“Conditional” by Paul Hostovsky


(photograph by cole rise)

What if
this well-dressed man
exiting that magnificent
glass building
and walking toward that expensive
car with the livery plates
waiting for him at the curb
suddenly began
urinating
on the sidewalk
in the middle of
everything,
his excellent
tie flapping in the breeze,
his face and posture
betraying a powerlessness
over this mournful
necessary stream
as it dies in a dribble
at his feet…
You might think
it was a bladder condition,
or a prostate condition,
or a moral condition—
but you would never guess
that it’s a fairy tale
condition:
glass buildings,
expensive cars,
excellent grammars
and legal instruments
notwithstanding,
this well-dressed man,
not bothering
to shake himself dry
in the middle
of everything,
ducks into his pumpkin coach
and goes speeding off down
Wall Street,
transmogrifying
into his own
body.

 

 

Paul Hostovsky has long and generously contributed poetry to r.kv.r.y. His poems have been featured on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and The Writer’s Almanac; and published in Carolina Quarterly, Shenandoah, New Delta Review, Atlanta Review, Poetry East, and many other journals and anthologies. He won the Comstock Review‘s Muriel Craft Bailey Award in 2001, as well as chapbook contests from Grayson Books, Riverstone Press, Frank Cat Press, and Split Oak Press. He has two full-length poetry collections, Bending the Notes (2008), and Dear Truth (2009), both from Main Street Rag. Paul’s poems have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize 13 times, and won one once. He makes his living in Boston as an interpreter at the Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing where he specializes in working with the deaf-blind.

“the dollar in the wishing well” by Paul Hostovsky

Expensive delicate boat
with a hundred chances on board
floating above the drowned brown
pennies with their one chance each
piled on top of each other
on the abject bottom

shivers, wavers, turns
over, capsizes and the green
president goes under and in
god we trust and all that fancy
acanthus leaf
amounting to a wish
that was taken for granted
yet is not granted

(drawing, Mathemetician by Jody Stadler)

 

Paul Hostovsky, has long and generously contributed poetry to r.kv.r.y.  His poems have been featured on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and The Writer’s Almanac; and published in Carolina Quarterly, Shenandoah, New Delta Review, Atlanta Review, Poetry East, and many other journals and anthologies. He won the Comstock Review‘s Muriel Craft Bailey Award in 2001, as well as chapbook contests from Grayson Books, Riverstone Press, Frank Cat Press, and Split Oak Press. He has two full-length poetry collections, Bending the Notes (2008), and Dear Truth (2009), both from Main Street Rag. Paul’s poems have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize 13 times, and won one once. He makes his living in Boston as an interpreter at the Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing where he specializes in working with the deaf-blind.

“Going In” by Patty Somlo

 

At first, there was only one.  His name was Alan Waite.  That Monday morning, Alan drove his immaculate Honda Accord into the parking lot at five minutes before eight o’clock.

As he had done for the past fifteen years, he pulled into an empty spot two hundred yards from the agency’s back door.  After stepping out of the car, he lifted a black leather briefcase from the open trunk.  Then he took an extra moment to study his reflection in the back window on the driver’s side.  He walked across the parking lot next and around to the building’s front door.

As usual, he arrived while the receptionist was still getting settled.  Anna noticed Alan heading toward the elevator.  She didn’t think anything might be wrong.  Anna had worked for the agency going on six and a half years now. Besides herself, she knew that Alan Waite was the earliest employee to arrive.

Alan took the elevator to the third floor.  The elevator made a light last lift and thumped ever so modestly down.  Alan waited for the elevator doors to slide apart. When the doors opened, Alan found himself staring at the beige carpeting in the third-floor hall.  He stepped out.  Overhead fluorescent lights hummed, brightening the already bright white walls.  Alan turned left, then a quick right, walked midway down and entered through a glass-topped door.

He looked at the empty desk up front.  His assistant Joanna was probably going to show up late or call in sick, claiming a sore throat.  He made his way past the reception area and a few feet before his door.  Then he realized Joanna would not be coming in at all.  Joanna had been laid off.

With a quiet sigh, he stepped into his office and looked around.  The desk was bare.  So were the walls.  Other than some scattered pieces of furniture, a computer and phone, the office had been relieved of its contents.

Alan set his briefcase down on the floor.  It was too early to know if anyone else would show.

Like his assistant, Alan, had been laid off.  After fifteen years that capped an unblemished career, Alan’s boss had given him the news and two weeks’ notice.  Those last ten days, Alan waited.  Every day, he expected his boss, in a slightly apologetic tone but without taking an ounce of blame, to explain that she had found funds to keep Alan at his job.  This was what Alan assumed because there had been financial crises before.  He’d always managed to stay on.

But no one called Alan in and instructed him not to go.  One by one, he took his framed photographs of snow-covered mountains and lakes and palm trees in Hawaii off the walls.  He thought as he did, I’ll show them. The city manager, the mayor and the director of HR didn’t believe he’d leave, is what Alan thought.

All weekend, Alan waited for the call.  On Sunday night, the phone rang.

“Some of us met this afternoon.”  It was Ray Starr.

Like Alan, Ray had gotten his notice and was not expected to return to the agency on Monday morning.

“Alan,” Ray said, almost in a whisper.  “Are you there?”

“Yes.  I’m here.”

“We’ve decided,” Ray said.

Alan began to fidget with a piece of fringe on the sofa.

“What is it that you’ve decided, Ray?”

“We’re going in.”

There was silence on the other end.  Alan grabbed hold of the pause to try and make sense out of what Ray had said.

“Going in, Ray?  I’m not sure I get what it is you’re telling me.”

“We’re going in to work.  Tomorrow morning.”

“Who’s we, Ray?”

“All of us.  All of us who’ve been given the ax.  We want you to come in with us too.”

It was starting to make sense, what Ray had been trying to say.

“Why?” Alan asked.  “Why would we do that?”

“Don’t you see, Alan?  We make the point.  We’re willing to work without pay, a certain number of days anyway, to keep our jobs.  They never gave us the chance.  They never even asked.  We’re going to have all the local TV stations there.  Hey, we might even make it to the national news.”

“So, it’s all a gimmick.  To get on TV,” Alan concluded.

“This is no gimmick, Alan,” Ray answered back.

Alan could hear Ray breathing hard now.

“Alan, this is the only way we can think of to try and get our jobs back. Have you seen what it’s like out there?  I don’t know about you but I haven’t looked for a job for twenty years.  Hell, I started workin’ at that agency when Reagan was president.  If I don’t get this job back, I’m probably never gonna work again.  Who wants to hire some old man like me?  I walk in for the interview and first thing the kid interviewin’ me thinks is how much I remind him of his grandfather.”

Alan let Ray’s invitation start to slowly settle in his mind.

After Alan’s wife went upstairs to bed, he poured himself a glass of red wine.  Normally, he never drank on what he and his wife Ellen referred to as “school nights.”  But now that he’d been laid off, Alan figured he had the right.

He sat down in the wide comfortable olive green chair across from the television and took several sips.  He cupped the goblet in his right hand and held it up to the light.  All this time working at the agency, what he’d most enjoyed were the two weeks he and Ellen spent in Hawaii each year.  At the end of the day before throwing some steaks or a couple fresh pieces of Mahi Mahi on the grill, Alan would sit with Ellen on the lanai and watch the sun set over the water.  Alan liked to drink one glass of dry red wine, while Ellen sipped a slightly sweet white.  The hours spent watching the clock at work and the humiliation Alan suffered from his boss, checking and re-checking his work, disappeared.  All of what Alan knew now was a perfectly meaningless life felt worthwhile when Ellen reached for his hand and the last of the sun’s glow disappeared below the horizon.

Alan woke as usual the following morning at six o’clock.  He touched Ellen’s shoulder and said, “Honey.  It’s six o’clock.”

He walked downstairs to the half-bath he and Ellen thought of as his bathroom.  As he’d done every Monday through Friday morning the past fifteen years, he washed his face, brushed his teeth, gargled and shaved, before combing his hair and giving himself a long hard stare in the mirror.

