Fiction Archive

“The Nandi”

She had no difficulty in spotting him through the grimy, rusted window bars that cut his face into even proportions. His eyes were anxiously scanning the compartments as the train zipped past him, coming to a laborious halt a little further from where he was standing. As a child, he loved this game, competing with his brother in spotting his uncles or cousins before anyone else. It was tricky to do so when the train was in motion and there were always too many people on the platform.

The female announcer, in her drab, I’ll-die-in-this-room voice, announced the arrival of the Karnataka Express in English, Hindi, and Kannada. She saw him jostle past a red army of porters who were leaping into random coaches. She stood at the gate, tightly clutching her handbag with one hand, suitcase by her feet, watching him, his eyes still roving restlessly – ignoring the euphoria around him – and trying to seek out his mother’s familiar face. He finally reached her, elbowing and shouldering passengers aside, who, chuffed at having finally arrived, at having freed themselves from the confines of the steel cage, the mugginess, the engine soot, the soiled toilets, and from those who occupied their seats saying they will get off at the next station, but never did, didn’t seem to mind much.

“Men these days have gone too soft,” she said once in the car. “An entire family just unfurled their bed-sheets and slept on the floor, and no one said a word. At night when I had to go to the bathroom I couldn’t find my slippers. And I was so worried of stepping on the child.”

He’d asked her to take a flight, but she had refused, as always. “They don’t even let you take a walk,” she’d reasoned.

She knew that now he’d expect her to go on and on about how there were these people on the train who hogged like pigs on their oily pooris and pickles, and these smokers who, despite her requesting them not to, sucked voluptuously on their cigarettes, coughing in her face; but she wouldn’t.

She couldn’t catch a wink on the train. She had to wait until morning to use the bathroom, until that family cleared out. Only then was she able to locate her slippers and hold them lovingly to her heart.

In the car mirror she noticed that her cheeks looked more sunk-in than the last time they had met, at his father’s funeral a year ago. She felt a little shiver.

“It’s always mildly cold here,” he offered, always the intuitive one. “I hope you brought some sweaters.”

Two mornings ago, when her younger son had made the call, she figured her elder one must be tucking hungrily at the MTR restaurant, into his usual breakfast: kharabath, crispy vadas, kesari and a hot cup of filtered coffee.

“What now?” he barked with mock irritation in his tone.

His brother had laughed, walking out to the balcony. “Ass.”

But she still heard most of it.

“What’s cooking?”

“Mom’s coming to Bangalore.”

“Huh? Why?”

“To meet you of course.”

“Dude, you know…”

“I know, I know. Just ask Andrea to crash at a friend’s for a week or two.”

She’d wondered who this girl was.

While she eyed the women on the road with flowers in their hair, she considered asking him about Andrea, but decided against an inquisition, not on the first day of her arrival. And what was the point? He wouldn’t tell her anything. She was even fine if they were simply living together for companionship. She had long given up on the idea of marriage, especially when so many were crumbling around her. If she was worried about something, it was her son moving out of India.

“Ma, how about lunch?” he said. “Maybe later I can show you around.”

It was her younger one’s idea to send her here for a change of scene; to get her out of the mourning mode; to help her rediscover travelling, which she had done extensively with her husband; to help her escape from the singeing Delhi heat and into the cool arms of Bangalore. But she’d rather be at a temple, occupying a cold corner, soaking in the peace and quiet or staring admiringly at the lord’s statue with all its decorations.

He took her to Sri Krishna Café with its minimalist set up: rudimentary granite-topped tables and wooden chairs with maroon back-covers that were paper-thin from over-washing, dull pink-tiled walls, and strong smells of coconut chutney and sambhar. She felt out of place in fancy places where food was bland and expensive and where even the waiters spoke in English and were too attentive, where the grating sounds of forks and spoons against the ceramic plates drove her mad.

She didn’t even consider looking at the menu as she went for her plain dosa, as always, discarding all his suggestions to try something else. She laughed when she heard him explain their order to the waiter in his broken Kannada.

She nibbled at her food, looking up from her plate only if one of the cleaners dropped the dirty dishes on the floor and now embarrassed, cleaned the mess while avoiding the eyes of the manager, or if her son enquired if she wanted anything else.

Lately, she’d been feeling acutely glum. During these phases, she broke down in tears and rambled about her dead sibling, her parents, about how she married the first man they chose for her. There was no time to get to know your future husband, like girls do now, she’d say. You met once and that was it. About women having to live with strangers after years of living with their parents. At my mother’s we weren’t expected to even step into the kitchen, and here, at my in-laws’, I was made to work like a donkey. But not once did I raise my voice at my husband’s mother because that’s how my mother brought me up. She’d talk lovingly about her bed-ridden brother who lost his mental balance when he was quite young. And how she did everything for him: bathing him, changing his soiled clothes, powdering his back so that he wouldn’t have any scabs, reading and singing to him.

She gave a small cry and flinched.

“What’s the matter?”

“Nothing,” she said, shaking her head.

“Should I call for the menu?”

That had been one of her long-term complaints: Nobody cared whether she ate or not. No one bothered to ask even, or at least pretended to care. She found it adorable that he remembered; that he was trying not to give her any reason to feel slighted.

