bioStories Blog is an extension of the online magazine bioStories: www.biostories.com. Essays from the magazine, news, updates on contributors, and other features appear here.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Chapatis and Change

by Sean Talbot

The traveler sees what he sees; the tourist sees what he came to see.
—G.K. Chesterton

Days float through Udaipur, Rajasthan, like beggars indifferent to distinction. The warm January sun shimmers on Lake Pichola, reflects the region's august history in its murky water. There are three clouds in the sky, more than in the week since I arrived.

Across the street from Café Edelweiss, where I am eating dessert before breakfast, a blind local man stands on a speed bump, white cane in hand. Dark skin and cataracts, thick mustache, carefully combed hair. A rusty sign hangs from his neck. A message in Hindi is painted in beautiful script. What I presume to be the same message in English is written in a sloppy hand, blue text on white:

My Eyes Opration.
Please Help Me.

He holds a receipt book in his left hand, a written record of those who have not ignored him. It is open to the first page. He wears a five o' clock shadow, and leather cross-trainers, dirt-ridden and worn like the oily hands of the motorcycle mechanic who works in the open air nearby.

Does the blind man know that the gold chain fitted to his neck shimmers in the sunlight? Can he hear my steady eyes upon his, or sense the traces of my guilt for staring into a face of India which cannot, for once, stare back?

In my ears, these are raucous, electric thoughts; my heart beats amplified in my ears like the temple bells ringing in a nearby alley.

We both turn our heads toward the clangor.

A group of boys line up outside the cafe, on the street side of a chainlink boundary; one, then three, then seven of them, holding hammered iron bowls, like lidless kettles. Inside them, small, sculpted men sit upon beasts soaked in black oil, covered in marigold petals.

For weeks, I’ve wondered what gulf exists that would keep the "open-hearted" traveler in me from connecting with, or relating to, the locals, a land that defies and contradicts every adjective I've used in attempt to capture it.

Kana,” a boy says, over and over again. "Pani."

He can't yet be nine years old. He looks me hard in the eye, points to his mouth, then to my plate, and back to his chapped lips.

Food, water.

Every guidebook, hotelier, rickshaw driver, and doctor I’ve met since arriving in India has given me the same advice: do not give to the beggars; they come into the cities because there’s more money in tourists than in farming. Giving does them no good.

"Chapatis, sir, chapatis," says a barefoot boy wearing soot-covered clothes. The boys stand one meter away from my table, behind a chain hung like a velvet rope in a cinema queue line. There are no chapatis on the silver screen of Café Edelweiss; only white people and pastries and dark chocolate. My table is on the front lines: fellow tourists talk and eat behind me, seated strategically deep in the cavernous, piss-yellow dining room.

I want to show my compassion. I want to let the boys know that I see and hear them, that change is possible. But that’s just what they’re looking for, my doctor friend had said.

The boy adorns puppy eyes and whimpers. I want him to leave. I cannot even use the Hindi phrase I learned in Varanasi for banishing touts—nahi chaiye, I do not want. These children offer me nothing, want only my food.

"Hello, sir, chapatis." A hoarse, intimate whisper from the old beggar this barefoot pre-teen will someday become: "Please."

Two nights ago, I saw him squatting in the street, near a fire of burning garbage. His companions were huddled in tight circles: understanding, community, friendship. Things I cannot—do not—offer him.

Instead, I ignore him, all of them, and their pleas for kana; hello, please, sir, chapatis.

Sir, please. Hello?

I cannot—will not—eat in front of them, nor can justify teasing them with the two sandwiches on my table, both heaping with eggs and bacon. I pretend the sandwiches are not there. I write instead, holding my tears back because maybe they'll think I'll break, and then they'll have full stomachs for the day, and return tomorrow, psychologically and digestively reinforced, expectant.

My downward glare renders me into another deaf tourist. The tourists at the tables behind me talk louder as the boys hold up the bowls and ask, in the same melancholic whine, kana, pani, please sir, ma’am, chapati.

Silence from the nosebleeds. The boys leave.

I am an awful, selfish voyeur. Another white invader whose economic contributions profit hotels that shun locals as a cultural norm. A Bikaner hotelier said to me, any unmarried Indian couple cannot, by Indian law, stay in a tourist hotel.

If, by chance, a foreigner befriends a local, the latter is typically not allowed in the foreigner's hotel. In the case of my friend Rita, a British woman who invited an Indian restauranteur to dinner at our hotel, the owners enthusiastically said the local, who worked at the hotel across the bridge, was "a good Indian man, and is welcome here!"

For most of us tourists, however, they fear rape, or robbery, or some other sin for which we do not have a word.

After twenty eternal minutes, the rest of the boy beggars move on, unfazed by rejection, determined as when they arrived. Will the customers at the next café feed them, or the one after that?

There are programs to help the poor, the guidebooks say. If you want to help them, donate to the following causes.

The guidebooks say nothing, however, of the heartache in seeing a man, like the one sitting under a tree in Pokhara, Nepal lifting his amputated, gangrene femur in the air with one hand, and a rusty tin can in the other, marked simply, $.

