1999


by Adina Kabaker

“So what do we do now?” says Mr. Finkl. “The cleaning lady used a butter knife to cut her bologna sandwich and it’s not kosher any more.”

“You must clean it in boiling water,” says Old Lady Mandelstamm, “and then bury it in the back yard for six days.”

“A month,” says Myrna, the old-maid sister of Mrs. Finkl, pursing her lancet of a mouth. “MY rabbi says a month.”

“Oy, I can’t believe it, that such a young girl is more frum than me,” says Old Lady Mandelstamm. “Six days is enough.”

“And I don’t believe YOU people,” says Aunt Feigie, the anarcho-syndicalist pinko who doesn’t believe in God. “If there is a god, he’s more interested in what comes out of your mouth than what goes into it.”

“You should talk,” says Myrna, “some of the things that you’ve had in your mouth. Since when are you a spokesman for God.”

“Didn’t you hear?” says Aunt Feigie. “I’m her confidante.”

Finkl’s father, the elder Finkl, who could care less about the knife says, “Ask YOUR rabbi. But be careful,” he says, “because if YOUR rabbi says six days and another subsequently says three, you have to go with the first opinion solicited. No shopping for opinions. The first one you got is binding.”

“Oy, listen to Pa, solicited yet,” says Old Lady Finkl. “That’s why you have to be careful who you ask. Myrna’s rabbi I wouldn’t ask.

Myrna looks huffy. She is forty-eight and unmarried. She is so religious and such a feminist she can’t find a proper husband. Some are feminist enough and not religious. Some are religious enough, but you try to find a religious feminist. All she talks about is shopping and nasty gossip about people and all the little frum things in her life. Did she tear enough toilet paper on Friday afternoon to have enough for the Sabbath, she shouldn’t have to tear. Can she set the electric coffee pot ahead, she shouldn’t have to boil before shul the next morning. She can’t talk about her job because she is the liaison from the National Security council to the CIA, and it’s all classified. She’s still mad because she wanted to say kaddish for her mother every day for a year after her mother died, and she knew there was a minyan at the National Security Council, but it was all men. They wouldn’t let her pray with them. One had said,” What do you want to say kaddish for, a nice girl like you? I’ll say it for you,” but she had taken a vow, and she felt like killing the guy.

The anarcho-syndicalist aunt was appalled that the National Security Council had enough orthodox for a minyan. What if the Iraqis decided to attack on shabbos? Would they refuse to answer the telephone. “We can’t come to the phone right now,” their answering machines would say. “Call back after sundown on Saturday. Have a nice shabbos,” Aunt Feigie often thought that modern technology would finally be the downfall of orthodoxy in religion, but the frummies just took it in their stride. Where once they had to hire a goy to light the fire on the Sabbath, now they had their goddamn electric coffee pots. The women, once shaving their heads and wearing clumsy wigs that looked like wood shavings, now wore sleek wigs from places like the Adora Salon or Marshall Fields, and were more of a temptation than they would have been with their real hair. And the answering machines so that they could obey the stricture against answering the phone (did God actually say that they shalt not answer the phone?) without missing an important message.

“So where’s this knife?” says Mrs. Finkl. “At least she didn’t put it back in the drawer, did she?”

“No, it’s on the back of the sink,” Mr. Finkl says. “You got her trained pretty good in that respect. And she knows enough to not mix the milk dishes and the meat dishes in the dishwasher and wait at least an hour before doing a load of one and then another.”

“Holy shit!” says Aunt Feigie. “You can’t do them together? This is worse than when I was a girl!”

“Feigl, your language,” Old Lady Mandelstamm says mildly. “Your mother would turn in her grave is she heard you.”

“She could probably use the exercise,” Feigie mutters under her breath.

by David Peterson

“You want fries with that? It comes with fries you know.”

“Did I ask for fries?”

“Uh, no. I’m just sayin’ that if you order the pattymelt that it comes with fries”

“I don’t want fries.”

“I still gotta charge ya for ‘em”

“Fine”

With military precision my pattymelt arrived about ten minutes later and she still brought the fries.

“I really don’t want these.” I said pointing to my plate.

“Well the thing is, I gotta charge you for ‘em,” gum snapping as she spoke, so I went ahead and put ‘em on the plate….”

The waitress droned on, I wasn’t surprised though. It had been like this during the entire tour. The van, driven usually by me, would pull into some podunk town, find the worst possible diner and then, zombie like, we four wannabe rockstars would pile out and slouch into the first available naugahyde booth. We had been doing this same routine for about four weeks when I first noticed the pattern. It got to the point where no matter what I ordered, it tasted the same.

Like donuts. Our frontman, Danny said that this was the mark of a fine diner.

Danny had a cast iron stomach and could talk about the most disgusting things imaginable while eating. Once, in a diner in Jersey I saw him kill a cockroach that was making a beeline for his omelet without missing a bite. “Hey, I didn’t order this,” he said while scraping the carcass from the formica table. Then, while still chewing his last bite, he ordered, “hey sister, lemme have a hunk of that pie will ya?”

This was life for us at the time. We took ourselves very seriously and were unified in the notion that at any moment a major label A&R guy would appear at one of our ill-attended shows and make us the stars we thought we were entitled to be. We were living in the crease of society and were able to make enough dough to cover the essentials; beer, cigarettes and guitar strings. The songs were good, or at least our girlfriends thought so, and we really clicked on stage as long as nothing went wrong. Things usually went wrong. There was a long list of things that could go wrong.

Anything that happened at night in a club, any problem that may have arisen while we were on stage was always talked about while we were eating. Strange, but I don’t remember ever sleeping while we were on the road, though I’m sure that I must have.

Once in a diner in El Paso, Texas I sat, staring, bleary eyed and hungover at two grease pools that were allegedly eggs. Though it was clearly a breakfast choice the waitress had still uttered those magic words, much to my chagrin. “Uh, honey, you want fries with that?” She was going too far. I felt the tension mount as the band got ready for another long castigation from me on the sins of french fries. I was too tired to let this one have it. I meekly muttered, “no.”

This place was too much, even for Danny. We all sat there unsure of what to do.

I was sure of one thing, there was no way that I was eating what was in front of me. We all just sat there not saying a word. The smell from these alleged food products was giving me a tremendous headache when all of a sudden, John Locke, our drummer, blurted out “I AM NOT EATING THIS!!” no one even looked up at the normally quiet John Locke. He said this in every other stop that we made. Truth was he only ate about once a week. I would not have believed this fact but I lived with this man in very close quarters for an extended amount of time and I like to think I know what his habits were. John Locke was a first class beer drunk. He would usually start drinking as soon as we got to the club. Before that, if he was awake, he would drink coffee and smoke cigarettes in the back of the van. He rarely said more than three words at a time. The only response he got was from Danny. “Good, can I have the rest of your….whatever that is?”

