Thoughts Akimbo

Creative observations for sale!

Archive for Slice of life columns

After the Cloud

Light filtering through the green leaves, one pale leaf dancing back and forth in the breeze, showing its silvery underside, mesmerizing, soothing, the pulse of life. The wind sweetened by the scent of the trees, the wonderful rustling whisper of the branches … a shot rings out.

The explosion is so loud, my mind reels. Then I hear another, and another.

I awaken. I hear the sound of knocking.

“It’s me, Doc. Open up. Please!”

There were five locks on the door. The brass deadbolt and key locks, the chain locks, the wooden crossbeam. I always slept with all five of them secured.

I wanted those few hours of reassurance. I wanted peace, to dream of trees with leaves, to remember.

Joy no longer locked her door at all. “It’s doesn’t matter, Mom,” she said. “They will come if they want to.”

“We all have the same amount of nothing now.”

One night the month before, exhausted from trying helping a woman give birth, after neighbors had carried away both the heavy body and the tiny one, Joy had fallen asleep at my kitchen table, her head on her folded arms. And I had locked all five of my locks, locked her inside with me. I had slept well, knowing my own baby was as safe as I could make her, for one night.

I opened the door to a familiar face. Hank Hayes, carrying a limp bundle wrapped in a floral print sheet, holding it draped upon his arm as tenderly as a bridesmaid holds her bouquet.

It was his son, Hiram. I knew without asking.

“Tree got him, Doc.”

I understood. Almost immediately after the cloud, every tree in Garden Grove had died instantly. And Garden Grove had once had a lot of trees.

People on the street had also died instantly, their bodies dissolving within minutes. People who had been in their homes died more slowly, poisoned at a speed determined by their amount of exposure.

But the trees. The trees died all at once, down to their deep roots, slaughtered where they stood, transformed into brittle, hollow giants, so that the next windy day might topple them, the next climbing child might send their massive corpses crashing down.

Trees now haunted the city they once graced.

The good people of Garden Grove had pushed down most of the trees in the main part of town, even burned many for firewood in the first winter after the cloud. The fire smoke, contaminated with blue-green dust as it was, had killed so many survivors.

But kids were likely to find the few trees that still stood, on the outskirts of town. Climbing a tree, something my own Jonathan had enjoyed just a few years back, had become a deadly danger for the young ones now.

Every time I heard one in the distance crash to the ground, with that ungodly rolling echo, I shuddered.

I unwrapped the blanket and lay 7-year-old Hiram on the table. He was unconscious. I could see many broken ribs, a broken jaw, a mangled arm.

He had lost a lot of blood. His heartbeat was a quivering whisper in his pale, crushed chest. He would not survive. This town never had a hospital, and there was no way to get him to another town.

Hank read the diagnosis on my face. “There’s nothing we can do, is there Doc?”

I shook my head. “Just try to keep him comfortable.”

Tears began to drip down the big man’s face. “I’m not taking him up to Lookout, Doc. I won’t do it! No member of my family …”

“Of course not, Hank,” I said, putting an arm around his broad but bony shoulder. “Don’t you even think about that now. Just make him comfortable.”

I didn’t say it aloud, but we both knew: we’d all seen so many people die. It made the moment no less tragic.

Hank would bury his son in his own backyard, and the next-door neighbor would help him dig the grave. I knew. That’s how it had become in Garden Grove, when children died.

“Thanks, Doc.” Hank tenderly lifted his unconscious burden, and walked to the door, his head down.

I felt bitterness surge within me. Some help I am. Some doctor.

“Wait.” I took a book from the bookshelf, pulled a tiny box from behind it, shook the pills out into my hand. There were eleven left.

“Here,” I said, giving him one. “If Hiram wakes up, and you can get him to eat or drink anything, try to get this down him. It will help him feel better. I … wish I could do more.”

“Thanks, Doc,” Hank said, tears on his ruddy cheeks. “I mean it.”

Locking the door after him, I thought: it would have taken 10 of those white pills to kill me, when I was healthy. Perhaps only 8 now that I was down to my high school weight again.

And now there were 10 left.

That day, that decision, would have to come soon.

I got dressed. I had taken to wearing Joy’s dresses, because my pants would no longer stay up around my waist. The dresses flapped around me like sheets on a clothesline. After years of fighting to reach a healthy weight, I had found a diet that worked: starvation. I chuckled.

When the cloud had arrived, at 3 o’clock one Sunday afternoon in July, the little green town of Garden Grove had turned blue-green, and then brown. Every fine tomato plant in our garden had shriveled instantly, every crimson hollyhock in the side yard, and every blade of green grass on the lawn.

Nothing would grow in the soil, ever again. It was like that as far as the eye could see.

I had worked at the Wal-Mart, ever since my husband died, many years before the cloud. It had never been enough to support all three of us. So in the last year, I’d been taking classes at night school to become a pharmacist.

The college was in another town. It might as well have been as far away as the yellow full moon that glowed over Garden Grove that night. But I was glad for the little medical training I’d had time to receive.

The town had once had four real doctors; they were gone now. Missing, like half the people in town. No one knew if they were killed at once by the cloud, or crushed by trees like little Hiram, or if they were slowly dying of the poisoning, holed up behind locked doors. Or maybe they were up with the ghosts on Lookout Mountain, already dead and gone.

I was the closest thing Garden Grove had to a doctor. But I was weary. There was so little left inside any of us.

I thought about climbing up to the roof, but sank back into my bed instead, idly fingering the oak headboard. I sifted through my thoughts, searching for something familiar and hopeful.

There was still a voice there, one voice in the mind chorus, which believed life could return to normal.

But it was such a soft voice now.

Light filtering through the green leaves, one leaf dancing back and forth in the breeze, showing its silvery underside, mesmerizing, soothing, the pulse of life. The wind sweetened by the scent of the trees, the wonderful rustling whisper of the branches … water trickles from a nearby waterfall. Begins splashing louder.

I awaken.

I heard the sound of running water. The old whiskey barrel in which I stored my well water had burst, spraying and spilling across the polished wood kitchen floor, surging in a sparkling flood to the very edge of my bedroom rug.

An everyday catastrophe. I smiled.

I spent an hour up to my knees in wet towels and sheets, mopping and wringing into a bucket, dragging the bucket to the bathroom with the last of my strength. The floor had not been so clean in a while.

A tap on the door. I knew Joy’s knock, polite but insistent. Followed by her high voice.

“Are you in there, Mom? It’s time for a meeting.”

Unlocking the five locks, I was already arguing with her. “Oh, please, you know I hate those meetings. What’s the point? We all know the score.”

Three more locks gave way, and I slid the beam from its holder.

“Frankly, I don’t care how many more days of food there are in the community can collection.”