That gulf between us seems wider than the Pacific Ocean. Airplanes and cargo ships could not bring me closer to the little boy standing three feet away, who has returned to the cafe’s chain barrier. Perhaps he saw something in me and came back to retrieve it.

Who am I, exactly, that I would refuse a child food at the word of a rich doctor or a guidebook written by a western author, which both say it would do the child ‘no good’? How can one who has not known true hunger say such a thing? If my friend Kokayi, an American activist whose mission is to end child hunger in the United States, saw me now, he would dash our friendship to the dogs.

Who am I to deny a request for a photo, as I have, from an Indian family on holiday, or a few rupees to a local woman in the park? Is it because I wish for a connection based less on transactional experience, or that I would prefer the barter economy of buskers or street artists, a few rupees for a song? What if these children have not had the opportunity to learn an instrument, or how to use their voice, but to beg to survive the day, or a mother's callused hand?

What inalienable right have I, a fellow human, to project expectation or desire upon a culture that asks so little of me? To think: I want an experience to have a particular impact on me; I need to see this or that, or need to feel as if my experience is somehow authentic. I loathe the roles this little boy and I have been born into, pointlessly, for we are equally bound to our respective ranks in the caste system.

In many parts of India, tourists and travelers alike—particularly Westerners—are automatically inserted into a predetermined slot of economic import. We are ushered to the front of lines at train stations, hospitals, treated kindly by hoteliers who routinely hit dog- and boy-beggars with sticks.

Oh, that I could offer them anything!

Already I deny the boys something so easily given. I could buy each one of them a sandwich, filled with protein and served on fresh-baked bread. I could pay out-of-pocket for the eye opration for the blind man.

So why don’t I?

Because I’ve been conditioned to think that it wouldn’t change anything. Lonely Planet and Slumdog Millionaire declare that compassion and guilt are juicy prey for the Begging Industry; that, regardless of my intention, the money would certainly end up in the hands of kidnappers, rapists, and sleazy businessmen, and that no amount of change would keep these boys from returning to Café Edelweiss tomorrow.

The impossible gulf between local and foreigner widens. If it is not, as they say, what happens to us that matters, but how we react to it that hones our character, I wonder if compassion, in this case, isn't quite enough.


Sean Talbot is a writing coach and Alaska commercial fisherman based in Portland, Oregon. His writing has appeared in Everywhere All the Time and Airplane Reading. He writes about place, home, and culture in his blog, Stumptown Lives.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

The Shoulder of Orion

by K.C. Frederick

        I saw two planes collide over Detroit when I was a kid. I was in our back yard, where my father had covered a patch of dirt with concrete and installed a swing set. It was next to a lilac bush and, in my memory, the lilacs were in bloom. In most of my memories of the back yard, the lilacs are in bloom. I once buried my coin collection near the lilacs: there were Indian-head pennies, flying eagle pennies, even a large cent, bigger than a silver dollar, from 1818. I started collecting coins from the piles of change that showed up each night on our kitchen table, my father’s leavings of the day’s play in the numbers.
        The coins were in a tin box that may have held tobacco once. Some of the coins I bought from dealers, and I think the hoard may have been worth a bit of money after a while, but all my later efforts to dig it up proved fruitless. Did the stuff just disappear?
        I was near that lilac bush and it must have been spring with the fragrant purple flowers in bloom around me. The only other flowers I remember from that yard are the peonies that were always covered with ants. Maybe I was on the swing. To my right was a cyclone fence that looked into the alley, its concrete surface covered with broken glass that never deterred us from playing softball in its narrow confines, playing balls off roofs of what we called barns. The alley was also the place where the black rag-picker came with his horse-drawn cart. We called him the sheeney-man. He had a white beard and he was missing a hand, as I remember, but there’s no way of verifying this.
        If I looked in the other direction, I could see the church towering over the roof of our house—the brick wall of the church was what you saw when you looked out our front window. With the adjoining brick rectory and the large brick-walled yard where I’d go at night with my flashlight to get night crawlers, the church took up the entire block. On the other side of the block were the grade school, the high school, and the nuns’ residence. The nuns, as I remember them, were always prophesying doom, God’s wrath inflicted on a faithless people. Maybe I was the only one, but I believed them. I was a lonely kid, so what God thought of me was important. I tried not to incur His wrath, but in case others did, I generally kept from looking at the night sky, since the nuns had made me aware that the stars could begin to slide out of place, the prelude to a cataclysmic demonstration of God’s disfavor.
        I have no way of knowing what I was up to on the day I saw the mid-air collision, but my memory is that I just happened to look up at the sky above Sam the barber’s and I saw two silver planes crossing each others’ paths, then something bright and glistening tumbling earthward. In my memory all this happens in complete silence. The day is warm, the sky is cloudless, there’s the flash of silver, smooth motion followed by a fluttering fall, like the strip of cellophane you used to have to tear off of a pack of cigarettes. Silent, weightless, the world turned into a snow globe with only a single shining flake making its way slowly downward through the transparent medium.
        The details elude me but I know I’m not making this up. My father took us later in the day to see the place where one of the planes crashed into a house. My father was a big man in the numbers then. A sharp dresser, he held himself a bit stiffly and was known for the big parties he threw at his place on Harsens Island, parties  even the mayor might attend. This was before the cops raided our house, before the trial in which my father’s lawyer persuaded him to separate his case from that of his associates, some of whom went to prison; it was before my father started drinking heavily, a behavior that would result in his losing the numbers and losing most of the properties he owned. He was in and out of rehab after that. Sometimes he saw bears in the house. When he was sober, he worked at low-paying jobs like being a night watchman for the city. He’d gone from the top to the bottom, driving to Hamtramck in his beat-up Ford (he left it unlocked in our street hoping someone would steal it, but nobody took him up on it) looking for a bargain on kielbasa or Silvercup bread. Having lost his high station, though, he didn’t blow his brains out but soldiered on, a Polish peasant to the end. His capacity for survival was a remarkable lesson to me.
        Though he was gregarious with his friends, he wasn’t warm with his children. He used a strap on us, but he was less physical than his own father. Later he was too distracted to inflict severe discipline. When he was dying of lung cancer many years later, I wheeled him out to the back of the house that looked toward the alley, where every now and then a sound would come from the scrap yard near the railroad tracks, the protracted, unsettling shriek of metal scraping against metal. Di I was leaving soon for Boston, where I worked. It was likely we weren’t going to see each other again. “I’m going to miss you,” he said.

