The Bullet

Chanel Dubofsky

Two days later, I wake up in my father’s apartment in North Tel Aviv. I put on my favorite dress, with the thin rainbow stripes and the full skirt, and walk out into the wavy morning heat to the El Al ticket office on Rothschild Boulevard. 

“I need to change my ticket,” I say to the only person there, a woman wearing glasses with chunky purple frames and eye shadow that matches. She looks at my passport, wiggles her fingers at me to hand her my credit card. 

“You know you could have done this online,” she says, handing me a receipt. 

“It’s important for me to do in person,” I say, as she spins her chair away from me, Israeli for we are done here. 


In Los Angeles, the best place for nachos is open 24 hours a day. They come in a Styrofoam carton, tortilla chips coated in your choice of white or orange cheese, sour cream, guacamole, black beans, salsa, onions, meat, lettuce, and jalapeños, unless Matthew is ordering, in which case, there are none of those. We’ve eaten them sitting on the hood of his car, or my car, or inside the car, if the weather is chilly. Sometimes in the afternoon, sometimes at two am, especially if Matthew’s time-tested cure for insomnia has failed. (Go to the kitchen, open the refrigerator, take inventory. Try to remember something extraordinary about the day you bought each thing.)

In New York, Grace and I used to make ramen in our apartment, with hard-boiled eggs and scallions and peanut butter and ginger and cilantro. We ate it while we watched TV, holding the bowl with two hands so we could get all the salt and fat and sweetness into our faces.

Sometimes there would be broth on Grace’s chin or a noodle in her hair. 

In Jerusalem, the best place for watermelon and feta is a bar tucked into an alley,  hidden from the rest of the city, from American college students with sorority letters printed on the asses of their sweatpants and middle-aged synagogue tour groups with fanny packs and baseball caps, who gaze at everything, the veins pronouncing in their necks like stern, strong words.  
Amina and I met in this bar. Yoav introduced us. It was three months ago, summer, evening, and he’d just gotten out of resistor's jail. 

Stav and Gali and I were sitting at our table under the one tree in the courtyard, our legs all crowded together on the same chair. We’d already toasted to my return, to Gali’s new apartment, to summer, to Stav’s haircut, to Yoav, to Yoav and Yoav, three times before he arrived. 

My father said that jail is kinder to Jewish Israelis than to anyone else, which I believed. He had tried to keep Yoav out, but in the end, of course, there was no case. A resistor is a resistor. Maybe a traitor, maybe a hero, but still, a resistor. Yoav had been called for reserve duty, and he had refused. 

What if you just say you won’t go to the schtachim? Stav asked, but no, Yoav said, that wasn’t enough. This whole country is a fuck. The only way to fix it is to break it, and start over. 

He spent 85 days in jail. In California, I kept track with a marker on a long piece of paper, the dates smashing together, crowded and blurry. 

Beside the table under the tree, we hugged each other hard, bodies colliding and then withdrawing, as though in disbelief. 

“You look the same,” I told him. 

“Oh, Leah. How did you think I’d look? Like I live in Gaza?” 

“I don’t know,” I said. 

Amina stood nearby, silent. She had a round face and short, messy black hair and an  onion tattoo on her left arm.
    
An onion is a good thing to have with you, in case you’re tear gassed. My father told me this. I learned everything I know about protesting from my father. Cut an onion in half and keep it  on you, and if you get tear gassed, sniff it, get it close to your eyes. It will reduce the irritation. You can also use milk or Vaseline, but onions are the easiest to carry. 

My father spent 1969 in Berkeley, surrounded by onions. The night before every Occupy action, I sliced what seemed like hundreds, put them in Ziploc bags, passed them out to my friends, just in case. We never needed to take them out. Instead, afterward, we cooked with them. 

Amina used her onions. She told me about it on the way back to Tel Aviv. I drove us in my father’s car, feeling like a teenager, while Yoav slept soundly  in the back seat. 

In Hebron, the IDF had tear gassed her and her friends when they’d tried to shield a Palestinian woman from settlers who were throwing rocks from their apartments above the street. It had been onions for everyone then. 
 

I said, “You know, there are people who don’t believe things like that happen here.” 

“What things?” she asked.  “The rock throwing? Or the part where the army tear gasses its own people?” 

“All of it.” 

She glanced at Yoav, and then turned back to me.  “And you?”

I said, “I’ve never had any trouble believing.”  

I dropped Yoav and Amina at his apartment. He flopped against her as they walked towards the entrance, managing to make the motion look light and heavy at the same time. 
Jews with their own country. Jews with onions in their pockets and on their arms. Tear gas soup. 

(When  people ask you how you can do this, how you can shit on the country where you were born, the country that built you—because they will ask you—do not scream or yell at them. Take a deep breath before you speak. You will want to save up your deep breaths. You will need them. )

We didn’t ask Yoav about jail. We didn’t know what to ask. One Saturday night, after Shabbat had ended, he came to dinner with Stav and Gali. After we’d eaten, my father poured us each a shot of Arak. 

“I will now do one religious thing,” he said, and my friends and I laughed. “May this be the week you’ve been waiting for.” We smacked our glasses together and the Arak shivered down our throats and when I looked up at my father, I saw his head was bent towards Yoav’s, their hands firmly on each other’s shoulders. 

(There are other things to keep in mind when protesting. Write important numbers on your body, somewhere they can be easily be read. Write in good pen. Wear layers and comfortable shoes. Bring identification, a small first aid kit, water.  Know that there are rules. Know that these rules can change.) 