Joy was doe-thin, her cheeks hollow. Yet I was always amazed at the first sight of her beauty, the candor in those eyes, her father’s perfect coraline lips.

“Yeah, but it makes people feel better when you’re there, Mom,” she said. “You’re the town doctor.”

We both laughed.

“Oh, I think maybe you’re the doctor, baby,” I said.

“It’s good to hear you laugh again, Mom.”

For the first months after the cloud, I cried, I worried, I worked. Joy was at my side, learning everything I ever knew, taking out books on permanent loan from the abandoned library, before people had burned the rest of the book collection for fuel.

After I sent Jonathan away, I didn’t work as hard, but I cried and worried more.

The following spring I began to let myself smile again. Because I knew it didn’t matter.

There was a certain freedom in that.

The neighborhood meeting was a dozen gaunt people collapsed onto folding chairs in the school basement. Shadows from the three huge beeswax candles scampered across the pale green enamel-painted walls. Markham, a man with a serious-sounding cough and smudgy glasses, presided.

“Thank you all for coming,” he said, with as much formality as he could muster.

Some of those in the audience did not seem to know where they are. They ran their hands through dirty, too-long hair. Some stared at the floor for the entire meeting. One woman appeared to be crying softly.

“We have 62 days of food left in the common can collection,” Markham said. “That means we’re in pretty good shape for now, but 62 days in not really a long time. Food remains our biggest concern.”

Markham had written notes on blue index cards, having prepared solemnly for this meeting. He was our leader, although no one knew his first name. He was the new mayor, in much the way I was the new doctor.

“As you all know, we used the last of the gasoline in town to fuel the earthmovers that put roadblocks in place at the ends of Route 24 and Dixie Highway. This has significantly reduced the number of marauders, and those we have seen in town appear to be weak and not much of a threat anyway.”

The roadblock was made of abandoned and donated cars and trucks. Not much point in owning a vehicle, once the gas was gone. My own Buick was in the pile at the south end of town. Jonathan’s new purple Pontiac, the one he bought with his grease-stained paychecks from the fried chicken place, saving all though the summer before his senior year in high school — the Pontiac stood upright, wedged between the video store owner’s Cadillac and his principal’s old Volvo. My son’s old car helped guard the east end of town.

Some bicycles, those that had been stored safely in garages when the cloud hit, still sailed down the main streets during daylight. Other bicycles, their spokes entwined with blue-green goo, lay discarded in the ditches.

People in the audience began to chat quietly about marauders they had seen, how they had scared them away, deadly traps they had set around their supplies.

“People!” Markham said, to restore order. “Please, people. I know you’re interested in how we’re doing. Let me finish my report.”

He shuffled his index cards, coughed ominously, and leaned closer to the candle on the long table before him. In the shadows, the circles beneath his eyes grew, giving him a skeletal and somewhat more commanding affect. The audience grew silent.

“We remain without electric power or telephone service. Bill Watson, who was a ham radio operator, is missing, and no one else in town has been able to figure out how to operate his radio equipment. If any of you knows anything about radios, or someone who does, please contact me at once.”

After the cloud, when the trees came down, so did the power lines, and the phone lines. People had rushed about to repair them, but by the next day, there were not enough healthy repairmen to do the work. The only real progress Garden Grove made was in the first 24 hours. After that, almost everyone who had had direct contact with the powder became nauseous, sweaty, had seizures. One by one, and sometimes four and five at a time, they had dropped dead.

The living dragged the dead up to Lookout Mountain, where the sheer volume of blue-green dust provided a way to cleanly dissolve the remains. There were too many to bury, too many to burn.

Markham scanned the room again, growing breathless. His official posture was exhausting to this man, who had perhaps once been handsome, with clear blue eyes behind the bleary glasses, and a trim mustache. He fought to finish his stack of index cards.

“Do not trust the tap water, and do not drink from the river.” He pointed vaguely to a poster on the wall that listed these rules. “Do not burn the contaminated wood for fuel. Wash everything that touches the blue-green powder before you use it. I cannot emphasize that enough.”

I had known instinctively not to touch the powder, to keep it off the food and the dishes, to wear a cloth over my nose and mouth when I went outside. I still had a huge supply of latex gloves, which I washed and reused until they wore ragged.

I pumped my own water from the well in the yard. Without water from the deep artesian wells, the town’s survivors would have died in a few days. Instead, we had been privileged to struggle through months, slowly starving.

A shrill voice suddenly spoke, startling me from my reverie.

“Is there any hope at all?” It was a pasty middle-aged woman with large, bulging eyes, her face flushed, angry. Her expression was that of a desperate walrus.

Markham tried to be soothing. “Of course there is hope, Mrs. Ingerson,” he said. “We have the hope that there is still life outside Garden Grove and Middleport Township and Iroquois County. We have sent crews to check.”

“But nobody ever comes back!” the woman squealed, standing for emphasis.

Markham turned to me, as I sat next to Joy at the rear of the room.

“Doc, what about your son and his friends? Any word from Jonathan?”

I shook my head. “I’ll check again tonight,” I said.

The walrus woman turned to glare at me.

“He’s probably dead, you know,” she spat. “I couldn’t have sent my son out there to find out how bad it is.”

I felt her words like a physical blow to the soft place right under my heart … but I did not react. “If Jonathan was your son, you couldn’t have stopped him either,” I said.

She would not be placated. “Why aren’t you as sick as the rest of us? You and your daughter. You have some pills you’re taking that are keeping you alive, don’t you? Pills you won’t share with the rest of the town? Don’t you, Doc? Don’t you?”

By this time, she was standing just a few inches away, shrieking in my face, her sad walrus eyes rotating wildly. But I was too weak to fight.

“I had a well-stocked basement, and I happened to be in it, listening to my daughter practice her flute, at the time the cloud hit,” I said.

“That’s my whole secret. And I knew enough not to touch the powder, not to burn the wood. I wash everything. I might not have been exposed as much as you were.”

She missed my last remark She had sunk to the ground, and was having a seizure. Markham walked over quietly and put a folded jacket under her head.

Joy and I left without saying goodbye.

In the school lobby, with only the moonlight coming in through the cracked glass doors, I held Joy’s slim hand in mine, and we stood quietly for a moment. “Mom, I had something else I wanted to ask you,” she said hesitantly.

“I knew it. I knew you didn’t invite me here just because you wanted me to get more involved in my community.”

She waited, afraid to meet my eyes, then spoke. “Do you have anything left to use as anesthetic? I want to do a procedure I’ve never done without anesthetic. I don’t know if I can keep him … still enough.”

I thought of the 10 pills I had left, my assurance of a swift, painless death. I nodded. “I can let you have a few Vicodins.”