I’ve done a little Googling and I’ve discovered that there were two collisions of planes over Detroit in the spring of 1948, both on the east side, which would have beenconsistent with my memory. I would have been thirteen. The earlier collision seems the one I likely saw. The student pilot, I learned, was thrown from his plane, fell through a roof and a porch, and his body was driven into the ground. I didn’t know any of this as a kid. I suppose our car dragged along with others past the scene, we may have glimpsed a part of the wreckage, certainly we’d seen the damage to the house, but all that’s blurred, and I must reconstruct it. What I do remember is looking up to see a silent encounter in the sky, a piece of silver fluttering down toward the houses of Detroit, a distant, wondrous sight.
My family left the city long ago, but not before the neighborhood deteriorated precipitously. Today weeds come up from the sidewalks, there are lots of vacant lots, and many of the houses that remain are ruins. In the right mood, you could convince yourself that wolves roam there at night. The huge church has been empty for some time. Shorn of its statues, it was sold to some Baptists who couldn’t afford to heat the vast spaces and sold it for peanuts to a developer. I wonder if the lilac bush is still in our back yard. Is it possible that a lucky kid will dig up my coins some day?
In Ridley Scott’s’ Blade Runner the replicant Batty, facing extinction, feels compelled to tell Deckard, his pursuer, “I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.”
Indeed.


K.C. Frederick grew up in Detroit and lives near Boston, where he continues to be a lifelong Tiger fan in the heart of Red Sox Nation. He’s published six novels and many stories, winning awards in both genres.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Continental Divide

by Priscilla Mainardi

          Sasha, my daughter, sits next to me in the car, dressed all in black. Navy blue is the brightest color she ever wears, but beneath the dark clothes she's all sunniness. We're driving across New Mexico. The weather has finally warmed after the chill of Illinois and Missouri, and winter sun heats the car through the windows. The road is long and straight with nothing but empty fields of winter-brown grass on each side, dotted with dark shrubs. We have three more days together in the car before we reach Riverside, where Sasha is moving with her boyfriend Ty.
          We pass faded billboards and abandoned ranches, climb some hills and descend the other side. A small sign tells us we just crossed the Continental Divide. "I always thought that would be a bigger deal," Sasha says when we stop for lunch an hour later.
          "It is a big deal," I say. "It means that now all the rivers are running west."
          Sasha rubs her eyes and stretches. She's been reading "Pet Milk" in the car, the Stuart Dybek story of time and memory that I'm thinking of having my upcoming freshman composition class read. Or at least she was reading it until she set it aside to search Yelp for a place to eat lunch. We've already driven forty minutes out of our way, following a sign promising "fry bread" that brought us to a store that looked like it closed twenty years ago. Each time we've gone in search of something that sounds exciting (caverns! trading post! petroglyphs!), it's been a long detour. Still, five days into the trip, here we sit in a cafe near the Arizona border, and the waitress, a teenage Navajo, has just set down a basket brimming with sopapillas, deep fried squares of bread, crispy in places, doughy in others. Sasha and I both reach for the same piece, let go, laugh, then each select a different one.
          "What did you think of the story?" I ask.
          "I love the line about how he's already missing his girlfriend while he's still with her."
          I glance up at her. "Seems fitting for this trip," I say.
          She sits up straighter, narrowing her eyes at the bottles of hot sauce and ketchup on the table. "I think it's about how hard it is to hold on to moments of your life while you're living them. You know in your mind that everything passes too quickly, but you can't really feel it."
          A woman comes up to the table holding a tray of turquoise and silver earrings. Sasha glances at them and shakes her head. There's been a steady parade of these vendors. We're trying to resist buying things we know we won't wear anywhere else but here, any other time but now. I wait until the woman moves on to the next table, then ask, "What was your freshman composition class like? Did you have to read stories like this?"
          "The theme was the ocean," Sasha says. "We had to read Moby Dick. That's all I remember."
          All I remember about her freshman year is that she called in early October to say she'd spent the whole semester's allowance. All I remember about my own is that while sneaking home to visit my high school boyfriend, I fell down the steps in the train station and broke my ankle. I spent the rest of the semester on crutches.
          Another vendor stops at the table, a man this time, holding a box of beaded bracelets. Maybe we should buy something, I think. That way he won't have to leave his home on the reservation and travel to Texas or Oklahoma for work, as I've heard many Navajos do to support their families. But Sasha says, "No, thank you," and he moves on.
          There is a notice on the menu that says if you don't want the vendors to stop at your table, you can place a Do Not Disturb sign on the table, but we don't see these signs, handwritten on scraps of paper, until we're waiting at the cash register to pay, on our way out.