“No, I’m fine,” she said.

 

At home, after she cleaned up every corner despite the crick-crick in her back, she sat down in front of the television, but was annoyed at having to navigate through so many Kannada channels and by the fact that her son didn’t know what channel Sun TV played on. In between the advertisements for Idhayam sesame oil and Joyalukkas jewellery, she turned her attention to her son.

She still didn’t understand what he did for a living, except that he listened to songs on his computer and then made some changes to them and then played them all over again, until he was – to her ears it was all the same – happy with them. He looked so innocent, so focussed on his work now, his eyes closed in concentration, his fingers dancing with the tunes. How old was he? Thirty-five, thirty-seven? She had no idea, and she felt guilty about it.

For the longest time he was his father’s boy, worshipping the man, his every word of appreciation a gold medal. But by the time he graduated, he had changed. Changed in ways she thought wasn’t possible. He had grown more affectionate towards her, understanding her moods, the subtle shifts in her expressions, the way they changed from breakfast to dinner. He started coming to her defence when his father yelled at her for some trivial slip-up like a misplaced tool, or too little or too much salt in food. All in good humour, too. He’d mock-punch his father, or pretend-charge at him while she held on to his arm even as he told her to let go without really meaning it: “Let go, Ma, let go.” If she did, he’d say, “What’re you doing? Pull me back.” In all this, everyone’s mood lightened and things would return to normal.

 

He loved showing off Bangalore to friends from abroad, who often, on their quest to travel around India, sought refuge at his home. For them he’d painstakingly plan the itinerary based on their preferences. Some loved the night life, though complained when pubs closed too early, or how cops stood right outside these days, waiting to pounce on people stumbling out, drunk and happy. Some loved the food, eating too much and falling sick while others, with their pricey cameras around their necks, loved to click at everything, as if looking at the pictures later would somehow transport them back to a time when they were jubilant: the shopping streets, the imposing Vidhan Soudha with its Neo-Dravidian architecture, women in colourful saris, the smells, the gardens, the fountain, the warm, welcoming vibes that Bangalore gave off. And when someone said they felt at home, he grinned and said, “Tell me about it.”

But with her, it was simple: temples and maybe some gold shopping. He took her to the Bull temple, the enormous stone-faced Nandi with those big eyes that called out to you. She spent hours there, praying like she always did for the well-being and happiness of everyone, especially her children.

She’d threaten them when they were young, especially if they were being disobedient, that one of these days she’d go off somewhere and never return. When their histrionics got too much for her to take, she often wished to go deaf like her husband did in his latter years. He was blissful. Nothing ever reached his ears, and on afternoons when some uncouth neighbour drilled or fixed a nail on the wall, he slept without a worry. It was she who’d keep tossing around in the bed, and eventually, after being thoroughly frustrated, would get up to prepare the evening tea.

“Where would you go?” they’d ask.

“Someplace. Why should I tell you?”

 

Suddenly, it was only she and the Nandi, and the bull now asked her to get on its back. It got up on all fours, dwarfing everything around it, and her head was in the clouds, secretly watching the activities of the Gods. There, Krishna was playing his sweet tunes for Radha, and there, Rama and Sita were walking hand-in-hand. She was higher, higher than everyone, everything, but she felt safe on the animal’s back, its coarse, hairy skin warm and alive under her hands, and the way the nerve in its neck trembled.

And then she heard the voice of her mother: How are you my little princess? There they were, her entire family, looking pleased, happy to see her. She was ten again, pony-tailed, plucking mangoes and guavas from the trees in the backyard, getting her thick, curly hair combed for louse on the verandah, the sharp bristles leaving trails of flame on her exposed scalp. But with every swipe came out big, fat cooties that her mother handed her to squish between her thumbnails. She never understood what they were doing up there, what was so interesting. A friend, who was somewhere in the U.S. now – still dressing in jeans and painting her lips (at this age!) – had once suggested that maybe it was a sanctioned experiment by the Government to find out what goes on in a woman’s head.

Then quickly, one after another, her family sat on the Bull’s back, and at once heard gongs that sent vibrations in every direction possible. She closed her eyes and felt these sounds settling on every pore on her body.

They walked and walked until they saw every inch of the universe.

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Kailash Srinivasan has a Masters in Writing from Macquarie University, Sydney. His first book, What Happened to That Love, was published in 2010. His second book is looking for a publisher. His work has appeared in Sincere Forms of Flattery (OandS Publishing), Urban Shots Love Collection, and Yuva (GreyOak), Chicken Soup books, and literary magazines like Going Down Swinging, Regime, Bluslate and Them Pretentious Basterds.

“Before Dawn”

It was 5:00 a.m. in the neighborhood. Aman was refreshed. Tent shaped within the larger dome of night. Except for a slit showing her eyes, she was blackened in veils. Aman’s hair was still wet. Doing as her superintendent dictated: a shower for the little discard. She got past the aluminum gate of their building. The drop zone was the masjid three blocks away. A vrooming sedan disturbed her peace. With her arms hefting the infant, a thought popped up: Why not keep the child?