“That’s all we should need,” she said, relieved.

Joy was 16 now, but probably as old as she would ever live to be. She had planned to be a nurse. Now she was like the rest of us: she could be whatever she chose.

She had claimed an empty house on my block, and converted it into a sort of hospital. She had scrubbed and cleaned every speck of blue-green dust from it, filtered the air, filtered the water, had worn the latex gloves.

She’d washed her patients and her house with betadine, from the last cases of the disinfectant I could find. She had set up three beds in her apartment, and in each one, someone was dying. Two of her patients were the children of friends, one brain damaged from a tree accident. She gave them antibiotics, shared her food with them.

“I know you think what I do is pointless, Mom,” she said softly. “I know I can’t really save anyone. My patients all die.”

“No, it’s not pointless, not at all,” I replied, lifting her chin, so her eyes met mine. “My patients all die, too. I just don’t know how you can stand to watch them die.”

She shrugged her thin shoulders, like the teenaged girl she was.

I was proud of both my children, more than I could say aloud, without bitter tears tightening in my throat.

At high noon the following day, I visited her during the surgery. A man was strapped tightly to her kitchen table, positioned beneath the skylight, grimacing as he bit down on a towel. Old Carmen, a deaf-mute woman who lived next door, wiped the man’s forehead with cool water.

My daughter Joy, who at one time could not bring herself to cut up a raw chicken for the barbecue grill, was amputating a leg.

A tourniquet had squeezed off the blood supply to the man’s thigh. A turkey carving knife stood nearby, which she had used to cut through ligaments at the knee. I felt relief at having missed that part of the operation.

I had no stomach for this. I could dress wounds, prescribe pills. But Joy had gone way beyond that, and now tried anything she thought would work.

Only the really desperate people trusted her. There was plenty of desperation in town.

She had left a skin flap, had used my precious betadine to disinfect, and was placing the last of the silk sutures on the main arteries. She frowned in concentration over her paper mask, consulting a medical book she had carefully disinfected and wrapped in a plastic dry cleaner bag. She would try to stop the bleeding, wrap the wounded area tightly in a bandage, and hope for the best.

When the drugged man was untied and allowed to retch in a bucket, I took her aside, giving her a hug.

“Why do this, Joy? Why put this man through this, to live a few more weeks?” I asked. “The chance of infection is so great, the pain he’s going to feel without any drugs when he wakes up … ”

“Oh, I know, Mom,” she said. “But I wanted to help him. It’s Mr. Talman.”

I looked at the grimacing, sweating face, surrounded by the sheets we used as surgical drapes. So it was. Mr. Talman, her 6th grade music teacher, unrecognizably thin now, like everyone else.

Back when she and her brother were in school — back when there was a school — neither of my children had been high achievers. But Jonathan had been much worse, getting into trouble so often that his guidance counselor and the assistant principal and I were all on a first-name basis.

“He’s just so … full of himself,” I remember his high school principal saying. As if that were something bad.

Only Mr. Talman had liked both my children, had recognized and appreciated their native talent. Of all their teachers, only he was proud of their accomplishments. Only he had said to Joy, “I hope you are just like your older brother.”

The thought of Jonathan brought a stab of longing. I could not believe I would never see him again. I told myself I would have the courage to check for a message that night, when it was dark again.

Jonathan, in the summer before his senior year, had been playing guitar in our garage when the cloud hit. He had heavily insulated the tiny wooden space with carpeting and old mattresses, to keep the neighbors from complaining about the noise.

I had noticed later that blue-green dust had somehow filtered into the garage through air leaks around the door, had covered the drum skins with a fine blue-green glow, had settled on the rafters. But he was the strongest of our family. He’d showed no signs of poisoning, although his weight began to drop after weeks with little food.

Jonathan’s friends Stosh and Joey, part of his tight clique since elementary school, had been in the garage too. After the cloud, I had made each one shower and scrub and throw away the clothes they had been wearing, giving them some of Jonathan’s clothes from the dryer instead. Stosh had walked home to find his parents dissolved in their car, parked in the driveway. Joey’s mother had never been heard from again.

The three had stayed in Jonathan’s room from that night on, roaming the town by day, looking for work they could do in exchange for food. Within a few days, their duties had consisted mostly of hauling dead bodies up to Lookout Mountain.

They’d done what children do: they had adjusted. But sometimes at night, through Jonathan’s bedroom door, I could hear Joey crying.

About a week after the cloud, I had knocked on that locked door one night. “Would you guys want to help me do something that’s sort of … illegal?”

The town’s two pharmacists were dead or missing. Looters had already broken in and stolen all the mind-altering drugs from the drugstores on Main Street, and I didn’t want to see the antibiotics go to waste. The boys had nodded with guilty glee.

All that night and into the dawn hours, they’d trudged with me down the side streets of our town, carrying hefty bags filled with medicine, ointments, gauze and tape. We had managed to climb through the huge, smashed out windows and grab what was left at the Wal-Mart pharmacy, fighting our way past looters shoving snack foods and blankets and soap into carts which would be walked past the checkout counters and into the night,

10 items or more, no waiting.

After that night, the boys had called me “Doc.” Now everyone did.

I left Joy’s house, and checked carefully for marauders before I walked the 50 feet to my door. In the far distance, there was a crash like thunder, followed by a rolling, rolling sigh. I knew it was not thunder. It was another tree.

When the sound had stopped reverberating, I heard a faint, exquisite melody. Joy, her apron still spattered with blood, up on the second floor, sitting at Mr. Talman’s bedside, playing Mozart. Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. A little night music.

I had to step around a dead body on the sidewalk, which had been decomposing for several days now. An elderly woman, I thought, as I passed, holding my breath against the stench. All of Garden Grove smelled that way. Eventually, the living had almost stopped noticing.

Some survivors sprinkled the dead with blue-green powder, to speed their decay. I couldn’t make myself do that.

As I turned into my doorway, I noticed I was not alone. At the entrance to the alley, a man stood, his back to me. He was smoking a cigarette.

A cigarette.

I stared at him in disbelief, and he turned and grinned a gap-toothed grin, acknowledging the unusual moment. There had been no cigarettes in Garden Grove for months now. I quit smoking five days after the cloud, when the last of my rationed smokes ran out. So did everyone else in town.

It had been easy. I felt so sick most of the time anyway.

The man was clutching a whole red and white pack of Marlboros, and gleefully waved them at me. I didn’t even ask where he found them. I gratefully pulled one from the pack, pressed the tip to his lit cigarette, and inhaled deeply. The pungent smoke touched a place deep in my lungs that had longed for that special caress.

We stood together, watching the sun glow indifferently as it settled in the hazy western sky.

“I had given up on finding these again, my friend,” I said to him finally, as the cigarette burned down to the brown filter paper.

