Fiction: Boy Trouble

Fiction: Boy Trouble

Two boys playing at the indoor amusement park

by Andrea Lani

This story begins with a Pop-Tart. No, not a Pop-Tart, but, as you explained to the teacher, the principal, the deputy sheriff, the sheriff, and two muzzle-faced State Troopers, an organic toaster pastry with whole-grain crust and all-natural, no-sugar-added, real-fruit filling. Definitely not a Pop-Tart. Perhaps the story does not begin there anyway. It could have started six years earlier, with a pair of Duplo-sized Lego blocks, on the day one square Duplo, attached to the bottom of one rectangular Duplo, was clasped in the dimpled hand of your sweet babe and pointed at you with an accompanying, “Blam-blam!”

And yet, the story may have begun two years before that, when one of several million of your husband’s sperm, having squirmed its way through the labyrinth of your fallopian tubes, united with your freshly released egg and conferred its genetic material, including that gun-toting Y chromosome, through the otherwise-impermeable shell. Then again, this story may go back tens of thousands of years, to your ancestors squatting around a campfire, discussing strategies for the following day’s woolly mammoth hunt, while little boys ran around the camp, picking up sticks and jabbing them at imaginary mastodons, in the guise of their friends and parents.

In any case, because you are the mother of four boys under the age of eight, you had quit worrying about imaginary weapons some time after that first shocking, heartbreaking incident in which your child turned to you from the Lego table where he stood, looking like the Christ child in a Renaissance painting, with his golden curls and round cheeks, and mowed you down with two pieces of primary-colored plastic. By the time your fourth male child was born, you had resigned yourself to the fact that boys turning any remotely L-shaped object into a firearm was as inevitable as their making fart sounds with any remotely concave part of their bodies–armpit, inside of the elbow, back of the knee, ear, neck, palm of the hand, bottom of the foot. One time, they performed the “William Tell Overture” with body farts. Even the baby got into the act, blowing big, wet, noisy bubbles with his pursed lips.

But let us get back to that toaster pastry and the Tuesday morning on which you oh-so-blindly placed it into your oldest son’s PVC-free insulated lunch bag. Tuesday, riding on the frantic heels of Monday, finds you both less organized and less well-rested than the previous day. You had closed your eyes after your husband left for work, intending to doze for five more minutes when, half an hour later, you leapt from the bed, wide awake and aware that it was nearly seven o’clock. When you rushed into the boys’ room to wake up the two oldest, you saw your three-year-old squatting in the corner, his face red and scrunched in concentration. Forgetting your initial mission, you scooped him up and dashed into the bathroom. As you yanked down his training pants and set him on the toilet, two warm, moist turds rolled out and landed on the bath mat. The day rolled downhill from there.

By the time you hustled the oldest two out of bed and into semi-clean clothes and had fed them a breakfast of bread heels with jam, you had no time to make their lunches, and, since you had made every excuse you could think of–the baby was teething, the floor needed mopping, you had to catch up on laundry–to avoid grocery shopping on Monday, your kitchen was woefully devoid of anything with which to make said lunches. So you resigned yourself to letting the boys eat the school-cooked lunch of shepherd’s pie–pink slime and all–rationalizing that they would take one look at the oily glop and subsist off of a carton of milk and a spoonful of fruit cocktail, thus negating concerns over mad cow disease and e-coli. To make up for your maternal negligence, and because you were also out of fresh fruit for snack-time, you rummaged in the back of the pantry until you found the box of organic toaster pastries with whole-grain crust and all-natural, no-sugar-added, real-fruit filling, which you had stashed there for such an emergency, and stuffed one foil-wrapped package into each boy’s backpack as you kissed them on their way out the door and onto the waiting school bus.

Two hours later, you had cleaned the shit off the bathroom floor, bathed your three-year-old, changed and fed the baby, tidied the kitchen, straightened the living room, and written a comprehensive grocery list. You were feeling like a model of domestic efficiency and ready to brave the grocery store with your two youngest children in tow when the phone rang. It was the school secretary. Your oldest child had threatened another pupil with a weapon and you needed to come to the school immediately.

What kind of weapon could your seven-year-old possibly have gotten ahold of, you wondered? You pulled open the utensil drawer. The sharp knives appeared to be accounted for. In the boys’ room, you tiptoed over Legos and Beyblade parts and turned a slow circle in the middle of the room, trying to see if anything was out of place, wondering how you would know if anything was out of place. Your eyes lit on three wooden swords, tucked hilt-up in the dress-up bin. They were not the culprits.

Your three-year-old had been following you around this whole time, saying, “What are you doing, Mommy? When are we going to the store? Why are you in my room?” The baby, riding on your hip, was starting to fuss. He whapped his fist on your chest and whimpered. You sat down to nurse him and sent the three-year-old to sit on the potty, then you loaded them both in your mini-van (the one you could no longer avoid succumbing to once the fourth baby was on his way), and drove to the school.

The town where you live is not so much a town as a scattering of houses–modulars, capes, trailers, old farmhouses–tossed like a handful of dice along directionless roads. Your children’s school squats in a clearing along one of these roads eight miles from your home. An exhausted slab of yellow brick, it had exceeded its expiration date twenty years before your children were born, but considering your fellow townspeople’s allergy to tax increases, it will no doubt continue to draw students into its weary hallways long after your grandchildren have mastered their ABCs.

The school secretary directed you to sit on one of the chairs lined up along the dingy white-painted cinder block wall outside of the principal’s office, chairs designed to accommodate children the size of your weapon-wielding son. You nestled your right butt-cheek into the cradling embrace of the molded plastic, letting the left one hover in the air, propped the baby on your hip, and tried to encourage your three-year-old to take a seat on one of the other chairs. But he was too busy jumping up to try and reach the banner hanging across the hallway, displaying the school’s motto: “Aim High.” This was another mystery you had discovered about boys: their insatiable urge to make contact with objects much higher than themselves. You had never understood this behavior, when the boys in your high school jumped in the halls, scraping their fingertips against the acoustical tiles, and now you have a houseful of males climbing on the back of the couch, trying to transfer their grubby fingerprints onto your white ceiling. For now, they are too short to reach it.

A squat woman in a corduroy jumper, your son’s second-grade teacher, Mrs. Greene, shuffled down the hall. She looked as weather-worn as the old school building. Budget cuts had resulted in a reduction in teachers and a consolidation of classes. Mrs. Greene now had to contend with twenty-four second- and third-graders, most of whom appeared to suffer from some form of attention-deficit disorder. You had been into your son’s classroom once, thinking it would be fun, or at least virtuous of you, to read to the students on a Friday afternoon. The experience had been like being rubbed with meat juice and placed in a room full of Jack Russell terriers on meth. Ever since, you had found excuses for not going into the classroom whenever the teacher called. The baby would have a mouth like a shark if he actually grew a tooth for every time you told Mrs. Greene he had been teething.

“Mrs. Sheffield,” Mrs. Greene said, addressing you by your husband’s name, which you did not adopt on principle, believing at the time that by retaining your own last name, you would retain your own identity. She opened the door to the office and said, “We can wait in here.” As you hoisted yourself and the baby out of the tiny chair and herded your three-year-old in behind her, she added, “Mr. Peacock will be with us shortly.”

You cannot hear the teacher’s and principal’s names together without thinking of the board game “Clue.” Normally, you busy your mind pegging other teachers as Miss Scarlet or Colonel Mustard, but on that day, your brain leapt straight to lead pipes, revolvers, and candlesticks, and you wondered out loud what sort of weapon your child had wielded that day. You refrained from asking if he had been in the ballroom or billiard room.

“You sent your son a Pop-Tart for snack today,” Mrs. Greene said

“An organic toaster pastry with whole-grain crust,” you corrected her. Had he gotten high off of the all-natural, real-fruit sugars in the filling and gone berserk, rolling his poster of the water cycle, which the two of you had painstakingly put together late last Thursday night, into a club and beaten other children with it?

Mrs. Greene pursed her lips and blew air out her nose. “You are aware of our school’s zero-tolerance policy on weapons?” she asked. You nodded your head, although you were not aware of this policy. However, at the beginning of the year, you had signed a form confirming that you had read the school handbook, and telling the truth now would prove that you had lied then, and somehow it seemed worse to have lied on paper, with your signature, than with a slight incline of your neck.

At that moment Mr. Peacock walked in, greeted you by your husband’s name, and waved both you and Mrs. Greene into a pair of straight-backed wooden chairs which were at least sized for someone who had lost all of their milk teeth. He looked even wearier than Mrs. Greene. If your sons’ reports of their classmates’ behavior were any measure, this was likely the third or fourth disciplinary conference Mr. Peacock had held already that morning.

“I’m sure Mrs. Greene has informed you of this very grave situation,” he said.

“Not really,” you replied.

“The Pop-Tart,” he began, and you corrected him, wondering if your son had slipped a razor blade into his organic toaster pastry when you weren’t looking, or had perhaps molded the foil wrapper into a shiv and started a prison riot in Room Seventeen.

“We take violence,” Mr. Peacock said, pausing to extract your three-year-old from the Zen fountain sitting on a table beside his desk, and handing your dripping-wet child to you, “and threats of violence, very seriously.”

You merely nodded your head, because who wouldn’t agree with that, and, with one arm around your baby, who was growing fussy, and the other around your three-year-old, who was squirming to get at the lamp cord plugged into the wall near your chair, you could scarcely think, let alone form sentences. Also, you wanted Mr. Peacock to get to the point and tell you what horrible deed your son had committed, so that you could go home and find him a psychotherapist.

“Today at snack time,” Mr. Peacock intoned, “your son bit his Pop-Tart–“

“Organic toaster past–” you began, but he held up his hand and cut you off.

“Bit his Pop-Tart into the shape of a gun and pointed it at a fellow classmate,” he finished.

You waited for the rest, but Mr. Peacock folded his arms across his chest and leaned back in his chair, lips pursed with finality.

“And?” you asked. When did the shiv come in?

“Zero Tolerance, Mrs. Sheffield,” he said.

You shifted the three-year-old so that you could clamp him with your knees and propped the baby up on your shoulder, patting his back to try and quiet him.

“I’m sorry,” you said. “These kids are making so much noise. I missed the part about the weapon?”

“Perhaps this would refresh your memory,” Mrs. Greene said, holding a copy of the school handbook open in front of you.

“Section 7.6.9. Weapons Policy,” the page read. “Any student who brings a Gun onto School Property will be immediately Expelled and the matter will be Handed over to Law Enforcement Authorities.” The writer’s enthusiasm for capital letters continued down a full page that dealt with knives of varying size and function, blunt instruments, brass knuckles, and even shurikens, nun-chucks, and various other Ninja weaponry.

“But,” you said, not entirely sure you grasped the situation. “It wasn’t a gun. It was an organic toaster pastry.”

“Mrs. Sheffield,” Mrs. Greene said. “If you look at the definition of ‘Gun’ in Section, you will see that it includes ‘simulations.'”

You smiled, thinking that perhaps they were playing a joke on you, or maybe you had stumbled into a bad reality TV show. You looked around for hidden cameras. But when your eyes settled Mr. Peacock’s face, your smile dissolved.

“But what could he possibly do to hurt someone with a toaster pastry?” you asked. “Rot their teeth? Give them diabetes?”

“Mrs. Sheffield,” Mr. Peacock said, “this is not a laughing matter. We take these situations very seriously, especially after the tragedy in Connecticut.”

“But,” you said, your brain aching with the effort of following his logic, “that was a deranged man with high-capacity assault rifles, not a child with a snack of dubious nutritional value.”

“That is really not the point, Mrs. Sheffield,” Mrs. Green said. “Zero tolerance is zero tolerance. If we make an exception for a Pop-Tart gun, what next? Water pistols? Cap guns? Air rifles? Bazookas?”

“We are going to have to suspend your son from school until we decide how to handle this matter,” Mr. Peacock added.

“What do you mean, ‘handle this matter’?” you asked.

“Expulsion is not off the table,” Mr. Peacock responded.

“Expulsion?” you repeated. “Are you kidding me?”

“We have an obligation,” Mr. Peacock replied. “Under the Federal Gun Free Schools Act, to protect students in this building from others who pose a threat to the overall safe learning environment. My hands are tied, Mrs. Sheffield.”

By now the baby was whimpering and clawing at the front of your blouse, and your three-year-old had squirmed so that he was dangling upside down, his pants pulled halfway down from the effort of trying to escape the vise-grip of your knees, exposing his Jake 7 underwear, and you just wanted to get the hell out of this office.

“Please, can I see my son?” you asked. You would take your kindergartener home, too, and homeschool your children. Perhaps un-school them. Show up these brainless bureaucrats by raising four independent-thinking human beings who didn’t need a handbook to tell them what’s right.

“I’m afraid that’s impossible, Mrs. Sheffield,” said Mr. Peacock. “He’s been taken to the sheriff’s office for questioning.”

Your head felt like an animal was trying to claw its way out through your skull as you sputtered out a “What?” hoping you had heard incorrectly.

Mrs. Greene tapped the handbook.

“Law Enforcement,” she said. “That’s the policy.”


After buckling the now-wailing baby and your still-damp three-year-old into the van, you punched the address for sheriff’s office into the GPS device your husband had given you for your anniversary. As you pulled out of the school parking lot, the supercilious British woman inside instructing you to “turn right,” you dialed your husband’s work number. When his voice mail picked up, you left him a terse but pointed message that you needed him. Now.

Inside the sheriff’s office, a woman with a thick, dark braid and a shiny “Deputy” badge on her brown uniform led you into a small, cluttered room. The prisoner sat on a swivel chair, using his legs to push against the desk and spin the chair around. He stopped when he saw you on his next pass.

“Hi, Mom,” he yelled. “Check it out!” He raised his left arm as high as the handcuffs that shackled him to the chair’s arm allowed.

“Oh my God,” you shrieked and ran to him. With the baby in one arm and your three-year-old grasped by the wrist with your other hand, you managed to half-hug your firstborn child with your elbows, then turned to deputy.

“Why is my child in handcuffs?” you demanded.

“After the incident with the Pop-Tart gun, we needed to hold him while the sheriff completes the charges and a judge sets bail,” she said.

Your three-year-old climbed into the chair with his brother and wriggled his wrist into the loop of handcuff fastened to the chair’s arm. “Now we’re both in jail,” your oldest son yelled and he spun the chair, kicking the backs of your knees with each revolution.

“It was not a Pop-Tart,” you clarified. “It was an organic toaster pastry with whole-grain crust and all-natural, no-sugar-added, real-fruit filling. And since when was there a law against biting food into a gun-like shape? I believe you are violating my son’s First Amendment rights, as well as his Second, Fifth, and Thirteenth.”

“Want Pop-Tart,” your three-year-old hollered from the spinning chair. When you left the house that morning, you had given him a toaster pastry as well, hoping it would tide him over through the school visit, but it was now past lunchtime, and you sensed the first tremors of a low-blood-sugar-induced meltdown.

A man who looked like a Doberman Pinscher in a uniform walked in the door, his eyes on a piece of paper in his hands.

“Okay,” he said. “Charges are obstructing education.”

“Excuse me,” you said. “Why are you charging a seven-year-old?”

“Pointed a Pop-Tart gun in class,” he said, holding up three fingers and ticking off his list. “Threatened violence. Obstructed education.”

“It was not a–” you began. “Never mind. But, seriously, what kind of violence can a seven-year-old commit with a bit of crust and jam? And the incident, if you can even call it that, happened during snack-time. There was no education taking place at the time.”

“Tell it to the judge,” he said, as if he stayed up late watching reruns of old cops shows.

“Please, release my son.” You pointed to the boys spinning and laughing like stoned college kids. “Can’t you see how distressed he is?”

“Sorry, lady. Gotta wait for the Staties,” he said. “School violence situation we always bring in the State Police. Should be here any minute.”

“My son is not violent,” you said, as your three-year-old shrieked for his brother to stop the chair. When the chair didn’t stop, he wiggled his wrist out of the handcuff and punched his brother. Your oldest son punched back with his un-cuffed hand, and your three-year-old cried so hard he threw up what was left of his toaster pastry in a stream of purple foam down the front of his brother’s shirt. Your oldest son screamed and kicked his brother, whom you scooped up the under the armpits with your free arm. The baby, who had been resting his head against your shoulder, half-asleep, became agitated with this disturbance and started to cry.

“Sorry, lady,” the sheriff said. “Gonna have to ask you to leave.”

Realizing that crying, vomiting children may constitute the world’s best agent of civil disobedience, you planted yourself with two of your three howling offspring onto the only other chair in the room.

“I’m not going anywhere without my child,” you said. “And we need food and water. And I need to make a phone call. We’re allowed one phone call, right?”

The sheriff twitched his head toward the door and deputy exited as you pried your phone out of your pocket and tried calling your husband again. You held the phone with your shoulder, bouncing the baby with one arm and patting your three-year-old on the back with the other as you left yet another message, pausing to make sure the recording picked up their wails.

When the deputy returned, she tossed three dusty bottles of Poland Spring water and several packets of oyster crackers onto the table, and drew the sheriff aside. The boys tore into the packets and even the baby quieted down when you gave him a cracker to gum. But you knew you had only gained a temporary armistice. Your children had eaten nothing but toaster pastries since breakfast, you had eaten nothing at all, and you were all in desperate need of protein-based nourishment.

You chugged from one of the bottles, putting thoughts of corporate takeover of public water supplies out of your mind, and tried to overhear the deputy and sheriff’s hushed conversation. You only caught words like: “DA,” “election,” “land mine,” and “ten-foot pole.”

After a few minutes, the sheriff walked over, unlocked your son’s handcuffs and said, “All right, we’re going to drop the charges. This time. But I’m going to have to warn you about the use of weaponry on school grounds…”

As he spoke, you gathered up water bottles and half-eaten packages of crackers. You stuffed them in the diaper bag, lifted the baby to your shoulder, and turned to gather your other two children as two burly men in blue uniforms and black hats walked in. If the sheriff was a Doberman, the state troopers were Rottweilers.

The sheriff squared his shoulders and said, “We were just wrapping up here.”

One of the troopers gave him a curt nod, then looked down at your oldest son, “Heard there was an incident with a Pop-Tart at school today,” he said.

“Actually,” you began, “it was an organic toaster past–” you trailed off at the look he shot you.