It had been five years since Aman’s last child. Vulnerability had given way to empowerment. She couldn’t see herself jettisoning a white child, but neither did she feel other mothers’ endless devotion to diaper changing, breastfeeding, and sleep-deprivation. These women were natural products of a balanced social system, completely fulfilled by their partnership. An empty water bottle hit Aman’s back; her jaws quit chewing her favorite EXTRA gum. She turned to face Hanifa’s distant rage, peering through a third story’s window. Hanifa, pointing to her counterfeit golden watch, beckoned Aman to hurry. Aman nodded and turned a corner. One block far from Hanifa’s sight and two to the masjid. She drifted eastward toward the second block, avoiding the monitoring minaret and teetered.

The masjid was directly across the street from the bakery, which produced only Tameez, an enormous circular bread with a distinctive dotted surface made by Afghanis in the early dawn. In front of the masjid, however, was a spacious, uneven, arid bit of land, so sterile that it was the mustering point of the districts’ cars. Aman staggered towards the lumpy land—a patch in the center of a cluster of buildings, desert-like, except for a dozen vehicles. She stumbled on a brick. The child clutched her tighter. She felt it as a pinch, but unlike Hanifa’s disciplinary one. She had her first pinch at the age of eleven when she shaved her eyebrows in rebellion to their ugliness, defending her position with “I want thin ones like yours.”

Now she flinched, not in pain, but from an indecipherable fear.

Intersecting the bakery boulevard, the path now seemed wider, so wide that it provided space for her mind to think of the exact time the Afghani would start his baking. Hanifa didn’t promise a festive breakfast upon completing the abandonment mission. Giving too many promises would make a meal bland, Aman thought. She was partly starved. Her breasts felt ready to burst, and in her throat the sob of their recent quarrel stuck, the one in which Hanifa said the breastfeeding was debilitating her and she should drop the child at once. This time, she was hurt. She’d countered by accusing Hanifa that she was stonehearted, and Hanifa in turn had said, with a ferocious gaze that has long kept Aman on track every time her virtuous whims erupted, “You will regret it and not be welcomed in the house again.”

Which was harsh. Entirely cruel. Because Hanifa was the only person she trusted, and without her she was doomed, penniless, houseless, and unloved. Such was the usurious pay of dependence.

Aman’s breasts dripped. The baby would cry soon, she knew. A skeletal calico raced past her, dashing into a curved alley. Aman toddled after it.

The alleyway was a stout tongue squeezed between musty buildings, seven to nine stories high. Rectangular air conditioners were the only protruding objects. In the dim silence, she could barely read the unlit signs of the sparse shops. A single functioning light bulb dangled from a store’s defunct neon. She felt watched.

Aman headed to the end of the alley. No sign of the cat. She moved away enough from the bulb to avoid bringing her any curious notice. Finding a less grimy ground, she sat cross-legged. She was at the shop’s threshold, maternity insisted. Above her, a mistranslated sign displayed words arranged in a confusing order. The pleated stripes of the storefront made her conscious once again of her untended backache. She drew her double-layered face veil to canopy the child. The fragrant wave of her damp hair made her lean in joy. She recalled how the shower enlivened her, how the water fell like salvation on her filthy locks, spiriting away dandruff. The way she shampooed her hair nearly to the extent of scraping her scalp. The way she roughly massaged her head in big circular movements, forming a foamy, unified mess that breathed cleanliness. She needed it so badly that she repeated the shampooing three times before a final conditioning treat. The clunk of cockroaches reverberated through the alleyway, adding more anxiety. She darted her eyes, looking for the cat.

Where the alley ended there was a large brown plastic vessel. The cat loped to the rim of the fetid garbage and looked Aman in the eye, spine straight, stern and vigilant. In response, Aman lowered her gaze and fastened her grip on the child, becoming mother shaped. The cat started scavenging—a sea of cardboard boxes half-obscuring it from view. It bobbed and dived; rising empty-handed except for an orange peel on its shoulder, and then plunged again.

Twenty minutes later, a man in his mid-thirties appeared, a bulging garbage bag throwing him off balance. He could have descended one of the buildings’ staircases while Aman was busy buttoning her blouse from under the veil. The child was still on her lap, hidden. Aman watched the man, cone-shaped beard hanging from his chin. There was something heavenly about him. His thobe was five inches short, crisp white—whiteness was what Aman missed this night. Not only this night, but throughout her pregnancy and in her childhood. The only dressed-in-whites were escaped magnates laden with disquiet, drugs, and consumption. The dress of the men in her life was mainly national except for the latest tea-colored Kamiz Shalwar. She lacked the essential, pure whiteness of a reflective kindness that seemed hard to spot in this white-wearing country of men.

“Bismillah,” exclaimed the man at seeing who seemed like a beggar at such an early hour. Her splayed-out posture on the asphalt gave an indication of neediness. Aman was silent. Such an hour was known for the pious to walk to the masjid in pursuit of praying or reading Quran. She wasn’t any of them. A breeze of insecurity contained her. The man bowed with a 500 riyals note. “Go ahead, may Allah sustain you.”

The note was doubled, hiding the King’s photo. In doubt of its authenticity, Aman unfolded the note, scrutinizing the silver belt whose palm and swords symbols shone with her swaying. There also was a picture of the Kaaba with two minarets hovering behind the black edifice. The sight of minarets resurrected her quest. She slid the note inside her blouse and clasped her dependent.