“Sometimes you have to give up,” he replied solemnly. “And sometimes you have to stop giving up.”

We stood a few more moments, smiling, smoking.

I climbed the trellis to my rooftop, one shaky step at a time. Walking was harder every day now, and climbing was hardest of all. The Marlboro had made me dizzy and giddy. But the rooftop was the only place I could get word from Jonathan.

I hadn’t been up there for many weeks. The sky was black and silent, but sounds floated up from the street, people sobbing, swearing, glass breaking. It was always like that at night. I crouched low, until I could smell the still-sunwarmed black asphalt under my ragged Nikes, not wanting to be seen.

I peered inside the wire coop. Nothing. Just the faint odor of old feathers and droppings, and a handful of seeds scattered undisturbed, in the same configuration as when I first dropped them.

The night before the cloud, Jonathan and I had had a huge fight about the pigeons.

“They don’t like it in the house, and they don’t belong in the house,” I had told him sternly.

“Oh man, it’s so hot tonight, Mom. And Malta just laid an egg.”

“Get them back on the roof before you go to bed. I mean it,”

But the birds had secretly spent that night in the air-conditioned comfort of Jonathan’s messy room.

If he had obeyed me, the birds would not have lived more than a few moments after the cloud.

When Jonathan had set out with Stosh and Joey, he had brought along his four pigeons, housed in a little canary cage.

“I’ll send you messages this way,” he had said. “Check the coop to see if they’re back yet. Look for a blue capsule attached to a bird’s leg, like this. And when they get back, don’t forget to throw in some seed and change their water once in a while.”

“They know their way home. When I release one, it should be back within a couple of days.”

The boys had hatched a plan. Stosh and Joey had built the raft of PVC pipe and nylon cord, available for free now at the Kerner’s Tru Value hardware store. The perimeter of the raft was ringed with plastic milk jugs half-filled with clean well water. They could replace the drinking water with river water, as they traveled, to keep the raft stable.

The highways were far too dangerous, they had decided — but April had been dry, and the river was at the bottom of a steep ravine. It was almost a straight shot through to the next state. Maybe there was still civilization there, maybe fuel. Maybe food.

They had known there would be places where trees had fallen across the river, blocking the path. “You might have to portage at some points,” I’d warned them. “You might have to drag some dead branches out of the way.”

“I know. But the water is still flowing, Mom. If the water can get through, we can, too.”

The raft was lightweight and waterproof and strong. They could sleep on it, taking turns to keep watch for marauders. They could travel for a few weeks like that, living on the canned food I had held back out of the community can collection.

“When the food and drinking water are half gone, you have to turn around,” I had told them. All three looked sheepish.

“I held back some cans, too,” Joey had said.

“I’m on a diet,” Stosh added. The other two had punched him good-naturedly. This was an adventure for them. At 17, they were too full of life to die, just yet.

Jonathan had let me hug him for a long time, pressing my face against the flannel of his shirt, once more before he left. We’d both known it might be the last time ever. But the boys had been eager to set forth and save the world. I had always known I would have to let him go some day. And I’d known I couldn’t keep him safe at home-no one could, with so few days of food left.

After a sleepless night, I had decided to let him go. His odds were not good either way. He had already lost so much weight. He might as well go down fighting, I’d thought, before he became a walking shade like everyone else in Ghost Town Grove.

“Please,” I had whispered under my breath, watching the three of them disappear around the bend of the river that day. “Please watch out for the trees.”

The first pigeon had arrived back home just nine days after the boys left. Inside the blue capsule was a message, scribbled in Jonathan’s cramped handwriting. “We are fine. Looks like lights up ahead. We will be careful.”

He had known just what I would ask, what I would say.

The second, pigeon had come back after another month. “We are fine. People here want to help us.”

My hands had begun to shake, reading that message. What people? Healthy people who heard about Garden Grove’s plight and had decided to try to get help through? Or hungry, desperate people who would murder the naive boys in their sleep, to steal their remaining rations?

How far could they have traveled, to have made it outside the zone of the cloud? Or had they?

For the next several nights, I’d climbed to the roof and sat hunched in the darkness next to the empty coop, scanning the skies for the sight of a pigeon. Nothing. Planes no longer flew overhead. It must have been a very wide cloud.

Three months had passed before the third pigeon returned, on a cloudless October night. Bloodied, with a broken wing, the thin gray bird barely had the strength to clear the parapet and land on it’s coop.

The message capsule on its leg had been empty. Empty.

I had screamed in rage, clutched that injured bird to my chest, and then twisted its neck. I don’t know why.

I’d sat on the roof, crying, and pulled the feathers off the bird’s little body, one at a time. Then I had taken a red, varnished bookshelf Jonathan had made for me one Mother’s Day, and smashed it to bits, and made a fire on the roof.

I’d cooked the pigeon there on a spit. I was so hungry. Joy would have no part of the greasy meat. My body had reacted badly the next day, unable to digest the bird.

But I’d felt stronger. I had known it was finally over.

The final pigeon would not return. Neither would my son. I had stopped climbing to the roof to check.

Sometimes you worry so much, that when you give up, it comes as a relief.

I can’t explain why, but I knew at sunrise that it was going to be my last day. I knew by the way my arms shook when I tried to unlock the door, and I decided that I would lock it no longer.

I knew when I looked at the remaining Vicodin pills, and decided to give them to Joy, to help her ease someone’s suffering, instead of ending my own. She had known as I handed them over that it was my last day. She allowed me the dignity of not having to say a real goodbye.

I thought of Joy, and how she would carry on. Not forever, because her own strength was fading fast. But she would survive me. As children should survive their parents.

The thought gave me satisfaction.

I thought of Jonathan, and was at peace with the fact that I would never really know what had happened to him.

My hope … our hope … I was ready to concede now. It was over. I was ready to let it be over.

I walked the path up Lookout Mountain, smiling faintly at the way we still called the stubby glacial ridge a mountain. Dust under my feet turned from gray to blue-green, as I got closer to the central contamination site. Just a few people stirring. A woman sitting in a pit, crying, praying.

A man in a pit mumbling to himself, the dissolved bodies of his family members at his feet.

I chose a pit that had no recognizable bodies, although I’m sure there were some there, clotted piles of blue-green material, now dried and rubbery. Ashes to ashes and dust to goo, I thought with a smile.

There was a boulder at the edge of the pit. I set my camp chair there, leaning against the warm pink granite, and rummaged through my bag of provisions. My wool shawl, my old harmonica, a canteen of well water, a picture of my children years ago smiling from the window of their tree house. A book, Walden Pond, because of the courage, the beautiful imagery. Thoreau’s words seemed the right note to end upon.

