjour! Comment allez-vous?”

“Bienvenue dans ma boutique!”

“Alores je lui ai dit…”

The city was alive and dressed in the beautiful array of the colors of her people.

We eventually reached the metro and jumped down the stairs into the relative warmth of the subway-tiled tunnels. We giggled and chattered while we tried to figure out how to get tickets from the bright purple ticket machines. We plotted our route on the complex metro lines, and I kept tabs on the time. Eryn had been to Paris before, so I mostly let her handle it, letting myself be swept away by the beautiful, colloquial, and melodic French being spoken all around me by beautiful Parisians. I drank it all in greedily.

Eryn figured out the ticketing machine, and we went on our way, hopping from subway to subway in a race against time. Baby blue line to pink line, pink line to sun yellow line. Hurry hurry hurry. Faster faster faster! The tunnels seemed never ending.

We finally ended our journey on the yellow line. I glanced at my phone. 7:50. “Aghhh, Eryn! It’s 7:50!”

“Okay.” She laughed. “Don’t sweat it.”

We rushed out of our metro car, ran up the metro stairs, and found ourselves in a square in an older and quainter part of town. We quickly consulted our map, and it took us a little while to orient ourselves. Time: 7:55 a.m.

Walk faster. Walk faster. HURRY! No other thoughts but those. We speed-walked past tourists, small French soap shops, and more grocers. Jeweled heaps of sublime oranges, ruby apples, and emerald pears lined the streets. Keep going, keep going! The moments were speeding by me, wrapped up and laced with obsession and the mind. Yet, as we ran toward our destination, it suddenly hit me.

I am in Paris.

I am in Paris.

Me.

The me who grew so depressed at the thought of being stuck in my little town, George Bailey-style. The me who my well-meaning parents thought needed to be protected from the world at all costs (my father had even gone so far as to show me Taken before I left!). The neurotic me. The obsessive me. The me who needed to control it all. The me who was so sheltered and seemingly helpless. The me who had lusted after the dream of traveling the world.

Me.

I had traveled on my first international flight all by myself to get here. I had found Eryn, who was already in Europe, all on my own in a land where I did not speak the language. I had navigated both the complex metro system and Paris herself. I had planned this trip to Paris all on my own. I did all of that. Me. All to fulfill a dream.

I was not helpless. I was not dependent⎯at least, not as dependent as my parents had led me to believe I was. I was going places. I was here, despite everything, or rather in spite of it. I was enough…and I was in Paris. Running through the streets and running toward another dream. So why was I so worried about trying to be on time to a dream?

I found myself while running through the narrow streets of Paris. I let go of the conscious and surrendered to the moment. I let go of worry and just was. I forgot the clock and time itself…and it was one of the most spiritual moments of my life. I found myself while sitting beside those windows back at our hostel. I found myself while line hopping in the metro. I found myself while listening to the harmony of a foreign language.

Those were all the real me. The real me was wantonly running across a bridge over the murky Seine at 8:00 a.m., every fiber of my being screaming with joy. The real me was pausing to take a picture of that quiet, romantic river as the bells of a nearby church gravely tolled. The real me was outrunning the lies of helplessness and dependence, flying out of their midst on winged soul. The real me was late, beautifully late, and that was okay. The real me was running alongside my sister, whom I dearly loved. The real me was running past a sunken church garden, gloriously almost out of breath. The real me was jogging into the cobbled square just outside of Notre Dame, giggling and dodging people as I went. The real me was passing through her timeworn doors with my kindred soul, hearing the soft whispers of the just-begun Mass that graciously awaited our presence.

The time? It didn’t matter.

Abigail Johnson, of Delaware, is a gap year student with OneLife Institute in Central, South Carolina. A creative soul, dreams of travel and exotic adventure are never far from her mind. She spends her days baring her soul on the stage, scribbling out notes for a future novel, and devouring new reads with a hot mug of her favorite green tea by her side.

Delmarva Review is a literary journal of national scope, with regional roots. The nonprofit review publishes compelling new fiction, nonfiction, and poetry from authors within the region and beyond. It is supported by individual contributions and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. For copies and information, visit the website: DelmarvaReview.org.

Delmarva Review: Ninety-three Pounds by Helen Sperber

Share

She weighs ninety-three pounds. Her legs are drawn up against her body. Her hands clutch at anything they come in contact with, pulling it to her mouth, clenching it between her teeth. Her eyes are half open, unseeing.