For ten minutes, he lectured your son on firearm safety, bullying, and avoiding violence. Your son’s mouth gaped as he gazed at the huge men standing in front of him, their legs wide, hands on their hips. Meanwhile, you strategized the remainder of your day. You had never made it shopping, your refrigerator was still as bare as Old Mother Hubbard’s cupboard, and the last place in the world you wanted to take three fractious children was a grocery store. On the way to the sheriff’s office, you had passed a gas station with a sign out front advertising, “Best Pizza in Town.” It was undoubtedly true, considering it was probably the only pizza in town. You would stop there on the way home and pick up a pepperoni pizza, and whatever else the kids asked for–Doritos, root beer, real Pop-Tarts–nitrates, genetically modified organisms, and high fructose corn syrup be damned. Afterward, you would collect your kindergartener, who will be sitting in the principal’s office after school lets out. He will probably have wet himself and Mr. Peacock’s guest chair by the time you get there, because he refuses to use public bathrooms. You smiled at the thought.

“Any questions?” the trooper asked your oldest son after he wrapped up his speech.

“Yes,” your child replied. “Can I see your gun?”

Author’s Note: I feel a mounting sense of outrage every time I read a news story about a kid being suspended or expelled or arrested for a toy gun or a toast gun or a finger gun. This story arose from that rage and the absurdity of a society that criminalizes children’s make-believe but refuses to address real gun violence.

Andrea Lani is mother to three sons who have fashioned guns out of everything from crayons to grilled cheese sandwiches. She lives in Maine where she works a tedious day job, teaches nature writing and journaling classes in her spare time, and writes on the sly. You can find her at

Fiction: Skyping for Life

Fiction: Skyping for Life

New York City Manhattan street aerial view with skyscrapers, pedestrian and busy traffic.

By Danielle Ryan

What kind of mother leaves her children to improve their lives? Had it been a mistake? Because it sure as hell felt like one. The ambiguity of the answers to these questions made Sarita’s stomach roil with unease so often that she’d switched from daily cups of coffee to daily pots of chamomile tea, hoping, in vain, to soothe her tired nerves. Sarita pondered these questions as she returned from the corner bodega where she’d gone to purchase that morning’s tea, and had been shocked by the bitter winds howling down the concrete streets. She’d been unprepared for the bluster of the day, dressed only in a fleece jacket she saved for quick errands, and had paid for her lack of preparation with frozen ears, which now stabbed with tiny pinpricks of pain as they defrosted and returned to room temperature.

There had been so many unpleasant discoveries during the adjustment to life here in the United States – though Sarita would argue that there had really been, in fact, no adjustment at all, as though adjusting to being here would be a betrayal to her girls, Leta, who’d just turned 7, and June, who was 9, but one of the hardest things to get used to, other than the hollow, echoing void rattling around inside her when she yearned to hug her children or to see their faces with her actual eyes, rather than through a computer screen, was the cold weather. Sure, there had been chilly days at home, and some of the storms they’d experienced in the Dominican Republic were hide-under-the-bed frightening, but the deep, bone-chilling, toe-numbing cold of New York City in the middle of February was actually physically painful; probably the millionth detail Sarita had been unable to predict about life here in the States. The whole reason she had moved here in the first place, though, was to provide her family back home with basic needs and maybe even some humble luxuries that had not been a possibility had she stayed there. So here she was, on a Sunday morning, freshly woken from a bad dream and contemplating the bad dream of the day that lay ahead. Every day without her family was another bad dream day.

Before Sarita’s move, Sebastian, her husband, had spent all of his time lying prone, unable to move without keening in an agony that terrified their daughters, Leta and June. His pain was the result of a terrible accident from his days as a loyal employee of a tree-trimming service that did work for several of the major resorts around the Dominican Republic. A freshly cut tree limb had swung the wrong way and slammed into Sebastian’s back, mercifully not breaking his spine but doing enough damage to irrevocably ruin his chance at making a living through physical labor, or living a normal life, really. Sarita often wished she could go back in time, find a way to prevent her husband from going to work that day; if only he hadn’t been hurt, they’d still all be together. But it had happened — and after many months of fruitless job searching in an economy drastically affected by the worldwide economic downturn, Sarita finally denied her denial and accepted the fact that her family’s situation would not improve unless she took drastic steps. The torture of starvation, already etched into the faces of her young daughters, was too much for Sarita to bear. She knew she’d do anything to stop their suffering, even if meant she’d never be with them again.

It hadn’t taken much planning to get Sarita into the United States, where she spent her days working at a nail salon, along with the eight other women with whom she shared that cramped apartment in Flushing, Queens. Sarita sent nearly all of her paycheck home each month to her family, and they were thriving as a result of the money. She was able to see how well they were doing thanks to a weekly Sunday night Skype session, made possible by Sebastian’s former boss from the tree-trimming company. He must have felt guilty about the accident, and his supposed inability to offer any monetary compensation for it. Each Sunday night he would stop by Sarita’s family’s home in the Dominican Republic with his laptop and set it up so the family could “visit” with one another. Maybe if he had had any insurance money, Sarita might not have had to move away in the first place and wouldn’t have to visit with her family via Skype. Nonetheless, Sarita lived for those Sunday night Skype sessions. She felt quite certain that if she was not able to see her family – her two daughters, especially — during that weekly session, she would go insane.

These weekly meetings did provide Sarita with a measurable level of serenity. She could see how her girls’ cheeks had gone from concave and pale to full and rosy in just a few short weeks after Sarita started sending money home. Leta and June would twirl in front of the webcam, giggling and falling into one another, showing off the uniforms they wore to the private school they were now attending. Sebastian was able to afford some medicine that tamped down enough of the pain so, on his rare good days, he could help Sarita’s mother, Anna, with the most basic household chores. She’d let him water the plants or roll out a tortilla to help him feel like a contributing member of the remaining household. When his smiling face would fill the screen, Sarita could confirm that he was, indeed, improving – the hurt lines were gone from his eyes and there was a relaxation in his smile she hadn’t seen since the accident. Watching her family through the computer screen gave Sarita the strange sensation that she was watching a television episode featuring her family, so detached did she feel from the goings-on there. And yet, seeing how well they were doing thanks to her hard work and diligent efforts gave her a quiet sense of satisfaction along with the usual yearning to be with them.

Each time she wanted to complain about living in an overcrowded apartment with women she didn’t know well nor particularly like, each time she wanted to cry from the pain in her back after a day of bending over strangers’ feet, every time she walked down a blustery avenue, face freezing in the wind, feeling invisible to the world, she would mutter the same sentence to herself: “I’m not happy, but they’re not hungry. I’m not happy, but they’re not hungry.” She loved them all enough to be unhappy. It wouldn’t be forever, they’d all agreed. And yet, she wondered how they’d ever manage to be reunited. The possibility of that ever happening seemed to move further from her grasp each day; like a helium balloon, she could see it rising into the sky and out of her reach, and when she thought of it, she wanted to cry like a little child, but there was no one around to offer meaningful comfort. Of course, what only made the situation worse was that she was an undocumented immigrant, and because she didn’t have the proper paperwork, there was no way to just go home for a visit. Even if she could afford to do so, there was no guarantee she’d be able to return. She pictured all of the events in her daughters’ lives she wouldn’t be there to see – the school plays, the sick days when surely they cried out for their mother, the lonely nights, the broken hearts – it was as though she were dead already.

The nightmares had started within days of her arrival in the States, and had intensified the past few weeks. In the dream, she’d fallen inside an icy chasm, and there was no way to get out. She clawed at the walls, scraping at them with her fingertips, until they were bloody and numb. Her children and Sebastian were at the top of the chasm calling her name. Sarita begged for them to go get help. After much pleading, they agreed. As though it were happening in real life, Sarita could hear their feet crunch on the icy snow as they trudged away from the chasm. Then she’d sit on the frozen floor, surrounded by the cool blue glow of ice walls, and bunch herself up into a tiny little bundle. She waited, and waited, until, inevitably, at some point, a realization would dawn upon her – that somehow, they’d all died when they went to get her help and in her dream she would weep, knowing she’d never see her family again.

She’d wake confused, heart a-flutter, until she realized that it had all been a dream. With that realization came a moment of relief, quickly replaced, though, by the dread of another day of walking around with an icy chasm in her chest, brought on by the grief of missing her family, and compounded by the dread of knowing there were so many nails – toenails and fingernails, yellowed and thickened and chipped and misshapen and dirty and sometimes even smelly – of haughty strangers waiting to have their cuticles cut and their asses kissed. She had to stay in the moment and breathe, or the mere thought of all of those nails and the faceless strangers behind them would send her into a claustrophobic panic attack.

“I’m not happy but they’re not hungry.” Her mantra was starting to lose its effectiveness.

Still shaken by the previous night’s nightmare, and unable to wait until that evening for their Skype session, Sarita called Sebastian Sunday morning, eschewing her typical Sunday duties like washing her underwear and replacing her meager groceries to instead get some much-needed reconnection with her family. She really just needed to hear their voices. Her call to the cheap pay-as-you-go phone she’d sent them went unanswered and was sent through to a voicemail box they didn’t know how to set up. She didn’t leave a message.

Distracted, she got into the shower, trying to make the time pass a little faster until she could try to call home again. Despite her aching heart, it was turning out to be a pretty good Sunday. For possibly the first time since she’d moved to New York, she had the entire apartment to herself. All of the women were out doing laundry or food shopping. Two of the women – Tiffany and Winnie – had taken the subway over to Jackson Heights to visit Little India. Typically Sarita would have loved to go with them – after all, she was in New York, and there was so much to see and do, and they only had one day off each week — but she had been angling to have some time to herself, and it could be months before the opportunity to be alone would present itself again.

Sarita took a long, hot shower, and for the first time since living in that apartment, she didn’t need to rush, as there was no one waiting to go in the bathroom after her. She washed her hair, put in some conditioner and let it just sit while she shaved. She would never have anticipated that moving slowly could feel like such a luxury. To not be scrambling through the day, to not feel constantly pushed forward by an invisible crowd on their way to important appointments felt like a much needed respite from her hectic days. In her home country, there were so many hardships, but her days there had unspooled without the frantic furor that her days here seemed to embody. Did everyone in New York feel this way? It certainly seemed that everyone else was always rushing to and fro. Only here, it felt like everyone else was on their way to opportunity and promise – to good jobs, good meals, good shopping, good homes, good families – while her days were tedious and back-breaking, and only filled with the promise of more tedious, more back-breaking work, magnified by loneliness and isolation.

“I need to stop feeling sorry for myself,” she said to no one as she rinsed the shaving cream off her legs. “Today, I want to have a little fun.”

She got out of the shower, and forced herself to dry off slowly, to get dressed slowly, to listen to her body’s need to move at a snail’s pace. Before heading out the door, unsure of where the day would bring her, she called home one more time. Still no answer. This time when the call went to voicemail, she did leave a message, though she was certain they wouldn’t be able to figure out how to retrieve it. “Hello,” she said, “It’s me, mommy. I have to run some errands but I wanted to call and say I miss you all so much. I’ll try you again later. I love you!”

She tried to button down the anxiety that was rising in her. Where were they? It was Sunday — Anna might have taken the girls to church, Sebastian was probably sleeping or unable to get up to get the phone. She knew they were having trouble keeping it charged, so that was another possibility. She felt the icy chasm open up in her heart, as wide as the ocean that separated her from her family. She was powerless to know where her family was or what they were doing at that moment. Hadn’t she surrendered her motherly right to track her kids’ every move the moment she’d gotten on that plane? How had she not foreseen the dismay this would cause her?

She went back into her bedroom, put on a pair of jeans, and a black top – but this outfit felt too much like her work uniform, so she kept the jeans on but instead switched out the black top for a flowy, lightweight turquoise sweater she’d purchased before arriving, in anticipation of the cold New York winters. Turns out, it wasn’t nearly warm enough for a New York winter, but Sarita put a long sleeved shirt on underneath it – she simply had to wear that sweater today. On one of her last days before leaving for New York, they’d done a bit of shopping with some tips Sarita had earned from a cleaning job. She had very little money to spend, but there were some necessities that had to be procured, and it was a way to get the whole family feeling like they were helping Sarita prepare for her journey. June had picked the sweater out. “This will look pretty on you, mom,” she’d said, so excited to show Sarita her finding. Anna had seen Sarita’s face fall when she’d looked at the price tag. “I’ll buy this for your mommy,” Anna had said. “So she can think of all of us, and this beautiful, happy day when she wears it.”

Sarita hadn’t had a chance to wear it since arriving, though. All she’d worn were the black shirts that the ladies in the salon were told to wear by Paul, the dictatorial manager of the establishment. During her off hours she wore old t-shirts and sweatshirts she’d brought from home; those, too, reminded her of her family. But the real reason she hadn’t worn the turquoise sweater yet was because she didn’t want the dread of her days to taint the sweater – it was too precious. Today, though, she was determined to break free – if only for a few hours — of the sadness that shadowed her every move. Today wouldn’t taint the sweater.

She combed out her long, glossy black hair as she dried it, curled her lashes and even put on some mauve lipstick. She looked at herself in the mirror and felt that she looked more like herself today – relaxed, groomed, in a colorful top – than she had in the past 8 months. She wished she could Skype with her family so they could see her like this.

Instead she pulled on her puffy black jacket, put fuzzy white earmuffs over her head, eased a pair of cheap black gloves onto her hands, and walked out in the frigid sunshine of a Queens afternoon, feeling her spirits rise as the sun lit upon her face.

Danielle Ryan spent time working as a small town news reporter and writing for a number of well-known websites before turning her attention to creative writing. Danielle lives with her family in New York, and is currently at work on a novel. This story, which earned an honorable mention from Glimmer Train Magazine, is her first published short story.

Fiction: Mama Jane’s Pizza

Fiction: Mama Jane’s Pizza

16-x-16-x-1-3-4-kraft-corrugated-pizza-box-50-caseBy R.L. Maizes

Mama Jane’s Pizza sign gripping the roof of his silver BMW, Neal pulled up to a small ranch house with a shattered concrete drive. “Could be she’ll have the money, could be she won’t,” Mama Jane had said, handing him the pie. He rang the bell twice and was about to turn around when a boy of perhaps eight opened the door.

“Mom can’t find her purse.” The kid stood with one bare foot on the other, knobby knees pressed together. He had curly black hair Neal imagined girls would one day run their fingers through.

Neal could pay for the pizza. Probably should pay for it, but where did that end. He had never been especially charitable. It would be odd to start now, when he was neglecting his own family. Nevertheless he had the urge to hand over the pizza. He pictured the kid thanking him.

The boy touched the red delivery bag with two fingers.

“What’s your name?” Neal asked.


“I can’t give this to you, Charlie, you know that, right? That’s not how it works. Mama Jane has to get paid. Otherwise there are no more pizzas.” It was a crock. Charlie looked like he knew it, too, narrowing his eyes and shaking his head. What was one pizza?

Air conditioning rippled Neal’s frayed Sex Pistols T-shirt as he drove back to the pizza shop. A lifetime supply of mint gum filled a Seven-Eleven bag on the floor of the car. His girls, Allie and Avery, sophomores at Long Island Prep, inhaled the stuff. Used pieces wrapped in foil sparkled beneath the seats, tumbled across floor mats when he took a sharp turn, flattened beneath his sneakers.

He had stashed five thousand dollars in the glove box that morning and now he opened the box to gaze at the loose stack of hundreds. He had no immediate need for the money, but it reassured him they weren’t poor, not yet, which meant he could put off getting a real job. His wife, Maddy, would be furious if she knew he had cashed in a CD. The thought made him smile.

At Mama Jane’s, he slipped the pizza under warming lights to be sold by the slice.

He got home at 10:00. Maddy was in bed, reading a British novel, the kind that would make an unbearably slow movie. They used to watch movies like that together. She set the book on the nightstand and turned off the light. A halo burned around her white silk pajamas before his eyes adjusted. She punched up her pillow. “Landtech is hiring a manager.”


“So we’re spending the kids’ college funds.”

The room smelled of the Tom Ford lavender perfume he had put in her stocking last Christmas. In the past, she had worn it as an invitation. He wasn’t accepting invitations from her now, though he sometimes imagined entering her roughly, hearing her cry out. He had always been tender. Maybe that was the problem.

He walked down the hall to his daughters’ room, his footsteps muffled by dense wool carpet. Standing outside, he re-read the stickers on the door: “Enter at your own Peril,” “Quarantine Zone,” and “If We Liked You, You’d Already Be Inside.” Light from the room leaked out beneath the closed door. He knocked.

“Who is it?” Of the two girls, Allie was kinder.

“It’s Dad. Can I come in?” He grasped the brass doorknob. When they remodeled, Maddy had made him look at hundreds of knobs he couldn’t tell apart.

“What do you want?” Sharpness came naturally to Avery, especially when she was talking to him.

He let go of the knob. “Just wanted to say good night to my girls.”

“We’re not dressed,” Avery said and laughed in a way that made him think it wasn’t true.

Since Maddy had gone back to work as a paralegal a month ago, he drove the girls to school in the morning. He had looked forward to spending the time with them. When they weren’t in school, they were off with their friends, kids whose names he no longer knew, and he rarely saw them. But as it turned out they had no problem disappearing in plain sight, riding with ear buds in or furiously texting, as if he wasn’t there.

“Take that thing off,” Avery said, pointing to the pizza sign.

He had forgotten it the night before. “I’ll just have to put it back on later.”

“I’m not riding in the car with that thing on.”

“We’ll help you, Dad,” Allie offered.

It was his fault they were pushy. His and Maddy’s. Always giving them whatever they wanted. He had once taken pride in earning enough to spoil them, and it had been easier than saying no. Now it was too late. He knew from experience to give in or Avery would throw a fit.

Wrestling with the sign, he scratched the roof of the car, cutting a jagged line through the luminous paint. “Fuck!”

“Dad!” Allie said.

“I guess it’s alright to say that now,” Avery said. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”

He drove to school, both girls riding in the back, making him feel like a goddamn chauffeur. They used to fight to sit in front with him.

In the rear view mirror, he stared at them. They were beautiful, even Avery when she didn’t know she was being watched and wasn’t scowling, skin perfect and pale like their mother’s, straight black hair touched only by the world’s most expensive salon products. Allie had recently cut hers in a bob, he guessed so people would stop calling her Avery. Avery’s was past her shoulders. How two such attractive girls could have come from him was a mystery.

After he dropped them off, emptiness took hold of his day. Alone in the house, he started at sounds of appliances breathing on and off, and birds smacking into windowpanes. Maddy had left a printout of the Landtech job description on his desk. When he saw it, his chest tightened. Struggling to breathe, he ran out the back door, sat on the concrete stoop, and put his head between his knees.