I would not lie down in the chemicals of my own free will. I didn’t know if it was painful. I didn’t want to know.

When my time came, I would die sitting in this chair, or topple from it, and my remains would dissolve as they touched the blue-green powder, wherever I landed.

I would eat nothing. It might take days.

Meanwhile, I would sit in the gentle spring sun, inches above the contamination, smile at my memories, listen to the river coursing by, and be at peace. I had tried. I had done all that I could do.

It felt more than peaceful. It was almost beautiful. The last beautiful thing.

Light filtering through the green leaves, one leaf dancing back and forth in the breeze, showing its silvery underside, mesmerizing, soothing, the pulse of life. The wind sweetened by the scent of the trees, the wonderful rustling whisper of the branches … a bird lands, then another.

They begin to chatter to one another. Soon, another bird has landed. Their song is like laughter, and then they are laughing in human voices.

I awaken. I hear the sound of laughter.

A small crowd stood at the edge of Lookout Mountain, in the safe zone just where the earth changed back to a ruddy brown color, talking in an excited hush. I walked up behind them on leaden feet and peered between their shoulders.

Mayor Markham was swooning near the edge of the cliff, waving his glasses, rubbing his eyes. “Do you see? Can you see?”

It felt like a dream. But it was not a dream.

A pigeon flew straight down the ravine, about eight feet above the water.

Behind her, five rafts, made of PVC pipes lashed together, were tied end to end, forming a long barge. The rafts were piled high; under the clear plastic tarps, I could see boxes of what look like bananas, canned food, toilet paper, boxes marked with red crosses. A lithe, sunburnt figure with a recognizable face stood at the fore of the first raft. Stosh.

It was not a dream.

My heart leapt. My eyes darted to the middle raft, the slender dark-haired boy sitting atop a small mountain of fuel containers. Joey.

I was awake. I touched my hands to my face, felt my breath against my fingertips, felt my tears.

“Oh my God,” I said. “It’s not a dream.”

I slid down the rocky ravine and ran along the mahogany earth of the riverbank, stumbling, breathless, shielding my eyes against the sun, as the last raft came around the bend.

And there, standing tall and thin as a sapling, smiling, a battered straw hat on his head … using a tree branch as a longshoreman’s pole, to help him navigate the curve …  was Jonathan.




The day I danced

It was almost midnight. At the far end of the party, a large dance studio stood empty. Someone had turned down the lights and turned up the World Music. Strong African rhythms vibrated just beneath our breastbones and sent tendrils down the backs of our legs.

One by one, people wandered in and stared at the empty dance floor. Colored lights flashed in lonely rainbows. And then a woman with a long, dancer’s body and fuzzy, brown hair walked out to the middle of the room. She half-closed her eyes, and bit her lower lip, listening. We watched as her hips began to move, ever so slightly, until her lower body had established a subtle, complex circular pattern. In another moment, the pattern had swept her feet into the act. And she began to dance.

Her long arms hung loose at first, her fingers tapping an imaginary drum skin. And then her arms, too, were drawn into the dance. She swayed and stepped to the throb of the conga drums. The circle of rhythm surrounding her became magnetic, pulling those who watched closer and closer.

Another woman, wearing a leotard and a flowing skirt, strode confidently out onto the floor; she positioned herself a few feet from the first dancer, and picked up her rhythm. She was a little more aggressive in style. Her feet rose higher and stamped down with more authority. “This, this rhythm!” her body said. The first dancer smiled and spun, her arms painting curved patterns in the air.

More people were entering the room now, and all along the walls, women began to remove their shoes. Within moments, six more women had taken the floor, and then ten more. As newcomers crowded the doorway, the barefoot women danced their patterns, with smiles that were at first shy and then became euphoric.

“I don’t dance,” I murmured to my daughter. I have always been body-shy and clumsy–not a confident physical being. I’m certainly not a dancer. But this time, I didn’t let myself think. I wanted to feel what the dancers felt. Overtaken by some unknown courage, I shook off my jacket and walked out onto the dance floor.

I stood, surrounded by a swirl of skirts and limbs and smiles, feeling the rhythm. I saw how they did it, their hips leading the way. I felt my left hip swing forward in a little circle, pulled by the timbali’s loud bong. Then my right hip described its own circle in response, exactly on the snare’s high snap. Bong snap, bong bong, snap. I let my hips move loosely now from side to side, my palms pressed against my thighs. The movement felt good, smooth, like my heart beating. I lifted my arms and let them move, too. The music pounded and popped. Instinct flexed my knees and drew my hips around in circles, and soon my feet were moving, sliding in joyful cadence. The drums pushed me back and I danced forward to meet them, again and again.

The music spoke of green leaves and humid air on warm brown skin, impossibly tall trees and a high, luminous moon. We were tropical, sub-Saharan, tribal, primitive, and beautiful beneath that moon. Some of the men at the party were pulled in by this energy, but they stood apart from us, leaning against the walls, smiling in amazement. Some of our husbands were out there. These men were witnessing what a woman could be, I thought. I looked across my shoulders one at a time and shrugged to the beat of the music.

We began to dance each other’s moves. I saw a woman who appeared to be stretching her arms out toward an imaginary lover, and I let my arms do the same. Another turned around slowly, led by one softly gyrating hip, and I began to spin. A cloud of warm scent rose from our bodies, soap and perfume and shampoo mingling with the floor polish beneath us and cigarette smoke wafting in from just outside the door. The fragrance affirmed us and intoxicated us.

Something extraordinary was taking place. We breathed together in time with the drums’ pervasive chant, we smiled, we twirled. This was female energy at its most primal level. We were not just dancing, we were women dancing.

I looked across the floor at our bare feet. There was something sensuous about the skin of our soles touching and releasing that polished wood, our toes caressed by gravity and then pulling free of it. But this was not an act of striving toward pleasure–it was pleasure itself, achieved, shared, and reveled in.

I felt my body reach the wall of physical limitation and then soar over that wall. I needed oxygen. I kept dancing. I knew I must slow down. But I could not slow down. The rhythm pushed and I pushed back, and I could not stop my left hip from meeting the timbali, my right from greeting the snare.

My own daughter, who was a young teenager right at the leading edge of womanhood, watched as I danced to her again and again, trying to motion her to her feet. The raw energy of the dance embarrassed her at first, I think. Neither of us had ever seen anything like it. But a moment later, she found her courage, and there she was, dancing in front of me, smiling broadly, her own body pulled and pushed by the drumbeats. Our moves were graceful, honest, and unapologetic. Our bodies felt the same.

A Kindergarten-aged girl ran over to her dancing mother and watched us, enthralled and delighted. She was inspired by our grace, as we were by her unbridled enthusiasm. She jumped and let her limbs fly wildly. Our limbs drew wider arcs in response.

