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Monday, August 12, 2013


by Russell Reece

Todd was normally an animated three-year-old but that October morning in 1978 he seemed on the verge of falling asleep at the breakfast table.
I shook his arm. “Hey, buddy. Are you feeling okay?”
He smiled at me and wheezed.
“Sounds like he’s getting a cold,” I said.
Dianne held the back of her hand against his forehead. “I’ll give the doctor a call after you leave.”
Ten hours later I walked into the crowded children’s unit at the hospital. Inside a small room Todd was shirtless under a plastic oxygen tent with sensors pasted to his chest. A monitor rhythmically beeped. Asthma attack.
He smiled at first, but then his lower lip started to tremble. I grabbed his hand under the cover. “Hey, big guy. I’m sure glad to see you.”
He gasped a short breath, smiled again.
“His fingernails were blue.” Dianne got out of the chair and pulled on her coat. “When I told the doctor he had me rush in here. I don’t think I’ve ever been more scared.” She straightened her collar and made a wry expression. “Your trip to Baltimore was perfect timing.”
“Sorry, babe. That’s always the way, isn’t it?” I kissed her hello.
“He’s a lot better. They’re just keeping an eye on him now; probably go home tomorrow.”  As she hugged me she whispered, “He’s worried about being here by himself tonight.”
“Hmm.” I nodded. “So is he going to keep having these attacks?”
“The doctor didn’t know. Sometimes kids outgrow them.” She picked up her purse and bent over the bed. “Mommy will be back first thing in the morning, Honey. I have to go pick up your sister, but Daddy will stay with you until they kick him out.” She lifted the tent and gave him a kiss. “You’re going to be fine.”
She turned to me. “Are you going to be okay?”
“Sure. No problem.” I hoped there wouldn’t be one. It had been four years.
“They said you could stay till nine.”
“Okay. Go on. Get out of here.”
She pulled keys from her purse and stopped at the door.
I waved her off. “Shoo! I’ll see you in a couple hours.”
Smiling, she turned away. As I watched her disappear down the corridor an old feeling of apprehension stirred.
Thankfully, Todd was better. Between the nurse’s visits we talked and played a magnetic board game. Then he watched The Dukes of Hazard as I watched his small, wired chest move up and down to the rhythm of the monitor that constantly beeped in the background.
Monitors. Through five terrible months Dad had been connected to dozens. Wires and tubes were everywhere, poked into orifices or attached to sensors or prodding needles thickly taped across his bruised, pallid skin.
I wrung my hands together and shuddered. Todd looked at me. I smiled reassuringly and he turned back to the TV.
It had been a difficult time with Dad. At first there had been hope, and he was strong and determined. Confident doctors minimized the illness; he just needed to tough it out and things would be okay.
But then came long days in the ICU, the frightening drug-induced hallucinations, the diseased, eroded hip bone that snapped apart and was left unattended causing terrible pain with every body movement. And all the tests—the pre-MRI and pre-CT—scan tests that never stopped and were so horrid we couldn’t even talk about them without wincing and choking up. In spite of Dad’s strength, how could he go on? How could anyone?
During those months Mom rarely left his room and when she did, only for a few hours at a time. Her familiar presence comforted Dad, as did visits from friends and work associates. And he was always happy to see me. I went every day, at first. But after months of watching his body and spirit diminish, my visits dwindled to just one or two a week. I blamed my absence on the 1974 gas crisis, but that’s not what stopped me from visiting. Just walking into the hospital petrified me.
 Todd shifted in his bed as a gurney rattled past the door.