“Everyone’s decided to go in,” he said to Ellen.

She had just entered the kitchen, dressed in a navy blue knit pantsuit.

“What are you talking about?”

She pulled the refrigerator door open, leaned over and grabbed a carton of one percent milk.

“Ray Starr called last night,” Alan explained.

“Ray Starr?  How did he get your number?”

“I don’t know.  Probably from one of the agency lists.”

“What did Ray want?”

“To tell me that they were all going in.”

“Who’s they?

“Everybody,” Alan said.

He shoveled in a spoonful of raisin bran.

“Everybody that got laid off.”

He finished chewing the last bite.

Since he’d been laid off, Alan didn’t think it would be right to walk down to the break room and pour himself a cup of coffee.  He recalled that during a previous budget shortfall, the boss had proposed that employees pay for coffee and tea.  The staff figured they might as well walk across the parking lot to Starbuck’s if they had to pay.  The pay-for-coffee-policy was soon abandoned.

Instead of walking down the hall, Alan dropped into his chair and turned to face the window.  The sun had climbed and now cast a rosy glow on the snow blanketing the mountain.  When Alan first started working here, he couldn’t believe that he had an office with such a view.  He recalled his and Ellen’s first trip to the city.  They had taken the early morning flight.  Moving down the long corridor from the plane to the baggage claim area, Alan noticed a billboard of the mountain that was lit from behind.  He’d said to Ellen that they should learn to cross-country ski, if he got the job and they relocated here.  Every winter, Ellen brought it up.  Looking at the mountain, Alan realized that they  hadn’t taken a single lesson.

“Alan.”

He knew it was his boss without having to turn around.

“Katherine,” Alan said, keeping his eye on the mountain and his back facing the door.

“What are you doing here?”

Alan heard the tremor in Katherine’s voice.  He realized how this must look.  A sudden crazy urge to slide the fingers of his right hand in between the buttons of his shirt, making her think he was carrying a pistol, slammed into his thoughts.

“Did you forget something?”

He dropped his right hand down to his side.  Turning around, he buried the hand in his pants pocket.

Katherine stood with her arms wrapped around her chest, across the narrow expanse of the office.  Yes, he had forgotten something.  But at the moment he couldn’t remember what.  He studied Katherine without emotion.  Yes, he could admit it now.  He was no longer cowering in her presence like a beaten dog.  She was, he could see, exceptionally small.  In the years he had worked for the agency, the petite woman had grown old.  Her flat black hair lacked the brilliance of random highlights, indicating that her straight bobbed locks were dyed, probably at home.  Katherine was neither pretty nor ugly, but – and this surprised Alan most of all – she had a completely forgettable look.

In fact, nothing about this woman would have encouraged Alan to stay if, as he crazily thought now, someone had set them up for a blind date.  He would have lingered a polite time, over an hour but hardly a second beyond an hour and a half.  Then he would have punched his right fist into the air, freed his watch from under his blue shirt sleeve, and said, “I’ve got to get going.”

Katherine continued waiting for a response.  She’d clenched her jaw.  The small muscles were causing tiny indentations on each side.  He had never pondered a response to Katherine, in the ten years since the city manager appointed her to head the department, without offering Alan a chance to apply.  Watching her, Alan knew now.  If he’d hesitated just once, he would have shown her who really was boss.

“I think you’d better leave, Alan,” Katherine said.  Her voice came out in a hoarse whisper.  “I’m going to call Security.”

With that, Katherine wheeled around and out the door.

Alan didn’t move, relishing the rare sensation of having won a battle he’d been fighting most of his life.  Ellen had scolded him for years.  “Just speak up,” she’d chided.

Instead, Alan complained.  Some nights, he made light of his work, laughing and saying how stupid his boss was.  He stared at the empty hall now, wondering why he had waited so long.

The silence was broken by shouts coming from the parking lot.  Alan stepped out the door and over to the window on the other side of the hall.

They were carrying signs.  A cameraman appeared to be filming.

The man with the large black video camera followed the crowd moving toward the door.  Ray Starr was marching at the head of the line.

Alan could hear chanting but was unable to make out the words.  His heart started to rattle high in his chest, pulsing at the sides of his throat.

As he stood at the window, the crowd filed in the door, followed by two more cameramen.  There had been a time when he would have been out there, shouting and waving a sign.  The thought made him clench his fists, though he didn’t realize that’s what he’d done.

Alan turned just as Clarence Spencer arrived.

“Hello, Clarence,” he said.

Clarence was a large man with a round face and skin the shade of burnt toast.  His ID badge hung at the end of chain.  The badge stopped inches below his belt.

“Hello, sir,” Clarence said.

Alan looked at Clarence.  He realized that he hadn’t actually hadn’t seen this man for years and in that time, Clarence’s neatly clipped hair had grown gray.  Clarence had applied for the security job and interviewed initially with Alan.  Alan thought back to that day.  Had it been ten years?

“Katherine asked me to come up here, sir,” Clarence said, after clearing his throat.  “I’m gonna have to escort you out.”

For some reason, Alan’s mind fixated on the word escort. That’s what they’d been taught to say, once an employee had been terminated.  There was this notion that by saying the word escort, you were taking the heat off a potentially explosive situation.  Alan had done his share of escorting the shamed and sorrowful to their cars.  In most cases, the women cried.  Men made abusive remarks, using foul language, or stewed in silence.

“There won’t be any need for that, Clarence.”

Alan started to walk toward the door.

“That’s my orders, sir,” Clarence answered.  He stepped aside just a few feet or so from the door.  “I can’t let you walk out alone.”

Alan nodded his assent but continued to walk across the hall, into his old office.  The sun had climbed high enough so the snow on the mountain appeared clean and white.

After another thirty seconds or so, Alan swung back around.  Clarence reached for his phone.

Yes, Alan agreed, as he scoured the room with his eyes.  There was not a single shred of evidence that the office had ever been occupied.  One day soon, in a month or a year’s time, another sap would walk in and tack his favorite photographs on the wall.

When he was done, Alan felt sure the new guy would step over to the window and gaze out.  The sun would probably just be coming up.

He’d see the sun turn the snow a golden-edged shade of rose.  At that instant, the entire universe would appear to be glowing.

Alan made eye contact with Clarence, as he pressed down the phone.

“Let’s go, Clarence,” Alan said, and he let Clarence escort him down.

 

Patty Somlo has had her articles, reviews, fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction published in numerous journals and newspapers including the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Examiner, the Star Bulletin, the Baltimore Sun, the Santa Clara Review, and Fringe Fiction, among others. Her short story “Bird Women” was nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

“The Hanging Tree” by Rex Sexton


(Image by Bart Galle)

Jumble, fumble.  The alarms go off.  Faster than a speeding bullet the cops show up.

Camacho catches the El train, rooftops interrupted by flashes of lightning.  Cold, alone, pounding rain.

Full pedal, passing the bottle, Plugger races the car down the side-streets at a hundred or more.  You don’t ride often in a flying coffin but ain’t that what life is for?

“So he gave me inches seven,” the wild white girls sing some anglo “bottle of beer on the wall” song variation in the back seat.  “I said honey this is heaven.”

Two wheeled corners, slides, skids, the radio blasting something about things going better with Coke.

Someone say coke? Yeah man.

“So he gave me inches ten, I said double it again.”

Houses a blur, whoosh, whoosh.  Minds in a whirl, whoosh, whoosh.

ENCHILADAS

They flash past a curbside stand in the industrial district where their parents slave every day for minimum wage.

“Enchiladas!”  The white girls giggle.

Plugger slams the breaks, slides, skids.  Camacho laughs as Plugger jams it into reverse and they fish-tail back.

“You no can do that.”  The proprietor shakes his head.  “Park on the sidewalk.”

They all pig out. The wild white girls with relish. They wash down the food with whiskey and malt.

“So he gave me inches twenty,” the girls sing, gleefully, greasy goodness stuffed in their mouths,  “I said honey that’s sure plenty.”

They creep cautiously down the darkened streets, through the blackened gangways, along the unlit alleys.  They spot their hit while cruising the main strip – a cluster of punks drinking beers in the bowling alley parking lot.