The first time it happened, he was in front of a room full of clients, giving a presentation, like hundreds he had given before. As he clicked through his PowerPoint slides. Sweat soaked his forehead and splattered the remote control. He mopped his face with a linen handkerchief. Never had he been so afraid without knowing what he was afraid of. The oak conference table wavered. His clients were a blur of blue suits. Somehow he managed to get through the slides and never-ending questions.

That was five years ago, and hardly a week had passed since then without an episode. They happened at work and occasionally at home if he was thinking about work. When his consulting firm went bankrupt two months ago, he secretly celebrated, filled with relief. He didn’t know how much longer he could have gone on generating reports, attending meetings, currying favor with his CEO., all the while convinced he was having a heart attack and would die if he didn’t get out the building. Ashamed, he hadn’t told anyone about his condition, not even Maddy, who was never happier than when she was straightening his Burberry tie or brushing a piece of stray lint from his Dolce & Gabbana suit.

He had an MBA. How could work terrify him? Early on, he had diagnosed himself on the Internet, ordering Klonopin from a Mexican website, popping two when the panic attacks were at their worst.

When his breathing returned to normal, he went inside. On their monogrammed stationery, Maddy had left him lists of things to do. They had let go of the housekeeper, but if Maddy thought he would scrub toilets or mop floors she was mistaken. She had never done those things, taking golf lessons while the kids were in school. He crumpled the list of household chores and tossed it in the trash, folded a grocery list and put in his pocket.

At 3:00 he picked up Avery. Allie had stayed after school for band practice. They had gone only half a block when she opened the glove box. “Holy shit!”

“Close that!” How had he forgotten to put the cash back in the bank envelope? His heart pounded in his temples.

“I was looking for gum. Are you a drug dealer? Is that what you do all day?”

Glancing over, he saw her counting the money and he grabbed the bills, swerving and nearly hitting a parked car.

“It’s cool. You can hook me up.”

He shoved the money back in the glove box and banged it shut. With the back of his hand he wiped his forehead. “The gum is in the bag on the floor. I’m not a drug dealer. What do you need to be hooked up for, you don’t do drugs!”

“Did we win the lottery?” She had found the Seven-Eleven bag and was stuffing gum in her backpack.

“Leave some for Allie. We didn’t win anything. Don’t tell your mother about the money.”

“Why are you keeping secrets from Mom?” She opened the glove box again and fingered the money. “Can I have a hundred?”

What did she want it for? Did she do drugs? If she did, he didn’t want to know about it. “No.”

“You don’t want me to say anything, right?”

He had raised an extortionist. “Don’t tell anyone. Not even Allie.”

“We hardly talk to each other. She’s a geek.” She peeled a hundred off the stack.

When they got home he offered to make her a snack.

“Yeah, Dad, some milk and cookies because I’m three,” she said over her shoulder. She couldn’t seem to get away from him fast enough, and then he heard the door to her room slam shut.

Neal watched market reports on TV until it was time to go to Mama Jane’s.

He attached the sign to the roof of the car.

“It’s a gag, right?” Maddy had said when she first saw it. “It’s not enough for us to be poor, you want to humiliate me, too?”

Maybe he did. After he was laid off he was using Maddy’s laptop—his had belonged to the firm—and he discovered hundreds of e-mails to Jackson Lohr, the golf pro at their club, about their family, the girls’ social lives and her mother’s deteriorating health. Things she hadn’t even told Neal. But the worst of it was how she mocked him, writing in one: “He’s practically useless in the bedroom.” In another: “He reeks when he comes home from work. It’s like he’s run ten miles, yellow stains under his arms. I have to buy his shirts by the dozen. What’s so strenuous about sitting in an office all day?”

He had positioned the laptop behind his rear wheel and backed over it, thinking about the man in the plaid cap whose red nose Maddy had so often mocked. Then he had laid the machine on her pillow.

When she found it, she brought it to him in the kitchen.

“How are your golf lessons going?” he asked.

Red splotches darkened her cheeks. “I needed someone to talk to.”

He pretended to look at the issue of Sports Car Market he had been reading.

Maddy cradled the computer, trying to keep its shattered parts together. “To talk to. Like a shrink.”

“A shrink you fuck.” He turned the page.

“He never touched me that way.”

“What way did he touch you?”

“In a lesson.”

“Those must have been some lessons.”

To get to the pizza shop, Neal drove through a neighborhood of castle-like homes. Swimming pools liquefied sprawling backyards. Changing rooms the size of small homes pushed up out of the ground. Anorexic teens lay on lounge chairs, sipping lemonade served by Central American maids. Once, he’d delivered to one of those homes, and a man his age had tipped him fifty dollars, a kind of karma payment, Neal figured, so the man wouldn’t end up in Neal’s shoes.

At the shop, Mama Jane wore the same thing every day, jeans dusted with flour that matched the color of her hair, and a chef’s coat. “I got one for you,” she’d say when he came in the door, and he’d pick up the box and the receipt. She never asked personal questions, though she must have wondered about the BMW and the thick gold wedding ring. Or maybe she’d seen it all in her years behind the counter.

He’d applied for the job the day after he found the e-mails. “Long as you don’t mind your car smelling like pizza we can use you,” Mama Jane had said. Neal remembered delivering pizza the summer of his senior year in high school, sleeping until two in the afternoon, getting stoned before heading to work, and flirting with a girl named Melissa who came in for slices. When she learned he was starting Cornell in the fall, Melissa waited for his shift to be over and then blew him in his Camaro among empty soda cups and burger wrappers. “When can I start?” he asked Mama Jane.

No spouse or kids of Mama Jane’s ever stopped by the shop or called. Even without a family, she seemed happy. Perhaps that was the secret, Neal thought.

“Do you mind sharing with me how much longer you’re going to be on your vacation?” Maddy asked, when he returned that night. She muted Jimmy Fallon.

“I go to work every day.” He peeled off his T-shirt and cargo shorts, and dropped them on top of a full bathroom hamper. Delivering pizzas out of his car the past few weeks, open space all around him, he had felt calm.

“What you earn doesn’t pay for our groceries.” She sat up, arranging two pillows behind her.

“We should simplify our lives. People all over the world live on less than a hundred dollars a month.” He half-believed it was possible that the life they had constructed around wealth could somehow be reconstructed around—what? He wasn’t sure.

“You want to pretend you’re in Bangladesh? Do it alone. Explain to our girls why they can’t get mani-pedis with their friends.”

The girls were a problem. Their expectations were too high. “You earn good money. We should sell the house and move to an apartment. I could get rid of the car, buy a beater for the pizza route.”

She turned toward the TV. Gave Jimmy back his voice. The studio audience was laughing at a bit, but Neal imagined even they thought his idea was ridiculous.

“That’s what you want to do? Deliver pizza?” She was shouting.

“Maddy, the girls.” He closed their bedroom door.

She hugged her legs and dropped her forehead to her knees. Her voice, softer now, sounded like it might crack. “Why aren’t you looking for a real job? Just because I sent e-mails to a golf pro?”

Here was his opportunity to confess his malady. She’d have to understand. She was a compassionate person, wasn’t she? When he first met her she was living in an upper west side studio with a one-eyed cat she’d rescued. She was volunteering at a soup kitchen. But it had been years since their lives revolved around anything other than the girls and the remodel and getting into the right golf club, which turned out to be the disastrously wrong golf club. “The corporate life isn’t for me anymore.”

“Not for you anymore. Just like that.”

“Just like that.”

When he picked Avery up after school the next day, she snapped open the glove box. “Where is it?” she demanded.

He was starting to hate her. He still loved her but he also hated her. “None of your business.” As he pulled into a busy intersection, he saw her rummage through the glove box and find the bank envelope. “Leave that alone.”

“I need another hundred.” She slipped it out of the envelope.

“You can’t have it.” He snatched it and stuffed it in his pocket. “What do you need it for?”

“It’s for a friend. You don’t know her.” She pulled another bill out.

“You can’t have it. I’m not kidding.” When he tried to seize it, she lifted her hand against the window, out of his reach. The car swerved but he righted it. “What does your mystery friend need it for?”

“She’s on the golf team and can’t afford the green fees.”

Golf. It was at the root of all of his problems. Or she was making the girl up. “I’m not giving your friend money. She should ask her parents.”

“They don’t have money. She’s on scholarship.”

“We don’t have money, either. Maybe you haven’t noticed but I deliver pizza.”

“Maybe you haven’t noticed, but I don’t give a fuck.”

Furious, Neal leaned over and grabbed her arm. All he was to her—to all of them—was a paycheck. Once he stopped bankrolling their private school and designer clothes, he wouldn’t exist. Maddy had already replaced him with an alcoholic golf pro.

The sound of the impact wiped everything else out. The interior of the car flashed white. Neal was shoved back in his seat, his eyes closed. When he opened them, the BMW was facing oncoming traffic and Avery’s head was covered in blood.

Later that night, after an ER doctor examined and released him, after an officer cited him for reckless driving and he called a lawyer, Neal stood trembling next to his daughter’s hospital bed thanking a god he didn’t believe in that he hadn’t killed her. Maddy sat on a chair on the opposite side of the bed, clutching Avery’s hand. Avery had broken three ribs and had a concussion. Her hair was a patchwork, shaved in half a dozen places where the doctors had stitched her scalp. A jagged cut furrowed her right cheek. Asleep under heavy doses of painkillers, she didn’t know what she looked like. She would find out soon enough, and she would blame him for destroying her appearance and the status that went along with it and for all the glances she would get that would be curious rather than admiring.

It was his fault. When he had reached for her arm, the light turned red, but he didn’t see it and continued into the intersection. An SUV rammed the passenger side of the BMW.

Allie stood behind her mother, staring at Avery. “Is she going to be alright?”

“Yes,” Maddy said. “It’ll take some time. She’ll need your help.”

“What about her face?”

“We’ll do plastic surgery and tattoo the scar. You’ll hardly notice.”


“What is it?”

“I’m glad it wasn’t me.”

“That’s okay, baby.”

Allie fell asleep in a chair and Maddy motioned for Neal to follow her into the hall. “What happened?” she whispered. Since the morning, she’d aged. New lines appeared beneath her eyes. She’d run her fingers through her hair so often it looked slept on.

Bright hospital lights bounced off the walls and the linoleum floor. It seemed an appropriate place for an interrogation. “I leaned over to take something from her.” A firebox hung on the wall and Neal was tempted to pull it.

“What was so important you had to have it?”

“Cash she found in the glove box.”

“You should have let her keep it.”

“If I had known this would happen, I would have.” Carrying a stack of clean sheets, a nurse’s aide glided by on rubber-soled shoes. Neal longed to go back in time, uncash the CD, and save Avery.

Maddy had rushed to the hospital from work and still wore her tailored gray suit and narrow pumps. She shifted back and forth, uncomfortable in the shoes or the conversation, or both. “How much was it?”

“A lot.”

She wrapped her arms around her belly. “You’re planning to leave us.”


“Then why?”

“It reassured me.”

“If money makes you feel so good, go back to work.”

When he tried to take her hand, she pulled away. “I feel like I’m having a heart attack when I’m in an office,” he said. “Like I’m going to die if I don’t get out.”

“Since when?”

“Since forever.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” She shook her head and looked past Neal.

“I was ashamed. And we were doing that goddamn remodel. Everything was so expensive. The fixtures, the windows, the cabinets—they might as well have been made of gold. I didn’t see how I could leave the job, so there was no sense worrying you. I was worried enough for the both of us.” Neal looked down at his bloody T-shirt and shorts. “Besides, you only like me in a suit.”

“That’s not fair. You stopped talking to me. Telling me what was going on inside you. I thought you were having an affair.”

“You were the one having the affair.”

“They were just e-mails.”

“And lessons.”

“And lessons. But I don’t take them anymore. And we don’t e-mail.”

“How’s your handicap?”


 Finally, some good news. She didn’t have time for golf.

He spent the next day in the hospital with Avery, who ignored him except when she wanted something. In the hospital gift shop, he bought the copies of Elle and Vogue she had asked for.

“I’ll never look this good. Not anymore,” she said, when he handed them to her.

“Sorry.” What else was there to say? He was sorry. And anything he tried to say, about how she would get through this, she would contradict. That was how it had been lately. She wouldn’t accept comfort from him, neither of the twins would.

She turned back to the soap opera she’d been watching. “Get me a diet coke and a salad. Not from the cafeteria. From the health food store on Lakeville.”

He returned with her lunch and was about to enter the room when he heard her sobbing. If he went in, she’d stop and pretend she’d never started, so instead he sunk to his heels, leaned against the corridor wall, and waited.

“I’m starving,” she said, her voice quieter than usual, when he brought the food in. “You took forever.” Crumpled tissues were scattered across her blanket. Neal gathered them, dropped them in the trash, and washed his hands.

Maddy came over after work and Neal drove her Buick to the pizza shop.

Mama Jane was kneading dough without looking at it, pressing and folding it over itself. The dough looked pure and smelled ripe with yeast. Neal briefly wished he were a pizza chef instead of a delivery boy.

“I got one for you. It’s that woman hardly ever has money. Okay if you don’t want to take it. I could sell it by the slice and save you a trip.”

He picked the box up off the counter. “Maybe tonight they’ll get to eat it.”

“Hope—that’s good.”

But it wasn’t hope. He was betting on a sure thing. When he arrived at the house, he set the pizza down, rang the doorbell and retreated to his car. Driving away, he saw in his rear view mirror Charlie take the box inside.

R.L. Maizes lives in Colorado with her husband, Steve, and her dog, Rosie, under the benevolent dictatorship of Arie, the cat. Her stories have appeared in The Barcelona Review, Blackbird, Slice, The MacGuffin, and other literary magazines. Her essays have been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Spirituality & Health, and other national magazines.

Flash Fiction: Motherhood is Natural

Flash Fiction: Motherhood is Natural


ussr-young-mothers-talking-near-a-fountain-at-a-park-ek3h74By Erika Murdey

Jill sits on a park bench at the fountain to rest her feet—she finds it harder to move in her fifth month of pregnancy. She had needed to get out of the house, to enjoy the sunshine and warmth. Other women sit around the fountain too: a woman in a blue skirt with a baby, a woman with red hair who looks eighteen months pregnant, and a woman in a yellow dress cuddling her own infant.

Beside her, the woman in the blue skirt takes a bite of her sandwich, chews it for a moment, and plucks the soggy lump out of her mouth and stuffs it past her baby’s lips.

“Oh, are you baby-birding?” the woman with red hair asks.

The blue-skirted woman smiles. “Yes, it lets my darling Juniper experience new flavors and textures.”

“How delightful!” the woman in the yellow dress says.

“I love it too. Such a natural experience for the baby. Maple loves to baby-bird, doesn’t she?” the red haired woman says to her stomach. Jill starts when a small white face pops out of the woman’s belly, skin damp, red hair plastered to its skull.

“You’re kangarooing?” asks Blue Skirt.

“Yes, I had a pouch cut into my abdomen right after she was born. It gives her the comfort of being in the womb, and she always feels close to me.”

“I did too!” says Yellow Dress. She then lays her infant on the towel-covered park bench. “So much nicer than pushing my little Boxelder around in a buggy. Those things are always being recalled.” The women shudder together; Jill tries to muster a small shake of her shoulders to fit in. Yellow Dress strips the infant of clothes, then diaper. The full diaper disappears into a plastic bag. Jill watches as the woman proceeds to lick the baby clean.

“Kittening?” Blue Skirt asks. Yellow Dress pauses to wipe a greenish-brown streak from her mouth and nods. “I kitten my baby too, but I wonder if it’s too late to kangaroo her?”

“Hard to say,” Red Hair says. “I wouldn’t imagine so. Though if you had wanted to cichlid your child, then it would be too late.”

“Cichliding? I never heard of that.”

“My friend had it done before her baby was born. She made the doctors unhinge her jaw when she discovered she was pregnant so the skin of her face could stretch. Now she carries little California Redwood in her mouth wherever she goes.”

Yellow Dress stops for a moment and claps her hands together, “Marvelous!” Her baby raises its glistening arms as though to fend off the next approach of the pink tongue.

Jill shifts on the bench. “I was thinking of suggesting Sea Horsing to my husband.”

The three women jerk their heads towards her, eyes wide. “What is Sea Horsing?’

“You know, like how with sea horses the male carries the eggs to term? I bet he’d fall flat to the floor if I mentioned it.”

Red Hair sniffs. Yellow Dress raises her eyebrows. Blue Skirt says slowly, “I never heard of Sea Horsing.”

“It’s not a real thing,” Jill says, “I was joking. But didn’t you wish sometimes, when you were feeling all sick and huge, that your husband was the pregnant one?”

The three women turn away, whispering among themselves. Jill sits for another minute, listening to the crashing water of the fountain, before walking home.


Erika Murdey is a student of the Central Michigan University MA program in English Language and Literature with an emphasis in Creative Writing. No human children, but more fur-babies than any reasonable person could be expected to count.


Fiction: Waushakum Pond

Fiction: Waushakum Pond

father-n-daughter_fishing-passion-1024x576By Orli Van Mourik

When Mona was little, Archie used to take her fishing. It felt like the trips had been going on since Mona was old enough for waders, but it was possible that they started in the fall of 1957 during those first few months when they both still woke up every morning to the shock of her mother’s absence. Mona couldn’t remember ever crying for Eve, but she did remember those chilly mornings when the house still felt abandoned—all traces of her mother gone apart from a few framed photos and a lingering smell in the hall closet. Saturday mornings were the hardest. Normally Eve would have been bustling around in her ratty bathrobe, whipping up a batch of leathery buckwheat pancakes while humming along to the radio. The lack of her was so acute in those moments that neither of them could bear to stay indoors and Archie would go fetch his red metal lunch pail from the garage and pack it full of liverwurst sandwiches and Nila wafers. He’d send Mona upstairs to get dressed while he brewed up a thermos of coffee and then they’d set off for Massachusetts in the old wagon, leaving the cat to fend for herself overnight.

There are plenty of fish in Connecticut—lakes and rivers chock full of them—but for Archie fishing was an activity reserved for the place he came from: Middlesex County. There was nothing particularly special about Waushakum Pond. It was bordered by the same hemlocks and spindly spruce trees as any other pond in rural Massachusetts and the swampy fields of wild rye surrounding it were alive with same croaking frogs. The only thing distinguishing it from any other pond was that it was where Archie’s father Leonard had taught him how to skate when he was a boy and the first place he’d ever managed to snag a bass on his line.

To Mona, it seemed clear that the pond was Archie’s natural habitat. When they were there she could see that he was a creature of the woods: built strong to withstand tough winters, with careful hands that could thread an arrow or tie a knot in a line without fumbling. His movements, which appeared fussy and painstaking in normal life, seemed in perfect tempo with the pond.