An IV drips fluid and antibiotics into my mother’s arm. A catheter drains the fluid from her bladder and away from her body. A nurse comes in and holds a mask over her face, willing the mist into her lungs.

When the nurse leaves, my sister, Ruthie, and I hover over our mother’s gaunt body. We coax her to take nourishment from a straw. She takes the straw into her mouth but chews on it instead of sucking. She accepts a bite of pureed food from a spoon, but her tongue moves the wrong way, pushing it out of her mouth instead of moving it back into her throat.

She doesn’t know me, her youngest daughter. I live nearly 1,000 miles away, in Colorado, and only visit three or four times a year, so it is not surprising that she doesn’t recognize me. Ruthie lives nearby and sees her daily, but Mom doesn’t seem to know her, either. Maybe she just doesn’t care if we are there.

She is ninety-seven years old. For ninety of those years, she was one of the most capable, independent, and strong-willed women I have ever known. I saw her digging ditches and changing tires alongside my father at the businesses they owned⎯first an automobile service station, and later a mountain resort⎯and she taught herself the bookkeeping skills required to run a business. When Daddy died at age 50, she moved to California, where she became caregiver for her own mother and worked at a hospital for nearly twenty years to support them both.

For five years now, she has been unable to move around, feed herself, or communicate effectively. Extreme agitation, daily anger, and chronic pain have been only partially controlled with medications. The nursing home staff has provided total care for all her physical needs, feeding her, changing her diapers, turning her over in bed.

They brought her to the hospital two days ago with severe diarrhea, dehydration, a bed sore on her bottom, fever, low oxygen, skin tears up and down her arms. Now they have confirmed MRSA in the blood and are looking for C-diff in the stool.

My sister and I look at each other and shake our heads in mutual disbelief, tears welling up in our eyes. We’ve seen her like this in the hospital four times in the last two years. Why must this woman we love and admire so much endure what she is going through?

The priest comes to visit. He has already administered Last Rites. He understands that of course we wouldn’t want to do CPR or tube feedings, but he says withholding fluids in the IV would be a different story, and not condoned by the church Mother has been so strongly devoted to all her life.

The doctor consults with us. He can treat the MRSA with another antibiotic in the IV. She is almost fully hydrated again. How long? Six months?

Mother of God, why?

Every time I have seen her in the past two years, I have thought it would be the last, but at every crisis, treatment has bought her another six months.

Ten years ago, she lived with me for a while. With some assistance, she was still taking care of her personal daily needs then, although dementia and anxiety were causing her mental ability to fade in and out. She had purchased a prepaid funeral plan years before and carefully went over the details of it with me. She made sure both Ruthie and I knew where these papers were, and whom to contact with them when the time came. She had always been meticulous about planning ahead.

Finally, I remember. There was another paper she had shown me. She called it an “Advance Directive.” Where is that paper? Ruthie and I look for it among the files we have, but we can’t find it. It must be in her medical chart. We ask at the nurse’s desk.

They find it and bring us a copy. It has been with her chart since admission to the nursing home eight years ago. No one has ever looked at it. No one has ever even looked for it. No one has ever asked what she wanted.

It is very clear and detailed. She describes the conditions under which she does not want life-prolonging procedures administered: conditions she has been living with for five years. When these conditions are met, she specifically rejects even antibiotics and IVs, “even if this allows me to die.” Medication to relieve pain or provide comfort is to be given “even if it may hasten my death.” She worked in a hospital. She knew what she did and did not want.

My sister and I read it⎯over and over again⎯sitting beside her bed. She moans weakly, and I cover her contracted hand with mine. Ruthie has tears on her cheeks, and a quiet sob escapes her.

We give the paper to the doctor. He looks doubtful. You aren’t comfortable with this, I say. He hesitates. I could be, he says. I could be. We give him time.

He returns an hour or so later. It is very clear, he says. She made it very clear. He gives the orders, contacts hospice, and prepares the paperwork.Now she lies in her bed at the nursing home. Comfort measures only. Do not transport. No IVs. No antibiotics. Morphine as needed. A few days, perhaps a few weeks, they won’t predict.