Danny could never admit that a place actually had inedible food. If the sign outside said restaurant’ that meant that whatever they served you inside was fit to eat. John Locke looked at Danny and then contradicted himself by saying

“Nope, I not quite done yet.” He remembered that no matter who ate the food in front of him that he would end up paying for it. Grimly he picked up a fork and started in on his order.

There was actually a space of three full days on the tour where I managed to trick the conspiracy of waitresses. I had taken to eating only pancakes.

Pancakes. I was amazed that it had taken so long for me to figure this out. No one ever ate fries with pancakes. Then one day in Spearfish, South Dakota, I met my match. We decided to eat before retiring for the night rather than in the morning. I ordered pancakes and eggs as it was the special of the day. The waitress was a chubby biker type. She was only thinly disguised by the official polyester waitress uniform. I knew right away that my happiness would be brief…. She actually leered as she said it. It was as if she had been waiting all night, I couldn’t believe my bad luck. Lenny, our guitar player, muttered, “Shit, here we go again.” I immediately started in on my usual diatribe…

“Who the hell eats french fries with pancakes?” I complained.

“Listen, you little shit, I’m not gonna take in crap from you tonight you understand?”

I was slightly shocked but no less determined.

“Did I ask for fries?”

Danny and Lenny tried to get me to stop but it was too late, I was on a roll.

“I don’t give a damn what you asked for you little punk.” She was raising her voice now.

I knew I had her even though I was scared.

“You gotta care, you’re the waitress and if you didn’t, you wouldn’t have asked”

She sighed. She was down but not out. I didn’t figure on what she said next though.

“If you’re still in town when I get off I am gonna kick you skinny little ass.

Do you understand me?”

I sat there blinking, bare arms sticking to naugahyde. I had no response.

My mates had abandoned me in my struggle against french fries. They were all doubled over laughing. I wasn’t laughing. I knew she meant it. She had dealt with those like me before. I was beaten and I knew it.

I sat there staring at the fries on my plate. It was a conspiracy. They were all out to get me. The only recourse I still had was not to eat them.

Unfortunately that really wasn’t the point though. The fact that they had to be there at all really burned me. I was so dejected that I volunteered to drive the van through the night rather than stay one unnecessary second in this godforsaken hell-hole in the badlands of South Dakota. We were playing Fargo the next night and by comparative standards the food would be fit for Kings.

Danny walked alongside me as we made our way through the expansive gravel parking lot, the gravel crunched beneath our boots. “I knew she was trouble,” he said. I was silent, he was right. “Cheer up man, the sun’ll come up in Fargo tomorrow and you’ll be able to get even with all of ‘em then. Might want to think about ordering cereal though — just to be on the safe side.”

All in all it was the food that I remember most. I have since moved from the crease of society into the quick. I am older, I drive a station wagon and have a respectable job. But every now and then during the heat of summer I pick a direction at random and hit the highway. The feel of the wind in my face, and the sound of radial tires whining on the asphalt is exhilarating……and sometimes, if I try really hard, I can almost catch the not-so-subtle scent of fried bacon and boiled coffee….and if I press the illusion just a little bit farther, I can hear the rustle of a polyester waitress uniform and am always startled when the amalgamation of all the waitresses in all the dirty cafes utters that beautiful, succinct aside, “honey, you want fries with that?

…comes with fries you know.”

by Andie Carpenter

I’m going to be a Subculture Princess
Wear big black eyeshadow with
Too tight pants
Buy a pair of steel toed combat boots
Sign my autograph as me.com
I will put out my own ‘zine and never get glossy
Slicker than Bob Holman and
Deeper than MTV
I’ll write poems on napkins in
Bars in hotels in parts of town you’ve never heard of
I will have web pages and message boards and fan clubs
That will promise I answer each and every letter
I will know everyone who ever died
For art as art with art in bed next to them
You will be sick with jealousy wanting to be me when
You hear my latest album
See my latest concert
Watch my new commercial
Smell my new perfume (it’s really a toilet water, but)
I will wear all black except on special occasions and
Pluck my eyebrows because I’m a supermodel too -
You will call at night and beg me to read your stuff
Try to date me so I will write you into a poem
And I’ll laugh at you and say ‘I am not an open room’ and
Hang up on you while you’re still talking
I will drop names like you shed hair
And I will never recognize you again in public
My press kit will be thick and shallow and full of compliments
Only my best friends may photograph me now
My childhood will be rewritten so
You can talk about my troubled youth in artistic isolation
How I grew up so fast in that greasy trailer park-
No, no, on the Lower East Side, so wise so young-
No, no, it was with gypsies for parents in Paris no Belgium no Rome-
I will be at all those openings that show up in the Times, ’cause
All us artists stick together, you know
Except for you, because we won’t like you anymore because I said so
Now that I’ll be a Subculture Princess
I can do things like that
I’ll be the only person ever to drink for free at the
Nuyorican Poets Cafe’
I’ll be so cool I won’t even pay at the door
In fact, I’ll have my own reading and I’ll make it on Friday nights and no one
Will ever complain about having to come uptown for it because
It’s worth the subway fare to get to see me
The Subculture Princess
I might even do a special documentary on PBS
But my poems will only be printed in those underground poorly bound newspaper
Things
Because I’ll be way above The New Yorker and stuff like that
I would never write about flowers or bunnies or John Ashbery or anything
I will brag that Hal Sirowitz published my first poem which is a lie but only
Because I started writing long before I met him (did I tell you I met him?)
But you won’t know that because he wouldn’t even talk to you now
Because I said so, and Subculture Princesses can say whatever they want
And I hate you
Because way before I was where I’ll be you treated me like crap
And told me my work was too intimate so no one would ever like it and I took
criticism so personal
And you wouldn’t date me since I wasn’t in some fat backed perfect bound
independent press anthology
But now you’ll wish I was still intimate and I will never admit to taking you
in a personal way
Now that I’ll be a Subculture Princess
Just as soon as I finish this poem

by Graham T. Welsh

Mark’s brother had 100 LPs
it seemed the magic number
and we would flick through them when he was out
noting which ones he considered
worthy of keeping in plastic sleeves

and although we snorted at his Rod Stewart and Queen selections
the breadth of vinyl beneath his desk
was something to aim for suggesting
a serious approach to music
that our budget-restricted hauls couldn’t yet match

tempted to bulk up with 50p Oxfam bargains
what’s this? a Roger Daltrey solo album!
there s a couple of really good tracks on it actually

appropriating a Sinatra or two
from our parents’ paltry assortment
affecting appreciation for his craft
when we really wanted to possess
the entire oeuvre of Bob Dylan like grim fetishists

by dj

she cuddles her face into my
chest
on a soft girl bed
surrounded by newness, (are we
gonna kiss?)

i draw a blank on the story
question
hmm, guess i’ll make
something up dumb
a story about Blue Boy
the gay polo player from
Chuckleslavakia
who moved to the south to fit
in-

i kiss her nose
rub her face and belly,
baby soft belly charm ring

that moment hangs in the air,
that first kiss moment- swings
like Santa Claus over us
eyes connect momentarily,
shy eyes, unsure eyes
eyes about to kiss very soft lips

by Mark P.