I still get queasy when I think about the trip from the lobby to Dad’s room in the cancer ward. Each time, as the elevator creaked up to the fifth floor, my shoulders tensed and a heartbeat sounded in the back of my neck. The door opened to a hallway cluttered with hospital carts, monitors, wheelchairs, gurneys and assorted tanks and stainless steel contraptions. The busy, hardened staff buzzed around with cheerful, but emotionless smiles. Moving quickly through the blur of people I would stare straight ahead, careful to avoid open doors where wrinkled sheets and thin blankets covered the flaccid arms and legs of gray-haired patients who twisted and moaned or lay perfectly still with sunken cheeks and gaping mouths. Every smell and sound, every nook and cranny of the long corridor seemed draped by the shroud of Dad’s diminishing condition. I walked fast, ignoring horrors that seeped from every door and the clusters of somber visitors, who often searched my face with their own red, watery eyes.
        A brief period of relief would come when I finally made it to his room, where things were familiar and organized. Mom would explain Dad’s current status and what was to happen next. HIn spite of the futility of his condition, having a plan always offered a sense of future and provided distance, if only temporary, from the morbid world outside the door.
But then Mom would leave or take a break. I would watch her go as I had watched Dianne earlier, and my heart would sink as she was swallowed up in the congested hallway and I was left to take care of things in the room.
Todd asked for some juice. I held the cup for him as he sucked on the flexible straw. He shook his head affirmatively when he had finished, then settled back against the pillow.
On rare occasions, when Dad was conscious and his old spirit present, I was glad to be there, and thankfully, we said some important things to each other. But most times, he struggled with his illness. And I struggled. Inevitably, the nurses would come into the room to methodically poke, prod, lift and turn, oblivious to anything but the task at hand, and Dad would cry out as his broken hip caused horrible pain. In his anguish and confusion he begged for my help, pleaded with me to do something, but I never knew what to do and was ashamed at being so helpless and weak. I just looked at his drawn terrified face and his frail body and wanted to run away, to blank the image from my mind, to escape.
I could see in his eyes he knew how uncomfortable I was, and that only made things worse. My visits became tense and awkward, not the comforting respites he enjoyed with others. I failed him. Every time I was in the room alone with my dad, I failed him.
He would never have let me down. Never.
“I’m okay now.”
I looked up from my wringing hands. Todd stared back at me with a countenance much older than his years. A chill slipped through me. I whispered, “What did you say?”
I’m okay now. You can go. And then, as if he hadn’t spoken at all, he turned back to the TV program.
“But Todd, I’m going to stay with you for as long as I can. There’s at least another hour before I have to go.”
On the screen, Boss Hogg’s arms twirled round and round and his face showed a comical, frightened anticipation as he fell backward, white suit and all, into a mud-puddle. Todd pointed, laughed and wheezed again as the monitor continued to beep.
Later that night, driving through the country toward home, my thoughts churned. Thank God Dianne had been worried enough to call the doctor this morning. And thank God Todd was going to be all right. But, how strange it was the way he had spoken to me. How very strange.
I pulled off the quiet road and stopped the car next to a moonlit field of cut corn. The slow tick, tick of the idling engine sounded against a backdrop of crickets and autumn night sounds. I closed my eyes and listened.
I’ve always believed that there is something in the ether that surrounds us; a divine energy that connects people, makes strange things seem familiar, and gives us those funny feelings just before something is about to happen. Was that juice flowing a little this evening? And with my emotions stretched so thin, did it somehow color the words from my young son?
I stared at the silver reflection on the corn stubble.
I’m okay now. You can go.
I don’t know why, but it seemed a strange thing for a frightened three year old to say to his father, and so authoritatively.
The engine tick, tick, ticked.
It’s more like something a father would say to a frightened son.
I’m okay now…
The evening sounds and the silvery night grew brilliant.