She knew me today. She asked in a clear but weak voice, “When are you going back to Colorado?” The first complete, lucid sentence I’ve heard her speak in a long, long time. Am I imagining that I hear relief and comfort in her voice?

Still, I can’t answer her with complete openness and honesty. I tell her I’ll be leaving tomorrow and will come back when I can.

I wish I had told her good-bye.

Helen Sperber’s writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Diverse Voices Quarterly, Sanskrit, Meridian Anthology, and Front Range Review. Her novel, The Blue Wildebeest, promotes active living in retirement. Website: www.helensperber.com.

Delmarva Review is a literary journal of national scope, with regional roots. The nonprofit review publishes compelling new fiction, nonfiction, and poetry from authors within the region and beyond. It is supported by individual contributions and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. For copies and information, visit the website: DelmarvaReview.org.

Delmarva Review: Man-Hours by Holly Painter

Share

“Take heart that in Detroit
Every three seconds
A car is born.” – C.K. Stead

It takes 6720 man-hours
to make a baby, give or take.

The catch is

it must be the same man
and that man a woman.

We cannot specialize.
We cannot automate.
We cannot use assembly lines
or lean production techniques
to accelerate the timeline.

We cannot do anything.
She must do it all.

Her body assembles the baby
step-by-step, though her brain
does not know how.

She builds a heart in only 18 days.
She constructs the intestinal tract,
starting with the anus, of course.

She engineers a custom machine:
designed at random within certain
parameters and built in the dark.

At 6720 hours, the deadline looms
and she always delivers.

Holly Painter holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Canterbury and teaches writing and literature at the University of Vermont. She is the author of the poetry collection Excerpts from a Natural History (Titus Books, 2015). In addition to Delmarva Review, her work has appeared in numerous literary journals in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, China, Singapore, and the U.K.

Delmarva Review is a literary publication of national scope, with strong regional roots. In its eleventh year, the nonprofit journal discovers compelling new fiction, nonfiction, and poetry from authors within the region and beyond. It is supported by individual contributions, sales, and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. For information and copies, visit: www.DelmarvaReview.org.

# # #

Delmarva Review: Cantabile by John J. McKeon

Share

Schubert, it is said, had fat and awkward hands. Though his music sings, he never learned to play the piano really well. Contrast this with the plaster cast of Chopin’s hands, supposedly done immediately after his death. The fingers seem to me implausibly slender and long, but no matter. We impute magic to objects like an artist’s hands, just as we weighed and measured Einstein’s brain, looking for some simple fact of flesh and structure that would enable us to shrug and say, well, no wonder. We have no similar preoccupation with Beethoven’s hands. Rather, his hair, flying, unruly. He had Einstein’s hair, or perhaps Einstein had his.

Occasionally someone will remark on my own long, thin fingers, and if they know of my pianism, they will smile and nod in just that knowing way. Of course. How could Liszt or Rachmaninoff hold any terrors for a woman with such big hands? And I did launch my career on just this basis: the flirty ingénue, the merest wisp of a girl, rampaging through the alpha male repertory, all while showing more skin than might be expected.

It worked for a while. I did the global whirligig for a decade, until the bookings began to slow. I have read an account that states simply that Annie Molloy disappeared from public view after marrying a surgeon. Some truth there, I suppose. God knows I enjoyed my husband more than the umpteenth night of Prokofiev in Poughkeepsie.

Today I am no wisp of a girl, and if I am flirty it is in the manner of an elderly lady who thinks she can get away with something.

What saved me, and saves me still, is Cantabile, my immense and ramshackle house on the edge of the Choptank River near Cambridge, Maryland. I have no children, and my husband is gone, taken by a heart attack a decade ago. But the house endures, and I along with it.

It is, as I say, a big house, twenty-six rooms in all, and I have filled it with pianos: a showcase grand in the main parlor, and other uprights and grands tucked in everywhere. Eight times a year, I also fill the house with amateur pianists from all over the country, some of them coming year after year to spend two weeks living and breathing piano. I’ve recruited a staff of skilled and patient teachers. I teach myself, and I love it. We have an excellent cook, and my campers bring their own booze. I don’t take anyone under 21.

Philip was the exception, from the day his uncle’s Volvo dropped him at my door fully 30 years ago. A glorious day of early fall, the herons at the river’s edge holding their poses, the grass bright and the river like blue ice. Philip was sixteen, and I welcomed him because the chairman of the music department at New York University, an acquaintance who had once wanted to be my lover, said he had never heard anyone like Philip and two weeks with me would be just the thing.