Had anyone asked, Mona would have told them that she and her father were close—and, in many ways they were. Years of living together had taught them to anticipate each other. If they sat down to dinner, the salt arrived at her elbow before she’d had a chance to open her mouth. And she knew to keep to her room on those nights when she smelled cigar smoke coming from the den. She pressed his shirts every Tuesday and hung them on his doorknob and he made sure that her bicycle tires never went flat. But Archie’s mind had always been a locked box. No matter how Mona tried to read him, she was never sure quite what he was feeling and when she guessed wrong he made her feel it. He did not suffer fools gladly, so she endeavored not to be one. But when they were at the pond, there was no need for guesswork. The pond was a leveling force. It brought Archie out of his mind and into himself. As soon as they arrived, he settled into a silence so complete that when Mona wasn’t facing him, she’d sometimes worry he’d stopped breathing.

In the week it took Mona to work out how to tell Archie the news, only one thing was clear to her: it would have to be at Waushakum Pond. But it had been so long since they’d gone there that it took her days to work up the nerve to ask him. When she finally did, he hesitated, and she saw from the pained looked on his face the reason for her own hesitation. It was one thing to stay overnight with your ten-year-old daughter at some fleabag motel. It was another to go with your seventeen-year-old. As soon as she suggested it, Mona pictured them trading places at the room’s yellowing washbasin before retiring to neighboring twin beds. The thought made her squirm.

“Why don’t we take a drive instead,” Archie said. And, like that, Waushakum Pond vanished from view taking with it all of Mona’s courage.

They decided to go visit the Glass House in New Canaan. Instead of piling into the wagon, they took her father’s new MG. Mona wore a scarf around her head to keep her hair from whipping around in the wind and felt alternately silly and glamorous, a gawky Grace Kelly. In her mind, she had pictured them chatting on the way up and then eventually settling into a companionable silence that left room for what she had to tell him. In reality, the wind was so fierce they barely spoke and when they did, they were stilted and formal with one another.

After forty minutes, they arrived at the spot on the map. It took them forever to find the entrance and once they did Mona was horrified to see a chain strung across it. They both got out of the car and walked close enough to read the sign hanging off it that read, “Shut.”

Archie turned to look at her, “What should we do?”

She shrugged and nodded toward the car. None of this was turning out as she’d expected. She couldn’t imagine telling him now.

They got back in the car. “It’s an strange thing building a house out of glass and then walling it off from the world,” Archie said, contemplative. “I don’t even know why I brought you here. Your mother liked Glass. I’ve never cared much for him.”

“Did she?” Mona said. Archie nodded. “What else did she like?”

“She liked Bogart movies and Quaker quilts—a hodgepodge of things. I never could keep track. She had eclectic tastes.”

“I don’t remember,” Mona said.

“I don’t expect you would,” he said, and then, after a long silence, “She was a good mother.”

Mona nodded.

“She wanted you to be happy,” Archie said. “I’ve tried to do that.”

“You have,” Mona agreed.

“Is everything okay, Scottie?” Archie said, suddenly searching. “I thought this class would help, but Boorish-Barney-the-professor seems to have made things worse.”

“Please don’t call him that,” she said.

Something in her voice made him turn toward her. “Archie,” she said, realizing there would be no better time. “I’m having a baby.”

Her father’s face went white as the sky behind it; it was like all the youth bled out of him in an instant. “I don’t understand.”

“I know.”

He placed his hands on the wheel to stop them from shaking. “How could this happen? Did you let that boy Chad—?”

“—No!” Mona shook her head. “Nothing like that.”

“Who then?” he demanded.

Mona was aware that, in that moment, she held Archie’s heart in her hands. She cupped it gingerly, terrified of crushing it. Maybe it wasn’t too late not to tell him. Maybe she could take it all back. “Barney,” she said finally.

His face fell. “Barney.”


Archie slammed his hands against the wheel so hard it made the small car shudder. “How could you?” he said, and Mona said nothing. She knew that outside of Waushakum Pond there was no way he’d ever accept the real answer: love.

Orli Van Mourik writes fiction and nonfiction and holds a Master’s in Journalism from NYU. Her work has appeared in Psychology Today, The Brooklyn Rail and Brooklyn Based, among other outlets. She teaches fiction for the Sackett Street Workshop and is working on her first novel. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two daughters.

This story was the winner of The 2015 Annual Pen Parentis Writing Fellowship, which promotes the creation of new work by writers who are also parents.  Pen Parentis is a literary nonprofit organization that provides resources to writers to keep them on a creative track once they start a family.

Author Q&A: Mai Wang

Author Q&A: Mai Wang

Mai HeadshotMai Wang is the author of the story of The Night Mr. Li Won Jeopardy, which appeared in our October 2015 issue.  We connected with her about the writing process. Here are her responses.

What inspired you to write The Night Mr. Li Won Jeopardy?

I was born in Beijing and moved to Miami when I was a child, where I grew up in a Chinese community. Potluck dinners and late-night poker games were frequent occurrences as people tried to create a “big family” to replace the ones they had lost. Naturally, my childhood provided me the material for this story, though the characters and plot are semi-fictionalized. I wanted to capture both the lively group dynamic of immigrant life and the hidden loneliness of the individual immigrant experience through a young girl’s perspective.

What was the greatest challenge in writing it?

Reimagining parts of my childhood proved to be an immensely difficult task–first, I had to remember how certain foods tasted, how people dressed, and how they spoke to each other. Next, I had to transform those sensory impressions into a legible storyline. Also, since the story is semi-autobiographical, I worried about revealing too much about my own family and our vulnerabilities. But finally I decided to go ahead and risk publication.

How do you balance writing and your other commitments?

I’m currently pursuing my PhD in English at Stanford, where I am in the fortunate position of being able to structure most of my own time. I try to write in the mornings before classes. Every day, I wake up feeling incredibly privileged to be able to read, write, and think with no constraints on my intellectual or personal freedom. Despite the struggles that my family went through, I know that we ultimately made the right decision by moving to the US.

Return to the October 2015 Issue

The Night Mr. Li Won Jeopardy

The Night Mr. Li Won Jeopardy

The-new-Chinese-style-modern-Chinese-palace-lantern-carving-ornate-chandeliers-sheepskin-lamp-lights-work-lights copyBy Mai Wang

Jing Jing was lying on the couch when she heard the scream. Mama had invited some friends over for Sunday night poker, and Jing Jing was stuck at home listening to the adults fight between the highs and lows of their game. Now Jing Jing pressed her hands to her ears. The scream sounded a bit like a wolf’s howl, one of the American wolves Mama always warned her about. Better stay inside, Mama liked to say in Chinese, in this country animals eat the kids who play outside. Jing Jing looked over at the adults and almost rolled off the couch. It was her mother who had screamed. Now the other adults sat with their cards lying face down on the table and their cups full of cooling tea. Their eyes were all fixed on the Year of the Tiger calendar hanging from the wall. Her mother threw her cards on the table, and that’s when Jing Jing knew she had lost the round.

Mama noticed her and glared.

“Aren’t you supposed to be in bed?” she asked. Jing Jing’s 10 pm curfew hadn’t changed for years, even though she had just turned twelve. Luckily, Mama was more forgetful on poker nights.

“It’s too loud, Mama,” Jing Jing said. Her mother could be scary, but nowhere as scary as her father got when he was in a bad mood. “I can hear it through the wall.”

Every Sunday, Jing Jing used the same excuse to stay on the couch instead of going to the bedroom where her father was asleep. She hated poker, but what she hated more was the cramped bed she shared with her parents. She slept in a dip between their two pillows, and every night she tried to edge away from her father’s side. When her father slept he made loud whale sounds through his nose—they were even worse, Jing Jing thought, than the sound of his farts.

 On Sunday nights, her father went to bed early in order to get away from her mother’s guests. If he wanted to see so many Chinese people, he always complained, he could just go back to Beijing. Jing Jing wondered if all the men there were as noisy as her father, but she knew that asking him would earn her a kick in the butt or a slap in the face.

Jing Jing almost giggled at the way Mama looked now, as if someone had forced her to drink a bottle of dark rice vinegar. Mama was already gathering the cards and clearing the teacups off the table. She poured the remains of one teacup into another, and when the cups clinked together they made an angry sound. The way she was rushing, no one would ever guess it was her night off—she could have been back at Imperial Garden working the lunch crowd.

“Can’t play with someone watching me all the time,” Mama mumbled as she stacked the teacups in a tower. “Jing Jing, maybe your bad luck is infecting me tonight.”

The last thing Jing Jing wanted to hear was how she had ruined the game. Ever since Jing Jing chipped her tooth on a radiator at the age of three, Mama had been convinced that bad luck haunted her footsteps. None of the lucky amulets that Mama forced upon her—the red silk string, the fake gold rabbit, the jade lion—could stop Jing Jing from tripping on the stairs or skinning her knee on the sidewalk.

“Don’t blame me, Mama,” Jing Jing protested. “I haven’t done anything bad.”

She got up from the couch, filled with the sudden urge to gaze up at her mother’s sweaty face. Without the makeup Mama wears to work, Jing Jing realized, she looks a lot older. Jing Jing made her way over to the table, where the adults were sitting in a circle of her mother’s mismatched garage sale chairs.

“Let Jing Jing stay. She’s not bothering us,” Auntie Su said.

Looking at Auntie Su up close made Jing Jing feel funny. Auntie Su was much younger than her mother. She was wearing a pair of frayed jean shorts and a tight t-shirt that spelled out the word “Baby” in glittery letters and revealed a strip of her stomach. If Auntie Su were a student at Jing Jing’s school, she would get detention for violating the dress code.

“Come on, it’s still early, and I’m playing well,” Auntie Su insisted.

“Game’s over,” Mama said, shaking her head.

Maybe Mama was mad about losing the round to Auntie Su, but no one seemed to notice. The women made no move to pick up their purses, and the men were still ashing their cigarettes into a chipped bowl.

“I might as well tell everyone while you’re still here,” Mama said. She paused and started fanning herself with a card. The small breeze she created stirred the stray hairs framing her face. Some part of her was always moving, even when she was standing still.

“Boss says I have to work the Sunday dinner shift starting next week,” Mama announced. “No more poker night for me.”

“Wait a minute. What are we going to do on Sundays?” Auntie Su said. “Without you, Mrs. Zhao, there’s no game.”

Mama shrugged and returned the cards to their cardboard box. “At least this way I can earn back the money I lost to you tonight,” she told Auntie Su.

“That’s pocket change,” Auntie Su said. “Come on, sit down and we’ll play one more round. You might win it all back.”

“No can do, it’s closing time,” Mama joked in English, repeating the favorite line she gave to customers who arrived a minute too late at Imperial Garden and demanded a table. She yawned as she looked at her guests.

“I feel like an old grandma,” Mama said, switching to Chinese. “Why did you all let me play for so long?”

The Chinese residents of the Big Yard called Mama “Lucky Hands” because she drew the winning hand in their late night poker games week after week. Mama always encouraged her guests to stay until they could barely tell a jack from an ace. She liked to keep them hostage with pleas of “one more round” until the watermelon seeds were gone and the tea was cold. She didn’t let them go until she had won enough coins to pay for a week’s worth of laundry tokens and Fantasy 5 lottery tickets.

Tonight, though, Mama’s full house had been beaten out by Auntie Su’s straight flush in the last round. The adults tallied the score as they gathered their belongings. It was the first time Mama had lost a poker game since anyone could remember, and Jing Jing heard the adults whisper that her luck had run out.

They were all traitors, Jing Jing decided, and Auntie Su was the worst one of all. Suddenly it occurred to Jing Jing that Auntie Su might have cheated. Jing Jing stared at Auntie Su to see if she could find out the truth.

Auntie Su had come to America to become an engineer, though she didn’t look like one. She was the only woman Jing Jing knew who wore mascara and red lipstick every time she left home. Jing Jing had listened to her mother gossip about Auntie Su over the phone, how all the bachelors in the Big Yard wished she didn’t have a husband back in China so they could marry her instead. “Makes you want to be her age again, doesn’t it?” Mama had joked. Still, Jing Jing thought, her mother was much prettier if you took Auntie Su’s ugly perm into account.

Jing Jing circled around the table and stopped next to Auntie Su.

“How much money did you win?” she whispered in Auntie Su’s ear.

Auntie Su counted her stacks of quarters one by one.

“$20.75,” she said. “Not bad for my first time winning.”

“Wow!” Jing Jing said. “That’s a lot.” Unlike her friends at school, Jing Jing didn’t get an allowance. Twenty dollars and seventy-five cents was more money than she had ever handled at one time.

“Do you know what you want to buy with your money?” Jing Jing asked.

“Maybe I should deposit them in the bank,” Auntie Su said. “What do you think?”

Jing Jing didn’t answer Auntie Su. She wondered how much money her parents had in their bank account. She had seen them fight often enough to know it couldn’t be much. Mama kept a cash box under the bed to store her tips, and Baba had taken money from it to buy a TV from the pawnshop down the street. To this day, Mama still refuses to watch the TV. “Your father has yet to earn back the money he wasted on that thing,” she told Jing Jing.

Mama was still in the kitchen rinsing the last of the teacups clean. Jing Jing was ready to join her when the bedroom door opened.

Baba stood in the doorway without his glasses on. Sleep had shrunk his eyes into small red beads, and he wore a thin undershirt covered with old stains. Jing Jing wished she could grab his moth-eaten robe from the bathroom and throw it over his shoulders.

Auntie Su was re-counting her coins and didn’t notice Jing Jing’s father. The other adults waved to him, but no one asked him to join them. Everyone knew he didn’t like guests and never played cards. Now he noticed Jing Jing hovering by the table and glared.

“Don’t you have school tomorrow?” he said.

“School just ended, Baba,” she said. “I already told you it’s summer break.”

“In China, kids never talk back to their elders,” he replied. “Everyone knows that.” His eyes scanned the room. “Isn’t that right, Mrs. Su?”

Auntie Su glanced up from her quarters. “Yes, that’s true,” she said.

Baba cleared his throat and straightened his shoulders. His hands fell down to his sides, and he kept standing there and staring at Auntie Su even once she turned her attention back to her coins. An absentminded look grew on his face. It was the same look he had when he was watching a TV show he really enjoyed.

Jing Jing was relieved when Baba returned to the bedroom. She vowed not to tell Mama that he had appeared in his underwear in front of all the guests. Her parents were already arguing too much these days. Late at night, after they thought she was asleep, they would hiss back and forth about the prospects of a job—any job—for her father. He was always promising that a new job was right around the corner, but nothing ever seemed to turn up. Mama told Jing Jing that Baba had been a big, important professor back in Beijing—that was why she had married him in the first place—but now she couldn’t rely on him to earn a single cent. Her father blamed his poor English as the reason he had dropped out of his PhD program. Her mother called it an excuse, and Jing Jing secretly agreed. If he could watch people talking in English on TV, then he could learn how to read, write, and speak it too.

Poker Chips

Now Auntie Su was staring at the spot in front of the closed door where Baba had stood. There was a filmy look clouding the strange woman’s face. For some reason her eyes made Jing Jing think of a cold, dead fish.

That night seemed to go on forever. By the time the other guests were gone, Jing Jing was half asleep on the couch, and Auntie Su was sitting alone at the table. Jing Jing wondered why she did not go home when she only lived four doors down in Unit 1C. The buzz of voices had been replaced by the static of running water. Finally, Mama emerged from the kitchen, drying her hands on a towel.

Auntie Su got up and apologized for staying so late.

“Don’t be so polite,” Mama said. “Won’t you keep us company for a little longer?”

“I should get going,” Auntie Su said. “But I was admiring what a nice apartment you have. Such a big TV.” Auntie Su laughed. “And you have the best poker table in the Big Yard. So round and sturdy. I wish you wouldn’t cancel the games.”

Mama had selected the wooden table from a garage sale in Kendall Lake. If they couldn’t live in a nice neighborhood, she often said, at least they could buy rich people’s old furniture. Baba only asked why they had to keep other people’s junk.

“I was wondering if we could still play poker here on Sunday nights,” Auntie Su said. “No trouble for you, of course. I can be the hostess and clean up the mess afterwards. Your husband will appreciate that, I bet.”

“My husband never notices when I clean up,” Mama said. “So I doubt he’ll care if anyone else does it.”

“He’s like all men,” Auntie Su said. “But I’m sure he wouldn’t mind if we kept meeting here. I mean, I’m not suggesting that you owe us anything.”

The smile on Mama’s face trembled. Saving face was even more important to her than saving money.

“You can’t have your games here,” Jing Jing started to tell Mrs. Su, but she stopped talking when Mama gave her a look.

“Now that you mention it,” Mama said in her best hostess voice. “I don’t see why you can’t meet here without me.”

Mrs. Su clasped her hands together and thanked Mama.

“Jing Jing here will help you clear off the table. Isn’t that right, Jing Jing?” Mama asked.

Jing Jing wanted to whimper, but for her mother’s sake she remained silent.

After Auntie Su left, Jing Jing lay in bed between her parents and thought of all the things she could buy with twenty dollars and seventy-five cents. Finally, she decided she would get twenty Fantasy 5 tickets from the nice Cuban man who ran the corner convenience store. He would sell them to her as long she told him they were for Mama. You had a better chance of winning the Fantasy 5 lottery, Mama always said, because they only picked five numbers instead of six. Sure, the jackpot was smaller than the regular lottery, but who needed millions anyway? Fifty or a hundred thousand dollars would pay their rent for years, even if Baba continued to do nothing. Whenever Jing Jing heard her mother’s complaints she felt guilty, as if she was the one who should be working to make money.

If she ever won the lottery, Jing Jing decided, she wouldn’t just pay the rent—she would take her family out of the Big Yard. Of course, the Big Yard wasn’t its real name. In English, their complex was called the Villas of Dadeland, though that name was also a lie. Villas, she had learned in school, were supposed to be Spanish mansions, not old apartment buildings covered in peeling paint. Ever since her family moved from China, they had occupied a one-bedroom on the bottom floor of Building A. Jing Jing wanted to move out and buy an enormous house in Kendall Lake where she would have a top-floor room all to herself.

Baba was snoring even louder than usual. Jing Jing fidgeted, and the rustle of the blanket caused Mama to turn over.

“What are you doing?” Mama whispered.

“Baba is too loud,” Jing Jing said. “I can’t fall asleep.”

Mama stroked her hair. Jing Jing forgot to be mad about her agreement with Auntie Su.