“Geronimo!” They whisper.

They park Plugger’s junker in an alley around the corner – an old beat-up taxi painted black and lettered eerily with “Tales From The Crypt,” and “Death You Deserve IT,” scrawled on the sides in swirls of white – an American flag flying from the antenna.

There are a dozen of the enemy. They have to do it quickly, before the bowling alley gang gets wind of their guerilla attack and piles out on them en masse.  Plugger walks straight at them, Mr. Goodwrench hidden in his army surplus jacket.

“You guys seen my brother?”

They fan out around the cars gripping tire-irons, crowbars.

“Who’s this jerk?”

“It’s me, Tony.”

“Anyone know this punk?”

They rush them, swinging.  The punks are fast.  Camacho blocks a bottle.  Sixteen stitches along his arm later, no problem.  They beat the punks bloody.  Bam, bam.  No one died.

The punks must have had God on their side.  Next day the punks jump them back, outside their pool hall.  Have themselves a ball.  Good training for war.  With jobs scarce, everyone is thinking about joining up when they are old enough.  Even Camacho.  Why not?  The streets of Iraq or here?  At least you get paid for being over there.   Someone has to fight the wars.  Nothing in it for the sons of doctors and lawyers.

A good run.  Camacho leaves the pool hall, pockets the fives, ones, puts the tens and twenties in the duty booty for his parents.  Too good to leave behind, he takes his beer with him and drinks it in the alley.

Dissolving night over urban blight, the rising sun pointing at the “on the run” like a gun.  All over the Dead Zone the junkies are searching the catacombs for that breakfast of champions hidden in the labyrinths.

Being, being, nothingness.

Camacho closes his eyes and downs the beer, feels the darkness of the universe and all its shadows disappear.

“We’re done man!”  Skinner’s teeth chatter as they sit shackled together on a lockup bench waiting for the Sergeant.  “Murder one!  Life man!  Unless they give us death!  You don’t think they’ll do that?”

Things happen.  This one had happened fast.  Camacho said: “Stick ‘em up” and the gun went off.  They had bolted out the back door and down the alley.  Camacho threw the gun in a frenzy at a backyard tree where it disappeared in the leaves.

The cops were right there.  They must have been cruising by and heard the shot.  Camacho watched the tree as they grabbed them, put them in cuffs, roughed them up – two troublesome looking teenagers in the middle of suspicious circumstances.  It didn’t fall, the gun.  It must have got stuck in some branch, something like a golfer’s hole-in-one, or a basketball player’s one-in-a-million full court shot.

“Look Skinner,” Camacho whispers, “we went in the front and came out the back.  No one saw us enter or exit.  No one was in the old man’s shop.  Hey, we were just cutting through the alley.  As far as they know, whoever blasted the old man went out the front while the cops were wasting their time arresting us.  They got nothing except us being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Not even in it, just near it.  They got no weapon, loot, and it ain’t like we got long rap sheets like hardened criminals.”

“Unless the gun comes down!” Skinner hisses.  “Then it’s homicide!”

“Calm down Skinner.  We got luck on our side.  Enjoy the ride.  Unless some little bird talks, we walk.”

They walked all right –morning, noon and night, Camacho and Skinner, alone or together in any kind of weather, up and down the alley past the tree, braced to jump the fence and snatch the evidence before it fell from some branch on the grass and the old couple who lived there found the gun and the cops had their ass.

“I’m going in there.”  Skinner hollered.  “I’m climbing that tree and getting that fucking thing!”

“You ain’t doing shit, half-wit.”  Camacho spat at a garbage can.  They were sweating bullets.

It was the dog days.  Flies swarmed around them.  “When the leaves fall we’ll be able to spot it up there.  Maybe.  I’ll jimmy up there faster than you can.  Bim bam the monkey man.  For now we leave it alone.  I don’t need your skinny, clumsy white ass clowning around and falling down.

It’s a miracle.”  Camacho’s voice was hushed as he stared at the tree.  “It’s like divine intervention or something. Like God said: ‘Wait, fate, give them a break.’”

“Miracle?  It’s a curse!  It’s torture!  If you think God’s protecting us you’re nuts!  We’re killers – at least you are.  If God’s doing anything he’s giving us a taste of hell before we go to jail!”

“So it just dumb luck!  Don’t fuck it up!  You’re as guilty as I am and just as damned in the eyes of God or in the eyes of The Man.  Get your head together, amigo, you’re going loco!”

They never even charged them at the station with anything, although they questioned them long and hard for hours.  Skinner almost broke.  He started crying like a baby and babbling incoherently.  Luckily all he bawled was, “I didn’t do it, I didn’t do anything, leave me alone.”  Meanwhile the pigs combed the shop, alley, backyards, rooftops, and finally had to let them go when they came up with zero.  Camacho had washed his hands as soon as they hit the station, jumping up and down and complaining he was about to pee in his pants.  They never did the forensic test.

“Skinner, look.  It’ll be OK.  We’ll get the gun.  The shooting was an accident.  We just wanted to scare the old man.  We didn’t want nothing like that to happen.  God, fate, whatever, we got a break.  Maybe a chance to change, repent, do good things not bad.  Think about that.

You know what they say: God works in mysterious ways.”

Jesus Skinner was a handful.  No cojones.

Skinner was dangerous.  In his tiny, sports-poster-filled bedroom, Camacho lay propped up by pillows on his bed and stared at his rumpled reflection in the dresser mirror. With his sweat matted hair and haggard face, he already looked incarcerated.  Skinner would squawk, Camacho knew, and soon.  He would get some neighborhood mouthpiece.  They came cheap enough.

Quick and dirty plea-bargains were what they were all about.  He would show the cops where the gun was, testify.  The miracle tree and the magically hanging gun were a gamble that Skinner’s nerves couldn’t handle.  Could Camacho blame him?  Freedom or life, all or nothing.  They would try them as adults, two slum punks with nothing and no one to prop them up or hold their hand. The court would pull the chain and flush them down.  But Skinner could be out before he was thirty if he played his cards right.  Point the finger at Camacho.  Would he do the same if it were the other way around?  God if it only had been!  If only he had not been holding the gun that shot the old man.

The room was a hot box.  Camacho pulled off his shirt.  He tried to mop the sweat off his face and chest, but the shirt was sopping wet and his efforts were useless.  Through the paper-thin walls, he could hear his family talking and laughing – his mother and sisters in the kitchen cooking, his father and brothers noisily watching the baseball game in the living room.  He closed his eyes and shuddered as he listened.  This would kill them.  His father would die inside.

His mother would go crazy. His brothers and sisters would be locked up in their own little prisons with him, and would miss him on Christmas, birthdays, weddings, births, graduations; all the times a family came together, he wouldn’t be there.

For the thousandth time he reran the nightmare in his mind.  It was a two-bit jewelry store, no cameras, alarms, but enough gold school rings, trinkets, wedding bands to make a take even the head honchos in the neighborhood could celebrate.  Fence it, melt it down.  The price of gold was climbing through the clouds.  The place was a piece of cake. He was amazed that no one had hit the store before.

But the gun went off and the old man dropped.  He dropped like a rock.  It wasn’t like the shootings you see on TV.  It was like the old man was a puppet and Camacho cut his strings.

“Julio we gonna eat now!”

His sister Maria shouted from the kitchen.  He could hear the clatter of plates and utensils, the sliding of chairs.  He couldn’t face them.

“Pronto Julio!”  His sister Nanette shouted and laughed.  “You don’t come quick we gonna eat it all!”

“Eat it all!  Eat it all!”  Little Fernando laughed and stomped around the living room floor.