Philip had the ideal pianist’s hands, I noticed from the kitchen window. It was arrival day, and the house was loud with laughter and greetings. Philip dropped his duffel bag on the gravel and clutched to his chest a thick canvas case in which, I guessed, he had brought along every scrap of sheet music he owned. He clutched the case like the floatable cushion from an airplane seat, hoping it would keep him alive but somehow doubting it. His fingers curled around the bottom of the case, the knuckles visible from a distance, the flesh very white. I forced myself to stop spying and hurried outside to greet him.

As I had feared, Philip never did fit in. He was decades younger than the others and sipped Dr Pepper during happy hour while the others whittled down their wine stocks. The older women embarrassed him with their attention, while the men ignored or visibly resented him. He couldn’t tell a joke, didn’t follow sports, and couldn’t answer a question with more than a syllable or two.

What he could do was play the piano.

That first morning, I found myself drawn upstairs by an unfamiliar sound: scales. When I say our campers all love the piano and want earnestly to play better, I do not mean to imply any enthusiasm for such tedium as scale practice. Yet there it was. In every key, major and minor, not just the easy keys with the standard fingerings but the variants and oddities as well, four octaves up and down, slowly and quickly, in four-four time, three-four, triplets, in parallel and contrary motion, even with the left hand offset by half a bar. And all played with perfect evenness and fluidity. I noted the room from which this marvel was emerging and checked the day’s schedule: Philip.

At our first lesson Philip told me he had been working on the Chopin Etudes. Not unusual: nearly every reasonably proficient amateur wants to tackle an etude or two to measure himself. Which etudes? I asked.

Philip sat at the piano in my studio with his legs crossed. Mine is the finest instrument in the house, and Philip had taken it in with his first glance on entering and now sat running his fingertips along the keys. “Well,” he said, “all of them, really.”

Over the next hour I discovered that he could, indeed, play all twenty-seven etudes well and from memory. In such a case, the teacher becomes more of a coach. There was nothing I could teach Philip, no technique he lacked, no errors to correct. So I tried to coach him on interpretive choices, to encourage him to listen to himself more closely, to show him the little energy- saving tricks that could help a performer get through such large swathes of difficult music without cramping or breaking down.

When we were done, I said, “What are your plans, Philip? Juilliard? Curtis?”

“I’ll be starting at Johns Hopkins in September,” he said.

“So,” I nodded, smiling, “Peabody. I know a number of the faculty there. You’ll do well.”

“No, not the conservatory,” Philip said. “Engineering.”

“Engineering?” I realized as I said it that I sounded shocked and patronizing, and hastened to add, “Have you not considered a career in music?”

“I don’t want to be a professional musician,” he said.

“With your gift, you’d be…” I almost said “a natural” but stopped myself because I don’t believe such a thing exists and because I knew very well how much labor had gone into creating what I had just heard. “You could be extraordinary,” I said.

“Look, I just don’t want to,” he said. “I won’t be anyone’s performing seal. Okay?”

“Okay, sure,” I said. Philip was looking down and scratching the back of his hand. I suspected I had stepped into a long-running argument, and while Philip seemed uncomfortable telling me to mind my own business, that was just what he had done and would do again if pressed.

He stayed the two weeks, filled his practice shifts, warmed up only slightly in social settings, and, as his contribution to our informal concluding concert, played something relatively easy. I was sure I would never see him again, but the final day, after the last car had pulled out of the drive, as I walked through the hallway of the again-silent house, I took from the table the advance signup sheet for the following year, and there was Philip’s name, halfway down. He would be back. I chuckled, shook my head, and thought about practicing more myself.

Philip did come back the next year, and the next. I tried to guide him into new repertory and paired him with a couple of other accomplished campers for some duet work. When the fourth year began looming and he had not signed up, I dropped him a note to say that if he hadn’t decided yet, I could still hold a spot for him for several more weeks.

He wrote in reply to thank me and to say that he had enlisted in the Marine Corps.

A legend about Glenn Gould, one of the many, concerns the way he walked away from his public career at its peak. He was world famous, in enormous demand. One night, he was pacing backstage when a stagehand asked for an autograph. He signed the program, dated it, and wrote “my last concert” under the date.