On Friday, the day of the weekly demonstration against the Wall,  I met Yoav and Amina and Chanan, a blue-haired Tel Aviv University student at the Carmel Shuk.  I had tried to convince Stav to come along, but she had refused. “I don’t need to see it,” she told me. “I know it’s real.” 

We drove out of the city and onto the settler roads, the only way to get to Bil’n, where the Wall separated Palestinian farmers from their land. 

“Is this your first demonstration?” Chanan asked me, and I said, “No.” 

(Here is a rule worth knowing: Rubber bullets are supposed to be shot from a distance of about one hundred and thirty feet and aimed at people's legs.
Here is another thing worth knowing: Rubber bullets are designed to injure, not to kill. )
 
It was already hot, the sky a sharp blue, and the gray cement of the Wall looked almost soft. We left the car at the bottom of a hill and hiked up. At the top,  a group of people carried signs. They wore sunglasses, wide-brimmed hats, scarves around their necks. Yoav waved, some waved back. 

“It’s good day for this,”  one man said to Amina. 

“The best,” she said. 

(Stay close together. If you hear a sound you don’t recognize, because you have never in your life heard a rubber bullet being fired, try not to panic. When you look up and see that it has come from a group of men wearing uniforms of this country’s army, a uniform that you yourself might have worn if things have turned out differently, do not make sudden movements. You can’t predict what they will do next. Wait until the shooting has stopped. Eventually, it has to stop. 

If someone is injured, they will have to be moved. Even if for your entire life you thought you could stand the sight of such things, it will be different when you see this wound up close, when you see the cavern it creates in the flesh of her abdomen.  Somewhere in the back of your mind, you thought a rubber bullet was more like a ball than an actual bullet. Hold onto her hand as the others move her, carefully.  Say consoling things to her, which are also for you, which you will tell yourself on the flight that you take home one month earlier than you originally planned. Things like, a whole world cannot just be undone.) 

Beautiful Ghost

Garrett Socol

The split second Susannah laid eyes on the young man meticulously packing her groceries into a sturdy, brown paper bag, she froze. She tried not to stare, but stare she did. Once the boy realized a set of blue eyes was burning him like lasers, he flashed a cocky grin and focused on the large box of laundry detergent in his hands. Susannah looked away too - at the frizzy-haired cashier who wasn’t finished ringing up the twelve items in the shopping cart. Petrified to glance back at the boy, Susannah was afraid what she’d seen wasn’t really there, that it had been an apparition. 

The young man happened to be a doppelganger for Timothy Ladd, the Goslar High School senior Susannah obsessively loved when she was seventeen, the one who took her on three dates, stole her very soul, then hit the road with the older, more voluptuous Denise Villard. Nothing had ever hurt like Timothy’s brusque rejection, his “I just don’t see us going any further.” Nothing had prepared a seventeen-year-old for such profound, debilitating anguish. “Nobody teaches this to you in school,” she whispered to her best friend Wanda at the time, “how to cope with something like this.”

Now, eleven years later, here he was, in a different town and a different setting. He was too old to be Timothy’s son, she surmised. A brother maybe? Cousin? Nailed to the white tile floor, she forced herself to look again. This time she noticed slight differences - fuller lips, lankier frame. But he resembled Timothy in a startling way - the huge, optimistic eyes, the sculpted nose, the luxuriant brown hair that fell over his brows. Susannah’s heart pounded with fury, as if threatening to burst through her chest. She was suddenly sorry she’d purchased a box of Tampons.

“Do you need help to your car?” the young man politely asked as he placed the last item, a bar of hibiscus soap, into the bag. Too shaken to speak, Susannah nodded her head. 

As soon as they stepped into the late afternoon sun, she spoke up. “By any chance, is your last name Ladd?” 

“Nope,” he told her. “Massey. Dylan Massey.”

A wave of relief washed over Susannah and she wasn’t sure why. “Well, you look like someone I once knew.”

“Oh cool,” he said, suddenly sounding sixteen. 

The leisurely stroll to the car gave him a chance to gaze - at Susannah’s long, tanned legs, wavy auburn hair, large eyes that seemed sad despite the fact that they sparkled such spectacular blue. She had always been the most beautiful one in the room - living room, bedroom, conference room, powder room. “You won’t be pretty forever,” her mother used to tell her. “Strike while the iron’s hot.” When she first heard that expression at
the age of nine, she had no idea what it meant. Years later, when she understood, she concluded that it was a horrifying thing to tell a child. 

A warm breeze blew as Susannah led Dylan to a spotless black Mercedes. 
The young man carefully placed the heavy bag in the back seat of the car as Susannah attempted to fix her windblown hair with two fingers. “Anything else I can do for you?” 


Dylan asked, imbuing as much innocence into his tone as he could to cover the question’s less than subtle suggestiveness. 

“Not right now, but thanks very much,” Susannah said. She could feel his youthful eyes undressing her as shoppers reached for bottles of juice and boxes of cereal just yards away. Susannah felt vibrantly awake, like her blood was flowing at an accelerated speed. Life had been devoid of this spectacular feeling for more than a decade; it was forgotten territory. Now it was back: the passionate, heart-pounding, ridiculous hunger.

“I only work here part-time,” Dylan announced as if apologizing for his low status. “I plan to study medicine.”

“Medicine,” Susannah said with surprise, trying in vain to imagine this kid performing a heart transplant. “That takes dedication.”

“When I commit to something, I give it my all,” he announced, staring into her eyes with such blazing intensity that it almost came off as comical. 

“I think you’ll make an excellent doctor,” she told him, quickly realizing she had absolutely no justification for this statement. Embarrassed and self-conscious, she turned away and climbed into the driver’s seat. 

“I think you’re beautiful,” Dylan said, his hand leaning on the side of the car.