Russell Reece has had stories and essays published in Memoir(and), Crimespree Magazine, Delaware Beach Life, Sliver of Stone, The Fox Chase Review and other print and on-line journals. His work has also appeared in anthologies including Remembrances of Wars Past: A War Veterans Anthology. Russ is a University of Delaware alumnus. He lives in Bethel, Delaware in rural Sussex County along the beautiful Broad Creek.   

Friday, August 9, 2013


by Anthony Santulli

        My father knew how to put himself together de rigueur. His smart casual wardrobe consisted of 3-button bespoke jackets, pleated chalk stripe pants, notched lapel blazers, mid-calf Argyle socks, Italian leather belts and Half-Windsor knots. There were, of course, times where a sale too good to pass up could lead to any number of strange purchases: tacky baseball caps, neon colored neckties, the occasional blouse left in the men's department. Poor judgment aside, he always presented himself well; to this day I have never seen him in a pair of jeans. At eight years old, I associated my father’s clean-shaven appearance with a precocious notion of what it meant to be an adult and the many luxuries that awaited me in the business world.
        He sold his first house at 28. His days as a real estate broker consisted of sporadic commissions, useless partnerships, futile attempts to sell upscale apartments on the waterfront, and paper. Always paper. His filing cabinets overflowed with numbers and letters and useless symbols. When his business went online in 2002, he still asked customers to fax their contracts, mortgage commitments, advertisements, and other information. Anything abstract confused him; he liked the idea of something tangible.
        My father had often taken me to see this work when I was a child. His office was just one of many small businesses on Jersey City’s Central Avenue: Holey Moley Tattoos & Body Piercings, Central Gold & Diamond, Rumba’s CafĂ©, $.99 Gallery, and more. Still, it was all his; the fax machine, some tangled telephone wires, the furniture inherited from his father. "One day," he used to say, "this will all be yours." A piece of him, I'm sure, was damaged when he realized that I didn’t want to sell houses or inherit my grandfather's furniture.
        Maybe it was the basement. Forty years ago, the building served as a retail store that specialized in military apparel, and several shipments of camouflaged inventory as well as a shoebox full of baseball cards from the 1960s had been left behind for my family to collect. After he started his own business there, my father used the same space for his own storage. One of my earliest memories is apocryphal; I remember wandering around that damp, dark room, trapped in a world of sealed Rubbermaids that contained everything from Christmas decorations to vintage Matchbox cars and moldy posters of Muhammad Ali. On the far wall, the boiler room's heavy steel door was barricaded by chains and locks. Its edges glowed red with chthonic intensity as they whistled and moaned to a demonic rhythm. White heat emanated from the radiators, a contrast to the obsidian and impossible chill of that infernal hall. This, I thought, was what the Catholic boys meant when they spoke of Hell.
        My father has switched buildings twice since then, both of them with only one story, yet the vastness of that place remains fresh; it floats idly like a balloon losing air. But it’s no longer the basement that I fear—I know now that Hell has moved somewhere else.
        When the Take Our Daughters to Work program was expanded to include boys in 2003, most parents were indifferent, perhaps embarrassed by their own jobs. In my class, there were no sons of astronauts or paleontologists, no daughters of doctors or superheroes. "Take Your Child to Work Day", as the elementary teachers called it, soberly reminded most parents of their status as typical middle-class suburbanites holding a 9-to-5 job. The program gave my father a chance to show me around a calculator and explain the stock market; I just looked forward to the day off.
        We got to work around eleven. To most people this is late, but my father wanted the entire morning to himself. On most days, he wakes at 5:30 and meanders around the neighborhood, showers and shaves in slow, quiet song, watches the local news, and takes in the cold air and coffee of dawn.
        I looked at my assignment sheet, full of prepackaged interview questions, and wrote my name at the top in sloppy script. This year’s theme for the program was A New Generation at Work.
        “What do you do?” I asked, mechanical pencil in hand. The phone rang with the digital tone of business. In a manner almost rehearsed, he replied,