“I thought I had an unbeatable hand tonight,” Mama whispered. “I haven’t played so badly in years.”

“Don’t worry,” Jing Jing said. “Auntie Su probably switched her cards with yours when you weren’t looking.”

“She wouldn’t do that,” her mother said. “She’s pushy, but she’s not a cheater. It’s just too bad all the luck went to her and not me.”

Mama sighed and turned away. Jing Jing wondered if she had said something wrong, but before she could ask Mama had fallen asleep.

The next morning, Jing Jing woke up to the sound of her parents fighting in the living room.

“What kind of woman invites her friends to come over and play cards when she’s at work?” Baba asked.

“A woman like me,” Mama said. “And if you don’t want to be here, you can leave.”

Jing Jing jumped out of bed and cracked the door open. The bowls of rice porridge on the table had gone untouched. Her parents stopped talking when they saw her.

“Why are you standing there?” Mama said. “Come eat.”

Jing Jing shook her head and closed the door again. She wasn’t feeling hungry.

At work, Mama carried plates of sesame chicken and deluxe pu-pu platters to the American people who ate at Imperial Garden. When a customer was mean and asked for no-salt, no-oil in a dish, she delighted in the fact that they were ordering Fake Chinese Food without knowing it. “We save the good stuff for ourselves,” she liked to tell Jing Jing as she slipped her an almond cookie or a sesame ball she’d smuggled home. The stolen treats were one of the few perks of her job.

The day after losing to Auntie Su, Mama came home late after a double shift. “That stinky boss,” she said as she shut the door. “He’s going to work us to death.”

She sat down in a saggy wicker chair and untucked her crumpled white uniform shirt. She had a dozen shirts like it hanging in the closet, and all of them needed mending. This one was missing several buttons.

“Was it busy tonight, Mama?” Jing Jing said.

The dining room of Imperial Garden was an exciting place to Jing Jing. It had a tank full of goldfish and a fat Buddha statue. Lots of rich-looking people sat in booths drinking watered-down tea. Her mother had taken her to work on summer afternoons when she was little, but now Jing Jing was too big to play in the restaurant. That day, she had stayed at home with Baba.

“Yes, it was busy,” Mama said. “I made good tips. See?” Mama pulled out a wad of dollar bills from her purse and unfolded them to reveal a brand new Fantasy 5 ticket. “I couldn’t help it,” she whispered.

“What did you feed Jing Jing for dinner?” Mama asked Baba.

Baba didn’t reply. He kept his eyes on the TV. Every night, he watched game shows and played along with the contestants. He was learning English on a schedule of his own, he said, no teachers required. He liked Wheel of Fortune and The Price is Right, but Jeopardy was his favorite. Baba leaned forward as Alex Trebek asked for the name of an exotic sports car for $200.

Mama shook her head.

“Do you want me to cook something?” she asked Jing Jing.

“No,” Jing Jing said. She was about to explain that she was full when Mama noticed the plate of white buns on the table.

“What’s this?” Mama asked.

Jing Jing couldn’t answer. She had suddenly lost her voice.

Mama repeated her question loudly, and Baba looked up as a commercial break began.

“Oh, that?” he said as if seeing the buns for the first time. “Mrs. Su dropped those off. These buns are one of her specialties. You could stand to take a few cooking lessons from her.”

To Jing Jing’s surprise, Mama smiled and reached for a bun.

“That woman knew it was her turn to pay me back,” Mama said.

When Sunday came around again, the sound of the vacuum woke Jing Jing up. She went into the living room to find Mama pointing the nozzle at the space beneath the couch.

“Go get me a wet rag from the kitchen,” Mama said when she saw Jing Jing. “I have to be at work in an hour.”

When Jing Jing returned with the rag, Mama set down the vacuum and started wiping the table.

“Remember to be good tonight,” she said. “Don’t give Auntie Su a hard time, okay?”

Jing Jing nodded, but she was crossing her fingers behind her back.

After Mama left for work, Jing Jing waited for the adults to arrive. She didn’t want to be alone with Baba anymore. He wasn’t acting like himself. His hair was slicked down and parted to the side. He had stationed himself in front of the TV, and he got up and went to the bathroom to check his reflection every few minutes.

Someone finally knocked around dinnertime.

“I’ll get it!” Jing Jing yelled, but Baba was already in the hallway.

He opened the door to reveal Auntie Su. She was wearing a pink halter dress that made her look like a sick flamingo and carrying a stack of Tupperware.

“I thought I’d come over a little early,” Auntie Su said. “I wanted to see if you guys cared to try some of my other dishes. How did you like those buns, Jing Jing?”

Jing Jing shrugged. They’d been delicious, but she wasn’t about to admit it.

“Mr. Li, you didn’t let Jing Jing try my sweet bean buns?” Auntie Su said. She hit Baba on the shoulder, and for a second Jing Jing thought he would get mad.

Instead, Baba laughed and rubbed his belly. “I wanted to eat them all. My wife lets me go hungry these days.”

“Is that so? You do look thin.” Auntie Su pretended to examine his belly. “I’ll make sure both of you eat well tonight.”

She smiled at Baba, and he smiled back. Jing Jing couldn’t remember the last

time she had seen him so happy.

Auntie Su set the containers on the table and lifted their lids. Jing Jing walked over and peeked at them. There was sweet lotus root cooked with vinegar, pork ribs covered with black bean sauce, and a whole fish steamed with scallions and ginger. Auntie Su must have spent all her poker winnings on the ingredients.

“Eat up,” Auntie Su told Jing Jing. “Your father seems to like my cooking well enough.”

The steam rising from the food made Jing Jing’s mouth water, but she didn’t want to eat in front of Auntie Su.

“Not right now,” Jing Jing said. “Maybe later.”

“Don’t worry about her,” Baba told Auntie Su as he grabbed a spare rib. “My daughter is too picky for her own good. I’m glad you like to play poker.”

“Only when I win. But be honest,” she said as she laid her hand on Baba’s arm. “I know you don’t want the game here tonight.”

“Nonsense,” her father replied as he chewed. “I’m glad you’re here.” Jing Jing suspected he was telling the truth. He seemed to like Auntie Su a lot, but Jing Jing didn’t know why she felt upset.

Baba kept chewing as he turned to Jing Jing. “Go find the cards,” he said. “I think your mother keeps them in the kitchen drawer.”

When Jing Jing came back with the deck of cards, she found Auntie Su replacing the lids on the containers.

“Your father said he was full,” Auntie Su said. “And since you’re not hungry, I thought I’d take the leftovers home.”

That night the guests trickled in as Auntie Su’s leftovers cooled in the fridge. For the first time, Jing Jing took a seat at the table, and no one shooed her away. Baba also remained in the room. His presence kept everyone else silent. He was watching TV again, and his eyes would occasionally wander over to the game.

Halfway through the first round, Jing Jing saw Baba exchange a long glance with Auntie Su. What was going on between them?

“Can I play too?” Jing Jing asked.

“You’re too young to gamble,” Auntie Su said as she glanced away from Baba. “Besides, you have to learn the rules first.”

Jing Jing wanted to say that she knew the rules better than Auntie Su. She scanned the faces gathered around the table. Uncle Cai laid down two queens. Auntie Chen selected a nine, ten, and jack of diamonds from her deck. Next, it was Auntie Su’s turn to reveal her hand.

“Three of a kind!” Auntie Su shrieked as she laid three aces on the table. “Beat that,” she added.

If Mama were here, Jing Jing thought, she’d be peeling oranges and refilling everyone’s teacups, but Auntie Su was too busy bragging to bother.

Jing Jing looked over at the couch to see if Baba was paying attention. She was relieved to find him watching Jeopardy. Alex Trebek announced that the category was Famous Buildings.

This 183 foot tall building was originally planned to stand vertically.

Baba looked stumped, but the contestant beeped long before the time ran out.

What is the Leaning Tower of Pisa?

That is correct, said Alex Trebek.

Back at the table, the game was dragging on. When her three aces won, Auntie Su had the chance to take another turn.

“You guys are no fun tonight,” Auntie Su said as she picked up three new cards. Then she grinned.

“Straight flush!” Auntie Su announced. “I have my good luck charm here with me tonight.” She reached across the table and pinched Jing Jing’s cheek. “Isn’t that right, Jing Jing?”

Jing Jing twisted away before Auntie Su could pinch her again. Why couldn’t this woman just leave her alone? Jing Jing looked back at the TV.

Famous Buildings was going for $200.

This New York skyscraper was the tallest building in the world until it was surpassed one year after its completion in 1930.

Her father remained silent.

What is the Chrysler Building? the contestant fired back.

That is correct, said Alex Trebek.

Meanwhile, the poker game had stalled. Though everyone else still had a full hand of cards, all the quarters were already stacked in front of Auntie Su.

“That’s it,” Auntie Su announced. She didn’t seem so happy about her straight flush anymore. “There’s no point in playing another round. I guess I’m the winner for tonight.”

Everyone nodded and threw down their cards. They looked relieved that the game was over.

“Well, let’s clean up,” Auntie Su said. Now she looked annoyed. “Jing Jing will tell us where everything is supposed to go.”

As Jing Jing helped Auntie Su collect the cards, she snuck looks at the Jeopardy game. Famous Buildings remained the category of choice until the $500 answer was the only one left.

This site once saw the violent removal of Chinese emperor Pu-yi.

“What is the Great Wall?” the contestant said.

Go pi!” Baba cursed. Jing Jing thought that a “dog fart” sounded much worse in Chinese than in English. “What. Is. Forbidden. City!”

The correct answer is: What is the Forbidden City? said Alex Trebek.

Baba’s moan made everyone turn around and stare.

“Did you see that?” Baba asked. He shook his head and ran a hand through his hair. “These people are so stupid. I should be the one on TV. I just won. Can you believe it?”

Jing Jing didn’t tell Baba that you had to get more than one question right to win Jeopardy. She knew he wouldn’t have listened.

When no one answered his question, Baba looked around the room. His eyes finally rested on Auntie Su. He stood up from the couch and walked over to the table. Auntie Su was sweeping the quarters into her purse, but she stopped when he grabbed her wrist.

“Did you hear what I said?” Baba said. “I just won.”

Jing Jing decided she wouldn’t tell Mama too much about tonight’s game.

Auntie Su let Baba hold onto her wrist for a minute, then loosened herself from his grip.

“Well, I guess we both won tonight,” Auntie Su said. She shut her purse and began walking towards the front door. “Too bad we’re still not rich.”

Jing Jing stayed up late that night waiting for the Fantasy 5 drawing to be broadcast live on TV. The guests were gone, and Baba was already asleep. Mama wasn’t home yet, and Jing Jing didn’t have the latest lottery ticket in hand, but she knew what numbers her mother always played. The winning numbers just might be a match. She could see it now: the look of surprise on Mama’s face when she gave her the slip of paper with those lucky numbers. How happy Mama would be when they were receiving the giant check on TV.

Right before the 11 o’clock news, the drawing began. Jing Jing scooted closer to the TV and turned up the volume. On screen, an American man who looked a lot like Alex Trebek stood behind a glass case where a lot of painted balls were bouncing. “Welcome to tonight’s Fantasy 5 drawing,” the man said. He turned a giant key that made the balls move up and down even faster. “And the winning numbers are…” Jing Jing crossed her fingers. She watched as the balls began to slow down and reveal their numbers. Any second now her luck was going to turn around. Tonight was going to be the night.

About the Author: Mai Wang is a writer currently pursuing her PhD in English at Stanford. This is her first published story. Her nonfiction has been featured in publications such as The Billfold, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Upstreet Magazine.

Return to the October Issue


Fiction: Losing Hart

Fiction: Losing Hart

sing Hart ART

By Hannah Thurman

When Brenden calls the hotel, a waiter brings Kelly the phone on a Mickey Mouse platter. She and Hart are alone in the restaurant, drinking orange juice out of champagne flutes. It’s not quite five in the morning but it’s already hot. Across the lobby, automatic doors open every few minutes to let in monorail trains, and in with them comes the humid Orlando air.

“Is everything okay?” she asks her ex-husband. “Why didn’t you call my cell?”

“You didn’t pick up,” he says. “And this is important.”

“Sorry,” she says. “I couldn’t hear it buzz.”

Brenden’s usually even tone sounds a little rushed. “Hey, can I talk to Hart?”

“What about?”

“I’d rather tell her first.”

Kelly hands the receiver to her daughter without saying goodbye. “It’s Daddy.”

Hart takes the phone. “Hi! Yeah, I remember. That’s great. Wow. Yeah, probably. Okay, I’ll tell her. Bye.” She presses a button on the phone and sets it down on the table. “Daddy says he e-mailed my portfolio to the art teacher at Phillips. She really liked it. She said if I decide to go there, I can go straight into seventh-grade drawing.”

“That’s really great,” Kelly says. “It was nice of your father to get up so early to tell you.” But to her, the timing seems calculated. Hart has lived in DC with her for the past four years, but at the end of fifth grade, Brenden got her an interview at a private middle school near his house in Fairfax. Just to see, he’d said. But since she’d gotten in, he’d lobbied hard, sending Hart video clips of the ecology club, skiing field trips, and a remarkable rendition of Anything Goes. Now this. But she wasn’t going to give up without a fight. She couldn’t compete with Phillips’s appeal on academic grounds—Hart had gotten none of her charter picks and would otherwise have to attend Kennedy, the underfunded, overcrowded public school nearby—so she had arranged this trip. She knew it was a low blow, the kind of one-upsmanship they’d promised to avoid. But if Hart chose Phillips, she was left with weekends and holidays and Hart was still so young.

She squeezes Hart’s arm. “You ready to go see Elsa? Do you need anything from the room?”

“Nope.” Hart slides off the seat and pulls a pair of white, wrist-length gloves from the back pocket of her shorts. “Got it.” She tugs on the gloves and flicks a crumb off her chair. “Let’s go.”

Kelly can’t resist. “Don’t you mean let it go?” she says.

Mom,” Hart says, “Please don’t embarrass me.” She shakes her head as she walks up the carpeted steps towards the monorail. Kelly’s tempted to start singing, or repeat the joke louder, but then remembers the mission at hand: show Hart how fun things can be if she chooses to stay with her. So she puts her hands in her pockets and follows her daughter silently a few paces behind.

The sea-foam green train that comes is empty, but two mothers get in at the stop for the next hotel. Their daughters are younger than Hart, seven or eight, and are both wearing blue polyester princess dresses. One of the mothers waves at Hart. “I love your gloves, honey. They’re just like Elsa’s.” She slurps at her drink, a beige-colored coffee topped with a mountain of foam and drizzled chocolate. Kelly smiles tersely. Five days a week, she lobbies for a nonprofit that promotes conservation and healthy eating. Disney seems diametrically opposed to both of these aims, and Kelly imagines the Florida landfills are packed with coffee cups like this one, ripped princess dresses, and discarded mouse hats.

Hart examines her gloves. “Thank you,” she says after a moment. “They don’t sell them at the Disney store so I bought them online. They’re for people who bite their fingernails. I don’t bite my fingernails though; they’re just a costume.”

The two women cackle. “She’s too stinking funny,” one says.

Kelly tries not to groan. The women are wearing little gold crosses on top of their pastel t-shirts. Homeschoolers, probably. Religious nuts. She puts her arm around Hart. “So do you think we’re here early enough?” she says.

One of the women yawns. “Our bellhop told us some moms left before four. But I couldn’t. I just couldn’t.”

The monorail slows into a nearly empty station. Another woman gets on, carrying a sleeping girl wearing a snowflake nightgown.

“Oh, my lord,” the two moms say, turning away from Kelly and Hart. “What an angel. An absolute angel.”

When they’re not looking, Kelly whispers in Hart’s ear. “Take off your gloves, sweetie. I’m gonna need you to use your powers to freeze their vocal chords.”

Hart rolls her eyes. “Mom,” she says again.

“I’m only joking,” Kelly says.

“I know.” Hart turns to look out the window and Kelly folds her own hands in her lap. She suspects Hart frequently pretends to be Elsa, the Disney princess who can conjure snow from her fingertips and freeze water with a touch. But whenever Kelly mentions the playacting, Hart scoffs. Pretend is for babies and she’s almost eleven. She likes Frozen because it has good music and because she wants to be an animator when she grows up. But she still wears the gloves almost everywhere they go, and Kelly wonders who Hart would encase in ice if she could.

When they’re not looking, Kelly whispers, “Take off your gloves, sweetie. I’m gonna need you to use your powers to freeze their vocal chords.”


The monorail glides around a bend and the park appears, bright as a cartoon. Rollercoaster tracks loop behind the castle, which stands uninterrupted against the pale sky. Kelly checks her phone. It’s 5:27. The park won’t open for two and a half hours, but there’s already a line forming against the front gate. The monorail slows.

The doors hiss open and they spring through them, past the rows of stanchions ready for the morning rush, then down the concrete steps to the park entrance. Their footfalls echo across the wide expanse and for a moment, it feels as if they are the only people left in a deserted world. They slow down at the ticket-takers and present their purple wristbands.

“All right, you can go,” the ticket taker says and they run the last few steps towards the line.

The line is less of a line and more of a mass of people, almost all female, pressing towards the enormous gold gates. Kelly and Hart take a spot between an Asian woman with twin girls and a bored-looking teenager in track shoes. When he looks away, Hart whispers in Kelly’s ear that he must be a runner. Apparently some parents have been paying locals to wait in line for them. Once Kelly heard about this, the whole activity seemed even more revolting. Rich, lazy people will always find a way to come out ahead.

Hart asks for Kelly’s phone to look up Frozen facts. There’s an almost unending supply of them online, and through Hart’s recitation, Kelly has learned that Elsa has been the most popular Disney attraction for over sixteen weeks.

“Did you know Elsa is the first Disney princess not to be a teenager?” Hart says, twisting her thumb out of the glove so she can scroll down the screen. “She’s 21. And she’s only the second princess to have magical powers.”

“What about Cinderella?” Kelly asks.

“No, that was all the fairy godmother, remember?”

“Oh yeah.” While Kelly doesn’t mind Elsa as a character, she’s disheartened by Hart’s sudden obsession with princesses. They seem for the most part vapid and anti-feminist.

“Elsa was originally going to have spiky hair. The first time they wrote the movie, she was going to be the villain,” Hart says.

One of the girls in front of them, a chubby redhead who looks like she’s about nine, says, “That’s not true. Elsa’s always been good!”

Hart sighs. “In the final version, she’s good. But when they were writing it, the authors were thinking about making her evil. They rewrote it four times.”