“Be good,” she replied. She started the engine, maneuvered her wheels and stepped on the gas, admiring the fact that her young admirer didn’t say another word, that he didn’t shout “I get off at six” or “Can we have tea sometime?” No, he merely stood his ground and watched her drive off, as if making sure she’d exit the parking lot safely. Susannah was secretly glad that her iron was still hot.

 

Gliding through her picturesque new neighborhood dotted with crooked trees and old-fashioned phone booths, the entire supermarket interaction seemed like a hazy dream. But she clung to it like a life raft. The stranger named Dylan Massey made her feel alive. 
Susannah pulled into the driveway of the Spanish colonial house she shared with her attorney husband Neal. She opened the car door and seemed to float out, like she was weightless. The imprint of Dylan’s right hand remained on the side of the car, a large hand, a large print, and Susannah gazed at it. As soon as she realized the craziness of this action, she grabbed her groceries and headed into the house, walking past the defiant white scalloped wall that seemed to imprison her on the property.

Over the next two days, she spent hours obsessing about the items she needed at the supermarket. The refrigerator was fully stocked, but she could always use more bottled water and sourdough bread. Still, she realized driving to the store with such a lame excuse was legitimate cause for psychiatric counseling. 

She knew, as any professional would tell her, this was a textbook case: Timothy was the one that got away, and here he was again in the body of Dylan Massey. Absurdly simple. But she was seventeen then; now she was twenty-eight. Now she was married. 
Now she had a solid goal to build a reputation in a brand new town. 

Still, she danced by herself in the den to the music playing in her head. She dreamed about him - incoherent, oblique dreams she couldn’t recall the next morning in any detail except that Dylan had been kissing her and if felt sublime. She took the bar of hibiscus soap she’d bought and placed it on her bedroom bookshelf simply because he had touched it. Neal didn’t notice anything different about his wife except for the occasional faraway look in her eye, but he was accustomed to that. “You live in your own world,” he told her. This time, she tiptoed on its dangerous edge. This time, she felt convinced she would leave her husband, her home, everything that seemed to be working in her life. There was a certain excitement to this upheaval, with its thrilling possibilities. She’d grown tired of the sameness of her daily existence, bored with the routine, the monosyllabic dinner conversation with her one-dimensional, self-involved spouse. 

She patiently waited three days in which the tick-tock of the large living room clock seemed mercilessly loud, three days in which every waking moment included the image of Dylan’s face and the calming sound of his voice. Three days, and she legitimately needed jam and honey and oatmeal and eggs. 

Adrenaline pumping, she made her way to the market. The drive seemed to fly by
in seconds instead of ten minutes, and she was only dimly aware of traffic lights and pedestrians along the way. She took her time finding the perfect parking spot - a private one at the west end of the lot, under the shade of a towering sycamore tree. 

As Susannah approached the entrance, she was hit with the unthinkable possibility that Dylan might not be there, that it could be his day off. This notion almost paralyzed
her; she felt twice her weight and so weak that walking into the store felt like an attempt to walk from one end of a swimming pool to the other. 

The saliva drained from her mouth as Susannah grabbed a dark green plastic basket. Then, lips parched and heart racing, she glanced at the check-out area and didn’t see him. After taking a deep, nervous breath, she hobbled to the produce department where she absentmindedly chose a head of iceberg lettuce, some broccoli, and a bag of carrots. Then she glanced at the check-out area again. Still no Dylan.

 

Panic rising, she wandered aimlessly past the pasta and the toothpaste, somehow finding her way to the cereal. On the floor just inches from the corn flakes, she noticed a small pool of blood. Instinctively she stepped away from it and focused on the cereal, and that’s precisely when it happened. She couldn’t explain it to anyone who might ask. She didn’t see human eyes or faces, but she felt as if she wasn’t looking at boxes of cereal; the boxes were looking at her, judging her from the stacked shelves. She raced away, as if escaping a crazed killer. 

Moments later she found herself in front of the mayonnaise display where the jumbo glass jars seemed to be staring at her too, examining her, searching for motives. She looked to her left and felt a giant, raging rush of water crashing toward her, felt it coming the way birds know a storm is approaching. She grabbed the nearest jar and zoomed away. The moment she left the aisle, her eyes fell upon Dylan, busy at work. He had materialized, magically it seemed. Not only could Susannah breathe again, she was hit with such a blast of happiness she thought she might cry. She realized that a certain insanity had taken over, and she was powerless. Or was she? She’d been told by doctor after doctor that she could exert control; that’s what had been drummed into her troubled head. And she’d believed it. Until now.

Nine items nested in her basket when it came time to check out. She could’ve gotten on the express line, but that wasn’t where Dylan was working. She stepped behind a short white-haired woman with an almost full cart that included two dozen cans of cat food, a few gallons of milk, and a mop. 

When her eyes met Dylan’s, the recognition was instant, as if he’d been dreaming about her the way she dreamed about him. He barely took his eyes off her while bagging the older woman’s cat food then smiled warmly when it came Susannah’s turn to step up to the plate.

“Do you need assistance to your car?” he asked with a subtle smirk.

“That would be lovely,” she said. 

Dylan carried the two paper bags and gently placed them in the back seat of Susannah’s car. Then he stood firmly opposite her, close enough to smell the floral fragrance she had dabbed on her neck. This mingling of entities, this spontaneous combustion, created palpable heat. “You probably think I’m too young for you,” he said, certain that he wasn’t. “I’m over eighteen,” he stated with boyish bravado. “Isn’t that what counts?”