        “I help people buy and sell houses.” He picked up the phone as I jotted down his words. “AFS—Yeah, I got the listing right here—Stop by my office tomorrow—Alright, bye.” Click. It was funny to think that half of his life had been spent like this. I stared at the certificates hung on the wall. My father dropped out of college before he could earn his associate’s degree, and my mother always joked that his epitaph would read “Died with 32 credits.”
        My mind wandered, so I began to search through the endless supply of records stored in the stainless steel file cabinets. I recited the names of different buyers and sellers under my breath as I sucked the salt off a pretzel stick. The files went all the way back to 1985; ten years before my father passed his name onto me. Ten years before all the crying and babbling slowly became words. My words. He walked towards the door.
        “Come on, we have to go to the car.” The housing market was better this year, and an older man had contacted my father a few days earlier to estimate his property’s market value.
        “What are we doing?” I asked.
        “An appraisal.” I misspelled the word in the margin of my homework for later: Aprasal Aprasal Aprasal.
        Outside, the industrial sounds of the city flooded my ears. The warm, urban air smelled of soft pretzels and gasoline. I read everything: license plates, graffiti, 1-800 numbers and street names. Even the cardboard signs of homeless men breathed a drunk, poetic life. At home, these things meant nothing; here they took on a life of their own.
        My father’s new crystal red Impala, which would one day be mine, was cluttered with Poland Spring bottles and manila folders full of papers that on any other day would have been useless, but now their language fueled my sensory addiction. I indulged in the leathery new car smell, fogged up the back window with my breath, and listened closely to the hymn of klaxons and talk radio as I mused over this new world.
        When we arrived at the apartment, my father parked along the curb of the crowded street. He pulled a ring of keys off of his belt loop and scanned the collection of silver and brass for the right fit. He paused for a moment so he could slowly run his fingers along the teeth of the blade that were shaped like shattered piano keys. As the lock turned, the door let out a death rattle as though it hadn’t been opened for years.
        Our arrival was greeted with filth. The dregs of the earth seemed to collect in puddles around the living room. There was an old Western on the television but the volume was muted. Newspapers assembled in vertical stacks along the couch cushions created a soft gradient of gray to faded yellow. Clothes embalmed the carpet along with scattered pieces of cereal, urine and milk stains, patina pennies, and hairballs. My senses rescinded and eventually succumbed to the house’s infinite, endless dissonance: the shrill mewing of cats from the bedroom, the fusillade of a leaky faucet, the drone of centralized air conditioning, the crunch of broken glass beneath my feet.
        And the smell. A horrible, animate thing. Not like fresh manure in springtime; or the decomposing body of a deer beneath August heat; or a stagnant, polluted pond. Worse.
        “Is anybody here?” My father's usually resonant voice dropped to a whisper. All words lost their music, the airy bounce and rhythm of language reduced to harsh noise. “Hello?”
        The walls of the room absorbed all sound, keeping it a secret, while the hallway stretched into an illusory labyrinth. A dizzying blur. I carefully slid my hand along the glass of the picture frames that lined the walls, some of them empty, some of them stuffed with the stock images of anonymous interracial couples kissing on their wedding day in perfect lighting, friends sharing a toast after some untold celebration at a cheap Italian restaurant, and families posing in multiple uncomfortable positions before a bright ocean backdrop. A gaunt, almost skeletal cat brushed against my father’s leg and stared at me with innocent eyes.
        I looked from the pet to my father. The thick black Mediterranean hair of his youth—identical to my own—that I only knew of in pictures was now gray and receded; his bald, dappled scalp was liver spotted from wistful days at the beach and ultraviolet rays. His clothes, which I had once held in such high regard, suddenly seemed ridiculous. Without warning, I noticed the wear in his cheap penny loafers, the black wool sports coat and matching flat front pants that did nothing to conceal his increased weight, and his white cotton shirt, ruined by tomato stains and bleach. Even his moschate cologne only seemed to add to the intolerable smell.
        With a final “Hello?” we left that place. I held my breath to escape the paralyzing odor as I exited and watched my father lock the door of the apartment and proceed to graze his thumb along the key’s bitting.