The girl crosses her arms. “You’re wrong. Elsa’s good. That’s why she’s my favorite.”

Hart addresses her with a patient tone. “She’s my favorite too, but it says so right here on Buzzfeed.”

“I’m not allowed to go to that site. It’s for the devil. You’re going to Hell.”

Kelly taps the girl’s mom on the shoulder. She is broad and permed and engrossed in something large-print on her Kindle. “Excuse me,” Kelly says. “Your daughter just told mine she was going to Hell.”

The woman yawns and does not cover her mouth.

“I said probably,” Devil girl says.

“Settle down, Kasey,” the woman says.

“Could you please get her to apologize?” Kelly says. “That hurts my daughter’s feelings.”

“No, it doesn’t,” Hart says.

“Looks like it doesn’t,” Devil girl’s mother says, turning away.

“Of course it did,” Kelly says. “Now I’d love it if you could ask your kid to say she’s sorry.”

“Mom,” Hart says. “Stop it, please.”

Kelly grits her teeth and backs away. These people are exactly why she hates Disneyworld. The mom probably eats meat three times a day, drives an SUV, and votes a straight Republican ticket if she votes at all. They’re the sorts of people she imagines send their kids to school at Phillips, although this woman looks like she’s spent about a semester’s tuition on Coach products alone. Kelly is counting the linked C’s on her massive purse when Hart taps her on the arm.

“You have a text from dad,” she says, handing her the phone. “I didn’t read it.”

“Thanks, sweetie.” Kelly takes the phone from her and opens the message.

Dear Kelly, it begins. For a VP of software, Brenden’s never mastered the etiquette of texting. I hope you are having a good time at Disney. It would be great if you could confirm if Hart wants to go to Phillips TODAY. If we want to lock in that art class, they need an answer tonight. There’s other people on the waiting list. I’ll call you later this evening. Hope you are having a great time. Brenden.

“What’s he say?” Hart says.

Kelly pauses. “He says he wants us to have a great time.”

“That’s a long text,” Hart says, but Kelly quickly deletes it. “Is daddy going to meet us at the airport? If so, you should see his new car. It has a talking GPS and last time I asked it to find my butt.” She imitates the Siri voice. “I’m sorry, I can’t locate ‘my butt’ nearby.”

Kelly smiles. “Maybe. Do you like it better than riding the metro?”

“The metro smells,” Hart says and Kelly looks away. When Hart was younger, she used to love riding trains. She’d always beg Kelly to be allowed to yell up at the arched ceiling of the stations, giggling when she heard her own voice echo back to her. It makes Kelly’s stomach sink to discover she can’t remember when Hart stopped doing this.

A few feet away, a man in a striped shirt is selling a tray full of drinks with purple straws. Kelly’s eager to switch the subject, so she waves to him. “You want a drink?” she asks Hart.

“Really?” Hart says.

Kelly hands the man a twenty. He gives her back four ones—the waste!—and an enormous plastic cup printed with hologrammed snowflakes. Kelly takes a sip before handing it to her daughter. The lemonade is the consistency of a slurpie and twice as sweet. Kelly rarely lets Hart have anything this processed, but she hands the cup to Hart anyway.

“Thank you!” Hart says, wrapping both gloved hands around it. “Oh my gosh, this is so good.” She giggles. “They should call it Frozen-frozen lemonade!”

Kelly laughs, feeling the anxiety subsiding. She checks the time. Just one more hour. She does not reply to Brenden’s text and puts her phone back in her pocket.

The sun rises higher over the castle and everyone begins to sweat, the air smelling like coconut sunscreen. More people arrive by the minute, and it’s clear they’re not Frozen folk, just families who want to be in and out before noon. Most of them have children in jogging strollers. Kelly remembers when Hart was that small and it doesn’t seem like so long ago, like the year before last, but that’s not true, Hart’s almost a teenager. A few more years and she’ll be gone for good. She watches her daughter suck frozen lemonade through the thick straw, and promises herself once again that she’ll do whatever it takes.

“Good lemonade?” she asks.

“Yeah,” Hart says.

Kelly is about to ask if she wants a snack, maybe they sell Elsa enchiladas or snowmen-shaped cinnamon rolls, but a hush falls over the crowd and she turns to see what everyone’s looking at. Staff members in Mickey Mouse ears have begun making their way to the gate. Remember, no pushing, they say. Remember, no pushing. Despite their warnings, the crowd begins pressing towards the gate, condensing into a solid mass of bodies. Sweaty arms keep brushing up against Kelly and she pulls Hart in front of her.

“Are you okay?” Kelly says.

“Yeah,” Hart says, “Can I have your phone again?”

Kelly has to elbow someone just to reach into her pocket. She hands the phone back to Hart.

It’s 7:45, 7:47, 7:50. The little girl next to them begins to cry. When her mother picks her up and wades back through the crowd, Kelly can breathe for just a moment, then people step forward to fill the space and she’s surrounded again. Her heart rattles. She feels like a cow bound for slaughter. She squeezes Hart’s shoulders until Hart tells her to stop.

“Are you okay?” Kelly asks.

“I’m fine,” Hart says. “Are you okay?”

Kelly has never liked crowds and the hot thick air reminds her of a story she heard once about a woman who fell down a stream-filled manhole. When paramedics pulled her out, her skin was loose and red like a cooked lobster’s. But they’re so close. She stands on her tiptoes to suck in a breath of untainted air.

A countdown starts echoing through the crowd. It grows louder and faster as people chant: 51, 50, 49.

“You ready?” Kelly asks Hart. Hart doesn’t turn around but nods, clapping her gloved hands to the beat of the numbers.

35, 34, 33.

Kelly spots Devil girl a few feet away. She and her mother are both wearing hard plastic sandals. She hopes they get blisters. She wonders if Devil girl will cry when they aren’t first in line. Thinking about that calms her down a little.

11, 10, 9, 8.

The gates begin to open, swinging inward on a grooved track. The staff members back into the park and move out of the way, smiles stretched across their faces.

4, 3, 2—

The first people begin running through the gates and the crowd lurches ahead. Kelly grabs Hart’s gloved hand and springs forward onto the pavement. The sun is hot already and Kelly feels sweat run down her neck as she and Hart race past the silent gift shops and empty green lawns. She does not look behind her, but she can hear the rumble of feet and wheels as everyone makes a beeline for the castle. Elsa’s appearance will take place on the left side stage, tucked into a stony alcove called “the chamber.”

Hart’s fingers feel hot through the gloves. A 20-something sprints past them, and Kelly feels a stab of jealousy. One more person in front of them. She pulls them both forward, purse flopping against her side.

The cobblestones end and they jog onto the painted asphalt that surrounds the castle, racing towards a flag that says “front of line.” An arrow points towards a roped-off area surrounded on two sides by artificial rocks. The sun reflects off the high castle windows, splashing Kelly with flashes of light and heat. Her mouth feels sticky from the lemonade.

With one last push, Hart and Kelly careen towards the flag. Only a handful of people stand there already, and they all look like they’re saving places for someone else—most have already gotten out cell phones, breathlessly saying they’ve made it.

“We made it!” Kelly says. She looks behind her as the line grows and grows. She can’t spot Devil girl or her mother anywhere. “Awesome job,” she says to Hart.

Hart nods, sucking deeply at her lemonade. “Those people in the back are going to be waiting for hours.”

“I believe it,” Kelly says. “Hey, do you think it’s the same actor who plays her all day?” She pauses. “Um—”

Hart shrugs. “I know she’s not real-real.”


Kelly wants to ask her what real-real means. Are there levels of realness that Hart believes in, stacking Santa versus angels versus the onstage persona of Taylor Swift? But it seems like a silly question and anyway they’re now distracted by the arrival of children who’ve come to replace the runners in front of them.

“Cheaters,” she whispers at Hart but just as she says that, a woman pushes up a girl in a wheelchair. “Okay, not her,” she says but Hart doesn’t smile. She’s got her eyes trained on the stage, where two men are setting up a cushioned throne and a microphone. They disappear into a door in the rock and Hart leans forward.

“Oh my gosh,” she whispers. The door reopens and out walks a tall, pale woman in a sequined dress. Her white-blonde hair is thick, twisted into a complicated braid laced with tiny sparkling things. She steps out onto the platform and Hart’s eyes grow big.

“Good morning,” Elsa says. “It is truly a magical day!” She clasps her hands. Kelly sees she is not wearing gloves, but that makes sense. She’s Elsa from the end of the movie, after she’s accepted her powers and stepped into her rightful role as queen. “My sister Anna told me I was here to meet my subjects, but she must’ve been mistaken. You aren’t subjects at all—you’re… princesses!”

Children begin to shriek. The girl in the wheelchair in front of them claps so hard she has to bend over.

“Thank you all so much for coming,” Elsa says. “I can’t wait to meet each and every one of you.” Then she replaces the microphone and sits down on the snowflake throne.

Kelly fans herself with her hand. Her cheeks feel hot and she can’t stop staring at the stage. Elsa’s skin is flawless, her mouth painted with perfect lines of red. When she blinks, her eyelashes actually sparkle.

“She’s so beautiful,” Kelly says, taking Hart’s hand.

Hart grins and grins. “I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it. I want them to take two pictures. One with just me, then one with you and me. Wait, three pictures and we can do one with a gap so we can Photoshop in daddy.”

Even this mention of Brenden doesn’t slow Kelly down. The excitement has overtaken her. She feels more centered than she does after hours of yoga. It’s embarrassing and silly but she doesn’t care. They’re about to meet a princess. She stares at Elsa’s white wrists, wondering if wearing sunscreen every day would make her skin half as soft. There must be some kind of laser that will peel off her epidermis until only princess skin remains. She’s imagining what a machine that does that would look like when she hears a familiar voice.

“God bless you,” it says. “You’re an angel.”

She turns around. Devil girl and her mother are squeezing into line behind them, and Kelly sees the woman they’ve cut folding a wad of bills into her wallet.

“Whoa,” Kelly says. “What are you doing?”

The mother smiles. “That’s none of your business.”

“You just paid that woman to get in line. That’s not fair.”

“Calm down,” the mother says. “We’re all going to the same place.”

“Yeah,” Kelly says. “But some of us got here first because we’re in shape.” She’s furious that they’re going to have to share space with these morons, that they’re ruining her moment with Elsa.

Hart grins and grins. “I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it. I want them to take two pictures. One with just me, then one with you and me. Wait, three pictures and we can do one with a gap so we can Photoshop in daddy.”


Hart tugs at Kelly’s arm. “Mom,” she says.

“What do you mean, ‘in shape’?” Devil girl’s mother moves towards Kelly. She is wearing rose-scented perfume that does not cover up the sour smell of sweat.

“I think it was pretty clear,” Kelly says. The mother lurches towards her but Kelly steps away. The line has begun to move so the disruption goes unoticed, everyone shuffling forward in fits and starts. Out of the corner of her eye, Kelly can see the first little girls approaching the throne.

Hart looks from Elsa to Kelly. “Don’t do anything, mom.”

The woman nods sharply towards Hart. “Looks like your daughter could teach you some manners.”

Kelly turns away to keep from slapping her. “Almost there,” she says. They are now right behind the photographer. Elsa poses with three little girls wearing matching pink baseball caps. Her dark eyes sparkle.

“Are you excited?” Kelly asks Hart, pushing them both as far forward as possible, away from the odious pair behind them. They are now second in line, watching the girl in the wheelchair roll ahead. Kelly and Hart both watch as Elsa bends down to hug her. “Looks like you’ve brought your own throne,” Elsa says.

“She’s perfect,” Hart breathes, but then Kelly hears a thick laugh. She whirls around and Devil girl’s mother is rolling her eyes.

“She’s perfect,” Devil girl mocks.

“No,” Hart says but before she can say anything else, Kelly snatches the cup of lemonade out of her hand. It’s heavy, still half full, and she yanks the lid off with one jerk. The girl in the wheelchair begins wheeling away and it’s their turn, they should be moving towards the throne but she’s struck, paralyzed by anger and the power she holds in the cup in her hand. Devil girl and her mother grin wide, flat suburban grins. Kelly cocks her arm back and hurls the contents of the cup into their pudgy faces.

Their reaction is immediate. Both lunge forward, clawing at Hart and Kelly with dripping fingers. The children around them shriek. Devil girl’s mother lets out a string of growling curses, flinging glops of frozen lemonade off her red face. Blood pounds through Kelly’s hands as she throws herself towards them.

The rest of the line moves back. Elsa gets out of the throne, moving quickly towards the back of the stage, then disappears through a metal door. Kelly sees the sparkling edge of her dress flash once, then it’s gone. She feels a tight grip on her arm. A man in a security jacket and mouse ears pulls her out of the line.

“Stay out! Stay out!” Devil girl’s mom shrieks but then another man appears and marches her away in the same direction. Hart and the other girl pause for a moment, faces white, then follow their mothers as they walk past the line and back towards the park entrance.

The guards do not speak. They lead the group down the Disney main street and out towards a plain door in the back of one of the pink buildings. Devil girl is crying loud sobs and in spite of all of this, Kelly wants to kick her. The guards pull them down a long gray hallway and turn at the end into what looks like a small conference room. Nothing is rounded, nothing is pastel. The only sign that they’re still in the park is faint Muzak coming through the walls, which is playing the theme from Beauty and the Beast.

“Why don’t you take a seat,” one of the guards says. The four slide into high-backed rolling chairs. The air feels very cold. Kelly looks at Hart. Hart looks away.

“We know waiting in line can be stressful, but your behavior out there was inappropriate,” the first one says.

“When you push and shove, you set a bad example for your families and for the park.”

“Excuse me,” Devil girl’s mother says. “We were just minding our own business. This lady poured her drink on me.”

Kelly snorts. “You were mocking us. You insulted my daughter.”

“Jeez, mom.” Hart puts her face in her hands. Her gloves are stained yellow from the lemonade. “I didn’t care what she was saying.”

“See?” Devil girl’s mother says. “Now please, let me and my kid back in that line.” She starts to stand up but one of the guards holds up a hand.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “But we have a zero tolerance policy for these kinds of incidents. You’re all banned from all Disney parks for the rest of the calendar year.”

“We’re going to need your wristbands,” the other guard says, pulling out a pair of long-handled scissors.

Devil girl’s mother sputters. “Are you crazy?” she keeps saying. “Do you know what we paid for this?”

“What about Epcot?” Kelly asks as the guard snips the band from her wrist.

He shakes his head. “You could do Seaworld, or Universal Studios. I’m sorry, I hate-hate doing this.”

Kelly wonders if hate-hate is the same as real-real. The guard’s face is sad and young, he’s probably closer to Hart’s age than to her own. She begins to feel a weight crushing down on her shoulders, back and neck. She has ruined everything.

“Sweetheart,” she says to Hart but Hart gets up. Kelly follows her to the door.

“Wait,” the nice guard says and they both turn. He walks towards them.

“Yes?” Kelly says. “What is it?”

“I need to escort you out.” He puts a hand on Hart’s shoulder. “Come on,” he says. “I’ll drop you off at the monorail entrance.”

Behind them, Kelly hears the other mother start to cry. “I want a refund,” she says. “It isn’t fair.”

The monorail back to the hotel is empty and cold. Sugar from the lemonade glues Kelly to her seat. Her throat is tight. “Hart,” she says again. “I’m so sorry.”

Hart flops her gloves back and forth in her hands.

“I’ll pay someone to wait tomorrow,” Kelly says. “We’ll put up your hair and they won’t recognize you, you can just find the runner and I’ll give you the money. I’ll buy you a new wristband.”

Hart shrugs.

“And today we can still go to Seaworld. Don’t you want to see a killer whale show?”

Hart finally speaks. “You always say it’s cruel to keep them in those tanks.”

Kelly pauses. “They’re already in there, how much more can it matter?”

Hart frowns at her. “I’m tired,” she says. “I don’t want to go anywhere.”

The monorail zips along in silence. It stops at the first hotel but they’re going the wrong way so no one gets on.

“Well,” Kelly says. “Since we’re not seeing Elsa, I may as well tell you, your dad wants you to decide about Phillips today. That art class sounds pretty cool, doesn’t it?”

“No,” Hart says. “It doesn’t.”

Kelly blinks. “What?”

“Daddy’s going to be mad but I don’t care. All my friends are going to Kennedy. And Phillips has to wear those stupid uniforms. And they don’t have dances. It’s retarded.”

Kelly unsticks herself from her seat and turns to face her daughter. She’s never heard Hart say that word. Or express any interest in dances. I should feel happy, she thinks. This is what I wanted.

“So you want to stay with me?” Kelly says. “You want to keep living in DC?”

Hart shrugs. “I want to go to Kennedy.”

“Wow,” Kelly says. “Wow.” She slides closer to Hart. “I’m so sorry about today,” she says again. “I was a little stressed out. I was worried you were going to leave me.”

Hart doesn’t say anything. She scratches at her cheek.

Kelly puts an arm around her. “I’ll make this up to you,” she says. “I promise.”

The doors open and Hart stands up. “It’s okay,” Hart says. “I don’t care. Frozen is for babies.”

They step down the carpeted steps of the hotel. Everything smells like chlorine and maple syrup. The doors close behind them and Kelly turns to see if they’ve left anything on the train. Through the wide, clean widows she sees Hart’s gloves on the seat, one folded over the other. She looks down and sees Hart staring too, but her daughter doesn’t say anything and with a whoosh like magic, the train doors close and the monorail begins to move away.


Hannah Thurman is a writer living in Brooklyn, NY. Her stories have been published in The Michigan Quarterly Review, The Brooklyn Rail, The Lifted Brow, and others. She is currently working on a collection of short stories that take place in and around airports.

Return to the September 2015 Issue

September 2015 Issue

September 2015 Issue

SEPT 15 Cover 2

Table of Contents


Editor’s Letter: New Beginnings


Essay: When We Were Two by Dorothy Rice

There’s no reliving those days when the clock stopped at midnight and I left my kids, now as old as I was then, to the care of others, while I pounded out analyses for legislation long forgotten or superseded, flew through the capitol’s hallowed halls as if I owned the place, bantered and bartered with a cast of characters who thought no more of me than I did of them. It was the price I believed I had to pay to get ahead.


Essay: Pieces of Him by Sara Tickanen

The nurse was still talking, but I hadn’t heard a word. “The pill that they put inside of you is basically telling your body that it’s time to go into labor. Your water should probably break soon, but if it doesn’t they will break it manually. Things will progress like normal labor… Our son was dead, but I still had to go through labor.