My daughter seemed to fall into a trance, following intricacies beyond description with her feet, her hands, her hips. She had become an elfen spirit. The brown-haired woman who had first taken the floor had transformed into a Maori warrior. And me … sometimes I was a Flamenco dancer, one arm crooked up, the other palm resting on my belly. Sometimes I was a tribal princess, dipping down, letting my hips pull my torso forward to punctuate the end of a rhythm phrase. The mirrors along the far wall showed swaying bodies and bare, flashing limbs. We were the many fingers of a supreme being, undulating and beckoning.

I was exhausted, my breath ragged, my hands and feet tingling, but I could not stop dancing. My body had become a long, flexible stalk, loose, moving in time. A light blanket of sweat covered my skin and the air felt suddenly chilly, but so much heat pounded out through my heart, I was ablaze within the icy room.

I reached up to push my damp hair back, and even that became a part of the dance. Every gesture, every movement was a comment on the music. I tried to slow down and breathe more deeply, to feel the exhilaration of dancing beyond my own limits, beyond all reason. The air felt thick with joy and scent and sound.

Some women had begun to drop out now, sinking onto the chairs, inhaling deeply and slowly, closing their eyes. The remaining dancers had grown wilder still, snapping their heads back and forth to the beat, leaping up into the air like shamans frightening away evil spirits, glorying in the power of the dance.

The tiny girl spun and spun until her mother had to pick her up to still her frenzy. I reached out to my daughter, and together we moved, still in time to the rhythm, but dancing now toward our shoes and chairs and rest. The music pulsed on.
The remaining women became more exaggerated in their movements, as if they were absorbing all the magic we had left behind out there on the dance floor. They watched themselves in the mirrors, amazed at their metamorphosis into wild-haired, magical beings.

And then, with a loud roll of drums ending in a sharp pop, the music stopped.

A soft, melodic hum of delight rose from the women in the room, a high-pitched, single tone of triumph. We smiled at each other and wiped our brows and retied our shoes.

It was after midnight now. While we had danced, one day had transformed into the next. We were secret goddesses who had created the new day with our shared celebration of drum and spirit and heartbeat, dancing to the pulse of life.


Shorty goes home, life goes on

Published in December 1995, Iroquois County Times-Republic

It took me quite a while to let go of Shorty. I thought about it for a long time before I got the nerve to drive to the hospital equipment rental place and hand him over.

Shorty was my father’s portable oxygen tank. He was named “Shorty” to distinguish him from the large, floor-model oxygen concentrator that sat by Dad’s bed.

That piece of equipment was, of course, named “Bertha.”

The hospital had already picked up Bertha. But Shorty, the little tank, had accompanied Dad everywhere — to doctor’s appointments, haircuts, trips to the car wash — for five years. It was Dad’s security blanket, his walking stick, his constant companion … and it was just so hard for me to let it go.

It has taken me a while to adjust to my father’s death. For three days after he died, I didn’t sleep or eat. I couldn’t think of anything except how much it hurt. I restlessly walked around the back aisles of stores, looking at jack handles and lug nuts, craft supplies and frozen foods. I drove through a few stop signs.

At times I thought the grief would tear a hole in me, and what used to be my life would come spilling through that hole and fill up the room, and the anguish would drown me, as certainly as the fluid in his failing lungs eventually overwhelmed and drowned my father.

Shorty sat on the back seat of my car.

But the clock ticked, and life carried me forward. There was numbness, but also the cycle of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, acceptance — spinning through me again and again. I cried like an orphan. I felt like one.

The realization that he was gone left me breathless … gasping like a man fighting for air alone in a hospital bed in the middle of the night.

After years of taking care of Dad — a job I could never get quite right — people told me I should be relieved that his struggle was finally over.

Instead, it felt as if the person I had spent so much time protecting was suddenly beyond my reach, pulled from my care. His absence was unimaginably heavy and painful. It left me in a panic, exhausted and desperate. It did not feel like relief.

Ours had not been a classic father-daughter relationship. He was never Robert Young to my Princess; in my family, Father did not always Know Best.

Dad was a man generally displeased with life, who stubbornly refused to acknowledge that it’s a cruel, crazy, beautiful world after all. He was angry about the way he had to suffer. Despite my tender care, he said he thought the world was a bad place, life was a bad deal, and death would be eternal nothingness.

And at times, in the first few days after he died, it seemed that Dad had been right.

Shorty hung around with me as I struggled to cope, as I tried to take care of the details. I dropped Dad’s reading glasses in the collection box at the bank. I talked to the library about taking some of his old books about stage illusion magic.

The brand new clothes he had never gotten to wear, because he was too sick to change out of his pajamas, went to the resale store. But the old empty oxygen tank just rattled around in the back seat of my car.

I guess I couldn’t quite surrender the last of Dad’s things because … I just missed him so much. I missed being able to ask him questions about how to set the small things right: how to fix the refrigerators’ thermostat, and when to change my oil, and how to get the rear fender off my bike. He always knew these things; it was the bigger issues of life that weighed him down.

My father would never swim with us on family vacations. Just before he died, he explained why: When he was about 10 years old, at a swimming pool in Chicago, he had gotten turned around underwater. He began swimming for the bottom instead of the surface as he ran out of breath, because both were tiled in identical black-and-white. He said he would never forget the way it felt to be able to breathe again, when a lifeguard pulled him into the air.

I wasn’t there at the moment he died, but I think it was something like that. After fighting for each breath for years and years, he suddenly broke through to that afterlife world where the air flowed easily into his lungs, and he was finally able to take a full, sweet breath again.

Dad wanted his obituary to ask people to take care of their lungs. It did, and I will say it here again: Life is short and breath is precious. Tobacco’s toxic fumes will eventually pull you under to an agonizing, suffocating death.
Don’t smoke. Please.

Yet I have to believe Dad was wrong about this world, this life. It’s not a bad place, not a bad deal. I know this because — he was my father. Surely he would never leave me here to face such a world without him.

Sometimes, even years later, I forget that he’s really gone. I drive past the nursing home I used to dread to visit, and my longing to see him again is so strong, I have to fight to keep myself from walking up to the door.

And every once in a while, I have this feeling that I have misplaced Dad somewhere, that he and his oxygen tank are at the barber shop or the doctor’s office or the grocery store, waiting for me to pick them up.

And then I remember.

I have to remind myself that, if there is life after death — and I truly believe there is — then my father is, indeed, somewhere waiting for me.

I guess I just can’t believe he went there without Shorty.


Chains bind elephants, us

My friend hated his job so much, he switched to part time. Then he dropped down to just two shifts a week. And now he hates it even more.

But I can’t leave, he told me, because they’re paying me so much money for so little time! It feels really great to see that money piling up in the bank.