        After we left, my father took me out to lunch. We ate cheeseburgers, and my father wore a napkin around the collar of his shirt. Later, he took me to see another apartment, this time on foot. I was still in a disgusted, languid stupor from the day’s events, and I kept my gaze fixated on the sidewalk, careful not to step on any cracks or fossilized gum. Before I knew it, I had been placed on this customer’s doorstep.
        My father rang the doorbell and its buzzing swirled in my ears. A tall young man answered the door.
        “Come in,” he said. He gestured towards the foyer while his daughter, a girl of about my age, clung to his leg like a vice. I saw in her something innocent and familiar. Was there a word for that?
        The two men shook hands, their grips brimming with insincerity. My elementary mind took stock of the building’s contents. Senses and images had faded into numbers and facts. The guest room was full of bicycles—there must have been at least a dozen—old and new for both children and adults. The living room walls were covered with posters of Beavis and Butt-Head and AC/DC.
        “You want me to turn on the TV?” the owner asked me. I nodded and he put on a cartoon. The characters and faces looked familiar, but I was too numb to pay attention. My father’s trained and familiar rhetoric was at work in the other room but I could not escape the day’s earlier memory and its arresting mayhem of cat piss and rotted meat. It must have been toxic to breathe, the song of a thousand deaths. I didn’t speak of it at school the next day and my assignment was left incomplete with no explanation.
        The smell, as would later be identified by police, was the scent of a decayed body in another room. Exactly how long the lone resident had been dead I didn’t know, but an implacable sense of mortality and oblivion consumed me. My first true death. What happened to his cats? Where were his family and friends? Years later, extensive Internet searches and hours spent studying obituary records have yielded no answers. I never got to see the face of this man, and the images I created of the ugliness and heartache in his mind, an attempt to forge in him sort of new life, only cast a muddied reflection of the foulness in his own home. Recently, I asked my father if he remembered the apartment or its owner.
        “I sold the building to someone else, I think,” he told me. “Yeah, I must have.” More questions produced the same doubtful responses. I was shocked. When it came to the apartment, he couldn’t recall a single thing. No rusted faucets giving birth to brown water or ants colonizing an open container of moldy bread. I tried as well to ask him about the basement, but he didn’t remember any satanic boiler rooms or guttural whistles. Everything seemed business as usual. All the memories had been locked away in his mind’s filing cabinet, the data lost with the amnesia of aging. Within my own mind, the images encoded themselves as though they had been written down; he catalogued them away, separate from the numbers and dollar signs of his working life. The fact that my father had to handle these situations often enough to be considered normal was sickening and only served to drive me away from the calculated, almost suspicious practices of AFS Hudson Realty Corporation in the years to come.
        Several months after the incident, my father contracted a severe case of meningitis that nearly took his life. One morning, he woke with a sudden fever and refused to get out of bed. All that time, the bacteria had been metastasizing inside of him, corroding his mind by the millions. When he tried to shift his body, he couldn’t even move his neck. On the drive to the emergency room, he began to hallucinate that he was somewhere else: the northern red oaks and dirty pond water of New Jersey became the lush palm trees and ambrosial beaches of California.
        During his stay at the hospital, he didn’t even know who I was.  For a week, his body lay supine and stiff. The doctors told my family that another day without treatment would have killed him.
        The thought of my father hooked up to IV needles and hoses was hard to swallow. At his most vulnerable, I saw in him my own weaknesses, desires, and fears; I, too, wanted to escape to that other world, my California. The delusions went away after a few days and my father soon returned to the pace of work like nothing had ever happened. His days judging homes—the one place where a human is free to sleep, self-loathe, eat, love, and die—were as busy as ever.
        It was hard to believe that this was the life that awaited him every morning. Day after day, I felt myself slip away from that banal world void of all sensory pleasure and joy, the only world I had ever known. But the one thing I will never escape, the strangest of them all, was seeing my father stand amidst the chaos of that ruined apartment like a homeowner after a hurricane, dignified in knowing that he was better than the dead, and realizing that this was the place where he had always belonged.