(”Now make me completely happy! Live in harmony by showing love for each other. Be united in what you think, as if you were only one person.” Philippians 2:2)

We are dugdeep wells waiting for water,
filled up for purpose-
empty we crumble with cracking drought.

We seek someone to pour their coolness down us,
to fill up our need
to quench our arid anticipation.
If someone will love us we will be full
If someone will only pour their coolness down.

So we wait for someone to buy the water,
pour it down,
sometimes satisfied by passing spit or showers,
our throats thirst for real rain to cure our
capacity.

Oh, my soul, you are springfed!
Oh, my heart, let the spade go deeper
and find the water that bubbles and lives
beneath the surface
beneath the shallow
beneath the cruel comments of
drywell critics.

Spring up, water eternal, and fill
me
till
I fill the soul of each thirsty passerby.
Let each emptiness only find
the spring that supplies each loss
till I’m a dugdeep well running
like a river complete.

by Dweebler A. Cramden

I plan to mourn man’s
neglect of truth and beauty
in a thoroughly boring elegy,
hoping to excite interest,
thinking, in my solipsistic way,
others should love what I love,
like Jerry Lewis and anchovy pizzas.

Then I plan to sell
unfinished poems by industry giants
with a dozen end-scenarios
on scratch-off lottery tickets.
Credit will be provided.
If someone can’t make their marker
I’ll send Milton and Wordsworth out
to bludgeon them with blank verse
until their brains do the goose-step.

Don’t miss my seminar, “Poetry in Sports,”
where pitchers learn that a sonnet
taped inside the glove
concentrates the mind better than chewing tobacco,
where sportscasters practice allusions
as in “Like Lord Jim, the quarterback
must take his punishment to be redeemed,
however questionable his past failures.”

I won’t stop until Professors wear threadbare tweeds
not for style but from necessity.
For practice now, let’s lay odds
on this being published.

by Christine Leclerc

“Oh my God. It’s too hot in here,” said Mr. Smith, his voice bouncing in all directions off the walls of the bathroom stall. Tucking his shirt into his flannel pants frantically, he came out of the stall.

“What is this? There are too many people in here. The heat’s rising by the second. You take the kids on field trips to the toilet now?”

“I just wanted to show them what I’ve done with their art work.”

“Oh, the drawings! Kids,” he said, turning his eyes on them, “it’s my only joy since the food they serve in this place brings me here so often. Now get out before I die of heat stroke!” One of the children began to cry at his abrasiveness, so he tried to apologize, “Oh, I’m sorry little girl.” They were already capering out though, except for the child he had upset. She was trudging and preferred to look at the taupe tiled floor instead of accepting his condolence. Offended by this, he added, “Hey little girl, nice toosh.”

I wasn’t going to say anything in front of the kids, so I glared at him abhoringly instead, and followed them out into the hall. They visit with us at the residence once a week, a group of ten, to keep the seniors company. Sometimes they go for walks in the garden together with the residents. Other times, like last week when it rains, they stay inside and draw for them. That’s where the stuff in the washroom came from. It was my idea to put it up in there; a deglooming effort. Their visiting seems to please everybody, except for Mr. Smith. He always manages to have one of them in tears by the end of the visit.

He spent the rest of his afternoon telling dirty jokes to our female residents, who were invariably unamused. Then he moved on to playing chess with some of the sourer men. I approached him at dinner to deliver the apologies he felt he deserved. One for the invasion of his precious privacy, and another for the evil eye. I wasn’t going to apologize twice though. I’d lump the two into one. I went to the end of the dining room table he was sitting at. He had been served and was already eating when I got to him. “I’m sorry about what happened in the washroom today,” I said.

He knew that I hadn’t meant it, but grinned anyway. Having gotten what he wanted, he told me to forget about it. I hate when he does that. Every time I apologize, he acts like as though he hadn’t been bitter about the supposed injustices I’d administered him. As though he hadn’t been cursing me in his head: ‘that disrespectful bitch’, ‘that smiling fraud’, all day. He must realize how ridiculous he is. If I don’t apologize before he goes to bed though, he curses me out loud the next day, and rallies his chess mates against me. “Are you enjoying your dinner Mr. Smith?”

“It reminds me of my wife. She couldn’t cook for shit.”Maybe it had something to do with who she was cooking for. “Is she dead?” I inquired spitefully.

“No, that’s why I’m here alone. Yes she’s dead! Don’t you think she’d be here with me if she weren’t. Couldn’t cook and diabetes. Those were her only faults.”

“Is that what she died of, diabetes?”

His thoughts trailed with the gravy over a mound of potatoes and mingled at the base of a rubbery chicken breast. He heard me though and answered after finishing his thought, and swallowing a gravy sopped piece of bread. “No. Not really. Some little bitch did her in.”

I disregarded this comment, figuring it completely ridiculous, and asked him how old she was, meaning his wife, when she’d died.

“Five,” he answered, thinking that I had meant ‘the little bitch’. What an incredible man. But not being wholly vindictive, I figured I may as well humor him and allowed him to exorcize the incident. “A five year old killed your wife? Really Mr. Smith.”

“She did, and she was a bitch. None of the other kids in the neighborhood would play with her because they thought so. We used to live in one of those town houses. You know, the ones that are stuck together in rows of six or eight, or whatever. Where your back yard is everybody else’s backyard, except that they pretend privacy with eight foot fences. Anyway, all the kids used to come to the backyard and play horse shoes with me summer afternoons. That, while the little bitch would crochet on the front porch with Rachel and our cat Winston. I used to ask the kids why they hadn’t invited Emily to play horse shoes with us, and they’d say that she didn’t like them. They didn’t like her either. She was too bossy, they said. So Rachel taught her to crochet and the little bitch kills her. Some gratitude.”