Back on the main road, the flow of worshippers increased. Their purposeful steps gave rise to Aman’s fear. Overseers, they seemed to her. She cursed her ungloved hands. If covered, her brown complexion wouldn’t be a target to social gaze and virtue gauge. In a blink, she slid her hands inside the wrist slits, adjusting the baby’s blanket to cover an exposed ear before leaving the alley.

Aman wouldn’t have believed this fair child was hers had not Hanifa herself helped to bring her into the world. She came suddenly, that they could not make it to the hospital. She remembered how Hanifa recklessly placed the newborn on her chest and was busy pressing her bloated belly. “White . . . is he truly white?” Aman asked, squinting at the child’s fairness. Her fatigue was augmented by Hanifa’s silencing, “How, by Allah, can you have a white kid?”

She was so occupied with the cleaning that she did not look at the child. “Wash him first,” Aman pleaded.

“Her” Hanifa grunted, lingering on the newborn’s private parts. Aman patted the child. Her hands were covered in grease and maternity gushed. She pulled the child closer, sliding her bra aside for the first maternal contact. The sight of Aman cradling the child made Hanifa snatch the infant. “Don’t corrupt her,” she glared.

For the first time, Aman sounded less dependent and more of a mother. “What do you think you are doing?” A pause. “She is my child.”

My child was not part of the domestic vocabulary. She was too weak to snatch the baby back but willing to scratch Hanifa with her long, well-manicured nails. She wept. Before Hanifa filed out of the room, Aman shouted, “Don’t cast her. Please.”

Hanifa was turning her back. “I won’t,” she growled and resumed her walk.

* * *

She was twenty-seven. Ten years in the business. Bore four children at intervals. Big Nose, Dark Coffee Bean, Frowned Monkey and Pumpkin, as Hanifa named them. She and Hanifa would be taxied to the hospital as contractions were twisting her, flown to the emergency, and cast the newborn. Casting, not delivering or receiving, was the right word. Hanifa would attend the delivery, make sure of the wound suturing and accompany Aman to the room. Meanwhile, the child was looked at, bathed, and tucked in with tens of others in the nursery they would flee.

* * *

Back on the road, she seemed the sole pedestrian walking against the flow. Heading back to her neighborhood’s masjid, her steps got heavier and the throb of her heart accelerated. Determined, masculine steps walked in reverse. A clammy drip of phlegmatic spit blotted the asphalt. She felt sick. The last time she spit was on the newspaper last week. The front-page picture featured news of males from her nationality accused of riots and killing in the capital: a spit of doubt, disbelief, and journalism-loathing. She paced forward. The vivid green lights of the minaret came into view.

On the lower tip of the child’s mouth, a white trace of milk spread all the way toward the chin, forming a thick tear-shaped clot. Her mobile whirred. Then a message scolded, “Where are you?” It rang again and seemed that it wouldn’t quit until Hanifa went back to her sleep. Aman envisioned her plump body resting on one side, her caftan pulled upward showing hairless fat legs and snores resounding. The incessant ringing quit. Aman lingered on, pressing the “off” button. Her feet were bolted to nowhere, her heart to no one, and the voice of Adhan anchored the start of a new day.

Guided by the luminous minaret, she straightened her back and firmly bound the infant to her sternum. Secured by the baby’s pinch and her determined steps, everything was lulled as it is before a sudden cry. Her satchel flapped back and forth in rhythm with her steps. An indigo line cut through the horizon. The Imam’s mellifluous voice amplified verses of the Quran. She strode toward the barren land. Sparrows churned the new day note. She reached the masjid: its white edifice rose, indifferent to the crude graffiti on its wall. Her gaze scanned the place. She spotted the corner arrowing the women’s section. The door was locked. Latecomer worshippers stumbled through the men’s entrance, their steps racing the prayer. The infant dropped her hand. She licked her forefinger and wiped the milk mark. The child, in her deep sleep, smiled.

Her guardian Hanifa’s advice was to leave the kid at God’s doorstep and she would be well-taken care of. An orphanage, a name, nationality, education, and monthly salary. Didn’t credulous people of this country worship everything at Allah’s door? And what if she was pretty as well? Adopting a white child is like choosing a marshmallow from a bed of almonds—Hanifa’s analogy—as the orphanage clutters with chocolate skinned kids, the product of locals and Chads.

Dozens of shoes were heaped at the doormat leading to the prayer room. To its left, an immaculate wooden shoe rack had been left unloaded. The time seemed just right. A late worshipper joined. His haste to catch up with the congregation kept him from noticing the peering woman. He agilely released himself from his sandals, flipped them onto the stack of shoes, and pushed the door. It clapped back to its place quickly enough to block any vision of the inside ritual.

Aman ran toward the shoe heap, bending to clear them away. A whiff of used leather mixed with sweat and dust stuffed her nostrils. She cupped away dozens of pairs. Large shoes seemed the size of peas, her heart felt grand as a dome.

When she knelt down to position the child, she opened her grey eyes.