Camacho rose slowly and faced his reflection in the mirror.  Julio Camacho, he brooded, the pretty boy with the ugly name.  Camacho meant humpback.  “We’re all humpbacks in this neighborhood,” was one of his father’s favorite jokes, “we’re all bent over by the burdens of the poor.”  He felt another weight on his back now.  The weight of a murderer.  This weight he couldn’t throw off, despite his sculpted muscles.  He was a champion wrestler on the high school team, at least in his weight class, short like most Mexicans but strong and quick.  If he stuck out two more years of high school and managed to pass, he could probably get a college scholarship.  But that was a gamble he couldn’t handle.  Try as he might, he could never understand the complexities of math or science, or the world of chemicals and gases, all those protons, electrons, neutrons, formulas, equations, astronaut stuff.  Camacho felt a fool in school. The champion with his muscles was El Stupido in the classroom. This delighted his teachers who liked to stick it to him, ‘that cocky Camacho kid.’ “Mr. Camacho, today’s lesson seems to have you in a strangle hold.

Maybe you should exercise your brain now and then. Instead of biceps and pecs, try to put some muscles in your head.” To save face he played it down, swaggered around.  “Fuck that book shit!”  He would blow it off to his friends.  “Who needs it?”  They felt the same way.  Brains were a liability.  Didn’t that honor student in the black neighborhood just get beaten to death because he wanted to study and not join the gang?  Besides, did book brains ever do anyone any good in the hood?  His odds for getting out of the ghetto, like theirs, were zero. So, say he did get into college, how long would he last?   So he could wrestle, was he Olympic material?  The gangs were all he was good for, Camacho knew, committing crimes, running drugs.  His glory days were here and now on the streets where he could flash money and strut his stuff.  But that street of dreams had its dead end coming.  It was written on the walls with graffiti scrawls. “Eat, drink and be merry amigos.”  Their leader Pena would salute them with his toast.  “If you don’t die on the streets you’ll die in jail.”

“Poppy, I got to get out of here.” Six months ago, he had sat down at the kitchen table with his father after the party they had given him on his sixteenth birthday.  The tiny, appliance cluttered room with its faded walls and warped linoleum was still decorated with streamers and balloons, as the rest of the house had been, courtesy of his sister’s talented hands. “I want to join up.  Next year, if you sign for me, I can go in now.  Be a Marine.  I can get my GED while I’m there.  Pursue a military career.”

His father was sipping a beer.  He looked tired and old beyond his years.  He had spent his life in these South Side slums, before and after he had served in Desert Storm; and the mystery to Camacho was that he never seemed to regret a day of it, even though he must have seen and lived a life of hardship without letup.

“You want to go to Iraq?”  His father had lifted his eyebrows.  “You want to get blown up?”

Do you know what war is, muchacho?  I don’t think so.  No.  You finish school, get a job, wife, have a life.  Of course, when you turn eighteen you can do what you want. Like I told you, Camacho means hump, you want also to walk with a limp, be blind, crippled?  Be my guest.”

“But it’s no good here, Poppy.”  Camacho’s mind swirled with the life in the hood, drugs, guns, gangs. Things were different now than they had been for his father when he was a kid, no matter how bad things were back then. It was a different world.  If you didn’t join a gang now you were a marked man.  “Es muy malo aqui, Poppy.”  Camacho pleaded.

“Malo?  Bueno?  If it’s no good here,” his father tapped his heart, “it’s no good anywhere.”

“Julio, we’re waiting!”

“Un momento, Mama.  I got to change my shirt!”

Camacho fished a tank-top from the dresser and pulled it on.  He pondered his biceps, dark eyes, wavy hair.  What the zombies wouldn’t do to him if he landed in stir.

“I’m almost there! Presto, Change-O!”

He glanced at the window as he ran a comb through his hair.  After everyone was in bed he would slip down the fire escape.  He would meet Juanita in the church yard, go drinking with his friends.  He had to get out of there, get some air, get high, forget about Skinner, the murder, before he lost his mind.

A peek-a-boo moon in a storm chased sky, like an avenger’s eye peering through its cosmic keyhole at the sinner below, watching for the chance to transform the night into God’s holy wrath and cut his throat with a lightning bolt.

Skinner moved through dark and street glow past the poolrooms and the taverns, the seedy blue-lit lounges, down into the back alleys of the catacombs amidst the midnight prowl of shadows. No one went at night to No Man’s Land.  Even during the day you didn’t want to go alone.  You went after school in pairs or groups to your favorite trick to get your treat clicking switchblades and looking mean. Hands in his pockets, sweating bullets, Skinner stumbled down the unlit streets, over the broken sidewalks, amidst the abandoned buildings, most of them fire-scorched shells, like they weren’t in America but some third-world war zone.  The hanging tree waits for me.  Skinner sang to himself tunelessly. Phantom figures stalked him.  He didn’t care.

Hanging tree, hanging tree.

For the thousandth time, he reran the robbery in his mind.  How scared he had been when he saw Camacho’s gun. “How else we gonna rob him?  Say: ‘Give me your money or I’ll kick you in the shin?’”   They went in as soon as the old man opened.  No customers then. They lifted their t-shirts over their noses, pulled down their hats, wore dark sunglasses.  But the gun went off.  Boom.  Skinner had never seen anything like it, the way the old man dropped.

“If we repent and are serious and we beg god’s forgiveness with all our heart and soul.”

Camacho put his arm around Skinner’s shoulder as they patrolled the alley. “God will forgive us, amigo.  God wants to give us another chance. It was an accident.  I’ll get the gun.  We won’t go to prison.”

Was Camacho feeding him some jive, as if he were stupid?  Maybe Camacho really believed all that bullshit?  Camacho was not so bad.  Camacho was his only friend.  If it wasn’t for Camacho, Skinner knew, he probably would have been dead long ago.  Eventually the gangs would have stomped him good.  They had come pretty close more than once.  Maybe they would have set him on fire with gasoline, or whatever, like the gangs did to that white kid on the news.

“What you doin’ here white trash?”  They surrounded him after his first day at school.

Skinner’s family moved to the neighborhood a year ago. “You come to give me some money?  No? I think maybe you better have some tomorrow.”

Skinner’s father had lost his job.  They lost their house, savings, everything.  Both his parents worked in the packing plant now for minimum wage and were lucky to have that.  The new life was a shock.  They came from the suburbs, good schools, jobs.  The more Skinner tried to fit in the worse it got.  The gangs would taunt him, shake him down, beat him up – the blonde, blue-eyed target.  Now everyone left him alone.  He hung with Camacho.  “Muy intellegente.”

Camacho would pat Skinner on the back when they ran into his pack.  “A master mind.”

Camacho would tap his temple.  “He gonna rob a bank with his brains and put you Frito banditos to shame.”

“Dealer.”  Skinner whispered and tapped at a sheet metal door across which “Death” was spray painted.  The building was an old, brick, boarded-up warehouse. The phantom shapes behind him ghosted away.  “Dealer.”  He tapped harder.

“Nada mas.”  A dark voice hissed.  “Go away.  We closed.”

“It’s Skinner.”  Skinner stammered.  “Camacho’s friend.  You know – Blanco.”

“Beat it.”

“I got money.  Plenty.”

“Stick it up you ass.”

“It’s an emergency.”  Skinner pleaded.  “Camacho sent me.”  He lied.  “We got this party, these chicks.  Camacho begs you.”

Skinner had stolen a hundred dollars from his parents’ savings.  He could sell the crack over the next few days and put it back.  He was going crazy.  He had to talk to dealer.  His mind was in a frenzy.

“How much is plenty?”

“A hundred?”  Skinner held his breath.

“That’s plenty?  Shit!”

The door swung open.  Looking at Dealer made you shudder.  He had wild hair and a shock theater face, nose ringed, eyebrow ringed, the forehead, cheeks, chin slashed with zipper-like scars.   His eyes could stare down a firing squad.  Camacho had gotten the gun from him.

“Blanco.”

Dealer swayed in the doorway and sneered at Skinner.  He stood stark naked, holding a gun.

His sinuous brown body shimmered with tattoos: devils, demons, screaming faces, snakes, magic numbers, voodoo writings.

“Let’s have it.”  Dealer stuck out his hand.  Skinner’s pale one shook as he paid him.  “Stay there.”  Dealer pointed at the doorstep with his gun.  “Lilliana!”  He turned and disappeared.

“Bring me my box.  It’s in the closet!”