“What’d she do? Stab her with a crochet hook? Strangle her with yarn?”

“No, I was getting to that. This isn’t a joke you know. That little girl was always bringing sugared papayas around with her, to snack on while she crocheted. And Rachel was a serious diabetic. She knew that she wasn’t supposed to eat that kind of stuff, but when Emily offered those things she couldn’t resist.

One day I went in to get the kids some freezies to cool off; you work up quite a sweat throwing shoes around in the sun, you know. I checked the front to see whether Emily was with Rachel and Winston to offer her a freezy too. The lesions on Rachel’s legs had been getting worse for a while, but she’d just say that she couldn’t figure out why when I asked her about them. Rachel was laughing at some childish anecdote that day when I saw them together. She really was a beautiful woman, even at seventy. Had a hearty laugh. But she was eating those damn papayas. So I didn’t give Emily a freezy, and I didn’t go back out to give the other kids their’s either. Do you know what I did? I went up to my room and cried like a big old baby. We’d been married fifty-two years, and I’d just realized that I didn’t want Rachel to die.

At supper that night, meatloaf, I asked Rachel about the papayas. She didn’t try denying anything. And I’d never told Rachel what to do before then, but that night I told her that I didn’t want her eating those things anymore. I went on to tell her that if her self-restraint was so weak, I didn’t think that she should see that little temptress anymore either. When I was done she threw her head back and laughed. “It’s the little pleasures,” she said, “that make life worth living, Kenny.” Little pleasures my ass. So she kept on eating those papayas all summer long. I should have told that Emily to stay away is what I should have done. So Rachel died that fall you know.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Yeah well, so was that Emily. One morning the next summer I was sitting on the couch with Winston and the doorbell rang. Emily had come by to call on Rachel. So, I told her ‘Rachel’s not home because you killed her.’ She just stood there with her little knees shaking in her blue dress and her lip quivering. Then she dropped a package on the porch and ran home crying. Never apologized. It said M s. Smith on it. I picked it up and tossed it onto the couch when I got back in. Never opened it myself, but Winston eventually got his claws into it. She’d made Rachel some useless round lacy thing.”

“I don’t believe you! How could you say that to a little girl.”

“It was true.”

So I let him eat the rest of his meal alone, turning my attention to more deserving residents. Whenever I start to feel a bit of sympathy for him he, Ugh! He was the last one out of the dining room that evening. Having finished his meal, he moved into the T.V. room and threw obscenities at poor actors until he went to bed.

The next morning I noticed that he wasn’t up for breakfast as usual, so I went to check on him in his room. He was lying in bed with his arms crossed over his chest and his eyes closed. It looked like he was practicing for when he died. He swallowed every now and then though, so I knew that he wasn’t really either dead or asleep. I asked him why he wasn’t coming to breakfast. No answer. Maybe he expected another apology; for the way I’d left at dinner the day before, but I wasn’t going to do that. “Mr. Smith? Can I get you something?”

“I’m not hungry. I want to go outside,” he said opening his eyes but not turning them on me.

“You really should eat.”

“I want to go outside I said. Did you hear me or not?”

“Fine.” So I got his sunglasses and sunscreen off of the dresser, and his bowler from the closet. Meanwhile, he got out of bed and dressed himself rheumatically. I had to insist he wear the accessories, “so that you don’t get a sun stroke,” I told him. He refused to put them on himself, but allowed me even to apply the sunscreen without resistance.

We walked out arm in arm so that Mr. Smith could avoid falling. Once out in the garden at the back of the residence, I asked him what the matter was.

“She’d be so ashamed if she saw me now,” he said, holding faster to my arm as he spoke.

“Who?”

“Rachel. The way I live. I’m too scared to enjoy much.”

He didn’t trail on from there, so we went to sit on a bench in the shade of an old birch. Once sitting he removed his hat and glasses. He then closed his eyes paying close attention to something. A song encased memory. And right then he looked so desolate that I began feeling sypathetic again. I let my head fall onto his shoulder and closed my eyes in the throws of what seemed to be an early morning affinity. For a while we listened each to our own songs. He, to the one’s in his head, and I, to the peculiar regularity of a breeze lolling wistfully on trembling leaves.

Birds began to flap in their bath at the center of the garden. That’s when he began humming a tune and tapping it’s swingly beat on my forearm gently. I giggled.

“I was once the greatest jitterbugger in Montreal you know,” he said. “I’d have liked to have seen that.”

“You’re right, I can’t dance like that anymore.” At that I lifted my head and opened my eyes. He was looking to see me squirm.

“I didn’t mean. . .”

“No, it’s okay. It’s true, but I can still do the slow steps.” He rose, walked around the bench and came full circle, as if he were making an entrance. Bowing his blue eyes to me, he asked, “Did you like that song Miss?”

“It was lovely,” I said.

“So are you Miss. Say, you don’t happen to like dancing do you?”

“It depends.”

“On what Miss?”

“On the person I’d be dancing with.”

“Well, I’d certainly like to dance.” He invited me onto the lawn offering his right arm. “Would you?” He asked. I accepted thinking what a charming man he must have seemed in those days. We revolved round the bird’s bath cheek to cheek. He hummed a slow song as we went, the birds in the bath simmering down to listen. The sky was so blue, and it all seemed so innocent. A perfect, perfect morning for spinning softly, but all that soon dissolved.

The sun started getting to him so we dawdled back to the bench. We gathered his things and he said that he was ready for breakfast. “You’re difficult when it comes to the asking,” he said, “but thanks for that dance anyway. Hey, guess what?”

“What Mr. Smith?” I could feel it coming. I knew he’d ruin it.

“I hadn’t had the jollies in fourteen years. Heh, heh, heh.”

by Chris Bigelow

I open the door, and her bloodshot, weary eyes re-focus on my face. I haven’t seen her for three years. I don’t know why, we simply lost contact as our lives moved inexorably apart. But in high school and for some time after, you couldn’t pry us apart with a crowbar. We talked about everything, from science and history to our deepest, darkest secrets. I never hid anything from her, and she never hid anything from me. No limits existed for us, anything went. She was my best friend, the best I ever had. And then, after college, we faded from each other’s lives. I heard from her by the occasional letter, but never talked to or actually saw her. She told me she had found a boyfriend and in a later letter informed me they had move in together. She told me she had found happiness, and that made me think about how I live alone in this ratty apartment on the lower east side of Manhattan, working a crummy day job just trying to stay alive. But tonight she’s turned up here, at my door, the snow still melting into her hair, her eyes wide and desperate. I haven’t seen her for three years.