“When you get older, you’ll be able to answer that question truthfully,” she told him as her eyes feasted on the smooth, taut skin and thick, wild hair of a typical teenage boy. But it was Timothy standing in front of her, not Dylan. It was Timothy she would kiss if she kissed him, Timothy she would invite into the passenger seat of the car her husband had chosen for her. 

“I’m not a virgin,” he quietly proclaimed, his eyes holding an almost heartbreaking expression of longing. 

“You’ll make some girl very happy,” Susannah said. “Treat her nicely.” She extended her right hand and Dylan held it like a precious gem. Then he noticed the crooked purple line on the inside of her wrist. “What’s that?” he innocently asked.

“Just a silly old cut,” she said as she pressed her left arm against her body, covering the similar cut on that wrist. 

He tenderly kissed the violet slash, and Susannah instantly knew what lay ahead. If she gave herself to this boy in any way, if she allowed this unquenchable desire to take hold, her security would have crumbled like a cupcake in a fist, right then and there, in the west end of the supermarket parking lot in the fading sun. Nothing would have satisfied her short of lurching into the newly opened ravine, eyes closed, trusting Dylan/Timothy would catch her in his strong, secure arms. She also understood that moving so blindly and daringly forward was a headlong rush to destruction. This she knew as well as she’d known anything in a strange, turbulent life that contained more than its share of crushing sorrow and slow journeys back to sanity. This young country, with its bright “Welcome” sign beckoning, was not foreign to her; she knew what waited beyond the border. 

“We’d be eternally sorry,” she said to him. “Nobody teaches this to you in school.” She kissed him softly on the cheek. Then she closed her eyes and breathed him in as deeply as she could, into a place that would be his alone. She stood close to the almost vibrating eighteen-year-old and felt his fervent, desperate need. She knew she could extend the rapture, but this unending love would undoubtedly end for one of them, and the experience would be catastrophic. 
It almost seemed like an otherworldly force compelled her to turn from Dylan/Timothy and climb into her car.

The young man didn’t budge; he stood his ground once again, watching his cherished customer pull away toward the beauty of the dazzling setting sun. A mélange of shadows, shapes and color, majestic as anything Dylan had seen in his young life, decorated the sky. 
 Stopping for the long light at the corner of Crestview and Lake, tears began to pour from Susannah’s eyes like lava. But she triumphantly wiped them away as she recognized the sliver of faith she had found years earlier. 

From that point forward, Susannah would shop at the market five miles down the road.

Summer Water

Jessica Barksdale

“What’s wrong with Grandma?” Jane’s son Max asked over lunch at the downtown diner. In front of him, a heaped plate of fried chicken, a buttery mound of whipped potatoes, and a fragile stack of crisp green beans, all smothered in pan gravy flecked with pepper. The dark-haired waitress gave him a nod, hoping he might notice her backside, which he did not. Fried chicken trumps ass, Jane thought, bending over her plate to hide her smirk. Her meal? Caesar salad with grilled chicken breast, dressing on the side.

“Grandma’s just getting old,” Jane told him, feeling an ache in her hip bones as she sat in the booth. Too many dog walks. Too much sitting in front of the computer at the library’s request unit. Books and more books until she couldn’t stand it or up. What did her husband call out to her as she lurched from bed, first thing? “Bride of Frankenstein goes to the bathroom.” 

Very funny.

Jane speared a white-ish hunk of romaine. “That’s what happens.”

“But she says she doesn’t have any fingerprints,” Max said. His eyes, dark and shiny, hair short and perfect on his head, the shape of which Jane can still feel under her palm. “How is that possible? I mean, is it?”

“Has to be. She was born like that. Smooth-fingered.”

“So that’s the first thing,” Max said.

“The first what?” Jane tried to ignore the fact that this is a conversation Max might later have with his older brother Zac, one about her and her eventual breaking down into dust.

“The first thing to go wrong.”

There were a lot of things going wrong in her mother Gert’s life. Fingerprints weren’t the first thing, though maybe at birth, they were. Gert came prepackaged wrong. But didn’t they all? 

Those fingerprints, though. Last time Jane and Gert flew back into the country from Ireland, the US Customs officials held her in a Plexiglas office, allowing Jane to sit next to her. Their questions, “Where have you been?” and “What do you do?” echoed in the still cubed chamber. This, Jane had thought, is what the baboon feels. This is what the hamster knows. 

“Listen,” Gert had told the Homeland security guy, the Border Patrol person, the Customs agent. “My first job was at a military lab. Couldn’t pass a security check back in 1960. Took them months to get it right,” she said. “My left pinky never fully cleared. That has to be in a database somewhere. You people keep all that information right? Big brother, right?”

Jane nudged her with one knee

The truth squad surveyed Gert, 78, short, swimming in her size 4 pants, all bones under her fluttery aquamarine colored synthetics. Her hair—thin and wispy and styled by a 9 hour transatlantic flight—flew up and over her head disc-like, a mesmerizing metallic lenticular cloud.

“Damn cow-lick,” Gert always said.

“That’s one busy cow,” Jane joked once, and the good news is that they both laughed.

Finally, after walking in and out of the cube, the officials freed them into the San Francisco fog. 

“Things go wrong with everyone,” Jane said to Max now, hearing a lightness in her voice she did not feel. Max was being too critical, but then, so was she, especially when a couple weeks later, all Gert’s electrical and electronic items and gadgets started to malfunction. 

“What is wrong with my mother?” Jane asked after returning home from an emergency internet-fixing visit at Gert’s.

Her husband Dom looked up at her over his New York Times. “What do you mean?”