The room beyond the doorway looked like a psychopath’s nightmare. Skinner had been in it with Camacho a few weeks ago.  It was a huge, dimly-lit space. Somehow Dealer managed to reclaim part of the warehouse from extinction with plumbing and electricity.  Miracles like that happened in the hood everywhere – mystery electricity, phone connections, cable TV.  In the vast, warehouse space, naked light bulbs dangled from steel beams.  The walls were painted with surrealistic street scenes in which giant, garishly colored figures, twisted in a hell that raged from floor to ceiling.  Hell was the hood on fire.  The jumble of toppling tenements and gaudy storefronts were whipped by flames and peopled with demons.  In every building’s windows, Hispanic families howled with torment. Dealer must have gotten the neighborhood graffiti artists in there and supplied them with paints and brushes.  Their vision was a holocaust of chaos, despair and destruction. Dilapidated furniture was scattered throughout the room. In a corner there was a kitchen, television, computer, CD player.  Beyond Dealer’s torture chamber, blocked off by a maze of cinder brick walls, was a gutted shell filled with rubble and junk, inhabited by stray dogs, winos, druggies and rodents.

“Enjoy your blow.”  Dealer reappeared and tossed him a bag.  “Don’t do this no more, Blanco.  Never.  When I say ‘no mas’ you get lost, fast.”

“Dealer.”  Skinner stammered.  “Can I ask you a question?  I don’t have a computer anymore so I can’t look up the answer.  Do guns attract lightning?  I mean they’re made of metal.  I know cops wear guns everywhere.  But say a cop stands by a tree in a storm.  Trees get struck all the time. Would a gun increase the odds of lightning striking?  If anyone would know, you would.

Dealer?”

Night winds whispered around them in the tangled parish garden, like chanting saints or nuns at prayer.  Or maybe it was more like midnight angels fluttering in the dark, or priests reciting sermons, or choirs caroling incantations.  Sweet sin, the sensations on their skin as they kissed, tangled in delight, naked in the garden moonlight.

“Bueno.”  Camacho groaned. He leaned over Juanita and searched her features, tasted her breath, felt her quiver.  The heavens opened up on a world that is enough.  “Bueno.”  He repeated.  “Amen”

They had attended the night mass, knelt together, prayed, or at least Camacho did.  It was his idea.  He had showered after dinner, put on a silk shirt and new chinos, had an impulse to attend the service, “Oh, I don’t know Julio.”  Juanita hesitated before the great doors of the grand cathedral with its ringing bells, towering steeple.  “It doesn’t seem right.  We can’t pray, then go out in the garden and – you know.”

“It’s OK.”  Camacho squeezed her hand.  “We’ll pray for a baby.”

“I don’t think so!  I think I pray the other way!  Julio you crazy!”

Darkness adorned with candlelight, silver and gold flickering in the shadows, stained glass windows that sparkled like jewels, sacred statues, the alter, the pulpit, the crucifix, the priest, alter boys, hallowed music, heads bowed they closed their eyes and crossed themselves, silent before the holy rituals and the mystical aura of a transcendent world.

Camacho had quit going to church long ago.  He would pretend he went, saying to his parents that he would attend a later mass.  He was too tired Sunday mornings from his week of school and wrestling practice.  The mysteries of birth, death, living, dying, creation, sin, meant less and less to him as he grew up in the hood.  “Bless me Father for I have sinned.”  What did that mean?  He lived in a no man’s land of stab and grab, where everyone was on the make, take, fake – not just the barrio but the whole country –  everyone running around with their bag of tricks, rip-offs, tip-offs, payoffs, shakedowns.  Where were the goodies in his Christmas stocking?

He figured out real fast he had to fill it on his own.  And it wasn’t through worship and  prayer – that never got anyone anywhere.

“If it’s no good here,” his father tapped his heart, “it’s no good anywhere.”

 

Rex Sexton is an award winning Surrealist painter exhibiting in Chicago, and his writing tends to have that illusory element about it. His novel “Desert Flower” was published by B&R Samizdat Express. His short story “Holy Night,” which received the Eric Hoffer Critic’s Choice Award, was published in Best New Writing 2007. His poems have been published in Willow Review, Mobius, Waterways, Edgz and others.

“Stents” by Deanna Wulff

He’d seen her wheeled in just last Friday, mid-heart attack, curly brown hair floating past on the gurney, doctors in a rush around her.

He didn’t think much of her, if at all.  She was just another patient in his temporary white-walled prison, another person crowding the tight rooms, grumbling. He was counting the days, the hours, the minutes, until his release, and he kept marching through the halls, searching for something to do, something to focus on besides himself. He stumbled upon her in the hospital library the next day. She was fluttering through the books, smiling and commenting, and tossing them into a great pile in the center of the library table. She was animated, talking to herself, occasionally laughing and gesturing at the texts.

He came in silently, pausing at the door for a brief look around. The room was pleasant by hospital standards; it had deep mahogany furniture, green and brass library lamps, and stacks and stacks of books. Unfortunately, the books were mainly the donated variety: the middle English version of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, at least 20 Louis L’Amour novels, several awful Danielle Steele romance novels with the sex scenes dog-eared, and the occasional self-help book, How To Love Yourself with 100 Words A Day.

He noticed those books discarded in a growing mass and chortled, “Don’t care for fiction, do you?”

She turned, startled, resting her eyes on him, “I’m looking for something a bit more inspiring, something to let my mind soar for a minute or two.”

Not bad looking for 60-year-old just after a heart attack, he thought. Her skin was glowing and taught, and her eyes were bright and clear.

“What did you find in the mish-mash, any gold?”

“Oh, only an American anthology, probably left by a college student,” she said, pulling up a chair, her small frame easily sliding next to the table. “Maybe some Emerson is hidden in here.”

He sighed, exasperated. But for a brief moment, he was intrigued; he was finally going to have a genuine conversation in this horrible place. And of all people, here was a transcendentalist! He hated transcendentalists.

They were just a bunch of overblown vagabonds with too much time spent outside, coddled from civilization and reality. Of course, when no one is talking to you, you can make the rules and be as happy as you want – but it’s a lie. We are not wood nymphs, he thought as he grasped the table edge. We need something much more than parks and ponds. We need something linear, logical, human.

He looked at her, his face flushing. How could she smile at him? This woman had just suffered a heart attack.

Clearly, Walden Pond hadn’t saved her. She should know better.

He placed his personal paperback copy of Atlas Shrugged on the table, and nudged it towards her.

“Why not try a little Ayn Rand? I’ll lend you my copy. That’ll toughen you up.”

Her eyes flashed, and she threw a haphazard barb, “Aren’t you a bit old for that ridiculous idealism?”

His face reddened—apparently, transcendentalists with single stents in their hearts didn’t soften their blows. He rubbed his bandages, a scar was forming from his recent surgery, expanding and contracting with each breath. He sat down. “Are you saying that with age comes the loss of ideals? Have you given up so soon?”

She carefully closed her book and took a solid look at him, brushing her curls back. “Clearly, you’ve never read Emerson. He has plenty of ideals, and he speaks from the heart.”

She looked at his bandages and then looked into his eyes.

He avoided her gaze, and instead, picked up his book. “Are you saying that Rand doesn’t have heart?” He wielded his book like a sword, waving it in the air.

“May I?” She held her hand out, and he placed the book carefully in her palm. It was brown, worn, and passages had been circled with a ball point pen. “Let me see what I can find in here.”

He watched her pore over the book. She raised her eyebrows, sighed, muttered a few words, smiled again. “Oh that’s a good one,” she paged through for a few minutes and then straightened up. “Here, here we go. Let me quote her. Until and unless you discover that money is the root of all good, you ask for your own destruction.”

She looked up at him and raised her eyebrows, “What are we supposed to do with that statement?”

“It’s the truth. Take it in,” he nodded at her, keeping his eyes averted and his face to the door. “Money makes the world go round.”

She inhaled and exhaled, sharply, “How can you say that? Rand is so incredibly narrow.” She shook her head and thumbed through the book again. “The best moments can’t be found in a bank statement. When I keel over, I hope that I’ll be considering the joys that I’ve experienced in my life.”