But I recognize her immediately and my face lights up as I exclaim her name. Then I see her for the first time. Cold, wet, ragged… Broken. Miserable. She smiles a tiny smile and then her face sort of twists and she says she needs a place to stay. I instantly offer her my home for as long as she needs it. She smiles crookedly and looks down at the floor as I bring her inside.

She takes a shower (I order her to, to warm her up) and after we have coffee and talk. We catch up on old times. I tell her that I broke up with my longtime girlfriend, Alice, about six months ago. I had dated Alice since high school, and my friend remembers her and comments on how she had once thought Alice and I would get married. I smile sadly, hiding the sting of regret that shoots through me, and shake my head. We were too different, I say. She wanted too much out of life. My friend smiles again, and I notice her black eye. I look away quickly, not saying anything. I ask her how her boyfriend is. She doesn’t say anything for a while, and then tells me she left him a month ago, after living with him for two years. I wonder where she’s been staying. She shrugs and says her mother’s. She hates her mother and more than once said she would never return to her house. I don’t comment.

So we talk about people we knew in school. We talk about the obsessive kid who used to follow us around. We talk about all of my friends, who she never really got along with. We mention in passing the crazy bisexual guy that used to annoy her with all his perverse tales. We talk about the irritating perky girl that nobody liked but everyone was nice to. We talk about how the obsessive guy and the perky girl got married last year (they printed it in the alumni newsletter), and how their kids will be abominations. We shoot the breeze, nothing deep. We laugh, but not too hard. The awkwardness and oddness of the situation prevents it. She says, with a big fake smile, how nice it is that we can just pick up where we left off all those years ago. I see her lying and wonder.

So I ask her why she came to me. We had always prided ourselves on directness. She smiles sadly and says she knew I would ask eventually. She explains, and I hear her voice catch slightly during the telling. He had hit her and so she left. I had figured as much but still it hurts me. I say her name softly, and say I’m sorry (well what can you say to that?). She shrugs. How long has this gone on? I ask. Just the once, she tells me. See, they were in the kitchen and he got mad at her for one reason or another, probably an unpaid bill or just sheer male aggression, so he punched her. And she left. She gazes proudly at the table. She tells me that she can’t stay with a man who hits her. She gingerly touches the mark under her eye. I notice that she has another bruise on her cheek, but I don’t say anything. I’m good at that, concealing what I feel and think. We both are.

We started finishing each other’s thoughts the day we met. I mean, we sort of knew each other before but just in passing. The obsessive kid introduced us and we talked for an hour, completely leaving him out. We had this connection that we likened to telepathy. We had gone through a lot of the same shit as kids, and we had a lot of the same outlooks on life. I don’t remember us ever arguing, because we never disagreed. When we moved away to college we wrote each other long, complicated letters full of the subtle mind games we both loved. I remember her strength most of all. She had it in abundant quantities. I knew of her delicate fragile nature, but she kept it hidden away, protected it with her tough skin. Nothing could hurt her. Not even me.

We watch TV for a while, commenting to each other about how inane the shows are. Someone makes a halfway suggestive joke, the audience roars with laughter. We’ve seen the pattern before. We find a hockey game to watch. I got her hooked on hockey back in high school My favorite team was the old Hartford Whalers. We actually saw a game together once, much to my parents’ displeasure. They never liked her. They thought I cheated on Alice with her.

Eventually we get bored and start talking, so I turn the sound off. She wonders if it’s really all right that she’s here, that she’s staying. She says she wouldn’t have come here if the situation wasn’t, well… Desperate? I fill in. Yeah. I wonder if her mother threw her out. She hesitates for a fraction of a second before nodding yes. She’s lying to me. I used to catch her in these kinds of lies all the time. But I’m not as bold as I once was, so again I say nothing. My mind begins piecing the fragments together, though. I try not to dwell on it as we talk about old times some more, and then about my old girlfriend (which is painful, but it’s something to talk about), but I do anyway. I can’t help it. I hate seeing her like this. She’s lost a lot of what I loved about her. Her strength, her will, her spirit. All exhausted. I can tell, even though she puts on a damn near convincing show, I can still still see through her. No, I just need a place to stay for a few days, then I’m going to get back on my feet. Just a few days. Really. I’m fine.

When I was a senior in high school and she was a freshman in college, she came down to the school to see me for a day. We both graduated from this big New England prep school that we loathed but had attended anyway because, despite its flaws, it was still a damn sight better than the public schools. It was a Saturday. We talked for a while, wandering around campus and then driving to McDonalds’ for some food. When we returned to campus I started pouring my guts out to her about some awful thing I had done with Alice a few months before. She reassured me, which is an understatement. She said I was the most kind, caring person she’d ever met, and several other things that almost reduced me to tears. I had never, ever heard such things said about me by sincere lips. Right then, I felt what I wished I felt for Alice some days, what I so feared feeling for her, but there it sat. Clear. Strong. Love. I told her, and she just sort of stared at me for a minute. I meant it. She meant it when she said it back to me a second later. But I had to give it a condition. I said I didn’t, couldn’t love her like I loved Alice. This was different; non-sexual. Like friends love each other, you know? Of course, she said. I understand. I feel the same way. She gathered me into her arms then, and we sat there holding each other forever, trembling with raw, fresh, unpredictable emotion. At that moment, I forgot about Alice.

It’s getting late and she wants to sleep. I have a chair that folds out into a twin bed so I put a sheet and a comforter on it for her. I go into the bathroom for a few minutes, when I emerge she’s sitting on the bed in her underwear, her face buried in her hands. She’s not crying, but she’s close. I ask what’s wrong. She looks up and tells me how nice I am to her. I sigh and ask where she’s really been for the last few weeks. She looks away and mumbles how she wishes she could act better. I hand her a robe I found in the bathroom that’s pretty clean, she pulls it on. She tells me she’s lived on the streets, that she couldn’t go home and she’s been trying to find me for two weeks. She tells me that she has no friends left to stay with, so she walked from where she lived with her boyfriend to the city. He lives in Connecticut. It’s winter, and cold as all hell. She tries to reassure me, saying she stayed in shelters and churches, but I’m not happy and it shows. She tells me she’s not sick. She tells me she’s feeling fine, actually. She says it wasn’t so bad. I nod and say good night to her, not believing but not saying anything.