          Sasha at the wheel, we weave back through the streets of Gallup. Interstate 40 unfurls in front of us. Behind us possibilities fall away, petrified forest, Indian casinos, painted desert. Soon after we cross the border into Arizona, Sasha points straight ahead to a black mass, dark against the sky, with a wide level top and vertical sides that rise straight up out of the flat land. "What's that?" she says.
          I reach into the back seat and draw up the road atlas, useful for providing the names of mesas and the heights of mountain peaks, marked on the maps with tiny x's. I open it to Arizona. "Black Mesa," I tell her. "Or maybe Second Mesa." Even with the atlas it's hard to tell.
          We stop for gas in the middle of the afternoon. After filling the tank, I pull the car into a parking space to wait for Sasha to come out of the store. Suddenly I'm afraid she won't reappear, that she's gone forever. Then I think that when she does come out she won't see me sitting in the car, which is hidden between two white trucks. She'll think I'm the one who's disappeared. I get out and stand on the curb in front of the car. A minute later Sasha comes out, brown ponytail swinging, a bag of popcorn dangling from her fingertips.

            I'm sitting in a chair in an empty room. Birds sing outside the open window: three notes and a trill. Inside the clocks no longer tick the silence away as they did on so many afternoons with everyone gone, my husband at work, Sasha and her brother Ned at school. Two men come into the room. I stand and they lift the chair and carry it outside. I go outside too, and take a last look at the house, which I somehow know, in the way of dreams, that I'll never see again.
          A swerve of the car jolts me awake. Sasha's muttering to herself. "Jerk," she says. "Asshole. You have your own lane. Do you need mine too?" She pulls around a black pick-up, accelerating as we climb a pass, mountains all around us. The land levels off again, becoming so flat we can see the earth curving away at the edges. A train goes by in the opposite direction: matte-black tank cars, flat freight cars the dark red of dried blood. It's hard to tell how long the train is, or how far away. Such a long train is unimaginable in the East.
          The day revisited in the dream was the last day we lived in that house, six years ago. When my husband and I were cleaning up before we moved, we found a stash of liquor, big bottles of cheap brands, most of them nearly empty, at the back of a basement closet. We hoped they were Sasha's brother Ned's, but we had our suspicions.
          Sasha was eight, in third grade, when we moved into that house. I picked her and fourteen-year-old Ned up at school and brought them to their new home. Their day had begun in one place and ended in another. When we arrived, Ned ran around the outside, then the inside, up and down the stairs, then out again through the back door and down the steps to the pool. He lay down beside the pool and dipped his hand in, but yanked it right out again. The water must have been colder than he expected.
          The movers were still coming and going, lugging furniture up the stairs. I was emptying boxes into kitchen cabinets. Sasha sat down at the kitchen table, took her books from her backpack, opened her math book, and started her homework, as if it were the most ordinary day of her life, as if nothing had changed, not the house, not the neighborhood, not the table itself, which we had bought from the sellers. Maybe she believed that if she acted as if nothing had changed, nothing ever would. And how much had really changed for her? We'd moved to a bigger house in the same town, and she attended the same school. She soon adjusted to the new house and made friends in the neighborhood. I ask myself now what that moment meant, what that child has to do with the carefree grown-up person sitting next to me driving the car. They're like two sides of a foreign coin I don't recognize.          
          We arrive in Riverside in darkness and pull up in front of our hotel. Sasha shuts off the engine but makes no move to get out of the car. I don't move either. Getting out will mean it's over: the vast open spaces, the truck stops, the junk food, the otherworldly desert scenery. We sit in silence, other cars piling up around us, until the valet appears and opens my door. We reach into the back seat for all the things strewn there over a week of travel: books and postcards, "Pet Milk" and a half-eaten bag of popcorn.