Anthony Santulli is a New Jersey born writer currently attending Susquehanna University. His recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Extract(s), The Review Review, the delinquent, The Postscript Journal, Bartleby Snopes, Literary Orphans, and decomP.

When She Sleeps

by Shirley Russak Wachtel

            I like it best when she sleeps. When she sleeps, I don’t have to look at her eyes. Her eyes are remarkable, you see. They are matchless, neither a subtle cornflower, nor the color of a dusky, rolling sea, nor even a silky lazy sky which settles comfortably over apartment buildings as children sit down to their suppers. Nor are they fantastic for the incomprehensible fact that neither of her children managed to inherit the particular shade of blue. No, they are unique because of one irrefutable fact—they speak. Through the years, they have spoken of many things, most predominantly, love. But now, now that they are the only voice she has left, I can’t bear to hear them. Yes, definitely sleep is best.
Today the sun is pouring, pushing its way through the closed damask shades, which with little prodding, open. Sunlight, an unabashed intruder, falls upon her face, but her breaths come soft and steady, and her hands are motionless clenched upon her chest. I stare at the face, as I have the last four months, and I realize again how beautiful she is. Not the standard notion of beauty, but the kind accomplished by a mask of quiet serenity achieved only in age. I marvel at its smooth contours, and hope briefly that the powers of heredity bless me with the same fine skin one day. In fact, even with her chin sunken in like that, one can barely believe that she is 83 years old (give or take a year depending on the source). 
I walk into the bathroom she never uses and wet a paper towel, which I then gently place over her forehead. She makes a few “puh” sounds pursing her lips, nothing more, as the towel caresses the furrows of her sweaty brow. I move the cloth down the willful nose, and as I take note of the bump in its center, I am surprised that I no longer feel the twang of guilt upon its discovery. The thin lips are expressionless and covered by pathetic little patches of crust. I make a mental reminder to coat them later with Vaseline.
She wouldn’t like people seeing her this way, without her dentures, mouth swallowing up the thin lips. Once, she accidentally broke the false teeth, and she cried for a whole day. But they wouldn’t allow even the teeth in this place. So I put the dentures away, or maybe I threw them out altogether. At the base of her neck are sprinkled the freckles of childhood along with a couple of moles, to which she is prone, and I lightly cover these too with the cooling wetness. Finally, I squeeze the last of the tap water onto the top of her head, and with my fingers I comb back the remaining hairs, straight and thin, like my own. She is almost totally gray now. There were times, as recent as a few months ago, when I would squeeze the Clairol Herbal Golden Brown onto her head, as she simultaneously pinched her eyes tightly shut. I can still smell the stinging odor of peroxide in the air. I watch as a single droplet of water, not hair dye, escapes onto her left eyelid which flutters as a petal would when brushed by a spring breeze. Standing back, I watch the rhythmic movements of her breathing, her chest barely rising beneath the sleeveless yellow flowered sundress with buttons (they all have to have buttons) down the back. The dress isn’t even hers, having somehow made its way into her closet, not an unusual occurrence. She is too tightly swaddled today beneath the beige flannel blanket, and someone has casually thrown an afghan over all, a patchwork of dancing pinks and grays. In the bed, buoyed by round sacks of air, she is at once a presence and an unimposing picture of fragility. No longer able to look at her, I turn away.
Photographs line the window sill, the TV stand devoid of TV, the dresser, the large bulletin board in the corner. Reminders of a life lived, the pictures are present in almost every one of the rooms. They are all the same, yet each is different. In this room, there is one of my wedding, twenty-five years ago, another, more recent, of her and two brothers, a black and white posed one of me and Jack, he with a striped rubber ball in his hands, I with a gray ribbon, then a scarlet red, wound around a ponytail. Jack’s face is round like my mother’s, mine long like that of my father. I am missing a tooth.  Most of the photographs, though, are of the grandchildren, five in all, and all boys. 
“No princesses,” she would often say, “only kings.” Every so often I hold the largest photo of all five directly in front of her face, and I point to each one.
“See, there’s Howie. He’s at Georgetown now...” and finally, “little Sammy, remember?” I say, calling him by a Yiddish endearment meaning “lightning bug.”  As I point to each one, sometimes I think that I see one of the blue eyes begin to willfully tear. But each time, I dismiss the notion, reasoning this is a natural physical reaction to the dryness in the air. And I convince myself, I pray, that she is no longer capable of crying.
Today, there is silence. The creak of the double doors perpendicular to her room is less frequent than usual, and the lighthearted bantering of aides more distant, muted; even the screams, which rattle periodically through the corridors, are quieted now. All silent save for the steady cranking of the cogs rhythmically churning the liquid, which resembles a kind of noxious chocolate milk, into the plastic tube. Down beneath the crocheted dancing afghan, sneaking further, further underneath the too tightly wound beige flannel and sundress into the soft yellow putty which was once her stomach.  Nourishment.  Life—no, I correct myself—existence. She exists with every whir of those cranky cogs. To camouflage the sound, I place a cassette into the radio by her bed. Written across the edge it says: Favorite Jewish Melodies. Immediately, the sturdy voices sing out; I visualize young strong Israelis dancing with banners through fruit-laden orchards. “Shane vidila voona, lichtic vee der shtaren...Sweet little one, light as the stars...  Fin Gott a mitunah, ost der mer tsi gui brangt...From God a blessing you have brought to me.” It is her favorite song, a tune which has always brought tears to her eyes. Now, her eyes are shut.