“Brought to you by the dollar,” he said, tapping the table. “Your free time, your vacations and your hospital stays have a price tag.”

“I’m not against the dollar,” she said, and then paused, waiting for him to look at her. He brushed his hand through his silver hair and threw her a short glance.

“I just don’t think the dollar is everything, and Emerson doesn’t even really mention the ‘economy.’ Have you actually read him?”

“I…” he paused, looking down, thinking. The books in his library only covered economic theory and particle physics, all part of his 30 years at the DOE. He felt his temples throbbing again, and he sighed. He was too exhausted to lie.

“I have read Thoreau, some Hawthorne, but no. No Emerson.”

She leaned back. “Oh, well, of course, then. That explains it. Why don’t you give it a try? Twenty minutes of reading, maybe an hour will get you through all of Self Reliance, one of his best.” She put his book down, and then reached back to the anthology, paging through eagerly.

He drifted off, idly flipping through L’Amour’s Riding for the Brand. And then he stared straight ahead, almost frozen, with only his green eyes clouding up. He was considering his relationship with his late wife. He had been missing her and alternatively cursing her all day. She had argued with him on the very same subjects, but bitterly, in angry 10 minute tirades, and he never had a moment to get a word in edgewise. He had learned to tune out.

Anna stopped reading and watched his eyes and face—bitterness crossed his brow, then resignation, then abrupt sadness. “You don’t have to like Emerson,” she said, quietly. “I’m just suggesting you try something new.  I didn’t read him until well out of college, not until my forties. And it was in my weaker moments that somehow, I could find some strength in his words.”

“Are you a teacher?” he asked, crossing his arms.

She laughed, “No, not really. Well, I do occasionally teach watercolor classes. That’s my passion, but mainly I’m a mother. I’m a new grandmother, too. And I love to read.” She laughed again. “That’s plenty.”

Her light and easy laugh put him at ease, and he leaned back in his chair. “Why is that funny?”

“I don’t know. Just so many changes.” She glanced down at her chest, her smile growing faint.

“Yes. I understand,” he twirled his mustache. “It’s hard to know what to expect. You think you’ve finally got a handle on it, and then, well, then you have a heart attack.” He looked at her now, and they exchanged a long glance.

“That’s it exactly,” she said, touching her cheeks.  “Sometimes, a good book can carry me past all the confusion and hurt. Emerson just reminds me of what I’ve forgotten. I need a reminder now and then.”

“That’s how I feel about Ayn Rand.”

Anna picked up his book, “You know, I’ve read all her books. I have liked her at times. Just not so much over the years.”

“She speaks for the individual,” he nodded at her. “You can have that copy, if you like.”

“Oh, I couldn’t. It looks like this book has been your friend for a while, and I’ve read it twice already. Anyway, why do you dislike authors whom you haven’t read? That’s hardly fair, you know?” She patted the anthology. “We have to give people a chance.”

He began to answer. But the door, which was half open, swung wide and slammed against the metal garbage can with a loud clang. Only a tiny hand emerged, belonging to a golden haired boy. His thirty-something year old mother followed, her flaxen hair forming delicate wisps around her flushed face.

The woman hurried in. “Oh Mom, I knew you would be hiding in the library.  Aren’t you supposed to be in your room? Isn’t someone supposed to be monitoring you?”

“You know how I like to sneak off,” Anna said. They embraced for a long time.

“Sarah, this is my new friend, Mr.—” she paused. “I don’t believe you gave me your name.”

“It’s John,” he smiled and extended his hand. “We were just discussing books,” he added.

“Oh, I see Mom is rambling on her favorite topic again. And you’ve endured it!” she shook his hand. He felt the warmth spread up his arm.

“It really hasn’t been all that bad, honest,” he said, with tacit sincerity.

“Yes, it’s not that bad, not at all,” Sarah said. Her eyes were bright, but the edges were about to brim over.

Anna put her arm around her, “Let’s get some lunch. They have a really awful salad here, I’m told. Would you care to join us, John?” They waited by the door.

He paused. “Oh no, you enjoy your family. I’m just going to peruse through the library here a bit longer. I’m in room 57. Perhaps we can discuss books later, if you care to stop by.”

“Sure,” she said. “I will.”

The curly-haired group bustled down the hall, and he watched them go, carefully closing the door. His only visitor that morning was his sister, who had come and gone in a rush, and he had another unfortunate day of rest and monitoring after his surgery. There was nothing else to do but to consider his life and his past, and he’d had just about enough of himself that day.

Anna had left the thick 1000-page American anthology closed on the table. Thumbing through it, he found Thoreau and scoffed to himself, “What an idiot!” and then there was that essay by Emerson, the one she had mentioned, Self-Reliance. He paused.

It was a warm spring day, and there was a nice bench under a maple that he had been eyeing. Anything was better than that dull white hospital room, the soap opera blaring and his neighbor alternately snoring and complaining. He stood up and collected the book in his arms and then wandered down the hall.

He didn’t even notice that his step was light.

 

Deanna Wulff has been a ranger, a river guide, and a dance instructor. She began her writing career as a news reporter, then shifted into technical writing and editing and has now arrived at fiction and creative non-fiction.

“price check” by Paul Hostovsky

I think the price of sugar should go up
to reflect the irreplaceable
place of sweetness in the dark
world. I mean look
around. The ice is melting into everything and the levels
of pain are rising worldwide with alarming
silence seeping into everything
and it has a vaguely metal taste we seem
to recognize though we never
tasted it till now. I’m telling you
a pound of premium pure cane
granulated sugar in a box
is holy,
yet it’s only $1.89. I mean shame
on you who know in your heart
and soul, in your kidneys and on
your tongue you would give anything,
do anything, pay any price for a little more
of this ore, this wealth spreading like
love all around the bowl of
oatmeal of the world.

 
Paul Hostovsky, has long and generously contributed poetry to r.kv.r.y.  His poems have been featured on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and The Writer’s Almanac; and published in Carolina Quarterly, Shenandoah, New Delta Review, Atlanta Review, Poetry East, and many other journals and anthologies. He won the Comstock Review‘s Muriel Craft Bailey Award in 2001, as well as chapbook contests from Grayson Books, Riverstone Press, Frank Cat Press, and Split Oak Press. He has two full-length poetry collections, Bending the Notes (2008), and Dear Truth (2009), both from Main Street Rag. Paul’s poems have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize 13 times, and won one once. He makes his living in Boston as an interpreter at the Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing where he specializes in working with the deaf-blind.

The Epidemic of ’53

The ride itself was not a long one, two hours at most. Such significance was attached to it in later years that it seemed to Billy as if a caravan journey from ancient Tyre to the land of Hind would have been more brief.

Searing August held the land in thrall. The man-mites coursed the burning pavements and the tar-pit streets in a weary plod, searching for oasis-like relief from the torpid, scorching day. The hospital orderlies grunted inarticulate curses at the sun, the heavy, awkward stretcher that grew heavier by the minute and their miserable fate at having to work, instead of being able to join the mass city exodus to the beach. They kept up a constant clamor about the delights they were missing at the fabled seashore.

The very word “beach,” to the unenlightened, conjures up an image of deep blue, tropical waters, rolling rhythmically upon a white-sandy shore. Coney Island was nothing like this serene image. Visited by the empty beer-can scattering tribe of man, Coney Island was an arena of delight for ten-thousand devils, fiendishly gloating over the tortures inflicted daily on all who were foolish enough to enter this arena of torment. First the bold adventurers ran the gambit of the boardwalk, bounded on one side by food stands selling all the viands that clog arteries; cotton-candy, hot-dogs, french-fries, soft-drinks, beer and ice-cream. On the other side, there was a rusting iron fence overlooking the beach, with an occasional pay telescope for the convenience of the optically challenged to peer at the bathing-suited maidens without having to venture into the fray.