I have built myself a similar legend. How I played an afternoon recital in San Diego. Hall half empty, mind elsewhere. Afterward, a dozen or so autographs, the usual smiles, all dinner invitations declined in favor of room service. The next morning, someone named Richard Salazar said in the newspaper that my Liszt Sonata had been “the longest 30 minutes in many a year.”

I tried to work up a robust hate for this man I did not know, but couldn’t. He was right.

Besides, plenty of seats had gone unsold before anyone knew what a snore my recital would be. Time for honesty, I thought on the return flight. I had met Charles and wanted no more Sundays anywhere but home. I had another half dozen commitments to fulfill, but I let my managers know that would be it for a while. I don’t recall any disappointed groans.

Charles was then finishing a clinical fellowship at Johns Hopkins Medical School. He owned a beautiful rowhouse in Baltimore, and that’s where we lived when we first married. I moved my small grand piano from my old apartment. I gave lessons to kids who didn’t want them, plus the occasional adult who lived for them. I found I loved my sessions with the grown- ups and, little by little, weeded the kids out of my garden. Then I read about an adult piano camp in Vermont and thought: I could make a go of that here. I had always lived frugally, and my savings were more than ample to buy Cantabile when I stumbled on it and to gather up a bunch of old but sound pianos. Charles toured the house once, declared that the plumbing and electric bills alone would break the bank, and let me know he would never want to live there. OK, I said, I don’t mean to live here, either, except during camps.

I painted the house myself. I sanded and refinished the floors. I hung my old concert posters, programs, photos, and framed reviews all over the halls. By way of cementing my commitment, I took one last big bite out of my savings and bought a big new grand piano. And one day, while waiting endlessly for a delivery of new kitchen appliances, I dragged out my thick book of the Beethoven Sonatas, Volume I, opened to Sonata Number One in F minor, and started again to learn.

The day years later when I got Philip’s note about joining the Marines, I went to my studio and found Volume III of the Sonatas, creased, stained and dog-eared, on the floor next to the piano. I opened to the last of the thirty-two in C minor, turned to the final movement. And when I was finished I sat on the bench and cried, thinking of Philip in fatigues, thinking of his beautiful hands adjusting the telescopic sight of a sniper’s rifle, thinking I would never see him again or hear him play, thinking this was a great pity, a great pity.

Then, one day about four years after Philip’s note, his name turned up in a monthly report from my CPA. He had paid a deposit to return to Cantabile that fall.

Students for that camp began arriving about two hours after Charles departed. My husband, the distinguished and now wealthy surgeon, had taken the better part of one of his valuable days to drive out from Baltimore because he felt he needed to tell me face to face that our marriage was, from his perspective, less than optimal; that he felt he owed himself the opportunity of a fresh start with someone who would be more…what was his word? Committed, yes, committed to him and only him.

Charles also felt that he was still relatively young and that, statistically speaking, his field of choices was encouragingly large. He would be quite generous in terms of a settlement, anything I wanted, really, and since I clearly did not want the same stylish urban life that he did, this was really for the best.

I suspected he had already winnowed his encouraging large field of choices to one, a distinctly stylish and urban young yoga instructor with the right body and the right hair to be just the right ornament for his Mercedes convertible. But as he stood in the foyer making his oh-so-persuasive case, I found I didn’t care much, just wanted him gone before the campers arrived.

The Philip who was dropped off at my door that August was bigger than the boy I had last seen, and he had let his hair grow. He lugged a duffel bag of clothing and a slim portfolio case of music, and he walked with a slight limp. When I came to hug him, he pivoted toward me oddly, and it was only a minute later, as he made his way up the hall stairs, that I realized his right leg was prosthetic.

I had heard about the embassy bombing, of course, but I had not seen Philip’s name in the newspapers. Three of his fellow Marines had been killed, and a dozen injured, and committees in both houses of Congress wanted to know why this and why that and why some other thing.
“It was a dangerous place,” was all Philip would say, the first evening in our welcome reception.