          Palm trees, wide streets, not too many cars and even fewer pedestrians. Small detached houses, a smattering of taller buildings, all of it surrounded by brown mountains and covered in a light layer of smog. I thought Riverside would be grittier, with more traffic and more people on the streets; not so hilly, nor quite so dry.
          We spend two days looking at apartments and houses in the foothills that surround the downtown, Sasha seeking the familiar along the strange new streets. Do you think there's a Starbucks? she asks. I hope there's a local bar, Ty will want that. And movies. There has to be a theater around here somewhere. The hint of desperation in her voice tells me she has more doubts about the move than she's let on.
          Sasha decides on the last place the realtor shows us, a compact brown house at the end of a cul-de-sac near the University, a small mountain like a pile of dry rocks rising beyond it in the distance. There's a patio out back, bordered by flowering shrubs we can't name and paved with square red-orange tiles, the color evoking Spanish-style roofs and tropical sunsets.
          Nearby we find an organic market and buy coffee and sandwiches. They sell condensed milk and Sasha looks for Pet Milk but they don't carry it. I wonder if it still exists.     

          That night we eat in the hotel restaurant, where it's warm enough to sit outdoors under heat lamps. Sasha orders a steak; perhaps she feels it will be her last good meal for awhile, one that I'm paying for, anyway. We splurge on cupcakes for dessert, German chocolate cake topped with half an inch of fluffy coconut pecan icing. "When will I see you next?" I ask, peeling the paper from the rich dark cake. "Do you think you'll come for the shower?"
          Ned is getting married in the fall, and his fiancée's mother is planning a shower six months from now, in July. Sasha had said she'd come back for it, but now she says, "I'm not sure. It depends on what I find for work."
          "Teaching, do you think?" I ask her. She gave up a perfectly decent job teaching English as a Second Language to make this move.
          Sasha shrugs. She begins to talk about her plans, to hike up the nearby mountains with Ty, to grow herbs on the patio, to learn to cook. I go back to eating cake, but soon put down my fork. It tastes too sweet, and I can't finish it. The efforts she's making on behalf of this venture, her vision of her and Ty's happiness, fill me with a familiar ache, the ache of watching your children make their way through life, knowing there are so many things you can't help them with.
          Sasha too puts down her fork. "You know, Momma," she says, reverting to her childhood name for me, "the liquor you found in the basement when you moved? It wasn't Ned's. It was mine, from a party I had senior year when you and Daddy went to Italy for your anniversary. It was the night I met Ty."
           She offers nothing further, and I don't press her. I never gave my parents an explanation of what I was doing home from college when I fell in the train station and broke my ankle, letting them believe I was making a surprise visit. I wasn't too concerned about what they thought. My ankle was giving off hot jolts of pain, and I was already worried about how I would get across campus to my favorite English literature class, where Sasha's father had sat down next to me on the first day.
          I look up at the flowers hanging from the hotel balcony, thinking about the small space I take up in Sasha's head compared to the large space she takes up in mine. After a moment I start eating my cupcake again. Sasha says, "Where's the river? If this place is called Riverside, how come we haven't seen any river?"

          Sasha drops me at the airport the next day. There's something unnerving, even unreal, about flying, about covering in six hours the distance we drove in eight days, as if time were a rubber band that had stretched and stretched then snapped back quickly when I left Riverside. I reread "Pet Milk" on the plane, thinking about how quickly our last hug, the feeling of being with Sasha, is fading from me, even as I try to hold onto it.
         
          Two days later, I stand in front of my new class, holding the writing assignment I'm about to hand out, on which I've reduced Sasha to a "reader," a speck on the other side of the map. "Discuss the following comment made by a reader. At the heart of 'Pet Milk' lies the question: How can we hold on to the things we love in life?"
          I look out at the students, so young they don't yet know that they'll spend their whole lives trying to answer this question. Then I walk forward and hand out the assignment, beginning with the only student brave enough to sit in the front row.


Priscilla Mainardi’s writing has appeared in numerous journals, including Blue Moon Literary and Art Review, Prick of the Spindle, and The Examined Life Journal. She teaches writing at Rutgers University and serves on the editorial board at The Intima. She lives in Montclair, New Jersey.

Monday, October 23, 2017

What Doesn't Kill You

by Helen Coats

On June 16, 1944, a pack of cigarettes saved my life.
          My grandfather, only twenty-one years old at the time, lost his squadron just outside Budapest after his fortieth mission as a P-38 Lightning fighter pilot. He dipped several hundred feet above a lake to search for his friends—low enough to remove his oxygen mask. He stuck his hand into his flight suit pocket and fished around for something—maybe a stick of Juicy Fruit. He accidentally dislodged his box of Lucky Strikes. It fell to the cockpit floor. As my grandfather leaned down to retrieve his smokes, two Messerschmitts ambushed him from above, shooting directly at the acrylic bubble canopy where his head had been just a second before. The gas tank exploded. Flames engulfed my grandfather’s arm. The plane shuddered and groaned as its nose tipped toward the lake.
When pilots ejected from P-38s, they often snapped their backs, struck by the plane’s twin booms. Not my grandfather. He launched above the wreckage and cleared the water below. His parachute barely had time to slow his descent. So many things should have killed him—the sulfurous rain of debris, the bone-jarring impact, the thicket of wooden spikes bristling not fifty feet away. But he survived.
          The Nazis sent him to Stalag Luft III, the air force prison camp featured in the movie, The Great Escape. There was no escape for my grandfather. Instead, there were gray days. Days when disease settled on the camp like falling ash. Days that smelled of earth and mildew and ten thousand unwashed men, their ears tuned for news, any news, of rescue.
          None came.