Don’t you need that money for necessities? I asked.

Oh, no. With my wife’s income and our investments, we make plenty to keep afloat. And of course, our retirement accounts are pretty plump. But I don’t feel I can retire NOW. Not when they’re willing to pay me all that money to do almost nothing …

I’ve heard of “Golden Handcuffs” – being stuck in a job you hate just because you can’t make as much money anywhere else. But my friend has something different. I call it an “Elephant Bracelet.”

When young elephants are trained, they’re chained by one leg to a post, to keep them from wandering off every night. After a few years, they’d be strong enough to break the flimsy chain, but they don’t, because they’re used to it. By the time they’re adults, they don’t need to be chained to anything. They just wear a chain as a bracelet, and it makes them want to stand by the post every night, as if they were bound to it.

My friend had never heard of this, but he did tell me a similar story about house flies. Apparently, if you keep a house fly in a large, empty pickle jar, after three days you can remove the lid and the fly will not leave. By then, it’s hit its head on the jar lid so many times, it knows better than to even try to fly upward.

In essence, the fly is wearing an elephant bracelet. Although, of course, the size would be all wrong.

I asked my friend what he did in his five days off each week, and he told me what I’d feared: he spends them dreading the upcoming two-day shift. So that job’s not really taking up just two days a week. It’s ruining all seven.

Then I asked him what he would like to do, if he had the choice to do anything in the world. Sadly, he couldn’t think of anything. And I’ve been in that place myself.

It happens because we become so accustomed to smothering our real dreams, so we can show up every day at a job we hate. We forget how to be free, because otherwise we couldn’t bear our daily confinement.

My friend, before he got this job he hates, used to work at the worst job I’d ever heard of. He showed up for duty every day in the sub-basement of a state penitentiary, where he had to draw blood from angry, disrespectful inmates and test them for STDs. Yikes. So his current job seems like a dream world compared to that.

The prisoners had it better than him, he used to say. They’d get out in the fresh air for a while every day, they got to eat three hot meals, and they had people to talk to. Sure, they had to sleep in cells – but he went home to a lonely, one-room studio apartment that wasn’t much bigger, for which he had to pay $600 a month.

But there was a big difference between them, I reminded him. At least the prisoners spent time dreaming of what they’d do when they got free. They knew their chains, however heavy, would eventually come off. This kept their dreams alive.

My friend’s Elephant Bracelet, on the other hand, won’t come off. He could walk straight away from the post, or fly straight upward into the night, if he wanted to. But he’s forgotten why he would want to.

Uncle Buddy: A diamond in the rough

“Reach into my jacket pocket,” Uncle Buddy would say. And my tiny hand would plunge into the scratchy wool pocket of his expensive suit coat, searching for a treasure.

“Poke my liver, right here,” he would say. And I’d press my little fingers into his solar plexus, feeling his rock-hard, cirrhotic liver.

Uncle Buddy was known as the black sheep in my father’s family, the oldest and most problematic of the three scruffy boys. While my father had been the pampered baby-his mother still dressing him in pinafores and long curls until he started school-and the middle brother was a sad-faced stutterer who fled home at after junior high, Uncle Buddy, the oldest, seemed to have been born with a larger-than-life panache. So when people called him a black sheep, they said it with a certain degree of admiration.

Buddy was reckless, a junior member of the local Irish mafia, a glad-hander who was everybody’s “buddy,” even as a teen. He had forged his own driver’s license at 13, and driven from LaSalle to Chicago in an old, junked jalopy he’d hotwired at the town dump.

He had a blocky head full of tight, Irish curls, and he was tall-at least 8 feet tall, it seemed to me, but I was just a child back then. He towered over everyone, both in stature and in attitude.

Uncle Buddy was a genius who’d dropped out of sixth grade, a man who claimed to never really sleep-he would just sit and read for four hours every night, after which he was apparently ready to drink a cup of coffee and start his day.

I saw him infrequently because I spent most of my early years in hospitals, staring out at the bleak Chicago landscape, watching trucks come and go from the factory across the street. I dreamed of pushing open the fire escape door next to the window, so I could tiptoe out into the cold Chicago night and try to find my way home–but I was too weak to stand.

Whenever I was home, I got to overhear tales about Uncle Buddy’s adventures. He was a wheeler-dealer, although he might have also had a real job. No one could tell, because he had credentials for everything.

“If you’ve got a clipboard and the right look in your eye, you can walk into any damned building in the world,” he told my Dad. Just to back it up, Buddy also had a wad of stolen or forged ID cards in the pocket of his 1950s, wide-shouldered suit jacket.

I remember the Christmas he showed up at my grandmother’s house smelling of Irish whiskey and handing out $50 bills, proudly asking people to appreciate his diseased liver. I had to reach up over my head with my little fingers, but I wanted to feel it, too. It didn’t surprise me. I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that all his internal organs were made of concrete.

Later that day, he told me to reach into his jacket pocket. Sometimes there was a piece of candy in there, sometimes a quarter. This day, I pulled out a huge diamond. It was made of glass, of course, but its stunning size–it barely fit in my fist!–made it more valuable to me than a real gem would have been. He let me admire the diamond for a while, holding it up to the light coming through my grandmother’s bay windows, and then told me to pass it to my shy, older sister. We exchanged jealous looks. Was it our diamond to keep? Hers or mine?

In fact, Uncle Buddy ended up handing the giant faux gem to his own daughter, who barely seemed impressed. She was a little older than my sister and I, and more familiar with her father’s shenanigans. He bought her a life-sized taxidermy rocking horse once, a huge, creepy thing with glass eyes. It took up most of the only bedroom in their tiny, third-floor apartment. Uncle Buddy was great with larger-than-life gestures. But he wasn’t the kind of dad who showed up for graduations or helped his family pay the rent.

The stories about Uncle Buddy got wilder as the years went by. Some people told his wife, the long-suffering but glamorous Dorothy, that Buddy had another wife and child somewhere. We could all see how that was possible, what with his long periods of time out of town and his alternate identities. Then we heard that he had been shot, and had refused medical treatment, choosing instead to hole up in one of those no-tell motels on Mannheim Road with a gangrenous leg and his cement liver.

And then we learned that he was dead. It seemed hardly possible that this huge, charismatic man was gone, but he was. He lay in his casket seeming to smirk, his ruddy cheeks gone gray and white, made entirely of stone now. He had lived under so many identities that the little marquee out in the funeral parlor hallway had him listed as four different people. Two of his other wives collided with poor Aunt Dorothy in the front row. I was still too young to grasp the importance of their angry shrieks.