So I leave her and retire to my room, where I take my mind off of things by reading a book. At one in the morning, I finally turn out my light and try to sleep. I listen for her breathing, but she’s too far away and I worry instead. I wonder if she snores. I think of her out on the streets for that month, out in the cold, and I shiver. It must have cost her something terrible to get here. Why had she travelled through cold and snow, on foot all the way from Fairfield, Connecticut to New York, just to find me? Maybe I’m still the only person she trusts. Maybe she figured I would shelter her when no one else would. We may not have seen each other in three years but that remains, I suppose. She knows I’ll shelter her. I’m a safe haven. Funny, I never really feel safe in this place. I don’t exactly live in the best neighborhood, but I know that’s not the issue.

I hear a noise, and automatically think burglar or worse. I think of her asleep on the chair. What would a random intruder do to her? I sit up in bed, determined to do something. Before, I would have been confident that she could take care of herself. Now I’m not so sure. Time and brutaility have changed her. My door opens and a figure walks in, but she’s no intruder. Her eyes, reflected in the dull yellow streetlight filtering through the window, overflow with a need I can’t begin to express. She says she doesn’t want to spend any more time alone. She was wondering-? I reach for her gently, and guide her into the bed. She suddenly butts her head against my chest and holds me tightly. I stroke her hair for a while. She keeps saying it was awful, it was awful, over and over again. It was so cold. I was so scared. He was so awful, I didn’t think I would get through it.

I love you.

Save me.

I had to save myself from her. Our relationship started leaning more and more towards what Alice and I had, not surprisingly. We had become more than just friends. She once asked if I would kiss her, just out of curiousity, and I did. After that we kissed more and more often, and eventually I realized that when my lips touched hers I felt the same things I felt when I kissed Alice. We never talked anymore, we just held each other and kissed, trying in vain to recapture what we had discovered that first time. We rationalized that the first time was so strong only because of all the pent-up emotion we released into it, but still.

We only slept together once. One time, my parents had gone to see my ailing grandmother, leaving me at home alone. I stole the car and headed up to her college in Massachussetts; a two-hour drive but worth it. I spent the night in her room, holding on to her. We didn’t do anything really sexual, just pressed against each other; although the temptation was there to go further we never really got around to it.

That night I discovered that I loved her more than I ever loved Alice, and that scared me. You see, I thought Alice and I would get married someday. I thought the gods had arranged for us to be together for the rest of our lives, and I didn’t want to jeopardize that. The next day, I finally made a decision, and chose Alice instead of the fantastic, powerful love I had felt that night. All for the sake of a marriage that lay so far in the future I couldn’t even begin to concieve of it. I hated having to break the news, but she accepted it. She understood. She always understood.

My best friend stayed strong throughout it, and there were times after that her strength propped me up when I needed it. She always had that quality in her. I can take care of myself, she always said. When she turned up at my doorstep I knew she had lost that, and where a beautiful, capable woman had once stood sat a trembling little girl.

She lies in my arms, her breathing even and light. I stay awake, wondering. She shifts and I find myself confronted by her luminous eyes. Can’t sleep? she asks with a smile. There is so much sadness in her smiles that they make me want to cry. I can’t either, she says.

What did he do to you, I wonder aloud. What did he do to steal away the strong, independent person I knew? Her face twists again and she starts to cry. I’ve never seen her cry. I don’t think she ever did, during all the time I knew her in high school. Not once. But now she sobs and her tears ran down my chest as she tries to hide it from me. I run a hand over her cheek, drying it, waiting for her to regain control. I ask if he had hit her more than once. She nods. I ask if he’d been doing this to her for as long as she’d lived with him. She shakes her head. Before that, she says. Way before.

I wonder why she stayed with him so long. She tells me a couple of things, like she was afraid to leave him because she thought she’d never have another shot at marriage or at what she wanted most, children. She says the thought of being alone again terrified her, and, above all else she feared him. But she says she loved him and needed him.

But you finally left, I say. She nods and I see a bit of her old fire, not yet quashed by the pain and terror. I tell her that she can stay with me for as long as she wants. I tell her she’s always welcome with me, that I’ll never hurt her.

I tell her that I want her to stay. She settles back into my embrace and sleeps. I mean what I say. I won’t hurt her because I can’t. I feel nothing but hatred and anger for her boyfriend, the ogre who stole my beauty’s soul away. I know why she came here, she came to find herself again. We once said that we were as alike as two people could get without being the same. Being together was like being alone, we used to say, and, coming from two career loners, we meant it as quite a complement. It still held true. She came to see me so she could regain some of her strength. I have precious little to give, but I’ll share it with her. I can’t not. I fall asleep listening to her heartbeat thud through my chest.

Alice and I had loved each other, at least I’m pretty sure we did at some point. Ours was one of those crazy first-time high school romances that for some reason went a lot farther than it ought to have. We had known each other for only a few weeks when we started going out, and so our entire relationship had built up within the confines of romantic love. She had all sorts of grand delusions of flowers and proms and little candy hearts and teddy bears; the stuff ‘real’ romance consisted of. I never quite bought into all of that, an outlook which generated not a little bit of friction with her.

She hauled me up out of the most depressing period of my life. I wandered around for the first year or so of high school wearing lots of black and without a happy thought. I had what self-help books call “low self-esteem”, which is a fancy way of saying I loathed myself and my life. After I met her and realized that she needed me just as much as I neeeded her, I put on a white shirt for the first time in years. I was a budding writer/poet at the time, so the symbolism didn’t escape me. For a while she made me feel like the luckiest man in the world. She had a way of making me happy when we spent time together. I thought nothing better could exist, until my friend came along one-and-a-half years into it, and showed me love and closeness like I’ve never felt before or since. With Alice, the sex may have been great, but in other areas she lacked sadly.

But I loved her. We said often that someday we’d be married; both in high school and when we met up years later after graduation. Losing her hurt. She said she wanted more from life than I could give. She wanted a husband with a steady job (I work in a bookstore for peanuts) and a nice house in her rural hometown. For a few months I just sat around pining for her, missing her touch and her constant companionship. Until my friend showed up, I thought I’d do anything to have her back. Now, I’m not so sure. It’s the same old question from high school; which one? But this time I don’t think either of them would accept if chosen. The first, Alice, is gone, away with someone else. And as for the other…

It’s morning. She’s up already, making some sort of breakfast, which surprises me. She never seemed like the hausfrau type, before. She’s battling the stove with a spatula when I get to the kitchen. A large black ant, she explains, had crept onto the toast. Did I still want the piece? She smiles. I smile. We stare into each other’s eyes for a while and then she looks away. Thank you, she says. For what? I wonder. For existing, she replies. I shrug.

I wonder aloud if she’ll ever go back. She says she won’t. I tell her to say it again, and she does, but I don’t believe her. She wants to go back. She needs to see him again. She wants the kind of love and affection she thinks only he can give her. She wants children. I stare at her. So who do you want more, yourself or an idea? I ask.