“When did she get so, well, stupid?” Jane plopped down her bag full of various computer gizmos she’d imagined would be needed. All that had been wrong was an errant, un-plugged plug. “How is it possible that nothing works? Suddenly? She didn’t used to be like that.”

“Black thumb,” Dom said.

“Sounds like some kind of rot.” Jane sat down with him at the kitchen table. Her mother had been able to send out one SOS email before her entire house was plunged into radio silence.

“Nothing is working!” came the email.

“Kind of is,” Dom said. “But with anything using electricity. It all falls apart the moment your mother walks in the room.”

“It does not,” Jane said.

“Yes, it does. Has for years.”

“Not years,” Jane said, but yes, it was years. “It seems worse now.”

“There’s just less in between. She’s not working. You grew up. Our kids grew up. What’s left to break?”

Jane stared at her husband, dark and focused on the bad news in front of him, the world a nasty stream of black and white.

“She should be a secret weapon,” Jane said. “Countries could hire her.”

Dom put down his paper. “She’d be useful during emergencies. ‘Look up in the sky! Aliens!’ And the spaceships would all fall to the earth.” Dom was getting excited, but he taught third-graders, so that wasn’t too hard to manage. “Colonization averted.”

Jane thought of all sorts of other useful times when electricity should go out: war raids, unruly parties (a police tactic), earthquakes, fires. Gert Trainer: a human protection against strikes and flares and unwanted drug use.

But as the year went on, it became clear to Jane that there wasn’t any real use for her mother’s troubles. No matter how well the manual was written or how new the appliance, phone, card key, or television set was, nothing worked. There were calls to technicians, the goon squad—or whatever the nerds in the vans were called—Jane herself. Dom sometimes went over to try to help. Sometimes even Jane’s ex-husband Bill, who lived twenty miles away from Gert, helped out with pruning the tentacled grapefruit tree, the overblown pyracantha bush. Max and Zac made routine visits and ended up replacing light bulbs, swapping out doorbells, resetting their grandmother’s phone, remote, clock, water sprinkler system. They showed her how to log into her computer, again. They instructed her how to adjust her car’s air conditioning unit.

“It must be difficult,” Dom said one night as they sat in silence outside on the patio, each with a glass of wine in hand. “Too see her lose it.”

Jane let herself feel his concern with reaction. Without defense. “It really is funny, except it’s us. For someone else, I’d laugh all day.”

In the fall, it was Gert’s oven. She’d decided she wanted to host Thanksgiving, after a twenty-year hiatus of all things holiday, traveling instead to Jane’s for turkey, standing rib roast, baked ham with juniper berries instead of pineapple rings. Of course this was all Jane’s fault because earlier in the year, she had facilitated an entire kitchen renovation, the old kitchen an outdated white tile and dark cupboard concoction from the 80s, complete with a window box greenhouse box that jutted into the small back patio, all sharp metal corners.

But the oven.

“I can’t use any of the shelves. They fall out,” Gert said on the phone. “And how do I turn it on?”

“Is there a button. An ‘on’ switch?”

“You must think I’m an idiot,” Get said.

“Mom,” Jane said. “Look. I’m sorry. But is there an on switch?”

There was a silence and then muffled fumblings. A click. A pause. A click.

“I see it,” Gert said, the subject now closed. “So when are you going to bring over the turkey?”

“We’re bringing over the turkey,” Jane said, flatly.

“Also,” Gert said. “I don’t have a potato smasher. And your stuffing.”

“Everything?”

“I can do a salad,” Gert said.

You don’t need an oven for that, Jane thought, agreeing to everything her mother said. How many more Thanksgivings would there be anyway? At least with Gert.

After the oven discussion, there was an issue with the central heating thermostat. Gert called up the company that happily sent out a technician (and charged a 75 dollar service fee) to explain exactly how to turn down the heat (The down arrow. Click, click), a lesson Gert soon forgot.

“I just leave it at 70,” she said. “I don’t care.”

By the time Thanksgiving rolled around, Jane had been over five times to help with cords and plugs and various devices (the clock radio Gert still listened to). Sometimes when Jane arrived, everything was on, a blare of Rush Limbaugh from the now constantly on radio and classical music from the TV’s music selections. The heater pumping air, the irrigation dousing the camellias despite the ongoing drought (“What are they going to do? Turn off my water?” Gert asked. “I’m elderly. That would be abuse.”). One visit, her mother was huddled on the corner of her couch, one light on, reading a paperback.

“My Kindle died,” she said, as if in light, comfortable mourning. “And no one can fix it.”

“Let me see,” Jane said, looking around the tidy family area. How many times had she been in this room? With kids and husbands and other family members? There seemed no evidence of all that time, now that Gert had redecorated. All that old furniture with the cat hair and coffee stains and crumbs from birthday cakes gone.

“Never mind,” Gert said. “I bought a new one. It’s coming tomorrow.”

Gert was a Prime member, everything coming right to her door, enough so that she barely had to leave her house. And that was a good thing, as she didn’t understand the controls on her car.

On her next visit, Jane found her mother beating her television remote control to death against her buffet table.

“Goddamn fucking thing,” Gert said with each pound. With a crack, the plastic flew open, exposing its innards and ejecting the battery, which spun out and onto the dining room floor, twirling in a silver glint. “I don’t know what’s happening!”

After that incident, Dom bought Gert a universal remote, but that one didn’t work either. Jane found it under the living room couch. Eventually, Gert had to use the on/off switch, old school.

“What’s going on with Grandma?” Jane’s older son Zac asked as they drove home together from Gert’s house, bagged Thanksgiving leftovers snug in the cargo holders in the back of the Subaru. Dom was asleep in the passenger’s seat, hands on clasp on his full belly.