A hot night, faint breeze through the big screened porch where we gathered. Philip had come downstairs in shorts, and his artificial leg was the unmentioned center of attention. He knew quite a few of his fellow campers and seemed at ease, though he still preferred Dr Pepper to wine. The conversation danced around more or less gracefully, until finally a fellow camper asked, “So, do you pedal with your left leg now?” Philip laughed. And then the subject vanished in laughter, drink, and music-chat. I realized, also, that I had blindly made a wise choice by rooming Philip with Bradley, a veteran of the first Gulf War, Operation Desert Storm. Bradley—never just Brad—walked with a slight limp and had, he said, a picturesque web of scars on his lower back as the result of an encounter with an amateur bomb in Kuwait. I saw him now, gazing benignly at Philip, and then his eyes shifted to meet mine and I thought he nodded, ever so slightly.

And I saw them in conversation, around dusk the next day, sitting on the low concrete wall that reinforced the riverbank. I noticed a tiny red glow passing between them and smiled, sniffing the air.

Any big old house makes noise, and if you sleep alone in such a house you come to terms with the noises. The porch screens hum in the breeze, and each time the refrigerator cycles on, the picture frames vibrate in the stairwell behind the kitchen. That night, or rather in the quietest hours of the morning, I found myself lying awake, thinking intermittently about my defunct marriage and empty future, staring up into the darkness and listening for a tiny sound that was not part of the usual.

Once, when I had first moved into the house, a swarm of bees had somehow taken over the living room, and they had made just such a faint clamor by banging against the bay window in their effort to get out. But this was different, far too rhythmic, and it stopped altogether from time to time. I got out of bed and passed, barefoot and stealthy, through the short corridor linking my suite to the rest of the house.

Dim light rose through the stairwell, and I moved slowly halfway down the stairs. The noise came from the keys of the digital piano on the landing below, left there for silent practice during quiet hours. I had never realized the keys made any sound at all. Even now, only a few feet away, I had to listen acutely. More audible were Philip’s grunts, snorts, and occasional whispers as he stopped, clenched and unclenched his fists, and jumped back into whatever he was so furiously practicing. His leg lay on the floor beside the bench; he was practicing without pedal, working on accuracy and speed. And he was becoming increasingly frustrated. At any moment he might quit and turn around; not wanting to be caught spying, I crept back to my bed.

So it went for four days. In truth, I was frightened by the energy I sensed in Philip’s silent practice, by the way he lunged through every setback and seemed to want to tear gashes in the music and leave it panting. I crept to the stairwell each of three straight nights, lingering where I could retreat should he turn abruptly, watching his hands, those white, big-knuckled hands that had fascinated me on my first sight of him flying⎯sometimes a foot above the keyboard, and sometimes sinking deeply into the keys to draw out a love song. I had first risen from bed because I could not sleep. Now I could not sleep because I wanted, every night, to sit here and listen to Philip’s stunning, exhausting silence.

When not enthralled by his hands I gazed at the stump of his leg. His prosthesis lay on the floor. The stump projected eight inches from his gym shorts, the crisscrossing surgical scars not yet faded. It embarrassed me. It seemed a shockingly intimate sight, the nudest thing I had ever seen. Yet I could not turn away.

I sought him out one afternoon as he sat on the porch and gazed across the river.

“Philip,” I said, “forgive me for prying, but what are you practicing at night?”

My question startled him. “Have I disturbed you? I was using the earphones.”

“Oh, no, no, I’m sure you aren’t bothering anyone. I simply stumbled on you the other night, when I had gotten up for some other reason entirely. Point is, you were going at it hammer and tongs.”

He smiled briefly. “Hammer and tongs,” he whispered. “It’s Liszt. The Don Juan Fantasy.”

“Wow,” I said, and meant it. “I can’t even play that.”
“I doubt you’d want to,” he said. “It’s junk.”
“Then why do you want to play it?”
He leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees, falling into a series of small nods. “I have been meaning to ask your advice on something,” he said. “I have been invited to play at the White House, on Veterans Day.”

“Philip, that’s wonderful!”

“Is it?” he held my gaze for a moment. “Or is it a PR stunt? The Marine Band is pulling together a whole bunch of us wounded warriors, a bunch of guys who left pieces and parts in various shithole corners of the world but somehow manage to live rich and rewarding lives through music. It’s supposed to be inspirational.”

“Sounds like you doubt it.”

“My first impulse was to tell them to go fuck themselves.” Perhaps I still thought of Philip as a little boy, but the obscenity struck me hard.

“Then I thought,” he went on, “maybe if I do really well, somebody will hear and want to hire me for other stuff. Even accompanist gigs, piano bars, anything would be better than just sitting around my mom’s house.”