Kissed no one but this. Diapered no one but her. Pinched by no child but her. Aman found the courage to prod for wisdom, to search for her own intentions. Was that how much beauty overtook one’s lifestyle, rectifying the wrongs and questioning the obsolete? Could she really become a mother?

No, she thought. Yes, perfecting her passions.

Aman lingered, facing the misplaced shoes long enough to be warned by the prayer pre-final ritual, the silence. The child wriggled in discomfort. Positioning her straight against her chest, a high-pitched burp sounded. She put her back on the creviced ground. Looking up the minaret, she saw grim, young faces appear.

“Bless you,” Big Nose shrieked.

“Why not us?” Dark Coffee Bean blamed.

“A girl deserves,” patted Frowned Monkey on the silent Pumpkin’s shoulder. The youngest grinned and the four of them vanished. A shaggy wisp descended to alight on a tattered sandal.

In the masjid patio, callous heels shuffled their way back to sandals. A hefty foot stomped the wisp. It seemed the kind of an ordinary day when nothing shocking could take place, nothing shameful could manacle a pursuer, the sky an inky sheet. Slumbered sun. Bashful breeze. Bakeries unlocked their steel doors. The aroma of Tameez rubbed locals’ and foreigners’ shoulders. A zephyr fondled fretful minds, in-debt pockets, and lonely souls. The kind of day when a woman of Aman’s sin might slacken off taking an illegitimate child, or feel intimidated enough to start over a chaste life imbued with travail. Among the waiters for the large circular Tameez, Aman called out “Biscuit-like crust, stuffed with cheese.” Men recessed. The sight of a fully veiled woman at such early hour stirred respect.

A woman with a child in hand.

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Fatima Jamal is a Saudi writer. She gained her Bachelor degree in English literature from Taibah University in Madinah and upon her graduation, joined Taibah University as an English lecturer. Fatima is the graduate of MA in Creative Writing from Sydney University.She currently lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia with her husband and two children.

“Elvis is Alive and He’s the Short Order Cook at the Silver Dollar Diner”

Elvis usually gets there early, by 5:30, before everyone else, though this morning he’s running late. The waitress has had to make excuses to both 6 a.m. customers and the bus boy has had to make the pancakes. He’s not very good at it, so the pancakes are sub-par, but Elvis rushes in at 6:15, still wearing blue flannel pajama pants and his hair’s a mess. He forgot to set his alarm, and he is so sorry, y’all. Elvis promises more pancakes, this time with whipped cream and strawberries for free. The customers love him.

Elvis heads back into the kitchen, singing to himself as he walks, something he heard on the radio in the car. The screen door slams, he hums. Mary’s dress waves. He never wrote songs like that, but it’s good, he thinks, this new rock music, even though it was new ten years ago. He makes the pancake batter from scratch, from a recipe he knows by heart. He whisks the eggs into the flour with a couple of quick strokes, still humming, darlin’, you know just what I’m here for. That’s more his speed.

The pancakes sizzle on the grill and he reaches into the fridge, comes back with a crate of two dozen eggs and a slab of bacon. Two over easy with sourdough toast for Walter, in the far booth by the windows, and two scrambled for Howard sitting at the counter. The two men both come every morning like clockwork, have for years, but they’re still strangers to one another. Howard used to get his eggs over easy too, six years ago when he started coming here, but he complained and complained that they were never just right. Elvis finally told him it was scrambled or nothing, dammit, and Howard keeps coming back so the eggs must be okay.

Elvis wipes his left hand on his apron and pushes his hair out of his eyes. It went gray years ago and he hasn’t had sideburns in a long, long time, but he still keeps it a little longer than his mother, bless her soul, would have found acceptable. He looks great for his age, looks twenty years younger than he is. Good plastic surgeons are worth their weight in gold. People believe him when he says he was named after himself, like Elvis Costello. My mama was a big fan, he says. Yeah, he looks kind of like the real Elvis, it’s just a funny coincidence. He says he’s been thinking of becoming an impersonator, and he hasn’t, but he thinks it’s funny and he’ll sneer and say thankyouverymuch for his favorite customers.

Elvis died on that toilet in 1977. His heart stopped for ninety seconds before his live-in nurse rushed in when she heard the thud. He watched his own funeral from a hospital bed a week later, still high on morphine after the triple bypass, and in that state he said good riddance to all those people who were so sad now he was dead. Lisa Marie knows but Priscilla doesn’t, and he wishes she’d make better life choices, especially with men, but she’s his little girl so it’s okay.

He went to Graceland once, and he bought a ticket and was ready to go on the tour but at the last minute he stayed in the gift shop. He still remembers himself too vividly, the swagger and glitz of Elvis Presley, and he can’t bear to see how it’s faded in a decade and a half. Those gold records don’t shine as bright now, he knows, and the jungle room is probably dingy and mossy, the stains showing in the carpet. The television sets are relics, the stained glass gaudy. Instead he buys a clock of himself. His hips swing back and forth with the seconds.