          I only see my grandfather once a year. He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, about eleven hours from my house. Shadows of his imprisonment cling to the walls. A Purple Heart and Distinguished Flying Cross and other medals I cannot name glimmer from a hanging display case in the basement. The last piece of his P-38 Lightning’s ruptured engine greets visitors in the foyer. But my grandfather rarely talks about these in front of me. He’s quick to peer over the top of his morning game of solitaire or daily crossword puzzle and dismiss his time in Stalag Luft III as little more than an episode of Hogan’s Heroes.
          And in a few, small ways, this is true. Since the guards at Stalag Luft III were all former pilots, they held a grudging respect for their captive counterparts, an attitude not found in countless other prisoner-of-war camps. The security was just lax enough that my grandfather and his friends managed to smuggle in a radio to listen to BBC news. But I do not believe for one second that his situation was as comfortable as he claims.
         
My grandfather spent his first few weeks as a prisoner-of-war in solitary confinement. He kept his mind busy reliving lessons the nuns taught him at Catholic school. His dry tongue rasped over Bible verses and prayers and Shakespeare. Later, when the food ran out, my grandfather learned to stomach spiders. I wonder if he preferred to swallow them whole, or pick their legs off one by one, counting the days since his last meal.
          One time, the Nazis stripped my grandfather naked in an interrogation chamber and saw that he was circumcised. The room rippled with their cries of “Jew, Jew.” They raised their guns. He raised his hands. He said, “No, Roman Catholic.” A translator repeated his words. The Germans didn’t believe him, but a priest convinced an officer to check his dog tags. He confirmed his Christian faith. The Nazis backed away and lowered their weapons. Little did any of them know his mother was half-Polish, half-Jewish.
In winter, 1945, the Germans and their prisoners marched away from Stalag Luft III and the approaching Soviet forces. Rumors flickered down the line. Some of the prisoners believed that the Nazis were taking them to death camps as a last-ditch attempt to wound the unstoppable Allies. Angered voices rose from the crowd in English, French, and other languages, but the Germans pressed them onward. In all the commotion, no one noticed as my grandfather and his friend slipped away and hid in a ditch by the side of the road. One row of Germans passed by. Then another. The two watched as the captives and prisoners slid away into the distance. Thousands of men melted into a single column– a dark snake winding its way north.
          I often wonder what would have happened if my grandfather had tried to escape earlier, if he would have been shot. In March of 1944, just three months before my grandfather’s initial capture, seventy-six men fled Stalag Luft III. Seventy-three were recaptured. And of those seventy-three, fifty were executed. The more I think about it, the more I am astounded by the sheer number of times my grandfather could have died and didn’t. He could have crashed in that lake and drowned. And what if he hadn’t crashed at all? What if he had flown on, only to be killed later in some air battle over Berlin?
          But he hadn’t. He made it home, his burns faded, a Purple Heart in his pocket. He returned to his wife. To raise a family. To name and feed and teach a little girl, who, in 1998, became my mother. My mother, who passed down my grandfather’s eyes to me. His eyes that never needed glasses, so that even at ninety-three he can read the timer on the kitchen stove a room away.
         
Now, when I stand in the checkout line at Wal-Mart, I look at the shelves of cigarettes behind the counter. Marlboros and Winstons, Camels and Newports. I will never smoke them. I know they are deadly, like the fire my grandfather faced on June 16, 1944. But when I see them, I feel only gratitude.
          Gunfire and smoke and cigarettes. In spite of this—because of this—here I am.
          We all survived.


Helen Coats is currently enrolled as a Liberal Arts major at Purdue University. Her fiction is forthcoming in One Teen Story and Toasted Cheese. In her spare time, she keeps a research blog on film scores and storytelling (www.thecreditsconductor.wordpress.com) and tweets at @HelenJackets.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Anya Liftig recognized by Best American Essays

Anya Liftig has had her essay "Irretrievable Breakdown" recognized as a notable essay in Best American Essays 2017. The piece originally appeared in bioStories in September 2016. Readers can access it in the Summer/Fall 2016 issue from the website.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Muito Perigoso