Next, visitors descend a flight of stairs leading to the beach, pausing to shed their shoes before they became filled with coarse, grating sand. Then, they pursue a course designed to leave them as close as possible to the inviting water, followed by the indignant shrieks of outlying fragments of the dense mass, unappreciative of  possessions and persons being trod upon by sand-burned feet, echoing behind them. Finally, there was the spreading of the blanket, disrobing, racing across the hot sand and plunging into icy water, splashing around briefly, and then coming out to lie on a blanket atop gritty sand containing the discarded refuse of ten thousand fellow sufferers. The excursion culminates in broiling in the baking sun until it’s time to return to hot, uncomfortable homes. This was what our faithful bearers, unhappy with their princely burden, yearned for.

They had deposited the frightened boy on a traveling stretcher, in the hearse-like ambulance. Billy thought of the many times he had seen similar vehicles racing through the city streets, siren wailing, carrying someone to the hands of crisp, efficient doctors, who he imagined would coolly mend battered and broken frames. With the feeling that this shouldn’t be happening to him, and still finding it difficult to accept that he had the dreaded disease, he carefully watched the orderlies for any clue to his condition.

The ambulance drove along the waterfront section of the Belt Parkway, through the drab greyness of one of the many tenement neighborhoods of Brooklyn. Trapped on the uncomfortable traveling stretcher, Billy craned his neck so that he could see the ancient, rusty freighters loading their mysterious cargo that would go to strange, exotic ports of the earth. Then they raced through the tiled smoothness of the Battery Tunnel, with the faint pressure beneath the river pressing on his ears and the exhaust stench of the noxious engine fumes filling his nose and throat with a stinging touch that made his eyes water.

Finally, after feeling that sunlight was forever lost, they came out of the tunnel and Billy saw the large sign advertising gasoline greeting the jaded traveler entering Manhattan. They drove up the cobblestoned ramp, with Billy breathing a silent prayer to beat the automobile racing alongside his once ambulance, now racing car. Urging his heroic driver to go faster, despite the risk, then accepting defeat as the high-powered car of his opponent, Crash Kelly, roared past with a dangerous burst of speed.

Billy found consolation looking at the great, sleek ocean liners, snugly secured to vast wharfs jutting out on the dark flow of the Hudson River. On the far side of the river, the unknown land of New Jersey was gaudily bedecked with huge billboards and neon signs, blatantly attracting attention to the virtues of their products. Tall water, gasoline and oil towers stood awkwardly on craggy cliffs, surrounded by grim factories and warehouses. In the distance, there was the magical allure of an amusement park, whose wonders and delights had never been tasted.

On the New York side of the river, Billy watched with yearning eyes when he saw the fast-moving bodies of young boys playing ball in the parks that bordered the highway, each of them separated by ordered swatches of green. His mother spoke, breaking the reverie of remembered games. “The rehabilitation hospital is supposed to be very nice.” ‘How could a hospital be nice?’ he thought, nodding vaguely. His mother retreated into her own thoughts again. He tried to think of something to say indicating interest, but was distracted when he saw the George Washington Bridge connecting them to the unknown world growing larger, as the ambulance sped on.

They went through a series of sharp turns, then entered the access road leading across the vast, shiny structure. Billy looked down at the water and saw small boats chugging up and down river. Their remoteness, due to the height from which he was looking, made each boat seem like a tiny realm inhabited by sprite-like creatures. The ambulance paused as the driver paid the toll, then they continued on the road, with turnoffs leading to turnpikes, thruways and highways, each one preferable, but the driver, with malicious cunning, found the road that led to the hospital, where Billy would spend the next year of his stolen youth.

As they drove on, Billy stared with avid hunger at the boys seen momentarily in the small towns they passed, running and playing with abandon. This brought /images of himself and all the games and activities of his childhood, inexorably vanished with the coming of polio. He watched the trees bordering the road with their leaves turned yellow by the hot, pulsing sun. When the clouds occasionally parted, he could see the deep, flowing tides of the Hudson River, making his past life seem distant and strange. Higher and higher they climbed, as the road went into the Catskill Mountains and he looked upon the vastness of the unknown land and fear was born; the peculiar fear that comes when one first painfully learns that the carefree, unthinking time of youth is forever lost.

They passed a faceless small town and the driver, in venomous perversity, remarked: “We’re just about there.” Then the boy knew that this was no tortured nightmare, with salvation imminent by awakening. He began to accept the full significance of his condition for the first time; he was paralyzed.

The ambulance turned across the highway and went up a steep, narrow road bounded by slopes of seared grass. He saw a drab, grey and white columned building that looked like a shabby plantation in the movies. They passed a blur of low, red-bricked buildings that all looked the same. They stopped by the building which he knew would be his home. His stretcher was wheeled up a ramp, through a door to the ward nurse’s office, then into a temporary isolation room where he was placed on a bed.

His mother, with affectionate and tender words, said farewell, promising to visit as soon as possible. The boy saw the anguish and unspeakable torment in his mother’s eyes, but was too young to understand that affliction is a searing pain to those who love the afflicted one. So he watched her go, unaware of her isolated anguish during the long, silent ride back to the city, unaware of her impotent and frustrating vigils to come in the stillness of long, sleepless nights, and unaware of the agony brought about by the crippling of the child of her flesh. And the boy felt the first dagger-thrust of aloneness that would bind him adamantly for the rest of his life.

The New York State Adaption Institute is located north of New York City, upon a hill that overlooks the Hudson River. It sits on the ancient site of one of the many battles George Washington lost in the Revolutionary War. The institute consists of red-bricked buildings with green-tiled roofs that had a factory-like efficient appearance, shaped roughly in a quadrangle, with outcroppings of buildings including a laundry, resident personnel dormitories, and others whose mystery was never penetrated. The buildings were surrounded by neat but scraggly grass patches, giving the entire area the appearance of a sterile, small town college, where the local progressive citizenry might send their barely functional offspring to incubate and not embarrass the family.

The buildings in the quadrangle comprised the working area of the institute that the patients had contact with. They included two main ward buildings; one for male patients, with one floor for those over sixteen years of age, called the ‘men’s ward’, and the other floor for those below sixteen, called the ‘boy’s ward’. The building for female patients was similarly arranged.

Once he was left alone, he lay there on the bed petrified and silent. His mouth was dry in an agony of fright. The doctors had said that he would never walk again. The words burned through his brain in hot, unbelievable flames that consumed all his courage, all his strength. It was just a few days ago, running down the street with his friend Tommy, never knowing that it would be the last wild use of his limbs. He didn’t want to recognize that he was the immobile body concealed under the covers, already taking on the look of the imprisoned. He stared from captive wounded eyes, asking the same question over and over; ‘Why me?’

Darkness fell, bringing the first hospital night for the boy. Lights suddenly flared, throwing grotesque, hovering shadows on the bile-green walls. The scuffing footsteps of nurses in the hallway brought him memories of recent summer nights and the distant whispers of unknown strangers, passing in the darkness. Nurse Wheeler, the night ward nurse who he would get to know well and who had grown dismal from the sufferings that each night brought, stopped at the door of the isolation room. “And how do we feel tonight?” she mumbled, then hurried on without waiting for an answer. And the night slowly passed and he lay alone with his new unmoving body as the hours crept by, and he struggled to endure the fearful, sleepless watch. And when no sleep came no dreams came and he was trapped in his inert flesh with no hope of escape.

He remembered the terrible events of the last two weeks that brought him here. He had been working as a junior counselor in a day camp in Brooklyn. He was fifteen years old and it was the first job that gave him responsibility over others; he was thriving on it. He had worked as a bicycle delivery boy at the age of eleven, getting up each morning at 5:00 A.M. to deliver the Brooklyn Eagle to its enlightened readership. He had been the youngest and smallest delivery boy, suddenly introduced to the carnivorous world of work, bullied and harassed, until he learned how to deal with his peers. Two years later the demise of the Eagle ended his ride. When he was fourteen, a neighbor got him a job in the mail room of Warwick and Legler, a politically connected law firm, that included John Foster Dulles as a senior partner, a powerful player in Republican circles. Billy was politically ignorant and didn’t grasp the stature of the firm and no one bothered to educate him. So the summer passed in mechanical chores performed by rote, although he learned how to interact with sophisticated adults.