The pancakes and eggs and bacon are done, so he shouts order up! over the counter and Shelley comes and gets it. The sun is shining through the front windows now, highlighting BACON AND EGG BREAKFAST $2.95 in a mirror image, splashing it all against the back wall. Elvis doesn’t eat that stuff anymore and has some yogurt and strawberries in the fridge. Soon he’ll be cooking five orders at a time for the breakfast crowd and then burgers, fries and turkey melts for businessmen, and by the time he closes at 3 p.m. he’ll be covered in grease and his feet will hurt but he’ll still know everyone by their first name. He can hit the gym before the evening rush, he’s trying to get off his cholesterol meds and his doctor says it’s looking good. For right now, though, both early customers are busy eating, Shelley is reading People magazine and the busboy is trying to nap with his head on the table. He takes a yogurt container out of the fridge and eats it while he watches the sun rise over Memphis.

______________________________________________

Alex Collins-Shotwell is currently an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Virginia. Her work will be appearing in an upcoming volume of Mixed Fruit.

“November Snowfall”

A heavy snow was falling outside the windows of the lecture hall, great clumps of soft white snow. The late afternoon sky was pale silver, darkening to pewter gray. Elizabeth wondered how long it was going to take to dig her car out in the faculty parking lot. Some colleagues were coming over for drinks later and she needed to stop at the supermarket first. She wondered why she was bothering with yet another birthday gathering at her age.

“What kind of stand does Bartleby take when he says ‘I prefer not to?’ Is he taking a stand, or simply retreating from life?” She wrote “I prefer not to” on the chalkboard and circled it as she turned to the class. Several students near the front of the large classroom were already waving their hands.

“He’s the ultimate rebel without a cause, don’t you think Professor Garrett? He’s resisting the modern age,” Jonathan said, nodding. He combed his hands through his tangled hair and leaned forward.

“He doesn’t stand for anything,” Heather countered. “He’s just depressed. He can’t cope.”

“Wasn’t his career at a standstill when he wrote ‘Bartleby’?” Jennifer asked. “It says in the anthology that Melville was giving up on writing.”

Elizabeth never taught Melville without thinking of Lem, of course, his two famous books on Melville, their clandestine affair her senior year in college. He’d been such a narcissist, and she’d been so impressed by him. Her perfect grades, grad school admissions, entry-level fellowships, so much of it had been to impress Lem. Who hadn’t left his wife, after all, had never intended to leave his wife. Rumor had it that she’d finally left him. He was still back in Pennsylvania at Middleton, as far as Elizabeth knew. She’d heard that he married one of his graduate students after the divorce. She didn’t envy her, ministering to his colossal ego, looking the other way during his perpetual affairs. Probably he was on wife three or four by now.

All of their lovemaking had taken place in his office, on a musty brown velour couch that he sponged off occasionally when the stains were too obvious. She’d told herself that he was too carried away by passion and the need for secrecy to find someplace else.

“My office hours are over at five,” he’d whisper in the hall, and she’d nod, enthralled at the prospect of seeing him. He liked her to sit on his desk while he undressed her. Only later did she realize that he’d never exactly said, “I love you.” He said things like “I adore you,” “My God, you’re lovely,” “I think about you all of the time,” and “I couldn’t live without these interludes. You have no idea what life at home is like. My wife and I have nothing in common any more.”

They didn’t talk about literature when they were alone, but he rewarded her comments in his classes with approving nods and encouragement. “Brilliant, Elizabeth. You’ve hit the nail right on the head.” She’d come to believe that they had a great deal in common indeed. When the grad school acceptances began to trickle in, she expected him to implore her to stay. A divorce would take time, she knew that, with children in junior high. Elizabeth had seen the wife, a small, dark-haired, mousy woman. She’d never seen the children. She was sure he wanted her to stay. But he never suggested it, merely discussed the relative merits of the graduate programs, mostly comments about fellow academics at the other universities. “Caleb is quite bright, of course, but his newest book falls short in a number of respects.” Or, “Fiona has built quite a reputation, if you like that sort of thing. Personally I think feminist scholarship will be forgotten in five years. Just another fad.”

She’d chosen Delaware for its proximity to Middleton, foolishly, as it turned out. Lem never called or wrote. After a few unhappy months she started dating an insecure fellow grad student specializing in the Romantics. She and Eddie idealized their bond at first, both outsiders, both high achievers, both veterans of failed love affairs. Soul mates.

“I feel like this was meant to be,” he said, gazing into her eyes. “We were destined to meet at just this time, in just this place.” The din in the cafeteria receded as they held hands across the table, uncleared plates and torn packets of ketchup and mustard forgotten. She wanted to believe he was right.

There’d been rumors that Lem was seeing a new grad student, a blonde from Duke. Before she’d even left Middleton, she heard rather more than she cared to about Lem’s infidelities.

She’d been packing books with her friend Lucy, trying to squeeze her comforter and sheets and pillow into a large suitcase with her clothes. Her roommates were already gone, their lease up. The apartment looked dusty and forlorn without their possessions. It was a hot summer day, and she and Lucy were drinking cold sodas in front of an oscillating fan, taking a break.

“You know about that sophomore he was seeing three years ago, don’t you? They say she called his wife and there was some big drama. She dropped out after that.”

“Yeah, I heard something about that,” Elizabeth said vaguely. She hadn’t heard much, and didn’t care anyway. Three years ago Lem hadn’t even seen her yet. “Well, I hear he’s been banging that grad student Melissa since February. I didn’t want to say anything, but now you’re leaving. You know the one in Comp Lit, writing on Cervantes?” Lucy had put on a sympathetic face, but seemed secretly pleased to be passing on this information.