“It could happen,” I said. “Though I’d hate to think of you doing requests for a room full of drunks.”

“I’ve done it before. It ain’t that bad.” “But.”
“But,” he said, and fell silent.
“What does Bradley say?”

“Bradley is strongly in favor of the go-fuck-yourself option,” Philip said. “In fact, he says I should accept, perform, knock them on their asses, and then tell the president to his face to go fuck himself.”

“And you? What do you think?”

Philip was silent a long time, or it seemed so. Finally: “When I first came back, I was in the hospital in Bethesda, and on Memorial Day they loaded us into buses and brought us down to the Mall for the concert. Got us nice seats, front row, so we’d all be on TV. There was some C-list actor who got famous playing a disabled vet, plus a bunch of Hollywood bimbos emoting about how much they appreciated us, what heroes we were. All the while I’m thinking, if I approached you in a bar, your bodyguards would beat me bloody. Then they loaded us back on the bus and brought us home. Hurray for the vets, now go away.”

“You said you wanted my advice,” I prodded. “I haven’t heard a question yet.”

“Should I do it?”

“Play at the White House, yes. Insult the president, no,” I said.

“That simple, is it?”

“To me. I’d also consider something shorter and less aggressive than the Liszt. It’s a social occasion, after all.”

Philip smiled, his gaze unfocused across the wide river. “Well, I guess I’ll think about it.”

I lumbered on: “Or, if you really must bring down the house, work with me on it. I would never program it myself, I meant it when I said I couldn’t play it. But I studied it with Alfred Brendel back in the day, and I know it, I know where the snakes are. Stay here for the next six weeks. You’ll have your room to yourself, all the privacy you want, and you can practice on the Steinway in the living room. We’ll work on it together every day. Put a fine edge on the piece before you ride it into battle.”

“I couldn’t afford that,” Philip said.

“No charge. Throw a little something into the grocery fund from time to time, is all.” I stood to leave, and at the door to the house I turned back. “You’re not a performing seal, Philip,” I said. “Seals do things for scraps of raw fish. I don’t know what payoff you’re after.”

That fall, as Philip practiced in the living room, I began work in my study. I would assemble a recital program, I thought, then call in whatever IOUs I might still have to see if I could stage a comeback. A small venue in DC or Baltimore would be best, affordable but still credible as a professional stage. Instead of my old pyrotechnic warhorses, I would play a thoughtful program, suitable for a mature artist, and we’d see what happened.

What happened, most immediately: On our fourth day of work, I had put my hand onto the Steinway keyboard to illustrate a fingering, and all at once Philip’s hand was on top of mine, softly enclosing, and he turned toward me on the bench.

“Philip, we have work to do,” I said.
“Yes,” he whispered.
“Not that kind of work,” I said. He let his hand linger a  moment, looked into my eyes, and squeezed. He did not mean to alarm me, I don’t think, but the strength in his hands made me imagine bones crunching. “Philip, please,” I said. “I’m old enough to be your mother.”

“And I’m missing a leg, or hadn’t you noticed?” he said, not letting go.

“Please let go of my hand,” I said softly. He did not let go.

“I know I’m damaged. But everyone is damaged somehow,” he said, now turning and taking my other hand in his, though I tried to squirm away. “Philip,” I said more sternly, rising from the bench. He let my hands slip away and hung his head.

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. I’m flattered. But we’d never be good for each other.”

“We’d be great together, and you know it.”

“I don’t know it. And if this sort of thing happens again, you will have to leave.”

We went back to work. Philip did not try again. He certainly could have forced me, I realized. We were alone in the house, and he was very strong. Was I attracted to him? Of course I was; he was beautiful. Those hands! But I thought his ardor for me reflected deprivation and proximity more than anything else. He could have better than me, but I would do in a pinch. I was much older than he, and gravity had had its way with my body. Yet I was sure I could please him. I wanted to, and I knew how. And after all, my Charles had gotten himself a new toy⎯why shouldn’t I? Then I thought: I won’t do it precisely because Charles has.

None of this kept the thought from my mind, often at the most unlikely moments. Finally, I made a pact with myself. Later, after the concert, after his triumph—our triumph—we would return to Cantabile that night, no matter how late, and we’d come back into the dark, welcoming house, and if he were still interested then, I would make love to him, all he wanted, and almost enough.