Feature: Postcards from the Sandwiched by Amy Yelin

I’ve been spending the last two years both helping my parents move out of their house while helping my exceedingly anxious 18-year-old daughter get her brain around that she’s going to college. We went to look at schools and she had a panic attack. It’s been a tough process. And I feel like I’m constantly bouncing from one anxiety-ridden thing to another.


Fiction: Losing Hart by Hannah Thurman

“Did you know Elsa is the first Disney princess not to be a teenager?” Hart says, twisting her thumb out of the glove so she can scroll down the screen. “She’s 21. And she’s only the second princess to have magical powers.”


Debate: Should Kids Have Homework in Elementary School?

NO! By Stephanie Sprenger

YES! By Sarah Rudell Beach


Nutshell: Oh, Nuts by Charlene Oldham

The simple answer is that we don’t definitively know why food allergy among children has risen at such a dramatic rate.


Poetry: In the Absence of My Son, By Christine Poreba


Poetry: How to Love Your Teenage Daughter by Jennifer L. Freed


Poetry: The Photograph by Laura Snell


Motherwit: Warts & All by Sharon Trumpy



Cover art: By LuLu Blaquiere

“The symbolism of elephants is magnificent and strong. I wanted to depict the special relationship between mother and child through this symbolism.”

Fiction: Silence

Fiction: Silence

WO Silence ARTBy Jennifer Palmer

Jocelyn settles onto the lumpy mattress, closes her eyes. Listens.

The faucet in the corner leaks, a forlorn plop sounding as each drop hits the tarnished sink. The ceiling fan, the lone luxury of the place, clicks with each rotation, keeping time with the beating of her heart. The thin walls do little to mask noise from outside: the cacophony of car horns, the crackle of tires, the dull roar of the freeway. The person upstairs rolls over in bed, the creak of worn-out box springs clearly audible. Next door, she can hear the sounds of playing, a little girl humming to herself.

A door crashes against the wall in the little girl’s room and Jocelyn jumps, then curls instinctively, protectively, around her middle, her face against her knees, her hands shielding her head. The humming stops, replaced by a masculine voice, its angry tone cutting through the girl’s protests. A slap, the sharp, sickening sound of flesh hitting flesh, then a dull thump. The child cries out, prompting more shouts from the man. The door slams shut. All that is left are whimpers, soft sobs, muffled gasps.

Jocelyn shakes on the floor for an eternity. Gradually, the tremors lessen, then still. She uncurls, her motions furtive, before she remembers where she is. She looks at the faucet, the fan, the window, marveling at her freedom, then reaches for the wall. Leaning close, she listens, but all is silent next door. Perhaps she imagined it. Surely that’s it.

She gets to her feet, washes her face in the basin, looks at herself in the cracked mirror. She shakes her head slightly, as though to rid her mind of some thought, some ghost, then hurriedly splashes water on her face. Time to get to work; she managed to land a job at the diner down on the corner, and her shift begins soon.

Hours later, she returns, her feet sore, her back tired, a dull ache behind her eyes. Hunger battles against nausea, and she nibbles some soda crackers pilfered from the waitress stand at work. Everything hurts. Waiting tables is a thankless job, but she has money in her pocket, a start towards rent and groceries and a life free of him, and so can tolerate all the rest.

Her bedtime routine is simple. She washes her face, brushes her teeth, crawls onto the bare mattress on the floor. She breathes deeply, willing herself to relax. She is safe.

She drifts toward sleep, but the nightmare one wall over repeats itself. The door crashing open. The angry voice. Slaps and thumps. A child’s cries. Again, she huddles on her side of the wall, shivering in mute solidarity with the girl next door.

When it is over, she reaches for her phone, hands shaking, then stops in terror. He is there, looming over her, fists upraised.

“Little whore! Who do you think you are? Just like your mother. Worthless.”

She shrinks into the corner. Her hand moves involuntarily to her stomach, rests there for a moment. She closes her eyes, inhales deeply, then picks up the phone. It takes her three tries to punch in the number. She whispers to him as it rings. “You’re not really here. I am free of you. You’re not really here.”

A voice on the other end of the line, kind, calm, asks about her emergency, waits patiently as she chokes out her story, encourages her to repeat herself, just a bit louder, please. She says the words for the girl next door that nobody ever said for her.

“He’s hurting her. Come save her. Please, before it’s too late.”

She sits alone in the dark and waits for what seems like hours before the siren echoes outside, before boots ricochet in the stairwell, before fists fall on the thin wood of her neighbor’s door.

“Police! Open up!”

Curses then, muttered threats, a door thrown wide. Muffled conversation—she can’t quite make out the words—but her neighbor grows more and more belligerent. His daughter begins to cry. The man shouts something about his rights and is met by the calm, firm response of the officer. The door slams; the girl’s sobs recede. Jocelyn rushes to the window, sees a uniformed man helping a small form into the back of a cruiser, and a small prayer whistles out from between her clenched teeth.

“Keep her safe. Please, keep her safe.”

She lies down, then, closes her eyes, feels the barest flutter, the hope of the future, in her womb. As the tears leak out from underneath her eyelids, she listens. The drip of the faucet. The click of the fan. The horns and the tires and the freeway. And beyond that: silence.

Jennifer Palmer worked as an electrical engineer until her daughter was born, but has always been a writer at heart. She now scribbles in her journal between diaper changes, composes prose in her head as she rocks a baby to sleep, and blogs about finding the beauty in everyday life at She lives with her husband and daughter in the forested foothills of the Sierra Nevadas in Northern California.

Fiction: Tenley’s Apology

Fiction: Tenley’s Apology

By Marie Anderson

Screen Shot 2015-02-15 at 9.45.04 AMMary is searching in the fridge for an unblemished apple for her daughter when she hears Tenley scream from upstairs. Mary sighs, finds a perfect apple, and drops it into Tenley’s lunch bag. “Mother!” Tenley shouts. “Come here! Hurry!”

Mary looks at the clock on the microwave. Her heart sinks. In thirty minutes, Tenley must leave for school. Already this morning, her fifteen-year-old daughter has had two crises. What new problem looms?

Menstrual cramps? A forgotten homework assignment absolutely due today? What problem might Tenley manufacture to avoid going to school? If she misses one more day this semester, they’ll have to get a doctor’s note to confirm illness. The school allows only seven parent-requested absences each semester.

*   *   *

Earlier this morning, Tenley had complained of swollen eyelids.

“Hot or cold cloths on eyes?” she’d asked Mary.

Tenley, slim and beautiful in just a tee shirt and shorts, was standing in front of the big mirror hanging in the hallway outside her bedroom.

Mary remembered how she and her husband had carefully carted the mirror home from T. J. Maxx, hung it, and then had fun in front of it. Sixteen years ago, when Mary was still young (thirty-six) and arrogantly confident. The mirror had witnessed Tenley’s beginning.

Mary stood next to her only child, gazed at their side-by-side reflections in the mirror. She saw the wrinkles and graying hair that she usually didn’t notice. The glow from Tenley’s smooth young body was a brutal spotlight.

“I don’t know what’s better for swollen eyelids,” Mary said, “but your eyelids look fine.”

“They’re not fine! Look at them! I can’t go to school looking like this! I hardly slept again last night. I’ve got insomnia, but you don’t care. I’ve been asking you and asking you to make a doctor’s appointment for me. I can’t sleep! I wake up tired! I need pills!”

“Your eyelids look fine,” Mary insisted. “But I’ll Google to find out if you should use hot or cold on them.”

“And I need a private tutor for ACT prep like all my friends have!”

“You don’t need a private tutor for the ACT. Have you even opened that book of practice tests I got you last month? Plus you’re signed up for those after-school prep classes your school offers for free. That starts soon, next month I think.”

“I have insomnia! You don’t care!”

In the mirror, their reflections scowled at each other.

“Have you turned off your laptop and cell phone at night like your dad and I told you to? Are you texting or Facebooking when you should be sleeping?”

Tenley marched to the bathroom. Mary followed. Tenley slammed the door in Mary’s face. “You don’t know anything,” Mary heard Tenley mutter. “What good are you.”

And then, most awful, “Old lady, you are such a be-yotch.”

Mary sighed and returned to the kitchen to make a deli sandwich for Tenley’s lunch. “Old lady,” she muttered. “Nothing wrong with being a fifty-two-year old lady.”

She resolved to battle if her daughter wanted to stay home from school today because of the imaginary swollen eyelids.

But the other battles could be postponed. She opened a drawer at the kitchen desk, took out her to-do list.

There were three items still active on her list.

P-$, code for pay bills.

Sch Col. That item, schedule colonoscopy, had been on her list since her fifthieth birthday two years ago.

Ph-M. She grabbed a pen and crossed that item off. She’d phoned her mother yes- terday, left a message on her answering machine. That counted, Mary decided.

Underneath Ph-M, Mary wrote: Dwt, DoA, code for Discuss w/Tenley, the dignity of aging.

That would have to happen at a more peaceful moment. There was a lot Mary could tell her daughter about why aging should be honored. Why were their only good conversations the ones that took place in Mary’s imagination?

She added a final item to the list. GTA. Get Tenley’s Apology. She resolved to make her daughter apologize for calling her a be-yotch. But after school, not before. Best to avoid before-school drama.

“Mother!” Tenley yells again. “Where are you?”

Mary pours herself another cup of coffee, takes two sips, longingly eyes the two newspapers waiting for her on the kitchen table. Maybe, Mary decides, she’ll just ignore this latest mom-shout. Maybe Tenley’s cell phone will warble a text from a friend and that’ll distract her daughter from whatever the current problem is.

“Muhhhhther!” A screech.

“Tenley!” Mary screams. “What’s the problem!” She slams down her coffee mug, feels the strain on her throat. Screams had ripped her throat during labor fifteen years ago. She’d had no voice for the first four days of Tenley’s life. Was important bonding lost because she couldn’t murmur love or sing lullabies during Tenley’s first days of life?

Mary gets along great with the children who swarm around her at the library where she works as head of the library’s youth programs. They draw pictures for her, tell her long, involved stories about squabbles with friends or triumphs on the soccer fields and sometimes heartbreakers about sick siblings or divorcing parents.

She’d said as much to Tenley during one of their fights, how the library kids like her, talk to her.

“Well,” Tenley had replied, “they don’t have to live with you.”

*   *   *

Tenley’s next shout has nothing to do with illness or angst.

“There’s a dead mouse in my room!”

Mary smiles, relieved. Not a Tenley crisis. Just a dead mouse. Taco must have caught and killed the mouse.

Taco is their fat white cat who prefers Tenley over Mary, though it’s Mary who feeds Taco every morning. It’s Mary who tends to Taco before the coffee is brewed, before the newspapers are fetched from the curb, before the husband is kissed goodbye. It’s Mary who kneels daily before the litter tray.

Taco has apparently caught a mouse, chewed it to death, and deposited the prize in Tenley’s room.

Somewhere Mary remembers learning that a cat considers it a sign of respect when it offers its kill to another. Mary feels a bit resentful that Taco hasn’t deposited the dead mouse in her own bedroom.

From the kitchen, Mary shouts, “pick up the mouse and throw it out!”

From upstairs, Tenley shouts back, “are you kidding me? You do it! It’s too gross!”

“It’s too gross for me, too!”

“You’re the adult!”

Mary rolls her eyes, sighs. As she gathers plastic gloves, a plastic bag, and paper towels, she mumbles all the adult claims Tenley frequently makes.

“I’m almost sixteen! My curfew should be midnight!”

“Stop checking my grades on Edline. School is my business, not yours! I’m old enough to take care of school without you getting so involved. You and Dad are such obsessive helicopter parents!”

“You don’t trust me!”

“I can wear what I want!”

“Why can’t I see R-rated movies with my friends?”

“Everybody in high school drinks. Everybody. You and Dad are the only parents so weird about it. That’s why I never have my friends over…As soon as I turn eighteen, I’m moving out!”

Mary marches upstairs to Tenley’s room.

Her daughter has fled the room. “Ten-ley?” Mary shouts.

From the bathroom, Tenley shouts back. “Tell me when it’s gone!”

Mouse is supine on the carpet by the bed.

Thank you, Lord, Mary thinks. Thank you that mouse is not on the bed, not on the $300 white down-filled comforter from Macy’s which Mary knows Tenley would no longer be able to use if it had been contaminated by dead mouse.

Four tiny legs spike from the mouse’s body, as though it were trying to swim away from death. Its torn belly is a red lumpy mess, like Mary imagines her own belly must have looked after the unplanned C-section that released her daughter into the world after thirteen hours of hard labor had failed.

“Just get it out!” Mary had begged.

Wisely, mouse has closed its eyes to the mess, like Mary closed her own eyes when the squalling frightening slimy creature was placed near her breast, just for a few moments for that all-important bonding.

The mouse’s whiskers, delicate white silk, droop gracefully. Its tail is curled into the shape of a question mark.

How did that squalling frightening slimy creature turn so quickly into a beautiful young girl?

How could such a beautiful young girl be so brutally contemptuous toward her parents, to the two people who love her most?

Except often Mary feels no love for her daughter. Fatigue when she was a baby, boredom when she was a toddler, and now, now when she’s a teen, a simmering soup of anger, bewilderment, frustration, impotence.

She’d been a surprise. Mary had not wanted children. Too risky. Bad genes. Both her parents were alcoholics. Her husband had reluctantly agreed they’d remain child-free.

But accidents happen.

Mary holds her breath, grabs the mouse with a gloved hand, drops it light as nothing into the plastic bag. She hurries downstairs, outside, and throws it into the garbage bin by the garage.

Back in the kitchen she squirts anti-bacterial soap on her hands and scrubs them under the hottest tap water she can tolerate.

She returns to Tenley’s room and sprays carpet cleaner on the spot where the mouse had been, though nothing visible stains the beige carpet.

Ten minutes later, back in the kitchen, Mary hears Tenley telling her two girlfriends about the mouse. The three teenagers sit around the kitchen table, eating cereal. The girls walk together to school every morning.

“You picked it up?”

“Mais non! C’était la mère qui a touche la souris!” Tenley says in French.

Mary decides not to feel hurt that Tenley said “it was the mother who touched the mouse,” instead of “it was my mother who touched the mouse.”

All three girls take French. When Tenley was in fourth grade and still sought Mary’s opinions, she told Mary she had a big problem. The grade school was offering foreign language instruction during lunch twice a week. “Everyone wants to take Spanish,” Tenley had said. “They’ll have to do a lottery. I probably won’t get into Spanish. I need to get into Spanish, Mama!”

“Well,” Mary had replied. “I minored in French in college. French is cool because in upscale French restaurants you’ll be able to impress everybody when you order in French. Plus, Paris visits are so much better when you can speak the language.”

Later, Mary was driving her fourth grade daughter and a minivan full of girl scouts home from a meeting. Behind the wheel, Mary was invisible the way chauffeur-parents are. The girls talked freely. Tenley explained to her Girl Scout friends why she was signing up for lunchtime French instead of Spanish.

Mary’s reasons had become Tenley’s. The next day, so many fourth graders signed up for lunchtime French, the school had to use a lottery to see who could get into the sessions. That was the first time Mary realized how much influence Tenley had over her peers. And how much influence Mary herself could wield.

Until it stopped.

*   *   *

“Tell them, Mom,” Tenley says. “Tell them about the mouse.”

For the next several minutes, Mary has the three teens’ attention as she describes the ordeal of the dead mouse.

She makes it funny, scary, gross. The girls laugh and groan. “Bravo, Mama!” Tenley exclaims.

A warm glow heats Mary’s belly.

For a few minutes, the dead little mouse is making things right, is restoring the proper balance.

Daughter is loving child.

Mother is respected adult. Mouse is martyr.

Taco appears, mewling. “Taco!” Tenley shouts. “Come to us, Butcher Boy! My friends want to smell your mouse breath!”

The friends shriek their protests.

Taco ignores the teens. He stays by Mary. He rubs his fat white head against Mary’s legs.

The friends head for the front door. Tenley doesn’t follow them. She kneels and pets Taco, still rubbing himself against Mary’s legs.

Tenley looks up at Mary. “What’s for supper, Mama?”

Instead of saying baked tilapia, which is what Mary had planned and which she knows Tenley doesn’t much like, Mary hears herself offering, “How about spaghetti and meatballs?” (Which she knows Tenley loves.)

“Bruschetta, too?” Tenley asks.

Mary hesitates. That’ll mean a trip to the grocery store on her lunch hour to get the tomatoes, garlic, lemon, basil, bread.

As if reading her mind, Tenley says, “I can pick up the ingredients after school.”

“Okay,” Mary says. “Will you help me make it?”

Tenley stands. “Okay,” she says. She heads to the front door where her friends are waiting.

“Have a good day,” Mary shouts.

“Thanks, you too, Mom!” Tenley shouts back.

The girls leave. Mary goes to the kitchen desk, removes her to-do list. She looks at the last item. GTA. Get Tenley’s Apology.

She crosses it off.

Marie Anderson is a married mother of three in La Grange, Illinois. Her short stories and essays have been published in dozens of magazines and periodicals.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

Fiction: Glitter City

Fiction: Glitter City

By Constance Ford

iStock_000014333528SmallFrom her bedroom, where she was sewing beads on a sheer black tank top, Juliana heard the brakes squeal on her daughter’s Pontiac Grand Am and felt her shoulders relax, knowing Holly was finally safely home.

She continued threading her needle through the shiny beads, fastening each one in a swoopy, scalloped line that ran across the lower part of the top. She found it relaxing, somehow, the tiny, precise movements that forced her mind to empty itself of everything except the needle and silky fabric in her lap. The top wasn’t new—she’d worn it once, her final day at Rancho High. It was see-through and she’d worn it on purpose, knowing they couldn’t do anything worse to her, since she’d already been fired. She laughed a little at the thought, then held the top up, admiring it. She thought it looked kind of retro, and when it was ready, she would wear it with her black pencil skirt, layered over a camisole or maybe just over her leopard bra, with a cardigan on top for professionalism’s sake. She was an English instructor at the university now, and, of course, there, you couldn’t go around with your underwear showing.

She finished the row of beads she was working on and set the blouse on her lap. The house seemed silent, and she realized she’d heard Holly cut the engine, but hadn’t heard the car door slam. She went to the living room, opened the front door into the hot blast of Las Vegas sun. Holly’s car was parked at a strange angle, but it was there in the driveway and nothing else looked amiss. Juliana looked at the house across the street wondering whether Matty, Holly’s boyfriend, was home. Holly and Matty rented the house across the street from Juliana. They lived there several months before she moved to the same neighborhood. Holly and Matty kept odd schedules, often working all night at Pussycat Tattoo but other times, both would be home for days, no coming and going, just sleeping maybe, as far as Juliana could tell.