Yesterday was different. I found myself walking down the hall with its too pristine white tiles, shining golden oak chair rail, sedate salmon-colored wallpaper with the look of suede on which were placed at regular intervals, pictures—a Jewish woman praying over candles, a couple dancing under the chuppah, an abstract of a hillside in Israel. It was all too sanitary, too ordered, and I hated it. My high heels clicked against the tiles as, like radar, I followed the high-pitched whining sound which had reached my ears just as I stepped out of the elevator. My pace quickened as I walked past her room with its neatly made bed. Finally, I saw it. The back of the special narrow wheelchair with the inclined seat, the pole adjacent to it, and one skinny white arm with clenched fingers stretching into the empty air. The whines bore no resemblance to the strong, round tones I knew so well—those comforting tones which even in anger could wrap themselves around you and make you feel that nothing was ever or could ever be bad again. Nothing like this mutant cry which was an unnatural pitch, a hybrid borne of fear, of pain? When I faced her, she looked up at me, straight into me, and then altogether through me. She screamed again.
I stood up straight in front of her, my eyes going to my own skirt, a cotton blend of black and white Swiss dots. Somewhere inside my brain, a small egotistic voice murmured an unspoken question. “Do you like my outfit?” Of course, she had always loved polka dots, and so she would smile appraisingly, check the hem, and have me spin like a teenage ballerina.
“Zaya shein...Very nice,” she would say with a smile, and then she’d ask, “Viful?...How much?” She’d have to see the shoes, too. Bright black pumps with very high heels. She certainly would have approved.
Indeed, the voice in my brain is a child’s voice—still demanding to be noticed, appreciated—now drowned by an insistent whine. She knows only herself, reasons an older voice, submerging the child.
I approached the nurse’s station where I was greeted like an old friend. My tone, lighter than usual, inquired about her last dosage of morphine. I was told that the last supplemental dose was given 45 minutes ago. Her tolerance was building. 
The sacral wound, which is delicately often referred to as a “bedsore,” rests precariously close to the anus, and is much smaller, I am informed, than when she first came here. Big enough to put a fist through, they had said, yet packed with bullets of pain. The morphine reduces the pain, which is often agonizing, but as her tolerance rises with each day, so does the dosage. It is a horrifying but unavoidable cycle. 
Often, walking down the hallways (those further away from where she is stationed), I overhear the familiar banter between mothers and daughters.
“I picked up my new dentures today, ma...See?...How about some more water?” or “Lucille, you should really go to a doctor for that constipation problem.”  “I’m eating roughage, mom.  I’ll be all right.”
Sometimes, hearing it all brings a momentary smile to my face. I am definitely the youngest offspring here, as far as I can tell. Senior citizens with back pains and canes often drop by to visit their elderly parents. As I walk past, feigning oblivion, I wonder who will care about my dentures, my eating habits, my polka dotted skirts when I get older.
But, even here, you have to laugh.  Indeed, emotions always hit highs or lows. There is no moderation, the subtle niceties of time having long fled this place where gentlemen wear diapers which emerge from tweed pant waists, and women go denture-less.
You have to laugh. Once, a woman in a wheelchair took her shirt completely off. And although there was nothing about the old lady’s body that could be recognized as womanly, one nurse running toward her joked, “Save it for when you can get paid for that, Sadie.” On another occasion, one of the patients was sitting in the TV room, where none but the attendants pay attention to the flickering screen. She was screaming, “I need something...I need something!” ignored by the overworked staff. “I’ll tell you what you need!” screeched a hag with the profile of a baba yagar, the mythical witch which so often scared me in childhood. With raised fist, she ominously wheeled herself, rubber baby doll in hand (many of the patients have these) toward the woman. “You need to be quiet!” she screeched, approaching until a tall aide with mounds of curly black hair promptly wheeled her away.
There are times, though, when the conversation is less dramatic, as when I overheard one patient, sporting a trim white bun, an alligator pocketbook resting on her lap, insist to her friend, “But I do love my husband...It’s just that I can’t remember his name...”  As I said, you have to laugh if you’re going to return to the world outside, if you’re going to have any kind of normalcy.
            When I came back to her, she was calmer; the morphine was beginning to work. I could tell that she was partially awake despite her closed lids, because the tremor in her hand, more distinct of late, was again present. I tried feeding her some applesauce, which she sucked slowly, every so often smacking her lips.
            “Remember how you loved to eat apples?” I prodded, recalling the way she would carefully peel away one long circle of skin with the edge of a knife, then slice the white fruit into thin wedges, making sure to core the brown spots and save one thick wedge for the dog. 
            “I can tell you love this,” I said, trying to catch the sauce which had begun to drip down her cheek and onto her bib.
            But, that was yesterday. Today is better. And so I wait until the Jewish song ends, and another begins. This one is about someone dear being more precious than all the money in the world. And then, for no reason, I begin to cry.
            I place my cool cheek next to her warm one, thinking again how this time with her has become both the worst and best part of my day. My tears cover her cheek, which I kiss, murmuring, “I love you” over and over again, as
if the force of the words could infuse her with some power. A lifetime of unsaid “I love you’s” sail up into the air and burst like so many bubbles. But she doesn't wake, and her eyes remain shut, speechless. Sometimes, I wonder if I’ll have the heart to leave her, the strength to return. But, of course, I do—I must.