She turns off the oven, throws away the toast, and sits down to think.

A couple of days pass and she tells me she’s going back. She says she really does love him and her life isn’t so bad, she just needed some time away. Some time alone. I don’t like this and tell her so, but she wants to go back anyway. She says she has to face up, she can’t keep running away forever. I think that she had some pretty damn good reasons to run away but again I say nothing. What can I say? I mean, I could remind her of what she said that night, but she’d probably just go quiet again. She doesn’t want to talk about that night.

So on a rainy Sunday we pack ourselves into my beat-up old Mazda and drive up to Connecticut. He lives in Fairfield, in this little house on a halfway-pleasant street. We don’t talk during the car ride up, and all I say to her as she gets out is to call me. Let me know if things are all right. She nods, squares her shoulders and walks up to the house. I sit in the car for a few minutes and then drive away, feeling more helpless than ever.

I go to a bar and nurse a beer while watching a hockey game. Eventually the barkeeper implies that I ought to either buy another beer or leave. So I leave, and drive around Fairfield and whatever other towns I can find for a while. I don’t want to go home. I know that everywhere I look I’ll see reminders of the past few days. She had regained bits and pieces of herself, I had begun to see her re-emerge from her shell. I have fallen in love with her again. I know that he’ll hurt her again. I know this type of man. I can’t stand the thought of him hurting her. What’s worse, I can’t stand the thought that she won’t fight back. She always used to fight back. He can break her. I can heal her. She can make me whole.

I should not have let her go.

I drive back to New York and sit around for a while. I think about charging back up to Fairfield, grabbing her and spiriting her away to safety. But I know that won’t work. She hates knights in shining armor, and I know she’ll just laugh or hate me and eventually end up back with him anyway. So I sit on my bed and cry for her.

I go to work the next morning. My boss is in a bad mood and tells me that I need to reshelf the entire Sociology section in the former Gardening section, which he’s moving to where all the books about sex are now. I start working and find a book about battered women. I stare at it for a while until my boss comes over and tells me to read on my own time or else. I know he won’t fire me. I’ve been here longer than he has. He needs my help to run this place. But I obey anyway and shelve.

I walk in the park. I walk down 5th Avenue, the whole way, and then turn around and go back to the park where I catch the subway home. It’s late again. I get home intact and check the answering machine, hoping she’s called. She hasn’t. My mother has, wondering where I’ve been and telling me that she’s probably going up to visit my grandmother next week, would I like to come? I erase the message.

It’s three in the morning and I’m suddenly wide awake. The phone is ringing. I run to get it, not bothering to put my clothes on. When I answer it, not daring to hope, all I hear is a dial tone.

I write her a letter. I can’t help it, I have to do something. I tell her that she needs to get out of that relationship, it’s killing her, eroding her personality, can’t she see that? I tell her I still love her, that I always will. I tell her to trust me. I ask her to at least call me. I flip a coin to decide whether or not I should send it off. ‘No’ wins but I send it off anyway.

Alice calls. This shocks me, I’m not prepared for it and stammer senselessly into the phone for the first few seconds. She says she wants to see me. She says she’s not happy with her new boyfriend. She says she wants to come back. I had dreamed of this very moment countless times, I had planned to make her feel really guilty for leaving me and string her along, giving in to her pleading eventually but with a certain healthy amount of reservation, but I just say yes instead. We set up a date. She likes dates, with fancy food and nice clothes. I hate them, but I’m hardly in a position to object.

So I see Alice a few nights later. She hasn’t changed. She laughs and giggles, she makes overly cute remarks. Alice has never really grown up. I had hoped that going off to college and eventually fending for herself in the ‘real world’ would accomplish this, but for some reason she’s stayed like this. A child in so many ways, her shortcomings more accented with age. I feel sorry for her. Sometimes.

Maybe things have changed. I try to coerce her into a serious conversation, talking about children and the future. I make a remark about an idea I have for a novel, and she changes the subject. She always does. It’s not that she’s not interested, she just changes the subject a lot. So I change it back. She changes it again.

I get frustrated and start to say something direct. But I bite my tongue. What, she asks, was I going to say? I shake my head and tell her I just had something in my throat, ignore me. So she talks about her parents.

I picture that house in Fairfield. I picture what that pathetic excuse for a man must look like, what he must do to her. I see the bruises again, I wince.

Alice talks about her friends and tells me this really funny story about one of them. I laugh, but not too loudly.

I feel her tears soak through my shirt. I feel her head butt against my chest. I hear her telling me how horrible it was, how awful he was, how she couldn’t live that way anymore.

Alice says I look distant. Alice asks if I’m all right. I ask her if she really, really wants me back. She says she thinks she does and wonders if I want her back too. I shrug. I don’t know, I say.

I see my friend, my love, walk up to that house. I remember Alice leaving. I excuse myself for a second, saying I’ll be right back, don’t worry. I enter a bathroom and pull out a weathered old bicentennial quarter.

Now you might think that this decision would take me months, even years to sort through and resolve. It did before. But not tonight. Tonight I do what I should have done years ago: I flip a coin. Heads, and I take Alice home tonight. Tails, and I drive to Fairfield.

It’s heads. I stare at it on the back of my hand and feel my heart break. I blink. Understanding rushes in, and I smile softly.

After I drop a teary Alice off at the friend’s house where she had dropped her suitcase, I tear off northeast towards New England. I don’t know what I’ll do when I get there, but one way or another I’m bringing her home with me. I’ll tell her, You don’t have to be afraid anymore. Not with me. I love you. I can’t stand the thought of you here. If you want love and affection, I can give it to you. If you want children, I’ll raise them with you. If you want a husband, I will wed you.

I make decisions with coins, true. I flip a coin and see how I feel. The decision has just been made. Do I like it, or hate it? It’s a good way to sort through all the crap and get right down to the real issue; did I want the boring, unfulfilling but proven-to-work relationship, or the closeness and wonderful comfort of a relationship that might never be? But I think it will be. I know my friend well enough. My heart sings. I feel like I’m free for the first time in years. I feel the night scream its music around me, filling me with energy, power, resolve… I smile, and then I grin, pounding the steering wheel in time to the radio. Headlights whiz by, streaking gashes of white light, blinding, rushing, blazing like twin suns then gone, past.

by A.Y. Tanaka

Eleven-fifty-five a.m. I get a head start. The boss says it’s okay. I drop the clipboard, fat with charts and calculations, on the pile of planks that’ll do for a desk, and walk down the ramp off the machine floor past the timeclock the boss says don’t punch, past the worker’s cafeteria where the boss says he’d better not catch me, out to the street that’s empty except for the Blue Moon lunch wagon pulled up to the curb outside the worker’s exit. Joe’s not the driver today, so I keep going.