She held the door open a minute longer, then went across the street, stepping around the little stone Buddha they’d plunked in the center of their front yard, thinking to knock, knowing they probably wouldn’t answer. They didn’t seem to like it when she came over unannounced, and at the last second, she lost her nerve and went to the car instead.

“Oh—Holly.” She rapped on the window. Holly was behind the wheel, her head lolling back against the seat, her eyes closed. Juliana rapped again, but Holly didn’t respond. “Holly,” Juliana shouted, knocking smartly on the glass with her knuckles, then grabbed the handle of the car door to wrench it open. The handle was burning hot, and the door wouldn’t budge. Sometimes it stuck, so she stretched the fabric of her top around the handle and tried again, but it was clearly locked. She stared at Holly through the glass. It was so hot today—she was sweating herself, from fear and heat, and although Holly was only wearing a tube top and ragged jeans, she could see sweat beads on her forehead and on her brightly tattooed chest and arms. Juliana stared for a moment longer, then ran to the front door of Holly’s house and thumped on it. “Matty,” she yelled. “Come outside!” She tried to peer into the little decorative glass windowpanes, but she could see nothing, no movement. Just a blurred distortion of their coat closet, right inside the door.

A locksmith, maybe? She took her cell phone out of her pocket and dialed her older daughter Alexis. It went to voicemail. “Alexis,” Juliana said. “Please call me back.” Alexis was attending law school at University of Nevada. She’d had a chance to go back east for school, to Columbia, but had decided to stay closer to home. Juliana, Alexis, and Holly couldn’t seem to stretch very far apart, even though Alexis was filled with rage at Holly, always telling Juliana that she treated Holly like a spoiled baby.

The phone buzzed, an incoming call, and Juliana answered. “Alexis, hi, sweetie. Could you help?”

“What is it?”

Juliana’s throat tightened, but she tried to speak lightly. “It’s Holly.”

“What about her?”

“It’s just, she’s in her car and I can’t—”

“Is she all right?” Alexis said.

“At the moment, yes, but—”

“Oh God, I’m in the middle of a class, Mom. I came out to the hall for a minute, but I can’t really talk right now.”

“Alexis, it’s so hot. I’m worried about her.”

“Then call the police!”

“Don’t be ridiculous. We don’t have to do that,” Juliana said, her heart rate speeding up, but she did not want to start an argument.

“Mom, just—”

“Never mind,” Juliana said, a little too sharply. “Call me later.”

They hung up without saying good-bye—what they always did when they were angry at each other—and she hurried back to the car. She wasn’t going to call the police. The neighbors would see, no doubt, and it was bad enough already. Matty and Holly had escapades in the front yard plenty of times. Once, Holly had come outside in her underwear, yelling after Matty, saying she didn’t care what he did, or if he EVER came home. Juliana tried the car door again. Wasn’t there an extra key somewhere? Or did Matty have it now, he with his stringy hair and scrawny arms?

She didn’t really like Matty, but Holly had been so excited to move in with him. Holly said she loved Matty and loved the small house they shared. It had a backyard with a grapevine-covered trellis and a treehouse in a big spreading oak, an amazing find in Vegas, even in the Arts District. In the evening, Holly said, she and Matty could see the Stratosphere from their yard, its sparkling lights, its thin spire pointing into the sky, and the fireworks that were shot off from the tops of the casinos on the Strip. Juliana could see them in the treehouse at times, Holly and Matty, wisps of smoke coming from the tree. “Is there a drug problem?” she’d wanted to ask Holly, but she couldn’t quite get the words to come out of her mouth, imagined Holly shrieking with laughter. She had asked her what that smell was, once, when she’d come into their house, almost choking on the thick scent. “It’s just incense, Mom, part of our meditation ritual,” she’d said. “Buddhism is about discipline. Matty knows all about that kind of stuff.”

Juliana didn’t understand why his name wasn’t just Matt. Or Matthew. Matty seemed so childish, especially for a man who was 32 years old, and Holly, just 24. But Matty was a tattoo artist, too, and standards were different for artists, as far as names, as far as everything. She understood that. It was Matty, in fact, who’d done Holly’s first tattoo when she was 16, a tiny stick of dynamite above her right hipbone. Now she had tattoos everywhere, and vivid red roses bloomed on both sides of her neck, difficult to cover with clothing, guaranteeing that, for Holly, most ordinary employment would never be possible. But Holly said you had to go all out to be an artist, playing it safe wasn’t what it was about. Something about that struck a chord in Juliana—she admired that kind of thinking, wished she could be more like that. Years ago she had wanted to do something with fashion or design—she’d made some interesting bead jewelry, had sold it at several shops, even. But then she’d met Rex, in her second year of college, and he seemed so sure of himself and his goals, and somehow, becoming an English teacher seemed more acceptable to him.

And she had doubts about tattooing, it was true—needles digging into skin, the potential for disease and infection—the shops with their loud music, endless drawings on the walls of skeletons and naked women wearing sailor hats. On the other hand, she respected people who could make their living doing a craft they loved. So she’d been supportive of Holly in her goal of becoming a tattoo artist, much to Rex’s dismay, even at the expense of finishing her art degree at University of Nevada. Although she still hoped Holly would finish it. It seemed like the practical thing to do, in case—what? In case she needed health insurance at some point. If she got her degree, went on for an MFA, she could probably teach art. In case she wanted to have a steady paycheck someday.

But Holly didn’t seem to be getting anywhere since she had moved in with Matty. He even claimed Holly had hit him once, had taken pictures of himself with a blackened eye, but Holly had said he punched himself in the face, to make her look like the bad one. Sometimes Juliana heard Holly crying, clear across the street, or thought she did. She and Matty seemed to be stuck in a cycle of fighting and making up—some sort of entrancement, apparently, with the highs and the lows. The hideous and the gorgeous, all mixed together. Like one of those majestic marble Gryphons standing guard in front of Mandalay Bay, slick and shining, with web-like wings and dagger claws. Like the whole city of Las Vegas, a jumble of glitter and grime. Although how they imagined their fighting went along with Buddhism, Juliana wasn’t quite certain. Suffering, she thought vaguely. Maybe that was it. Except wasn’t Buddhism supposed to be about learning to avoid suffering?

A thought struck her and Juliana ran around to the passenger side of the car. The lock was broken on that side and she yanked on the door. It opened. “Holly,” Juliana said. “Thank goodness. Holly!”

The car was stifling, every inch of it burning plastic and metal, reeking of vodka and cigarette smoke. Juliana put her bare knee on the hot vinyl and jerked it up again, leaned across the seat, trying not to touch anything. “Holly,” Juliana said, jiggling her shoulder.

“Wha—” Holly lifted her eyelids and let them sag down again.

Juliana felt tears come into her eyes.

No one seemed to understand what it was like to have a daughter like this, how fiercely Juliana loved her, how desperately she wanted her to be okay. “We need to get you into the house.” Juliana tried to keep her voice steady. “Out of this hot car.”

“Too tired.” Juliana could just make out her slurred words.

“No. It’s hot. You have to go inside.”

Holly’s mouth had fallen open and she was snoring gently. A tiny tattooed skull pulsed in the soft spot between her clavicles.

Juliana ran back to the front door of the house and pounded on it again, but there was still no sign of Matty. She couldn’t carry Holly into the house without help. Holly was tall and athletically built, like her father, and Juliana herself was not. She’d been surprised when she saw a picture of herself recently, how thin her arms were. She hurried across the street to her own house and grabbed a bag of peas from the freezer, a bottle of water, and a wet washcloth.

Back at the car, she leaned in and placed the wet washcloth on Holly’s forehead. This seemed to make no difference, so she pressed the cold peas on too. “Wake up!” Juliana said.

“I am,” Holly slurred.

“You have to come in the house.” How many times could they repeat this conversation? She held the cold water bottle against Holly’s leg, but she didn’t seem to feel it through her jeans. She pressed it against her neck.

Holly flung her arm up and smacked Juliana in the mouth. “Lemme alone.” Juliana gasped, the pain in her lip sharp. She felt a surge of anger and grabbed the peas, tromped back across the street to her own house, and shut the door. She went to the bathroom and stared at her bruised lip. This will look good with my top, she thought. A beaded blouse and a fat lip. She went back to the front door and stared out at the offending red car, containing her daughter, and pressed the frozen vegetables to her own face.

So let her sleep it off, she thought. If that’s what she wants. The door was open now. She had a bottle of water, a cold cloth. She should just get in her own car, drive down to the mall, go shopping. Get her nails done. A pedicure. “Have you ever heard the phrase ‘tripping over Buddha?'” her sister had asked when they talked recently on the phone. “It means when you don’t recognize the important thing, even when it’s right in front of you. You should move here, to San Francisco,” she said. “Let Holly cope on her own. Get your own life.”

Which was exactly what Juliana wanted, truth be known. She’d only moved to Vegas because Rex wanted to—he was a bankruptcy attorney, but when they divorced, he’d moved away and she’d stayed. She had a good job—now she wanted a man in her life, for God’s sake. She was 46, after all. Her life wasn’t going to go on forever. But instead of following her sister’s advice, she had moved from her perfectly nice house in Summerlin even closer to Holly. Right across the street.

Juliana went to the bathroom to look at her lip once more, to make sure it wasn’t bleeding, then sat down on her bed, forced herself to pick up the needle and the small box of beads. It was going to be beautiful, she thought, poking the needle through a bead. Clothes were her meditation. “They’re not going to like that,” her husband had said to her once, years ago, when she was leaving for school, wearing a pair of cute white boots she’d found on Ebay. “Why can’t you just dress like a teacher? It’s like you don’t even know who you are.”

“I’m Rex Jackson’s wife, aren’t I?” she’d said, caustically, stung by his remark. She shrank inside remembering her former job, as a teacher at Rancho High School, where the vice-principal, a man with a head like a bulldog—he was the football coach, or assistant coach, as she recalled—had written her up once after an observation because her bra straps showed through the dress she’d been wearing that day. It was a beautiful dress—pale gray lace, knee-length, loose and swingy—and her students didn’t given two raps about whether her bra straps showed through. She stabbed her needle through another bead.

The students had more important things to worry about than exposed bra straps, like whether they would still have somewhere to live when they got home from school, or whether their father had been thrown in jail, or worse, shot, by the drug dealer he owed money to. And she’d had a jacket with her that day, or was it a sweater? But she hadn’t put it on, because the room was warm, as usual—there was hardly enough air conditioning in the world that could cool a classroom crammed with 38 sweating, cursing 16-year-olds, in Las Vegas, Nevada. It was April, probably 95 degrees outside that day. The vice-principal had spoken to her immediately after class, handed her the written evaluation, and had given her his comments orally, as well. His eyes had not seemed to want to meet hers when he mentioned that her dress was inappropriate, but clearly the point was that she should put on her jacket now. Dress code was of utmost importance at the high school level, she’d noticed. Concern about curriculum took a distinct back seat to rules about flip-flips and spaghetti straps.

But anyway, it was over, the humiliation of her past, she thought, firmly. She had a better job now, much better. She’d left her job at the high school in February, and starting the next fall, she was hired fulltime at the university. That wasn’t how it was supposed to work—do a sloppy job at one place, then get rewarded with more pay and better students at a different institution. But that’s what had happened. Well, she had a PhD, after all. She was more suited for college teaching anyway, where there weren’t administrators peering over your shoulder every minute. Although she often felt she didn’t quite fit in at the university, either. The other instructors at UNLV seemed to look at her in a skeptical way, as if they weren’t quite sure what she was doing there. “Look at Juliana’s go-go boots,” one of the English department secretaries had said once to another woman in the office, laughing. She had always liked boots, and even after Rex’s comments, couldn’t quite get herself to give them up. But the ones she’d had on that day had just been low-cut western style, for heaven’s sake, nothing like go-go boots. Now she felt worried every time she went into the office.

She glanced at her watch. She’d been sewing for seven minutes. She jabbed her needle through another bead, and the sharp point went straight into her finger. “Ow,” she said, standing suddenly, and the beads slid off her lap and scattered over the hardwood floor. She knelt, thinking to gather them, then jumped up, crunching them underfoot, and ran back across the street to the car.

“Holly. Holly!” she said, reaching in and shaking her. She couldn’t stand this. The car seemed even hotter than before. She grabbed Holly’s arm, tried to drape it around her own neck. How long would it take for Holly to get dehydrated or heat stroke? And how drunk was she? Or had she taken something, some pills or drug? Surely not. “Come on, Sweetie, wake up.” She put her arm around Holly’s waist and heaved, trying to pull her out of the car, but only succeeded in making Holly slump sideways on the burning seat. She tried once more, but Holly was limp and heavy, her long legs twisted now under the steering wheel. Juliana propped her awkwardly back up, then sat down on a small curb that ran along the side of the driveway and watched her through the open car door, wondering who to ask for help. She’d only lived here for a month, hadn’t met any of the neighbors so far, not a single one. People in Vegas didn’t really make friends with their neighbors. New people came and went so often that it hardly seemed worth it.

She scrolled through the numbers on her phone, looking for someone else to call, but there was no one. No one nearby. A helicopter droned overhead, and she imagined that Alexis had somehow sent help.

A car drove slowly up the street toward her, music thumping, some kind of low-riding blue car. Two kids were inside, each with an arm out the window, holding something onto the roof of the car, a sparkly, spoked saucer-shaped object that looked like it must be the top of a merry-go-round, or some amusement park ride. “Yo, teach!” The driver stuck his head out the window. “Look what we got! It’s sick, ain’t it! We’re taking it to the pawn shop.”

It was Major, one of her students from Rancho High, the one who had helped her move. When he found out she was leaving Rancho he had stood at the door of her classroom, his eyes filled with despair. “You really leaving?” he’d asked. “Yes,” she said. She had told the students that she had been let go, so it wouldn’t look like she was deserting them, but the truth was that she had quit. She just couldn’t stand the ridiculousness of it all, the lack of any serious discussions about literature or writing or any interest from the administrators in actual learning. They just didn’t care, and she hated it. Major used to come up behind her at her desk and start rubbing her shoulders and neck, when he could tell she was stressed. Once he had hugged her, and she could feel him swelling against her. She didn’t push him away—she just didn’t really care. What difference did it make? She let him breakdance in her class- room one day. They moved all the desks back, someone turned on a CD, and he gave a demonstration, whirling around on his head until he finally kicked over a stack of books.

That was the kind of high school teacher she was, she thought ruefully. A nice one. She told him she’d pay him $50 to help her move to her new house, across the street from Holly, and afterwards, she gave him a ride home. They’d sat in the parking lot of his apartment complex talking for a few minutes. “You giving that to me? Thought you was joking,” he said, when she handed him the money. He grabbed her in a hug, and she felt astonished at the strength of his muscular arms. Rex, for all his stolidness of character, hadn’t been half this strong. She felt something tightening in her stomach. “I have to go now,” she’d said, almost wishing he would kiss her, but right then, a policeman had rapped on the car window. “Step out of the car, please,” he’d said. Another cop car pulled up and they made her and Major get out, separated them, questioned them, made them hand over their IDs. “You’re his teacher?” the one interrogating Juliana said. “No,” she said. “Not any more.”

“But you used to be?”

“I was just giving him a ride home. That’s it,” she said, her face flushing.

“Are you married?”

“No, I’m divorced.”

“What do you know,” he said, giving her a look.

“He and I were just talking, though. We weren’t breaking any rules.”

“You know how old that kid is?”

“Yes, he’s 16.”

The questions went on and on. She could see Major glancing at her from the back of the police car, a frightened look on his face, while the other officer made him spread his arms and legs, patted him down. Finally, they had to admit that nothing illegal had occurred and let them go.

“You’re walking a fine line here, lady. Get a boyfriend your own age,” the one had snapped at her. Afterwards, Major told her they kept asking him if she had tried to make out with him, had touched him in any way that was inappropriate or offensive.

She’d wanted to cry from the embarrassment of it. As if she’d tried to rape him, or wanted to! She had, though—that was the truly awful part. She had wanted to kiss him, at least for a second. The policeman was right. The whole thing made her cringe, and she’d been furious at Major after that, had refused to talk to him, even though he often hung around the grocery store where she shopped, tried to carry her water, offered her rides. It drove her crazy, reminded her of everything in her life that seemed unfair and painful. Her divorce—her husband had left her, but maybe that had been her fault, too. Her tattooed daughter. All of it. Somehow, her own doing. But how? What had she done? The last time she had seen Major at the grocery store, she had told him to leave her alone. “Why?” His voice was pleading.

“Don’t talk to me,” she said, practically yelling. “I’m sick of this. You’re just a kid! I’m getting a restraining order against you.”

He had looked at her, shocked, then shuffled to his car in his low-hanging pants, and sat there, staring at her.

But now, there he was, driving along the street. “Major!” she called, waving to him. She ran down the road after him.

“What’s happening, Ms. J? You talking to me again?”

She pointed wordlessly to her daughter’s car. “Could you do something for me?”

His face, which had lit up when he saw her, changed to embarrassment. “Gotta get going.”

“No, I just—I need—”

He shook his head. “Don’t report me, okay?”

“What? Wait!” Juliana shouted after him. “I can’t just leave her in there!” She watched the blue car, stared at the strange, sparkly contraption on its roof, until it went around the corner at the end of the block. As she ran back through the yard to her daughter’s car, her foot caught on something and she stumbled, falling onto her hands and knees. She glanced behind her, and found herself staring into the little Buddha’s fat grinning face. Do something, she could hear her sister saying.

She crawled into the seat beside Holly and tried to pour a little water into her partially open mouth, but it just dribbled back out, down her chin. Something was really wrong. Was she even breathing? Juliana took a swallow herself, but even the water was burning hot now, and she cried out and threw the bottle onto the curb. Across the street, she saw that one of the neighbors, an older woman with a large shiny clasp in her gray hair, had come out onto her front steps, was staring in her direction.

Juliana felt a sob shudder through her. Her life was a mess; completely out of control. Everyone must think so. She slowly stood up, groping for her phone. Her hands shook, but she dialed.

“This is Clark County 911. What’s your emergency?”

She could hardly speak. “Please,” she choked out. “I need someone to help me. I need help.”

Constance Ford originally from Idaho, earned an MA in creative writing at Hollins University, and a PhD in English at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. In 2009, she received the Nevada Arts Council Grant for fiction, and her stories have recently been published in Pif Magazine and Switchback. She teaches English and creative writing at the College of Southern Nevada in Las Vegas and is currently putting the finishing touches on her debut novel, Evangeline.