“What do you mean?” Jane glanced back at him in the rearview mirror.

“I don’t know,” Zac said. “It’s like—“

“She’s half not there,” Max finished for his brother. “Like a light. On. Then off. Then on.”

Jane clutched the steering wheel, a pain accompanied by breathlessness beating in her lungs. Her mother had never been the one with the answers, or, at least the answers Jane had wanted. Pain and upset were solved by half a valium (“She’s only ten!” her father had whispered). The neighbor ladies had often been the voices of reason, conferring with Gert about all number of Jane’s childhood calamities—bad grades, bullying boys, a terrible haircut (Gert-given as Jane sat on one of the tall kitchen stools. The solution? By consensus, Dippity-Do on Jane’s bangs until they grew out long enough the lie flat). 

But Gert was not one to go to in times of dread and terror. Not when Jane crashed the car the day after her sixteenth birthday or flunked out of physiology (she refused to cut open a formaldehyded cat on ethical and moral grounds). Her father was for those exigencies, but then he died. Jane was left to figure out badly everything until she was older and somewhat wiser, Gert wide-eyed in the face of a first-sex experience gone very bloody and several rejections from colleges before an acceptance rolled in. Eventually, she’d left Gert’s home and forgotten that her mother navigated the world’s water as if she were a pirate with two bad eyes, patches on both, only the parrot left to caw its bad advice in her one good ear.

By Christmas, it was clear Gert was more off than on, Zac’s pronouncement true. One stormy late December afternoon, there had been an intervention Gert believed was just a family visit—Jane, her sister Ruth flown in from Vancouver, Zac and Max and Dom. Even Bill came, sitting on the couch, his arms folded.

“How about a drink!” Gert said, and that’s when Jane brought up the empty Ambien and Vicodin bottles she’d found in the master bathroom trash, this after Max admitted to slipping his grandmother four pot chocolate cookies that she ate in two days.

“So I guess a bourbon is out?” Gert asked. The lights flickered. Max and Nick found the candles. The storm picked up, blew leaves and small branches against the windows, the house, detritus spinning on top the roof. When the heat shut off, Bill built a fire.

“I’ll take that bourbon,” Dom said.

“You know where it is,” Gert said.

Apparently Gert knew where it was, too, only one an amber inch swishing in the big bottle. Amazon might not deliver alcohol, but apparently BevMo did. 

By Easter, Gert was living in an assisted living community, only a half-mile from her condo.

“Don’t you dare sell my home,” Gert said.

“Max is going to move in. You’re close to his school,” Jane said. “He can fix it up and paint. Get everything working.”

For a second, her mother looked at her, her eyes wide-open, pupils dilated, as if Gert were looking into the vast darkness of everything. Her grandson, Max. The condo. Even Jane herself and all her forty-seven years. All and everything deep mysteries Gert could not grasp or remember. Jane watched her mother’s mouth form questions, the words in her mouth, on her lips. Jane saw the “Why?” and “How?” 

Jane wanted to agree, to lean close and look with her mother into that dark thing neither of them would ever understand. But just as she pressed into the softness of her mother’s ear, Gert snapped to, pushing Jane away with one thin hand. “God. Boys and bathrooms,” she said. “Make sure you get a cleaning woman.”

“Tell us what your mother needs,” Mrs. Ryan, the director of the facility, asked on Gert’s first day. “Answer the question: What does she really want?”

Jane glanced into Gert’s suite. Amidst boxes and opened suitcases, her mother was bent over the open maw of a cardboard box stuffed with knickknacks, pulling out one after the other. Tentatively, she unwrapped the objects—a blue porcelain unicorn, gilt-framed photo, antique teacup—and stared at each before placing it on the table, it seemed, into a line of memory. The unicorn from her childhood in Iowa City, a gift from her physician father. The frame filled with the rose of her own mother’s youthful face. The teacup from a store Gert volunteered at during Jane’s childhood, in the time before her husband’s death.

What did a woman like that want? Hope, maybe. Reassurance. Proof that nothing would get worse, a static plain of sameness until it was all over. And then, just like that. A quick brisk slap into dying.

But until then, Jane told Mrs. Ryan. A radio for her talk shows. A coffee pot for her coffee. Electronics that worked. For now, that would do.

For a couple of months, Jane believed things were getting better. Gert stopped complaining. They had a tech guy on call at the compound, for goodness sake, a young man named Scott, who visited Gert’s suite a few times the first week, but then the electricity and electronics all hummed away, doing her bidding. She went to the pool for daily water aerobics. She ate dinner in the common dining room, sitting with “a bunch of gals.” Without Gert having to know how or why, the sprinklers came on at night, watering the wide swaths of green lawn and bunches of rhododendron and Daphne, the drought now officially over. The heat and air were programed by a maintenance man. No need for the garage door opener or even her car, Max coming to drive it back to the condo one afternoon. Whatever didn’t make sense button and switch and monitor wise, someone figured it out. On and off, on and off.

Jane began to breathe, driving to the library without imagining her mother trussed with wires, dressed like a terrible technological turkey. For the first time in months, Jane could sit still in her family room on the old couch, watching television with Dom without picturing her mother bashing remotes to death, falling as she attempted one last smash against a sharp dresser drawer. When she visited Gert, they strolled around the pond in the back of the property, Gert alert and tended to in her hat and clean tennis shoes, her sleeves buttoned at her wrists, her face slathered in sun screen, enough that she looked slightly vampire-ish. This period of time was similar to those short years when Jane thought her mother was at least partially in charge, Gert the one with the spending change when they were at the pool, Jane and her friends eating warm Abba-Zabbas and Milky Way bars after swim workout. Gert was the one there after school. Who made meatloaf, mac and cheese, goulash for dinner every day of the week. She might not have known all the answers, but there was comfort in what she had to offer.