            As I look through the window past the front yard into the parking lot where cars are neatly lined in rows, I suddenly remember that I have to get back home. Charlie will be home soon, and he will need a ride to Hebrew school, Brad will be calling for a ride from basketball practice, about thirty student essays needed grading, and a stop has to be made at the butcher shop if there is to be any supper tonight.
            I begin to button my coat, and as I bend down to place one last kiss on the forehead of the sleeping woman, suddenly my body is gripped by an old fear. When I leave, no one will know her. No one will know my mother.

Shirley Russak Wachtel is a college English professor living in New Jersey.  She holds a Doctor of Letters Degree from Drew University. She is the author of a book of poetry, In the Mellow Light, several books for children, and a series, Spotlight on Reading, a college-level text. Her personal essays have been published in The New York Times OpEd section. Her short stories and poems have appeared in Middlesex, Haiku Journal, emerge, Leaves of Ink, Whisper, and other literary journals. Her memoir, My Mother’s Shoes, follows her mother’s journey during the Holocaust and as a new citizen in America. “When She Sleeps” is the introduction to My Mother’s Shoes.


by Richard Ballon   

It is that delicate time, when bones are stretching and knees go knobby, the body all elbows and a boy’s heart is suddenly nesting in a body trying to be a man. This is fifteen, when the willow of my body leans toward other boys and men who smell of salt that summer on Hampton Beach.

Oh, I chisel out words with my foot on the beach, and Peace signs. I read graffiti of other boys, spray painted on the inside curl of the sea wall, and we all think we are as deep as the curl of our letters that match our running legs, when the waves lap, lap, lap, as the tongue of the tide lashes our legs.

I sneak one night, away from the trailer of women, where my Mom, sisters and cousins giggle and squawk over the fanleaf of fan magazines. I pause to watch the white lip of the surf. Colin is sitting on the sea wall, cross-legged, his goatee shadowing his chin. His long curls blow soft and fringed with the streetlight.

The sea acts more itself at night, he says and the meeting of our eyes is the handshake that seals our friendship and ushers me a summer later to a lake in Maine.

One night, his Aunt Liz and her boyfriend are beyond silly drunk in their trailer and we slip out, barefoot. My soles are pinched by tree roots, and we wear haloes of mosquitoes until the pfffssst of bug spray.  
We launch the boat, Colin and I, onto the dark lake, and tumbling in I see the shadow of Colin’s arms like tree roots, snaking their stroke as he rows us out into the valley of water that looms beneath us. That stillness cracks with the creak of oar lock and the plip plop plip of the oars, easing the boat along until we drill a hole in the center with the drop plunge of anchor, waiting for the surface to mirror back the sky.

There, he murmurs, is Cassiopeia, and he points at the stars in the water, and I repeat the word like a litany. Cassiopeia. And here is Orion. The Pleiades. The names coat my tongue with the milk of their meaning, and after I learn them, he bids me look up, up, up at the darker lake in which the stars are really nesting.

The Big Dipper, The Drinking Gourd, the Shopping Cart, pour the night over me these, many years, many summers later, and shimmer with what I did not do that night, which was kiss the man whose eyes reflected my longing back at me.

Richard Ballon’s work has been performed in New York City at Manhattan Theater Source’s Sola Voces / Estrogenius Festival, Stage Left’s Women at Work, MamaDrama and Left Out Festivals, Emerging Artist Theater’s One Man Talking and One Woman Standing, and NativeAlien’s Short Stories 5. Other work has been performed at The Shea Theater, Turners Falls, Universal Theater, Provincetown, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Out of the Blue Gallery, Cambridge, Devanaughan Theater, Boston, Last Frontier Theater Conference, Valdez, Dylan Thomas Festival, Chicago, Walking the Wire Festival, Iowa City, Fells Point Corner Theater, Baltimore, The Inspirato Festival, Alumnae Theater New Ideas Festivals, Toronto,Asphalt Shorts, Kitchener and ArtHotel, Montreal. Richard is a member of the Dramatist’s Guild.