In the summer of ’53 he was strong, fit and full of juices. He had joined the high school gym team the year before as a sophomore and had blossomed physically. He was a shade under six feet, with curly brown hair and intense brown eyes that hungrily probed everything around him. He had a striking rather than a handsome face, a persona that instantly attracted friends and enemies, and a growing confidence in his abilities. By the second day of camp he had established himself by the assured way he did whatever was asked of him. He was treated the same way as the older counselors, the college boys, and despite their difference in years, felt equal to some and superior to most. By the end of the first week he was flirting with three girls, the youngest of whom was seventeen, and he had a short, but exciting sexual encounter with a girl of twenty-two.

For the first time in his life Billy was happy. He came from a poor family, with a harsh father who took out his failures and frustrations on his son. Only recently had he become strong enough to put an end to the oppressive beatings that had gone on since early childhood. Now his father still cursed and yelled at him, but it was a minor annoyance compared to regular violent attacks. His father never struck his mother, but she had been worn down by his endless verbal assaults. He had hated his mother for not protecting him when he was a child, but he finally recognized her inability to deal with the ugliness of confrontation and now felt sorry for her. He was doing well in school, getting good marks and he had actually made some friends. He had a series of girlfriends, several of whom significantly added to his sexual education. He started to believe that there might be a tomorrow for him, up to the day he got sick.

He hadn’t noticed anything physically significant in the second week of July. He went to work, tended the kids, flirted with the girl counselors and was really enjoying himself. He came home one day and his mother remarked that his face seemed flushed. She felt his forehead and told him he was burning up. He felt alright and started to go out for the evening, but she insisted he see the doctor. She phoned the family physician, Doctor Pearlman, who had taken care of their family for years. He urged her to bring Billy to his office immediately. The country was in the midst of a polio epidemic that was terrifying people everywhere, particularly in the big cities. When Dr. Pearlman made a preliminary diagnosis of polio, Billy thought he was joking. “Are you trying to scare me?” he asked scornfully. “I feel fine.” But it was no joke. The doctor sent for an ambulance that took Billy to Kingston Hospital and an isolation room.

Despite the doctor’s assertion and the contagious warnings on the doors, Billy still felt fine. After lying on his bed for two hours with nothing to do, he got restless and went for a walk. When he got back, the nurses, doctors and administrators were frantic and screamed at him to get back into bed. He began to understand how lepers felt. They put him in restraints and gave him a spinal tap, an agonizing experience, confirming the diagnosis. When he woke up in the morning, he was completely paralyzed from neck to feet. He didn’t believe it at first. It was only when he tried to move and couldn’t that the horrifying reality begin to sink in. He had no idea what to do or think, so he retreated to that inner place that let him endure his father’s beatings. The doctors were pleased to tell him that morning that he would never walk again. He couldn’t believe that they could say something like that and his “Fuck you. I will,” was not received cordially. But he didn’t care and vowed that he would walk again, no matter how long it took. The doctors spitefully told him that as soon as he was no longer contagious he would be transferred to a rehabilitation hospital, somewhere in upstate New York.

So here he was at 5:30 A.M., trapped in his bed, when Nurse Harmon, the ward nurse who he would later come to detest for her callous, frigid indifference to the patients, brought in the juice cart. There was a limited choice; concentrated orange, tomato, or grapefruit, in tiny cans dripping with early morning sweat. “Do you always bring juice this early?” he asked. Nurse Harmon stared at him coldly and ignored his question. “Orange, tomato, or grapefruit?” she asked implacably. “Orange, please.” Their eyes locked and the roots of conflict were born. “You didn’t answer me. Why do we have to get up so early?” She glared at him, hands on hips. “It’s ward policy. Are you going to give me trouble?” He managed to bite back a smartass retort. “No. What happens after juice?” “We wait until breakfast.” “When is that?” “7:30,” she answered, looking at him challengingly. He didn’t respond, beginning to realize that he was trapped in an alien world, with unknown rules.

The wait until breakfast felt interminable. He started to doze off several times, but each time Nurse Harmon appeared, as if by remote control, and stridently said: “No sleeping before breakfast.” “Is there something I have to do?” he asked reasonably. “No.” “Then why can’t I sleep?” “Ward policy. Do you have a problem with that?” He decided not to argue with her until he knew more about the place. “What happens after breakfast?” She stared at him for a moment, then answered in a monotone: “Toilet and personal hygiene at 8:00. School from 8:30 to 12:00. Lunch at 12:30. Physical therapy from 1:30 to 2:30. Hydro therapy from 3:00 to 4:00. Occupational therapy from 4:30 to 5:15. Dinner at 5:30. Ward lights out at 9:00 on the boy’s ward, where you’ll be moved after dinner. Questions?” “I can’t move. How can I do those things?” “This is a rehabilitation hospital,” she explained scornfully. “We’ll help you.” “Oh.”

The only palatable part of breakfast was the ward attendant who fed him. She was a local girl, who in another section of the country would have been a hillbilly. She had stringy brown hair, a pale face, washed out blue eyes, but a ripe body that swelled in the appropriate places. The corn flakes were pasty, the milk watery, the breakfast roll stale, the butter tasteless, but her hand that casually stroked him as she fed him with her other hand, made him forget what passed for a meal. “What’s your name?” she asked nasally. “Billy. What’s yours?” “Lizzie Jo. But you can call me Liz.” And while they talked her hand kept wandering his body and he didn’t know what to do or say. “This your first day?” she asked, while her hand asked something else. “Yeah. What kind of place is this?” “It’s a hospital for paralyzed people.” “I know. I mean what’s it like?” “You’ll find out,” she answered with a giggle. “I’ve got other patients to feed. See ya.” And off she went, leaving him trying to figure out what she was up to.

The rest of his first day at the hospital was as strange as breakfast and passed in a blur. The school teachers treated their physically dysfunctional students as if they were mentally challenged. The level of classroom work was designed for the retarded and that’s how it was presented. He didn’t say anything as he tried to understand what was going on. His unmoving body was shuttled from therapy to therapy. At physical therapy, Stan, a short, stocky, extremely hairy man, seemed to take pleasure in stretching Billy’s limbs until he screamed in pain. Then he explained how it was for his own good. By the end of the day Billy was so exhausted that he had no objections when the lights went out for the night. He lay there in the darkness feeling the shame of being processed like a piece of meat, with as much consideration for his sensibilities. Just before he fell asleep, he vowed to himself that he would deal with this nightmare and someday walk again.

Sleep was an intermittent torment of terrifying dreams of pursuit that he couldn’t escape. A band of ravenous wolves chased him across a snow-covered mountain. He ran faster and faster, but so did the wolves. They caught up, surrounded him and were about to pounce, when he woke up in a cold sweat that he was helpless to wipe off. He lay there quietly trying to calm down, until he drifted off. A group of brutal-looking men threatened him on a surreal city street. He turned and ran and they followed. The street got narrower and narrower and they got closer and closer, cornering him in a dead end. They reached out to grab him and he woke up again in a cold sweat.

He didn’t dare go back to sleep after that and lay awake, a prisoner in his immobile body. He couldn’t move, so all he could do was ask himself why this happened to him. He didn’t know what would come next, so for the first time in his life he tried to pray. He didn’t know how to do it, so he just asked for help. There was no reassuring sign, or soothing voice and he tried not to feel sorry for himself. Suddenly the harsh fluorescent ward lights flashed on, blinding him momentarily. The cold, grating voice of the ward nurse snapped: “It’s 5:00 a.m. Time for juice.” When the cart reached his cubicle, he asked: “Why do we have juice now? It’s still dark out.” She glared at him implacably. “Hospital routine. You’ll get used to it. You can go back to sleep until 7:00.” Instant antipathy flared between them, but they said nothing more. A moment later she put the lights out and he began to understand that he was in a battle and would have to find some way to survive this alien world.

 

Author Unknown. If you are the author of this essay or know who is, please let us know at r.kv.r.y.editor(at)gmail(dot)com. We lost records when the old website imploded, and would like to fully credit all authors who have generously shared their work with us. Thank you.