by Jeremiah Bass

           When we got off the plane, the first thing I noticed was the smell. Every foreign country I’ve visited has its own odor. Brazil was no different. A mild hint of salty air reminded me of Jamaica, where Casie and I had been wed nearly eleven years earlier, but the lingering smell of unsanitary bathrooms reminded me of the Greyhound buses I’d frequented as an adventurous youth. The smell was just the first in a long line of surprises and potential hazards.
Side streets were shared with horses, mules, donkeys, goats, cows, sheep, and the occasional iguana. Healthy trees weren’t cut down when roads were made, either. These mid-road diversions were spray painted white and orange so motorists didn’t crash into them. The abrasions and bits of plastic and glass embedded in the bark indicated how well this tactic worked.
We arrived for our seven-month stay at the end of the rainy season and the thin layers of asphalt had washes and gullies that would have destroyed our 1980 VW Beetle had we been unfortunate enough to veer into one. To make drivers aware of these mid-street chasms, Brasileiros filled the holes with whatever broken bits of furniture they had lying around.  One morning there was a bent, metal, fold-up chair sticking about six inches out of a hole big enough for a child-sized desk. A few mornings later, that same hole required a fold-up table to raise awareness.
While Casie worked at the university—a forty-minute drive one way—I taught English lessons at the university and to private clients near our vizinhança. My students were professors, children of professors, business managers, lawyers, doctors, and my favorite, Paolo, a middle-aged man who designed water slides for Beach Park—the home of the Insano, Brazil’s tallest water slide.
Paolo and I spent many days walking up and down the beach in front of the apartment my wife and I were fortunate enough to stumble upon—a two-bedroom that came fully furnished, including dishes, pots and pans, sheets, and a drying rack; all clothes were hand washed and air dried. In front of our apartment, there was a baía: a small bay that filled with high tide and emptied with low tide. “Muito perigoso!” Paolo told me on our first long stroll down the coast of the Atlantic. At first, I struggled to see the danger. Water went in, water went out. During high tide, from our balcony, I’d watched kite-surfers skim the waves of the too-blue water, their boards moving as fast as the sea birds they’d startle from the resting water. During low tide, fisherman would rush around the ankle-deep water netting stranded fish, crabs, and mussels. But then I recognized that between high and low tide, when water rushed through the bottleneck of the bay, no one, not even the boldest kite surfers, would skim through those vacuum-like rip currents.
After Paolo showed me the safest way to get from our apartment to the bay, I ventured there daily as part of my mental health regimen. Walk on the beach, yoga on the beach, meditate on the beach, then trudge back through the cacti and discarded coconut husks that lined the goat trail connecting our apartment to the seaside. I could have driven the two and a half kilometers from our apartment to the nearest road that wasn’t flooded or filled with livestock, but on most days, the walk to and from the beach was enlightening.
I’d come across multiple squatters in the scrub brush. They lived in a halfway finished apartment complex where construction had been suspended indefinitely since the complex’s proprietor didn’t actually own the land upon which he’d started building his multi-million-dollar luxury suites. Not only were these unfinished skeletons the only thing impeding our view of the bay, they were also a perfect home for unsavory types. There was constant access to fresh mango and cashew fruits in the scrub, but they also fished and crabbed. While these squatters didn’t have much money for luxury foods, rice and beans—staples of the Brazilian diet—were cheap. Recycling was one way to get enough money for these essentials, mugging was another. Helping people park and then guarding their car as they strolled the beach was easiest and therefore, most common labor for the squatters.
For fifty American cents, you could have one of these squatters stop traffic, direct you to the best parking spot, stop traffic again when you wanted to leave, and clean your windows. Meeting them in the scrub between our apartment and the beach wasn’t the same kind of interaction. If they thought you might have money, you could give them some, or they may try to take it—which is why I would walk to the beach in nothing but my bathing suit and a pair of worn out running shoes. My broad tattooed chest may have been my saving grace. Standing nearly a foot taller than the average Brasileiro may have helped too. Or perhaps it was just the odd luck that had followed me throughout Brazil. On more than one occasion, our VW died during the commute to or from the University. On every one of those occasions, within a three-minute walk—or ten minutes of pushing the Fusca—an able and inexpensive mechanic had us back on the road in minutes. Luck, it seemed, was on my side.
Near the entrance to the bay, there was a rock formation that had been shaped by eons of high and low tides. It was filled with holes that held water at low tide. Aquatic life like crabs, sea anemones, sea urchins, and things I can’t begin to name in English or Portuguese lived in these holes. During low tide, the rock formations were about shoulder high on me. Casie and I would explore the holes, looking for whatever creatures we could find, daring one another to touch these unnamable entities.
 At high tide, the rock formations lingered under mere inches of water like stony crocodiles. Throughout my life I’ve had a strange fear of things sticking out of dark water. As a young man, it was trees that hadn’t been cut down during the creation of the many small lakes my family fished. The underwater moss that crept along the rotting bark of uncut trees sent shivers up my spine. The ten, twelve, or fifteen feet of dead tree that reached through the surface, standing in lakes like Devil’s Kitchen, had the same spine-chilling effect. In Brazil, the rocks that were such a source of pleasure at low tide were an equal source of fear during high tide.