When Jane’s father died, Jane felt his three-quarters of the family burden fall to her. His decisions and pronouncements. In the years to come, she took over the yard work and some of the bill management. Eventually, Gert gave her the rest, including all the cooking. Now the facility was in charge.

One day, though, Mrs. Ryan called. Gert had gone missing.

“But it’s fine, dear!” the woman said, cavalier, officious.

“How can losing my mother be any kind of fine?” Jane’s body had gone still, her feet anonymous, her fingers light as air.

“We found her in a trice. Down by the lake.”

“By the lake? Alone? Without an attendant?” Jane asked, realizing she meant, “Without me?”

“Yes, that’s right.” Mrs. Ryan’s manner was efficient and clipped, though Jane heard something under the woman’s words as well, something like, “Please don’t sue us.”

“So we have a suggestion about her care if this continues.”

Which meant, Jane knew, more money. More care, more expense.

“Where did you think you were going?” Jane asked Gert later that afternoon. 

“Where do you think?” Gert asked. “The pool.”

“The lake?”

Gert gave her a roll of eye, sharp shrug of shoulder. “The pool. Time for workout.”

They were at the lake for this conversation, two Canada geese spinning in a quiet duo in the middle, a whorl of ripple around them. “This pool?”

“Don’t try to get out of your workout.” Her mother gave her that look, the one that had been the same since Jane could remember: flat, hard eyes, stern mouth, still features. The one that looked at her over Jane’s report card. The one that came in the car, Gert spinning her head when Jane teased Ruth.

“Of course,” Jane said.

They walked some more, though a time zone Jane didn’t recognize passing through. “It’s dinner time,” Gert said, a glance over her shoulder at the facility building. “And I don’t want to sit by Barbara Vromm.”

“What’s wrong with her?” Jane asked, unable to pull up a Barbara. Not from childhood or from now.

“Can’t stand the way she chews.” Her mother barked a throaty laugh. “Like a cow!”

Just like that, it wasn’t 1970 but 2015. Presto.

 

One day in mid-summer, Jane went to Target to buy supplies for her mother, things the facility staff thought might be useful. Playing cards with big faces and numbers, thick markers for drawing (an occupational therapy idea), an extra pillow for scooching under her knees at night. The store seemed enormous, a warm, yellow and red cave smelling faintly of corn popped in too-hot oil and air conditioning. Whoosh went the automatic doors behind Jane, the air static with fluorescent lights and the sounds of a hundred cash registers beeping all at once. Jane hadn’t been in Target since packing Zac off to college, her basket then filled with bedding, towels, and a long lamp that swung its purple shade from the cart like a shaggy giraffe head. 

Max never needed packing off—his college the local community one—and now he had moved into Gert’s, everything—bedding, towels, and lamps—provided. Maybe one day, she would find herself here, buying him flatware and sad thin china. But for now, it was Gert’s turn.

Up and down the aisles. The wheel on her basket squeaked. What did her mother really need? What could Jane buy that would stop the holes that were opening up inside Gert’s head like wells? What would stop the way the past was taking over Gert like a virus? How to stop the inevitable decline of not only her mind and personality but her body?

Not water filters or Saranwrap. Not stacks of post-it notes or pink ballerina flats with slippy heels made in Malaysia. Up and down the aisles. Jane kept her eye riveted on the shelves. Something would do. Something. Up and down. Up, and then down the large aisle that dissected the store in two, a swath of linoleum as wide as a lane of city traffic. Right and then left, rounding the whole store. Past electronics (nothing needed there. Not anymore.), past furniture. A left at housewares. Down past toys and clothing. The big front door opened and closed. People lined up at customer service. Jane ignored faux leather purses and belts. No earrings or bras. No paper or books. Her mother had been disappearing since the start, just like everyone, moving from wholeness to invisibility. First her fingerprints. Now the rest. And nothing could answer the question of her mother but Jane’s heart, the true well here, the open hole of love and tenderness widening, deepening, wanting to be filled with a time when this wasn’t the time. Wanting a safer place, back when she was little, long before her father died, sitting on the stairs overlooking the pool, pushed tight between two friends, all of them laughing as they ate their sticky, melting candy. Down below in the mid-heat of day, her mother in her beach chair, laughing with her friends. Her arms long and tan, the sun reflecting yellow off her Sea and Skied arms, slick and shiny and beautiful.

Jane stopped dead in the aisle, listening. Waiting. And there it was, still, all these years later. Her mother’s laughter. High and arch and free, sailing up and over the summer water.

The Pig Who Mistook Himself

Michael Henson

“I used to know a pig who thought he was a dog,” a man once told me. Then he leaned back and set to working on his pipe.

I was puzzled. The pig and dog thing had nothing to do with what I had just said. But I was young and arrogant. I said many things then that I would not say now.

He was a full-bearded, over-sized man in overalls sitting at his desk in a Chicago social work office in Uptown right up under the roar of the El. The office was decked with old Wobbly posters and books of every sort. By his desk, he kept a little collapsible tool kit fitted with devices for prying, scraping, and tamping his pipe. He tended, I had found, to speak slowly, with frequent interruptions for loading, lighting, or plying at his pipe with one or more of the devices, and raising one eyebrow for effect.

“You see,” he said, folding up his tools, “an animal can have a confused identity, just like a human being. And this particular pig . . .” He pulled several times on the pipe to get it going. “ ... lived back home on the farm where I grew up, with nothing but a bunch of dogs to relate to.