My father inherited Uncle Buddy’s estate, a strange collection of jewelry and pistols, playing cards, a matador’s cape, and some Italian suits with giant shoulders. My father sawed the guns apart and dumped the pieces into a secret space behind a bricked-up fireplace in his old Chicago apartment, on the day he moved out. Who knew what those guns had done, whom they might have killed? The brick apartment building still stands on the same corner, so the gun pieces are probably still in the walls.

One of the items in Uncle Buddy’s jewelry collection was an engagement ring. Family folklore was that he’d smuggled it back from overseas after World War II, intending to give it to his bride. He evidently never gave it to any of his brides. When his only child was born, he promised to give it to her–but he never lived to see her come of age.

Instead, my father gave the ring to me in the early 1980s, because I was engaged to marry a rock musician who was too poor to buy me a diamond. The ring seemed ostentatious, but I wore it to my job as a doctor’s receptionist anyway. Patients who noticed it undoubtedly thought it was fake.

Then, one day, my cousin walked into the doctor’s office. I hadn’t seen her in almost 20 years. This was the little girl with the life-sized rocking horse, only now she was grown up and wearing my face. It was eerie to see someone who looked so much like me, eerie for both of us. We stared at each other for a moment. And then she said, “Give me the goddamned ring.”

I hesitated, of course. I didn’t remember her as being that tough. Maybe she’d been practicing on the drive over. However, she had me dead to rights, and I was at work, and there were patients in the waiting room. “It’s the only thing I’ll ever get from that bastard,” she said.

I pulled the ring off my finger and handed it over the doctor’s counter, and she snatched it a little too hastily and slid it onto her own ring finger. It was a perfect fit, of course. We had identical hands.

Actually, I didn’t feel too bad about losing the ring. I had gotten something from Uncle Buddy that nobody could take back: a memory I would never forget.

It was just after my fourth birthday, and I had been in the hospital for three months. Doctors had told my mother I would probably die. I didn’t know what dying meant, but if it would get me out of the hospital, I was ready for it. Gifts from my family lay at the foot of my hospital bed, unopened, among the new picture books and sad, deflating balloons.

That night, I heard a man arguing with the nurses outside my room. He said he was a specialist from out of town, and he needed to see me right away. A giant silhouette appeared in the doorway. It was Uncle Buddy, wearing a doctor’s white jacket and carrying a clipboard.

Maybe he’d just wanted to see if he could get away impersonating a doctor. He sat next to my bed for an hour that night, reading to me from my picture books. He said he could tell I was smart, like my father. He said I wasn’t going to die–that I was going to grow up and be a smart gal. Coming from this giant of a man, about whom everything and nothing was real, those words felt rock-solid and true.

When I told my parents the next day, they smiled at my imaginative tale. Uncle Buddy hadn’t been seen for weeks, they said. But I knew what I’d seen. I could remember what he’d said and the reassuring bulk of his presence, sitting in the chair next to my hospital bed. I can remember it even now.

One detail of this memory has convinced me that it wasn’t a fever dream. It made no sense to me at the time–but when Uncle Buddy left my hospital room that winter morning, just before dawn, he didn’t check out with the nurses. He didn’t walk away down the hall, like my other doctors.

He went out through the fire escape door.

When life is like a box of bonbons

My piano lesson was over.

We sat side-by-side on the dusty sofa of musical virtuoso Elsie Weinstein, in a room full of scary smells and stacks of decades-old magazines.

My sister didn’t play the piano, and didn’t want to. But she was forced to accompany me to lessons because, at age 8, my mother felt I was too young (and too attention-deficit) to ride the Chicago Transit Authority buses alone.

Eileen was only two years older, but centuries more mature. So she had the honor of listening to me massacre Mendelssohn for 30 minutes a week while Mrs. Weinstein clapped her hands and I scrambled to stay ahead of the metronome’s incessant clicking.

My piano teacher was a tiny, gnome-like woman who generally wore long sleeves and a sparkly ring on each of her stubby fingers. But when she played the piano – her short arms frantically leaping between upper and lower octaves – sometimes the tattoo on her wrist peeked out from beneath her cuff.

“They put that on her in the death camp,” my mother explained.

“Russia was a beautiful place,” Mrs. Weinstein would say sometimes. “The Nazis, they spoilt everythink.”

I brought Mrs. Weinstein a carefully folded $1 bill for each of my Monday afternoon lessons. Little by little, I came to know the sweet satisfaction of playing classical piano music.

Then my parents’ divorce spoilt everythink and I had to tell my teacher I couldn’t afford to take lessons anymore.

“Oh, little girls, you can come by on Monday afternoons anyway,” she said. “You will have to pay nothink.”

My mother, ever after, referred to this as my “music scholarship.”

On this day, Mrs. Weinstein asked us to wait for a surprise. She brought out a dusty white box of Fannie Mae candy. Her eyesight had never been good, I can only hope that, in the dim room, she missed the look of horror on our faces when she lifted the candy box lid and several Chicago-style cockroaches climbed out.

My sister shot me a wide-eyed look, then daintily took a chocolate from the box. I removed one as well – the pink peppermint, which was my usual favorite, when not covered with insect droppings. We both smiled and said thank you.

And then, thankfully, Mrs. W. left the room.

Since Eileen had taken a candy, despite the roaches, I thought they might be OK. This lack of judgment was why I needed supervision.

I lifted my candy to my mouth and actually put my tongue on the pink peppermint frosting before she caught my hand.

“Don’t!” she whispered fiercely. “It’s icky.”

“What should I do with it?” I whispered back.

She pulled a Kleenex from her pocket and scrunched it around the corrupted confection, then stuffed them back into in her pocket. The peppermint curdled in my mouth.

We stood up, eager to leave this socially awkward situation.

“Goodbye, Mrs. Weinstein,” we called. “See you Monday.”

Eileen, ever the polite one, added, “Thank you for the candy.”

Just then, the piano teacher reappeared.

“Oh, did you like them? I’ve had those FOREVER!” she said.

She reached for the box, which had been sitting on an end table, encircled now by the angry roaches displaced by her initial generosity.

“Would you like another piece?”

“Um . . .” Eileen said, at a loss for words.

“Mom says we can only have one candy before dinner,” I said. “And excuse us, I think we’re late for dinner now!”

I was rewarded for this brilliant improvisation by having Mrs. Weinstein hand me the whole buggy box.

“Then you just take the rest home for later,” she said.

I shouted “Thanks!” and bolted down the stairs, Eileen on my heels. When we got outside, I tossed the box to her, afraid of what might crawl up my arm. She tossed it back to me.

“Ewwwww!” we both squealed, racing toward the bus stop.

As we passed the alley, I hurled the candy box toward a Dumpster. It opened in mid-air, the spoiled bonbons spreading out like dotted eighth notes against the gray Chicago sky.