Sometimes in life, you have to wait for the punchline. In Charles’ case, he lived the life he wanted for another six years after he left me, with his box at the opera and his club seats at the football games, and he and his magnificent Celine blasting their megawatt smiles at the photographers at the Cancer Ball.

He eventually deceased himself, as they say, while in the act. I smirked to think of God tapping him on the shoulder right in the middle of that most pleasurable of moments. His quietus smacked him in the chest and he let out a gasp, and a gush, and then his lifeless face landed perfectly between Celine’s spectacular breasts. And she thought he was merely spent, and went on stroking his hair for several moments, until his unresponsiveness annoyed her and she poked him in the ribs. Surprise, Celine.

I didn’t know any of that when I made my pact, but I knew the long-term future was a sucker bet, and I started the next day content with my decision.
As Veterans Day approached Philip put me on his guest list for the White House concert and left off practicing three days beforehand. Enough, he said, he was ready.

The concert would be recorded the afternoon before the holiday and broadcast the next night.

Of the event itself, I have minimal impressions. I was seated well to the back of the East Room, and the acoustics were awful. The president spoke without a microphone. A cellist played, and a blues guitarist, and a young woman did a good job on a tough aria, and then it was Philip’s turn, and he brought his volcanic piece off without a hitch. So much so that the East Room, a well of polite applause if ever one existed, erupted in a standing ovation that went on for three minutes.

Then the president stepped forward and held out his hand, and Philip put his hands behind his back. He said something I couldn’t hear. The president’s smile never faltered but his eyes darted and in a moment Philip had been whisked away. In the post-concert crush I made my way to his side and asked, “What happened?”

“Just what I intended from the beginning,” he said, staring at me and daring me to scold him. “Let’s get out of here,” he said.

“No, Philip,” I said. “You go. I’ll stay in DC overnight. You take tomorrow to clear your things out of the house.”
“Annie? You’re throwing me out?”

“Music isn’t meant for spite, Philip. You can’t do what you did and be with me.”

At that, he pulled himself up straight and gave me an overstated, sarcastic salute, then walked away.

He was entirely excised from the broadcast, the twenty- minute gap made up with filler. It was as though he had never played, had never been there at all.
Was I wrong to think music could heal Philip? To think something as prosaic as playing the piano could untie so many knots? It was a faith of sorts. We hear the ecstasy in Beethoven’s late music and forget the wretched man. He wrote of kisses for all the world, but his own last gesture in life was a raised fist.

My faith had not even saved me, really. I was alone, in the quietly echoing house on the river. The sun was going down, the birds skimming across the water, diving to bring sudden death to tiny fish deceived to the surface by the dwindling light. So it went, I thought. We watch our weight and eat our veggies and get cancer anyway. We volunteer in soup kitchens and shelters only to be hit by a bus on our way home. We pull ourselves up, shake our fists at heaven, and still die.

I was so exhausted that night that I considered sleeping in my reading chair. But in the end I got up and went to the piano and played, and played through the night to the dawn, ending by playing Bach chorales and singing at the top of my lungs in my lousy German. And then the sun was up and the day had begun and Philip was gone and the fish in the river were doomed.

Well, I thought, there we are. Music doesn’t cure. It doesn’t save, nor redeem. But it’s the only thing I know that doesn’t make everything worse.

Maryland author John McKeon grew up in an Irish family in Brooklyn, New York, though half of his relatives are Italian, and his grandparents spoke German at home. He is the author of two novels, The Point of the Spear and Other Harbors, and the short story collection Cantabile and Other Stories. His story in Delmarva Review was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. It will be aired on “Delmarva Radio Theatre” at 8 p.m., Sunday, December 16, on Delmarva Public Radio, WSCL 89.5 FM. Poet Anne Colwell will read in the main role.

Delmarva Review is a literary journal of national scope, with regional roots. The nonprofit review discovers and prints compelling new fiction, nonfiction, and poetry from authors within the region and beyond. It is supported by individual contributions and a grant from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. Visit: DelmarvaReview.org. Order copies at Amazon.com.

 

×
×
We're glad you're enjoying The Chestertown Spy.

Sign up for the the free email blast to see what's new in the Spy. It's delivered right to your inbox at 3PM sharp.

Sign up here.