“We weren’t pig farmers. Daddy didn’t particularly like pigs or pig farming. He considered it to be a nasty business, and not worth the trouble. But one day, Daddy come home with this orphan pig in a burlap bag. The original pig in a poke. He didn’t say why he brought it home or what he hoped to do with it. But I suspect it had to do with a bad night at poker. Since we didn’t have a pen to put him in, Daddy just let him run with the dogs.

“Now, Daddy would have made a pretty good dog farmer, but that’s a whole nother story. We did have plenty of dogs. We were what you might call dog-poor. And at this point, Daddy had a collection of about half a dozen beagles that he kept for hunting, fetching cattle, collecting ticks, and barking at strangers on the road. They slept right under the house. The house set up on fieldstone corners, so they gathered right up under the stove on winter nights. You’d be setting in the living room and you could hear em just about raise the floorboards when one would go to scratch a flea. We kept em mostly on table scraps and bits of this and that. I don’t recall Daddy ever buying dog food.

“Well, pigs and table scraps is just a natural combination. That pig fit right in. It seems he forgot he ever was a pig. You see, he had no pig peers, no pig mentors, no way to understand or mold his true piggedness, no way to develop a proper pig identity. So he went to living a dog’s life with the dogs.

“I named him Butch, for no good reason.  Butch seemed to me to be the right name for him, and it stuck. And, like I say, Butch didn’t have pigs to identify with. He didn’t know the proper place of a pig in the world.  So he didn’t really know how a pig was supposed to act. But he knew how dogs acted, so he tried his best to act just like them. And he did pretty well.

“When the dogs went to sleep under the floorboards, he shot in under the porch right with them. When the dogs raised up their hind legs to scratch their ears or their chins, Butch would set back, raise up a trotter, and whale away with it til the fat in his neck begun to ripple. I don’t know if he scratched because he itched or if he scratched because the others scratched, but itch or no itch, he scratched.

”When a car pulled up in the drive, all those dogs would lope down the hill just like Morgan’s Raiders and there'd be this awful racket of beagle voices calling out Aroo Aroo Aroo.

“And there come Butch right behind them, those little short legs all moving in a blur, taking sixty steps to their sixteen, and calling, snort snort snort all the way down the hill.

“He even tried to go hunting. Me or Dad would take down the shotgun and head up into the woods. With whistle or two, all six of them dogs would be right at our heels. They’d hit the first of those old rusty, half-strung bobwire fences and each one would jump over or squeeze under it and they’d be off into the woods like a hatch of snakes.

“But poor old Butch, he’d try. The beagles would pant and sniff and call, and old Butch would pant and sniff and snort right with them. But as soon as he hit that fence, he was stuck. His legs were too short to get him over and his back was too high to let him under, and there he set, looking to one side or the other. And if those dogs missed him, they never let him know. They never looked back once.

“The only time he really allowed his essential pigness to show was at milking time. Regarding such things as upsetting cattle or stealing milk, a dog will learn. You only have to kick him once. But a pig . . .”

He paused to reactivate the pipe, which he had been using mainly to emphasize points of the story. He stoked, tamped, relit, and sucked for a moment, then went on.

“They say a pig is supposed to be a very intelligent animal. Much more intelligent than a dog. But I’m not so sure. It may have been persistence more than lack of intelligence, but Butch just had to try to steal that milk. Possibly, he’d been taken too early from his mother and needed . . . But then I couldn’t presume to psychoanalyze a pig. Whatever the reason, he could not leave a milk pail alone. This may even have sealed his fate. Morning and night, he would follow us to the barn. You could shout, throw stones, stomp, and threaten. But there he’d be, underfoot and in the way. And you ever left that milk pail unguarded for a minute, he’d have it knocked over and be licking up the spill.

“You could kick him and curse him til he was black and you were blue. But you could never break him of the habit.

“Well, I went off to college while Butch was still a young pig. And it was quite a while before I came back to visit. I had been to the city and I was changed, you see, and I didn’t want to come back to a little rickety house setting up on stone corners.

“But I did come back. And it was just like the return of the prodigal son. Mom always did put out a spread, even for an everyday meal. She never did set out a single main dish, but half a dozen. And we’d take a little of this and a little of that and you’d have a mound of food in front of you and still she’d say, Take a biscuit, or Have some more of this chicken.

“Well, I’d pulled up to the house, and those dogs charged down the hill just like I was a stranger, and it took them a little bit to remember just who I was. But I didn’t see Butch anywhere, and I didn’t see him when we went down to the barn and I didn’t hear him scratching and snorting under the house.

“But I didn’t think much about it. I was home, after all, and everybody was making over me. And I didn’t think about Butch again until supper. Something brought him back to mind, and I said, “Dad, what ever happened to Butch?”

“Well, he looked at me as if he’d forgot all about old Butch. Then he remembered.  He reached over to a big bowl of a pale-ish looking meat and noodles. A long spoon stuck out of it, and he stirred around for a big chunk.

“I believe . . .”

The big man stirred in the air with the stem of his pipe.

“’I believe.’ Daddy says, ‘that’s a little piece of Butch right there.’”

The big man nodded then, and smiled a big, dimply, Santa Claus sort of smile. I didn’t get it. I couldn’t think of a thing to say. The big man just smiled bigger, shifted in his chair, and began to scrape again at his pipe.

“There’s a moral to this story,” he said finally. For a moment, he appeared distracted by the cleaning of his pipe. But then he set it down and looked at me very stern and serious.

“All his life, that pig tried to be something he wasn’t. And he ended up getting cooked. So you see . . . “ He said this very slowly, so I heard every word.

“You might not know who you are . . .  But they do.”