The Singer repair manual’s stuck in my back pocket.

Jill’s Diner’s one block south, but I don’t know who Jill is. The sun cracks your eye, you don’t want to go there anyway, eat there anyway, the concrete stretches out — ends at Jill’s with black coffee. No sugar, no cream, I stir anyway.

And check out the manual, read snatches when I can or when I’m in the mood. It’ll come in handy if a feed dog, bobbin crib, bull cam or field coil breaks or drops out or burns up and I’m the one around who knows a thing about it.

Stir the black coffee and think. The girl near the lake who wanted nineteen dalmatians for her birthday, that’s what she said. A nice and noble gesture, if her folks don’t raise a fuss. The mess all those dogs make, and where do you get nineteen friends to get rid of them to.

And big gestures never do the job. They leave you out of money and a fool because a real man — thick to the brim, cute in a rough sort of way, self-confident — won’t need to waste his fuel on a love bribe of nineteen anythings for a flighty almost nineteen-year-old. All he’d need to offer would be himself, enough to charm the pants off any almost-decided girl near the lake. Those girls are known for fast undressing at the bell, but who knows the bell? There’d been no guarantee of a thank-you for the dalmatians.

No business talking love to her. It wasn’t love, just reaching for straws, for some/any kind of okay. So I took the ring back and tucked it behind the underwear in the bottom drawer.

Stirring time’s recovery time, black-no-sugar cupfuls of pick up, dust off, start all over.

Why I’ve got the manual. Right now I’m looking for a used machine to take apart and put back together and all-around tinker at home with, teach my fingers something. If the boss knew about it he’d shake his head. First off, kid, it’s not your specialty. Second, you’re in so deep, too late to change sides. Third, you’re too valuable — Who else can I get to take the heat for me, for these few lousy bucks?

Sorry boss, there’s no career track for lightning rods; the whole job’s an illusion. What’s real is when you keep those machines humming and stitching and happy they don’t just pay better, they love you for it. The girls love you for smoothing their way to bonus points. The boss loves you for being more valuable than his son-in-law.

. . . Stirring and brooding about last night (or the night before, or last week), the girl I saw ten minutes ago (or yesterday, or ten days ago) at her machine in the factory. Dark eyes, dark smile, dark message. The girl no one was supposed to kiss, who I kissed one night in the warehouse and whispered things to, who let me kiss her even when she knew, she said she knew, we weren’t supposed to.

When it wasn’t the warehouse it was behind the bushes next to the factory after the late shift, or in the park. Never my apartment. She didn’t feel safe, I didn’t know why. (They call it a studio, used to call it an efficiency. It isn’t, it wasn’t.)

She’d tell me, and it was almost a threat, “We can’t fall in love.” And echoed and echoed herself, ruining everything. It sounded like “*You* can’t” — all my choice and she didn’t count for anything. “Don’t pretend you don’t know why.”

Expecting trouble was her job. Mine too, didn’t know it.

(The manual says, “If, when servicing a machine, you find the needle in backwards, call it to the operator’s attention before you remove it. The average operator otherwise will not admit to inserting it improperly.”)

At work our eyes met too many times and stayed too long. If you felt like it you guessed why. It reached the boss, who knew cracks have to be caulked right now or the whole chunk falls out. He walked me near the deaf lady’s machine (it didn’t matter) and warned with steel-sad eyes not to let the whole chunk fall out.

I was smart enough not to tell him to mind his own business, smart enough not to listen to him. Nothing showed. I had the clipboard, fat with charts and calculations — not deep, just confusing — and wandered through the factory copying down production figures like I was disappointed, entering bonus points if I really had to, pretending to find fault. (That was my job, to be hard to swallow.) She had her machine, that hummed with contentment, but it couldn’t be because of me. I knew me.

(The manual says, “It is often helpful, before setting up a servicing schedule, to observe the operator work the machine. How she inserts and removes the material, how she strokes and releases the pedal, may indicate future malfunctions.”)

. . . Stirring the black coffee like Captain Queeg rolled his metal balls. Will I grow up (grow up?) to be Queeg, and will they mutiny . . .

It came on sticky and sweaty, another morning with no promise anywhere. You could feel the rust grow on our highschool- surplus lockers. I climbed the ramp to the machine floor and plowed my eyes as cool as could be through the sewing section, around the rolled, flat, folded, stacked imitation leather, plastic near the windows, paper down the middle aisle. Routine. (Why play cool when everybody knows? Maybe not everybody, or your cool head will make them forget.) She wasn’t there.

The get-ready bell rang. Three minutes later the start-now bell rang. For the first hour her machine sat shrouded and lonely like a new gravestone. Then Mae brought a girl down from real leather to work on it. She had a dull look on her face, and was clumsy, but nobody noticed.

I made two morning rounds, two afternoon rounds, bounced numbers off the hot and bitter people on the floor, hard to tell who or what I stepped on or bumped into. Late afternoon, I knew I’d have to take the wrong bus after work, down to her place. Was it a rooming house, apartment house? I didn’t know. She was always warning me to stay away if I didn’t want to get hurt, don’t get any weird-adventurous ideas, don’t think you’ve got to Know me just because — warned me she’s the only one the old wood stairs don’t groan about.

I finished checking the hour’s production on the pasting girls (you have to paste the stays and ribs before you fold and sew the gussets, at least on most of those orders), almost moved on to the folding girls, when the last pasting girl — the quiet one I never spoke to — waved me back to her table.

“Won’t see her no more,” she whispered as her paste brush danced across the paper leather. “Took the plane.”

I tried not . . . It showed.

“Plane? Where to?”

She shrugged, didn’t know. (She knew.) Getting even. (What for?) Protecting me. (Protecting me?)

You can’t run after a plane. Took off already. Can’t run after, waving your arms like a damn fool.

I stumbled off the machine floor as easy as you can with the building shaking. I grabbed a bunch of pencils from the locker and broke them in my hands, one-by-one . . . two-by-two . . . It didn’t work. I wanted to kick — The lockers, the stiff gray bank of them, asked for it. But anything I kicked would bang and ring and echo and everyone would hear and everyone would know.

The pencils, like straws.

The walk to Jill’s Diner takes longer, the repair manual makes the pocket sag (must be the extra pages), the sun cracks your eye more than it used to. The food’s terrible, but you already knew that. The coffee’s stronger, cream and sugar make it worse. I still don’t know who Jill is.

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