“She’s not even pretty. Do you mean the fat one who always wears black?”

“Well from what I hear, he’s not all that picky. Really you’re better off without him.”

Elizabeth held the cold can of Coke up to her burning cheeks and wiped the sweat off her face with her sleeve. She jabbed at a corner of the pillow sticking out of the suitcase. “I’m sure there are going to be plenty of guys in the grad program at Delaware. I can’t wait to see what it’s like.”

Alone in a new town, at a new university, Elizabeth had flirted with Eddie to show herself that she didn’t care about Lem. A big, strapping Midwesterner worried that he might not fit in back East, Eddie had flirted with Elizabeth because he was yearning for a soul mate.

“My Belle Dame sans Merci,” he breathed the first night she’d gone home with him. He tugged at her t-shirt, unzipping her jeans and pushing them down. “You are so beautiful.”

She ran her hands over his strong shoulders. His skin was soft and milky white, not hairy like Lem’s. “You too. I’ve never felt like this.”

As they rolled around on his queen-size bed, panting and sweating, she thought maybe that was true. Certainly it was more intimate, intertwined in bed all night, than it had ever been on Lem’s couch. Eddie worshipped her, and called her “my goddess.” He liked to kiss her feet, and suck on each toe. Once he covered the bed in rose petals. He also needed her, and wanted to be with her all the time.

She didn’t think much of the British Romantics, really, far preferring American writers of the same era, but she never told Eddie that. It was clear he felt manly, knowing so much more about the authors in the Romanticism seminar than she did. He read Keats and Coleridge aloud to her in the campus coffeehouse and she pretended she liked their poetry, a little embarrassed when students at other tables eavesdropped.

“Ah! Dearest love, sweet home of all my fears,/And hopes, and joys, and panting miseries,—” His face shone with sincerity.

She didn’t tell him about Lem until they’d been seeing each other for a few months. Eddie immediately blamed Lem for exploiting her trust. They were in bed, Eddie propped on an elbow, his blond hair tousled. She stroked his chest while she talked. She liked Eddie’s bulk, the strength of his torso. He made her feel protected.

“What a jerk! Jeez, you could get him fired, you know, if you told someone about that.”

Elizabeth doubted that was true. Lem was one of the more famous members in the department at Middleton, and hardly the only senior academic having affairs with students. But Eddie was an idealist, and despite the romantic and sexual disarray of the authors he studied, he was fairly conservative in his attitudes.

“I know,” she said. “But it’s over and I don’t think about it any more.”

For a while things had been good with Eddie. They’d moved in together, studied at the library together, read each other’s papers and dissertation chapters. Their wedding had been romantic, a small gathering of grad students and family at the flower-filled campus chapel. But when she turned out to be the one with the first job offer, requiring him to move with her to a small town in North Dakota, he’d sulked for a year, barely working on his unfinished thesis, dragging around their new apartment in sweats, watching daytime TV. He complained incessantly about the weather, about how provincial Winnetonka was. He sneered at her first publication. “That’s the kind of stuff they’re publishing these days, really trivial commentary. No one’s looking at the big picture.” He was above all that bullshit, he told anyone who would listen. He wasn’t going to kowtow to get a degree. When he left for an adjunct position at a community college in Ohio, she found she didn’t miss him. She’d ceased to admire him. Maybe she’d never loved him. Their occasional weekends together dwindled over time, and she hadn’t been very surprised when he called her to say he was seeing someone else. She didn’t think he’d ever finished his Ph.D. She had no idea where he was now.

There wasn’t much social life at the North Dakota State satellite campus in Winnetonka, which felt like a fishbowl where everyone observed your every move. For a while Elizabeth dated an Assistant Professor in the Computer Science department, but she’d been bored, not really interested in his work. Then a fiery radical in Sociology, whose alienation reminded her of Eddie’s. She was skeptical of his cynicism, the way he bonded with students over shared complaints. He seemed immature, and she wasn’t sorry when they parted ways. She was hoping for someone who could talk about literature with her, but hires in the English department were few, and they turned out to be harried suburban fathers who didn’t talk about books anyway, just North Dakota schools and local sports and real estate.

Which was cheap in Winnetonka, so Elizabeth decided to buy a house. It was a good investment, she told herself, even though she didn’t plan to stay. The houses for sale were better than the rentals. Settling on a tidy bungalow with wood floors and an old-fashioned front porch, she painted and sanded, had bookshelves built, bought a Persian carpet and a brown velvet couch. Later she realized it looked something like Lem’s ratty sofa, but it was nicer, and she covered it in bright silk pillows. She enjoyed listening to Bach in the evenings with a glass of wine. She got a cat, whom she named Herman. Herman and her garden made it hard to get away in the summer, but she found she didn’t mind. The years slipped by without Elizabeth noticing.

Her publications were respectable: a slender monograph on Emily Dickinson culled from her dissertation and a string of articles. Not enough to land a senior position elsewhere, but more than enough for the ND State satellite campus. She had a small circle of friends. They spent a good deal of time complaining about the weather and the cultural wasteland of Winnetonka, weighing the relative merits of Minneapolis-St. Paul and Chicago, which were far away. They didn’t get to them frequently enough, they all agreed, comparing them to other cities they knew: New York, Boston, L.A., San Francisco.