Most days I’d time my mental health walks and lessons with Paolo for low tide. Not only did this give me the chance to explore the rock formations, but it also offered an extra hundred yards of flat, packed sand to stroll down. Depending on the tide, the walk could be heavenly path or a scalding, shell-filled road of perdition.
On the weekends, Casie and I would hit the beach early, before the hordes of city dwellers overtook the sandy retreat. Often, we’d drive the two and a half kilometers to the nearest safe parking spot to avoid the potential mugging waiting for us in the scrub. Down a one lane, cobblestone road—with only a few trees and pothole obstacles threatening harm—a narrow parking lot lay hidden.
After a breakfast of Pao de coco, eggs, and bananas we’d slip into our suits, start up the Beetle, and pilot the rust bucket down the cobblestones. All valuables were locked safely in the car, where our fifty-cent guardian would stand barefoot, scaring away would-be thieves.
On a normal Saturday morning, about four months into our stay, we woke up later than usual but still decided to drive to the beach in hopes for a spot among the crowds we knew we would find. We found the last parallel parking spot outside the parking lot. There were three cars behind us that  would have to use the lot and pay for their day at the beach. As per our usual routine, we disrobed, sluffed off our sandals, and I tied the car keys to the inside of my swim suit.
The tide was higher than usual, but not “high.” If we walked fast, we’d still be able to dig through the cavernous rock formations. The sun, already blisteringly hot, forced us to take a few time-consuming dips in the Atlantic, though typically we just walked along the edge of the water, skimming our feet in the waves.
The closer we got to the bay, the further back beachgoers seemed to be moving their gear. When we neared an old fishing shack a few dozen yards or from the bay, sunbathers had positioned themselves almost at the dunes—where the water broke during the highest of tides.
“Do you want to turn around,” Casie asked.
I thought about it for a second, and replied, “Let’s keep going.” It was a beautiful, cloudless day, the breeze was cooling, the sound of the waves crashing against the beach drowned out all the noise of weekenders. A kite-surfer hit a high wave and took flight for a few seconds before another high wave caught the bottom of his board. It was a spectacular showing of control.
“Did you see that?” I asked. But Casie’s attention wasn’t on the kite-surfer. Where the bay met the ocean, a group of people stood shouting and pointing at the water. A few weeks before I’d seen a huge loggerhead in that very spot. I know thatCasie, like I, hoped it was the cause of the excitement. We looked at one another and started running.
In the water, where ocean tide was rushing into the bay, there was a current strong enough to keep the kite-surfers away, a current that had ensnared a young Brasileiro.
“Ajudem-no! Ajudem-no!” “Help him!” The excited crowd shouted at no one in particular. Fifteen people stood around watching the boy sink, then struggle back up through the surface, then sink again. By the time we arrived, he was exhausted to the point that he couldn’t keep his head above the water.
Two men with life jackets stood waist deep in the rushing current trying to wade out to the boy. At the rate they were going, neither had a chance of getting him in time. A heavy Brasileiro threw the lid of his Styrofoam cooler, but the current pulled it away before the boy could grab hold. Panicked chants of, “Ajudem-no! Ajudem-no!” continued.
My heart raced. Casie squeezed my hand tightly. I looked at her, questioning. We both knew I could get to him before the waders could. I’d been trained as a lifeguard and knew how to grab the boy and swim him to safety, but Paolo’s caution echoed in my mind, “Muito perigoso!” “Muito perigoso!” “Muito perigoso!”
I took my sun glasses off, handed them to Casie, walked across the terrifying, cavernous rock formation, and dove in into the current. My feet scraped down a hidden edge of the rocks. A stinging burn shot up my leg as salt water debride the wound. I looked for the boy as I swam, but could not see him. The current pulled on me like the g-force in an accelerating car. Taking slow, heavy breaths, I pushed on.
When I got to where he should have been, the boy was gone. Fighting against the current, I looked for help from the crowd of shouting onlookers. It was like trying to get answers from a panicked, foreign language speaking audience of The Price Is Right. There wasn’t anything coherent at first, but the shouting made sense after a few slow-moving split seconds, the boy was under the water.
I dove.
I opened my eyes, salt water stinging them, my leg burning.
I dove deeper, fighting against the current.
When I finally saw him in the dark, sand-filled water, the unconscious boy spun, limp, like clothes in a washing machine. I grabbed him, locking my left arm around his shoulder and head, and pulled toward the surface. When we emerged, we’d been pulled almost all the way to the other side of the bay’s opening. Five strokes, from the edge, a cramp in my back, three, my body burned, two, I needed a rest, one …
On shore, I let the boy go and realized that he wasn’t as much a boy as a young man. A mouthful of water passed his mustachioed lips as he rolled onto his side, coughing. I shook a few thankful hands, gave modest, possibly incoherent responses to the onslaught of “Obrigado,” checked to make sure young man was breathing regularly, caught my breath, and swam back through the settling water.
I’ve often wondered if Casie and I hadn’t slept in that morning, or if we hadn’t gotten the last parking spot, or if we hadn’t walked the rest of the way to the bay, or if my fear had caused hesitation at the last second, what might have happened. I always tell Casie, “Someone would have saved him.” She disagrees. But I wonder what forces of the universe put me in that place at that time, and helped me overcome my fear of what lay hidden in that murky water—a fear that has never returned. Maybe it was fate, maybe that young man is destined for great things, or maybe it was just the luck that followed me on our exotic journey…


Jeremiah Bass is an English Professor at the University of Wisconsin—Stout. He has written and published multiple short stories and poems and is currently searching for homes for his first two novels. Jeremiah lives on a small farm in Spring Valley, Wisconsin with his wife, dog, horse, and two ornery cats.