She was fond of her students, farmers’ kids for the most part, some of them curious about the larger world, most content to go back home when they finished their degrees. She hoped she broadened their horizons. Her American literature classes were always packed, and got good student evaluations. They read Crane’s Red Badge of Courage, Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, Poe’s stories, Whitman’s poetry. Melville, Dickinson, Emerson, Wharton, James.

When she taught James’ “The Jolly Corner” the students were unimpressed with the idea that Spencer Brydon was haunted by a spectral alter ego, the self he might have become if he’d stayed in America. “Will this be on the test, Professor Garrett? James was hecka hard to read. Jeez, will you look at how long this sentence is?” So young, all of them. Searching for the roads they’d follow, they had no sense that the routes they chose would preclude other routes. That they might look back at age 68 and wonder how they’d gotten where they were, even conjure dim phantoms of former and potential selves.

Elizabeth switched off the classroom lights and went to her office to finish some paperwork before she bundled up for the trip home. She wasn’t sure she really wanted to celebrate her 68th birthday. Open bottles of wine and small presents, pass around canapés and talk about the snowfall, and how they hadn’t predicted this many inches on the weather report, and Minneapolis-St. Paul and Chicago, and how they hadn’t been there in a while, and cities they’d lived in when they were young, with colleagues who seemed older and more sedentary every year.

“How did I end up here?” she asked herself, winding a long wool muffler around her neck. “And where am I going now?” The answer was depressingly obvious. She pulled on her gloves. She was staying in Winnetonka. She would probably die in Winnetonka. She’d been someone else once, the sexy senior singled out by the attractive older man, a top scholar no less. The promising young Dickinson scholar married to a promising young Keats scholar, ready to publish, start a family, move up the academic ladder, distinguish herself somehow. But maybe that girl had not been as passionate and adventurous as she’d once believed. Maybe she’d been obedient, instead, not imaginative enough to make her own way and choose her destiny. Because surely this wasn’t it, the vague, bright future she’d had in mind.

She saw herself perched naked on Lem’s desk, head thrown back as she laughed in delight at something he’d said. The famous Lemuel Hoskins, joking with her. Out of all the girls in the class, choosing her.

“You’ve got the whole world in front of you, Elizabeth. You’re gifted. You’re beautiful.”

He stroked her tender breasts, caressed the sides of her torso and legs, luminous and pale in the shadowy office, gazing greedily at her warm young body.

“You know I’d do anything for you, Lem.”

“You would, sweetheart, wouldn’t you.”

“Anything.”

Her breath quickened as he parted her knees.

Elizabeth shook her head.

She pulled her office door shut, then jiggled the handle to make sure it was locked. She needed to warm up the car and think about the shopping list for the canapés. Something a little different this time. She’d had enough Brie and water crackers and everyone else probably had too. Four bottles of the Riesling, and a couple of reds. She’d buy some kitty treats for Nathaniel. She hoped Joe from maintenance was outside, making his rounds with the snowblower. She didn’t feel like shoveling snow today. Or finding herself snowbound.

It was time to retire. Maybe move somewhere else. There was nothing stopping her. She could go anywhere in the world, some place where there was less snow at least. But she’d gotten used to the bone-chilling North Dakota winters, and really she had no idea where she wanted to go instead.

It was almost dark when she pushed open the glass double doors, bracing herself for the cold. Glistening snow blanketed everything, pure white, and utterly beautiful. The falling snow hushed all sound, and for a moment she felt like the only soul in an untouched, infinite universe. She took a first step, and then a second, her feet sinking deeply as she waded through snowdrifts to the parking lot. The snowflakes were cold and wet on her warm face. By the time she got to her car and looked back, new snow had effaced her steps and she could just barely see the footprints she’d left behind.

§

“Chicken Dinner”

My grandmother would cook us dinner, chicken, acorn squash, and ice milk for dessert. She was diabetic and had flat blue ceramic bowls of stale candy wrapped in plastic and foil in her apartment. My grandfather would drive us places like the zoo at Central Park or sleigh riding at Delwood Country Club and wait in the car until we were done. She never let us ride in taxis and always carried tangerines in her purse. She would order extra chicken legs from the butcher for dinner. “I ordered extra chicken legs from the butcher just for you, Carolyn, because I know you love them,” she said. She would suck the bones of her chicken and pile them on her plate. Then she would take my bones and then my sister’s bones and then my grandfather’s bones and suck the marrow. If my parents were with us, she would suck their bones too. The bones balanced in a big heap on her plate. She wore big gold rings and licked wet chicken juice off her fingers. Then she would make coffee. She would push her plate to the side to make room for her ice milk dessert and her coffee with milk and sugar that she drank from bone china. Sometimes a sucked bone would fall onto the table, and she would pick it up and put it back on the bone mountain. She would pour her hot coffee so it would overflow, and then she’d slurp it from her saucer. She left brown coffee rings on the white tablecloth. I often wondered about all those boneless, legless chickens, wobbling like Weebles.

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